As I sit here in this cybercafe near the most central point in India, filled with the fragrant scent of too much incense and rose water, I am ready to reflect on the past week and share my experiences!
I left Mussoorie (where I have been learning Hindi) last Friday and soon found myself alone on a railway platform with a 4 hour layover until my next train. Some nice working-class Indians and I began to converse in Hindi and a spattering of English, they were very impressed with my Hindi after only three weeks of learning.
So these shoe factory workers surrounded me and barraged me with Hindi questions about whether or not their "liberty" brand shoes were sold in New York. They also asked me if I was married (a common question asked of me), of course they were all married and had kids. They were coming home at 10pm after a long day of work in the shoe factory. However, I was quite glad when they left because although it was fun at first, eventually I was overwhelmed by 10 Indians (Who have no sense of a westerner's 'personal space') all focused on me and my Hindi skills. Thereafter I downplayed my Hindi in many cases to avoid too much attention.
Next, I met a Sikh New Yorker from Queens and his Indian friends going to Visit family near Amritsar, which is where I was going, in Punjab (right near the Pakistani Border). While waiting for my overdue train, I found out from my new friend that my train was going to be 13 hours late!! So I boarded with them on a slower, lower-class (4th class sleeper) train. I had no ticket - and thus no seat! But, I made friends with many people, and I was overwhelmed with offers for sleeping berths to share. I chose one with a college student about my age, who I found out wants to go to America eventually. (Not surprisingly, in fact it is my opinion that far too many intelligent hard-working Indians leave their country which deprives their homeland of intellectual capital)
At 4 am some people departed and then I took another berth to 'sleep' in, if being awoken by Chaiwallah's every stop (every 20 mins) is 'sleep'. The tea sellers clamber aboard and scream "CHAI CHAI CHAI!!!" to sell their masala chai, you know: milk, water, sugar, black tea, some spice. It's only 4 rupees a cup on average, or 8 cents $US.
Anyway, as this was my first solo-excursion in India, my energy over came my lack rest and I zestfully disembarked (or 'got down' in British-English parlance) at Amritsar at 9am. Thereupon I took a cycle rickshaw with me, my two backpacks, and huge duffel to the Golden Temple, which has a 'pool of nectar' inside, surrounding a 'gurudwar' or temple to Guru Nanak's holy Tradition of Sikhism. Inside the Gurudwar is the holy text compiled by the Sikh Gurus which has wisdom from many of the planets faiths and the quotes I have read in translation leave me desiring further perusal.
Morning prayers, prashad, My TM-Meditiation program and time in contemplation later brought me to eating the free lunch provided to all pilgrims at the Golden Temple. It was plain but delicious food, eaten sitting cross-legged on the ground of the eating area, with hundreds of other pilgrims in a constant stream. By the time I finished, a whole new set of hundreds had seated themselves around me and were having chapatis and dal as well.
That evening I saw the beautiful temple at night after a brisk walk and dinner out at a rather nice restaurant, I spent the unthinkably expensive $4.25 US - 200 Rupees for Dinner! I really appreciated everything about Amritsar except the loud Punjabi spoken all night by temple guards, causing me to use my earplugs for the first time this journey. I slept on the public temple grounds, outside the area in which one takes off shoes, but inside the Sikh compound. It was free but an appropriate donation was $1 (50 rupees).
The next morning my early train took me to Pathankot where I boarded a monster Indian Bus for 4 hours trip to Dharamsala, It was fine and I made friends on both modes of transit, always practicing Hindi and appreciating the real gem of India, her people!
In Dharamsala I ate as many Tibetan dishes as I could fit into 2 days, I really like their Tsampa Porridge but will pass on Butter Tea next time. Much more importantly than cuisine was the Tibetan monk named Lobsang Tenzin Rinpoche whom I met and befriended alongside an American, Michelle. He spoke neither English nor Hindi, and We knew no Tibetan, but we shared as much of each other as we could with photographs and long walks to Tibetan shrines! His simple nature and ingénue were extraordinary, he found true joy and happiness in everything, and he made it feel as if all maya disappeared and only our beings were there. Yet, this deep spiritual impact was made without any real verbal communication! He gave me a gift and kept bringing us snacks, drinks, and gifts. After a photo with Michelle or me he would always hug us after the flash went off in a childlike pure joy of being and doing. He is truly selfless and saintly! We kept arranging future meetings with hand-drawn clocks and hands, he would come to our hotel and we even went once to his monastery and into his room! There he gave to each of us silk scarves blessed by the Dalai Lama and given to him on separate occasions. I was speechless and my gut wanted to refuse this invaluable gift! How can I deserve this treatment? This Man? This experience?
In the end,I look back on those two days, only a little over 24 hours from when I met him to saying goodbye, and yet lessons and experiences from that short time seem endless and meaningful beyond what could possible be expressed in a day! I wrote him a lovely letter and had it translated by another monk who also did my Tibetan astrological reading - This I gave to him as I left and he seemed to really appreciate it.
After that experience what could compare? Certainly not two days of train travel and the posh hotel in Allahabad I checked into at 1am Thursday early morning. Nonetheless I was rested and read many pages of my book while waiting for the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) group to arrive from Varanasi. When they finally did, we were all anointed with red paste bindis and marigold garlands while Pundits recited Sanskrit. It was surprising and joyous but not spiritually moving. It almost felt contrived, but I was genuinely happy to be with Dave Bobb, my friend from Fairfield, Iowa, and looked forward to group activities which were in the course of the coming days, cancelled and re-arranged due to violent outbreaks across India, Rioting and Police closures of Bridges. (this was because of the Ayodhya controversy, and following Hindu-Muslim violence)
Pundits had to come to visit us, because we couldn't cross the bridges, so they took a boat and walked to our hotel the next day! They chanted Rg Veda and demonstrated Yogic Flying. Their answers to our questions were interesting, but even afterwards when we all went by boat to dip in sangam (The confluence I visited a year previously for the 2001 Maha Kumbha Mela), the experiences were special but not so extraordinary as my time with Lobsang Tenzin. I felt 'growing pains' as I adjusted over days to the slow arduous movement of a group as compared to my previous individual freedom. I became frustrated by the group's enfeebled attitude while we waltzed in a protective bubble of westernization around India. I, too took a shower and turned on my A/C (after all it was paid for) but I liked being on my own, eating 'real food' and having 'face-to-face' contact with all of India. I am looking forward to the passing of this time with the MUM group, but I am also excited to be with them and join in their spiritual activities because it is a unique opportunity and a different side of India.
I think by today I have begun to balance the two because after we traveled to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, The middle state in India. (Madhya=Middle). I began to exercise a bit more personal freedom, and last night I left the bland spiceless food cooked up at the hotel because some of the group cannot enjoy spicy food, and had a lovely dinner at a local establishment with Gina and her mother. Then this morning at 7am another friend and I left for our morning program and took a Vikram (a pay-per-ride multiple-passenger cab) 45 minutes outside Jabalpur to Chausath Yogini Mandir - a circular hilltop temple from 10th century C.E. - there we saw the beautiful panorama of the middle-Indian plateau landscape broken by the Narmada River, marble cliffs, and waterfalls. We also had a peaceful meditation in the rising, warming, morning sunshine. We depart tonight via rail and bus to Khaujuraho where I will finally see the erotic temple sculptures and architecture, I have been looking forward to!
I have, however, skipped over the most blissful experiences and saved them for last so I hope you, dear reader, are still with me!
Two days ago we drove out to the middle of nowhere, actually the geographical center of India to be precise - the middle of somewhere, but quite silent and uninhabited, until we came upon a grouping of over 100 Sthapathyavedic buildings over and disembarked into the Maharishi Vedic Pundit compound in the "Brahmastan" of India. There we sat and were surrounded by Vedic Pundits chanting the Rg Veda, then in turn Yajur-veda, Atharva-Ved, and Sama Ved! I could feel the different impulses of each of these sonorous hymns - in fact I immediately transcended and nearly levitated during the all-encompassing Yajur-vedic chanting for 15 minutes!! It was blissful and consciousness-enlivening, a truly a magnificent experience!! Thereafter I ate a meal -- certainly the best meal in days if not in all of India thus far, cooked by Brahmin Pundits! The last daily event was questions and answers session, which surpassed the other one in length, breadth, and interest.
The next morning we were truly awakened by bliss when we arrived at the morning assembly of over 1,000 little angels. We were at the heart of Jabalpur in one of Maharishi's many "Vidya Mandirs". Literally translated as knowledge or learning temples, (mandir is temple), these private schools are affordable to lower-middle-class Indians (50rp/ month), and there are some scholarships also. These teachers and students all were singing the Puja song to Guru Dev and afterwards sung the Indian National Anthem (a surprisingly short song, about 30 seconds) and listened to some formal speeches by our group leader and their school principal.
The students in these schools all meditate together in the morning, and the schools are nationally rated in the top of all India. This success after less than 10 years in existence is amazing, and the feelings as we toured classrooms and met older students showed us why - they are all happy, engaged, and intelligent. They learn mostly in English, but also know Hindi and Sanskrit! This tour of Jabalpur was thus impressive and spiritually moving.
So far my heart and soul have been expanded and molded by Lobsang Tenzin, A Sikh Temple, Vedic Pandits, and angelic schoolchildren!
Best wishes and happiness to all my friends, -Sam