Radha Kund, 2017.04.16 (VT): Catholic priest and Hinduism scholar Klaus Klostermaier lived in India in the 1960s, and two of those years were spent in Vrindavan. His work during this period led to his appointment to the Vatican as advisor to the Papal office on non-Christian religions.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Theology at 120 degrees Fahrenheit” from Klostermaier’s book Hindu and Christian in Vrindavan. You can also read an excerpt from his chapter on Vrindavan Parikrama here.
The weather had been unbearable for weeks now. Although the atmosphere was so dry that book covers turned up at the corners like Japanese gable-ends, we were constantly bathed in perspiration. It was not for nothing that the local people tied a red kerchief round their necks. The walls radiated heat like an oversized central heating system. We spent the nights on open terraces. Concrete floors were hot in the evenings and still warm in the mornings.
Unless a soft breeze was blowing, the mosquitoes would torment us. No sooner had the sun lifted itself above the horizon than it became unbearable again. It wasn’t so much the heat, as the constant necessity of pitting all one’s strength against a hostile atmosphere just to remain alive. The sun was no more a life-giver, but a murderer. And as yet there was no hope of rain. Even if the monsoons should arrive in time, we had another month to go. And each day would make us more apathetic, till finally nothing mattered anymore.
First thing in the morning I celebrate the Mass. I wonder if any person responsible for prescribing the liturgical vestments in use today ever read mass at 113 degrees Fahrenheit, in a closed room without a fan? Clouds of flies swarm around the chalice and host. They settle on the hands, on the perspiring face. They cannot be driven away, but return for the tenth time to the place from which they have been chased away. The whole body burns and itches. The clothes are damp, even the vestments. They soon dry. If a priest does not wear them all, he commits – according to existing canon law – at least a dozen or so mortal sins all at once. And it seems impossible to survive, physically or spiritually, without the Mass.
Some time before noon, a kind of temple gong resounds. The ‘cook’ has prepared breakfast. For a year now, there have been no surprises: chapatis, hard tough unleavened bread made of wheat flour, smoky tea and some thick, greyish-yellow milk of an uninviting appearance. Sometimes there is some sugar. Large ants scurry excitedly inside it. In the meantime, the temperature has risen to 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever you touch is sticky with perspiration. Water is scarce. Most wells have only salty, brackish and definitely unpalatable water. Drinking-water comes from a special well. A few months ago someone fell – or jumped – into it. It took a long time to extricate him. The well is thirty metres deep; the man was dead, of course. It is our only drinking-water well.
Some deadlines are pressing. Some magazine articles have to be finished. The typewriter is hot to the touch. It seems as if even the metal frame is being bent out of shape by the heat. The keys keep getting entangled. The first four litres of water have already been drunk. The stone floor is hot, although untouched by the sun. Heat wafts inside from the open window. The sky is whitish-grey – the field, the trees, the clay walls of the houses; the trees have shed their foliage, the fields are interlaced with broad, deep cracks. Desert. For half an hour, one forgets everything and writes, because a few rupees are needed to make a living. Complaints do not sell easily. So one writes optimistically: about the beauties of India, about the positive chances for the future of the church in India, about the vast perspetives the Vatican Council has opened for the ‘dialogue’ – things that may find a response in Europe and help to make the holiday a little more interesting. It is not that one finds things amusing: but one laughs anyway. If only it wasn’t so hot. A well-meaning colleague suggested I ought to take a holiday – in Kashmir, perhaps. With an income of ten pounds a month, this is impossible, even in India. After all, we don’t work for money. We work for the kingdom of God. Which means a lot of money in some places, none in others.
A short uncomplicated article on the Christian idea of God had to be done for a Hindu magazine. The subject had been discussed in all the theological textbooks, of course. All that need be done is to argue a few single points a little. However, what was written there and what one had studied with adequate zeal only a few years ago now seemed so inadequate, so irrelevant, so untrue. Theology at 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade seems, after all, different from theology at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Theology accompanied by tough chapatis and smoky tea seems different from theology with roast chicken and a glass of good wine. Now, who is really different, theόs [God] or the theologian?
Towards noon the light discolours strangely. It turns yellow, then dark, then black. And then, things happen very quickly. Within minutes, the temperature drops by almost ten degrees. Doors and windows are shut. There’s a whistling and roaring and hissing – all sorts of things fly against the wooden doors and shutters. This is the daily sandstorm. Sand enters everywhere – sand, sand, sand. Sand in the nose, sand in the eyes, sand between the teeth. Sand in the typewriter. Outside, visibility is less than a yard. It doesn’t last long. Half an hour, perhaps. Then, everything is as before. And soon enough, we have 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade again.
The theologian at 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a well-fed god compiles very nicely what other theologians at 70 degrees Fahrenheit have written before him. Everything is well-documented; the footnotes take up almost half the page. French, English, Latin and Greek authors are quoted. They know exactly that God’s grace, like American development aid, is meant for all heathens, for the pro-US ones as well as for the others. The former get a little more. If only everybody follows nicely the road prescribed by their ministers and prelates, there will be enough for everyone. This is very convenient for the seventy-degree-Fahrenheit theologians; in the case that they do not have to go themselves to where it is 120 degrees Fahrenheit.