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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

India Diary 2: Holi Colours & the Goddess at the Gateway to Heaven

March 31st, 2012
Every morning, during the conference, ceremonies from different traditions were performed on the campus

Every morning, during the conference, ceremonies from different traditions were performed on the campus

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.

Jaka from Vietnam

Jaka from Vietnam

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.

Conference participants from Ghana and El Salvador

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!

Chancellor Dr Pranav Pandya hurls flowers on Holi

Chancellor Dr Pranav Pandya hurls flowers on Holi

The Elephant in India

March 26th, 2012

Our biodegradable offering on leaves to the Ganges at Laxman Jhula: "May the air in the skies and the waters in the rivers of India be freed of pollution - to bring life and clarity to all beings."

I was giving a talk to a group of A level students at a Tertiary College last week, and was surprised to hear that they seemed unaware of the critical situation that humanity finds itself in. The six ‘runaway trains’ of mass species extinction, resource depletion, overpopulation, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction that threaten not only our survival, but many other species’ survival too, had not yet – or so they said – appeared on the horizon of their awareness. I was surprised, but knew that after all, however much we might read about these things, we can still nip down to the supermarket and pick up some smoked salmon and a bottle of wine, so what’s changed?

Go to India and there the impact of what has changed hits you in the face and it’s very unpleasant. You realize that they are on the front line of the impact of these trains, whereas we are currently behind the lines so we don’t hear the shells exploding. I hope our Indian friends forgive me for this rant. Before I write of the wonders and beauties and deep spirituality I found there, there’s something I need to get off my chest – literally.

We talk about ‘the elephant in the room’ when there is obviously a problem but the assembled company assiduously avoid discussing it, until the atmosphere is almost unbearable. Someone might then say ‘Can we talk about the elephant in the room?’ Tears or anger might follow, but like a cloudburst clearing the air, in the end we are relieved ‘the unmentionable’ was mentioned.

And clearing the air is what I want to talk about. What is the most obvious thing that whacks you in the face and chest when you fly into India, which no-one seems to talks about? The filthy air that hangs over every city, that claws the back of your throat, that means I feel as if I’ve been smoking 40 cigarettes a day for the last two weeks. A pall of smoke hangs over Delhi, and I understand every city in India, and even on making our way up to the gateway to the Himalayas, Haridwar, the black smoke from hundreds of brick kilns succeeded in maintaining the awful atmosphere.

You exaggerate surely? I can hear someone saying. Our Indian friends are naturally proud of their country and want us to see only its best points. ‘It’s just a morning mist’ or ‘It’s the dust today’ was a common response to my tentative questioning of the situation. Back in Sussex, I am walking every day up on the hills, breathing in the fresh air, and sadly thinking about beautiful Mother India, her lovely people and great culture, and remaining astonished at the way we can adapt to appalling situations to such an extent that we no longer question them. I’ve just checked the web to see if I’m over-reacting to a bit of smog. Sadly not.  Just read these sobering facts (emphases mine):

‘India has the worst air pollution in the entire world, beating China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, according to a study released during this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Of 132 countries whose environments were surveyed, India ranks dead last in the ‘Air (effects on human health)’ ranking. The annual study, the Environmental Performance Index, is conducted and written by environmental research centers at Yale and Columbia universities with assistance from dozens of outside scientists. The study uses satellite data to measure air pollution concentrations.
The World Health Organization estimates that about two million people die  prematurely every year as a result of Air pollution, while many more suffer from breathing ailments, heart disease, lung infections and even cancer. Fine particles or microscopic dust from coal or wood fires and unfiltered diesel engines are rated as one of the most lethal forms or air pollution caused by industry, transport,  household heating, cooking and ageing coal or oil-fired power stations.

Brick kilns are noxious sources of pollution:  India’s 100,000 brick kilns are noxious sources of pollution, particularly soot, and working them means a life that is always nasty, frequently brutish and often short. But on top of this social evil is an environmental one. The exhaust from the kilns mixes with diesel emissions and other fumes to form a vast brown smog, known as an atmospheric brown cloud, which is up to 3km thick and thousands of kilometres long. Two of its main ingredients, the small carbon particles which the soot is composed of, and ozone, a triatomic form of oxygen, are important contributors to the greenhouse effect, and thus to climate change. Among other negative effects, the cloud is therefore thought to be accelerating the retreat of Himalayan glaciers, which are found at a similar altitude.

The air pollution in Mumbai is so high that Mumbai authorities have purchased 42,000 litres of perfume to spray on the city’s enormous waste dumps at Deonar and Mulund landfill sites after people living near the landfill sites complained of the stench. The Deonar landfill site, one of India’s largest, was first used by the British in 1927. Today, the festering pile covers more than 120 hectares and is eight storeys high. Over 700 million people in India suffer from high levels of indoor air pollution affecting women and young children as 75 per cent homes use biomass fuel like wood, crop residue and dung cakes.’ From  http://www.gits4u.com/envo/envo4.htm

India has led the world in attempting to disseminate philosophies and disciplines designed to bring clarity to the mind. Let’s support initiatives like Greenpeace India who are attempting to bring clarity to India’s environment, including its air and water.

Breaking Set by Mark Rylance

March 23rd, 2012

‘Breaking set’ is a term used by psychologists to denote speech or action that breaks out of the expected pattern or norm – coming at you left-field. We are all used to the standard award acceptance speech, where a tearful actor thanks their manager, agent and mum. Watch the amazing actor Mark Rylance break set hilariously in these two acceptance speeches.

P.S. Some people on watching these ‘get it’ and love them. Others are just puzzled. Perhaps it helps to know that Rylance is reciting prose poems by one of his favourite poets.

India Diary – Cheeky Rascals

March 22nd, 2012

Just back from India – so much to recount, but so much work here it may take a while! Meanwhile here is a photo that conveys the joy, colour and warmth we experienced in Mother India: a group of cheeky rascals in a beautiful little tribal village we visited with our hosts who run many projects to support rural India.

Thank You

March 16th, 2012

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you; it will be enough.

Meister Eckhart

Ways of Seeing

March 13th, 2012

Here is a guest post from Maria Ede-Weaving

When I lived on the Isle of Wight, I wrote much upon my own Blog about the island’s beauty and the yearning for rural spaces. Pagan spirituality is often associated with wild, natural places, Pagans seeking to experience the Divine at its heart. There is a strong thread of Romanticism that runs through the Pagan worldview. The Romantic movement grew out of the increasing rise of industrialism and the expansion of urban environments that were perceived as dirty, overcrowded and soulless; a place where God was absent -Blake wrote of ‘those dark satanic mills’. The polarisation between the natural world and the man-made urban space could well be seen as a reflection of Monotheism’s own internal split between God and Satan; God and his natural order pitted against Satan’s creation of – through the hubris of man – a world of smog that mocked nature and brought about the destruction of the rural idyll.

Of course, the rural idyll is a myth in itself. Most of our natural, wild places (in the UK at least) are not wild or natural at all. Britain’s truly wild landscapes are few, most places sculpted by farming or mining; humans shaping the landscape, and nature adapting to those changes.

Having recently moved back to a densely populated city, the notions of perceived beauty in both natural and urban worlds have been apparent to me. Living in Portsmouth for twenty three years before I moved to the Island, I had always seen myself as a rural lass trapped in an urban landscape, yearning for the green open spaces of my childhood woodland and downland home. In fact, yearning for even wilder, lonelier places to dwell. I harboured a dream to live on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, believing myself to be ideally suited to the isolation and peace, a great part of me feeling kinship with those starkly beautiful coastal places. The opportunity to move to the Isle of Wight – although a softer, less bleak environment – thrilled me.

I can’t deny that the natural beauty of the Island is magical. However, the isolation of island life had its impact and I quickly learnt that my Lewis dream was an illusion; beautiful surroundings are not enough if one’s internal landscape is a psychological wasteland and one’s soul tribe is scattered.

What has surprised me is the beauty of the urban environment I am currently re-acquainting myself with. Having left and now returned, I am seeing the city through fresh eyes. The film of weary familiarity has been swiped clean – I have been falling in love with its shapes and colours, the composition of tightly occupied vistas, its business, its full-on surge of human life and activity. What once had appeared dirty, overcrowded and ugly has now taken on a strangely magical aura. There is ugliness here but it dwells tooth by jowl with unexpected loveliness, the ugly possessing its own peculiar beauty when we look at it with neutral and open eyes.

The view from my partner’s flat shows lines of terraced housing, their gardens back to back; roofs in various shapes and shades of tile, warm browns, muddier greys; slate and brick and coloured rendering lashed together with washing lines stretching from house to garden shed, a scene that Stanley Spencer would have painted perfectly. These uneven structures possess their own emotional texture: friendly, warm, known, each a home containing countless lives and stories.

And then there are the moments when the drizzle at rush hour catches the neon, revealing the fine droplets carried in eddies and swirls; the wetness of the roads reflecting the headlights, the fine spray diffusing the light, softening the glare – the energy and movement of the busy streets contrasting and dissolving in the mizzle; hardness blurring at the edges.

Time and again, this surprising shift of perception shows me yet another angle by which to view this place that I have known so well but have barely ‘seen’ until now.

The truth is that the Divine  lives in every landscape; those heightened moments when the Awen floods in  and fires our senses and our souls, can be felt wherever we find ourselves.

I will finish with a useful quote from Arthur Schopenhauer which says much about the freedoms and restrictions of our ways of seeing:

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world

If We Could See…

March 9th, 2012


If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.