The Spirit of India

Everyone imagines what India is like, endless crowds, gridlock traffic and exotic food. All of these things are true but for us, the one thing that has stood out above everything else here has been the intensity of spiritual life here, the way it defines and shapes people’s way of being, and the fact that so many faiths happily coexist.

Out On a Limb

For the uninitiated, India is the birthplace of four global religions; Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism while also successfully assimilating Islam and Christianity (fun fact; there are more muslims in India than Pakistan). Before our first stop in Goa, we had some idea that the state’s strong Catholic heritage thanks to missionaries such as St Francis Xavier but beyond that we knew very little.

When we visit Old Goa, we’re surprised to see so many catholic churches. In fact, Goa was once known as the Rome of Asia, boasting as many churches as the Eternal City. The magnificent Basilica of Bom Jesus is an Indo-Portuguese architectural gem that takes its place in the middle of the old part of town. Constructed in the early 1600s, it’s famed for housing the incorruptible remains of Spanish missionary, St Francis Xavier.

His silver coffin sits atop a beautiful, ancient altar surrounded by stunning frescoes depicting his life as a missionary in Asia. The rector of the Basilica, Father Patricio generously gives us a private tour after Easter Sunday mass, explaining each of the shrine’s features in detail.

First things first, his face can clearly be seen and the whole experience is nothing short of remarkable, little wonder the exhibit draws 25,000 visitors a day. But not all visitors have been well behaved. In 1587, a woman made the rash decision to bite off the toe of the late saint in a bid to have her own private relic. The aggressive move caused quite the unexpected scene as blood began spurting forth from St Francis’ foot, despite already being dead for two years. In the chaos, the woman ran off with the relic but plagued by guilt, eventually returned it.

But the gruesome story doesn’t end there. So impressed was Rome by the evangelising efforts of St Francis, having baptised more than a hundred thousand people, the saint’s right arm was sent to the Church of the Gesù, the main church of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), in Rome where it still remains today.

Every ten years, the coffin is brought down for public viewing but even raised on top of the altar and slightly harder to view, the shrine still draws enormous fascination. Defying the normal process of decomposition is clearly still a mystery that fascinates.

During our tour, Father Patricio takes out an ornate box containing the late saint’s toe for us to see. It’s still fully formed, the skin a little brown and wrinkled but completely intact. He then blesses us with the relic and prays for our safe travels. It’s not to everyone’s tastes but we found it very moving.

Further up the road, are the ruins of The Augustine Church, a world heritage monument, and once the largest complex of its kind. Built in the 1570s, it housed a seminary, convent, cloisters, dormitories, libraries and of course, church. It was an impressive structure until the Portuguese kicked out the Augustinian’s in the 1850s and the place began to fall apart. Literally. The facade and towers eventually fell in 1938 and now it sits as a series of disjointed rocks and crumbling altars. 

More Than a River

After Goa, we moved onto the holy city of Varanasi. One of the first things our guide there told us was that this was the real India. Guides we met in other places said the same thing. But what does it mean, real? The authenticity they talk about is the city’s spiritual nature and not just because of its history as the oldest living city in the world, (other cities like Athens and Rome have been destroyed and rebuilt) but because of two things; the Ganges River and the birthplace of Buddhism

The Ganges or Mother Ganga as it’s called, is more than a river, it’s considered a heavenly body that flows by the city with a purpose and the purpose is to liberate sinners (human beings) from the cycle of birth and rebirth. All along the banks, during the day and throughout the night, devout pilgrims and locals come here to bathe, pray and farewell the dead. But far from being a place that’s sad or full of despair, the river oozes life, vitality and a sense of joy and wonder. It’s remarkable.

There’s a reverence and acceptance here, everyone greets each other with the simple term, namaste which means, I bow to the divine in you. It’s hard to see how a conversation that begins like that could ever turn ugly. Perhaps it’s why there’s such a peace that exists in Varanasi. Your whole existence is driven by reverence; first for each other, then the cleansing waters of the Ganges and finally, the circle of life. There’s also Karma which plays a role in everything; you do good, it will help you, do bad and it will come back to haunt. As a result, you find yourself in a place where peace, harmony and goodwill to others takes centre stage, not as a religion but as a way of life.

Also in the city, you have Sanarth, the famed location of Buddha’s first sermon under the Bodhi Tree. There is a serene atmosphere here too as the many prayer wheels turn and visitors stand and reflect in the shade cast by the tree’s branches, pondering the search for inner peace. Again, it was both beautiful and moving to watch.

Respect for All

The final destination on what has felt like an unintentional yet welcome spiritual pilgrimage in India has been the Gandhi Museum, where the freedom fighter and father of peace in India was assassinated on his way towards his final prayer session for the evening.

It’s a small but very moving place that’s part museum, part living history. There’s a bed on the floor and next to it, a simple writing desk where he spent his last days writing, praying, fasting and talking to those who came to see him.

For a man who was so moved by faith, he possessed somewhat of a hybrid approach to religion, drawing inspiration from Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. In that vain, he also believed passionately in religious tolerance, respect and unity. Perhaps, it’s one of the reasons why the feeling of religious acceptance is still so prevalent. Here’s hoping India continues to honour Gandhi’s legacy in this way.