Personal Encounters with the Sacred in India:
A Glimpse

My support for religious plurality spans over fifty years. I first lived in India from 1962-65; the profound, plural religious scene attracted me. A poster near my desk states in eighteen languages, “There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions,” an idea from Catholic theologian Hans Kung. Writer-cum-activist mentors prod us to probe the meaning of conciliation for a fragmented yet sacred society.

In addition to multiple Asians (names like Aleaz, Ariarajah, Amaladoss, Samartha, Sharma, and Thangaraj), two Americans have distinctly shaped my interreligious being. Articles and books (like A New Religious America), the CD-ROM On Common Ground, and taped lectures by Diana Eck provide data and a spirit to understand religious others. As director of the “Pluralism Project: World Religions in America,” Eck inspires engagement with the sacred plural. I value her insight into Hinduism within India’s multi-religious landscape too (as in Encountering God). Paul Knitter’s friendship, teaching and writing have further mentored me. With global connections, he exudes faith commitment alongside openness to religions that differ. He presents western, Christian views (Introducing Theologies of Religions) and multifaith insight (The Myth of Religious Superiority and Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian). Knitter’s wise approach to distinctions like only, truly and wholly further enables my multifaith openness.1

Decades of friendship across religious borders also provide profound perspective. When John and I taught at Woodstock School in the ‘60s, in the foothills of the ever-changing, colossal Himalayas, I met world religions through books, students, and worship settings. Indian and South Asian students at Goshen College—Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim—have taught me while sharing curry meals in our home. Feminist thought further shapes my religious being: openness to diversity and ambiguity, validation of experience, and connection rather than dualistic opposition. A Fulbright study tour (“Women, the Family, and Social Change in India”) and six other short-term assignments in varied Indian locations (one on staff with a theological college) have enlarged my insight. During return visits to India, Hindu families often hosted my husband John and me.

Encounters produce growth. Whether perched in a third-class-sleeper car of a train, conversing between class preparations, or pausing inside a mosque, I absorbed culture—and therefore religion. I read extensively about India’s living faiths. Events included religious meaning: meals in Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Parsi homes, reading the newspaper, multifaith meetings with prayer. Back in Goshen, I spoke to issues at the local college: when no Islamic prayers or scriptures were part of a memorial service for a Muslim student who died; when Hindus wished to celebrate Divali or Holi on campus.

What does cross-cultural sensitivity mean? How does “loving the neighbor as oneself” shape contexts where difference abounds? Freed not to know the extent of God’s Ways, as toward salvation, I trust divine Wisdom rather than defend exclusive absolutes. My journey, from a small-town, Mennonite heritage, to understand God alongside people with unique names or forms for the Ultimate, lies open to the plural. For, “every religious tradition promises salvation in some form,” Gordon Kaufman says. (I would add—salvation as Christians think of it.)

Rooted in Christian strengths, my interest shifted from curiosity with the exotic to deeper questions and insight into Hindu and Indian Islamic religions. From the local minaret in the bazaar, Muslim calls to prayer echoed across the valley to Woodstock School where I taught. Hats worn by shopkeepers identified religious loyalty just as Hindu forehead markings distinguished Shaivites from followers drawn to Vishnu. Sikh women became more than those who wore two-pieced Punjabi outfits, their turbaned men more than trusted taxi drivers.

When traveling, I slipped out of shoes to enter temples and mosques. Ambivalent about invading others’ sacred space that I failed to fully discern, I both observed and respected people’s rituals. Their trust in The One beyond themselves had integrity. However, when caught in a frenzied crowd at the Jagannath temple festival in Puri, I knew fear—for personal safety, not awe. At such times, Christians had best stay near the coast and enjoy fresh shrimp bargained for dinner. At Varanasi in 1963, I lacked knowledge for what seemed like “holy chaos.” Although a Muslim guide sensitively explained the rituals and temples of that holiest of Hindu cities, both his and our ‘outsider’ status surfaced.

‘Holy ground’ gained new meaning. The quiet of near-by Sarnath—its stupas and the panorama depicting Buddha’s sermons—appealed more to me. It stretched the unfamiliar less. To stand, later, under the bodhi tree where Gautama received enlightenment prompted holy awe, not unlike years later when I stood near the presumed site of Jesus’ burial tomb. To tour the Ajunta Caves further explained an era when Buddhism and the subcontinent’s leader Ashoka influenced Indian life toward tolerance. To routinely greet an elderly Muslim vendor in Mussoorie—his basket of fruit on one side and open Qur’an on the other—brought together Word with deed. However, surface encounters always left me yearning for deeper Truth. Experiencing God, I longed to know what others engaged in sacred rites found meaningful.

Content in Blossoms in the Dust, by Kusum Nair, resonated with exposure during vacation months in the ‘60s to rural, village India. We walked by mini, animist poles leaned together in fields in the state of Bihar. We shared in the rite of Christian foot washing; bucket and bare feet complementing the simple room for worship, made firm with earth and dung. We heard the distinct tones of bhajans and observed deep friendship between eastern, tribal folk and western missioners. And we crossed rutted terrain to join villagers (Christian and Hindu) for annual harvest events. A row of plodding ox carts silhouetted against the setting sun conveyed sacred peace to agrarian life at end of day.

Although Hindu families or village groups worship different forms of the One God, they seem not to compete. Honoring several deities at the same time, they draw from each the divine Essence needed at a given time. To decrease confusion of Protestant denominations, Indian groups formed CSI in 1947 followed later by CNI, Churches of South or North India. My ecumenical self grew. Puzzled by Christian fear of compromise, I paused: Why not recognize the ‘hybrid’ nature of each denomination, religion and person—in order to move toward greater solidarity among all?2

In India for the summer of 1967, features of living in the more central city of Jabalpur revealed depth later. Among no Christians in an Institute of math and science teachers, John and I joined Methodists for Sunday worship. In a country pulsing with sacred symbols, dance, and temples, we keenly yet naively absorbed the interplay of culture with religion. Hindu processions passed. Drivers of three-wheeled scooters kept colored pictures of god forms overhead. In light of congestion and “near-misses,” I could understand why.

During weekly restaurant meals with Institute teaching staff, conversation often turned to religion as chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup. A Hindu professor and I discussed how my faith in a personal relationship with God differed from his concept of “seeing and being seen by God”—darshan. We valued the difference and mutually learned from the other’s integrity. At our final meeting, a Muslim professor gave me a gift: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored. Content describes a Christian’s shift of loyalty to Islam. Through that experience of being gently ‘evangelized’ by a person convinced of his ‘better way,’ I felt neither defensive nor offended. I trusted the One God to receive and engage both of us on our chosen spiritual journey. Sri Lankan Wesley Ariarajah understands. “To say that God is not present in the religious life of neighbours would amount to blasphemy. It is false witness against the Creator. It is an attempt by us humans to put limits on God and to dictate to God where God might and might not be active.”3

Another experience taught openness. On entering a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth, I paused. On prominent display were large symbols of three major religions. The multiple arms and legs of a brass, Hindu god form stood posed to ‘offer’ support for varied needs. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat ‘absorbed’ in contemplation. And a wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly; the Jesus figure linked a common meal with personal covenant. En route to choose a table cover—to see color and shape, to touch woven threads, to ponder an artist’s craft—I stopped, there being no choice. All of life exudes spiritual content and purpose. Germane to selecting a cloth to enjoy with spiced curries was attention to faith and its fuller options. In Hinduism the spiritual and the practical provide context for each other. Not an intrusion, this experience summoned my attention. Not present to cast judgment, symbols prompted me to affirm that Ultimate Reality or God indeed cares for all peoples.

Worship with urban and rural Christians in India enlarges awareness of ecumenism. On a Palm Sunday in 1993, thirty people walked or biked, passing people of other living faiths, to a Mennonite church in Ranchi, Bihar. Each child carried a palm frond shaped into a small cross. We greeted each other with “Jeshu sehai” before and after worship. We sat on back-less planks of wood. Then in 1998, I was speaker for five sessions of the fifth All-India Mennonite Women’s Conference Retreat. Singing and drama were spirited among the 170 women from five language groups gathered to ponder peace (shanti) themes. During the final session, we shared communion—chapati pieces and juice—made special because blessed and served by women. Short on cups, women washed the used ones in buckets just outside the brightly colored shamiana (tent), until all were served.

Less than three percent of India’s population, Christians worship in varied settings. Whether near temples or mosques, all are rarely far removed from those who suffer. A Delhi Fellowship met in the restaurant area of the top floor of the Taj Mahal Hotel. Looking out over the Indian capital’s sandstone government buildings, we sang and heard sermon content. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In Kolkata outside a British-style, Baptist church hung a large sign marking two centuries since William Carey, British missionary, arrived. Inside, seated in armed chairs, we joined Indians to hear that day’s guest preacher from Germany. We listened, despite airplanes taking off overhead and birds zooming through ‘window’ openings, wooden shutters wide open.

In Chennai (formerly Madras) with Methodists, we experienced an insightful service led by blind people. And with Baptists, gathered for 150 years, we felt the joy of dedicating a new piano. An array of ‘angel’ children processed to begin the service and the adult choir offered “Hallelujah” pieces new and old, composed by the pastor and G. F. Handel. Members were as delighted to hear Mozart’s “Sonata in A Minor” on the piano as to donate major offerings for flood relief in India and El Salvador. Memories also linger of worship with Mar Thoma Christians, those who descend from the preaching of Jesus’ first-century disciple Thomas. Rituals included lengthy liturgy recited by all from memory and incense-filled space.

Also, in Chennai, patterns of worship in Church of South India congregations vary. (Over fifty years ago CSI merged Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists.) Merging does not require identical views or rituals. At St. Mary’s, blessed with an Anglican heritage since 1680, the priest serves weekly communion to worshipers kneeling at the altar. At St. Andrews, with Scottish Presbyterian roots, the Bible is carried in to begin and out to end each service. A brigade of lay elders passes the Eucharistic elements through the pews to five hundred believers, once a month. With hymns sung—hymnals include words, not music—and the Word proclaimed, worshippers leave sacred settings to acknowledge God’s grace among neighbors.

Holidays further promote ecumenical wisdom. On Reformation Day, we staff and students (seated on the tile floor on braided mats) at a Lutheran seminary were challenged by a Roman Catholic priest to claim the One God. On Mission Sunday 1998, I, a Mennonite from the United States, spoke in two South Indian churches about the German Lutheran Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. The first Protestant missionary to India, he arrived in 1706. A skillful writer and translator loyal to the Good News, he learned the common people’s language. He also learned from sermons and grammars written by Roman Catholics de Nobili (early 1600s) and Henriques, in India before him. He credited the living piety of those now called Hindu people, learned the complex nature of their Bhakti (devotional) religion, and credited their effort to reach God.

In 2003 I researched for a week at the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad. Like de Nobili and Ziegenbalg before him, Martyn (1806) inspires me through multifaith exchange. A British chaplain for East India Company personnel, his love for Muslims developed over six years. To know Indian languages was essential; he studied Bengali, Persian, and Arabic in addition to Urdu, the language of many Muslims. He then translated the New Testament into such languages, wrestling with Christian meanings of words and symbols. Further, he founded schools. “He extended equal worth to Indians and recognized Muslim culture and loyalties.”4

Visits to worship places of other living faiths always enrich. Parents of Hindu students at Goshen College might focus the spiritual ‘back home in India.’ A father explained god/goddess forms and stories to me when visiting a major Delhi temple. Open to difference, we then climbed, shoeless, a hill with a Buddhist worship center on top before entering a large, white, lotus-shaped Bahai temple. There, hundreds quietly lined between clean pools and green grass. History and philosophy of tolerant Bahai teaching, that lined basement walls, informed us. Next, we entered a temple where most people prostrated before Lord Krishna or Rhadha forms. With a group prayer service set to begin, a lead chanter and drummer led the sacred event. Motions and chanting vigor increased along with a distinct shuffle. Participants moved hands through a camphor flame in an arati tray circled by saddhus. Near the end, blessed water was thrown out over all, and, as at the beginning, the leader blew several blasts on a conch shell. On leaving, people took a pinch of prasad, offered to digest. Whereas Hindu worship often centers in private acts, this group ritual conveyed welcome for all, whether regular or guest attenders.

My journal entries include other temple visits. One held distinct interest for any sculptor—100 pillars. Often, a ‘tank’ makes ablutions possible. Symbols linked to a distinct God form appear, as the linga with Shiva temples. Near the southeastern shore stands the very ancient “temple by the sea.” Others date to the ninth or eleventh century when elephants and shrines were carved, giving people payment in the form of food during a famine. Another complex finds people in procession with forms of varied names on only one day of the year. Through rituals and greetings, musicians assist people in saying “Hello” or “Goodbye” to an aspect of the Divine—as to a house guest.

A guide rich with insight—Sunithi—introduced our women’s tour group to Kanchipuram—town of a thousand temples dedicated to many aspects of the Divine. One structure, dedicated to Shiva, is thought to be the oldest temple constantly in use since the 7th century. A great sage lives there. With its high tower over the inner sanctum area, its sandstone structure, lined with cells for meditation (a sign of later, Buddhist influence) surrounds a courtyard. Why might I, a Christian, value Sunithi, or how might temple activity enrich my faith? A religious person, she explains details clearly, with sensitivity and passion. She honors sacred views, traditions, and practice of others. Disciplined, others worship Yahweh, Allah or whatever the Name in her presence, whether or not with kindred beliefs. Steven Huyler, noted photographer of Hindu devotion, also describes Sunithi’s “welcome of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Prosperity, as a guest in her home.”5

While Muslims resist any image of the One God, called Allah (Arabic term), Sikhs honor with sincere depth their scripture Guru Granth Sahib as divine. That text reflects or is their present Guru. Muslims never honor a form of Muhammad, yet relics might bring worshipers and tourists together. Items fourteen centuries old, like a hand-written scripture copy by the grandson of Muhammad or a presumed hair of the Prophet’s preserved in a mosque in New Delhi may prompt people’s respect. Having attended worship in a Sikh gurdwara repeatedly, without doubt, I commune there with the Universal God. Circling upward into the Matri Mandir, a place of contemplation open to all at the Auroville community in south India, I sense the sincere effort of comrades and pursue silence. Pausing not far from Coimbatore at the Isha Yoga Centre, open to all religions, I but begin to comprehend union with existence, the principle that the Body is the temple of the Spirit. Others express their experience. And returning ‘home’ to Mennonite acappella singing or to Jesus clear call to justice, I rejoice anew.

With memories that invade this essay, I live and worship in the U.S. With counsel from theologian Gordon Kaufman, I share, learn, and adapt:

Only as we find ways of stepping back from . . . features of our traditions (both religious and secular) that wall us off from others, can we hope to come into genuine understanding of and community with them. Building such community with others, it seems to me, is the most profound religious necessity of our time.6