The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.


JULY 31, 2011 2:24PM

I feel at home here

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I suppose it was kind of strange that I could walk into a Hindu temple in my late fifties and feel at once that I belonged. Ours is an unusual temple, as temples go, and it's probably easier for a Westerner to feel at home there than it is in most other Hindu temples, but looking back it still seems like it should have been a surprise. But the sheer delightful rightness of everything and the warmth of both Aiya and my fellow devotees was enough to keep me from wondering any further at the odd fit between an ancient tradition from the southern tip of India and my very up-to-date post-post-structuralist intellectual orientation.

I did wonder at it, of course--and talked about it way too much--but my thoughts were mostly along the lines of the similarities between South Indian tantric ideas and the German Idealism I was studying and teaching at the time. That seemed like explanation enough.

Last year, though, I began to see other and deeper reasons. The twelfth anniversary of the temple's inauguration fell in 2010, and for the obligatory every-twelve-year repurification Aiya (on advice of the Goddess, of course) decided that we would hold a particularly grand version of a rare, eleven-day fire offering. And to do it properly we were all to wear proper Indian dress.

That meant that I had to buy and learn to wear a dhoti. Our temple is largely Tamil, and Tamil men usually wear their version of the dhoti in sarong style. (It's usually called a lunghi there.) I wasn't so crazy about that. I wanted to learn the panchakacham style, the “five fold” technique that turns a length of unstitched fabric into a passable set of breeches. It seemed more secure, especially for sitting on the floor. Not only that, I’m something of a show-off and I liked the challenge.

Half a dozen Internet videos, hours of practice, and a good deal of laughter from my wife at my failures, and I finally figured it out. And somewhere along the way I learned something else about South Indian Hinduism and Tamil culture in general.

Putting on the dhoti and watching how other devotees dressed--not just the men, but the women and all the different ways they could wear a sari--I began to think of ancient Rome. The clothing there, after all, was often little more than unstitched cloth, and a good fashion sense must have involved real skill in draping that cloth in the most inviting way. I could almost hear the catty question, “Dahhling...where ever did you learn how to drape?” Or whatever that would be in Latin.

That was the key. I started to see from then on what Michael Wood said in his lovely book, The Smile of Murugan. (It's much better and rings more true than his TV series The Story of India.) The Tamil world, Wood wrote, was one of the last, if not the last, of surviving Classical cultures.

Historically that’s true. South India was home to a complex, sophisticated, wealthy, urbane culture two thousand years ago, one with a thriving two-way trade with the Roman empire, and the millennia that followed saw no real break in its development. Fire up a time machine, take a guy off the Roman street, and drop him down in Chidambaram or some other Tamil temple town, and though he'd wonder why nobody slaughtered animals at the temple he’d otherwise feel very much at home. He would have a pretty good idea of the reason the priests washed and dressed the statues of the gods, the fire offerings would make perfect sense to him, and he would likely join in the crowds as they followed the processions of garlanded gods in their decorated chariots, with drums, blaring winds, shouts of joy, fire, food, and flower petal flung in the air.

Most of all, he would have understood the peculiar intimacy with the divine that today seems so typically Indian—because that intimacy was the hallmark of the Classical era, too. There, too, there were no hard-and-fast lines between the sacred and the profane. The women and men of Greece and Rome liked to say that theirs was a “common city of gods and men.” The gods were mysterious, and often it was as much luck as devotion that brought humans and gods together, but they were always keeping us company in the joint enterprise of living life as it was meant to be lived. They were much greater than we were, but we were partners all the same.

That common world vanished with Christianity. More accurately, Christianity had to destroy it. The ancient world was one where gods and humans walked together as fellow citizens of a common city. They could not be understood, but they could be befriended. Christianity, on the other hand, is founded on an absolute separation, an unbridgeable gulf between God and fallen humanity that is bridged only by Jesus.

In other words, gods and men had to stop living together if the new religion were to succeed; the common city of gods and men had to fall so the City of God could shine forth. Not only that; one would hardly need Jesus to bring together gods and devotees who had never been apart. One aspect of Christianizing the Roman Empire was imposing that separation -- creating the very problem that Christianity then offered to solve. Like some political consultants of today, the early Christians’ brand was chaos.

In the West and elsewhere they were successful. God was now in heaven, reachable only through his son. The pagan gods were downgraded to demons and chased off. The classical city fell, and with it vanished the intimate fellowship with the divine that characterized its public and religious life--not that the two could be teased apart in pre-Christian days.

Vanished, that is, everywhere but India. The Tamil world is recognizably connected with the world of Greece and Rome. It is not the same. It never was, not even in the era when Tamil kings liked to hire Greeks as policemen and Romans complained about how much money the rich spent on luxuries from India. In the two thousand years since it’s grown immeasurably richer, more humane, and more profound. But the Tamil world, like the ancient world of my own past, is one of deep intimacy with the unseen where sacred and profane meet. It, too, is a community of both gods and men (and women, too).

And that, I’ve come to think, is the real reason I’ve always felt as if this tradition were mine. It’s because it is. It’s part of our past that Christianity rejected but which still lives deep within us. The strangest thing, it seems to me, is that two and a half years ago I walked into a temple to a strange goddess worshiped in a language I did not understand by people from another continent eight thousand miles away---and I found my roots there. My roots, and the mostly-forgotten but still vital roots of the Western world itself.

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I have never heard it put so poetically before:
"gods and men had to stop living together
if the new religion were to succeed;
the common city of gods and men had to fall
so the City of God could shine forth...."
shine from
above and beyond,
of course...

(Now even that has been properly cynically debunked)

We forgot how to see eternity in an hour,
infinity in a grain of sand.

By mere burial man arrives not at bliss; and in the future life, throughout its whole infinite range, they will seek for happiness as vainly as they sought it here, who seek it in aught else than that which so closely surrounds them here - the Infinite.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Thank you so much1 And from a fellow Fichtean, too!