Wednesday, February 3, 2010

outside the vatican walls

Wed, 2 feb 2010

The modern mind has exiled from its practical motive power the two essential things, God or the Eternal, and spirituality or the God-state. It lives in humanity only and the Gita would have us live in God, though for the world in God. (Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita)

I didn't protest a whole lot when JP insisted on sending me to Bangalore in a hired car, but in keeping with my pretense at being a renunciate I did offer a few muted objections, saying that I could take a bus. But, no, he wanted to thank me for my work, etc. etc. So I accepted, a little relieved, I might add. It is always the guitar in addition to the backpack that is the issue on a crowded bus. I was told there was a nice big comuter line from Chennai to Bangalore that stopped in Tiru, right in front of the Arunai Ananda Hotel where I had done the concert, but if it was full it would not stop, and then I would have to take one of the regular lines. I really was willing--it sounded like a fun adventure--but ultimately conceded. JP even wanted to pay for my plane ticket to Delhi but I talked him out of that. He and Agente had made a big deal about my work for them this past week, along with Elle's work and MC's ongoing friendship, Sunday night after the meditation in the little red hut (that feels like it should be in capital letters: "The Little Red Hut"), which I had agreed to lead for them. We had also had Eucharist again in the new pavilion. Inspired by MC and I, they now want to start having a regular eucharist of some kind there every week. It was interesting to be a part of the discussion as to what kind of eucharist they would have--not a discussion that would get too far in Roman Catholic enviroments. Nicholai, JP's Danish assistant from Danmission, said they couldn't do the Shantivanam one because it was "too brahminical" with all that Sanskrit. They were discussing using the one in which we participated at TTS, all in Tamil; but then the issue of how to serve the Westerners that frequent there place came up, because that is a real vital concern for Quo Vadis as well, Westerners who have a need to reconnect with their own roots while experiencing Ramana and the mountain. I really love that part of being in Tiru myself; it's when I feel a bit like a missionary, celebrating the Eucharist or leading meditation at the foot of Arunachala. MC and I had a lot of great discussions about the whole thing. I'm glad to have been of service, though I feel like a did very little for them this time given their own schedule conflicts.

The driver, Sarandha, was quite young and spoke very very little English. I had asked (or motioned) to sit in the front seat instead of feeling like I was being chauffered across India. That actually made him a little uncomfortable and we had almost no interaction the entire four hours of the drive. We were making attempts to call Bro George here in Bangalore on his mobile from Sarandha's mobile to get specific directions, but I couldn't figure out whether or not he was talking to George or to someone else, and he didn't understand when I tried to ask. We stopped at one point to charge his phone because his phone had run out of minutes, and I tried to buy him tea, but he brushed me off with a hand gesture. When I said and motioned, "Lunch?" which I would have been willing to buy him, he said "No! Going going!" And we drove off to Bangalore.

When we got into Bangalore, having crossed over the state line of Karnatika leaving Tamil Nadu (with a sigh), he made another call and then pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the car. After a few minutes I finally asked (motioned) "Why?" and he said, "Coming, coming!" I assumed that meant George was coming to meet us. We sat for a good long time (apparently we were actually in the wrong place) and suddenly Sarandhar started trying to ask me questions, beginning with "Your good name, sir" and "Country coming?" He let me know that he liked Bangalore, "Good city! Very nice." After another phone call he hurried into town to another spot and started saying something like "big bujjah, big bujjah." I had no idea what he was talking about. Another phone call or two and then he started saying something like, "fwum, fwum." We sat in another spot for a while, blocking a pedestrian crossing, when he started tapping me on the shoulder pointing up at a sign saying, "What say?" And then I figured it out--he couldn't read. He was trying to pretend as if he could but he couldn't find where George was telling him to go and he was embarrassed. So we found "Big Bazaar," a shopping mall that was right across another shopping mall called "The Forum." George found us and we drove into Mar Makil Gurukalum, a hostel for men studying here. I thanked Sarandhar and slipped him a tip (JP insisted I not do that, so please don't tell) before he left on his long drive back to Tiruvanamalai.

Bangalore is sometimes called the "Vatican of India," and this hostel is right on the edge of it, girded by a large stone wall barely keeping the life of the busy streets outside at bay. The neighborhood is actually largely Muslim. There are many young boys wearing the knee length white kurtahs as they come and go from the madrasa, many women in various degrees of bodily and facial covering, all the way to having only eyes exposed, many men having the head covered with the white "topi" (I am not sure of the spelling of the word). The muezzins call out from all around at the designated times, a beautiful unintentional polyphony. Inside the walls of "the Vatican" there are countless houses of sisters and priests and brothers from many congregations I have never even heard of. There is even a congregation in honor of Therese of Lisieux; they have a "renewal retreat center" with a huge warehouse for a meeting hall and church, lots of very colorful very graphic pictures of Jesus and Mary and biblical and other religious sayings painted all over the place. I went to Christ University where Bros Pinto and George both had class yesterday morning and hung out in the library until they finished. It's a beautiful facility and a very nice library, very up to date books and periodicals, as well as popular magazines. It's not totally European Christianity, but it certainly is a lot more so than Shantivanam. A lot of the art I see around is sort of typical popular devotional art, painted statues and lots of scenes of Jesus in agony. I did note that Jesus always appears as a light skinned European. A very different environment also than Sri Ramana Ashram.

I have to say I've had a little bit of culture shock. Outside of the Vatican walls, Bangalore is also quite different, certainly from the village life around Shantivanam, but even from the big towns in Tamil Nadu such as Madurai and Tiruvanamalai, or even from a city the size of Chennai, at least to my eyes. While we were parked on the side of the road I was watching the folks go by and was immediately aware that there was far less Indian dress, even for the women (fewer saris), many more men had belts on with their shirts tucked in, and more people were wearing shoes, both men and women. And it seemed right away that there was a lot more lighter skin. I must say I really love the dark faces, angular features and the fiery eyes of the Dravidian Tamils, but don't realize how striking it is until I come to other parts of India. More than style, though, Bangalore is also the home of a burgeoning middle class due to the high tech industry and, of course, the call centers--the 21st century version of selling carpet cleaning over the phone. There are signs all over the place advertising and soliciting new employees: "Must speak two of three languages, Hindi, Kannada (the local language of Karnatika), English." Across the major boulevard from the little Vatican is the aforementioned Forum shopping mall, with a KFC, a Pizza Hut and many familiar fashion chains.

Fr George, prior of Shantivanam, was here when I arrived as well, to my surprise. There is a meeting going on of the Benedictines of India and Sri Lanka at Asirvanam Monastery, about 20 km out of town, and he had arrived early for that. In the afternoon he and Bro George and I went walking together in the Botanical Gardens, and then in the evening he took Pinto, George and me out for dinner. That was when I got introduced to the inside of The Forum. They had a food court with quite a variety of types of food. The guys were heading toward Chinese food, but I got attracted to Rajastani food and they bowed to the visitor. It was delicious but the whole scene really felt odd, I'm not kidding, to have been that morning drinking tea at a stall on the dusty main road of Tiruvanamalai with the sadhus, and now to be eating Rajastani food in an air conditioned shopping mall with my brother Camaldolese monks.

The next day, Fr George left early for the meeting at Asirvanam. Bro George and I followed about noon, after his class, by bus. We had to switch buses in the Bangalore market, which was one of those fascinating environments, full of all kinds of strange and wonderful energy from the hawkers to the beggars to the commuters to the nuns going by in full habit. Back on the main road, as we passed by George pointed out to me the place where Fr Bede had had his own first Benedictine experiment in India; I had forgotten that it had been here. He came with Fr Benedict Alipat in 1955 and they began what they thought was an Indian form of Benedictine life. As Bede described it, it was still terribly British: "We had cloth napkins and silverware," he said. He was only there a year before joining up with Francis Mathieu at Kurisamala over in Kerala.

Asirvanam itself is of the same congregation as St Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, and started right about the same time Monchanin and le Saux started Shantivanam, and just before Francis and Bede started Kurisamala. It is decidely European style Benedictine, a Gregorian style chant all in English, a regular Benedictine habit, though in the pale sandal color favored by Catholic religious here, and a pretty typical cloister. From the people that I've met from Asirvanam and the stories I've heard about Bede et al, there was no animosity between the two groups--the Europeans living Indian style monasticism and the Indians living European, but I kept thinking to myself, especially as I sat for None (mid-afternoon prayer) behind the monks, "Bede turned his back on this for something else." That doesn't make that bad or what Bede did good, but it really struck me full force: Bede, and Abhishiktananda and Francis as well, really didn't want to do that. They wanted a whole new expression of Christian monasticism.

I celebrated Mass with the brothers here tonight, opting to celebrate on the floor of my room rather than in the little chapel (wth the altar facing the wall) across the hall. I mentioned to them as we began that no matter where we go, who surrounds us, there is this that ties us together, gathering to listen to the Word and break the bread and pour the wine as we do, like a stream running through our lives. But I had had that thought earlier today too as I forced myself out of bed and got about my morning sadhana, that this is the stream running through my life: no matter where I go, as soon as I roll out that yoga mat and open my scriptures, I'm home.