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Letter from India: enlightenment on a train

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2010 - "Would you like to know more about meditation?" asks Mr. Shastry over the cacophony of the general class railway car. I repeat my affirmative answer twice before I can be heard above the samosa salesman bellowing self-promotions inches away from us in the aisle, a basket full of the still hot treats perched atop his head. "Good," says Mr. Shastry, "Then I will tell you these things now."

My friend, Arvind Shastry and his parents had graciously let me stay at their place for a few days on my way to Delhi. When Arvind's father, Mr. Shastry, learned upon my arrival that I had not visited Bodh Gaya - the place of Buddha's enlightenment - he insisted that we take a day trip to the holiest place of one of the world's great religions, for which I was grateful. He also insisted we should wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch an early morning train, for which I was less grateful. Thanks to the Indian railway system we could reach Bodh Gaya in only three hours, but we needed to get an early start to our day to return by nightfall.

Trains and train stations may offer the most complete image of India. Few places merge the heaving worlds of 1.2 billion people with such shocking disparity, overwhelming bluntness and raw intensity.

Savvy street children tug at the sleeves of adults; adults shrug them off, hiding guilty consciences behind cold faces; families lay out a small picnic of homemade food on a sheet spread over the concrete train platform; smells of hot chai mingle with the stink of urine and trash on the train tracks; hurried passengers rush through the swirling dust that shakes from passing trains; a sinewy porter slaves as a human mule, sweating through his threadbare shirt in the suffocating heat as he carries three suitcases balanced on his head; cheerful middle class families trail behind, their luggage floating over the top of the crowd, oblivious to the disorder on all sides.

On the train, these activities intensify as they must now continue in the cramped space of a railcar. The general class railcars, in which we traveled to Bodh Gaya, feature an epic free-for-all shoving match of 50 to 100 people jockeying for the coveted seats. Failure to secure a seat means several hours of getting jostled by every beggar or vendor passing through. Babies bawl to their hearts' content; beggars plead for spare change in plaintive tones, and two fathers argue over who was there first. Men are shoved out of the way by mothers, who are elbowed aside by grandmothers, who are knocked off balance by waist-high kids - all squirming and squishing their way around, over, under and through one another, a great tangle of humanity in a metal box on wheels. This is India.

Mr. Shastry counts off the emotions that interfere with inner peace on both hands as another passenger tries to force his way onto our seat.

"You must be mindful of envy, jealousy, anger, hurried nature, worried nature ..." explains Mr. Shastry as he effortlessly holds his ground against the attempted incursion, never yielding enough space for the invader to secure a foothold that would force the rest of us on the seat to squeeze closer together. The seat-hunting passenger moves on to greener passengers by aggressively wedging himself into the sliver of space at the edge of the seat opposite us. A brief tug-of-war ensues for the seat territory.

Finished with his mini-lecture on meditation and its benefits, Mr. Shastry promptly falls asleep. A cease-fire on the seat opposite us allows the seat-hunting passenger to retain his perch on a tiny corner next to the aisle. Soon all four of the men across from us are gently snoring, even as they cautiously continue in their sleep to nudge for more room, eyes shut but elbows working.

Looking around the train, I realize most of the people are asleep or lost in their own thoughts as they stare into space or out the window. Though exhausted myself, I cannot help but wonder at the passengers who have found some peaceful form of solitude in the decidedly unpeaceful surroundings. Perhaps the napping and resting fellow travelers around me are not in a meditative state, but there is no doubt that they have discovered their own method for transcending earthly discomforts for the time being.

This, too, is India - finding a way to rest in spite of the turmoil, carving out a space for oneself in the scrum, acquiring and protecting a piece of physical and mental space as the rolling scenery outside the window renews itself. Somehow, in spite of the distractions and general chaos, people find tranquility (of a sort) and reconcile themselves with their neighbors and fellow travelers.

Bodh Gaya, the site where the founder of Buddhism reached enlightenment beneath a tree nearly 2,500 years ago, draws closer. The train slows and comes to a halt. Passengers awake and shake themselves back to the present. Families and vendors lunge for the exits while new passengers try to board the train against the flow. Chaos once again reigns supreme, but I continue to ponder the awesome ability of travelers around me to find peace in the midst of the tumult on the train and in the station.

Later I walk beneath the sprawling and gnarled Bodhi Tree under which Buddha is said to have meditated for three days and three nights without interruption. I see the Mahabodhi Temple built to honor Buddha in 250 B.C. by Emperor Ashoka, one of India's earliest rulers. Five kilometers away the tiny international airport ushers in foreign visitors on its few narrow airstrips. I observe several Buddhist pilgrims who have traveled from as far away as Thailand, Japan and Sri Lanka to meditate on the grass next to the temple.

However, the lasting impression from that short trip to Bodh Gaya continues to be the train journey. Pilgrims may come from around the world to see the original place of Buddha's enlightenment, but if they wish to see chaos and consciousness transcended in its most challenging forms, they need look no further than the nearest Indian train.

Nick Wertsch will be sending in occasional letters from India.

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