Monday, December 21, 2009

Leaving one family for Another

Today is my last day in India.

One last day in proper bangles and sari,

I wake in the morning, an hour early

With anticipation, sadness and gratitude

For the many secrets She has rendered me.

The morning is humid and cool

As I sit in my place of peace

I am on the roof where I did yoga,

In the place where I stretch my mind

It is my last sunrise here

The growth swaying in a gentle breeze

The terra cotta roofs point to the sky

Where I will soon take flight,

She has shown me her sorrow

Her wonder, her pain, her differences

Yet similarities dance in my head

And I am called onward to change.

As the birds chirp they are now familiar

I listen and search for my song

To regale of what this place has taught me

Sure to never forget, rather, use.

For it is a new me that heads home

A different author singing more intensely

I cannot go back to that

Which held my breath in winter

This life should stay alive

It is my song now, and will

To express and careen anew

Relationships, hopes, fears, and dreams.

India, hark! I have heard your cry

And here forever more will answer

To that which deems much response

It is I who regale now and ever.

To return it is a hurt, a pain

That encourages this bird to go

Forgetting never the secrets told

On red and black soils of new and old.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Religious Practices in Life

According to Father Emmanuel, 90% of Indians who practice pooja rituals don’t know the rationale behind what they are doing and are simply imitating what they have seen their parents ad grandparents do. For example, one ritual is to break a coconut in front of the alter. Scholars like Father Emmanuel would know that the three parts of the coconut represent the three ways in which people are impure in committing sin and by breaking the fruit a person is breaking this part from within them and by drinking the milk they cleanse themselves of their sins. However, when the father asked people why they were doing this they simply say they saw it done by their parents. I would venture to say that these worshippers are not so different from many other people in this world and there are probably many reasons why this occurs.

Throughout history there are many reasons why people will perform rituals without knowing what exactly they are doing. One reason is that the text that prescribe practices are either written in a language the people are unable to read because it is ancient or the people themselves are illiterate. This could definitely be the case in India with a the Vedas being written in a language derived from Sanskrit and the many languages people speak in India, many of the people not having access to an education. Another reason is that the parents determine a persons’ religion at birth and it’s written on their birth certificate so a religion is usually passed down through generations and thereby people often practice in the same way as their predecessors practiced. Meanings of practices can be lost or subverted as they are passed down through generations and sometimes there may be a feeling of duty associated with the pooja rituals causing people to think that once the deed is performed they are in the clear.

I see this also happening within the Christian religion as well. When we went to the Bible expedition at the Catholic Church in Varanasi the scenes, lighting shows, movement of characters put on a display that would draw people in because of its attractiveness. The expedition told stories many children are told in Sunday school and did not give the reasons behind the stories and the symbolism is pushed to the background in favor of just teaching basic principles of a faith. Knowing the basics stories within a religion and not knowing their significance and to practicing rituals without knowing their significance are the same. What is the benefit of surface knowledge and practice without a deeper understanding? It may be possible for a person to be spiritually fulfilled by performing a ritual, but is that enough? For me it is not enough to practice a faith without knowing the theology and reasoning behind it yet I see to many Hindus openly expressing their faith in the streets and appearing quite jubilant and fulfilled. Due to my being raised to question and challenge my faith I am often discontented when I can’t figure out what’s going on but there seem to be many people who can be satisfied with practicing and knowing stories and that is enough for them. Maybe they have more faith then me or follow the logic of ‘ignorance is bliss’ and at times I envy them.

Comparative Theologies

After having visited numerous mosques, shrines, and Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu temples in India, along with a few churches I am struck by the various similarities and differences I am noticing within both the practices and reasoning. We have learned that in both Islam and Christianity there is an overarching belief in monotheism and the common perception of Buddhism and Hinduism is that they are pagan or polytheistic. However, this is not necessarily the case and I am finding more and more pieces of each religion and theology fit together yet differ in stark ways.

Buddhism is either more of an art of living and finding a sense of oneness with all that is around you or it is the actual worship of Buddha as a god. My perception is that the difference between these two types of Buddhism is that one seeks to attain liberation by looking within to find a sense of heaven; the other seeks to appease an actual idol by doing good works shown through compassion to achieve an external and more material heaven. Jainism, a branch off of Buddhism, seeks oneness and liberation by becoming completely detached from all that is physically of this world. Each practice mentioned here is concerned with removing suffering by detaching from all selfishness and relinquishing desires. This is done by strengthening the mind through meditation and living many lives that lead to one in which nirvana (salvation) is finally realized.

Hinduism is also concerned with achieving liberation, salvation, but in a different way. They believe that by living a good life based on good intentions that follow you all your lives and into death (Karma), the knowledge of God, and complete surrender to the will of God one can get to heaven. Although it seems as if there are many gods in Hinduism this is a misconception because God is found in nature and has been re-born many times in many forms of life. Thereby, all living things are worshipped as literal manifestations of God themselves (hence the term “holy cow”) and humans are no exception. Humans are simply the most advanced reincarnation of God and thereby it is within them to achieve salvation through the tree ways listed above. In my mind this is different from Buddhism because it teaches that good individual interactions with the world around someone can help them to reach the liberation from suffering where the Buddhists try to reach liberation through detachment and/or compassion that acknowledges oneness. Both philosophies are the same in that they same in that they acknowledge the power within human beings to achieve salvation and create their own fate.

Within Islam, the ability to attain salvation is somewhat limited yet not completely outside the realm of a person’s capacity. Like in Hinduism, there is an emphasis put on doing good deeds with one of its core beliefs being compulsory monetary charity and its emphasis on living a good life. Muslims believe that when a person commits a bad deed they need to ask for mercy from God and try to do better as a pre-requisite for attaining liberation and going to heaven. This theology is similar and different from the Christian view of attaining salvation. It is similar because Christians also believe that when a person sins they must ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness and thereby be liberated. It is different because Christian theology says that a person is not able to independently come to God and attain salvation, but rather they must surrender to God and allow God come to them with his grace, pardoning their sins with the blood of Jesus. In this way, attaining salvation is a gift which people are incapable of earning whereas, from what I have learned, all the other religions we have been learning about see themselves as having the power to liberated themselves. If people have the power to achieve their own liberation, creating our own fate, then what is the use of having a god? On the other hand, I believe in a loving god that allows people to have free will, so is there maybe a combination of achieving your destiny by choosing to surrender to God and life is all a test of just this?

The Land of Almost

In India, we have found it is of utmost importance that a person has the capacity to be flexible, patient, and have an extra measure of an ability to go with the flow. Whenever we go anywhere we never know if our ride will arrive up to a whole day earlier, an hour late, or if they won’t show up at all. Our program coordinators spend so much time arranging our transportation along with each place we visit, all our speakers, and everything in between yet anything is subject to change and/or cancellation at a moments’ notice. Also, I learned about some interesting facets of India from talking with a pastor and his wife, the Smiths (from MN!), who have lived here for almost 4 years now. They explained to me their struggles with simply establishing themselves in this country. They described the frustrating legal process of establishing the lease contract and then when you are almost ready to sign, the landlord will throw a curveball into the mix (like going back on one of the things he agreed to pay for) and expect you to just give in out of exasperation. Rev. Smith and his wife talked about stories where literally 9 plumbers and electricians are called in, each only fixing a part of the problem, to solve one simple issue and then all of them leaving the mess for the resident to clean. It seemed to the Smiths, based on many experiences in India, that only about every other person actually knows what he or she is doing in professions like these and very few will take pride in their work. Due to their many experiences here, they have dubbed India the land of almost. Why is this so? How will India ever be able to develop into a developed city that takes care of its citizens if its always ‘almost’ solving problems?

One observation of India that I’ve made is that everything everywhere seems to be under construction. This is seen in both the physical and ideological sense. Physically, literal buildings are decaying right next to new ones that are being manually built. The roads themselves have lots of bumps and potholes in some areas right next to or leading to newly paved freeways leading to more development. We’ve been in India for over 3 months now and there are building and road projects that were underway when we arrived and now seem to have remained the same. In a land that is supposed to be the fastest developing country in the world I wonder at the slow progress I see being made. Why is it that the physical labor is done manually in Bangalore even, the International Technology capital of the world?

In a book called Post-Hindu India the author, Kancha Ilaiah, claims that the caste system has put people in their places so rigidly and put such an emphasis on each person fulfilling only their role in society that many don’t aspire to do anything beyond their current capacity. To be born into a caste is to be originally destined to have a certain place in society and it is very taboo to try to change this. In a country where at least 85% of population is Hindu and at least 30% of those people being part of the laboring castes, it seems possible that the people doing their manual labor are just going about their duty hoping to just get through this life with the hope of being soon reincarnated as a Brahmin.

With the attitude of a person just getting through life because it’s their duty, it isn’t hard to imagine that people might lack an intrinsic motivation to take pride in their work. This may also be what has happened with the many workers the Smiths had to call to come fix issues with their house. It seems as if things get “almost” done, or just done enough for the time. It’s possible that this mentality, along with a very functioning but long democratic process, is responsible for many of the improperly addressed issues of this country like the slow, inefficient aid provided to Koppal during it’s flood crisis that has been occurring these past couple months. My question becomes, where do Hindu Indians derive their motivation and is this sufficient to cause noticeable change here? There have been many Indian speakers who have come in and talked in our classes and seem incredibly intrinsically motivated. From where do these speakers derive their drive to make a difference in the world and could this be the secret to encouraging others in ‘the land of almost’?

Tamarind and an Indian Meal

The many ways Indians use their fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices simply astounds me. With the increasing privatization of healthcare and costs being at an expensive level for most poor people, it is important to value the knowledge of the tribal people and medicine women of villages with regard to plant use. This knowledge is centuries old and is actually rather effective. The fruit of the tamarind tree is just one of the many healing agents in India that is used for multiple purposes. The tree itself is leguminous and acts as a nitrogen fixer for the soil, promoting healthy growth of plants organically. The pod of the fruit is used to season rice, fish, chutneys, curries, sauces and many other foods in India. The fruit itself is also eaten as a treat when it is fresh, dehydrated, made into a paste, or a sugary pulp. Medicinally, the many parts of the tamarind tree are used for cooling fevers, aiding digestion, as a laxitive, to cool inflammation on the skin, are gargled to relieve sore throats, and can even help relieve leprosy and bring sensation back to those suffering from paralysis. The fruit is also used to dye material. Superstitions decree that it is taboo to fall asleep under a Tamarind tree because no other plants grow there and many Hindus will only eat tamarind fruit after the tree has been cross-pollinated with a mango tree.

An average Indian meal is also made up of many different products of the earth that have multiple nutritious benefits. Indian food is known for being spicy in comparison to the bland food eaten in the US. One good reason for it to be so spicy is because this allows for better digestion and helps your body to deal with the many parasites and other unwanted things that might be in the food and could harm your body. In an average meal here there will be a type of bread, a type of grain (usually rice or millet in my experience), curd, dal, and at least one other type of curry. In a cookbook I bought and glanced through, one type of chicken has at least 10 different ingredients and this tends to be the trend throughout the book. The food here his not only spicier that the food in the US, there are overall more flavors in each dish and all different aspects of the palate is considered. The dal and meat are usually savory, the chutney is sometimes sweet or bitter, curd is a little sour, and there is usually some type of sweet included. In the US usually the main dishes are savory and salty and the dessert is sweet, not including the bitter or sour aspects into account. It will be amazing to see how this has affected my taste buds with regard to food at home, I may start adding more spices to my food and incorporate more bitter and sour aspects into my meals.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Country Mouse; City Mouse

As we travel through three of the largest cities in India (Bangalore, Delhi, and Hyderabad) there are a few things all have in common. In comparison to the Twin Cities, each place is more smelly, dirty, has everything for sale right on the street, always-visible beggars, and lots of people wherever you go. As a person who is from a small Minnesotan suburb of only 20,000 maximum people, it is hard for me to imagine a life in any of these cities much less living there for longer than a week. So, how is it that these people all come to live in the urban areas of the country? What brings them in and what keeps them there? Do they have many other options?

There are a couple explanations I can think of as to why people flock to the cities in India. The first reason is that they have been displaced and improperly re-settled, losing their stake in the land they once had and unable to sufficiently begin again if they are even given land. These people could be displaced by the numerous dam projects or any number of weather-related calamities that might afflict them and cause them to be incapable of supporting their family. These people then head to the cities with hopes of finding employment or another way to attain the money they need to live.

Another reason brings me back to the time we spent in Kerala with the farmers of an agricultural self-help group. These men expressed a concern that they work hard to win money so they can provide a better life for their children and send them to school. The education many offspring receive can lead them to the city toward higher education at universities and jobs in urban, developing sectors. If these people find employment they and their future generations will inhabit the cities as their forefathers continue to reside in the rural areas and then die off with fewer or no children to replace them at the farming business.

While spending time in a few of the more rural parts of India, I have noticed that a hierarchy is more evident to me than in the urban areas. One reason why people may stay in the city once they’ve come is that they may find a way to have more of an identity outside their caste in a place made up of more diverse people where they don’t have to follow village traditions. Having grown up in a smaller village some people may be so strictly put in their place in that community and this would be a chance for a person to escape that confining position and negative associations thereof. Another reason is that once a person experiences the conveniences of more western technology, why would they want to go back to the back breaking labor and insecurity of the farmer’s life? After a session of yoga, Dr. S. K. asked me why I gave up my comfy life in the US to learn about issues in India. He legitimately couldn’t fully understand giving up luxuries for a comparably more rustic lifestyle and it’s possible many people who migrate to the cities think along the same lines.

I am not sure if all the people in the city actually have the option to leave. First of all, it’s scary to move away from a lifestyle you know to one you don’t know and there is an overall great value put on family. To leave the physical location of one’s family is not something I’ve seen or heard much of as most people I talk with on the streets are born and raised in one area of this country. It’s also possible that people are unable to afford travelling to another part of India and with so many people and so much land grabbing going on it is unlikely that there will even be land for people who would seek to escape the hustle and bustle. I’ve seen many poor people in both rural and urban areas of India and am wondering if I have seen proportionately more in either. If a person has a good deal of money they might be able to escape the business of the cities, however, the general feeling I been getting is that the city is where people want to be. In the US the place to be, if you can afford it, is the suburbs yet in France it is the center districts of the cities themselves where the more affluent people live, so I am wondering which place is most desired for the Indian.

Hope for Farmers?

The basic concept of farming is that a person puts a seed in the ground, it grows, and what is grown gets harvested. What is produced is then stored, eaten, sold, and portions of it are re-planted. In the past week I have learned much more than this about farming and how it has been manipulated yet the faith it takes to invest your savings in a seed that is dependent on so many factors to come to fruition. As we spent time in Andhra Pradesh, the people have been negatively affected by the consumerist influences of cash crops and mono-cropping practices of large land owners surrounding them which are commonly associated with farming in the US. Yet now are empowered amazes me and has provided evidence that leads me toward thoughts of hope. The people here utilize the land with age old knowledge of multi-cropping technique that use every plant including what they actually plant themselves and the byproducts we would consider weeds. I wonder how many species we have lost in the US due to our development projects and agricultural practices.

I’ve noticed many parallels between the Native Americans of North America and many of the practices of the Adivasi, Dalit, and other backward people of India. The way we’ve seen the minorities of India use the land in a way that is prudent and resourceful. They used various plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. This allows them to have their own medicine women to help their village with minor to moderate afflictions and the millet supplements their diets with nutritional whole grains. However, what happened in the case of the Native Americans when the railway corporations and pioneers encroached upon their land and that is exactly what is happening with the Adivasi, Dalit, and other backward people of India. The government and other powerful agents of development are gobbling up the arable, valuable land and the original people are being displaced or simple pushed off their land. The difference between the ways the Indian minority groups and the US original inhabitants is that the people in India know how to use the land in a way that is beneficial and the people on the reservations in the US have little else available to them for employment. I wonder if the people here will end up landless with increasing encroachment and eminent domain cases and closer resemble the Native Americans in years to come.