Aligarh

The morning sun in India isn’t tethered to the kaleidoscope of color that defines the Western sunrise. Nor is the evening sunset. Rising or falling, the sun here is simply a glowing white orb, a disc slowly slicing through the hazy twilight, sheen and round like a pearl, soft and supple like the moon. By night and by day, the two twins spin in a dance, in a trance, god and goddess, their mythologies encircling the world, filling the ether. These are the gods we can see and touch. We can contact them directly, and plead to them for more of the same, or for something better, or just for a change. We can’t reach them, but we know they are there. We verify their presence when we feel their heat, and when we see their light, and when we understand that nothing in this world could be without them. And so there is an inherent interconnectedness in spite of the salient distance between us and them. My great grandmother did not buy into the conspiracy theories that the moon landing of 1969 was staged. But she denied the event for a very different reason: because the moon was a goddess. And you cannot land on the face of a goddess. You can, at best, speak to it. But if you try to chase a goddess, then the closer you try to get, the further away you will grow.

We walk under this morning sun through the farms of Aligarh, a rural town in Uttar Pradesh. The sun’s heat hasn’t yet reached the soil, not yet having crossed the horizon. The path in front of us is lit merely by foreglow. It is dotted by old shrines, Hindu, Muslim, and Jain. The shrines are small, with usually no more than a single room or statue, for the workers to offer a quick recognition of their existence, their lot, and the nature of the universe as they pass by during their work. It’s a place to thank the sun and the moon, by and by, for their good work in holding the cosmos together. Colonel Kahn was still asleep, and so we are guided this morning by his friend The Captain. I call him Captain Sahib, or “Captain Sir.” It’s a bit redundant. But you find no shortage of terms of respect here in India, and it is entirely proper to chain them together in an elaborate fashion. Bhaisaab, a common term to refer to other men with respect, itself is a portmanteau of bhaiya (brother) and sahib (sir). You can then tack on a ji, a less gendered term of respect, and make bhaisaabji, to really win some points.

Captain Sahib was a farmer in his former life, and occasionally returns to the task during the harvest season. But his main role today is as a seasoned military officer, who has served all over the Indian subcontinent. His knowledge is immense. He identifies each and every crop, pointing out which bajra (pearl millet) is meant for humans, and which is meant for cattle. He shows us the plant form of anthrax, whose concentrated form is notorious in the states for the scare in the 1990s. Here, it is an invasive weed, which once clung to wheat imported from the United States, and which is basically ubiquitous in this area. The first round of harvest is just nearing completion, and the last bits of barley are being plucked. The fields will soon be sowed and planted again in preparation for the rainy season, and within a month, the entire region wil become lush and verdant. But for now, the farms are more soil than crop. We speak to an older couple, working early in the morning to avoid the hot sun, clearing their fields of weeds. As we talk, we hear shouts from the road. A man’s horse has run away from him. He chases him down as his friends laugh and jeer, teasing the poor fellow. The man finally catches his steed and calms him down. He continues on his way, a smile slipping across his face that speaks both of relief and of good humor. The work here is hard in the north Indian heat, but there is no stoicism here.

The bulk of the activity this morning is in digging, sculpting, and firing bricks.  The brick masons are mostly migrants from Bihar, who come to Aligarh and surrounding towns and villages as skilled labor. Because most of the locals are agrarian, there are few people adept enough at masonry to reap the rewards of mining the clay from the soil. Masons cut clods of mud into rectangles and pile them onto horse carts, which take them to the chimneys of fire where the browns clods will become red bricks. The work depends heavily on the cooperation of the weather, and we see the remnants of a few moments of tension. A pile of mud, giving the form of what certainly used to be a stack of rectangular clods, lies drying in the dirt. We guess that these bricks were rained on before they could be taken to be fired, or before they could be covered. They will all need to be remade.

The bricks are all branded with the sign of the swastika. It is a surprising and intimidating symbol to see embossed on such benign objects, and a Westerner questions the integrity of these workers, and the purpose of these bricks. But the swastika is perhaps the oldest and most sacred symbol of the Indian subcontinent, used prominently in the religious art and architecture of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and many other spiritual communities. It seems to have some connection to the Aryan peoples who migrated to India millennia ago, and it represents different things for different communities. But in Jainism, it represents a fourfold order of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, united in solidarity under the banner of non-violence. It seems perhaps tragically ironic that the symbol has transformed in meaning so greatly over the ages. But, of course, it is just a symbol, and a symbol, like any word, like any tool, can be wielded by any person for any purpose. A medication intended for healing becomes a respite from depression to be abused. A dagger intended for violence becomes a surgical scalpel turned to the purpose of repair. So a swastika, too, can represent the ideals of Jainism, or the ideals of Nazism. What remains true about the symbol in any case is that aspect of being a banner for common identity, irrespective of the nature of that identity. Here, it seems to merely be marking the masoncraft of these Bihari migrants.

Captain Sahib and Colonel Kahn are both security officers at Mangalayatan University, where we are staying here in Aligarh. It is a Jain university, though only ten or fifteen percent of students are actually Jain. Still, all students are expected to follow a Jain diet while at the university. The university offers programs in just about any field, from business to music to IT to hospitality to religious studies. It is new and nimble, trying to establish itself as a world-class university, though it is located in an unknown sort of town. The land around it is what I described above, and the land of the university itself was at some point taken from those farmers and landowners. Security is tight, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a town-gown relationship. But this is a different sort of way of doing education, and the students seem to be happy about being here.

The campus boasts a beautiful Jain temple, where, every morning and evening, students lead a prayer service, play music, and hold discussions about the texts, principles, and philosophy of Jainism. Most of the participants seemed to have been raised Jain, and while we were there we did not get the opportunity to witness much inter-religious dialogue. The students themselves are brilliant, and know their scriptures well, able to answer any of our questions with quotations, citations, metaphors, and detailed elaborations. And although there is not much room for a critical lens, I am always amazed at the intelligence of Indian students, who at a very young age know far more than I know even now.

In the basement of the temple is a series of paintings and carvings depicting some of the moral principles of Jainism. The art seems very fire and brimstone, almost evangelical, and seems to be designed to respond to the fact that this is a university campus filled with students. Stories are told of how drinking, smoking, sexuality, debauchery, decadence, and eating non-vegetarian food will lead to hellish punishment in a later life. These scenes of punishment are brutally depicted. It’s not a very Jain way of presenting moral philosophy, and I feel alienated by the blatant and senseless punitive tone of the scenes. A Jain would frame these issues with much more nuance, for in Jainism, there is no deity or law to punish an individual for any misgivings. The goal is simply liberation of the soul from the material world, but it is a quest that all beings traverse alone, and they themselves make the decisions that they feel will lead to more or less success along that road. If one is trying to inspire fear in people through depictions of hell, in order to order their behavior, then in at least five or six different ways, that person is not a Jain.

The young students of Jainism, however, demonstrate their wisdom and acumen yet again at Mangalayatan Temple, a compound some kilometers away from the university built about a decade ago. The compound has a Jain day school, a series of temples, a cave explaining the basic principles of Jainism to non-Jains, a library, and a dharamshala. We perform a morning pooja at the temple, but, being amateurs, have no sense of how to perform the offerings. We are thus each paired with a sort of guru, a student of Jainism, each probably only eight or nine years old, but already wearing their robes of saffron. They guide our hands and direct our tongues with patience, forgiving our errors but ensuring that they would be only minimal. They teach us to pray, and they teach us to dance. I am humbled by their humility and their piety, which I suppose is what one would call leading by example. Each offering is a metaphor. The shelled rice we offer will never germinate again—similarly, the soul, hopes the Jain, will be liberated from rebirth, and will not be born again into the world of material suffering. The holy water washes away dirt from the hands, as, hopes the Jain, penance and consciousness-building meditation will wash away karma from the soul. Step by step, the esoteric rituals in Sanskrit and Prakrit are decoded and demystified.

My beliefs about the world and the universe change day by day. But it is always the case that full, immersive participation in a ritual like this, where all of the participants understand each of their actions with depth and gravity, makes me feel the faith in the room. It’s a sensual, not a rational, experience. And it is the lifeblood, the pulse of faith, ringing with the triumphant voices of the many children holding our hands, in alternation, in harmony, in chorus, in dissonance, in unison.

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