Minority communities in South Asia are fascinating examples of movement of ideas, people, and religion. After the 1947 Partition, Hindus and Sikhs migrated from the newly formed Pakistan to the world over, and especially to India. The conversations about war and peace between the two countries tend to revolve around Hindus and Muslims. The religion of Sikhism may not configure into these issues, especially for the Western readers, and yet the Radcliffe line that partitioned the subcontinent also separates two of the holiest shrines of the Sikhs.

“As soon as he took his first spear, he writhed in pain. Leaking urine and making a miserable spectacle, he took nine spears.” The gruesome and cruel execution of one Heizō Takamiya described here took place in Osaka in 1829; the unfortunate Heizō was accompanied by five other people, one a woman (Toyoda Mitsugi) and four others who were already dead and had been pickled in salt so that their remains could be symbolically crucified and methodically stabbed with spears as a form of humiliation.

It’s a well-worn assertion, even a cliché, that art and spirituality are inextricably linked. A concrete representation of the subject for religious meditation is, we could say, a visible aid to devotion: not so much the object itself, but what it symbolizes, which is important to the viewer (or listener if it’s music).

In the summer of 1953, a massive drought hit the Chinese province of Zhejiang. Villagers took the disaster as a sign that deities were angry at officials for converting temples for secular uses and destroying ritual items, including statues and dragon boats. To placate the gods, villagers rose up to try to take back religious spaces and pray for rain by resuming boat racing, which officials saw as a “superstitious” practice incompatible with the spirit and law of the new People’s Republic.

“Dissatisfaction with the womanly rôle,” the psychologist Alfred Adler wrote in Understanding Human Nature (1927), “is … more evident among [women] who escape from life because of some so-called ‘higher reasons’. Nuns, or others who assume some occupation for which celibacy is an essential, are a case in point.” Adler, of course, was not judging such women negatively, as he felt that women should not have to be controlled by the patriarchal nature of 20th-century society and that they should be able to develop their own roles. 

What is Zen? If it were really just enigmatic aphorisms such as “I swallowed up all the Buddhas and Patriarchs / Without ever using my mouth” as an answer to the equally enigmatic question “The ten thousand things return to one; to what does the one return?” then presumably it would have not engaged the West as much as it evidently has.