Can religion be a pick and mix game?
I’m starting to think so. My experiences in the past few years have seen me living in India, staying in a Hindu influenced yoga ashram in the Himalaya, visiting South America, where I had a shaman healing in Ecuador. Also I have had several visits to the world’s only Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, ventures into mosques in the disputed Kashmir and less disputed Glasgow (although both are fighting for independence.)
Then, there are the experiences closer to home.
My brother’s burgeoning romance with a Catholic has fallen into a pattern where he attends mass with her some Sunday’s and she watches when he lights Chanukah candles in winter and helps him polish off the smoked salmon regardless of the season. They talk about their future children being educated through a blend of both religions.
I used to see this as an uncomfortable truce, and a reason for their relationship to fail, but it won’t. They celebrate each other’s beliefs and in turn learn more about themselves and each other. There is some pressure to marry within our religion as Jews, though of course it doesn’t always happen that way.
I have been brought up in the Jewish tradition, but feel attached to it more for its cultural resonances than religious. Recently I took my atheist boyfriend to synagogue with me keen to show him the beauty of the music in the service, but also how we eat. The Kiddush food that comes at the end, after the long service, resplendent with fish balls, hummus, chollah bread and pickled cucumber made it all worthwhile.
Travel is another way to open the mind and heart towards a higher purpose. I visited Tzvat, one of the holiest cities in Israel and saw a man meditating on a roof top at sunset to the backdrop of sherbet pink colours dripping across the sky. I hadn’t realised that meditation, and this calmness I witnessed but had seen through yoga, and the Hindu traditions linked and could be found in my own religion.
Taking the time to delve into traditions is often a surprising and beautiful thing, reminding that there are so many similarities between one thing we love and another.
Wandering the streets of Old Delhi, I always liked to hear the call to prayer from a minaret, and when on a houseboat in Jammu and Kashmir could hear the sound echoing across the empty Dal lake, and know that thousands of sleepy people were dressing to rise and fall with every call.
My relationship with Hinduism is one of warmth and like Judaism conjures images of the delectable, generously shared food. I have sat on the banks of the Ganges river with friends as they lit candles for daily Puja, (the prayer and fire ceremony) and felt completely connected joining in as they chanted Sanskrit words. The union of the universal ‘Om’ is already present in our greeting of ‘Shalom.’ This match is enough, when I explore, to make my heart soar.
At university I would sit and write poetry and saw writing as something to connect to. I had a blank page, and then through the ritualistic uncapping of a pen, or sharpening of a pencil, my expression became the liturgy and like a long distance runner, I got lost.
Conversations are another way to be open to more. I have attended Buddhist lectures, where the softest voices spoke sharing ideals on living a lighter life. I spent an afternoon chatting with a Hindu Swami, garbed in traditional orange who had renounced possessions following aparigraha (one of the yogic yamas, or obligations which translates to not having too many things). He suggested that one path to spiritual happiness is to learn to dissolve yourself.
I’m not saying we should stop taking responsibility for our beliefs, but let them soften at the edges, make friends with what else exists. There will never be just one religion or thought process governing the world. There are too many people, cultures and histories, and this is the greatest thing.
I think I’m finally understanding the Swami’s words. Life isn’t a battle of choosing all the time, always making decisions, but the fine thread and garnering together of lots of emotions and people. And the bigger thread, the bumper car of all of these results is in ourselves, so how can we try to bring it back, condense it into a name, impute it as ‘one thing?’
Religion has taught me that words and people are deeply important, and if you’re reading this thinking, running is the only thing that gets me close to this feeling of serenity and joy, then become that, lace up your shoes, and get out there.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, said ‘sadness is contraction and happiness is expansion’. This is a wonderful way to think about a life imbued with any spiritual interest. If happiness is about growth, then the best way to grow is to keep the mind wide open and welcome in the beauty of shared tradition.
Without further ado, I’m off to the Christmas markets of Europe this weekend to sample some mulled wine, and also watch the giant menorah be lit in Frankfurt’s square.
Festive greetings to all.
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Editor: Dana Gornall