In 1969, I became intensely interested in India through my reading of the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. From the depth of the philosophy I thought Indians must be all wise and holy, far from the madness of the western world. My interest led to a correspondence with S. Ramnath in Calcutta, who had an equal, although more materialistic interest in the USA. At the time of our writing, I thought we would never meet. But as fate would have it, he visited the U.S. in 1976 and by 1977, we were married.
We made our first trip to India together in November, 1983. I was dazzled by the sights, sounds, colors, smells, spices, exotic food and music, and the Durga festival in progress, but I did not understand much about Indian life. In 1994, nearly eleven years later, we visited South India. We stayed in Madras with Ramnath’s father, R. Subramanian, whom I affectionately called, Pop.
India and I had both changed. My eyes were no longer dazzled by surface details. I saw the hard life in a harsh climate which is endured by most Indians without western comforts. I saw an explosion of plastic ware, western clothes, and sex magazines available in respectable book stores. This was not the India I had traveled to see. But I also saw the warmth of families taking care of each other, a resurgence of Hindu ideals, a superior educational system and a computer center around every corner. It seemed every other person could write computer programs and children in the second standard were doing work, in some cases, equal to fouth grade in the U.S.
It was the traditional India, still very much alive, that I wanted to know. I studied books on Hinduism, trying to learn all the names and forms and stories of the many different gods. I read more in the Bhagavadgita and the Thirukkural whose couplets seemed to appear in every bus we took.
The west today is a demythologized world. We have people from all kinds of backgrounds, all in a cluster, and consequently law has become very important. Lawyers and law are what hold us together. There is no ethos. Rituals and rites of passage are missing. People seem to be fending for themselves, not belonging to a community. Living in a society which no longer embraces a powerful mythology, I think I was on a search for meaning. Or as Joseph Campbell might say, the definition of myth is not the search for meaning but the experience of meaning, and I wanted to experience the simple rapture of being alive, of being part of the great whole, the Cosmic community.
Pop and Ramnath’s uncle, Prof. Srinivasan, a Sanskrit scholar, traveled with us to Rameswaren which I understand is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage for Hindus. It was there I had thirteen theerthams (holy baths). After my thorough cleansing, I was allowed into the inner sanctum to pay my respects, but only after confrontation with the temple guards over my “whiteness.” We were ushered into a large office where Uncle, my husband and the man who gave the theerthums all spoke up for me. The office man looked at my passport and said it was not a Hindu name. Ramnath tried to explain the American requirements for names, that it had nothing to do with religion. In the long run the arguments by three Hindus, supported by Sanskrit quotations by Uncle, persuaded the officer to allow me to have dharshan (to be in the presence of God), but I was to stay quiet and do it quickly. I asked Ramnath later what finally had convinced them to let me in. He said that after all the arguments were made the conclusion was that I was a “princess with a pure heart.” This conclusion meant more to me than the rushed visit through the inner sanctum. There was a feeling that my “otherness” might give offense and cause an outbreak of violence. So I made a few quick pujas surrounded by Ramnath, Uncle and my “purifier.” We passed by ritual bonfires, circles of chanters, and lines of the faithful waiting to give offerings and receive blessings.
We also visited the temple at Palani to the god Subramanya from which our family name comes. It was here that Gopinath’s children had their heads shaved and anointed with sandalwood paste as an act of reverence. We did, however, have to complete the shaving before 12:00 noon or after 1:30 p.m. because on this particular day, due to astrological prediction, that was the time of yamagandam (bad omen). However, in spite of the one trouble spot, it was considered the most auspicious day of the month.
I wondered aloud at the paradox of educated people following horoscopes religiously. My relatives not only saw the humor in it but told various stories illustrating how people tried to “cheat the system” while still following it. For example, if a family is to begin a journey at 5:00 a.m. and the time of yamagandam was between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m., the family would set their bags outside the door at 3:30 a.m. and announce “the journey has begun.” This symbolic start still allows the actual journey to begin at 5:00 a.m.
In India no matter how “right” the stars are, nothing seems to go exactly as planned. For example, my relatives and I had reservations for a bus at 1:00 p.m. from Kodaikanal to Palani which seemed to get hijacked by a marriage party. Suddenly, we found ourselves sitting in a small village for two hours waiting for the 100 people to get on our bus which held 52. Actually the bus had been promised to them without us knowing it. They also wondered what a couple of foreigners were doing in their wedding party. But we got along fine jammed in together even if the 1:00 p.m. bus actually left at 3:30 p.m. To add to the inconvenience, boys would sometimes jump off the bus so that the engine could pull the load up steep inclines. Then the bus would slow to a crawl to allow the boys to jump back on. It was humorous and sweet, in a way.
I liked the tradition of allowing the animals, especially cows, to roam free. I began to feel disappointed if I didn’t see a cow everywhere I went. I saw them on railroad tracks, standing sideways on cliffs, not to mention the middle of the road.
I especially enjoyed seeing monkeys playing about me. I had never seen monkeys that were not locked up in zoos. But here I saw whole families of monkeys from grandfathers to tiny babies clinging to their mothers’ breasts. I saw young monkeys sliding down stair railings with great glee just like little children.
Some rituals were especially charming. It was pleasant every morning to see the freshly made kolam (floor painting made of rice powder) in front of every house and apartment building. I also enjoyed the ritual of leave taking, when a married woman completes her visit with another married woman and is offered kum-kum (vermillion powder which is placed on the forehead) and a string of jasmine for her hair. I was told if it was an auspicious occasion she would be offered two pods of manjal (tumeric root).
Although I did not understand the symbology of these customs derived from myth, I knew that all myths had a common meeting ground. What human beings have in common is revealed in myths. They are the clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.
In India, there is the mythic image of the Net of Indra, which is a net of gems, where at every crossing of one over the other there is a gem reflecting all the other reflective gems. Everything arises in mutual relation to everything else, so no one can blame anybody else. It is as if there was a single intention behind it all, which always makes some kind of sense, though none of us exactly knows what that sense might be.
My most rewarding “religious” experience was at the temple of Meenakshi in Madurai. In the morning Uncle was explaining idols and myths to us inside the temple. As we approached the inner sanctum I was told I was not allowed.
In the evening we returned to the temple. We walked the long, spacious halls full of ancient idols. We sat briefly on the steps leading to the vast lotus pond. This time we strolled confidently, and without trouble, into the inner sanctum. Somehow things felt right. I was wearing a salwar kameez, the second most common Indian dress after the sari. My head was dotted with kum-kum and my hair was pulled back. But this was nothing new. It was the comfortable feeling that was different. Worshippers made way for me to approach the goddess Meenakshi as if the “princess with a pure heart” was certainly welcome. I even heard a few words of English in my honor. But I was only there to honor their own interpretation of the meaning of life and to respect their own experience of that meaning, from which, by then, I was not alienated.
For weeks I had watched Lakshmi be the ideal Hindu wife, refusing to eat before her husband and guests had finished and left the table, lighting the lamp to the gods every evening, serving her husband and children unselfishly, and yet retaining a strength and confidence unknown to many western feminists. We had also had many private talks about the differences in our customs and the meanings behind them.
My month long journey ended when Lakshmi presented me with a tray containing kum-kum, jasmine and manjal. It was a solemn moment as I touched my forehead with the red powder. Suddenly the entire month seemed an auspicious occasion.
At the Madras airport we had to say good-bye before checking in and going through customs because only passengers were allowed in that area. It took us a full hour to go through this process but we decided to check the glass which separated the passenger area from the throng of relatives and friends. Sure enough, Pop, Gopi, Lakshmi, and the two young nephews were still there pressed close to the oblong opening just big enough to reach hands through. We had only a moment, at this point, for a last goodbye. Ramnath stuck his hands through first and I joined him. Everyone clasped hands warmly. There was no final word, no goodbye. It was an epiphany, a moment of radiance, the wordless meaning of belonging.
Note: Ramanth and I have been divorced for many years now but I wanted to pay respect to this family and our relationship during this time.