Every chapter of our travels changed us. We can say this with a certain emphasis now that we have been home in Ireland for two months. During some parts of our journey that change was felt more acutely, like a climactic moment in a novel when the protagonist reaches the summit of a mountain he has been climbing since the beginning of the tale.
Varanasi was a peak on our travelling journey. There was a sense of finally “arriving” even though we knew nothing and nobody there. It was another one of those kairos moments: it was a time, a place and a people we felt had been prepared for us ahead of time by the Author of our journey and our lives. Varanasi was a time of deep learning and preparation for returning to Ireland. It was during this period that Jeremy was interviewed via skype and received an offer for a job, beginning September, back in Dublin. It was also during this time that we seriously considered returning to work in India. The River Ashram community became our home and work space for seven precious, unforgettable weeks. The community there became our family. The other travellers and hippies in Varanasi became our friends and teachers.
Since our arrival home, people have asked us, ‘So what were you doing at the ashram in Varanasi?’
We read some darn good books, we rested until our travel-weary bodies revived, we learned to make chai, we cooked and ate food in the company of many different friends and strangers, we cleaned toilets, we did laundry, we painted pictures, we got angry and frustrated, we cried, we practised the difficult art of balancing talk with careful listening, we learned to be silent. We loved and were inspired, we danced, we sang, we ate, drank gallons of chai, we meditated, we dug into the Scriptures in the company of friends, put out mats for meditation circle and put mats away in their box, we wrote, we gardened, we prayed, we sweated our way into rising summer heat, we swatted a million mozzies, we went grocery shopping in the chaotic market stalls, we ate in the finest and grimiest local restaurants, we faught off angry monkeys, we woke and worked to the sound of clanging temple bells and Muezzin calls, adding our own chorus of Hindi Jesus bahjans, we watched bodies burning by the Ganga and we watched children playing in the gulleys.
Devout Hindus believe that Varanasi is outside of time and space. If you die there your failure to fulfil your karmic duty will be forgiven and your atman (or soul) will escape the curse of endless life-cycles, returning immediately to Brahman or divine existence. Varanasi is even referred to as The City of Redeemed Souls.
As followers of Jesus Christ, it was fascinating to journey through Hindu culture and learn exactly what is meant by the terms and practices we in the West are becoming increasingly familiar with. We were amazed to see what Hindu culture really looks like up close and understand how these ancient beliefs have cultivated the society we were seeing around us. We also came to realise the aspects of Hinduism we see in yoga studios and self-help books in the West are really quite diluted and mashed up when divorced from their religious origins.
For example, in India, Yoga was never part of a fitness regime uniting mind, body and spirit, as we have seen it marketed in the West. Instead, yoga grew out of a dualistic philosophical framework which sought to separate soul and nature. The goal of yoga is the isolation of soul from body. In fact, the very problem of humanity is that soul and nature have somehow fused. For a devout Hindu, therefore, yoga was and is a means of salvation. In contrast, from a western viewpoint, our understanding of salvation, and even health and life in general, values the human body. This attitude is a product of a Judaeo-Christian worldview and is thus fundamentally different to the Hindu view of salvation. Salvation from a Hindu philosophical viewpoint is understood primarily as escape from the body. The Christian concept of bodily resurrection and the associated understanding of the human body as a temple of holiness for God’s Spirit to dwell in, are fundamentally incompatible with this point of view.
Another example of misinterpretation through cross-cultural spiritual translation are the terms ‘karma’ and ‘reincarnation’. “Good” and “bad” Karma in the West is understood in terms of a system of morality, once again drawn from a Judaeo-Christian worldview whereby all humans are created equal as image-bearers of their Divine Creator. In India, the term Karma relates not so much to morality as it does to duty. Every member of society is expected to uphold the duties that their caste (into which they have been born) places upon them. For instance, a man from the Brahmin (highest) caste helping to release a woman of the lowest caste from servitude through compassionate giving would not necessarily be achieving what we in the West would refer to as “good” Karma. Karma is about duty and not so much morality or compassionate action. It is through right observance of such duties (dharma) that one can hope to avoid being reincarnated and beginning the cycle of existence once again.
Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi explains; “Karma became another philosophical factor preventing a culture of care. A person’s suffering was believed to be a result of her or his karma (deeds) in a previous life. In other words, suffering, was cosmic justice. To interfere with cosmic justice is like breaking into jail and setting a prisoner free. If you cut short someone’s suffering, you would actually add to his suffering because he would need to come back to complete his due quota of suffering.” (The Book that made your World, p. 312.)
Reincarnation is not something to attain to but escape from. Once again, this differs from the western viewpoint which tends to see reincarnation as a “second chance” at life, a welcome opportunity rather than the failure to achieve Moksha, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
We were privileged to be part of an ashram whose guru is Jesus, where meditation centred on him. It was a privilege to work alongside other Jesus devotees who are loving and serving spiritual seekers in India. It was interesting to see the growing influence of Eastern ‘evangelism’ on the West, especially as spiritual tourism in India is a booming industry. In the ashram we encountered a colourful community of travellers, hippies and spiritual seekers, many of them drawn by the magnetic pull of Hindu spirituality in all of its varied and often confusing manifestations.
Varanasi, as one of our friends noted, is Hindu headquarters. Pilgrims from all over India and the world beyond wash themselves in the Ganga or sit in the the company of a bearded Sadhu. The air is electric, buzzing with the throngs of thousands of devotees and numberless temples, each devoted to a different deity in the endless pantheon of Hindu gods. Varanasi is a riot of colours, sounds and smells. We loved walking the ghats and the narrow streets, stumbling across pujas (rituals) full of incense, flowers, flames and riotous drum rolls. The streets, choked with rickshaws, cows and motorbikes, are full of clamour and noise. White-bearded, saffron-robed Shiva Babas meander past the crumbling temples, tridents in hand. Not all gurus are sincere. Many so-called Sadhus or ‘holy men’ are willing drug dealers or disguised criminals evading capture by the law. Much of the spirituality on offer comes at a price and posters advertising yoga, meditation and philosophy classes are ubiquitous.
Many ashram visitors have come to Varanasi to be apprentices at the feet of acclaimed musical masters. Guests would turn up to community lunch with all sorts of exotic Indian musical instruments in tow, much to our enjoyment!
Our time in the ashram was punctuated by a shocking experience for the community there. A business man from Delhi, along with the landlords, began scheming to turn the ashram and the surrounding property into a tourist resort. This was a shocking and painful time for all connected to the ashram. Even though we had only been there a couple of weeks, we ourselves felt deeply disturbed by the plans threatening to shut down this treasure of a place. The future shape of the River Ashram remains uncertain and it seems one chapter in its life has certainly come to a close. However, at the time of writing, we have witnessed flickers of hope in the midst of what has felt for months like an overwhelming, encroaching darkness threatening to snuff out the vibrant life of The River Ashram. It was and is a privilege to walk through this time of grief, change and hope with the people who welcomed us into their lives there.
Living in community taught us to have grace for others and grace for ourselves, the latter in terms of knowing and communicating our boundaries to avoid burning out. We learned the vital value of receiving God’s gift of ‘shabbat’ or Sabbath rest – a ‘stop day’ where we can enjoy rest. In the ashram, where anyone could drop in at anytime, this became essential. After a whole month of putting off a complete day of rest, we finally plucked up the wisdom and courage to stick a sign on the ashram door saying; “The occupants of the River Ashram are today practising the discipline of solitude and silence. Please leave them alone today and they will be nicer to you tomorrow”. This is something we are determined to carry back home into our life in Ireland. We may even use the sign idea… Despite the challenges of intense heat, acute cultural differences and the stress constant community living can put on a marital relationship, we felt the ashram was a unique fit for us as a couple.
We found it hard to leave, hence staying seven weeks as opposed to our initial plan of three! Even when we did make the heart-wrenching journey away from the ashram and from Varanasi, we felt an undeniable connection to the place, the people, and to the way of life we had encountered there. We know it will continue to shape us and our lifestyle even as we moved far away from the space itself.