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Following Gandhi's Path - Part 1

Really, India shouldn't be possible

By Jan Oberg
TFF director 


Travelling is living, as H. C. Andersen has said. Travelling in India is like living another kind of life. Actually, the only way to do it successfully is to leave Swedish life at home and not think anymore about it. India is infinitely large, mysterious, wonderful and disgusting. It is poor and rich; it is sublime, meditative and infernally noisy. It has a dazzling beauty but it is about to die because of the pollution. It is nice and friendly; yet I haven't seen any other place in the world where there are so many tiresome, nagging, obtrusive and indeed insolent people, according to the Swedish norms that is.

It is perfectly impossible to make sweeping general statements about India, other than that it makes generalizations impossible. Travelling in India is experiencing a constant interplay of love and hate. And of positive surprises about life. A challenge, to say the least!

India is one and yet many civilisations in a particular arrangement, a part of the world which probably would survive without difficulties even if the rest of the world disappeared - maybe even enjoying a renaissance. It is neither Orient nor Occident. It is both of them but it is first and foremost India, nothing else. India is not its name, which is something invented by westerners; its real name is Bharat. Hinduism has not only one, but at least 300,000 manifestations of gods, including actors from the Bombay film industry, Bollywood. Yet they have a Hindu fundamentalism, all the same. The word "Hindu", just like the word "curry" is not part of any language in India; it refers to a people living beyond the river Sindu or Indus. Indus has given name to the country of India, but the region today belongs to the country of Pakistan!

How to write about a country or rather a notion, which has the longest constitution in the world (400 pages), 17 official languages, 35 different languages being spoken by more than one million people and 22,000 dialects? A society where Hindi is understood (but not spoken) by somewhat less than half of the population, making it and all other languages minority-languages. What to think of the assertion that India is "the biggest democracy of the world", when half of its people are still illiterate and the majority, the 700,000 villages, do not seem to make any kind of progress at all?

This India is a myth, a dream, a vision which is not thought to be true. Still it is a very tangible reality which no one in the world can avoid being influenced by, whether travelling there or not. India is the mother of two world religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and of Jainism and Sikhism. It is also the biggest Muslim country. India is backward, but at the same time it is one of the most outstanding countries in the world as far as research and technology is concerned. It is also a nuclear power. Here you can live on US$1,5 a day with full pension, but you can also find the most luxurious hotels with rooms that cost US$ 400 a day. India remains obstinately itself, yet it is also a tragic product of colonialism and present globalization.

I shall write about this enigmatical Bharat in a series of articles under the title, "Following Gandhi's Path". Well, not exactly, since during nine weeks of wandering about, I never went further south than Bombay nor further east than Sevagram, a tiny village in the middle of the country, where Gandhi once was sitting in a clay hut and through a telephone installed by the English directed most things. Thus, I have familiarized myself with a third of this macrocosmos, and, in truth, know just a little about India. My purpose was not to study India, just let it be the environment in which I had four other objectives.



© Photo Jan Öberg TFF 2001

Massage at Varanasi



To begin with, I wanted to live a different life. I wanted to look at my ordinary life in Sweden and the west from the outside, at a distance. I wanted to be quit of all the material profusion, live simply, reflect on what I am actually doing, take it easier, be open to impressions, and just be carried along by a slower rhythm. However, for reasons I'll tell you later on, I could not enjoy too much peace of mind, the woods and beaches of Skåne in southern Sweden seem to be more apt for that, but India has much that Skåne is missing!

Another purpose I had was the lectures I was to give to young Tibetans in Dharamsala at the foot of the Himalayas. Under the guidance of the Danish Center for Conflict-Resolution, they will establish a training centre which teaches young Tibetans how to handle their own conflicts, which they inevitably have in the Indian communities where they live. It gave me an opportunity to come to a better and useful understanding of the question of Tibet, and to realize how huge, deep and unhappy a matter it is and how ignorant I had been for so long as a person in my profession - a peace researcher.

A third purpose of mine was to visit the places of central significance to Mohandas K. Gandhi, whom I don't call Mahatma, i.e. "Great Soul", because he really didn't like that word used about himself. At the same time I also wanted to meet researchers and popular movements who act in the spirit of Gandhi.

So I travelled to Delhi, Amritsar, Bombay, Puna, Sevagram, Ahmedabad (however, after the earthquake), Surat, Dandi and Dharasana. Gandhi does not play much more than a symbolic role nowadays. Still he means a lot to many people living in the countryside. If he was living now, the federal politicians would certainly have imprisoned him. Today India is practising politics that are a systematic negation of all that Gandhi stood for. And I daresay that this is an important underlying reason for the tragedy that is also happening in India right now.

A fourth matter concerned the fact that it is practically impossible to travel to India without thinking also of religion, even if the interest is purely that of a tourist. Varanasi is the centre of Hinduism. Bodghaya and Rajgir are two of the most important places of Buddhism. This is where Shakyamuni had wandered around, dedicating his life to full asceticism, but discovered better ideas and reached full wisdom under the papal or Bodhi tree at Bodghaya. At Sarnath outside Varanasi he started spreading his newly won philosophy to his disciples.

Of course, I also wanted to see The Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab in order to understand at least a small part of Sikhism, which can be defined as a sort of mixture of Hinduism and Islam. Finally I went to see all the small Jain temples I could find. Jainism is the most ascetic and non-violent of all religions. There are Jainists who sweep the way clean before their feet in order to eliminate the risk of trampling any living organism to death! However, Jain temples are wonderfully un-ascetic, they are filled with fantastic statues, colours, bells and mystery.

Finally, I also had a fifth purpose: to have India as the background to the other four. The world cannot escape India anyway. Not taking account of it is impossible. Whatever its millions of inhabitants decide to do today or tomorrow is of great importance and is likely to affect the rest of the world, as is the case with China. I decided to be a special sort of tourist. Most of them arrive in buses, are guided around in groups and fly large distances from one city to another. Others try to manage it on their own, hiring cars with a guide or buying local travel packages.

I decided to do it in a more "Indian" way by arranging the travel on my own, travelling by train and local coaches, trying to find tickets and sleeping accommodation using the Lonely Planet-bible as well as local (mis)informants. This way I met people of all kinds and I was compelled to share the rhythm of the local population; average speed of a coach is 20-30 km/hour and that of the express train is 50-60 km/hour. In the beginning, it is totally frustrating, but then, little by little, you discover that this slowness makes you feel better.

Leaving one's ordinary life in order to enter another world is like leading a fascinating double-life. You become more observant; life feels more vital. Describing such a journey is actually a way of prolonging life.

Please come along with me, but do also travel on your own!


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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