The Forum

The purpose of the Spirit is to conceive and bring forth a New Creature

Strap on a helmet, grab a cup of coffee, and join us for some controversy, the complete part of your breakfast!

This Month:

The True Religion

Let’s talk about other religions, shall we? You know, following the topic of “good Muslims” versus “evil bombing Muslims” and the supposed brotherhood of the world’s religions as simply separate ways to find Nirvana or the Supreme Being.

Two days ago I watched a sacrifice to Kali.

More than thirty Nepalis crowded around, most of them young boys. A few women hung back, looking on with interest as they jogged brown babies on their sari-ed hips. They watched the goat—the sacrifice—in anticipation of some great miracle or ancient sign they learned from their fathers, just as the school-age youngsters were learning now. The goat, its horns and head decorated with red dye, suddenly shook itself all over, sending up puffs of Nepali dust. A sigh like rapture and satisfaction ran through the crowd. One shake of its smelly tough hide, as innate as a wet dog and just as meaningful, and the goat’s fate was sealed. The men surged forward and with one hand gripping the skin of the rump and another holding the skin of the neck, the goat was hauled back up into the temple. They held him upside down and sawed through his throat. The goat cried just three times, loudly in fear and surprise, then burbling softer, melting away. The steaming blood fell into tin pans as the goat was completely decapitated. With the blood, the men anointed Kali’s temple and her clay images with reverence. They also anointed each other, a smeary dot of red in the forehead like a gunshot wound boring into the recesses of their superstitious brains. Carefully they checked their red markings, the ritual marigolds behind their ears and adjusted their cloth, peaked, “Welcome to Taco Bell” hats in tiny mirrors hung about the temple. Their strange brand of blood worship is naturally vain. 

With happy prattle they trickled from the temple, bare feet spattered with fresh blood, padding along in the dirt. They held plates of red dye, blood, and unidentifiable body parts from the goat. One elderly man posed cheerfully with a headless chicken, the previous sacrifice, for a Japanese tourist.

Over the stained crumbling temple spread a bloated black tree that would not leaf out this summer or in any other. Like ribs, the iron tangle of its roots enclosed the beating heart of Kali’s image, wet and refreshed with surrogate lifeblood. There is no rain in this high plateau, hot and dry in the noon sun. The blood soaked into the ground and roots to be sucked up into the heartwood and bark, nourishing whatever rotted spirits were trapped there. 

Standing near, watching this, faint images of the West’s tempered Hinduism passed ghostlike through my memory. Gwen Stefani’s hot pink bindi, Madonna’s mendhi. If they could see the red and black before me, feel the radiation of some dark, deep thing squirming with pleasure at the dutiful actions of her children who only serve their 30 million gods because it grew out of the earth with them, a religion as indigenous as the people, I wonder what they would find so free and beautiful in this madness. Pippa, a 19 year old Brit teaching English in Kathmandu tells me beerily late on St Patrick’s day, that being in Nepal makes her question her Christianity. I feel like I’m hearing some B.S. line that she read in a women’s magazine, that she is acting out the role of the 19 year old seeker in mystic Nepal. I can’t imagine what to say to her—that Hindus have no loving god? That they worship only in appeasement? That she needs to grow up and look around? Walking around Kathmandu, the only foreigners are latent hippie youngsters, blasted by high altitude sun and plentiful pot, ragged, dirty, seeking enlightenment in the most unlikely place on earth.

This is a culture standing on its head. Animals are more precious than human life, killing a rat in the house unleashes karmic poison on the inhabitants, the men gamble and drink Roxy, the local mind mangling firewater while the women work in the fields, and the “holy men” can be found half-asleep and filthy in temple compounds overrun with monkeys, many rabid. At Peshpedi, a temple we visited twice, the attraction is not the friendly people nor colorful architecture—these do not exist. It is a drug corridor for Westerners, an injection of the frighteningly surreal, so bizarre no junk is needed for the trip. (Where the Sandus ‘go’ when they smoke their holy hash, I tremble to imagine.) Running through the temple grounds is the barest eddy of a river that flows suddenly to the Ganges. Alongside are altars for public cremations, if the family is rich enough to afford the wood pillaged from Nepal’s vast deforestation. Today there are several pyres burning, charring, smoking, and on others, fluttering bright funereal orange shrouds are wisped over with incense, waiting the torch. The smell fills the air as the corpses burn, not to strong and faintly sweet. It makes one in our party sick. “Bad memories…napalm,” he whispers.

Strewn on the ground are Sandus, holy men of Hinduism. Some are passed out, limbs splayed to the four winds, so still and deathlike beneath the white chalk dusted over their nearly naked bodies, one cannot tell if they’re alive or dead. They are somewhere in between, lost in a drug-induced shadow world where Vishnu bids them do unhappy things. Masses of unwashed knotted hair, gray with age and dust and smoke, cover their faces or even serve as clothes. Others lean back on tattered wool blankets, inhaling deeply from a clay pipe. One performs a headstand, his thin leathery body quivering with righteous exertion. The Sandus who claim some lucidity follow the few foreigners, touching them and asking for money. Anyone taking pictures is badgered with all the ferocity hashish allows. We speak to them in French and Spanish and they trail off, seeking Americans and Canadians—the sacred cows to be reverently and frantically milked until the cow drops dead and dry and is cremated by the polluted, sacred river. As we leave, smoking ashes are sloshed off the pyre into the river to join thousands of others. A black stain moves towards a monkey troop, haunches in the shallow water. They scamper out of the river and onto the temple, playing and fighting, holy banana thieves.

In Kathmandu we reunite with an old family friend, Debbie Martin. She tells us how she was attacked by monkeys when leaving a market with bananas. It made the front page the next day, headline news in bustling Kat. She lives in Nepal as an aid worker educating village women about pregnancy, birth, and infant care. Women, she says, don’t even know what causes pregnancy, and are considered unclean at the birth-time and so are ostracized by both men and women, left to labor alone in a windowless stall outside the village. If mother and baby survive, they return to the village two days later. The death rate for infants and women in Nepal is one of the highest in the world. “Women are dogmeat,” a Canadian expat says of Nepal’s social order. Yet the kingdom recently banned midwifery, concerned that it made them look not up to par with the West, afraid that their status in the world’s eyes would suffer. Meanwhile there is one doctor for every 300,000 people, and only uneducated self-proclaimed healers in the remote areas. Debbie herself has been threatened over and over with expulsion from the country in spite of her work and Nepal’s own nurses’ support. “Don’t want world help,” someone graffitied on a wall near the palace. This is a tiny angry kingdom, ruled by a self-absorbed, tight-lipped elite caste that imprisons journalists for trying to expose the Maoist problem and only allows foreign aid workers to stay if they pay bribes. They deal with the Maoists by telling the world nothing and placing sandbagged lookouts and 50 caliber machine guns all over the city, including inside many Ministry courtyards. There were two such guns behind retaining walls aimed at the entrance where Dad went to work. Kathmandu sweeps up the dirt sidewalks at about 10pm because of the existing state of emergency, and military soldiers kill villagers suspected of giving food to Maoists. It’s a damned if you do or don’t situation for the villagers, who live in crippling mortal terror of the Maoists. Apparently they’ve learned some carving tricks from India’s terrorists, and practice their butchery on the peasant farmers.

Debbie sees all this, the corruption and dark religion, inseparable and flawed. Still, she speaks of her love for the Nepali people, and walks through the city like a magic figure, a wool shawl around her shoulders and sandals on her feet. Speaking Nepali she makes instant friends with the locals. Guards take their hats off and she nearly converts our shy Hindi driver, Krishna, just by her presence. (She talked him out of it; it’s against the law to change one’s religion in Nepal, and stoning is common for converted Christians. She told him it was too big a decision to make in one day, though he was transfixed by her tale of a God of love.) She believes God is working here, that she’s meant to be there, and tells us that it is a place where Biblical miracles happen every day. “The dead have been raised in Nepal,” she says, her eyes shining. From where I sit above Pattan city square, ragged and adorable children with gold nose-studs play, flared roofs to temples ripple out into the reddish haze beyond which lies the promise of the elusive and imperial Himalayas, and lower caste Nepalis make their living transporting couches, refrigerators and bureaus on their backs supported by a long strap across their forehead—it is such a strange country, at turns marvelous and disturbing. Anything can happen.

We do get to see the Himalayas and King Everest from a tour plane that flies up near the pristine range. Before our windows frost delicately with mountain air kisses, everyone takes pictures through the window and even–shockingly—go to the cockpit to take even clearer pictures and chat with the pilots. There is one mountain they point out that is holy, therefore no one is allowed to climb it. I look for Shangri La from the air but see only green terraces of subsistence farms and no roads at all. It is an electric experience to come so close to something so powerful, high and moveless. To be in their shadow or be a bird soaring nearby, you could feel the joy of life they project, a sheer, cold joy to be alive, rejoicing in their own creation and existence. Though we are in a plane, it is a breath of Himalayan air to be so far from diesel-choked, tourist-abusing Kathmandu. Here we do see God’s handiwork in its vaulted, if earthly, glory! 

After five days in Kathmandu I am tired of being treated like I am not human. “Like a fat turkey to be plucked alive,” one of our party glumly summarizes. I am tired of my nose running black from the pollution and waking in the middle of the night, my hands and mouth cracking open like a desert-hollowed hull from the dry air, the Wizard of Oz-ish “hoom de hoom” Tibetan chant that plays all over the city pounding along with my heartbeat. 

If you think meditation leads to the same goal as Christianity, if you think Hinduism is a gentle if misguided religion, you’ve not seen it firsthand, thriving in the cradle of its man-made inception. We are not created equal. Religions and cultures have never been equal and never will be. What can this mean for our hope of living together peacefully? History shows us only examples of turmoil and war. However, it is more important for us today to realize that Christianity is our only hope. The Hindus have a religion. They have rote, rule, law, and fearful bondage lest their gods be unappeased. We have a spiritual calling to exit the limitations of this mortal realm; we have a higher path than religious ritual. We have the example of Jesus Christ—he did it. He transcended realms. He became a source of life and agape eternal. He is a living path for us to follow. And it may be a relief to know that he does not require animal sacrifice!

"Do What He Did, Get What He Got!"