Along the shoreline scatters many wooden huts, each with an interior decorated according to its owners’ choice, although they all appear to be the same sturdy, cozy, and plain residences on the outside. The huts, together with the beach, the village square, some palm trees and oak trees, make up the humble village that sleeps soundly under the protection of night. There is also a magnificent cave at the farthest end of the village. All is silent except for the sounds of waves gently arriving ashore. It is still a few hours before the sky lifts up its veil and awakens the village.Order now
As the Sun rises over the horizon, an unusual excitement permeates the air as people get out of their huts and begin their day. The sounds of people chatting and rushing back and forth cross the village drown those of the waves, for it is the first day of the the annual Harvest Festival. The Harvest Festival is a two-day celebration that follows the harvest. The first day is dedicated to the water goddess because the villagers believe that the world was created out of primordial water by the water goddess, who has power over every aspect of their lives, since water is what makes the harvest and their livelihood possible. The village chief will lead everyone in prayer to ask the water goddess for blessings for the coming year. Each family will then dedicate the first produce they have harvested or the best catch of the day to the statue of the goddess and have a banquet afterwards. By the time Kyru gets to the square the praying ceremony has already started. Hanging his head to avoiding the reproachful glare from his mother, Kyru silently slips into the end of the crowd.
The statue of the water goddess is a life-size marble statue of a female, with inlaid gems for eyes, an elaborate gold headdress, and is dressed with the most elaborate garments. She holds a water jar in her hands, and there is symbolic wavy patterns coming out of the jar. Kyru is a bit worried that the water goddess might think that he is a bad boy for being late to her celebration, and his whole year of daily praying and good behaviors will be a waste.
As soon as the ceremony ends and the banquet begins, Kyru’s mother pulls him aside and starts scolding him: “How can you possibly be a good boy if you misbehave like this? Late to the annual ceremony? And without washing your hands, too!”
“It’s not like anyone actually noticed me, mom.” Kyru retorts.
“Don’t ever say such things! The water goddess is always watching you, that’s why you need to be on your best behavior all the time, Kyru.”
Kyru’s mind drifts as his mother goes on about the omnipotence of the goddess; he mumbles absentmindedly: “Fine, I won’t be late again, mom.”
She bends her knees, looks at her son in the eye, and slowly says: “I’m doing this for your own good, Kyru. One day, it will be your turn to travel to the other side of the sea. You want to get there, don’t you?”
The other side of the sea is where the good villagers travel to after they die. According to an ancient myth that all parents tell their children at a young age, since people were created out of water, they should return to water after they die. When the fishermen leave to fish in the early mornings, they sail away from the land until they become barely visible small dots at the horizon where the land and the water meets. But the place the dead travel to is even farther. It is at the other side of the sea, where no living has ever reached. Kyru sometimes stare at the horizon trying to get a glimpse of the place where his grandmother and the other people who have came and left before him have gone to, and where his second life will take place. He hasn’t been successful. Kyru thinks it’s partly because his mother tells him that the light reflected from the sea surface is harmful to his eyes, but mostly because as the myth indicates, the place is too far for the living to reach by boats, let alone see.
As the banquet draws to an end, the Sun has completed yet another cycle in the sky; the liveliness gradually recedes as the villagers retreat to their own huts. The village returns into silence, and the sounds of the waves can be heard again. Kyru tosses and turns all night long for he is too excited for his big day tomorrow to sleep. The second day of the Harvest Festival is when all the fourteen year olds enter the cave for their coming-of-age journeys under the guidance of the village shaman. People believe that the sacred cave is a portal to other realities, therefore, the cave is naturally where each children will complete their own spiritual quest and be officially recognized by the villagers as adults. To Kyru, the journey is much more than simply a procedure for him to become an adult, but a mystery, because everytime he asks new adults about what they have learned from their journeys that qualify them as adults, they smile mysteriously and tell him that he is too young to understand what they are talking about, which annoys Kyru, but also makes him look forward to his rite of passage wholeheartedly.
The shaman has a face chiseled by time, enough to leave deep creases, but not enough to cloud the sharp eyes he uses to observe the sky and occasionally, the fresh, curious, and nervous faces gathered around him. He holds a torch and has a drum strapped around him. It is early in the day, the sky is still a solemn and ominous read. Since the rite of passage can only take place at dawn, the moment the villagers believe to possess magical powers because dawn is the time when the light overcomes the dark, the group have to wait until the right moment to enter the cave, when the Sun emits its first golden ray. Normally Kyru would have been bored by the wait, but today, he is so nervous that his hands keep sweating, and he cannot formulate any coherent thought in his head, for he has overheard the other kids chattering about the journey being similar to a death experience from which people come out with a new life. But what if I don’t come out of the trance? Kyru thinks, where would I be then, all alone in the darkness or in the void? I won’t be able to see mom again, and I won’t able to be with my grandma on the other side of the sea either! Before he can trace his thoughts any further and induce more fear onto himself, the shaman decides that it’s time for them to enter the cave.
The oculus opening at the top of the cave allows the Sun to cast light over the earth, making everything around Kyru rough but gilded. It is when Kyru is thinking to himself: this isn’t quite as bad as I thought, when they take a turn and darkness floods his world. Kyru can see nothing except for the torch the shaman is holding ahead of him; the flame flickers like a will-o’-the-wisp in the dark. He begins to panic again, for he can no longer see anybody or hear anything except for footsteps that echo to show how vast and empty the cave is. This is a lot like the lonely emptiness he has feared, so he tries to speed up to get closer to the light, but almost trips over a rock. Stupid rock trying to ruin my big day, Kyru thinks crossly.
After what feels like a century to Kyru but actually just a few minutes, the shaman finally stops and asks the children to gather around the light. “Before I start playing the drum and officially start the rite of passage, are there any questions?” The shaman’s voice sounds more flimsy than usual in the dark because the children can’t make out his contour this time.
“Yes. Um, since the journey is spiritual, how will we know when a reality has started and how will we know when it ends?” A girl who seems to be braver than the others asks, though with a barely detectable quicker in her voice.
“You’ll know when the time comes. ” The shaman replies curtly as he blows out the torch.
Again with that annoying answer, Kyru thinks, but remains silent.
The children lie down, and with calloused hands the shaman begins to beat the skin stretched over the drum: “Let go of your thoughts and follow the drumbeats.”
Kyru is a bit disappointed that the journey does not have the elaborate start that he has hoped for, and he blindly stares into the darkness. The cave is cold, dark, moist, and unwelcoming. Now that the only light in the cave is put out, he feels extremely alone, empty, and apprehensive. The monotonous drumbeats go on regularly and steadily, and Kyru feels the vibration of the drumbeats beginning to coincide with his heartbeats. Obscure images begin to form in his head, but none of them solid and distinct enough for him to recognize. They are like shadows that are reflected off of physical objects, but only leave an instant impressions in his mind with the objects themselves nowhere to be found.
The drumbeats drift further away and so does Kyru’s mind. The images he sees in the darkness are slowly solidifying. After losing track of time, he finds himself in a room very different from any room he is familiar with. It has shiny wooden floor, white walls, lights that don’t come from flames, and a screen that hangs from the wall. A group of people, who Kyru assumes to be a family, are sitting at a round table with a variety of food and drinks on it. They chat and laugh during their meal, and occasionally stop when someone stands up and proposes a toast. Everyone has a glass of colorful drink in front of them, beer for the adults and juice for the children. Kyru is not sure about what he should do next, for it seems impolite to barge in on a family occasion; besides, he doesn’t even know what is he supposed to say or do.
A tall young man in a white shirt stands up, raises his glass, and says: “Happy New Year everyone. Here’s to god for a better economy this coming year!” Everybody stands up and say cheers before they drink out of their glasses. Kyru hears people talking among themselves about how bad the economy has been doing this year, and they don’t want to be out of a job. A few minutes have passed, and a gray-haired old man stands up and raises his glass towards a young girl with a ponytail, who looks not much older than Kyru, who is sitting a few seats away from him and says: “My dear grandchild, I have been to the temple and asked god to bless you with good grades. You will definitely get into your dream school!”
Only the addressed girl stands up this time; she raises her glass and says: “Thanks grandpa. Cheers.”
They both drink out of their glasses. The conversation at the table shifts to a discussion about how much more difficult it is to get into good schools than it used to and should be. A middle-aged woman with curly hair says: “I’d like to make a toast, too. I don’t care about the economy or school as long as gods bless everyone with a safe and healthy year!”
People toast as they murmur in agreement. So this is just like the Harvest Festival, Kyru thinks to himself, maybe I should discuss the tradition with them. Kyru decides to approach the woman who has last spoken because she reminds him a bit of his mother. Kyru asks: “Hi ma’am. I’m wondering if the god your toasts refer to is the water goddess. ”
The woman turns to look at him, strangely not surprised at the fact that a strange boy has just appeared in her house, “No. Is that your god? We here believe in a different type of god. I don’t know if they have any specificity.” She replies.
Slightly taken back, but remembering his teacher once telling him that some foreign people worship different gods than they do, Kyru then asks: “So how do you expect your god to actually help you? In my village, our god has created us and she brings us water so we are able grow food. She also provides water for fish, which is our main food source.”
“We rely on ourselves to achieve our goals. As you can probably see in your village, it must the people who water their crops, and the people who go out to catch fish, not your god. As for creation, we have a similar version of your creation myth, too, but children will learn in school, and usually before that, an evolution theory that most people think is a much more scientific and believable explanation of the world.”
“You don’t think that god has physical powers? What does your god do then?”
“You see, this might surprise you, but god isn’t considered a real “being” in our culture, at least not in this family. They are more like a symbol. That’s why we were only symbolically toasting to them.” Seeing Kyru’s shocked expression, the woman slows down and try to think about every word before she says it.
They don’t believe in the existence of their god? Kyru thinks, Fine, I knew that I will see bizarre things on my journey, I just didn’t picture them being this bizarre. “But why do you keep the idea of god at all? Wouldn’t it be much more convenient just to get rid of the picture of god and only teach children about this “evoluton” you were talking about?”
“That’s a good question. Personally, I don’t see evolution and god as two incompatible concepts. I don’t mean that they have the same probability of being true, but that although I believe in science, I still turn to religion when science has failed to give me an answer. I’m sure you know how it feels like to not having your questions answered.”
Remembering how frustrated he feels when people would not give him a straightforward answer about the rite of passage, Kyru nods.
“Exactly, religion fills the gaps that science leaves. There are of course other ideas about the relationship between religion and science, like how some people think that they are two different approaches to the same reality, or that religion explains some experiences science cannot. Bottom line: it’s a fact that religion has survived, at least for now, even though scientific theories suggest different ideas that religion does sometimes, even opposing ideas. My own take on this phenomena is that as the gaps in science that religion fills get smaller with science making more and more progress, religion will eventually disappear.”
“Even though many cultures have different religions, it seems that religion itself exists in most cultures at most times. What is it about religion that makes it such a ubiquitous idea that transcend time and space?”
“Your question is a complex one, and my own take is that religion reflects the similar evolution path of society that most societies have gone through because human nature is similar for the most part. Let me start with why religion was introduced, of course we don’t have a definite answer, but one of the explanations is that religion stems from our sense of agency, the ability to cause things to happen. We assign agencies not only to ourselves but to other people, and even inanimate objects as well. The wide assignment of agency is called animistic thinking, which happens more often than most people think.”
Kyru thinks about the rock he was annoyed with and blushes.
The woman continue: “Another idea is that religion helps create an organized society. As the human society grows larger, it gets harder to punish someone for their wrongdoings. So people came up with the idea of a watchful god who will deliver just punishments and do the work for them.”
The image of the water goddess, her piercing and ever-watchful eyes made out of shiny lapis lazulis pops into Kyru’s head.
“After the concept of religion has been established in each community, new reasons arise for people to be religious. If a religion is believed by most people in a community, a disbeliever might be pressured to say that they are religious so as to not get isolated by the community. They might still be disbelievers deep down, but as time goes by, the whole community becomes religious, and it gets less likely for new members of the community who were born into an all religious community to believe otherwise. Also, from a leader perspective, a religion makes people cooperate better because they have the same beliefs. This idea faces criticism that suggests that it is easy for such a community to collapse because people are all selfish and not likely to cooperate if they have the chance not to. We don’t know which theory is the most probable one, but will gain more insights as we find more evidence. I am just hoping that these idea can give you a new perspective to look at, even scrutinize, your previous religion.”
Still confused, but somehow understanding the issue more deeply, Kyru ponders a while, and asks: “Sorry to bother you with so many questions, but why will you ask a nonexisting god for blessings when you know that he is not real and you have to work for your wishes yourselves? I mean, you and a few other people will be the only ones who hear the wish.”
“It’s no bother at all.” The woman continues with an amiable smile: “To be honest, I have wondered about these questions at lot when I was a girl. Quite frankly, I still think about them now I have gone through half of my life. It’s just like you said, we are the ones who hear our own wishes. Asking god to grant our wishes provides a psychological support for us, because there are always situations out of our power to control, and it makes us feel better knowing that we are not alone in our struggle. Knowing deep down that our efforts do not guarantee for our wishes to come true, but it is our own actions that decide if our wishes have the possibility of coming true motivate people to live their lives with a positive attitude.”
I was wrong before. This festival is not like the Harvest Festival at all. But they do have a similar ring to it … Kyru thinks about his praying to the water goddess everyday, sometimes hoping for a new toy, sometimes hoping for a better pair of shoes, and the extra care he takes to behave so that his wishes may be granted, and feels an indescribable unease. He was about to thank the nice lady when the drum beats seep in further. Boom – boom – boom, everything disappears before his eyes so fast that he doesn’t even have the time to feel surprised when he finds himself at a new location.
A man in a white robe is reading from a piece of paper with a solemn voice from the front of the room and many people sit in rows and listen in silence. Kyru assumes that he is now at a funeral, for he has seen the scene when he attended his grandmother’s funeral a few years ago. The village chief gave a long eulogy at the square where most of the village people sit silently. The man at the front of the room says: “Our Father in heaven, we thank you that, through Jesus Christ, you have given us the gift of eternal life …” And then he drags on with more words that Kyru can’t understand, such as “salvation”.