“(M)ore than a religion or a social system; it is the core of Indian civilization.” Fernand Braudel, On History, pg.226
The subject is Hinduism.
If you plan to go to India, it’s probably a good idea to learn as much as you can about the beliefs and practices of the Hindus before you leave. Otherwise, you risk feeling as clueless and confused as I was when confronted with that country’s ubiquitous and fantastic array of Hindu gods, goddesses, mythological figures, temples, shrines, mantras, processions and festivals.
In spite of the fact that India has sizable minorities practicing other faiths, it is Hinduism that predominates and impacts most aspects of Indian life.
One Hindu belief that fascinates me especially is what in the West we commonly call reincarnation. Hindus believe that this world we live in goes through cycles of life, death and rebirth. Each life cycle is called a kalp, and each kalp is composed of four quarters called yugs. Everything that dies lives again.
This idea is very different from what Christians and Muslims believe. According to Christianity and Islam, we are born into a world of linear time; when we leave it, we go to Heaven or to the other place.
I’m aware that the above simplifications lack nuance, but, as I’m no scholar of comparative religions, I can only apologize. In any case, what I find interesting to contemplate is how the Hinduism’s notion of circular time and rebirth affects Hindu society. Personally, I believe that the life I’m living is the only one I’ll have, and therefore, and especially at the age I am, time is truly of the essence. I have to do what I need and want to do now or else . . .
How do Hindus think of this matter? After two months in India, I confess that I don’t know, and I invite my readers who may have thoughts on the subject to express them. I suppose I didn’t ask the right questions during my journey, and that brings me to another point I wish to make about my experience in India: With some notable exceptions — my thanks to you, the Krishnan family, for your clarity of thought — I found getting general information, even getting answers to simple questions, to be difficult.
Part of the problem relates to language itself. I had grown up with the illusion that English was widely spoken in India, but what I learned is that fluency in English is the province of the educated elite. On the Indian street shopkeepers, taxi drivers and waiters may know English words and phrases but usually can’t sustain a conversation of more than ten seconds. I can empathize since at home I encounter problems with my Turkish on a daily basis; however, as a solitary traveler interested in speaking with ordinary people, I was often frustrated.
Then there were times when a taxi driver, for instance, would begin offering an opinion at length on some subject, and as I focused my attention on his speech I would realize I was comprehending very little. English in India, depending on the speaker’s native language, is accented and stressed in ways that make it difficult to understand, even for one accustomed to listening to English spoken by non-native speakers.
For getting directions on the street, my best advice came from a retired accountant, whose family ran a hotel where I was staying. He told me to always ask a shopkeeper and then to ask another shopkeeper the same thing. Only when the two shopkeepers’ directions agreed could I be confident that I was on the right track.
Here’s another example taken from my experience of waiting on a city bus that failed to move after about fifteen minutes:
ME: (to a another male passenger) Why isn’t the bus moving?
HE: There’s been a delay.
ME: Uh, what is the driver out there talking to those men about?
HE: They’re waiting for someone.
Thank goodness for modern travel guides. The one I and most other travelers carried is by Lonely Planet. I found it to be invaluable, especially for its hotel and restaurant recommendations as well as for transport information.
At home — thinking and reading — India preoccupies me. Despite and because of all I’ve experienced, I’ve got India on my mind. I know that I’m not alone. I encountered other travelers making their third, fourth, even fifth visits. Also, I’m learning that quite a few of you have either been to India at least once or that you are planning to go. I wish you a bon voyage.