Asia | India | Kerala – Religious Experience
I’m not the first person to notice that religion is all over the place in India. Absolutely everywhere, in fact, shrines on street corners, pictures of Ganesha in police stations, incense burning in a small rock shelter at a junction of footpaths 15 kilometers from the nearest town. It can get almost overwhelming, both in how much religion you see and how many different kinds there are all together.
Kochi is a particularly good illustration of this….it’s one of the things that makes it such an interesting town to wander through. In the course of two hours, a Spanish guy named Alfonso and I wandered south from the Christian neighborhood of Fort Cochin where we were staying, replete with convent schools and 500 year old Portugese churches, through the twisting streets of the Arab-styled Muslim part of town, then through a Hindu neighborhood, ending up at the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth in a neighborhood called Jew Town and surrounded by shops selling antique Buddhist and Jain sculpture. We also got offered ganja four times, probably because Alfonso with his long hair and beads looks a lot more like a stereotypical stoner than I do.
The edges where these neighborhoods intersect are even more interesting, with churches catecorner from Hindu temples and even a shop selling garish pictures of Christ, Krishna, Durga and St. George on the same wall, all decked out in blinking Christmas lights.
The net effect of all this exuberant spirituality on the foreign traveller is one of feeling left out. Like maybe you’re missing out on something by not being so obviously religious. Even the Christians here are constantly wrapped up in ritual: the bow-tied waiter who led me to my table for lunch at the Seagull Restaurant paused for half a second as we passed a picture of the last so supper so he could touch it with two fingers and kiss them.
So rather than feel left out, I went to a yoga ashram. There were lots of reasons for this, and I’d been considering it for a while, but Kochi kind of put me over the edge.
Other reasons were more physical and mental. I’ve studied all sorts of dances and martial arts and have been OK at them, but never great. There’s always been a certain lack of fine connection between body and brain, so that I can watch someone perform a movement or sequence and my brain will say ‘got it,’ and tell my body to do it and my body will say ‘um…..’
I’m also a little short on mental discipline. I think this comes, paradoxically, from being immersed in academia for so long. My brain’s always had lots of toys to play with, and so doesn’t know how to sit still. I sometimes have trouble sleeping because I can’t stop thinking. So the fact that I suck at meditation should come as a surprise to no one.
So, Sivananda. I was wary of taking yoga in New York as a beginner just because it is *so* popular, and New York has a way of turning everything into a competitive, fashion-conscious venture, even yoga. I figured two weeks in the hills of southern Kerala would be as un-Gotham an introduction as you could hope to get. And I cannot imagine anything like the Neyyar Dam Ashram existing anywhere in Manhattan. Maybe Queens, but probably not.
As anyone who’s really serious about yoga will tell you, the physical part is only a tiny bit of it, and a true yogi isn’t just someone who can stand on his head for a long time, he’s also spent years developing himself emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, morally, and is constantly attempting to divest himself of passion and focus on the physical world.
Sivananda is a pretty serious organization as far as the whole ‘integrated yoga’ concept goes, so any illusions that this is just a slightly more spiritual version of a spa in the hills is shattered when you look at the schedule (www.sivananda.org/locations/ashrams/neyyardam/ if you’re interested). Four hours a day of assanas…that’s the physical exercise, but also five of chanting, lectures, meditation and karma yoga (that’s chores).
The assanas are great, the teachers are real sweethearts and it’s all very systematic. The organization’s founder Swami Vishnu Devananda wrote the book on Yoga in the west, literally. _The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga_ is his baby, and he’s credited with being the first yogi to actively promote the practice in the west. He also gained fame as ‘The Flying Guru,’ piloting a light aircraft over war-torn areas dropping flowers and leaflets calling for peace. The satsanga hall has a couple of pictures of him practicing assanas on the wing of his (stationary) aircraft. So there’s an attention to detail and regularity about the instruction but also a sort of a sense of humor about the place, both of which I appreciated.
As for the meditation, I see the value in it, but I still suck at it. One of the instructors, an American guy with a Sanskrit name I forgot (more on him later) told me I should try focusing on a candle, since my mind starts wandering as soon as I close my eyes.
‘That’s not cheating?’ I asked.
‘Not once you start to get over this perceived division between the internal and the external, and realize that looking in and looking out are really identical,’ he replied.
People have lots of discussions like that here.
The lectures and discussions, in fact, are pretty striking for their really…well…religious nature. I mean, there are oil lamps here, and altars with statues of gods and swamis on them, and brightly colored pictures of the Hindu pantheon on the walls, and any number of other things that would make the more specifically Christian members of my family grit their teeth and inhale sharply. Discussion is everyday at 11am after lunch (we get up at 5:30, so lunch is at 10), and no kidding, we actually sit cross-legged on mats and listen to a bearded guy in orange robes tell us things about the universe, and in my skeptical way I sit there thinking:
This is so cliche.
But there’s a funny thing about cliches. There are so many of them out there that get parodied over and over when most of us have never seen the thing that’s getting parodied. I mean, how many comic strips, comedy sketches and jokes have you seen and heard that feature a guru or swami like this? And how many gurus or swamis have you actually seen? This swami was certainly the first I’d ever met. Everyone calls him Swami, himself included, and he looks the part, and his lecture topics range from the sensible (eat locally produced food, don’t expect filling physical desires to make you happy for long) to the predictably New Agey (the world is illusion, transcendence should be our goal) to the downright silly (if you eat with your left hand touching the ground you’ll get no nutrients from your food).
He’s also a really nice guy, soft-spoken, quick to smile, and works ice cream and cars into his analogies in a way that reaches across the language and cultural barriers that daunt so many. He’s also funny, in a reserved sort of way:
Saturday, my third day at the ashram, we got a visit from about 100 Keralan university students, and got to be the tourist attraction for a day. Saturday night there is a talent show (wait, it gets better). The talent show featured a German guy doing stand-up comedy in English, an American woman singing Beatles covers, and a number of the university students singing hits from the Indian film industry and performing traditional Islamic marriage dances. When it was over, Swami called everyone’s attention by singing ‘Om’ as all the teachers here do, then smiled and blinked his eyes slowly and said ‘That is my talent!’
Unfortunately, I’ll always be too cerebral for these sorts of traits to make up for the fundamental goofiness (to me) of some of the discussions. I mean, I am a science teacher, and my eyes glaze over pretty quickly after hearing the human body’s functions being described in terms of the balance of fire, water and air. No big problem….I’ve spent a lot of my life picking and choosing what makes sense from what is presented to me.
I am in a minority though. Of the forty or so students at the ashram along with me, five or six of us would hang out occasionally and start admitting to each other that we didn’t quite buy all of this. Americans, mostly, of which there are a lot, and a couple from Dubai, an Australian pilot and his South African wife who runs an interior design store. There was a good sized German, Austrian and Swiss contingent, and they seemed a little more serious about it all, a little more likely to have read _Siddharta_ seven times, or to have their own hardback copy of _The Tibetan Book of the Dead_ on hand at all times. The Australians seemed to be having the best time, and were the most visibly excited at the prospect of staying for a month or more and taking the teacher’s training course. A few Brits, the most apparently spiritual ones to my eyes, including one young man with a Scottish accent at the beginning of a six-month stay. This is intended to ingrain the practice of yoga deeply into habit that he’ll continue with it for the rest of his life, he said. Didn’t quite jive with the impression of Scots I’d gotten from Irving Welsh novels. Also five or six Indians, mostly studying to get their teaching certificates.
The teachers were a similarly mixed bag of Europeans, Indians and Americans, including one American couple with Sanskrit names. They’re not Hindu, though, not specifically, even though they open and close each assana session with the chanting of prayers to Lord Shiva. When questioned by us skeptics about their religion, they both replied with something like, ‘I follow the religion of love.’ Savatri, who’s from Chelsea in NYC, went on: ‘Why does there have to be just one? Isn’t there enough room in your heart for more than just one path?’ Again, this sounds sort of hokey to cynical Gothamite, but it’s hard to argue…they are two of the most consistently happy people I’ve seen.
And so it is that they, and the Australians, and most of the German-speakers, and the married couple of lovely neo-hippie programmers from Seattle will drop down to their knees and place their heads on the ground as offerings are made to the statue of Shiva each morning and evening, and I’ll just sort of sit and watch and think ‘Wow, that’s really religious.’ I only ever joined them once, and it was for a totally different reason than religion.
A number of Swami’s friends showed up on Sunday to start a reading of one of the Krishna stories, which takes seven days of chanting eight hours a day to complete. Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, is always the first god addressed in any endeavour of this sort, so Monday morning, instead of meditation and satsanga, we went to the downstairs hall for the offering to Ganesha. The four brahmin priests had built a small brick fire pit on the floor, decorated with rice flour designs, and by the time I arrived, a few minutes before sunrise, had a fire roaring, which they took turns feeding wood and ghee while chanting in Sanskrit and Malayalam. Then came flowers, grass, butter, rice, and more chanting, and the intensity in their eyes and and voices, and the fervent belief that they so obviously felt was so far beyond the majority of religious devotion I’d seen elsewhere in India or back home that when it came time to drop down in supplication I went down too, knees, hands and forehead on the ground, not thinking a bit about Ganesha, but only about how rare and beautiful that sort of faith is.
In the end, I didn’t make it. I signed on for two weeks and left after eight days. Not out of offense, certainly….this was the first deep exposure I’d ever had to a religion that didn’t try and stamp out other religions. It encourages them, actually, and across the hall from those pictures of the Hindu pantheon are similar pictures of Christ, Buddha, Gurunanak, the Torah and the Kaabah in Mecca. The chant we sang at every satsanga included praise to Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Mohammed, and one of the T-shirts they sell in the ashram shop has symbols from every major religion bound inside a circle. There’s a tolerance there that I respect tremendously.
I think what did me in was the chanting and the lecture. The chanting I can see the value in. It’s supposed to develop your emotional side, and there is certainly something stirring about joining 45 other people in a long, deep, round ‘Om.’ But I was raised with sacred music, and some really good stuff at that. I have my own mantras already. After 15 or 20 minutes of Sanskrit my mind would start to wander and internally I’d start humming:
‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty…’
‘As I went down to the river to pray, studyin’ about that good old way….’
‘Quom olim Abrahe, promisisti, et semini ejus…’
‘Al-hamdulilah rabil al-ameen…’
and realize that any of these moved me at least as much as the chanting. So did lying on a bed listening to Massive Attack on my Walkman, I found out a few days later.
The other thing that did me in was the fundamental goal. Divorcing the self from the universe and seeking enlightenment through introspection is not my path. I’m actually looking to go the other way for now, and more than anything, that’s why I had to leave. Spiritual experiences for me always involve another person, or a mountain, a lake, a river, a tree. People and things are sacred, and discovering and meeting them the most profound sacraments I know.
I love the world too much, I guess, this time around. Maybe I need a few more incarnations before I realize the true path.
There’s a piece of a poem a friend gave me a few months before I left (thanks, Alissa) that I’ve since taped into the back of my journal and looked at most days of this journey. It sums it up pretty well, and was written by Walt Whitman, as near to a guru for me as anyone I’ve come across —
‘This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…’
Shiva’s had eight or nine incarnations so far…maybe Uncle Walt is the tenth?