Sunday, December 06, 2009

Jainism, Veils and More Great Dancing!

The first presentation I went to this morning was on the role of karma in Jainism. The presenter was Dr. Narayan Kachhara. The doctrine of karma, of course, is the teaching that auspicious activities [both mental & physical] produce peace, happiness, and harmony; and inauspicious activities produce the opposite. One's karma determines everything: God is completely uninvolved & doesn't do anything--God neither blesses nor curses anyone. This is because [interestingly enough] God is pure and perfect, which means that God has no desires and no hatred. [Incidentally, this is the logical extension of a doctrine of divine impassability, which I don't think it fits Christianity very well!] Thus, we are really in control of our whole lives: he noted that the saying, "You reap what you sow" is absolutely true. Your present state is a result of your past karma, and you shape your future state absolutely. Part of generating good karma is to have equanimity in the face of adversity: you should be the same in the face of joy or sorrow, failure or success. I know this sounds absolutely incredible--impossible and unrealistic, but that is because Christians have a very different understanding of God, the world, and salvation, of course. Such a view would be illogical in Christianity, which worships a God who willingly suffered out of love for creation.
If you know anything about Jainism, you know that ahimsa, or nonviolence, is one of their most important tenets--so much so that all Jains are vegetarian. The reason for this is that they believe that all souls are alike, and all have the same potential: plants, fish, birds, mammals, and, of course, humans. Thus, one must respect and have reverence for ALL life forms. Christianity could use more of that, I think….
After that, I popped my head briefly into the last presentation of a session on "The Headscarf Debates," and it was worth it to hear the presenter, Janaan Hashim, and some of the remarks from the audience. If you ever hear anyone say that there is no discrimination against Muslims in the US [would anyone say such a thing?!], please remind them that is simply not true. This is how she closed her presentation. Ms. Hashim is an adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary and a lawyer in Illinois. In her small practice, all the lawyers are Muslim women. There was a picture of a few of them around a table that appeared in her local newspaper. Subsequently, she received a terrible piece of hate mail from a Christian, a letter telling her that all Muslims should go back to their war-torn countries [she is American], and that they should burn in hell with Allah. "This is a Christian country," he said, "God bless Christians." He sent along a doctored copy of the picture, with beards drawn on the faces of the women, and crosshairs drawn on their foreheads.
The remarks that followed the whole session reaffirmed what I have read, which is that the wearing of the headscarf is fiercely debated among Muslim women themselves. One woman came to the microphone to gently chide the speakers for not giving enough mention of the fact that many women do not have a choice to wear the hijab, but must wear it at the insistence of their husbands. For them, the hijab is a sign of oppression. The next woman came to the mic complaining that not enough time was given to the fact that 'hijab' is not just about the veil, but about a woman's entire dress. She gave the example of the young women she has seen who may wear a veil, but they wear it with tight jeans, and low-cut, tight blouses--they are not observing hijab, in her opinion!
All along, it has been interesting to see what sessions are packed, and what sessions are, well, under-subscribed. I am happy to report that the session I went to over the noon hour, "A Tale of Two Women: A Multifaith Reading of the Sarah/Hagar Narrative," was so full we actually had to move to larger room. It was just great to be in a room with people from the three Abrahamic faiths [among others, of course], listening to different, but complementary interpretations of a story we all share. There was a beautiful picture up behind the speakers, too, that highlighted the connections we all have to the stories. Most interesting to me, of course, were the Jewish presenter, Rebecca Forgasz, who shared how different rabbis have dealt with the tension between honoring Sarah as the matriarch of the Jewish people, and censuring her treatment of Hagar; and the Muslim presenter, Rachel Woodlock, who described the importance the Hagar story has for all Muslims, most obviously in the role it plays in the Hajj.

All this was great--as was the Sufi presentation I went to, which I'm not even going to mention--but far and away my favorite experience of the day was more Hindu dancing! This time, it was the Odissi dance, which is the traditional dance form of the Indian state of Orissa. This dance, like all traditional Indian dances [and all traditional Indian art forms, really], originated in a religious context, as it was originally a religious rite performed only by devadasis. The dance group performed a variety of dances, all of which told stories about different deities. My favorite was the dance that re-enacted Krishna's encounter with the gopis, the young cowherd women who loved him. One day, when they were bathing, Krishna snuck up on them and took their clothes. They pleaded with him to give them their clothes back, for they were ashamed of their nakedness, but Krishna chastised them, and told them he already could see into their hearts and he knew their purity. Dr. Chandrabhanu, the artistic director, said that this an allegory: we are the gopis, desiring God, and the clothes are the trappings that get in the way. Krishna is the loving God who strips us of the things we hide behind, that prevent us from coming before God fully and openly. You can't imagine how beautiful the dancers were--both their costumes and their movements, all of which elaborate, intentional, and deeply meaningful.
I ended my day with an Advent Lessons and Carols service at St. Paul's Anglican cathedral. It was such a lovely service, and I was happy to be there. I miss my husband John [and my sweet little dog Henry, of course: every time I see someone walking a dog I want to burst into tears. He would love it here, except I haven't seen any squirrels thus far--I wonder if Australia perhaps doesn't have any squirrel species...]--now where was I? Oh right, missing John! Anyway, it felt nice to be at the same traditional Advent service at which John will be presiding down at Southern Seminary on your Sunday night. OK, it wasn't the exactly same service [even though the Dean of the cathedral did mention Martin Luther in his homily], for example, when do you hear Ave Maria sung by a boy's choir in a Lutheran church?! However, it was comfortingly familiar. I have loved every minute of all the new things I am experiencing and learning, but it was nice to balance that tonight with the things I know and love about my own Christian tradition. I am so firmly convinced that holding those two experiences in tension really strengthens both, and the more you learn and appreciate about other religions, the more you learn and love about your own. I wish more Christians got that, instead of assuming it is either/or: either you are a good Christian and stay home where you belong, or you philander and lose your integrity. It's beyond ignorant--it's dangerous.

Good night, dear community.

Kristin Johnston Largen

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