Adventures in India

This is an open journal of some of the things I see and think about while trying to find a place to live in India. It may or may not be interesting. I make no promises.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

At the Cremation Grounds

The cremation grounds are always on the outskirts of the village, and so was this one. It was night and there were no street lights around. Monsoon clouds blocked out the stars. There were no cremations tonight so the place was deserted. I sat down on a patch of ground where a cremation had recently occurred. I wore a wrap around dhoti cloth and no shirt, the closest I could manage to the nudity I was asked to practice. I smeared the ashes over my arms and chest, across my brow and in my hair. Chanting a mantra to Kali Ma, All Devouring Time..I fired up the chillum and took in a huge lung full of acrid smoke. Kali dances in the cremation grounds at night. She is the Mother of ghouls and twisted freaks, and delights in the infinite nightmare play of flesh. She haunts the cremation grounds because this is the place where it is easiest for Her to help people wake up. Her devotees sit here to contemplate the truth of their own dissolution. Making a cremation ground of the heart, the devotee traps Kali inside by the intensity of his love. God is enslaved by devotion and destroys the "inside/outside"..."me"/"you" illusion of upon which the whole ego illusion is based. This is the death that leads to eternal life. When the little ego self-destructs in a paroxysm of pure love...then things are seen as they have always been and must always be. When Kali Ma slices of our arms She is freeing us from attachments; when She slices of our heads, She is liberating us from the burdensome illusion of a separate and distinct ego. The atheists only got it half right, if only they took one small step into foolishness, they would wake up.

The ganja explodes at the base of my spine and gently uncoils the white serpent, which starts to rise up my spinal cord, tonguing my chakra buds as it goes. Something is coming towards me in the dark. It is some kind of dog or jackal. It sits down at a distance and we look at each other. We regard one another. We recognize one another. No words pass between us, because there is just an empty cremation ground. Darkness. The darkness or the dog says silently: She only destroys that which is capable of being destroyed. It is a tremendous grace. But it looks terrible. We fear death because we believe this ego identity has some independent reality, and that it should endure forever. But Kali Ma cuts through the illusion with love. She is the innermost prompting of the soul that is always asking, "Who am I?" . She is also the wordless answer, the truth of its being shining everywhere. The jackal starts howling at this point and my back is rigid as a pole and my astral asshole is getting a very high colonic indeed. Out comes pouring accumulated karmic junk and wads of mental nonsense, half chewed desires and vomited regrets, faded self images, stunted ambitions and pipe dreams and Kali Ma just gobbles them up, just pops them into Her mouth like bon bons because all of it is based on the notion of a self that is only conditionally true. I scoop up another handful of ashes and smear it across my forehead. The dog has now stopped howling and is chewing something in the dark and I am not sure I want to know what it is.

So I sit in the dark, smoking my chillum, and hang out with the dog/jackal who is actually Kali but then so is everything including you. After a while I go and wash up at a pump and go back to my room.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Sati

Another case of sati occured a few days ago in a small village up in Uttar Pradesh. This is when a widow lays herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The British outlawed the practice when they were in charge, because they noticed many of the widows had to be encouraged into the act by lots of relatives wielding long sticks.

It rarely occurs these days, or at least is not often reported. A few years ago I read about a widower who climbed on his wife's pyre, but that is a rare case. The police have set up guards to make sure people don't erect a shrine over the sight. Worshippers from the surrounding villages were turned away, but local brahmins have said they will build a shrine to her anyway. This may seem strange to Westerners, but what is being venerated is the devotion that transcends the self.

Years ago in college I was the only man in a class studying the Feminine in India. When this topic came up I found myself in the strange position of being the only voice condemning it. The women pointed out the fate that awaited most widows in India at the time: begging or prostitution. I was castigated for blindly applying my Western humanist values to another culture without thinking about all the implications. I just thought how sad it was for a woman to burn herself to death, and how much it must hurt.

The newspapers were filled with editorials the day after the Sati, about India still struggling in darkness after all these years, and how people must be shown the error of their ways through education. But then maybe it is possible to feel a love so overwhelming that a fiery death seems the only possible conclusion.

I have no idea.

I just wonder what that woman was thinking as she crawled into the flames, and whether she had any regrets when her sari caught fire.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Misc.

For the past month or so I have been in a bit of a stupor. A lethargy has slowly crept into my bones and caused them to melt inside my flesh.

Its the heat.

I have been trying to find a job here in India, or at least this has been the cover story. I think the truth is I have been inducted into a cosmic re-education camp. I am getting new wiring. I have been traveling with a young friend from Mamallapuram, Kannan, who seems to be in charge of erasing the old programming. He is from Madurai originally, where he grew up on the streets, and became a bicycle rickshaw wallah. Now he tends a shop near the beach, smokes grass, and initiates eager tourist girls into the Kama Sutra. He enjoys beating me bloody at chess, and regaling me with fantastic tales of adventures in the flesh. And yes, he has an enormous lingam.

I have made few entries here during this month. Here are a few thought fragments.

* There was a full moon here on the 23rd. They shut down the 12 kilometer road that goes around the sacred mountain of Arunachala Shiva, and thousands of folks from the villages came to make the circuit around the mountain. The two lanes were packed with thousands of people all night, special buses ferries people to and from the surrounding villages. Kannan asked me to come along, and I made it a few kilometers before the heat drenched me with sweat. He finally suggested I return and I dragged myself back against the current of pilgrims. Hundreds of beggars and holy men lined the road, too many to take in. And old leper woman clutched my foot and called me "baba".

* There is a perpetual war going on at the ashram where I am staying. The monkeys invade the balconies late in the afternoon, and the young girls on the staff go after them half-heartedly with bamboo sticks and pails of water. A few days ago, I set out my trash can with food in it and they spread it everywhere, creating a smelly mess. Now the cleaning women refuse to give me another trash can.

* Why are young Indian men so beautiful? Long eyelashes, strong features, slender bodies, but strong and flexible. There is a gentleness about them that is so comforting. Of course, I also sat on a bus and watched a gang of beautiful youths mercilessly kick the shit out of a fellow in a village once. The bus pulled away before I could do anything. I probably wouldn't have anyway.

* I saw a Tamil movie with an American actor in it. He was the same guy who played the young kid-turned-vampire in Fright Night. In this film he spoke and sang in very good Tamil, according to Kannan. At one point in the film, he is hunted down by a bunch of local cops for a crime he did not commit. As they close in on him he stands up and shouts out in English, "I am a citizen of the United states of America!". They laugh at him, and take him in. We Americans do put a lot of faith in that mantra when we travel. Every one of us carries, consciously or unconsciously, the assumption that the mojo of empire has rubbed off on us. We are entitled to special treatment; we are deserving of more solicitude and respect than others because we come from the most powerful country on earth. I think I am going to start using it. Any time I am in trouble with the law, or someone cheats me, or I am stuck in traffic in a rickshaw, I'll stand up and shout, "I am a citizen of the United States of America!" Maybe I should make a little gold crown to wear around all day.

* Had a conversation with a young Muslim college student in Chennai. We talked about George W. Bush and US policy towards Muslim nations. He was strong in his conviction that Islam did not sanction any terrorist acts, but also said that Muslim people were hungry for justice. For too long, he said, they had been ill-treated by the West. I asked him if it was possible to create a politics based on love. He didn't think so, even though he also conceded that there was no higher truth. When asked why it was so difficult to bring love into politics, he said, "People are stupid."

Sunday, May 22, 2005

gurus, babas and sadhus (with photos)

When My friend Steve and I went on our first trip to India back in '82, I was looking for a guru. I was nineteen, and had read a few books on the mysterious spiritual teachers to be found in India, and I fantasized that I would find a wise, powerful teacher just for me. He would answer all my questions and lead me on a magical mystery tour through the chakras and across the astral planes. Of course, he would also perform all sorts of cool miracles to put to rest any lingering doubts I had. Then I would become enlightened.

I remember sitting in a hotel room with Steve in the early evening. "So Tim," Steve said to me, "When you meet your guru, what are you going to say to him?"

I didn't have a clue.

I can't say I never met my guru, because according to Indian tradition everything can be considered a guru. In that hotel room in India, my friend Steve became my guru. And I still refer to my friend Sheldon as my "guru", because he asked me a question the first time we met that opened my soul, "Tim, what do you think love is?"

The guru is said to dwell in the heart, and sometimes...due to a confluence of karmic and celestial factors, takes on a self-aware, human guru form. This is a great thing when it happens. But in India it is said that it is the student's loving heart that allows the guru to work. Even if the guru is a "false" guru, the love of the student can cause a spiritual awakening.

Anyway, not all holy men in India are considered to be gurus. The following three babas are ones I met in Varanasi and felt a strong connection with. All three of them gave me their blessing and a small gift.



This fellow is a priest at a small Kali shrine near the Ganges river. Usually the priests are fat brahmins with shaved heads, who seem more interested in monetary offerings than prayers. But this fellow moved me very much. On the morning this photo was taken I had brought a garland of one hundred and eight red hibiscis flowers to offer to Kali. After he drapped the garland around Mother's neck, I dropped a small offering onto the puja plate. "Is that enough?" I asked. He smiled and said in perfect English, "I am just happy when someone brings my Mother a gift." We spoke for a bit and he invited me to a puja he was performiong that night at 8:30.

I got there a little late and things were already swinging. Drums howling, the priest clanging a huge bell and waving a flaming camphor stand. A small crowd stood on the steps as folks drifted past us, and the priest clanged his bell and chanted his chants and waved his flame and the drums beat louder and louder. Then I saw that the priest was quietly weeping, his face wet with tears, shoulders shaking helplessly, his eyes closed in the ecstasy of love. Everyone standing before the shrine felt his pure devotion and pressed forward eagerly.

The puja lasted about forty-five minutes, and then exhausted, the priest began to give out puffed rice as blessed prasadam from Kali Ma. I was dithering with my money trying to find a small enough offering not to embarass myself with a huge note. People were dropping coins onto the tray and scarfing down the blessed rice. By the time I got up to make my offering the rice was gone and I was bummed. Then the priest reached over to Kali's feet and picked up a large sweet and offered it to me. I took it very gratefully and bowed down low. He smiled and held out his hand in a blessing.

Next day I brought another garland to the shrine for Kali. He told me that every day the temple made food to feed the fifty beggars lining the walk. I told him I was trying to get a teaching job in India. He said, "I will pray to Mother for you; you will surely get it." "Oh no!" I said, "I don't want that, I want the pure devotion to God I saw on your face last night."

He just smiled at me, and chuckled gently.



I was struck by this fellow the moment I saw him. He was always smiling and often I would see him sitting and chatting and laughing with friends. Once in the evening I saw him striding along the ghats and a huge crowd of children were up above him on one of the balconies, cheering him as if he was a pop star. He laughed and waved at them happily. I learned that he is an "aghori". These folks are very powerful, and conduct secret rites in the cremation grounds in order to pierce the veil of ego-illusion and realize reality. They are said to possess great psychic powers. But this guy seemed pretty easy-going.

I saw him sitting by the river once talking quietly to a small group. I sat down and listened to him, not understanding a word, but enjoying what he was saying. Later on I got up during a pause in his discourse and gave him some money. (Babas need to buy things too.) He touched my head and gave me the longest, sweetest blessing. The next day, he saw me walking in the crowd and called me over to sit by him. He gave me a banana (blessed, of course) and told his friends something about me. One woman looked at me and smiled, "Very good," she laughed, "very good.".



This is the famous "Standing Baba". One of his students called me over to the little temple where he hangs out. Literally. He hasn't sat or laid down in tweleve years. He has a chest high swing he draps his body over when he sleeps. At other times he leans on his staff. The first time I saw him I said, "I love you; I want to be your wife." He smiled (understanding me/not understanding me?)and gave me his blessing. I spent a lot of time with him,and he taught me how to invoke Shiva before smoking ganja in a sacred chillum. He would never let me rub his legs, since his special attendant had that privilage. But one night during a blackout, as we smoked and chanted, he relented. Before I left, he blessed a handful of ganja and gave it to me as prasadam.

I took this photo in the dark, and yes...that is my finger in the upper left corner.



Some say that the great majority of holy men in India are charlatans and fakes. I don't care; so am I. Who is not a fake, in the image they present to the world and to themselves? There is only one thing to be done, and we are all doing it (no matter how circuitous the route): discover who we are. This has been the inner driving force of Indian culture for more than 8,000 years. This is why the aghori baba wears flowers in his hair.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Gay in India

The Lonely Planet Guide to India cites a recent survey that claims 1 in 6 people in India are gay. I find that hard to believe. I think the Western gay/straight categories simply don't apply here. Sexuality seems more like a spectrum in India rather than rigid labels.

I found this article on the web and thought I would pass it along.

Gay Mundo

Gay in India
Activists brace for a long battle.
By Mike McPhate






NEW DELHI, OCT. 18, 2004. When Raju Sharma's father discovered his son was gay he got a rope and hung Sharma, 23, by the ankles from the first floor balcony of their New Delhi flat, and threatened to kill any neighbor that tried to rescue him.

Sharma says he dangled for an hour before his dad pulled him up, stripped him naked and tossed him into the street. He stood there sobbing, covering his genitals with his hands, as onlookers mocked him for lacking the courage to fight.

That was two months ago. "My father is quiet now," says Sharma, a slight man with a lisp and plucked eyebrows. "But the shame is still there."

The powerful social stigma that has long kept the country's homosexual minority in hiding is not only enforced by family and neighbors, but even the local police. Last winter, as Ashu Seghal was walking home, two local officers, stinking of rum, rolled up beside him on a motorcycle, dragged him by the collar to a nearby police booth, lashed him with a bamboo stick, beat his head against a wall and finally forced him to give oral sex — to the tall one first, the one with the pot belly next, he says.

Seghal, a stern 26-year-old with henna-dyed hair, says that when he tried to file a complaint, the cops' superiors threatened to arrest him under law section 377, which forbids "unnatural acts." They told him to forget about it, just consider it a bad dream.

Queer Renaissance
Despite social and legal obstacles, a nascent gay movement has sprouted among India's middle class during the last decade. Gay websites and hangouts have proliferated, especially in the capital New Delhi and the southern city of Bombay. Groups working on gay issues have grown from only two in 1994 to at least 50 today. And in the summer of 2003, several dozen activists waved rainbow flags in the streets of Calcutta for the country's first queer pride parade.

"There has been a remarkable change," says Shaleen Rakesh, director of the gay outreach group Naz Foundation. "Ten years ago the only option a gay person had was to go to cruising areas — to parks and public toilets for random, discreet sex. Now there are so many venues, so many private parties, gay night clubs," says Rakesh.

Urban gays commonly hold "farm house" parties, for which a large space is rented, on city outskirts. Several bars in New Delhi and Bombay now hold gay nights, though they are not often publicized for fear of attacks.

The west coast city of Bombay has spearheaded much of the coming out. India's first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, was launched there in 1989, and last year the city hosted the country's first gay film festival. The three-day event, which showcased more than 40 films, was titled "Larzish," an Urdu word that means "tremors of a revolution."

While the movement has not included significant numbers of lesbians due to the inferior status of women in this mostly Hindu country, a handful of lesbian groups have arisen. They were spurred in part by the conservative backlash to the lesbian-themed film "Fire" in 1998. The newly formed Campaign for Lesbian Rights responded by spearheading an awareness campaign, marching in the streets of the capital and releasing a report on the plight of India's lesbians. There are now at least half a dozen groups working exclusively on lesbian issues in the country.

Queers and AIDS
The gay movement was spurred in part by the fight against AIDS. With over five million infected, India is second only to South Africa in total AIDS cases. The Indian government estimates that over 80 percent of HIV transmissions in India occur among heterosexuals, but the virus has hit gay men hard. A survey this summer in Bombay found that 20 percent of the city's gay men are HIV-positive.

One of India's leading gay advocacy groups, The Naz Foundation, was actually founded in 1994 as an HIV/AIDS outreach organization. It has grown rapidly adding services like queer support groups, a helpline, workshops, and advocacy for the gay community.

The visibility of gay men among AIDS activists is used to attack AIDS programs. A popular columnist, Swapan Dasgupta, last month cautioned of a "new gay evangelism." He wrote, "Of particular concern to many is the possibility of the lavishly funded anti-AIDS campaign being misused to create a gay network."

Section 377, the 140-year old law against "unnatural acts", often used to harass or silence gay men like police rape victim Ashu Seghal, is also used against AIDS workers. "It's an absurd law," says Vivek Divan, a gay rights lawyer. "Distributing a condom is like aiding and abetting a crime."

To fight AIDS, activists found they had to fight homophobia, including section 377. Three years ago, two AIDS outreach groups began a campaign to repeal the law. Government lawyers argued in their affidavit that "Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality . . . Deletion of the [law] can well open the floodgates of delinquent behavior," they warned. In September, India's High Court rejected the AIDS groups petition on procedural grounds.

The groups challenging the law are now considering whether to go to a higher court, assign other allied groups to challenge the law, or to wait four years and challenge the law again in the same court.

Backlash
Conservatives have responded angrily to the new gay visibility. "[The gay movement] is an abysmal, absurd thing," says Navin Sinha, an official with the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party. "For one thousand years in our culture, those two things you mentioned — I don't even want to say the words — they have not been there," says Sinha, referring to homosexuality and lesbianism.

Many Indian conservatives see the drive for gay equality as an attack on the country's soul with its deeply held traditions of extended families and arranged marriages. Several push the theory that India is the victim of a covert queer invasion from the West.

Homosexuality, in fact, has a long history on the subcontinent. Same-sex relationships are described in ancient Indian texts like the fourth-century love guide, The Kama Sutra, the classic Hindu saga, The Ramayana, and medieval Persian and Urdu poetry.

"Homosexuality is not a fashion that can be introduced from one place to another," says Ruth Vanita, co-author of "Same Sex Love in India." She adds, "It is a facet of human existence, attested in all societies throughout history."

Leaders of India's gay movement say they are bracing for a long battle. Anti-gay feelings may have hardened for the moment, says Shaleen Rakesh, of the Naz Foundation, but at least the subject is being addressed. "Homophobia is better than indifference," he says. "These things take time."

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Animals

When Murugan and I were in Varanasi, I saw something that stuck with me. Riding in a motor rickshaw, we stopped briefly in the middle of an outdoor flower market. In a small clearing between two carts lay the corpse of a dead monkey. It lay as if asleep, one arm extended naturally. Someone had arranged a circle of orange marigold buds around the body, and placed a white flower on its head and one in its outstretched hand.

I like to imagine the person doing this: arranging the body, carefully placing the flowers in a circle, saying a quick prayer. What a strange, generous impulse...where does it come from? A great tenderness comes over me when I think of this. Here in India, the other vendors would respect this mysterious impulse, and not disturb the shrine, perhaps adding their own prayers to it.

One of the most popular gods here is Hanuman the monkey god, whose adventures are told in the vast epic The Ramayana. E.M. Forrester, in his novel A Passage to India, described Him this way, borrowing from John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, He took on monkey's flesh." The novel has been criticized by some for being condescending in its attitude towards India. I don't think so. I think he captured something basic about the Hindu world view.

Hanuman is the paragon of devotion and selfless love to Rama, who is himself a hero incarnation of God. Hindus take Hanuman as their model of one who has become completely consumed by the love of God. Many images depict him ripping his chest open in a gory display of piety, revealing Rama and his wife Sita peeking out, raising their hands in blessing. Because of this, monkeys are sacred. But even so, they will jump on your shoulders and grab food out of your hands. They have also been known to steal cameras out of tourists' bags, and run off into the jungle.

A month ago I visited a temple near Vellore with a giant cobra's nest rising out of the earth in the inner sanctuary. One of the faces of God was imbedded in its side. At night the snakes come out of their big termite-like nest, and slither around the temple. No one can remember anyone ever being bitten, and the temple is rat-free. There are beautifully carved naga stones set up all over India in places people have felt that special naga mojo. A naga is a powerful earth spirit in the form of a cobra. The slabs of black rock show two snakes entwined, caduceus style. Offerings are left, prayers for fertility made here. If a person finds it necesarry to kill a cobra, they must burn its body and leave a rupee coin in the ashes. They also must explain to the snake's spirit why he was killed, and ask for forgiveness. Otherwise, legend has it, the mate of the dead cobra will track down the murderer and kill him. There is also an underground trade in baby cobras in some parts of India. The venom is supposed to be a very unique high, and is obtained by allowing the baby snake to bite your tongue. A couple people die every year from this practice.

Rats have their sacred place here as well. There is a temple up north where thousands of rats are fed and allowed to run all over the place. The elephant-headed god Ganesh has a rat as his vehicle It is also thought by some that the souls of poets and children are reincarnated as rats, so must be treated with respect(unless you are a cobra).

Sacred cows with beautiful eyes, donkeys with big bellys, pariah dogs with no hair and skin dragging the ground, brahmin bulls with horns painted blue with tips of silver, goats eating movie posters...all wander around, reminding you every time you step outside that we are not the only species on the planet and we have to share space. Yes, you have to avoid the cow shit in the street, and sometimes there is a mild traffic jam because three cows have decided to lay down in the middle of the street and contemplate life flowing by. It all contributes to the dirt and confusion and delays, but also to the magic of the place.

It is strange how I always miss the animals when I leave India. Except the cockroaches.