Hello, sleepyhead. It is 14:30 here at my place, so I know it for a fact that you are definitely asleep now.
Let me begin on the subject of getting people things.
As I said, I grew up among monks, or sādhus as we call them in India (the feminine for sādhu is sādhvī.) One very big lesson I learnt from them is how to take. You see, these monks have no personal belongings. Yes, they do belong to a monastic order, and that order has property and everything, – but in principle, they are still hermits. And they used to talk to us about the quality of non-attachment.
We usually think of non-attachment as something material in nature. It is material in the sense that you can be attached to something which is material; you can be non-attached to something which is material. So a sādhu, when he gives up home and hearth, is practising non-attachment. He is letting go of all his belongings. Material belongings.
And here’s the rub – material belongings are not the only things you are attached to. You are far more attached to other things, finer things, – like your name, your fame, your identity. Your worldview. Your ego.
They used to tell us that when you give up all your belongings, you need to take the next step and give up your narrow sense of self, too. You have to accept yourself as a part of the world, in the truer sense. You have to accept that everything you have, you have on lease from the library of nature. Your body, your tissues and cells, you have received from the organic and inorganic compounds on earth. Your thoughts and your knowledge have been given to you by every single bit of information that has trickled into your brain since you were born. You have been fed, clothed, and taught by others. All your life, you have been buoyed up by the invisible kindnesses of strangers, unseen, unknown, unperceived. It’s the entire cosmos that has gone into creating this unique array of atoms that you see in the mirror – you.
So, as a monk – they said – one should be endlessly grateful to everything in the world. They should live life in eternal thankfulness, basking in the grace of this infinity of the universe, feeling in it the presence of the One. They gather from the world whatever little sustenance they need, and they are not ashamed of it, because they know, – everything anyone ever has, has been received as grace.
It is this way that they let go of their ego. They stop thinking of themselves as airtight entities that do not engage in perpetual exchange with the world. — We were not all going to be sādhus, of course. But what we had learnt from them is that it takes strength to give, but it also takes strength to receive.
I have two old stories about this, from my own school life.
Sunil-da was our school-barber. Ours was a residential school, and we had all sorts of people on the campus rendering service in different ways. Most of these people were financially very weak. Purulia, where my school is, is one of the poorest districts in India. People in those villages live in abject poverty, the kind you cannot even imagine, Elizabeth. I know only because I was fortunate enough to take part in a few social service camps in some of these villages. It’s eye-opening. – The people who worked at our school as staff were not victims of extreme poverty, but they were nonetheless severely underprivileged.
Once when I was in the 11th grade – it was a Sunday, I remember – I saw Sunilda walking down the path. He stopped to talk to me. Turned out he was trying to raise some money. There was a big storm the previous night, and it had blown his house’s tin roof away. He did not have the money to get a new roof. He was going around, requesting people to help him out whatever way they could. Whatever sum they could spare.
I imagine it is hard for you to picture the look on his face as he did this. Was there shame? Regret? A shadow of dejection? – No, there wasn’t. I imagine in those pre-internet-crowdfunding days, this is how it had to be. And Sunilda showed no shame as he asked his neighbours for help. Because it was the most natural thing to do. He would have done the same for anyone of us, had we been in a situation like that.
So I asked him to please wait, and I ran to my hostel. I knew I had about a hundred rupees or so tucked away somewhere. I got the money, and rushed back. I handed the money to him,… and I remember the scene to this day as if it was only yesterday… Sunilda took the money from me, did not even look at it, and put it in his pocket. – It was one, deliberate motion. He did not even glance at the note I handed him.
Perhaps he had noticed the look of respectful surprise on my face. There in my school, we used to learn from everyone, not just the ‘teachers.’ And Sunilda was about to give me one of my most memorable life lessons. He said, ‘I won’t look at how much you gave me, brother. It is that you gave that matters.’
The second story is from even earlier. I was reading a book, a novel in Bangla (my mother tongue) called Mādhukari. The title of the book is what I want to share with you. Pardon the linguistic explanation, – but it is rather necessary.
Mādhukari derives from the Sanskrit word Madhukar, which means honeybee (madhu = honey). It refers to a practice followed by mendicant hermits of India over ages and ages. When a monk does Mādhukari, he goes from door to door for alms, but never begs or asks for anything. He only takes what he is given spontaneously, without uttering a word of beseechment. This is in imitation of the honeybee, who goes from flower to flower, and takes what it gets without remorse or complaint. Mādhukari is distinct from begging in the fact that begging allows you to actually request a donation, whereas Mādhukari does not. In Mādhukari, you simply collect and are content.
I have always thought, since reading that novel, that all our life we are in the course of one long Mādhukari. We go from door to door, person to person, or experience to experience. We take what we receive, without any say on what is granted us, and we move forward. Move on, to the next door, to the next place. Our modest bags are filled with our modest gatherings, and whatever we receive, we ought to be grateful for.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
And wherefrom comes this grace, if not from all the wide world that beats in unison with our own hearts?
Do you know what happened the other day?
I buy books for my friends pretty often. Sometimes people have wondered why I do it because I don’t make much money, I don’t have a lot of cash to spare. But my friends know me, and they know for me it is not ‘charity’, it is just something I need to do. It floats my boat, melts my butter, tickles my fancy, turns my crank – whatever you’d like to call it.
Now, recently, I am reading a lot on Kindle. I don’t own a Kindle Reader, – I’ve been using the Kindle App, but I was thinking of buying a Reader. So I reached across to a person I know. I had seen her use a Kindle Reader before, so I just wanted feedback about the product, – if it is worth buying, and all that.
Guess what happened. She tells me she really doesn’t like reading on the Kindle. She’s an old-fashioned reader who likes it the old-fashioned way – with actual books. So, she asks me not to spend money and buy a Kindle, because she’s gonna give hers away to me. – I refused at first, I told her that she can give it to someone who needs it more than I do. But she said she won’t give it to someone she doesn’t know and cannot trust. She needs to give it to someone who she knows would value it.
And so I accepted. I am well aware that most people in my position would not accept it. Because it hurts people’s egos to accept charity. They feel pricked deep within, they feel that it humiliates them somehow. (Remember Walter White from Breaking Bad?)
But I personally practice a policy of giving freely, whenever my heart desires it. So how can I be so hypocritical as to refuse another person’s heartfelt gift to me?
* * *
I said I’d try to tell you something about Indian philosophy.
Three feet from my writing desk, on my left, is my big iron bookshelf. It’s an almirah, actually, an old one that I bought second-hand. I use it to house my books. Must be over a hundred volumes in there, and a few are on philosophy. I was wondering whether I should dig in and do some research, just to refresh my memory.
Then I decided against it. Let’s just write what I remember, I thought; if she really wants to explore, I can always suggest the books to her.
Eastern philosophy is a pretty vast thing. It is tied up with India’s literature, her history, her politics, her economics, her religion, – all of it. When you talk about Vedic philosophy, – it is an error to think that you are discussing religion or spirituality only. The notion that the Indian way of thinking only concerns religion or spirituality is largely a product of the last 200-250 years – when this aspect was rediscovered, researched and heavily promoted by many for social, educational, and political purposes. – It’s not a bad thing that they did so, at that time India badly needed be reminded of her past. But that picture was not a complete picture, and our popular culture has not really updated its idea about ancient India.
There’re some people who would identify India as the land of the Gita.
There’re some people who would identify India as the land of the Arthashāstra.
There are some people who would identify India as the land of the Kamasutra.
There are some people who would identify India as the land of Buddha.
There are some who would identify India as the land of Gandhi.
And the truth of the matter is, – all of the above notions would be right. Not just in terms of facts – but in terms of spirit. India’s philosophy does indeed have the Gita as one of the most important texts; I told you a bit about it before, you will get to know a whole lot more once you start with Swami Ranganathananda’s book. The Arthashāstra, written by Chānakya (also known as Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta), is indeed one of the most important economic/administrative texts ever composed in world history, – it is like the Indian counterpart of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Chānakya was the teacher and counsellor to the king Chandragupta Maurya; these are the contemporaries of Alexander the Great; Chandragupta had in fact encountered Alexander when he had come to India. Chānakya’s Arthashāstra is a guide to sensible and healthy living; it is also a guide to how to be the successful king of a successful state. The Kamasutra, wildly embraced by popular Western culture, is also a vital piece of our intellectual tradition. One has to marvel at the fact that this book was compiled and composed by Vātsyāyana, who was himself a celibate monk. But then, the Kamasutra isn’t some sort of a sex-manual at all; those editions we find on seedy paperback stalls are heavily edited and summarized texts, intended for a rather simplistic audience. The original Kamasutra is a sociological study that focuses on all aspects of a person’s well-being and their relations to different social elements in their life; that includes their sexual partner, and thus human sexuality is addressed in the book at great length. That’s ancient India, – where sexuality was not seen as perverse or taboo, but accepted as a normal, commonplace and healthy part of everyday life.
And Buddha and Gandhi? – Well, I guess I could write a 2000-word letter to you on this subject alone, and still have hours of conversation left.
Right now, at this very moment, when the USA is observing #BlackoutTuesday, here in India the Supreme Court is considering an appeal from some people that our country should be renamed as ‘Bharat,’ and the name India should be scrapped.
When I was at school, I used to fantasize about this. It was something that felt very right. Why not? The word ‘India’ is not really an Indian word. There is a river called Sindhū, flowing through present-day western Tibet, India (the Ladakh region) and Pakistan. In the olden days, this river was known to the Persians as ‘Hindu’, because ‘Sindhū’ did not come easy to their tongues. Later, when the Greeks came, the name became Indós to them (the Greeks could not pronounce ‘Chandragupta,’ so they called him ‘Sandrocottus;’ and the Indians could not pronounce ‘Alexander,’ so they called him ‘Sikander.’) And then the Romans made it into Indus. Today, if you look at a map of the world, you will find Indus there.
So both the name ‘Hindu’ and the name ‘India’ are derivations from other words, which were mispronunciations of the word Sindhū. ‘Bharat’ makes more sense. It is definitely an Indian word, straight outta Sanskrit. There’s an old verse that says –
Uttaram yat samudrasya. Himadreschaiva dakshinam– (Vishnu Purana, II, 3.1.)
Varsham tad Bharatam nama. Bharati yatra santatih.
It simply means – “To the north of the oceans, and to the south of the snowy mountains, there is the land of Bharat, where reside the children of Bharati.” – That there is a perfect geographical description of the Indian peninsula. What else does one need, – I used to think when I was a schoolboy.
But one does not remain a schoolboy forever, blissful though it may be. Later, over the years, I learnt of India’s history at greater detail, and slowly began to understand why it is not that easy to rebrand a country. ‘India’ may have been an unfortunate naming, but ‘Bharat’ does not do justice to the idea of modern India, either. You see, the term ‘Bharat’ is an Aryan coinage. When they used that word, they referred to specifically their culture and their civilization. They categorically excluded the native inhabitants of the-then India, which included the Dravidians, the Australoid races, and the Mongoloid people of the mountains. Ancient Indian history is a history of the Aryan takeover of the subcontinent. – Do we stick to those standards in the present day? Should we? If we are indeed going to all this trouble of rebranding an entire nation of 1.4 billion people (frankly, this is the last thing we should be thinking about, there are a thousand very real problems that needs to be taken care of, including – just citing one little example for you – over 80 migrant labourers dead over the last few days because they were forced to be on the roads with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep), shouldn’t we be picking a name that is inclusive?
This is the problem, Elizabeth. Why it is difficult to talk to someone about ‘what India is.’ – India is not one thing, you see? It is at the same time so many different things.
Hell, it shouldn’t even be one nation. A hundred events and images from history flash through my mind as I type these words right now… It should have been the United States of India.
Well, the makers of our constitution did try. They gave it a federal structure… hoping to preserve India’s unity and diversity at the same time. – Did they imagine that within seventy years of independence we’d be standing on the edge of totalitarianism and oligarchic fascism?
Sorry. I am burdening you with unpromised woes here. But a rose has its thorns, I guess. – I promised you a true India.
I was born in a Hindu family, to Hindu culture. Okay, but which kind of Hinduism? – I am a Bengali Hindu. The distinction is important, because all over India, you’ll find hundreds of varieties of Hinduism, and usually they are not very tolerant of each other. Let me tell you one or two things about Hinduism… which may surprise you, or may not if you already know about them.
Hinduism isn’t really a religion. A religion has a few salient features. For example, it usually has a founder (Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Hazrat Mohammad, et al); it has a small number of holy books; it has a more or less specific object of worship. – Hinduism has none of these. You cannot be born a Christian or a Muslim. You have to be initiated into it. But a child is a Hindu as soon as it is born. Some groups do have rituals, like the holy threading ceremony and similar things, – but by and large, Hinduism is a ‘default’ setting with us. – This is why many people say (rather simplistically) that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. — I would rather put it this way – Hinduism is a collective term for all the different modes of life that existed in India back then, which were brought under a single, somewhat lopsided umbrella. It’s a word like, say, ‘Europeanism,’ or ‘rock music.’ What sense would it make to you if I said ‘Oh, I like rock music’? – The subcategories are simply too numerous.
Hinduism has no founder, because there’s no single strand of philosophy. Valmiki wrote the Ramayana. Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata (which contains the Gita in it.) No one knows who wrote the Vedas because they are the oldest books and back then they didn’t keep historical records of authorship. All the different Puranas were compiled by different sages, and you will find different versions of the same story in different Puranas. If the hero of this Purana is Vishnu, then this story makes Vishnu look better; if this Purana is about Shiva, then Shiva gets to be the big guy. It’s all very tangled up in the Puranas.
There’s a number of books in Indian culture called the shāstras; there’s a number of books called the sutras; there’s a number of books called the Samhitas; – none of them is about religion per se. They are treatises on science, mathematics, economics, sociology, philosophy, medicine – you name it, there’d be a book on it. But all of them are products of the Vedic society and Vedic culture; so people foolishly lump them together as ‘Hindu texts.’
The Ayurveda is not a Hindu text – it’s a text on medicine and botany; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are not Hindu texts – they’re texts on yoga, which are physical-mental-spiritual disciplines that are independent of any particular religion; — you are a Yogi, right, you’ll see when you read the Gita, that every single chapter is called a “—yoga.” There’s a root-word, and then you have the suffix -yoga attached to it. Because ‘Yoga’ is not simply an array of bendy, breathy flexibility routines. I am sure you say this to your students every day. In fact, the West, today, has a healthier grasp of what Yoga is than Indians do. In Sanskrit ‘yoga’ literally has another meaning – ‘addition,’ ‘joining.’ Yoga is what connects us to the universe. Yoga is what allows the smaller us to find the greater Us.
Reminds you of Yoda yet? Of course it does. Of course it does.
I mean, his damn name is, like, ‘Yoda, son of Yoga!!’ – What are the chances that George Lucas did not have this in mind?
Let’s pause here. I have more to write, but I will put it in the next mail. I will start typing that today itself. The thoughts are ready at the door. You don’t turn them away when they are waiting at the door.
See you again soon. 🐜