Monday, January 7, 2008

India: Day Five (Delhi, still)

This country is so exhausting that I really oughtn’t leave myself the task of writing for the evenings. It’s not yet eight, but we’re already back and the hotel and I’m fighting the urge to crawl into bed. This may be because we woke up at six again, in order to make breakfast by half past and yoga by 7:15. Both were the same as yesterday; omelets made to order, and no standing postures. I’ve always relished breakfast, but today and yesterday are the first days I’ve preferred it to yoga.

The first panel discussion I attended today was on consciousness and the end of life. The first speaker, an interfaith reverend who serves as chaplain at Kaiser hospital described the way he aids patients to accept death, using whatever system of faith in which they feel comfortable. He uses what he calls a “triple path,” consisting of three kinds of yoga (yoga, if you don’t know, does not only mean those funny postures—that’s only one branch of the yogic tree, if you will, called “asana.”) The triple path inclues Bhakti (which refers to love and devotion to the divine—whether that be “God” or some other universal conscious— it’s simply an opening of the heart), Jnana (which refers to knowledge of the true self—a recognition that we are not our thoughts, our body, or our emotions, but spirit. One explores this through meditation), and Karma (defined by will and action; for more bhakti-oriented people, this manifests as a surrender to the divine, and the realization that we are only an instrument of the divine, and for jnana-typle people, this manifests as non-attachment to outcome, and the surrender of control—the realization that the outcome of our actions doesn’t belong to us, but to the universe. All of this was very nice, but far from earth-shattering, like much of the conference thus far.

As the panel continued, the speakers became more and more wacky. The next speaker was a tall black man with a long white beard, round wire-rimmed spectacles, and wearing a royal blue satin dashiki and black pillbox cap. His name placard read Fakhrideen. He told us the stories of his two near-death experiences, during which he was “thrust suddenly into spiritual consciousness without any preparation,” and then returned to the world, which considered his experience a hallucination, and said, “You crazy, man!” Both of his near-death experiences were results of car accidents, and they were ten years apart. During the first one, he saw a light, and felt completely free and fulfilled, but a voice spoke to him, and told him that it was not his time, and he had to go back, which he did, unwillingly. He told us that many people are angry after their near-death experiences, because they cannot repeat the high—he admitted to trying a variety of drugs and religious rituals to find that place again, without success. Ten years later, when he was in another car wreck, he found himself in a dark, vast space, where he felt completely naked and exposed before a power of great magnitude. The power insisted that he make a change, and again sent him back to life. Once back, Fakhrideen found support in Sufi writings, and became a Sufi. He told us something I’ve already believed for some time, without any near-death experiences (of which I still doubt the validity): there is much beauty in death, in its release and overwhelming freedom, as it brings reunion with the universal consciousness (I’m less comfortable with that term, but I would accept a “dissolving of the self into energy”—as in e=mc2, as in “energy was always there,” not as in “oh, you have beautiful energy!”

The next speaker, Antoon Geels, spoke on religious visions and suicide prevention. I will admit that I zoned out a bit during this talk, thanks, frankly, to disinterest (the crux of his talk was telling the stories of mystics who had been about to commit suicide, but had then had a vision and chose not to. This has no actual application in preventing suicide (which, furthermore, I believe is every human’s inalienable right), since, if I were a counselor, for example, I couldn’t simply plug my ailing student into a vision machine.) Geels did cite one interesting quotation, though, which is: “Hereafter the path becomes pathless,” spoken by a voice to Hjalmar Ekström in 1916, when he had a vision of God’s eternal love meeting God’s eternal wrath, creating “a ball of lightning that consumed everything, heaven and earth.”

The final speaker took the cake. I wasn’t able to catch his name, but he promised to provide us, during his presentation, with scientific, empirical evidence for reincarnation. He began by telling us the story of a young girl, who had a birthmark where said she had been struck on the head in a past life. He then told us that once, a boy said he had been murdered in a past life, by two people who hit him on the back of his neck; astonishingly enough, he had an 11-inch birthmark right on the back of his neck, marking the location of the blow! We then heard the story of a girl who insisted to be taken to another town 17 hours away, where she had lived a past life; she had died when she fell off a balcony and hit her head—not only did she have a birthmark on her head, but she told her parents that if they didn’t take her there, she would fall again and die. Her parents called the far away town, and it was true that someone had fallen from the balcony there and died. Another small girl used to sing songs in a language she had never learned, and another girl recalled six past lives, four as animal forms, and two as human forms. Apparently, all these children remembered their names from their past lives, and all these names and stories were verified to have happened. Even more astonishing, two Muslim boys were born with circumcised penises! I don’t think that I should even begin to comment on any of this; if you know me, you know what I think about it, and if you don’t know me, I won’t risk offending you.

We broke for tea and, after buying another wireless card (I am so addicted to my internet!), I went to the next panel, on Media and World Transformation. I would have preferred to attend the Prison and Empowerment panel, but it was being held in a basement room where the wifi is bad (addict!), and my mom wanted to attend that one, so I figured I could just read her notes later, since the media topic did have some promise. The first talk was on designing gaming systems that would have a more positive, rather than violent, impact. I fully admit to paying little attention, and instead checking my email and updating the blog. As readers, you ought to be grateful!

The next talk was, oddly enough, on the yoga of The Matrix, from a young, independent researcher by the name of Sankarant Sanu. He considers The Matrix a hopeful trend in mass media, since it takes on issues of consciousness and reality, and presents Indic thought to a mass audience. In the movie, as I’m certain you know, machines have taken over society, and are using humans as fuel cells; people do not know this, and are kept compliant by a virtual reality. Sanu described this as 20th century myth-making—using contemporary language to articulate ancient archetypes. He described the Indic concept of “Maya,” which can be seen as both the energy that constitutes physical reality, and the illusion that prevents us from seeing what is real. Maya is truly our attachment to the sensory inputs of the world we are living in—to become free from Maya is to step outside of the Matrix. Sanu asked how we know whether our world is reality, or the Matrix, and then answered this question by quoting Patanjali, the writer of the Yoga Sutras. Here, Patanjali says that yoga is freedom from the attachments of the mind-stuff to sense reality, and that the first step of yoga is control of the mind (not muscles, as it may seem at our posh New York studios). Sanu clarified that the world itself is not unreal, but that the way our minds attach to it (with concepts like me and mine, you and yours) is unreal. According to Patanjali, as the yogi gains control of his mind, he acquires the power to act on other levels of consciousness, just as Neo gains the powers to act outside of the Matrix, and affect the machines. Sanu commented that Star Wars movies are similarly mindful, and considered it interesting that films like these garner such huge fan bases; he suggested that it’s because our society is thirsty for this kind of meaning.

The last talk (that I stayed for, at least; there was one more, but he brought a heavy German accent along with wordy transparency slides, and I just couldn’t deal with it anymore) came from Karen Trueheart, who discussed her new foundation, Heart-prints For Humanity, which is a campaign for emotional climate change. The heart-print, borrowed from the climate change initiative’s “carbon footprint” concept, brings attention to the fact that, whether you want to or not, everything about you—your mood, your state, your words, your actions—are affecting the states of the people around you, and vice-versa. That is your heart-print (though I would prefer a less gooey term, I agree that this is certainly the case). Trueheart (who married into her name, rather than making it up, as it may seem), remarked on the butterfly effect, in which the flap of a butterfly’s wings might lead to a storm in New York (translation: small actions can have wide-spread effects). Trueheart suggested that, when looking at the world and its horrors, we try to be more light-hearted than desperate, quoting the Dalai Lama, who said, “Violence is the mischief of the mind.” I appreciate her intention—to “choose joy and love as our goal,” and “change the emotional climate of the world,” but I worry about the dangers inherent in too much lightheartedness, which can lead one to simply ignore the social injustices right in front of one’s nose (like the legions of people in Delhi who live in makeshift housing on the side of the road, and sent their children into traffic to get money, who are tolerated thanks to a certain spiritual acceptance that things are the way they are because the universe wills them to be that way.

Thankfully, mom and I had decided to take the afternoon off from the conference (there is only so much of this nonsense that I can withstand, and anyway, my butt hurts from sitting in a chair all day long). We stayed for the gorgeous lunch (again, a plethora of vegetarian curries, including cottage cheese in tomato-based broth, stewed spinach with mushrooms, a spicy tomato-based corn curry, cauliflowerettes curried yellow, eggplant curried red, and floury white nan to scoop it all up. I am on the path to obesity in this country. After lunch, Matkhan came to pick us up. Our original intention was to go shopping a bit in the covered Connaught market, and then to go to shopping in Old Delhi. Of course, we never made it to Old Delhi.

My mother loves to shop. For a time, I love it as well, but I get bored quickly; I like to make my choice, make my purchase, and move on. She, conversely, has a tendency to hem and haw. This, along with an Indian love of bargaining, was to my benefit this afternoon. Matkhan took us to a big shop, where my mother began immediately looking at cast metal Ganesh statues (the Indian deity who looks like an elephant), since she had promised gifts to a number of her friends (I promised no one anything but postcards, but I’ve yet to see even one postcard for sale this entire time; it’s rather odd). I meant to keep by her side, because she doesn’t always drive a hard enough bargain, but I got tired of cast bronze statuettes rather quickly, and went off to look at the illustrated miniatures. Soon enough she joined me; I had prudently picked out two paintings of Shiva on silk, and bargained the salesman from INR 1,200 down to INR 1,000 (about $25) for the two together, one for my, and one for my Shiva-obsessed friend back home. I was all the while drooling over a number of stunning paintings made on wafers of carved bone, to which were affixed tiny pearls and gems, but since the proprietor had warned me they were expensive, I had looked and not touched. Of course, having equally refined (and expensive) taste, as soon as my mother came to find me, she had all of the paintings on bone withdrawn from the glass case. Here began the two hour process, during which she first marveled over all the paintings, then chose her favorite six or seven, then began to bargain the price down, then narrowed her choices down to three, then bargained some more, then bargained more and more, then sipped the tea that was brought, then bargained more, and then settled on purchasing three for $575 (where the proprietor had originally quoted something in the area of $900 or $1000 for all three, two of which are a set of King and Queen, the other of which is a picture of Shiva with his lover Radha). The king and queen pictures, which feature truly exquisite, finely detailed work, and are spotted with tiny pears and rubies, are absolutely brilliant and worth every penny. I, personally, would not have bought the third in addition, but Mum was a sucker for the brilliant colors, and the greater discount offered to bulk purchasers. My paintings on silk were “thrown in.” The proprietor then used the conversion rate of 39 rupees to the dollar (the actual conversion rate is closer to 37, and what with international credit card fees, we’ll probably get closer to 35), so the conversion to rupees brought about another round of bartering. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I dismissed myself and my camera for a walk out in the street, “amongst the people.” Matkhan was my escort, and he seemed very distressed that I wanted to walk in the more populated markets, where I was not only the only Westerner, but the only woman. My heart was beating a bit faster than usual, but I didn’t notice this until I held my camera up to take a picture and saw my hands shaking—I was filled with adrenaline. After a long walk around the block, through thickets of horn-blowing traffic, Matkhan seemed sufficiently shaken, and we returned to the shop to find my mom. We made our purchases (no jewelry, as she had hoped), and got back in the car. We went to another shopping spot, and another. Each time, I demanded to be taken on a short walk for photographic purposes. I was beginning to feel very comfortable in the cooling evening air, and wanted to venture into many more sketchy alleyways than Matkhan was willing to take me. Everyone seemed to want me to take their picture, and they shouted at me, and crowded around me (in a way that would have frightened me in any other country but India, where the people have shown themselves to be so kind, or, as my mom says, holy), and smiled for me. Meanwhile, my mom bartered fruitlessly over silver earrings that she didn’t even like that much, and bought an overpriced box of Masala Chai (since I wasn’t there to tell her not to).

After all of this, Matkhan seemed sufficiently riled, and it was far too late (approaching dusk) to even consider driving to the old city. We had him drive us back to our hotel, and agreed that he would pick us up in the morning and take us shopping again (spirituality pales in comparison to shopping for us posh Americans). We got home in time for me to begin writing this entry, upload all of my photos thus far to flickr, and make happy hour (one gin and tonic (though I’d only ordered “tonic, no gin,” just as my omelet this morning, which had been requested as “everything, but no green peppers” came out with nothing but green peppers) with a plate of ground lamb rolls (there were supposedly spring rolls as well, but I couldn’t wait for the deep fryer, with the interests of you, my dear readers, at heart). Now, having continued drinking, I loathsomely drunk, and my mother is angry that I’ve been typing all along, rather than talking to her about the four fabulous gay men she met at happy hour, who have promised her the green cheese moon on a silver platter (of which I am completely in favor of taking advantage). Thus, I sign off, and wish you all a good evening. But you've all asked for photos. See more of them here: Flickr


Joni said...

Did you mean Krishna obsessed friend? ;-) (It was the gin & tonic, right?)

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