Tuesday, November 13, 2012

India 30: Ashram, Ganga Guy, Newborn Calf and Judy Arrives

Greetings from Jaipur where it is Christmas, New Years and Black Friday rolled into the one. Unplanned, I’ve arrived as the Diwali festival is exploding in the Pink City, with firecrackers heard out my hotel at midnight and shoppers spilling into the streets all day.  The biggest day of year is coming up and it will be fun reporting from the city Judi Dench fell in love with in “The Very Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  And I’m still wallowing in celebration of the sweeping good news from politics back home. 

But first, a recap of the time since my last post ten days ago.

Leaving Bangalore

My last day in Bangalore was disappointing.  I had written the script for a video for Vindhya and we had filmed it in a full day on October 20, with a first cut edit to be available on the 25th.  However that didn’t happen and by my last day it was still unedited when I met with the editor.  I missed the satisfaction of seeing that project to completion.  

The dresses I had ordered for the ten women in my life all turned out to be floor length so I had dressed a wedding party when only three are going to a wedding. (No big deal, said the recipients, we’ll alter to taste.)  But then the traffic accident I expected to witness while in Bangalore happened right before my eyes the last night.  In fact another foot or two and it would have taken out my eyes.

My ACCION host, Siddhartha Chowdri, had picked me up for a last dinner and we were stopped in traffic when the city bus in front of us backed into Sidd’s car, mashed the hood and stopped just short of the windshield.   Sidd was furious as we chased after the bus, which would not stop.  When it finally had to, the bus driver blamed Sidd for being in the way.  

“Well, that’s why I drive a used car.  It can be banged out for $25 so let’s go have a beer,” was how he admirably settled himself down.

And a very good beer it was.

Speaking of beer, India’s beer king, whom we chastised in a prior column for corrupt control of an industry—and the greater crime of failing to provide dark beer--has been forced to sell controlling interest in his liquor company after its sister, Kingfisher Airlines, had its right to fly yanked for safety reasons and failure to pay his employees for three months.   So there is a beer god after all.

On to the Shantivanam Ashram

Heading off to an ashram felt like good timing after two months in the city.  After delivering cake to the staff at my residence, ACCION and Vindhya, (I had suggested that doing great work was “A piece of cake” for them so turn it into a slogan), I board a bus south for what was advertised as a five hour journey.  It turned out to be nine hours which meant taking a rickshaw an hour into the darkness before being received with traditional Benedictine hospitality.

Where are we?

Shantivanam, which means "Forest of Peace," is a Benedictine monastery run by a half-dozen monks, most of them priests from Kerala, and an India staff of 20.   It has a few cows, lots of bananas and many associated good works:  a school, a home for the aged and some vocational programs.

It was founded in l950 to adapt the Benedictine life of prayer and worship to Hindu culture and spirituality.  Fr. Bede Griffiths became its prior in l968 where he lived until his death in l993.  He was a leading voice for bringing together eastern and western religions for truth and justice.  He wanted to “marry” Christian and Hindu spirituality.  He embodied in his person a lifetime of vigorous intellectual search, personal transformation and, as I convinced, sanctity.

This little statue at the entrance of Christ meditation and with three heads, Hindu style, could represent the controversy in the 70's and 80's among Catholics about meditation and whether the ashram was really Catholic.  It's deteriorated condition could represent how the dialogue is less important there today, although prayer life still draws from Hindu and Tamil literature and practices.

The rhythm of life is similar to most monasteries with an hour or more of prayer in the morning with Mass, at noon and at night, followed by eating in common.  However the scripture is not only from the Bible but from Hindu texts, Tamil saints and Sanskrit.  Chants are in three languages and each session ends with a Hindu ceremony of washing the face with heat from a candle and anointing the forehead in the manner of third eye, to indicate our eventual home in paradise.

The chapel looks like a Hindu temple with St. Paul and other saints on the top, like Hindu dieties.  It also looks like the top of Ravi Shankar's temple at the Art of Living Ashram near Bangalore, same color and trim.

Coffee is served at ten and tea three.  There was only one other guest there, a woman priest from England, when I arrived and the monks seeming to have all the time in the world to talk with us.   They walk about slowly and have softened countenances.  The prior spent a lot of time explaining Hinduism to me and humor was welcomed.   

Fr. George, the prior, who had plenty of time to talk.  Note the sign on his forehead, which we all affixed there after Mass as a sign of our eventual home in paradise. 

I wanted to know what had become of Griffith’s dialogue with Hindus.  No much, I learned.   Griffiths had to survive criticism from authorities over whether he remained Catholic, a test he cleared.  But Hindus accused him of being a missionary in sheep’s clothing which saddened him at the end.   However as a result, Shantivanam itself does not take up an East-West dialogue.  That task falls to Brother John Martin Sahajananda, an Indian who says his life and teaching honors both his parents, one Christian and one Hindu, about whom more may be said eventually. 

While perhaps less interested in East meets West, these monks are thoroughly Indian, not European, and seem content with their life of prayer and tending to the school, home for the aged, etc. 

I was at all the liturgies, read two books on Griffiths while there and hung out at coffee and tea.  But I felt more curious than pious and went off campus regular. 

Glimpses of Life in an Indian Village

Cooking for 200
·      After mass the first morning, I was invited to a house blessing a short distance away by the man who was getting the house.  His son had gone to the capital of the state, Chennai (the old Madras), and made enough money in the software business to build his parents an extremely nice granite-floored, high-ceiling house next to the old and the cows.  The blessing for the family was attended by about 40 but then a couple hundred came from the village for breakfast followed by lunch, both served on banana leaves.   If the village looks poor, the guests did not and it was fun to talk with many of them.

The software entrepreneur at right built this house for his parents.

·      The English priest had come for three weeks of teaching at a school.  That’s how it was she and her principal were climbing the 1100 steps of a Hindu temple that wound up a mountain and invited me along. 

Thirty of 1100 steps to the top of the temple....

·      A couple other days I just walked and talked around the village for awhile, getting inundated by kids getting out of school.  Don’t start taking pictures of one or you’ll end up with all of them!  Indians universally want you to take their picture just as long as you show them the outcome on your screen.   I ended up printing and distributing a couple dozen photos taken in the village and another bunch taken of the Shantivanam staff.  Again, be careful what you start:  I didn’t have pictures enough for everyone. 


A good reason to be out was that it was unpleasant staying in my dank room where the windows did not open.  This is not the hot season but for me humidity without a breeze was not a breeze and although the room had a fan, it was 50-50 whether there would be any electricity to turn it. (The fan was supposed to be powered by a nuclear reactor promised by Michel Gorbachev in l988 but not under construction until 2001.  It still hasn’t opened thanks to anti-nuclear activists who were on my mind those sweltering nights.)  I could read outside with a headlamp from my backpack and Indian mosquitos don’t bite me any more than American ones.  But the nights were difficult and I considered chickening out early for a hotel.  Really, I was here for six days, lounging about, while this is life, or much less, for everyone else.    

There was a small dusty library where I borrowed a book on Hinduism but my great interest was the arrival of The Hindu, a very good newspaper dating from l878 that brought news of the presidential election.  I read Nate Silver’s favorable prediction but closing polls were unsettling and, as with Notre Dame football, I feared the worst.  I didn’t expect to get results until leaving on Thursday.

But Andrew, a Frenchman who arrived a couple of days in, had satellite internet and after climbing the Hindu temple/mountain I returned late Wednesday to the news that Obama had won!  Everyone was excited and there were some high-fives around the ashram.  I felt, and have felt since, the same elation as in 2008 and continue to relive the thrill by reading anything about Obama in Indian papers.

My first impression was that Andrew was going to be a bit much for where we were. He was full of opinions.  But while running a company with a thousand employees in France he and his wife felt called to move to Pontcherry (did you know there was a former French colony in Southeast India?) ten years ago to create a clinics for HIV victims.   Now he supports a thousand of them with money raised in France.  Another wrong first impression.

A few other interesting things:  watching a calf just born stagger around on wobbly knees, then being pressed to the teat for the first time; lots of wild peacocks; wandering “holy men” who dropped by during tea time, the head guy looking Rasta and, sure enough, as they went down the road lit up a bit of ganga.


“They do lots of nasty things,” said Father George, the guest master who had given them 30 rupees each, with a chuckle.   “Some want away from their wives and some collect good money on the road in the north to live a life of ease in the south.”

 Judy Comes in From Kenya, A Glimpse at Bede Griffiths

 Bede believed that life unfolds propitiously for us if we have a passion and pay attention.  Events and people arrive for a purpose.

At the end of my last day there arrived at the ashram a woman named Judy, a thin, white-haired American nurse working in Mombasa, Kenya.  She first came to Shantivanam in l973 while a nurse in a village in Bangladesh, came back every year and was living here for the two years before Bede died.

I came here because of Griffiths but had learned very little about him outside of books.  After dinner I asked Judy if we could talk and began by asking where Griffiths had lived, since no one had told me.   We spent the next hour on the porch of his little dwelling. 

I cannot do justice to the story she told in a reedy voice and you may not have the time but a few things:  Griffiths suffered a stroke in l991 which opened him up like a coconut slammed on the floor (a Hindu symbolic gesture meant for precisely this purpose).  He softened, moved from his head to his heart, his left to his right brain, his masculine to his feminine.  He explored an interest in tantric yoga and quoted D. H. Lawrence on love.  He enjoyed some blessed days in Vermont and California.  Always kind and attentive to the needs of those who came to the ashram, he became an even more generous counsel.   She told of the pleasure of looking in on him through the side window, always cheerful; of what it was like to be with him; of rotating a watch over him in the last months; and of his uncharacteristic behavior toward the end, easily excused.   His stroke and its consequences occurred when he was 84, so there's still hope for all of us. 

He lived with great simplicity to be one with south India’s poor but also enjoyed considerable renown toward the end.  He deserves more than this brief summation, as does his legacy, but as with letting Judy get to bed, we will also have to let Bede go for now.   To explore his theology is beyond the scope of this blog, not to mention the capacity of its author.  He sounded like a saint to me.

The next morning I was off at 4:30 for a drive to Madurai, then a plane Delhi and then a dicey last leg to Jaipur.

I had booked a train out of Delhi and at the Delhi airport was told to head for the New Delhi Train Station.  A complete madhouse it was.  A bunch of guys dressed in red eventually figured out I should be at the Old Delhi Station so off we go—although I could almost have walked as quickly were it not for about 60 pounds of luggage.  At Old Delhi I needed another guy to get me closer on a bicycle rickshaw, then two guys to carry my luggage on their head to the right platform which of course was only half the right platform since only half the train had arrived.

Eventually I got on the sleeper car for what was, again, billed as a short ride, 3.5 hours, which turned out to be 6.45, some of it so tightly packed you could not get to the bathroom.  

Judy had told me about traveling through India in 1975 on a mission of some sort for Griffiths.  Travelers regularly slept in the train station between schedules and each morning in every one of them Indian classical music was played to wake people up.  Those days are long, long gone.

I had been directed to a hotel called the Arya Niwar by Bill and Cydney Wood of Idaho Falls, Salt Lake and Stanley, who have been coming to Jaipur for years.  The owner of the hotel was in Idaho Falls, Yellowstone, Stanley, etc. last month.  When I met him the next morning he connected me to another Idaho Falls couple who have been coming here for 34 years whom I haven't seen in years—Vicky and Wayne Miller.  This leads down many an alley, as we shall see. 

Jaipur has begun well.  The question is, after I have delivered 2,343 words on Shantivanam, will anyone stay with me on the last leg of this journey, even if it proves to be the most intriguing?    











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