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Following Gandhi's Path - Part 10

If the West Is Like Pop,
India Is Like Bach


By Jan Oberg

Director of TFF


My journey in India is coming to an end. I have met Buddhist youth from Tibet and visited historical places and ashrams connected with Gandhi. I have visited Varanasi or Benares, the holiest Hindu town where people seek salvation in the Ganges River's waters which are crawling with colon bacilli. I have seen the old and sick waiting to die so that their corpses can be burnt in a great fire and the ashes spread over and taken away by the river.




Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

The Ganges River, Varanasi


I have also visited places of central importance to Buddhism - Bodghaya, where the young Gautama was enlightened under the pipal tree, and Sarnath, where he first spoke to his disciples.


Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

The pipal or bodhi tree in Bodghaya - where Buddha experienced enlightenment


I made a trip to Rajgai where Buddha lived for 12 years and I admired the peculiar rock formation, Gridhakuta, where he is said to have given his most important lectures.


Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Entrance to the public bath in Rajgai


I have also seen the giant and magnificent Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese Nichiren Buddhist monk, Nichidatsu Sufujii Gurujin, in the Rajgiri Hills. Whilst thinking about him, I am reminded of Gandhi. Gurujin was born in 1885 and came to India in 1931 where he met Gandhi. They became friends and Gandhi included, from that year onwards, Buddhist mantras like "nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo" in his ecumenical prayers. Gurujin built more than 70 peace pagodas all over the world and died at the age of 101.


Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

About Guruji who built 70 peace pagodas and became Gandhi's friend, Rajgai


I have always thought there are many similarities between Gandhi's and Buddha's thoughts and actions. Perhaps I have found one of many keys to these similarities in Rajgai? I add this to the already long list of questions that I must investigate more closely when I describe my journey in a book. India is very bewildering. But I don't feel any need to know all the details or make academic analyses.

I came to India in order to experience the country and to reflect on my own life, the West and the rest of the world. Now, I feel enriched and content.



Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Peace pagoda on the top o a mountain outside Rajgai


In the first of my ten articles, I wrote that India shouldn't actually be possible. Now, I must admit that this is especially valid for people who come here with a typically Western-programmed mind-set. To them India must be - - and is - - incomprehensible. I have spent two months, living simply, near the people and their everyday life. Yet, I have only seen a fraction of the country; I haven't been south of Bombay or east of Gandhi's ashram in Sevagram. Yet, I have learnt the most important lesson: one must empty one's mind and thoughts of as many prejudices as possible in order to meet this equally fascinating and frustrating country with an open mind.

There are no simple truths. One might comment about something that "this is just the way it is", only to find the next minute that "this is the way it also is." Or better perhaps: "what I just said is only one part of the truth, because it might as well be quite the opposite".

This infinite reality, this simplicity in complexity and complexity in simplicity, this genuine Indian "unity in diversity" made me feel very humble. During the course of two months it made me look upon my own Western world, the Occident, as somewhat banal, or like a pseudo or pop culture with quick rhythms, a lot of glitter with shallow truths which we all keep pounding into our own and our fellow westerners' minds. If the West is like a pop hit, India is like the music of Johan Sebastian Bach!



Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

God in a Jaintemple in Bombay (Mumbai)


I am struck by a dizzying thought: can all that we have built up in the West possibly last for as long as this strangely weak, crisis-ridden, yet majestically strong India? Maybe the strength of India lies in the fact that she does not develop the way we would expect? That India rather is, exists and breathes slowly, saving its civilisational energy for future use?

In his day, Karl Marx made some very condescending remarks about India. Yet even today, we can ponder whether religion serves as a sort of opium for the people. People are born into a caste; it is an extremely individualistic and atomised social order, with only a tiny elite having great mobility, and only slightly more than half of the inhabitants of India can read and write. If they, moreover, happen to live in the slums and/or are women then they don't have a chance. Life and hope lie, necessarily, beyond the present and material reality.

I can still feel the strong sense of deadlock, of a hard society where everyone sees each other as competitors. I have seen too many taxi drivers beating each other up over the penny they would have earned from me. Loyalties are almost always vertical, with one's superiors, with those who have power - including various gods - and hardly ever horizontal with those who share the same position or fate. There will be no collective revolution here, for sure! There is far too much cringing, false politeness and genuine subservience. There is a lot of psychological violence connected to the built-in violence of the social structures.

This is the hard side of India. To it belong the political cynicism, the corruption, the grotesque class distinctions, the nuclear weapons, the environmental pollution, and, last but certainly not least, the oppression of women.



Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Slum area in Mumbai, just a few hundred metres from...


Yet, it is enormously impressive how India has managed to maintain her soul, her spirit - - not Western and not Eastern, but simply Indian. In this soft India exists the spiritual, the consciousness that life is more than just material matter, the philosophy, the literature, the Gandhianism, the mixture and co-existence of all the religions. This is here we can find the India that has given so much to the rest of the world, but also taught the British empire a lesson without any hate. The rhythm of life in this soft India is very slow. Centuries of invasions from all parts of the world have not been able to subdue India.


Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

...the magnificent mosque of Mumbai.


Both sides of India seem to be summed up in Gandhi: both the country's Father and Mother, a strong individualist working on behalf of the collective, extremely self-conscious, and humbly experimenting with life itself. He was a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist, yet with a special, eclectic life-philosophy of his own, according to which "Truth is God and God is Truth".

And, yet, when one has said that, one must retract it. Gandhi was actually also the opposite of what India is. I think he would feel deeply depressed if he suddenly woke up in today's India. He would be the Number One enemy of the government, spending most of his time behind bars.

I did not fall in love with India, so I certainly cannot be disappointed next time we meet. And that we certainly will. I will feel more and more challenged by the visits.


Jan Øberg

Translated by Alice Moncada

Translation edited by Sara E. Ellis


Other articles about India, "Following Gandhi's Path" and picture galleries


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