Journey to the East

Indian Holy Man

In many ways, most of my life has been a “Journey to the East.” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, going to Catholic schools from the 2nd through the 12th grades. Even at Dartmouth College, I was a worshiper at the Newman Club. In fact, when I fell into a coma in September 1966, it was Father William Nolan, the Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, who urged the school’s medical insurance program to keep covering me, even though my coverage had officially lapsed at the beginning of the month. So my family and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church.

One does not undergo a massive physical trauma without affecting the way one thinks and believes. That September, I was getting ready to take the train to Los Angeles to start graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. I had to delay my film classes until the winter quarter to allow me to recuperate.

What was the first book I read when I arrived in Los Angeles? It was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, closely followed by Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones. I had begun my own Journey to the East, mostly in my reading.

Why did I never fly to Asia to experience Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism directly? Strangely—especially for someone who was visited so much of Latin America—I was afraid that I wouldn’t survive the experience. Among my fellow Clevelanders who attended Dartmouth College was a student by the name of Noel Yurch. I was shocked to find out from the alumni magazine after I had graduated from college that he had gone to India and died of some gastrointestinal disease.

Curiously, my niece Hilary went to India and studied Yoga at an ashram without suffering any major adverse effects. Today, she is a yoga instructor in the Seattle area. But I was convinced it would be fatal for me. Was it nothing but funk? Perhaps.

Today, I still read many books about the Eastern religions. I consider myself to be a strange combination of Catholic, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although I do not go to church on Sundays, I do not consider myself to be an Atheist or even an Agnostic. And when I visit Mexico or South America, I spend hours visiting Catholic churches and even attending Mass. But I no longer buy the whole package.

So in my so-called Journey to the East, I still have one foot in the Catholic Church, or at least one or two toes.

Multiplicity

There Is Just So Much to Remember

Last Monday, I was privileged to see a demonstration of Indian temple dancing at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The young woman who runs Soorya Performing Arts in Woodland Hills casually mentioned in her introduction that there are a million gods in the Hindu religion. It is possible she wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Huffington Post, there are upwards of 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. Another source says there are 330 million. That is approximately one god for each person currently living in the United States. Your own personal deity, so to speak.

Doesn’t that make things complicated? Now India is a very Hindu country—so Hindu in fact that Buddhism, which was born there, is more or less eradicated from the entire subcontinent. The ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is virulently Hindu. And yet there are 22 different languages spoken in different parts of India. With all that wild multiplicity, I have a difficult time focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is relatively unimportant. If you pray to one particular god, say Vishnu, does not another god, say Prajapati, get envious and turn your earnest pleas into a curse on your family for 27 generations?

It just so happens that I am going through a period of my life which is heavily influenced by Indian vegetarian cuisine. For the last three weeks, Martine has been going through some intestinal ailment which does not allow her to eat my cooking, and what she can eat barely counts as cooking at all in my book. So I have been making some authentic spicy vegetarian curries and bhajis. Also, I am reading Eric Newby’s travel classic Slowly Down the Ganges.

Now if I become interested in the Hindu religion as well, do I risk fragmenting myself into 330 million pieces?

 

Untouchables

Sweeper Cleaning Sewer in New Delhi

This posting is not about Eliot Ness and his war leading an FBI contingent against Al Capone and his ilk. Rather, it is about millions of lower caste Indians who are labeled by the Hindu religion as unclean by the nature of the work they are assigned—generation after generation—keeping the streets, byways, and sewers clean of the excreta of their fellow Indians.

I am currently reading a novel written by Mulk Raj Anand called Untouchable (1935), which details a day in the life of one such Dalit family. The older son, Bakha, accidentally touches a Brahmin who almost causes a riot because he accidentally touched him as he passed by in the street. Any physical contact of a Dalit with a Brahmin requires that the latter take a purifying bath. Sweepers are required to announce their presence as they walk among men so that higher caste Hindus can avoid unwanted contact.

Dalit Sweeper

Anand’s novel launched his career as an Anglo-Indian writer. English novelist E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, has penned this tribute to him:

Some readers [of Untouchable], especially those who consider themselves all-white, will go purple in the face with rage before they have finished a dozen pages, and will exclaim that they cannot trust themselves to speak. I cannot trust myself either, though for a different reason: the book seems to me indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed. Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it. None of us are pure—we shouldn’t be alive if we were. But to the straightforward all things can become pure, and it is to the directness of his attack that Mr Anand’s success is probably due.

The plight of the Dalits will always astonish those who believe the words of our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”