Tag Archives: Gandhi

Gandhis and the Ganges: Academic Idols in Allahabad

I dust off university memories and swot up ragging, study two prime ministers, follow Gandhi to the Ganges, and watch clay idols diving.

It’s only 150 km from Faizabad south to Allahabad, but the bus took over three hours.  A Leprosy Mission worker queued from before dawn to reserve me the best of the cracked blue vinyl seats, just behind the driver.  Passengers spat out the windows as we passed trees striped white-red-white.  Helpful exhortations were painted on truck rears: “Horn please”, “Keep safe distance”, “Sound horn okay”, “Use dipper at night”, “Don’t fast.”  You know you’re acclimatising to India when the pulse rate “doesn’t fast” too much when you see an oncoming lorry on your side of the road and neither driver slows down.

Straight through a roundabout with Varanasi to the left (the psychedelic sacred city – for a future trip), and Lucknow to the right (my previous stop – see here).  Across the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and into Allahabad, literally “construction of God”.

And into the worst traffic snarl I’ve seen, despite the smallish population of one to two million.  Half the main roads were dug up for drainage upgrades; people were sleeping in the metre-wide concrete pipes.  Allahabad may be the easiest city so far to cross the road, but in places dust billows with each footstep like for astronauts on the moon.  Acrid smoke from burning leaves adds to the haze.  Motorcyclists wore face scarves like bandits, and car headlights at night glowed as if though thick fog.

allahbad-templeOne dark night I was about to step on a pile of sand, and realised just in time it was a recumbent cow.  Bovines seem more common than dogs here, which makes me very happy, and I sometimes pass a line of bullocks.  Like the roading, the electrical infrastructure is also in flux.  Charges for the internet café I used in Allahabad: 15 rupees per hour “by electricity”, but 25 “by generator”.

I stayed for six nights at the leafy nine acre campus of Allahabad Bible Seminary (ABS, founded in 1942).  I began to explore the possibility of teaching theology at ABS over two years ago, before Dad had cancer, so I was excited to see the place at last.  The seminary has lectures in both English and Hindi, in subjects I’ve studied and in Indian topics I haven’t.  The half-hour morning chapel is bi-lingual and there are Hindi courses in town.  All this seemed to give great potential for me to both teach and learn.

But wires had been crossed.  They thought I’d come to teach English and fix their computer networks.  Lecturers were busy with admin and the students (around 160) were sitting exams, so there were no lectures I could sample.  (The state of Uttar Pradesh has the world’s biggest public school exams – at a city temple, Hindu students with their textbooks made offerings to ensure success.)  Despite this confusion the ABS people were a welcoming bunch, from the kid who’d cycle up to say hello, to the smiling guard at the gate who’d pull up a chair when I returned to hear about my day.

university-allahabadFrom the roof of the guesthouse where I stayed I could see the stone tower of the University of Allahabad.  It was founded in 1887 as India’s fourth university, and didn’t look to have been maintained since then.  On a deserted Sunday afternoon, with its overgrown lawns, peeling plaster and cracked domes missing most of their tiles, the science campus felt like a Muslim mausoleum.  I visited the main campus during the week and saw a few more students, some running late for their exams, others staring at the out-of-place white face.  It was very monocultural compared to Auckland.  Stacks of wooden desks looked like relics from my parents’ school days.  India can seem like a Victorian time warp.

Before this trip to India, I’d only heard of “ragging” in old British novels.  I’d seen a simple sign forbidding it at the University of Delhi, but here was a whole list of ragging prohibitions and punishments on a large campus signboard.  “Do not cause to…  Address seniors as ‘Sir’, copy class notes for the seniors, don menial jobs for the seniors” didn’t sound so bad, but it got worse:

look at pornographic picture to ‘shock the fresher’s out of the innocence’,
force to drink alcohol, scalding tea etc,
force to do act with sexual overtones, including homosexual acts,
force to do act which can lead to physical injury/mental torture or death…
(The list is only indicative, and is not exhaustive)

A quick google for “ragging in india” finds some pretty nasty stuff, and it causes several suicides every year (see Wikipedia).  The government even has an anonymous email for victims, helpline@antiragging.in.  Once again I realise how sheltered and blessed we are in New Zealand.

university-allahabad-libraryI flourished my Staff ID card from the University of Auckland, where as a first year I experienced nothing worse than nerves, and was admitted to the library.  After admiring the colonial architecture, wandering the wide empty corridors, and finding only a few out-of-date looking shelves, I began to ask, “Where are the books?”  I’d asked the same question at the University of Madras in 2007 (see here) and surmised that current texts are only delivered on request.

One gloomy chamber was wonderful.  Ancient volumes with cracked leather bindings scrawled on bending shelves above dusty tomes stacked on tables.  It was like the library of a fairy-tale castle under a spell of sleep.  A custodian was hovering so I couldn’t peruse the titles, though I spotted a bound collection of 1930s Punch.  Second-hand books are spread along the pavement of University Street outside, a larger outdoor version of the second-hand book stall that used to run in the first weeks of semester at Auckland University.  I bought used physics, chemistry and biology textbooks there in my undergraduate years.

allahabad-book-marketThe University of Allahabad trained many of India’s top leaders and five prime ministers were born here.  The first was Jawaharlal Nehru, who lived not far away.  His house, the Anand Bhavan, is now a museum with the furnishings left much as they were.  Nehru was progressive – he had the first motorcar in town, educated – bookcases of literature from East and West, and eloquent.  On the walls hung photos of independence movement leaders like Gandhi planning their next move against the British, right here in the house.  His daughter Indira Gandhi also became Prime Minister.  After viewing her house where she was assassinated in Delhi, it was poignant to see her birthplace and pictures of her childhood here.  Again I pondered the passing of time, and sadly remembered my Dad.

The city museum had ancient sculptures, Moghul miniatures, modern paintings, and another Gandhi exhibit.  I saw the urn that contained his cremated ashes and the “Gandhi Memorial Vehicle”, the festooned truck that transported said ashes to be scattered at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers.  A cycle rickshaw carried me there to complete my personal Gandhi pilgrimage.allahabad-sangam-pilgrim-shave

The Sangam is one of the holiest sites in India, where the two geographical rivers meet an invisible spiritual one.  It’s approached through wide open fields that are filled with pilgrims in January-March.  Every six years there’s a special Mela festival.  Over 70 million people came in 2007, making it the world’s biggest ever gathering.  Upon arriving, before I could object, Shiva’s trident was stamped in red on both my wrists and oily paste smeared on my forehead.  I rubbed it off, not wanting sweat to wash gunk into my eyes.  I walked past tour coaches and assorted temples to the riverbank, where men had their heads shaved, leaving one tuft at the back, before taking a holy dip.  No matter how polluted it may look, Ganges water will wash your soul clean.  Long narrow boats lined the shore, with cylindrical awnings for shade, waiting to ferry worshippers out to where the rivers intermingle.

allahabad-sangam-idol-durgaI followed a narrow dirt path between the water and the battlements of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century fortress.  It’s still used by the army so you can’t enter.  Some men struggled to free a large dinghy stuck in the mud.  Back on the riverside road, a stream of women disembarked from a bus with head shaven bald – pilgrims from Hyderabad in the south.  Then I heard amplified Hindi music and saw a procession of young guys straggling along with around six idols.  These were richly clothed and painted in front, but of rough clay behind.  The employees with their boss cheerfully invited me to descend the steep steps to the river with them.  Once or twice a statue was nearly dropped and I could imagine the Hebrew prophets, saying, “Like scarecrows in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jeremiah 10:5).

allahabad-sangam-idol-kaliAfter holding up each idol for me to photograph, one at a time was manhandled onto the bow of a boat, rowed a few metres out, and dumped into the water.  Only floating garlands marked the spot.  They encouraged me to join them in cheering “Hail, Ma Durga”, but were understanding when I demurred and said I was Christian.  One guy kept repeating “God bless you” until I left.  An example of the common Indian tolerance that’s sadly not universal – witness Ayodya (see my previous post here) and other sporadic attacks on minority groups.

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Avian Nonviolence, Gandhian Gimmicks and Simple Inspiration

I have pity on birds and respect for Gandhi; I query his quirks and ponder his paintings, follow his final steps and lament his lost legacy.

India is 75% Hindu.  Businessmen chant mantras with prayer beads on the Delhi metro, worshippers bow and ring bells at temple entrances, everywhere you look are roadside shrines and colourful pictures of diverse deities.  But I’ve been in surprisingly few temples here, as Delhi’s main monuments are mostly Muslim.  An acquaintance who moved up from south India said he missed the towering gateways and huge complexes of Hindu temples in his birthplace.

I’ve had a taste of Jainism, a much older faith that stresses non-violence to all living things (see my post on Jainism here).  Jain monks wear gauze masks and sweep the path to avoid breathing or crushing little insects, and to enter their temples leather objects like belts must be removed.  Opposite the Red Fort in the heart of old Delhi is a Jain Charity Birds’ Hospital.  A corridor was lined with cages full of pigeons, peacocks, parrots, finches that were suffering with broken wings, splinted legs, bloodied heads.  Above the cages were cartoons of birds caught in fans, power lines or kite strings; attacked by crows, cats or hunters.  A poster told of a brave and merciful divine king who gave pieces of his own flesh, and finally his whole life, to save a pigeon from a hawk.

jain-bird-hospital-delhiThe nonviolence of Jainism strongly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, whom I’ve long admired.  As a science graduate I love the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth – I introduced the book and the man here.  At the National Gandhi Museum I was again inspired.  I wish I could truthfully say, as Gandhi did, “My life is my message”, or, “My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another”.   Gandhi went one day per week without talking and again I was challenged by his emphasis on silence.  So much of my speech is empty chatter and self-seeking aggrandisement.

A plaque outside had Gandhi’s “Talisman” that shows his compassion for the poor.  It was some of the last advice he gave:

Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?  In other words, will it lead to swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen?  Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Gandhi spent his last 144 days at Birla house.  It’s now the “Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum”, which presents “a spectrum of information technology visions inspired by Gandhian thought”.  Pluck a harp string to hear a recorded national freedom song, or press a harmonium key for an interfaith hymn.  Pick up salt from an urn to play a presentation on Gandhi’s Salt March, hold up your hands to activate lights on the Pillar of Castelessness, or turn a train cab’s steering wheel to select video clips on Gandhi’s train journeys around India.  A little quirky, but fun for the kids and designed with high ideals: “Each object in the Museum, whether a pixel of light, a bit-map on the screen, an animation, a circuit or a handcrafted object is a living prayer.”

gandhis-roomI wondered how well it all fitted with the stark simplicity of Gandhi’s life.  In his bedroom his few possessions were on display, almost untouched since his death: a mattress on the floor, low writing desk, spinning wheel, staff, sandals and Bhagavad Gita on his pillow, and a small wooden sculpture of the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil.  Through the French doors, low hedges lined his final path. 182 footsteps set in concrete lead to a small shrine in the garden where he was shot on 30 January, 1948 by a fundamentalist Hindu.  A video counted down the minutes to 5:17 as he went to morning prayer.  A 1968 cartoon sent a shiver down my spine.  Gandhi speaks to Martin Luther King: “The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

I farewelled Gandhi at Rajghat.  On a black marble plinth where he was cremated are engraved the last words he is said to have spoken, “Hai Ram”, invoking the god he loved.  A small group of Buddhist monks sat with a turbaned Sikh and a western woman, chanting together for peace.  They reminded me of paintings in the Gandhi Museum.  In one, Buddha, Christ and Gandhi tread a shining path to rescue the suffering masses from demons.  In another, rivers flow from a church, temple and mosque to unite in a blue shawl draped over Gandhi’s shoulders; with blood dripping from three bullet wounds in his bare chest, he embraces four figures: a Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.

The site is near the Yamuna River.  The shoreline is hard to access, but I got a distant glimpse, or rather a pungent smell: in effect it’s an open sewer.  Gandhi’s ashes were scattered where the Yamuna meets the Ganges downstream in Allahabad.  I’ll be there next week!

Gandhi was a man of incredible integrity who always practised what he preached.  A woman once asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar.  Gandhi requested she return in a week.  She did so, and Gandhi asked her boy to abstain from the sweet stuff. Mum asked why he didn’t say so the first week.  A week ago, Gandhi replied, I still ate sugar myself.

Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi
Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi

The character of such founding fathers of India has sadly not endured.  A newspaper article on India’s culture of hypocrisy had a cartoon of a pious haloed bureaucrat in traditional white shirt, with a photo of Gandhi and his slogan “high thinking, simple living” on the wall.  Below his desk, he is in jeans and sneakers, with a box for bribes and the floor littered with cigarettes, alcohol bottles, meat bones and a rifle.

I’ve seen estimates that India’s black economy is one third of the official one or even as great – bringing the statistical consolation, quips writer Shashi Tharoor, that India’s GDP is twice the official figure so the average Indian is only half as poor as he thought!  A friend told me this story.

An Indian Member of Parliament visits an American counterpart and admires his luxurious private home: “How did you afford this?”  His Yankee friend points upstream: “See that bridge?  10% cut.”  Next year the American MP visits his Indian pal and is speechless at the palace where he lives, his fleet of antique cars, his stable of racehorses and army of retainers: how could a lowly back bencher pay for all this?  The Indian takes his friend for a stroll to the river that flows past his estate.  “Do you see that bridge downstream?” he asks.  The American looks, rubs his eyes, looks again – he can’t see a thing.  The Indian grins at his friend and winks.  “100%”.

I can understand why Shashi Tharoor writes with admiration, “we were not led by a saint with his head in clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground”, but regretfully defines Gandhi as:

A legendary, almost mythical figure, shrouded in the mists of history and the masks of textbooks, whose precepts, like God’s, are cited more often than obeyed.  The father of our nation, with a billion children and no followers.

I’ve seen signs that some people may be getting fed up.  In the Gandhi Museum a young man wore a T-shirt proclaiming “India Against Corruption”, and there is an official website based in Bangalore to report it: www.ipaidabribe.com.

gandhi-king-cartoon

Untouchable: Defiling the Racism of Caste

Of Hinduism and activism, hatred and hope.  Cobblers, cleaners and night soil sweepers meet Jesus, Gandhi and the flush.

Today we drove two hours north-west of Bangalore to the rural town of Tumkur (past the National Silkworm Seed Association, Central Silk Technological Research Institute and silk testing lab) to visit the Rural Education for Development Society.  REDS was founded by Raj and Jothi, a warm and articulate couple who are dalits.  The word “dalit” comes from the Indian Marathi language, meaning to crack, split, oppress, be scattered or trodden down.  It denotes the approximately 20% of India’s population who were previously called untouchables or outcastes.

mulk-raj-anand-UntouchableThe novel Untouchable (1935) by Mulk Raj Anand relates a day in the life of a young untouchable man named Bakha.  He lives with his family in a small one-room shack in a separate suburb, downwind and downstream of the main town and separated by a road, to avoid polluting upper castes.  Raj told us this is still typical in many villages.  Untouchables like Bakha may not use the common well, so they depend upon the sporadic mercy of higher castes to draw water for them.  Outcastes may not wear upper garments, and Bakha’s schoolteachers fear touching him or his books and paper.  He gets on better with the British troops who have less caste prejudice.

On this day his father is sick so Bakha must sweep the village streets.  He forgets to call out and warn others of his approach, lest his presence or shadow pollutes them, and he brushes against a passer-by.  The businessman is irate: he’ll have to return home and wash, missing his appointment.  An angry crowd surrounds Bakha, abusing him until he slips away in shame.  Later on, he peeks inside the temple where he sweeps the courtyard.  Priest and worshippers are alike incensed: the whole complex will need ceremonial purification.  Yet the same priest molests Bakha’s sister – dalit women have no defence.  Bakha is actually lucky.  In some places, untouchables who dared to hear or speak the holy language of Sanskrit had molten lead poured into their ears or mouth.

The novel depicts three possible solutions to untouchability.  Bakha meets a Salvation Army officer and is touched to hear that Jesus accepts everyone irrespective of caste, but he is bewildered by the Salvationist’s incomprehensible hymns and his less welcoming wife.  Then Mahatma Gandhi (who in real life read and approved of Anand’s novel before publication) comes to town.  Like the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus of the gospel, Bakha climbs a tree to see Gandhi over the crowds, whom he must not touch.  Gandhi castigates caste as a Satanic blemish on Hinduism, and says that Brahmins help sweep the toilet in his ashram.  Bakha is inspired, until he hears a worldly liberal pontificating that Gandhi’s idealism is ridiculously outdated.  The true saviour is technology: the flush toilet will abolish the need for untouchable latrine cleaners.

Today the Indian state reserves a high percentage of places in schools and government jobs for “scheduled castes”, but this often helps only the upper “creamy layer” of dalits, said Raj.  Untouchability was constitutionally abolished in 1950, but it frequently continues in practice, especially in rural areas.  In Rohinton Mistry’s historical novel A Fine Balance (1995), an untouchable tanner in the 1960s bravely trains his sons as tailors.  Upper castes resent this disruption of the time-honoured order.  When one son insists on casting his democratic vote, the family are burned alive and the police refuse to register any case.

Raj was born to illiterate parents in the “unseeable” subcaste and nicknamed “excrement” at school, sometimes even by teachers.  His dad converted to Christianity and he got a job in a leprosy hospital, where the missionaries helped him study.  Raj now reads authors from Indian philosopher Radhakrishnan to post-modern French thinker Foucault, but says he learned more from his own people than from university.

He told us a story from the ancient Rig Veda scripture.  It tells of the cosmic man whose body was split to form the four castes with their respective roles and stations in life:

Head – Brahmin – learning – priests
Shoulders – Kshatriya – fighting – warriors and leaders
Waist – Vaishya – producing – shopkeepers and merchants
Feet – Sudra – serving – farmers and artisans

“Out-castes” don’t even appear in this classification – untouchably excluded from the system.  One of the saddest things I learned in India was that untouchables are divided themselves.  There is an ascending hierarchy of acceptability from animal skinning to tanning to making shoe soles to crafting shoe uppers, as the degree of defiling animal contact decreases.  Mistry’s family of tanners despises removers of “night soil” or toilet waste, and bans them from entering their house.  Untouchables themselves reinforce the system you’d think they would abhor – echoes of Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell…”

Raj and Jothi are seeking to unite dalits to fight for their rights against the “racism of caste”.  A poster on their wall proclaims, “Dalit rights are human rights: let us cast out caste”.  Dalits relate deeply to the land but lack Western-style ownership, so they are now 90% landless.  Furthermore, village councils are dominated by upper castes, to whom, in the past, dalits provided “unclean” services – like cleaning, grave digging or funeral preparation – for no charge.  REDS has formed new dalit councils to resolve their own conflicts and represent dalit concerns.  They recently required payment for the customary free services.  At first they met hostility and even death threats, but are now more tolerated and even respected by politicians.

Mahatma Gandhi is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and was esteemed by many British (although Churchill dismissed him as a “half naked fakir”).  So I was surprised to learn that dalits like Raj often view Gandhi as another upper-caste oppressor, even a “Brahmin agent”.  Trying to elevate their status, Gandhi called untouchables “Harijans” or children of God.  Many dalits view this as an insult, as the term referred to the offspring of temple prostitutes.  On 29 October, the daily Times of India newspaper poll asked “Did Gandhi divide India on caste lines?”  49% of respondents said yes, 46% said no, 5% were unsure, and there were heated comments on both sides.  It seems Gandhi’s influence was more complex than I’d realised.

The real hero of India for dalits is Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  He studied law in New York, clashed with Gandhi over dalit electorates, and helped frame the Indian Constitution, which Raj believes is just, if only it were implemented without corruption.  I saw statues of Dr Ambedkar as we drove through rural towns, and his picture hanging in the booths of cobblers.  While Gandhi is mostly drawn as a skinny, bare-chested man with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist, Ambedkar is heavily built, with black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, mostly shown wearing a light blue western suit jacket and (often red) tie.  Journalist Edward Luce sees Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru as the three most important figures of 20th-century India, whose influence exceeds “all of India’s gods, software executives and nuclear scientists combined.”

Dr Ambedkar described caste as “an ascending scale of hatred and a descending scale of contempt”.  A crucial question is whether Hinduism can exist without it.  The 19th-century Hindu reform movements saw caste as a surface accretion, to be rejected or less cruelly interpreted.  I’ve heard Hare Krishnas claim the original concept simply reflected different human temperaments.  Those of a studious nature, they explained, are naturally Brahmins, those gifted in leading are Kshatriyas, those preferring commerce are Vaishyas, while artisans are naturally Sudras.

It’s an appealing take, but for many Indians it wouldn’t wash.  Unlike Western class, caste divisions go far deeper as they are based on the law of karma.  It is logically both pointless and impossible to help those who suffer.  Outcastes are simply reaping what past lives have sown, as inexorably as Newtonian physics dictates that every act brings an equal and opposite reaction.  Many believe that there is no Hinduism without the caste system, and in the end, Dr Ambedkar agreed.  In 1956 he publicly led 500,000 dalits in converting to Buddhism, which he chose as a home-grown Indian religion that rejects caste.

Other dalits have converted to Christianity or Islam.  I heard one estimate that 70 to 80% of India’s Christians are descended from dalit or tribal backgrounds, and 90% of India’s Muslims.  Neither faith attains its egalitarian ideals.  Moslems stand shoulder to shoulder in the mosque and pilgrims to Mecca all wear plain white garb to show their equality before God, but many Muslim communities are also divided by caste.

St Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and Christ was despised for socialising with the unclean outcasts of the day.  And yet, in most Christian denominations the leadership is overwhelmingly upper caste.  As a friend said, we are supposedly all one in Christ, but some here are one plus and others one minus.  Some churches even have different communion cups, sitting areas and burial sites for dalits, and high caste purity rules prevent women entering church during menstruation or 40 days after giving birth.

There are some stories of hope.  I visited a Christian couple who were excited because their Hindu neighbour, an upper-caste priest’s widow who’d never touched or eaten with them, had recently hugged their daughter when she visited the old lady in hospital.  Another Indian friend told me their pastor often exhorts them to eat with their servants.  But they couldn’t – the psychological barrier was just too great.  To make things worse, dalits who convert to Christianity lose access to state aid, reserved education and jobs because they are no longer officially “scheduled castes” of the Hindu system, and they are often resented by co-dalits as “Rice Christians”.

Anand’s novel almost seems prophetic.  While the historical Jesus may appeal, Christians today have failed to follow his example.  Raj quoted Desmond Tutu (a personal friend): “When the white man first came here, he had the Bible and we had the land”, but after centuries of colonial rule, “we had the Bible and he had the land”.  Gandhi is rejected by many dalits, and revered more in theory than practice by most others.  Technological progress and western urbanisation may do the most to free dalits – American IT companies and global industries are money-driven meritocracies, indifferent to birth.

Paths to God, Gandhi and Yogic Yearnings

Knotting the body to untie the soul.  A Christian and Gandhi on four paths of yoga that lead to the great goal.

The routine of the course has now begun.  For early risers, the day starts at 6:30am with yoga, which I’ve never done before.  Inhaling through alternate nostrils, or scores of staccato exhalations in one breath; twisting legs into the lotus, swastika, cow positions; bowing to greet the rising sun; stretching like a cobra or a lion; balancing on one leg with hands together above your head; or lying on your back and humming like a bee.  A nice way to limber up at dawn, though I’m disappointed we haven’t yet learnt to levitate.

At least I haven’t knotted myself up there irrevocably like this poor devil drawn by cartoonist R K Laxman:

r k laxman yogaYesterday afternoon, a young yoga master explained some theory behind the practice.  The word “yoga” comes from Sanskrit for yoke or unite.  On one level, this means uniting body and mind in harmony, but ultimately aims to unite the individual soul with the universal Brahman.  Our teacher outlined the traditional paths of yoga, which some classify slightly differently.

Raja yoga is the path of willpower and self-control.  It begins with the mild physical exercise we’re doing to control stress and keep fit.  It culminates in Indian ascetics who sleep on beds of nails, survive on almost no food, live naked in the Himalayas, slow or even (some claim) stop their hearts.  A little like the austerities of some early Christians who would fast for weeks, sleep upright and wear scratchy hair shirts to overcome the sinful nature.

Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and illumination.  Hindu sages strive through meditation and Scripture study to penetrate the veil of illusory Maya that hides our unity with the divine.  Christian monks reflect on tomes of theology, racking their brains to grasp the mysteries of divinity.

Karma yoga is the path of action or service without self-seeking motives.  Christ taught his disciples to do good deeds for God’s sake, not human praise or reward.  Mahatma Gandhi put it like this:

It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important.  You have to do the right thing.  It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit.  But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing.

It’s been said that Indian traffic observes this teaching – drive for all you’re worth, and don’t consider the consequences – while the government follows it by passing noble-sounding laws and remaining indifferent to the outcome, as they are never implemented (Luce 2006 329).

Bhakti yoga is the path of passionate devotion to God, of total surrender to his will.  Hare Krishnas practice bhakti as they drum and dance in ecstasy, and the Bible makes love and trust of God our primary calling.

Many Hindus say that any of these paths, faithfully followed, will bring one to the divine goal.  I like the way Hinduism recognizes that different personalities may spiritually grow in different ways – recalling the popular “Five Love Languages” books on different ways we express affection.  As an intellectual type, I feel closest to God when fresh understanding leads to wondering adoration – you might say jnana yoga leads to bhakti.  I love this title of a study on mediaeval monasticism, and were it my epitaph I should die content: “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God”.

A healthy spiritual life, however, should probably combine all strands.  Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength”, with every part of your being, or, one might almost say, with bhakti, jnana, karma, and raja all together at once.

In human terms, the path to God is often long and hard – be it rising at 6 a.m. to make pretzels of one’s limbs, meditating on Scripture until you see the light, helping your griping ungrateful neighbour, or learning to sacrifice your all in love.  Even Gandhi lamented, well into life, he was still far from seeing God face to face.  To comfort those of us who wearily struggle, one theologian here translated the words of Christ, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, into Indian terms as “my yoga is easy”, needing only simple trust.