India’s Holy Icons Transcend Religious Barriers

The popularity of the Hindu ritual Satyanarayan Puja breaks most barriers irrespective of language, location and even religion. Often carried out for thanksgiving or house-warming purposes at Hindu homes, this puja is popular across India, from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south to Punjab and Maharashtra in the west as well as Assam and Bengal in the east.

During this particular puja, the legend of Satyanarayan manages to break religious barriers and merge with the legend of a Sufi saint who had magical powers. After the recitation of Sanskrit mantras, most priests take out a different book to narrate the story of Satya Pir, who is believed to have been the reincarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. The story of Satya Pir is revered by Muslims as well, whether they live in Bengal, Orissa, Assam or even Bangladesh. Adherents are said to be rewarded – the childless with children and the needy with enormous wealth.

The desire to find a short route through the miseries of life is universal, which is why legends like that of Satya Pir, constructed around miracles and prayers, often appeal to people across religious lines, thus becoming the secret to a massive following.

For instance, St Michael’s Church in Mumbai was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century but people from different faiths continue to visit it. Some estimate that as much as 40 percent of all visitors at the church are non-Christians. Every Wednesday, the Church offers a festive environment to Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs, who sport their respective religious attires before entering the main door of the Church barefoot and then moving all the way to the pulpit on their knees. Legend has it that repeating the Novenas or Wednesday Prayers for nine consecutive weeks rewards a believer. As is commonly seen in India, many adherents of other faiths seek out the Catholic practice of confession and absolution to unburden themselves. In fact, this particular parish also offers a counseling center with 38 trained professionals to help devotees.

St Michael’s Church is a modern example of a syncretic shrine, where followers of different religions gather to offer prayers. There are quite a few popular syncretic shrines across northern India, with most of them belonging to Sufi saints. Dargah of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and Dargah of Salim Chishti in New Delhi are prime examples of such syncretic shrines.

Even though some Hindu temples are known to have strict restrictions on the entry of foreigners or believers of others faiths, others have turned into syncretic shrines over time. In his book titled Hindu Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities, author J. J. Roy Burman writes about several such examples from the state of Maharashtra. Apart from magical powers and legends of prayers being fulfilled, the proximity of communities to such a place of worship often causes it to become a syncretic shrine. Among other examples, he cites the Maruti Temples in Girnera Tanda, Aurangabad, which was constructed by a nomadic tribe that settled in a nearby village before migrating to another location.

Since then, the temple has been maintained by Muslims, who settled there later and decided to stay. In Baroda, he cites the Sidheshwar Temple and the Balam Shahid Dargah that stand next to each other. Hindus and Muslims visiting their own houses of worship often end up visiting the other one as well.

Apart from Sufi saints like Satya Pir, Moinuddin Chishti and Salim Chishti, several other religious men in India have managed to break down religious barriers. Even though Satya Pir happens to be associated with magical powers, his personality as a preacher seems to have drawn a following from various religious sects. Over time, it would be no surprise if his legacy lived on as a syncretic tradition that appeals to followers of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity alike.  Sant Kabir of Varanasi, Sai Baba of Shirdi and Lalan Fakir of Bengal are other prominent examples of India’s holy icons to have transcended religious barriers.

Photo Credits: Rise for India

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