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Archive for the ‘Hinduism’ Category

A bolt of lightning tore through the tumultuous Tibetan sky, momentarily illuminating the dirt track in front of our Landcruiser. The driver glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror, understanding fully that an uncomfortably bumpy dirt track would turn into an impassable quagmire if the storm managed to overtake us.

But amidst that darkening scene the sky in front of us told a completely different story, as dark browns mixed with rich reds and vibrant yellows to form one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen. Then, after just a moment it was all gone and our 4×4 was once again plunged into total darkness. We were racing across the high Tibetan plateau, 5000 meters above sea level, in the middle of nowhere, and our journey to the immensely spiritual Mt. Kailash had barely begun.

Little did I know when I left the sleepy little Tibetan town of Lhatse earlier that day that it would be the last time I saw a paved road for the next four or five days. While I knew that completing a three-day high-elevation hike around Kailash, one of the most religiously significant mountains in all Asia, would take sacrifice, I had little notion the sacrifices would begin days before I actually laid my eyes on the mountain itself.

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Over the past week I’ve taken some time to decompress and reflect on the epic tale of Lost that many of us have enjoyed over the past six years, and what I’ve come to realize is that while Lost may have left some dissatisfied, a point I’m sure won’t disappear anytime soon, it has attempted to do something that few shows have tried before, and clearly it has left the public wanting more.

One needs to look no further than the amazing amount of speculation and controversy surrounding the final credits of the finale, a sweeping shot of the airplane wreckage on the beach, a scene that sparked off an avalanche of speculation that the wreckage was really meant to tell us that the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 were dead all along.

However, with an ABC spokesperson crushing any and all speculation over the credits, we are now left with the question, what do we do now? Certainly some other show will come along that will attempt to fill our voracious appetite for conspiracy theories and our underlying quest to find the deeper meaning of our existence, but I doubt it’ll ever see the same success that Lost achieved.

The impression of Lost that I’m left with is not that I watched a show that entertained millions around the world for the past half-dozen years, but I was able to witness a show that got more people talking about religion, the afterlife, philosophy, and the meaning of existence than any religious institution, philosophy class, or new age yoga seminar ever could.

But this got me thinking.  Is that a good thing?

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Lying in the north of India, in what is today the province of Punjab, lies a sacred place like no other. Since ancient antiquity, a small lake called Amritsar, which means ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality,’ has drawn sages, mendicants, aesthetics and priests the world over, luring them with its elusive promises of enlightenment and peace. While the name that once referred to a simple and serene place of meditation has since come to refer to the temple complex built around it, and sooner still, the name for the city, the lure of the nectar of immortality offered by this holy site still remains.

While legend has it that great spiritual revolutionaries like the Buddha came to this place seeking enlightenment at the water’s edge, it was much later, only a short 500 years ago that the father of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, came to this place and discovered its gentle yet powerfully insistent draw. Spurred on by strong notions of religious equality, social egalitarianism, freedom from the harsh social and political impositions of the Hindu caste system, and a belief in the one God, Guru Nanak established this site as a place that would echo those same virtues.

As I stood on the steps of the entrance to the temple complex, a distinct feeling of intrusion washed over me. Before me stood the Golden Temple, one of the most magnificent sites that my eyes had ever beheld, a place so holy that I felt that entering this place without being a Sikh would be one of the gravest offences of all.

                           

But that is one of the amazing things about adherents to the Sikh faith, for while the Golden Temple is indeed one of the focal points of their religion, they welcome all people there with open arms. Having spent years studying and visiting religious sites around the world, I can honestly say that there are few as welcoming to outsiders as the Golden Temple.

Despite the fact that thousands of pilgrims, worshippers, and gawking tourists filled the immense complex, there was still a profound sense of peace, that this place, whether you believed the tenets of the Sikh faith or not, naturally communicated a sense of spiritual fulfillment; a place, I could clearly see, that could easily fulfill its unspoken promise of enlightenment.

Upon visiting places like the Vatican City, the solid gold Buddha of Bangkok, or even the Golden Temple, I always wrestle with the lingering feelings of disappointment. I’m disappointed not in the beauty or spiritual power of these places, for few could deny those things exist, but in what strikes me as an unfortunate misappropriation of religious wealth. How many hungry beggars could be fed with the amount of gold leaf that covers the Golden Temple? How many penniless orphans could be clothed with one gold statue from the Vatican?

However, the difference at the Golden Temple is that the Sikh community has found a way to effectively do both. As part of every pilgrims visit to the Golden Temple there is always the promise of food and water (or chia if you like), as the temple complex sports one of the largest communal kitchens (or langars) in the world. Embodying the Sikh principle of equality, the communal kitchen was established in the 16th century as a way of bringing people to together and meeting one of humanity’s most fundamental needs, nourishment.

                          

As I sat cross-legged on the floor of the great eating hall, watching the giant vats of boiling Daal (lentils) and the efficient assembly line of women making chapattis (flat bread), I couldn’t help but think that quite possibly the Sikh community in Amritsar had made me feel more at home, more at peace, and more accepted than almost any other place in the world. ..and that’s saying a lot.

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Lightning tore through the sky like a jagged knife, unleashing a torrential downpour of biblical proportions. As I stared at the steep path that stretched out in front of me I knew I was about to begin a journey of repentance—for I had angered the monkey god, and he did not forgive easily.

I was in Shimla, a once prominent Indian city precariously perched in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, home to a temple dedicated to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. Earlier that day, while touring the city with some friends I had made a joke, in a moment of uncharacteristic forgetfulness, that was both disrespectful and rude when I uncouthly referred to Hanuman as the “ass-faced god”. Immediately after the words had left my mouth I was sure I had committed a great evil, not because I believe that Hanuman exists, but because I had trampled on a belief that millions of people hold dear. And in that moment of guilt, I knew that Hanuman would tag me back.           

I stood at the base of the path, where I met a wizened old sage standing by the side of the road. In broken English he offered me the best in monkey protection, and I could only imagine what sort of religious artifact he had to help me ward off the wrath of Hanuman. His assistance, however, was far more pragmatic than that…he offered me a stick to ward off the thousands of actual monkeys that inhabited the temple, as they were famous for accosting travelers and stealing any loose items.

So, with a new found fear of rabid attack monkeys burned into my mind, I set offer, like Indiana Jones in his search for the Holy Grail, unaware of the tests and challenges that the monkey god would put in my path.           

The road towards the temple soon became a steep Everest-like trail, and as I scrambled up I found myself surrounded by several young Indian men. Throughout the country I had been continually surprised at how popular I was as a young, white, North American man. I was regularly accosted by these groups of young men who wanted to shake my hand or take my picture. Eventually, I started charging 10 rupees per picture in an effort to capitalize on my fame; a move that was apparently both hilarious and expensive, since they always laughed and laughed, and then tried to take my picture anyways. But along the trail I considered this to be a divine challenge; a test in patience delivered by the monkey god himself, and so I gladly posed for a few photos. 

As the deluge continued to soak me to the bone, I encountered a small group of monkeys on the side of the road. They menacingly hissed at me, knowing that I had offended their master, and heeding the advice of a friend, I tried not to make direct eye contact, lest it seem like I was challenging their supremacy. But then, unexpectedly, the monkeys tested me in a way I had never experienced before, they started to pee into their own mouths. Having wandered the globe, unafraid to eat whatever foods were laid out before me, I had long thought I had an iron stomach, but on that fateful morning in Shimla, that myth was busted. So after my breakfast had freed itself from the clutches of my stomach, I worked hard to purge those images from my head as I continued to press on.

After what seemed like an eternity I reached the top of the mountain, out of breath and drenched to the core. As I ventured towards the temple, passing under a sign that read “The Monkey Kingdom” I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I waved my stick at the throngs of monkeys that surrounded me, hoping that it was enough to keep them at bay, making sure to remain vigilant for monkeys who over time had become adept at picking pockets.

I entered the line of pilgrims waiting for entry into the temple, and it was here that I breathed a sigh of relief, briefly dropping my guard, and in that moment, Hanuman tagged me back. The monkey struck so quickly that I didn’t even react, as he had landed on my shoulder, grabbed my glasses off my head, and jumped to safety before I even knew what had happened. I moved towards him, but soon realized that even with my stick, I was badly outmatched, as the entire monkey kingdom seemed to come to his aid. Knowing I was beaten, I humbly paid my respects to Hanuman, and journeyed back down the hill.

I learned a valuable lesson that day, the price of joking about the monkey god was steep; the contents of my stomach and a pair of glasses. At least it wasn’t something worse.

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My eyes snapped open. Momentarily disoriented, I grasped in vain to a fleeting moment of peace as it slipped through the fingers of my consciousness. With my moment of Zen-like harmony destroyed by some unknown interruption; I squinted in the soft light of the emerging sunrise over the Ganges River. The melodic sounds of the sitar and the rhythmic beat of the damru drum, which had provided a sublime musical setting for that elusive moment of tranquility, faded into the background, and as quickly as it had appeared, that calm vanished amongst the din of a the awakening city of Varanasi. In India, moments such as those, moments of peace and perfection, moments of harmony and enlightenment, are rare. I had been in the country for almost five weeks and as my journey was coming to a close, it was that brief encounter with the true essence of India that I had been waiting for all along.

                                   

It is, at times, very difficult to discover the true nature of a country, to experience its essence, or to have authentic encounters with its people. In India, regarded by many as an intensely spiritual place, one might expect a national ethos of enlightenment and peace, but as I discovered, while India gives you peace with one hand, it slaps you with chaos with the other.

It is this constant juxtaposition of harmony and utter bedlam that defines India. The aromatic smell of spices that seductively filled my nostrils constantly interlaced with the overpowering stench of animal and human waste. The harmonious sounds of the sitar that danced through my ears that battled with the ever present blaring of horns, or the beatific visions of the Taj Mahal forever engrained in my memory, tainted by the sight of abject poverty. The glimpses of enlightenment in India are tantalizingly real, like a carrot on a stick, hanging just outside my grasp.

 Exacerbating the difficulty of finding the essence of India amdist the chaos is the increasing rarity of real encounters with India and its people. As with much of the 2/3s world, Indians have become adept at peddling spirituality to the unwary traveler. Even in Varanasi, one the holiest cities on earth, where meaningful spiritual experiences are expected around every corner, I was overwhelmed by the commoditization of authenticity.

 Hindu pilgrims, upon their arrival at the Varanasi, set adrift small wax candles on fragile leaves to be floated on the gentle Ganges, a representation of the journey of one’s soul through life. That morning, before the euphoric sunrise, I was encouraged to participate in this ritual, which has now, lamentably, become part of the packaged Indian tourist experience. It is exactly this kind of innocuous spiritual act that I have always loathed to participate in, but the dogged pursuit of the young Indian girl, who sold the flowers to help support her family, made me ignore my better judgment.

My issue with these sorts of rituals is twofold: First, much like someone walking into a church during communion or into a mosque during daily ablutions, there is often a dearth of explanation or context offered to the outsider. There are layers of meaning couched in religious language that are lost on the uninitiated. Second, this symbolic act, like all spiritual ceremonies, is deeply meaningful for all Hindus as part of their pilgrimage, and it had now been sullied by my ignorance and consumerism. A pseudo-spiritual activity meant for pseudo-spiritual tourists; the sort of experience that frustrates those searching for deeper, richer, more authentic cultural encounters.

Nevertheless, the bedlam, the chaos, even the inauthentic garbage, have always provided me with an invaluable backdrop, underscoring the value of those elusive meaningful events that I have the fortune to be apart of. For in the end, what stood out for me in India was not the Taj Mahal, nor the amazing forts, nor the throngs of people crowding the holy river Ganges for bathing and blessings; but the few moments of peace discovered amidst the carefully manufactured tourist experiences.

At sunrise on the Ganges River I could briefly escape the noise, the harassment, and crowded claustrophobia and take a moment to just breathe. It is fleeting, ungraspable moments of harmony and enlightenment such as this that continue to feed my insatiable wanderlust and spur me on to other adventures.

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Herman:  It’s a miniature version of the A-Bomb. 
The government built it in the fifties to drop on beatniks.
[Homer imagines a beatnik on the grass with a bongo]
Beatnik: Radiant cool, crazy nightmare
         Zen New Jersey nowhere…
[A group of beatniks snap their fingers in time]
[Homer flies overhead in a plane]
Homer: Put this in your pipe and smoke it!
[Presses a button, but the A-Bomb doesn’t fall]
Beatnik: How now, brown bureaucrat?
[Homer jumps on the bomb, and it falls with him still on it.]
[He cheers as though he’s riding a bronco]
[It explodes, bringing us back to reality]

 I was swept into Rishikesh amongst a torrent of orange T-shirt clad Hindu pilgrims. I had finally arrived at the yoga capital of the world and what was considered by many to be a crucial stop along the hippie trail. I was here in search of the laid back simplicity espoused by so many counter-cultural hipsters around the world. Unfortunately for me, I had arrived in Rishikesh during the yearly Kanwar Mela (Monsoon festival) and the crush of 300,000 Hindus greeted me as I stepped off the bus. In true hippie fashion, I had arrived in the city with no plan and no idea where to begin my exploration. In the words of Ned Flanders beatnik father, I had tried nothing, and I was all out of ideas.

 My guide had managed to secure me a small hovel in the basement of one of the local ashrams (yoga/meditation school) that lined the banks of the sacred Ganges River. The ashrams, I discovered, offered both lodging and enlightenment…for a fee. A refrain that, I was to discover, accompanied all spiritual experiences in India.

Among my current travelling companions was a middle-aged woman, who, in her younger years, had travelled extensively across India. In the week previous she had regaled me with tales of the India of old; a country that lacked tourist infrastructure but welcomed guests; a country that was willing to guide any interested pilgrim along the path towards enlightenment… with the help of a little LSD. Now, thirty years later, she had returned with her daughter in search of the same feelings, experiences, and places she had once known. Her desire, I think, was to instil in her daughter the timeless values of the hippie lifestyle (whatever those were). Alas, she would not succeed in her task.

The next morning, I emerged, bleary eyed, from my monastic cell to partake in some mind-expanding, body twisting, yoga lessons. The lessons were relatively expensive (about $10/hour), especially for those seeking simplicity apart from material concerns. At the end of the hour, while I felt awake but no closer to enlightenment; my travelling companion was downright dissatisfied at both the cost and the outcome—or lack thereof. So we paid our exorbitant bill for the one hour session, with promises from the instructor that tomorrow’s session would continue to bring us closer to enlightenment…for the same fee.

 With that, and no real plan to guide me, I set off to walk a mile in a hippie’s shoes—or sandals I suppose—in an effort to discover other avenues of enlightenment wrought from simple living, meditation, and hair growth. After several uninspiring stops, I arrived at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—celebrity meditation instructor to the Beatles in the late ‘60s and an inextricable part of the countercultural hippie movement. However, as I discovered, that nonconformist utopia now lay in ruins, having been abandoned for many years after a sex scandal involving the Maharishi. Although it’s now closed to the public, greasing the palm of the gate-keeper with a few rupees will almost guarantee entry. Looking upon the dilapidated mess, I immediately felt that this ashram might epitomize my entire enlightenment excursion. My hippie travelling companion and I were several decades too late, the hippie era had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. The buildings here had mostly collapsed, the pathways overgrown, the meditation huts were full of liquor bottles and broken glass, and the famous Beatles room was most certainly decorated and painted long after the departure of the Fab Four. If enlightenment was available in Rishikesh, it certainly wasn’t here.

        

Departing the ashram, I stopped along the banks of the Ganges to procure myself a vial of sacred water (a river so heavily polluted that it has been deemed septic—no dissolved oxygen exists), the purpose of every Hindu pilgrims stop in Rishikesh (they keep the vials in their homes to procure blessings from Lord Shiva), and, with a deep breath, I dove back into the crowd for the two-hour, 600m walk back to the hotel, wondering if anyone has ever found enlightenment amidst those oppressive throngs of humanity.

After several days in Rishikesh, the confusion and dismay of my traveling companion was obvious. India had changed, and not for the better. What I had realized days previous, and what she was unwilling to realize, was that her idealized India, the India she wanted to show her daughter; her enlightening (and cheap) yoga sessions, her mind-expanding meditation moments, her enjoyment of the Beatles White album, almost certainly did not exist anymore… it might not have even existed thirty years ago. The problem for former hippies seeking to relive the glory days, I would wager, is that their countercultural experiences have, for my generation, become regular cultural experiences, just packaged and sold to us at a premium. A commoditisation of spirituality that has robbed India of its hippie essence, replaced with a bastardized capitalist interpretation. Unfortunately, enlightenment in India is no longer something sought, it’s something bought.

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