cities. banglore, varanasi, dharamshala, kochi
Jet Airways Flight 6354 from Abu Dhabi to Bangalore lands at 6:30 am. Just two hours late. Pleasantly surprised by the bright, new airport. Unpleasantly surprised by the incredibly unhelpful TSA agents who required that we fill out a form which doesn’t seem to exist.
Having finally located some spare copies, I rush out to meet Aparna who had been waiting in the terminal since dawn. Together, we catch a cab into town.
On my flight over, I ate non-kosher for the first time. Having lost all enthusiasm for my Jewish upbringing a while back, I had spent the better part of the year watching almost like a bystander as my once deeply held beliefs and commitments slipped through the cracks. It was during this period which I learned first-hand that perhaps I don't act in accordance with my beliefs, but rather believe in accordance with my actions. It dawned on me that my desperate search for a philosophy for life might be nothing but a desire to justify my already settled choices. Does that matter? Should it matter?
I don’t know.
Aparna took me to visit my first Hindu temple, Sri Radha Krishna Chandra Temple, one of the largest in Bangalore, built in memory of the founder of Hare Krishna (ISKCON). They made me leave my shoes at the door and wear a shawl around my waist to cover my legs. We followed a procession of worshipers past a number of idols, each representing a different form of Krishna.
The temple itself had the feel of a lively museum. A band was playing, children sat in their parents’ laps, and dozens of booths were hawking Krishna-themed clothing, toys, and films. On the way out, we passed stands selling food which was reportedly blessed by the deity.
That night we went to watch a Bollywood movie starring Shahrukh Khan. If I thought that American tweens worshipped celebrities, they have nothing on their Indian counterparts. When Khan finally appeared on the back of a motorbike, the entire theater erupted. I mean, the crowd (men, women, children) literally jumped to their feet, shouting and dancing as their idol pranced across the screen. Aparna fell asleep in the middle, so we went home early. Oh, that and I don’t speak Hindi so I literally didn’t understand a word of the film.
Woke up so congested that I could barely breathe. We had planned a two-day train ride from Bangalore to Varanasi, but got to the station late with just enough time to jump on-board without food or drinks. Under strict orders from my doctor not to eat any street food, this would prove trying. All I had with me were some crushed granola bars from Brooklyn.
When I got to my compartment I found an Indian family occupying my berth. Unable to converse in anything but garbled hand motions, I let them keep it and grabbed a top bunk. I spent the first day of the journey staring out the window at the passing towns with a sort of detached, foreign feeling. Interestingly, when I woke up on the morning of day 2 - dirty, sweaty, starving, exhausted – I stumbled to an open door and was immediately overwhelmed by the incredible destitution. I didn’t move a muscle for an hour. Perhaps I needed to be able to experience deprivation before I could appreciate it.
Varanasi is the dirtiest city I have ever seen.
Cows are everywhere. Manure and urine fill the narrow cobbled roads.
We meet Dev, a friend of a friend, for breakfast. He tells us stories about all the miracles he’s witnessed, all the holy-men he’s met. I want to believe him. I want to find something holy. I ask him about God. He says that he’s an atheist. There are no gods, Hinduism is the way to get in touch with the essence of reality. Miracles are performed by manipulating the underlying structure of the world, not by appealing to some deity. The gods are only names we give to abstract concepts. He insists that science will discover the truths of Hinduism one day. I’m not holding my breath. I wonder out loud whether those worshipping at the temples know that. If not, are they still Hindus? Who gets to say what Hinduism is and what it isn’t?
We carefully make our way back to the hostel to sleep through the rest of the morning, waking up around dusk to stroll along Assi Ghat. We watch as holy-men dunk in the sacred water while children playfully splash nearby. Women bring their laundry to wash and dry, gondolas ferry people back and forth. Is there anything the Ganges doesn’t do?
Aparna and I talk about her relationship to Hinduism. She seems conflicted. Rebellious even. She explains to me that no one knows why they are doing anything. If you ask, you are told that “it is written” or “so it is.” The scriptures are inaccessible and the rsis are infallible. I want to understand the meaning behind the rituals. She insists that there is none.
In fact, she is adamant that there is no such thing as Hinduism. That it’s all a western construction. There are no beliefs, only rituals. No meaning, only action. No proof, only tradition.
At this point, we’ve both had enough.
When we get back to the hotel, Dev has some Manali weed for us to share. Dev, Aparna, and the American kid. We sit in a circle on the outdoor patio floor passing the joint around. Aparna sits very close to me, her thigh is against my knee. I don’t remember much after this, Aparna and Dev kept on reverting to Hindi. It seems that Dev was trying to convince Aparna that she was Hindu and there was nothing she could do to change that. I remember Aparna looking really sad. She went inside, put on music, told us she wanted to go to sleep. But I think she just said that to get rid of Dev. He bothered her with his self-righteous impositions.
I turn out the lights and get into bed next to Aparna. I tell her that she looks like the saddest girl in the world and lean over to kiss her on the cheek. She turns her head to meet my lips.
We don’t fall asleep until the sun rises.
Throughout the next morning we hardly talk. We’re both really shy about what happened. She had promised herself that she wouldn’t fall for a ‘westerner’ and I had never been with a girl before.
We go to visit the deer park at Sarnath, just outside of Banares. This is the spot where the Buddha first taught the dharma. I remembered faintly how the Buddha declared that happiness in life was attained through a four-step process. We must first recognize that life is inherently composed of dukkha (well that one at least doesn’t seem too difficult), acknowledge its roots, and then believe that it can be overcome. Finally, nirvana can be attained by resolving our dukkha through an adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path.
Aparna doesn’t know much else about Buddhism and neither do I, so we just spend the time together, strolling the grounds and admiring the stupas and bodhi trees. The awkwardness of the morning had worn off and we can barely look at each other without smiling. I liked how people watched us with a knowing look; happy that we’re happy.
I pester Dev until he agrees to introduce me to a Hindu philosopher. Tonight he came with his friend and picked us up from our hotel around 9. We jumped on the backs of their motorbikes and sped off to meet our philosopher.
We stopped outside of a textile shop (apparently our philosopher has a day job), remove our shoes, and walk in. Someone brings in a tray of steaming hot masala chai, a pack of cigarettes is passed around, and we sit down on the cushioned floor in a circle. (At this point, I am fully convinced that I’m dreaming. I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, how did I end up here? In any case, Dev agrees to act as our translator.) I asked him to tell me whether there is a god. I also want to know about the reported miracles which continue to take place in India. The floating men. The teleportation. The telepathy.
Hinduism doesn’t believe in God, he tells us. The gods of the Vedas are metaphors for primal forces or atman which are concealed by maya. Miracles were commonplace not long ago, maybe 50 years ago, but today they are hard to find. Certainly they exist, but we probably won’t be able to witness any.
I ask him whether the masses of Hindus throughout India are aware that their gods do not exist. I question his integrity; is he just trying to repackage an obsolete tradition as a progressive promise? He replies that traditional Hindus don’t understand the esoteric truth of their own religion. That they continue to worship a shell, a metaphor. That the truth of Hinduism is of a metaphysical proto-scientific nature.
I get tired of going in circles and wish to leave. (Somehow I’m not surprised that he doesn’t let us go until Aparna agrees to purchase a custom-made sari.) Upon returning to the hostel, I’m even more confused than when I left. Here is a so-called Hindu philosopher telling us that the hundreds of millions of adherents around the world are engaged in silly and meaningless practices.
We wake up at dawn to take a boat ride along the Ganges. We buy flower petals and candles for a few rupees and are told to make a wish before casting them into the river. Aparna spends most of the journey chatting with the driver in Hindi so I entertain myself by snapping photos of the passing Ghats. There’s an impressive amount of graffiti. A charred arm floats passed. We stop at the burning Ghat. As I try to hold down my breakfast, locals sit among the smoldering ashes, sipping chai and reading the morning news. I wonder how American society became so sterilized.
When we get back, Aparna tells me about her conversations with the driver. She had told him about our discussion the previous night with the “philosopher” to which he vehemently disagreed. “The rituals have their own incomprehensible power,” he said. There are no explanations. There is no hidden meaning. They are important because the Veda says as much. There can’t be any contingencies, because the Veda is as old as time itself. There are no explanations, because the Veda is self-authenticated. Why would we seek to justify the Veda, when the Veda is beyond suspicion? How can human reason even come close to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Veda? Such a project is doomed from the start.
Wherever we looked for explanations, for a purpose to believe, a reason to practice, we either found an intellectual apologist or a pragmatic dogmatist. While the philosopher and the practitioner are both proud of their “sensibility,” Aparna and I finally admit defeat, return to our room, and go back to sleep.
We were met with a hybrid of these two approaches the next morning when we attended a yoga class in Lahori Tola. The instructor, apparently an expert in hasyayoga, finished our two-and-a-half-hour session with a discussion of yogic theory. He explained each of the seven chakras; their position, meaning, and significance. He translated chakra as nerve-bundles, which seemed suspiciously convenient. When pressed, he couldn’t quite say whether they were physiological or spiritual structures. He seemed to prefer the former so as to de-mythologize the process, but didn’t want to let yoga become a purely bio-empirical science. By walking along this hazy line, he believed that yoga was at once a “science” which could be rationally accepted, but also transcendent. In other words, yoga retained the scientific rigor, while shrugging off the burden of verification. Unlike the purely intellectual religion of the philosopher, the yogi was unwilling to allow his practice to become wholly contingent on scientifically or philosophically rigorous evidence. Unlike the gondolier, however, there was a sincere ad hoc effort to formulate an incredibly complex structure or theoretical framework for the practices.
Later that day, we sat by assi ghat talking about the different approaches we’d heard. It seems as though the rituals could ultimately only be defended through a leap of faith. It is said that the Veda and its rsis aren’t looking for our justifications, we ought to be looking for theirs. As a counterexample, I told Aparna about the Talmud and Halakha. I explained to her that every action which Jews perform can be traced back through the literature to the Torah itself. We can follow it from conception, through its development, down to its current form. Far from being a mystical text, the Talmud is more akin to a summary of legal proceedings.
Although we never did hear a strictly rational defense of traditional Hinduism, we left Banaras with an appreciation for some of the various attempts to come to terms with the Veda in the 21st century.
I’m sitting in a small Tibetan restaurant on the bank of Dal Lake, a supposed holy-pool nestled in the Himalayan foothills. “Foothills” must be some sort of joke or euphemism; we’re surrounded by towering peaks. Our tiny propeller plane nearly skidded off a cliff while touching down on narrow mountaintop they refer to as a runway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This morning I left for Dharamshala as Aparna went back to Bangalore. I would be returning to Bangalore to catch my return flight back to New York, so it was only goodbye for a couple weeks. We had enough Hinduism for the time being, and I wanted to explore the Buddhist perspective. When I found out that the Dalai Lama had a monastery in the north, near the Nepalese border, I booked my flight. I had read some works by the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion comes to mind, and understood that he believes that Buddhist values could, and should, be viewed outside of a religious paradigm. For all of the progress made in science and technology, the Dalai Lama argues that we are in the midst of a rapid moral regression. In order to save society from itself, we must tap into our shared humanity, life, and existence in order to create a more sustainable future for ourselves and our environment. As opposed to the more traditional Banares, Dharamshala seems pregnant with the promise of a highly rational project.
During dinner, the chef told me that the Dalai Lama divided Buddhism into three parts: religion, philosophy, and science. He insisted that they are mutually exclusive and need not be accepted as a package. In fact, many of the younger Tibetans reject the religious component while continuing to follow the philosophical and scientific branches. These kids hold business degrees, worked in European capitals, and yet remained confident that developing a proper mind-body connection was the only path to happiness.
I asked him how someone such as I can become Buddhist. Is there a conversion process? He was taken aback. No one is born a Buddhist, he explained, much like no one is born a mathematician. Like mathematics, Buddhism is a body of knowledge that anyone can choose to study. It takes many years of study and practice to become a Buddhist, and even then, one must work to remain one. Blame it on the Himalayan air, but this stuffy restaurant feels more refreshing than that long Ganges boat ride.
I left with a promise to return the next evening for his daughter’s birthday party.
Grabbed an early taxi into McLeod Ganj to visit the Dalai Lama’s Temple. I was immediately struck by its resemblance to yeshiva. Students would study in pairs (like chavrusas), reviewing material in a question and answer format (shakla v’tarya), swaying back and forth (shukkel). It was loud, very loud.
When I came back for the afternoon prayers, I found everyone sitting on low cushions while chanting in Tibetan. Pita bread was passed around; tea followed. The man seated next to me tied a red string around my wrist. He said it was from the Dalai Lama or something. I couldn’t really understand him.
I purchased a copy of The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Rinpoche on my way out.
I love to sit and watch the clouds move in and out of McLeod Ganj. The town is so high up that the clouds literally drift through the streets, clouding everything in their paths.
This afternoon I sat in the Temple for hours, reading the book I bought last night and thinking about my life.
Later that day, I walked back to Dal Lake to attend the birthday party. They treated me like their guest of honor. Everyone there was sort of orphaned, having left all of their family back in China.
Tibetans drink. A lot.
The chef (father of the birthday girl) brought me into his prayer room. I felt kind of uncomfortable, like I was invading his privacy. But he looked proud.
We sat around for an hour or so - drinking, smoking, talking, singing – before the meal began. I ended up staying until late at night and promised to visit their cafes in the morning. It seems as though all Tibetans are cooks or unemployed. In either case, they spend their days at cafes.
Without Aparna, I’ve started to watch TV before bed. Tonight, Grey’s Anatomy is on.
Spent the day with some Tibetan friends at TVC Café. Smoked Manali weed and drank coffee. Life moves slowly.
The Tibetan Library is finally open! I found a really good book simply entitled The Buddha and his Dharma. Here’s an excerpt from the Buddha’s final address:
“Those who, either now or after I am gone, shall be a lamp unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help, holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and seeking their liberation only in the Truth, not looking for help from anyone beside themselves, it is they, Ananda, among my Bhikkus, who shall reach the very topmost height! Perishable are all conditional things. Work out your way with diligence.”
This really sums up what I’m after.
Attended a philosophy class and was rather disappointed. We discussed karma. The monk asked how karma is possible if we are all in a state of ksana-vada. That is, if we are constantly in flux, and the person who intentioned the act is neither the person who committed the act or the person who exists after the act, how can karma take place? How can anyone be held responsible? He answered that all of the momentary agents involved in the act (P1 at time T1, P2 at time T2, etc.) are connected through a stream of consciousness or mental continuum. (This took an hour because the translator repeated everything a dozen times.)
I guess I was looking for something a bit more practical. Not sure what I was expecting, it was a philosophy class after all. I just don’t understand why these classes are public. How is all of this relevant for the seemingly affluent middle-aged English-speaking audience? It all seemed very technical.
When I got back, I discussed the class with Aparna (through Skype), and she seemed very interested. Maybe it’s because she actually believes in karma.
Read some Walden. Really beginning to hate Thoreau. He says so much that is insightful, while still managing to come off as an asshole.
Visited Bhagsu today. There is an old temple here. I think that Hindus are devoted, but it is hard to tell what exactly they’re devoted to. For example, in Buddhism I can appreciate their focus on the mind-body connection and their attempts to overcome dukkha. But Hinduism seems practically to consist of pure devotion. I’m not sure how to connect to that.
I walked up to the waterfall which was nice. But everything is different when you’re alone.
Flew down to Kochi this morning. The cab to the airport was playing some Atif Aslam. I spent the day around Fort Kochi and made the required stop at Jew Town. In the evening I met up with a friend of a friend of a friend, Suraj. Suraj has two girlfriends, one in Kochi and one in Bangalore. He explained to me that intimacy is so important that he needs a girlfriend for home and one for when he’s traveling. I guess that makes sense. He is also very religious, goes to temple every day and has a lot of trust in his gods. He claims that the statue isn’t actually the god, rather the “atmosphere” in the temple is god. Sounds like a spirituality without a spirit.
Spent the rest of the day strolling along the boardwalk, eating roasted peanuts, and talking about India. Oh, I even stopped by the fishing nets and ended up staying for a while to help pull in the evening's catch.
Tomorrow I will fly back to Bangalore. I’ll spend the day with Aparna before heading back to the states. I wonder how that will go.
I’m 20,000 feet above the Atlantic, traveling at 500 miles per hour away from India and back to New York. I feel better now. I feel happier. Yesterday, Aparna asked me if I found spirituality in India. I think she was probably making fun of me. I told her that I don’t know about spirituality, but I think I might have found a bit more of myself. Before my trip, I felt like a stranger in my own body, following the path set out for me by my parents, and their parents before them. On the way to India was I worried about losing myself to my desires, afraid of getting “it” wrong and coming up empty handed. After all, how can I trust myself to discover the truth.
But what if there is no dharma? Learning about all of these understandings of brahman (at the end of the day, that’s what I’m really searching for), I’m beginning to understand that sometimes it’s not what we end up choosing to do that matters, but how we choose to do it. Sincerity. Devotion. Self-awareness. Liberation. Care. Those are the ideas that followed me around India.
I’m no longer drowning in self-doubt. Actually, for the first time in years, I’m feeling quite hopeful.
“To see what you have done before,
Look at what you are now.
To see where you are going to be born next,
Look at what you do now.”
- Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish