One person’s monster is another’s inspiration

Posted in Travel at 11:21 by RjZ

I am not the only person around who has traveled a bit. It’s a pleasure to meet people who’ve been to exotic places, because we often immediately have so many shared experiences and insights that only going someplace with completely different toilets can bring. I have had the pleasure of seeing quite a few places and a wide variety of toilets. What excites me about traveling is seeing the other ways people interact with each other and their society. What we take for granted is not a given somewhere else, and to assume it is is to miss a huge part of the experience of travel. Still, I am often surprised by those who have traveled so much, but somehow kept their eyes closed to this experience.

Religion pervades the very core of our lives. In the West, for example, when we gesture “me,” we point to our hearts. The origin of this gesture, this language of the body, is likely that in Judeo-Christian societies the soul is located (figuratively at least) in the bloody muscle beating in our chest: the heart. The soul is “me,” so I might as well point to where it is when I want to gesture “me.” In Japan, the “me” gesture is made by pointing the index finger at the nose. The head does all the talking and communicating, so “me” clearly isn’t in their hearts, but in the center of their faces. There is much meaning even in a simple gesture if we are aware of it.

During my stay in Europe, I visited many, mostly Catholic, churches. I was not brought up going to churches, but I began to make some connections. Nearly every church has the stations of the cross displayed in some representation or another. Traditionally these images are meant to inspire and, more importantly, perhaps, to teach the illiterate about the Bible. By the same token, there are often ornate statues of various scenes and people from the Bible. After a while, you get to know them very well by their icons. I learned about St. Sebastian; always tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. I learned of St. Peter and his keys and Archangel Michael and his sword and many more, too.

So I noticed a funny thing while traveling in India. For a newcomer, it can be difficult to tell if Shiva is a man or a woman from the representations, let alone who each of the myriad deities are, but keep your eyes open and a pattern emerges. Shiva is often pictured with dreadlocks wrapped, turban-like, around his head, and with a black snake (Naga) around his neck. (Indeed, many Sadhus, holy ascetics, wear their hair just like the representations of Shiva.) Brahma is always riding a bull. Famous, elephant-headed Ganesh is often seen riding or being pulled in a chariot by rats. Durga is depicted riding a tiger. The frequently seen many-handed statues are not meant to imply that Hindus believe their deities are related to octopi, but rather are just a figurative tool to show more of the symbols they are often associated with.

At dinner one evening in Jaipur, I had met fellow tourists, two women from Holland where I was living at the time, who seemed to be traveling the same route I was on. We got to talking about the things we had mutually seen, and they remarked about the strange depictions of all the gods. “They look like monsters,” one remarked.

I pointed out how similar I thought they were to all the statues I’d seen in Catholic churches. Sebastian being tied and tortured on a tree and, of course, the myriad crucifixion images seemed pretty scary to me, too, I continued. The poor women couldn’t rebut my comment fast enough. “There is no comparison at all between the saints and Shiva with a snake around his neck,” they told me. “There are no elephant-headed people in Christianity!” (There are people with horns and tails and wings, though…) “It’s not the same thing at all! How could you say this?” they asked, outraged!

Perhaps the reason these women didn’t notice the similarities in religious iconography is because they’re traveling with their eyes closed to what they already know. For me, it’s perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from traveling: don’t let your assumptions and paradigms close your eyes to knowledge and new experience. People around the world don’t always think like I might expect them to. Their “me” might be on their face instead of in their hearts. And people often think just like everyone else, even if it doesn’t seem like they do. Their monstrous images are just as positive and inspiring as the ones I see back home. This thought helps me keep my mind open to different ideas. True, I had to go to several continents to learn such a simple lesson, but I did get lots of nifty souvenirs along the way.

1 Comment »

  1. Penelope said,

    February 18, 2006 at 13:44

    Cool observation. I had a similar realization in my early 20s, when I started reading a lot about Catholicism and Wicca at the same time. You see, I was raised Protestant (United Methodist, to be exact), and so we didn’t get saints. A major difference between Catholicism (Roman or Orthodox) and Protestantism is that they get saints and priests who are able to intercede, while Protestants have to form their relationship with God entirely on our own. (Ministers can give us advice, but they can’t hook us up like priests can.) Thus, reading about a form of Christianity that had a saint to pray to for every problem–and a specific ritual with the right candle color and alter cloth and incantation (”prayer”) for every saint–was as mysterious and fascinating to me as visiting a Hindu temple in India is to most Westerners.

    What I found out is that Wicca and Catholicism are very similar–a suggestion that would probably offend people from both faiths, but it’s true! If you have a problem, you find out which helper is best suited to it–god, goddess, or saint, depending on your faith–and then you lay out the right color alter cloth, burn the right incense and the right color candle, maybe put up a picture of your helper to help you focus, maybe put out flowers or other objects your helper likes, and recite a very specific incantation a specific number of times.

    I find similarities like these comforting. I take them as a sign that the faithful may have a good idea, since it makes sense to so many, very different people. And, as R.J. pointed out above, it shows that we’re not so different after all.

    I wonder, though, if my toothache would be cured faster if I prayed to Saint Apollonia and Aibheaog and chanted the correct Sanscrit seed syllables. Would I be confusing everyone out there, or just petitioning the same power again and again?

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