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An India Travelogue, Part 10
by Lawrence Bush
IT’S INTERESTING being an American Jew in India, where most of the folks I speak with associate Jews exclusively with Israel, period -- meaning that they associate us with conservatism, occupation of the Palestinian people, and cooperation with the U.S. military machine. The subject comes up, of course, when people ask what I do, and I say, “I’m a writer and magazine editor,” and they say, “What magazine?”, so I explain about Jewish Currents: seventy-two years old, non-religious, leftwing, etc. -- and then we’re off and running with statistics that surprise them about Jewish liberalism, 70 percent voting for Obama, and all that.
Many of these conversations happen around the breakfast table at our B&B, where a lot of the guests have been Indians who are British citizens or have spent considerable time in the United States. Nevertheless, for most of them, Jews are hardly part of their world, or even THE world-- we constitute, after all, less than one quarter of one percent of the human race. Hinduism, by contrast, has about a billion adherents, 15 percent of the human race, with 95 percent of them living here in India.
I’ve nevertheless had opportunity to reference the Talmud a couple times, in the course of speaking about the Bhagavad Gita, a core text of Hinduism that was sealed and synthesized with other core texts in about 200 CE, only about two or three centuries earlier than the Talmud. I’ve also told folks about the legends of the lamed vovniks, the thirty-six anonymous righteous souls of the Jewish tradition who hold the world together in each generation — this in response to a discussion of how figures like the Dalai Llama and other holy men in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions are reincarnated.
This latter conversation took place over dinner in the most lavish Indian home I’ve encountered as yet. En route to that dinner, two of Susan’s colleagues had explicated to me their understanding of the principles of reincarnation, which I found both fascinating and appalling. Fascinating because of how Hinduism holds us responsible, very personally responsible, for our deeds, our attitudes, and our fate, through the concept of karma — the accumulation of actions and attitudes that shape the pattern of our lives to come. Fascinating, too, because of how Hinduism consigns non-human life to a realm of rebirth-without-karma, because animals cannot overcome themselves the way humans can (not so different, this perception, than Judaism’s proclamation of human beings as uniquely made “in God’s image”). Fascinating, too, because the “goal” of this cycle is to escape the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Whereas Judaism, I would say, encourages us to cling to life and barely concerns itself with the “afterlife” (Talmudic speculations about the afterlife were largely prompted by Christianity and by challenges about why evil thrives in the world), Hinduism associates life with suffering and seeks to escape that wheel of fortune and misfortune.
And why appalling? Because that sense of karmic responsibility can serve as a grand apologia for a hugely unjust class system: If you’re rich and powerful, it’s because of your karma in previous lives; if you’re shoveling garbage for a living and unable to feed your children, it’s because of your karma in previous lives.
If you end up in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, it’s because of your karma . . .
There seems to be hardly a social influence, a “system” to be reckoned with, if you believe in karma as the operating principle.
Now, I’m sure that there are extensive discussions within Hinduism and Buddhism about the issue of how good and evil function in the karmic system, and how the influence of the “system” is to be reckoned with, and I’m sure that a single one-hour car ride did not capture it all. Still, I was left thinking about John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” one of my favorite songs of what I call the Lennon-Zen:
“Instant karma’s gonna get you/gonna knock you off your feet/better recognize your brother/everyone you meet . . . Why on earth are we here?/Surely not to live in pain and fear/Why on earth are you there/when you’re everywhere/come and get your share . . .”
Lennon essentially cast off reincarnation in that song and talked instead about the cause-and-effect of what we do RIGHT NOW. Beautiful. I like the lamed vovnik legend for a similar reason: It suggests that we treat each other, each and every other, as a lamed vovnik, a vital presence in the world, because YOU NEVER KNOW . . .
LAST NIGHT, we had an extraordinary arts experience at the Indian Habitat Center, a wonderful cultural center only a short ride from our neighborhood. First we saw a Khatak dance performance (Khatak is a classical dance form from northern and western India) involving five young women dancers and their grand-dame choreographer, Rajashri Shirke, accompanied by two excellent percussionists/vocalists. The dance involved lots of percussive stomping (with bells on their ankles), finger-gesturing, facial expression (silent movie style), and militant ensemble work (gesturing the shooting of arrows, sword play, seduction, and more), all punctuated by narrative in Hindi recited by Shirke, based on a religious story about a kidnapped queen and a war for her rescue. It was an extraordinarily exciting performance, in which each of the dancers brought her own force and beauty and excellence to the stage. Here’s a taste of her company from a few years ago on Youtube:
Next we moved upstairs, in the same building, to see two musicians: Parvathy Baul, with dreadlocks down to the floor, who simultaneously plucked a one-string drone instrument and beat a drum while singing in the most amazingly piercing voice (and spinning continuously for two or three minutes); and Shabam Virmani, who simultaneously played a sitar-like drone instrument and elaborate finger-cymbals, and also sang in a gorgeous voice. The music was Sufi and Baul, traditional forms that combine music, poetry, dance, and mystic practice (Parvathy’s bio described her as “one of the very few women who could withstand the hardships of the practitioner’s way of living”). Below you can see Parvathy Baul playing together with Shabam Virmani at a different venue.
EARLIER IN THE DAY, we walked with our B&B hostess to the nearby market streets, where I was once again reminded of the legendary shtetl of the 19th century and the legendary Lower East Side of the early 20th. At the pharmacy, we obtained a single foil strip of aspirin and a handful of bandaids, and a bag of 50 wet-wipes (with alcohol) for about $2. The “store” was basically a room about 8′ deep by 6′ across, and we stood on the street to do our business.
I gave a coin to a beggar child for the first time, just reached into my pocket and handed her whatever coin was there. She looked at it disdainfully (2 rupees, I think, about 3 cents), then asked me for more (gesturing to her mouth, I want something to eat), and when I didn’t pull out my wallet, she pressed it the coin back into my hand.
I felt my karmic score sinking low.
There are times, indeed, when I get so tired of the impossible quest for social justice that Judaism demands, particularly during the approaching Passover season, that the sensibility of Hinduism -- that there is nothing we can do but free our minds, and free ourselves of our minds -- seems far more realistic. But then I glance around at India, and I think, This may be the future of America -- and my burning bush catches fire once more.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.