May 28, 2011

Journey into American Hinterlands

Recently I decided to visit my friend in South Dakota. To go to South Dakota, I would have to traverse miles of rural American backwaters, and I expected little excitement from the journey. First of all, I went to the nearby town of Galesburg to wait for the connecting train. There were nine hours before my next train came in, and I decided to explore Galesburg. I asked two people at the station which way I should go, and due to my excellent sense of direction, was lost as soon as I set foot outside the waiting room. But I decided to soldier on, and approached a pretty elderly lady with white curls. “I just want to pass the time until the next train arrives” I told her.

“Oh, there are a lot of things you could do in this wonderful city of Galesburg, you could…..” her tinkling, silvery voice trailed off. “Hmm, the bowling alley is closed”, she said after some thought. “You can come with me, I am going to work and I will show you the downtown” she offered. Soon I understood why she couldn’t think of anything else to do. The city of Galesburg was one street long and three streets wide.

My engaging guide still managed to find many things of interest. “Look at that shop, it’s actually the same shop but they pretend to be different” she giggled as she informed me. Both shops had the exact same color and décor, but one was a bakery and the other was a cheese and knick knack shop. “Over there we have a statue of Abraham Lincoln, I don’t know if you know who Lincoln was” she giggled again. I tried to politely inform her that I did know who Lincoln was, but she went on to tell me how Lincoln was born in some other (not mention-worthy) state but grew up here in Illinois. I kept quiet for fear of interrupting, but soon we came across another American icon that was truly unknown to me. “Do you know Carl Sandburg? He was a famous poet, and he was born here.” She pointed to a wall mural that bore his name. I vowed to go home and look up this local talent.

After thus exhausting the attractions of Galesburg, she turned towards me. “Where are you from?” she asked. “Nepal” I answered. “Oh I have never been there, but it sounds wonderful and mysterious, I would love to go there” she said with her eyes shining. I was flattered by her interest in my country. My own town of Macomb is teeming with foreign students, and no one gives a second glance to another brown girl. But foreigners seemed to be a novelty in Galesburg. My guide then introduced herself as Marlin Stone, and left for work with a smile and a wave.

I moodily walked into a bakery with the lingering feeling that this chance meeting should have gone longer, but the homemade croissants were a rare treat and cheered me up. My suspicions of few foreigners visiting Galesburg were heightened when an old couple came up to me and struck a conversation about Asian and European youth. But they were finally confirmed inside the train, when the conductor said to me loudly and not unkindly “Have you ever ridden an Amtrak train before?” His question surprised me and I barely managed to indicate a positive answer. “Oh, just checking” he said. I knew he didn’t believe me, because he went on to tell me in full detail where the restrooms, dining car and emergency exits were, and asked me to holler if I had any questions. All the while he spoke loudly and clearly, as if he was speaking to an 8 year old. He left me with a smile on my face as he moved on to other passengers.

Mile after mile of sparsely populated fields passed me, sometimes occupied by cows, horses or sheep. I settled down for a few hours of quiet reading. I had miraculously acquired new books that day. At my town’s train station, there was a book rack with novels which passengers could read and take home. The first time I saw this ‘take home’ book rack, I took a rubbishy book home simply because I couldn’t pass up free books. I stopped doing that once I found the books were always worn down, battered and unheard of. But the book rack at Galesburg train station was something else. It was full of brand new books, if they were clothes they would still have their tags on. And what’s more, there were even writers that I had heard of. Danielle Steele, who needs no introduction. Maeve Binchy, who I have gone hoarse recommending to anyone that can read. John leCarre, an 80 year old man whose picture graced my desktop for a long time until my sister got disgusted and replaced him with Sugam Pokhrel. When I found these gems, I blithely packed their books into my suitcase, determined to cram them in come what may. Little did I know what trouble they would cause me later.

I excitedly related the story of my finds to my sister, and my mother thought the incident important enough to make a rare phone call all the way from Nepal. “Greedy girl, why do you want to lug heavy books around for a thousand miles? Put them down immediately and travel light, what did I teach you in all the years of packing?” “You brought home your five year collection of outdated ‘Women’s Era’ magazines all the way from India” I mumbled.

I was about to carry on about how there were no wheels on our suitcases then and we had lugged the books around in cumbersome tin cases through dangerous Indian train stations. It was a good thing my father came in at that very moment and asked me to look out for books on post modernism. My mother’s wrath turned into incredulity. “How do you expect her to find theory books at a random waiting room? I’m sure there are only cheap entertainment type books there!” said she. “Well, she didn’t expect to find any ‘take home’ books at a waiting room in the first place, so what’s wrong with looking out when there’s a chance of finding knowledge?” retorted my father. His logic left me speechless as my mother went away muttering. “Like father, like daughter, none of them can keep their hands off books. One of these days this house is going to sink into the earth with all the book weight.”

On my return journey, I kept thinking of our house sinking from book weight. The conductor just announced that we were an hour late. I fervently prayed it wasn’t because my three books were dragging the train back (there is a different conductor who I fear might not be as accommodating as the last one). So here I am, quaking in my train seat, waiting to disembark and be free of fear. See you next week if I am not in jail for disrupting public transportation! A journey into the pastoral hinterlands turned out to be pretty adventurous after all!

P.S. All the above incidents are true. I am paying the concerned individuals a complement, I would be glad if they read and recognized themselves :)

Hinduism Poll results

Almost everyone who responded to this questions seemed to feel that Buddha's identity as a a "fat Chinese guy" was the weirdest incident of all. I agree, I thought we just had to prove that Buddha is not India, but now we also have to prove that he is not Chinese.... Anyways, the final results of the poll look like this:

You don't eat beef at all? 0 (0%)
Buddha is fat Chinese Guy 4 (66%)
Cross dressing HIndu Gods 1 (16%)
Do you worship trees? 0 (0%)
Why don't you go to the jungle? 0 (0%)
Do women wear burqas in Nepal? 3 (50%)

Thanks to all my readers for voting :)

May 22, 2011

Sai Baba's place in the history of self deification

The recent death of Sai Baba has once again brought this controversial figure in the limelight. An interesting feature Sai Baba is his efforts of self deification that he worked at constantly throughout his life. By self deification I mean declaring yourself to be God. Sai Baba has tried to equate himself with every god imaginable. To start with, when I visited Sai Baba’s ashram many years ago, I saw that nearby shops were selling several pictures of him in the attire of Shivaji. Sai Baba had Ganga flowing from his afro hair and a snake around his neck. Also, there were several comic book style story books where Sai Baba performed several “heroic” deeds like freezing one of his teachers and reviving him with a drop of water. Sai Baba has also been known to take passages from the Bible and declare himself to be the person identified by Jesus. Kalki avatar of Lord Vishnu is famous in Hinduism, said to be his tenth and last avatar on earth. Kalki is supposed to come on earth riding on a white horse. For his 60th birthday, Sai Baba rode on a chariot drawn by four white horses. He did not deny that he was trying to impersonate Kalki.

While Sai Baba failed in these endeavors to become Jesus, Vishnu and Shiva combined, he achieved spectacular successful in his first attempt: that of becoming Sai Baba. Baba claims to be the incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a saint beloved by the people. Shirdi Sai Baba’a legacy is looked after by a trust. The website of this trust bluntly declares that “Shri Saibaba has no disciple, heir and nobody is seated on his Asan. Please do not believe anybody pretending himself Shri Saibaba by wearing similar dress”. The present Satya Sai Baba’s only claim to being an incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba is his own declaration; he is even rejected by the person whose name he takes. But due to his vast empire and ability to publicize himself, Sai Baba has managed to blithely ignore this little website, which obviously cannot compete with him.

Sure, Sai Baba has built hospitals, schools and provided water for hundreds of villages. But no sane person with true feelings of social service would want to be declared a “god” for their efforts. His ridiculous attempts at godhood include raining down ash on devotees, and this act is often deconstructed for the public by mildly talented street magicians. In one of the more revolting videos doing the rounds of youtube, Sai Baba makes puking motions for as long as five minutes and vomits a spit-surrounded and absolutely disgusting gold sphere which he then brandishes to the crowd. But spit or no spit, Sai Baba and his gold balls did manage to capture the Hindu world’s imagination for a while, and he is a fairly popular deity. However, he failed to achieve ultimate stardom, which is a place at the top of the hierarchy of 33 crore Hindu gods. He should have taken lessons from his predecessor Krishna whom he was trying to replace with Kalki. Krishna in his time carried out similar steps of self deification, but was exponentially more successful.

In the story of the origin of Govardhan Pooja, we are told that the pile of dung symbolizes Govardhan mountain. Krishna has used this mountain to shield the villagers against Indra’s torrent. But why was Indra raining torrents in the first place? Krishna had challenged the villagers who were worshipping Indra: “Why do you worship Indra? He is nothing, I am Vishnu, more powerful than any other God.” Indra was angered to hear these words, and a battle ensued. Krishna won, courtesy the Govardhan mountain, and the villagers stopped worshiping Indra and started worshipping Krishna instead.

Today Indra is regarded as a silly character who is always running to other gods. He has no other role but to demurely shower flowers over the heroes of Mahabharat and Ramayan (in the TV serials at least). But before Krishna usurped his position, Indra was a powerful god of thunder, the almighty god of rain and weather that controlled human lives and slew the most frightening demons. Many stories before Krishna’s time attest to this. He was revered as a true king of gods, and in his time he too had obtained that position through self deification. Having killed Vrtrasura, a very powerful Asur, Indra declared himself the supreme god and demanded that people give him a share of the yagya offerings. And before Indra, who knows? Some radical scholars say that the Asuras were gods before Indra, and Indra usurped their position. Except for the Asura’s back-story, all the other stories are very well known to us, Sai Baba’s antics and Krishna’s challenge to Indra are actually quite popular, and Indra’s defeat of Vrtrasur is a fairly well known story. It is just the analysis that is different here.

Self deification is also seen in myths outside of this linear progression. In a well known story, Lord Ganesh won the rights to first worship and elevated himself from crores of other minor gods. There are any number of other Hindu gods, specially local ones, who are found by normal people and kings, and who identify themselves as gods and demand that temples be built for them in return for favors. Manakamana, Taleju and Pashupati are just a few names in the tradition. Self deification is a recurring theme and the most common method of establishing godhood in Hinduism. And in every generation, it has worked. The popularity of gods rises and ebbs according to fashion trends. But unlike fashionable clothes that are discarded every second day, gods at the peak of fashion manage to stay there for years, sometimes for centuries like Krishna.

Sai Baba also was trying to act in this time honored tradition of establishing his own godhood. But in this case, I am happy to think that he failed to gain the topmost position. I can only contemplate with horror what would have happened if he had succeeded, in 200 years our future generations would be worshiping Sai Baba as the major Hindu god. Previous gods might have established themselves through the same process, but we have already built fabulous myths around them. Replacing them with the bland stories of Sai Baba is distasteful to me, and hopefully to most other Hindus as well.

May 11, 2011

Harry Potter Poll

I think blogger has gone mad. Because this poll was updated after it was closed. Anyways, if so, I thank blogger, and if not, I thank my ten readers who made the effort to vote in the last minute. The final results stand like this:

Sirius (Black) 8 (33%)

Remus Lupin 4 (16%)

Ginny aka Ginevra 6 (25%)

Albus (Dumbledore) 2 (8%)

Mnerva (Mcgonagall) 2 (8%)

Other 4 (16%)

My vote went to Ginny because the odd pronunciation of Ginevra was very interesting to me. Thank to Nimmu for reminding me of Hermione, and I know that she voted for "other". I don't know who were the other two that voted for other though, and names they found interesting. Wish they would tell me :)

Thank you everyone for reading and voting on my poll. This post was much fun to write and I am glad a lot of people enjoyed it.
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