Sarnath

The ruins of the Buddha’s palace at Sarnath are spread across a few acres of land, and are now an archeological site available to travelers and pilgrims. Dhamek Stupa dominates the skyline, and the air is filled with the singing chants of Buddhist pilgrims, making their way from one ruined pillar to the next. Signs read “Do not place gold foil on the ruins,” and everywhere around the signs are tattered pieces of golden foil, stuck on ruins that are thousands of years old.

The tree under which the Buddha gave his first sermon is not original, but is rather a sapling from the tree under which he gained enlightenment. In any case the spot is still authentic. The tree is walled in, and visitors must remove their shoes before walking inside the sanctuary. Surrounding the tree are prayer wheels, which pilgrims turn clockwise in order to gain wisdom or purge demons or something. I don’t know exactly what spinning all the wheels does, but I did it anyway figuring I’m in no position to potentially refuse blessings.

Walking through these sacred Buddhist sites I remembered a thought I had a long time ago when I was taking a class on Buddhism in college. The Buddha was just a philosopher. At age twenty-nine the Buddha left his wife, child, home, and all his worldly possessions to discover the connection between human experience and suffering. This not so much a spiritual task as it is a philosophical one, and is therefore the work of a great philosopher. The amount of reverence and worship he receives makes us sometimes forget the truth of the Buddha’s occupation. I wonder what the west would look like if we worshiped a philosopher as much as they do in the east.

“Drink the Demon,” Goodbye India

I knew I had settled in to Varanasi when I was able to successfully find and buy alcohol on my own. When I returned with the spoils my host laughed and said “I never have to show foreigners where to buy beer. They always figure it out.”

We had already been out in the city that night, and I wasn’t planning on drinking the beer. I was saving it for the next day or maybe the day after that. I was standing around in the kitchen with a few other house mates when someone suggested we all have a drink. There was enough for everyone, but I refused, saying I was tired and wanted to sleep right after dinner. 

It was then that Ricardo, the gentle Italian giant, put a hand on my shoulder and said something in his thick accent. What he actually said was “drink with dinner,” but what I heard was “drink the demon.” 

As I mentioned in my first post in India I had never really wanted to visit here. India had loomed in the back of my mind the entire journey up until finally landing in Bangalore, when all those anxieties were suddenly real. 

But now, sitting in my comfortable Airbnb in Athens, India is no longer an anxiety but a place I hope to see again one day. I did it, I drank the demon and it didn’t kill me. In fact, it left me better off than I’d been before.

Goodbye India. Until next time.

Cows

There really is no equivalent in western countries to the cow situation here in India. I knew that cows were sacred here before arriving, and I knew that they more or less roamed free. I did not anticipate the sheer number of cows, however, and I definitely did not anticipate how moody they can be. 

My first real face-to-face interaction with a cow happened a few weeks ago in Ravandur. Our host had a small garden in which a few neighboring farmers let their cows wander. I had gone out to the garden to walk around for bit, when there blocking the path was a big white cow, the horns having been freshly dyed green and purple for Diwali. The cow was munching some grass, so I figured I could just walk by undisturbed. The cow had other plans. 

He raised his head and trampled towards me with surprising speed. Luckily his tether was only long enough for his dyed horns to tickle my chest, but he was giving it everything he had, tether be damned. 

His owner came stumping along and halooed at the beast, who lowered and returned to munching the grass. The owner patted the cow affectionately on the rump and gave me a nonchalant grin that said “Cows. What can you do?” 

Despite every conventional law of nature I have seen more cows here in the city of Varanasi than in the rural village of Ravandur. They just traipse around here. They apathetically stand in front of traffic, eat garbage, although when they can get away with it they eat fruit from fruit stands, which never fails to cause a scene as everyone stops what they’re doing to shout and slap the cow. I imagine the cow is thinking “Yeah yeah I’m going, just one more apple. What are you going to do about it?” And most importantly, after your foot slides through something oddly mud-like, you remember that cows take un-holy dumps, whatever their spiritual status may be. 

On our way back from a night out in the city we asked out tuk tuk driver about the cows. “They belong to Shiva,” he said. This makes complete sense. Shiva is one of the three principal Hindu gods, and is responsible for destruction. Shiva is perhaps the most worshipped god in Varanasi. The Ganges runs through Varanasi, and, according to Hindu mythology, the river itself lives in Shiva’s dreads. Yes, Shiva has dreads, and given how dirty the Ganges and dreadlocks are in general, I’m willing to admit that this bit of fantasy might actually be reality. 

Shiva isn’t just about destruction in the classic sense of breaking things. Shiva is also considered the god of change, like winter becoming spring, or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Somehow, though, I feel like Shiva is much happier when his hoards of cows upturn fruit stands and charge unsuspecting passersby than when the leaves turn in the fall. 

There’s no equivalent for the cows back home, though. It would be as if we decided alpacas were sacred and instructed every farmer with alpacas to turn them loose on the general public. Alpaca milling about in front of your place of business? Just shoo him away! Alpaca poking around the supermarket? Give him a stiff slap on the ass! But don’t hurt him—he’s sacred after all. 

India is considered one of the most spiritual places in the world, and perhaps that is why we have no equivalent in the west to so many things that occur here. Honestly, our lack of roaming cows could be because there are not as many Shiva worshipers in the west as there are here. Less worship equals less power, so in the west Shiva doesn’t have the power to set his lumbering army against us. 

After all the things that I’ve seen in India this explanation seems just as reasonable as a more scientific one that correlates poverty with cows per square inch. I would be the last person to know if such a study has already been conducted, but I have my doubts. That brave researcher would be up against a bovine force of seemingly immeasurable numbers, and the even greater number of cow pies they leave in their path of destruction.

Chaos

“How is India?” 

I’ve gotten that question many times from loved ones and friends. I don’t mind being asked it because every time it crops up I wonder how to answer it, and each time I wonder I come to a different conclusion. 

I generally tell people that it’s great. Tough, but great. It’s never the truth though. It is perhaps a close approximation of the truth, or, more likely, it is a catch-all answer that is just enough to satisfy the recipient. 

Feeling at loss, I spent some time asking other foreigners here what they make of India. “I love it,” said one.

“Why?” 

“The chaos,” she said. 

How can I lay claim to the title of writer when I can’t put this place into words? 

“The chaos,” she said. 

Here is India, then, in words.

Take a newspaper, a Bible, and any assortment of novels and books of poetry. Cut them all up into bits. Make them a pile of phrases on the floor and pick a few at random. The sentence made from these fragments will most likely be nonsense—chaos—but, undoubtedly, the truth of this place will be there. Dim, only seen in a glance, but there somewhere in the chaos. 

The Train

The imagined horrors of a two day train ride in India far out-weigh the actual discomfort of the journey. There are endless hours of footage of the desperation, grime, and poverty of the Indian railway sleeping somewhere in news stations the world over. These were the images I couldn’t shake when our tickets had finally been booked, but the reality was not so bad. We booked 3AC, which is the cheapest of the “luxury” travel options, 1AC being the highest. With our booking we were provided bunk beds, a sheet, and a blanket. 3AC is, however, the most crowded of the high-end options, so our journey was fairly noisy. 

The noise bothered me at first, especially the loud belching of the woman below me, whose burps I can only describe as “chewy.” 

How could I stay angry, though, when at lunch time she and her family offered us bread, butter, and sweets? 

So, outside of the burps, the journey was smooth. I mostly just read and slept. Had I been in the cars with no beds, however, I’m sure I would be whistling a different tune. There is undoubtedly a group of people who would claim I have no basis upon which to judge the train experience in India because I didn’t go with the roughest sleeping option. I’m not trying to generalize the Indian railway experience here; I’m just relaying what I got out of the endeavor. 

We were supposed to arrive in Varanasi at noon, and I had read online that the train is typically delayed ten minutes at the final terminus, not, as it turned out, two hours.

Billy handled this delay with his usual tact. I, on the other hand, was seething. The anger came from my fear that I was now delayed in letting my loved ones know I was safe. I absolutely hate the idea of them worrying about me, and I felt completely helpless with no way to get in touch with them, surrounded by people who spoke no English who couldn’t communicate the situation to me. That feeling of helplessness quickly transformed into anger. 

This, they say, is one of the benefits of practicing mediation: that in a time like that I would have been able to calm myself and sooth my racing mind. I don’t doubt the truth of that assertion, but I want to preserve all of my emotions, even if they’re occasionally good-for-nothing or damaging. If I’m a poor Christian than I’m an abysmal Buddhist. I want to keep my “monkey mind” that constantly clatters out ideas and reflections. I want to not just feel emotions but to act upon them too. I want to have opinions and principles that I am willing to uphold. I want I want I want. 

But I will be free from suffering if I dedicate my life to surrendering desire. At least that’s the claim, anyway. Nirvana. Total enlightenment. Supreme mental clarity. 

Sounds boring to me. I will endure suffering if it comes at the price of actually living a life, as opposed to withdrawing into some pallid cloister where one may never taste the disposition to love and hate, or indeed acknowledge any of those passions that make us human. 

“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” says Shelley in his famous “Ode to the West Wind.” Better to have fallen and bled, and to have taken that two-day train ride, than to have sat at home, trying to ignore my human impulses.

Reflections After Ravandur

“India is everything,” says our host. “Here you can find the best of humanity and the absolute worst, often times on the same street.” If Martians were to land on earth and ask for the best representation of human life, I would point to India, for what our host says is true. 

Good and bad exist everywhere, but of all the places I’ve been so far India exhibits the two virtues in closest proximity to each other. Our host tells us there is a word in Hindi that expresses the notion that foreigners should be treated like gods. “If they take the time to come to India, they deserve to be treated like deities” he said. This explains why the British were able to exploit and occupy India for so long. 

And this is what I mean when I talk about the proximity of the good and bad here. The genuine act of human kindness that welcomes and reveres foreigners can be so easily perverted into something wicked. The good here balances upon a sphere, and with only the slightest adjustment topples the good into misery. 

Our host tells us of his neighbor growing up, how his neighbor now works in IT and makes tons of money, and how his neighbor threw such an extravagant wedding, buying his bride a brand new luxury car, but he didn’t invite his own mother, blind and alone at home; he couldn’t be bothered to figure out a way to get her to the venue. Our host now takes care of his neighbor’s mother, the rest of the family being too caught up with sudden wealth and extravagance.

I would tell that Martian to examine India because of stories like these, but there’s more to it than just the close presence of good and evil. I would tell him to investigate here because here he might also see that, despite continually being toppled, the good, like our venerable host, always climbs back up on that sphere. 

Yoga

Like massage, yoga joins the ranks of things I was told are relaxing but are really masochistic. 

Our host is a yoga pro. He has been practicing his entire life and has taught in numerous places around the world. I have no doubts of his skill and compassion in teaching the art of yoga. However, there is only so much gymnastics one can teach a dog. 

I have the same affinity for yoga as the dog has for gymnastics. Sure, I’ve learned the basic poses and breathing exercises, but the positions are only half of yoga. The other arguably more important half is the mind. Our host laments the fact that yoga is seen as merely exercise in the west, for the spiritual half is what the humdrum minds of westerners really need. 

The poses, I’m told, continue to be painful so long as the practitioner does not clear his or her mind and focus on breathing, and, go figure, it’s hard to breath normally while posed like someone who was just told to stand in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. 

Like Buddhism, yoga has attain a substantial following of annoying white people. That’s the only thing I can say about them, though, is that they annoy me. I lack the patience and spirituality to grasp the finer points of yoga and eastern philosophy in general, but if it works for people, all the power to them. 

What annoys me about westerners who praise eastern philosophy as some kind of silver bullet is their insistence that spirituality doesn’t exist in the west. This is of course not true. Having been in eastern countries for a few months now I feel comfortable admitting that here, spirituality is far more public. In the west, our spirituality is hidden in churches and the writings of great thinkers, but mostly it is hidden within our selves.

In the west, spirituality has no business with the public, even though it often times makes ugly appearances in the public sphere. In India, however, spirituality is expected to be present in the everyday. When we begin practice yoga in the morning we must first perform a few sun salutations, which are successive positions that somehow give praise and thanks to the sun. These positions are not just meaningless flailings. They are meant to be practiced with the same sincerity with which one practices evening prayer. 

Part of the work here has been helping to construct a pond, and before even the first stone was laid, we all stood solemnly by as a puja was performed. A puja can be many things I’m told, but most of the time it is a sacrifice in order to ensure good fortune and prosperity. In this case a few bananas and a pomegranate were the unfortunate victims. 

The spirituality is out in the open here, just as it can be out in the open in the west, but these outward displays of faith are typically Christian, and are usually met with skepticism.

Some of this skepticism no doubt stems from the elements of fantasy in the Bible, the promise of salvation through faith being perhaps the hardest pill to swallow. But eastern religions and philosophies have their own versions of salvation, and why these variations should be treated with less skepticism is to me unfathomable.

I originally intended to write about how comical my struggle with yoga is but here we are. This ended up being about a different kind of struggle I suppose.