Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Long Stories and the Hare Krishnas, Part III

As the lecture began to wind up, people started slipping out to get a good place in line for dinner. The Companionable Atheist and I stayed mostly to the end, and learned that we were supposed to be good to other people for the sake of God. "What about the announcements?" I asked him. This has become sort of a running joke between us - whenever the worshippers get most antsy, that's probably when the announcements are about to take place.

Then we went down to dinner to meet the Sunday school teacher and his wife. As we walked in the dining room, a purposeful local intersected us J(almost a body check, really - they're probably used to some serious moochers) and told us to go up and out and into a different line. "But we're with him!" we announced righteously, and pointed to the Sunday school teacher, whose fraternity sweatshirt made him easy to pick out from the other side of the room.

The Sunday school teacher had a bunch of other things to take care of, which seemed to include herding an unruly bunch of elementary school-aged kids who weren't quite willing to end their previous activity, drumming class. (Musicians know how this is. Drummers are never willing to lay down their weapons). The Sunday school teacher gave us a harassed wave. Somehow he collared one of his charges, and before we could say "no thank you, we'll do it ourselves," the kid had gone and brought us plates of delicious Indian vegetarian food (dairy okay, no meat and no eggs). We said thanks but the kid had already gone. The Sunday school teacher rejoined us and gestured at the kids apologetically. "Earlier this afternoon we were actually teaching them lessons, which was a little..." "but yeah, they really like the music stuff."

Okay, so good to know that the Jewish professionals tearing their hair out about the fact that their kids are bored in Sunday school, at least they're not alone!

Finally he managed to sit down with us, and his wife soon joined him. I noticed that while he assumed we wanted the Indian food (we did) the two of them had both opted for pizza (the pizza also looked good). Another couple was also sitting at our table - a bearded guy and a girl with blue-tipped hair. Ah, maybe these are hippies, I thought to myself. I'd been on the lookout for hippies ever since my pre-Sunday Wikipedia search had revealed that in the 60s "Hare Krishnas became confused with the hippie subculture." See, I don't know why I said I hadn't done any research.

But they were not hippies, really. The guy was a Catholic student theologian (interestingly, he had been raised an evangelical Christian, just like the devoted Episcopalian guy I met in January). He was studying the overlap between the Hindu tradition of illustration/pantheon and the early Christian illustration tradition. I am probably not describing his thesis very well (Jon, if you're reading this, please correct me). He was studying this stuff at a seminary in Belgium, where he had apparently discovered a great number of similarities between the two traditions. He explained this.

The Sunday school teacher responded with many further tales from the Mahabharata. Stories on stories and stories. He told us another story about how Karna's teacher found out that he was a warrior - because a bug bit him on the leg and it bled a lot but he didn't stop doing what he was doing, which was sitting peacefully with his teacher snoozing in his lap. So when his teacher woke up and found Karna sitting peacefully in a pool of his own blood ("Good morning!") he realized that he was a warrior. I asked, kind of to be obnoxious, why Karna's invincible armor didn't stop the bug from biting him. I thought this was a joke, but the Sunday school teacher answered seriously, "Well, there's actually another story about that."

So, inevitably, I had to pull out the "Yeah, and I'm a Jew." And there was a long religious trialogue about Our Various Traditions, And Their Iconography (I didn't have much to contribute here) but it didn't get acrimonious or sappy. It was just cool. We also didn't get very far, because we were coming from totally different places, but that was okay too. Theologians and Hare Krishnas are both very used to having to explain what in the hell it is that they believe in. They are very patient.

And then we went home. I missed the premiere of this episode of the Sopranos because we had been at dinner for so long, but it was totally worth it.

I highly recommend that everybody visit the Hare Krishnas. A bunch of nice people with a lot of good stories. I continue to be disappointed, though, with the underlying message of these religions, which is be good because God wants you to. And then praise God, because God is good. A couple of years ago, I made my peace with this - it just doesn't quite work for me - by solving it like an algebra problem - God was whatever it was that made me feel compelled to do good. But it doesn't quite work anymore. Luckily, I don't feel like I'm on an urgent spiritual quest right now. I like to see myself more as a peaceful, wayfaring anthropologist, not the kind that brings back natives to study and accidentally infects them with deadly smallpox, but the kind that serves as an honest and interested witness to the ways that other people convince themselves and each other to be good. More on this later.

Stay tuned for next week: Can I Get A Ride in a Mitzvah Mobile? Even though I'm a chick and they're all dudes? What if I ask really, really nicely?


Mayapur said...

hi. you're a good writer. hare krishna!

Camilla said...

Good luck with the Mitzvah Mobile ride thing. That's one post I'd really like to read. :)