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An India Travelogue, Part 5
by Lawrence Bush
ONE REASON I was ill-prepared for this trip to India is that my work life with Jewish Currents never leaves me much time for extra-curricular anything. I knew months ago that I would be coming here, as my wife was scheduled to teach for a month in Delhi as a Fulbright specialist (training teachers to use her techniques of kinesthetic teaching of curricular subjects), and I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to join her pass me by. Still, I didn’t really have time to read any travel books or Indian novels, or to watch Satyajit Ray films, or even study a map of India, or confer with many people who have been here. I just bought a couple of lightweight white shirts and got on the plane.
Sitting on a bench in the shade yesterday morning in Lodhi Gardens, watching people doing yoga, taking family photos, and here and there making out, I realized that there’s another reason why I am such a babe-in-the-woods in India. It dawned on me as I read INDIA, AN INTRODUCTION, by Khushwant Singh, a well-known Indian writer and parliamentarian who died in 2014 at age 98. Singh’s book, published in 1990, includes a tremendously informative, compact introduction to Hinduism (and Islam and Sufism and Jainism and the Sikhs and Indian’s Christian communities, as well as the caste system), and in the course of absorbing his information and observations, I realized that I have had a very stand-offish relationship with Hinduism ever since it washed ashore in America in the 1960s and ’70s and began converting many of my peers into guru followers, New Age advocates, and cultists.
As a young man, I considered most of the Hindu teachings to be otherworldly bullshit. Or let’s say that I was afraid to allow any intimations that their teachings were NOT entirely bullshit to take root in me. I was a secularist, an atheist, a passionately attached-to-the-world Western guy. I didn’t see Hinduism as any more real or “on my side” than evangelical Christianity; I didn’t see Eastern gurus as any less fraudulent than Oral Roberts. I didn’t believe in “enlightenment” as a state to be achieved -- maybe as a continuum of mental well-being and insight, sure, but not as a threshold thing, like, BINGO! I certainly didn’t believe in reincarnation. I didn’t believe in astrology and other superstitions that seemed part of the Hindu package. I didn’t believe the miracle stories recounted in the one classic book that I did read, The Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. I also had a hell of a hard time getting into half-lotus position. In short, I was well-defended against all of it, and I didn’t want my worldview changed or even challenged.
But now I’m 66, and juggling more worldviews in this brain of mine than there are rupees in my wallet. I find it fascinating to contemplate the implications of what Khushwant Singh has to say about Hinduism and its 330 million gods — and to speculate about how its enormously long history may have shaped this complex and crowded country.
• “The Judaic family of religions lays greater emphasis on Man’s relationship to his fellow men [sic]; the Hindu family of religions, on the other hand, stresses Man’s relationship to himself. Thus Judaism, Christianity and Islam have many dos and don’ts, the kind summarized in the Commandments . . . The Hindu family of religions emphasize the realization of knowledge, conquest of the self and the importance of achieving peace of mind.”
A lot of the Indians we’re spending time with complain that their country is under such tremendous competitive pressure that originality and risk-taking are hard to come by. The sheer size of the population, and the omnipresent threat of dire poverty, are obviously forces behind this; the fear of immiseration rules. And while there is formal courtesy everywhere — so many service jobs! every restaurant with its doorman, every bathroom with its attendant — there is little concern for one another, they say, beyond family boundaries — as in, everyone litters up the public park, even when there is a garbage can ten meters away.
Could this have anything to do with the self-orientation of Hinduism, which so much emphasizes escaping or transcending the so-called illusion of the day-to-day? “Self,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, is “the only means of salvation.” Or are our informants simply complaining, as I might complain about political conservatism in America, as a way of excepting myself from whatever criticisms a visitor might have of my country?
• “The word for caste is varna, meaning color. . . . the castes represented shades of racial purity as well as functional divisions. A passage in the Mahabharata reads: ‘Brahmins are fair, Kshatriyas are reddish, Vaishyas are yellowish, Sudras are black.’ The first three castes came to be down as dvijas (the twice-born) and are the only ones entitled to wear the sacred thread . . . and read the Vedas.”
Caste and hierarchy are India’s most alien features to me. The ever-available “houseboys” in our B & B, the unembarrassed bossiness of employers, the unexamined social walls between people, even among the most modern Indians (“Caste differences,” writes Singh, are especially “invoked while arranging marriages and eating together: in marriages to keep the progeny ‘pure’; while eating to ensure that the presence of a lower-caste person does not pollute the food”) — it all makes me highly aware of the relative class fluidity and openness of American society.
“Fatalism” is the word that comes to mind as I’m reading Singh’s observations. Neither life nor death have true boundaries: “For one that is born, death is certain; for one who dies, birth is certain,” says Krishna. As for justice and injustice: “I am God, the righter of wrongs, the sustainer of eternal law (Dharma),” Singh paraphrases Krishna as saying. “All I ask of you human beings is that you do your duty in the spirit of renunciation.”
Quite a different preachment from “Go down, Moses . . .”
AFTER MY MORNING in Lodhi Gardens, I spent the afternoon in the National Gallery of Modern Art, where I was lucky enough to find an exhibition called “. . . In the Seeds of Time,” tracing the trajectory of modern Indian art from days of British dominance until the 21st century.
One of the unusual pleasures of the exhibit, for me, was not knowing anything about Indian art and artists, so there was none of the obligatory, “Oh I must look at this because it’s by Picasso.” Instead, I simply wandered the three floors, letting my eye lead me from canvas to canvas, photograph to photograph, sculpture to sculpture, and placard to placard, until I was blind with fatigue.
Ignorance can have its advantages. it helps you sidestep your own habits of mind.
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.