Tag Archives: religion

Women Were Meant to be Victims

women's rights, abuse, subjugating women, female victims, sexual abuse, spousal abuse

Did you tell your woman that god would disrespect her if she shows her face? Did she believe you? Creative Commons: lakerae, flickr

Did that get your attention? If it did, then what happens every day in the world around you and probably in your city should also get your attention. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems people don’t care to read about such things unless they’re titillating and sexy. As a woman, and a human being, I can do no less than talk about this.

Recently the sexual assaults (which covers everything from rude and suggestive language to groping to rape) in Egypt was highlighted on the news. Some women have created harassmap site to alert others to areas where women have been abused. But this isn’t new. We have heard of numerous nations, groups, and forces who, as part of their terror, overthrowing or rebellion, rape women and girls as part of their undermining of the other side. It’s horrible and we know it’s horrible. Or at least everyone says that until they’re involved, so in fact there are some (and I mean ONLY SOME) men who do not feel it’s too horrible to be a perpetrator in such times of violence.

virgins, sexualization, victimization, women's rights, subjugation

If you’re not a virgin, you must be a slut, and maybe, like this cover, you’ll be both.

How long have women been made victims in one way or another? I don’t know but we know one aspect begins with the Bible when Eve was blamed for taking the forbidden fruit and giving it to Adam. As if he couldn’t make up his own mind. As if he were a child. As if she used coercion that was more than handing it to him. Myth for some, apocryphal for others, yet truth for yet another group, this motif has flavored treatment of women for many ages. Yet Christianity is by far not the only religion to blame. While religion may or may not be the reason women are treated as lesser beings, it also goes to cultures that decided to make cultural rights and practices part of their religion. (the veil is not part of the Quran). Ownership and a man’s superior physical strength made women chattels, or possession or slaves. So yes, there is a long history of women being victimized.

Adam and Eve, sexism, women's rights

Was Adam too stupid to get the fruit for himself, or was he just making Eve do all the work? Lucas Cranach 1538

There are those who, for whatever misguided reason, believe that women belong in these categories. Are you one of them? Should a woman walk behind a man, answer only to him, be kept housed or hidden for only his desires, be blamed for all the faults of humankind? Think about it. Most women are not the perpetrators of war and violence. It is mostly men who go to war.

Let’s take religion out of it for a minute. Yes, women are still victimized. Raped because a criminal won’t control his urges. Beaten because a man is angered. Killed because she leaves her abusive partner or mars something as ephemeral and subjective as honor, in the eyes of a father or brother or husband. She’s the sex kitten who is of course a slut and good for one thing. She is a prude who won’t let a man control her, she is a virgin to be idolized by men because when they get her she hasn’t been tainted by other men, as if she’s a holy relic, as if it’s okay that they have been with other women. She is raped by a gang of men and yet she is charged with adultery or another crime. Look at that poor woman in India. Look at your own city and see how many women and girls have been raped or beaten or murdered or just hit upon. The news doesn’t report even half of them. George sleeps with a different woman every night and he’s just sowing his oats while those women are all sluts. That’s fair, isn’t it?

sexism, sexist ads, women's rights

Ask yourself, why isn’t it a man’s body for a man’s shoe?

A police officer recently told women to not dress provocatively if they wanted to avoid being sexually assaulted. In some Middle Eastern countries anything less than covered in the burqa is considered provocative. In other countries you can be in a loincloth and nothing more and that’s not provocative. Whether a person’s dress is considered to be salacious or not, that is no reason for sexual abuse of any sort. They’re not “asking for it.” If you think your god will disapprove, let him or her decide, not you. If you are afraid it will incite a man to his base desires, then what are you saying about men, that they are only beasts and uncontrollable? And if that’s the case, then it’s they who should be caged. I like to afford everyone the same right. The right to be free, think for themselves and have an equal chance at jobs and life. Men and women. No one group gets painted with a big brush.

That means whether they’re of one religion or none, any color or ethnicity, any gender or gender preference. Unfortunately the world is not fair nor equal but we, you and me, could all do better at ethically getting rid of stereotypes and not feeding into this view. Scoffing and continuing in the vein of labeling women sluts, whores, tramps and seductresses only leads to more women being subjugated, raped, owned or downtrodden as lesser beings because of someone’s beliefs. The only belief that should really matter is that you can do what you want, as long as you do not hurt or subjugate anyone else. Let’s try living like that for awhile.

sluts, whores, tramps, subjugating women, sexual abuse

The slut walk came about because men’s attitudes mean women ask for or deserve whatever they get. Creative Commons: Spanginator

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My Religion’s Better Than Yours

Religion, ain’t it grand? Everyone can use it to feel righteous, superior and special. In fact, people can use it to preach tolerance, yet in the same breath turn around and show bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

Nine years after September 11 and what have we learned? Place the blame elsewhere and stoke the fires under the fetid brew of religious intolerance. I speak of some Qu’ran burning putz in the US and the masses of protesters screaming against a mosque being built near ground zero in New York.

The masses, as has been shown again and again, are mostly ignorant, easily swayed and influenced by hype. If there is a complete intelligence amongst them, they hide it in the mob mentality. Notice I don’t say the Christian masses or the Hindu masses or any specific religion, because a mass of people (as opposed to the Catholic mass) is just that; not necessarily an unthinking organism but a lower thinking one.

The problem with religion is that it’s open to interpretation, interpretations of interpretations, offshoots, branches, sects and other views of the same religion, let alone all the different religions out there. Take just one, even Buddhism, and you have moderates, those who are orthodox or who adhere to the most stringent rules, and those who are liberal. One extreme end holds the fundamentalists. It makes no difference if this is Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or one of the host of many religious practices. Fundamentalists are sometimes raised in the tradition but just as often (if not moreso) they are brought to this view as adults.

Fundamentalists are often recognized as being stringent and unbending, narrow-minded, and resistant to truth and facts. They like going on tirades, performing highly dramatic proclamations and at the worst, killing people in the name of their religion. A fundamentalist, whether a Taoist (Are there fundamentalist Taoists? Probably),  a Wiccan or some other religion is annoying at best and downright threatening to life and liberty at worst.

Who is a fundamentalist? The Taliban subjugating men and women, the Holy Roman Empire feeding Christians to lions, the Spanish Inquisition toasting witches, and southern Baptists burning religious texts. This is only a small sampling of pointing the finger at another group and ostracizing them for their beliefs. Sometimes this religious prejudice has been wholly one group against another and that’s not necessarily fundamentalism (really, the Roman Empire was a state religion and not fundamental beyond that) as it is the tenets and interpretations of the era and culture, such as various pogroms against the Jews in Medieval Europe. But fundamentalists will loudly proclaim the right and might of their belief system, then put their hands over their ears so they do not hear anything which would make them doubt. And they just as loudly denounce everyone else of not being on the “one true faith.”

Most religions preach love, compassion and turning the other cheek but it seems it doesn’t run to your neighbor if they are of a different ilk. It’s okay to tell your wives to stay home and raise babies if you’re a fundamentalist Christian but it’s not okay if you’re a fundamentalist Muslim and tell your wife to wear the hijab.  It’s okay to guilt trip people into being of a particular faith but then not let homosexuals into your church. It’s okay to convert by the gun or the sword because that will really give you more believers but it will only be lip service. Oh and do I even have to mention that should you start burning, breaking or otherwise destroying one group’s symbols of faith, that that won’t make them go away but will have them in your face. But if it’s war you want, in your religious peace, then it’s war you’ll get.

I’m not sure when the world is going to grow up. I have little faith it will be anytime soon as religious superstition, suspicion and intolerance seem to be on the rise. And people, no matter their faith, should be willing to listen to another person’s belief system. If they’re threatened, then they’re already insecure in their beliefs. If they change to another path, so what? Spirituality is always an individual journey and coercing or forcing people is not the way to spirit and belief.

Blaming all people of one faith for what some men did of dubious and most likely fundamentalist beliefs is the same as saying half of the species (say, women) is inferior to the other half. It’s the same as saying, Joe killed someone; therefore all of humanity should be punished. It’s the same as saying, my great grandfather raped someone so all the men in my family line are rapists (and this is a what-if and not indicative of my family). It’s the same as saying all Christians are good and all Muslims are bad. Switch the nouns and names around and it will sound as ludicrous.

Anyone who supports such wholesale bigotry should not be surprised when vengeance is wreaked upon them by the group they denounce. Look at the individual and do not use that wide brush to paint all of any group with it. There are evil Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists (Burma/Myanmar is run by Buddhists), pagans, agnostics, atheists, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. all over the world. And there are many more people of all faiths and none who are compassionate, charitable, giving and willing to let each person live, as long as they do not damage or subjugate another person in any way.

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Pilgrimage Tourism

In my research for a story during biblical times I have come across the bizarre business of what I call pilgrimage tourism. By the Middle Ages, parts or bodies of saints had begun to surface, literally. They were found in sepulchers, under churches, in the naves, perhaps a grave yard, and various other places. Some of these saints may have done a lot more traveling after their deaths than they did before they died.

Monasterboice, Ireland

Some traveled far and wide and one was likely to find  the remains of every saint at some point or another. The only person whose remains were never found were those of Jesus because he was supposed to have ascended bodily to heaven and to find his body would have whacked a giant hole in the tenets of early Christianity. So only his image on shrouds and capes, and parts of the true cross came into bearing.

After the first few saintly parts appeared and were ensconced in a church, or in the foundations or a reliquary box, the faithful visited these churches to venerate the saintly body, even though supposedly Christians believe in the transmigration of the soul, which means there is no spirit in the remains. And then, of course, cures or other miracles began to happen in the presence of a dead saint’s remains. In a way you could say that early Christians venerated a certain zombie aura to the dead, considering saints’ flesh or bones reanimated enough vitality to touch the living.

When the faithful flocked to these churches they needed places to sleep and food to eat, which not only buoyed and increased the wealth of the town but also filled out the coffers of the church. A richer church meant a bigger church and more items of gold and jewels, illuminated manuscripts, attention from Rome, larger flocks, etc. Soon, saintly remains were showing up everywhere.

A great many saints seemed to have left the environs of the Holy Land after Christ’s resurrection and traveled to Gaul or southern France. Why, I’m not sure since Italy was closer but it may have been to escape the Romans. And as the business of spiritually imbued remains grew more popular, grave robbing became a pretty regular business. If you were a saint you could bet that there would be no mortal rest for your body, nor for your soul as you would be dug up, dismembered, sold to various churches and pilgrims and then called upon for daily miracles. Busy life, busier afterlife. But of course, Christianity has only maintained that it is monotheistic, worshiping one god. Oops, but then there are saints galore.

Suddenly, or perhaps not that sudden, the early Middle Ages saw grave robbing as almost respectable. The fine line between good and bad was stretched a bit thin. On top of the grave robbing, churches started stealing the venerated saints from neighboring parishes and monks/priests were praised for such actions as obviously the saints had let them know they wanted to be moved.

But a problem started to arise, which neither Christ nor God could control, and it exposed a shady side to religion that was the ultimate downfall of a few churches’ prosperity. The dead saints seemed to multiply. Mary Magdalene had five bodies and numerous legs and arms. There was more than one head for other saints, or enough finger bones to populate a centipede’s legs. In truth the saints became legion and pretty much any suitable grave would be pillaged for body parts for nearby churches. There was no DNA testing then and the distance between towns and cities was much greater, with the only common modes of transportation being by foot or horse/mule. Often it was easy to have the same saint in a few places, until the mother church started to hear about it.

At first complicit in venerating saintly bits, the church had to curb the ghoulish trend. Just imagine a zombie army of saintly limbs and torsos and heads able to not necessarily animate, but to cure a host of ills. And all of this for the longest time brought hordes of faithful to various towns and cities. Popularity of saints waxed and waned but Saints Peter, Paul, John, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary were popular at different times.

However, the multiple parts that each saint owned, and the full bodies or extra heads started to mar the validity of not only the Catholic church but also the belief that these were the holy remains, which could cure the ill and perform miracles. There was probably a couple of centuries worth of great tourism for pilgrims and Santiago de Compostela in Spain (a pilgrimage route to St. James) is popular to this day by tourists, hikers and the faithful.

It’s obvious that in two millennia of Christianity its role and rules changed and evolved, and perhaps the original teachings of Jesus got skewed quite a few times. What this says about humanity is fascinating: that for the sake of religion (and fame and fortune within that) even if you’ve taken a vow of poverty but you live in a monastery, you’ll do anything, even the illegal things, to bring glory to God, Jesus or the saints. You’ll cheat, swindle and create fake holy items. And if you’re just a worshiper, you’ll forget that it’s the soul that’s supposed to matter, and venerate desiccated body parts, that if ever tested might show the wrong gender or someone of origins other than Jewish for those first Jewish-Christian saints. Makes for an interesting evolution of a man-made religion with creative intervention.

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The Grisly Quest For Body Parts

I’m working on a story that involves research into some ancient Christian practices. And I’m reminded yet again about the weird human penchant for bones.  When people die we either bury them in dirt or burn them. Some places like Cuba and New Orleans, which have little dirt due to high water tables, bury their people in above ground caskets where there is less chance of a body floating away or unpleasantly moldering in a hot climate. Most cultures inter their dead one way or another.

But along with the ritualistic aspects of burying the dead comes the adoration, idolizing and power of those people  who gained fame and notoriety.  Ancient Celts would save the heads of their enemies, as an honor to the fighter and for the power that would be imbued to them. Drinking from skull cups (kapala) has been done as part of ritual, to honor the defeated person, or for power to pass onto the drinker in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Celtic, Chinese, Scythian, Rus, Bulgarian, Uzbek and even Lord Byron. Shrunken heads of the Amazon also fall into this except the skull bone was removed.

People have a grisly fascination with that which supports us but yet remains invisible until we die. Bones. The early Christian church was no slacker in this regard. Any body part of a sainted individual was ready for demolition and salvation in a reliquary. Finger bones, skulls, leg bones, you name it. If it could be found and sanctified the churches and monasteries would hang on to such a reliquary to make each of them special. Never mind that the vaunted saint might not rest easy when their bones were scattered far and wide. Funny that we’re very touchy about our dead getting proper rites and their remains being undistrubed…unless their saints. Then it’s a wholesale grabfest for every pious group.

Of course any place that boasted of owning the used hanky, holey sock, or toothpick of a saint would have a chance of getting more believers to view the grisly religious tourist attractions. Of course this wasn’t just the Christian religion, with the Vatican being the biggest repository of weird sideshow bits of dead people. Buddhists often used the skull cup and other beliefs have their body parts too.

Of all the prized possessions it seems people have sought the head most of all. Coinciding with this research I’m doing CBC was talking about the stolen heads of famous musicians like Beethoven and Haydn. It was a pretty popular sport in the 1800s to dig up a grave and grab the head of a famous poet or composer. In some cases the macabre quest was for science. What had made these people so great? In some cases it was for grisly rewards. Own the head of Marie Antoinette…yours for $100,000. And in some cases it was for that nebulous religious aura. I touched the finger bone of St. Peter and therefore I’m blessed, I’m closer to heaven, I will get that X that I prayed for.

Whatever the reason, we are similarly repulsed and drawn to aspects of the dead. Don’t look at a corpse, and  bury the bones, but oh wait if it’s got some power, well then I will touch it, look at it, revere it. Humans are very odd, at one point fearing everything to do with death and the dead and at the other end, eternally pulled to and fascinated by it. Look at vampire fiction. There is a crossover with the dead and the living; and zombies, though not as sexy as vampires, are definitely gaining mainstream time but usually in  a more campy way. But in the true essence of humanity our natures our dichotomized by our logic and our beliefs and I’m sure in the future we’ll continue to see body parts revered in some way or another.

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I Don’t Get Religious Coverings

I should title this “I don’t get religious head coverings” but in essence it applies to any covering. Now I imagine this post will probably get me in the bad books of a lot of religions, but let’s just say I’m not against a religious covering in one religion or necessarily all religions. I’ve actually put off writing this for a long time, not out of fear but because I thought I should educate myself more. But there are a lot of religions and no matter how much I read I’m likely to miss some crucial element somewhere. And like every layperson out there I have questions that probably only a scholar could answer.

So, let me frame my confusion with this statement: I am an egalitarian. I expect and believe that everyone should be given an equal opportunity, whether in jobs, lifestyle or religion and that one group is not made to do differently than another because of gender or race. I have a huge problem with any religion that allows priests/clerics/spiritual leaders to be of only one gender. And there are many. Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism. There are sects in these religions that often allow for female leaders but overall, the pope can only be a man, the Dalai Lama (only one sect of Buddhism) is always a man, Jewish and Muslim leaders/holy men seem to only be men. Hinduism does seem to be one religion that has no leader over others though different sects might worship a female god or a male one. Paganism likewise has both male and female priests but again there are sects that are male or female exclusive.

But when it gets down to the clothing and the headgear I ask why does one person wear it over the other and how does this treat all human beings as equal? Jewish men wear the yarmulke/kippah (as well as the pope and other ranks in Catholicism), Sikh men wear the turban, Tuareg men wear the veil/turban but the women don’t. Muslim women wear the burka or veil, but the men don’t. Catholic nuns (some of them wear the wimple) but the men don’t though they wear a mitre or kippah on their heads. Why?

At one time in all these cultures’ histories, their robes were the style of the time. Then the religion became codified and traditionalized, setting like cement in time and never more to have the clothing change. Why do Christian priests wear cassocks and the nuns wear wimples: because it was the style when the church finally gained its true strength. Clothing wasn’t part of the religion and then it was. And suddenly, what was cultural dress became symbolism for faith. I can understand a faith that says your hair or head needs to be covered under the eyes of God (or whatever) but then it shouldn’t be a veil for women or a turban for men while the other gender gets to wear nothing or little. I also wonder why, if God created us, in all these religions, why he should want us to then hide? Shouldn’t we shine with the glory of his/her creation?

I’ve attended Native/First Nation sweats where a man could go in, in shorts but a woman had to be covered from neck to ankle and to wrist. Why? Because  a woman might be enticing? So, does that mean a semi-nude man isn’t enticing and why is it the woman’s responsibility for a man’s reaction? To me that says that men are animals, wild and uncontrollable and if that’s the case, they should not be in charge of anything, should they? The sweat was pitch black and so hot you didn’t want to touch yourself let alone anyone else and the farthest thing on anyone’s mind was sex. But still the women had to carry the brunt of this bigotry.

So why is a woman made to wear a burka or cover her hair? Why doesn’t a man have to do the same? Is a woman’s hair too beautiful and God is jealous? Are men going to turn into ravening, covetous animals? Shouldn’t they be chained and hobbled then? Is a man’s hair too boring to be enticing? How is it fair in any religion where a god or gods treats one half of his/her creations better or worse over the other? That already sets up a hierarchy of favoritism just based on gender. Not very good grounds for believing if you’re the underdog in the religion.

It is not the belief or faith, or tenets of the religion itself, where the pursuit is spiritual enlightenment that bothers me. It is the strictures and restrictions on only certain groups within the religion (or those outside of it) that disturb me greatly. Albeit, in all these religions, and the ones I haven’t mentioned there are sects, and a range of tolerance from acceptability to fundamental condemnation, and I use the word fundamental with all its horrid connotations. Fundamentalism in any religion is a sign of intolerance and fear, without a willingness to believe that people are different. But people should be able to choose, not be shamed, guilt-tripped or subjugated into the role of religious unworthy in their belief system.

If a religion requires a robe or a headcovering, then make it the same for everyone, not of two different levels depending on whether you’re blessed or only slightly blessed. I would find it hard to follow/convert to any spiritual belief where my god already saw me as a lesser being than my fellow believers. I’m waiting for someone to enlighten me.

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Losing My Religion

My mother would probably have been raised Catholic, had her mother not died when she was four. Being of Italian parentage, it’s the default religion. I’m not even sure if my mother went to church regularly. Her stepmother wasn’t supportive and kept her and her sister outside till ten at night.

By the time I came along, third in the family with a six-year gap, my mother didn’t even bother getting me or my younger brother baptized. I seem to recall a few sessions in some church when I was young but I might have mixed that up with other things. I do know that when the teacher would ask us in class what we did in Sunday school I had a secret shame, because I did not go. I was different.

I did seem to have a spiritual bent because when I was about five my turtle died. I remember having a funeral, carrying the turtle in its little box down the steps in the back yard. A couple of little friends were lined up behind me. Then I buried the turtle against the side of the house but worried that it wasn’t protected. So I placed colored stones in a semicircle around its grave, butting up against the wall of the house.

Then my older brother turned Mormon from when he was around 16-18. (He got baptized twice because they slipped and dipped him a second time. We always joked that his soul needed extra cleansing.) My mother let us be taken to Mormon Sunday school, I think mostly to get us out of her hair for a couple of hours and give her a break. Strangely, I remember nothing of Sunday school so I don’t think we went for very long. My mother would roast the Mormon missionaries that were assigned the Anderson household, asking them why they had no black people in their inner temple (the one in Salt Lake City), why only the rich could go, etc. They must have drawn the short straw to see who would have to visit my mother.

My mother certainly didn’t attend church and she tended to read a lot of Edgar Cayce (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Cayce) books when I was young. I read or flipped through a few in my teens and Wiki says he was probably the forefather of the New Age movement. He does seem to be a kind of modern oracle who tried to ease people’s physical suffering.

As a teenager, I went with my mother to a few Spiritualist Church events. They sang hymns, which I didn’t like, but then would do palm or psychometry readings, or aura readings. A little bit of free fun. I was never convinced in what I was told though. I also felt no inclination to follow this path. I remember attending one friends communion around when I was 16. I felt intensely uncomfortable, being unfamiliar with churches and especially Catholic rites. After that I tended to avoid churches because I felt uncomfortable with them and unfamiliar in them.

I did continue to explore and think of spiritual and metaphysical matters throughout my teens. At one point my mother attended an experiment being done through the University of Calgary on psychic energy. In one room they had one of those bulbs that have the light sensitive vanes inside. The bulb was in a darkened room and in another room sat a person trying to move the vanes with psychic energy. I have no idea what the results of the experiment were, but my mother met several people intrigued with this aspect.

I would go with her to these meetings at one person’s house where we would try spoon bending, psychic impressions, psychometry, aura reading, etc. It wasn’t religious or spiritual, just exploring psychic phenomenon. There was one guy when we tried reading each other’s minds where it seemed he was trying to manipulate. Interestingly enough, on the drive home my mother had also got strange feelings about the guy.

Eventually the group dissipated, my mother stopped going and the group sort of reformed as a meditation group. I think we did start to get into some spiritual aspects as well. However, I left the group when it got down to Ouija board practice and asking the “spirits” and how to conduct day to day affairs. It got ridiculous and no one seemed to make a decision with their own brains, so off I went.

I moved to Vancouver, and continued my own explorations into spirituality but it didn’t involve churches at all. When I was 25 a young cat I had disappeared one night. I looked everywhere for her, put posters out, checked the SPCA. Nothing. So then I put out prayers, pleas, bargains, cajoling, threats to any deity that existed. And nothing.

At that point I gave up the last vestiges of being a Christian, and lost my religion. I also realized at that time that our North American culture is so permeated in Christian values that even if a person is agnostic they still are ruled by these values. It shapes our everyday affairs, how we conduct our marriages and families. It is in everything we do. At that point I claimed to no longer be even a token Christian and I also tossed out the belief that we’re guilty until proven innocent, as sits at the base of most Christian doctrines. Jesus didn’t die for my sins. He didn’t know me and in these tenets we’re all bad and flawed and tainted. I didn’t like being painted with guilt and so I wasn’t.

I became agnostic at that point, and believed in nothing (refused to believe in anything) for three years. After that the journey of discovery continued and does to this day, but that’s a tale for another time.

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Traveling in India: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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Musings From Tibet III

It seems I somehow didn’t publish post II on Friday. So today I’m doing parts II and III. This was first posted August 15, 2007. This is the last part of Angela’s email on Tibet. Unfortunately I don’t have her pictures to post with this.

There are many arts that come out of Tibetan monasteries, some of which I have pictures of here. Some of my pictures are from Rekong which is actually thought of as the art capitol of Amdo (this upper region of Tibet), possibly even of all Tibet. Mostly they are famous for their thangka painting, which unfortunately I didn’t get to photograph, I only have pictures of the buildings and stupas there, but they are pretty amazing, intricately painted and carved, etc. From Labrang monastery I again have many pictures of the buildings, but I also have some pictures of cham dancing, and the butter sculptures which are both really fascinating art forms. The cham dancing is done by the monks, and it portrays stories of great events in the history of Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the lives of the great masters, or sometimes the bringing of scriptures from India, mythical tales, etc.

The butter sculptures are incredibly intricate and colorful, in this case mostly of great Buddhist masters such as Tsongkaba (founder of the Gelukpa sect), Shakyamuni Buddha, etc., also lots of flowers, and other ritual shapes. The amazing thing about these is that they really are constructed from butter (in case you couldn’t guess that from the name). They make these once a year just before Losar, then keep them throughout the year.

Speaking of butter, food in general seems to be a central theme in Tibetan culture, more so than most other places I’ve seen. The second you enter a house you are offered (practically forced) tea, and bread or whatever other food is sitting around. To refuse is not rude, but it is not really accepted. No matter how full you are, it’s near impossible to get by without at least drinking a cup of tea. This became an entire art form for me, and a very difficult one at that – the art of refusing food. But another thing that I noticed was the fact that whenever I was taking pictures, having food around was essential. If I took a picture of a single person, they usually needed to have a full cup of tea in their hand, and at least a bowl overflowing with bread in front. When I was taking pictures of Jinpa and Gonpu’s (Shedhe’s cousins) homes, they made sure that they moved the bowls of food around so that they were in the picture. After all, if I brought pictures of their homes back to India and there was no food around, they might get worried that their families didn’t have enough to eat. Food heaping is an art for them as it isn’t enough to just fill a bowl with fruit or bread, it has to be heaping so high that it looks ready to collapse if you so much as speak next to it. But alas, after years of practice, it is actually very stable.

You will notice that in the pictures, most of the women wear long strings of red beads around their necks. These are traditional for nomad women, especially in Amdo. They are made out of red coral which is becoming more and more rare in Tibet, and I was surprised to find out that each bead costs between 100-400 Chinese yuen (there are about 7.7 yuen to one US dollar right now). As there are often a hundred or two of these beads on a necklace, the price is often similar to buying a house. This is the way that women literally wear their wealth around their necks as a status symbol. Gold is also very popular, though I recently found out from one of my friends here that gold is a new thing, probably brought in by the Chinese. Apparently at least in some places 10 years ago people only had silver but now gold has become the big thing. Obviously its much more expensive, so again a status symbol. I’m not sure when this came in, as Shedhe values gold much more than silver (we argue about that often as I don’t particularly like gold, but he doesn’t like silver, he thinks it looks cheap) and he’s been here for around 7 years, but one of my friends here said that in her village (which is only a few hours from Labrang) she never even saw gold and she’s been here for around 12 years. Fashion amongst the nomads is very important, and they use it as an opportunity to display their wealth. I was also intrigued to find out that each different village, even if they are only an hour apart from each other have their own distinct fashion. To my eyes it mostly looked the same, but everywhere I went people were telling me that I looked just like a Senko nomad (Senko being the place where Shedhe’s family is from) even when they had no idea who I was staying with. Not only the style of sewing the clothes was different from village to village, but also the way that you tie the chupa/tsarer is different. I not only learned to tie mine from mother, but the ones that I wore were also hers, thus why people recognized the area I was living in. Four hours away, in the town of Rekong the chupas looked very different, even to my untrained eyes.

I was amazed just how different Tibet was from Dharamshala. Being in India I thought that I was learning a lot about Tibet, and though I was, it was nothing compared to actually being there. I could go on for hours about Dharamshala and how/why the people there have changed, but that is an entirely different paper.

The thing that I noticed most about Tibet was just how Chinese it had become, and how much it will continue to do so. In Tibet, I had to be careful to even mention the Dalai Lama, and certainly did not dare to utter the words “Free Tibet.” But while in Dharamshala, I went to many protests for Tibetan freedom, and lived in a city of people who every day fight for it with every fiber of their being and live every day of their lives for the news that they and their families are free at last. After so much of that, I started to believe that it was a possibility. How could it be possible that so many people around the world were fighting for something so noble, and have it not come to fruition? It just didn’t seem possible.

I remember walking home from teaching one day in Tibet, seeing all the Chinese signs painted on walls, the kids in Chinese clothes, all the modern technology and the food wrappers strewn on the side of the street. I started thinking about it, and realized that no matter how much I did not want to admit it, I think Tibet will never really be free from its Chinese colonizer. Though Tibetans work hard to preserve their culture, it is dying out with every new generation, becoming more and more Chinese practically by the minute. China has invested a lot into making Tibet what it is; they just built a new railroad all the way to Lhasa, have set up a huge tourist industry, recently discovered some sort of large ore or iron deposit and have made a lot of money out of the natural resources there. China is an incredibly powerful country, so powerful that nobody in the world, including the US, will stand up to them. To them, there is no reason to give up Tibet, but there is lots of reason to keep it. Upon this realization a very strong sense of grief flew through me, and as I walked into our home to see this old conservative nomad family that I loved so dearly, I nearly wept for the loss that they have to endure every day. Not only have they lost their son Shedhe to exile, but every day they have to watch the destruction of their culture and religion, and live in terrible fear of the people who have surrounded them. I’ve heard stories of the things his parents had to endure after the Chinese occupation (they were relatively young when it happened, but the brutality lasted for a long time), and I see the physical scars and deformities from it on their bodies. I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Though conditions there are much better now than they were for a long time after the Chinese first came in, it is still a daily struggle. Already they live in a climate which itself makes living difficult, but now they are prisoners in their own lands.

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Musings From Tibet II

This was first posted August 14, 2007 and is the second of three parts.  Angela McDonald wrote this after returning to India. It’s especially apropos after the students who were arrested in Beijing for unveiling a flag that said “Free Tibet” on the Great Wall.

 I was living in a village called Tanauk which is about a 15-minute walk away from Labrang Monastery, and beyond the monastery is the city of Labrang or Xiahe (Chinese name, probably spelled it wrong). Shedhe’sbrothers still live in Senko, the nomad grassland which is about 20 minutes from Tanauk. He grew up there, but his parents moved into the city maybe 10 years ago so that they could take care of their grandkids while they were in school. Labrang monastery is enormous, with nearly 2,000 monks studying there (though the Chinese technically put a 1,000 cap on the admittance…..the people have to come up with interesting tricks to try and hide that one). Though largely destroyed during the cultural revolution, it has been mostly rebuilt and is considered to be one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet. I helped Jinpa write a brief history of the monastery so learned a lot about it, but I will spare all the details. Basically, it is a really huge and important Gelukpa (one of the 4 major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the sect the Dalai Lama also belongs to) monastery which is also the central monastery for the surrounding area.

Most of the houses (including the one this family lived in) were are made out of what appeared to be mud-covered wood. The Tibetans are famous for buildings made out of pounded mud. Some newer buildings are now made out of bricks in the Chinese style, but most were still mud, especially for Tibetan families.

The mud seemed to take fairly constant upkeep, and many mornings I would see Mother or our neighbor dragging a big stone wheel across the roof to further compact the mud (it looked like a primitive steam roller), and take more mud to fill in cracks or damaged spots. When they were doing this, pieces of mud would fall in from the chimney holes in the roof or through the wood planks on the ceiling. Inside, the walls, ceiling and floors were solid wood. It was really beautiful, but I would often worry as the wood didn’t appear to really be treated (with anything other than dirt), and Shedhe explained that often the wood rots and needs to be replaced. Water is constantly poured on the floor to keep down the dust (especially in the winter, homes for the nomads, as the floors were just dirt, so it was constantly wetted to keep the persistent dust down) and the floors were also very uneven, the boards raising up in one spot and flat down in other places. It was easy to stumble when you awoke in the night drowsily stumbling to the toilet.

There were several rooms in our house built around a central courtyard; one was used as a small apartment which another man and his son lived in, one was the room with a hole in the ground serving as a toilet (mostly I used it; usually the others just went outside) and also held all the dried sheep and yak dung (which fueled the cooking stove), one room was for storage, one had a stove especially for roasting tsampa, and then our family lived in three of the rooms.

In the courtyard of every home is at least one ferocious dog, which acts as the doorbell (built in with person recognition, a different bark tone for every call at no extra charge), home security system, compost, and garbage disposal. In all the rooms, which people lived in there is what looks like a standard wood stove but is fed with animal dung, and is used for cooking and heating the house. Sometimes the stoves are also made out of pounded mud, and those are only used for cooking, but others were made of metal and used also for heating, with a tea pot of boiling water or tea constantly on top.

The Tibetan people are incredibly religious, especially the older families such as the nomads. I found it interesting that the lay people actually knew very little about Buddhism, but they know that they have to go by the ceremonies, holidays, and rituals, etc. that were tradition for the religion. Lamas (similar to priests or monks for Christians) are consulted to do mo (a form of divination or fortunetelling) for everything in life from marriages to debating about going to a hospital or not, which business opportunity to take, etc. Every morning some form of prayer and offering is done at home as every home has its own small altar inside (including a picture of the Dalai Lama which surprised me), and during the day at any free moment, the older people have prayer beads in their hands (similar to a rosary) and are chanting mantras or going gorah(circumambulation – prayer by walking clockwise around a monastery, temple, or stupa). Everything in their lives has to do with Buddhism.

I read in My Land My Peopleby H.H., the Dalai Lama that around 10 percent of the Tibetan population are monks or nuns. A large percentage of families have at least one member living in a monastery/nunnery. When a monk comes to your home, special food is made, they are given the highest seat in the house, and every demand is served with care. Some of my friends who were monks avoided going to other peoples’ homes very often because too much of a fuss was made over their presence.

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There is No God

Or is there? An age-old debate that can’t be proved or disproved. But now the atheists have decided to campaign with a poster that first started on the sides of buses in England, with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I don’t know whether they actually capitalized god or not since this was put out by the British Humanist Association. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/7681914.stm

Canada’s Freethought Association is running a similar campaign and supposedly the BHA raised more money than anticipated, making their run of ads longer and more far reaching. http://freethoughtassociation.ca/n2ew/ Okay, so atheists don’t believe there is a god, or gods, or divine forces, or mythic animals, or talking snakes or whatever. They have felt a need to champion their side against various ads that have promised salvation or damnation.

This has upset some people, offending some religious groups with “probably” no god. Stephen Green (of pressure group Christian Voice, though I’m not sure what that means) , in the BBC Newsarticle said, “Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.” Errr, really? Like Christianity, and Muslim and all those other beliefs in which people have died for not believing or during a holy crusade or pogrom?  I wonder what the danger is, questioning things? That has got people into trouble since the beginning of time: human curiosity.

Of course, one of the star supporters is a writer named Richard Dawkins who said, “This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.” http://richarddawkins.net/article,366,The-God-Delusion-Review,Barney-ZwartzCBC-News Hmm, this guy starts to fall into the same realm as the religious right (any religious right) where they assume one thing and believe not only should everyone follow their version but if they don’t, they’re blasphemers or worse, should be killed for being unbelievers. Sweeping statements tend to fall into the realm of bigotry and blind faith, whether for believing in a god or believing there is none.

Dawkins is a bit into sweeping statements like the bendy bus guy. Thinking is anathema to religion. Noo, not really. But thinking is anathema to some religious sects or branches, those that tend to like the fundamentalist “our way or the freeway to hell” version of belief. Many religions enjoy and encourage open dialogue and discourse, and if one is firm in their faith, questioning it shouldn’t be a problem. Many theologians exist just to study religions, to ask and discuss questions. Maybe Dawkins is an atheist theologian.

I don’t care if one believes in a beard guy in a white nightgown, a sentient mist, the flying spaghetti monster, a three-headed talking god, sparkling fairies, or in the great abyss of nothingness. Every person should be allowed to believe in what makes them comfortable, as long as they don’t injure another in the pursuit of their beliefs. If any god needs people to campaign for it, then that god  is in trouble. I can see why atheists might campaign and there were some good points of view presented on CBC yesterday by a speaker for the Freethought Association.

I’m not an atheist, nor do I believe in the Christian god, but that shouldn’t matter. I can coexist with a whole bunch of belief systems and think that thinking about religion or there being no god is not a bad thing. And yeah, atheists should get their piece to say as well. Maybe it should be Atheists, capitalized. They’ll help keep a balance and I firmly believe church and state should be separate because power can be abused. There are some exceptions maybe, like the Dalai Lama, but I’d need to do more research into that before I could speak knowledgeably about it.

But I’ve always liked the signature line my brother (who loves to play devil’s advocate) put on his emails: “God hates me because I’m an atheist.”

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