Which is Your Favorite God? Travels with Jesus, Shiva, Mary, & Ganesh.

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Mary and Ganesha on the Dashboard (photo Harrison Williams)

Shopping on West Car Street, Chidambaram

I was walking with Bharathi and Vishali on West Car Street. We had just gone sari-shopping and Vish had paused to look at the bangles at one of the shaded market stands lining the west gate entrance to the temple. The sweet smell of guavas oozing with juice in the midday sun permeated the air around us. We had nowhere to be for a few hours, and this rare moment of lingering felt slow and satisfying. The hair on top of my head felt shockingly hot to the touch as I adjusted the jasmine in my braid, drawing a few damp strands off of my forehead and back into some attempt at order.

As we looked through our purchases from the sari store, talking about color, fabric and style, Bharathi suddenly asked me, – Susanna, which is your favorite God? Standing yards from the entryway into one of the world’s greatest Shiva temples that I had just traveled across the world to visit for the third time, there was no question – Shiva Nataraja, I said. She paused and looked at me. I wondered what she was thinking.

But Jesus? – she asked – He is yours. Don’t you love Jesus? Surprised, I said –Yes, Jesus is great – I love Jesus. This was so inexplicably funny to me that I started laughing. Then I clarified – I love Shiva AND I love Jesus. They’re both good. And you? Bharathi said – Me? I love Shiva – and she touched her heart. I said – Oh, yes, Shiva… and touched my heart as well. Then she laughed too. The three of us purchased some bangles, bobbypins, and sari clips, then hailed an auto-rickshaw to return to the Hotel Saradharam for lunch.

Marketplace, Chidambaram

Driving from Chidambaram to Swamimalai

We climbed into one of the two white vans outside of the hotel, and I eased myself into the cool air-conditioned seat just behind the driver. As everyone settled in around me, I looked at the dashboard, which was evenly ornamented with two little deities: on the right, a shiny gold-colored Ganesha sat cross-legged, and to his left stood the Virgin Mary, gracefully draped in blue robes.

I loved seeing this juxtaposition just a few days after my conversation with Bharathi. I pointed to the dashboard – You like Mary and Ganapati! I said to our driver – Me too! He said – Yes, yes – Mary and Ganapati! Very good! Then, because we had exhausted his English and my Tamil, which doesn’t go beyond Hello, Thank you, and ordering food, we smiled at each other as he began backing the van out into the street for our ride to the Subrahmanya temple in Swamimalai.

I remembered how, when I was here in December, every roadside restaurant seemed to have a crèche, or manger scene, with lots of rainbow-colored tinsel, Merry X-mas banners made of shiny cardboard letters, and sometimes strings of blinking lights. Somewhere in the vicinity there would be a Ganesh or a Subrahmanya, Ganesha’s warrior brother, who is particularly popular in Tamil Nadu. There didn’t seem to be any conflict or contradiction in the two different belief systems being simultaneously acknowledged and celebrated, and there didn’t seem to be any attempt to separate them. On the contrary; the Christian figurines were mixed right in with the Hindu ones. Everyone was invited to the party.

Subrahmanya wall paintings, Swamimalai

Contemplating the Temple

It’s a funny thing to fall in love with a set of traditions that aren’t yours by birth or by culture. I find myself constantly asking myself why the Hindu Tantrism that I’ve spent the last decade studying with my teacher Dr. Douglas Brooks resonates so powerfully for me and makes so much sense to me, offering such beauty and richness that I cannot imagine extricating it from my everyday thinking and way of being in the world.

Unlike the Catholic churches in which I grew up, the Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is not geared toward one particular group of Hindus with a specific set of codified beliefs. Imagine a Jesus church designed to accommodate every conceivable sect of Christianity, as well as anyone else who happens to think that Jesus is cool. This is the surprisingly inclusive paradigm that we step into when we come to this temple.

I love the fact that I am not forced to choose here – that it is as ok for me to be as inclusive as I am selective. Because I am an outsider, there is a curiosity about why I am here, but never a critique from any of the people with whom we interact. Part of this may be an effect of language differences, but it honestly seems to be a non-issue. The Dikshitar priests never ask us what we think or believe, even inviting us into their home. The other visitors to the temple are friendly and openly approving of our presence here, the women patting us on the shoulder and saying Super-good! when we wear saris. It seems to be accepted that if we are here, Shiva means something to us. Our showing up is explanation enough.

East Gate Entrance, Chidambaram Temple-morning

What we talk about when we talk about Nataraja

In class, I tell my students that the names of the gods are names for different aspects of our selves. When we talk about Nataraja, we are talking about an amalgamation of concepts that comprises our identity. When we look at Nataraja, we are looking into one of those endless reflecting mirrors in which we catch glimpses and slivers of glimpses of our limitless selves. The complex cosmology of Nataraja reminds us that we are dazzlingly diverse. We are additive rather than reductive, like a cubist painting that reveals infinite perspectives from a single vantage point. We are multiplicity itself.

Gopuram detail, Chidambaram Temple-morning

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Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher-writer-visual artist, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She is ERYT-500, has been teaching for over 12 years, and travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions of Rajanaka Yoga that inspire her work. Her spiritual home is the great Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. She teaches internationally, but is based in New York. Find her weekly classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga and Abhaya Yoga .

Susanna’s artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book “Looking at Matisse and Picasso,” and she will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her.

Susanna currently writes on yoga, writing, art, and life for a number of publications, including The Huffington Post , Mantra Yoga+Health , Rebelle Society , and YOGANONYMOUS . She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy, and created the popular Writing Your Practice workshops and telecourses for yogis, applying yoga philosophy and myth to the practice of writing.
Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life.
Find her on Twitter , Facebook , &

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anonymous Oct 19, 2013 1:50am

Apparently the hym 'Lord of the Dance' was written by the writer inspired by Shiva and Jesus.

anonymous Feb 7, 2013 7:58am

[…] explain why it does what it does to me, which has only a tangential relation to the customs of my New England Catholic upbringing. There is some connection I can make with my love of ritual, with the smell of incense […]

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 12:24pm

[…] placid one, whose name was Ganesha, loved his odd appearance, since it had been a gift given to him by his uncles and his powerful […]

anonymous Apr 3, 2012 9:29am

[…] found this small song to Shiva that I keep murmuring to myself. Every time I read or recite it I am reminded of the beauty of the […]

anonymous Aug 13, 2011 4:26pm

"I don't care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car" – John Prine

Gotta go with Bernie on this one – my favorite from you yet!

    anonymous Aug 14, 2011 9:32pm

    Thank you! I love the quote you offer!

anonymous Aug 12, 2011 9:22am

Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 12:26pm

"It’s a funny thing to fall in love with a set of traditions that aren’t yours by birth or by culture." thanks susanna, i have thought about this often and i appreciate the rich expression of your experiences and words. <3

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 9:01am

[…] that giant shifts in perspective can drop out of the sky at just the right moment. Just when I stop believing, I find a reason to believe again with more conviction than […]

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 8:47am

i live in India ad im a hindu . ad i hav never given a thought abt wat religion othrs r. many of my frindz r muslim ad sikh. ad they come to temple when ther is any celebratin ad i go to thr holy place when they hav celebration. ad u writting made me give a 2nd thought abt religion ad suddenly im proud 2 b India!

    anonymous Aug 11, 2011 10:44am

    Meetali, that is such a compliment – thank you for sharing that!

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 7:31am


anonymous Aug 11, 2011 7:25am

Wonderful writing. Thank you!

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 7:21am

My favorite..I often think about this. I wish the whole world could “coexist”. A beautiful thought.

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 6:58am

you are, simply, a gorgeous writer….

    anonymous Aug 11, 2011 10:43am

    thank you for saying that, Michelle!

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 6:41am

This may be my favorite from you yet.

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 6:15am

Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

anonymous Aug 11, 2011 6:14am

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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