Lessons of peace, unity, and selflessness collide with ethnic cleansing in Modi’s India.
Photo courtesy of the author.
By Erik Wennermark
Some welcome death in the hope that by death they will put an end to their problems; but death does not release anyone from problems. One only moves on to the next birth and death in this ephemeral world of sorrow. You are born crying and you continue crying, moving from sorrow to sorrow until the day you die.
-Swami Dayananda, The Teaching of the Bhagavad Gita
Waiting for Dayananda
The Dayananda Ashram sits on a bend in the river Ganges in Rishikesh near the foothills of the Himalayas, a cliff face hearkening to its more massive neighbors looms on the opposite bank, casting a long shadow on the rushing water. Penitents sit on white marble steps to wash their feet. I took a dip yesterday and found the water bracing and holy; my body shook with the toxicity, temperature, truth. Swami laundry flutters in the light breeze: saffron robes hang from every other balcony of the dormitories. Ants march onward carrying the desiccated corpse of a fallen comrade.
We are visiting the ashram to see its namesake, Swami Dayananda, who is mortally ill with a long-term kidney ailment. There has been some push and pull regarding his treatment, I gather. A story is humorously, somewhat proudly, related to me: “Swami said the time for human intervention is finished and the time for natural intervention has begun.” Yet the next day humanity’s hold resumes, along with his dialysis. I am not sure what to make of such indecision in the face of death from a renowned swami. He is a famous man in Vedanta circles-Prime Minister Modi came to pay his respects just the day before, causing terrible traffic problems.
The Swami’s fundamental teaching could be distilled (very loosely) into the idea that any conception of God is the same, and essentially we are all it. Not our temporal bodies as discrete aspects of God, but our beings as God itself.
Swami is something of a catchall term most closely resembling a Western monk, while Vedanta would be the arena of Hindu scriptural study; Advaita Vedanta, the Swami’s particular school, is that of non-duality, or (loosely) the individual self’s (Atman) existence as one with Brahman, the ultimate principle, God. His fundamental teaching could be distilled (very loosely) into the idea that any conception of God is the same, and essentially we are all it. Not our temporal bodies as discrete aspects of God, but our beings as God itself. Hence non-duality. Particular religious affiliations would be superfluous according to this conception.
The members of my party have been at this Advaita Vedanta for a while now and we see some familiar faces from another ashram three years ago, three thousand kilometers to the south, and exchange pleasantries and phone numbers. Perhaps we will meet later at the Ganga Aarti-a light ritual famous in Rishikesh and nearby Haridwar, cities close to the mountain source of the holy Ganga (Ganges). There’s a relatively small circle of foreigners travelling in this particular milieu and such meetings are frequent enough that my interest in the conversation wanes and I walk by the water, perhaps appearing restless in my aimlessness. “Go sit, relax, have tea, take food,” says a wandering ashramite. “If he [Dayananda] is feeling refreshed and wishes to speak we will ring a bell.” We go to the bookstore, and purchase texts and beads.
The open space where we later eat lunch has been covered over with blue tarps; the hot sun filters through the translucent plastic sheet and tinges the surroundings, and people, blue. We all take the appearance of the god Krishna or the creatures in the movie Avatar, shovel handfuls of rice and dal into our mouths. Afterwards we discuss the relative benefits of mantra versus breath as a means of focusing one’s concentration in a meditative state with a saffron-robed Swami who had come from outside Mumbai to pay his respects. We drowse in the heat.
Swami and the Great Glass Elevator
We gather in the courtyard staring up at the building’s second floor exterior walkway waiting for Dayananda. Eventually Swamiji is wheeled out of his room, swathed in orange, wearing large headphones to block out the noise of wailing devotees and the chirping of iPhone shutters, or perhaps to provide him with the sound of soothing kirtan-devotional chanting. An attendant slowly pushes the Swami in his chair towards the elevator. (What three-story building in India has an elevator? Why not move him to the first floor?) Another nurse wheels the IV bag. Swamiji is pale and thin, birdlike. His eyes are closed. His mouth open.
The attendant pushes the button and gears grind and the elevator clatters to life, slowly pulling itself to meet the Swami. It takes ages to climb the short distance, and all the while thirty or forty people stare up at him, waiting, murmuring at the skinny birdman dressed in orange. The elevator door noisily slides open and the Swami and his nurses enter. Shuddering, the elevator begins to move again, bringing the Swami back to earth, but suddenly, close to its destination, the elevator stops. This is India and expecting such a mechanism to work unfailingly is ridiculous. Thirty seconds pass. More. Forever.
The outer walls of the elevator are made of glass and we can all see Swamiji and his two attendants trapped and waiting. This is India and it is hot. The nurses must be sweating inside the glass box. The birdlike, reptilian Swami alone adapted to the terrarium in which he is trapped, on the verge of death, bloodless and breathless. An Eastern European woman presses her face against the glass to see beyond the glare of the late afternoon sun to the bodies within.
The study and practice of yoga in Indian ashrams is decidedly different than the American Instagram version.
The minutes pass and they are still trapped and the situation has grown distasteful and absurd-if it hadn’t been that way all along. One in our party has walked away crying while much of the crowd has moved to surround the elevator, craning their necks to peer at the living mummy within. It is Harry Houdini dead and floating in his cabinet. Many of us tap the glass and shout, “Do something! Wow us! Show us your tricks!” Finally, mercifully, the power is restored and the Swami is released. There is no magic here, just a circuit breaker.
I had spent the previous two weeks in an ashram near the former hill station of Nainiatal with Swami Tattvarupananda who is a disciple of Swami Dayananda-the sick man was my teacher’s teacher and part of my guru lineage. Despite its Western connotations, guru really just means teacher, or, as I was taught, a dispeller of darkness and bringer of light. I first met Swami T. when he delivered the Bhagavad Gita lectures in my yoga teacher training course-his Sanskrit recitations and instantaneous translations of the sacred text were highlights of that experience. During that course, we also often read from a text of Swami Dayananda’s interpretations of the Gita.
Many forms of modern yoga more or less started in the United States (somewhat dulling charges of appropriation, and Modi’s dream of copyright, if not cringe-inducing wishes of namaste) as disciples of the masters came across the ocean, adapting the practice to Western tastes by greatly increasing its physical components and drastically lessening the spiritual: the ubiquitous sun salutation, the closest thing in a yoga class to cardio, is thought to be a relatively recent addition. Still, the study and practice of yoga in Indian ashrams is decidedly different than the American Instagram version. Religion permeates Indian culture and it is a conservative place in many ways: the ashram where I studied with Swami T. had strict rules about tight clothes and sleeveless shirts (along with discomfiting prohibitions on menstruating women); we certainly did not practice in mirrored rooms. Further, the physical postures of yoga are a small part of the overall discipline: merely one of eight limbs described in Patanjali’s foundational fourth-century Yoga Sutras (there are earlier mentions of yoga, including in the Pali canon -stories of the Buddha told almost 2500 years ago). To be clear, the Dayananda Ashram is much more of a monastery than a gym, more Sanskrit than standing forward bend. Many swamis I know are rather pudgy, but can sit in lotus pose for hours without the least discomfort.
The international community was blasé about the past accusations, distracted by the newly declared International Yoga Day and happy images of rows of thousands of sun-saluting schoolchildren; the matter of a decade-old ethnic cleansing in Gujarat was dropped.
The pilgrimage to see the dying man who teaches of death’s irrelevance ferried us around 150 miles from outside Nainiatal to Rishikesh; what would be a few hours at most on US highways took nine hours in a rented SUV on the roads of Uttarakhand. We were in Haldwani and the driver didn’t know where he was going and tried to make a U-turn and wound up blocking a lane of oncoming traffic-there is no rhyme or reason to the lanes or traffic patterns in Haldwani. In any event, we were stuck, but given the circumstances it did not seem such a grievous offence.
Caught in the fray, a hulking greybeard Sikh calmly stepped off his motorbike (his wife riding with him), walked over to our SUV, and calmly punched the driver’s side mirror with great force, sending it flying through the open window and into our driver’s lap. He then started yelling at the driver, one fist clenched by his side and ready to strike. The other drivers surrounding this mass of bleating and shouting took a break from chastising our driver to implore the angry Sikh to calm the fuck down, which he eventually, barely, did.
Having made our escape I patted the driver on the shoulder and commented on the Sikh’s craziness. Our driver just looked a bit sad. Along with being our driver, he was an acolyte at the Dayananda Ashram and thereby a man of a certain demeanor-not one to get in fights along the roadway. Earlier on the trip he’d pulled over and unrolled his window and waited several moments for a fly to find its way out of the car. We stopped at a Haldwani street stall where he bought super glue to fix the mirror. Hours later we were caught in another traffic jam entering Rishikesh. Security was tight, several roads closed. Prime Minister Modi had come to pay his respects to the guru.
In a shop in Rishikesh near the famous Shiva temple (according to scripture, Shiva was the true inventor of yoga), we ask for the price of a leather purse. “What’s that made of?” I ask. “Cow?” (I was under the impression it was okay to use as material if the cow died from natural causes.) The man shakes his head, Oh, no, no, no-it’s camel. They would burn me down for cow. It will be illegal everywhere soon. They will outlaw it all. Disdain rests on his face.
When Modi was first on the verge of becoming Prime Minister disturbing news regarding his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots reentered circulation: the three-day explosion of violence occurred during his time as Chief Minister of the western Indian state, and killed over one thousand people (some estimates are much higher), the vast percentage of whom were Muslims-a minority group. Though he was cleared of complicity in the deaths by Indian authorities, the US Department of State banned him from entering that country, a ban that held until his election and subsequent state visit. I asked Indian friends about Modi’s past but they (mostly being southern Hindus far from the politics of Delhi and the north) were either reticent or unconcerned. The international community was blasé about the past accusations, distracted by the newly declared International Yoga Day and happy images of rows of thousands of sun-saluting schoolchildren; the matter of a decade-old ethnic cleansing in Gujarat was dropped.
Yoga teaches that change can happen when resting in contradiction, instead of struggling against it.
Back home in Hong Kong I read the more recent news of cow-related killings of Indian Muslims: men falsely accused of eating beef were murdered, had their houses raided, and their families attacked. A Hindu-nationalist threw ink on a book publisher because he dared to publish a Pakistani Muslim author. There was much furor, with Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and other literary luminaries decrying a “climate of rising intolerance.” Through it all, Modi, a self-described disciple of Swami Dayananda, a man who devoted his life to the idea of the unity of God-be it Allah or Brahma or Yahweh-remained largely silent. Do I expect less hypocrisy from a world leader? Well, no.
Western people are always somewhat patronizingly surprised by violent or militant Buddhists and Hindus. Present-day Myanmar, recent Sri Lanka, and post-partition India are just a few examples of Buddhists or Hindus killing Muslims in great numbers. “How can they reconcile that with religion?” an American friend asked me recently, while we discussed the problems in India (over a steak dinner of all things), as if brutal wars on a massive scale have not been fought since the rise of Christianity. But it’s true that in this part of the world life can be cheap, even more so when there are an infinite number of lifetimes stretching out in the eons ahead.
I only saw Swami Dayananda that one time: on the balcony, stuck in the elevator, being rushed to dialysis-sick and barely alive-and visiting him in such a condition felt morbid and voyeuristic. But I also felt like I knew him from the many stories Swami T. told about his time studying in the ashram; there was always a new anecdote, a funny new classmate, or a new pearl of Swamiji’s wisdom, and it felt right to pay my respects while I could. In a related way, I was only driven to write about the visit after reading the story of an innocent Muslim man slaughtered by his Hindu neighbors over an imaginary cow. The writing becomes a form of yoga, which in Sanskrit simply means “unity” or “joining.” Sometimes in asana practice a pose seems easy or wasteful, for years perhaps, until one day the true position reveals itself in seemingly impossible fashion-moving all four cardinal directions simultaneously, for example-and all of a sudden it is obvious. Yoga, not just of the body (asana), but of the breath (pranayama) and mind (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana), teaches that change can happen when resting in contradiction, instead of struggling against it.
A happy wave and a sad wave are some ways out from shore, rolling along towards their inevitable destination. The sad wave, as is her nature, is overcome with sorrow. “Ahh,” she keens, “When I hit the shore I will be dead! I can see it coming now!” The happy wave says nothing, just looks at her and smiles. “How can you smile at a time like this?” asks the sad wave incredulously, a hint of anger in her voice, “You will be dead too!” “What are we but water?” replies the happy wave, now called guru wave. “What will change when we hit the shore?” Remember “I” is the first cause for bondage. “My” is the second cause for bondage.