“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have been to India and those who haven’t.” ~ Lonely Planet Asia
“The more you travel, the less you know.” ~ George Harrison
Buddhism and Hinduism are two great religions, so was Beatle Mania. John Lennon called The Beatles bigger than Jesus, during their commercial peak in the 1960s. This statement outraged a lot of people even if it was true. It is interesting to note that Buddha was born into the caste system and he eventually rejected it. He also wasn’t born “Buddhist”. Hinduism is a word foreigners gave to the Indians who practiced Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Way.
If you are reading this, you probably agree that Buddhism and Hinduism are two great religions and The Beatles made some great music. You are probably biased to either Siddhartha or Shankaracharya depending on your sensibility. Even though I’m more drawn to the latter than the former, I put Buddhism ahead of Hinduism. Not because my editor is Buddhist or because I’m in the Tibetan Buddhist region of the U.S. No it is because B is before H in the Alphabet. Just like Lennon/McCartney. I would say Lennon was a better songwriter than McCartney, but L still comes ahead of M. Personally my favorite Beatle was neither, John or Paul, but George, not because he was more Hindu than atheist John, but because I felt he had a better solo career than either John or Paul. Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” was the greatest solo record of any of The Beatles.
If you are reading elephant and live in Boulder the chances are pretty good that you have an interest in meditation, yoga, and the like. Perhaps it is an assumption, but you probably have yearned to go to India and explore the country’s rich history of spirituality if you haven’t already. Perhaps you are also find it a bit daunting especially after the recent Mumbai attacks and the religious fault line that can create chaos like San Andreas in California. Despite the Mumbai attacks I am heading on my 4th consecutive winter to India in 2008 to 2009. India is the equal to having a liking of natural foods in Boulder. You have endless options and won’t scratch the surface even after years of being there (and will have an even harder time once Whole Foods expands to take over the space where Barnes and Nobles currently is).
I had a chance to visit both the Hindu and Buddhist Universes when I went to Varanasi, Sarnath, and Bodh Gaya in 2007. On my second trip to India I made a vow not to leave India until visiting the beating heart of the Hindu universe Varanasi. Varanasi is India at it’s height, as far as intensity goes. I flew into Delhi from Tamil Nadu on Spice Jet’s Cinnamon Plane. Don’t laugh we have animals on the CO based airline, Frontier. Shiva is alive in Varanasi. People come here to die and it is said that if you did in Varanasi, you obtain moksha or liberation. Varanasi goes by many names Kashi, Benares, and the City of Light. I found it to be the most challenging place to be in all my travels in India, but at the same time the most magical. Classical Indian music can be heard during a meal on rooftops throughout the city. Varanasi aka Benares is where George Harrison’s buddy Ravi Shankar was born. Of course, suffering is a unique aspect of both religions. It is like playing the White Album and just enjoying it instead of John and Paul comparisons. In Boulder I have experienced luxury like suffering when my clean burning diesel, biodiesel bus takes me to teach a yoga class being 1 minute late instead of on time and of course was bummed when my the Co-op closed. I was a chef at the Award winning Café Prasad at the Boulder Co-op. I was bummed when 29th street came up and Whole Foods bought out Wild Oats, but hey things could be worse.
Try waiting for a train that was 12 hours late, no joke the advertised train from Varanasi to Bodh Gaya took 12 hours to arrive and the 3 hour ride took 5 hours. Yes, that is India for you. The Ruppee that some predict will oust the yen and the American Dollar has a long way to go in infrastructure before it can be the world’s economic giant. Yet, for timely trains is not the reason to go to India.
A pilgrimage is better and the first hand experience of otherness. I arrived in dusty Bodh Gaya in the morning hours, and took a rickshaw to the hotel that a Russian couple at the Scinada Guest House in Benares recommended. I went out exploring and after dumping off my luggage made a bee line to the Maha Bodhi temple. This is a no brainer. The maha bodhi temple is the crest jewel of Bodh Gaya, rituals are going on constantly, there is even filtered water to fill up, a rarity in India. I loved seeing the melting pot of cultures of Buddhism represented. It is also a great place to sit and practice.
Throughout Bodha Gaya there are monestaries and temples of every part of Buddhism represented. Perhaps a little bit out of it after the school of hard knocks of travel that comes with traveling in this country. I made a huge mistake and learn from me. I had a lassi in a restaurant listed in the book, or the Lonely Planet for those not in the loop and this did me in. As a result of this I ended up with severe dysentery, shitting water all night and eventually having to shell out a generous some of ruppess to a local Doctor and be put on an IV, self loathing with time for dhyana or meditation on one of the truths of Buddhism the suffering of sickness. This was the last time I would be sick in India, or a serious sickness per sé. The golden rule in India is to not drink the water, eat raw foods, and, as I learned, be careful with lassi unless you know it is hygienic, when in doubt don’t. It turned out the lassi was mixed with tap water, and I also found out many other travelers had to go on the IV as well.
After 2 months of intensive study of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath in Mysore, South India. I headed on a quick trip through Tamil Nadu to Ramana Maharashi’s Tiruvanamali, Aurobindo’s Pondicherry, and Deskichar’s Chennai before flying out of Chennai.
After landing in Delhi, I checked into a hotel for a day in the backpacker section called Parha Ganj and left that same night on an overnight train to Varanasi. I made a vow not to leave India unless I set foot in Varansai. Shiva is my favorite God of the millions existing in India. He has the coolest hair, long dreadlocks that hold the Ganges river, carries a trident, has a stead a bull Nadhi, is the founder of yoga, and favorite haunt is the creamation grounds and cemeteries. I heard Varanasi was intense and India at it’s heat. Friends told me you will definitely get sick in Varanasi, but you need to go. Varanasi is a city, and having lived in NYC and Los Angeles I like cities, but prefer college towns like Boulder these days. I stayed right by the main burning ghat in Varanasi where bodies are cremeated in the open 24-7.
Wherever you are in Varanasi you are constantly reminded of death. I was sitting in a café or shopping for a Shiva lingam or rudraksha, rough mala of 108 beads of rudrakha, seeds of a fruit that are rough, favored by Shiva and said to have arose from his tears. You would hear families walking, carrying their deceased family member, chanting “Rama nama satya he” or “God’s name is truth”. I love bookstores, Boulder bookstore, Bookworm, and Red Letter are my favorite hang outs in Boulder. Varanasi has amazing bookstores including the famed Pilgrims bookstore. This place is heaven on Earth with an amazing selection of books on Ayurveda, Sanskrit, Yoga, and so forth.
For temples there are three that are a must, the Durga temple, which is red and surrounded by water. Durga is the fierce aspect of Shiva’s consort Paravati. There is the Hanuman temple, which was one my favorite. Hanuman is the Monkey God, who appears in the epic the Ramayana. He is the greatest devotee of Rama, who is one of the incarnations of Vishnu and represents the ideal man as householder with his consort Sita. There are actual dozens and dozens of monkeys roaming around the Hanuman temple in Varanasi. When I went, there were what seemed like hundreds of people chanting “Ram, Ram, Ram” in front of the temple and the priest went to pull back the curtain of the murti, the staute of the deity. Everyone was going nuts like if the Rockies actually swept the Redsox in the World Series instead of vice versus. I was in the middle of the frenzy and there was Hanuman, it was a special experience and one of the beauties of India is experiencing how religion, spirituality, and daily life go hand in hand like Gore Tex hiking boots in the cold season in CO.
In Varanasi I watched corpses burn at the two main burning ghats, one runs around the clock. So that is a good second hand experience of impermance, as rituals done behind closed doors in this country are done in the open. “Rama nam, a satya hei” while family’s carried their deceased covered in cloth to be cremated, was a familiar sound and site. Whether getting lost in the labyrinth of the ghats or eating a thali meal at a restaurant. I hung out with sadhus, one about my age was doing tapas, and a penance of not to sit for 7 years. These sadhus were the real deal, not beggers, and it was a unique experience to share chai with them. I took a day trip to Sarnath outside of Varanasi, Sarnth is the place where Buddhism got started, after Siddhartha became Buddha under the Bodhi tree, he headed to give his first sermon, on the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path at deer park, in Sarnath. Sarnath is a relief if the noise, pollution, and intensity of Varanasi has gotten to you. I went to a Tibetan restaurant that served Chinese curry. That probably had poison in it. I found that the Tibetans are the nicest people on the planet, except they turn rather angry when they speak of the Chinese and rightly so. I stuck to veg momos and soup.
So to catch 3 birds with one hand while practing Ahimsa, if you do go to India, check out Varanasi, Sarnath, and Bodh Gaya. They are all close to each other, but maybe not time wise. I say catch 3 birds with one hand, because this is the practice of Ahimsa: non-harming and once you catch the birds set them free and send me an email letting me know how your experience goes. I’ll see you in a Boulder Bookstore, in line at Vitamin Cottage, maybe under the Bodhi Tree, or watching the smoke rise into the ethers in Varanasi. Keep the dreams alive my friend, keep the dreams alive.