Jesus Christ, India (Part 1)

How even yoga can’t prepare you for India (although it helps)

by Chad Woodford

I’m sitting in the chapel of an old abbey in the Tuscan hills listening to Italian priests in long, white robes chant Latin psalms, one of them conducting the congregation with flowing hand motions, as if he’s under water conducting a school of fish. I love Gregorian Chant, always have. The haunting echo of the harmonized vocals echoes off the high sandstone walls of the chapel. I, a former Catholic altar boy, close my eyes and let myself drift along the stream of sound. It’s Sunday, August 31st, 2014.

The Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, Tuscany

Slowly, as the sound washes over me, I remember that, at this very moment, roughly 70,000 people are standing in the middle of Black Rock City on a Nevada salt plain, watching a wooden man burn in effigy. A year ago I was there for my first burn, standing in awe of the community that’s evolved around Burning Man, baking in the sizzling glow of the Man. A few days later, after that Sunday morning in the Tuscan abbey, I find myself in the Vatican, watching Pope Francis speak to a congregation roughly one-third the size of Burning Man. A few weeks after that a holy man in an ancient Indian temple is rubbing ash on my forehead as I make offerings of technicolor flowers.

Despite the intentionally epicurean focus on my trip to Italy and India, I couldn’t ignore the rich religious traditions of these two deeply spiritual countries. So I suppose my trip was as much an exploration of ritual as of art, nature, and food. Try as we might, we can’t escape ritual; ritual is what makes us human, whether it’s an ancient tradition thousands of years old or pregame tailgating at a professional football game. And it was the daily rituals of a Hindu and Muslim Indian populace that brought me both transcendent and character building experiences.

On my trip across Italy, and its endless churches, public sculpture, religious art, and the ever-present ghost of Catholicism haunting every golden hillside, cobblestone alley, and pasta kitchen, I had come to a new understanding of the faith under which I was raised: Catholicism is some heavy shit. It’s morose and sad and full of death and suffering. In stark contrast, despite its flaws and its almost overwhelming poverty, India is celebratory. What I know of its traditional Hindu faith is celebratory. Even its version of Catholicism and Christianity are celebratory. Just look at the icons and imagery they choose to represent that faith.

A Christian church in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu

Maybe this was why my personal experience of India was eventually and ultimately such a disappointment. In contrast with the sensory feast of Italy, India’s daily life appeared hardscrabble and full of unnecessary strife. And so was my experience of it.

Italy and India: two countries chock full of contradiction. I suppose that’s the human condition isn’t it? I had plenty of time to ponder this question on my trip.

The question I’m now struggling with is this: Having experienced so many sublime moments of spiritual ritual, celebration, kindness and devotional offering, why is it that over three months after my return to the States, I still have a bad taste in my mouth about India?

A few days after returning from almost two months in Italy and India, I walked by a pack of prepackaged naan bread at Whole Foods and noticed a faint “ugh” leaving my lips. India and I weren’t on speaking terms then. We had agreed to disagree. It was a bad breakup. Me, the guy who ate Indian food almost every day, the guy who’s obsessed with yoga and loves Indian music, who regularly burns Indian incense. So, like a spurned lover, anything that reminded me of India annoyed me.

In writing about India, I feel a little bit like Jerry Seinfeld: “What’s the deal with India?! And the BO on these tuk-tuk drivers!” I wanted to love India; and I certainly don’t want to trash it (Indians do a fine job without my help *drum fill*). I have had a major crush on India for years, maybe decades. You know that dark and mysterious person you have a huge crush on when you’re eighteen and don’t know any better? They seem really interesting because of an indeterminate otherness. They kindle in you a burning desire to learn more, to maybe experience something wholly new. But then you finally get a chance to date Ms./Mr. Mysterious only to find out that they’re this messy, bored and depressed stoner with unprocessed psychological issues, whose unknown parts were merely receptacles for your own desperate projections. You learn that their apartment is a total disaster, that they have terrible hygiene, and they’re kind of mean, high-maintenance, narcissistic, and just plain exhausting. They don’t actually do yoga and think Ayurveda is silly. And they’re hoping to scam you for a bunch of money. That’s the story of my relationship with India.

It was was the first time I had been disappointed by (my own expectations of) a country. And I’ve been in Morocco for three days without my luggage, to Paris without developing Paris Syndrome, to Canada in winter.

Listen, I acknowledge that I’m a Westerner. And I’ve now learned that I have limits to what I can tolerate. For a Westerner, India is stressful. It’s not the poverty or the endless trash that bothered me, although that is striking for a first-time visitor. It’s that everything is far more difficult than it needs to be. Frankly, it’s the Indian people. I did my best to adapt to their customs and learn to practice this Indian patience I had heard so much about. But my patience ran out the umpteenth time an Indian tried to scam me instead of help me. And, most especially, when I was afraid for my life and completely at the mercy of violent protesters, stuck in a small southern Indian town. They were protesting because their beloved governor was being jailed, after eighteen years of trials and appeals, for “disproportionate assets.” They wanted her to stay in power. More on that in a later section.

India is a lot like Burning Man in the sense that it’s impossible to capture what it’s like — what it looks like, feels like, smells like. So why even try, right? Well, I suppose I want to answer the question that friends and family keep asking me: Did you have any spiritual epiphanies in India, did you find yourself? You know, like what I call the Neem Karoli Baba Five experienced: life-changing encounters. There’s no question that India, and NKB in particular, had a profound impact on Yoga/kirtan musicians Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, and Jai Uttal; alternative medicine MD and guru Andrew Weil; and Emotional Intelligence author and psychologist Daniel Goleman. ⁠Or Steve Jobs and Dan Kottke, who famously went to India in the late 70s to find NKB (he had just passed away when they arrived). These guys all had intense and profound existential transformations. The Five all went on to fulfilling lives of song and healing; Jobs came back to found Apple Computer and Pixar. But he was also there for seven months. Maybe I needed to stay longer, or go in the 1970s.

In talking to people before and after going, I noticed that people tend to project their own perceptions of India on you, just like anything else I suppose. India does have that spiritual seeker reputation, at least for the Boomer generation. And I wouldn’t be embarrassed to say that was my original goal if it was true, or that I did have some sort of awakening inspired by the Eastern mysticism that surrounded me across the continent. But my interest in the country was so much broader than a spiritual journey. If it was a motivator, it was one of many, somewhere in the background.

In addition, people often ask me, why Italy and India? Then they usually make an Eat Pray Love joke (“What about the love?”). For me it was about seeing two countries known for their cuisine and rich cultures. Maybe I wanted to experience the moments that J. Krishnamurti described: “original, pristine, innocent, completely free from all impressions.”⁠ What better way to do that than travel?

But I think Gregory David Roberts put it best in Shantaram:

Indians are the Italians of Asia . . . There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indian in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna — they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. The language of India and the language of Italy, they make every man a poet, and make something beautiful from every banalité. These are nations where love — amore, pyaar — makes a cavalier of a Borsalino on a street corner, and makes a princess of a peasant girl, if only for the second that her eyes meet yours.

So, as my flight from Naples, Italy to Chennai approached, my strategy for India was to surrender and attempt to accept whatever happened without fighting it. The great Indian mystic and philosopher J. Krishnamurti said in one of this famous talks: “Do you want to know my secret? I don’t mind what happens.” That was how he summed up the core of his philosophy. Consequently, one of my regular practices over the past few years has been to apply that to my life, to learn to laugh at whatever happens, like Krishnamurti’s admonition, but going a step further and finding the joy or humor in it, to laugh at the absurdity while still letting myself be touched by the profundity. And to make sustained earnest efforts toward things I care deeply about, being unattached to the results, Bhagavad-Gita-style. India was the perfect place to practice this I figured. So, as I hurtled toward India from Naples, I made this an express intention.

I would say my success at doing this was cyclical throughout the trip: Sometimes I was as calm as a Hindu cow and other times I was yelling at an autorickshaw driver for taking me to his friend’s shop (“no buy, just looking, just looking!”) instead of the hotel.

Like Gregory David Roberts coming back from a year in a hellish torture prison in Bombay, I wanted to emerge from my trying experiences in India with a renewed love for the place. But I couldn’t, not yet. It was more complicated than that. I’m still annoyed with India. I still need to make sense of it somehow. Mark Manson has done a great job summarizing a lot of the negative experiences I had. So I’ll try to avoid repeating what he’s already said. My experience was mixed. So I hope to represent both the positives and negatives here.

I’m also doing my best to keep this short. But I have a lot to say about India (and, to some extent, Italy). Because what I have to say is too long for a single post, I will be posting my India travelogue in a series of posts here (this being the first). If you’d prefer to skip straight to my photos from the trip, I’ve linked to them in a separate post.

Disclaimer: Much of what I have to say is critical of India. So I am concerned that my observations will be construed as an out-of-touch diatribe by a white, privileged Westerner. So I want to be clear up front: I don’t think India should be more like the West. I hope you don’t come away thinking I’m one of those Americans who arrives in another country expecting it to be a giant Epcot Center, or full of American chain restaurants. I have always traveled with a deep appreciation for local culture and have always been saddened to encounter McDonalds or Starbucks or Subway (always Subway) in Europe, Japan and Africa. Rather, part of what I am saying is that I realize now that I wanted to India to be more the India of perhaps the 19th century, before it was decimated by British rule and corrupted by the influence of the West. I unrealistically wanted an untouched, wild subcontinent of yogis, sadhus, snake charmers, farmers and elephant riders. I would even have accepted the quaint colonial India portrayed in movies like The Life of Pi. But, instead, India is incredibly multifaceted, a surreal blend of East and West, ancient and modern, spiritual and materialistic, hospitable and indifferent. And you think American cities like San Francisco have income equality challenges? We’ve got nothing on India.

Continue to Part 2…