Friday, February 29, 2008

a day in rishikesh

sir, speak of the secret knowledge!
you have been told the secret knowledge.
that very secret regarding Brahman
I have spoken to you.
Kena Upanishad IV.7

19 feb 08

Two days into the second week of this yoga intensive. I am enjoying it more than the first week, partly because I am much more comfortable with the Iyengar vocabulary of asanas and partly because I have grown a little more used to Rajiv’s style of teaching, which he also seems to tone down a little bit more every day. He constantly scolds us for thinking that yoga is all about asanas and shapely bodies and “having your picture on the cover of Yoga Journal,” and he tells us that this is corrupt yoga––“boga,” he calls it––that is actually more harmful than good because it lets loose powers for lust and greed instead of inner transformation; and he says that we don’t care about the philosophy and the inner transformation that yoga is really all about, that we all just want to call ourselves “intermediate yogis” and to teach others when our own lives are a mess, and that no one in the West understands yoga. I don’t know if any of that is true about the rest of the people gathered here for this course (I suspect not), but it’s all very humbling, and you generally do feel a little shallow and guilty afterward whether you deserve it or not. I personally am drinking in the philosophy but I wish that it were a little more systematic in presentation. Generally he stops in the middle of an asana and calls us around him and holds forth for five or ten minutes, and I find myself trying to remember some little pearl of wisdom so that I can write it down later. He is constantly quoting the Scriptures, usually the Yoga Sutras themselves and the Bhagavad Gita, and is a very devout man himself never hesitating to give all the credit to Lord Patanjali (to whom we chant at the beginning of each session) and refer to himself also as just another pilgrim stumbling along on the road, a bland man leading other blind people. Once you get over the shock of his shouting, he’s actually kind of funny, too, and makes lots of jokes, usually at Westerners’ expense.

I am quite impressed with my housemates. Florence from France is a midwife, quite adept at Iyengar yoga already, a quiet, confident and self-contained woman. She also spends a lot of time in Afghanistan where she teaches midwifery. Toward that end she learned to speak Afghani, and she regales us with stories about her travels and experiences in that region, quite often coming out with another surprising little anecdote of something she has seen or done. Espen is also a very experienced Iyengar student from Norway. Rajiv often uses him as a model for us, since he has also been here a number of times. Espen is a carpenter by trade, but some time ago sold everything he had and just owns what he can carry. He spends about eight months a year in India traveling and studying. He told me that he just “put it out there to the Universe” to see if the Universe would take care of him, and so far so good. Both of these people are about my age, and suddenly make me feel not so crazy, as a matter of fact even a little tame. And then there is Jessica, 23, freshly graduated from IU Bloomington, who is a fearless world citizen already. She studied world religions in college and has done work in environmental activism. She is the one who surprised us by breaking into Hindi the first night with our hosts. We sometimes all walk up to school together and have a snack or a chai together during the day, but mostly we always walk home from the late afternoon session and eat dinner together here at the house. Part of our deal is that for a fee Umed, who is the caretaker of the house, shops and prepares a delicious evening meal for us, usually rice, dhal, some vegetable and chapattis. It’s never too spicy and of course, at Rjiv’s insistence for everyone during our time here, always vegetarian (except that we sneak in a few eggs from time to time).

I had a good visit to Rishikesh on the weekend, nice to get away from the intensity of the first week of the yoga course. I went over on the bus. It was only an hour trip but counting the bus from here in Rajpur to the ISBT bus stand on the other side of Dehradun, waiting for the bus and then getting an auto rickshaw from Rishikesh proper down to Ram Jhula, it was about a three hour trip. Oddly enough, I think that that was my first solo bus trip anywhere; I have so rarely been alone in India. I had to deliver some things for Swati at the Iyengar center in Rishikesh, and then I wandered across the Ram Jhula bridge and down one side of the Ganga and back up the other side ‘til I reached Ranjeet’s restaurant on the Laxma Jhula side just in time for lunch. It was nice to see him again, and we made some plans for him to get off early and us to spend the evening together. I had a list of things to do and checked them off one by one, wireless internet at Asu’s very successful business Riverain down from Ranjeet’s, a visit with Ram at OM music, there to also pick up a few recommended CDs––by this time I pretty much buy whatever he suggests; and then a quick visit with Turiya over at Jheevan Dhara Ashram where I made retreat last year. She has since received diksha from a local swami and is now all in orange-khavi. We had a nice conversation over tea and then I headed out, actually to do some shopping, some things I needed for myself and a few things I had promised to pick up for friends. I got a room at a guest house just up from Ranjeet’s and Asu’s, at R200 a night, with a hot shower, clean and safe.

I must say I found Rishikesh a little depressed and depressing this time, as much as I was happy to have and see old friends there. There have been less tourists this year so they are all struggling for business. And yet those tourists and businesses are partly to blame for the dissolution of Rishikesh and perhaps the reason why fewer serious spiritual seekers are coming there. It’s as if a whole economy has grown up based on catering to Western visitors––in one place you might be able to get internet, travel arrangements, and an Aryuvedic massage, nothing that a local would want or need or be able to afford––but it seems as if they may have overdone it and now there is more supply than demand based on hopes that there will be enough people to buy. It reminded of eating in Las Vegas in some strange way. You go to any buffet in Las Vegas and at first you see mounds of food and looks so good and enticing, and then suddenly it seems like grotesquely too much and you lose your appetite. And so it is with the dozens of shops and stands in Rishikesh, all selling the same rudraksh necklaces and malas, sandalwood, singing bowls and clothing, or blasting the same two or three CDs (often of Westerners performing their version of Indian music), and it all seems not only unappealing but even kind of pathetic. I don’t feel like blaming the Indians and am trying to refrain from pointing fingers at us Westerners either but still... There something weird in the human condition that always thinks that more and better are the same thing.

In the early evening I went to the famous arathi at Parmarth Niketan, the large Brahmin school (or, as someone called it, a Sanskrit school) down by Ram Jhula by myself. I was exactly on time, arriving just as the young Brahmins were proudly processing out in the their yellow dhotis to line up on the steps on the banks of Ganga-mata and break into song. I enjoyed it thoroughly especially the music, except that it was a little too amped up in volume for my taste. I watched the sun set over the further shore and headed back over to Laxma Jhula. It wound up that Ranjeet couldn’t get away to spend the evening with me. There was some kind of trouble happening at Ranjeet’s restaurant when I got back and he told me that he couldn’t get his father or brother to cover in the restaurant and had to stay.

This stays with me: Ranjeet works from 6 in the morning until 8 in the evening seven days a week, the sole money earner for the family. He often sleeps on a bench in the restaurant and takes his morning bath using the outdoor faucet where they wash the dishes and pots and pans. That’s his whole life. I was disappointed that he couldn’t get away so that we could hang out as we had been planning for months. But I felt even worse somehow that I was there as a reminder to him of the gap between his life and mine. Even my room “at R200 a night, with a hot shower, clean and safe,” and my laptop with pictures of my travels around the world, not to mention the fact that I had the luxury simply to have an evening free, let alone a three week course in yoga in Rajpur. Similarly, our accommodations here in Rajpur: Govindi and Umed and their two teenaged children all live in a house the size of my sitting room. I was thinking of the story of Lazarus and the rich man in the Gospels, that great gap that stretched out between them. It doesn’t give me a sense of guilt so much as appreciation first of all, and then a sense of re-dedication to whatever it is I am doing, be it music, yoga, prayer, writing. It is a great gift, a luxurious commodity to be born in the day and age and place that most of us have, and with that comes a responsibility, a huge weight of responsibility to turn all that into something beautiful for the Lord and the world.

These kinds of things happen so much that I am was not the least bit surprised: As I was walking up steep Laxma Jhula Road back to my room to gather my things and head out of town, coming down the same road was Jill, my friend from England, of Bede Griffiths Sangha and Shantivanam and other things. She was blown away by the coincidence and of course we were both happy to see each other. After she went with me to gather up my stuff we sat at the little restaurant where she was staying, touched base and had some tiffin, and I headed back here to Rajpur, a long dusty uneventful bus ride.