In “Scripting Difference,” students from Dr. Richard Newton’s Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion course, reflected on concepts from Stephen Sharot’s sociology of Religion, James W. Watt’s work on scriptures, and a variety of case studies in order to examine the discourses in the course title. In this edition, Ray Cotolo (Elizabethtown College ’20) uses the birthday celebration of the Bhagavad Gita as a case study in ethnic formation. Read a response to this piece by Emily D. Crews, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Attempting to achieve transcendence is a universal concept across various cultures. Transcendence, defined simply as the existence or experience beyond the physical level, is the cornerstone of all spiritual practices, since the spirit is not a tangible object and thus separate from the physical level of the world. By this virtue, spiritual practices, ranging from contemporary Christianity to Hinduism, are linked in their connections to the spirit and thus focus on the transcendental realm.
But, even though these traditions are bound by the same pursuit of transcendence, they are distinct through their idiosyncratic practices so to be categorized into separate sects of thought, i.e. different religions, or forms of spiritual maintenance. This is where the culture, or collective practices of a specific region, shapes the nature of which the people worship. Because portions of the world developed differently due to histories and geography unique to their specific region, they in turn cultivate traditions organic to the heritage of their area—they develop a culture. It is this culture from which all traditions of a given region are derived, including particular rituals relating to as well as the practice of specific forms of spiritual maintenance. From this culture, ethnic identities manifest symbiotically, coexisting in the continuation and evolution of a society’s cultural climate.
The context of my analysis is the Gita Jayant in Singapore, an annual Hindu celebration which in its essence parallels the fundamental tenants of practicing human spirituality. In the Gita Jayanti, peoples of Singapore come together to consecrate “the birth and not the revelation of a sacred text” (Waghorne 2013, 284) which, linguistically, encapsulates in some form the iconic dimension of the sacred text surrounding the ceremonies: the Bhagavad Gita, which is the holy book to Hinduism as the Bible is to Christianity (Watts 2013). Many rituals and events are conducted during this “birthday” celebration of the Bhagavad Gita, all of which builds to the grand finale of the annual consecration: a ritual of transubstantiation referred to as the Gita Havana. The Gita Havana is a ceremony similar to that used in Hindu cultures to “consecrate a new temple, to sanctify a new home, to enliven a newly-constructed divine body, or to renew an older divine image in need of re-empowerment” (Waghorne 2013, 286).
Transubstantiation, a hierocratically-conducted ritual which recreates the spirit of a virtuous figure, occurs in the Gita Havana through the renewing of an older divine image, that image being of Lord Krishna. Similar to the Catholic tradition of Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Jesus Christ are consumed symbolically as bread and wine, the Gita Havana transubstantiates the Lord Krishna through a ritual of the performative dimension involving the recitation of the Bhagavad Gita in its entirety into a sacred fire, which is constructed according to “the oldest form of Hindu ritual… according to ancient precedent” (Waghorne 2013, 286).
By chanting the Vedas, Lord Krishna is summoned from the fire. Here, the native culture of Hinduism in the east permeates into its rituals, influencing the means of which they conduct their worship. While Catholicism conducts a ritual of transubstantiation relative to the virtuoso located in the west and in European history (that virtuoso being Jesus Christ), the Hindu east ritualizes according to the historical and geographical iconicity of Lord Krishna, including in the sacrifice ofghee, a product unique to Indian geography and history, into the sacred fire per Vedic tradition (Elizarenkova 1995).
Relative to the Bhagavad Gita and its place on the greater spiritual spectrum, the Gita Jayanti demonstrates a universalization in relation to the presence of sacred motifs found in other iconic literature. The hallowed nature of the Bhagavad Gita, in part, comes from what is considered the fifth Veda, which says that “the four Vedas were created out of the air ‘that is exhaled from the nose of the Lord, so it is from the nose’” (Waghorne 2013, 293). This line is also applied, in part, to the Book of Genesis, when “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7, NHEB). This image of “sacred breath” is depicted through nearly all translations of the Bible, showing either a universal representation of sacred action or the influence of eastern culture on Christianity. Yet, the Vedas say “‘Truth is one’” (Campbell 1949, 360), pointing to a central essence from which perhaps all spirituality derives.
A figure who exemplified this in the east was Ramakrishna, whose subscription to Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity has made him subject to studies of psychoanalysis relative to religious credence as well as a figure demonstrating the universal principles that dictate human spiritualism (Bhawuk 2011, 33). Romain Rolland, a French writer and mystic who conducted these psychoanalyses in correspondence with Sigmund Freud, also drew distinctions between Western and Indian knowledge, describing “Western knowledge as the ‘science of facts’ and spirituality as ‘the science of the soul, a peculiarly Indian science’” (Bhawuk 2011, 25, in Parsons 1999, 3-15 ). Historically, this divide in thought occurred, in the traditions which formed Judaism and eastern spiritual practices during the Axial Age, when Judaism shifted to a text-centric society, a base-line form of the semantic dimension, while eastern practices were focused on the interpretation of ideas through oral tradition (Location 3118, 3143).
However, in the Gita Jayanti, aspects of these Western traditions exist, such as with an event which quizzes kids on the contents of the Bhagavad Gita. The questions in this quiz were entirely factual—focused on the base-line form of the semantic dimension and not on the deeper understanding of the words and ideas. This, perhaps, is so to not corrupt the holy words of the Lord Krishna, since the Bhagavad Gita is believed to have come “from words of Krishna directly out of his mouth” (Waghorne 2013, 294). In another competition, kids were judged on their mastery of memorizing the Bhagavad Gita, earning points based upon their “pronunciation, presentation, and the accuracy of memorization, in that order” (Waghorne 2013, 296). Yet, in eastern tradition, this ingraining of sacred words parallels the concept of mantra, which serves to guide the spirit deeper towards what can only be quantified as the “self”. In these contests of the Gita Jayanti, the chief priest of the Gita Havana said, of the purely factual focus for kids on the Bhagavad Gita, that “they did not know the meaning of the verses now, [but] later in life, the verses would come back to them and they would then find meaning and understanding” (Waghorne 2013, 296).
All spirituality works to answer the questions of or explain the unknown. The mysteries of both human existence and human consciousness manifest into that which people end up worshipping so to shed light on that which is otherwise dark. Pursuit of transcendence among cultures across the world demonstrate the natural desire of the human species to attain something greater and, as ethnic identity shows, the manner of which cultures craft and aim to attain it will be unique to the climate of which they occupy. Whether it is these spiritual traditions which shape ethnic identity or vice versa, these two properties regardless coexist, with one influencing the other to enough of an extent where practices among a regional people will define them as a result of their contrast with the traditions of another area of the world.
Armstrong, Karen. 2006. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. New York/Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf e-Book.
Bhawuk, Dharm. 2011. Spirituality and Indian Psychology: Lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita. New York: Springer Science+Business Media LLC
Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Elizarenkova, Tatyana. 1995. Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Parsons, William. 1999. The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 3-15.
Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. 2013. “A Birthday Party for a Sacred Text: The Gita Jayanti and the Embodiment of God as the Book and the Book as God.” Iconic Books and Texts, edited by James Watts.
Watts, James. 2013. “The Three Dimensions of Scripture.” Iconic Books and Texts, edited by James Watts.