THE SPIRIT OF INDIA
It’s wickedly hot and hellishly humid this morning. This after one heck of a thunderstorm early this morning (about 5AM) with lightening to die for (not literally - I was very glad to be inside at the time). The storm took down an eight inch diameter branch in the back yard from our largest tree (I have no idea what kind) and is now resting on top the tile roof of the kitchen. No damage that I can see. I’m curious about whether it will be removed or just left to decay slowly as so many things here in India are.
Just finished reading a rather remarkable book entitled “Mutant Message Down Under” by American author Marlo Morgan. It’s essentially about an unexpected and arduous “walk-about” the author took with a tribe of Australia’s Aborigines and what the author learned from this primitive, Godless, poverty stricken, illiterate group of wandering nobodies (as defined by regular Australians). It was published in 1992 so I’m not sure how relevant the narrative is today – don’t know if this particular group still exists - but the message remains quite relevant.
Morgan is a physician and was in Australia on a multi-year project dealing with medical education when she was informed that she was the recipient of an award. Meeting a driver in front of her hotel whom she thought was taking her to some hotel or convention hall, but turns out he whisked her out into the Outback to join the Aboriginal group she spent the next several months trekking across the Australian continent with.
Naturally, what she learned from this illiterate band of gypsies changed her life and gave her a new perspective on the much more humane values of her wandering hosts than her own Western values. Her adventures – feet hardened into hoof-like clods from trekking over burning sands and cutting grasses, being able to find water where none is visible, the cathedral like cave in the middle of nowhere where the idolatrous Aborigines gave thanks to the universe for their care – reads like a fantasy. It’s hard to believe in her newfound knowledge so unreal and steeped as it is in cosmic mystery. However, those of us who believe that our own Native Americans can teach us something about the universe as well as about ourselves, understand this result. For me Native American myths allowed me to shift from the Bearded-Old-Man-In-The-Sky concept of god I’d grown up with to a much more diffuse and pervasive “spirit-that-is-everywhere-and-in-all-things” concept of higher power.
But enough of that. We share the house – speaking of spiritual things – with a young, mid-twenties couple, Emilio from Barcelona and Katia from Portugal. They are delightful and what one imagines to be your prototypical 21st Century youngsters of the developed world: thoughtful, vegetarian, economical in thought and deed, up on the latest recycling dicta and environmentally knowledgeable. They are here, according to Emilio, on a continuing spiritual quest of self-awareness and improvement, like so many other youngsters, including the Beatles so many years ago, who come to India seeking spiritual enlightenment. There are Yoga lessons, religious classes, pujas, harmonium lessons, much reading and reciting from textbooks, etc. I recall going through the same journey about 40 years ago.
I admire and appreciate their efforts but I have to say that Christian, Communist Kerala may not be the best place for such an endeavor. The very fact that the state is both Christian and Communist tells you more about the power of Indian syncretism and how this secular nation’s predominant and wildly eclectic Hinduism influences all things Indian, how a nation of 64 major language groups and God only knows how many ethnicities, tribes and clans, has absorbed conquest after conquest and remains identifiable and true – if altered – to itself. It is perhaps one important characteristic that makes India potentially a powerful force in the world. Well, that is, if only Indians could ever agree on anything, which is an open-ended question.
When I heard of Emilio and Katia’s quest, my thoughts immediately ran to something like: “Yeah, sure. The spirituality of India. Try being stuck for a sweltering hot hour or two amidst thousands of cars, trucks, busses, rickshaws and push carts stalled on one of Mumbai’s “expressways” or, equally uplifting, being mashed together like twice as many sardines as the enclosing can was designed for on a Mumbai rush hour suburban commuter train as it pulls out of Victoria – now Shastrapati- Station. From this you learn, not necessarily about Indian spirituality, but about the indomitable Indian spirit. Apparently this pervasive and I think uniquely Indian spirit had been at work for centuries.