Last I wrote I had just arrived in India and was settling into Ashram life.
After a few very relaxing days at the Ashram, our group, which comprises of 12 people or so flew down to South India.
My first impression of South India was - HOT! Very Very Hot .. reminiscent of Florida in June with the heater on. And this is winter here!
Driving around here in the South I was impressed by the scenery - banana groves & coconut trees litter the landscape. Goats, cows, pigs, chickens, oxen and the occasional elephant are to be seen. This was a welcome change from the horrors of Mumbai and large Indian cities, where it feels as if each breath you take must significantly reduce your lifespan.
New York city is a paradise compared to the noise, pollution and traffic that one experiences in cities such as Mumbai, it just cannot be believed until it is seen, but most people still carry on with their lives.
India is often referred to as the land of paradox, where many extremes live together in chaotic harmony.
I think this is the only land where you can get both constipated diarreah one day and diarretic constipation the next (not fun).
Mathematics in this country are also very strange.
For example, at any one time & place on a two lane road you can expect to see a truck, a bus trying to pass the truck, two cars trying to pass the bus, and six or seven rickshaws, two of which are driving perpendicular to the road and one driving in reverse. Throw in some bicycles, pedestrians, cows & goats - and there you might have a picture of what it is like to drive in India ..
By now I should be dead about thirteen times over - seven times for the three times I tried crossing the street (In India, look in five directions before crossing) and six times for the one autorickshaw drive I managed to take.
It did not help that on my one and only autorickshaw ride the driver decided to race the streets with his other autorickshaw friend.
Autorickshaw racing has its own unique rules that even supercede the no-rule Indian driving mentality. In autorickshaw racing, you can bump a fellow racer off the road, or into an oncoming lane - you can even cut corners by making turns into oncoming traffic.
I believe in 5000 years when people talk about ancient modern India, the autorickshaw will be considered a very prized spiritual method. There will be temples dedicated to the autorickshaw.
Why? Let me tell you - If you have any doubt in your mind about the existence of a divine reality - If you have any difficulty expressing yourself in deep prayer - if you cannot bring yourself to stand solid on groundwork of Faith that there must be something greater than you guiding this life - then please, please get in an Autorickshaw in a large Indian city. All doubts will vanish. When you make it out alive tears of devotion will stream down your face and you will come to realize that faith is a living reality.
The key to survival on the roads is the horn. In India, Horn Honking is a mystical language whose secret knowledge is reserved for the courageous few who are brave enough to get behined the wheel. Pronounciation is very important in Horn Honking, for every slight nuance of the Beep can spell the difference between life & death.
Back to South India - the food here is mostly comprised of what is called Thalli's, which is basically rice with a little bit of different kinds of curries. The main ingredients are cabbage, potato and lentils. In many of the places we ate, most of the food aside from the bread and rice was comprised of 90% liquid. After days upon days of eating this, I was thrilled to find some chilli cheese toast and salad.
Meditation is so ingrained into Indian culture, that they even give you an hour or two of contemplation time between when you order the food and when it actually arrives (hurrah for India). You do have to be careful though when ordering and remember the lessons of Indian mathematics - Ordering two eggs has turned into three helpings of two, three and three eggs respectfully. Ordering two slices of toast and butter has turned into a loaf of toasted bread (fourteen slices). Two cups of Chai generally begets one. Another attempt at toast, jam and butter yielded a towel and toilet paper (a valuable commidity here nonetheless).
Anyhow, Our first major stop was down at the southern most tip of India, a place called Kanya Kumari, where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea all meet.
Right at the tip, there lies a 9000 year old temple dedicated to the Divine Mother in the form of a nine year old child.
This place is called the 'root chakra' of India (chakras correlate to nervous system centers in the human spine, the meditating yogi learns to traverse the pathway of his spine from the root - survival, procreation, eating - to more refined realms of perception, the heart, creativity, and divine reality).
India is so designed that if you travel from the south to the north, the cities and temples correlate to the chakra system. In each progressive temple the Divine Mother grows from the form of a child, to a teenager, to a full fledged woman - finally merging with pure consciousness (Shiva) at the spiritual crown of the Himalayan peaks - where unnamed Christs and Buddahs of the ancient of days still roam, silently blessing humanity with their love.
The experience of entering this temple was electrifying. Seeing this image of the Divine child sent thrills through me, opening up my heart and flooring me, yet again I was reminded that there is something beyond my comprehension at play in this life. I'm not too much into statues or ritual worship, so I snuck back into the temple the next day to verify my experience, this time thankfully there was no crowd, though yet again I felt that mysterious aliveness of this place, where for 9000 years people have been coming to worship & pray.
Off the coast, about 200 meters, lies a small island where Swami Vivekananda meditated and realized the vision of his mission in the west. Meditating there was very peaceful.
A few more temple stops and our next destination was Rameswaram, an island off the eastern shore and an ancient pilgramage site. It is on this Island where it is said Sita & Rama (ancient Christs of India) built and worshipped a Shiva Lingam (don't ask) made out of sand, which still stands today - 7000 years later. In the stories, Hanuman, who was the servant of Rama is said to have built a bridge from here to Sri Lanka for some reason or another. (http://www.rootsweb.com/~lkawgw/adamsbridge.html)
Yet a few more temple stops and we ended up in Madurai, a fairly large city, where the ancient Minakshi temple still stands.
It's difficult to describe the experience of many of these temples. They are generally very large with many inner and outer rooms. Intricate stone carvings lace the walls and pillars, and the ceilings are painted with mandalic images of meditative significance. Most temples also have very large nine story entrances, sometimes with thousands upon thousands of carvings relating to Hindu mythology.
The temples are generally very crowded and very loud, with lots of beggars, merchants and priests (who often feel like a mixture of beggar and merchant) all around.
All these temple visits have sort of blurred in my mind. I can barely distinguish one from the other (aside from the first one, Kanya Kumari). In each temple there is an undercurrent of peace that be can found if you dig beneath the chaos, and most of these temples have a very tangible 'aliveness' quality to them. They certainly are a testament to Indian Culture, which has remained alive for ten thousand years at least, outliving ancient Egypt, Persia, Mayan & Aztec cultures (forgive me if I forgot a few).
To be honest though, I've come to realize that temple visits are not quite 'my thing.' Although a big statue of Hanuman (the monkey servant of Rama) reminds me of the need to train our monkey mind to serve the Soul and higher realities (as opposed to limited sense desire), I find the excessive ritualism to be a bit too much and reminiscent of what motivated me initially to break the bounds of the same ritualism I experienced growing up in the Jewish religion.
I'm more in line with the teachings of Yoga, where our body is the temple and our only ritual is our regular sadhana (spiritual practice).
I much prefer the quiet & serene atmosphere of Ashram life. In fact, I prefer it so much, I've decided to write a poem to the 'job' of being at the Ashram.
In the Ashram,
We work morning, noon, and night,
weekday and weekend alike.
In the Ashram,
Our workday comprises of meditation so sweet,
And our dress code is a skirt and bare feet.
In the Ashram,
The ground upon which we walk is non-violence,
And our business meetings are conducted in silence.
In the Ashram,
Nothing is Ever bought & sold.
Here, Cow dung is worth more than gold.
In the Ashram,
A Workday we never miss,
And our salary is paid daily in Bliss.
In the Ashram,
Our inner-net connection never goes down,
And the goal is for each of us to wear a crown.
In two days we go back to the Ashram for another week. Hope this email was as enjoyable reading as it was writing!