I am in Bangalore for the Ayudha Puja festival, but this post is about a different, and wholly unexpected, religious encounter I had today.
Yesterday, while I walked from lunch with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Renny Thomas, we stopped in our tracks as a man rode his bicycle around a corner. Here, in the Indian Institute of Science, was a man riding a bicycle while carrying the mace of Hanuman (a divine monkey-like person in the Ramayana, which, if you’ve never read, you ought to…here’s a short and enjoyable version to try.) and wearing a helmet with a symbol of the god Krishna on it. The bicycle had bells hanging from the handlebars and a symbol of the god Shiva on the front fender.
Here I am with Sateesh, who calls himself a “spiritual cyclist” and is apparently known as Cycle Baba. He explained that he rides for several hours before coming to work on campus (in the student association, I think) and for several more after work. Some of that riding he does in the institute, but most of it happens outside the walls. Some religious groups have begun to advocate bicycling as a moral form of transportation, but using bicycles to start theological conversations was new to me.
With a delighted smile, Cycle Baba explained that his bells drive away evil spirits and that he likes to talk about God with anyone who will do so. He is a devotee of Shiva in particular. The institute, he reports, initially objected to him riding through campus in his religious attire, but allows it. As my collaborator astutely noted, this indicates something interesting about religion, culture, and science in India. Hinduism, as Dr. Thomas and I explore in our forthcoming work on Ayudha Puja, is normalized as “culture” in the institute. As such, Cycle Baba could ultimately gain permission to ride around campus…but had he sought to advocate Islam (for example) he would almost certainly not have been permitted to engage in such open evangelizing.
What a delight for us to see a totally new kind of religious presence in this esteemed scientific institution. More on Ayudha Puja to come…