For my “Readings in World Literature” class, we were asked to pick up our favorite book that we had with us in our dorm rooms, and to open it to a random page, selecting a random passage. Then, in a journal entry, we were told to “imagine a back story–factual or fictional–according to which that quote could take on some significant meaning for you. How and why might that quote clarify your life?”
Here’s the passage I found, and my response:
I advanced and observed the inner sanctum. There was a painting. Was this the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An angry god who had to be appeased with blood. Dazed women staring up in the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. A charismatic bird. Which one was the god? To the side of the sanctum was a painted wooden sculpture. The victim again, bruised and bleeding in bold colours. I stared at his knees. They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled back and looked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that were fire-engine red. It was hard to connect this torture scene with the priest in the rectory.
– Yann Martel, Life of Pi (52-53)
I didn’t understand. When my sixth grade class was studying ancient India, I immediately thought about taking my class to the Hindu temple my family used to visit every few weeks. Our teacher, a lady from Michigan who grew up in India and taught us both German and Hindi in class, seemed so supportive and enthusiastic about the idea; a few weeks later, it was happening. I was filled with a kind of nervous excitement: after years of learning about Christmas and Hanukkah, my friends would finally get a glimpse of my life! As we filed into the main hall of the temple, surrounded by brightly decorated statues of black granite or shining white marble, a priest in orange robes greeted us. I eagerly sat in the front, and he began talking to us about Hinduism in a manner totally unintelligible to a group of sixth-graders, throwing in philosophical terms with a few too many syllables. Oh well, I thought to myself, at least everyone can look around and see how cool the temple is!
To my surprise, when I turned around to look at my classmates, I wasn’t greeted with an appreciative crowd filled with wonder; what I saw instead were nervous, uneasy glances. Some kids were staring at the large, eight-foot tall statues of Vishnu and Shiva with looks that could almost be described as fearful! As we filed out of the temple, I heard snippets of conversation: “Why were some of the statues dressed in red? Isn’t that the color of blood?” “I hate the smell of incense, I could barely breath in there.” “I thought that place was so creepy!”
I was mortified. How could my friends have received such a different impression of the temple than what I was familiar with? I thought the statues of the deities were beautiful—clothed in vibrant colors, bedecked in glittering jewelry, surrounded by a haze of incense. Their sheer size and scale made them awe-inspiring, not scary. Following that disastrous experience, I remained rather subdued through the rest of our India unit—I didn’t want to ruin any other aspects of my culture for my classmates.
It wasn’t until years later, reading Life of Pi in my sophomore year of high school, that I was able to fully understand my friends’ reactions to the temple visit. At one point in the novel, the protagonist, a young Hindu boy, visited a church for the first time, and was horrified by the apparent violence and graphic depictions of suffering that greet him. To him, Jesus on the cross was a “human sacrifice” to a bloodthirsty god, and he recoiled at the graphic representations of Jesus’s wounds. Obviously, the young boy misunderstood those images, and it was only later that he learned the story and meaning behind what he saw. However, upon reading this scene, my mind jumped back four years; I was able to better understand my classmates’ reactions to their first glimpse inside a Hindu temple.
Of course they would have felt uneasy; one could say Hinduism’s aesthetic diverges more from the ascetic décor of some Protestant churches than any other religion. Of course they would have been suspicious of a large statue depicting a four-armed man dancing on a dwarf, not realizing that the statue represents God, who is omnipotent (represented by many arms) and capable of suppressing our individual egos (represented by the dwarf). Of course they would have felt a bit uncomfortable seeing a dancing god who had an elephant head; a goddess riding a lion; a god holding a golden bow and arrow, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes. During that visit, my classmates were instantly thrown into a world that used a very different cultural vocabulary than that with which they were more familiar. Although I was still a little hurt by their reactions, I was simultaneously able to better understand why they had expressed discomfort and awkwardness. This short passage in one of my favorite books led me to a more nuanced understanding of cultural sensitivity.