Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Rishikesh Ramblings

“People think that Rishikesh means ‘the hair of the rishis’ but no, it comes from one of the names of Vishnu, Hrishikesha. But they left off the ‘h’ and so people don’t know. But Rishikesh is named for God,” explained the white-robed ashram-dweller (someone said he’s a swami, but as he wears white and not orange, I’m not so sure) manning the library. This was the introduction to an impromptu Vedanta class. I had in fact just popped in for a few books but I seem to be receiving lessons in all sorts of unexpected places at the moment. (Rishis are sages, by the way; it’s the rishis who channelled the Vedas from god, according to tradition.) And in fact, I found Hrishikesha in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita the next day.

Of course, whenever I quote anyone, you have to imagine the accent, which gives Indian English prose infinitely more music and grace than my transcriptions.

Life at the Dayananda ashram here in Rishikesh is certainly colourful. The other day, the ashram hosted a “bandhara” in honour of a swamini who had died sixteen days previously. I’m not sure if I entirely understood the swami who was teaching my Upanishad class that morning (the accents can take some getting used to) but I think he said she hadn’t taken food for fifteen years and lived to a ripe old age, at odds with the doctors till the end. The bandhara basically involved giving lunch to a hundred or so saddhus and then sending each of them on their way with 50 rupees. The hall was filled with orange-clad ascetics who really didn’t strike me as a particularly easy group to cater for. Half of them seemed to be on some sort of fast or other, while many were decidedly grumpy. They didn’t linger over their lunch and so soon it was our turn, and in honour of the occasion, we got pudding with it. I must have looked especially hungry, because the nice person serving loaded my plate with about six of the sweets whose name I can’t remember, but which involve some sort of batter fried in lots of oil and epic quantities of sugar. I managed two of them, and thought that was pretty good going. We’ve had two bandharas since (but for us ashram-dwellers, not the saddhus), as a group of very kindly senior citizens is visiting the ashram from Bangalore. They are studying a Vedantic text here with their guru and are very sweet about serving us food. Again, I must look hungry, I am regularly laden with enormous quantities by motherly ladies in beautiful saris. “Is our food ok for you?” is a frequent conversation opener.

The ashram is pretty traditional, near the town of Rishikesh itself and a short walk down the river from the more tourist-frequented districts of Laxmanjulla and Ramjulla. Over the river and a little up is where the Beatles hung-out in the 1960's. (That particular ashram is now shut due to some sort of administrative wrangling.) My overnight bus ride here from McLeod Ganj was reasonably comfortable, if pretty sleepless, as only about half the roads on the journey seemed to be tarmaced. I was very glad that I hadn’t eaten since my lunch on the night of travel. Although I had to concentrate pretty hard at times, I wasn’t sick and evinced a respectable imperviousness to the hairpin bends on the sides of terrible mountains roads. We did have to make regular stops for various other passengers to throw up, and I thanked my stars again and again that I wasn’t among them. We made the journey in 12 rather than the advertised 13 hours, but on arrival I was rather too tired to quite know what to do with the mild culture shock that was Rishikesh.

There is one group of Westerners staying here, hanging around for their guru who seems to have nothing to do with the Dayananda ashram and who summons them at strange hours of the day or night. Other than that, they apparently have no involvement in the ashram that doesn’t involve food. Otherwise, apart from the recently-arrived elderly group from Bangalore, it’s pretty much all orange-clad sanyasins and white-clad students.

I started to feel rather more part of things on day two when I began attending classes. This ashram has a strong Advaita Vedanta tradition, and all teachings follow this. We have an Upanishad class in the morning, and so far have spent four classes on one verse of Kathopanisad. The teacher is a delightful elderly swami and I completely love his diversions and stories – which I think always come back to the point, though others disagree. Then a younger swami teaches a class on the Bhagavad Gita. The teaching is very traditional. First they chant the verse in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain, then they chant Shankara’s commentary in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain. Questions are welcome and are always answered very graciously (i.e. What is the difference between Ishvara and Brahman? In what way is Ishvara limited? What is the role of free will if all is Ishvara?). In the afternoon, I also attend a chanting class. I have no idea what I’m chanting half the time, but it sounds nice and I’m beginning to think I’d recognise Swami Guhatmananda’s voice anywhere (he also does the pre-meal chant – with prayers in English for the long life and health of the sponsors of whatever bandhara might be in progress). As for the timetable, neatly displayed on the board in front of the ashram office, I soon decided this was the actual embodiment of the veil of maya over reality. It bears very little resemblance to what is going on and the only way to find out about a class (if it’s happening, what it’s on, what time it is) is to turn up, at which point all becomes clear(ish).

A Japanese brahmacharya (student) has taken me in hand and is coaching me through the Sanskrit alphabet after breakfast in the temple. I am making slow progress but enjoying it, and she is a very thorough teacher – very Japanese!

The temple is at the bottom of the ashram, by the river (I’ve put a picture of the view from the end of the ashram towards the top of this entry). We’re at a particularly peaceful spot, with a ghat going down to the Ganges and tree-filled hills on the other side. I’ve spent hours so far sitting on the benches, watching the water flow (very fast!) and people taking their ritual holy bath or doing their laundry or children riding their bikes up the ghat. The water is really pretty clean here and two days ago, I finally went in for my first dip. The reason it took me so long was the organisation required. An infuriating (to me) double standard exists. Men prance about with impunity in their boxers or the cloth equivalent of a thong, but the poor women have to brave the treacherous water in what looks like full sari. No wonder they don’t go in very far! I can handle covering up to walk around town but when it comes to the possibility of drowning, I get rather irate. On the other hand, I had no wish to cause a minor riot, as people stare at me quite enough as it is. In the end, I went and bought a lunghi (a male sarong sort of thing), put on my tankini, my board shorts that go down past my knees and a t-shirt, with the lunghi wrapped round to my ankles. I must have looked very strange to the people at the ghat, pretty much dressed as a man, but at least I was covered. I decided in the end that they would have to contain their apoplexies at the sight of my shoulders and took my t-shirt off (surely a wet t-shirt is far more indecent than a bathing costume?!) as well as the lunghi to get in the water. And thank goodness I did, because the current is vicious. But it was lovely to get my head under, though I didn’t linger. The lunch bell was ringing and I didn’t want to push my luck regarding the attention-gathering.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I had to come to a Vedanta ashram to meet two Catholic priests in training. They were here last week “for an ashram experience”, as one very humbly put it. They proved my most assiduous guides, helping me make sense of the class timetable and taking me to one of the ghats in town, well away from the tourists, where Hindus make their evening offerings at the river. Once they returned to their seminary, we arranged to meet. In the late afternoon, I was walking along the river - part pathway, part rubble, part latrine - towards the Ramjulla bridge when a group of young boys descended on me, after a rupee or ten. I made my escape thinking “no, no, you’ll make me late for my date” with my two Catholic priests who (after helping me buy my lunghi at an ashram suppliers) took me to a Hindu arti (ceremony, this time involving fire, though I don't know if that's always the case). They have a radically inclusive view of Catholicism and are happy to worship with Hindus or anyone else, apparently. Perhaps it’s because they are from Kerala.

Further up is a picture of a statue of Shiva over the Ganges – with the river coming out of his head (I can’t remember exactly what bit), as it’s supposed to. And below are some people at the fire blessing part of the arti:

Later, my Catholic guides (Anup and Vinit) took me and an Italian who is also staying at the ashram to their seminary, to meet their master. He explained that they trace their lineage to Thomas the Apostle, and apparently there were Christians in Kerala from the middle of the first century C.E. with a very Indian flavour of Christianity. And here is the very Indian (and rather lovely, I think) depiction of Christ the sanyasin in their chapel:

We were shown around with absolute grace, kindness and charm and then given dinner – perhaps my nicest yet in India. Someone had discovered on my Facebook page that I’m on the BBC network, and ever since, they insisted on introducing me as “the BBC correspondent” – completely mortifying, deeply ironic and very erroneous – indelibly stuck now because I didn’t mention it to begin with. The BBC would probably sue if they found out.

As we were leaving, another of the priests training at the seminary pointed out the yellow and red dot on my forehead and asked if we had been to the arti. “We all went,” said one of my priestly guides. It was remarked that the Italian had no mark on his forehead. “I like Hindu metaphysics but I am not interested in the popular religion,” he explained. “And you?” I was asked. “Oh, I take my blessings where I find them.”

And so on that note, blessings and love to you,
Lucy xx

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