India and Collective Guilt

3 Aug

All photos by Pidge Cash (click on images for clarity and to enlarge)

Travel in India nudged my awareness into new positions.  At home in the States, I am accustomed to being surrounded by beauty and abundance without the inevitable opposites of  lack, filth and deprivation.  Yes, of course those things exist here, but in my remarkably privileged, middle class life, they are not particularly apparent.

While in India I was daily reminded that survival is a struggle.  I saw beauty that stirred my soul as never before and I saw deprivation and poverty of the deepest kind.  I  saw dwellings made of discarded rags and palaces of indescribable elegance, grace and beauty.

The sharpness of this contrast was seen amongst the people as well.  It caused me considerable emotional conflict which I am only now beginning to untangle.  My conclusion in considering the grief I felt for the ill and deprived is that I am as responsible for the health and happiness of others  as I am for myself.

How can I ignore the deprivation of this man?

Yet his suffering pales  in comparison to others I saw and felt I should not photograph.

I feel deeply that we are in relationship with all living creatures and with the planet that sustains us.  We humans are woven together into one fabric with all of Life – and as such Collective Guilt is a reality.  I do not need to be directly in relationship with this man to be responsible on some level for his circumstances.  I make choices about my government.  The choices and actions of my government impact his government.  His government impacts his life.  And here he stands, an exhausted laborer in filthy clothes, trying to cross a busy street filled with forms of transportation he can not afford.  His image is a potent reminder to me of the global violence constantly taking place against all  life forms and the planet herself.

Violence in any form is abhorrent.  I think what reduces this laborer to such a state of deprivation is a form of violence against the innate dignity of every human being.  It may not have been directly imposed,  but his government allows such deprivation to continue.  Silence and non-action individually and collectively are as powerful (and damning) as words and action.  Every choice we make individually and collectively reverberates throughout the Universe.

So what is the answer to this dilemma?

For me, the evolution of human consciousness is the only possible solution.  Each of us is called to  develop spiritual disciplines that move us from denial, dread, disillusion and apathy into love and selfless action.  I believe the fate of the world depends upon this kind of inner work.  We must recognize and integrate our own darkness to have compassion for others.  We must give up our addiction to owning the truth.  We must stop watching and start taking action.  In short, we must evolve to a higher plane of consciousness if we are to escape self-serving egoism, existential despair and the destruction of our planet.

(My thought is deeply influenced by Sri Aurobindo, John Dear, Andrew Harvey, Jesus and Rami Shapiro.)

I’m fascinated to hear your thoughts.  Add a comment!  I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks and will respond when I return.

Why I fell in love with South India

21 Jul

All photos by Pidge Cash (click on image to clarify and enlarge)

The people – I fell in love with the people.

Especially the children:

The profound spirituality:



Their open friendliness:

and that’s just a few of the reasons. . .

Perhaps the greatest was the feeling of love and happiness that despite poverty and squalor enveloped almost everyone .   These people know who they are in relation to their world.  They seem simultaneously grounded to the earth and focused on their Gods.  In their presence I am more at peace than anywhere else I have ever been.

Popular Animal Gods of India – Ganesha

15 Jul

Attired in an orange dhoti, an elephant-headed man sits on a large lotus. His body is red in colour and he wears various golden necklaces and bracelets and a snake around his neck. On the three points of his crown, budding lotuses have been fixed. He holds in his two right hands the rosary (lower hand) and a cup filled with three modakas (round yellow sweets), a fourth modaka held by the curving trunk is just about to be tasted. In his two left hands, he holds a lotus above and an axe below, with its handle leaning against his shoulder.

Basohli miniature, circa 1730. National Museum, New Delhi, India

All photos by Pidge Cash (click on images to clarify and enlarge)

Elephants have played a central role in Indian life for centuries.  50% to 60% of the wild and 20% of the domesticated elephants in Asia live in India.  The forests of India had huge elephant populations in past centuries.   Although there was no census of the wild population in the early 17th century, it is thought that the Moghul Emperor Jehangir had 113,000 captive elephants throughout his empire .   Extrapolating from this figure, it is possible to estimate a wild population in excess of a million.  Today only a fraction of that number exist.  Yet large numbers of sustainable herds still exist  in the south and northeast of the continent.

India has  3,600 domesticated elephants and strict legislation to protect them.  However, as with child brides,  the laws are disregarded and many of India’s captive elephants suffer as a result. They are chained in temples, overworked giving tourist rides, overworked for religious festivals, penned in zoos, worked in circuses and are ridden by Rangers patrolling protected forest areas.  Surely some of these domesticated elephants are treated humanely.  They are after all the living manifestation of the beloved God Ganesha.  He is lord of opportunity, the remover of obstacles, lord of beginnings, patron of arts and sciences and Deva of intellect and wisdom.

Elephants are famous for their intelligence, close family ties and social complexity.   They remember for years other individuals and places. They live in a fluid fission-fusion society with relationships radiating out from the mother-offspring bond through families, bond groups, clans, independent males and beyond to strangers.

Special relationships between individual elephants may last a lifetime.  The quality of these relationships and the structure and degree of cohesion in an individual’s social network may change through time.  With these seemingly “human” characteristics, is it no wonder that Shiva replaced the severed head of his  son with that of an elephant?  (That is one of the most common myths to explain Ganesha’s existence.)

And is it no wonder that in response to lost habitat and slaughter, elephants sometimes turn to violence?  “Incidents like this show the extent to which elephants are being driven to madness by human violence,” says Gay Bradshaw, an elephant behavior expert who wrote the book ‘Elephants on the Edge’ (Yale University Press, October, 2009). “That’s scientifically documented, consistent with what we know from research in neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry.”

Bradshaw compares the conflict between humans and elephants to colonialism, with the people taking over the elephants’ indigenous culture, and with “elephants fighting to keep their culture and their society as they are pushed into smaller places and killed outright.”

Marshall Jones, senior conservation adviser at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute has analyzed the number of fatalities in human/elephant conflict zones. He estimates that in India up to 300 people die from elephants each year.  As many as 200 elephants per year are killed in the conflict.

What a dark underbelly Lord Ganesha has!  Yet given my knowledge of  human genocide in the Americas, Germany, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and Cambodia, I can not condemn the elephants any more strongly than the humans.

My hope is that human consciousness will evolve to a level that emphasizes  humanities urgent responsibility for peace making.  We must make peace amongst ourselves and with all other life forms if we and our planet are to survive.

Popular Animal Gods of India – Hanuman

11 Jul

all photos by Pidge Cash (click on images to clarify and enlarge)

I had a strong impression while traveling in India that the Indian people  themselves seem to be  a part of the earth.   They have a deep connection with nature – with the soil, the plants and the animals and birds with whom they live.   As an ancient agrarian culture with a profound reverence for the Divine, they see the Divine in many of the life forms around them.

I saw monkeys everywhere I went in India.  They romp in the countryside, in villages and in temples and in the cities.

Given their abundance, they understandably became images for an aspect of the Divine.   Hanuman is the mighty ape that aided Lord Rama in his expedition against evil forces.  He is one of the most popular idols in the Hindu pantheon.  Believed to be an avatar of  Lord Shiva, Hanuman is worshiped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion.

Difficulties often arise with rhesus  monkeys,  particularly in the cities.  The monkeys as living representatives of the cherished God Hanuman, are traditionally fed on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  In New Delhi, where original monkey habitat has been progressively destroyed and developed for housing, monkeys ride buses, invade back yards and force residents inside their houses.  They steal shoppers food bags and bite the hands that feed them.   Their bite wounds can be extensive and sometimes lead to serious infection.  They are often smart enough to attack the face of a person.   As  more people move into the city,  more monkeys are fed and their numbers increase.  “The monkey population of Delhi has grown so large and aggressive that overwhelmed city officials have petitioned India’s Supreme Court to relieve them of the task of monkey control. ”

This doesn’t sound like devotion…perseverance and physical strength perhaps.   Here’s another example of the collision between heaven and earth!

Transitioning Road Transportation in India

6 Jul

all photos by Pidge Cash (click on photos for clarity and to enlarge)

There seem to be as many ways of getting about in India as there are Indians.  The  juxtaposition of the old way of life with emerging modernity is clearly apparent in the city and the countryside.  Autos, scooters, buses and lorries vie for road space with camels, sheep and goats, horses, cows, bicycles, rickshaws and foot traffic.

Although I didn’t see them working in the countryside, I saw elephants working for tourists in Jaipur.

Horses work for tourists

and for the Police in Agra.

Working camels in Rajasthan pay no heed to highway lane direction.  This group took the most direct route – directly toward us in our lane.

There is  a great deal of foot traffic on the highways.  It must be much kinder to those carrying loads than the uneven ground of the fields that flow across the landscape.

In the city and in the countryside I saw many Indian women carrying their goods  on their heads.

Automotive transportation developed  with colonialism and the advent of capitalism along with the ongoing transition from an agrarian to an urban society.  Autos, scooters, Tuk-tuks, buses and lorries move people and goods at moderate speed on  paved roads.   The Indian government is now focused on infrastructure development with paved highways a priority.  The result is faster movement of goods, a steep learning curve for highway etiquette, and astonishing traffic snarls in the cities and at major countryside  crossroads.   People crowd into whatever vehicle will carry them, their goods and their animals.

It  isn’t necessary to stay inside the vehicle.  If you can hang on, you can travel!

Like their homes, businesses and animals, most Indian vehicles are highly decorated.  The imagery can be religious, secular or practical.  It is a way to honor, to create beauty and pleasure and to worship.  Indian truck drivers are said to consider their trucks as “second wives.”

It will be interesting to see how transportation changes as India continues to move toward an urban, industrialized society.  Will a trucking industry own most trucks and dispense with the delightful imagery the driver-owners currently create?   Will farmers and their animals continue to use the roads as speeds increase on the new, paved highways?  Will safety laws be created  for scooters, tuk-tuks and trucks?  Will life become more sedentary and people loose the ability to carry heavy loads on their heads?

In what ways will the ancient civilization and deep spirituality of the Indian people influence their country’s developing urbanization?  Will these influences be seen on the roads and highways of India?

Festival Joy & Devotion

24 Jun

all photos by Pidge Cash (click on photos to enlarge)

One of my greatest delights during the long bus and car rides that carried me across Tamil Nadu as well as on the highways between Delhi, Jaipur and Agra was unexpectedly coming upon a street festival or procession.  Joyous people, floats, music, wild dancing and occasional, apparent altered states of consciousness were highlighted by bright smiles of welcome and brilliant color.

Indian festivals hold deep religious, social and hygienic significance.  Every festival begins with ritual bathing before sunrise in a river, tank or well followed by prayer, recitation of Sanskrit verses and meditation.  Only then does the celebration begin.  And how they celebrate!

The pictures above were taken on the road between Bangalore and  Mysore just prior to  our celebration of Shivaratri at the Sri Ganapaty Sachchidananada Ashram.   It was suggested in halting English by those above that it is a Durga festival, but I wonder?  If  she’s Durga, where are her extra arms?  Can a reader help me with this?

On the road between Mysore and Pondicherry we passed this festival.  I wonder which deity this is?

In the North I passed endless lines of devotees walking and riding  to temples and shrines for devotions.

I’ve looked at calendars and although not certain I think these processions might relate to the Shivaratri  Festival which we celebrated nationally a week earlier.

There was a profusion of red, gold, orange, yellow and printed flags, saris and decorations.  Flower garlands, real and paper, decorated the trucks  blaring their loudspeakers.

There were rest stops for weary walkers.

Might these pilgrims  have been on their way to watch the image of a God taken from his shrine to travel in procession around his domain?  Or were they on their way to bask in the presence of a chosen guru?  Sadly, my driver, a deeply spiritual man,  didn’t know the reason.

Whatever the reason and destination, these people were involved in a social and cultural as well as spiritual act.  They were woven together, red, yellow, orange and printed flags, young and old, in friendship and peace as they walked toward their destination.  For me, this was yet another visual image for the unity in diversity that I witnessed throughout my time in India.  They were united by their devotion to the Divine, not divided by their varied paths.  I pray my country can grow into such spiritual maturity!

Heaven and Earth Collide

13 Jun

India is a land of astonishing duality.  During my travels in the South (Tamil Nadu) and in the North (Delhi, Jaipur and Agra) I experienced the extraordinary, riveting spirituality of Hindu rituals and simultaneously saw evidence of the extreme cruelty suffered by child brides.  50% of girls in India marry before the age of 18.   My reading suggests this is not a failing of  Hindu spirituality, but rather the consequence of a rural, medieval mindset and extreme poverty.

photo by Gagan Thapa

Child weddings are illegal in India.  The British passed The Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 which stated that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 to be wed.  Sadly, since independence the Indian government has not worked to implement it.  In the state of Rajasthan, which has the highest number of child marriages in India,  there are huge colored wedding marquees dotting the desert in open defiance of the law.  Tradition and poverty rule.  For many people one less mouth to feed at home makes a big difference in the quality of life.  Some states now require registration with a girl’s birth certificate as proof that she is 18.  “But nothing is that simple in India, where the gulf between the passing of a law and its implementation can be a wide one.  In Andra Pradesh, four years after the law was passed, registration officers have still not been appointed at village level and, as elsewhere in the country, the police turn a blind eye.”

Girls from the age of 2 and 3 on through teen age years are married to older boys or men.  When they reach sexual maturity (often as young as 10 or 12) they are taken from any schooling they may have had and sent to live with their husband in their mother-in-laws house.  There they are expected to bear as many children as possible while cooking, cleaning and working the fields.  Many of these girls give birth before their pelvic structures are fully developed and wide enough to deliver a baby.  The result is often recto-vaginal  fistula which causes urinal and fecal incontinence.  These young wives are often abandoned by their husbands and unable to find another protector because they are deemed unclean.  There are clinics and hospitals throughout the country where treatment and/or surgery can be purchased.

photo by Pidge Cash

The obstacles for the girls are always information, accessibility and payment.  Cast off brides often are forced to exist as social pariahs, eking out an existence as tent dwellers, scavenging for food.

photo by Pidge Cash

In stark contrast to this heartbreaking cultural dilemma is the radiant spirituality of observant Hindus.  Hinduism is a blend of sects, cults and doctrines that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE.  Despite this diversity, most of its aspects  rely in some way or other on the authority of Indian religious literature – the Vedas, the Epics and the Puranas.  From them twenty ethical guidelines called yamas and niyamas, “restraints and observances”  have been codified.  These “do’s” and “don’ts” are found in the 6,000 to 8,000-year-old Vedas, mankind’s oldest body of scripture, as well as the Epics and Puranas.  Some examples amongst others are:

#1.  Practice non-injury, not harming others by thought, word or deed, even in your dreams.  Live a kindly life, revering all beings as expressions of the One Divine energy.

#2.  Adhere to truthfulness, refraining from lying and betraying promises. Speak only that which is true, kind, helpful and necessary.

#3.  Uphold the virtue of non-stealing, neither thieving, coveting nor failing to repay debt.  Control your desires and live within your means. Do not use borrowed resources for unintended purposes or keep them past due.

#4.  Practice divine conduct, controlling lust by remaining celibate when single and faithful in marriage.  Before marriage, use vital energies in study, and after marriage in creating family success.  Don’t waste the sacred force by promiscuity in thought, word or deed.

#5.  Exercise patience, restraining intolerance with people and impatience with circumstances.  Be agreeable. Let others behave according to their nature, without adjusting to you.

#7.  Practice compassion, conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings.  See God everywhere. Be kind to people, animals, plants and the Earth itself.

All very familiar to this Western, Christian writer!  I witnessed this morality in action during my visits to the Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda ashram in Mysore, at the research institute of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram  in Pondecherry and in Auroville,  a utopian city whose purpose is to realize human unity. (More on the later two in another post.)

I was privileged to take part in the celebration of Maha Shivaratri at the Sachchidananda Ashram in Mysore.  “Day is as sure as night and night is as sure as day.  So is also birth and death.  The cosmic cycle of creation and destruction goes on.  Shivaratri is a reminder of this cosmic act of Iswara (Shiva), the destroyer.  Shivaratri is his day and it is a great day.”

photo courtesy of

photo by Pidge Cash

In the image above  Swamiji unites male and female, the eternal and the particular, the sacred and the profane with  burning  intensity.  Swamiji is understood to be an Avatar, a fully realized human incarnation of the divine.  The faithful sat in  rapt attendance.

photos by Pidge Cash

Many rituals were ongoing simultaneously throughout the temple and my senses were almost overwhelmed by color, aroma, sound and the palpable presence of God.  Nothing I have experienced as a practicing Christian in the US begins to compare to the depth of this experience.

Everyone I met during my stay at the Ashram greeted me with acceptance and profound love.  There was no sense of  “otherness,” of being separate from anyone else.  We were all, Indian, European and American, united in our love of  the Divine.  We embodied the Yamas.

I am left with questions:

How can the atrocity of child brides coexist alongside such profound spirituality?  How can an ancient social tradition be changed?  Will the “westernization” of India’s economic system bring education to the agrarian poor?  Will education change ancient behaviors?

How can heaven and earth be united in everyday life in India and elsewhere, not just in spiritual ritual?

Holy Cow!

22 May

Thirty percent of the world’s cattle reside in India.  During my three weeks traveling in India, a day never passed without some benevolent bovine  presence.  Many  roam unharmed along roadways and in villages, towns and cities.  They browse on vegetable and fruit vendors discarded produce and are fed at temples and from faithful women’s back doors.

Cattle are currency in rural areas.  An Indian farm families wealth is determined by the number of cattle owned.  These water buffalo are part of a herd of 20 being taken to the river in Agra.

They wear I.D. necklaces of different colored beads and some have colored string anklets on their left, front ankles.

Cows form the core of religious rituals.  No sacrifice is performed without ghee, a clarified liquid butter.  Here’s the holy cow at His Holiness Parama Pujya Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda‘s ashram in Mysore.   She’s painted and draped, I assume either for honor or for ritual purposes.

No one could tell me if the colors used had specific, Hindu,  symbolic meaning.  Her horns, forehead and hoof  interdigital clefts are painted.   I wonder if she was blessing the space for that evening’s Shivaratri concert?

Holy Cows are even used as fund raisers.  This cow lives in a shed beside the Big Bull/Nandi Temple (Dodda Basavana Gudi) in Bangalore.

She is so covered with fabric, flowers and money that if she’s painted, it isn’t visible.  I added a bill to her headdress to contribute to temple maintenance.

The Nandi Temple is exclusively for the worship of the sacred bull named Nandi who is Lord Shiva’s animal mount.  The temple was built in 1537 by a local feudal lord, Kempe Gowda, in the Vijayanagara architectural style, distinguished by concentric series of rectangular enclosure walls with the gopuras (towered gateways) in the middle of each, exterior side.  The present tower was built in the early 20th c. and is decorated with saivite figures and motifs.

What is most amazing is what opens through the little door under the “Big Bull Temple” sign.

Then, walk across the courtyard to the temple and behold! – Nandi!

He is 15 ft. (4.6m) in height and 20 ft. (6.1m) in length.  He is thought to have been carved from a single granite stone which has become blacked from years of being ritually rubbed with butter and charcoal.  He wears a small, iron plate on his head, said to prevent him from growing.

Legend says the temple was built to appease a bull that used to eat the local farmers groundnut and peanut crops.  One farmer became angry and hit the bull with a club.  The bull immediately sat down, became motionless and was transformed into a stone that started to grow.  Repenting, the terrified farmers built a temple for the bull and praying to Lord Shiva were directed to unearth a trident buried a few feet away from the bull.  They placed the trident on the head of the stone statue to stop it from growing.  (C learly there are different traditions as our guide told us that Nandi grows 1.5 c. annually.)

So what is the power of bovine symbolism?  For the Celts, the bull represented physical strength,  power and because of his virility, fertility and the power to procreate.  Druids connected the bull with solar energy and the female cow with earth energy.

Zeus with his attributes of passion, transformation, virility, strength and fulfillment shape shifted into a tame, white bull to seduce Europa.

Enlèvement d’Europe by Nöel-Nicolas Coypel, c. 1726

In ancient Sumerian and Semitic religions the bull is a symbol of protection.  He stands guard over doorways to temples and homes.

Cows seem universally to be symbols of generosity and sacrifice.  They gently, patiently produce milk and act as surrogate mothers by providing milk to human beings for their whole lifespan.  In a sense, the cow is the mother of the world.  She is a symbol for the earth because she gives so much yet asks nothing in return.

Small wonder Bos Taurus is felt to be holy!

Who says Muslims can’t co-exist with other faiths?

18 May

 I think women will save the world!  I took this photo in rural, Tamil Nadu, (south) India from the window of our bus.  Muslims and Hindus there appeared to live together without rancor in the villages we passed.  For someone coming from the fear and hatred of Muslims that led to violence in my American hometown, this is an image of possibility and  hope.

How is a nation served by stirring up hatred of the “other?”  Before colonization and The Partition,  Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians and others lived relatively peacefully side by side in India.   Of course there were local “skirmishes,” but the continental climate was one of tolerance for the variety of religious paths.  I don’t fool myself into thinking I know how this was possible but perhaps it’s because Hindus, as the largest religion, honor millions of Gods as manifestations of the One.   Islam, the second largest faith, has 99 names (attributes)  for Allah.  There’s a spaciousness in both their understandings of the divine that permits acceptance of ideas and images from different paths.  Unless, of course, they are taught otherwise…

Which brings me back to my former question:  why stir up hatred of the “other?”  How is it so many people and nations need to project their own, inner shadows out onto someone different?  Why must there be an Enemy for some individuals and nations to feel complete and powerful?  My thought is that it is because they are reacting unconsciously rather than responding consciously.  Or if they are conscious, they are purposefully manipulating others to maintain their own sense of power.

And that brings me back to the image of possibility and hope above.  Women of different faiths sharing a moment in their busy day.  How lovely!  Women really may save the world!

A “modest” bathing suit

13 Jan

Well!  This never would have occurred to me without some research.   I need a “modest” bathing suit for India!  I’ve seen many kinds of “modest” in my travels.

For Muslim women in Turkey “modest” looks like – all covered up.

In essentially Christian Italy, “modest” is more often something like:  “Do I really need to wear a top above this bikini bottom?!”

I’m accustomed to feeling all covered up in my Speedo tank suit compared to most women on European beaches and in the Caribbean.  But it’s somewhat revealing so – L.L. Bean to the rescue.  I now have a scoop necked tankini top and a skirted bottom.  Hopefully this is modest enough.    India is, after all, a melting pot of spiritual traditions: Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Taoist and more.  I hope I’ve struck a visual compromise amongst them all.

And happily my little number rolls up into almost nothing and won’t take a lot of space in my suitcase.  Now on to the rest of the packing!