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Friday, May 1, 2015

Kipling, The Gospel of John, and Sri Vedanta Krishna Rao–A Spiritual Quest In India

It took over four hours to reach Motigunj from Nagpur.  The road was no more than a rutted track in the dry season, but in the rains it was almost impassible. The village was one of the most remote in the state, almost at the geographical center of India, equidistant from Bombay, Jaipur, and Varanasi.

The train trip from Bombay to Nagpur on the Rajdhani Express was long, hot, and crowded. The monsoon rains had begun, but only fitfully, adding unwelcome humidity to the late summer temperatures which were well above 40F. 

Indian train

Before continuing on to Motigunj, I spent the night at the Light of Asia hotel, formerly The Berkshire, an old Victorian building that had been the winter quarters for high-ranking officers of the Indian Civil Service who toured the provinces in the cool season before returning to Bombay. The Berkshire in its day was an elegant grande dame of a hotel, well appointed and pleasantly cool once the monsoon retreated and the Himalayan High descended from the Tibetan plateau. In January the orange trees were in bloom, and the owners of The Berkshire had planted them in the garden and on all sides of the building, so that when the windows were open, the scent of orange blossoms filled every room.

Nagpur was not as British as Dehra Dun, Ranikhet, and Mussoorie and The Berkshire was a very modest residence compared the great hotels of the hill stations, but it was a sought-after retreat with perfect weather and good hunting.

Dak bungalow
             Maharashtra Dak Bungalow ebay.in

Nagpur was also an important transit hub for the Indian Railways, located as it was in the center of the country.  Trains plying between Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras stopped there, and the market areas around the railroad station were as big as any in Lucknow or Ahmedabad.

I was travelling to Motigunj to meet a Hindu teacher who many regarded as a holy man and travelled long distances just to see him.  A darshan – a glimpse or sighting of one considered holy – was like the plenary indulgences granted to those pilgrims who received the Pope’s blessings from the balcony of St. Peter’s. Catching sight of Sri Vedanta Krishna Rao tending his garden subtracted years of becoming and added stores of good karma.

Motigunj in the early years after Partition was still very much the land of Kipling, and I always felt like Kim when I woke up early and had bed tea on the verandah of the dak bungalow:
The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right- and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.
Image result for images kipling's kim
‘The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together’ symbolized a pre-industrial rural India, one which would be transformed by electrification, the automobile, and urbanization; and which would quickly lose the balance which had described it for millennia.

Krishna Rao, despite his renown, was an unassuming man in his late 70s.  He lived simply but unascetically. He was no Gandhi with a spinning wheel.  He wore traditional Indian dress, but with kurta and trousers and not dhoti, pajamas, or lungi .A woman from the village came to prepare his meals and keep house for him, and his days were spent in meditation, writing, and greeting those who had come to see him. 

Image result for images gandhi with spinning wheel

He was unusual because he had deliberately paused his spiritual development. Whereas the most devout Hindus pass patiently but anxiously through the first two phases of life – that of child and student and then householder – to begin the more spiritual phases of Vanaprastha, the Hermit in Retreat; and Sannyasa, the Wandering Recluse, Rao had chosen to remain a part of society and not retreat from it. The fully contemplative life would have to wait. “I am very Christian in that sense”, he said. “I have a pastoral mission.”

Image result for images vanaprastha

This indeed was unusual and unique for a Hindu whose path to enlightenment was supposed to be unmediated and personal – a matter of discipline, renunciation, and spiritual evolution based on the principles of the Vedas. There was no evangelism in Hinduism, and priests’ duties were limited to facilitating the performance of traditional rites and rituals. Hinduism had been created by the Aryans four thousand years before to be a religion of self-awareness.  If one followed the prescribed path, obeyed the strict rules of behavior intended to limit the distractions of the illusory world, the laborious, painful, and penitential cycle of rebirth would end.

Rao never encouraged his popularity, nor found any need to discourage it. No one but the most devoutly faithful and intellectually curious came to him. His modest home was part literary salon, part monastery, and part university. Those who sought his advice had spiritual doubts; and in a country where Hinduism was taken for granted and where the distinctions between the practical and the spiritual were non-existent doubt was extraneous.

Rao never doubted, and his academic studies of comparative religion were meant not to resolve unanswered questions about divinity, but to provide a better context within which to explain and encourage faith in others.

He would often cite the similarities between the Creation verses of the Rig-Veda and the first chapter of John.  Both talk of an ineffable spirit which existed before God but which was with God. “There was not non-existent nor existent”, says the Vedic text:
Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water? Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Image result for images rig-veda
John says,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Rao started with first principles; that is, he made no assumptions about deity or divinity. He simply began with the fundamentals of theology, and worked through them using logic, reference, and history. What are considered the foundations of Christianity, he knew, were a result of debate, inquiry, colloquy, and executive order.  Little was decided about the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his dual nature, or the relationships among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit until the 3rd century; and reconsideration of other elements of theology continues to this day.  He understood how Judaism evolved from paganism to monotheism, how Mohammed devised a religion of simple faith and discipline, and how Buddhism transformed Hinduism into a proto-secular philosophy.

Image result for image st augustine

I stayed with Krishna Rao for three months and left in early Fall.  I visited him twice more.  The Hindu and Christian verses of creation and Kipling’s lines both had something to do with indissolubility. A world ‘without non-existent or existent’ was very appealing; and one with no distinctions among living things equally so. John made sense only after reading Kipling.

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            Kipling’s House in India Telegraph.com

It is very easy to romanticize India; but as raucously ‘diverse’ as India is, there has always been an enviable wholeness to it.  The routines of the day – waking, prayer, ablutions, dressing, work, and family – were in fact religious rituals, no different from the Offertory, the Kyrie, and the Ite Missa Est of the Mass. Routines of life – caste, rites, and dutiful responsibility – were no less prescribed and ritual.  

Perhaps that is why I sought out Vedanta Krishna Rao instead of spending time with the Carthusian Brothers in the Abbeye de la Chartreuse.

Into Great Silence
                Film Into Great Silence

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