Notes from Tiruvannamalai
What Is It You Actually Do?
While I was in Manhattan I saw an old friend. Somehow she found time for lunch. She talked about her job, her man, her car, her boss, her gym, her trainer, her house and her dog. Then she wanted to know exactly what I was doing. She wanted to understand. I explained a little. She excused herself to make a few calls.
When she returned to the table she tried another tack. She said, Tell me how you spend the day. I mean, what is it you actually do?
Well. . . I said. Sometimes I walk in a circle. Sometimes I sit in the corner. I watch myself breathe. Over and over again I ask myself, Who am I? But I don’t try to answer the question.
After the fifth consecutive night of insomnia, I got worried. I thought, maybe tomorrow I will not be able to function. So I started to ask around – at the German Bakery and at Raggini’s, outside the meditation hall – any time I got a chance to speak to someone.
Each person I asked looked somewhat incredulous; their tone of voice suggested I was spending overmuch time in my own small world. I was like a camper in the deep woods, at dusk, complaining of mosquitoes. Everyone was getting bitten. People don’t sleep in Tiruvannamalai.
“They really ought to prepare a pamphlet,” said one man who was clearly tired of the question. “We could just hand it to people as they arrive. Welcome to Tiruvannamalai: The City That Cannot Sleep.”
It’s Arunachala, everyone says. It’s the energy. Certainly it was an odd and manic sort of insomnia. I woke up at 2am ready to do push-ups, and jumping jacks, and any number of rugged yet luminous Nepali waiters. It was also true that, after five days with almost no sleep, I should have been half-dead, but I was all right. Shaky, but all right.
Still worried, I went to visit my wisest friend, who has lived here for twelve years and sometimes led tours. He confirmed what everyone else had said. People didn’t sleep much in Tiruvannamalai. Some people on his tours were fine with just two or three hours a night.
After these reassurances, he brought me a cup of tea, and launched into a staggering account of Normal-seeming People Who Went Totally Nuts in Tiruvannamalai. Here in town, this conversation is the primary form of entertainment. This is a topic which cannot be exhausted, even if you start at dawn and continue on till nightfall.
Well, there’s the Lithuanian lady who whispers and goes everywhere in baby steps – had I seen her? And just recently there’d be yet another man who burned his money and his passport – sacred bonfire and all – because he believed Bhagawan would take care of him. But Bhagavan didn’t. God himself couldn’t keep track of every last hapless renunciant.
There was the sad case of the very nice man who abruptly turned aggressive and started hitting up people for money in the street. Finally he flew home and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In no time he was better. He flew back, apologized to everyone, and paid back all the money he owed. Two months later he was totally crazy again. He got in a street fight with some boys and his leg was injured. He went to the mountain and stayed in a cave. People tried to help him. He said, No, the mountain is healing me. He died.
Turns out it is absolutely totally normal to go bat-shit crazy in Tiruvannamalai, lots of nice people do. People you’d never expect, who’d seemed totally normal just days before.
I thanked him for the tea and the advice. He wished me sweet dreams.
The sixty-something Osho-Jewish lady at the next table over tells her breakfast companions, Insects gives me messages. Then she shows them a picture of beetles on her phone. The position of the beetles is significant, as is their color, green. She explains the significance of beetles in her spiritual development.
Meanwhile, I am thinking, This is India. She must get messages all the time. Isn’t it exhausting?
But five minutes later, in another context, she mentions the really spectacular insecticide she uses, which is totally non-toxic and organic and citronella-based, and which she pours in every corner of her house.
Conduit / 2
I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the victims of my eavesdropping. I am heartily sorry.
It’s just that I was sitting here, scribbling acres of dullness, when you came along, and said something brilliant, or which anyway illuminated the situation better than I ever could have done.
Who wants to hear my dehydrated insights, when the Osho-Jewish lady is explaining that cats are actually extraterrestrials used as conduits to send information to distant galaxies ?
Five minutes later, this same woman, describing the swift changes to her body since menopause, says, We have to go through life with this body and the truth of her words rings out so clear that the entire restaurant falls silent for a moment, without knowing why.
Conduit / 3
We have to go through life with this body. Never once will I make up a day younger, or with two whole legs. This thought astonishes me. It is so far from my way of thinking. It is possible I have received this thought from a cat in another galaxy.
Last night, while meditating, I happened to touch my upper arm, and was startled to find it thin and small and slack, with hardly any muscle at all. And I was the one who for years was nicknamed Guns. My biceps were my calling card, my primary queer credential.
I was devastated, for thirty seconds, but the feelings was as hard to hold onto as happiness. I am something else now. Soon I will be something else again. (Certain bad habits I will keep, just so you can recognize me.)
Like the Osho-Jewish lady, I’m a flow of wisdom and rubbish. I am here to send knowledge to distant galaxies, just like any other cat. I’m a conduit.
Hour of Power
I think I’m starting to adapt to life in Tiruvannamalai because now, when the power goes off, I’m not upset, and sometimes I think, Wow, that was maybe a whole entire hour!
Here is the electrical situation, according to Ali. Ali answers all my questions. Not because Ali possesses encyclopedic knowledge, but because he is so beautiful, in an Afghani insurgent sort of way, that I ask him questions just so I won’t be gaping at him, speechless.
Ali is not an Afghani insurgent. He is something far more dangerous. He is a Kashmiri carpet salesman. Thus, if you ever learn that I’ve been found, along the road somewhere, with a love-struck expression, and no possessions other than a beautiful but over-priced carpet, you will understand that it is all Ali’s fault. And it was worth it.
The power is usually on for two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Besides that there are “teasers”, when you might be awakened by the fan, or have a chance to make a cup of tea with the electric pot. This has been the situation for several years. It is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
There is nowhere near enough power. Most of it goes to Chennai. Some is even sold, over the state border, to Bangalore. The contracts of the international companies stipulate that they must have non-stop power. Thus all the power must go to the cities. Tiruvannamalai is lucky, actually, maybe because of the tourists. Most of rural Tamil Nadu receives only five hours of power a day.
The governor is pushing for nuclear power, but people are scared since Fukushima. (Everywhere I go, I notice that everyone pronounces the word ‘Fukushima’ flawlessly and without effort.) Some people say that the power cuts are the governor’s way to force the issue, as in “Give me my nuclear power plants or I’ll leave you in the dark.”
Ali is actually very knowledgeable. His eyes laugh as he speaks, bright sparks above his long black beard. He is entirely on to me.
Ali is as beautiful as a campfire in the desert.
The Explicit Details
Here is a true and comprehensive account of my sex life here in Tiruvannamalai.
Last week I got a haircut.
Sometimes the Nepali waiters at the German bakery brush against me as they deliver food to tables.
I do not mean to make light of these incidents. Indeed, they are more exciting than some orgies I have attended in the past.
I bought a box of dog biscuits. I didn’t know why. The first dog to whom I tossed a biscuit jumped up and ran away. So did the next dog. The third dog just flinched. Then he got up and stood over the dog biscuit, but he didn’t eat it until I was further down the road.
These dogs were all missing the biscuit concept. All they knew about were stones. At ten feet away they seemed friendly, tails wagging, heads bobbing, but if you got too close to them, they all darted away or slunk off. Some growled. I feared my attempt at goodwill would end in a series of rabies shots.
Skittery and suspicious dogs, how utterly I resemble you in attitude and behavior, as well as in appearance. I understood why I’d bought the biscuits.
Now I say, “Biscuit?” and make eye contact with the dog. Then I set the biscuit down. The dog comes up – often not until I have moved away.
Several dogs now greet me expectantly, as the old women do who sit in the dirt by the roadside and call out to me to buy them a cup of chai. I would like to help the dogs to feel less afraid -- though I know that fear is likely to serve them better than trust.
Above all, I wish I had better dog biscuits. The dogs gather their courage, come forward, sniff the biscuit and look at me like, “Seriously? This is all?” These dogs deserve a really delicious biscuit, instead of this dull yellow soy-based variety, which I fear has sat on the shelf since 1994.
It’s hard to be a dog in a holy town; dogs have no holy credentials like cows or peacocks or elephants. Think of the hard-luck stories dogs could tell, if only they’d pen their memoirs: Bad Dog in a Pure-Veg Town.
It’s an entirely different experience nowadays, darshan, the chance to see and be seen by God. That’s how it seems to me. Because half the devotees are, as ever, gazing at the image of god and making prayers with joined palms – and half are taking a video with their phone.
I would like to hang a sign outside the temple which reads: All Phones That Ring in the Mother’s Holy Sanctuary Become Property of the Goddess. (Devotional Ringtones Not Exempted.)
At the entrance to the Mother’s shrine, here was Padman. At the other ashram, too, where I’d first met him, he was often on the edge of things, and ready for a chat.
“You were right about Udupi,” I said. “It’s uninhabitable.”
He shook his head. He’d tried to warn me.
Padman is a freelance renunciant. About five years ago he tired of worldly middle-class Indian life. Now he wandered holy places and lived in ashrams.
“Why don’t you take sannyas?” I asked, since he wore only white, the same as I did. If he wore orange he could be a sadhu, a swami, and maybe get donations.
“What is sannyas? It is renunciation. It’s not about the color of your clothes. I have renounced. That’s what matters. As for the rest – I do not want the attention. I don’t want people around me. If someone comes now and then, that’s all right.”
Padman must have been around my age, about 40, though he looked much younger. What he said mattered less than his presence, which felt to me like aloe on a burn. He didn’t speak to me as a teacher, but just like we were pals.
“Is it OK if I ask you for some advice?”
Padman paused and braced himself as if I’d asked permission to hit him. “Go ahead.”
I told Padman the truth. I told him I was flunking surrender. Because a true spiritual aspirant accepts what happens, what comes and what doesn’t come. He does not seek to win or to prevail, to be justified, to be heard or understood.
Instead I was so plagued by anger that sometimes I sat for an entire hour before my shrine and the only meditation I could do was to repeat, “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I know I am angry.”
“What can I do?” I asked Padman.
“You must do japa,” Padman said. To do japa is to recite the name of God.
“I do tons of japa,” I said. “But even then I am writing angry letters in my mind.”
He looked at me like Dude. “You need to be more serious about japa.”
I thought I should explain a little more. I tried to explain how comprehensively I’d been lied to and endangered, how I now was being lied about. Then I said, “And now I am supposed to just disappear! How convenient! Am I just supposed to agree to disappear?”
Padman smiled. He was glad I was able to figure things out on my own.
God and the World / 5
Anti-Environmentalism and the Neo-Advaita
The modern day followers of masters like Sri Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj are known as “Neo-Advaitins”. In recent years, this philosophy has become wildly popular in the West, much as Tibetan Buddhism was in the 1990’s. Neo-Advaita teaches that Awakening is not a distant goal for only the most select. Enlightenment is our own nature. It may dawn in this very moment. In fact, it’s already present – we need only recognize it.
I have observed a marked resistance to any notion of caring for the environment among some Neo-Advaitins. This is not a universal attitude, by no means, but there exists a vocal group of Neo-Advaitins that deride caring for the Earth with as much stridency as some segments of the Republican Party. The teaching proclaims: All is well. Some Neo-Advaitins do not take it kindly if you suggest otherwise.
I was wrong to lay the blame for this attitude on Sri Ramana Maharshi. Indeed, his life and teachings can more easily lead to the opposite conclusion. His life of apparent total renunciation and detachment expressed itself in a radical level of care and concern for all living things. The world, he said, was God’s concern. And Sri Ramana Maharshi, the man called God, or Bhagavan, did all he could to care for every form of life that crossed his path.
A more likely source for this anti-environmental attitude is H.W.L Poonja, or “Papaji”, an extraordinarily charismatic teacher who was visited by thousands of Westerners at his home in Lucknow, until his death in 1997. Nearly all the Neo-advaitin teachers one finds in the West are his students, or students of his students.
For the last several years of his life, Papaji refused to answer questions about the environment. As far as he was concerned, the case was closed. He was perhaps tired of wrangling about it. When asked to explain why, in a video titled Who Wants to Know?, he said, “The world belongs to God. Let him take care of it. You take care of yourself.”
It is difficult to think of a message that would be more pleasant to the ears of the aging Boomers who form the majority of Papaji’s students. (Indeed, at a screening of this video, I heard a number of people in the audience moan Yes at this moment.) It is impossible to think of a message which they need less to hear. Papaji might as well have told them to buy an espresso machine or drink more chardonnay. They appear to be quite expert already in thinking of themselves.
I do not contest that H.W.L. Poonja’s was a teacher of great skill and caliber. Many people attest to their lives being transformed by even a single encounter with him. However, is it possible to admire Papaji, even to revere him, without considering him infallible? No doubt the man himself wished he’d done otherwise than launch the career of Andrew Cohen, for example. (Andrew Cohen is the most derided and scandal-ridden Neo-Advaitin teacher – a highly competitive position.)
It is entirely understandable if humankind, both ordinary people and saints alike, suffers from a failure of imagination at this point. After all, it has been the experience of philosophers for thousands of years that, no matter how much human fortunes ebb and flow, the river flows on and on.
But that is no longer the case.
The sacred river Yamuna, as it flows past the Taj Mahal, has the very highest level of toxicity. That means that any ordinary living thing placed in it will die within thirty seconds. The Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganges River, shrinks faster every year. Hundreds of millions of people depend on that river, which may very well be holy, but is certainly not eternal.
Neo-Advaitin teachers, their students and everyone else need to be aware of what is at stake in choosing at this moment to look away. As Diana Eck shows brilliantly in her fabulous new book India: A Sacred Geography, India’s spirituality is embedded in the geography of India itself. It is false to believe these teachings will continue to exist without the land, continent, or planet that gave them birth. As even the most ardent devotee of Papaji will admit, the infinite boundless body of absolute truth still needs a sip of water when it comes time to speak.