The Ganges plain is a sea of green extending in all directions as far as the eye can see. To call it "farmland" doesn't describe it if you think of the big patchwork squares of corn and beans in the American Midwest. India's great basin is a vast land of intensive gardening, intermingled with small villages. Uncountable thousands of small patches of rice, wheat, and vegetables are quilt-like, stitched together by footpaths, and painting the landscape multiple shades of green. Here and there, the regular succession of chimneys are seen on closer inspection to be kilns for firing the local clay into bricks of which the villagers' homes are made. Water buffalo become more common as one travels east, and except for the occasional tractor, it could just as easily be the India of the British Raj as that of 2007. Only the rusting factories, coal cars and pit mines of Bihar intrude on the bucolic landscape of the lower Ganges.
Picturesque as they are, the small plots of a few square meters and up to a couple of acres are evidence India's dilemma-a dense rural population living on land continually being subdivided into ever-smaller holdings as it is passed from one generation to the next. With a high birthrate, a villager in Bengal now feeds his family on one to two acres; a difficult task when competing in a world market. When ox plows and hand labor are matched against the combines of Argentina, Australia and Kansas, what is the next generation of villagers to do? With 75% of India living in the countryside where employment is limited at best, tremendous pressure mounts to find solutions to improve the lot of those by-passed by "The New India" of Time magazine.
I came to Kolkata by train, riding the overnight Rajasthani Express into Howrah Station for a "Kriya Review" with our small group of kriyabans from last December's initiation. It's a nineteen hour ride but it is something I wanted to experience, and the price is right, less than $40 for a one-way ticket. With a busy schedule, it's hard to find time to come this far for a group of only six or seven students, but Calcutta (or "Cool-kata" as the hip radio DJ's say) has a special place in our spiritual heritage, so I make the time. We have scheduled no major program here this year, focusing our energy elsewhere, but since I'm in town, I've asked Anil, one of the local kriyabans, to help me find a venue for 2008, planting seeds for next year's crop of students. I've seen some possible spots but they are so expensive. Sigh. That always seems to be the case.
Kolkata is hot, smelly, decrepit and crowded, and highly fascinating. As chaotic as the city can be to Western eyes, it is well loved by the Bengalis. Natives who leave usually long to come back, missing the city when away. Said one, "I went to L.A. once and in five days, I was bored to death. I couldn't wait to get home." Another, "Westerners see all the beggars and say bad things about our city. Yes, in Calcutta, we have beggars but what would you rather have, a hundred beggars and one robber, or one beggar with a hundred robbers like you have in your country?" Pride, whether spiritual, ethnic or material is also a Calcutta feature. See the movie "Namesake" if it comes to your town and you'll see some good shots of the city. It's a lovely movie although some of the Indian subtleties might go right by an American audience.
There is no denying the city's vitality--people everywhere, hustling and bustling, sleeping or relaxing on the sidewalk, noisily selling their wares, arguing and laughing, driving madly about. Bengalis are a friendly, warm people although I sometimes have to work to get them to smile. I hear the local version of rap music in the taxis, intermixed with bhajans and muzak, sometimes all in the same song. The sweets here are famous, culinary specialties abound, literacy is high, thus the many bookshops, and people love reading their daily periodicals. Red banners of the Communist Party wave in the breeze, evidence that politics is a local sport rivaling the national cricket mania. The hot issue these days is whether and where to convert farmland into industrial zones for factories. Tata Corporation wants to set up an assembly line to produce a simple, low cost car for about $2500. Outside downtown, lunghis and dhotis, rather than trousers, are still common, whereas in Delhi these are becoming rare.
Bengal is a land with a long history of saints, so the population is very discerning about spiritual traditions, practices and beliefs. I saw my first naga-sadhu (naked or "sky-clad" as they say) strolling nonchalantly down the street with his long hair and wooden danda (staff). He was in great shape! No one seemed to pay any notice to him but me. Bengalis like to argue and they can debate with passion. Swami once recounted a story that Bengalis laughingly tell about themselves. It seems that in Calcutta, it is necessary to have represented on every committee a Banerjee, a Mukerjee, a Chatterjee (all Bengali names) and a Singh (Sikh). The Bengalis would argue and discuss; the Sikh would get the job done.
My friend introduced me to the city's underground Metro system. It was clean and modern as opposed to the dingy and dark I had prejudicially and unfairly expected. For those familiar with New York, it's similar although not nearly as extensive. It only costs 4-8 rupees to ride, depending upon how far you go. Pointing to the electronic schedule on the wall, Anil's son said, "You see. Our train is due at 16:52. Watch!" At exactly the appointed time and with a whoosh of air, in rolled our train. "Exactly on time, every time!" I was impressed. The doors opened and in we went. Once again, as the only Westerner aboard and standing a full head above the crowd, all eyes turned my way to watch the show. After awhile, you get used to it.
Anil took me to visit a friend of his from Dublin who, with his son, had recently arrived to serve in Mother Teresa's orphanage. Although from different spiritual traditions, I felt an immediate connection, sensing a shared interest in India, religion and service. He invited me to his room to show me something special. He reverently took from his luggage a snapshot of his son posed with a half dozen others who had previously served at the Mission of Charity. It was a typical group photo of friends memorializing an occasion, otherwise unremarkable except for one thing. There behind the group, distinct and clear on the background wall, was a bright outline image of Mother Teresa composed of light. She appeared on the wall before which the group stood, seemingly as if to give her blessings. How it came to be was unexplainable but stunning. Bryan, my Irish friend, with tears in his eyes, asked me how such a thing could be. Words failed me. All I could say was, "I don't know, but this is why people come to India and this is why they come back."
I can't help but contrast Kolkata with Hyderabad, the city where we gave a major program a couple of weekends ago. One represents the past struggling to move into the future while the other is the future. Clean, modern, and efficient, Hyderabad is the successor of Bangalore as the "Silicon Valley" of India. Bangalore, of course, disputes the claim of its younger brother to the north, but Hyderbadi's are confident that future leadership is theirs. The Microsofts, Intels and Infosys's of the world have found a place with clean streets, a highly educated workforce, and an openness to modern methods, the same indicators Ananda looks for to find people interested in what we have to offer. That certainly seemed to be the case in Hyderabad and we are hoping it is so in Pune too, where we go next week.
Our program in Hyderabad was a great success. Over the course of the weekend we had two audiences, each over 300, for free discourses, two corporate workshops (for which we were actually paid!), a two-hour radio interview, and an appearance by Nancy Rakela (Ananda Berkeley's center leader) on television leading a hatha yoga program for pregnant ladies, dubbed into Telugu. Over 200 came to the workshop on Sunday, with about half expressing serious interest for the next level of classes in May. The response was so positive that Dharmadas is returning with Nirmala in a couple of weeks to conduct a satsang and review. Small, "in-between" appearances like that are what we need to do more of, but it's hard to find the time and/or people to fill this role. Such informal visits, like my trip to Calcutta, usually don't generate much income and have to be funded out of the teachers' pockets but they are a great opportunity to build friendships. It is such personal relationships that will keep Ananda's work from becoming too impersonal and organizational as it grows. Heaven keep us from someday reverting to the expediency of simply sending out printed lessons because we don't have time for individual people.
Our weekend workshops typically last from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm with a one hour break for lunch. We teach meditation in the first half, energization/will/magnetism in the second. Audience feedback is telling us that people want more practice and less theory, more time for questions, and greater practical help about how to integrate what we teach into daily life. In answer we plan to go back to what we did last year: teaching a meditation workshop on Saturday and following with a pranayama/energization workshop the next day. This will give us more time to include the desired elements.
Dharmaraj Iyer, along with his wife Dharmini, is now heading up the Material Success department and we've invited him to accompany us on our next round of tours to lead a section on Practical Application of Yoga in Daily Life. I don't think we've been covering this topic as well as we should and this will give us a chance to figure out how we might better integrate Swami's Material Success Through Yoga Principles Course into our outreach efforts. We want to get these lessons out to people and our tours might be one solution. Vijay Girard, who was overseeing the Material Success department before, has now joined our tour teaching team, much to his delight.
Swamiji will be leaving for Italy soon and as he leaves, so too will others trickle away for the coming hot season, either taking vacations, leading tours to the US and Italy or taking this time of year to do business elsewhere. Swami is keen on the potential of a new Ananda work in Switzerland and wants to lend his energy to that effort if Divine Mother allows the details to fall into place. Being in Italy will give him a first hand view of "what is trying to happen" there. I'm sure too that the climate will be better for him than in India in the summer. From Italy he'll make his way to America where many new ventures are stirring. It's an exciting time for Ananda's work.
Here in India we are still exploring options for land with a couple of possibilities being discussed as I write this. I can't say more at this moment, but I think it is only a matter of time before circumstances come together to make Swami's dream of an Indian community a reality. In the short year I have been here, we have grown from four houses to six, from 25 residents to 40, from three Indian residents to ten. If we can find ways to employ people and generate incomes, more local devotees will be able to join us. Now, foreigners are in the majority but our goal is for this to be an Indian work, just as the work in Assisi is now a European one. The necessity to generate income is one of our big challenges, just as it was in the early days of Ananda Village. How can we create businesses and livelihoods that allow local families and devotees of average means to live a spiritual life together? Already business seeds have been planted and fledgling efforts are being made. Those of you who came to the international retreats in March were given a taste of what we are doing, but for those who were not here, I'll try to tell you more next time I write. I may have said that before but I'll get to it in one of these letters.
Much joy to all of you.