Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Don't Look!

So I hit a peacock on the way to work today. Yeah, the national bird of India. My bad.

But really, it hit me. I mean man, that thing can move. I was driving along, trying to anticipate the dizzying array of things that could go wrong while negotiating Delhi's roundabouts and crowded streets. I successfully navigated the people on bicycles, and I've gotten used to the shared understanding everyone here has about switching lanes on all turns. I used my horn before making any sudden movements (when it worked), and I didn't freak out when 3 cars came within 6 inches of me on all sides. I was feeling good. Maybe I wasn't the lead ballerina, but I was playing my role in the dance called Get to Work Alive.

Then that darn bird decided it was going to make a break for it. I don't know what "it" was, because there was nothing that interesting across the street. But it started trotting across the street, acting like it owned the place. Right as I saw it out of the corner of my eye, it decided to make a bee-line right for the spot directly in front of my car. Oy vey. And then it accelerated.

I swerved. I swerved into the oncoming traffic. But yeah, I bumped it. There was an explosion of feathers and one very surprised looking peacock suddenly going the other direction. And it flew! So perhaps it wasn't "bumped" too badly. I'm sure it's in shock somewhere today, telling a very different story to all its bird friends.

So yeah, I felt bad, but I didn't have much time to do so, because I was suddenly in the flow of traffic from the other side. One more swerve, though, and I was ok. I had a little taste of metal in my mouth. I drove on, and made it to work, and told no one. I hope this can be our secret. Sorry Mr. Peacock!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Poem #12: To Meditate

Is this poem (below) simple? Perhaps, but I am going to try to memorize it and say it to myself on the Consular line. I get way too grouchy, and at whom? At myself, and unfortunately at the poor applicants who are already nervous and scared. Here goes:

To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem.
To meditate means to observe.
Your smile proves it.
It proves that you are being gentle with yourself,
that the sun of awareness is shining in you,
that you have control of your situation.
You are yourself,
and you have acquired some peace.

- Thich Nhat Hahn

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Last weekend, Auracana was in Delhi for the weekend, and I mentioned to her that there was a newly christened, gigantic temple that offered Lordly animatronics, a larger-than-life movie portrayal of a child saint, and a 12-minute boat ride through 10,000 years of Indian culture. Oh, and a musical fountain. Needless to say, she was intrigued. So off we went to Akshardham.

Akshardham is a Hindu temple complex, one of several around the world built to honor Swaminarayan, a late 18th century saint. It gives an overview of the sect's history, teachings, and accomplishments. From the website: "Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Delhi epitomises 10,000 years of Indian culture in all its breathtaking grandeur, beauty, wisdom and bliss. It brilliantly showcases the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages. The Akshardham experience is an enlightening journey through India’s glorious art, values and contributions for the progress, happiness and harmony of mankind."

The temple complex is magnificent, and far too much to take in on one trip. It is apparently the largest handcrafted structure in the world, and was done by a group of stonemasons who have devoted their lives to this craft and pass the skill down from generation to generation. (We interviewed these folks for visas once and got to know more about their roles and craft. Very dedicated!)

The entire complex is a symbol of the purity and teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who as far as I can tell is considered by his followers to be an avatar of Vishnu / Krishna. As such, he came to protect the world in a time of wickedness. As an 11-year old in 1792, he left his brahmin home to wander 8000 miles on foot over seven years, dispelling danger through his faith and wisdom. He practiced austerities in the mountains, and I assume either had or attained enlightenment at this time. He developed a significant following and preached intense devotion (bhakti) and disattachment to material things in order to fully be able to offer worship to God. Today, as Wikipedia notes, a follower of Swaminarayan "devoutly begins the day with puja and meditation, works or studies honestly and donates regular hours in serving others. He/she observes the five principal vows: No Stealing, No Adultery, No Alcohol, No Meat, No Impurity of body and mind. "

So that's the purpose of the temple and the group behind the temple. Auracana and I were pretty well stunned by all the intricate detail work in the stone, and the sheer massiveness of the complex. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the place, all around the outside of the temple is the Gajendra Pith. It is 1100-feet long and is a tribute to the role of elephants in creation! It weighs 3,000 tons and has 148 full-sized elephants, and is just one tiny part of the complex. And it's about elephants, which is always appreciated. (Click on the pictures for larger views.) We wandered around the elephants, and then went through the main temple and read about the life of the young Swaminarayan, which was portrayed in decidedly low-tech paintings.

This is where it became a little more interesting. In what I assume is an attempt to grab the attention of today's MTV generation, there is the wonderful trifecta of displays I mentioned earlier - the Hall of Values animatronics display, the giant movie, and the boat ride. The Hall of Values was my favorite. Here we were part of a crowd of perhaps 200 and were whisked through a series of exhibit rooms depicting the life of Swaminarayan. In each room a seminal moment from his life was portrayed. As the website says, "The exhibits portray the messages of ahimsa, endeavor, prayer, morality, vegetarianism, family harmony, etc. through fifteen 3-D dioramas and presentations from the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Exquisite settings and statues in each diorama are brought to life through robotics, fibre optics, light and sound effects, dialogues and music; transporting the audience to 18th century India."

Perfect! Well, really It all felt eerily like the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland, except here the figures were looking for moksha instead of gold and booty. The figures would move in place, gesturing with their arms, blinking their eyes, and moving their lips in time with the story. One of the bonuses of this whole experience was trying to correctly time when the crowd would all stand up and surge toward the exit to go to the next room. About 5-10 seconds before the story ended, you could feel the crowd getting antsy - noone wants a bad seat for animatronics! One of the last rooms we went through had no animatronics, but was filled with signs hung around lifesize sad-looking animals that basically chastized people for eating meat. Totally guilt-inducing.

After experiencing the magic of robotics, we were let out into the open air again. We took a breather, and then noticed that people were sprinting toward the next exhibit, the Giant Screen Film. Featuring a cast of thousands (45 thousand!), 108 locations, and a very game set of actors, "Mystic India" once again gives an overview of Swaminarayan's life. But this time, instead of robots, the hook is a six-story high screen. It was impressive, and the production quality was very high. I felt bad for the actors portraying Lord Swaminarayan, as they spent the whole time walking barefoot through snow and brush. I think my favorite part was when the 11-year old saint saved a town that was being terrorized by a vicious lion. Swaminarayan waited until nightfall to meet the beast, which was the oldest and most domesticated looking lion I've ever seen. He kind of smiled and wrinkled his nose at the lion, at which point it flopped down and asked for a cookie. The town was saved!

At this point, the movie ended, we were asked for the 4th time by our neighbors in the exhibits if we understood the Hindi (it was all in Hindi - we said "some" and smiled), and made for the exit. It was getting late, and we were tuckered out. So, unfortunately, we did not go to the boat ride of 10,000 years. How disappointing, it's true. Here's a picture from the ride (all pictures from the Akshardham website, as cameras are not allowed inside). From the pictures, it looks pretty similar to the animatronics in the Hall of Values. Still, 10,000 years of culture in 12 minutes seems like a pretty tall order, and something worth experiencing. I think I will go back for this, and for the musical fountains. More reports then!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gospel of Judas

For the last 15 years, off and on, part of me has really wanted to embrace Christianity. I think there's real meaning there. I love the idea that we are all united as a spiritual family, that there is a tie of spirit or energy that binds us. And certainly since my Mom died, I've wanted to believe in a spiritual connection that goes beyond our 5 senses and our sense of time. It's certainly better than thinking we are alone and unconnected to each other.

I especially like the idea of putting our egos to the side and letting someone or something else be the guiding principle of our lives. Submission to something greater, dedication to being on the path, is a wonderful concept, and a test, and it unifies us in purpose. It forces us to come up against our egos and our issues, and fail, and rally again with humor. It allows us to experience grace. And the idea of celebrating that unity and grace with other people in fellowship (or by helping others) is great and makes all the sense in the world to me.

Since I was raised Christian, it's the easy choice for me. It's part of my culture. Unfortunately, I've never been able to really get into Christianity as it's generally practiced. The literalism, the conservative and repressive politics espoused by many mainstream churches, and the exclusivity of Christian dogma ("Noone comes to the Father except through me," etc.) make it tough for me. I prefer the idea of Jesus as a guide, someone who pointed out a path to humility and unity and ultimately divinity, in a way that is much more open and metaphorical. When he said "I am the way," I'd prefer to think he was saying "Listen, I am the way, look to my path. Your lives are founded on illusions and desire. Stop and go this way." However, I think the vast majority of Christians do not see things this way, which makes it hard for me to associate with them. I have a hard time believing that Christianity is the only true religion, that everyone else goes to Hell, that the miracle of the Resurrection is a physical certainty, etc etc. To most Christians, if you're Jewish, you're going to Hell. Buddhist? Burning. And if you are a "practicing" homosexual, you're definitely out. And then there's so much time spent talking about how bad and imperfect we are, and how much we need Jesus, like he's a pill to swallow.

But then something like the Gospel of Judas comes along, and I'm fascinated by the possibilities all over again. Have you heard about how they've translated this 1800 year old document? It basically says that Jesus actually blessed Judas and said he would exceed all the other disciples because he would free Jesus the Spirit from Jesus the flesh. Pow! Suddenly, Judas is transformed from a traitor to Jesus' dearest servant, the only one who understood what Jesus wanted.

Now, I'm not saying I buy into the Gospel of Judas as a newer or better dogma (I don't), but when something like this comes along, it just shows how so much of our fundamental beliefs rest on accepted tradition. What was yesterday's internecine battle is today's understood "fact". Elaine Pagels said in this NYTimes article, "These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was."

Hearing this warms my heart. Maybe there is a place for metaphor in the Christian spectrum. Maybe looking to the Jesus way without getting hooked on all the damnation and oppression and literalism is ok? I've felt in the past like you either were a Christian and bought into the dogma, or you didn't buy in and were out. Sure, there's some area for disagreement, but if you're not sure about basic facts like the Resurrection and about Christianity being the only true religion, I think you're out. The Gospel of Judas doesn't necessarily change either of those, but it does point out that at one point in time, there were some very different, competing ideas of what the point of Christianity was to be. How much was it about deifying Jesus versus following the Jesus path? I think the Gnostics were more in the latter camp, but I don't know nearly enough to make that claim.

In the end, I'm still on the fringes. Maybe I can hang out with the Unitarians or something. (I always liked the Quakers, too.)

Here's a link to the article. (The first picture above is from the article, copyright NYTimes. The second picture is from ClipartReview.com.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Poem #11: L'Art

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.

- Ezra Pound

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Movin' Right Along

Allow me a minute to send a word of thanks over to Prince Roy. His is one of the first and longest-running blogs about the life of we itinerant Foreign Service Officers. Well, it was the first blog I ever found, anyway. I'm no blog archivist, but I remember well when I found his blog, and how I became hooked. It was December 2003 or early 2004. A younger PR was just starting work in Washington DC, experiencing A-100, and finding out where he would be sent. I was trying to find out just what this whole Foreign Service thing was all about. And there it was. Prince Roy's Realm was well written, honest, and personal without being maudlin; it gave me the inside scoop on what my life could be like if I chose to "enlist". It sounded good to me.

So hats off to PR. I am now in the Service, in India even. Reading his blog gave me a free preview of life in the Service and helped coax me in. He even answered a couple of my e-mails on how life was on the inside. So it was a thrill to meet him during my brief stint in Chennai. I got to listen to him adjudicate and see the style that produces 200 visas in one day. Like Hector in his prime, surely. I even got to witness a supersecret passing of the torch ceremony, full of arcane ritual, in which PR passed the mantle to the next senior junior officer. It wasn't Masonic, but, well, I'm scared to say more.

The picture above is from Prince Roy's "wheels up" party, some of his final moments in India. It's a picture of bloggers, including Kiruba, Beth, PR, and me. Kiruba and Beth also have excellent blogs that detail the joys of being in South India. I believe Kiruba is one of the first of the notorious Chennai bloggers, with perhaps 8 years of blogging under his belt. Highly recommended, both of them. (And he allowed me to snag this picture!)

Thanks PR for being an honest guide to the FS rollercoaster. You are a generous man, sir. Hope to see you soon, perhaps Christmas in Beijing? All the best.

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