By Jake Halpern
When I think of India, the same bizarre sound always resonates in my head. It is not the sound of muezzin, or Bollywood soundtracks, or auto-rickshaw drivers cursing at plodding elephants, though there was plenty of that. No. It’s the sound of a lone man sawing a piece of wood. Actually, it’s stranger than that. It’s the sound of a boom box playing a tape recording of a man sawing wood.
Let me explain. I have lived in India twice. The first time was in 2002. I was there with my girlfriend, Kasia, who was visiting as a medical student. During our stay, we followed the recommendation of a neighbor and took a month-long course offered by the Art of Living Foundation, which is run by a mega-guru named Ravi Shankar (not to be confused with the musician of the same name). I’d never pegged myself as the sort who would benefit from meditation or “spiritual enlightenment,” but I went anyway. Every class, we worked on our breathing – in and then out, in and then out, in and then out – until our minds went blank in a cascade of bliss.
Except for my mind.
It just didn’t work for me.
Then one day, our teacher brought in her boom box and played a tape recording of a man sawing wood. She asked us to breathe in sync with his rhythm. Don’t ask me why, but this worked. My thoughts dissolved, time slowed down, and I felt good – really good. In another exercise, we paired off with other students. For roughly fifteen minutes, we sat cross-legged, facing one another, holding hands, and staring into each other’s eyes. I was paired with a pudgy-faced medical school student. We sat so close that I could see the tiny beads of perspiration on his upper lip. As you can imagine, initially, the whole episode was quite awkward. But at some point in the process, I relaxed and felt a fleeting sense of connectedness to this stranger. When the fifteen minutes were up, many people were crying.
When we tried to describe our experiences to friends and family, we sounded, well…weird. My mother-in-law, for example, is a neuroscientist from Poland who sorts every iota of information in the world into two categories: (1) scientifically-proven truths and (2) bullshit. “Sounds like bullshit – you know, a cult,” she told us, in her blunt though loveable way. “Those feelings that you felt – they don’t last.”
She was right. They didn’t.
But maybe more than anything else, it was this memory that lured me back to India ten years later. I wanted to find my way back into that moment and that state of mind. And no, in case you are wondering, I couldn’t seem to find that feeling back at home. I tried to meditate, I tried to do my asanas, but somehow the magic was gone; I felt like an imposter going through the motions, vainly trying to will myself into a state of mind that seemed as fleeting as time itself. I became convinced that I had to go back. By then, Kasia and I had gotten married and we had two little kids. It seemed whimsical, even half-mad, to move back to India, family in tow, because I recalled breathing better there – especially given the fact that the air in India was quite often a perpetual fog of car exhaust and smoke from rubbish fires. And, of course, there were other reasons for our move. But I’d be lying if I told you that the breathing wasn’t a part of it. I was tired of the workaday routine of my life in Connecticut – going to Costco, working out at the gym, passing out at night watching “The Wire” on my iPad. I was tired of picking up my little kids at daycare at precisely 5 PM, checking an excel spreadsheet to see how many bowel movements they made per hour, and then putting down my initials, my approval, as if to say: yes, marvelous, all is well, all is how it should be. I was tired of living a sensible, orderly life governed by rational decisions. I wanted to be back in India, where the priests beat the gongs in the temples with relentless fury, as if to say: wake up you comatose fool, be here, right now, before your life passes you by. Looking back, it seems like a romantic and somewhat clichéd notion. But at the time, I assure you, I was very earnestly itching to get the hell out of dodge and get a bit more spiritual as well.
So we moved. And one day – not long after arriving – I got to talking with a man named Sanal Edamaruku, who is president of the Indian Rationalist Association, the largest national rationalist group in India. The association has over 100,000 members who are devoted to combating what they deem to be the malignant influence of superstition in India. The group traces its origins back to the 1930s, when the Rationalist Press Association, based in London, first started publishing its “Thinker’s Library” series to India. It was, I suppose—like colonialism, classism, beer, and cricket—yet another marvelous British export. The series included the works of Aldous Huxley and Charles Darwin. Early fans of the series included India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an avowed atheist. Edamaruku has become the Rationalist movement’s public face. He gained fame in 2008 when he appeared on TV in a much-publicized and highly-staged debate with a famous psychic. When the psychic boasted he could cast deadly spells, Edamaruku shouted, “Then kill me – kill me!” A two-hour face-off ensued, in which the psychic tried and failed to kill his rival. If there were a dashing, Indian, no-bullshit superhero that scientifically-minded women like my mother-in-law could fawn over – this guy would be it.
Edamaruku was quick to tell me that he thought Ravi Shankar was a fraud and his followers were members of a cult who naively paid money to learn breathing techniques that supposedly solved all their problems. “There are two Indias,” Edamaruku went on to explain, “One of them exists in the 21st century and the other is stuck in the 17th century. And this other India, the one stuck back in time, is mired with superstition and blind beliefs which are pulling back the modern India – making it harder for us to progress.” It’s easy for even contemporary Indians to be enchanted by India’s rich spiritual heritage, says Edamaruku, and it’s tempting to embrace it as an antidote to the materialism of modern India. The danger occurs, he asserts, when Indians cling to mindless superstitions in the name of tradition and piety. This, he concludes, is a hindrance to India becoming a truly modern nation.
Initially, I dismissed Edamaruku’s diagnosis out of hand. With all the injustices and unmet needs to get incensed about in India – corruption, bad sanitation, hunger, poor healthcare, etc. – it seemed unjustifiable to be irate over a guru’s breathing techniques or an occasional festival where devotees pierced their cheeks with metal skewers. His zealotry seemed bizarre to me because it seemed to mirror the very same rigid, dogmatic ideals that he dismissed out of hand as being unreasonable. What’s more, I must confess, his tirade hit home because I had been drawn back to India—in no small part—to engage in precisely the sort of spiritual activities that he dismissed as snake-oil for the starry-eyed. So, it was rather tempting to dismiss him and his movement altogether. What changed my mind, or began to change my mind, was a twenty-something kid named Yukthi, who worked as a computer service engineer, dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts, and felt that rationalism was the answer to most of life’s problems – including his troubled love life.
During both of my visits to India, I lived in Trivandrum, a city in the southern state of Kerala. There isn’t a huge rationalist presence in Trivandrum. In fact, when I asked around, inquiring about local rationalists, the consensus was that I should talk to the owner of a small news stand / book store on the outskirts of the city. I called this place and I got the owner’s son, who was Yukthi. Yukthi told me that his father didn’t speak English very well, but that he would be happy to meet with me. He also explained that his father was such an ardent rationalist that he had named him “Yukthi” – short for Yukthivadi – which literally means “the rationalist” in Malayalam and is also the name of a leading rationalist journal. So it’s safe to say that, for better or worse, Yukthi was a rationalist from birth.
Life has not gone smoothly or easily for Yukthi thus far. When he filled out his public school paperwork, for example, the form asked him to note his religion and caste. Yukthi always insisted, on principle, that he should not have to answer such questions and simply left the fields blank. When the teachers insisted that he fill out this information, both Yukthi and his father challenged them. The real problems, however, began when Yukthi met a girl.
“This girl’s father is opposing the relationship because I have no caste and religion,” Yukthi told me despondently one evening, when he visited my apartment in Trivandrum. “Her father is against my thoughts and my father’s thoughts. It is a big problem. I have been together with her for eight years. If her father wasn’t against it, we would have been married by now. It is quite upsetting for me.” I asked Yukthi why he didn’t just tell his would-be father-in-law what he wanted to hear and then go about his business. Yukthi laughed. It didn’t work like this, he told me. “If I am going to marry her, I must tell him: I am a rationalist, I have no caste and religion, and I wish to marry your daughter. I must say this.” What’s more, the girl’s father knew that Yukthi had been born into the Nadar caste – which was not the girl’s caste – and this posed a serious problem. This might not be a problem in a big metropolitan city, explained Yukthi, but in small town in Southern India, it was. Thus Yukthi’s principled stand—and conviction—that religion and caste are beside the point in public life, had collided head on with his town’s social consensus, not to mention that of his girlfriend’s father, that tradition ruled the day.
A few nights later, I met a friend of mine named S.R. Sabari Nath, at a teahouse in downtown Trivandrum. Nath is in his mid-thirties and is the regional sales manager of a Japanese-based pharmaceutical company. In his spare time, Nath and his father attended and sometimes organized festivals at local Hindu temples. Just the previous week, I had gone to one of these events and witnessed an incredible sight involving a wooden crane, at the top of which – at least 100 feet above the ground – dangled a newborn baby. Nath’s newborn baby, in fact. The baby was being held in the arms of a man who was strapped to the top of the crane. There were no safety belts or straps securing the baby – just the man’s arms. The ritual was intended to be a dramatic display of the parents’ religious faith and, once completed, the baby was considered blessed. I tried to be open-minded about this. After all, I had allowed both my sons to be circumcised, and I could see how it would seem a little crazy to allow a man with a sharp knife to slice your newborn’s genitals. What’s more, I liked Nath and thought him to be a caring father – but it was still difficult for me to grasp that he’d allowed his baby daughter to be dangled from great heights, like a trapeze artist with no net. This may sound a tad ethnocentric, okay, sure, but let me tell you: I had to suppress a genuine panic that I might witness an infant drop to its death. At the teahouse, I asked him if there was a danger in what he had done.
“Of course,” he replied matter-of-factly. But it was a small danger, argued Nath, and life in India was full of such perils. “You must have heard about the train accident that happened here in Kerala about ten years back, right? A train derailed on a bridge and many died on that day. I used to travel weekly on the same route, but if I allowed myself to get too scared, I never would have gotten on the train again. In life, we have to face a lot of hurdles.”
I wasn’t exactly convinced, but rather than argue the point, I changed the subject and told him about Yukthi and his heart-felt belief in rationalism. Nath nodded his head knowingly. “In my younger days, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went through a stage like this,” he told me. “I became a communist and an atheist. I thought all of these traditions were bullshit. I would visit home and watch movies instead of doing the rituals. I would argue with my father. I would tell him, You don’t have to go to the temple, because God is inside us, and we can pray from right here in our home.”
I asked him what had changed. Nath told me that he eventually realized that the “modern and the old spiritual traditions go hand in hand” and that there was no need to separate the two. “When I go to the temple I have a sense of peace that I cannot get anywhere else,” he told me. The festivals, he added, filled him with a positive energy – a confidence and optimism about life that he needed to be an effective salesman. “There are people I meet who are opposed to this,” he told me. “They have their alcoholic drinks, listen to their English music, and go to night clubs. They want to move to the U.S. They have adopted your culture.” These people resisted the old traditions because they were afraid of appearing antiquated and “unfashionable,” he concluded, but in their hearts they remained curious – they yearned. “I know because that is the way I was,” he told me.
At the end of our conversation, Nath invited me to a temple festival that he was organizing, where devotees would walk across a field of searing-hot coals. Several days later, on the night of the event, I telephoned Yukthi and asked him if he wanted to accompany me. “Sure,” he said. We rendezvoused at my apartment and drove over to the festival together.
“Have you ever seen men walk over burning coals?” I asked him in the car.
“Only on Youtube,” he replied. It was all a sham, insisted Yukthi. “It takes two seconds of contact for the heat to enter the skin, before that they will move their feet. Even you can do this with a little courage and practice.” He shook his head. “But people will believe this is God helping them.” All of this, apparently, could be gleaned from Youtube. I asked Yukthi if this was an example of how the internet was helping spread ideas and, perhaps, rationalism as well. Not really, he replied. The internet had arrived at his village, he explained, and – in many ways – it had changed nothing. “My friends who are looking for a girl, the first thing they check on a girl’s Facebook page is her caste,” said Yukthi dejectedly. “On their Facebook pages, the girls put their caste as part of their last name.”
As we arrived at the festival grounds, we soon encountered the largest fire pit I had ever seen. It was roughly the size of a basketball court. The flames had died down and now all that remained was a bed of coals that was hot enough, and large enough, to roast 800 to 900 hundred chickens for, say, an average sized Indian wedding.
Bare-chested men with enormous sticks – tree limbs, it turned out – raked the coals in a futile attempt to create a smooth walking surface. The coals were so hot that occasionally these sticks burst into flames and had to be doused with water. Musicians pounded out a fast-paced rhythm on their drums and onlookers – many of whom were young men clad in t-shirts emblazoned with the mascots of sports teams and even the Playboy insignia–filmed the event on their cell phones. In India, devotees have been performing fire-walking ceremonies for millennia. The act of crossing the burning coals is not simply a test of one’s faith – or a demonstration of triumph of the spirit over the body – but is often the final act in a lengthy cleansing process in which devotees fast, remain celibate, perform ritual purification, walk across fire, and emerge renewed. In Kerala, temples typically hold these festivals once a year – during the spring – in March and April.
“How am I looking with all of these religious people around me?” asked Yukthi nervously as the firewalkers prepared to perform. “Will any of them say that I am an atheist?” I assured him that he looked indistinguishable.
Soon, men began crossing the shimmering field of red-hot coals. Many of them looked as if they were either in a trance, or had worked themselves into a hysterical frenzy, as they hopped across the fiery expanse. One man carried a little girl on his shoulders. “I think in foreign countries this would be considered a form of child abuse, would it not?” asked Yukthi.
The crowd was enthralled. There was such a volume of spectators that many could not see the actual event and, instead, watched on a giant movie-screen that – much like a Jumbotron at a sporting event – was broadcasting the event via a live-feed. “Now they are just enjoying the show whereas twenty or thirty years ago they would be standing here with the fear of God in them,” said Yukthi. This, he insisted, was progress. “Can you see fear in anyone’s face here – can you?” It was true, no one looked especially scared, though I suspected that – even in ancient times – many onlookers were drawn, not by fear, but by the same gawking, rubbernecking impulse.
At the end of the evening, as we drove home in my car, Yukthi was subdued. He said that his girlfriend would probably be happy that he had gone to temple, something that he never did, but this – of course – was part of the problem. He seemed depressed. “Her whole family is against this marriage,” Yukthi told me. “They are all opposing this. Society is like this. No one will support the inter-caste marriage.”
“People in India are wasting time quarrelling over caste and religion and superstition,” he told me. “In the U.S., I don’t think this is the case.” In truth, of course, Yukthi might face a similar set of circumstances in the U.S. where people from different races, religions, and classes often meet stiff resistance when they want to marry each other. I said nothing, however, because I knew it would offer little consolation. The whole situation was both hugely frustrating and dispiriting for Yukthi and added to his conviction that rationalists – and Sanal Edamaruku in particular – needed to keep fighting. “Sanal – he is a great man,” Yukthi told me admiringly.
As I saw it, Edamaruku’s problem may be that he isn’t picking his battles. Of course, some of the nation’s mega-gurus may be peddling hocus-pocus and cashing in on phony spiritual enterprises; and some temple festivals may be in need of rethinking their rituals, especially where children’s safety is concerned; but, at the end of the day, this seems rather trivial compared to very real restrictions and outright bigotry created by something like the caste system. Edamaruku told me that there is a group of rationalists, comprised primarily of students, which is devoted to promoting tolerance of those who marry out of their caste and out of their faith all together. He also says that the rationalist movement, as a whole, has members of all castes, faiths, and classes.
Of course, Edamaruku’s message of rationalism plays well with the younger generation – the class of Indians who wear jeans, drink cappuccinos, and never put down their iPhones – those who want to do away with what they see as the provincial, old-fashioned world of their grandparents. Ironically, however, it is often a similar set of people who grow dissatisfied with the trappings of modern life and are hungering for something more than a new car and an air-conditioned flat. And this is precisely why the rationalist movement should stay focused on fighting bigotry and not, simultaneously, expend its efforts fighting the very traditions that many would-be rationalists might find appealing. Most of the students in my Art of Living Class were doctors and medical students and they were there – in large part – because they wanted to escape the stress of their work world and get back in touch with old practices of spiritual well-being. They, like me, were looking for answers that reason alone could not provide. And yes, to be certain, there are a lot of starry-eyed fools—perhaps myself included—who come to India nursing dreams of holding the tree pose and finding a deep inner peace and mastery of self, of the sort that Yoda endorses in Empire Strikes Back. But so what?
In the end, I sympathize with Edamaruku’s desire for social justice, especially when I think about it in the context of Yukthi’s life—and his inability to marry the woman whom he loves. But I hardly feel that this justifies a complete embrace of “rationalism” as defined by the great thinkers of the West—and with it—an implicit rejection of decidedly less “logical” practices. I have no problem with hoisting children high up into the air, so long as the man who does the safety check does so with the meticulousness of a rationalist and the zeal of a fundamentalist.
Jake Halpern recently returned from India where he was a Fulbright Scholar. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. He occasionally teaches a class on journalism at Yale University.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. Edited by Nora Connor.