Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Community Building--Lessons Learned

On the 23rd, Dharmadas and Nirmala led our annual Christmas meditation at the community in Watunde Village, thirty kilometers outside of Pune. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but gaze from time to time out the window from Swami Kriyananda’s home to the hillside below. It’s changed so much from when I first arrived that it’s hard to believe it’s been only a little over two years. It seems much longer. There were no buildings when I came and now there is a cluster. Seeing my fellow gurubhais sitting in Swami’s home affirmed that the seeds we’ve planted have taken root. A growing community has sprung up, ready to take another step, the building of guest accommodations and up to 32 residential flats. The guest space is already underway and we are in the process of soliciting bids from contractors with hope of beginning the flats next month.

Being part of a construction project in India has definitely been a “learning experience”. I used to joke with my co-workers about paying “fees” to attend the Indian school of hard knocks. “Just another tuition payment” I’d say after finding once again I’d over-paid or been mildly swindled. On the whole, my two years in Pune have been a marvelous (and mostly fun, with a few exceptions) experience of learning the ins and outs of doing business in village India, what to expect, what to avoid, when to be firm and when to keep quiet, when to bargain and when to simply walk away. When I arrived, I hadn’t a clue about local protocols, but I learned the little things that make life smoother. Take time to try to know the person with whom you are dealing, have another cup of tea and make an effort to become friends. Business is more personal in India and if you are “inside” the circle of friendship of another, things will go better. I learned trivial customs too such as how to count money in a cash exchange, how Indians like all the bills to be neatly arranged and not upside down or back-to-front like they‘d usually be when coming from me. I learned to check, check, check everything and to verify transactions or you will be disappointed before long.

In the building of the first cluster of homes, Swamiji’s included, we made many mistakes we hope to avoid in the next project such as how to plan properly and build more efficiently. Some of our troubles were simply due to Biraj’s and my unfamiliarity with local techniques and materials. In America, wood is used heavily and that is what I am familiar with, whereas in India, it is very expensive and used only for specific purposes only such as cabinets, doors and decoration. Houses in India are built almost entirely of concrete, reinforcing steel, bricks, plaster and decorative tile or stone. Almost everything is done by hand with power tools used only for such things as cutting marble or an occasional drill. Mortar is mixed by hand and power concrete mixers are only used for the major pours. Big crews of unskilled labor are the norm, doing the work of machines you‘d typically see in the West. As a “hands-on” American, I tended to get personally involved in the work I supervised but this often raised eyebrows. Supervisors here don’t dirty their hands and the pronounced consciousness of class and the attendant attitudes I found distasteful.

I was very impressed with how hard most of the daily laborers worked, men and women. Some were idlers, but most put in a hard day’s work of heavy labor for a very small wage. Indian crews are very good, or even excellent, with the rough work of reinforcing bar, concrete forming and pouring, and with all things masonry but tend to be “slap-dash” or “slip-shod” with finished details. That was a disappointment which necessitated constant hectoring from me and Biraj to get jobs up to an acceptable standard. Often we were forced to concede that the workers simply did not have the skill, tools or training to do what we hoped, no matter how hard they tried or we badgered. They couldn’t understand “what’s the problem” when we complained and redoing brought no better results. I found this somewhat surprising because I've seen very high quality work in India and the best explanation I heard was that it just isn’t possible to get the quality we want in a remote location such as Watunde Village. What we viewed as substandard, they saw as perfectly fine. We would have had to import special workers from the city at a much higher price to get quality work but we didn’t have the time or experience to do that. We were also told that all the best workers were now working at Lavasa, the a modern, multi-billion dollar hill station coming up 15 kilometers from us, where good workers were being paid handsomely.

Another lesson, subsequently confirmed by Indians with contracting experience, was learning how about the difficulty of getting subcontractors to coordinate with one other. It was maddening. Let’s say Mr. Plumber wants to install a “shut-off” valve for a house. Will he put it where it best serves the needs of the homeowner and doesn’t conflict with other jobs? Probably not. He’ll put it in a place most convenient to himself without thinking how it affects anyone else. If easiest, he’ll put it in the middle of a pathway to be tripped over or where another crew might be laying drain lines. They, in turn, will put the drains in too shallow without thinking of the needs of the following crew who want to place paving stones properly. I’d get so exasperated and ask, “What are you guys thinking?” Obviously, thinking ahead was not part of their job description. Where was the contractor who was supposed to be supervising? Absent as usual. Each crew had absolutely no concern for the others. If an electrician encounters a pipe blocking his wiring pathway, will he take a little extra time to go around it. Noooo! He’ll probably cut the pipe out and patch over the situation in some make-shift fashion without telling anyone!!! You’ll discover his little “fix” only later when you notice the wet spot on the wall. The supposed solution to this madhouse approach is to have the architect draw precise details about every single pipe, wire and conduit and then have an army of supervisors checking everything, but of course, this doesn’t happen. We were thankful to receive plans at all, usually weeks late at best. A second approach is to hire a “Services Engineer” who will take the architectural plans and figure out every little detail for the workers. But that didn’t work either. I tried it for our drainage and water systems and received a set of plans entirely theoretical with little relationship to reality. The fellow didn’t bother to actually visit the site to look at what was being built. I quickly gave his plans the toss and improvised.

In America, when hiring a professional, licensed tradesman such as an electrician or plumber, it's assumed he knows his craft and has experience to deal with whatever comes up. You shouldn’t need to tell him how to do his job and if he has a question, he usually can be counted upon to ask. He’ll know enough of the other trades to do his work in such a way as to coordinate with those who follow. I assumed things worked this way in India too. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Basic rule, “Assume nothing!” Especially in the villages.

“Professional” subcontractors may, or may not, know their trade. If they do, they probably know little of other tradesman’s job. In India, you will find contractors who have never touched a tool in their life. The concept of “working one’s way up the ladder” from apprentice to journeyman to contractor , so typical in the construction trades in the West, is not as common here. I found one excellent electrician who had gone through this progression and he was a joy to work with, but generally, supervisors and contractors skip the step of “on-the-job” training and have little practical experience. The person left to do the job has little incentive to coordinate with the other tradesmen. His responsibility is not to the customer but to the man who pays him, and that guy wants him to finish as fast as possible and move on. If you ask him to do something out of the ordinary, he is likely to say, “Not my scope,” meaning it’s someone else's job, certainly not his. Ah, how I came to loath that phrase. “When you leave, would you please clean up the mess you’ve left behind?” “Not my scope!” “Would you repair the pipes you’ve just broken when digging up the pathway?” “Not my scope!” I heard it so often, I found myself using it too, “Jaya, when passing through town next time, would you do the grocery shopping?” “Not my scope!”

How refreshing it was to find someone who really knew his trade, was particularly skilled or who was willing to take responsibility for doing a job well and right. Such people do exist, thank God and we were lucky to find some. When we did find workers with good spirit and skill, we did our best to keep them on our crew. Often though, working with the villagers was a challenge. I found many of their attitudes and behaviors pretty dark and came to realize why so many Indians want to get away from the villages and move to the cities. Theft is rampant. Anything of value must be locked up or it disappears, aggression and threats are often the first option when in a dispute, status is measured by how much power one has over other people, venality underlies transactions and goras (white people) are charged double. Because moving the work forward, settling disputes and resolving a daily crisis was my task, I felt forced to act in ways I didn’t much like to get the job done. It's hard to be totally non-attached.

We are now in the middle of building six guest apartments for our future retreat programs. These will be really nice and a big boost for events out on the land. Visitors will actually be able to stay out on the land in comfort whereas right now, it’s still pretty much camping. Amol, Sundeep and Dhruv (in the photo) are the Sangha members who are financing and coordinating this project and they’re doing a great job. They’ve been able to streamline the construction process and have found a good contractor/supervisor and architect with whom to work. In another month or two, we’ll begin the building of a complex of residential flats for members who have already made down payments. For this we’ve hired a professional project manager from Delhi to supervise the work relieving Biraj and me of that duty. This time, we won’t be in such a rush and we are insisting upon plans before we begin.. In other words, we’re trying to do it right and learn from what happened the last time. If all goes well, the guest house should be ready by March and the first homes by the end of 2011. (See the photo of where these homes will be built)

Right now, Biraj, Dharmadas and Nirmala, along with a dozen other ashram members (six of whom are monks) live at the community in Watunde. There are another eight or nine staff of cooks, drivers, watchmen, spouses and maintenance men. About one dozen core members of our Sangha live in Pune, driving out on weekends to participate in community activities. Sadhana Devi and I continue to conduct classes, meditation groups and satsangs in Pune city with the intent of building up a local congregation in the city to support the activities out on the land and eventually, when residential space is available, we hope some of these people will move out there.

Sadhana Devi's and my job in Pune is just about done and soon we will move back to Gurgaon to help with the work in the Delhi region. When we came to Pune in 2008, almost half of our Gurgaon ashram also shifted shortly after, putting a strain on those left behind and last spring a number of Westerners in the ashram returned home, reducing the population even further and leaving the Gurgaon ashram short-handed. They’ve responded well with expansive energy by remodeling the ashram basement into a beautiful new temple/classroom and have begun to offer many more activities, drawing loads of new people. As a result, the place is now hopping but without enough experienced members to handle it all. Dhyana, leading the center, has done a fantastic job stirring up the energy and now needs help. So, to Gurgaon we go for our next assignment.

Sadhana Devi and I will miss Pune. It’s a much more livable city than Delhi or Gurgaon. The scale is smaller and the people seem friendlier. It’s a town of young people, colleges, neighborhoods and motorbikes. The countryside is not far away, it’s green half the year, the air is clean, the weather mild and you see less disparity between rich and poor as evidenced in so many Indian cities. People are mostly employed and beggars are few. I think it fair to say it’s also more traditionally “Indian” than Delhi and certainly more so than Gurgaon which is a city of glass towers, fancy homes and shopping malls. To be fair, Delhi too has its charms. Give me time and I'll maybe think of one. (Just kidding.) As the national capitol, it’s important for us to have a dynamic work there and I expect us to expand our efforts even further. With a solid foundation of strong souls already in place, something special in Delhi will come up in the coming years. We’d love to have you visit and see for yourself. You are always welcome.

Monday, November 29, 2010


At the height of the British Raj, North India extended from the Bay of Bengal to beyond the Kyber Pass, encompassing a vast swath of territory that had been ruled by a long succession of dynasties, sultanates, and emperors. Because the mountains block the north and deserts are to the southwest, and because the flow of the Ganges is to the east, the natural movement of peoples has been in an east/west direction. This was so for the British too. They settled first in Calcutta and from there, gradually extended their control over the fragmented kingdoms and princely states westward up the Ganges until they reached Afghanistan.

People and trade naturally flowed in an east/west direction in North India, so it is no surprise that well worn routes were in place long before the arrival of the British. Empires demand decent roads, so the British set themselves the task of improving upon what they found already in place, establishing the Grand Trunk Road (GTR) as an artery of commerce and imperial communication. It extended from Bengal to the western reaches of what is now Pakistan and you can travel this same route today as part of the Indian National Highway system.

From Amritsar in Punjab, the GTR headed west to Lahore in Pakistan and is known now as National Highway 1 (NH1). It crosses the border at Wagah, an old village that was bisected by the border created in 1947. I found it surprising that this is now the only road crossing along the entire border from India into Pakistan with the exception of a small post in Kashmir. And, up until a few years ago, all cargo traveling across the border had to be unloaded on one side, carried across the border by an army of porters, and then reloaded onto trucks once again on the other side. Obviously, the Wagah crossing is important for that reason alone, but it has also taken on a symbolic significance in the years since Partition. It is where India and Pakistan officially interact each day and as the years have passed, the rituals surrounding the daily closing of the gates have grown into a ceremonial occasion of unusual proportions, attended by thousands from both sides.

I went to Wagah with a group of friends on a return trip to Amritsar from Dharamasala. I knew nothing about Wagah and wondered what it was about a border gate that could prompt my Indian friends into saying this was a place we should visit. I realized it might be the nearest I would ever get to Pakistan and, because we had a friend in the Indian army able to get us tickets for VIP seating, we all looked forward to going.

Arriving in Wagah, you park about a half mile from the border and walk the last stretch, passing through security checks as you go. There was already a long line when we got there but it was moving quickly. Once through the last check, we made our way to the VIP section and found our seats along the highway. I was surprised at what I saw. On both sides of the border were permanent, concrete “bleachers” packed with spectators. There must have been five thousand on the Indian side and another three thousand on the Pakistani side. Flags fluttered in the breeze: the green crescent and star on white for Pakistan and the familiar saffron, green and white tricolor of India. A.R. Rahman’s anthem from Slumdog Millionaire blared from the loudspeakers as hawkers made their way through the crowds selling tourist guides. When the chorus line came, the entire crowd shouted in unison, Jai Ho! The music got so lively that before long a couple hundred girls were dancing en masse in the roadway, doing those moves you see in Bollywood films. Are girls are allowed to dance in Pakistan? I didn’t see any.

Down on the roadway, there were groups of school kids running back and forth to the gate with big Indian flags, handing them off like batons to the next kid waiting I line. I imagined similar scenes on the Pakistani side.

About an hour before the gates closed at sunset, a guy came out of the Border Patrol office, grabbed a microphone and began leading the crowd in cheers. “Bharata Mata Ki!” and back from the crowd would come “Jai!” Louder and louder. “Hindustan!” and the crowd would reply “Zindabad!” Pretty soon, you could hear from the other side of the fence, “Pakistan! Zindabad!” “Pakistan! Zindabad!” It was like dueling crowds at a big football game. The patrolman waved his arms to encourage the crowd, exhorting it further, directing the cheers toward the Pakistanis. Back and forth it went, everyone having a great time. Flags waving, the crowd yelling, music blaring, girls dancing, the red sun setting slowly.

Finally, a squad of Border Patrolmen marched out of their barracks and took position at the roadside. They looked magnificent, dressed in khaki, polished boots with leggings, and each sporting an impressive red headdress that reminded me of a rooster’s comb. On signal, two smartly uniformed lady guards started the ceremony by quick marching along the roadway to the gate where they took up position, left and right. These were followed by the male guards, aggressively goose-stepping in pairs to the cheers of the crowd until they reached the gate where they were met by their counterparts from the Pakistani side, dressed in black. Each guard was exactly of the same physique, well conditioned and about six foot tall with a mustache. They had all been chosen to match.

Once at the gate, the guards marched back and forth in sync with the Pakistanis. They had their routine down and had obviously choreographed the whole thing with the fellows on the other side of the border. I was told recently that the guards had mutually agreed not long ago to tone down their previous overly aggressive displays so as to give a more peaceful message to the crowd, and for the very practical reason that their aggressive goose-stepping had been causing too many foot and leg injuries. The daily stomping of their feet on the hard pavement had put too many of them out of commission.

After about fifteen minutes of back and forth marching at the gate, the bugles blew and the flags were lowered and furled, exactly at the same pace for each country. The gates then closed, the patrol marched back to their barracks and the show ended. Everyone left happy as they made their way to the chaos of the parking lots.

Indians love ceremonies and really do them well. They have a knack for them and know how to have fun. No American soldier could ever dress like those border guys and keep a straight face, but it looked just right on them. Although they weren’t at this event, if you ever have a chance to view the guardsmen who march with their camels or see a parade where they dress up the elephants, take the opportunity and go. It’s quite a spectacle.

Once again, I noted the patriotism of ordinary Indians. I would guess the Pakistanis are the same and as I was leaving, a thought struck me forcefully, “These really are the same people on both sides of the gate! A line and a fence have come between them but underneath all the politics and discord, they really are brothers and sisters.” Dynasties and empires with their borders have come and gone here for thousands of years. Sooner or later, this one too will be gone and the people will be reunited again.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Giants Win

As some of you know, I grew up as a sports fan in California and remain, to this day, a fan of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. My dad took me to my first game in 1955 when the Giants played an exhibition game in L.A. against the Cleveland Indians. Willie Mays became my hero and I was hooked. Thank God the Indians didn't have a star player like Willie or I might still be rooting for them after all these years.

In India, from time to time I check out how my old team has been doing and, by gosh, the Giants played well this year, against all odds, and actually won the National League pennant. I couldn't help myself from getting up real early and checking on the internet to see how they were doing in the World Series, which they ended up winning. So, in honor of their victory, I penned a poem with sincere apologies to Paramhansa Yogananda, my guru, for borrowing from his classic masterpiece.

Samadhi! The Giants Win the World Series.

Vanished the veils of light and shade,
Lifted 56 years of sorrow,
Sailed away all dawns of fleeting joy,
Gone, the false playoff mirage.

Richardson, Terry, Maldonado, Spec,
Perished these false shadows on the screen of duality.
Spezio's homer, the '89 earthquake, all the bad trades,
Melting in a vast sea of bliss.

The storm of heartache stilled.
With joy did my tearful eyes weep,
"It's high! It's long! It's outta here!
When Uribe went deep.

Memories from the past, no longer lurk,
Ready to invade my newly found World Series joy.

Lamaster, Ivie, Sadecki, Deer,
Koufax and Drysdale, no more for me,
New names I now enshrine
In my newly awakened memory divine.

Good Johnny, Posey, Cain, Huff,
"Let Timmy Smoke" Lincecum,
Zito, Freddy, Torres, Burrell,
Fear the Beard, the Panda, Ross and Bum,

Candlestick's howling winds,
Hotdog wrappers on the fence,
Freezing my fanny year after year,
How many times in second place?
The Cream and the Clear,
Lariano and Nathan thrown away,
Every hope eventually dashed.
Solomon Torres on the very last day.
Anger, despair, bad to worse, another year's bust,
I swallowed, transmuted all
Into an ocean of joy with this year's win.

Smoldering hope, oft-puffed by another torturous game,
Blinding my tearful eyes,
Burst into immortal flames of bliss,
Consumed my tears, my frame, my all
When Renteria hit the long ball.

Thou art the Champs, I the Happy Fan,
My beloved Giants have at last Won!
Tranquilled, unbroken thrill, eternally thankful I now have peace!
Enjoyable beyond imagination of expectancy, Championship bliss!

Is this but a subconscious dream
Or mental chloroform without willful return,
Have I inhaled San Francisco "herbs," awaiting a fall,
No, it's real. The G'Men have done it. They won it all.

Thank you, dear orange and black,
I can now lay down my mortal frame,
And rest in the arms of eternity,
Where I, the Ever-Loyal Fan,
Will sit with the Immortals ,
Matthewson, Thompson, Hubbell and Ott,
And join hands with Willie, Orlando and Stretch,
Even Barry and Bobby too, and "One Flap Down",
To give thanks to this year's team
For purging demons of the past.

With pitching, hitting, fielding, Bochy-guided dedication
Came this celestial World Series win.

And Sabean also deserves some props,
Oft cursed, but this year blessed.
KNBR too, year after year,
Giving us Lon and Hank, Kruk and Kuip.
Jon Miller at his best,
Painting pictures for loyal fans.
The games stood revealed, shining in our mind's eye,
Till, at last, with Cruz's final swing,
The grosser memories of so many years
Vanished in a vast sea of all-pervading bliss.

In '58 they came, three times they lost, finally they won,
Oceans of sorrow and despair set alight.
The burdens of '62, '89 and '02 gone,
All if forgiven, the world is aright.

Myself, completely content, can now let it go.
Gone forever, fitful, flickering shadows of bad memories.
Spotless is my mental sky, below, ahead, and high above.
The Great Giant in the sky has reached out His hand
To a humble, faithful fan,
Who has suffered mightily, but now
Has finally entered the Giant's Promised Land.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Golden Temple of Amritsar

It takes less than six hours by train to travel the 450 kilometers northwest from Delhi to Amritsar in the state of Punjab. Gazing out the window at the passing landscape, it’s easy to see why this region has long been considered the “breadbasket” of India, tempting waves of invaders through the ages. Nature has blessed Punjab with fertile soil and abundant water from the five rivers that cross its plains (Punj—ab means “five waters”). This is a land of industrious farmers but unlike those who till the densely cultivated lands along the Ganges and in many other parts of India, here men ride Mahindra and Ford tractors instead of breaking soil with bullocks and hand labor. It’s a wheat culture rather than one centered on rice. The land is drier, fields are bigger, the population is less dense and there is more prosperity. With just a little stretch of the imagination, I could picture myself in California’s agricultural Central Valley.

The stereotypical Punjabi is said to be boisterous, big-hearted, and hardworking. If he has money, Indians say he likes to show it, but I think this may simply be jealousy. He is said to be expansive, self-confident (pushy?), and uncultured, though Punjab has a rich cultural tradition. Does this caricature of industrious farmers sound familiar? When India was partitioned in 1947, Punjab was split forcing hundreds of thousands of displaced Punjabis to flee from the Pakistan side and resettle in Delhi. To this day, snooty old-time Delhi-ites still tell jokes at the their expense. I’ve found Punjabis to be good natured and generous and their food delicious. Physically, they can be robust and because they have been called upon through the ages to defend India against invaders from the West, they have a martial spirit. When you combine all these qualities with personal self-discipline, honesty and religious commitment, you have the Sikhs.

The Sikh religion (Sikh means “disciple”) was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the last half of the fifteenth century in that part of the Punjab now controlled by Pakistan. In those days, much of northern India was governed by Muslim rulers while the majority of the population was Hindu. From an early age, Guru Nanak displayed an inclination toward mysticism and he is said to have achieved enlightenment at the age of thirty after a deep samadhi of many days. Upon coming back to normal consciousness, his first words were, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path.” Thus the Sikh religion was born. Guru Nanak proceeded to expound his revelation and traveled widely, drawing followers to his non-sectarian teachings of ceaseless devotion to God, honesty and service.

Sikhism in its present form is based upon the teachings of the first ten gurus of the faith, beginning with Guru Nanak and ending with Guru Gobind Singh in the early 18th century. Before his death, Gobind Singh proclaimed the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy writings/teachings of the first ten Gurus, to be the eleventh and final Guru of the Sikh religion. That scripture is worshipped and brought out in procession each day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a place of pilgrimage for all devote Sikhs.

I traveled to Amritsar with a small group of pilgrims in early October. It was by happenstance that we found ourselves there because our original intension had been to visit Gangotri, the headwaters of the Ganges in the Himalayas but this year’s monsoon was so heavy and late in the mountains that numerous landslides/washouts of the roads made travel there impossible. An earlier Ananda Italy tour to Badrinath that preceded ours ended up stranded and never did reach their goal. Reluctantly, we canceled our mountain journey and substituted a trip to Amritsar and Dharamasala in its place. In retrospect, I think God’s hand was guiding us to something even better.

Amritsar is a major city not far from the Pakistani border. It’s sometimes said, “If you’ve seen one city in India, you’ve seen them all” because other than one or two notable points of interest, each presents the same dull face of endless small shops, bumpy roads, chaotic planning, bad air and lots of people busily getting on with life. Amritsar is like that too except in the middle of town stands the Golden Temple complex encircling a wonderful pool of water, in the middle of which sits the Golden Temple itself, a beautiful marble structure sheathed in gold. Pilgrims come by the thousands to circumambulate the pool (Amristar roughly translates as “pool of nectar”) and take darshan of the Guru Granth Sahib housed in the temple. There, Sikh elders read from the scripture throughout the day, interspersing their recitation with prayers and bhajans, all broadcast non-stop through loudspeakers. I found it both mesmerizing and uplifting.

The Mogul Emperor Akbar first granted the sacred site of the Sarovar (water tank) to Guru Ramdas, the fourth Sikh guru, in the late 1500’s. There he constructed the first pool. Guru Arjan Sahib, the next guru, laid the foundation stone for the temple several years later and it was finished during the life of Guru Hargobind Sahib in the first decade of the 1600’s. In the centuries following, the temple became the focal point of the Sikh community and has many times been at the center of turmoil. The last such outbreak was in the 1984 when Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault, using armored vehicles and tanks, against Sikh separatists holed up in the temple. Massive damage was inflicted and hundreds (some say thousands) of civilians killed. This led to international outrage within the Sikh community and directly to Gandhi’s assassination by her body guards a few months later.

When visiting the temple, you leave your shoes outside at special stalls provided and cover your head with a scarf or bandana before entering. These are freely available if you don’t have your own. Once inside the grounds, you see the Golden Temple sitting serenely on the water, as if floating. I joined the steady procession of pilgrims circumambulating the pool and eventually made my way to a queue of devotees waiting on the causeway that leads across the water to the temple. There was no jostling and shoving as is so common in an Indian crowd. All was orderly and steady. Inside the temple, reading from the scriptures and recitation of prayers proceeded while the ushers tried their best to keep the pilgrims flowing through. Exiting the inner sanctum, I found a niche by a side door where I sat with other pilgrims while listening to the sounds wash over me.

Food is served throughout the day at no cost and I found a pavilion where one can nap if tired. Taking a dip in the pool is permitted and I saw a number of people meditating and reciting prayers. I sat for meditation next to a fellow doing a regimen of pranayam and received not even a second glance from the crowds passing by. A bit later, I noticed a group of what at first appeared to be rough-looking teenagers following me, all the while exchanging conspiratorial whispers with one to another. I shifted my wallet from my back pocket to the front, just in case, and let them catch up, ready for whatever. Gathering their courage, they surrounded me and breathlessly asked, “Where are you from? Why are you here? Do you like it?” They were a group of schoolboys wanting to practice their English and curious about this stranger who so appreciated their traditions. They hadn’t met many foreigners like me and wanted to know everything about where I was from and where I was going. They were really very sweet and upon parting, we shook hands all around.

Stationed along the pool at regular intervals are khalsa guards. Their dress is a wonderful deep blue, knee length tunic with a bright yellow sash and turban. All sport thick black beards and carry a dignified, authoritative bearing that says, “Behave yourself!” Maybe it’s the six-foot, metal-tipped spear they carry at their side that gives the impression they are not to be fooled with.

Thousands of pilgrims come to the Golden Temple each and every day with palpable devotion. The grounds are never closed and even in the wee hours of the morning, you will find a crowd. Perhaps it’s a function of their being a minority subjected to past persecution from both Hindus and Muslims (before Partition) that has engendered in the Sikhs a bearing of dignified steadiness and strength. I feel an affinity for them. They carry a sense of nobility and by reputation are said to have been the best soldiers in the army of the British Raj. Even today, their martial spirit is legendary.

There is an old joke (I ask my Bengali friends to please forgive me.) that the British used to tell when their capital was in Calcutta. If they wanted to get something important done, they would form a committee comprised of a Chatterjee, Banerjee, Mukerjee and a Singh. The first three names are typically Bengali and they would do the talking and arguing. The last name is that of a Sikh and he would get the job done.

It was on our way to Dharamasala that we stopped in Amritsar. If you should find yourself in this part of India and are inclined, I highly recommend you stop at the Golden Temple. Visit during the day and then come back after dark for a different experience. Stop too at the Jallianwala Bagh and Wagah (I’ll write about those later.) for a memorable experience. I think you’ll enjoy Amritsar as much as I did.

More photos at:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ganesh Chaturthi

Today is “Submersion Day,” the closing of Ganesh Chaturthi, the ten-day festival of Ganesha. To cries of “Ganpati Bappa! Morya!,” statues of Ganesh were paraded to the Mutha River for immersion in the fast flowing water, dissolving the earthly form temporarily inhabited by the Divine and releasing Him back into the Infinite. Many came as families lovingly carrying their small household idols to the ghats where fathers performed puja before submerging it into the water. Larger groups loaded more elaborate Ganeshas onto trucks, trailers or wedding chariots accompanied by bands and drummers while dance music blasted from huge speakers, loud enough to lift you off the ground or stop your heart. If one 6' x 8' speaker is good, two or three are even better. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of these making their way from all directions to the river ghats, each led by crowds of men dancing to a thumping disco beat. Firecrackers, loud music, horns, and cries of “Ganapati Bappa!” followed by the crowd responding, “Morya! Morya!”

Ganesha (Ganapati in Maharasthra) is the god of success, wisdom, learning and prosperity. He is the destroyer of obstacles, vanity and evil. Each year families install an image of Ganesh in their home, offering it special worship for up to ten days. During this period, families, neighbors, and groups gather for cultural events, reunions and special ceremonies. It’s a time of goodwill crossing sectarian boundaries and when religious and social groups sponsor the construction of mandals (temporary pavilions) where larger statues of Ganesh are installed and decorated. Some of these can be huge and very lavish, especially in Mumbai where the idols sometimes exceed 25 feet in height. You’ll see the mandals all along the roadways, curtained during the day to give Ganesha rest and opened in the evening, festooned with colored lights and beautiful decorations. There is a lively competition between mandals to see which is the nicest. Banners are everywhere and at night the beating of drums, loud music and processions come from all directions. On Submersion Day, Ganesha is taken to the river. In Mumbai, the idols are paraded to the Arabian Sea.

From what I’ve seen, Ganesh Chaturthi is the biggest yearly festival in Pune, more widely celebrated than Diwali, though with fewer fireworks. Ganapati is honored by all sects throughout India but he is particularly loved here, probably because it was in Pune where Lokmanya Tilak used Ganesh Chaturthi as a rallying festival for Indian culture, national pride and self-rule from the British. Tilak, an Indian nationalist of the early twentieth century, used the festival to unite Hindus across caste boundaries and was instrumental in the transformation of Ganesh Chaturthi from a purely religious occasion into a cultural celebration of Hindu values and culture. As the freedom movement grew and spread, Ganesh Chaturthi did too.

Ganesha is the also the God of Beginnings. This is why you often see him by the entryway of homes and temples, even in those dedicated to other gods. One gives to Ganesha first offerings in a traditional puja and he clears the way for all that follows. Because of his large ears, he hears all prayers and is the easiest god to please and the most benign. He accepts anything offered to him with love as evidenced by his big belly and he gives blessings in return. Laddoos, an Indian sweet, are a special favorite of his as you often see them in the bowl before his image. As the keeper of the entry, he is associated with the muladhar chakra and is said to be a great yogi. You can tell by his long elephant trunk, indicating the long breath, that he is adept at pranayam. One should pray to Ganesha for spiritual strength and success in meditation. Within his big belly are contained all universes and he is master of the ego, represented by his vahana (vehicle), the rat or mouse.

If you know the Mahabharata, you’ll remember that it was Ganesha who acted as Vyasa’s scribe when he recited the epic tale of India. It is said he was reluctant to take on such a big task but consented on condition that Vyasa recite continuously and never make him wait. Vyasa agreed but extracted a condition in return from Ganesha, that he not transcribe anything until he first understood its deeper meaning completely. Thus, Ganesha was forced to pause from time to time, allowing Vyasa to keep ahead of him. Finding himself without a proper implement for writing, Ganesha broke off one of his tusks for a pen. Naturally enough, by the end of the book, Ganesha had earned his sobriquet as the God of Knowledge. Elephants, so it is said, have a long memory and never forget.

One could go on and on about the symbolic iconography associated with Ganesha and relate tales of how he came to have his elephant’s head. It’s endless. You’ll see Ganesha in multiple forms, holding varying objects in his many hands, usually numbering four but sometimes more. Sometimes he dances and at other times he reclines. Each family can have it’s own traditions of worship and every village it’s own legends. The Western mind finds this hard to grasp. “How in the world can people worship a god with an elephant’s head? It doesn’t make sense.” On a surface, maybe it doesn’t, but is “making rational sense” the point? I’ve found the tendency to be overly rational and the making of too many rigid categorizations unhelpful in India and best avoided. Ganesha is lovable. Does he need to be more? He is what you choose him to be, a personification of an abstract ideal or a wise, loving, benevolent protector. Ganesha has come to be one of the most universally recognized images of Hinduism, is a symbol of cultural identity and a force for unity in a land of disparities. Meditate upon his picture and you’ll feel a projection of goodwill and acceptance, two qualities I love about India.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


(The Photos are of Pashan Gaon, where we live in Pune.)
Jugaad is a word that characterizes an approach to life in India. Roughly translated, it means “improvisation” or “an ability to make do” in the midst of challenging circumstances. It can be thought of as the spirit that says, “No problem” when the lights go out, the water tap is dry and the roads are flooded again. It’s the village entrepreneur hooking up a lawnmower engine to his bicycle rickshaw. It’s getting home alive in your space capsule using odds, ends and duct tape like they did in the Apollo 13 movie.

With a little bit of creativity, enterprise and hustle, the average Indian gets by and prospers. I think this is why you see Indian immigrants around the world rising to the top of their fields in all countries. The hassle of life has trained them to find solutions and novel approaches because you can’t rely on things to work the way they do in the West. Some even see jugaad as India’s secret weapon for economic success in the world of international competition. This is in spite of an educational system that stifles creative thinking. As the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in a country where “doing the needful” is a daily requirement, jugaad comes in mighty handy.

When I was working at our community in Watunde Village, I’d regularly encounter mechanical problems that baffled me. Something would break or we didn’t have the proper tools (by my Western standards) or some complication would arise. “No problem,” Hari, our labor foreman, would say. First he’d try one thing, then another and another until finally we’d find a solution and get the job done. If not, we'd sometimes take our problem to Pirangut and go from shop to shop seeking a solution. Locals would always offer help, taking what we brought as a personal challenge. Passers-by would join in with opinions of their own and sooner or later, an answer would come or we’d be sent to Mr. So-and-So’s shop down the road who would help. If you visit India and ever find yourself lost, you’ll experience the same thing. Just ask for help from anyone on the street and a crowd will gather to give you half a dozen opinions on how to get where you want to go.

There is another side to jugaad that bears noting. When the British ruled India, the colonial economy was organized to give maximum benefit to the home country. India provided raw materials for manufacturing and a large market to consume goods made in Great Britain. Local industry was discouraged or effectively prohibited so as to eliminate any competition to English factories and workers. As a result, at the time of independence India was practically a pre-industrial society with a meager tradition of manufacturing beyond artistic craftsmen. This has had a lasting impact. To this day, India lacks civil engineers and skilled industrial tradesmen but has plenty of young people who can write computer code. On the other hand, the British did create an extensive colonial administration and staffed it with an army of Indian civil servants who became very adept at keeping accounts and filing records.

When independence came in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru set about fulfilling India’s “tryst with destiny.” For India’s political elite, this meant rapid industrialization, five-year plans and the creation of a socialistic economy. “The people” would own the resources and means of production while profits would go to the benefit of all. Or so the theory went. Confiscatory tax rates were imposed on the wealthy (97% in some cases); resources, manufacturing and industry were nationalized; the government assumed control of industrial management; political appointees became corporate decision makers; committees multiplied; and the Indian bureaucracy did what the British had trained it to do so very well—keep records and accounts by the boatload. In such an environment, money was driven underground and private enterprise was suffocated. But not totally, because there was always jugaad. The Indian penchant for finding creative waya to meet challenges asserted itself in another way.

India created the “License Raj,” a system whereby a government license was needed to do just about anything in the way of commerce beyond a family market. Power resided with those who could grant such licenses and enormous profits were possible for those who gained them. This was a system ripe for corruption. Someone with a little “creativity” could flourish with a bribe here and a payoff there. You could hire creative accountants and those tax rates weren’t such a problem anymore. You could creatively organize the “liberated” villagers into voting blocs to insure the election of political allies to stock those license committees with friendly faces. Government inspectors could be persuaded to look the other way if creatively induced. Just as in every country with a heavy-handed government bureaucracy or too many rules and regulations, jugaad found a way to circumvent the system and ended up nurturing a culture of corruption whose roots extend to every level of society.

Fortunately, much of the License Raj was dismantled in the 1990’s but its legacy lives on. It’s not without reason that India is sometimes called “The Land of the Scam.” The uncovering of governmental shenanigans by the press is constant and I sense an unspoken admiration for the audacity shown by some of the perpetrators. Their schemes can be brazenly over the top. I could write pages and pages describing them. Even the small scams are sometimes hilarious. I remember Tim Clark and I once having a good chuckle when he bought a box of “chikki,” a local peanut-brittle. It was in a nicely labeled box, properly wrapped and, on inspection, filled to the top with solid layers of the candy. Tim passed the chikki around to share but when the first thin layer was gone, lo and behold, there was no more chikki underneath. The top layer of solid candy had been supported by a few broken chunks below to make it appear as if the box was full. Scammed again! We laughed and laughed. This too is jugaad.

I suppose you have to take the good with the bad, but if India could weed out half the scams and corruption, it would have a dramatic impact. It’ll happen, but maybe not in my lifetime.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Short Trip To Delhi

Last week, Sadhana Devi and I flew to Delhi for our annual pilgrimage to the Foreign Registry Office in Gurgaon to renew our visas. In most circumstances, I’m not a fan of the national capital, much preferring Pune for its weather, friendlier atmosphere and all-around ambiance. Yet, for once, I have to say I found Delhi beautiful. It was the cleanest I have ever seen it and very green after the monsoon rains. Big, beautiful trees shade the wide boulevards of the central city. The usual debris has been removed from the roadsides and replaced by tidy landscaping; buildings have been newly painted; the long-awaited Metro system zips efficiently overhead and I could actually see blue sky above. I was impressed. This is the culmination of a multi-year facelift in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October.

It’s amazing to see how much the city has changed in the five years I’ve been here. Those familiar with the old Delhi airport will remember a rundown facility more suited to a small, declining American town. Now, on your arrival, you’ll disembark at a magnificent new terminal comparable to any of the best in the world. (See photo to left.) A new, multi-lane expressway takes you into town, and traffic, while still bad during rush hour, moves smartly along at most other times. If you are adventurous, you will soon be able to take the sleek new Metro all the way to Gurgaon.

The local newspapers have been merciless in their criticism of the lack of progress and pervasive corruption accompanying the building campaign. Some of the venues might not be completed in time for the Games, but I’ve come to expect this. It’s a national sport to expose the underhanded dealings of officials and the newspapers have a keen eye for it, although from my perspective, what has been accomplished is amazing. The editorialists, while good at feeding the population's disgust for its politicians, are less skilled at proposing useful solutions. That’s how newspapers are.

Criticism is common in every country but I find educated Indians to be particularly inclined toward it, and very good at philosophizing, debate and argument. A noted local author titled one of his recent books, “The Argumentative Indian” and I think the title apt. Indians have high expectations for their country and whereas you may hear some Westerners characterize the country as fatalistic, it’s a mistaken portrayal. Modern India is shackled by some medieval traditions but it is also hungry for change. Young people see what other countries have done and are not satisfied with the half hearted effort that may have characterized the past. It’s a country proud of its heritage but disappointed when it fails to live up to what it could be. And, when disappointed, they aren’t shy about saying so!

India lacks inspirational leadership. Politicians, with a few exceptions, are despised. Spiritual/religious leaders, while given traditional respect, are often dismissed by the young as irrelevant and suspect, with little to say to the modern Indian. Police and civil servants are perceived as corrupt and self serving. The figures admired are Bollywood superstars, sports heroes, a few scientists and writers, mega-industrialists, and technological entrepreneurs. It’s not much different than in America. These last two particularly are fast becoming the face of modern India. As Swami Kriyananda remarked, India has lost some of its spirituality in the last half century, but the change has been inevitable, and perhaps necessary, as the country focuses upon improving its material efficiency. As he also said, “It’s only a temporary phase. Spirituality resides in the soil.” It also corresponds with what Yogananda said about how Western souls are being born in India in this age in order to bring balance.

I love India, I really do, but there are a few things that get to me. Let me tell you about the Foreign Registry Office (FRO). It’s located in the “Mini-Secretariat” building on the outskirts of Gurgaon, a perfectly good example of soulless "Stalinesque" architecture but without the charm. I’ve written previously (May 2006) of my visits there and little has changed in the intervening years except now the elevators don’t work. The Mini-Secretariat is awful, which I find surprising because, on the whole, Gurgaon is a modern city with lots of attractive office towers, malls and beautiful residential districts. The Metropolitan Mall, where we have our Wishing Tree Boutique is pictured to the left. The Haryana government buildings are in sharp contrast.

Every year I make multiple visits Mr. Subhash’s office at the FRO in order to renew our Employment Visas. Two, three, or four visits per application is the norm. I never get it right the first time and this last visit was no different. Subhashji was very sorry (not really) but he had yet to receive approval (again!) from his superiors in Chandigarh (capital of Haryana) even though I had submitted my papers 60 days prior (two visits that time). Would I please return in a month or two or three? It’s the same thing every year. I wonder if this is what happens to foreigners around the world as I’ve been told America’s system can be pretty daunting too. Maybe all bureaucrats, whichtever their country, go to the same, bureaucrat school to learn the arts of delay and the infliction of frustration.

Subhashji’s little office is chaotic. Ten to twelve applicants, many with local “shepherds” guiding them through the process, jostle for position in front of his desk. Five years ago, I would have politely (and fruitlessly) waited my turn but have since learned a few lessons which I’ll pass on should you one day find yourself there. Never leave an inch between you and the person ahead, otherwise the space will be instantly filled. Persistently move forward, never taking a step back. Do not let anyone move around you or, if possible, get to your side. Plan your moves strategically and stay alert to those behind you. You must block their efforts to get in front of you at all costs. You will eventually get to the desk and once there, take as much space as possible and doggedly hold position until you get Mr. Subhash’s attention. If kindly offered one of the chairs to the side of his desk, refuse it—only women and the elderly accept and are then promptly ignored. Remain in front of the desk, leaning forward with papers extended until avoidance is no longer possible and your application is accepted. Be patient because Mr. Subhash has stacks of thick ledgers which must be searched to find your past records, using some inscrutable system known only to him and his assistant. Records are piled along the walls in loose bundles, tied with twine, from floor to ceiling. Don’t worry if he becomes distracted by other applicants reaching over and around you to put their papers on his desk, burying yours. His goal is to get rid of you, so he will ultimately deal with your application. He will take frequent telephone calls, answering leisurely while ignoring you. Don’t worry; don’t move. Stay put and sooner or later, you’ll get results.

Lyrics from an old song keep running through my brain,
He's never early, he's always late
First thing you learn is
You always gotta wait.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Land Progress during the Monsoon

The rain dance has begun,
The cripple is dancing,
The old have thrown away their staffs,
The cattle have stood up,
The calves are running
In joy-filled circles.

S. D. Prasad

I’ve written before about the monsoon so please forgive me if you find this repetitive but I find it such an enjoyable time of year that I can't help but remark upon it again. Of course, not everyone likes cloudy days like I've come to appreciate here, so if wet weather turns you off, give India a miss in the rainy season. If you intend to go to the mountains or you are planning to visit one of those regions along the coast (Mumbai or Goa, for example) or go to the northeast (Assam) where the rainfall is incessant, this isn’t a good time to come. Yes, sometimes there is flooding, but otherwise, monsoon season is when India is in many ways at its best: mild, clean, green and mostly free of tourists.

Rain and clouds blown to India in early June through August by the winds from the Indian Ocean are known as “The Southwest Monsoon.” That’s about as much as I knew of the monsoon before living here. My mental image was one of incessant and unpleasant rain. As it has turned out, that’s not been the case at all with the exception of those places mentioned above. You’ve probably heard people say during a downpour, “It’s a real monsoon out there today!” Yes, it rains, but it’s not constant. In the hills, the runoff can be heavy but more often than not, the monsoon season is a time of intermittent showers with heavy thunderstorms sandwiched between beautiful sunshine and cloudy days.

Multiple geographical factors create the monsoon. To the north of India, the expanse of the Hindu Kush, Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau acts as a shield to block cold Siberian air from flowing south in the winter. As a consequence, north India is blessed with mild winter temperatures. As the sun moves north again after the solstice, the air begins to heat and is constrained by the mountains, resulting in very hot summers from April through June.

If you’re a tourist, don’t come to India in the hot months unless you enjoy that sort of thing in the absence of AC. That said, I think it’s good to experience the hot season in order to fully appreciate why the monsoon is greeted with such cheer. As the hot weather grinds on, day after day, a national longing builds for relief, and when it finally comes, there is rejoicing. “The cattle stand up and the calves run in circles,” as the poem says. It’s a good example of how opposites complement each other. Without darkness, would day seem only half as bright; without the dry months preceding, would rain feel so cool? And, literally, without the hot season there would be no seasonal rains because it is heat that powers the engine of the Southwest Monsoon.

With the approach of summer, the heated atmosphere above North India and Pakistan rises and begins to suck moist air from the Indian Ocean to replace it, thus causing the “trade” winds used by ancient mariners from East Africa to reach India and beyond. In the fall, when the air cools in the north and heats in the south, the winds reverse, sending sailors home on the winds of the “Receding Monsoon.”

When the approaching rain clouds reach the southern tip of India in late May, the monsoon splits into two branches. To the west, one branch flows up the coast of Kerala to Goa, Mumbai and into central India through Gujarat. It crosses the deserts of Rajasthan on its way to Delhi before continuing onward to the mountains. The second branch blows around the east side of India into the Bay of Bengal and then northward toward Bangladesh, eventually swerving back into the Gangetic Plain. By August and September, the clouds drop rain on the Deccan Plateau in central India as they retreat.

The monsoon brings life to India’s farmland, much of which is unirrigated otherwise. If the monsoon fails to flood the rice paddies for proper transplantation, yields fall dramatically. Even minor rainfall fluctuations cause alarm and dire warnings. A large decline can bring famine and catastrophe as was demonstrated by The Great Drought of the 1870’s when three consecutive years of monsoon failure claimed the lives of millions from starvation. That was at a time when the country’s population was far smaller than it is today. (Note: The great loss of life was as much a result of outrageous British policy in response to the drought as it was to a lack of rain, but that’s another story.)

This year, the monsoon arrived on schedule in Pune during the second week of June. For four or five weeks thereafter, we received only light, periodic showers until finally, in late July, the rain became steady for two or three weeks. In early August, we returned to intermittent showers and I expect this pattern to continue into September. From what I’m told, this is normal. Temperatures have been marvelously mild, 25C—28C (77F—83F) during the day and a little cooler at night.

Out on our land in Watunde Village, it rains more heavily due to our location in the foothills of the Western Ghats. On the Mumbai side of the Ghats, the rain can be intense, so the clouds tend to spill over the crest of the hills to our side. As you travel toward Pune from our land along the Mutha River, the rain abates the further east you go. Sometimes when driving to work in the opposite direction, I would see dark clouds gathering at the head of our valley and knew it was going to be one of those very muddy days.

Until the rainy season ends, little construction will happen on our land. Last year we worked every day, rain or shine, but this year sanity has returned. We’ll wait until conditions improve. All the vegetation has turned brilliant green and you can almost see it grow before your eyes. Molds and mildew love the warm, wet air and appear in all the places you’d rather they didn’t. The rain isn’t cold like in California or Oregon but pleasant, clean and filled with prana. Water cascades down the hillsides, forming beautiful waterfalls. Thick mud grabs at your feet and gets onto everything. Vehicles leave the roadway at their peril and, perhaps inevitably, some of our new houses leak.

This is the season when some Americans return to the States for holiday or, if Indian, visit family in other parts of the country. Only a skeleton crew remains here. Biraj, Shurjo, Hari and a couple of drivers are holding down the fort at our community while the rest of us are in Pune. Two of our Sangha members, Amol and Sundeep, have taken responsibility for constructing a simple guest house to provide accommodation for visitors next season but so far, we have only a big hole in the ground to show progress (see photo). If all goes well, the building should be ready by year’s end. We continue to work with our architects on a design for a cluster of flats for which “investors” have provided down payments. We feel some urgency to begin building in order to show them progress but there are so many other things to do first such as securing adequate water. Plus, we have yet to raise funds to complete the job should we start. We are juggling as we go.

The monks have been making good progress toward building their monastery and hope to soon add a solar electrical system and water storage tanks to their complex of little buildings. Jemal is leading a fundraising effort for solar panels (Panels for Peace) and has made good progress. Last month he hosted a group of young men from America who came to help set up the system and now two more young devotees from Uruguay have arrived to finish it. Maybe they can help with the clinic project too. Of the monks who still live in the city, I expect more to take the plunge and move permanently to the land when the weather improves. Katyayani, one of the young women who lives here in the Vanshaj apartments, plans to move out in September.

This is very encouraging because we need many more fulltime residents on the community land. I’d love to see us invest resources toward providing simple housing/huts to support a population of at least 20-30 residents before we go too far with other expensive projects. Amenities can come later. Because of the primitive conditions, pioneers will probably be young singles who embrace the ideals of "Plain living and high thinking." It's like the early days of Ananda Village We need idealistic youth (“must go north , south, east and west”) to build a spiritual foundation upon which an Ananda community can grow. That’s the theory. Now we’ll see what actually happens.

And what about Jaya and Sadhana Devi? We stay in Pune, building up our Sangha in the city. Weekends are dedicated to classes in downtown Pune and at our fledgling center across the hall from our apartment. After the monsoon, programs will begin at the retreat in Watunde. During the week, we take care of administrative tasks related to outreach, do special projects and write blogs such as this. Sadhana Devi supports a meditation group on the other side of town in Koregaon Park, and once each month, I travel to Gurgaon for four or five days to help Dhyana. Sadhana Devi does the same in Bangalore. I’m supposed to be going to Mumbai too. Anyone want to come and help? The weather is nice.

Lo behold!
The sky is lit up
With the lightning tree,
And against the backdrop
Of the dark and ominous clouds,
A silvery shining form:
Enchantment crystallized
Is descending,
Majestically – riding
A magnificent Lion!

--S. D. Prasad

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dr. Aditya and the Clinic - Part 2

The following is the second half of a two part interview with Dr. Aditya Gait, a resident medical doctor and member of Ananda’s Kriya Yoga Community in the countryside outside of Pune, India. Dr. Aditya is also a Brahmachari member of the Ananda Renunciate Order.

J: There are good hospitals in both Pune and in Lavasa, but what sort of medical facilities are in the neighborhood of Ananda? Are there clinics nearby?

AG: There are small clinics in Pirangut, about 17 kilometers away, but they are quite expensive for the villagers and not at all up to the mark. Few doctors are available and they often give incomplete treatment. Two government dispensaries are in the area where we are staying but the villagers aren’t happy with their service and, again, the medicines are expensive.

I’m getting my medicines from a company in Gujarat that was started by a group who is consciously keeping prices low. Their medicines are at par with any drug company in the world but at only around one tenth the cost. I’m also trying to keep my consultation fees affordable for the villagers. They are twenty rupees only.

J: What sort of medical problems do you typically see in Watunde? What is the greatest need, locally?

AG: What you see mostly are the basic seasonal illnesses, asthma, and injuries. 60-70% of the ladies are deficient in iron and have anemia which leads to fatigue and pregnancy complications. Alcoholism is a problem but it takes time to gain people’s trust before it can be addressed. Malnutrition is not so common in the village but the tribal people who stay on the hilltop, some of them are malnourished.

In the long run, what will help most is better health education and reinforcement of things they already know but lack the initiative to do, such as better ways to cook food and how to grow healthier crops. They grow sugarcane as a cash crop but don’t grow spinach or other leafy, green vegetables. All of the villagers have cows but they don’t drink that milk. They sell it. We need to teach better hygiene also. The villagers know these things but are not putting them into practice.

J: Who typically comes to you now for medical attention?

AG: The people who now come are from the local villages (Watunde, Borde and Kharawade) and from the tribal village on the hilltop. The local village population is around thirteen hundred but only three to four hundred are staying at any one time. On any given day, eight to ten are ill. Last year I had medical camps in two nearby villages and got a very good response.

I’m sure if we build a real clinic with local people involved, I can reach maybe ten to fifteen villages in the vicinity. Almost all the villagers now have to go to Pirangut and that can be expensive for them.

J: Because you didn’t finish your residency, is there a problem with you operating a clinic and practicing medicine?

AG: I can serve as a General Practitioner but not as a Surgeon, but even as that, there are many surgical procedures I can do, especially in a life threatening situation or when in remote areas. When there is no one else to help, you have to do it. I do need a license to run a clinic and since I will also be the lab technician, I need a license for that too and in India, a special license is needed to run a chemist shop. Doctors don’t usually run chemist shops so I will need to explain the situation to see if they can give me that license. Those three things I need before I can run this clinic.

J: Because you are not from this area, have you been well received?

AG: Yes. I had that doubt too at first, but the villagers are happy. They see me as an outsider but when they also see that I am here to help them and my prices are very competitive, it immediately breaks that barrier. Being from an ashram also helps because they feel we are service oriented.
(Watunde Village at left)

You have to be absolutely selfless when serving in this way. There has to be no expectation that people should respect you because you are a doctor. In one of my rural clinics, someone came up to me and asked, “Where is your certificate? Where are you from? Why are you here? How much do you charge?” He was trying to intimidate me but in the end he shook my hand.

I was prepared for such things because I know that I am not from this part of the country. If you are absorbed in giving, you won’t have these problems. If you have expectations, things may go well for awhile but when something bad happens you will feel discouraged. You need patience. It takes time to build something and it takes time to build trust, but I could feel from day one that this is the right thing to do.

I’m learning to speak Marathi now which I only understood before but could not speak. Hopefully, by the time the clinic starts, I’ll at least be able to converse with the patients.

J: What comes next? What is your plan?

AG: If we can provide basic care and provide for some emergencies, I think that is what is needed now. With the container now here, setting it up is the next thing. Maybe in a few months we can have a lab for basic investigations and a place where people can come for urine and blood tests. I’d like a small procedure room and at the very least, a supply of medicines. I already have a basic surgical kit. Also, once we have a space, maybe visiting doctors can come.

Soon, we’ll run an electric wire from the community to the clinic and we are expecting solar panels from the USA. As you can see, we have a lot of space and there are no trees around the container so we can put up those panels to provide electricity for when the regular power goes out. A water tank and a composting toilet are also in the plan. Already we are planting a small garden.

J: That’s pretty ambitious. How are you able to fund it all?

AG: Up to now, it has been through donations, mostly from devotees in Pune. We have sent out mail seeking help in whatever form someone wants to offer it and have had a few replies. One devotee from America contributed a lot of surgical instruments, exactly the thing I needed.

I have kept prices very low, almost negligible, because I first must build a trust relationship with the local villagers. It isn’t my intention to make the clinic a profit-making business but I would like to see it grow and be financially stable to better serve people. Perhaps one day we can put it on enough of a healthy footing to attract more doctors and devotees who are in the healing professions.

In Maharasthra, we have the most health related NGO’s in rural areas in India, so a lot of doctors are service oriented in this part of the country. Many doctors want to serve but they find it difficult to take that initial step. I’ve also met doctors who are very keen on moving to our community but I can understand why, with families, they cannot abruptly leave everything to come here. I have to get things started first.

J: At the moment, what is your biggest need?

AG: Honestly, for now, I need money to get set up and started, to buy the medicines, and to bring in electricity, waterlines and utilities. Today we have one container, but in time and with peoples’ help, we could have a permanent building where specialists could sit. I don’t see why people someday would not come from Pirangut or even Lavasa to get treatment here because it would be holistic and nice.

(Watunde Village is located at the base of the big hill in the background of the photo above. See the same hill in the previous village photo. The Ananda community is 50 meters behind the photographer.)

J: What additional community projects are you working on, other than the clinic?

AG: A lot has happened in the last one and a half years. At the monastery right now, we are putting up solar panels so as to have electricity and, later on, for the clinic. Also, we are trying to get a solar pump ready to bring water up and are making a composting toilet and a shower house. We just finished our meditation space. Initially, I was working in the garden and was buying supplies in the city one day each week for the community kitchen but now others have taken over those tasks.

J: What does your family think of all this?

AG: They would be very happy if I came back home because my father has a clinic and he would be interested in having me help. They think I am just serving the rural areas and say, “Why don’t you see patients in the rural area over here?” But my aim is to serve Master’s work more than anything else. To be a channel in whatever way I can is the reason I am at Ananda. My mom is happy as she knows I am doing something good but my poor father doesn’t understand it at all. I love them and pray for them. I know Master will take of our souls.

J: What has been your greatest gain in this project?

AG: The immense satisfaction of serving: serving my guru, serving the local villagers, serving the ashram. Building a community and doing something for others to follow has brought me great satisfaction and contentment.

When Swamiji asked, “What do you think of a rural clinic?” I realized he didn’t want me to cut myself off from medicine. He was happy I had taken up this path but he also wanted me to serve. I’m happy to do so because I never disliked what I was doing before. It’s just that I like what I am doing now so much more. Swamiji asked me to do this thing and I know things will work out. This container seems so empty today but I have a strong belief that it is just the beginning for something much, much more.

If you would like to contribute to the clinic project in Watunde Village, please write to me at my regular anandaindia email address or at I can put you in touch with Dr. Aditya, explain his needs, and clarify the options available to you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dr. Aditya Gait and the Clinic - Part 1

Aditya Gait is a member of Ananda Sangha helping to build a “Kriya Yoga Community” in the countryside outside of Pune, India. He trained as a medical doctor before joining Ananda and is now beginning a medical clinic to serve the needs of local villagers and community members. Aditya is a brahmachari member of the Ananda Renunciate Order and, in addition to his medical service, is actively engaged in the development of Ananda’s retreat and residential community.

The following is Part One of a two part interview conducted with Aditya in early July, 2010. At that time, he had recently purchased a shipping container from Mumbai and had placed it on a small parcel of land adjacent to our community with the intention of converting it into a small clinic. In this first part of the interview, Aditya tells of his early interest in medicine and of his coming to Ananda. In the second part, he will speak of his plans for the clinic.

Jaya: For the past year, you have been working as a medical doctor with local villagers, traveling here and there to see patients. I see you have now bought a shipping container with plans to convert it into a small medical clinic. How is it going?

Aditya: Swamiji has asked me that exact same question, at least seven or eight times, since we first came to Pune. It’s practically his first question whenever he sees me. I’ve been answering, “It’s going well,” but when he last came, I told him, “Swamiji, so many things are going on. I’m unable to focus all my attention on the clinic though I have been seeing patients.” He said, “I understand, but it would be nice if you can do something with the clinic which at the same time does not take all your time.”

J: Have you always wanted to be a doctor?

A: Yes. I was always interested in general medicine but never in surgery. After my internship, I applied for residency training at a hospital in New Delhi known for its program in community medicine. They told me, “Those seats are full, but we have one seat in rural surgery.” It was a pilot program combining general surgery, orthopedics, obstetrics, and all of the surgical things needed by a rural doctor. I had never been particularly attracted to specializing in those subjects but when they put that tag “rural” in front of it, I was interested. My sister is a psychiatrist and my father is a military physician and I thought, “I will be the surgeon,” and we could all serve together.

J: What was it about rural medicine that attracted you?

A: When in medical school in Pune, I was aiming to be an oncologist or a neurologist, but when I went for my internship in New Delhi, I saw that most of my patients had come from the rural areas. That made me ponder, “Why are so many people coming from the rural areas? Instead, we should be going there.”

When someone was ill, the whole family would have to come into the city, often causing major complications because of the delay. I soon realized what was required and decided to serve in the rural areas. That didn’t go down well with my family but I was very content inside because I knew that if I was to serve as a doctor, this was the way it had to be.

J: Did you enjoy your service as a doctor as you had expected?

A: Yes, but when I saw patients I would think, “Why is this happening to them?” I would see people with chronic illnesses which had no cure and I would ponder about why it was so. In pediatric surgery, I saw small babies being operated upon and wondered, “Why is this happening to them?” It was hard to understand. You know, such difficult things are equally bad news for a doctor as for a patient.

I thought about karma and why things happen, but I couldn’t explain this to my patients in a way that would help them. Very few were receptive and once they are physically well, patients don’t come back. I found that disappointing because I wanted to give them so much more. Some days I was happy and some days wasn’t when unable to save somebody. Things eventually came to a point where I couldn’t go on like that.

All the while, I was desperately asking God for help and I eventually came to realize I needed to learn higher things than what I was then studying. I believed in prayer but I just didn’t know how it worked. I believed also in miracles like we read about in the lives of saints and I thought it would be good to learn those things too. But, who do you learn it from?

It was then that I read Autobiography of a Yogi. It answered almost all my questions. I was very certain Yogananda had been with me before. When he spoke of reincarnation, I thought, “He has been my guru!” From then on, I was always questioning and asking, “What does he want from me?”

J: Is that when you came to know about Ananda?

A: I came to know of Ananda just before starting my residency, and wrote a letter to Swamiji, telling him I was a doctor, of my interest in serving people and that I wanted to learn Kriya Yoga. I asked him to please tell me what I can do. I left my phone number and email address but didn’t hear back. When his reply didn’t come, I thought, “Master wants me to continue in medicine.” I thought this because I got my residency seat at the hospital under very miraculous conditions, I must say.

My application was already five months late and the seat was available only because somebody else had become ill and had left it. I was told, “Be at the hospital at nine o’clock in the morning and the head of the department will interview you.”

The next day, on my way to the hospital, I was entering the Delhi Metro when a beggar called out to me. I had only ten minutes but I thought I could give him two, so I said, “What’s your problem?” I could see he had rashes all over his hands and he was blind. He said, “Can you please tell me where the President of India sits? I have to meet him.” This was a surprising question but I could see he was completely stable and not insane. I said, “That’s a very unusual request. How are you going to meet him?” The fellow said, “He told me I can come see him at any time,” and he pulled out of his pocket a picture. There was the President, Mr. Kalam with that beggar! He had met him in Lucknow and the President had told him to come see him if he had any problem. I asked him what his problem was and he said he needed Rs.2500 because he had been ill and spent everything he had on the clinic and private hospitals. “I don’t have money. I have not eaten for two days and my family has not eaten, so today if he can give me some money, I can go back home.” His request was so simple. He would ask the President to give him some money.

That was the ninth day of Ram Nomi, so everything was closed. I thought, “If I leave him like this he will definitely not reach anywhere. Because I’m educated and a doctor, maybe the guards would let me get near the President’s office.”

Only the day before I had been reading in Swamiji’s book, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, the passage where Krishna says to Arjuna, “Oh Arjuna, as long as you think you can plan this and manage that, I will watch. But the day you offer your life completely to Me, I will take complete charge of it.”

I was so thrilled when I read that line and I was thinking how nice it would be if God takes all charge. So, I said to God, “I’m taking this course for You and I want to help this man for You. Because You have put him in front of me, You must take care of my interview. I’m going with him.” So I went with the beggar and it was a very long day. At the President’s office we had problems and didn’t meet Mr. Kalam. Then I took him to an NGO but they could not help. I took him to a charitable person who also could not help. In the end, I had to pay him what money I had. He needed Rs.2500 and I had only Rs.1600, so I gave him that much.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon when I left him and I was wondering what must have happened about the interview. I thought, “Let me go and check.” I reached the hospital and knocked at that surgeon’s office but nobody answered. I peeped in and his secretary was sitting there. “Mam, is Dr. Khanduri there?” “Please wait,” she said.

I was sitting outside and eventually saw him coming along the corridor. I thought he might scold me as I stood to meet him. I said, “Sir, I am Aditya. You asked me to come for the interview today.” “Oh my God!” he said, “I’m so sorry. I made you wait so long!” He hadn’t come to the hospital the whole day! I didn’t want to tell him the whole story so I just said, “It’s fine, sir.” He said, “I had to interview you. Anyway, you know what? You are the only person.” He asked for my mobile and called someone, “This is the only guy and he wants the seat.” I was through.

So the seat at the hospital was a precious gift and I didn’t want to leave it. I thought, “I should become a doctor. Maybe it’s not my good karma to meditate in this life,” but finally, things came to a point where I knew I wanted to heal people but not in that way.

J: Eventually, you decided to come to Ananda.

A: Yes, I finished one month short of two years in the residency program and then I came to the ashram. Obviously, my friends and family were not happy with me. They said, “It’s just one more year,” but I knew I had to come. Swamiji met me and said, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Are you sure?” and I said “Yes.” And he said “Sure?” I thought, “There must be something,” and said, “Swamiji, I had this question a few days back when I was doing my residency. Everything was good. My teachers were good. My college was good. I was happy but I just felt it was incomplete so I came to seek God.” And he said, “Man’s highest responsibility is to find God and I think you have done the right thing by coming here.” I was so relieved, but the very next thing he said to me was, “What do you think of a rural clinic?” I had given up my stethoscope, my books, everything, but I said, “OK.” So this blue container is the result of all those things. I want to fill it back up with books and a stethoscope.

Part 2 of this interview will appear next week.