The Los Angeles Times “great reads” pieces are the place to go for articles that often touch on the things GetReligion talks about and their recent piece on how Hindu beliefs affect life in a village in India’s Maharashtra state is a great example. Thoughtful articles on Hinduism –- other than links about yoga or intro pieces about the neighborhood temple –- are hard to find in American media, which is why I latched onto this one.
For those of you unfamiliar with Maharashtra, the story takes place near the city of Pune, a better-known city south of Delhi.
Here we go:
Nanasahib Bankar, a prosperous farmer and entrepreneur in this small temple town, worries about a lot of things: sugar-cane prices, the health of his cattle, the success of his son's new hotel.
One thing he doesn't worry about is losing his keys. His house, like nearly all the others here, doesn't have a door.
Standing under the bare door frame of the red-brick house he shares with 12 family members, arms folded over his protruding belly, the 64-year-old patriarch says simply, "This is the way we have always lived."
Legend has it that Shani, the Hindu deity to whom the local temple is dedicated, watches over Shani Shinganapur, a town of about 15,000 in western India, preventing crime and punishing thieves.
To install a door with a latch or a cupboard with locks, devotees say, would be to question Lord Shani's powers -- and invite his wrath.
The story goes on to describe how this deity showed up hundreds of years ago on a river bank in the form of a 5-foot block of black stone. One villager claimed he was instructed in a dream by Shani, who is represented by the planet Saturn and is also the god over Saturday, that he wanted to stick around.
The villagers installed the slab on an open-air platform where it is to this day. So here is the news hoo: To honor the god’s reputation as a protector of property, from that day on, no one has locked their doors.
To his credit, the reporter checks around to see if this reputation is as pure as it appears, and finds several skeptics who question why the temple’s donation box is locked if Shani is so powerful. Other locals say there actually thefts but temple officials keep it quiet so as not to besmirch the reputation of the local god.
Then a final crushing blow: A police station appeared in the village a month ago. The local police chief admits there’s been at least one recent theft.
There’s little to criticize in this piece, except for a rather obvious gap. Maybe it would have been nice to have included a bit more info about Shani himself?
It was not clear if the reporter had visited the site of the actual slab. If he did, he didn’t describe whether people worshiped there, burned incense, left flower offerings, etc.
One thing that puzzled me: If Shani’s shrine is an outdoor one, where do the temple officials referred to in the piece come from? Is there a physical temple near this slab or not?
I did appreciate the reporter’s matter-of-fact treatment of a local legend that would elicit scornful laughter from a lot of media.
Eastern religions tend to get a pass from western media, mainly because so few religion reporters are that expert in the topic. I would like to see similar dispassionate treatment on other religion topics that are foreign to reporters. A certain county clerk in Kentucky who belongs to an Apostolic church comes to mind. Maybe the Times could send this particular reporter (who is their South Asia correspondent) to cover her.
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