“You must learn to see with the same eye, a mound of earth and a heap of gold, a cow, a sage, a dog and a man who eats the dog. There is another intelligence beyond the mind.” —Krishna to Arjuna in Mahabharata
I and my brother, Adrian, were on the road in India in the early 1970s. We arrived in Jamu and found our way to the sprawling grounds of a temple complex of courtyards, sheds, altars and devotional chapels—each housing some kind of devotional statue or object for veneration. Some rooms were grotto like, with smoke darkened ceilings and walls, and the heavy atmosphere of incense and burning candles enveloping everyone and everything in dim shadows. The devotees pelted images with flowers and the statues glistened from the devotional oils and waters that were splashed upon them day after day after day. Adrian and I opened the door to a shrine room and encountered devotees singing hymns vigorously and moving in a dance to the sound of tablas, flutes, harmoniu and hand cymbals.
Suddenly, I was astonished and staggered back from the scene into which we had stumbled.
The object of the devotion was a stone Shiva Lingam—the male member sitting atop a platform yoni stone symbolizing the female genital. The stones are believed to have healing properties and are important in the worship practices of Hinduism.
The lingam was embraced by a metal tripod with spindly legs atop which sat a metal pot with perforated bottom which allowed the dripping of a liquid that ran down over the lingam sculpture.
To my mind came the immediate and stunning thought that my Catholicism and probably all of Christianity had purged, expunged, and forbidden any kind of worship suggesting or depicting sexuality.
Of course the marriage in church of man and woman means sex and is sacramental in Roman and Eastern Christianity. Protestants, who have less sacramental theology, use the terms ‘blessing of union’ for marriage, and the progressive Protestants are now consenting to ‘blessing of same-sex union.’
The Apostle’s Creed refers to God the Father having his only “begotten” Son, our Lord Jesus, conceived by the Holy Ghost—standing in, or rather soaring in place of God the Father at the moment of Jesus’ miraculous virgin conception in the body of the Virgin Mary who is honored as the Immaculate.
Now there are remarkable and sacred aspects to all this, but not very much raw human sexuality. The impregnator, the Holy Spirit, is disembodied and Mary, the human part of the equation, remains Virgin. There is an act of coitus here, but rather much cleaned up.
The classical pagan world had no lack of couplings of gods and human females (also goddesses and men), and the affairs were not always marked with so much purity and modesty—though some gods/goddesses and heroic humans were devoted to their virginity. The classic Greek temple Parthenon is so named for its association with the cult of Athena Parthenos, one of Athena’s many epithets, meaning ‘virgin.’
Catholics and Orthodox have kept to their practice of depicting Mary and Child on canvas, in tapestry, in murals, in stone, wood and metal. Churches of the Reformation have steered clear for the most part from holy pictures, including holy mother and child, though no doubt their faithful have no problem sending Christmas cards using US stamps with Madonna and baby Jesus. And the creche is set in the front yards of Protestant faith communities. Ah, but it is Christmas time. God rest ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay—certainly not the incarnation of God.
But now back to the Hindu temple complex. Come nightfall, tourists and devotees were given space, catch as catch can, to spread sleeping bags in the courtyard or under shed roofs. You were charged a modest fee and a temple watchman would collect it.
We two brothers wound up in one of the courtyards to sleep on the ground under electric lights fixed on tall poles and under the stars. During the night I did sleep, but fitfully. At one point, my eyes came open to find a real, though sacred, cow looking down at me.
The morning would provide me with a rather bizarre encounter that has remained one of my most vivid recollections. As I was packing up the plastic sheet upon which I had laid out my sleeping bag, I noticed a spot of fresh animal dung on a corner of the sleeping bag. There was a lot of dung lying around. Disturbed and cranky, muttering distress aloud and also under my breath, I was being observed by a Sadhu, a wandering Hindu holy man who looked like he could have been sent by central casting in full costume and makeup. He was old, sitting on the ground, with thin forearms resting on his knees. He was all elbows, knuckles, and toes sticking out in all directions, and his hair was like matted white felt. He was wearing an ample white loincloth only. A staff lay on the ground by his side. He was smoking a bidi. The two of us had exchanged some pleasantries and maybe some spiritual generalities.
As my grievance and grumbling about the spot of dung on the sleeping bag went on, the Sadhu extended his arm, and with extended bony forefinger pointed at the spot of dung. The holy man looked at me, the hapless tourist, and said: “That is Dharma,” and at that his head and body rocked back as he gave a good laugh. This was heady stuff. Hearing this, I stared off into space, and was thrown off balance, cast into a kind of weird musing. How could dung be compared to so high a notion as the Dharma?
But was not the sadhu correct? Dung is reality, even spiritual reality. Face it. Figure it out.
Postscript: What is Dharma?
“Dharma’s root is dhri, which means ‘to support, hold, or bear.’ It is the thing that regulates the course of change by not participating in change, but that principle which remains constant…In common parlance, dharma means ‘right way of living’ and ‘path of righteousness.’”
“Dharma is also used in Mahayana Buddhism to mean ‘manifestation of reality.’ This sense can be found in the Heart Sutra, which refers to the voidness or emptiness (shunyata) of all dharmas.”
“The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like ‘natural law.’ Its root word, dham, means ‘to uphold’ or ‘to support.’ In this broad sense…dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also.”
Originally published November 24, 2014 at: https://santafe.com/blogs/scenes-from-a-life-part-iv