A well-educated and exceptionally well-read family friend recently told me that in his opinion there is a strong correlation between the intelligence of a nation and the percentage of atheists living in that nation. While the debate on the existence of God rages on around the world, religion has played and continues to play a very important role in the lives of many people in India. A desire for “spiritual truth” along with numerous cultural traditions maintains religion/spirituality in a valued position.
In our quest for cultural immersion, Gaby and I recently participated in “The Potter’s Trail,” a visit to a Potter’s village organized by Storytrails India, a company dedicated to uncovering and sharing the stories of India. It was fascinating to travel to rural Tamil Nadu and to witness a village whose sole industry and existence revolved around transforming mud into beautiful statues of Indian gods and goddesses. The importance of their work really struck me as we travelled some kilometers away to a Hindu temple. Every year during a big festival celebration, the villagers make and then carry statues of life size horses to this temple and offer their work as votives, gifts to the gods. Village economy, culture, religion, tradition, spirituality, and hierarchy all rolled into one experience. What I loved most about the experience was the presentation of historical events and of religious texts as stories.
My favorite story is the story of the birth of Aiyanar. Long ago, the demon Bhasmasur prayed very diligently to obtain a boon from Shiva (the god of destruction). The demon had to be compensated for his efforts, and Shiva was forced to grant Bhasmasur the power that anyone whose head he touched with his hand should burn up and immediately turn into ashes. It was fine, until the demon wanted to touch Shiva’s head and kill him. Bhasmasur began chasing Shiva, and all around the world they went with Shiva running in fear for his life. The god Vishnu noticed this terrible scene and devised a plan to save Shiva. Vishnu transformed himself into a very beautiful and irresistible woman named Mohini and appeared in front of the demon. Bhasmasur was immediately distracted from chasing Shiva and was so enraptured with her beauty that he proposed to her on the spot. Mohini told him that she loved dancing and would only marry him if he could match her moves identically. Bhasmasur agreed, and the competition started. After many days, Mohini struck a pose where her hand was placed on top of her own head. As Bhasmasur imitated her, he was tricked into touching his own head, and he immediately burnt up and turned into ashes. Meanwhile, Shiva had also fallen in love with Mohini (Vishnu’s disguise), he grabbed her hand, and from this brief union, the god Aiyanar was born. What makes this story particularly interesting is that Aiyanar was a pre-existing local god in the Tamil Nadu region. When Hinduism spread from the north, it was able (and willing) to blend with the local religion. How did the blend occur? Through stories such as this one, local gods were absorbed into the Hindu pantheon.
We’re swimming in stories whether it’s experiencing a story, telling a story, writing a story, reading a story, or dreaming a story. We are obsessed with stories. Frankly, what is an individual but an ever evolving collection of stories? Just as much as we love telling our stories, we love hearing stories – stories that make us laugh or cry or raise our eyebrows. However, stories are not just for entertainment. All cultures have developed stories to explain their beginnings and their endings. Above all, religion provides a good story – a good story for how things came to be, how things will be, and how we should strive to act in the meantime. The “truth” of this religious story does not need to be proven by upper level mathematics or physics. It is a “spiritual truth.” Its value lies in its ability to draw people together into a harmonious community and to guide them towards living well.
This brings me to the story of Dr. V and Aravind. Dr. V lived well. “‘You see, when people need help, you can’t simply run away, no?’ says Dr. V. ‘You say, I will help you, and then you do what you can.’” (Infinite Vision 7).
At age 30 while in medical school, Dr. V was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He was forced to choose a different specialty to accommodate his condition and began working in eye care services. After a long career in medicine, Dr. V didn’t stop. He founded Aravind. Why? Because there was a need. In India, 15 million people suffer from blindness, and the vast majority of cases are treatable. But the vast majority of these people also could not afford the eye care offered at other institutions. Aravind is unique because it was able to blend low-cost, high-volume, and high-quality. The payment system is tiered so patients that can afford it do pay, while others who cannot receive care for almost nothing. But the outcomes are not tiered. Dr. V’s goal was to offer the best care to the most underserved, and Aravind has succeeded. Not only does Aravind thrive from serving those most in need but also it provides a model for others. Medical students and ophthalmologists from all over the world train at Aravind to become better physicians and to study the model in hopes of implementing it elsewhere. They all realize that the success of Aravind can’t be boiled down to numbers. At lunch the other day, I was speaking with a doctor from Uzbekistan whose specialty is Oculoplasty and Ocular Prosthetics. I asked him why he chose this specialty, and he said simply, “Because there is a need.” Aravind succeeds because of the people. The spirit of the people who work at Aravind is such that they understand the needs of the most underserved in the community, and they aim to fulfill those needs. They understand that eliminating blindness is not an isolated end point. Restoring vision to someone restores their dignity, their ability to work, and their ability to provide for their children who will be able to go to school, find a job, and help their family, their village, and their county move forward towards a better future.
“To some of us bringing divine consciousness to our daily activities is the Goal. The Hospital work gives an opportunity for this spiritual growth. In your growth you widen your consciousness and you feel the suffering of others in you.” – Dr. V