How a Christian Celebrated Christmas at a Hindu Monastery
“Come on, Dana, you can’t really celebrate Christmas at a Hindu monastery!”
A friend posed this question two weeks before Fred and I ventured to Central America for a Hindu Christmas.
Her question is not an unusual one. This suspicion is shared by many who have or haven’t read Saffron Cross.
Understandably, folks are troubled by what appears to be a submissive favoring of my husband’s chosen religious values and ideals–especially during Christianity’s most celebrated holy days.
After all, this is the second time in four years that I’ve accompanied Fred on an international journey to a Hindu monastery for Christmas. The first: Vrindavana, India, for our two-week honeymoon, and now Madhuvan, Costa Rica, for a 10 day retreat.
But, the truth is, it’s easier to celebrate Christmas in such spaces.
America is noisy this time of year. Last-minute sales are plentiful; to-do lists are long. Christmas in the states has become more about gadgets and consumption than adoring God incarnate who was born in a barn to a family with nothing.
But, placing blame for how or why things got so turned around isn’t helpful. Focusing on the mystery of the season is.
Each evening at Madhuvan Monastery, we worship in a small, screened-in temple room with a tile floor and wooden ceiling. Large wooden beams stretch the entire length of the ceiling, reminding me of the simple barns that dot the rural North Carolina landscape. The temple room is intimate and protective–a place where we meet God.
A tall wooden chest serves as an altar and home to the presiding deities: Sri Sri Douji Gopal. The deities have a view of the rising sun and pastel dusk. We worship them with songs and meditative prayers, accompanied by crickets, monkeys, and tropical birds. In the morning and evening, the only light radiates from the contents of the altar, reminding us that true light comes from God.
On Christmas Eve, I gazed at the roof as we sang worship songs. My heart was transported to Bethlehem, and I imagined what it must have been like two millennia ago, when a frightened family in a dark barn had nowhere to go. In the austere mountains of Western Costa Rica, there are no street lamps illuminating the paths. When we make the seven-minute trek from the temple room to our cabin, the jungle is a solid sheet of midnight blue. The breeze rustles the trees, the monkeys howl, but what lies beyond the beam of your flashlight is the unknown.
I imagined how Mary and Joseph must have felt when they placed their newborn in manger, the only light radiating from the starry sky.
Christmas Eve in Costa Rica was felt much closer to the actual conditions surrounding Jesus’ birth.
No artificial trees, no twinkling lights, no eggnog, no climate control.
After worship on Christmas Eve, Swami B.V. Tripurari, Fred’s guru, whose vision created Madhuvan Monastery, announced that we would have a Christmas Day Feast in honor of St. Thomas the Apostle, who brought Christ’s message and love to South India. St. Thomas died on December 21, 72 AD.
Here I was, a Baptist miles and miles from home, and the Hindus who surrounded me had chosen a special way to honor the day.
Warmth filled my chest, the kind of love you feel when someone remembers us.
On Christmas Day, the monks busily prepared the feast, making plans for ending the day with a short documentary about the disciple who bravely brought Christ’s mission to another part of the world.
“The story went like this: Gaurasundara’s day to cook lunch is Thursday, and he had already fermented the rice and dal to make utthapam; but last night our Gurudeva said we should have a Xmas feast, because Dana is here (the author of “Saffron Cross”). So, Gaura said: “You know how St. Thomas is said to have gone to South India….. OK, I’m making utthapam!” I just made the Xmas tree cookies and the upside-down apple cake (red from the peels). The rest is all delicious: water, lemonade (oh, I made that, too!), rice, sambar, coconut chutney, some raita, potato sak, utthapam, tamarind chutney, and the daily sweet.” –Syamasundara Dasa, Madhuvan Monastic
That evening, at the conclusion of worship on Christmas, another monastic guest led a vibrant round of Hindu songs.
“Gaudiya Carols,” offered Sanatana, the temple manager, who was featured along with his wife, Nama-ruci, in the Vegetarian Chapter of Saffron Cross.
As the nearly dozen of us sang, I felt gratitude.
This community graciously welcomed someone who doesn’t share all of their beliefs by going out of their way to accommodate my beliefs.
At age 33, I realize how blessed I am to have had decades of traditional Christmases with families and churches and Santas and presents. But, now, how even more fortunate I am to have had this sort of Christmas, the kind where I’m connected to Christ through love of community and simplicity.
As a friend recently wrote me a Christmas email, “I hope Jesus is reborn in your heart on this day, and that he finds your heart the warm room he deserves instead of the barn that he got.”
Fred and I trekked back to our cabin just before 9:00 p.m. on Christmas day, when the entire mountainside was enveloped in darkness. The crescent moon smiled at us, guiding our way. We turned out our flashlights and stood before its glow. A little further down the path, the charcoal sky yielded thousands of stars, the like the stellar event that guided the Wise Men millennia ago.
“ … [The Magi] set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” Matthew 2: 9-10, NRSV
So the answer to my friend’s initial question is yes, we can honor Christmas in even the most unlikely places, because Christmas is not about stockings and overeating. Christmas is a heart occasion, a connection to the great mystery of the incarnation.
We know we have found the truest meaning of Jesus’ birth when it grabs us by the soul, when it arrives as the unexpected, like a Messiah lying in a manger, or Hindu monks graciously serving a “Christmas” feast.