On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, waiting for my teacher, I sat at the back of a quiet temple trying desperately to play a clear note on my flute. As the deities were resting, and almost everyone in Mayapur taking a nap, I had arranged to meet my flute teacher here for my first class. We had met the week before when he gave me my flute and, I had assumed, would introduce me to some basics. This meeting ended after about 10 minutes of his head in his hands, as I dragged some tortured sounds kicking and screaming out of the new flute. I wasn't sure whether I was particularly bad or if this was not intended to be a class in the first place, but we quickly decided it would be best if I called him as soon as I figured out how to make the flute sing (strange teaching method I thought!).
Day one then ended with no instruction on how to hold the flute, no tips for beginners about how to make the correct sound (thank God for youtube). Understandably then, I was quite nervous for my first proper lesson. In whatever free time I had over the course of the week, I had tried to squeeze in some practice, though it's quite boring to practice when all you are doing is playing one note (so I ventured to one or two more notes…which didn't work out very well). As devotees pottered in and out of the temple, I passed the time waiting by quietly playing my now confident (almost triumphant) one note. I am used to people being late in India (in fact it seems that to be on time or early is almost offensive) but it had come to 2.20 pm and still no sign of my teacher. By now it had started to rain heavily and without an umbrella I was trapped in the almost empty and eerily quiet temple room. I called my teacher and trying to hide my frustration, I asked what I thought were reasonable questions.
The conversation went something like this (read with comically racist accent):
Me: I am in the temple, where we arranged to meet at 2 o'clock today for our class?
Teacher: Yes, ok.
Me: Are you coming? It's already nearly 2.30.
Teacher: It's raining prabhu (term used to refer to others within ISKCON)
Me: I know it's raining, but it wasn't raining until after 2 o'clock!
Teacher: Yes, but with rain, I cannot come.
Me: Ok, why did you not call me, I have been waiting here for you!
Teacher: Ok, but you see I cannot come with raining so heavy!
Me: I understand but if you were on time, it would not have been raining. You should have called me if you couldn't make it!
Teacher: Yes prabhuji, but you see it's raining very heavy like this.
And so it went on. We continued speaking over, under or around each other for a few minutes. I couldn't understand how he couldn't have called to let me know he wasn't coming, and he seemed still boggled by the fact it was raining (keep in mind, the monsoon lasts 4 months or so in India every year). I had no other option than to wait with baited breath for my next lesson, all the while blowing obnoxious flatulent sounding wails out of my poor flute.
A lot has gone on in recent weeks, hence my tardiness in posting this blog. The Gurukul (Vedic school) here in Mayapur celebrated its 30th birthday. ISKCON celebrated the Holy Name Week, and devotees crossed the river with the Food for Life Program, distributing food to the underprivileged. On a slightly more important note, I finally got a haircut and have discovered an amazing shubji wallah that sells really great oranges.
The Food for Life Program is something that has always confused me. It typically is one of the first things people think about when they think about ISKCON (apart from kirtans at airports), and the program certainly took off in Africa and India in the past. To date, however, it doesn't seem to be a major focus in Mayapur. Considering the staggering poverty of some of the surrounding areas, this seems odd. Prabhupad, the founder guru, was very clear that this should be maintained as a way to the hearts and minds of the people, but the mundane reality is that devotees can only go out and distribute food to the villages when they get donations to do so. The program is carried out in the context of Hare Nam (which is a mobile kirtan, or group of devotees singing); this way bellies are filled and souls are saved!
Leaving the temple complex at 3pm, we hauled two carts (one with vats of kicharee and one with huge amplifiers and portable deities). I say 'we hauled' but it was more a case of me photographing other people hauling. Arriving in the small village after a nervy boat ride across the Ganga, the devotees lead the way, carrying the deities and singing the Hare Krishna mahamantra. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was clear the locals did. As we made our way down narrow streets, kids began to appear wielding metal bowls and containers. To get an idea of what Food for Life is like, picture that moment when, as a kid, you heard the ice-cream truck coming around the corner…only in this case, the food is free and served by a team of enthusiastic (and apparently exotic) westerners in dhotis and saris! I will leave the photographs to speak for themselves!
This last Saturday, I decided that my research was going well and I had been productive enough that I deserved a massage. I had never had an ayurvedic massage and so I thought it was worth a try. In my experience of Thai, Swedish, Turkish massages etc., massages were very rarely painful and at worst, mostly just boring, so I felt I had nothing to lose. As my research is orbiting ideas of building an Ideal Vedic Society in the modern world, I had also convinced myself that it was an integral part of my research to investigate the therapy centre. It just happens that it is also a conveniently relaxing part of my research too. The therapy centre is run by a couple who offer a range of therapies, from quantum healing to reiki, past life regression, numerology etc. As is a recurrent theme in my research so far, a clear mistrust of the west (in this case western medicine) was apparent from early on in the session. The masseur enthusiastically explained the procedure to me, in the process touching upon nearly every idea that makes sceptics' skin crawl. There was reiki, chi and energy lines, followed by meridians, chakras and quantum matrices, all bound up in effortless swoops that purported to trump 2,000 years of western medicine. It would be dishonest of me to say that such new-age metaphysical concepts and therapies ever struck me as credible, but I thought I should try it out and try to keep as open a mind as possible. While part of me was stunned at the confidence of the therapist, and the grandiose nature of some of his claims, my role as an anthropologist is not to challenge these deeply held beliefs, but rather to understand them on their own terms. As the following extract from an email sent around here in Mayapur (within the community forum) will show, devotees here are prepared to mount a militant defence of all things Vedic, especially in the face of western epistemological imperialism:
"The ancient medical science of ayurveda is the most sophisticated and comprehensive approach to health care the world has known. Modern medicinal practitioners consider Ayurveda to be superstitious or "folk" medicine and that allopathy has come along to replace it. But in comparison to ayurvedic science, allopathy is simply so much guesswork and superstition promoted by the greed of the pharmaceutical companies.Ayurveda diminished as a result of the foreign domination that lasted in India for over 1,000 years. Ayurveda is not just an ancient treatment system, it is an integral part of the Vedic world view."
I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the massage, as I would be if I said I particularly enjoyed it. I found it pleasant but boring, though it was nice to get out of the temple complex and clear my head. The massage began with the masseur circling me ringing a bell, and explaining about his having to expel certain negative energies. Brahma, he told me, created the universe by first creating sounds vibrations…(he continued…). This went over my head, as I was more concerned at this point about how ridiculous I looked in a blue disposable thong lying flat on the massage table! There are plenty more therapies offered here, and while I wouldn't pay for any of them in my personal life, I think this might be one of the more relaxing and maybe entertaining elements of my research over the next year.
At this point, about 2 months into my field research in Mayapur, it's safe enough to say I have settled in. If I go to the temple, the shops, or restaurants, I regularly bump into people I know. I am invited to more and more events, including home programs, kirtans (sessions for singing the mahamantra) and just last night I was lucky to be invited to spend the evening with about 50 South American devotees who were gathering to meet with their 'Guru Maharaj' Jayapatak Swami. Jayapataka was one of Prabhupad's closest disciples and has energetically taken Mayapur from one mud hut in the early 70's to an international headquarters that attracts 1 million pilgrims per year. 5 years ago, he had a stroke and so is wheelchair bound and has trouble speaking clearly. Nevertheless he is constantly traveling and visiting his thousands of disciples worldwide. Wherever he goes, there is a frenzy of emotional outbursts, swarms of prostrating devotees and cries of 'Guru maharaj'. He is tended to by a team of 6 or so devotees 24 hours a day. He is the preeminent figure in the movement because of both his closeness with the founder and his 40 years or so of dedicated service.
There are of course still some things I am yet to get used to. Getting up at 3.30am is incredibly difficult. Typically, I find it very hard to sleep here and the thought of sacrificing that little bit of REM I might get is torture. For the brahmacharis (monks) they have to go to the temple at 4.30am every morning. Luckily, however, the grhastas (householders) go less regularly, some a few times a week, some a few times a month. I have slipped into this schedule and try to go a few times a week…though it's not getting any easier. The temple itself at this time of the year is like an oven and though the early start offers you spectacular sunrises at times, it can leave you lethargic for the rest of the day.
Once inside the temple, it can be treacherous. At certain points throughout the morning program, all of the devotees will prostrate. This involves a scramble to find space to lie face-first flat on the floor and pay respect to the deities. In this culture, it is disrespectful to step over someone who is prostrating, so like a strange game of musical statues, I often find myself frozen on the spot, terrified I'll trip over a devotee, and not being able to move for fear of stepping over one...all the while people are diving on the floor around me chanting a particular verse appropriate for the deity or guru. Unfortunately, this is no solution, as it's also very disrespectful to be the only one in a temple of hundreds still standing and everyone else rests their forehead on the cold marble! As people approach different altars within the temple, they too will prostrate, meaning as you walk around the temple you always have to have your radar on in case someone jumps on the floor in front of you! (editor's note: the terms 'jumping' and 'diving' may be a little misleading, but add to the dramatic effect). Slowly, in any case, I am coming to terms with temple etiquette and life here in Mayapur.
The 25th of September marked the anniversary of my leaving Bahrain. A year on, my life couldn't be more different. While I loved working in the middle east and a big part of me misses it a lot, a bigger part of me is delighted to have shed the shackles of suits and sales to get back to the world of academics (if there is a way of combining both I would love to hear about it!). I spent only 8 months in Cambridge preparing for fieldwork, and having left a little early to squeeze in a Bangla language program, I am now already over 4 months in India. I have certainly questioned my decision at times (as anyone would who had left a job they loved to go back to school!), but trials and tribulations aside, I am doing my best to embrace everything India is throwing at me. I will be in Kolkata for a week or so for Durga Puja (the biggest festival in West Bengal's calendar) soon, a much needed break from the piety of Mayapur! Watch this space for plenty of photos and festivities!