I had an interesting experience recently while touring the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC with three Indian friends. We were in the collection with Byzantine altarpieces and much Christian iconography and my friend who has lived in the US for two decades asked me about the meaning of the artwork. So, I gave a short tour explaining Mary and baby Jesus and what the cross means and then, since she asked more questions, I gave her a fuller rundown of the story of Jesus and the Christian religion. As I was doing this, I realized that we take for granted in this country that everyone in the world is completely familiar with basic Christianity and we have no clue that there are many across the globe that know no more about the Christian religion than most of America knows about the Hindu religion.
When a Hindu tries to explain Ganesha, the elephant god to nonHindus, he will get a look of utter disbelief and amusement at “such a silly myth.” Well, I saw that same look on my Indian friend’s face when I explained the story of Jesus Christ! To her, Christianity is a mighty peculiar religion, full of fanciful stories and odd beliefs. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism, on the other hand, are normal and comfortable, and the stories attached to them, fully a part of daily life.
I can understand a bit of what my friend experienced because I, myself, am Hindu. And, after spending time in India and in numerous temples and taking part in many Hindu ceremonies, I found myself in a Catholic church staring at Christ hanging from the cross, blood pouring out from his hands and feet. And, I remember thinking, how strange, and wishing for some murtis (statues) of Ram and Sita, of Lakshmi, of Krishna, and of Ganesh, the kind elephant god. Christianity had become strange to me, not wrong, just a different way of expressing spirituality that no longer spoke to me.
One of the reasons we have trouble understanding other cultures is that we tend to believe that our own is the one that is “right” or is “better” or “sensible”. We fail to realize that people of other cultures are looking back at us in the same way; in fact, billions of them! They think our culture and religion is just as weird as we think their culture and religion is weird. If only we spent more time visiting with people of other cultures and subcultures….maybe then we would learn to appreciate another way of thinking and this could make a whole lot of difference in how we treat each other on a daily basis and stop irrational fears from creating a uncrossable gorge between our two worlds as if each side were not populated with human beings, human beings who, in reality, are just like us.
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