Popullution (…and Easter in India)

This place is absolutely crazy. I love it, but it may also be trying to kill me. So many people, so much garbage, set ablaze daily. Rushing through fumes to youthful tombs. Sewage flowing openly in the streets, often stalling, sitting in the sun baking, caking. Wild animals blocking traffic to nose through each other’s fresh faeces. Smiling men selling samosas and potato pancakes. Flies swooping relentlessly, spreading everything to everything else. Stylishly dressed women balancing heavy loads on top of their heads. Cars and trucks, buses and rickshaws, motorbikes and scooters blaring a steady staccato of horns. Bicycles ringing little bells. A small bearded man in orange robes, somehow untouched, chanting his mantra. I stop in awe to watch it all, breathing it in, then get choked up by a sudden stench and start coughing. My lungs suffer the brunt. I’m amazed they can take it. Some days, waking up is simply a chance to clear out whatever gunk has been cluttering them.

After sharing my first post from ‘Indescribable India‘, I have felt like showing another side of life here, a sort of balancing account. It’s a part of India I haven’t yet mentioned. Or maybe I just glossed over it.

My body seems to be deeply affected by the pollution here. In under two months, I have already burned through two courses of antibiotics. (And I’m the reluctant sort when it comes to that stuff.) It often feels like my body is at battle.

Aside from the quick bout of ‘Delhi Belly’ – succumbing to drugs for the sake of returning to work for our tour group – I have just recently been treated for pneumonia. Though I remain not entirely convinced, the doctor at the Christian hospital (trained in the west) told me that was the cause of my stabbing chest pains, mild fever and cough.

While my chest pains have significantly diminished, I still wonder if I simply tore some muscles doing yoga. That’s what a local ayurvedic doctor figures. Seems reasonable. We took a holistic approach and just finished a week of full-body detox; dietary adjustments, thorough daily massage (not that sort of thorough), oil therapy, steam treatment, ear, nose and throat cleaning, plenty of rest, and three days of warm oil and herbal enemas. I was simultaneously pampered and trampled. It was great. But I couldn’t trust farts for a few days.

Riding in cramped little rickshaws back and forth between my ashram and my treatments, it felt like I passed through dozens of worlds at once; chaotic markets, dusty streetside cafes and food carts, skinny kids rummaging through garbage, others begging for foodscraps or cash, shabby makeshift shacks packed with families, grimy auto garages, sudden palatial temples and freshly-painted ashrams, a father and four kids riding a single bicycle, traffic slowing to pass cattle in the middle of the road, sleepy fruit vendors trying to stay in the shade, wiry monkeys scavenging for anything they can grab, homeless folks with eyes full of life hanging begging bowls from missing limbs, boldly advertised adventure tour companies, a quick glimpse of the Ganges hosting rafts and bright flowers floating along, colourfully-dressed women carting large loads of who knows what, robed rununciates sitting calmly amidst the buzz. At once stunning and mundane, I continue to watch it all in passing.

As I move through my days here in India, I see how population amplifies every challenge facing the nation. And there are no shortage of areas for improvement. Pollution is an obvious one to focus on. Aside from the carpet of garbage casually laid out all over the country, waste is actually collected in some places. But most of it just ends up being burned. Once bins are full, they tend to be emptied where they stand and set aflame. A bit of pleasant incense is usually added to the mix for a more palatable blaze, but it all goes up in smoke just the same. I pass by several fires of various sizes every day. On cloudy days people seem even more keen to cushion the grey plumes gliding by in the sky. (Much like smoke stacks back home – notice they spew more waste on grey days, as though trying to go unnoticed.) One cloudy day last week, I could literally taste the waste in the air.

And yet amidst all this, life carries on. I am daily amazed to see real joy on the faces of impoverished children, living in conditions most of us would shudder at. Their joy is whole, if only in the moment. They don’t seem to be lacking anything. It’s so clear that the attitude of lack is learned, not naturally occurring.

I sense that the cultural belief in karma and reincarnation help people to bear difficult circumstances with a smile. Yet this value doesn’t seem limited to the Hindu faith; I see it also among the local Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians. It’s as though this sense of trusting one’s path is so deeply ingrained here, no matter how it manifests. I see people taking responsibility for their lives and working to address their highest calling. Everything else is secondary. I feel an inspiring depth of devotion in this attitude toward life.

I recall during my first week here, down in the south of India, seeing streams of people pass by my window early on the morning of Ash Wednesday. I was impressed to hear that almost the entire village attended church that morning before starting their day. ‘Incredible‘, I thought to myself, ‘so many people living with such commitment‘. I have been moved again and again by the level of devotion I see in India. Whatever the faith, people here are living it deeply.

*****

Having enjoyed a variety of Hindu gatherings here in Rishikesh, I was curious if I might also find a church to visit this Holy Week. I have encountered several Christian communities throughout India so far, though they don’t seem as common up here in Rishikesh. I asked around and walked around, not having much luck.

I did recently hear, however, that Christ himself apparently spent time in the north of India. He was known here as St. Issa. (Obviously not all historians agree on this.) During the so-called ‘lost years’ of Christ’s life, it is believed that he traveled east and studied with Buddhist monks and Hindu sages. And why not? After all, the wise men from the east had followed the stars to Jesus’ birth. These wise men, themselves, may well have been Buddhist or Hindu sages. Clearly the trade routes were well established between Nazareth and the near east. Why wouldn’t the young Christ want to explore other cultures and spiritual paths? It seems so natural to me. It even has a poetic sort of balance to it, Christ eventually journeying east, perhaps to see what the lands of these wise men had to offer.

It’s exciting to consider Christ having traveled here. It actually makes a lot of sense to me. His words echo a lot of what the Buddha taught, values also long held in Hinduism. If he were still here today (in person) I think it’s obvious that Jesus would continue to foster interfaith relations. He would challenge the walls we place between communities. The more I marinate in Jesus’ teachings, the more I see the unity of earnest followers of any faith. Beyond that, even the faithless are held in this wholeness Jesus points us to. He wouldn’t care about the mountain of petty distinctions we draw. He didn’t come here to convince or convert anyone. Jesus came to shine light and help us see that we’re already free. Heaven is in our midst. Let’s not miss it.

So, after a good bit of searching around town (online resources proving a bit thin), I ended up finding the only church in Rishikesh just in time for Easter Sunday worship. It was an Indian Catholic church and the whole service proceeded in Hindi, with only a word or two of English. It was quite an experience. We all sat on the floor on little mats, old folks and young alike, men on the left, women on the right, and the priest sat at a small altar at the front of the sanctuary. There was incense burning and candlelight being shaken by oscillating fans. There was a good amount of responsive singing and prayer, and some hand drumming. The communion was classic Catholic. There was even a baptism. I followed along as best I could, focussing mostly on the energy of the space.

I felt lifted to picture a nation full of souls connecting with the divinity within, each in their own way. And instead of seeing the massive population as an obstacle of any kind, I realized that there are simply more doors here for love to come through. And the countless challenges of life in India give everyone a chance to help out. It’s no accident that, despite the apparent insanity, there is such a special energy here. It calls us back to our hearts.

I came to Rishikesh about a month ago with a spiritual focus. After sitting in the powerful presence of Mooji – a teacher doing the same work today as Christ did in his time – I feel like wrapping up this ‘Rishikesh chapter’ with two short excerpts from a book of his teachings (White Fire):

“Many have long believed in the second coming of Christ, but why only second? Why not the third, the fourth, the thousandth, the ten thousandth coming? For each one who trusts in his words and is absorbed in his spirit becomes a door through which he comes.”

“You are not here to cope. You are not here to survive. You are here to bear witness to and shine as the glory of God.”

I guess that will do for now, friends. 🙂 I’m feeling about ready to press on, after a decent stretch here in Rishikesh. Except for a few days visiting a nearby friend and his wife up in the mountains (just outside of Mussoorie), I’ve been laying low here, healing, resting and meditating. Rishikesh has been a fine host. My simple Ashram home has beautifully supported this quiet time of recovery and continuing discovery.

I think I’ll hop on a train tomorrow and cast a slightly wider glance around northern India. First I’ll try my luck in Lucknow and then probably check out Varanasi. It may be a brief stop as I hear it’s getting pretty hot. I’ll likely continue east from there to visit Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha ‘achieved’ enlightenment). I may even slip up into Nepal. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted once in a while…

In the meantime, keep breathing. I’ll do my best. ♡ And moment to moment, as life dances all around us, let’s see if we can notice what doesn’t fade away.

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Indescribable India 

There’s simply no way I can put India into words. Countless writers have tried, succeeding only to degrees. I have enjoyed various reports – in poetry, prose, scripture, song and travelogue – but none can touch what is felt when you come here. And I’ve only been exploring for about a month. Many have immersed themselves for years and come up short of ‘getting it’. Fortunately I am not trying to figure out India. I am simply wandering along with an open eye, keeping my head, heart and hands as open as I am able. I am grateful that there is so much here to support this effort.

I am grateful for a culture that seems to prioritize a sort of ‘spiritual longview’ over shortsighted political whims. Although this also leaves a lot of projects on pause indefinitely – allowing considerable chaos, waste and decay – the general momentum is toward truth, a focus on that which doesn’t fade away.

I began this journey with nearly three weeks of group travel. Eighteen of us were guided from the southern tip of the subcontinent all the way up into the Himalayas, discovering some of the varieties and subtleties of Indian culture along the way. 

In Kerala we were hosted by a Christian family on the backwaters of a quiet fishing community outside of Cochin. 90% Christian, many in the local area were still practicing their faith as it had been introduced by the Apostle Thomas, others through the much later influence of the Dutch or Portuguese.

The weather was hot and humid as we visited churches, temples, mosques and even a synagogue. We were especially touched by our sharing with a Christian seniors group and an orphanage for young girls run by nuns. We shared songs, gifts and food, along with wide, heartfelt smiles. On one of our last nights there, we enjoyed a boat ride taking us through the ‘backyards’ of locals as we weaved our way towards the sea. Once out on the open water, we cut the motor and floated peacefully as the sun set, listening to our host’s story of his arranged marriage and how well it was working out (his wife and kids are incredible…and he’s pretty great too).

Staying with Ben and his family was a blessing. But even with our calm home base (Ben’s Homestay), it wasn’t hard to stumble into noisy crowds and blaring horns as we set out on the roads to various surrounding areas. One such adventure was a visit to a nearby elephant sanctuary, which we all deeply appreciated. It was a humbling feeling laying our hands on these mighty creatures.

Leaving Ben’s, we had a long and wild ride to Varkala Beach, getting caught at a pair of railway crossings for nearly an hour as vehicles lined up and jockeyed for position. Incredibly, heads remained cool. A major recurring theme throughout the journey was our amazement that there wasn’t any sign of road rage in India. Somehow traffic just kept flowing, however thick, as though there was a subtle understanding that we were all in it together. We eventually made it through the traffic and after spending a restful day at a cliffside resort, we flew up through Mumbai to Jaipur, in Rajasthan.

Suddenly I noticed a different India, with slightly lighter skin tones, more turbans and moustaches, some more piercing eyes and obviously more lavish architecture. This was the India many from the west would picture in their minds. The Muslim influence was unmistakeable. One of the major impressions I took from our time here was the inherently inviting nature of Hinduism. Throughout history it has generally welcomed visitors and invaders with similar generosity. Our guide, Sher Singh, told us about several pivotal Hindu intermarriages with Muslim rulers coming from the northwest, thus avoiding bloody conflict. The state of Rajasthan exemplifies this religious and cultural blend beautifully. I even learned that the Sikh faith was born of a blend of Hinduism and Islam.

There doesn’t seem to be much fear here that other cultures could weaken their own traditions or connection to the divine. This strikes me as a confidence that God can not be lost or watered down. Simple wisdom like this seems commonplace in India. I find it inspiring.

After a lot of shopping and checking out a few forts and palaces (even staying in an opulent hotel that was a former Raj Palace), we drove up into the madness of Delhi. My stomach was beginning to feel a bit tender and I ended up in bed with a full-blown case of ‘Delhi Belly’. I blasted through it in a day and was back on my feet early the next morning (thanks in part to the antibiotics I took half-reluctantly). Everyone told me I picked the best day to miss, as it was pure insanity on the roads. I’m sure I could have appreciated the experience, but I was grateful for the day of rest at the retreat centre. We then set out for our flight up into the Himalayas, heading for Dharamsala.

All of a sudden, the air was cool. What a change from only days before and the sticky heat of the south.  Four white van taxis and our new tour guide, Vikas, met us at the airport and drove us further up into the mountains to Mcleod Ganj. Apparently the British set up shop here to escape the hot summers down below. Especially the Scots among them found it a lot like their highlands, feeling right at home.

Much later, the Indian government gave a hefty chunk of this land to Tibetan Buddhists escaping Chinese oppression. This continues to anger the Chinese, but Tibetan culture is thriving in this setting very similar to their own homeland. I liked the feeling of life up in the mountains. The air was crisp and people seemed quick to smile. We thoroughly embraced the Tibetan cuisine, enjoying warm soups and momos, and plenty of honey, lemon & ginger teas.

We even had the great timing to witness Tibetan Uprising Day (the national holiday) and the great honour to see the Dalai Lama speaking on some Buddhist precepts. He has such a warm, affable nature, even in the midst of his deep contemplations. Our days sped by up in Dharamsala and it was soon time to return to Delhi and head our own ways.

A few of us were keen to come up to Rishikesh, where one of my favourite spiritual teachers (Mooji) was giving one more week of Satsang before finishing the five-week season. It was a true blessing to be with him and to have his very direct pointings towards what is important in life. He is here to remind us that we’re already free, loosening the apparent grip our minds have on our lives. The whole Ashram was continually permeated with very subtle and supportive energy, two-thousand people squeezing in daily for his teachings, which were live-translated into more than a dozen languages and broadcast around the world.

Rishikesh is undoubtedly an auspicious place. There are countless Ashrams and yoga schools here. There is a great tradition of people coming here to live by the River Ganges and centre their lives more deeply in spirit. I could imagine staying a while.

So that brings me up to the moment. 🙂 Here in Rishikesh, freshly settled into an Ashram after a week sleeping in a hostel dorm, meeting good folks. I’ve got some months ahead here and no rush to get anywhere. I’ll keep on taking it all in one breath at a time.

Sending love to all my family and friends all over the world…and anyone else stumbling across this post.

Keep it simple, friends. We’re not here to figure it all out, just enjoy as best we can day to day…and try our best to share whatever good comes our way.