Have you ever heard of the Thaipusam Festival? I hadn’t until tonight. I was reading “What It Means to be A Liberal Person of Faith” Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie on The Huffington Post when an unrelated image caught my eye. I clicked on the thumbnail and read the description:
“For Hindu devotees, Thaipusam is a period of abstinence and fasting to cleanse their bodies of sin. Some carried enormous, decorative kavadis, complete with bodily piercings as a symbol of their sacrifice, while others carried the smaller milk pot.”
Source: Hindus Celebrate Thaipusam in Singapore
All Photos: Chris McGrath, Getty Images via AOL/Huffington Post
I turned to Google in search of more information and found a very informative article by the BBC that explained a little more about the history and practices of Thaipusam in Hinduism:
Thaipusam is a time for Hindus of all castes and cultures to say thank you and show their appreciation to one of their Gods, Lord Murugan, a son of Shiva… It was first celebrated at the Batu Caves in 1888. Since then it’s become an important expression of cultural and religious identity to Malaysians of Tamil Indian origin, and it’s now the largest and most significant Hindu public display in the country….
Some climb 272 steep steps to say prayers to Lord Murugan at his shrine. Some carry pots of milk or “paal kudam” on their heads as a show of devotion and love to the god. Others carry elaborate frameworks on their shoulders called “kavadis”, which have long chains hanging down with hooks at the end which are pushed into their backs… Many of these pilgrims are pierced with two skewers (or ‘vels’ – symbolic spears); one through the tongue, and one through the cheeks. The piercing by skewers symbolises several things:
- that the pilgrim has temporarily renounced the gift of speech so that he or she may concentrate more fully upon the deity
- that the devotee has passed wholly under the protection of the deity who will not allow him/her to shed blood or suffer pain
- the transience of the physical body in contrast with the enduring power of truth
The devotees who go to these extremes say they don’t feel any pain because they are in a spiritual and devotional trance which brings them closer to Lord Murugan. The trance can be induced by chanting, drumming and incense.
While reading about the Thaipusam festival, I was reminded of the words spoken by my African Religions professor on Monday night. He reminded us that the academic discipline of religion is as much about understanding the human condition as it is about studying rituals on the other side of the world. In our studies, we find common language with cultures we never knew existed. He pointed out that religions across the globe share three common attributes: 1.) All religions are a response to an inner urge for contact with the Greater. 2.) All religions offer some process to facilitate the achievement of oneness with the Greater, and 3.) Faith is the life-breath of all religions.
Response… Process… Oneness… Life-Breath.
I think it’s easy, particularly in the Western world, to look at pictures like these and dismiss what we see as distant, wholly other and beyond our understanding. However, our assumptions are only partially true. Yes, the people in the photos are distant because they’re on the other side of the world… but religious people in other cultures are not really “otherly” or “beyond our understanding”. We are all people who are responding to an inner urge for contact with God. Our processes are different, but our goal (union with God) is the same. Our understanding of God– whether here, in the Middle East, or in India– informs who we are and how we understand the world. We live and breathe our religions and will likely continue to do so until the end of time.
Whether Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim or otherwise, we are all reaching beyond the human condition in an effort to touch the Greater. I find those commonalities both humbling and beautiful.
“Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.” –Ikkyu