Shirdi Sai Baba and a sub

Walking home from work today, I passed a corner store that bills itself as Johnny’s Deli, although it appears to stock far more alcohol than anything else. (Johnny knows what students want.) For some weeks, they’ve been advertising a special on subs, which has been tempting me, and today I succumbed.

As I waited for my sub, the South Asian proprietor and I made small talk. We never exchanged names, but for convenience I’ll call him Johnny. He asked me if I worked for the university. I told him I teach courses about American religions.

He looked puzzled. “But there is only one American religion,” he said.

Oomph… Stabbed in the heart.

“Not at all,” I said. “America has always been a place where people of different religions lived. And it’s become more diverse as more and more people from other parts of the world have come here.”

At this point, Johnny volunteered that he was Hindu. I told him that I’m always on the lookout for religious symbols, and that when I walked into the store, I’d been keeping half an eye out to see if there might be an image of Ganesha, for instance.

Johnny reached under the counter and pulled out a cash box. Pasted onto the top of it, he showed me, was a sticker depicting Shirdi Sai Baba.

Sai Baba is a guru who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He’s become a popular focus of devotion in India and the Indian Diaspora; he’s also revered as a saint by some South Asian Muslims. I’ve just learned tonight that we have a temple dedicated to Sai Baba here in Cincinnati.

I was interested in knowing more about why Johnny had chosen this particular figure for devotion. But my attempt to ask about it elicited only an explanation that in Hinduism, unlike Christianity, there are many gods, and that Sai Baba is a man who did things that only a god could do.

As my sub came, Johnny put the cash box away. I tapped my finger in the air as if I were tapping the sticker on top of the box. “And that,” I said, “is now an American religion.”

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