"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Following Routine–Or, Freeing The Mind Up For More Important Things

India has often criticized for being a caste-ridden, defeatist society in which all things had been locked into place for millennia.  When to wake up, go to bed, and have sex are prescribed. So are when to bathe, eat, and pray. What to wear and how to wear it. Which are auspicious times of the day and which are not.  Who and when one should marry, what work one should do, and how one should behave within the complex social system is regimented and strictly enforced. One’s fate is sealed at the moment of birth, determined for ever after by the particular astrological configurations of the heavens.

Astrology chart


Americans who, steeped in individualism, ambition, the socially transforming nature of work and enterprise, and love marriages thought that a religion that placed its highest value on renunciation, asceticism, and deterministic patience was as wrong as could be; and a social system which locked people in place for generations was backward, ignorant, and retrograde.

Nothing of the kind, of course.  Hindu cosmology has no room for ‘reality’.  The world is maya (illusion), and the sooner one realizes that the only purpose in life is to ascend to higher realms of consciousness, understanding, and spirituality, the better.

In other words if the world is nothing more than illusion, then there is no point whatsoever in struggling for better position within it.  The Aryans devised a system which froze people in place thus reducing or eliminating troublesome and distracting choice.  If one’s day, year, and lifetime were tightly regulated, then the individual could devote all his mental energies towards spiritual evolution.

Image result for images aryans in india


To be sure the Aryans had imperial reasons for developing and enforcing this system.  Every empire fears a restive population, and a society organized around routine production of necessary goods and services without thought of disruptive ambition, would be the least confrontational.  Nevertheless, for those Hindus who accepted the cosmology and philosophy behind the social order, the way to enlightenment would be easier.

Foreigners in the early days of the new Republic were often struck by the arrogance and dismissiveness of Indians – an indifference which had little to do with the centuries of British rule and much more to do with what they considered the insanity of the West. Why would any parent trust marriage to chance? Love like everything else is illusory, a Western construct that has nothing to do with the purpose of marriage as an anchor to society, the agent of procreation, and the guardian of lineage and inheritance.  Why would one frenetically seek ‘opportunity’ and ‘challenge’ when the search would inevitably prove to be disappointing, discouraging, and ultimately unfruitful?

Image result for images arranged marriage india


Hippies who went to India in the Sixties to try this all out left after a year or two as unaccomplished in Hindu renunciation and spiritual meditation as Indians had always predicted.  Foreigners will unwilling to spend the lifetime required to reach the last and highest phase of human life, one in which one finally left the world of family, work, and mundane responsibilities behind, and once freed from these encumbrances, sought God. 

Image result for images four phases hindu life

“I’ll meet you at the caves”, a young American said eagerly as he got up from his lotus position on the ghats at the edge of the headwaters of the holy Ganges.  One by one the saried young women and loin-clothed men got up and, chatting about curry, temples, and the next stop on their journey across North India, made their way to rock hollows which served as their hostel. 

Bemused Indians looked on.  Americans were at best eccentric outcastes whose erratic behavior surprised no one.  They did no harm, and although their actions and attitudes were incomprehensible, live and let live. They had neither the cultural grounding, the patience, the aspirations, or the fortitude to pursue the path of spiritual enlightenment. They might understand that the principle of illusion, the cycles of rebirth, the phases of life, and eventual ascetic renunciation, but they were unable to grasp that the absolute regulation of society, family, and the individual was necessary. 

Hence an appreciation of routine. John Peters routinized everything that can be ordered into a perpetual pattern.  He wore the same clothes, took the same bus on the same street corners to and from work.  He ate, showered, rose and retired at the same time. His meals were varied but predictably so. He was a good cook and his wife and friends appreciated his well-prepared dishes; but he had only a few in his repertoire.

“I am like an old-fashioned French woman”, he said. “I may have only one dress in my wardrobe, but it is chic, elegant, and perfectly tailored”. The postwar French were appalled at the materialism of the United States, the indifference to quality, and the persistent ambition for acquisition.

John was never insistent about his self-regimented life. “Remember the remake of The Fly with Jeff Goldblum?”, he asked over dinner after a woman remarked about his ‘consistent’ style of dress. “Geena Davis asks him if he ever changes his clothes.  Goldblum, surprised, said of course he did. ‘Look in my closet if you don’t believe me’; and there lined up neatly were five identical suits, three pair of identical shoes, and a tray full of identical shirts and ties. ‘What’s the point of a few checked shirts?’”

Image result for images jeff goldblum the fly


Peters’ mother-in-law always went into painful detail about driving directions. She and her husband favored going down the rabbit warrens of Northern Virginia to save a few miles, a few minutes, and a few dollars; and could spend hours deliberating and planning the ‘best route’ to anywhere. John politely demurred when the subject came up. “No thanks”, he said. “I’ll go the way I always do” – a longer but far simpler route that allowed him to let his mind wander or focus on an idea.

“But that would be stupid”, his mother-in-law said; and no two more different points of view could ever have been opposed.

John was never doctrinaire about his routine.  How could he, living in a chaotic world of choice? He could alter any of his organized patterns temporarily to suit time, place, and company; but he was never tempted to adopt anything offered or new.  “What was the point?”, as Goldblum had said.

Peters never fooled himself that he was on a Hindu path to enlightenment.  Everything in traditional India – family life, music, art, leisure, food, lodging – was determined by and expressive of a religion which demanded simplicity and devotion.  He did feel that he had learned something from living in Varanasi, however.  Afternoon tea with an Indian sage over a period of two years had given him insights into the fundamental principles justifying routine, the familiar, and the predictable.  Two years, he knew, was insufficient for him to internalize the lessons and to be able to act intuitively rather than cognitively, but he understood the boundaries of culture.  A glimpse of the possible was enough.


From this traditional Hindu perspective, modern American life is insane.  Few countries in the world have so loosed themselves from the past.  All anchors have been weighed, cultural tethers untied, and every man is for himself.  If India seems kaleidoscopic to most Americans, then America is doubly so for conservative Indians.

Of course since the time of Peters’ stay in India, the country has modernized and  Westernized; and young people now have many of the same unconventional – by Indian standards – outlooks as their American counterparts.  India is a capitalist economic powerhouse where enterprise and ambition are rewarded.  Traditional India is not exactly a thing of the past, but on its way.

Nevertheless, the fundamental precepts of Hinduism had not changed and Peters respected and adhered to them. In many respects he considered himself more Hindu than Christian; but that uncertainty alone disqualified him from Hindu-style enlightenment.  There should be no conflict, difference, or antagonisms within one’s spiritual perspective.

Peters understood this and soldiered on.  If fits and starts were to describe his attempts to establish Hindu order and routine in his American life, then so be it. Only a few people were surprised that he asked for a Catholic priest to perform his last rites. Being American is to be a mongrel – not just in lineage but in faith. Peters was not hedging his bets. He never questioned the Church as his spiritual home.  He just felt that Hinduism would help him on his way.

Image result for image catholic priest giving last rites


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