“Sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history.”—Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
For the past two decades, my wife—Mangla—and I have returned to India every other year with the intention of remaining connected to family and educating our children—Anupama and Siddhartha—about a home that is considerably different from their American birthplace. In addition to meeting these familial and parental objectives, our journeys have had the pleasantly jarring unintended consequence of challenging some of my long-held assumptions about art, love, politics, religion, sports, and work—in essence challenging my worldview. This past summer’s sojourn to India encouraged me to question how I understand chaos and order in our sacred and profane worlds.
I have long employed this twin trope to make sense of my secular America, with its separation of church and state, as orderly and profane, and my religious India, with its Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Judaic, and Zoroastrian gods and goddesses, as chaotic and sacred. Although the dichotomy of profane and sacred is an over-simplification, it does illuminate some inconvenient truths. Consider the color green. In the United States, green connotes currency. Even the emerging environmentally-correct “Green Movement” is often sold in terms of economic benefit. Of course, this same green enabled my family to fly to a country where the tri-color has a significantly different green at its foundation.
The chariot of necessity from the United States to India was powered by thousands of pounds of jet fuel, but our chariot of choice within India more efficiently clicked-and-clacked across thousands of diesel-enabled railway kilometers. We began our subcontinental journey on the Mumbai Mail, traveling west to the country’s middle, from Calcutta to Jabalpur. Snuggly ensconced in a 2-Tier air-conditioned coupe outfitted with fold-down bunk beds, my family and I slept through the quiet night as the train embraced the earth like a lover traversing his beloved’s landscape. At the first hint of daylight, I opened the heavy steel doors that in the night secured the train from unsavory types. A sudden gust of morning air awoke me to the many shades of India’s green: banana-tree-frond green, rice-paddy green, lotus-leaf green, vines-creeping-up-decrepit-houses green, slime-layered-pond green, overgrown-forest green, army-uniform green, and banyan-tree green.
As dawn’s soft light turned into the glare of day, the sleeper berths transformed back into a seating arrangement for six. Sharing the seats with two Bengali gentlemen, Mangla, Anu, Siddhartha, and I ate, played, and talked, unmindful of the morning madness that the sun was awakening outside the train’s obscured windows.
Inside our cozy train, a disheveled Mr. Chatterjee kept his bulbous nose buried in the India Today issue celebrating the country’s 60th year of independence, and a dandy Mr. Sircar entertained us with harangues against Bengal’s communist disorder, celebration of Jabalpur’s systematic society, fond nostalgia of youth, and unkind remembrances of a short-lived marriage. Mr. Sircar, born less than a year before India’s Independence, had seen much change in his six decades. He fancied himself a renaissance man from a different era. Nattily dressed in pressed corduroys and a fine muslin shirt, with belt and shoes that matched in color and material, the Bengali Babu bemoaned the decline of his once beautiful Calcutta where the streets were washed every night. Covering his nose with a clean, white handkerchief, he sniffed, “India today does not have a sense of public or private hygiene. Indians are constantly eating paan and tobacco, spraying it everywhere. And they treat the fairer sex with the same indifference as the walls they spit on.”
Mr. Sircar desired an India where order and decency flourished. While accepting his anthropology, I rejected as anachronistic and effete his vestigial British disdain for Indian anarchy. He unsuccessfully tried to pull Mr. Chatterjee and me into debating why the country divided itself by caste, class, and community but was united in polluting earth, water, and sky.
Protective of chaotic India’s sacred exceptionalism and defending against an intrusion into my familial order, I listened to Mr. Sircar’s imperious monologue but refrained from volunteering my views or saying too much about my relatives. It was not until the train pulled into Jabalpur Station that I responded to Mr. Sircar’s invitation for a social visit with a curt, “No, thank you.
We are staying with my brother-in-law, who is a Commanding Officer of the Jabalpur Army Cantonment.”
“The more myths one encounters, the more the basic themes seem to be reinforced … the resolution of chaos into order, and its dissolution back into chaos.”—Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Hindu Myths
I blocked out the cacophony of railway coolies clamoring for business and tensely looked into a sea of sweaty faces negotiating the station’s hustle and bustle. My tension disappeared the moment I made eye contact with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Our arrival was like that of any other family except that three uniformed members of the Indian Army politely and efficiently whisked our luggage from the dusty train into a shiny, black Ambassador car with official-looking red lights on top. The moment the Ambassador entered the cantonment we were in a parallel India. Order replaced chaos; collaboration replaced conflict; and public hygiene replaced litter.
Mr. Sircar would have been very happy in this alternate universe. Army life’s tranquility was a peaceful contrast to the quite uncivil, pulsing psychological violence of civilian India. Lawns were manicured, gardens were carefully tended, and signs were posted prohibiting the use of polyethylene bags.
Last year, while on a consulting engagement in the Chinese Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, I wondered: “Why can’t India be more like China?” In the cantonment, I found myself uttering a similar refrain: “Why can’t the rest of India be more like the Army?” Unwittingly, I was echoing the sentiment that many spic-and-span Indians and non-Indians have expressed when frustrated by India’s shoddy infrastructure, anarchic corruption, disorienting bureaucracy, choking pollution, and chronic tardiness (Indian Standard Time, anyone?). While the military has a shared mission which gives each member a sense of belonging, the rest of India appears to only have pockets of similar unity of purpose and place. These pockets include government enclaves, individual homes, communal places of worship, and, increasingly, tidy places of work in the emerging global economy. But a chaotic and tragic failure of the commons seems to apply in the vast profane expanse of India beyond the sacred.
Throughout the rest of our trip, I tried to make sense of the chaos and the order that is India. There was little rhyme or reason to the sites we visited, except that we were visiting family, and we had the time and the interest to explore inside and outside the boundary of tourism. So much of what we saw reflected the surface shine of India’s ubiquitous shopping malls, sparkling petrol stations, buzzing call centers, MBA-minting business schools, and C++-programming tech schools; these orderly temples of the “free” market recalled an America of gated communities—free if you can afford the price of entry. But we didn’t stay long in any of those temples. Instead we found ourselves lingering in places of worship ranging from solitary roadside structures to the meticulously planned temple complex of sprawling Tirupati. We were also fortunate to spend time in an India that is gated, but ostensibly for ecological reasons: Kanha National Park where forest rangers valiantly attempt to keep tigers alive and keep eco-tourists coming.
Darshan is what one does in sacred places. By seeing and becoming a part of the sacred, one staves off the profane world’s chaos. While each place meriting darshan has something to recommend it, some places create greater reverence for some people than others. I, for one, am moved by the quiet rather than the noise.
On an outing from the Jabalpur Cantonment, we stopped at an unassuming Muslim shrine. Binod, a Junior Commissioned Officer who was accompanying us, respectfully left a small donation at the roadside masjid. The Army had inculcated an ecumenical spirit in this man whose name suggested a Hindu background. A short distance later, Binod showed us a peaceful mandir that was ordinary in all respects, but this ordinary pervasiveness of religion in India is itself extraordinary. Behind the Hindu temple was an ancient haveli that was in ruins, its aristocratic residents long gone. The temple, however, was vibrant. It lived. Trees grew out of it. For our ten-minute rest, we grew into it. As at the masjid, we left a small donation. Before we departed, a temple attendant, no older than 14, quietly and skillfully tied vivid, red moli threads on our dusty, brown wrists, tangibly and emotionally tying us to her modest mandir.
The Tirumala temple complex at Tirupati was as clean and orderly as the Jabalpur Army Cantonment. We visited this south Indian multi-acre homage to the god Balaji on July 7, 2007. The date’s 7-7-7 magic magnetically pulled in thousands of couples desiring an auspicious Tirupati wedding. Just a few months earlier, the Bollywood royals, Abhishek and Aishwarya, had come to receive nuptial blessings. Since Mangla and I have been married for over two decades, Tirupati’s attraction for newlyweds had little pull over me. Despite the throngs of devotees, an efficient queuing system allowed everyone to have a brief glimpse of Balaji—blink for the moment it takes to say “Lord Venkateshwara” and you would miss seeing the golden incarnation of Vishnu. While I marveled at the patience of Balaji’s worshipers, I chafed at being herded through the business-like atmosphere of a temple that is reputed to have an annual income of over six billion rupees. The revenue comes from a variety of sources ranging from godlike movie stars donating millions to god-inspired peasants handing over a few crumpled notes to have an elephant bless their shorn heads. Order does have its price, and Tirupati’s pious pilgrims are only too pleased to pay the price.
There was a time in India when tigers were nearly as widespread as temples. A century ago, more than 40,000 members of the now-endangered Panthera tigris species thrived in an ecosystem that balanced harmony and tension. The subcontinent’s religions encouraged humans to venerate all living beings, albeit at a safe distance. Although occasionally tigers disturbed the order of villages and carried away a calf or a young child, the natural boundaries demarcated a fenceless equilibrium: human order was chaos for the tiger, and the tiger’s order was chaos for humans. The only tiger that Hindus and non-Hindus were happy to see was the iconic one that goddess Durga rode.
Today, despite Indira Gandhi’s mid-1970s Project Tiger effort to reverse the ferocious cat’s decline, perhaps less than 1,000 tigers exist in India; the exact number living in the 28 wildlife reserves is unknown. Villagers living near these national parks have an uneasy relationship with Project Tiger, which is perceived to have taken away land from the tiller. This uneasiness is magnified by well-heeled (and sometimes well-intentioned) tourists who jeep through the parks for a darshan-like snapshot of the Bengal Tiger.
During our two days in Kanha National Park, the chase after the endangered cat was thrilling.
Just a few weeks earlier, my fearless brother-in-law had been thisclosetoatiger in nearby Bandhavghar Reserve. As the sun set on our first day, there were no sightings of orange-and-black stripes padding through the jungle, but forest green came alive. This shade of green, which was once for me nothing more than a paint option on a car purchase, shifted from sunny lime yellow to menacing black. By the end of the day, I was relieved to have my family safely tucked away inside a sturdy cottage, dreaming of tigers and swatting away mosquitoes.
The next morning a steady rain soaked us humans and our fellow creatures; as barasingha andsambar deer, lithe langurs and dancing peacocks, wild bison and the very domesticated Oza family collectively sought refuge from the monsoon, Kanha’s hundred or so tigers were disappearing toward a mythic state—deeply felt but increasingly invisible in the soggy blur of order and chaos.
“The truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives.”—Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth
We are at twin moments in history, a confluence of economic and environmental globalization. To be sure, India has found steady footing on the economic stage with orderly business processes and efficient information technologies that mitigate destructive chaos and encourage creative chaos. But this American-style economy has Indian elites and their middle-class aspirants entrenched in a consumerist way of life, migrating from a villager’s sanctified agrarianism to the profanity of industrialism’s desacralized connection with nature.
Perhaps with all the mixing and mashing in the world, only atavists can envisage going back to a time when the sacred was separate from the profane. And maybe chaos is only an illusion; like mendhi’s intricate designs, there may be natural patterns underlying life’s messiness. Living simultaneously in the sacred and the profane, Indians have until now maintained the world’s longest continuous civilization through an evolving blend of chaos and order. However, if the tigers of Kanha are our canaries in a coalmine, we might want to reconsider embracing an unsustainable materialist/militarist world order that can’t distinguish between shades of green.
|After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at email@example.com|