This morning my internship class went on a field trip to a Hindu temple. After taking off our shoes, the priest welcomed us into the main area of the temple. He invited us to walk around and look at the various deities that occupied the marble or granite alcoves along the perimeter of an open, carpeted rectangular room. Humanoid and animal statues were adorned with brightly-colored flowers, ornate clothing, and strands of gems. At their feet would lay incense, food, petals, or cushioned baskets for making offerings.
He explained that these deities, according to Hindus, are manifestations or symbolizations of the one God. Some of them were believed to have manifested on earth at a specific time in history, such as Krishna. Others, such as Ganesh, the elephant deity, are worshipped for symbolic characteristics such as having big ears (quick to listen) and a hidden mouth (slow to speak). People would choose to honor one deity as opposed to another to focus on particular divine characteristics. Most temples in India are for the adoration of one specific deity who is prominent in that location.
Although much of the experience was alien to me, the moment I realized how different Hinduism is to my worldview was when the priest said this:
When a new temple is started, we have a ceremony for six or seven days where we invite the deities to enter. . . . Every night as a priest I bathe the deities and put them to sleep, then wake them up and dress them the next morning.
In the Bible, Elijah challenges the worshippers of Baal (an ancient Near Eastern deity) to see whether their favorite god or the God of Israel would light by fire a circle of stones. When they wail to Baal but nothing happens, he taunts, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” When the fire never comes for the servants of Baal, they start slashing themselves. When Elijah calls on the God of Israel to light a fire, though, it comes–even though it’s the middle of the night and he covered his set of rocks with water.
When the priest said that he puts the gods to sleep and bathes and dresses them, I thought of the story of Elijah and the Baal worshippers. What kind of gods need to be washed and woken up? The priest did later offer a counterpoint to this by saying, “It’s not that they need to be washed and woken up, it just helps us to feel more connected to them.” I don’t understand, though, how these deities are understood as multiple if they are all of the same, one God. How can you put Ram to sleep while Ganesh is still awake? Are you taking care of actual spirits? If not, why do you need to do a specific set of rituals to make these objects seem more personal?
By contrast, the God who is revealed in the Bible is described as one who intimately knows human beings and makes a temple in them. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,” the biblical poet David writes. Centuries later the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”
In this understanding, the divine is not something to be encountered or sought after by ceremony; the divine is rather an ever-living, alert presence who takes up residence in human beings through purifying them and marking them for himself. God neither slumbers not sleeps. He doesn’t need to be pleased, but takes pleasure in human beings. What a one to wake up to.