The Spiritual Tourist
My 12-year-old American friend Jason has come up with a description of the Great Indian Psychodrama in just one phrase. After watching some Indian TV, he commented, "it's all, like,
Out of the mouths of babes.
Jason was equally perceptive when I described the Indian tradtion of worshipping one's dead parents. Once the parent "expires," it is the custom to put their photo on your altar in a place of honour along with all the other deities, and pray to them daily. Later, I heard my young friend ennumerating "Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene....""What are you doing?" I asked.Jason shrugged. "I'm just trying to imagine praying to my mom. Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene... Laurie Nieves?"
A Family Affair
Just arrived in Rishikesh, and am wondering why. It seems to have the worst of both tourist worlds - Indian and Western. The Indian tourists are dour-faced, unsmiling families plodding round in large groups, looking like they are carrying out some heinous enforced duty instead of holidaying on the Ganges. I wonder if they are all thinking, "how come I have to do everything with my family and never get a minute alone or with other friends?" They certainly all look as though they'd rather be somewhere else.
Occasionally (very) you see a young, "mod" Indian couple who have managed to break away from the tyranny of their family and squeeze in a weekend on their own. They probably get a lot of guilt for it when they return home ("why didn't you come to Sunday dinner? Always you are running here and there. And I made this special gulabacchanikicchhori just for you. Now it will spoil").
(I wonder, does anyone ever say the first thing that popped into my irreverent Western mind when I heard this? - "Food will spoil? Mom, that's what the fridge is for.")
Tangent Mode On: "If you love someone, set them free" could never catch on here. You can see how much they love the gods...they lock them up in cages. Laurie was told to look for a certain ashram with "devis in cages." We were sure we had found it, till we found another. And another. All the ashrams seem to lock up the painted plaster statues of the gods in cages. (I understanding guarding the valuable gold statues, but these are just plaster and stone.) They lock them up to immobilize them, to make sure they can never, ever, ever go anywhere else. I think that's the Indian way to say "I love you."
Tangent Mode Off:
Then there are the Western spiritual tourists dressed in bright red, orange and yellow "yogi" clothes with big chunky rudraksha malas round their necks to show how austere they are. I've lived in every major ashram in South India, and never seen quite the level of commercialization that's evident here. Tiruvannamalai, Pondicherry, Amritapuri, Puttaparthi - they are all towns with one primary ashram, but in Rishikesh it's a town chock full o' yoga schools all in competition.
All the statue-mala-yoga book-crystal stalls, with bhajans playing from every corner, the rectangular, institutional buildings that feel more like public schools or government buildings than places of meditation - I tried to put a grimy, road-tired finger on what it all reminded me of. It was a cross between Satya Sai Baba's Prashanti Nilayam (pink square birthday cake buildings, lots of enlightened junk for sale) but without the devotional focus on one charismatic figure - a cross between that and Callaway Gardens or other mid-1960s resort towns in Florida. Most of the structures look as though they were built in the early 70s and that seems to be the last time they were painted or repaired, as well. Strangely, the pastel pinks and baby-aspirin oranges are the same hues popular in Florida. Their perky optimism compares poorly with the reality of cracked cement, peeling paint and worn-down marble steps.
A little vintage kitsch is lots of fun, but not when it has that dogeared, down-at-the-heels feeling. Decay is perfected to an art form in, for instance, Calcutta, where it seems kind of classy and old world. Here it feels depressing, like the old shopping mall that's lost its following to the big new Galleria.
It's hotter here than McLeod (had been led to believe it was cool here, but it only means cooler than the rest of India) and there are lots of flies. The flies mill about as aimlessly as all the lost-soul Yoga tourists (why do so many young people who come to study yoga and meditation puff cigarettes? seems counterproductive).
I did feel much better after dipping my feet and hands into the Ganges, which, though not flowing at full capacity, is still cold and clear here in the foothills. For those not clear on the geography (I sure wasn't), Rishikesh is not in the Himalayas....it's not even in the foothills of the Himalayas. Rather, it is at the feet of the foothills of the Himalayas. After evening arati (the traditional fire-offering ceremony) on the riverbank, a delicious, invigorating breeze kicks up. At the Paramarth Niketan arati, they have a fleet of baby monks (in this case, dressed in saffron robes with shaved heads and tiny Brahmin tufts that gives them a whimsical look like a Dr Seuss character) singing and clapping along.
Maybe tomorrow I'll be rested enough to rise at dawn and have my first ritual bath in the holy river (can't believe I've been in India so long and still not had the cleansing bath in the Ganges).
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream....
My dear friend Darkhorse will never forgive me if I leave here not having gotten photos of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram where the Beatles came some forty years ago. I think the Beatles were bodhisattvas in disguise. After they made mind-blowing music and changed the world, one went on to promote peace (John), another to promote Eastern spirituality (George), and a third to promote vegetarianism (Paul).
I wonder what Ringo's mission was. Maybe just to show that someone has to be there for other people, be supportive, and stay out of the limelight. I think he will be the last Beatle standing. Maybe then the real Ringo will emerge and become a Starr.
Yes, it's corny. Way corny! I'm in RishiKitsch! It's compare and contrast: candy-coloured plaster painted statues of smiling caged devis vs. dour-faced matrons in technicolour saris living in the invisible cages of their families. Sickening sewage smells vs. sickly sweet incense. Indians wearing western clothes, who've come to see what the Westerners came to see; Westerners wearing Indian clothes who come to see something "Indian."