Magical Thinking

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Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)