All kinds of magic are out of date and done away with,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’.
….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.
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
like Ram and any of the
‘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
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
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
‘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
Neither knows how to
And my heart, I’d say
it was more
like a donkey sunk in
struggling and miring
But listen to me: for
quit being sad. Hear
I spent several hours at the [Hazrat Nizamuddin
that morning. Certainly it was one of the most vivacious places I had been to
…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.
When was I less by
….Ataturk…wanted to cut off all
ties with tradition…
‘Before Ataturk?’ I asked. ‘What percentage of Turks
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……
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
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
‘Are you a god?’ asked several men to him, shortly after his
enlightenment. ‘No,’ replied the Buddha. ‘I am awake.’