By Life Positive
Three writers and seekers pay homage to the spiritual India that lurks beneath the surface chaos; an India often invisible to us because we are too immersed in it
A kiss for Mother India
I lived in India for a few years during the ‘70s and have returned for various
reasons some 20 times since then. It is the only country that feels like home to me, and certainly the only country whose airport tarmac I have kissed on landing.
Like many of my generation, I originally went searching for that vague and tantalizing thing, Truth. What I found, of course, was a different sort of truth. Another kind of relationship. Like all relationships, it has its ups and downs, its love and hate.
In certain areas, however, India still makes me wide-eyed with wonder, as naïve and impressionable as ever – though with, I hope, a deeper appreciation for people, the individuals who are engaged in forging a modern nation from 800 years of internal division and foreign domination. Their task is truly daunting.
Whatever the political upheavals that rock the subcontinent, religion and India remain inseparable. My understanding of what spirituality means changes – evolves, I hope – over the following pages along with my understanding of a land that pullulates with every imaginable variety of it.
I have spent some of the happiest days of my life in India, as well as some of the most bizarre. No other country has ever made me laugh so much, or cry so much. I hope the humour will not be taken amiss any more than the tears.
From enough to finish three books this length, I have selected episodes and incidents, journeys inner and outer, anecdotes and little histories and conversations that I trust will provide a mosaic image of a land that, in its richness, complexity, and sheer size defies any definitive portrait. If what means much to me fails to please the reader, it is not India’s fault. I take full responsibility.
The circle of history revolves. India has now turned outward, preoccupying itself more and more with the West’s materialism. At the same time much of the West has come to preoccupy itself not with India’s material riches, but with those spiritual treasures that to seekers of truth always comprised the subcontinent’s real wealth. Finally, then, I have also attempted to show that what Mahatma Gandhi termed as an “ empire of the soul” is also not as easy to colonize as some of its new conquistadors would have us believe.
- Paul William Roberts
Excerpted from Empire of the Soul : Some journeys in India
Joy in the Moment
I consulted the handbook, Pilgrimage Notes and Suggestions for Those Visiting India for the First time to See Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, which had been sent to me by a devotee in England. It read:
“Reduce the luggage you carry about when on the journey of life. Remember, all that is not ‘you’ is luggage. The mind, the senses, the intelligence, the imagination, the desires, the plans, the prejudices, the discontents, the distress – all are items of luggage. Jettison them soon to make your travel lighter, safer and more comfortable. Less luggage, more comfort.”
The imprecation seemed ironic. My bag was weighed down with books about Sai Baba – a library compounded of a tortuous and labyrinthine mixture of historical fact, philosophical speculation, pious faith and blind devotion. As the countryside slipped outside the window, I immersed myself in the continuing mythology of his life-story.
In my room, I lay in bed, under a naked light bulb, thumbing through Professor Kasturi’s book and came across a pronouncement by Sai Baba on the burdens of divinity:
‘Some of you may feel that it is glorious for the Lord to come in human form. If you were in My place, you would not feel so glorious. For, I am aware of the past, present and future of every one of you. Therefore, I am not moved by mercy. I know why a person suffers in this birth, what it is the consequence of. So I react differently to you; you may call Me either cold-hearted or soft-hearted. I do not cause joy or grief; you design the chains that bind you, both gold and iron.”
I turned off the light, and drifted into half sleep. I awoke in the darkness, the high-pitched whine of a mosquito in my ear, my arms and legs stinging from bites. Unable now to sleep, I cast my karma to the winds, and spent the rest of the night vengefully thrashing at the mosquitoes with my shoe, experiencing a feeling of crazed exultation with every minute black shape that I splattered against the whitewashed walls.
Her teachings are seldom verbal. The Mother Meera, or ‘Ma’ as he calls her, hardly speaks, and then only to interpret his thoughts and experiences, seldom to direct or instruct. The impression Harvey gives is of awakening to some deeper voice within himself.
“My room downstairs, when I returned to it was full of Mother’s gold light (he writes). As soon as I walked in, I heard Ma’s voice. ‘Look at the dot between my eyes.’ Turning to the photograph of Ma on the wall, I gazed at the large red dot on her forehead… Ma’s eyes became two whirlpools of fire, and the large red circle started to vibrate and hum. Her force seized me and began to pour itself into me. I felt as if the lid on my head and entire face had been peeled off and molten radiance was being poured directly into my mind and body.”
What Harvey describes is a sort of spiritual surgery, a laceration of the ego, forcing him to discard the intellect and consider a deeper sense of self. Readers of a sceptical persuasion, I suggested, might wonder if he wasn’t confessing to taking leave of his senses.
Harvey rocked back in his chair with laughter. “If you were reading Eastern literature, created out of a religious civilization, the experiences I describe, while I hope they would be moving, would not be extreme; many, many people have experienced such things. What seems improbable to the rational mind is actually natural in that dimension of mystical knowledge.”
The actor Terence Stamp told me of meeting Krishnamurti in Italy in the ‘60s, when Stamp was a rising young film star. “We went for a walk. I remember I was gabbling away, asking him all sorts of questions, and he would just touch me on the shoulder and say, ‘Look at the clouds, look at the trees’. Just getting me to stop my mind y’know.” Stamp became a student of Krishnamurti’s teachings.
Among the wisest and most beautiful things that Krishnamurti had to say was this, on the subject of love:
“Fear is not love, dependence is not love, jealousy is not love, possessiveness and domination are not love, responsibility and duty are not love, self-pity is not love, love is not the opposite of hate any more than humility is the opposite of vanity. So if you can eliminate all these, not by forcing them but by washing them away as the rain washes the dust of many days from a leaf, then perhaps you will come upon this strange flower which man always hungers after”.
I leave the temple feeling heady, exhilarated. The light is fading. I find myself walking, effortlessly, as if my feet are hardly touching the ground. I strike out along the road, a fine drizzle blowing in my face. There is a turning where the woods fall away and I look down into the valley, flanked on either side by gently rising hills. In the distance, the river is a silver thread meandering between trees. Sheep, like cotton buds, graze on a green baize field. A crow tracks across the sky like a shadow passing over billowing grey clouds. In the temple, the monks are praying for the world. I think: What is joy? Joy is non-attachment. Joy is not to be found in remembering the past, nor in anticipating the future. Joy is to be found only in a moment. And in that moment, I feel giddy with joy, knowing, even as I feel it, that this too will pass.
Excerpted from The Spiritual Tourist
A Land of Bhakti
India will bend your mind, assault your body, flood your senses, and shred your nerves, from the moment you step off the plane into its smoky, unforgettable perfume of burning cowdung, diesel fumes, and a few thousand years of accumulated human sweat. And ultimately, if you’re lucky, your own identity will break down like one of the decrepit, smog-belching autorickshaws that clog the Indian streets – and you’ll have to walk on without it, through the twisting alleys of an unknown city, with cows eating empty juice cartons from streetside garbage dumps and ash-daubed mystics chanting mantras in the gutters. It’s this breakdown and attendant possibilities for transformation – more than a specific teacher or spiritual site – that’s the real blessing India has to offer.
I first went to India because of a leaf… The leaf was given to me by an Indian friend… Shantum explained that it was a leaf from the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya – a descendent of the actual pipal under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Twenty five hundred years ago, the Buddha sat down beneath its sheltering branches, on a cushion of kusa grass, and vowed that he would not get up until he cut through all delusions and freed himself from the treadmill of death and re-birth. Under the light of the full moon, he succeeded. Back at my home in California, I set the pipal leaf in the lap of the Buddha on my altar to remind me of the Buddha’s successful quest… sometimes I’d feel the leaf, tugging on my heart like a magnet. And it began to occur to me that I should go to the place the leaf came from.
…I was headed for the tiny cave where the great teacher Ramana Maharshi had spent 17 years absorbed in deep contemplation of the Self – the blissful, indestructible, all-encompassing consciousness that is our true nature. I paused for a moment at the entrance – where Ramana used to sit for hours, staring with open unflinching eyes into the blazing sun… Then I went into the cave itself – a hot, dark, and airless chamber… I closed my eyes to meditate and sweat, wondering how long I would have to struggle with my own mind that day before I achieved some measure of silence. I thought of the words of Ramana: ‘O Arunachala! Thou doest root out the ego of those who meditate on thee in the heart, O Arunachala!’ And then I heard a voice in my head – not the usual insistent commentary on my experience, but someone gentler: ‘There’s nowhere to get to. You’re already here.’
I sat there for what seemed like a long, long time, sinking into the unaccustomed quiet in my mind. Finally, as thoughts of chapattis and dal began to intrude, I opened my eyes and took a peek at my watch – to discover to my surprise, that only a few minutes had passed since I first sat down. After a long time more, I looked at my watch again – to find that the hands had not moved at all. A few minutes after I entered the cave, the watch had stopped, as if Ramana himself had reached out, put his hand on my wrist, and taken me out of time.
India is a land of bhakti – the Sanskrit work for devotion to God. In India, devotion is not just confined to the worship of the gods depicted in temples – 330 million of them, by some counts. Bhakti is showered on sacred mountains, sacred rivers, sacred rocks, sacred trees, and, of course, the ubiquitous sacred cows…
A deepening of bhakti is the greatest gift I got from India – a bhakti for me, directed not at the formal representations of the Divine, but at the spirit that illuminates all of nature. One night in the Himalayas, caught out on a hike by a sudden spring blizzard, I spent the night in the cave of a sadhu, a mountain ascetic who lived there year-round, subsisting only on potatoes and nuts. Huddled on a rock floor as cold as an ice-skating rink, shivering under a rat-gnawed blanket, I listened to the crash of avalanches cascading from the 19,000-foot peaks around us. Every time another avalanche fell, the sadhu – tucked in a nest of blankets in an inner chamber of the cave – would toss in his sleep and call out, ‘Jai Sita Ram!’ ‘Glory to God’, I suppose is the closest literal translation. I found myself echoing his sentiment. The snow would crash down; he’d sing out his mantra; and I’d hear myself whispering. ‘This world is astounding.’
- Anne Cushman
Excerpted from From Here to Nirvana by Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones
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