Religious Parallelism: Hinduism and Christianity – Milan Stolpman

The setting sun had given the sky a hazy, amber glow, and we set out for the Sri Kalikamba temple on the village’s outskirts. Although low to the ground and constructed with a thatch roof, the house of worship was immaculately maintained. Preparing for the ceremony (or puja) a woman arrived with a chicken and a blade and spilled its blood across an altar outside the temple with a well-practiced swipe. 

The priest emerged and beckoned us inside to commence the ceremony. One by one, he lit a series of candles, illuminating a large shrine that had been erected in the center of the space. The temple had been devoted to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and rebirth, who is worshipped by my family. The goddess’s appearance was remarkable. She sat on an ornate throne, dressed in a silk-like garment, adorned with floral garlands and her face painted red.

I had just completed my first semester of college and was visiting India with my mother. While our primary destination was the metropolis of Bangalore, we had traveled to our family’s ancestral home—the small desert village of Yedavani.

The increasingly dark sky emphasized the flickering candles, which cast striking shadows on the face of the goddess. The priest proceeded to strike a large gong—the reverberations creating a claustrophobic sensation inside the space. As the priest moved a candle around the face of Kali in a circular motion, illuminating her large eyes and crimson features, I felt as though I was locked in a hypnotic trance. The impenetrable eyes of the deity stared into mine with a paralyzing gaze. At first, I reacted to the sensation with panic and anxiety. After all, the practice contrasted sharply from my own construction of what religion was “supposed to look like.” Familiar imagery of churchgoers dressed in their Sunday best, a choir and organ accompanist, and the nativity scene flashed through my mind.

As I continued to engage with the ceremony, though, my initial hesitation suddenly dissipated. I realized that I had already witnessed these practices first hand, although in a different form. Parallels between my world and this one became apparent. While the Hindu ceremony had been predicated on the sacrifice of the chicken, I noted that Christianity is predicated on the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While the Hindu priest had placed Tilak on my forehead, the Catholic priest’s placement of Chrism oil on my forehead was no different. 

The practices I partook in were not strange, nor different. They simply were. In India, religion is not merely a component of one’s weekly schedule, as it was for myself. Instead, it is a way of life. In fact, religion and life are not separate entities. In this rural village, they were one and the same. I went on to remind myself of the fact that my own ancestors had stood in the same spot as I, worshipping, for thousands of years. 

I returned to Minnesota the following Sunday, and I attended church for the first time in over a year. I listened earnestly to the sermon—something I’d never done before. A sense of guilt overcame me, as it dawned on me that I had long neglected my Catholic upbringing. Had a family member from Yedavani attended the mass, they surely would have reacted to this religious ritual with the same awe and admiration I had expressed for their practices. This realization instilled in me a renewed passion for religion in ways I am still attempting to understand. 

While my identity as a Catholic has not differed, there is added nuance to my spirituality after witnessing the indescribable power of religion firsthand. With the CRGC this year, I am looking forward to further debriefing our experiences, analyzing cross-cultural and religious interactions such as this one, and—in the words of interfaith leader Eboo Patel—exploring the “ineffable dimensions of the divine.”

Have you attended a religious service other than the one you practice? If so, what were your takeaways from the experience?  

7 thoughts on “Religious Parallelism: Hinduism and Christianity – Milan Stolpman”

  1. Hello Milan,

    Although I have never attended a religious service than the one I practice. However, when I was 16-years-old I went through confirmation (a sacrament in the Catholic Church). When going through confirmation, among other requirements (such as service hours, classes, and meetings with my priest), one requirement was attending a mass of a different parish. I grew up in a very traditional Catholic parish (dry music and very serious). Not to mention the majority of the congregation were white upper middle class parishioners. When I attended mass at a different parish I drove about an hour into the city and attended a mass at a church with an all Black congregation. The music was lively with drums and chanting, the robes the Priest wore were in line with Catholic Tradition, but had African influence and the mass felt like anything but serious. But the parishioners were alive with the spirit of God. Ever since that mass I was fearful I would return to my home parish and see my mass as boring and drab. I did love the mass at the different parish and I hope to visit again, but I didn’t return to my home parish and become bored. I came to admire the traditions and dry music, but I fully intend on finding a more lively church in the future.

  2. What a great post, Milan! Your writing is amazing.

    I attended the Christian funeral of a classmate I had known since 4th grade who died in a tragic accident less than a month after graduating high school. His family was active in a Lutheran congregation, and I can distinctly remember him worrying about his confirmation ceremony one day in 8th grade. He had moved his senior year, and hundreds of people from both communities attended. Several hymns were sung and family and friends spoke, and I was struck by the grace and eloquence of the pastor and everyone else who knew him. It is hard to think of a funeral as a celebration of life when someone was so young, but truly there were moments of joy mixed in with the sadness. The sense of community helped me grieve, and I’d like to think it did the same for those who knew him better than I did. It was not a typical Christian service or even a typical funeral, but that’s what I took away from it.

  3. Hi Milan – your post brought me back to my some of childhood summers that were spent in India! While reading your post, I felt that I was with you on your journey to Yedavani. I can see that this experience of worship had a significant impact on you. I really appreciated that you pointed out some parallels between the puja and a mass service that would happen in a church. It really goes to show that religions have a lot in common – from values and beliefs to even practices and methods/ideas of worship. Personally, I have not been to a worship service of a religion that is not my own in America; however, I did attend a religious festival at a Mandir (Hindu temple) in India about 10 years ago. At this Mandir, the priestess was sitting on a highly adorned throne draping with fabric colored gold and bright red. As the priestess blessed the devotees that went up to her to seek blessings, I remember feeling awe and intimidation. I had never seen a woman as a priestess and was amazed to see such a powerful and humble figure(I was 10 at the time)! People were chanting the puja mantras and saying “Jai Mata Di” (Glory be to the Mother Goddess – Goddess Devi Durga) – it looked fun and enjoyable so my sister and I started saying Jai Mata Di along with everyone else. We felt accepted, and this experience taught me a lot about a religion and culture (Hinduism) that I had often heard about growing up but that day had a chance to be a part of. Later on, I learned that the tenth Sikh Guru (Guru Gobind Singh Ji) wrote Shabads (prayer verses) in praise of Devi. Personally, this is an example that helped me see the respect one should have for all religions. I enjoyed reading your post Milan and am really excited to talk about our experiences in India and with our faiths and how this has shaped us into who we are today!

  4. Hello, Milan! Wow. Your descriptive writing is absolutely breathtaking, full of raw emotion and beauty. In fact, I loved how strongly you emphasized the aesthetic experience of religion, from the colors and smells to the cloth and light involved. This truly is a large part of worship for many cultures, something that makes it feel special and holy. What your text reminded me of was my trip last summer to Russia, and a specific moment in which I entered an Orthodox church and felt overwhelmed by my surroundings. Though this is my own religion, we do not attend services often in the States, and certainly not on the grand scale which I witnessed just outside of Moscow. The smell of the incense, the strong, lofty voices of the choir, the shimmer of the priest’s robes, and the sheer beauty of the painted icons all instilled in me a deep sense of wonder and understanding for the roots of my faith, for the awe-inspiring experience that it can give. I see now how these experiences are similar to those of many religions around the world, as you mentioned. Though I absolutely believe that innate faith can exist without a church and without the aesthetic aspects we’re discussing, I think that being a part of such an experience can enhance or add a special facet to one’s lived experience of faith. Thank you for sharing! I’ll certainly be rereading this blog post in the future.

  5. Milan,
    Your experience with the Puja reminded me of when I attended a wedding of a family friend last summer. He is a Sikh and his wife is Catholic. Although it was familiar to attend the Anand Karaj at the Gurdwara (Sikh wedding ceremony), attending the Christian ceremony in the church was new. Surprisingly, it was really familiar. It was like watching a movie when she walked down the aisle. It was so magical. And seeing the two of them standing face to face was beautiful. The Anand Karaj was beautiful. Both ceremonies were so beautiful. And the reason I think about their wedding is that even though it wasn’t a typical Sikh or Christian wedding, it’s the people and their love for one another that shines through. Similarly, I like to think that whenever I’ve been able to participate in the religious and cultural traditions that aren’t my own, I’m should strive to understand the meaning of everything. As I look back, I used an inclusivist lens to make sense of other’s traditions. I hope that I’m able to learn and grow into viewing the world with more pluralistic views and in turn, deepen my sense of empathy for others.

  6. Hi Milan,
    I have attended Christian services before with my friends. My takeaway from those was that God loves you and that people are just looking for hope. I enjoyed attending it as it gave me more perspective, on my friend’s faith. Additionally, attending that service showed me the commonality between the Islamic and Christian faith with stories told from the Bible that are also mentioned in the Quran. It showed me how most faiths teach us about the love that God has for us, being good to others, and believing that God has a plan for you. I relate to your feeling of seeing others practice their faith and how that can make realize how you miss practicing your own, and that sense of it helping you practice more of your own faith. I think going to a Church service, showed me more people who believe in the same God I do and how worshipping him brings them peace, joy and community.

  7. Hi Milan!

    First of all, I just want to say your writing in this post was really beautiful and really brought the scene alive for me, which is super cool! In terms of the thinkings you’re thinking about in the post, I’ve also had the experience of going to my mom’s family’s religious services, which are different from my own. My mom grew up Lutheran, but then converted to Judaism a little after I was born, so we have only ever practiced Judaism at home. I related to the comment you made about witnessing this service that feels kind of foreign to you, and then realizing at some point that it’s really not foreign at all because your ancestors on that whole side of the family have been praying/connecting to the divine in that way for generations. It’s kind of a weird halfway in, halfway outside way of experiencing something. It’s also super interesting to think about what your great grandparents, for example, on the other side of the family, would think about the religion you practice now. I’ve definitely thought about that before, like what what my ancestors on the Christian side of my family think about me and my faith that is so different from theirs. I really liked the scene you described about sitting in church and just knowing that your other side of the family would see the beauty in your Catholic faith, even though it’s not the same as their own. I also love the comment you made about how seeing other people of faith being so fully invested in their service made you feel inspired to commit more fully to your own faith. I think that’s a really pretty interfaith thought that I’ve definitely had before too. Sometimes I just like to go hang out in church services and observe what’s going on, especially when I was living in Israel after high school and there were so many denominations there that don’t really exist in the US. It’s always so moving to see people connecting to whatever their own version of the divine is, and I think it’s really cool that you were able to transfer that into your own religious practice.

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