After twelve days back from India in the oh-so-different world of Britain, I will now try to share some experiences and impressions with you.
Being in India is like having the spectrum of your senses broken open to receive more: more colours, more sounds, more smells. You see more poverty, more laughing faces, more cows, more plastic rubbish, more temples, more devotion, than you have ever seen before.
No wonder people fall in love with India, and develop a powerful love-hate relationship that keeps calling them back for more. Paradox and contrast abound: extraordinary achievements combined with mind-numbing bureaucracy, a wonderfully warm and welcoming attitude combined with reticence and a protocol that is both delightful and sometimes onerous.
The one thing you can’t feel about India is luke-warm.
The first five days of our visit was devoted to a conference and gathering of ‘the elders’ from ‘ancient traditions and cultures’ organised by the fantastic folk at ICCS – the International Center for Cultural Studies. I am very wary of this term ‘elders’. What a difficult call to decide who is an elder! But this concern quickly evaporated (as it did when I attended their conference in Nagpur three years ago). The broadest definition was used, and a speaker explained how the term had nothing to do with physical age, pointing to the wise and talented young people who had gathered there from all corners of the world. The closing session featured some of them: here is a photo of Jaka from Vietnam – you can sense his free spirit and humour just from this picture, and Lyla June whose poem ‘Call Me Human’ moved us to tears (Listen to it here: http://soundcloud.com/lylajune.)
Hundreds of us spent four days together discussing ways of cultivating and preserving ancient traditions. We were fed and housed generously at the campus of the Dev Sanskriti university in Haridwar (‘Gateway to Heaven’ which lies on the Ganges). The university is allied with the the nearby Shantikunj ashram and movement which focuses on the role of the Goddess Gayatri. Their core practice is to work with the power of the Goddess through the Gayatri ‘Mahamantra’, which you can hear on this Youtube clip:
The campus is large – housing mostly Indian, but some foreign students, studying the usual subjects, but also ‘Scientific Spirituality’ and ‘the ‘Science of Yoga’. My favourite part of the campus was the garden displaying Ayurvedic plants, complete with paths designed to give your feet a reflexology massage, piped sacred music and illuminated fountains.
Every evening we were entertained with music and dance from participants around the world – including a Maori contingent from New Zealand. And in an astonishing display of speed and efficiency we received a printed book of conference papers on the last day along with DVDs of the proceedings.
On the last evening we gathered with perhaps a thousand ashram residents at the nearby Shantikunj to celebrate the beginning of Holi – the Spring festival of colour. Songs were sung, speeches and prayers made, and then a great bonfire was lit. We were given handfuls of wood and resin to throw in the fire to symbolically rid ourselves of negativity, as the crowd ran round and round the fire.
The next day we gathered in a mango grove on the campus for songs, speeches and skits – as coloured powders were thrown in the air, or rubbed on our faces. Occasionally someone would be singled out and covered in colours amidst shrieks of laughter. Then the Chancellor of the University, with whom I felt a strange affinity (we both have unmanageable hair) walked through the crowd throwing great handfuls of marigolds at everyone.
I love the craziness, the colour, the way in which the spiritual and mundane, the mythic and the actual flow together in India. With many new friends made, our minds stimulated and our hearts opened, we left the mango grove for Rishikesh – Guru Central – for the next part of our journey.
There will be more to come on the conference itself in another post!