Modern-day temples of knowledge and democracy
When I was a child growing up in Mumbai, I would often go to the neighborhood temple with my grandmother. When we got there, as was the custom, we would leave our shoes near the entrance and walk into the cool and quiet sanctuary. I would copy my elders as they folded their palms together, closed their eyes and recited a prayer (prarthana). Each god had his or her own prayer, and I soon knew the prayers by heart, even though I could not understand their meanings. After the prayer, we would drop a few coins in the collection box, and walk one or two rounds (pradakshina) around the altar (gabhara). Sometimes the priest would hand us a banana or an apple or a home-made sweet. These were usually items that other devotees had brought as an offering to the gods. Magically, the offering to god (naivedya) turned into a blessing from god (prasad). After this ritual, we would sit for a few moments on one of the benches that were set up along the walls of the sanctuary. And then we would walk back home.
It was a simple ritual that offered a short respite outside the home, and a chance to meditate and pray. It was a practice that was experienced on a private level; in a felt rather than verbalized form.
Over the decades I have lived in the United States, I have occasionally visited the Hindu temples in my vicinity. Somehow I am unable to feel the same organic sense of belonging that I used to feel when as a child, and that I am able to feel even now when I visit that childhood temple. Maybe this is because I don’t have an emotional connection to the temples in my vicinity. Or maybe it is that as a creature of this time, I don’t find the intellectual relevance that I seek.
I belong to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and love the Sunday services as a way to get re-centered, and reconnect with myself, and do so in the cocoon of a loving and welcoming community. Yet, there are times when I miss the personal worship of my childhood. I long for a place to connect with something mysterious and traditional, deeper, larger, more constant.
Upon reflection, I realize that I have found such a place. It is the local public library.
Since I did not grow up with access to large collections of books and public libraries, I feel a sense of reverence about them. A Google search confirms that I am far from alone in this feeling.
I was an avid reader in childhood and that love of books has continued to this day.
Like an infant that starts life on mothers milk and is gradually introduced to solid foods, my early reading was comprised of stories of heroes and villains from Hindu mythology, Aesop’s fables and other fairy tales told (or read) in my mother tongue, Marathi. As I got older, and my command of English improved, I was drawn to English books. Initially I read books written by British authors like Enid Blyton, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Somerset Maugham. Later, I was drawn to American authors like Erle Stanley Gardner, James Hadley Chase, and Isaac Asimov. I remember reading Gone With the Wind and Tom Sawyer, but I am sure I did not entirely understand them.
I rented these books for a few rupees per day from the privately run “circulating library.” In reality, it was just a storefront in the nearby vegetable market. Alternately, I got them from sidewalk vendors who sold used paperbacks.
My father would often bring home paperbacks bought from these sidewalk vendors. That is how my mother got to read the biographies that Pearl Buck wrote of her parents’ lives as missionaries in China. I still recall her remarks about Buck’s mother’s unimaginable hardship and her father’s unwavering commitment. My father picked up books by Harry Truman and Bernard Baruch. His favorite quote from Harry Truman was “the buck stops here” and from Bernard Baruch it was “when it comes to money, everyone belongs to the same religion.” Turns out this second quote is from Voltaire, but my father came to it via an American Wall Street titan!
To my parents, and by extension, to me, this was far from pedestrian fare. Rather, these were examples of universal truths spoken plainly, truths that were rarely aired in our everyday experience. These were words and stories and ideas that opened up a whole new world to me — a heady mix of escape and aspiration. Of course, at the time I had no idea that this was going on.
The books in my mother tongue formed the core — the heart, if you will — of my emerging self. They told of ancient history that nevertheless formed the basis of contemporary ideas of goodness, compassion, generosity, faith and loyalty. In contrast, the books in English exposed me to an entirely new class of ideas, ideas that somehow felt right despite their not being “native.” They told of societies where lives were easier due to access to science and technology — just the things that my peers and I were subtly learning we needed to master. They told of societies where the hold of tradition and custom was a bit less tight, where people seemed more able to take risks, care a little less about what others might think.
I have moved several times and in each new place, the first thing I did, after settling into my new home, was join the local public library. How did I know that each town would have a public library? I have no idea. Maybe I came to expect this because I had used the free libraries operated by the British Council and the American consulate in Mumbai.
To me, public libraries are a shining example of a functioning democratic society. A public library is an institution that is supported by mutual agreement among taxpayers and that makes knowledge accessible to all who come. There are no limits on the number of books that can be borrowed or what the books are about.
Public libraries have managed to leverage technology to expand their reach. They are no longer limited to their own collections, and they are no longer limited to books. One can request a book from the inter-library loan system and have it shipped to one’s local library free of charge. In addition to books, it is possible to access movies, audiobooks, even the Internet.
So, what have I done with this virtually infinite river of books on whose banks I am privileged to sit?
At various times in my life I have turned to books — and found in them — just the friend, advisor, confidant, supporter, teacher, parent that I needed at that time. Even if I cannot find a solution to my dilemma, it helps to know that others have encountered the same challenge and it helps to know how they overcame it, or that they did not overcome it. There is something empowering about finding a community of fellow travelers, even if it is a virtual one.
The most amazing thing is that, because of books, I am able to commune with great minds who lived centuries ago or who live thousands of miles away. It does not matter that they do not speak a language that I understand. I cannot think of any other device that offers all this, and that can be accessed without needing anything but one’s eyes!
One genre of books that has carried particular resonance for me is the intersection of American and Indian history. The book, “Frozen Water Trade”, told the true story of a Yankee businessman who thought of cutting ice from New England lakes and shipping it all over the world, including to India. The “ice houses” built in the nineteenth century exist to this day. I learned that the initial endowment of goods to what became Yale University came from a Welsh businessman named Elihu Yale who made his fortune in India; that Bombay became a great center of commerce after the start of the Civil War here in America, because English mills started sourcing cotton from India. So captivated and intrigued was I after reading the 1888 biography of Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman who became a doctor, I decided to write a fuller updated biography.
Another genre of books that I feel drawn to is African-American history. Reading these books provided education and insight, which led to empathy and respect. These books also led to thinking about the similarities and differences between the construct of caste in the community of my birth and the construct of race in the community where I have lived my adult life. I have grappled with how socio-economic class intersects with caste and race to keep people who are “down” also out. I find solace in my unrest, for unrest is preferable to mindlessness.
Thinking of the arc of the kinds of books that found me and the kinds of books that I seek offers a new insight. Analyzing the books that we are drawn to can provide a read on what our innermost self is seeking at any given time. Books can be our guides in our search for truth and meaning, our search for purpose and mission. So long as we have books, we need never feel alone or lost.
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
— Carl Sagan
Finding Inspiration in Books and Libraries was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.