Today was our presentation to the board of trustees for the Uberoi Foundation and members of the academic community here in Sarnath. The Uberoi Foundation was set up by Mahinder Uberoi, a professor and Indian Immigrant to the United States. A board of trustees comprised of members from the US and India carry out the work of the foundation. The mission of the foundation is to:
“Raise awareness of the four major Dharmic religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, in an effort to promote understanding, communication, tolerance, and peace among the diverse peoples of the world.”
As I look back on my time here I will be sad to leave my new friends that reside in India and my fellow “scholars” that live in the US. India was a great experience, but it was the people that I was with that made it special.
This was a physical and mental challenge for me and I am happy that I took this valuable opportunity and pursued knowledge and experience.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to a school which is a Catholic School educating all grades including a school for the blind and and the differently abled. (While on that subject, it is so nice how all of India refers to people as “differently abled” rather than “disabled”. I saw this phrase on other signs and places too.)
The Jeevan Jyoti (meaning: life and light) was so impressive. The regular education classroom had inclusion and educates 1,400 students. The blind students live on campus. They also provide rehabilitation, physical therapy, and family education and counseling for the families of differently abled children. I was amazed at the work they were doing and how well behaved, hard working and polite the students were. In one eighth grade class I counted forty students in one room! Student leaders greeted us with a “hearty and happy welcome”. A girl from 12th grade read a statement welcoming us. I went around and asked the student leaders what they aspire to be. I heard professor, teacher, engineer, civil service, military service and doctor. They were very impressive and poised. In the eighth grade class they were participating in an essay contest about “Swachh Bharat” or the “Clean India” campaign that was started by Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister. I asked a girl if I could read her essay and I took a picture of it…
Students are writing an essay about the importance of a clean India. As I have mentioned in other posts, waste management, pollution and the availability of bathrooms is an issue in India. We were given a tour by the principal and some teachers.
Later in the day we had a session about Tibetan and Buddhist Art. Most of their styles of art are devotional or are used to meditate upon. This includes depictions of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) and Mandalas. This devotional art is called Thangka. I didn’t realize for the paintings of Buddha that the figure is sketched out with precise measurements and then painted with paint made from minerals. The works of art were so impressive and we visited he fine arts department at the university.
Sketch. If you look closely you can see the precise measurements used.
I have taken many modes of transportation here in India and they are all a challenge in some way. I think that I mentioned in an earlier post that the driving is harrowing and I find myself wondering, how are there not more accidents?
Two people in my group got clipped by motorcycles while walking on the street. Last night on a very crowded street, a cow backed into me. There are free roaming cows on every street in India including highways. All types of motorized vehicles just plow ahead, beep their horn and expect others to get out of the way. They are incredibly skilled at not hitting other vehicles, people, and cows. In the US when someone is crossing cars will stop but cars seem to have the “right of way” here. Also, cars seem to drive within millimeters if each other.
Traffic jam in Varanasi..
I have seen whole families on one motorcycle. Two kids, a mom and a dad! In this picture above, the mom has a helmet, and the dad does too, but more commonly I saw only the driver with a helmet and kids and women often do not have them on. Helmets are an expense though and maybe some can’t afford it?
I have not traveled on a public bus, but they are crazy crowded!
We took a “bullet train” from Delhi to Amritsar. The best thing about it was the scenes I saw along the way out the window. I had been staying in the city so it was nice to see the countryside. It was mostly farmland/ agriculture and some smaller urban settings. The crops I recognized were rice and corn. There was also a lot of trash and poverty that I saw.
The most challenging thing about the train was the bathrooms. They are Indian Style or “squat toilets” and the hole goes right through the train tracks. The idea of waste going out into the open is bothersome to me and an example of culture shock for me.
Had three lectures today that were fascinating and very well done by faculty at the University in Sarnath. However, four and a half hours of lecture definitely made me develop more compassion for my students. World Cultures students…remind me when I am talking too long 🙂
The talks today were about The Four Noble Truths ( Buddha’s Teachings), Buddhist Meditation, and Two Truths of Buddhist Philosophy. The Four Noble Truths are…1. All life contains suffering 2. It is our craving and attachments that cause suffering 3. Ceasing our craving and attachment is the way to end suffering 4. following The Eightfold Path is the way to achieve this and reach Nirvana.
We learned about and participated in Buddhist meditation. At home I always say I am going to put aside time for it and I never do! In one of the lectures the Professor veered off topic and told us how he thinks that teaching is the most noble profession because teachers teach so many students. I was touched by that.
We visited the site where Buddha gave his first teaching to 5 disciples which is why Sarnath is an important and religious city for Buddhists. His first 5 disciples made up the first “Sangha” or Buddhist Community. There is a “stupa” (a dome like structure that either contains relics of the Buddha or marks and important place in the Buddhist religion) there as well as many other ruins dating all the way back to the time of King Ashoka dating back to the 3rd century BCE!!
While we were there, a big group of young men were becoming Buddhist monks for a 10 day program. You can see them turning their white robes in for the saffron color ones.
We then went to nearby park called “Deer Park” to visit a Buddhist temple. It has a Buddha statue and the murals on the walls tell the story of the life of the Buddha.
It was very beautiful and the story was well told by the illustrations.
Buddhism has always been an area of interest for me and I am enjoying learning from experts and experiencing these holy sites first-hand.
Arrived in Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh in the Northern part of India near to Nepal. Sarnath, outside the city of Varanasi is the place where the Buddha gave his first teachings to disciples of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The path of the Buddha is also called the “Middle Way”. Beginning to preach to disciples is also referred to as “setting in motion the wheel”.We received a traditional Tibetan Buddhist welcome with the placing of a white scarf around our necks. “Khata” is a gesture of welcome, goodbye and good luck in the form of best purity and sincerity.We are staying on the campus of the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies. The University was founded in 1967 by Jawarhalal Nehru, the first prime minister of India in conjunction with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The school was founded to educate Tibetan monks that fled Tibet for India in the aftermath of the Chinese takeover of Tibet. It also educates many others in surrounding countries. It is now independent from the Government of India.There were signs about taking care of the environment everywhere!
This morning we had two lectures and discussions with professors, Jampe Samten and Geshe Ngawang Samten. The latter said that he taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts for 7 semesters. I was interested in that because I went to UMASS nearby. One talk was on the life of the Buddha and the other on the philosophy of Buddhism and emotional intelligence. The professor talked about topics like how our cravings and desire for more “things” is the cause of our suffering and how anger comes from not understanding reality. We also talked about concepts like impermanence and attachment. We talked about how many of the World’s problems stem from anger and misunderstanding and how compassion for other human beings will help end that suffering. The professor also spoke at length about the need for Social Emotional Learning in the educational setting. Plasticity and elasticity of the mind is something he stressed saying that the mind can learn to be mindful (present) and contemplative. Most of all he said that compassion for other human beings actually enriches oneself and creates compassion for oneself. He had some practical ideas for how to create mindfulness in the classroom and I am excited to try to bring some ideas back to my classes in the fall.
We also had a tour of the library where they archive very old manuscripts and where students and professors alike study and research. Some pictures of the library…These quotations talk about the importance of seeking knowledge in Buddhist philosophy. A beautiful picture of the ceiling…
On the last day in Amritsar we went into town and first visited Jallianwala Bagh. This is the site of a massacre of over 300 Indians by The British Army on April 13, 1919. Over 1,000 were injured. People were not only killed by bullets but by being caught in the stampede and jumping into a well for cover and drowning. It was the festival of “Baisakhi” which is a harvest festival in the spring. People were gathering peacefully in the garden (“bagh” means garden) to celebrate the festival and some to talk about the Indian Independence Movement and protesting the Rowlatt Acts, a series of British laws. This garden had walled sides with one narrow entrance so when the British troops came in there was no way for the people to run or escape. Many jumped into a well in the garden for cover and died there. Today the well is covered as a memorial to those who died. 120 bodies were pulled from the well.
Monument to the people who died outside the garden.
You can see that they have bushes in the shape of soldiers firing in the crowd
Jallianwala Bagh is a very sad place of remembrance. The 100 year anniversary of the event will be next year.
After Jallianwala Bagh, we went to the Golden Temple in the daytime (previously I had been there at night). It was a faster trip through the complex and into the golden temple itself to see the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book worshipped by Sikhs). There are no photos allowed in the Gurdwara , so I could not get a picture inside. Once again there were long lines of people waiting to get in. I saw one woman collapse presumably because of heat exhaustion.
There was an attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian Government in 1984 because they feared the power of a Sikh militant group. You can still see some bullet holes in the Golden Temple.
Following the attack, the prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. Sadly there were anti-Sikh campaigns afterwards in which many innocent Sikhs were attacked and killed. It was a turbulent time politically for India.
In Amritsar I also got to go to McDonalds. The fries were very good and tasted like they do in the US. The fries and Diet Coke tasted great! I did not try a veg burger.
Went into town today in Haridwar to visit the “Bharat Mata” temple that worships “mother India”. The temple has 7 stories or floors.
The temple is a testament to how cultural, religious, and political change and diversity in India has been constant and how the different religions and cultures are all nurtured by mother India. It was a temple but also sort of like a museum in that it worshipped a goddess called mother India,
but also had statues and exhibits about India’s major historical figures, information about each state in India, as well as a large model topographical map of the subcontinent.
India has 29 states. (I am currently in Uttarkand and have been in Delhi and Punjab). This temple was a good example of how secular and religious aspects mix in Indian culture and belief.
After the temple we went into town and walked through the marketplace and along the Ganga (Ganges) river. People were there for aarti and to bathe in the holy waters. There were also kids playing in it and one woman looked to be washing her clothes.
India truly is a multi sensory experience. There are sounds everywhere of music and vehicle horns. There are large crowds and a lot of lights.
There are many smells coming from street food vendors and old trash. There is so much to look at but you have to look down because you might step in cow poop. In most of the places we’ve gone out there are people everywhere. You really get a sense of how densely populated India is walking in its cities.
One also gets a sense of how lack of infrastructure and over population has led to major problems with trash and pollution. For example, each time I tried to find a trash can for my trash, it was almost impossible to define. As an American, I would never throw my trash down on the ground, but I can see why Indians do. They have very few trash cans. One of my fellow travelers on the trip is from India originally but works as a college professor in the US. I asked her what she thought about making trash cans more available and whether or not providing more trash cans would solve or help the trash problem. She said that she thought it would help and that India could change its habits to clean up the environment.
The Ganga river is quite polluted. The water is a grayish-brown. I saw many trash items floating down the river as well as sticks and big pieces of wood. Strangely I saw quite a few flip-flops! Despite the pollution, many adults and children were immersing themselves in the river. The current is strong and the river runs fast. There is a government campaign called “Swachh Bharat” (clean India) that was launched in 2014. There are posters and signs promoting it and according to some people in my group that have been to India before, there is an improvement in the areas of trash, sanitation, and pollution. It seems to me that there is still quite a ways to go.
I will never get over the sight of cows in the middle of the street and sidewalk. They just ignore people.
One thing I have learned here is that there is not one way to practice Hinduism. We have visited many ashrams, ceremonies, holy places, and places of remembrance for gurus and swamis. They are all different with some similar basic beliefs.
While I am on the topic of gurus and swamis… “Guru” means teacher and “swami” means master. Swamis are also known by the name “sannyasin”. A sannyasin is someone who has renounced the material world living the life of an ascetic. “Sadhu” is also a common name for wandering monks who have renounced the world. The title of guru is passed down through lineage (not necessarily familial). A guru usually picks his successor and seek out spiritual students who excel at knowledge of scripture and spirituality. Many scholars in India have told me that I am a guru because I am a teacher. I thought that was funny.
The Fire ceremony is interesting and very cool to witness. Hindus believe that fire communicates prayers up to the gods and that blessings come back down on the people. Fire is also considered purifying. Yellow/orange/ saffron colored robes and clothing are worn by holy men and devotees alike because it is the color of the sun. In the fire ceremony, prayers are sung and chanted and sacrifices are thrown into the fire like black sesame seeds and rice.
Towards the end of the fire ceremony. They pour clarified butter or “ghee” on the flames to help them reach higher to God.
At the ceremony they prayed for blessings for everyone there and made a special mention of the “foreigners”.
Everyone here is very friendly and helpful and they are so happy that we are here to study their traditions and culture. I have been asked quite a few times to take a picture with Indian families. One guy in our group who is tall and fair has been like a celebrity here! These women in the picture below loved my hat and asked to wear it for a picture.
“Aarati” or prayer songs performed morning and evening at the Ganges River in Rishikesh. We were there for the evening. Also involves an offering to the river of flowers, camphor, incense and lamp lighting. This is the god Shiva that is being worshipped there. Many people in the group swam in the Ganges. I just dipped my toe 🙂
The Aarti or prayers sung to the Gods is done by boys from an ashram/orphanage called Parmarth Niketan. At the orphanage, boys study with a Vedic priest to perform rituals and specifically fire ceremonies. When the boys come of age, they can decide whether or not they want to become Vedic priests or if they would like to live a life in another role like householder.
This is the footbridge that we had to cross to get to the other side of the Ganga River to attend Aarti. Cows and monkeys also cross the bridge. As you probably know, cows are sacred in India and in Hinduism so they roam free and are respected and fed by the people. The monkeys will jump on you or “attack” you and take your stuff. One of the other participants had her glasses taken by a monkey!