Chennai Journal
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Feeding the Spirit

A couple of weeks ago, someone inquired what I liked most about India. When asked by someone who genuinely wants to know (versus a polite question from a complete stranger at a social gathering or in a business setting), this is a tough question. You want to be able to give an answer that is honest but not too superficial or general, e.g "people are friendly", "I can get health care for my dad and buy prescriptions at a fraction of the cost of the U.S" , "I like not having to do household chores" etc. I have been here long enough now, as well, that I feel I should have a well-thought out and sensitive reply to such a question.

Although there are many things I might point to (see below), I think what I would put at the top is the deep spirituality that you feel and observe in this country, at least in South India which is where I spend most of my time. The daily practices of the people around me reinforce this---from the tilak on foreheads that come in different shapes and colors depending on one's religious customs and beliefs within Hinduism, to rangoli that graces the entrances to homes and businesses, to moon and other fast days observed by the devout, to the ubiquitous silk/cotton thread bracelets that show visits to a particular temple or observance of family ceremonies, such as the one that ties brothers and sisters (rakhi), to reliance on astrology and other esoterica to make important life decisions. Almost every day, you are conscious of the way that things beyond the material and the mundane are part of the fabric of people's lives. In some areas, such as dietary practices, there are parallels in this culture/religion of action to Judaism that I find oddly comforting especially so far from home.

Of course, India is the world's center of yoga, meditation, and other healing arts such as Ayurveda so the spiritual bent is hardly surprising. Every day you see advertisements for courses for all ages---it is very much part of the daily scene. Though I haven't yet taken any classes in yoga or meditation here (except for a couple of quick Sun Salutations every morning, I ironically do less of this here than in the States), I definitely want to before I leave. Two that I'm most interested in are Art of Living and Vipassana. Both can be done in the U.S. as well (see Prince Roy's upcoming review of his experience of the latter), but I'd like to experience one or both while here if at all possible.

If I were to draw up a more comprehensive list of what I like, here are some other things (some related to the spiritual aspect, some not) that I would mention:

1. The respect shown to the elderly, especially by medical personnel
2. The sense of social consciousness of many in the middle class to "give back to society"--Marty sees it in abundance at the Rotary, and I also see it at work
3. Bright and colorful clothing --some of the most beautiful I've seen
4. Beautiful sites--temples in particular
5. The antiquity of many places---this is something appreciated by Americans perhaps more than others
6. The way poverty is always in your face---although I don't like it and it makes me sad, it also forces me to think on a daily basis about how fortunate I am ---and that I'm on the planet to make a difference
7. Affordable, competent medicine
8. Slower pace of life (at least in the South)
9. Great opportunities to see nature ---some of the best wildlife and natural settings in the world.
10. Discovering what isn't different--especially when it comes to people

Wonderful observation. There is so much awareness in western countries about India, Ayurveda and spirituality nowadays that I am really surprised.

"Discovering what isn't different--especially when it comes to people." Yes finding unity in diversity is passion of Indian mind. India itself is so diverse culturally and socially. Spirituality is indeed the thread that brings all Indians together. Let us hope that one day this will bring whole world together.
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