Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Lust and Anger in the Ashram

Shantivanam Ashram is an oasis of peace within the chaos of rural southern India, where loudspeakers begin screeching Tamil religious tunes from Hindu temples on both sides of the river before 5 o’clock in the morning. We can sometimes hear the rumble of trucks on the highway not far off, and the caw of crows as well as the ascending cry of the koel bird (dubbed the “orgasm bird” by one pilgrim on my first visit here). In the afternoon you can hear the lowing of cows and the “whaap” of the cricket ball along with the shouts of the young players at the pitch by the river. I have also heard the haunting whistle of a train and the loud squeak of squirrels that look as if they’ve mated with chipmunks. The other day I saw surveyors on the lane outside the ashram and I know there are plans to move the highway considerably closer in the not too distant future. But for now, the sounds are predominantly natural, and when I walk to namajappa before dawn the stars shine brightly through the palm leaves.

We are distant from the turbulence of the world on this remote refuge of coconut and banana palms, but the news does reach us in a copy of The Hindu delivered daily along with a Tamil newspaper to the ashram library. People queued up to read it on the day that news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan spread throughout the compound. Rawalpindi is not that far off and trouble in the subcontinent’s Muslim half cannot fail to disturb India (they’ve threatened each other with nuclear weapons). No one knew quite what to make of it, but reading the paper is more popular than it was before her death.

Because, for the most part, there are fewer distractions here, the mind makes up for this lack by inventing fantasies. At times they take the shape of lust for an attractive female pilgrim, and sometimes they take the form of anger at someone for an imagined infraction of the unofficial code for ashram guests, or a personal slight. But because we are here to search our souls and “go to God,” as Br. Martin tells us, these momentary insanities are easily spotted for what they are. To give an example, one’s seat in the chapel and in the dining hall becomes jealously guarded. Because my knees are unreliable, I have a favorite position on a bench on the left side of the chapel. After three weeks I thought of it as “my” seat. But one day it was occupied by a newcomer. After a moment of rage, during which thoughts of murder and mayhem arose, I was able to see the anger for the brain fart that it was, and let it go. There are a limited number of stools in the dining hall and one had my name invisibly marked on it. But an elderly woman apparently could not see it, and I was forced to sit cross-legged on the floor like most everyone else. Again, the upset arose and passed away, like a wave on the ocean. Now if I could just get rid of my lust…(I hesitate to add that all feelings and desires are in the realm of the imagination and have not become manifest).

Br. Martin has been speaking to the eight seminarians in the morning and during the 4 o’clock talks in the afternoon. While he said, before the end of their retreat, “you don’t need to believe what I say, but only reflect on it,” it seems clear that he views religion as a stage that must be transcended. This must be difficult to hear if you’re preparing to spend your life as a priest. Religion, he said, should be a nest and the mother church should help the birds to fly on their own. But it has often become a cage and the authorities keep the keys. “Christianity has reduced Christ to another religion,” he told us, but “the churches are not in a position to understand fullness of Jesus’ message.” There is only one way to God, and that is to expand our ego, our sense of identity, taking us first into the universal and then the unitary consciousness, where we can know that “I and the father are one,” the advaitic experience of non-duality taught by the Hindu sages and Christian mystics. This task is the essence of every religion, and it was taught before Christ, Martin said. “You can choose any religion you want,” he said, but “it is not a matter of choosing a religion but of seeing beyond.” There is no one religion, which is a product of the collective mind, that can claim to be the “only way” to God. Hard words for Catholics whose Pope detests postmodern relativism. I find his perspective refreshing.

One day Peter suggested a bike ride, and so we walked across the highway and over the bridge above the canal to Tannirpalli where a toothless old woman let us take away two of the three remaining antique two wheelers (at 20 rupees a day). A couple of boys I recognized from the nonstop cricket match next to the ashram rode with us to see two of the half dozen temples in the small village. One featured two large horses outside and the other an image inside the building of a snake as its centerpiece. There a Brahmin performed a puja (blessing ceremony) for us and offered arati (fire) and ash for a small contribution. Outside one of the boys showed us a bush on which many of the long leaves had been twisted into a knot, “for good luck,” he explained. They insisted on having their photo take with us, and a collection of children drawn by our presence willingly posed for my camera. Outside the village, we rode on the main road alongside the canal as bus and large trucks hooted us out of the way. Bikes and motorbikes competed for the available space and we carefully maneuvered around the potholes, made larger by the recent rainstorms.

In Kulittalai, I showed Peter the location of the tiny room with three computers and we dialed up the outside world through the internet, with excruciating slowness. At the all-and-everything store around the corner, where had I purchased an umbrella and a bar of soap last week, I inquired about a “tongue scrapper” requested by Pandit and, yep, they had them. At three rupees apiece, I bought two. Outside, a man was selling ready-made forms for kolams, the designs outside the door of many houses to attract good luck and ward off evil. They are freshly drawn every morning and his forms would obviously streamline the job. A large crowd had gathered to see how it was done. Then I walked to the Gandhi weaving shop to find out the difference between a lungi and a dhoti. I have heard both words used for the skirt worn by men. Sometimes they are turned up to resemble shorts. The salesman couldn’t speak English but he understood these two words and showed me plaid and patterned material after I said lungi. I bought a plain blue one with red trim from what I thought was the dhoti pile, receiving a puzzled expression from the clerk. When I got home I found it was a child’s size, or perhaps a small shawl, which I will have to return next week. After Br. Martin’s talk, we returned the bikes and Peter bought me a cup of tea at the shop across from the bus stop. The owner was a master of the cooling process, whereby one cup is poured repeatedly into another. He also liked having his photo taken.

Before the prayer service one evening, the chapel filled up with a large group from France and Belgium. They were only staying the night and had the dazed look of “if it’s Tuesday it must be Shantivanam” about them. Somehow they were fed and bedded, and since I left at dawn for a trip to Trichy I missed their departure. I hope they absorbed some of the peace of this place, but I doubt it. After Christmas, the pace of arrivals and departures slowed. Ulla came from Sweden and Annette from France. Claudia and a friend arrived from Italy. They were all experienced pilgrims and were greeted as old friends by the resident community. Another newcomer is Vibika from Denmark by way of Tiruvannamalai . She has been staying at J.P.’s church where last January Cyprian and Raneiro celebrated mass on the porch, surrounded by our traveling sangha. Back at home she had taken classes in development at a “folk school” which sounds much like the free schools popular in the 1960’s. Her first trip abroad was several months as a volunteer in Ethiopia. I’ve been impressed by the many young women I’ve met here who are traveling alone in India, like Erica and Sidsle. It takes courage and is perhaps the fruit of the women’s liberation movement in the west. Where are the equivalent young male travelers? (As if the answer me, Victor, a young man from Holland by way of South Africa, arrived on Monday morning. By his very long hair and beard, and his dhoti, I can guess he is an experienced western wanderer in India.) Malka and Indira have left together for Tiru, but Indira will return in a few days because her train to Bangalore leaves from Kulittalai. The seminarians left this morning and suddenly there will be fewer hands to cut vegetables in the morning. Every evening Br. Martin greets the new arrivals by name and country, and he bids farewell to those who are leaving, thanking them warmly for visiting Shantivanam.

On my last visit, I vowed to leave my camera behind if I ever came here again. Obviously I did not. Taking photos keeps me squarely in the subject-object position, making it more difficult to feel interconnectedness. But this blog is my cherished form of expression right now and the illustrations I include seem essential. So here I am taking photographs of places and even people that I’ve photographed more than once in the past. One day a pilgrim, who shall remain nameless, wondered if I’d asked permission first before pointing my camera at someone. When she heard I’d put another pilgrim’s photo in my blog, she indignantly told me not to use her photo. We are friendly otherwise, but this objection was disturbing. Perhaps I should have my subjects sign release forms before putting their face in a blog with the word “Sex” in the title?

One evening Vanya gathered a group of us together by the ruins of the old chapel and large logs from the large tree that had stood guard by the entrance for nearly fifty years. Like every recent return visitor to the ashram, she was shocked and saddened by the demolition of the chapel, and she was particularly upset by the death of the tree. Vanya works in the hills west of here on ecological projects and feels a close connection with nature. There was no ceremony to commemorate the unexpected razing of the chapel (for reasons mentioned in an earlier blog) and Vanya suggested that we do something. I put together some photographs of the chapel as it looked during my visits in 2004, 2005 and earlier this year, and showed a slide show on my laptop to the assembled group. A man visiting for the day recalled a conversation with Abhishiktananda who built the chapel. The gist of it was that a church is more than a building. Gesa led a Sufi chant. Others spoke of their memories of the chapel and I said that I thought the tree was as much a part of it as the inner sanctum. As the sun set, we passed out candles and everyone chose a corner of the remaining floor to place their light. In the flickering light, which outlined the original building, we could see the nearby graves of the founders of Shantivanam.

Seven of us gathered at dawn one morning for a trip to Trichy to use the computer, buy train tickets, exchange money and visit Rock Fort. We got on a private bus this time and were treated to an hour of a Bollywood musical on the two television screens. In Trichy, a city of nearly a million people, we had a traditional Indian breakfast of sweet milky coffee and various breads with dahl on a banana leaf at a restaurant opposite the bus station. Temples were first carved in the giant rock which dominates Trichy (said to be “3500 billion years old” on one sign) during the reign of the Pallavas in the 7th century, and later rulers, including the British, made use of its strategic fortified position. There are now two temples, Sri Thayumanaswamy Temple halfway up the rock and inside it, and Vinayaka Temple, dedicated to Ganesh, at the summit. The lower temple is barred to non-Hindus, but Indira, who is half-Sri Lankan, passed by the guard easily. The entrance is on a main thoroughfare and after depositing our shoes and buying a ticket (cameras cost extra), we climbed the 400+ steps, past the elephant who offered a blessing for a coin, to the top. Most of the route is within the rock. At the top was a magnificent view of the surrounding city and countryside. We could see the huge 10th century Sri Ranganathswamy Temple, with its seven walled sections and 21 gopurams, or gates, across the Cauvery River. Next week we hope to visit it. Erica, who is a willowy blonde, six feet tall, was a big attraction, and visitors to the temple stopped to ask if they could get their photo take with her. From Rock Fort we took a city bus back to the main bus station. I noticed that “Gents” are required to sit on the left and women on the right. Afterwards, pilgrims on holiday, we feasted at the Femina Hotel coffee shop.

Walking down a crowded dusty street in Trichy on an early trip to the city, Michael G. and I discussed our love of India and our difficulty in explaining what it is we like about the country. Michael has been coming here for forty years since he was a student in sociology at a university in Madras in the 1960s (before it was renamed Chennai). It’s easy to say what is wrong with India: there are too many people, too much poverty (now contrasted sharply with pockets of wealth), the infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, transportation, even buildings) is tattered and worn, and there is garbage everywhere. Without sanitary facilities, people pee and poop openly by the side of the road. Somehow, all that doesn’t matter because of the energy and vitality that surrounds you everywhere here. Life, at its most basic, is in your face, without all the buffers and shields that protect and distance it from you from it in the west. Either you love this raw encounter with life, or you run screaming back to the lands of hot water showers and toilet paper, watered lawns and freeways.

As befits a country with a population problem, children are everywhere. And what they must get from their parents is an enthusiasm for living that is unrivaled anywhere else. In Tannirpalli, westerners are a familiar sight, but every time I walk through the village streets I am surrounded with smiling children asking my name and where I am from. They love posing for the camera. One day I took Gesa and Indira to the village to show them several of the temples. As we walked toward the horse temple, a crowd of children spotted us and shouted “HELLO!” They jumped up and down, overjoyed to see us, and called more friends to greet the foreigners who were visiting their neighborhood. They asked to have their pictures taken and we obliged. Walking back a man came up and addressed me as “William.” His name was Suresh and Michael G. had told him about me. “Please come have tea with me,” he said. I could not say no. While the women walked back to the ashram, I entered a yard filled with children, a cow and some goats. His wife offered me a cup of tea, and after a short conversation I was invited into a small hut and asked to sit on the dirt floor. It was only a few hours after I’d eaten breakfast, but I was offered pongal, a rice cereal with a vegetable dahl sauce. It was delicious. Suresh introduced me to his three daughters, and his young son who will be accompanying him next month on the Ayyappan pilgrimage, a journey to a holy mountain in Kerala. Ayyappan is believed to have been born from the union of Shiva and Vishnu, both male, and he undertakes the role of a protector. For two months prior to the trip, devotees wear black, grow beards, and refrain from alcohol, tea or coffee and sex. After eating, I excused myself to return to the ashram, but not before promising to come for another meal next week.

On Sunday evening, Michael G. and I accompanied Suresh to Kulittalai for a ceremony at the house of “my captain” who will lead the cohort to Kerala in several vans the following week. We walked along the highway, trying not to get run over, and through the town, stopping off at several temples along the way. At one, dedicated to a goddess, numerous children ran up to greet the westerners. We processed barefoot around the inner sanctum, nodding to the various icons, and were offered the holy fire, along with vibhuti and kumkumum for our foreheads by the Brahmin while a drums and Indian oboe played loudly. It occurred to me that the temple in India is the equivalent of a community center in America, a place for adults and children to congregate in the evenings. The captain lives next to a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Now in his mid 70’s, he has been leading an Ayyappan pilgrimage every January for fifty years. Since the devotion is of recent vintage, he must be one of the pioneers. Nearly 20 shirtless men, some of their sons and, surprisingly, two young girls, crowded into a small room made sweet by incense where one wall was filled with icons, religious objects, and pictures of gods and goddesses. The group chanted in a call and response format for about ten minutes. During the ceremony, the captain, balding and with a broad belly, threw flowers at a picture of Ayyappan and passed a flame around the other icons. A number of women gathered around the door to receive the flame and dab their forehead with gray ash and red powder. We had been invited as the official photographers and were afterwards were fed along with the children, seated on the floor and spooning rice and dahl into our mouths by (the right) hand. Later, walking home along the highway under a half moon, a young man from the village joined us to practice his English and wish us a Happy New Year.

So let me also wish my readers a very Happy New Year and a prosperous and fulfilling 2008. I might add that in Tamil Nadu it is the year 1417 until their New Year begins in April. In Kerala it is 1183 until August, and the Muslim calendar dates the year as 1429. Other parts of India call it 1929. And in Thailand, where they date their years from the enlightenment of the Buddha, it is the 26th century. Whatever your year might be, may it be an auspicious one.

[This will be the last of my blog postings from India. The final chapter of this pilgrimage will be posted next Tuesday after I return to Bangkok.]

No comments: