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Om Shanti

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2011

      India is chaos. Everything is confusing and overwhelming, from the crowded streets to the religious diversity. There are so many ethnic groups, so many unique regions, so many languages, and so many gods. The visitor is bombarded with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. There are also gigantic contrasts, like the gulf between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. My question is: in such a state of chaos, how is it that India engenders feelings of inner peace? (Om Shanti) What is it about India, amid the suffering and the struggles of millions of people, that awakens latent spirituality? And, if India does do a better job of awakening the human spirit, then what are we doing wrong, here in the West? What can we learn from this apparent contradiction?

PRIMORDIAL RELIGION: Perhaps it is because of the extreme age of the Hindu religion. The roots of Hinduism are thought to have begun as early as 7000 BC. The Indus valley civilization reached its peak 2800 – 2000 BC. The most ancient writings from this period have yet to be deciphered! Starting in 800 BC, the Upanishads were written, documenting the concepts of karma and reincarnation. Buddhism and Jainism branched off from Hinduism around 400 BC.

      The philosophy behind this religion blossomed at the very beginnings of human civilization, and its influence has been global. One controversial scholar has even argued that Christ may have visited India in his early adulthood, during the period of his life when the Bible does not account for his whereabouts. If that is true, then India’'s influence is undeniably global. There is evidence to suggest Christ may have visited Orissa to learn yoga and meditation, and to listen to the teachers and philosophers there. I am not necessarily agreeing with this theory, but it could be plausible. Christ would have been drawn to India, because it was arguably the world’'s other most sophisticated religious center of that time.

VERANASI: Even the most casual visitor to the city of Veranasi cannot avoid appreciating a dawn boat ride down the river. It is impossible not to feel empathy with the pilgrims who have come to this sacred place to celebrate the rising of the sun (Surya) and to thank the River Goddess Ganga for her life-giving water. Worshippers have come here continuously for over three thousand years! Who knows how much longer that that? The timeless spirituality of their prayers is not lost on anyone.

      And yet, the holy river is hopelessly polluted. Mobs swarm around the ghats, (the massive stairs leading down to the river bank). Silence, even at dawn, is not an option. The continuous hum of the crowd is punctuated by blaring conch shell temple trumpets, drums, temple bells, hawkers, traffic noise, and the raised voices of holy men, preaching to groups of disciples. The disturbing smell of smoke from funeral pyres assaults the nostrils.

      The first time we went to Veranasi, twenty years ago, I made my own personal puja, down at the water’s' edge. Dave had gone off by himself to take pictures, so I made my own way down to the ghats, threading my way through the crowds. Walking down the stairs, I passed a group of lepers, who were begging for alms. In those days, leprosy was still prevalent, and there was a line of lepers begging at the ghats. These poor souls had lost most of their hands and feet to the disease. Their noses and ears were rotting away, and their bodies were covered with hideous open sores. And yet one of them smiled at me with the sweetest and most blissful smile imaginable. His eyes were filled with something astonishing. Was it actually joy? How can peace of mind exist, side by side with a flesh-eating disease? How was it that I, the rich foreign tourist, was the one who walked away unsettled, wondering if I was the one who was looked at with compassion?

      I had brought a special item with me, all the way from America. It was a tiny doll'’s sandal. This little sandal was one of many gifts given to me, when I was seven years old, by an Indian lady I met through my mother'’s Christian church. Miss Padma was a delightful person, and I was fascinated by her. I fell in love with her laughter and her tales of India, told in a lilting Indian accent. I adored her beautiful silk saris and exotic jewelry. She was my first introduction to a person of a culture outside of my own, and the glimpse into that culture was exciting and intoxicating. I have always felt that meeting her was an event of great significance in my life.

      When we visited India for the first time, I decided to bring the little sandal with me. I felt that I should give thanks for the influences that have given me the desire to travel and the opportunity to do so. I bought a little wrapped banana leaf “boat” with a candle in it, and some marigolds. I arranged the flowers on the leaf, set the tiny sandal on the flowers, and lit the candle. My little raft floated serenely down the Ganges; my gift to the river. It joined hundreds of other little candle rafts, on their way into the river’'s embrace. Each one held a wish, a dream, or a prayer.

      The next day, Dave and I returned to the ghats. We saw that a large crowd had formed on the riverbanks. A Hindu holy man was preaching, and the people were drawn to his words. I will never forget his face. He had a radiant look that caught our attention and gave us pause. He had such dynamism and such energy, that it was almost as if he gave off an electric current. At the heart of that current was compassion and a supreme sense of humor. It was as if he had figured out the punchline of the great cosmic joke, and he was trying to share it with us, but we were incapable of understanding.

      Was he an enlightened being? Watching him, we both decided that it was possible. Dave and I watched him for almost an hour, and we listened to his teachings, even though we could not understand a word of what he was saying. It didn'’t matter. Whatever he was really teaching was not communicable with words anyway.

ELLURA: So many places in India have acquired their own unmistakable spiritual aura. Ellura is famous for a series of caves and rock temples, carved into a series of stony bluffs. We visited them in 1990. I will never forget that visit. There was an entire monastic “university”, in tunnels and man-made caverns, inside the cliffs. Between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D, these caves were humming with discourse, populated by some of the greatest religious minds of the time, and Buddhism bloomed and flowered.

      One chapel stands out. It is a meditation hall, sometimes called the “carpenters'’ hall,” because the carvers added ceiling “beams” carved out of solid rock. In the front of the chapel stands an impressive stone Buddha image, about fifteen feet tall. This room has an almost palpable aura of worship about it. It is as if the ghosts of the past are still there, still worshiping and debating; still keeping the place holy.

      We had taken a local bus tour of to get to the caves. Our tourist bus held forty Hindu tourists from many areas of India, our guide, and the two of us. We were lucky:– there were tourists from several diverse regions of India on board, so the tour guide resorted to English as the common language. (English is taught in schools in India).

      When we got to this famous cave, the group suddenly fell silent. They had been very noisy all day – Dave and I had remarked on it. None of these people were Buddhist. Nevertheless, when they entered the ancient sanctuary, and they gazed on the compassionate face of the Buddha, they were obviously all moved, as were we. Minutes went by, and still, there was silence. Afterward, I turned to the tour guide and asked him if this usually happens.

      "“Always,"” he replied, smiling. "“Everybody feels something, here. This place is still sacred to all.” "

THE TAJ MAHAL: The Taj is only a tomb, created out of a man'’s love for a woman, but its soaring white towers and marble dome seem to stun visitors, when they see it for the first time. It appears to float on the horizon like a mirage. People linger here, staring, in love with the exquisite beauty of this monument to love. It was never meant to be a spiritual refuge, except for one man'’s broken spirit, but it has become swept up in the intense spirituality of India.

HOLY LAND? Perhaps it is the chaos, and not the “holiness,” that we Westerners actually respond to. The constant stream of images, colors, sounds, smells, contrasts and contradictions strain our minds, knocking us out of our usual thought patterns and habits. All the mental noise gets pushed aside. We are forced to live in the moment, forgetting the past and the future, because we have to face the constantly changing “now.” To be in India usually requires simplification. It also requires tolerance, calm, and Buddha-like patience. And sometimes, just when you least expect it, India provides the traveler with a truly “Om Shanti” moment.

      Thanks so much for reading! Diana

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