Conversations with Invisible Men
This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 5, 2012: Hands and Feet.
I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.
Conversations with Invisible Men
By Flash Parker
Asian Geographic Magazine
There was not much flesh on the Buddha’s hand. I found a bit of meat on that space between the thumb and forefinger, but otherwise the Buddha’s hand left me grasping for something more substantial. It looked beautiful next to the rockfish my host had sautéed in salt, pepper, and garam masala, but I suspected the Buddha’s hand was tossed into the pot as a nothing more than a garnish; the Buddha’s hand, for those that don’t know, is a bright yellow citrus fruit known for its fragrant aroma and limited use in the kitchen. Priya, my host, was in her mid-20s, and carried herself with an air of regal dignity, wrapped as she was in the bright colors of her native India. Priya was for a few years enrolled at the University of Toronto, and learned a thing or two about culinary extravagance from an uncle that owned his own Indian restaurant. I asked if her Buddha’s hand and rockfish recipe was an ancient family secret. She dipped a bit of fish into olive oil, and then she shrugged. “I learned it from the internet,” she said. “But if you are really interested in the secret of the Buddha’s hand, I know someone you should speak with.”
MEET THE RACONTEURS
The raconteurs are a group of elderly men who wander the streets of Udaipur, aggressively debating the nature of existence and all that life has to offer. Mohanlal is the youngest, brashest, and loudest of the bunch. It was his voice I heard booming from the rear of the Jagdish Temple.
“I don’t believe in having conversations with invisible men,” Mohanlal said. Mohanlal appeared to be substantially less destitute than his friend Vikas, as if Mohanlal had yet to experience all that life on the streets of Udaipur had to offer. Vikas tugged at his long white beard and listened attentively. “What has your God, or any other God for that matter, done to help me? What has any God ever done to help you, Vikas?” Mohanlal said. “Speaking with invisible men is a waste of time. Religion is a weapon used by clever people to appease the oppressed. If the poor and the stupid are promised a better station in their next life, then they have no reason to complain in this one!” Mohanlal rubbed his grubby hands together as he made his point.
Vikas looked deeply into the eyes of his friend, smiled, and turned his attention to me. “Do you agree with this man?” Vikas asked. I said that I didn’t know whether I agreed or not.
“I was hoping that you could tell me something about the Buddha’s hand,” I said.
“Then you are just as stupid as the rest of them,” Mohanlal said.
Vikas took my hands in the gnarled roots that passed as his own and faced my palms outward, my fingers pointed at the sky. “This is the abhaya,” Vikas said. “This is the gesture of protection. Do you feel as though you are protecting me when you make this gesture?” I said that I did not. “This is because you do not believe it,” Vikas said.
Mohanlal spit a jet of crimson betel nut juice onto the ground. “Foolishness,” he said. Mohanlal touched the tips of his thumb and index finger together and pointed his three remaining fingers at my face. “This is the gesture of debate,” he said. “But if I really wanted to start an argument with you, I would be better served by poking you in the eye.”
Mohanlal and Vikas carried on like this while my mind dialed up a memory from East Java, Indonesia, and the ancient temple of Borobodur, where I had first heard of the mudra. My guide at the time explained the concept of the five qualities of the Buddha, or the Five Dhyani, and how they embody the principles of enlightenment. I didn’t quite grasp how a simple repositioning of the hands could hold power over the cosmos, but with Vikas, Mohanlal, and their friends perched upon the balustrades at the Jagdish Temple before me in this bustling Indian city, I began to come to terms with how much sway belief has over the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
“Disbelief is the single biggest obstacle we must overcome in our lives,” Vikas said, “while opprobrium for what we do believe in can be every bit as problematic.” I thought of the Buddha’s hand. In its natural form, the fruit has little to offer. But in my mind I can imagine it becoming more; with the proper tools, I can make something nourishing from it.
“A conversation with God is no different,” Vikas said. “I cannot see him, nor can I hear him. If I believe that the Buddha’s hands are empty, then they will be empty. But if I allow myself to believe that they can point me towards enlightenment, then they possess something very powerful indeed.”
THE CAWING OF CROWS
I’m not a spiritual tourist, and I am certainly no hagiographer, but it is difficult not to get caught in the spirit of things when people like Vikas are holding court for a grand audience. Yet Mohanlal also made what I thought was a sound argument. Therein lay the problem for people like me who sit on the fence with regards to this whole religion thing; the pages of history are filled with stories of men and women who offered the world to the devoted with one hand, and swiped away their dignity with the other. The concept of the hand as the driving force for change and belief is a big one, especially in Asia, where tactility drives nations forward. In India, men and women work with their hands. What those hands are able to do has a direct bearing on where they may find themselves on the sliding scale of the cycle of life at any given moment.
After listening to Mohanlal and Vikas communicate with invisible men, I went for a walk around Lake Pichola in an effort to make sense of what I had heard. I crossed a small bridge where two boys were fishing; the older boy was teaching the younger boy how to fix bait to his hook. On the opposite side of the bridge, an older man stood waist-deep in the water, washing his face and brushing his teeth. Beneath me, a dead cow was pushed into deeper waters by a teenaged boy. I know of no artist in the world who could have so succinctly drawn a picture of the cycle of life. I wondered what drove these men; I wondered what they believed in.
Standing on that bridge, I couldn’t help but reexamine Mohanlal’s skepticism. Where some men see a prophet, Mohanlal sees a false idol. Mohanlal does not believe because he is told to believe; he demands proof. Buddhism, Hinduism, mudras, the principals of enlightenment, and the infinite power of the cosmos have been around so long that by their very nature they seem infallible – the codes and tenants of these ancient religions exist because people believe in them, and people believe in them because they exist. The Buddha’s hands hold the key to enlightenment because they have always done so. Modern profits have had a difficult time making magic with their hands, as the people of India know full well. Śri Sathya Sai Baba worked his way into the national conscience by claiming to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a beloved spiritual seraph. For three-quarters of a century Sathya Sai Baba performed acts with his hands that were considered miraculous among the devoted and deceitful among skeptics. Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be able to heal the sick, materialize inanimate objects from nothing, and levitate. Sathya Sai Baba drew legions of believers, but also amassed a great mass of skeptics who claimed he did little more than take advantage of poor, unfortunate souls who yearned simply for something to believe in. Sathya Sai Baba claimed that in his hands his followers would find salvation; when he heeled the sick, he compared himself and his abilities to Jesus Christ, saying that "Jesus Christ underwent many hardships, and was put to the cross because of jealousy. Many around him could not bear the good work he did and the large number of followers he gathered. One of his disciples, Judas, betrayed him. In those days there was one Judas, but today there are thousands. Just as that Judas was tempted to betray Jesus, the Judases of today, too, are bought out to lie. Jealousy was the motive behind the allegations leveled at him." By likening himself to Jesus Christ, Sathya Sai Baba left his followers to decide whether the modern man was capable of performing miracles with his own two hands. Many of these followers decided that they would be better off believing.
PALM TO PALM
Hands, in the context of faith, are handled in quite a different way across different religions – they are not always used as a key to the door to enlightenment, as instruments of deception, or harbingers of magic. The teachings of Islam discourage physical contact on the grounds that contact may lead to familiarity that is unwanted on the part of females; the shaking of hands, in particular, is considered especially taboo. The hands are considered powerful tools, but not because they have the ability to shift cosmic energies, bring inanimate things to life, or turn water to wine; hands, as an extension of the human body, and therefore the human spirit, have the power to create desire. Desire can lead to lust, and lust can lead to wanton action. Wanton action, of course, is sinful action. Sinful actions are always to be avoided, so touching the hand of a woman is to be avoided. This makes the human hand a very powerful thing indeed; if there is so much potential sin emanating from a simple handshake, what sort of temptation and immorality lay in the palm of the hand?
As reported by al-Tabaraani from the hadeeth of Ma’qil ibn Yasaar, the prophet said, “It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you.” A man whom places his palm in the palm of a woman has wronged himself; while he may repent, he has invalidated his ablution, and for all intents and purposes he has sullied his character and spirit.
Generally speaking, all things that lead to temptation are prohibited by Islamic Law, though many scholars argue that this is out of a base respect for the rights of women. These scholars often refer to a verse from the Quran that reads, “"O Prophet! When believing women come to thee to take the oath of fealty to thee, that they will not associate in worship any other thing whatever with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit adultery, that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood, and that they will not disobey thee in any just matter, then do thou receive their fealty, and pray to Allah for the forgiveness (of their sins): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Al Mumtahinah 60:12). When women accepted the conditions of this verse in the presence of the prophet, he received their oath of allegiance by word alone, refusing to shake their hands. Born of respect, this tradition continues today.
AN ORTHODOX APPROACH
Similar attitudes towards physical contact, and restrictions relating to the hands, can be found in Judaism. Orthodox Jews distance themselves from most forms of physical contact on the grounds of respect; by refusing to touch one another, by refusing to shake hands with laypeople, Jews are reminded of the sanctity of their most important bonds – both familial and marital. In the eyes of nonbelievers, this can be seen as a form of disrespect; in Western societies, where shaking hands is a casual form of greeting or an important part of business making, the refusal to shake hands can be viewed as off-putting, or even offensive. Yet Orthodox Jews view a prohibition on physical contact as an acknowledgement of the latent attraction between women and men, and a handshake, however innocent it may seem, may lead to something more severe. The hands, again, possess latent power in and of themselves. By refusing to allow them to fall into the hands of another, hands allow the faithful to reaffirm their respect for one another – and exclude any notion of casual sexual intimacy from even the most chance encounters.
HOT IN INDIA
Yet the Jews like to have a little spiritual fun of their own, characterized by the myriad symbols, motifs, and ornaments related to hands.
One of the most popular symbols in Jewry is the Hamesh Hand, a motif often found on pendants and bracelets. The symbol features an inverted hand with an eye at the center, and is used to represent the Hand of God. The Hamesh Hand is used as protection from the evil eye, a malevolent spiritual force aroused by jealous and envy. Historically, the concept of the evil eye has been associated with Judaism, though many other religions connect the spiritual power of the hand to the malevolent forces of the eyes.
In fact, the Hamesh Hand is known in Araabic as the Hamsa Hand, or the Hand of Fatima, and is similarly used to ward off the evil eye. There is some speculation that this apotropaic amulet predates both Islam and Judaism, and represents the hand of a Persian goddess; when this goddess placed her hand over the face of any man, their symptoms of envy and jealousy would abate. Hindus have their own way of dealing with the evil eye; often, when the evil eye is suspected of falling upon a member of a house, that member must crush dried red chilies into a powder and then burn the powder in their palm. I was tempted to raise an eyebrow in Mohanlal’s direction and present him a bag of chili powder, but thought better of this idea when I considered what sort of curse I may inadvertently lay upon myself.
THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD
Some folks need tactile evidence of a miracle in order to begin believing. Some folks need only to believe in the possibility of a miracle. I wondered how Vikas and Mohanlal would react in the presence of the world’s most famous hands.
If Jesus and I were skipping stones across Lake Pichola, I would ask him to turn the tepid water into wine. I want to believe in miracles, but I require that they happen before my own eyes. I am a skeptic by nature, but only because I know what the hands of man are capable of. The hands of the ordinary man are every bit as flawed as man himself – at once capable of great and evil deeds. The hands of Christ, so I have been told, were capable only of kindness and compassion. I wonder what Mohanlal might have said after shaking hands with Jesus; Jesus had a soft spot for beggars, after all. Jesus saw life through the eyes of skilled tradesmen and common folk, and it was with them that he connected. Like them, his hands were rough, calloused, and strong; they were capable hands. Jesus was a carpenter, and with his hands he built great things. What would Mohanlal have made of those hands?
I imagined Jesus presenting his palms to Vikas. As light illuminated from the palms, Vikas would have known that salvation was at hand. Mohanlal would have required Jesus to use his hands to build something of worth in order to believe in him, while Vikas would have required nothing more than an assurance that his faith would be rewarded. In the end, both would have believed, in their own way, in the power held in the hands of the crafty carpenter.
A PROPHET AND A PAINTER
Asia has long been a spreading ground for prophets who would do miraculous things with their hands – and ended up dead because of it. The Iranian prophet Mani has been forgotten in even his own native lands, the Manichaeism gnostic religion he founded no longer practiced. Yet I think Mani would have made an impact in India, if not in Udaipur; he believed that reality is little more than a base conflict between good and evil, or the light and the dark, and that the battle can be won by those who placed their faith in his hands. It didn’t hurt Mani’s cause that he believed himself to be an apostle of Jesus, and the reincarnated spirit of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Ganesha, putting a whole lot of cosmic firepower at his disposal.
Since Mani saw the world in definite black and white, it would have been interesting to see how he painted a picture of Udaipur; Mani was known as a great artist, and he used his paintings to captivate, provoke and motivate his followers. I wonder what Vikas and Mohanlal would have seen when they looked upon the easel; would they see images of heaven (where Mani claimed to have spent much time), or would they have seen a much darker reality?
People are drawn to miracles in dark times – whether those miracles are real, perceived, or something else entirely. Hands, for many, are the vehicle of deliverance. They are the driving force of change, and they carry the hope some people need from one heart to their own. Whether or not men like Sathya Sai Baba or Jesus Christ were able to perform miracles with their hands means little next to the perceived good their hands were able to do; when people are no longer able to take responsibility for their own happiness, they turn to others for guidance. The Buddha’s hands can lead anyone to enlightenment, but only if they chose to believe it is possible. Belief, like Vikas intimated, is the only real secret worth discovering.
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