The Moon is Elsewhere

This is an adaptation from an invited response to “The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism” by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago Divinity School. While that paper was a bit academic for our Buddha-killing sensibilities, Ananya Vajpeyi’s response got into the belly of belief. We heartily invite you to read Doniger’s paper as well.

Four things concerning the Hindu gods have happened to me in the past four weeks. One, I went back to the holy city of Benares, in Northern India, on the banks of the river Ganges, after a gap of about 15 years. Two, I met and interviewed Roberto Calasso—the author of, among other books, Literature and the Gods—at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Three, I read and was asked to respond to Professor Doniger’s piece, “The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism.” And four, I wrote a piece about the body and death among Hindus for a German magazine. As a believing Hindu who would say that the gods are visiting me, all four events ought to be recognized for what they are: signs of the presence, the manifestation or the appearance of the gods in my everyday life. To invoke the doctrine of karma, I must have done something good at some point to earn their munificence this month.

I’ve spent most of my adult life studying, writing, and teaching about Hindu religion, texts, and traditions. A great deal of my education in these matters happened at the University of Chicago, in classrooms led by scholars like Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Matthew Kapstein, Steve Collins, Paul Griffiths, Ronald Inden, D.R. Nagaraj, and others. I was born to a Hindu father and Sikh mother, raised in India in an environment permeated by several religions—Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity—and am now professionally engaged with all scholarly matters to do with Hinduism. I studied at Oxford, which I experienced as a seriously Christian institution. My partner for the last several years is a Sufi Muslim; most of my closest friends on the East Coast are practicing Jews. I’ve visited many major Hindu temples and pilgrimage sites all over India, sometimes devoutly and sometimes academically. I could probably tell you something or other, or a great deal, in some cases, about a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, and my homes in Delhi, India, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are full of images of Hindu deities. At least three of my Indian mentors are deeply religious Hindus in their personal practice, a fact not necessarily reflected in their academic work—one is a philosopher, another a political theorist, and the third a historian of religion.

But ask me if I am a Hindu, a monist, a dualist, a monotheist, a polytheist or an atheist, ask me if I am believing or agnostic, and I would be stumped. That’s not the way we think about it, I would be tempted to say. And in this regard, the confusion of categories in my life is by no means unique or even unusual. I am pretty much like most Hindus: we take our gods seriously enough to not confuse them with humans. We classify humans with an egregious exactitude that produces the caste system. By contrast, we allow our gods to be real and unreal, present and absconding, this-worldly and other-worldly, to-be-placated and to-be-ignored, interesting and uninteresting, beloved and neglected. We are by turns devoted, promiscuous, adulterous, or just plain lazy, when it comes to our relationship with them. We might have a preferred god—an ishta—but this by no means prevents us from worshiping any other god who might seem relevant on a given occasion. (I use ‘god’ as others nowadays use ‘actor,’ to signify both male and female deities.) As Calasso reminded me recently, we seem to have permanently retired some gods, like Prajapati, Indra, and Brahma, for a variety of historical, theological and/or unknown reasons—in fact, most of the Vedic deities have become archaic, if not completely forgotten in India today.

No one understands these facts better than Professor Doniger. Her massive new tome, The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin, 2009) showcases her expertise on all matters Hindu, built up over almost four decades of brilliant and untiring scholarly effort. I would defer to her knowledge on every point, philological, textual, historical, and philosophical. But I am not sure how to explain to her or share with her certain experiences I have had, even as a basically rational, modern, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, educated, and secular individual. These include a physical sensation of the earth-shattering erotic force of Shiva, in Benares; a feeling of desolation and sadness in the ruined temples of Avantipora in South Kashmir; the certainty that there must be a heaven, in a view of the distant white peaks of the Himalaya from certain places in Himachal Pradesh; a visceral knowledge, in and through my own pain, of the trials of Sati and Sita; the palpable friendship of a musical but wry presence I know to be Krishna; a recurrent desire to see Lake Mansarovar and Mt. Kailash in Tibet with my own eyes; a camaraderie with the unfamiliar (to me) aniconic gods and goddesses of Maharashtra, where I spent years doing research; a clear vision, as if on a screen, of the gay, inebriated and ragtag marriage party of Shiva as he goes to wed Parvati, in Pandit Chhannulal Mishra’s rendition of Tulsidas’s Ramayana (“Sunderkand”); a preternatural stillness inside the 700 year-old temple of the god Maruti at the home of my late friend Dr. Murari Ballal, in Ambalpady, Udupi, south-west Karnataka… In these moments, my awareness of the presence or absence of the gods exceeded my awareness of my own being. It didn’t matter, really, whether I believed in them or not: the more important point was that they were there.

It may be that in stating this—that “the gods were there”—I give myself away as a Hindu. I think Professor Doniger would agree. The existence of the gods is proven by their existence, of which we may sometimes have a direct and unambiguous apprehension. At other times, we may infer them from the undeniable existence, in our world, of such things as beauty, love, truth and music. Sometimes they ask to be talked about, like right now.

My father is very learned in matters of religion. I asked him about the gods. He reminded me of a line from one of his poems in Hindi, which, in its untranslatable way, says something like this:

You might think the moon
Is lying there
In the ditchwater
By the roadside.

In fact,
The moon is elsewhere.

I consulted my mother—born a Sikh, you will recall—on her theory about the gods. She said she didn’t think it mattered much whether they existed or not, or could be known or not, or whether they were masculine or feminine, or whether there was only one of them or several. “What gives us succor is our faith in them,” she explained. “I think to be Hindu means to have faith in faith.” In the fitness of things, my mother has the last word.

Ananya Vajpeyi teaches South Asian History at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Her writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in South Asia, Europe and the UK.