By Ashok Bhargava
MANILA: Religion is a complex human phenomenon. Everybody has ideas about what religion is before you even ask them. But if you ask them what religion is, they will find it very hard to define. I don’t know much about religions but I believe there is a wholeness in everything which cannot be divided because the “oneness” of God cannot be divided or changed.
The world, as it is, is not perfect. Religion is often used as a divisive force to drive wedges amongst communities. It is easy to get lost in semantics and narrow interpretations of scriptures.
On my recent visit to the Philippines I found a place where religions, tolerance, peace and harmony come together. I found a Sikh Gurudwara and Hindu Temple under a common roof. It was a sight to hold and cherish. This Hindu-Sikh temple is located on Mahatma Gandhi Street, just off United Nations Avenue in Paco, Metro Manila. With glitzy malls, beautiful beaches, sociocultural attractions and upscale dining, visitors to Manila can be forgiven for not thinking about churches, mosques or temples.
I have never seen a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurudwara under one roof in Canada, the US, U.K. or India. In India, you can come across a mandir and a gurudwara not very far from each other, but they never share the same roof. You can see a temple and a mosque facing towards Kaaba in the same neighborhood. It is not uncommon to see people of different religions pray to their gods without paying much attention to the gods of their neighbors.
It is remarkable to see the polytheist philosophy of Sikhism and the monotheist philosophy of Hinduism practiced under one roof. Sikhs worshiping the holy Guru Granth, readings of ancient scriptures from both faiths and Hindu idol-worship, side by side.
When we stepped into the modest two story building of this two-in-one temple complex we were ready yet unprepared for what we saw. What we saw was delightful: A Filipino security guard welcomed us to the premises and asked us to follow him to a room where we could take off our shoes and wash our hands before proceeding further. The hallway was colorfully decorated with Bollywood’s latest movie posters, ads for local Indian restaurants and their home delivery pamphlets. There was also a community news board listing births, marriages and obituary notices on the ground floor hallway that ultimately lead to the sanctum upstairs.
We were greeted by a life-size statue of the mother-cow at the main entrance to the sanctum sanctorum of the gurudwara-mandir on the second floor delightfully covered with a golden scarf. It has a striking resemblance to the elephant statues commonly found on the entrance gates of Hindu temples in south India.
In the main hall, Shri Guru Granth Sahib is in the centre, surrounded by idols of Krishna and Radha, Vishnu and Laxmi on the left side, Rama and Sita, Shiva and Parvati on the other side. Photographs of the ten Sikh Gurus, Lord Ganesh, Shiv Linga, Guru Nanak with Bala and Mardana, and Hanuman adorned the walls. The size of the carpeted hall indicated that it could accommodate more than 1,000 devotees during weekend prayers. I wondered about the logic of the placement of idols and the Holy Granth, space-sharing and priority order but I am happy to see them all positioned as unifying powers.
We were told that on weekends it is like a carnival when hundreds of devotees gather for prayers. Melodious recitations from Shri Guru Granth Sahib, the devotional kirtan, and religious discourses comprise some of the main activities here.
A free community lunch called Langar or Preeti Bhojan is served as you sit cross-legged on the floor mats. Marriages, births, deaths, astrology, Vastu consultations and numerous other ceremonies are undertaken by the priests from both Sikh and Hindu religions.
On weekends you will find Filipinas selling fresh Indian produce right outside the temple: fresh coriander/cilantro, ginger, Sarson (mustard leaves) and methi (fenugreek). You can also buy samosas, ladoos and jalebi from nearby shops.
For us, it was a peaceful retreat where we surrendered and enjoyed a moment of being in the present, offering prayers with a bowed head, to reaffirm our faith in shared existence and the oneness of God regardless of specific religions.
Next time you are in Manila, I will recommend strongly that you visit this special place because it will widen your horizons and enrich you spiritually. It’s located at 1426 Mahatma Gandhi Street in Paco, Manila.
(Vancouver-based Ashok Bhargava, who is the president of Writers International Network (WIN) Canada, was recently in the Philippines)