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The Gates to Common Ground
India is a steaming melting pot of faiths and cultures, one I was briefly cast into as a callow youth. I brought all my first world certainties to that extraordinary, baffling country. I hope I left some of them behind.
My journey started with my ego nicely plumped. An armed guard met me at Delhi airport and deposited me in the bosom of my family in Lucknow. There, amidst those who had remained through partition and the lure of the West, I was loved and coddled. But my movements were bounded by the modest compound, and I lacked all the freedom to roam I knew from London.
Opposite the house there was a temple. While I never went there, it provides the strongest memory of the trip. Every day the temple PA system would squeak to life. Over the braying of streetwalking cows and the intemperate traffic noise, a female voice would rise up in worship. I knew nothing of this lady but the relentlessness of her prayer. Whether she was maiden, or mother, or crone; weathered by care, surrounded by offspring or virgin – I never discovered. Her voice has stayed with me over the decades.
She read a repeated litany of thanksgiving and beseeching. It went on for hours and was almost incomprehensible to me. Time and familiarity had created an elision of words that made them almost impossible to follow. At first it was just annoying. The annoyance bred ridicule: constant use had lined the lady’s throat with gravel, her voice lacked any melody or softness. It was harsh on the ear and grated on the nerves.
By the time I left it was something I waited for. I would sit on the rooftop as the swelling cacophony of suburban life overwhelmed the quiet of morning. And then the alien soundtrack would gather its ponderous momentum. The harsh voice would batter the worldly hubbub into submission, silencing the chatter that filled my head. In those moments, before the inevitable call to join the family for lunch, I found a peculiar peace and freedom. The petty concerns of living evaporated as I fell into the immersion of her worship. The transactions that form life were diminished. I relinquished my hold on them with increasing ease. I was no longer bound by the fading glory of the cracked walls and peeling gate of my uncle’s home. I relearned in that time the joy of writing, and thinking without constraint.
It was only later I recalled that I had felt that stillness and freedom before, in an environment that could not have been more different. It was at choral Evensong. The rooftop in Lucknow was painfully bright in the sunlight, with rowdy, impatient India rising from the street below. In contrast the chapel was dim and quiet. Ancient oak absorbed light and sound. Even my breathing was hushed, as if the enveloping robes for lay visitors laid a geas of monasticism upon me. The service was pretty high up the candle, designed to awe as much as inspire. It was during the Apostles’ Creed that the same sense of stillness claimed me. The possibility of a broader understanding reached out to me, unlocked by absorption and chant.
In itself that moment is not unusual or exclusive, it is often found in music and meditation. Now I am aware of the sensation I have found it in such prosaic circumstances as a long night drive. With the busy, practical part of the mind locked in concentration, the higher functions can be uncoupled and freed. What startled me was to find that outcome across such a broad religious divide.
I found it again most recently, and perhaps most surprisingly on Hajj. During three weeks of pilgrimage the quiet, contemplative moments were plentiful. What astonished me was to be so transported during the rite of Tawaf.
Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime, if their health and financial wherewithal so allow. In past times those in poor far flung villages would save for a lifetime so that one representative could complete the Hajj from among them.
The spiritual function it performs no doubt varies from pilgrim to pilgrim, but some elements are at its core. First and foremost it reinforces the connection of the person to the divine and distances the individual from the concerns they left behind. It also seeks to engender a sense of oneness with all humanity and erase the sense of difference. All male pilgrims wear two simple pieces of unstitched cloth, the ehram. There is no rank and no precedence for wealth. The clothes are deliberately reminiscent of a shroud, the pilgrim will leave reborn.
One of the many acts Muslim pilgrims must undertake is the Tawaf. They walk seven times around the black draped building in the centre of Mecca – the Kaaba. It is a rite than places God at the centre of creation, and man in his orbit. As one might expect, an endeavour in which several thousand people at a time are involved is stifling and chaotic. It is utterly different to the sedate choreography of Evensong, or the solitary rooftop. Not even the heat is a common factor. In India it was bright, baking direct sunlight; in Mecca it was a strength sapping sauna, fuelled by the skin crawling proximity of sweating bodies.
There is no organisation to it, there is no system. There is no queuing which my Britishness so craves. At any point in time some are beginning their seven circuits, some are in progress and some are finishing. Some people are not there for Tawaf at all, but to touch the building itself, or the holy black stone set in one corner. And there are more people trying to do all this at the same time than the orderly western mind can comprehend. For those familiar with rugby the seven circuits of the Kaaba are like a forty five minute rolling maul. It definitely shares all the rib cracking and toe crushing you would expect from the most violent of gentlemanly pursuits.
In that environment, so far removed from any other experience, and while in constant motion, it seems strange to claim access to the stillness. And yet it was there. The key was in the repetition of prayer, simple words of entreaty and gratitude, over and over. The sensation of elbows and heels and moist collisions faded. I was surrounded, and yet there was a zone of complete calm in which I could orbit. It was a planetary stillness, in which movement was effortless and irresistible and entirely natural. In the very beating heart of Islam I put to use the lessons learned from Hinduism and Christianity.
Somehow in heat and breathless endeavour to put one foot in front of the other, to progress and not impede anyone else, and to pray in fervent helplessness I unlocked the door to which a distant chaplain and dedicated lady had provided the key. In that thronging multitude I found my unique connection to the divine.
And of course we are all built the same way. Our brains are abuzz with inputs and reactions. We respond because therein lies survival and progress. How curious then that the connection sparks into life when that immediacy is constrained.
When we silence the babble of an inquisitive child with a new toy, then the quieter sibling, the one that sees much and says little, can speak up. Only when it is certain of our undivided attention will it share its precocious insights.
All of which left me considering the nature of faith, religion and prayer. In three incomparable religious circumstances I found the secret to freedom from the passage of time, and the constraining awareness of the mundane. The common thread was a method to distance the base concerns of living. Repetition of prayer seemed to be an essential part of the key that unlocked this state.
So what? Have all the world’s faiths merely found the same intellectual opium? Does a morphic resonance underlie the spiritual mind, if there even is such a thing? Do we all crave the same momentary high and nothing more?
I’m wary to claim epiphany. But in those moments of separation and elevation there was a distinct sensation of something more. I sensed a design grander than the primitive needs of food, shelter and procreation. Nor am I willing to categorically state this was a religious experience. These were moments of acknowledgement that the human mind has capability beyond the cunning and avarice of a higher animal. Does it matter if this is an evolutionary trait that promotes adaptation and innovation, or a divinely inspired gift? The fact is that it is there. Whether we ascribe to an external deity or the god within, we are more than the sum of simple biological processes.
More alarming, more heretical still is the realisation that this is no secret at all. Without searching I found the key in plain sight in three different faiths in three different parts of the world. Is it unreasonable to say that faiths of which I have no experience also share it? Or to suggest that other modes of living that do not characterise themselves as faith, or religion, share it too? Look closely and you may find it at the Wailing Wall, in the manic solfège of Sufi singers, or the throbbing intensity of an underground night club.
I wonder how different the world would be if everyone could take that moment to pause, meditate, pray, and touch the sensation of possibility?
I also wonder, as a Muslim, what it might mean for greater interfaith understanding if the restricted precincts of Mecca and Medina could be opened to people of all faiths or none. How would it be if the welcome I have always found in churches and cathedrals could be extended from the holiest sites in Islam?
What if the chaplain that lead evensong could swap his cassock for the rough unstitched ehram, or the chanting lady of Lucknow don a hijab, and join the orbit of chaos and connection? How different would our conversation be when we could say “I have seen what you see, I have been where you have been.”
My instincts say that openness, sharing, the cross contamination of ideas and beliefs is always a good thing. If we look for similarities perhaps we will lose our focus on differences.
If we all share that higher consciousness, the ability to see beyond our own cravings, then perhaps we should share the paths by which we get there.
More of my writing here
I should admit that The Photosapiens are all younger cousins of mine, from the Indian branch of the family, and I did not ask their permission to use the photo – I just told them I was doing it. That’s just how scions of multiculturalism roll.