India: Doses of Reality

On the bus ride coming down from the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri, in the Garhwal Himalayas of northern India, I did what I could to come to terms with the notion that if it was "my time to go," then it was my time.
03/14/2013 11:02 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

It could happen anywhere; to any of us -- that moment when we realize just how little control we truly have in our lives, when the inevitability of death becomes a conscious reality despite our best efforts at keeping it at bay. For me, the times when I have actually formulated the thought, "I could die today," have come on bus rides... narrow roads... steep ravines yawning within inches of bald tires and men that seem to be driving with a death wish, or at least heavily under the influence of the local drink of choice.

On the bus ride coming down from the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri, in the Garhwal Himalayas of northern India, I did what I could to come to terms with the notion that if it was "my time to go," then it was my time. After unsuccessfully pleading with the driver to slow down, and never quite having the nerve to demand that he stop the bus so I could get out, I endured the 12-hour ride back down to the plains. Apparently, even that wasn't enough of a reminder of my own fragility, as the bus was also delayed on route for five hours waiting for a landslide to clear. When we finally arrived in Uttarkashi, boulders from yet another landslide were tumbling in our direction. I grabbed my bag and ran.

It isn't a pretty topic: death. Many of us come from societies that spend a fair amount of effort trying to avoid and deny this reality, even sweeping the universal truth of suffering under the rug as much as possible. If we can't ignore suffering's existence, can we change it, fix it? No, not always.

India, a most eminent teacher, is adamant in making visible the precariousness, the preciousness, and the rawness of life. Even as travelers to the subcontinent, it is impossible to avoid the nearly ubiquitous specter of poverty, hunger and disease. Maimed street beggars, shrouded bodies on funeral pyres, masses of humanity within which someone is experiencing every imaginable aspect of living and dying. How does one successfully navigate this without emotionally hardening and closing off, or giving too much of one's emotional or physical resources, leading to over-extension and burn out? It is a fair and useful question for us all, travelers to India or not. Yet out of her history emerge practices that are deeply rooted in the marriage of the sacred and the mundane; practices, such as meditation, prayer and ritual that arose out of a need to make sense of the human experience.

Buddhism, born in India with the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago, speaks of equanimity as a state of mental balance or poise: The point of wisdom, for example, that recognizes when we have done all we can to alleviate suffering and identifies that which is beyond our control. Buddhist practitioners often then engage in a metta practice (loving-kindness meditation) which actively shifts one's awareness toward inclusivity and the impulse of expressing caring and compassion equally to all beings. It is a practice of evoking loving-kindness and of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves and others happiness. Ultimately, it is a practice that leads us to more fundamental truths: that of our interconnectedness and our shared vulnerability to the inevitabilities of change. It involves quiet, concentrated focus on phrases such as, "May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease." Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg explains that the Buddha taught loving-kindness as an antidote to fear, that metta dissolves the expressions of separateness, such as alienation, loneliness and despair. Walking the path of my own journey, I still stumble with this. But there are moments of release, moments of peace.

India's cultural repertoire brims over with ritual and tradition, giving it an enormity of richness that dazzles and deeply moves many who travel there. In my simplistic way, unable to fully retain the cultural meaning behind so many unfamiliar traditions and ceremonies, I began to see ritual as acts that symbolized the honoring of that which is precious or that which is lost. The Ganga, India's holiest of rivers, flows from the mouth of the Gangotri Glacier to cradle the country's dead, cleanse bodies and souls, and float prayers to the far corners of the world. I sat on her shores in Rishikesh -- yoga mecca, the place where the Beatles came to find their guru and another pilgrimage destination for Hindus. There the holy river leaves the Himalayan mountains and begins her descent into the plains. A pedestrian bridge spans her girth, shading sadhus as they bathe in the morning and carrying women across as the dusk light ripples through the yellow, red and gold of their saris. The bowed wires sway with monkeys scurrying back and forth in their quest to find food.

In front of me, an Indian man enters the water, dressed in a white cotton dhoti showing his thin ankles and calves and a torso that looks frail though covered loosely by his kurta, a pajama-like shirt. Standing on the edge of the cement ghats, he lights a candle and begins to chant, moving his arms in slow circles over the water. He comes to me, silently, as if I were an age-old part of his ritual, and places marigolds in my hands. Together, the dark and the light of our palms move in unison and we offer our gifts to the Holy Ganga. They are accepted. Orange petals swirl in the embrace of her body and join a progression of floating, candle-lit banana leaves. He places a small dot of yellow paste between my brows then leaves, as unobtrusively as he appeared. The prayer remains, carried on the calm dark waters.