Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On a Brief Encounter with India

My family and I are currently living as expats in China (if you didn't know that already). This fact has afforded us the opportunity to travel quite a bit within Asia. We recently spent a week in India visiting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I am a yoga teacher and have been fascinated with India (where yoga comes from) for many years now, so I always thought my travel to India would be with a yoga group or to stay at an ashram in order to dive deeply into my practice. As it turns out though, my husband Stephen and I decided that for the Chinese New Year holiday we would do a more cultural trip with our kids and India guaranteed to be a unique adventure for our family.

In consideration of our kids, and in an attempt to avoid any gastrointestinal disasters, we booked into the nicest hotels that cater to Westerners. Stephen created an ambitious itinerary, packing in the places to go and sites to visit. We landed in Delhi and the learning began almost immediately.

The hotel car picked us up at the airport and the first thing we saw as we pulled out from the airport parking lot was several women dressed in brightly colored orange and red saris laying in a dirt field along with several emaciated dogs. We knew that poverty would be rampant in India and we discussed this quite a bit with the kids leading up to the trip, but seeing it up close is another thing entirely.

On our first full day in Delhi we headed out early, in a day of dense smog, to visit several famous sites. We saw the Bahai Lotus Temple, Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and Gandhi Smriti. Each of these places had so much  beauty and history. How amazing to stand in the spot where Gandhi took his last steps, or to see the impressive and beautiful fort built by Shah Jahan, all of it was stunning and awe inspiring. A stand out memory of that day though, is a moment when we were caught in a huge snarl of traffic, our hired driver who spoke next to no English was seemingly lost in his own city. We were at a stand still in the middle of a vortex of chaos. There were people everywhere, cars trying to eek through any way they could, hundreds of these green and yellow tuk tuk taxis, a symphony of horns honking, and of course the occasional cow, horse or goat just ambling on by. At one point a cow strolled by within touching distance of my daughter Avery's window. She was sitting in the seat next to me and I could see a look of curiosity meets disbelief on her face. She turned to me and said, "Well Mom, I didn't think there could be a place crazier than China, but you found it!" This made me laugh, and she smirked a bit herself. I had to admit she was correct. This place, from the first moment, presented itself as truly foreign and otherworldly for us. It would continuously challenge our concepts of the world and fill our senses with every possible nuance of color, texture, smell, flavor, and leave us all altered in some way.

The week was a whirlwind of hotels, highways, temples and palaces. We were constantly taking in  astounding and marvelous places; the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort, City Palace in Jaipur, and Akshradam Temple to name a few. The architecture and artistry of every place we visited was beautiful and stirring. Holiness hung in the air in each temple. The palaces were opulent and rich in both artistry and history. These places hold the stories and legends of India, vessels of what has come and gone, and what remains. What remains is a people, a culture, now with multitudes embroiled in deep suffering, but holding fast to hope, but even more than that devotion.

India, much like China, is a country that, despite a growing middle class, still has a significant part of its population living in poverty. The disparity between classes is considerable and the haves have extreme wealth and the have nots often times have little or nothing. In India the have nots are everywhere. The poverty we saw was a shocking and brutal assault on our reality and sensibilities. You can't look away from the poverty and suffering in India because it is everywhere. You can turn your head , but there it is. There were children with beautiful pleading eyes and faces tapping on the windows of our car, raising their fingers to their mouths in a plea for food, and when we gestured that we had none to offer they still would smile generously as we moved on. We saw people on nearly every street, in every city, sleeping on the sidewalks, picking through the garbage. We saw people with serious physical deformities languishing on the pavement. We saw whole families living in filth and famine. At the end of each day we retreated to our hotel oasis and I was immersed in deep gratitude for how blessed a life I have, and so thankful that my children have everything they need and so much more, but my heart ached for the people who would sleep on the pavement that night, especially the children.

India holds up to the light of day the reality of human suffering by revealing its most extreme forms.
What was stunning and touching to me was seeing the depth of devotion that lives along side the suffering. Spirituality is woven into even the roughest cloth, faith rising even where there is the deepest despair. I saw over and over people greeting each other with hands enfolded in prayer position, looking at each other and offering a namaste or namaskar. Almost every block boasted at least a small temple and the quality of bhakti or devotion was clear in every city we visited.

It was so evident to me there that we are all connected in this reality of human suffering and we all live in a family of the human spirit. What I saw, in a powerful heart centered way, was God in the face of every person I encountered, and I was humbled. I saw, how even in what seems to be impenetrable darkness, that light can shine forth when faith is nourished and when spirit is sustained. I saw this clearly in the shining smiles of children, mothers holding their babies, in street side communities where people could be seen sharing both hardship and laughter.

India was at once heartbreaking and breathtaking. It was a hand outstretched offering a view of all human experience; rich and poor, joy and sorrow, devotion and despair and it ultimately pointed toward an awareness of the most powerful forces we all encounter, life and death. The poor of India walk on the razor's edge of life and death every day. I sense in that relationship with death the deep roots of this feeling of sacred presence and spiritual focus. In the West we try to deny aging and death. We view death as taboo, a dark enemy force that maybe we can somehow avoid. We get sucked into a life of delay and denial, and we focus on superficial and unimportant things. We take our time here for granted. Maybe that is why spiritual life is at the forefront of daily living in India. So many people there have nothing, so they take nothing for granted. They live from faith, they live on faith.

India has a certain peace in the midst of the most profound chaos. It is beauty and grace dancing with despair. India is light meeting darkness. In my yogic studies I have wrangled with the idea that divinity is all encompassing, that there is nothing that is not an expression of God. This is so opposite to the Western notions of good versus evil, this is God and that is the devil, black and white views on human experience. Going to India helped me better understand this idea of everything arising from a cosmic intelligence which we might call God or divinity, in my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we might just call it love. Love leads us away from fear, love is the essence of faith, love is the birthright of all beings no matter the circumstances of the life they were born into.

I am still in the beginning stages of my studies and these are observations that are mere seeds that I am planting and I will see what grows from them. A week in India proved to be a great teacher and I feel I am changed. I know the direction I have been taking in my life is the direction my soul wants to travel. I seek to live a life dedicated to yoga, a creative, spirit centered life. I hope to go back to India. I would love to take that yoga trip, go on a pilgrimage, do some service work. My heart has found yet another home.

A few pictures.