Listening to India
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Listening to India

Goshala, (re)visited

Nashik is an ancient city located about 170 kilometers northwest Mumbai. After a quick breakfast of two slices of toast, and my self-determined minimum of three cups of hot chai, we piled into an Uber and began to travel in that direction.

Upon leaving Mumbai, it became easier to appreciate the vast environmental changes that take place in Maharashtra, over the course of every year. What is now a muted green will dry out completely within in the next few months. The moisture will then be restored a hundredfold with the arrival of the monsoon. Sheets of rain will pour over West India, leaving the landscape lushly, deeply green, ready to dry out again, in time for the rains next year.

It was also easier to see the dynamics of daily life outside of the complex, untraceable routes of resources and commodities that define life in the cities. On our way, we passed a large swath of terrain that (our driver informed us) belonged to advasis. Adivasi is the collective term for the indigenous people of mainland South Asia. When I hear about indigenous peoples, with an enthusiasm that belies my lack of real knowledge, I tend to draw up long lists of questions in my head. As we drove by, I watched women carrying large clay pots of water on their heads, and washing clothes outside their homes, as children played together within the view of their no doubt watchful mothers. I’d associated these sights with rural life — and often urban life, too — in India in general, and as we drove out of sight my questions about culture, sustainability, spirituality were inevitably delayed.

En route to Nashik was a place called the Govardhan Eco-Village. The Govardhan Eco-Village had been recommended to me by a number of friends, one of whom resides there. Their enthusiasm had sparked my interest in Govardhan; and the Eco-Village’s website further enhanced its appeal. On the homepage, carefully arranged, brightly colored photographs accompany a description of the Village:

Cloaked with blue mists and nestled at the foothills of the Sahyadris, at just a 2-hour drive from Mumbai, lies the Govardhan Ecovillage. The gorgeous Yoga and Ayurveda retreat, promises tranquility and change of pace from the hurried life of the city. This 85-acre lush haven also serves as a sustainable farming community, inviting you to experience a wiser, ancient way of life.

There is a side of me that would relinquish my possessions, and my duties in this earthly life, in order to retire to such a place, and live there forever. And perhaps I would have begun to make plans in this direction, were it not for one small thing.

By this point in the trip, I had seen the prefix “Eco” incorporated into the adverts of a rich array of thoroughly unsustainable places and enterprises. I’d become a bit cynical about all of these claims of sustainability. It seemed as though the only thing that was required, for a company or project to be “eco,” was to include the color green somewhere in their advertising. It was hard to read the word “eco” and not respond with skepticism.

Further, since the Govardhan Eco-Village was adjacent to miles of adivasi land, I also found myself wondering: Where did this tract of 85 acres come from? Did anybody have to be displaced in order to attain it? And, for whom are the restorative services offered at the Eco-Village? The list of questions which is usually provoked by a trip to Aveda or to Whole Foods sparked within me. I was reluctantly hesitant, and hoped that at the Eco-Village I would find inspiration, rather than further material for skepticism.

When we arrived, the Eco-Village was quiet, but for the sound of conversing voices close to the registration desk. Several men, about my age, walked around in the bright orange robes that are characteristic of monks within the ISKCON tradition. ISKCON is short for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness — more colloquially known as the Hare Krishna Movement. The movement was established in 1966 in (where else?) New York City’s Lower East Side.

Though ISKCON is undeniably anchored in India (in particular, in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which has been practiced on the subcontinent since the late fifteenth century), its trajectory as a modern movement also reflects its Yankee upbringing. Indeed, many people associate ISKCON not with India, but rather with the West: with the thousands upon thousands of people in Europe, Australia and the United States who left the religions (or lack thereof) of their families and joined a kind of neo-Hinduism that welcomed them with open arms.

For much of my life, I associated ISKCON not so much with millennial (as in, over the course of millennia) Hinduism, but more with the spiritual seeking of a 1960s-era West, and its contemporary counterparts. Musically speaking, I base this judgment on a handful of experiences that I have had within ISKCON circles in England, practicing a form of collective singing known as kirtan.

In the kirtan sessions that I took part in, devotees would gather for several hours, and chant a familiar refrain — “hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna krishna, hare hare.” They would often pronounce the words as though they were singing in English, and would repeat melodies that seemed to evoke West far more than they evoked East. It was difficult for me to even imagine kirtan being sung this way in India itself. I’ve not been schooled in Indian devotional music, but from what I have heard (and have attempted to teach myself by ear), there is a subtlety to India’s devotional traditions that I had trouble hearing in the kirtan I’d experienced first-hand.

Before arriving to the Govardhan Eco-Village, I had not encountered the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in India. And in a rare instance, I was far more enthusiastic about ISKCON’s “local” (relatively speaking) expressions in India, than I was about its character as an international phenomenon.

As it turns out, my encounter at the Eco-Village dispelled my suspicions and biases on all of the above counts. After a delicious vegetarian meal of rice, dal, chapatis, and a variety of locally sourced vegetable dishes, we embarked on a tour that had been arranged by my friend-in-residence. Within five minutes, it became very clear to me that in my sojourns through the ISCKON scenes of Oxford and the Lower East Side, I really had not experienced much of the magic of ISCKON’s guiding values, and their practical manifestations.

“You can see how happy the cows are here,” our guide told us as we entered the cowshed (or, to use the Sanskrit name, the goshala). I could indeed see it — and perhaps equally to the point, I could hear it. We walked through the goshala, down an aisle that ran through the middle of the structure. The wooden ceiling was tall and airy, and on either side of the corridor were very large spaces for a relatively small number of cows. A peace pervaded the space that recalled the quiet that I had experienced in the company of other animals while on this trip. But unlike those other places, in Goa or certainly in Mumbai, here I was able to learn about the human role in protecting that peace.

“Cows are considered sacred in India,” we are told, “But in practice they are rarely so. The dairy industry abuses cows daily, and they are not given our respect or devotion. Here we consider the cow to be one of our mothers, and thus treat her with utmost decency. Cow Protection is a pillar of the Hare Krishna Movement.”

The cows’ large and beautiful eyes looked softly upon the world around them. The calves seemed to be equally content, and did not shy away from us when we sought to meet them. As somebody who tires of humanity quite easily, the chance to be in such a peaceful relationship with other living beings — even if only for a few moments — was enough to call into question all of my reservations about what ISKCON was, and whom it was intended to serve.

My friend joined us shortly thereafter, and we visited a variety of sustainability initiatives that Govardhan is working on. Intriguing and effective strategies for water conservation, renewable energy, waste management, organic gardening, are being developed and implemented at Govardhan. We had a number of specific questions, all of which revolved around the hub of a more general, and less measurable query: Is it possible for the word “Eco” to have real meaning in a world so overrun by infrastructural, social and spiritual unsustainability? As technical questions yielded compelling technical answers, I began to feel that the answer was “yes.”

I did not hear any kirtan during my visit, but I did make plans to discuss this musical style in greater depth. For perhaps it is true of many forms of music: when seen in the context of the values that it upholds, and the changes that it pioneers, new angles emerge from which to appreciate its beauty.

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Priya Parrotta

Priya Parrotta

Author, climate activist, singer & Founder/Director of Music & the Earth International (musicandtheearth.org)