101. Remembering God

Remembering God: Before leaving on this trip, there were at least three things I promised myself I would not do:

1) No rock climbing
2) No dressing in global hippie, “going native” clothing
3) No white-guy-in-Asia spiritual journeys or searches for God

The first is simply because rock climbing makes no sense to me. The second is because even if I actually enjoyed dressing in the wrinkled hemp uniform of backpackers in Asia, I could never wear billowy pants and Tibetan sherpa vests without looking like a gypsy clown. And the third is because I like to imagine myself too cynical to Find God in my thirties and anyway, anyone who’s ever opened a self-help book knows that you don’t have a real spiritual awakening by trying to have a real spiritual awakening.

So for the last six months, we’ve wandered around some of the most beautiful temples, churches, holy caves and mosques in Asia and I can honestly say that I’ve felt nothing more than curiosity and mild pangs of jealousy for the Thai people who crumple so easily and adoringly at the feet of a giant Buddha. Or the Indians who can weep in gratitude at the trunk of a banyan tree that guaranteed fertility. Or the Malaysians who appear to transcend their earthly bodies when they hug the mosque’s floor. I’ve simmered enough on this that when I returned to India for the second time, I vowed not to indulge in the envy. I promised myself I would stop wishing I could feel something, anything, remotely spiritual when I walked the grounds of these holy places. So, naturally, I finally felt something.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the most important religious site for the Sikh religion, Sikhism, a minority religion in India that blends elements of Hinduism and Islam but is really quite different from both. As many as 30,000 pilgrims can pass through this temple in a day and the entire complex functions like a small city complete with free lodging and food to anyone who asks. Even me. The temple itself is three levels of gold, a mirage that floats in the center of a rectangular lake. It’s accessible only by a marble causeway that runs a river of worshipers in and out of the temple nearly 24 hours a day, the flow of which is regulated by two burly, bearded men in dark purple turbans who rhythmically raise and lower a thick wooden pole. The entire complex is drenched with the most hypnotic music, the non-stop performance of Sikh religious texts in a Punjabi style performed by brilliant musicians inside of the temple, for 19 hours every day. There are so many things to say about what I felt inside the walls of this place but the words do it no justice. I felt warm, I felt the rise of every hair on the back of my neck, I smiled, I thought of every person I love and miss, I was insignificant, I was considerable and for a very brief moment I knew exactly what I could do with the rest of my life. Time passed like India from a train window; silent, rich, effortless. It was sublime and devastating, and my skin still feels electric when I think of it.

After the first time I walked through the temple’s inner chamber, I wanted to do nothing more than sit on the edge of the pool that surrounds it, staring into the gilded reflection. As I sat, I was approached by dozens of Sikh pilgrims who wanted nothing more than my name, my country’s name and my thoughts on this place. As I tried to describe what I felt, each person clasped their hands together beneath gentle smiles to tell me that they understood. “This place is not just for Sikhs,” said a Sikh named Harjot, who sat with me for twenty minutes after I tried, unsuccessfully, to help him fix the broken shutter on his camera. “What this place is for you, it is also for everyone: This is where you remembered God.”

 

  1. Dad says:

    Powerful and poignant enough for me to log my first entry. Stay put I’m on my way!

  2. erin says:

    This is beautiful. I hope you’re planning to write a book. I love these stories…and perhaps you could dedicate it to me for all of my invaluable support and friendship. you know…or something.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have to leave a comment as well, you couldn’t have written your experience any better. It was beautiful. Thanks for sharing!
    –Lené