September 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment
As I and many others have mentioned in previous posts, examining religion and religious life in London has been a big part of our course. Central to increasing our knowledge and understanding of a number of religions has been visiting the various houses of worship. We have visited a few churches, a mosque, a mandir, and a synagogue. We have gone into these institutions with varying levels of welcome, and we have observed a variety of rituals, customs, and traditions.
Beauty has also been a recurring theme in the course. Almost all of the houses of worship that we visited had put serious thought and effort into the beautification of their buildings. The only exception was the mosque, but I think it is ok to assume that this was due to the financial circumstances of the community than lack of desire or appreciation for a beautiful space. In addition to all being beautiful, these spaces were all aesthetically very unique. The Mandir was extremely ornate, but not to the point of tackiness or fussiness. All of the stone and teak carvings were well executed and the building as a whole had a feel of luxury to it. The synagogue was a more simple, paired down building, but even as a more streamlined space, it still packed ample visual drama in the floor to ceiling red and gold mosaic behind the ark and tall, dramatic stained glass windows, which unfortunately had to be obscured by anti-terrorism curtains.
Comparing St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, aesthetically, St. Paul’s is the clear winner. Westminster Abbey is cluttered with tombs and plaques and statues, it is mostly dark and parts do look kind of shabby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a place of great historical significance and cultural value, I’m not denying that, but on looks alone…. ehhh. St. Paul’s on the other hand, is light, airy, and spacious. It has a regal, elegant exterior and strikes a nice profile. The mosaics on the ceiling close to the WWII memorial were exceptional. As John explained to us, the tesserae had been set in at a specific angle, not flat against the wall, so that the sunlight reflects off of them just enough to allow them to glint and glitter. Perhaps over stepping here, but I think the visual atmosphere, the aesthetics of the particular houses of worship, reflect something of the character of the congregations who pray there.
Tags: 2010 Rachel · Uncategorized
September 20th, 2010 · 2 Comments
Most of you have been writing about the secular nature of churches in England, how they don’t really seem like a spiritual community, and how it is a bit disturbing that all of them come with cafes and gift shops. While I agree with these thoughts, I don’t think that it is necessarily all bad, and I think that we need to consider that we are not seeing the entire picture.
I think that the secularism of the Anglican Church particularly stands out against our visits to the Mandir and the mosque. At these places of worship, people go to pray every day and there are spiritual ceremonies every day as well. They each have schools, child care centers, and service projects that reach out to the community. I can see where we might wonder why we are not seeing the Anglican Church step up to its role as a spiritual and community leader, but remember that we discussed in our first ever class meeting how in these minority communities, religion is very much one and the same with culture, especially in Islam. The difficulties they have assimilating into English culture are due in large part to religion. Religious teachings and traditions have become well ingrained cultural traditions. Anglicanism is a relatively new religion in comparison with Hindu and Islam, and does not play the role of being one and the same with culture like it does in the other communities. And when you are the majority community racially, religiously, politically etc…it doesn’t need to be.
the Mandir, courtesy of it’s website mandir.org
The second point I wanted to make in this post is that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s do remember their function as places of worship. I was on the Westminster Abbey tour with the science group. We were there at noon, and at that time an announcement came on that called for a moment of silence. John reminded us that we were in a church, not a museum, and I noticed that nearly everyone visiting the Abbey at that time, tourists included, was respectful of this moment. I also attended Evensong at St. Paul’s and thought that it was a beautiful and moving experience. I think that they balance their two roles as best as they can, and hey, if my church had a café, I would use it. Speaking of places of worship that balance spirituality and tourism, look at Vatican City. No one can argue that this is not a deeply meaningful and spiritual place; Catholics journey from miles around to hear the Pope speak on Christmas, or at any other time of the year really, but it is also a huge attraction, complete with guided tours through St. Peters and rampant pick pocketing.
photo credit: Google Images
photo credit: Google Images. All of these buildings were too big and beautiful for me to take a good picture of them myself.
Finally, the fact remains that we have not been to any small Anglican parishes in specific residential neighborhoods of London. I’m sure that there are religious Anglicans in London who do go to church every Sunday and whose churches run community service projects and functions, but, similar to your local church at home, which also attracts no visitors, these churches probably don’t have history such as the Battle of Hastings and the Great Fire of London surrounding them. We definitely are not seeing the whole picture here, which is why I cannot join in lamenting and expressing disappointment in places like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s, or the Anglican Church in general.
Tags: 2010 Kaitlin
September 19th, 2010 · No Comments
One of the things that has truly surprised me during our time in London and in our readings over the summer was the lack of a widespread religious sentiment and a growing secular way of thinking. Visiting the different places of worship for me has been very enriching. I sincerely enjoyed hearing about the way different roles of various institutions in their communities. Despite this growing secular sentiment, it was evident to me that faith is still an important key to Englishness. Sure, we may not have had the same treatment at the Christian institutions we visited, but we weren’t at the parish church where they would have stressed the other parts of Christianity outside of the famous dead people.
At the mandir, mosque, and synagogue, I did learn something about other faith communities, all of which I wasn’t that familiar with. Familiar with Christian outreach, it was interesting to hear the way other faiths volunteer and conduct outreach. I was also intrigued by the amount of history each guide mentioned; at the mandir, there was a specific exhibit to help you understand the history and beliefs of Hinduism. At the mosque, the guide spent more time on the basic principles, whereas at the synagogue it was much more history heavy, which I enjoyed (despite the slight mix up with who declared the crusades and who ordered Richard’s). Yet, they all stressed the importance of the community and what they did for the community. At the end of each tour, I felt that I had been where a faith was active and thriving- counteracting the general arguments we had encountered.
Before I talk about my favorite experience, I’m going to go off on a bit of rant/tangent. (Nothing unusual, you’re probably thinking.) While Christianity is undeniably not as much on the forefront as it once was (I sometimes forget I’m not in the Middle Ages where the church was as influential as those in political power and grotesques littered the cathedral for unknown reasons), it is still playing an important role in England. How? Most noticeably, the concerts we’ve attended. Sure, they haven’t been lectures in Christianity, but they have brought people into a church where they were witnessing a faith community. You don’t necessarily have to have a lecture about the religion’s history when you are there in order to spark an interest. Sometimes a few trips for concerts or to be a tourist will spark an interest and prompt someone to ask a question that leads to a serious discussion. Yes, it would have been nice to have left any of the churches/cathedrals with a pamphlet on basic Christianity, but because those audiences (presumably) weren’t there to learn about Christianity, a pamphlet may have been more alienating than encouraging.
Okay, so my favorite experience and what it taught me. Hands down, my favorite has been (no surprises) Westminster Abbey. (This may change as I’m hoping to get over to St. Bartholomew the Great tomorrow; it’s a medieval parish church.) Why when it didn’t actually teach me about Christianity or the abbey that I didn’t know? One, because it inspired my faith through the sweeping architecture and stained glass. For me, those are more impressive and awe-inspiring than St. Paul’s (in its present Wren-wrecked – okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh-state) could ever dare to be. Two, because as a medievalist, I was able to participate in a long-standing tradition: the pilgrimage. Throughout history, people have visited sites throughout the world for many reasons. At Westminster Abbey, everything I love was combined into one place: my faith, grotesques, cosmati, saints, Chaucer, Gothic architecture, etc. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. True I wasn’t there to pay my respects to Edward per se, but I can’t deny seeing the tomb of such an important figure didn’t give me chills (even though it’s been really messed up and reassembled incorrectly). I didn’t necessarily have to learn anything about Christianity to have an incredible experience. Yet, to say I didn’t learn anything is mistaken. I did, but I learned more about the position of the Church of England. It is clearly in decline, but the abbey is doing what it can given its monumental dual-purpose (protect priceless art and architecture while spreading its Christian message).
I’m sure some of us would argue that it is up to these major institutions to take the lead in revitalizing Anglicanism, and to some extent Christianity, in England. However, because Westminster Abbey stands for so much more than just Christianity (whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate), it is important for some of the parish churches to be more vocal on these issues. For Westminster Abbey (and to some extent St. Paul’s) to take a major stand is a conflict of interests, a problem that lays at the heart of its problems rises: should it risk alienating the audience that helps it survive in order to promote its beliefs? It shouldn’t compromise its faith (and I don’t think it does; it does remain closed for services on Sundays as well as hosts small prayers and services throughout the day/week) in order to protect its architecture, nor should it compromise its architecture to protect its faith. They go hand-in-hand in many regards. Without either, you lose part of the abbey. If there was ever a lose-lose, impossible to win situation, double-edged sword, etc, this was it!
I’m hoping as I visit other major medieval cathedrals, a solution to the Christianity vs. tourism problem will become evident, but for now Westminster Abbey will have to be simply (as its Cloister represented for its medieval monks) my paradise on earth.
Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Churches and Cathedrals
September 19th, 2010 · 2 Comments
In America I have always had the feeling that one thing or one aspect you do not talk about at school is religion and your personal religious beliefs. I believe this stems from the thought that people’s feelings will be hurt, that it is too personal. I say “rubbish” to that way of thought, if there is one thing I have appreciated on this trip is the amount of religious discussions we have had in our group. Never had I had full on discussion about religions and my own personal religious beliefs with my own peers before this month. So, I would like to take the time so say Thank you Britain for allowing us to be a little bit more open in our beliefs.
Throughout this month we have visited a number of Cathedrals, Churches, and Religious Centers. As a Catholic I definitely identified more with the Cathedrals and Churches we visited. My favorite of these was St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a magnificent structure that really attests to the power and might of humans. When I see gorgeous structures like St. Paul’s I always wonder how a great architects mind, like Christopher Wren, see when they see an empty space. People who are born with the ability to express through creation always impress me and make me just a little bit jealous.
On other note I was really uneasy and uncomfortable with Britain transforming these Cathedrals and Churches from spiritual dwellings into semi- museums. I feel it makes them very impersonal and looses a little bit of its beauty. However, on the other hand it is also a way for people of different sects and beliefs to learn and experience these religions. I guess with every decision made there is a positive and a negative.
After seeing all these really old places where kings and queens were crowned we moved on to religions that I know little to nothing about. The first of which was the Mandir. Let me just say that before this day I had never even seen what a Hindu place of worship looks like or known much about the religion. I was surprised to see another magnificent place of worship, with such high precision of architecture. The religion itself is radically different from what I am use to but nonetheless I felt welcomed and curious at the same time. Perhaps, what struck me the most was the fact that in the place of worship and veneration women and men are separated.
After the Mandir we visited a Mosque in the East End. Unlike my learning experience within the Mandir I felt my opportunity to learn about Islam and the community was lost in such a quick and impersonal tour. The Mosque was pretty well developed but the interior was not as interesting as I had expected it to be. I was actually excited to wear a head covering to visit this temple just because I had never been required to do it.
The last place of worship we visited was a Synagogue. This was not my first visit to a Jewish temple but it was very different to my last experience. In my last experience I attended an actual service and I had to go through security check prior to entering the premises. In the actual services I felt like a complete outsider I hardly knew what was going on. This time, however, we were expected. We did not have to go through security and were given a very comprehensive lesson on the history of Jewish people in England. All around it was a great experience.
From all my visits to these largely different and sometimes similar sects of religions I came to my own conclusion about religions in general. Religions will always be necessary as long as man live. Religions were at first the first form of government for communities stipulating how to act, how to work, how to live as a unit, etc. Now religions provide for man a sense of purpose beyond our own physical existence, they attempt to explain the unexplained, to give hope, to give a sense of identity, and lastly to create a sense of community. Therefore, I think that all religions will continue to existence as long as man lives.
Tags: 2010 Jamie
September 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments
Within the overarching theme of “Community” in our London course, we have talked almost ad nauseam about religion. Not only have we visited churches, a Hindu mandir, a mosque, and a synagog, but the topic of religion and its related issues come up daily in discussions amongst ourselves. (Completely unprovoked by Professor Qualls!) Several members of our group are particularly religious, and their world views and values reflect this. The strength of these individuals’ faith and beliefs fascinate me. It amazes me that people my age seem to have already got it all figured out, they know where they stand, when I haven’t even really begun to piece things together.
Religion has always been a topic of interest to me, because I have always struggled with it. There are just so many questions that can never really be answered in indisputable, concrete fact, not to mention so many faiths to choose from. Somehow, I always have a hard time… well, buying it. So for a long time now I have pushed religion to the back of my mind, I’ve tried to avoid the uneasiness and discomfort that comes with thinking about it. But now, in this environment, it is unavoidable. As a Jew (at least secularly) this is a particularly hard time of the year for me, as Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, unobserved by me, and Yom Kippur fast approaches. Since I have gone to college and it has been up to me whether or not I attend services for the high holidays, I so far have not. This does not mean, however, that I haven’t still felt pangs of guilt when I have watched the holidays come and go, no matter how hard I try to feign indifference. I feel deeply connected to my Judaism culturally, and I would consider it my ethnicity more so than generic “white,” but it feels decidedly half-hearted without the spiritual connection.
Since I’m already on the brink of pouring my heart out on a class blog, I may as well just tip the whole damn pot over. As some of you may have noticed, I became visibly upset during our visit to the synagogue the other day. I’m not sure what came over me, exactly. I was shocked that I reacted so strongly to something I’ve seen before. At every religious institution we have visited, we have seen very blatant physical manifestations of the subjugation of women. Although my synagog at home does not separate the men and women, and we have even had a woman rabbi, the fact that such discrimination (and for me, outright belittlement) occurs anywhere in the Jewish faith AT ALL deeply upsets me and creates an enormous obstacle for me to be able to come to full acceptance.
It’s not just the head coverings and other “modesty” clothing articles, even the separate seating I can almost tolerate, (separate is NOT equal, think back to the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. not long ago) but its the fact that women are denied leadership positions and the top level and most sacred aspects of the religion. (We have seen this in every religion we have looked at.) As Jews, we are taught that the Torah is the most sacred, wonderful thing we could ever experience. It is supposed to hold all of the information we need, all the rules by which to conduct ourselves, all the history of our earliest ancestors. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to read from the Torah, and they are not allowed to have a bat mitzvah, the rite of passage comparable to a bar mitzvah which marks a Jew’s transition from child to adult. (The rules vary from congregation to congregation, but I am speaking here of the most extreme, by the book, traditional interpretation.) If there really is a god as we are made to believe, I cannot accept that such a “perfect” being would condone sexism in any way, shape, or form. How is it at all logical, that something such as the Torah should be denied to half of the Jewish population? (as the orthodox see it).
Our guide at the synagog only increased my distress with his attempts to convey that Judaism is a matriarchal religion. It’s really not. Judaism is traced through the mother only because it’s always obvious who the mother of the child is, whereas the father was much dicier to verify before the age of paternity testing. At the synagog we visited, women are not allowed to read from the Torah. They may be bat mitzvahed, but it is a much shallower, lesser version. I tried to speak to our guide about this after he had given his long-winded, unbearable shpiel and he literally walked away from me. I have witnesses. It could have been that he just needed to catch up to lead the group, but instead of saying so and offering to discuss it further later, he simply ran away. I have tried to ask these questions numerous times, to many different people, and never, ever have I gotten a satisfying answer.
We have heard the argument that it is cultural rather than religious, but, looking at it pragmatically, culture should be adapted to contemporary times if there is no conflict with the scriptures. Why wouldn’t you move forward if nowhere does it say you can’t? Why do women put up with this? Open, institutionalized racism has been virtually wiped off the map, why hasn’t sexism?
People who believe that women cannot read from the Torah, or be rabbis, or become a priest, or the Pope, or an Imam, need to quit squirming around the issue and say outright the clear message they are sending: You are less.
Tags: 2010 Rachel
September 9th, 2010 · 1 Comment
Most places of worship, be they churches, cathedrals, synagogues or mosques make me feel intimidated and slightly targeted. I find that churches in particular seem dark and gloomy. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir however, was quite the opposite. I had never been to a Hindu temple, never really knew much about the religion except for a few basic facts I retained from high school, and so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But the mandir with its intricately carved marble and limestone walls was breathtaking. The white stones have a brightening effect, creating an atmosphere optimism and light that I hadn’t found, at least not to the same degree, in any of the churches we have visited so far. The ritual that we observed (feeding the god-statues there afternoon meal) was also different from any religious experienced I had participated in before. I have always felt that in Judaism and Christianity (the religions I am most familiar with) that the music is more chant-like and dreary. The music we heard in the mandir however, was loud and lively and colorful. It was unashamedly celebratory, and I really responded to that.
(Picture taken from http://www.mandir.org/photogallery/mandirmood_day.htm)
I’m willing to bet that most of Western culture has no real concept of what Hinduism is, what its origins are, or how it is practiced. I was shocked when I learned how the statues are tended. They are fed, tucked in for a nap, and have their clothing changed just as one might a child. This is completely different from my own religious experience where idolatry is prohibited, based on the idea that one should only worship “The God” and that there is only one God.
Tags: 2010 Sarah
September 15th, 2009 · No Comments
The Silver Exhibit in the V&A
Having a Good Time at the Fitzroy
Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums.
Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.
In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.
Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.
Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.
Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.
Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.
All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.
The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.
The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story.
Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.
Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80’s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.
I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.
From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.
Other Religious Institutions
Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.
I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.
The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here.
I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.
The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times. One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.
The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal.
The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.
The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940’s while inside.
The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.
The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate.
One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.
Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.
To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!
Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre
September 13th, 2009 · No Comments
It’s taken me a while to formulate my thought about religion and identity, but I think I can finally say something on the topic.
Sikhism and Hinduism are fairly new to the UK, as Sikhs began immigrating overseas in the 1950s, after the liberation of British India (1947) and the division of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India (this division cause fighting in the Punjab region between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs). According to the BBC, while Hindus also began immigrating in the 1950s, Hindu immigration particularly increased in the 1970s when Indians were forced to leave many newly independent African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda. In London, these groups settled into lower class areas, such as the East End where immigrants have traditionally lived since the Huguenots. As we learned from Salaam Brick Lane and Brick Lane, this area often suffers from racial tension and violence (though the neighborhood has been gentrified a bit since Tarquin Hall’s days on Brick Lane).
If our visits to the Southall Sikh Gurdwara and the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden proved to me one thing, it is that Sikhs and Hindus are clearly still seeking to find their place in the larger London society. Each place of worship we visited had numerous pamphlets and other resources for learning about their religion. Within these pamphlets (and of course the exhibition on “Understanding Hinduism”), both religions cited famous white guys praising the peacefulness of the corresponding religion. I don’t mean that sentence to sound as cynical as it might seem, but it just appeared to me that the institutions were really trying very hard to find a way to convince outsiders not to fear what is different. However, instead of simply informing visitors of their beliefs and practices, it was found necessary to justify these beliefs and practices with a white man’s approval. The most blatant example of this can be found in the “Understanding Hinduism” exhibition at the Mandir. In the section, “Hinduism for the individual,” the exhibition reads: “Hinduism, through its heroes and history, relays the real values of life. As George Bernard Shaw confirmed…” This statement raised a few questions in my mind. Most importantly: What makes George Bernard Shaw the authority on the “real values of life?” Shaw was famous for many things, but I’m fairly certain an expertise on Hinduism is not one of them. I would much rather hear the Hindus’ or the Sikhs’ own views on their religions, as I did not feel such justifications helped me to learn.
I would also like to comment on an observation made by many classmates in blogs and conversation about the relative modesty of the gurdwara when compared to the highly decorated mandir. In any religion the size and intricacy of a building of worship is determined by the community in which it is built and the amount of funding available. I’m sure none of the churches in our neighborhoods compares to St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s. In the same vein, the gurdwara we visited doesn’t compare to the Harmandir Sahib. The mandir in Neasden is much grander than mandir near my house in Somerset, NJ. The places we saw were single examples of larger religions and we must be careful when making observations about the religions as a whole.
Whenever I’m given a difficult topic to write about I try to go back to the basics. What is identity? According to Merriam-Webster, identity is the “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances” or “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” So, how can this be applied to immigrants in England?
In the various immigrant neighborhoods we have visited, it is clear that the communities are attempting to maintain some sort of “sameness of essential or generic character.” They built religious institutions, opened shops and restaurants, and created a small community that is similar to their home. In other ways, the community’s identity is forced to change when it moves to a new country. The environment is different. Ways of dress could change. New languages are learned in order to get jobs and communicate with others. A new country presents many challenges for an immigrant group and at some point something has to give, and not everything can stay exactly the same.
On an individual level, it’s much more difficult to generalize how one’s “distinguishing character or personality” is challenged by immigration. As we learned from Brick Lane, many times a person’s values can be completely transformed. When Nazneen first comes to England, all she wants is to return to Bangladesh and she never speaks out against her husband. By the end of the novel, she refuses to return with him. We’ve also learned about some of the challenges faced by second-generation immigrants. Magid, Millat, and Irie are caught between two worlds: their parents’ expectations for them and their own society. The ease of adaptation is also affected by economic status. Doctors and grad students face different challenges than do poorer people forced to live in violent neighborhoods.
Tags: readings · Sarah
It takes a lot to make me feel emotionally uncomfortable. I pride myself on my open mindedness especially in the face of different, unfamiliar cultures, ideologies, and religions. For instance, besides some minor worrying about potential offensiveness of our silly attempt at head covering, I didn’t feel the least bit anxious at the Sikh gurdwara in the same way some fellow students did. I venerated our unprepared, yet clearly impassioned tour guide on his ability to speak from his heart. I deeply respect anyone capable of complete devotion to his or her beliefs.
I was uncomfortable in the Mandir. The temple itself was beautiful beyond words. The grandiose structure stuck out in bland Neasden like a Ganesh in the room. (Get it? ‘Cuz Ganesh is an elephant? Sorry). Incredibly intricate masonry and woodcarving adorned the Mandir inside and out. It looked like it belonged on the list of Wonders of the World.
Images from www.mandir.org (since I forgot my camera, of course)
So yes, the mandir was gorgeous. Truly beautiful beyond words. What bothered me was the overbearing sense of pride conveyed by our guide. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that 2,800 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of pure Italian marble were hand carved in India by the greatest craftsmen on the planet. “It is a masterpiece of exotic design and workmanship that rises above London’s skyline…replete with luminescent white pinnacles and glittering marble pillars, it stands as a beacon for Hindus, both young and old throughout the world” (www.mandir.org). In the featured exhibition on Hinduism inside the temple, the writers claim that Hinduism is “the most tolerant, most resilient, most peace-loving of all religions.” In addition, the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) faith has grown worldwide, without a hue of hypocrisy or an fever of fanaticism.” These are some very bold statements for a religion based upon the principle of ego-free modesty. Nirmãn, the fifth prime principle of Swãminãrãyan sadhus (monks) preach a life “untouched by pride or anger.” Modesty wasn’t exactly the most clearly conveyed quality of the Neasden mandir.
That was the negative. Now for the positives. For all the outright bragging done by our guide and the self-revering scripture on display in the exhibition, BAPS has redeemed its apparent immodesty through acts of charity and respect. Disaster relief is their forte. According to www.bapscharities.org, BAPS members donated their invaluable services to reparation efforts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the September 11th attacks in New York, and just about every natural disaster that has ever occurred in India. They also provide rehabilitation clinics to those with addiction problems, ecological ventures such as tree planting and recycling campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, teaching literacy skills to those in regions with poor educational institutions.
Despite my initial discomfort of the grand Neasden BAPS mandir, learning of their selfless acts was cathartic. Verbal modesty is overrated in the face of philanthropic action. So go ahead, Mr. Mandir Tour Guide, tell me about the Italian marble one more time…
Tags: Andrew B
Over the past few days we have visited both a Sikh Gudwara and a Hindu Mandir, each of which presented very different public images and provided very different experiences. At the Sikh Gudwara we were met awkwardly by a man who led the female members of the group out of the entrance and back inside through a side door where we were instructed to remove our shoes and wash our hands. I found this entrance uncomfortable. On the other hand, when we visited the Hindu Mandir, we were able to enter together as a group of men and women. However, we all entered together through a metal detector with security guards surrounding us and x-ray machines for our pocket items. At the Gudwara were waited about 30 minutes before a man welcomed us and gave us a rather informal tour and presentation on Sikhism. At the Mandir we began our planned, scheduled, and timed tour as soon as we stepped into the temple. Both these religions use different methods of dealing with their place in British society. But both find that the best way is openness to outsiders.
While our Sikh guide seemed optimistic about future harmony between the “British” and the Sikh community, the BBC religion page on Sikhism tells a less hopeful one. In an interview posted on the site with Sody Singh Kahlon, a second generation Sikh, Kahlon says, “Seventeenth century India, Mogul emperors butcher and mutilate to curb Sikh popularity. Twenty-first century Britain, western influences butcher and mutilate Sikh identity.” According to Kaholn, he spent most of his childhood defending himself and his Sikh identity against bullies of all ages, sometimes even his teachers. In Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane, we see the way looking different can lead to becoming an easy target for violence. From his window, Hall describes the violence he sees and the lack of assistance even from law enforcement.
So it’s not surprising to hear Kahlon note the pressure Sihks feel to conform to the western identity. He says, “it is a well known fact that scores of western Sikhs are visiting the barbers and abandoning their identity to look like the majority. But those who denounce the Sikh identity are conveniently overlooking the first step in being a Sikh – i.e. to accept the Guru’s instructions and wear the ordained Sikh uniform.” Kaholn continues throughout the interview to highlight the tension between “British” culture and identity and his own religious identity. But ultimately he ends the interview by explaining, “I wear my turban out of love for my faith and I am proud to stand out from the crowd as a Sikh.”
On the other hand, Hinduism allows for a little more blending in. But yet, when I entered thought the metal detectors I couldn’t help thinking why? Perhaps they were one of the greatest symbols of Hinduism’s ability to mix, coexist, and eventually find a place in British culture. If Hinduism is accepted, and welcomed, why does it need so much protection? Yes of course, the Mandir we visited is a he tourist attraction. But so is St. Paul’s, and there were no metal detectors there. According to the BBC Religion page on Hinduism, this religion follows the idea of karma, birth death and rebirth based on good or bad deeds done in life and it is polytheistic with a center on one supreme being. So when we visited the Mandir I expected to see the images or icons of many various gods—which I did—but what I was not expecting was the degree to which they worshiped their spiritual leader, the inspirer, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. There were cardboard cutouts, photographs, and other images of this man all over the Mandir, even on the alters alongside their gods. This was the most surprising thing to me. The man is still just a man, despite his training, yet the guide spoke about him in such a godly way, and his images is worshiped, it seem to me that the was elevated to god-status, which was not evident from the BBC page.
In terms of coping with British culture, the BBC page did provide one interesting thing. It was a small section on the caste system, which is central still to Indian culture, despite the struggle against it. The section explained that in large cities the caste system had almost disappeared. But, the system did still offer a sense of community to the Indian people. In most western societies, a caste system is looked down on and seen as unequal. But, in many ways the caste system fits the classist prejudice that we have studied in Britain. British classism is essentially America’s racism.
Will or how these religions fit into British culture is hard to say. In many ways Kahlon exemplifies the British man of a foreign religion. He refuses to give his religious identity up, but constantly questions his decision when faced with persecution. And there will always be persecution. Hopefully religious difference will become so common that one different religion can no longer be singled out. But until then, people will always fear what is unfamiliar to them. In that way, the open attitude of both places of worship is the only way that religious tolerance can ever be achieved.