|Puja at Sivananda Ashram.|
In Travel Snaps, the business card sized photo book discussed in the previous post I distilled the experiences of my first trip to India into these two brief anecdotes:
“Hey, this is India” is a phrase tourists hear after complaining that their hotel room has no hot water, sheets or toilet paper. Just after hearing that phrase for the first time, I hiked with friends to the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god. As we did not rent the sticks used to scare off the monkeys that guard the temple, we had to fend off the beasts with hastily gathered stones. We dashed into the temple with its bells and drums ringing in our ears. A monkey ran screeching in after us. Fearful devotees dodged the scrambling monkey. The priest interrupted the ritual and with one commanding gesture waved the monkey out. I felt like I was living out a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Monkey God as I said to myself, “Wow, this is India!”
Later, in a Hindu ashram I ate silently with Catholic nuns, natives of India who had traveled to this retreat to gain insights that would help them train their sisters. On the last day, when our vow of silence was lifted, I asked a nun if she found the Hare Krishna mantras in the Shiva temple a little disconcerting. She replied, “No, this is my home, this is India.” It was in that ashram, during the pre-dawn meditation, that I felt closest to a land that had been so trying in that first hotel room and so exotic at the monkey temple. I realized then that prayer needn't be asking God for something, it could be just listening for something beyond our thoughts—waiting for what cannot be anticipated.