Religion appears to have existed as long as humans have lived together. One way to translate that is, it’s old.
Two pieces we found this week take us to ancient seats of the spirit.
An Indian born in England who was raised partly in California and now lives in Japan, Iyer writes in The Australian about the city, saying that his relatives told him not to visit:
Varanasi, I thought, was a 5000-year-old man who may have put on an FCUK shirt and acquired a Nokia, but still takes off the shirt each day to bathe in polluted waters and uses his mobile phone to download Vedic chants.
He then pivots and heads out to a suburb of Varanasi, Sarnath. Here, he reminds us about the place’s claim to fame:
The young prince who became the Buddha walked away from all the abstraction and ritualism of his Brahmin forebears when he was 29 in order to find his own truth and to come to terms with the realities of old age, sickness and death just by stilling his mind and seeing what lies behind the pinwheeling thoughts of our monkey minds.
Sarnath is where the Buddha reached enlightenment. Iyer makes the 30-minute journey to Sarnath in a rickshaw bicycle cab multiple times, traveling from “the cacophony of Varanasi.” He finds it a metaphor for life:
Retreats from the world are only as good as the way they prepare us for the waiting swarm. Back and forth, between the crash and chaos of reality and the ways we try to make our peace with it and find the calm centre hiding within it.
In Varanasi, because I went often to Sarnath, I felt as if I had come upon a model of life and its changeless cycles. Into the mind and out of it, into the world and back out once more.
Ethiopia’s medieval spirit
Another writer travels to Ethiopia’s legendary medieval centers of power and spirit,Gondar and Lalibela. Lalibela is home to more than ten Ethiopian Orthodox churches cut from rock before the 14th century. Gondar, the capital of Ethiopia for more than 200 years, is known for its royal castles, and for one Ethiopian Orthodox church that remains where once more than 40 stood after a series of invaders burned them. (He does not go to Axum, which claims to have the Ark of the Covenant.)
Collett, a New Zealander who has spent more than two decades in Indonesia, relishes the chance to step into a spiritual stream that’s flowed for hundreds of years. The churches are still in daily use, and he writes that
In the semi-darkness, I was overwhelmed by the chanting of ancient scriptures and liturgies, the wafted incense and the faithful, both young and old, following rituals handed down over centuries in these ancient places. Here were churches that had seen the ravages and destruction of history yet retained unchanged the practices and the faith they represented. Beyond the history, the massive building task and the architectural beauty, was an innate spiritual atmosphere, a reality for all those present. Being there, I felt an affinity to these worshippers, otherwise so different to me.
For a brief time I was part of a living, rich spirituality that in the dim interior, I could live and share too.