Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Where’s the God?

Once upon a time—about sixteen years ago—I read with intense longing the accounts in The American Baha’i of the amazing numbers of Baha’is in India. I had little desire to visit Haifa but much to experience the swarm of believers I envisioned from these reports. So when I was short-term pioneering in southeast Asia I took my opportunity to fly to Delhi.

After my months of service, a sludge of fatigue filled my limbs, and gravity seemed to have a special affinity for me. I had learned a lot, given a lot. And what was the state of my own heart? I didn’t know anymore. I wrote in my journal that I felt like I needed to sit and sit and sit and do nothing for a long time. When the driver dropped me off inside the front gate of the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi, I paused a moment to look for the first time at this long-imagined place. Then I began the walk with mindfulness and happy anticipation.

On that ordinary, non-holiday day, there weren’t very great numbers of people, but certainly a steady flow. I checked my shoes before the temple steps, with the men whose heads just stuck up above ground from the room of shelves and shoes below the promenade. These days I don’t even take a shower without shoes on, I have such problems with my feet, and couldn’t walk that short pilgrimage and scale all those steps even with my feet clad. But at the time, this small ritual delighted me. We didn’t do this at the temple in Wilmette. I wasn’t in Wilmette.

Barefoot, I walked the rest of my short pilgrimage and scaled all those steps. Then the strangeness began. The temple guides greeted me like something they had never experienced before—what a novelty, a freak of nature, a never-imagined creature: an individual Baha’i coming to pray and meditate. I was only slightly less rare to the longer-term staff, and they quickly targeted me as possible labor.

I turned down, though, the director’s invitation to scrub the temple floor in the early morning hours with the staff and guides—certainly worthy work—and reiterated my need for rest and contemplation. How is it, I wondered, that prayer and meditation receive so little recognition, here of all places?

Despite the distractions, I did pray and meditate, returning several days. I sat for long stretches listening to the steady passage of people through the temple. Women in brilliant saris with bangles on their ankles and wrists made a gentle music as they walked. The doors opened and closed episodically. Rustle, patter, jingle, whispers, silence. My prayers felt empty and meaningless.

I didn’t expect all or even most of the people visiting the house of worship to be Baha’is, but to be the only one, that was an impossibility in my American Baha’i–fed visions. I arranged my trip specifically to be present for a holy day celebration, and I was—me and the temple staff and guides. Granted, it was the midday commemoration of the martyrdom of the Bab, which fell that year on a weekday. Still.

I thought walking meditation might break the alienation spell that seemed to constrain my encounter with this place. So I walked around the back of the temple. From different angles, especially up close, it looked graceful, lonely, austere. But when I stepped out on one of the paths a guard urgently scurried after me and blew a whistle at me. Alienation successfully confirmed.

The temple director later explained that people had been picnicking and engaging in other unnamed inappropriate activities on the grounds so they had prohibited all freer motion. I sat with him in his underground office and studied his remaining white hair and the odd shape of his head. He worked me over diligently with greedy descriptions of the teaching opportunities in China and extracted a weak commitment from me to serve there next. My fluency in Indonesian didn’t matter or my familiarity with Indonesian culture. I could start over in China. China was the place to go. The opportunities must be seized! I asked my journal: Is the Baha’i Faith just, endless, never-ceasing activity?

I had come seeking to be one of many. I found myself a lonely anomaly. I adjusted my reality-sense and received the experience in a different way, as less of a pilgrimage and more of a truth-telling. I had loved the Indian space in my imagination, inhabited by so many Baha’is. But I didn’t want to feed on an illusion, and I let this one dissipate in the summer heat. I turned my attention instead to understanding what I could of the real state of affairs.

The temple had an air of busy, beautiful futility. All the guides were from other countries and didn’t speak the languages of the temple visitors. I learned from them that, although tens of thousands of Indians visited the Lotus Temple every week, no one could talk to them about the Faith. The overwhelming majority didn’t speak English and couldn’t read their native tongues. So, although some people could buy books in Hindi or other Indian languages and take them away, mostly even that avenue of communication was closed. They entered the Temple through the one door of nine that had been designated the entrance, looked around, wondered where the god was, and exited, awed and baffled, through the door which had been designated the exit.

Attending a gathering at the national center (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) and a feast (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) explained the lack of Indian Baha’is at the Temple. There were no more people at feast there than I would see at feast in Vermont, and the way of doing things was really no different either. The difference was that in Vermont almost all the people at feast actually live there permanently. At this feast most of the people were not from India but had come from other countries to serve temporarily at the house of worship. Supposedly, a great number of Indian Bahai’s lived out in the provinces. Maybe they did. Supposedly, attempts had been made to get them to come and serve at the house of worship but had not succeeded.

One need not suppose anything to see that the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi was not built by or for a local worshipping community, nor even for a national or regional worshipping community. It wasn’t really built for worship at all—apart from the hoped-for future—but to get attention for the Faith. It was built to attract new Baha’is, to be a silent teacher. As such, it must be among the most resource-inefficient proselytizing efforts ever. When asked, the coordinator of the guides told me of a few stories of individual visitors becoming Baha’is; considering the millions who visit each year, this hardly seems a good take.

I felt uneasy driving away from the house of worship each day past the hundreds of shanties that were its nearest neighbors. People do not only need food, shelter and clothing, but I think building a trophy temple in a community where the Baha’is did not yet need such a large worship space was the wrong way to go. This strategy of preemptive capital investment has not been good for the development of the Faith. It has made the Faith top-heavy and concentrated its resources centrally, where they do little for the vitality of community life. I know—it’s just my opinion.

No doubt the temple has been very important to people. The servant who did the cooking and basic cleaning in the apartment where I stayed with the father of a friend wanted to go with me to the temple one day. She dressed up in her best sari, and we went. Some months later I received a request from my friend for another copy of the picture of Kamala at the temple; Kamala had shown it to another servant who had ripped it up in jealousy.

Indians will make their own meanings of the temple, as Indian culture has done with foreign input for centuries. Baha’is have made this particularly easy. The down side of using a ready-made, high-potency symbol such as the lotus in India without any process of new, specifically Baha’i meaning accruing to that symbol is that Indians need not know anything about the Baha’i Faith to see the temple as meaningful. Of course it’s meaningful. Of course they want to visit it. It’s a lotus! From one angle this is a boon; from another, the undoing of the whole endeavor.

As an example of how Indians are making cultural use of the Lotus Temple, I like particularly the news item I read, thanks to Baha’is Online, of a small-scale copy of the temple built as part of a pandal, a temporary structure constructed in tribute to Durga for the festival Durga Puja. One could hardly complain of this appropriation, since the temple is itself an appropriation. The replica sat atop the boxy structure, looking in the picture like a bright pink, many-pointed hat. And the inside of the pandal was done up right: no baffling void here, but the images, shaped from stainless steel, of many gods and goddesses.

(Note: The Information Center at the temple had not yet been constructed when I visited India.)