Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Linga Land

After ten days of home, temple, and university visits as well as boat rides in Varanasi, I decided to visit "the pre-eminent shrine of Varanasi," according to my guidebook: Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, one of the most important Shiva temples in India.

Earlier when we visited the new Vishwanath Temple on the BHU campus, built in 1966, I felt conflicted by the experience (see my entry "YHWH and Shiva"), but Karen Torjesen told me that the new BHU temple was "Hindu lite."

I couldn't figure out what she meant. Now I know.

I took a long bicycle rickshaw ride to the center of old Varanasi. The driver deposited me at a busy circular intersection with huge green and white roadsigns above for various cities and sites.

I confidently walked a few blocks down the narrowing street until I felt I'd gone too far. Then I stood there puzzled, selecting someone to ask, "Kaha Vishwanath Mandir hai?"

A tall, handsome Nepali man overheard me and asked in English where I wanted to go. When I explained, he offered to guide me, and I soon realized I was with a professional.

I also learned that going as a lone American tourist was harder than trailing Nita as she sailed in and out of Hindu temples, speaking Hindi and telling us what to do.

"Do you want to go in the temple?" he asked, leading me into an impossible maze of tiny passageways between high buildings.

"Yes," I said.

"Here, you need to buy a basket of flowers and garlands to give to Shiva. Yes, 200 rupees. You will have to show your passport and write down your name and local address as well as your US address," he said. "And you will have to say, 'I believe in the Hindu gods.' Can you say that?"

"Yes," I answered, wondering how I could justify saying that.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:3.

I needed some of Bill Clinton's finesse: "I believe the Hindu gods" are interesting. I believe I'd like to tour their temple. I believe maybe worship of Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver can reach the one true God (Judeo-Christian of course). And the Vedas talk about the one God who is above all and in all, right?

But this is a temple to Shiva, not Brahma and Vishnu. And I'm a little nervous that these statues might fall in the category of idols. I wouldn't want the apostle Paul to catch me bowing down to them.

...they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Romans 1:23

Soon we arrived at the temple's entrance, where I had to give up my camera, cell phone, purse, and shoes. I kept my passport and wallet in a fanny pack and sat down at a wooden desk surrounded by several military people. I wrote in a book my name, home address, Varanasi address, cell phone number, etc. That way if I turned out to be a suicide bomber, they'd know how to track down my friends.

"Why do you want to tour this temple?" one officer asked me.

I figured that was my cue to say, "I believe in the Hindu gods."

He was unimpressed with my declaration of faith. A female officer patted me down.

I was placed in the hands of a temple priest, who was to be my guide. Other creeds floated through my mind: Nicene, Athanasian... "I believe in God the Creator Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth..."

"I'll meet you at the exit," said the Nepali.

The priest began taking me to a series of small fenced-in shrines. Inside each fence sat a cross-legged priest in front of an elaborate golden or marble or onyx, flower-laden display of one or more gods.

And in front of each priest sat a linga (phallic-shaped stone or brass statue), sometimes draped with flowers, in a vagina-shaped flat carving (the yoni) that drained into a basin below. Sometimes a five-headed cobra stood above the linga, protecting it.

Shiva was originally a minor deity, compared to Brahma the creator, says John Bowker in his beautifully illustrated book on world religions.

"He gained importance after absorbing some of the characteristics of an earlier fertility god and became Shiva, part of the trinity, or trimurti, with Vishnu and Brahma," he adds (p.23).

I felt as if I had taken a time machine back to ancient Babylon or Canaan with Baal, Anat, Asherah and other gods, very sexual, related to the continuation of crops and human life.

I must have knelt before six or seven priests, some of whom marked with ashes or orange paint on my forehead, others who asked me my name and nationality before blessing me or placing one of the flower garlands in my basket around my neck. "May you have long life, good karma."

One thing they all did: extend their hands for payment. No one had told me to change my larger bills into ten and twenty rupee amounts before entering the temple, so I paid with 100 and finally 500 bills.

Without my guide, Nita, I didn't know where I actually didn't have to pay and where I did.

I was okay until I knelt before one priest who after pouring the watered milk over the linga, took my hand and pulled it to make me touch the shining wet black phallus.

"No!" I wanted to say.

There were a few female altars I knelt before, including one woman's face with a shining Himalayan mountain on each side. I liked her.

When I got out, paid the priest who had guided me and reclaimed my camera, cell phone, purse, and shoes, my supply of rupees was diminished.

I asked the Nepali to take me to the Annapurna Temple, wanting to boost my spirits by visiting a female goddess in her own big temple, but my guide said the priest had already taken me there while I was inside the warren of interconnected shrines. (Nita later said Annapurna was a separate temple--that the guide probably didn't know that.)

He wanted to take me to a Nepalese temple where a wise man would tell my fortune, but I declined and paid him for his services, deciding to visit just the Durga Mandir and then head back to join my group leaving at 6 pm for the train station to Delhi.

Enough Shiva worship for one day--and enough fleecing priests.

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