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The Spiritual Journey of an Atheist
A review of Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald (New York; Broadway Books; 2002; pp. 291; $12.95).


The Sikh Times, Oct. 8, 2005

Photo: Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald

In 1988, on her first visit to India, the author was a brash twenty-something and 'an extreme atheist, contemptuous of all religion' (p. 15). More than a decade later, transformed by a long spiritual journey through India's cocktail of gods and goddesses, she is less dismissive of faith. However, atheism is at her core, having been 'raised in a family of atheists' (p. 34).

Sarah Macdonald's search for God is sincere, as sincere as can be expected from a non-believer. She leaves no stone unturned, no myth unchallenged. Through it all, she comes close to losing most of the hair on her head but never her acute sense of humor.

Surely, few countries can hope to compete with the mind-boggling variety of divinity on display in India. Sarah's whirlwind tour of the gallery of gods exposes her to every major faith and more, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Sufism. More recent targets of devotion, such as Sai Baba, Osho Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Bollywood stars, are also discussed.

'The only thing that can stop a bus,' observes Sarah, 'is the king of the road, the lord of the [traffic] jungle and the top dog. The holy cow.' For all their holiness, however, cows are treated dreadfully and left to feed themselves by rummaging through garbage disposed in plastic bags. Pieces of these plastic bags 'collect in their stomachs and strangulate their innards, killing the cows slowly and painfully' (p. 11).

As we follow Sarah through her voyage, we realize that although many of the predictions, astrological readings, and palm readings fail to come true, the few that do materialize still manage to create some awe, at least in the author's mind.

In India, 'saving face is so important that living a lie is accepted practice,' (p. 43) one that the author eventually also succumbs to (p. 46).

She notes that the mantras recited at Hindu weddings are 'mostly all to protect the husband' (p. 63). Despite the purported rise in female literacy, Sarah finds that gold, not education, is still 'a girl's best friend - an Indian woman's social security, insurance and alimony if abandoned or divorced' (p. 54). And when things go wrong, 'death can deliver status and honor. The pull for respect and the shame of living in disapproval are stronger than the lust for life' (p. 66).

Sarah's first foray into spirituality is a ten-day Buddhist Vipassana session with S.N. Goenka, which she describes as a 'brain enema' (p. 68). After some initial skepticism she discovers, 'silence is sensual, for my other senses are becoming heightened' (p. 73). The two Indian women in the group give up and leave on day three. It is no wonder that Buddhism never took hold in India. However, Sarah's understanding that 'the Mogul invasions wiped out Buddhism in its country of origin' (p. 150) seems to disregard the other half of the story whereby Buddhism was 'absorbed' by Hinduism and 'died a natural death in India' (The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, p. 179).

Next on the itinerary is Sikhism, which her friend informs her 'is part of Hinduism' (p. 65). Sikhs, who the author views as 'the Irish of India' (p. 89) for being the butts of jokes and emblematic of India's 'hair fetish' (p. 82), must, she feels, find it 'hard to look tough in a topknot' (p. 85).

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar, 'the hairiest holy town on earth' (p. 86), she finds 'Sikhs washing the marble walkways with milk' (p. 87). She credits Sikhs for being 'the only Indians who understand that music sounds better if it's not making ears bleed' (p. 88) and describes the Sikh 'langar' (community kitchen), being cooked on fires 'large enough to bake an elephant' (p. 88), as Sikhism's 'up yours' to the Hindu caste system (p. 88).

Located nearby is the Miri Piri Academy for Western Sikhs, converted by Yogi Bhajan and given new names according to their 'numerology' (p. 90). At the Academy, Guru Singh, famous for being 'the first white Sikh,' predicts 'it'll all end in 2012' (p. 92).

Back at the Golden Temple, Sarah discovers that Indian Sikhs are 'confused by the turbaned white people' and view Sikhism as a 'birthright of blood . . . not for foreigners' (p. 95). S.G.P.C. official Gurbachan Singh Bachan enlightens Sarah about the special protection Sikhs enjoy from skin cancer because their hair 'absorbs the sun's rays' (p. 96). The author feels 'energized' (p. 100) by the encounter but rejects Sikhism because she isn't yet ready for God and, as she puts it, 'I hate a uniform' (p. 97). Also, she tells us, '[my husband] made me promise I won't become a white Sikh or a Hare Krishna' (p. 100).

In Muslim Kashmir, Sarah savors 'twenty-one types of mutton' (p. 113) and finds that 'Sufism is struggling' (p. 123), 'death seems to be the only growth industry' (p. 124), and most people 'want Kashmir to be an Asian Switzerland; an independent peaceful state' (p. 119).

Sarah finds Hinduism to be the 'least authoritarian religion' with an 'ingenious way of dealing with critics . . . Buddha rejected ancient Hindu teachings and the very existence of God, but Hindus insist that he was another avatar of Vishnu' (p. 142).

'The river is not dirty, your mind is dirty' (p. 145), insist sadhus (saints) at the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, where 'the three holy rivers of Hinduism meet - the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati' (p. 134). Sarah takes a 'vow not to eat meat' (p. 159) since 'the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism have spoiled the pleasure of the taste of meat' (p. 187).

Next, Sarah turns to 'Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Gunj, [the] spiritual center of exiled Tibetan Buddhism' (p. 151). The Dalai Lama, she tells us, 'demands doubt, questioning and reasoning' (p. 154). She admits, 'right now the Buddhist way of living attracts me the most,' in part because 'Buddhism is proving it can move with the times' (p. 161). She takes comfort in the understanding that '[Buddha] insisted he never be worshipped or deified' (p. 163).

The author then heads to Dharamkot to meet up with 'India's most ubiquitous travelers - Israelis' (p. 164). 'It was the Dalai Lama who encouraged the first Passover festival in this town full of exiled [Tibetan] Buddhists. In 1990, His Holiness invited a group of Jews here to ask them how they preserved their religion in exile' (p. 169).

Rodger Kamenetz, who wrote about the event in his book The Jew in the Lotus, explains, 'After the Romans destroyed the Jewish temples, our people had to put the elements of worship into everyday life; the home is the temple, the family table is the altar and eating is divine communion' (p. 169).

She writes, 'Most of the travelers here have just finished their compulsory service (boys do three years, girls do twenty months) and they all seem resentful and angry about a spiritual homeland that trains them to kill' (p. 166). Judaism, she says, 'is full of guilt' (p. 167).

The reader is introduced to the varieties of Judaism. 'The Kabbalah is to Judaism what Sufism in to Islam' (p. 169). At the other end of the spectrum is the orthodox Chabad Lubavitch group, which 'only recognizes as Jews those individuals born of a Jewish mother' and believes in reincarnation (p. 173).

The Bene Israeli of Bombay, 'believed to be the poorest Jews in the world,' insist, India 'is the only place where Jews have not been persecuted' (p. 177).

The next stop is Zoroastrianism, 'one of the most ancient monotheistic faiths,' imported from present-day Iran, that 'probably influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam' (p. 182), wherein 'priesthood is an inherited right' (p. 190).

The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, are the 'most Western of India's ethnic groups' (p. 179) who 'became rich because they were firm friends with the British [who] gave them huge chunks of Bombay' (p. 181).

The vulture they depend on 'to take them to heaven' is on the 'critically endangered' list (p. 179). Their faith 'has been polluted by the Hindu customs of their foster motherland; Parsis wear a sacred thread like Hindu Brahmans, most don't eat beef and they throw flowers into sacred waters' (p. 192). Some even believe in reincarnation. Their capacity for 'self-deprecating' humor is a rare sighting in India.

Sarah keenly observes, 'Like Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed, [Zarathustra's] thirtieth birthday was a turning point [i.e. when he attained enlightenment]' (p. 182). She could have added Nanak and perhaps a few others to the list. She also notes with some frustration that the stigmatizing of women during their menstrual periods 'taints nearly every religion' (p. 188).

When confronted with 'NO NON-PARSIS' signs at Parsi temples, the author pines for 'the inclusive, casual nature of Hinduism' (p. 186).

Next on India's spiritual smorgasbord is the Mata Amritanandamayi Math in Kerala. Sarah isn't impressed by much other than Amma's stamina. 'Apparently she never has a day off and hasn't cancelled a darshan [viewing] in thirty years' (p. 207).

In Bollywood, she seeks out Amitabh Bachchan, 'a man with three temples dedicated to him' (p. 234).

From there it's onto Bangalore to meet Sathya Sai Baba, who 'says he is a purna avatar - a manifestation of God in human form and a coming predicted in the Bhagavad Gita, a Muslim Hadith and the Bible' (p. 238).

Sarah is a witness to two miracles. 'Hundreds of Indians are waiting in ordered queues in total silence' (p. 240) and Sai actually manages to 'arrive early' (p. 241). Sai segregates devotees by gender, nationality and spiritual association and 'spends most of the time on the male side, chooses mostly blokes for interviews' (p. 241).

'He has twenty-five million followers, including chief justices, an army chief of staff, ex-prime ministers, senior politicians and cricketers Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. A court has already ruled his gold comes from God and it seems there aren't any Indian investigations into the sexual allegations' (pp. 241-2). Sai has said 'he will die in 2020' and be reborn as 'Prema (love) in Gunaparthy, Karnataka' eight years later (p. 242).

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Sarah notes, 'As I feared, there won't be any forgiveness or compassion, there will be more death and another cycle of hate' (p. 257). In a moment of despondency she turns spiritual when her husband departs to Kabul on an assignment for the Australian Broadcasting Company. 'I pray,' she writes, 'to preserve my husband's life' (p. 258).

Jains, the book informs us, 'follow a religion that's often described as an extreme form of Buddhism' (p. 281) and 'don't really believe in a controlling creator that judges and directs retribution' (p. 283). Sarah is unable to accept the 'self-violence' of the seemingly progressive 'Jain ritual of santhara - starving oneself to death when all purposes in life have been served, or the body is useless' (p. 285).

To the author, India, the land of her 'rebirth' (p. 289), is both 'the best of humanity' and 'the worst of humanity' (p. 67). 'India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true' (p. 107).

In the end, India is unable to inspire Sarah to 'worship' (p. 106) much more than the air-conditioner. Varanasi, or Benares, she says, is the experience that 'has branded itself on me most boldly' (p. 290).

India's secret for happiness, in the words of one of the author's interlocutors, 'We Indian people, we look at the people more poor, more low, more hard than us and we be thanking God we are not them. So we are happy' (p. 111).

Sarah is still an atheist but feels that 'being an extreme atheist is as arrogant as being an extreme fundamentalist' (p. 121). She tells people, 'I'm a Christian by culture but have no God' (p. 129). She is incapable of surrendering to a guru because, she says, 'the Westerner in me is automatically suspicious of people who claim to be perfect' (p. 141).

She writes, 'all religions, even the most inclusive of all, are ultimately perverted by humankind' (p. 286). But she neglects to acknowledge that all religions are the creation of humankind in the first place. 'I don't want to reject religion as the cause of human hatred,' she says (p. 287). Sarah's 'feelings on arranged marriages have changed' because 'lust doesn't last and couples with things in common do' (p. 219). In India, she's begun to see religion differently because 'it gives people with so little so much' (p. 244).

She leaves us with the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, 'When one loses the deep intimate relationship with nature then temples, mosques and churches become important' (p. 288).