Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sacred And The Profane

All you need is love. And cash. Oh yes... Cash helps.

We were thrilled to receive an invitation to Coimbatore from our friend Gopal, in order to attend the two day long birthday festivities for his guru, Shree Harsha Matha. We booked our tickets on India Rail, which is always an interesting process. They do have a web site, although it's main purpose seems to be the vexation of potential clients. We have learned through trial and error that a much better alternative is to hoof it down to the railway station, whereupon one stands in line for a "journey cum reservation ticket". This little document needs to be filled out in excruciating detail. It requires the name, gender and age of all seats booked, as well as train numbers, station acronyms, departure "timings", and so on. I'm sure there was a box in there asking for my favourite colour, but a good chunk of it was in Hindi script, so I left some items blank. After filling out the form, you move to another queue, and after what can be a substantial wait in a sweltering room serviced only by a few rickety 1930's era ceiling fans, you have the privilege of getting to the ticket booth itself and suffering the disdain of the person who processes your ticket, which is invariably filled out incorrectly and requires substantial modification by the unamused clerk. To add an extra bit of drama, there is always the risk of building ingress from roving livestock.

After 4 hours or so on the train, we arrived in Coimbatore, where we were greeted on the platform by Gopal's son. We were summarily loaded into a taxi and whisked to the hotel that Gopal had kindly booked for us. At around 6 o'clock, we finally got to met Gopal face to face, after more than 4 months of email dialogue. If there is a kinder, more generous man in all of India, I would be hard pressed to believe it. We drove in Gopal's little van to the guru's spanking new temple, as Gopal had arranged a private evening audience for us. A great honour.

Now this is something I've always wanted to do: have a real live meeting with a genuine guru. The romantic in me fantasized about being recognized as a long lost disciple from a previous life, reunited with the all-knowing master at last, collapsing at the feet of this enlightened being, unashamedly weeping tears of bliss as scenes of past lives reeled past my newly awakened third eye. The experience fell a little short of that mark. Harsha Mata spoke no English, and after we were ushered into her private A/C sanctum, she gave a discourse on her accomplishments "more in 60 years than most could do in 200", the coming age of destruction, and her ongoing mission to lead her followers to godliness. As I watched her giving this discourse, I could not move myself out of the doubtful Western mindset that made me question everything that was said. All around, people treated her with deference and ultimate respect that bordered on worship. Actually, it was worship. I was trying to have an open mind, but this kind of thing always sets off alarm bells with me. I came up sorely lacking in the cultural framework that enables the machinery of instant devotion. Inwardly, I wondered if my divinity doubts would be addressed in the form of some dramatic spiritual epiphany. You know, something along the lines of Mathaji materializing in my hotel room later with secret words of love and knowledge. Then the phone rang. She picked it up and had an animated conversation and if I didn't know better, she actually sounded a little... cranky. I wondered again if all gurus fielded their own phone calls. "For karmic advice, press one. All gurus are busy right now. Your call is important to us! Please... stay on the line".

The next morning we headed back to the temple for the first day of the birthday celebrations. The temple is only two years old, and it's quite beautiful. It was built on land donated by a wealthy couple from Dubai who are ardent devotees of Mathaji. From 6AM, a group of priests sat in a circle, performing rites of offering and chanting into microphones, which were then piped through a pretty respectable PA system spread all around the grounds. On one of the pillars of the temple was a sign saying that the use of cell phones was prohibited. This was the source of great amusement for Laurel and me, as we watched more than one of the priests, naked from the waist up and body parts smeared with markings of sandalwood paste, field phone calls while in the chanting circle. The sacred and the profane. More and more devotees arrived, and the celebrations began in earnest. Mathaji came out to receive the adulation of her followers, and in return, she blessed them profusely. It was quite touching to see how emotional the response was of some of the devotees to her blessings. Tears coming down cheeks, they would touch her feet as a sign of love and respect. At one point, a brand new Honda sedan was driven into the compound, and everyone crowded around it. It seems that for the second year in a row, Mathaji was presented with a brand new car from a devotee. She climbed in the driver's seat to check it out as the donor beamed a huge smile.

Mathaji also singled out Emma as suitable marriage match for the son of the wealthy couple from Dubai. Emma was whisked away and photographed. A friend of the Dubai matron interviewed Emma, inquiring about her family, education, and so on. This was in turn relayed to the Dubai lady, and favourably received. From her end, it was a "go". She was very pleased that Mathaji had divined that Emma was perfect for her son, as Mathaji had arranged the successful marriage of her first son. Fortunately for Emma, she does get the final say on all of this. I'm not sure if spending her adulthood clad in a bourka stirring lentils in some steaming secure compound in Dubai is really in her future plans.

Adjoining the temple is a massive covered area that seats about three hundred people at a time, and that's where we headed for lunch. This is where things began to make a lot more sense for me. There is no real "welfare system" in India, and temples such as this one systematically feed countless poor people a free meal each day. The food and labour is donated by devotees, whose actions earn blessings and karmic currency. Its sort of a "win-win" situation. The donors get a spiritual benefit, and the recipients get food, which may otherwise prove elusive. Mathaji is the conduit through which all this flows. The system makes a lot of sense, and its replicated in similar microcosms all around the country. While the nice simple vegetarian meal was being served, one woman, who was dripping with diamonds, implored me to videotape her as she spooned rice onto the banana-leaf plates of the disenfranchised. Ignoring the person she was serving, she flashed a gold-toothy smile and stared into the camera, as if to say "Look at me! I'm ****ing rich and I'm feeding the poor!". I didn't have the heart to point out to her that there is much more spiritual benefit in selfless anonymous acts. Still, despite the grandstanding of the wealthy, the temple served over 1200 meals this day.

Returning back to the hotel, I noticed an odd change in myself. The previous night, Gopal had given me a nice new blue cotton shirt, which I decided to wear to the temple that day. Upon removing it, I noticed that from the waist up, including my hands and arms, I had turned a uniform shade of blue. This made me look like a low budget Krishna, not quite the transformational moment I had hoped for. However, my desire for a mystical visit came true later in the night, although once again, not quite in the form I had hoped for. After more than two months of superb health, and as if to expressly punish my doubts, I spent the bulk of the night fending off the the attack of the dreaded "Delhi Belly". Unsuccessfully. For the next 24 hours, I stayed in the hotel room performing porcelain penance rituals of my own, the details of which are not for the eyes or ears of the uninitiated.

1 comment:

Murray A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.