All kinds of magic are out of date and done away with, except in India, where nothing changes in spite of the shiny, top-scum stuff that people call ‘civilization’.
(Rudyard Kipling …)
….Environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook …wrote: ‘capitalism renders its chosen covetous, insecure, unfulfilled, constantly twitching…Materialist obsession has performed the amazing feat of making unprecedented abundance unsatisfactory to its beneficiaries.’
Despite enormous poverty and social problems, the Indians seemed to have an awareness of their place in the scheme of things very different from our own. Although anxious neither to idealise the East nor demonise the West, I couldn’t help but see a thread of meaning in Indian life, long since exorcised from my own culture. It was the meaning provided by religion, and it was evident in a thousand sparkling details on any given day: a rickshaw wallah touching his statue of Ganesh before a journey, a smouldering incense stick or the Muslim call to prayer, echoing through the dawn. Despite having been an atheist for as long as I can remember, I found this intensely moving.
Inside my rational empirically driven culture nothing was allowed a significance beyond itself. But in India, the opposite felt true. Everything, both animate and inanimate, was filled with a living spirit.
Like nowhere I’d ever been, India seemed to shine in my mind’s eye as somewhere alive with possibility.
……sadhus …..They lived life on their own terms. Their obsession with their inner journey was such that they’d given up everything to pursue it. They were romantic figures without the burden of possesions, worldly ambition, money of any kind. ….They weren’t trying to ‘be’ anything, unlike the rest of us. They were interested in absolute freedom and that suggested a sort of evolution to me.
In the East, religion has always been more about practice and experience than dogma……What was important for these pilgrims was not so much the writtten scriptures of the canon of any specific tradition. It was the idea of religion as practice, as lived experience bringing one closer to God. ….Ramakrishna, the Bengali saint of the nineteenth century. For him the scriptures were ‘a mixture of sand and sugar’ and science ‘mere dirt and straw after the realization of God’. Learned people, to him, were like wanderers in an orchard, who count the leaves and fruit and argue over their value instead of plucking and relishing the crop.
…a Swedish Indologist… ‘The opening up of the self to the mystical realms of consciousness can be very dangerous,’ he said, ‘because it leaves the practitioner open to all kinds of influences. That’s why sadhus are always drawing boundaries around themselves. They do it with their lines drawn in the earth, by sprinkling water and by sitting before fire. This protects and grounds them. It purifies everything it touches.’
I realized that the Indians made no distinction between a foreign sadhu like Ram and any of the others.
‘Jadoo is certainly there,’ he said. ‘But you’ll never see it outright…… It’s seen as a display of ego to show off one’s powers. The only reason people do it is to nudge the common man from his dream, get him thinking that there’s something else going on in the universe. …..there have been occasions, yes, when I have felt myself subtly manipulated, moved in various directions. There’s no doubt in my mind that powerful forces are at work. We call them siddhas, actually – the power to control, through yoga, the subtle energies. …..dedicate yourself to the most rigid austerities under the tutelage of a guru. And the irony will be that when you finally gain the ability to perform these feats, you’ll realize how irrelevant they are.’
‘What is important then?’ I asked
‘Merging with the Absolute,’ said Ram. ‘Nothing else.’
For now, India remained the best place in the world to follow a mystical path……
Until now, India has yet to impose those strict barriers between the animal and human worlds that render Western cities so particularly sterile. To see a cow garlanded and sleeping between rows of traffic, a temple monkey receiving prasad or vultures descending upon the Towers of Silence, is to feel connected still to a larger web of life, the Indian gods, too, in all their animal forms, remind us that the natural world is one of the most obvious manifestations of the divine we have.
The contrast struck me as amusing, for it is all too often the case that despite our comparative wealth by Indian standards, we travelers are invariably dirtier and less well presented than even the poorest peasant….Our scruffiness and sheer disarray never fail to baffle the spotlessly clean Indians, whose very religion equates worldly cleanliness with spiritual purity….
‘It is true,’ he muttered, ‘that I find a lot to admire in the Indians. They are so kind, no – even to someone like myself. But more than that, they see God so clearly, don’t you think? More than any other country in which I’ve travelled. They see Him. One can be walking through the poorest slum and this woman will step out, so beautiful, and light incense before a statue, and then she is set, you know, knowing that all is OK.’ …. ‘They know something, I think,’ he chuckled, lapsing back into badinage. ‘But its out of reach for someone like me.’
And yet despite the ambiguity of India, or perhaps merely its complexity for someone like myself, it was by far the most absorbing place I had ever been. Religion, as I had learned it in childhood, seemed to divide the world into two halves: one sacred, one profane. In India that division was gone. Here everything was sacred, everything was set apart for the worship or service of God. People say Him everywhere – in elephants, in river stones……
The town of Dras in Kargil district has the dubious distinction of being the second coldest inhabited town in the world.
…Leh valley, Kushok Bakula Rimpoche airport, the highest commercial landing strip in the world…..
….its the Ladakhi people who enliven their surroundings. Weather-worn like almost no other people on earth, they bear the distinctive pink complexion of high altitude dwellers, as well as the most evocative smiles I’ve ever encountered.
….a young man, lean and dark from the fields, and an old woman, yellow-eyed; both projecting that interested but non-judgemental stare that I’ve found all over India.
In Hinduism, after the three main stages of life are fulfilled (student/householder/retirement) a fourth may be adopted – that of sannyasin or renunciate. While most men defer this final stage to a future life, the most ardent bid farewell to their families and possessions and set out, during their final years, to find detachment from all worldly pleasures and thus draw closer to moksha, enlightenment or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. As a cultural institution, it is perhaps the greatest signifier of just how much orthodox Hinduism venerates the spiritual quest.
While Hinduism has numerous weird and wonderful subgroups, its largely a devotional religion in which everyone finds their own form of the divine and pours all their human energies into its worship…..
At lunchtime we stopped at a dosa stall, where there were lines of makeshift tables and benches, beside which sizzling pans fried the fermented rice-batter pancakes, with their distinctive sour taste, which are such a feature of the South Indian meal. In all my worldwide travels I have never known such good value. For just five rupees (three pence) it was possible to eat as much as one wanted.
Soul drunk, body ruined, these two
sit helpless in a wrecked wagon.
Neither knows how to fix it.
And my heart, I’d say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mudhole,
struggling and miring deeper.
But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.
I spent several hours at the [Hazrat Nizamuddin] dargah that morning. Certainly it was one of the most vivacious places I had been to in Delhi….
…although Turkey was the place where the great mystic [Rumi] lived and died, and his image is still used in the glossy pamphlets of the tourist board, the practice of Sufism is illegal in Turkey, punishable by imprisonment. While the rest of the world is experiencing an unparalleled mystical resurgence, Turkey, it seems, harbours old grudges still…
….Istanbul …Out of a city of fifteen million, perhaps six million live in …shanty houses built without permission, foundations or amenities. Largely populated by economic migrants from Anatolia……
….gliding into the Bosporous. At 17 miles long and just 700 yards wide at its narrowest point, this has been one of the world’s most strategic waterways for millennia.
I died a mineral, and became a plant.
I died a plant and rose an animal.
I died an animal and I was man.
Why should I fear
When was I less by dying.
….Ataturk…wanted to cut off all ties with tradition…
‘Before Ataturk?’ I asked. ‘What percentage of Turks practiced Sufism?’
He considered for a moment. ‘At that time Istanbul had a population of about 500,000 people. For that number there were some 360 dervish lodges open. Based on what we know, approximately 90 per cent of the city’s population were affiliated to a tekke!’
‘……..When they ban Sufism they are opening the gates for radicalism.’ ….Sufism, in itself, represents a notably liberal and pluralistic interpretation of Islamic doctrine…Rumi. ‘Love’s creed is separate from all religions,’ he wrote. ‘The creed and denomination of lovers is God.’ Certainly, Rumi’s own path to the divine was Islamic, and yet he excluded no one on a different route.
It was in Konya, on the central Anatolian Plateau, that Rumi had spent his life. For the pro-European, Western-facing Turks, Anatolia is often described as ‘backward’ these days….In Rumi’s time, the city was the capital of the Seljuk empire, a liberal, highly creative hub of spiritual and artistic thought. Today, it’s the most conservative town in modern Turkey: sleepy, producing cement, carpets and fertilizer, home town of Necmeddin Erbakan, the nation’s most famous hard-line Islamic politician, and indeed one of the places where he found his strongest support.
Some Islamic modernists go further still, rejecting Rumi altogether. Their principal complaint, it seems, is in Rumi’s assertion of absolute unity with God – called Wahdat-ul-wujood in Sufism. From the earliest origins of Sufi mysticism, this notion has caused problems. That anyone should claim absolute unity with god smacks of heresy, a lack of humility. In times gone by, many Sufis were put to death for such statements, such as Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, also known as al-Hallaj (the wool-carder), who was beheaded in Baghdad for having uttered ‘Ana ‘l haqq’ – I am the Truth.
One sure sign of a poor cup of Turkish coffee is to get a mouthful of grounds in the first sip…
‘……Rumi compared the Koran to a bride. “Although you pull the veil away from her face, she will not show herself to you,” he said.’
‘Then what is the trick?’
A chuckle. ‘Stop pulling!’
….Rumi lived in times similar to our own in many ways, with wars and strife… They, like the Sufis before and after them, rejected conventional beliefs. God is in our hearts, they claimed. He is not in the mosque or the madrasa or in the pages of books. He is within us……
….Idries Shah wrote:
Cross and the churches, from end to end
I surveyed: He was not on the cross.
I went to the idol temple, to the ancient pagoda.
No trace was visible there.
I bent the reins of search to the Ka’ba.
He was not in the resort of old and yound.
I gazed into my own heart.
There I saw Him, He was nowhere else.
The philosopher Colin Wilson speaks of our normal waking consciousness as a ‘robot’, a creature which goes through the motions of life with only occasional glimpses of the intelligence within. For the Sufis, that ‘intelligence’ is God, and in their rituals they find ways to reconnect precisely because of its ability to convey the essence of that experience, the sheer exuberance of connectedness.
Perhaps as many as 25,000 years ago, during Palaeolithic times, the hunting cultures of Siberia and Central Asia coined a word, saman, defined as a technique of ecstasy. From this came the word ‘shaman’, meaning religious leader, priest or healer, but more specifically describing someone with the ability to enter trance states in order to gather knowledge in the non-human realms.
Shamans spend years in the most arduous training in order to explore and penetrate layers of consciousness. They are the masters of expanded awareness, with infinitely subtler, more penetrating understanding than our own.
‘Are you a god?’ asked several men to him, shortly after his enlightenment. ‘No,’ replied the Buddha. ‘I am awake.’