FOR MANY FOREIGN VISITORS, INDIA’S MULTITUDE OF ANCIENT CULTURAL PRACTICES PROVIDES RELIEF FROM THE MOST MODERN AFFLICTIONS.
Tim was panting as he arrived just in time for the train, his bald head glistening with sweat. Having resigned myself to an evening of reading and watery chai, I felt curious about the wild-eyed, spindly Australian who had taken the final berth in our Benares-bound carriage. “Bloody hell” he said to no one in particular, laughing aloud, “how about that for timing.”
Before the Shivganga Express had edged it’s way out of New Delhi station the latecomer was already chatting with passengers like they were old friends. By the time we reached the city limits he had bought a round of tea for everyone in our compartment, and so the man named Tim roused a newlywed couple, a lone Spanish backpacker, and myself into conversation. His energy was infectious; he asked questions with an uncommon amount of interest, answered them with childlike zeal and told joke after joke, some that were funny and others that were downright offensive. After ten minutes of animated conversation I learnt that Tim was not heading to Benares but to Sarnath, where he would make a pilgrimage as part of his preparation for entering a Buddhist monastery in Australia later this year. I began to feel my initial curiosity justified as I asked myself; how on earth did this guy end up a monk?
I soon learned that Tim’s journey to the cusp of monkhood had been far from a conventional one. Raised in rural Australia by strict Catholic parents, his early years were filled with violent punishment and humiliation meted out in the name of religion. At the first opportunity he left home and eventually found work on a cattle ranch, where he rebelled against the confines of his upbringing by indulging in the lifestyle of what was essentially a modern-day cowboy. Working hard during the day, Tim would spend his evenings drinking and fighting his way through dive bars and brothels across Western Australia, picking up a cocaine addiction along the way. He continued like this for nearly fifteen years until a drug overdose forced him to reconsider his habits. “I ended up in hospital for over a month and it was there that I realised I couldn’t keep abusing myself this way, I had to get out,” he told me. Like so many others, Tim travelled to India in search of a remedy for his spiritual affliction.
He spent time in Rishikesh, Benares and other “centres of spirituality” but his negative experiences with religion earlier in life had left him with a bitter taste for organised faith. Before long though, Tim discovered Vipassana meditation at a centre in Bihar and this, he told me, was the breakthrough he had been searching for: “I realised that for years I had been running from my problems, trying to block them out with drugs, drink, women. Vipassana showed me that I didn’t have to do that because my problems were not really problems at all, only events that I chose to think of in that light. I was drawn to Vipassana because I wasn’t labelled a sinner, I wasn’t told that I would burn in hell. I was only told to observe, and I think I had needed to do that for a long, long time.” That was ten years ago and since then Tim has been spending six months of every year practicing meditation in India, the rest of the time working as a social carer back in Australia, where he told me he now leads a stable life. By the end of 2015, he will have entered a Buddhist monastery in Perth where he intends to live on a permanent basis.
Yet while Tim’s story may be remarkable, it is by no means unique. During six months in India, I encountered a number of people from the West who had arrived in the country seeking care for some form of sickness, whether mental, physical, or, indeed, spiritual. In fact, India has represented an escape for many in the West for decades, an idea spawned by the reckless abandon of Goa’s hippy golden age of the late 1970’s. Although this brand of hedonistic, throwaway culture remains relevant for many visitors to India, there are those who tap into the nation’s myriad of ancient practices seeking something deeper – relief. For those like Tim this relief arrives in a spiritual form yet for others it can be a need for physical nursing that brings them to the subcontinent.
As the multi-billion dollar global pharmaceutical industry falls under increasingly heavy criticism, more and more people are beginning to search for alternative forms of medical treatment. The physical and psychological side-effects of drugs as well as their general effectiveness is being called into question by rights campaigners the world over. In recent years Ayurvedic medicine has seen an increase in foreign interest, with a growing number of non-Indians travelling to centres across the nation seeking treatment for all kinds of illness. During my time in in Kerala I met Francesca, an Italian lady for whom Ayurveda provided the only effective relief she could find for a chronic spinal condition. After years of taking prescribed drugs and finding them largely ineffective, she tried Ayurvedic massage by chance during a holiday on the beaches of the southern state. Since then, Francesca has made a habit of returning to Kerala every year: “When I am in India I will take an oil massage daily, the relief is almost instant and the mental sense of relaxation is incredible, too. I have learnt a lot about Ayurveda since I was introduced to the practice, these days I order medicines online and I no longer use prescription drugs at all. As far as I am concerned, they’re poison.” Indians have been using Ayurvedic medicine for millennia and the majority of the population still rely on it in some way or another. For Francesca and thousands of other visitors to India, Ayurveda provides an alternative method of care that frequently proves both less harmful, as well as more effective, than modern Western medicine.
Sometimes India nurses those who arrive on her shores in subtler ways that can’t be wholly attributed to any specific religious, spiritual or medicinal practice. For Lisa, a German girl in her early twenties, the care that she received in a remote Rajasthan village could only be put down to the compassion and generosity of the local people. I first met her at a cafe in Udaipur, where she invited some friends and I to visit the nearby village she was staying in thanks to the connections of a friend. When we arrived Lisa introduced us to her adopted family and gave us a tour of the house where she had lived for the past three months, explaining how she would help with chores like washing clothes and cooking dinner. Afterwards, as we walked around the village chatting to one another, I learnt about the circumstances that had led her to India. She explained that at a very young age she had been placed in care after being born to abusive, alcoholic parents back in Germany. Most of her childhood had been spent in one foster home after another, never staying in the same place for longer than a few months at a time. Once she turned eighteen, Lisa moved into her own apartment but after a traumatic time growing up, it wasn’t easy for her: “My whole life I have suffered with anxiety problems, but when I was living alone things got really bad and I began to fall apart,” she told me. “I have always felt worthless, as though I have been unwanted everywhere I go. But since I came to India, and to this place in particular, I feel loved for the first time in my life.” I could see why she felt that way, this girl, from the other side of the world, from an entirely different culture, who had been accepted by people who knew nothing about her except that she was without a family. After years spent drifting through the adoption system in Germany, she had finally found a sense of belonging in a tiny village about half an hour outside of Udaipur.
For these people and many others like them, India provides a range of treatment that perhaps no other place on earth could offer. As the nation continues to see rapid modernization, it is through the preservation of practices and traditions that India is still able to care for those who arrive sick with the ailments of Western life. It would be easy to label this as spiritual tourism, to claim that these people were ignorantly using an ancient culture like some kind of weekend spa break. Yet while this type of pseudo-spiritualism is undoubtedly present in India, many find genuine salvation from maladies of mind, body and soul through fostering a deeper connection with the place. In a world where the words ‘new’ and ‘better’ are coming to mean one and the same thing, it is a testament to India’s culture, customs and most of all it’s people that so many, feeling alienated and isolated, still come in search of reprieve.
Author: James Connolly
Illustration: Reshidev RK