Book Review: Patrick French, India

India, India

  I picked up Patrick French’s book on India with quite some joy, having read his excellent and disillusioned book on Tibet and the slightly dusty, but remarkably detailed biography of Francis Younghusband and come away with information that I had not held before and a new, if slightly darker view of his topics. At the time I held this thought to be more mature – after all I did not want to be one of the people who know next to nothing about the places they visit, travelling only out of a sense of hedonistic adventure.

  But India, French’s book, proved to be a massive disappointment to me. This time I knew the subject matter quite intimately and French struck me as unbearably posh and conceited. An ivory tower wannabe mover and shaker who, the one or two times he stoops down to touch something a little more low brow, comes across as prejudiced and completely uniformed about the nature of the people he writes about. There is no humor and only the most rigid self awareness in his writing. His gift to render history clear and lucid is still there, but his endless focus on politics and economy is very wearying to me, because he possesses no real human understanding of his characters…the book is called The Biography of a Billion people, but the only people French is interested in are the high politicos. Yet the allure of India is that these politicians cannot lead as separate an existence as their ounterparts might be able to in other parts of the world. One cannot write about the rulers of a country without understanding the motivations of the people that are being ruled. The myriad of common fates that make India what it is are simply being ignored by French because he finds the few people who move mountains of money and wield power much more interesting.

  He seems to treat them with the same disdain of invisibility that he employed to write about the Western visitors to MacLeod Ganj who seemed so much beneath his notice and beneath him when he had returned from Tibet, where he had worked himself into disillusionment. The tragedy that he described in Tibet, Tibet seems now much more his own illusion of grandeur, less the despairing realization that Tibet was, in a manner, doomed. French’s self-importance starts at little things – speaking about Christopher Lee acting in a film about Jinnah without having seen it as if the casting choice could only have been a political decision – to his unerring belief that his interpretations are the only true and valid that makes his writing a guideline, perhaps, but a very unreliable one.

  Overall French’s book is very disappointing to me. Highbrow and unpleasantly British – perhaps it would have been fun bedside reading for Governor General Curzon, but for me it was uninvolving and presented a very slanted and unrealistic view of multifaceted India.

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Maya and Karma – Two Endless Sisters

The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.

The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.

This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.

I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.

So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.

How can these two things be mistaken for each other?

Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.

Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.

The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.

Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.

That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.

Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.

For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.

Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.

It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.

Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.

Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.

It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.

I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.

The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.

On Meditation

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What is meditation?

It’s a very natural state of mind.

The mind is “between things”. 

It’s a state necessary for change to happen.

 

Common misconceptions about meditation:

It’s agitation of or work for the mind.

It isn’t. It’s learning how your mind works.

“I should meditate each day. I want to get into the habit.”

Don’t even start meditating if that’s your approach. Meditation is an antidote to habit.

I need a quiet, peaceful room for it.

In the beginning, yes. For later on I recommend the back of an open truck or a schoolyard at lunch break.

“I will become a better person if I meditate.”

No, but you might learn how to be you properly.

 

Never forget this:

Meditation and spiritual practice are a big scam.

Becoming addicted to meditation is about as bad as doing none at all.

Have fun.

Your Brain on Ketamine or Alternate Worlds in MacLeod Ganj

Austin Osman Spare might approve…then again, he might not…

There is a particular sort of conversation that can only happen in MacLeod Ganj. Here it is not considered strange when the person in front of you says things like “I used to be a practitioner of Austin Osman Spare’s tradition of magic for ten years and then I went into old solar traditions and sort of got stuck there.” You simply nod, offer a comment that could express either sympathy or admiration and turn to another group where two people describe their experiences with Ayahuasca, a South American vine distilled into a potent shamanic brew that takes the drinker on a journey through heaven and hell. Sometimes I was reminded of texts I had read about shamans who could lead conversations that moved effortlessly from a discussion of this world into a discussion of the other world, the realm of the imagination, and none of the participants would find this in the least odd or disconcerting.

In that way the place was full of neo-shamans, modern yogis and practitioners of odd and fascinating ritualistic world-views and magic. The veil between the worlds seems peculiarly thin here – meaning that one could never be entirely sure where madness lay and where reason hid. The mention of ketamine became a sort of yardstick for me. After a while the fact that at least half the people you would meet in MacLeod Ganj had tried every conceivable sort of drug and that again half of them were probably trying them right now became a little easier to accept.

Ketamine is a synthetic drug developed and applied during the Sixties and Seventies when America was dealing with the psychological aftereffects of the Vietnam War and turned to synthetic drugs both to alleviate the suffering of the returning soldiers and to fortify the minds of the soldiers in the field. Coincidentally this ushered in the short-lived experimental drug culture that, along with the social effects of a prolonged and hopeless war, gave birth to extremely liberal and alternative movements in the US. Ketamine is a strong anesthetic drug, dulling the sense to the point of disassociation or dissolution of the ego – one can no longer identify oneself. It is used as medical treatment and as illicit drug. Dissolution of the ego can lead to strong spiritual experiences – an all-inclusive identification with the world – but also to severe mental disassociation and loss of memory. There are a number of reports of people who have fallen into severe schizophrenia due to long term use or high dosages of the drug. Speaking in shamanic terms, plant drugs can potentially be used to lead oneself back to a connection with the world that is hard to describe in sober words, while synthetic drugs will take you for a ride across synthetic worlds and have little to no lasting psychological healing potential and increased risk of addiction.

Ketamine also happened to be Josh’s drug of choice. I saw him first from the distance when I visited friends in their guesthouse, just below mine on one of the many guest-house infested slopes off Jogiwara Road. He was standing alone in the guesthouse’s TV room, a look of intense concentration on his face, his body tense. He had his hair styled in a trimmed dark mohawk and was stringy and quite muscular and moved with the tension of a peculiarly annoyed predator on the prowl. I went up to chat with my friends on the balcony and suddenly a fierce shout pierced the courtyard and we saw Josh howling and pumping his fists, kissing the ground. My anthropological instincts took over and I was wondering what odd rite he was performing there. I got my answer when he sauntered up the stairs to us, still howling with joy. He flexed his biceps to show us the faux gothic letters covering his forearm. He was a die-hard supporter of FC Chelsea and they had just won a cup game decisively. He was basking in the joy of his team’s victory and the air had acquired a strange edge when he was there. He seemed quite dangerous, like a person willing to smash someone’s face in when Chelsea didn’t play as convincing as it did today. He was very sensitive, too, which is always a strange thing when combined with a temper. Soon he began talking about the Israeli who had a room on the opposite end of the courtyard and who had the nerve to make fun of him during the last match. He had mocked Josh’s shouts of joy and that was something Josh did not abide. “He tried to burst my bubble,” complained Josh repeatedly. Upon hearing that I was Austrian, he told me that my people had the right idea when it came to dealing with the bubbleburster’s sort. His racist views acquired a strange glow in the surroundings of MacLeod Ganj, where most people are what could be described as wooly liberals, at least in contrast with Josh. The women seemed quite infatuated with him, most likely because he had temporarily separated from his Yoga-loving girlfriend who had stayed in Bagsu to practice her lessons.

Josh was on a roll. He kept talking about this and that, always with a fierce intensity as if every topic had personally insulted his mother. He hated Indians, except for the guys around here who were alright. He described his passion for Chelsea, his adventures on the beaches of Brighton and other things with a compelling immediacy. At some point he started talking about Ketamine, his drug of choice. How it had helped him to keep “dark Josh” in the shadows and made him see the light because he used to be quite violent earlier. Strangely enough, as a redeemed sinner he suddenly seemed right at home in the strange world of MacLeod Ganj, where spiritual aspects of a person seemed to take on a somewhat starker quality. The dark side might have been temporarily banned by ketamine, but the wiles of the world or rather the many evil people in it still brought it back. Josh had experienced a rather unpleasant encounter. Probably being used to go for a drink with a stranger, he had accepted the invitation of two Indians for a glass of alcohol somewhere in a tourist area. This is almost always a fatal mistake and so it was in Josh’s case – the drink was drugged and he began to feel groggy and could only sway back to his room, his new friend close behind him. He tried grabbing the man, but was too weak and fell down on the bed. When he came to, he went through his things. Of course the man had taken his money and valuables, even his passport. All sorts of horrors ran through Josh’s head – how would he get his passport back? He couldn’t afford to lose it. He was on parole – if they knew that he had lost his passport…he already had two strikes against him, so he’d never be granted another passport. I couldn’t say whether this was maniacal raving or if someone who has been in prison is stripped of his passport when he’s losing it. Maybe he hadn’t been officially allowed to travel and had gone anyway, defying the mandates. Anyway, he lost his head and sprinted out of his room onto the street. He saw one of the guys sitting on his bike not far away from him. The man noticed him, certainly frightful when he was angry and lunging at him at full speed and he started fumbling with his keys, got the ignition going but was tackled by Josh. Josh (“It means strength in Hindi. Every single one of those…fuckers tells me that.”) was calmer now, calculating. He took the man calmly by the shoulder and said, in a friendly, almost sweet voice, “Come along. Let’s go to my room. I have to talk to you.”

Perhaps the man believed, confused by the sudden friendliness, that the irrational Westerner had suddenly become peaceful or that he didn’t think that it was him who had stolen his belongings. He almost smiled as he was led by Josh. Once inside, Josh grabbed the man by the throat and pulled his knife from his belt. It was a large knife, he showed us with his fingers as he talked. He put the knife to the man’s face.

“Thank god that I didn’t kill him, because at that moment I really would’ve.” Instead he explained to him that he needed his passport. Why would they want to take his passport in the first place? He didn’t give a shit about the money, but he’d be really, really pissed about losing the passport. The Indian was frightened to death and he had pulled out the passport, which had been in his pocket the whole time. Selling faked passports is, like many other things, a small but certainly lucrative business in certain circles. Perhaps he had hoped to sell the stolen Western passport for a bit of money. Josh breathed heavily as he finished telling his story. One could almost see the images that played and replayed themselves in his mind. What if he had lost the passport? What if he had killed the man? Did he kill the man and was it his memory that told him he hadn’t? He didn’t say it, but in those surroundings, with him standing close to me it was strangely apparent that he was thinking just that.

The Story of Siddhartha

 

Buddhism is a child of India. It was born in the form of Prince Siddhartha. It was also born out of desperation, because the Vedic system had become a prison, encapsulating every living being in a fixed and unchangeable form. You are born a beggar, so you will be a beggar until you die and then are reborn as a gnat.

So the great achievement of Buddhism was this: humans can change.

The prince himself was changed numerous times and every time this change brought him great pain. He went out of the palace of his parents, a pampered youth, somebody who believes the world is at his feet or in the palm of his hand. Up until this day he had known nothing but riches, three lavish meals a day, soft clothes and the beauty or anger of his own thoughts. This image is most of us, who have not seen suffering or have never been forced to change…we live in a prison of our own thoughts, beautiful and frightening mirages that we take to be our lives.

The first time the prince went out he saw a beggar. What did he do? Probably ignored him or did not know what to do with the man clutching his hand with such a hard grip until some attendant shooed him away, kicked him maybe, berated him or gave him a coin to get rid of him. But he couldn’t understand. Weren’t all people rich and well-fed? The gaunt and hungry face and the burning eyes of the man followed the prince deep into his own dreams. He felt unwell until he understood that he had begun to accept the beggar’s suffering. He had taken it into himself. This could be us, if we begin to accept what we don’t want to accept. We will suffer, yes, but this is simply change.

The second time the prince went out he brought coins with him and distributed them to the beggars. Then he saw a woman with sores, gruesome wet and slimy-looking wounds over her legs. She refused his coins, just looked at him with eyes full of pride and pain. So again the prince returned and again his dreams were troubling and painful. He looked at the bodies of those around him and saw on them those wounds, blooming like the most frightening of flowers. They came out of nowhere and caused such great pain. He went to the palace doctors, obsessively so, and had himself checked over and over again and took pills and tinctures with him. This could also be us, if we accept suffering but become afraid of it.

The third time the prince went out he had with him coins and medicine and was awfully nervous and fussy, making his caravan stop anytime he saw someone malnourished or pale so he could give and give in order to feel better. On this trip he came across something that would frighten him very badly: a woman holding a bundle. He went up to her, inquiring whether he could help her and her child and he saw the empty face of the woman and realized that the child she clung to was no longer living. He hurried away, full of fear, but this was one fear that he simply could not conquer by fussing about it or by changing himself to accommodate it. Gradually he lost all interest in the beautiful pastimes of the court, stopped smiling at the young women who visited him to talk to him or hear him recite poetry and lost himself in gloomy, pensive moods. This is us, if we get lost in what we call today a depression.

The prince realized that would have to change something else. Not the clothes he wore, not the words he said, not the things he ate. No fasting and no gluttony would help him, no drugs and no medicine. He would have to change himself, be a prince no longer. So one morning he left his name behind the way other people leave a finished book on the bedside table.

He left the woman who was his wife behind, too, and that is something many women rightfully complain about. Couldn’t he have explained himself to her? Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would have come with him. At least she would have deserved a choice.

Her name, by the way, was Yashodhara. But this is as it is. He did not give her that choice. He also left his son behind and that, perhaps, is damning, but it is what he did. Could Siddhartha have become Buddha if he had gone with his family or would he have had to give up his quest in order to take up a plow or learn a trade to feed the two?

I wonder what a woman would actually say to this…Yashodhara, in her material situation, probably wouldn’t have been too bad off. The son, especially if he was fond of his father, might have been a problem, but she could have lived a comfortable life even without Siddhartha. I wonder as well if women consider all that talk about giving up your desires about as silly as they consider men’s talk about going to war and about honour.

Perhaps his mother and wife got together after he left and talked about how silly he was just to comfort each other…of course this wouldn’t bring him back, so eventually they would have to reconcile themselves somehow.

Anyway, what was his quest? This quest that drove him from all comforts his world offered to him? What made him give up food and sex and warmth?

To understand life and death. To understand change. To understand now and forever.

Is that a worthwhile trade? Perhaps…perhaps not. After all the ultimate fates of a man who chooses a life at home with his family and the man who remains alone in order to gain understanding don’t differ too much.

Whatever you or I may think, Siddhartha – although he was no longer Siddhartha, but just some guy named either Nobody or That One, depending on whom you believe – chose that lonely path and went into the woods to meditate.

Meditation back then meant a lot of physical self abuse. Punch nails through your tongue, eat dirt, hang on one limb from a tree. The same stuff that an old one-eyed wanderer did in Europe’s North when he hung himself from the ash tree. Denial of the body – asceticism.

So That One lost a lot of weight until not even his wife and mother could have told the difference between him and a skeleton. He also gained a lot of scars. But he was none the wiser for it.

After a few years of that he decided to start eating rice again and he found that he genuinely liked it. He could have eaten a hundred bowls, but he moderated himself. He realized that if he stopped doing something he liked at a certain point the enjoyment didn’t overtake him completely, nor did it disappear entirely. That was something to remember.

He made himself a robe of old linen that was given to him by a petitioner and wore it comfortably. He clumsily carved himself a bowl and ate from it. After all this self-torture and constant pain such small things seemed an inestimable comfort to him.

Some people say he was fasting and meditating for fifty days, but really it came quite suddenly to him. He had found a tree that he liked and sat underneath it and rested for a bit.

Actually he had given up meditation by this point or – as more romantic souls say – everything had become meditation to him.

Very dimly he remembered a wife and a son, a young man who would by now have become a prince and he felt at peace.

The animals speaking to him? Now that’s a tricky bit. Just like St. Francis…are they meant to represent something, perhaps the lower urges of men that he had learned to curb? Or are they actually animals because he has become so silent that he now understands the speech of all things?

So under that tree a curious thing happened to him. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet – and he really liked to sleep because he was becoming older – but all of a sudden he woke up. How strange that was. He knew so many things he didn’t know and contrariwise there were so many things he had thought he knew that he actually had no clue about.

He had finally changed and That One became Buddha – the Awakened One.

In his heart perhaps he preferred to be That One or No One, but now there were so many things to do and the world was so full of people that he got up from underneath the tree and started walking again, trusting his feet to know the way, his tongue to know the words and his eyes to see what was truly there.