Friday, August 28, 2015

Phir Milenge

Though 1 September is still a few days off, my time at Seva Mandir is done.  Two months spent.  Village love loved.  Work struggles struggled.  Rajasthan adventures adventured.  Monsoon monsoon'd.  Shared space shared.  Presentation presented.  Bilkul bas.

The next few days will hold easy moments and probably the slow rush as my next weeks' exploration approach.  There are plenty of thoughts in reflection, but they don't need to be put down any time soon, if ever.  Sometimes there is a special release from a place or idea when it is left as it is and unfiltered by word after word.  Surely, "an unexamined life..." but there has been plenty in the last 12 posts.  And I think this is exactly what Udaipur begs of me, and I in turn of the city, a simple release and easy departure just like the sweet evening rains pre-monsoon.

And generally, Wonderland has a good word or two to share in any situation:

Alice took up the fan and gloves, and, as the hall was very hot, she kept fanning herself all the time she went on talking:  'Dear, dear!  How queer everything is today!  And yesterday things went on just so usual.  I wonder if I've been changed in the night?  Let me think:  was I the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!'

But really, it's not all that much different.   Just trading from one chai to another, between lakes, and some meals.

Perfect conclusion to my last village day -- committee meeting to put some ideas and action steps in place.

Receive me back, Chi?

Kherwara may be a highway-side madhouse, but it's got its spots if you look.

The best aloo paratha. ever. period.

I may have internet access in the next two weeks; if so, look for some posts here (Punjab) and there (Kashmir)!  Hitting the north hard hoping to hook in to new NGOs, then States-bound for continued movement-lust-filled weeks before classes. Chalo!!

ps, happy to send my presentation or report to anyone interested! Probably better materials than my blogposts on which my SM time actually focused.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Sacred and Profane, part ii

Any new thoughts on the sacred? on the profane?  Let's pick up a few pieces from part i, before new directions in the conversation.

Kherwara.  My home-away-from-Udai-home-away-from-home.

Considering the sacred and profane as the dual nature of human life of course has many implications. Despite being a little messy with my presentation, I absolutely hope to not misrepresent me reading onto my observations or experiences the sacred as the profane, or saying the sacred is the profane.  Just maybe, though, the sacred in the profane.  I am hoping to spend time with Sagar ji to ask about this idea, but until that gift let's do some preliminary work here.  What comes to your mind immediately when I say the sacred in the profane? More questions about what these terms really mean? Something physical and tangible?  Something distant or reminiscent?  Anything interior or individual?  For me, a personal conviction comes first:  the importance of finding beauty in simplicity.  Using the words "beauty" and "simplicity" might reveal more my romantic sympathies than really help us progress our understanding of the sacred and profane, but my intention and association of the words can easily be interchanged to read "finding the sacred in the profane."  That makes sense in most (...all...?) world religions and it fortunately is amenable with Sagar ji's comment about India.

My view above from the block office deck is one such moment for me.  Kherwara is a mess of a road-side civilization, and I eat it up.  There are no massive buildings, delicate concerns of urban planning, real sidewalks, demarcated road lanes, restriction of animals, divisions of welding shop and samosa stand, living room and storefront, or really complete and developing.  Technologically, architecturally, structurally, commercially, it is simple. Even more can be said about the villages I then travel to from here.  But they have become special places to me, demonstrating the >20% population Below Poverty Line numbers and the essence of survival.  I feel at ease walking down that highway, trekking Bichiwara, and especially staying with my families.

It's not quite a Buddhist oneness, but perhaps it is tangential.  Potentially a Whitmanesque celebration of life?  I could totally envision writing a "Leaves of Palash" or "Stalks of Rice" collection in these hills.  In this thread, the sacred definitely emerges from the profane, in the sense that I see the sacred within it.  This helps us to define the profane as everyday life -- the daily grind -- survival, ordinary, local, simple, human.  The last two terms are then an essential connection to the sacred, for it is through the human and simple that the sacred has a vessel.  But the definition for the sacred:  that's for you.  This is my necessary exit as observer and aspiring academic.  Sagar ji tells me Bhagavan, God, is sacred, the sacred, sacredness, the spirit of the sacred in everything.  My Diwali village boys tell me the sacred is Bhagavan as we go to take darshan of Shri Fateh Baba Ji.  K tells me the sacred is Hinduism, and in the same the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita, thus subsequently any teachings from these texts.  My observations of South Rajasthan tell me the sacred is family and tradition.  My conversations with any stranger tell me the sacred is Shaadi, marriage.  My past two months tell me the sacred is sharing.

Maybe we don't gain anything from trying to define the sacred, but then again, would we appreciate and savor whatever it is if we didn't try?

Finding the sacred is like spinning a Ferris Wheel, sometimes you have to do it on your own.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sacred and Profane, part i

I wouldn’t be a proper member of the UChicago Divinity community if at some point in my writing career I didn’t tackle the long-challenged distinctions of the sacred and profane.  However, I have no Eliade-an or Smith-ian aspirations of setting the definitive record or for myth-making.  The idea of the “sacred” is a thick enough topic that I could (will?) pursue a whole other degree focused on its intricate relation and manifestation in religion, so let’s not get too unbounded with our thoughts, here.  What I want to do in this space is explore some observations and thoughts that have been shared with me and that I have in turn filtered through my work and experiences here.  

Where do we start? The sacred evokes some idea of divinity, some grand other, guiding forces, holiness, maybe even purity.  To my mind, profane takes the form of worldly, mundane, temporal, potentially dirty.  But let’s also consult the lineage of UChicago giants that have hoisted this conversation to new heights.  Please forgive my brevity on these summaries — trying to harness my writing-from-memory-and-bookless skills. 
Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion
Eliade’s explanations go something like this.  For the archaic [his terminology for pre-modern, not contemporary] individual, only through perceived repetition of mythical meaning (ritual), and thus meaning-making in the individual’s life, does anything move into the realm of the sacred.  Think of things like prayer beads.  By themselves they may be just a type of necklace, but imbued with the fingers’ counting devotion as a practitioner recites her Our Father or Mantra or Supha, a whole new mental/emotional world is entered through interaction with them.  So, in Eliade’s terms the distinction comes from the appeal to archetypes and repeating an “original” meaning in order to be sacred.  The qualification of “archaic” is not essential for this post, but it raises some good questions for modern-us!   
J.Z. SmithMap Is Not Territory
Smith qualifies Eliade’s work as a study of patterns across cultures, many, many cultures.  These patterns ultimately provide us with symbols to fit over our ideas, experiences, and categories.  Smith explains that the sacred and profane are just the two most distinct.  My words above are reminiscent of his descriptions…extraordinary, orderly…versus ordinary, disordered.  He then refines this distinction further by creating a spectrum of meaning-making, instead of Eliade’s cycle of repeating meaning.  This spectrum means that a culture can create a “new” sacred by rejecting past meanings.    

Bruce LincolnGods & Demons, Priests and Scholars
Lincoln drops the mic on the argument, claiming both have it wrong, and in turn creates a whole new myth-system by focusing on the dynamic disorder of chaos (did he just juxtapose the terms we were trying to separate??).  In this scenario, order (the sacred) arises out of the chaotic beginning (profane) and then redefines everything.  To try to present this differently, it’s not so much the fact that there is a sacred and profane, per se, but the fact that there is a power dynamic between them that mediates their distinction.   

So we’re left with a tough move.  Do we follow suit with Eliade and Smith to break the sacred and profane completely apart in opposition, reciprocally defined in the negative of the other?  Or do we search for a blend and different type of interdependence between the two after Lincoln? Do we privilege one term over the other?  Does it really just boil down to myth versus ritual? Is the sacred a distinct entity or pluralistic or multivalent?  Who decides what really is sacred or profane?  What does the and even mean in our phrase?  What do we gain / lose with even making a distinction?  How do we experience either?  Can we experience either, or merely point with words?  At this stop, I hope your thoughts are with me on the live (and living) aspect of our terms.  Let that settle for a moment — some serious water flowing there.

The Hanuman Chalisa on the back of a calendar, a devotional to the monkey god Hanuman.
On a past night I met a wonderful couple that invited me to walk with them around Fatehsagar.  The lake was a calm blue that evening while the sun set on us.  As it turns out Sagar Ji’s background is in geography as a professor and in application with natural resource development, even a few years of work with Seva Mandir on reforestation in Udaipur.  Once I opened that I am a Divinity student, he immediately asked me the question, “What do you think about the sacred?” I gave some surface-level thoughts, but was more interested in where he was leading.  He continued that India probably has the most sacredly attributed nature and physical land space in the world, but it is destroying itself.  Why are we drilling mines everywhere? Why are we dumping trash anywhere? Why are we so neglectful and disinterested with our pollution?  How can we claim that the sacred is in the land, yet we defecate and spread waste into our rivers, thus contaminating them and not only detracting from our land’s beauty, but also ailing ourselves?  My mind raced through everything I’d seen the past weeks.  Have we forgotten our conviction of God’s presence in everything?  Is God slipping behind the commodifications of modernity?  Is the temporary and illusory material satisfaction overwhelming our deep and precious faith?  Where is our spirituality? Where has our sense of the sacred gone?

What I see from these questions is a near-complete elimination of that previously cited, seminal work in the history of religions -- the sacred and the profane isn't a phrase to distinguish a dichotomy, but is a phrase that reveals the dual nature of life and being.  In our human condition we can destroy, wreck, and neglect that which we hold dear to us, even cherish as sacred.  

Oh, wait, this is a piece on India, not a human manifesto…check out part ii tomorrow for the rest!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Just A Normal Day

In the aspiration of fulfilling my initial pledge to provide a candid and simple blog alongside the challenges, reflections, and critiques, I want to share a day with you.

My day turns in to this about once a week.  Don't you know everyone is in sync at any moment in India?  Or, sometimes getting down to Udaipole and hopping the state bus towards Kherwara is more like this.  Or, for the fan of threes, this one has started the day for me, too.  Hope the accompaniment enhances your reading/day-sharing!

For days to the field, I manage myself into the kitchen to make something for breakfast and a peanut butter sandwich to pack for later...

Oh, nope. Nevermind. Going to get reprimanded by Auntie for this mess later.  Hoping for some paratha and chai when I get to the block office in Kherwara.  I step out and walk up to our roof to soak in the cool morning air, or get blasted by the humidity.  Either and both are equally likely. 

Next step, out to grab the nearest rickshaw that will accept my 80rupees bargain for a trip to Udaipole, the bus stand.  Put-put-put-put, "chale" and we're off.  Even though it's 7am, horns blair from any car, jeep, bus, truck, tuk-tuk, or bike that sees us.  We hurry out of Fatehpura Circle to find ourselves in the morning flow through Chetak Circle and down the side of the city. 

Landing in the all-familiar madness of Udaipole, I run to the last stand in the long line of windows and grab a spot in the "Purush" line, so I can pay my 85rupee male ticket, 20rupees more than the female price.  Hopefully, I don't get seat 16 or 26 -- wheel wells.  

About an hour and half later, I hop off the rolling bus as the ticket-conductor decides how much to tell the driver to slow for me -- we get along well, though, so I am generously given a slow rolling departure.  By now I usually get the same bus on my morning trip, so same crew traveling.  I prefer to walk the 15 minutes down the highway to get to the block office, usually making a few new acquaintances by the time I arrive.  Kherwara is a heavily trafficked spot on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, but hardly a tourist I can imagine the intrigue and alien status this videshi exudes as he strolls amongst stalls, massive "Goods Carrier" and "All India Permit" trucks, buses, cows, dogs, chickens, goats, and people.  

But some days the monsoon comes to life and the walk turns brisk and wet.

Once K and I connect we ride out the 30-ish minutes to Bichiwara and tackle the day's tasks.   Some days take us by foot all over the hilly village land checking on previous proposal projects, while other days we find ourselves meeting with families and chain-drinking chai.  Is this water tank fixed yet? What has broken on it, now?  What do the families think about the convenience of the well nearby? Is their eco-san toilet in working fashion? Does it have all the necessary components for proper use and maintenance?  The questions go on, but the intentions are all the same:  meet as many people as I can, talk, get to know them, try to let myself be known, and understand from where their thoughts grow, how they develop, and to where they lead.  Some days we meet with just 3 or 4 families, while others we have seen as many as 15.

I try to catch the 5:40 bus, so I can get back into Udaipur shortly after 7pm.  Lately I have just been walking back to SM since the heat is down, but the 45 minute walk is beginning to get busier with traffic.  On those special days where I get back earlier and just jump an auto, I still have plenty of daylight to go hang with the monkeys, meet my Diwali village friends at Fatehsagar, or find some wifi and a little darjeeling.   

All in all, the days hold so many sweet moments, plenty of questionable observations and experiences, and always something new to embrace and engage. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Common Ground

Sunday Night Life by Lake Fatehsagar.

I have been struggling with writing this post for the last week since the idea came to me.  The seed came from a picture I saw for dating.  The picture was situational, so describing it may not come across as cleanly as I’d like, but centered were two drinks on one cocktail napkin.  A caption labeled, “Common Ground.”

The idea at first made me laugh, but then flooded my sensibilities about the concept of common ground.  For me, everything in India is common ground.  Shared autos.  Shared sleeping rooms.  Shared meals.  Shared bags.  Shared roads between cars, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, water buffaloes, and goats.  There really isn’t a moment of my day that has personal space (in all its dimensions of meaning) and I doubt the phrase would even make sense to my village friends.  Some of these thoughts stem from an earlier post on sharing culture, but what I hope to get at here is different.

Closing down the food center by Sukhadia Circle.

When I first started thinking about this idea of common ground in India, a book that has been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for sometime came to mind:  “Tea Time with Terrorists:  A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.”  In the book Mark Meadows chronicles his time as a journalist interviewing key actors in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.  Though the conversations described took place on the pearly island to the south, the title, symbology, and conversation-place seem to fit perfectly for my thoughts.  I haven’t read all of the book, but it looks like now I must.  

The idea of tea as common ground is where my head’s at, currently.  I think there is a lot of potential to capitalize on the ever-prevalent ritual of having tea as a piece to creating spaces for dialogue on concerns in India (South Asia?).  The practice is already shared on a (inter)national scene, why would it not make sense for some NGO to focus efforts on utilizing an already inculcated habit for productive cross-cultural, or interfaith, or gender, or socioeconomic exchange? 

Let’s take two commercial institutions to analyze a “model of common ground” around tea.  
1. Local.  I am currently writing in a coffee shop near to SM and sitting among three lunch dates going on.  This coffee shop was started by three men who left hotel management service together with an entrepreneurial spirit and the ambition to expand.  In the words of one of the three, “We brought the coffee culture to Udaipur.”  With that comes the expectation of a space to gather.  And what a gathering place this is — known to every NGO worker in Udaipur, this shop has a steady flow of patrons and appears to be providing a solid outlet for couples to share that one-knapkin common ground.  I can personally attest to the thought-provoking and question-searching conversations that are held here over tea.
2.  Global.  Starbucks.  I actually learned a bit about Sbucks India as I flew over from the States and have since maintained a peripheral interest in its output.  As copied from  “Our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. . . It’s not unusual to see people coming to Starbucks to chat, meet up or even work. We’re a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine – and we couldn’t be happier about it. Get to know us and you’ll see: we are so much more than what we brew.”  The takeaways here are the values that Sbucks embodies:  community space, gathering place, neighborhood, and thus facilitated conversation, exchange, and getting to know others.  For you readers inclined to Sbucks, think about any time you sit down in one of the stores.  How many minutes do you spend there? What types of interactions do you observe from the patrons?  What types of interactions do you engage?   

The mechanism for sharing (tea) is already deeply placed in India, there just needs to now be the facilitation (a non-imposing space and encouragement to engage concerns and issues).  I see this as being different than the encouraging work done by many inter-faith workshops, seminars, and roundtables whose intention is to come together with a focus on differences.  The possibility with cultivating a culture around tea is coming to the table with a focus on the shared which then allows the different to emerge in an organic, approachable, and open manner.  That’s always the general rule in getting to know someone, right?  Finding a shared interest?  Tea seems like quite the shared interest.     

I believe that we can follow Meadow's precedent in Sri Lanka by first establishing and humanizing a space to explore the challenging questions and topics that fill and fuel tensions.  Meet you for tea, soon.  

A past day of sharing thali and exploring Dilwara.