Beyond the experience of duality

Village religion in India

This article was first published in The Tablet 24 July 1976

The Church in India today is seeking to enter into dialogue with Hinduism and to incorporate in her own life the values to be found in Hindu religion. When we think of these values, we naturally call to mind the great philosophical tradition of the Vedanta or the spiritual tradition of Yoga with its three paths of action (karma), devotion (bhakti) and wisdom (jnana). Or if we think of the more popular forms of religion, we turn our attention to the great temples with their statues of the gods and their regular worship (puja), to which crowds throng every day throughout the year. In these temples, we with the cathedrals in the Middle Ages in Europe, the great truths of religion, are enshrined in stone, so as to make an immediate appeal to simple people. But behind these more spectacular forms of religion there is the much more primitive religion of the villages, which goes back to pre-Aryan times; this is not beginning to attract more attention.

We have had contact in our ashram for some time with two harijan villages in the neighbourhood. The name harijan, which means ‘people of God,’ was given by Mahatma Gandhi to the outcasts of ‘untouchables’ of Hinduism. These people were non-Aryan peoples, who accepted the Hindu religion but were never folly incorporated into the Hindu fold. They were not allowed into the main temples, though they could have temples of their own, and were compelled to live in separate villages. The government today is doing all that it can to help these people and there are now many opportunities open to them, but their position in the villages still remains almost the same. They still live in separate villages and have temples of their own. They are also extremely poor, being mostly landless labourers, and if they can get work, which is often not possible, they can just get enough to keep them alive from day to day.

The two villages in our neighbourhood are both separated from the main village by about half a mile, but this is not altogether a disadvantage. The villages are situated in coconut groves, which give a beautiful shade, among rice fields and this makes a kind of idyllic setting. The people live in small huts with thatched roofs, but these huts, which are coated with cowdung as a disinfectant, are kept beautifully clean and the atmosphere of the village is very calm and peaceful. There is, of course, no running water or electric light or sanitation, but these are things which were unknown in most villages in Europe 100 years ago, and are not really necessary for a happy human life. People in the west, who hear of the ‘outcasts’ and the ‘untouchables’ and their extreme poverty, often imagine that they live in abject misery ‘like animals.’ But nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience. Every time I go down to the village I am amazed at the warmth and vitality and humanity of the life. There are children running about everywhere (birth control is not thought much of) happy and carefree with a minimum of clothes, and the mothers have a patient cheerfulness, which seems to sustain them through their trials.

This cheerfulness and the kind of human warmth, which is always present is undoubtedly due to a large extent to their religion. When I go to visit them they will come to meet me and pour water with flowers over my feet. This is not because they have a particularly respect for me personally, but because I represent God to them. Their home, however poor it may be to all appearances, is a sacred place and one would never enter it without taking off one’s shoes. In front of the doorway there will often be a sacred design, called a kollam, which is sometimes of extraordinary beauty and intricacy and has a deep symbolic meaning. It represents the passage from the outer world into the inner centre, the place where God dwells. Just as God is present in the guest, so he is present in the home. The pot in which the rice is cooked is sacred. It represents the source of life, the womb, the mother. Again the fire in which the rice is cooked is sacred; it is the fire from heaven which prepares the food, which is offered to God. The one rice meal a day, which sustains their life – and it is incredible how much work the men will do in the hot sun on this one meal – is the centre of their lives, and it is in this that God comes to them. It is a true eucharist.

This sense of the sacred is especially evident at the times of festival, which bring so much joy to their lives. We have just been celebrating the festival of Pongal, which is a kind of harvest festival at the time of the ingathering of the rice crop. We went down to one of the villages in the morning for this, and were received at the different hoses with water poured over our feet. Then we all assembled at the little nursery school, which we helped establish there. The rice had been boiled and was laid out on banana leaves under an erection of sugar cane sticks – sugar cane is together with rice and bananas the chief product of this district – and limes and coconuts and bananas were laid out in front. Then the coconuts were broken – again a deeply symbolic rite, the breaking of the coconuts represents the breaking of the outer shell of life, the ‘outer man,’ so as to reveal the ‘inner man,’ the divine life within. Then incense was burned and water waved over the gifts to consecrate them and finally the rice was distributed to all around, the children all seated on the ground having the rice served on a banana leaf and enjoying an extra meal.

These are very simple rites, centring on the rice, the food of life, but how meaningful they are, bringing God into their lives and spreading so much innocent joy! The next day was the festival of Cow Pongal, when the cow becomes the centre of attraction. The cow is the other, who provides the precious milk, but she represents also the oxen who draw the plough and the bullock-cart. On this day everyone assembled in front of the cowshed in the ashram, where a sacred place had been prepared with beautifully designed kollams made by the village women and the cows were garlanded and incensed, having first been taken down to the river for a bath and had their horns painted in bright colours. Then everyone sat down to eat the sweet rice which had been prepared on a fire in front of the cowshed with all the accustomed rites. A blind boy from the village, who plays the flute and has a beautiful melodious voice, sang sacred songs as the sun began to set and the whole scene was bathed in a golden light. This was a simple, primeval rite, which has gone on unchanged for hundreds of years and owes nothing at all to modern civilisation. In it the people of the villages have been able to find joy and peace in the midst of all their toil and suffering, and to recognise the presence of God among them in the simple things which belong to their daily life.

Is there not a lesson in all this both for the Church and for the world today> The medieval Church was able to penetrate deep into the unconscious of western Europe because it knew how to incorporate in its religion the vestiges of ‘paganism’ which remained after the conversion of the barbarian people to Christianity. This ‘paganism’ is nothing but the ‘natural’ or ‘cosmic’ religion, which preceded both Christianity and Judaism. It is the religion of primeval man, based on God’s revelation of himself in nature, or the cosmos. It discovers God at the heart of the cosmos, recognising the divine presence in all the elements, earth, air, water and fire and in all the normal events of human life, birth and marriage and death and the daily round of work and housekeeping. The medieval Church was able to include much of this in its sacramental life, but Protestantism turned its back on it, and the modern scientific world has gone on to eliminate every trace of the sacred from daily life, so that everything has become ‘profane.’ It is this that makes the life of a modern city or suburb in spite of its wealth so pitifully poor compared with that of an Indian village or any place where the ancient religion survives.

Must not the Church today seek to recover this basis in natural religion? There are so many complaints about the revised liturgy because this element of the ‘sacred’ of mystery and symbolism have been lost in it. To recover this in the west, where mystery and symbolism have been eliminated from life, may not be easy, but in India and other countries of Asia and Africa, where it still survives, there is no great difficulty. But it demands that we recognise the value of this religion and this way of life, and in seeking to ‘develop’ village life economically and socially we do not destroy this religion basis. There is still a possibility of the Indian village developing socially and economically without destroying its religious basis, as has been done in nearly all countries, both in the capitalist and the socialist world. The Church could play a significant part in this, if we were aware of these values and sought to incorporate them into our liturgy and life.