Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Heartbreak in Rishikesh

There are places where you arrive and know, just so completely and entirely know, that you've been there before. That's how I feel in Rishikesh. I've never been here, in this life at least, but as a believer in reincarnation, I'd stake money on one of my past lives, or several, linking to this sacred place. It feels like home.

Consciously, it could be the familiarity I feel stems from the place being kind of like one giant ashram, and having spent a good bit of time at ashrams back at home, it's a vibe I know and love. It could be that from the years I lived in Chile and traveled in South America, I'm well acquainted with the way life is lived so largely in the streets in a third world country like this:  women washing laundry, men standing around chatting in groups, vendors selling a multitude of wares, smells of food wafting from every which cart and restaurant, unclaimed animals with innocent eyes roaming about, children being children. It could be that over the years I've been immersed in yoga I've been hearing and reading about this place all the time, the source and center of it all with rudraksha trees supposedly grown from the fallen tears of Lord Siva and the great Ganges river, Mother Ganga, flowing down from the Himalayas. 

Everywhere you look there is an image of the Divine. Hinduism loves its deities, and there are an overabundance of statues, signs, shrines, temples, you name it, absolutely everywhere. When I was first exposed to the Hindu aspect of yoga, the concept of these deities was kind of uncomfortable for me, having been raised Jewish and thus told bowing to idols and worshipping multiple gods goes against the faith. But that isn't what Hinduism is about. These faces are exactly that: faces of the Divine. They represent different aspects of the Infinite, embodiments of the Universal Consciousness. So you can call it whatever you want, relate to whatever aspect appeals to you or meets your needs at a particular moment, but it's really all one and the same. And having come to understand and appreciate that, I consider myself something of a HinJew these days, emphasis on the "Hin", and for me being here is like having made a pilgrimage to the most sacred site of my faith. 

So God is really everywhere here, not just in the esoteric sense. It's not just the deities. Mantras  can be heard coming from temples and market stalls alike. I've been singing all the time, sometimes without even realizing I've switched my tune to harmonize with whatever I happened to walk past. Whether praying on the banks of the Ganges, strolling the grounds of an ashram, giving food or change to someone in need or walking around town soaking it all in, that soundtrack is always there. And just like the mantras, the river, the temples  and the deities,  people are always there, and what better representation of the Divine than us creatures created in his/her image. Seeing God in all is what it's all about. That's what we're basically saying when we "Namaste" in a yoga class and use that same word here in India as a greeting. It is the foundation of true religion. And it is the lesson that, when truly learned and internalized, will break your heart wide open with infinite compassion and love.

My heart got broken open today in a big way. I went to Swami Sivananda's memorial ghat, the site of my guruji's cremation, intending to meditate there, hoping for some solitude if only for a few minutes. I arrived to an Indian family from South Africa taking turns dunking themselves in three times each, chanting Om Namah Sivaya. So I watched and photographed, figuring I'd get a little quiet time once they'd gone.  It wasn't long before several children crept up with baskets of flowers and incense that they sell so any passerby can perform their own offering of Ganga Arati along the riverbank. These kids are everywhere, saying "Just one flower, madam" and "Ten rupees please" just like I go around chanting "Hare Krishna" or "Jai Ma". It's all a mantra that falls so easily from the lips you lose sight of it's significance if you don't stay focused.

I didn't really want the flowers, and I'm kind of ambivalent on the matter of giving money to these little ones because I'm afraid that if they're too "successful" at their daily collections it could keep them from being put in school where they belong. Instead I offered the last of my trail mix to the two boys and two girls who'd gathered around me, the "Didi" they'd been so persistently working at. They gobbled up the first handfuls and crammed seconds into dirty little pockets. Then the boys got hold of the all but empty bag and literally did a tug of war over it that lasted several minutes. They left shortly after, knowing that having gotten food, they weren't likely to get money from me, and I sobbed into the waters of Mother Ganga from somewhere deep inside my freshly broken heart.

Trying to compose myself and process the flood of emotions, I took my journal to a nearby meditation bench and began to write, eyes still red and wet. Once again, I'm an easy target, being a single, white female in this land, and soon it was "Didi, Didi" all over again. This time, I said yes to the little boy, and after he struck a match to light the little camphor square in the center of the flower basket, he suddenly grabbed my pen. I'd asked his name, and he wanted to write it for me. I was shocked. 

Slowly, deliberately, in English, he wrote M-u-n-e-e-s-h. Elated, and wanting to give him something personal as well, something aside from rupees or snacks, which I was fresh out of, I pulled out my camera and asked if he'd like to have a picture. He was thrilled, and after posing for me, he made for the camera to turn it around on me. Admittedly, I was a little wary. I hate to say I thought this child might make off with my pricey camera, but that thought did pass through my mind. 

The thought passed almost as quickly as it came once we began a purely joyful game of snapping shots back, forth and together. Two little girls joined us, posing, dancing, laughing. They hugged me fiercely, wanted to kiss me, hold my hand and join me to offer Arati to the river. They took turns trying on my sunglasses. Tons of pictures were taken. And more children came. Each one signed my journal. Each one told me his or her name. Each one had a moment of my love, and I, theirs. It was incredible.

I'm not sure how long this all lasted. I'd guess maybe 45 minutes or so. By the end, my tears were long gone, replaced by a glimmer of sheer joy in my eyes, having seen God in such a tangible, beautiful way. If I thought the sadness of the first encounter had broken my heart wide open, I was mistaken. The abundance of pure love and delight exchanged blew the door to my heart off its veritable hinges. What a way to come unhinged!

I realized  I'd been viewing these children with pity because I hadn't really been viewing them as simply children. They may be unkempt, dirty and selling wares in the street, but they are still sweet, good, innocent kids who want to play, laugh, dance and be loved. They crave attention and affection more than anything. When Muneesh invited me into a space where we could share that with each other, it brought both of us to life in an entirely different way than the typical encounter between a westerner and the children on the streets of India. Muneesh was my teacher, all of these little ones were, and each and every one of them is God. Each and every one holds the spark of the Divine inside. It's up to me to open my eyes to see that.

I'm sad to be leaving Rishikesh so soon, but grateful beyond words to this sacred place where God is truly everywhere. I'm grateful for sweet Muneesh and all his friends. I'm grateful for everyone holding a space of Divine Love here. Just as I know I've been here before, I know I will be back. 

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