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In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.
As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?”
In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?
Julia Roberts has converted to Hinduism.
You might ask why.
I am sitting at my desk looking at my Ganesha. He is beautiful, pink and red, yellow, and turquoise with a gold crown. He is looking encouragingly at me. “You can do it, Sal,” he is saying. Between my fingers is another Ganesha. This one is hanging from a chain around my neck. He is gold with tiny diamonds in his crown. I bought him in India. I have many others. A lapis lazuli one, a beautiful marbled inlaid one, a multi colored jeweled one. They are on every floor of the house. I have them in all of my rooms. I have one in the car. I have one buried in the stones around my labyrinth.
Ganesha is the Hindu Lord of Success. He has an elephant for a head and a mouse as his sidekick. He is holding a stick with which to push me toward my goals. He is the remover of all obstacles, the God of wisdom and intelligence. He is never foreboding or cruel. He is not judgmental. He is strong and wise. He can use his trunk to literally pick things up and move them out of the way. The Hindu scholar Wendy Doniger likens him to the elephant in “The Greatest Show On Earth” when the elephant in the circus saves Charleton Heston’s life by stopping the train with his trunk. He provides a divine element of trust. He helps with new beginnings. I need all the help I can get.
The film, “Eat, Pray Love” opens this week. It has inspired a new interest in Hinduism because of Roberts’ embracing of the faith. “I’m definitely a practicing Hindu” she says, though her mother was Catholic and her father was a Baptist. She and her husband and three children go to temple to “chant and pray and celebrate.”
There are those who scoff at Hinduism. It is, after all, not a traditional monotheistic religion, not one of the Abrahamic faiths. Many feel that you can’t take a religion seriously which has so many whimsical Gods, one for every possible problem. Franklin Graham, for instance, said recently that “No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 Gods is going to lead me to salvation.”
Do I pray to Ganesha? I’m not sure I would call it that. But there is something so compelling about this figure with his assurance and serenity that I can’t help but touch him when I am feeling blocked. And guess what? It helps.
As a former atheist, I do not identify with any one religion. I see many beautiful things in each religion and many things I do not like. I do, however, feel myself drawn to Ganesha in a way that is unusual for me.
I first met him when I was starting this web site, “On Faith” and confided to a Hindu friend that I was apprehensive. “You should check out Ganesha”, he said. I did. I liked the concept. I’ve always hated the idea of defeat, of not being able to succeed, at giving up. Ganesha spoke to me.
The more I learned about the Lord of Success the more I became intrigued by the Hinduism.
About six months after I started On Faith I took a three week trip around the world to study the great faiths. I had never left my husband or my son for that long, nor had I ever taken a trip alone that wasn’t strictly a reporting trip. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. It wasn’t exactly Eat, Pray, Love; I wasn’t being paid to write a book and I only had three weeks. But I did have an exhilarating sense of being liberated for the first time since I had been married and had a child. I was going off on my own, anonymously, with a group of people I had never met, to study faith. Was it going to be really tedious, or it was going to be revelatory. Would it change my views on religion? Would my worst suspicions be confirmed or would I ending up finding God? I committed to remaining as open-minded and receptive as I possibly could to everything I saw and learned.
Taking the trip was the best decision I ever made. I was no longer an atheist after I had returned, though that evolution had been in the works for many years.
There is so much debate these days about whether all religions are the same or not. On this trip, I was amazed at how similar they all were in their basic tenets. I still feel that way. And yet I was stunned at how each religion had branched out into different sects and cultures and beliefs, even within themselves. There is a Hindu sect which worships the God Shiva. The legend is that Shiva came down to test them and they even tried to convert him to their form of Shiva worship.
We went to thirteen countries all around the world and each one was completely different and evoked so many different thoughts and emotions in me. India, and particularly the country’s Hinduism, captured my imagination. Its complexity, its worldliness, the sensuousness, the details, the colors, the art, music, the poetry. There was an acute understanding of human nature which appealed to me. I also like the notion that though it is polytheistic, it is also monotheistic in the sense that the divine force, Brahman is ultimately a unifying force which animates all life. There is one God who manifests himself in many ways. You don’t even have to call him a God. That “God” is infinite. He represents the divine in all of us.
What impressed me the most was the evening cremations along the sacred banks of the Ganges in the holy city of Varanese. The acceptance, celebration and respect for death was overwhelming. My mother had recently died and been cremated. I have part of her ashes buried in my labyrinth as well. It seemed unthinkable that I would have laid her on the banks of a river and watched her burn. And yet the denial I faced after she died would probably not have been nearly as strong if I had.
There are basically two ways to become a Hindu without having been born one. The first is to read the stories, study the religion and adopt its way of life; the second is to meet a guru who can lead you to the religion. There is really no “conversion to Hinduism.” Julia Roberts didn’t convert. She simply became a Hindu. Reportedly her fascination came through a charismatic guru. These people are famous for reading signs. They look at you, see you and know what you need. There is a very famous Hindu woman, a guru named Amma who goes around the world hugging people. The people she hugs say they have felt something different from anything they have ever felt before. She and others like her can bring the Upanishads to life through their own personalities. There are so many talented healers and fortune tellers in India, they seem to be brilliant observers of human nature as well as being able to foresee the future. (There are also plenty of charlatans as well.)
I saw two while I was in India. The first one came to my hotel in a tweed jacket. I was so disappointed. It wasn’t what I expected. Yet when he held my hand and looked at me, he began to describe my life in such a stunning way that I was breathless. He conjured up a picture of a wild walled secret garden of mine with intimate details he could not possibly have known about. “Don’t ever let it go,” he said.
The other holy man I went to see with a Hindu friend. He was sitting cross legged on the floor of a tiny room with robes, a long beard and deep pockets for eyes. There were candles and music and incense. “Ah“, I thought, this is more like it.
He was in serious consultation with a family, older parents whose young son apparently didn’t want to marry the woman who had been picked out for him. There was a lot of animated discussion, tears and raised voices. They didn’t seem to even notice I was there.
After they left it was my turn. He looked in his holy book for a long time after taking my hand and studied my eyes.
Finally he said, “You are about to embark on something that will take you to places you have never known and would never expect to go. It will totally change your life.”
He was right, of course. Hosting On Faith has been an unexpected and life-changing experience.
Certainly everyone cannot take a life-changing trip. Nor does everyone need to. And Hinduism was not the only religion that touched me: Whether it was Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism or any of the other traditions I studied, the reaching for the transcendence, the meaning of life, the divine was always transporting to me.
What everyone can do, though, is study different faiths. One may appeal to you which you knew nothing about. None may appeal to you enough to believe or even embrace it. But one thing is for sure: You will come away a changed person simply for the experience of exploring. I did.