Life in Metaphors: the Poetry of Swami Vivekananda

Life is a journey, and I have made most of my current one here amidst the vibrant fusion of landscapes and cultures that is South Africa. No one makes their journey alone, so many other travellers keep us company as we go – although not all of them do so in person. Sometimes they walk with us in the memories we have of them, sometimes in the stories we’ve heard of them, and sometimes in the words they wrote that whisper to us across time. I have walked the bustling streets of Gauteng, the sweet-scented bush paths of Mpumalanga, the sun kissed shorelines of KwaZulu Natal, and in the rhythmic wisdom of his poetry, Swami Vivekananda has come to walk with me.
THE ABSTRACT MADE CONCRETE THROUGH CONCEPTUAL METAPHOR
Life is an abstract concept, a collection of experiences that we package into memories. That small word, “life”, is too vast and personal a concept to adequately describe or accurately share with anyone. Yet we talk about it in concrete ways, using images others can picture in their minds, and experiences other people may have had or can imagine having. In cognitive linguistics – a field of linguistics that deals with the study of the relationship between language and the mind – we call the cognitive operation of understanding something relatively abstract, in terms of something more concrete, a conceptual metaphor.
The understanding of metaphors in cognitive linguistics differs from the definition of metaphors most of us encountered at school, in that for cognitive linguists, metaphors may be conceptual rather than literary in nature. That is to say that many of the metaphors we use every day are not purposefully created as literary devices or to enhance communication, rather, they arise naturally from the way we as humans perceive and understand the word. In English for example, when we think about life, we commonly conceptualise it as a journey. This is reflected in the way we speak about life, using terms such as: “life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey”, “I’ve come so far, but I’ve still got a long way to go”, “I feel like I’ve hit a dead end”, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”. These expressions are such a natural part of language that they may not even appear to be metaphorical nature, yet they are all expressions of the conceptual metaphor which a cognitive linguists would present as: LIFE IS A JOURNEY.
WE MEAN MORE THAN WE SAY
The meaning of a conceptual metaphor is far deeper and more expansive than the meaning of the individual words that make up the metaphor. When we interact with a conceptual metaphor, a process of meaning construction occurs in which we unconsciously draw on our feelings, experiences and knowledge associated with something (for example a journey) and we transfer or project those feelings, experiences and knowledge onto something else (for example life). This means no one has to explain all the implications and subtleties of the conceptual metaphor to us, we have an automatic understanding, albeit a personalised one that will differ slightly from person to person. When someone says, “life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey”, it activates a vast network of background information on travelling and journeys, and without even having to think about it, we can make the link between what we know about a journey, and how those things apply to life.
We know for example that journeys, regardless of their type, purpose or destination, share several characteristics: they have a beginning and an end, but they vary in length and in the experiences they include. In the same way, life in terms of our physical existence has a finite span, but a human life can be anything from a few seconds to more than a hundred years, and no two people have the exact same experience of life.


FROM HIS MIND TO OUR HEARTS
Swami Vivekananda’s poetry is abundant in conceptual metaphors, and especially those describing life. He frequently speaks about life as a journey, both on land and as a sea voyage, but also describes it as a play, and speaks of it as a type of bondage that we ultimately seek to be freed from.
The way we travel and the entertainment we watch has of course changed significantly since Swami Vivekananda undertook his historical journey, over sea and land, to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but the meaning of the metaphors he uses, and the essence of his words, are as pertinent and powerful now the modern world, and here in South Africa, as they would have been then and there. Consciously delving into the meaning of the conceptual metaphors in his poems, by drawing on our personal experiences and associations, gifts us with an opportunity to free ourselves from thinking of poetic analysis as right or wrong, objectively accurate or not. It allows the brilliance and wisdom of the words to percolate through our own experiences, and enrich us with a deeper, more profound understanding of ourselves.
While the scope of his work is too great to analyse fully here, in this article I take Swami Vivekananda’s poetry, look at three of the common conceptual metaphors he uses for life, and briefly share the vision of life I see through the lens of Swamij’s work.

LIFE IS A JOURNEY
The most common conceptual metaphor for life in Swami Vivekananda’s poems appears to be LIFE IS A JOURNEY. In To My Own Soul, he introspects how it seems to be an age since they “began our March up hill or down”, and in Hymn to Shiva, there is mention of, “where the existence ends”. Life in the physical sense is therefore not eternal, it begins at a point and ends at a point, between those two points there are a plethora of experiences. A journey is sometimes enjoyable as we go “Sailing smooth o’er Seas that are so rare”1 , but sometimes difficult, “a painful road and drear” with “stones that never give you rest”2, and life too is sometimes carefree and sometimes fraught with challenges. What’s more, when we travel we might sometimes travel alone, we might get lost along the way. “Like a child in the wildest forest lost” 3 we are confused and overwhelmed, sometimes we feel isolated, even from God.
Despite the possible hardships and the road not being a direct and predicable route, there is an element of planning involved, and each part of the journey depends on decisions we’ve made and which route we’ve chosen. In life then, the realities of this life are the manifestations of my previous actions, as we read in No One to Blame:
“Each day my life I make or mar,
Each deed begets its kind,
Good good, bad bad, the tide once set
No one can stop or stem;
No one but me to blame.”
Perhaps more pertinently, when metaphorically relating a journey to life, we know that no matter how arduous or adventurous the journey is, the process is a temporary one. A crossing from one place to another. It is a passage of transient experiences and possibly numerous stops, ending when the traveller returns home. Transposed onto life, this reminds us that we are journeying through this world, in these bodies, but this world is not our destination and is not our home. We see this reflected in My Play is Done, where the poet beseeches Maa Kali: “Open the gates of light, O Mother, to me Thy tired son .I long, oh, long to return home!”
LIFE IS A PLAY
We also see reference to the temporary and illusory nature of this physical existence in Swami Vivekananda’s descriptions of life as a play. Analysing the metaphor, LIFE IS A PLAY, we note that the theatrical world the player inhabits for the duration of the play, is not the real world. Rather, it is a false reality, set up for the audience to appear – for the purposes of the performance – as if it is real. An accomplished actor will interact with the make-believe world on the stage as if it were real. The audience in turn will suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to be absorbed by the action as if they were watching events happening in real life. How often have we watched a play or a TV show, and been so absorbed that we found ourselves angry at the villain, cheering for the hero, crying when an on-stage or on-screen character dies, or left feeling elated by a happy ending? The play however, has a defined start and it must have an end. In addition, it is not a random flow of action and dialogue, but something which is scripted.
In the poem, Thou Blessed Dream, Swami Vivekananda writes:
“A play — we each have part,
Each one to weep or laugh as may;
Each one his dress to don —
Its scenes, alternative shine and rain.”
Life, as a play then, is a temporary endeavour in which like actors we are acting out a part in a series of events, in an agreed upon version of reality, rather than an ultimate Divine reality. In My Play is Done, Swamiji reminds the reader several times, that life is temporary, as the scenes of a play are “fleeting” and “ephemeral”. We are therefore not destined to remain here in this physical incarnation, any more than an actor would make his home in a theatre. So he calls on the Mother: “Mother my play is done”.
LIFE IS BONDAGE
If life can be seen as a journey we undertake, or a play we act out a role in, then some of Swami Vivekananda’s poetry seems to suggest that this is a journey or a play that brings with it an element of bondage. We are captive in these bodies during our sojourn on this planet, and the homecoming he longs for in My Play is Done, is achieved only this bond of life is broken, and he is freed. In the poem he pleads with the Mother:
“My play is done; O Mother,
break my chains and make me free!”
The metaphor of life being bondage, and death then freedom from bondage, also appears in Requiescat in Pace! The title of the poem is Latin for “may he/she rest in peace”, a line often inscribed on tombstones or offered as a term of condolence on someone’s death. According to www.vivekananda.net, Swami Vivekananda wrote the poem for the mother of his disciple J. J. Goodwin, who had died:
“Thy bonds are broke, thy quest in bliss is found”.
In To My Own Soul, this bondage takes the form of “a lifelong yoke”, which the soul is obliged to carry while in this world. The word has several meanings but is commonly used to describe the wooden bar laid across the shoulders of animals such as oxen, to drive them in their duty and direct their movement. While the precise meaning may be not be clear, the association with lack of freedom, and with a burden, is evident. Freedom them, comes in the release of this bondage, which occurs when the soul is released from the body.
South Africa’s beloved Nelson Mandela wrote in his biography, The Long Walk to Freedom, “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”. While we are still here making this journey, we may have many hills still to climb before we can rest. While we are performing this play, we may have many more parts to play before our final curtain call. Some of us may feel a lightness in that, others burden and bondage. But however we travel through life, whichever part of the world we leave our footprints on, and whichever constellation of stars we are fall asleep under, while we can share the glow of poetry and stories, while we can reach out to each other with our hearts, minds and words, we are all walking home together.
1.Swami Vivekananda, ‘To my own soul’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 8.159

  1. Swami Vivekananda, ‘The Quest for God’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 8.159
    3.Swami Vivekananda, ‘The Cup’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 6.159Quest for God

Ms Jolene Raison a TESOL teacher, professional writer, poet and a children’s author. lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her MA in General Linguistics at Unisa, is with a focus on Cognitive Linguistics. She aims to promote poetry in schools in South Africa and beyond, and to instil knowledge, understanding and a love of poetry in young learners through ZAPP (The South African Poetry Project).

The Sacred Groves of Meghalaya

Many villages in Ri Khasi or Ri Hynñiew Trep, comprising the districts of East and West Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi and Jaiñtia Hills, are bordered by what is commonly known here as a sacred grove. In many cases, this is a misnomer, since they are actually enormous forests. Such forests, however, did not become sacred on their own or because of some supernatural visitation. They were sanctified by men through religious rites and solemn prayers, and much pleading with God, U Blei, asking him to bless and consecrate them and charge the guardian spirit of villages and the wilderness, U Ryngkew U Basa, with the task of protecting and preserving them. There might have been a thousand and one reasons why such deliberate sanctification of woodlands was carried out, but I will enumerate only some of the most obvious of these.
At the root of it all is the Khasi pantheistic philosophy and their belief that God exists in all things, animals and people within the universe. In short, to Khasis, God is the universe and manifests most closely through nature. Therefore, to disregard nature is to disregard God, and to deprive forests of trees is to deny God his favourite haunt on earth. Because of this, the old Khasis never indulged in wanton destruction. When they went to the forest to cut wood, for instance, realising that everything must carry God’s sanction according to Ka Hukum Blei, the Divine Law, they would do the job only after paying obeisance to God through the ceremony of Ka Nguh ka Dem, the bow the homage. As part of the ceremony, the woodcutter would have to intone words of supplication before he could even touch a tree:
Look here, that I have come to cut you down is not because I detest you or want to destroy you without cause. I have a great need for you. Through Ka Hukum, the Divine Law, God himself has given me his consent that I may cause your fall, so you too may have a role in all my undertakings, so you may live again by becoming a part of my home, a part of my fields and gardens. Therefore, allow me, obey me, bend to my will, so I may fell you with a machete or an axe, for even though you may fall now, yet your fame shall rise and grow before God. Before the spirits, it shall rise, before kings and nobles, before priests and elders, before all the people from generation to generation. So that your seeds, your branches, your trunk may proliferate, may spread, may rise, may grow, hey ho, I have given you my blessing, hey ho, God will give you his blessing, and you too, forgive me. I have spoken.
It is owing to this unique green consciousness that the old Khasis used to maintain forests where the felling of trees was either prohibited or regulated. Foremost among them were the law kyntang, the sacred groves and sacred forests. In this type of woodland, not only is the cutting of trees forbidden, but also, nothing can be taken out of it: not a fruit, not a flower, not even a single leaf.
The most famous law kyntang in Ri Khasi is the Law Lyngdoh sacred grove at Mawphlang, about twenty-four kilometres south-west of Shillong. The grove is so named because it belongs to the Lyngdoh Mawphlang clan (the priestly as well as the ruling clan of the traditional state of Mawphlang), which had sanctified and dedicated it to God and the guardian spirit, U Ryngkew U Basa.
According to legend, the sacred grove had been founded by an enterprising woman by the name of Khmah Nongsai. The legend goes back to the very beginning of Mawphlang’s history, to how elders of the Ïangblah clan were one day compelled to perform obsecration ceremonies appealing to God for a sign as to who should be their future ruler.

Inside the Law Lyngdoh Mawphlang.


The clan had originally migrated from Ri Pnar (Jaiñtia Hills) and was in control of the state, but for some unknown reasons, there seemed to be widespread discontent with it at the time. The augurs and diviners who conducted the egg-breaking rituals and extispicy, which is the use of animal entrails for divination, declared that a woman named Khmah Nongsai had been revealed to them as the most fitting person to be the ruler of Mawphlang. Nobody knew who she was. Even the diviners had only learnt that she lived in a place called Laitsohma, in the state of Sohra, with her husband, Lyhir Sohtun.
Ka Khmah Nongsai and her two uncles, in fact, had been wandering from place to place for reasons not very clear. One story says she was orphaned after an outbreak of cholera and had to leave home with her uncles to search for new places to farm. Another says she and her uncles had to run away because of a conspiracy to wipe out her family since they were considered a threat to the state’s ruling clan. Whatever the reason, Khmah first went towards Ri Bhoi in north Ri Khasi and settled down in a place called Patharkhmah. Later, she left for a village called Nongsai, and that may be why she was known as Ka Khmah Nongsai, after Patharkhmah and Nongsai. Next, Khmah shifted to the village of Mawlieh in contemporary East Khasi Hills, where she met her husband, who took her to Mylliem in the state of Shyllong. However, owing to differences with a powerful clan, they moved away to settle in Laitsohma.
It was to this place that the Ïangblah elders went to meet Khmah Nongsai and offer her the state of Mawphlang. But she did not appear to be interested. She said she would seek divine guidance by planting diengsohma (a kind of rhus tree) and diengsning (a species of oak) saplings, one of each, in Laitsohma and Phiphandi in Mawphlang. She promised the Ïangblah elders that she would settle in the place where both the saplings grew well. When the saplings were inspected a year later, only one was growing in Laitsohma, whereas both were alive and well in Phiphandi. This prompted her to go to Mawphlang to become the first ancestress of Lyngdoh Mawphlang, the priestly ruling clan. Khmah Nongsai also had Phiphandi consecrated as a special place of worship, where the religious ceremonies of the clan could be conducted. As part of the ceremonies, more and more trees were added until the entire area grew to become a large grove that has remained sacred to this day.

Climbing plants and orchids colonizing an
ancient tree at the Mawphlang Sacred Grove.

This centuries-old woodland is a temperate rainforest with evergreen broadleaved trees. It can be described as a biodiversity wonderland, not only because of the variety of trees in it but also because of the diverse plants, flowers, insects and birds. Enter the
grove, and it is like walking into a vast, dimly lit dome with sunlight barely filtering through the canopy of incredibly old trees, many with a thick covering of green moss and lichen, and others with a decoration of wildflowers and orchids of various species. The floor is covered with a carpet of rotting, rufescent leaves, several inches thick, judging from the way one’s feet sink into them. The atmosphere is as peaceful and solemn as a house of worship. One can hear only the calming sounds of the forest. The water from its many springs is heavenly.
L.H. Pde, a Khasi writer who has done some research on the sacred grove, tells many stories of how it is protected by the guardian spirit, Basa. He says, for instance:
Ever since I was a small boy, I have heard tales of the Basa. It comes, they say, in two forms, snake and tiger. If a person goes into the grove to do anything destructive, such as cutting grass for his pigs, the Basa will appear as a snake and position himself in the sty, so that the pig will not dare to venture inside. When people see such strange happenings, they begin to enquire where the grass came from. Then they say to the snake, ‘Go, please. They have done wrong and abuse the grove.’ Then, as the people throw the grass back where it was taken from, the snake will disappear.
Elsewhere in the same article, he says:
The locals also consider the Basa, in the form of a tiger, to be a guardian of innocent people. When suddenly, for some reason, people near the grove find themselves overcome with fear, they may cry out, ‘O —i, O Kong, O Ryngkew, O Basa, please protect us from danger.’ Immediately, it is said, the characteristically guttural sounds of the tiger, ‘khor, khor, khor’, will be heard at their backs and the tiger’s spirit felt on all sides. And when they consider that they are out of danger, they send the Basa away.
The kind of total prohibition on the exploitation of forest resources that Pde speaks of is more or less true of all the sacred forests in Ri Khasi, sometimes also known as ki law lyngdoh, where the ruling clans of a state perform their religious rites. There are some, however, like those in the Sohra areas, where the felling of trees for very specific purposes are allowed after the mandatory ritualistic pleading with God. Now, unfortunately, the rituals are not observed except in some places.
Many have asked me if the Khasis had had entire woodlands consecrated for the love of God. The answer is ‘No.’
To imagine that, would be to idealise the community beyond belief. Of course, given their natural respect for trees and forests, the Khasis must have found conservation as a policy easier to implement. But definite and pressing needs for such conservation must also have been felt. That is why, apart from the sacred groves and sacred forests, there are also other types of protected woodlands. Among them are ki law adong (prohibited forests) or law shnong (village forests), controlled by village authorities; ki law raij (community forests), controlled by the state; and ki law kur (clan forests), controlled by elders of the clan. These forests are not subject to total prohibition, although their use is carefully regulated by the authorities concerned.
For instance, when a village allows trees to be cut for firewood from a prohibited forest, only a portion of it is declared open for use. If the east wing is opened, the inhabitants are assigned their shares only in that wing after they have paid the fees to the village council. Other parts of the forests are strictly prohibited. Also protected are saplings and young trees that have not reached a certain prescribed girth. This is how other types of forests are regulated too. Even in the so-called law pyllait (unprohibited forests, found mostly around Sohra or Cherrapunjee), which can be freely exploited by citizens for domestic purposes, wanton acts of destruction are not permitted.
There are many complex reasons for the Khasis’ veneration of forests. For one, the hills were given to fits

The Sanctified Grove at Khlieh Shnong, Sohra.

of furious rain and wind, which often put houses and the lives of men and domestic animals at risk. The forest surrounding a village formed a natural wind-break that considerably lessened the threat of decimation at the hands of these primal forces.
To the old Khasis, the forest was a temple where priests performed their many elaborate ceremonies connected with faith and culture. It was also an enormous storehouse of everything they needed: water sources, firewood, building materials, fruits, wild vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants, wild honey, flowers and marketable orchids, animals and birds. And all of these form part of the incredible biodiversity of our forests. As an illustration of how rich and diverse our sacred forests are, take the one at Narpuh in Ri Pnar. According to a study by an environmentalist, quoted by H.H. Mohrmen, a local writer, ‘More than 400 species of birds, at least 120 species of mammals, which include 37 species of bats, 30 species of carnivores, 7 species of ungulates and 30 species of rodents are endemic to this forest. It is also the source of the three major rivers of Jaiñtia Hills: Ka Kupli, Ka Apha and Ka Lukha.’ And this is more or less true of all the sacred and prohibited forests found in Ri Khasi today.
However, the mode of cultivation in those days (unfortunately, still true today) was not very conducive to the conservation of the forest cover. The slash-and-burn method of shifting cultivation, with its large-scale clearing of jungles, had caused the depletion of these sheltering woodlands at a frightening pace. In many places, this had been exacerbated by the production of lime and the manufacture of iron, which necessitated the use of wood in furnaces. One dreads to think what havoc their complete disappearance would have wrought in these hills. Everywhere, dwellings would have been exposed to the ravages of fierce thunderstorms. Erosion on a massive scale would have taken place, and all the covering soil would have been washed away to the plains of East Bengal or Assam. Even more calamitously, springs, creeks and rivers, most of them originating from deep inside the forests, would have dried up within no time, and there would not have been enough water to drink in the dry, windy months between winter and spring. Moreover, no trees would have meant no firewood, and the poor would have been left without a free supply of timber to build their homes and burn their dead. No trees would have meant no birds or animals, no life of any sort—complete desertification.
These must have been some of the most powerful reasons that prompted the ancient Khasis to conserve at least those woods that lay near their villages. And it certainly speaks volumes of their civic wisdom. But perhaps the most unusual motive for conservation is also the least talked about: the call of nature. For, above all else, the forest, to a Khasi, also meant, and still means, in many places, one gigantic loo.
A small clarification here. Sacred forests cannot be desecrated in this manner. When we were kids, we used to do it in the prohibited forests. But many people mistakenly refer to them as sacred groves or sacred forests. You may very well ask, ‘How come?’
You see, having determined the necessity for conservation as a policy, the ancient Khasis sought effective ways to implement it. They settled on sanctification, called on God and his serving spirit, U Ryngkew U Basa, performed rites and pronounced injunctions to prevent anyone from defiling a forest so sanctified. Any surreptitious felling of trees, for instance, would invite upon them not only the wrath of man but also that of God and the preserving spirit. That done, these wise men of the past sat back and dared all possible offenders to call their bluff. But such sanctification, was done not only in the case of sacred forests, the Khasi temples, where any act of desecration is strictly forbidden, but also in all categories of prohibited forests. Hence, the confusion.
And if you question the wisdom or effectiveness of sanctification as a strategy, this is what I would ask: is the manner of conservation today more competent? The forest department spends crores every year on the salaries of forest guards alone. Sanctification does not require any guards to protect its trees.
I strongly feel there’s an urgent need to revive the tradition of sanctifying forests to meet the challenges of climate change and global warming, and as a countermeasure to the large-scale commercial logging and charcoal burning in our state, which continue unchecked despite the Supreme Court ban. New forests should be created out of barren hills and unused land. The village forests, controlled by the village authorities, and the community forests, controlled by the traditional state authorities, should all be converted into sacred forests to render them more secure. At the same time, alternative means of livelihood and new modes of cooking and heating homes should be made available.

Dr Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, poet, writer, and translator, and writes in both Khasi and English. Nongkynrih works as Reader in the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. He ws awarded a ‘Fellowship for Outstanding Artists 2000’ by the Government of India. He also received the first North-East Poetry Award in 2004 from the North-East India Poetry Council, Tripura.

Shillong – About Identity and Nostalgia

While watching 83 the film at a multiplex in Kolkata a friend and I were reminiscing stories we had heard about the final from our parents. We were of course too young to remember anything about the iconic run the Indian team had, but we could recollect the stories. For me, these stories were of course about the game of cricket and brand India but they were also about Shillong. In 1983, there were not too many TV sets in the then sleepy town of Shillong. So I remember my father telling me about how his friends and colleagues had come over to our home in Jail Road and they had watched the match for some time.
For any child who has seen Shillong of the 80s and 90s, the memories are so different from the Shillong of today that it seems almost unreal, a leaf out of the book of fiction. My earliest memories of Jail Road revolve around the TV set, much like the day the finale match. Those were the days of Doordarshan and probably a film would be telecast on Sunday evenings. Few neighbours would come along and even though I was too young to watch a film I enjoyed the presence of so many people, the laughter, and the warmth that filled our home. Two furry friends of our neighbours would also come along. Like me, they weren’t interested in the film and wouldn’t bother anyone watching the film. I remember they’d dutifully sit in the veranda and maybe keep a watch as everyone also around them would be engrossed in the movie. During the interval, my mother would make tea and feed the dogs with some biscuits. Sometimes there’d be a power cut and all the elders would just sit and chat for hours. If the electricity was restored, they’d watch the film again, if not they’d just chat and eventually go home, some complaining about not being able to watch the film again.
Those were also the days when there’d be regional language films on Doordarshan every Sunday. No one had dreamt of OTT in the 80s and therefore I remember my parents would be excited every time it was the turn of the letter ‘B’. Some weeks they were lucky. On others, there was a powercut.
Eventually, every house around us got their own TV sets. But the feeling of a neighborhood or community continued to be as strong as it was earlier. Houses in the 80s didn’t have too many gates and fences. And so if we had to go from one house to another or take a shortcut to Polo, we would go through a neighbour’s house and they’d go through ours. The courtyards and gates were always open and yet everybody was safe. In grief and in joy people were always together and when the squash plants were full and it was time to pluck the produce. I remember we’d sent bags full to our neighbours and the years our plants just refused to stay green we’d get bags full from our neighbours. There was so much unadulterated joy in these simple acts. Now when vegetables are just a click away, it feels unreal that such a tiny vegetable would have so much power to connect households.
On the days of cricket matches, power cuts were absolute dampers and I remember neighbours talking turns to call the electric supply office. Sometimes the same person would call with two different accents.
A very important part of my childhood was of course my days as a student of Loreto Convent. And when we say ‘life was so simple then’, we might sound like really old people. But life indeed was. On school fetes, we’d get about 4-5 rupees and with that money, we’d feel like a princess for half of a day. The taxis in Shillong weren’t as popular as it is today. So we’d go by bus, including those that are vintage today and the signature of Shillong. The Volvos that run in cities today, air-conditioned and with comfortable seats will never probably feel like something you’d want to hold on to. But even today whenever I visit Shillong, I yearn to at least get a glimpse of the bus that is a free ride back to childhood.
Also, everyone that has ever studied in Loreto Convent would know the aloo muri that was sold outside school. Now street food is almost celebrated. There are festivals and every city has its favorites. But that’s a taste I’d never forget and also always revisit every time I am in town.
Or I yearn for a glimpse of the old Police Bazar. Was just a child when Kelvin Cinema and the shops around were gutted in a fire, but I remember the tiny shop around there that would cell peppermint lozenges and that was my treat from my mother. And then there were the paper stalls in Police Bazar, which are now housed in the shopping complex, but the feel of those tiny shops was so real and personal. When the new building was being constructed I remember I was in Shillong for a vacation. The university had probably closed for the summer break. And there I was standing there lamenting the old giving way to the new. A friend had said that is the development and maybe it is. It is also necessary. But quietly just like that things fade into memories and memories are eternal.
Like the houses of Shillong, maybe sleep was this easy to come by because of the lullaby the rain drops would sing on the asbestos roof tops. But after a point we’d be so parched for sunlight that the days when the sun was up it was almost a celeration. For someone who has laid her roots in a city at a much lower altitude, I am mostly parched for rain and that monotonous sound on my roof. Or the ‘planking’ that those houses had, where many games of hide and seek were played.
Its been two decades since I have shifted base. But everytime I eat an orange in the winter sun or a simple dry fish is cooked at home, I am in Shillong. Everytime I see the blue sky I am a child. Or every time a well baked biscuit is served my heart aches for Shillong. Shillong is homeland and identity and Muse for my stories and that sense of being privileged to have been born and raised in the town will always remain an important part of my identity.

The Goddesses Ka Ngot and Ka Iam

Illustrations: Henpilien
Ka Iam and Ka Ngot, the twin daughters of the god of Shillong, were two very beautiful beings; they were lively and frolicsome, and were indulged and given much freedom by the family. Like all twins they were never happy if long separated. One day the two climbed to the top of the Shillong mountain to survey the country. In the distance they saw the woody plains of Sylhet, and they playfully challenged one another to run a race to see who would reach the plains first.
Ka Ngot was more retiring and timid than her sister, and was half afraid to begin the race; Ka Iam, on the other hand, was venturesome and fearless, and had been called Ka Iam because of her noisy and turbulent disposition. Before the race she spoke very confidently of her own victory, and teased her sister on account of her timidity.
After a little preparation for the journey the twins transformed themselves into two rivers and started to run their race. Ka Ngot, searching for smooth and easy places, meandered slowly, taking long circuits, and came in time to Sylhet; but not finding her sister there, she [53]went forward to Chhatak, and on slowly towards Dewara. Seeing no sign yet of her sister, she became very anxious and turned back to seek her; and, in turning, she took a long curve which looked in the brilliant sunshine like a curved silver chain, and the Khasis living on the hill-tops, when they saw it, exclaimed with wonder: “Rupatylli, Rupatylli!” (A silver necklace, a silver necklace!) and to this day that part of the river is known as “Rupatylli.”

Ka Iam, full of vigour and ambition, did not linger to look for easy passages, but with a noisy rush she plunged straight in the direction of Shella, the shortest cut she could find. She soon found, however, that the road she had chosen was far more difficult to travel than she had anticipated. Large rocks impeded her path at many points, and she was obliged to spend much time in boring her way through; but she pitted her young strength against all obstacles, and in time she reached Shella and came in view of the plains, where, to her chagrin, she saw that her sister had reached the goal before her, and was coming back leisurely to meet her. It was a great humiliation, for she had boasted of her victory before the race began, but, hoping to conceal her defeat from the world, she divided herself into five streams, and in that way entered the plains, and joined her sister. The rivers are called after the two goddesses to this day, and are known as “Ka Um Ngot” and “Ka Um Iam” (the river Ngot and the river Iam).

Ever since Ka Ngot won the great race she has been recognised as the greater of the two twins, and more reverence has been paid to her as a goddess. Even in the present day there are many Khasis and Syntengs who will not venture to cross the “Um Ngot” without first sacrificing to the goddess; and when, on their journeys, they happen to catch a glimpse of its waters, they salute and give a greeting of “Khublei” to the goddess Ka Ngot who won the great race.

Dougel Henpilen is an established cartoonist of Shillong who hails from Imphal, Manipur. He dud his schooling from Delhi and later passed from Jamia Milia Islamic university of Lucknow. His cartoons were featured in the very first issue of Kajingshai -the Light—under Larger Than Life Section

Petrichor

Petrichor

“Change not thy nature, gentle bloom,
Thou violet, sweet and pure,
But ever pour thy sweet perfume
Unasked, unstinted and sure!”.

Among all the shades of nature, perhaps, rain is an enigma. In some it inspires awe, to some, it is an invitation to plunge into their souls, again to some it is nothing but gloom. Be it as it may, it never fails to tinge our minds. It enters us through the dazzles in the dark, soft rumbles, the pleasant chill and mostly through the unmistakable footprints of its arrival – the sweet scent of the earth – the petrichor.
People are inseparable from the land to which they belong. It permeates their beings in an unconscious way. It may be likened to the fragrance of a rose that is indissolubly connected with it or a silent scar that never allows them to forget it. History is never confined within a contour, yet it is always anchored to one. The saga of people’s struggles, failures and triumphs intertwined with their aspiration, passion and toil creates the warp and woof in the fabric of human life. And, when that land happens to be India, the distinctiveness of such a warp and woof becomes a force to reckon with. Indeed, with both its intrinsic plurality and connectedness, has come a long way from its ‘tryst with destiny’. Today, it has become a melting pot of the world’s cultures and languages. With more than 120 major languages, it is a wonder how it still continues to be a single Nation. The answer may lie in the linguistic freedom it enjoys in every stratum of its life. Research reveals that language has a deep connection with biodiversity. The more diverse the environment; the greater the possibility for more languages to evolve. The North-Eastern part of India and Andaman Nicobar Islands, having the largest forest cover, are home to varied languages and dialects. This brings us straight to an incontrovertible fact that no matter how cozy we feel being in our comfort zones of intolerance, nature abhors uniformity. Different languages have the same claim to the land, even for the fringe populace. This is the dictum of nature which we must obey or perish forever. To this Swami Vivekananda brings our attention in no uncertain terms, ‘Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active, it must throw out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies’. It is a warning and a deliverance. The passion for our language and the longing for the country should not be at the cost of the innate heterogeneity that nature wants us to enjoy. We may be at crossroads, but we have the stars to guide us – the elders, the scriptures and the way under our feet.
This diversity is the fragrance after the rain. When all the scum is washed away, the pristine water flows. When the barriers are shattered by thunder, we roam free.
Rain always rejuvenates. Let it rain, let the petrichor waft through the valley.

.

A Vedantist in Ireland

Saturday, March 28, 2020 

I can hear the church bells ring for noontime Angelus from our house in Connemara.  They are a reminder to repeat a prayer: 

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, 
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. 

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art Thou . . . 

Now and at the hour of our death. 

The Divine Mother everywhere is the remover of obstacles and affliction.  But in Ireland we pray to Mary in particular to intercede with Jesus her son and with God the Father in times of distress.  If there has ever been a time to ask for her help, it is during this Covid-19 pandemic, for those who are sick or facing destitution or otherwise in fear. 

The bells of this Catholic church are virtual. Their machine-generated tones, broadcast from loudspeakers, reverberate over the unnaturally still streets of the village. 

The following day (Sunday) 

Only one or two parishioners are allowed inside the Catholic church to assist the priest for Mass. I am not one of them. 

But I can see the priest in my mind’s eye.  I can hear him repeat Christ’s words, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ And I ask – is it merely memory?  Is not the Last Supper being recreated at this moment?  Does not the remembrance by even a single worshipper usher the Lord’s Lila into existence? 

Meditating on the Eucharist through the lens of the Gita, we understand the Mass as the eternal sacrifice.  The sacramental host, the act of its offering, he who consecrates the host in the inner flame of his being – if you realize the Divine in each of these, you will reach the Divine. 

Meanwhile – the little village where I live has eight rumored cases of Covid-19, which, relative to its tiny size, implies an astronomical rate of infection. Naturally people here are fearful.  They accept lockdown without reservation.  As recent arrivals from abroad, my wife and I are more restricted than the other villagers – we may not enter shops or any public building.  

Sunday, April 26, 2020 

Now the church is live-streaming Mass with an iPhone for camera. It is reassuring to watch, to picture myself there, though the priest sings off key and his words are difficult to make out as they echo across the near-empty cavern of the church. 

A month ago the villagers were just afraid of the virus.  Now they are restless to boot. Emotions are raw and ever on the verge of multiplying like uncontrollable audio feedback. Still, these Irish are practical people. In their hearts they are calm, they view the pandemic as one more passing thing.  Life will return to the old ways sooner or later.  Shops and pubs will reopen, crowds will watch the Galway races elbow-to-elbow, and churches will fill up on the major feast days. This is a conservative place where tradition dies hard, if it ever dies at all. Famines and wars have devastated this part of Ireland, forcing half the population to emigrate and decimating the rest.  Those who remained passed down to their descendants a stubborn identity as Catholic Connemara Irish. 

For seven centuries, the English colonial rulers suppressed the native Irish and their Catholic religion.  They starved the populace, reduced it to serfdom, burned its churches and banished or killed its priests. They cynically offered conversion to Protestantism as a way up and out for those who would repudiate their Catholic faith – but few accepted the offer. Instead, mistreatment by the English bound the Irish forever more tightly to their church. 

But he Catholic church in Ireland isn’t what it used to be.  I think for Irish society at large that is actually a good thing.  Years of unjust persecution conferred immense moral authority on the Irish Catholic church. Subsequent years of arrogance and complacency have effectively squandered that authority.  The Church has slid increasingly into irrelevance, causing pews to empty out, vocations to thin, and young people to tell the reporters from Irish Television that the Church means nothing to them.   

But you wouldn’t know it out here in the country.  Most people here identify themselves with a parish – there are several in the area – and go to Mass at least monthly.  Though no longer its unrivalled heart, the parish church remans a vital organ of the community. 

Catholicism is the de facto religion of the west of Ireland to a degree unimaginable to most twenty-first century Americans.  Newspapers and radio stations keep their audiences up to date with local parish services and holy day activities, and host opinion columns by local clergy.  In the shops you will find cards for novenas and Holy Communion mixed in with the birthday cards. The ubiquitous Catholic ‘national’ schools are funded by the State. 

A half block up the main street is another church in my village – the Church of Ireland, as the Anglican Church in Ireland is called.  All over the Republic, the Church of Ireland is struggling, because Protestants are nowadays few, less than one in twenty among the populace.  Also, Protestantism is a reminder of the English occupation, though the Irish for the most part no longer bear any ill will toward the English. Once upon a time this was the established church in Ireland, meaning that all Irish, including the Catholic majority, had to tithe in its support.  Two hundred years ago on any Sunday morning this little church would be filled with dozens of soldiers from the local British garrison, their bright scarlet uniforms standing out among the plainer clothes of the local landowners and merchants.  Now the church is lucky to have a dozen souls in attendance on a given Sunday.  But those who attend are committed.  The silver lining in the decline of organized religion is that the parishioners who would come to church mainly to be seen have fallen away. Only the dedicated are left in the nearly empty pews. 

This is the church I look forward to attending regularly when services are allowed to resume. Its small but ardent numbers call to mind the words of Jesus: ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’  

. . . . . . . . . . 

I was profoundly touched on reading a conversation between Swami Ramakrishnananda and an Irish monk who had converted to Buddhism, disavowing the Catholic faith in which he was raised.  To the monk Swami said, ‘God can be attained through all paths. You could have got liberation by following your own religion.  You have made a blunder by giving up your own [Catholic] religion and accepting another.’  For the swami, the monk’s blunder lay not in his embracing of Buddhism, but in his rejection of his native religion, where everything he would need to realize God was already at hand.  

It would be splendid to see a Vedanta Society grow up in the west of Ireland, bringing to light in this region the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, all the while seen as a unity with the traditional Catholic faith. There already are wonderful spiritual riches all about here – people here only need to be awakened to them.  If Vedanta can be propagated in such a way as to breathe new life into the ancient Catholic traditions, it will surely catch fire among the latent Irish spiritual seekers now disaffected from their country’s religious past.  

Every Indian child growing up is exposed to the stories and myths surrounding such divine figures as Krishna and Rama.  The Irish too have access to a vast treasury of spiritual legends, made tangible in the stone crosses, holy wells and monastic ruins from Ireland’s glorious past.  I will mention just two places of pilgrimage near where I live that I am fond of visiting: Balintubber and Knock. 

Across the lake from my village and some miles to the north is Ballintubber Abbey, where Mass has been said without interruption for eight hundred years.  Norman invaders burned the Abbey in the 13th century, English kings further suppressed it, and Cromwell’s soldiers burned down the Abbey roof and surrounding buildings in 1653 – but the Abbey walls remained standing, and Mass continued to be celebrated in the apse of the church.  A short walk from the Abbey is St. Patrick’s well, where the legendary fifth-century patron saint of Ireland is said to have baptized his converts (and from which Balintubber, “village of the well”, gets its name).  A nearby stone is said to bear the imprint of the saint’s knee. 

Balintubber Abbey, restored 

Several times each year, beginning on Easter Monday, pilgrims assemble here to walk an ancient 22-mile route known as Tóchar Phádraig, or St. Patrick’s Causeway.  Their destination is Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain on whose summit the great founder saint of Ireland fasted for forty days in 441 AD.  The priest leading the walk is in high spirits as he points out dozens of spots along the way, each with a story of its own.  There is, for example, the ‘Dancora’ (bath of the righteous) where medieval pilgrims, in ritual expression of being cleansed of sin, washed after their pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick before their return home. Hot stones kept the water in the Dancora warm. 

Ruins of Balintubber Abbey 

It is said that when St. Patrick ended his fast on the mountain summit, he threw a silver bell down the mountain knocking Corra, the mother of all demons, out of the sky and into Lough Nacorra where she drowned. He then banished all the snakes in Ireland into the sea. Some believe that snakes were regarded as symbols of the druids, the high priests of the pre-Christian Celts.   

There is no paved path up the steep mountain, only sand, mud, rocks and gravel.  In days gone by the especially devout would sometimes climb the mountain on their knees.  Halfway up the mountain is a cairn of rocks, atop which you will find a small informal shrine.  Coming close you will see it is devoted to the twentieth-century Italian saint Padre Pio, who was known for his extreme piety and service to the sick, and for the stigmata which he tried to conceal but could not, much to the consternation of his superiors in the Church. 

Twenty miles to the northeast of Ballintubber is Knock, where in 1879 fifteen villagers had a vision of Mother Mary on the outer wall of their parish church.  Wearing a crown and dressed in white, she was flanked by the Lamb of God, Saint Joseph and St. John the Evangelist.  For two hours the villagers were transfixed by the vision as they recited their rosary on bended knee.  When Pope John Paul II visited Knock to celebrate Mass one hundred years later, he was greeted by a throng of nearly half a million – about one in ten inhabitants of the country. 

Pilgrims at the Knock Shrine in the 19th century 

Over the years Knock has become a major center of pilgrimage, with a modern basilica that dwarfs the original parish church. It even has its own airport. Nonetheless, in the off-season Knock can be surprisingly quiet and intimate.   

On one of my visits to the town I was graced with the company of an American sannyasin, who toured the site enthusiastically.  Naturally outgoing and spontaneous, he entered into spirited conversation with one of the many shopkeepers along the main street that sold statues and other memorabilia of the Shrine.  I was skeptical that such a shopkeeper would have any interest in a place of pilgrimage beyond the purely mercantile.  But how delighted I was when our swami emerged with several mementoes of Padre Pio presented to him as gifts.  The shopkeeper was in fact a sincere devotee of Padre Pio and a devout Christian – as doubtless are countless other merchants and hoteliers at pilgrim centers, grateful for the privilege of dwelling and making their living in a holy place. 

St. John The Evangelist, Mother Mary, St. Joseph, and the Lamb of God surrounded by angels 

John Curry (d. 1943), last living witness of the apparition 

Mother Teresa visiting the Shrine 

Friday, May 29, 2020 

Walking home the other day from the village, we noticed the front entrance to the Catholic church was open. Almost on tiptoe we approached and opened the inner door.  The apse was empty and still, save for three or four votive candles burning near the main altar.  We sat and prayed and meditated awhile.  It had been two months since we had last been inside of a place of worship – how cooling was the relief we felt, how soothing the knowledge that we could come back again to sit where the Lord was especially manifest. 

Saturday, June 19, 2020 

The lockdown continues to lift. We expect services to resume in our Church of Ireland Sunday after next.  It will be joyful to see again the little band of parishioners whose acquaintance we had just begun to make earlier this year. The Catholic church in the village has been raising funds for, among other things, repair of the church bells so that we can hear their living musical tones once again. Yet the church will not be able to resume its services for some time in order to respect social distancing. And when it does, how soon will the choir sing together again? When will congregants join together again in the body and blood of Christ?  

Nowadays the word ‘together’ evokes hope and fear and anxious caution.  The realization is dawning on us all that even after the pandemic has become a distant memory, its impact on our lives will be lasting and disruptive. Things cannot and will not go back to as they were before.  

Old forms are dissipating, new forms are in creation, yet the Divine and our relation to Him stay the same, at all times and in every place. 

Seng Khasi – An Oath to the Truth

The Khasi people reside in the central and eastern part of the state of Meghalaya in North East India. They are known to be one of the oldest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and a significant number also live in the state of Assam and in Bangladesh. The word Khasi includes the various sub tribes of this pristine part of the world: Pnar, Bhoi, Khynriam, Maram, War, Nongtrai, Muliang, Lyngngam. The language and dialects spoken by the Khasis belong to the Austroasiatic family of languages (Mon-Khmer) at their root, but words derived from Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian are found in common usage and have enriched the language. Anthropologists and scholars have offered many theories as to the origin of the Khasi people but no single theory has been accepted conclusively. However, there is no dispute as to their mythological origins. According to Khasi mythology they descended from the celestial abode of the Divine Creator, U Blei. The foundations of the indigenous faith ‘Niam Khasi- Niamtre’ are lodged deep in the story of these origins. The spiritual truth of the faith shines within the inner meaning of the legend of ‘Ka Jingkieng Ksiar halor U Lum Sohpetbneng’ (The Golden Bridge at the Navel of the Universe).
All religions of this world convey their meanings through parables and so too does our religion. 1
(H.O. Mawrie)
The story begins at the dawn of consciousness, when the Sun and the Moon were young, and the world was silent and calm. Sixteen families of Man (Ki Khadhynriew Trep) lived in the celestial realm beyond the visible sky, beyond the stars, in cosmic harmony with the Divine Creator (U Blei). The Earth remained quiet and desolate until, Mei Ramew (Mother Earth) and U Basa (Guardian spirit of the World) were blessed with three children- Air, Water and the youngest, Fire. With time, the world began to grow. Rivers flowed, mountains grew, birds sang, flowers bloomed, the creative fires of Biskorom grew brighter- Natures song had begun. The deafening quiet was replaced by the sound of life bursting open. However, Mother Earth would need help in governing the chaos that ensued, so she pleaded to U Blei and she was answered. It was decreed in a Grand Assembly of the Gods (Dorbar Blei) that Seven families would be entrusted with the sacred task of nurturing life on Mother Earth. The seven – U Hynñiewtrep – are believed to be the progenitors of the Khasi people.
Before the seven families descended to begin their sacred duty they were blessed by U Blei with their own Way of Life and Worship (Ka Niam ka Rukom), and they made an oath to never lose their spirituality. They traversed the two worlds through a Golden Bridge (Ka Jingkieng Ksiar) that stood at the summit of the sacred hill, U Lum
Sohpetbneng – the Navel of the Universe. The bridge was a divine link that connected Man, Mother Earth and the Divine Creator. This period of harmony and unison is known as Ka Sotti Juk (Age of Purity) or Ka Aiom Ksiar (Golden Age). But, the clear conscience of the Hynñiewtrep would soon be gripped and swallowed by greed and envy (U Thlen). Man grew distant from himself, his fellow man and his sacred duty. The Golden Vines (Tangnub Tangjri) were severed. The seven had grown in wealth and numbers but they had also grown distant from their spiritual bond. The joyous soul was broken.
If they were to rebuild the divine connection they would have to look within, guided by the three tenets of Ka Jutang Sohpetbneng. The Golden Bridge (Ka Jingkieng Ksiar) now resides within a Golden Heart (Mynsiem Ksiar)- a place where the limitless energy of a joyous soul grows with and in, Truth. U Lum Sohpetbneng, stands witness to this heritage and to the spiritual reality of the ‘Hynñiewtrep’. It is the unshakable foundation of the indigenous faith, Niam Khasi- Niamtre, and a light for all to find true inner peace.
The Khasi way of life, worship, philosophy, spirituality, identity are all tied to Lum Sohpetbneng and the three tenets of the indigenous faith:
• Kamai ïa ka Hok
• Tip Briew Tip Blei
• Tip Kur Tip Kha
‘Kamai ïa ka Hok’ means to earn righteousness. Only a path of Truth brings Divine Blessings. It is stressed in the teachings that righteousness can not be given or taken – it must be earned.
‘As nothing material can be carried to the House of God, the emphasis is on earning righteousness, which is the only thing that can be associated with one forever. Hence living on Earth is a blessing as it offers greater opportunity to earn righteousness’. 2
(Sib Charan Roy jait Dkhar Sawian)
Tip Briew Tip Blei’ literally translates as ‘Know Man Know God’ but there are an infinite number of interpretations. However, they all converge into the wisdom that in order to reach the Divine, one must first search within oneself and strive to understand our fellow man. An understanding of one without the other is to fail at self-realisation.
‘Tip Kur Tip Kha’ stresses the importance of knowing both Matrilineal (Cognates) and Patrilineal (Agnates) lines. The religion is practiced based on knowledge of these relationships. The descent system is matrilineal but knowing and understanding both lines are crucial, particularly in matters pertaining to Marriage. Graceful manners are imbibed as one follows this system of respect.
The tenets weave into and greatly inform the conduct of Khasi rites, rituals and ceremonies especially in:
Ka Jer Ka Thoh- Khasi Naming Ceremony
Ka Poikha Poiman- Khasi Marriage Ceremony
Ka Ïap Ka Duh)- Cremation and last rites of the deceased.
The Khasi identity is tightly bound to the traditional faith, and the social systems, traditional forms of governance, custodianship and kinship all sprout from its foundations. Niam Khasi-Niamtre is a spirituality, philosophy, a way of life, guided by Truth – it leads, and it stands above all. A single word of Truth is greater than all untruths put together.
“Ieng ka Hok ka Shi Kyntien khyllem ka Pop Shi Byllien” (Motto of Ka Sengbah Nongshat Nongkheiñ Hynniewskum Hynñiewtrep)
“To revive the true faith of our forefathers; to understand the true meaning of conscience and truth as handed down by them, which were being neglected, misled and blinded by the teachings of foreigners”. 3
The need to protect and preserve the ancient yet timeless wisdom and knowledge of the land led to the formation of the Seng Khasi on November 23rd, 1899 by sixteen young Khasi men, all under the age of thirty. The Khasi way of life was being uprooted and replaced at a rapid rate by the imperialists who had gained control of most of the land by the latter half of the 19th century. Initially called ‘Khasi Young Men’s Association’ it took shape as the custodians and protectors of Khasi religion and culture under the guidance and mentorship of U Jeebon Roy Mairom, a pioneer, social reformer and spiritualist, described by many as the “Father of Modern Khasis”.
The Seng Khasi movement is driven not only by the aim to protect and preserve ones roots but also to progress with them intact. The founders wished to instill a true sense of pride in the Khasis, for their unique way of life and worship. They foresaw that this would bring confidence, clarity and strength to the lives of future generations. It is said that a divine thread connects the culture, traditions and values that have developed over centuries. The sixteen understood that for the religion to survive, and for peaceful and positive growth to be achieved, then this thread must be kept intact. The strength and resilience of Seng Khasi is drawn from this belief.
The last century saw a large decline in the population of Niam Khasi-Niamtre faithful. The most significant factor contributing to this fall is the proselytisation that occurred with the advent of Christianity in these hills. It began in the mid 19th century, when the British colonists ruled India and it flourished under their aegis. It continues to be seen in present times. High rates of conversion were achieved using this method in conjunction with a control over education. Education leads to material betterment in any society and in this field there was a clear monopoly. Not only was there a monopoly, a cap was kept on the level of education given. The motive for imparting education, in the early years, was to teach the natives how to read the holy book of the colonial masters.
Efforts by Seng Khasi to establish schools of their own met several hurdles. Funding was often denied unless their curriculum conformed to the ideology of the mission schools. A circular written by the first Seng Khasi Chairman, U Rash Mohon Roy Nongrum, decrying the bias in allocation of funds even reached the hands of Mahatma Gandhi, who published the circular in his magazine ‘Harijan’ and concluded with this statement:
“If what is stated here is true, it enforces the argument often advanced by me that Christian missionary effort has been favoured by the ruling power. But I advertise the circular not for the sake of emphasising my argument. I do so in order to ventilate the grievance of the Secretary of the school. Surely he has every right to object to teaching proselytising literature prepared by the missionaries. It should be remembered that the School has been in receipt of a grant from the Government. It is not clear why the question of the missionary books has now cropped up. It is hoped that the school will not be deprived of the grant of the Secretary’s very reasonable objection ”. 4
(Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan Magazine, 9th March, 1940)
As proselytisation through education progressed swiftly, the aspirations of those who had converted began to also change quickly. Khasi beliefs were deemed backward and a harsh rejection of the traditional culture and its values set in. This seed planted in the days of divide and rule has not fully withered, but the work of Seng Khasi and its sister organisations has awakened younger generations to the beauty of their ancestral faith and its universal wisdom. Self discovery through the prism of ones own culture has magnified the uniqueness as well as revealed similarities with other cultures in the subcontinent, diminishing significantly the sense of alienation and distance from fellow countrymen.
Abandonment of the traditional faith was also caused by the de-stabilisation of the unique traditional family structure, with the arrival of external forces of change and the onset of urbanisation. In the traditional set up, the eldest uncle (U Kñi Rangbah), is the caretaker, the mediator of the family, and the youngest daughter (Ka Khatduh) is the custodian of family property. The ancestral home is a place that upholds the sanctity of the lineage. It is in this home that all important family matters are discussed and religious ceremonies performed. As families relocated, maintaining this system posed many challenges, subsequently leading to a breakdown in the completion of important rites, rituals and ceremonies. This caused a withering in spirituality and in the understanding of the deeper meanings within the teachings of the religion.
By the late 1960’s, as calls for statehood started to resound, so too did a non-secular political ideology. A Christian state was envisioned by some in the chambers of power. A political wave energised by religious fervour disregarded the sentiments of the population who still belonged to the indigenous faith of the land. Even today, it is not uncommon to find articles and letters in local newspapers projecting and claiming Meghalaya as a Christian state, while simultaneously defending the need to keep India secular and decrying anyone or anything that may suggest otherwise. The existence and growth of Seng Khasi always serves as a gentle reminder that there is a religion born of this land that carries a universal ethos and fosters co-existence. This was eloquently described by an outstanding leader of Seng Khasi, U Hipshon Roy Kharshiing: “The world of religions is a garden of flowers and each religion with all its settings blooms with all its beauty and fragrance and each adds to the beauty and glory of the whole garden. Theirs is to supplement and theirs is not to supplant”.
The last 122 years have seen active steps taken by the Seng Khasi to address these issues.
Several working bodies and committees have been formed over the years that have all helped to keep the movement and its spirit alive. Today there are over three hundred branches of Seng Khasi in the Khasi Hills. In the field of education a great milestone was achieved this year as The Seng Khasi Higher Secondary School celebrated its centenary.
The working bodies of the Seng Khasi, armed with greater spiritual understanding and organisational power, have been able to revive ancient rituals and mass movements.
Amongst the most successful and powerful of revivals is the annual pilgrimage to the sanctum sanctorum at the summit of Lum Sohpetbneng (Kiew Pyneh Rngiew), held on every first Sunday of Ferbruary. On June 18th, 1989, U H. Onderson. Mawrie, who was president of Seng Khihlang at the time, wrote a letter urging U Dipshon L. Nongbri to conduct a survey of the summit of Lum Sohpetbneng, for the purpose of holding a gathering there for the Niam Khasi Niamtre faithful. Thus began the process of securing the sacred hill. Respected Seng Khasi elder, U Sumar Sing Sawian, one of the greatest Khasi minds, through his writings, brought great clarity to the origins of the faith which are found in the legend of this sacred hill. With the combined efforts of these individuals in particular and countless other, who cant all be named here, the first pilgrimage was held on 20th February, 2000. Thousands climbed to the top of Lum Sohpetbneng on that day and now even greater numbers continue to participate, growing with each passing year. The pilgrimage has created an awakening that has strengthened the spirituality of the followers of Niam Khasi Niamtre. With Lum Sohpetbneng secure under the guardianship of Seng Khasi, the indigenous religion ‘Niam Khasi-Niamtre’ it can be safely said, will never be lost.
The Seng Khasi and its sister organisations follow a philosophy of preservation through practice. The fruits of which are showing in the growing participation in religious festivals. ‘Shad Suk Mynsiem’ (Dance of the Joyful Hearts), a spring dance festival held across the Khasi hills, is witnessing increasing numbers of participants on the grassy fields. The dance is a form of public worship where peaceful souls exhibit love for their culture and offer gratitude to the Almighty. Behdeiñkhlam and Chad Sukra, organised by Seiñ Raij (a socio-religious organisation focussed on the spirtual awakening and preservation of the traditional faith in the Jaintia Hills region) are celebrated by thousands. Indigenous festivals banned by the British and kept supressed after they departed are steadily being revived.
Beginning in the late 70’s, a mass contact programme was initiated by Seng Khasi. Dynamic and fearless leaders such as Hipshon Roy Kharshiing, H.O. Mawrie, and R.T. Rymbai, toured all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, lecturing about the ideology of Seng Khasi and the philosophy of the traditional faith. They wanted to instill a sense of pride in religious identity by awakening the people to the wisdom and beauty of the ancestral faith. In 1981, they founded Seng Khihlang (The United Endeavour Society), a branch of Seng Khasi which comprises of members of Seiñ Raij too. Two invaluable pieces of literature on Khasi religion, traditions and the history of Seng Khasi were commissioned by its Executive Committee: ‘Where Lies the Soul of our Race’ and ‘The Essence of Khasi Religion’. Another congregation aimed at inspiring and educating the future generations is Ka Lympung ki Khynnah (a gathering of Seng Khasi and Seiñ Raij youth). Ka Sengbah U Nongshat Nongkheiñ Hynñiewskum Hynñiewtrep (Grand Organisation of Diviners) was also born out of the mother organisation and their contribution in keeping the religion alive especially in the rural areas is outstanding. The social and spiritual aspects of the ancestral faith, deeply entrenched in the teachings of its forebears, have stayed relevant to each generation due to such congregations. All these branches stem from the mother, Seng Khasi Kmie, and each one strives towards the same goal, encapsulated in the slogan “Im Ka Niam, Im Ka Jaitbynriew”, which carries the message that if the religion survives, so too will the Khasi.
“The founders of the Seng Khasi, however were firm in their resolution and steadfast in their aims and objectives. So also, in their thoughts, words and deeds. They took up the leadership with an amazing unique statesmanship to establish the organisation in a humble way. They had in their simplicity, a deep concern for the future of the Khasi race – its traditional faith, its social structure, its moral ethics; its cultural heritage and highest of all ‘Human Right’ as a Khasi”. 5
Inspired and guided by the great work laid down by those who have come before, a revival grows energised by a positive philosophy directed at awakening the spiritual truth of the land. The internal strength drawn from this has brought spiritual upliftment and community progress. Niam Khasi Niamtre, will continue to bloom in a harmonious garden of flowers, growing in strength with the spirit of Mother India. Khasi spiritual knowledge is gaining recognition as a treasure of humanity and the Seng Khasi momentum set into motion on November 23rd, 1899 grows stronger into the future.

Always take heed
O ye elders, you the youths,
All around keep vigil,
The wisdom of forebears,
Remain visible like the Sun
For Truth to ever prevail;
Cling to the Roots
Blessings from Divine Creator would shower (Poem by Sumar Sing Sawian)
The article was scripted and compiled in consultation with: Sumar Sing Sawian (Author and Scholar on Khasi Culture), Paia B. Synrem (Secretary, Seng Khasi Literary Committee) and elders of Seng Khasi (Kmie).
Bibliography

  1. H.O. Mawrie: “The Essence of The Khasi Religion”. 1981 Edition.
  2. H.O. Mawrie: “The Khasi Milieu”.
    [Translation of moral commandment in “Ka Niam ki Khasi”- Sib Charan Roy Sawian.
  3. Introduction. Pg 11]
  4. Seng Khasi Series No. 2: “Where Lies the Soul of Our Race”.
    Selections from the Sneng Khasi English Supplements on Khasi Culture and Religion. 1982. Page 11.
  5. Seng Khasi Series No. 2: “Where Lies the Soul of our Race”. Selections from the Sneng Khasi English Supplements on Khasi Culture and Religion, Page 17.
  6. Sweetymon Rynjah- “The Living Patriotism: A Khasi Thought” Seng Khasi Centenary Celebration Souvenir. (1899-1999). Page 126.
Hammarsing L Kharhmar, President of ‘Ka Tbian Ki Sur Hara’, a Performing Arts School of Seng Khasi (Kmie)

Ramakrishna as Example, Guide and Presence

I am a Western secular adherent or aspirant, and my talk was based on reading the many accounts of Ramakrishna. In addition, I want to comment on the presence of Ramakrishna which is part of my meditative practice and everyday life. We have many written accounts but we each only have our own everyday experience.
I find that the written and the everyday experiences penetrate each other. Without the written, the everyday loses its context, substance and logic. But without the everyday, the written is more abstract and less meaningful. Both are necessary. I suggest that one can’t meditate using the process of the Ramakrishna tradition without being exposed to his life in whatever detail makes the most sense to the aspirant.
For the non-Hindu Westerner, however, there are two aspects of his life that are puzzling: his devotion to Kali, and his status as an avatar. His devotion to Kali is the source of his understanding of himself and of his realisation of himself as God in a man’s body. His devotion explains many if not all of his actions and the basis of his discrimination. Was this devotion necessary for him? Scholars may debate this. I can say that I had a powerful very brief moment at Dakshineswar walking by statue, which had a resonance unlike other holy objects at the compound. As for his status as an avatar, I believe this is specific to Indian tradition and foreign to Westerners, and perhaps to those in some other countries with meditative traditions. For example, Tibetans (and Buddhists in general) have a belief in incarnation but not in god in man in a repeated way. One could say that the role of an avatar is to induce devotion and help mankind become more spiritual. Christianity thinks of Jesus in this way but would not use the word avatar to characterize him. These two aspects of Ramakrishna are therefore somewhat alien and perhaps outside the core of his meaning for Western aspirants.
For me Ramakrishna has three roles: an example, a guide, and a presence. Let me discuss these in turn.
I will start with Ramakrishna as an example. To illustrate this, we can use four of his well-known characteristics, his austerity, his rejection of false reasons for devotion, his openness to all paths to God and his personal renunciation.
As for austerity, there are many stories. He spent six months in thrall being fed by an itinerant monk, who struggled to relax him enough to stuff some food in his mouth by force. Ramakrishna experienced long periods of nirvikalpa samadhi. And he went through a range of rituals over twelve years (Tantric, Vedantic, Vaishnaic and Islamic) leading to extraordinary experiences.
He also rejected false reasons for devotion. First, he had a visceral opposition to anyone who came to him seeking siddhis and used them as a test. In a well-known story about Narendra, Ramakrishna asked whether he was interested in powers or God and was pleased to hear that Narendra was focused on God only, a good and right answer. Finally, Ramakrishna was averse to anyone trying to fulfill a wish through him. He could feel the wish in any gift he was offered and rejected it.
Regarding his catholic attitude towards the path to God realization, he was markedly inclusive. His path included the realisation of God through Kali, the practice of rituals in a wide variety of spiritual traditions. He experienced Jesus and Buddha and sensed the location of Chaitanya’s temple under water. My guess is that if something else had come up, he would probably have tried that too.
Last, he strengthened his personal character through renunciation. He was able to attach his mind to whatever was apparent to him at a particular moment. He therefore focused on his own personal achievement as an individual.
Next, Ramakrishna is a guide. He was devoted to anyone who was devoted and provided direction for future aspirants.
As for his openness to different degrees of devotion, there are three examples ranging from the most disorganized to the most organized individual. The most disorganized was Girish Chandra Ghosh, an actor in Calcutta who came to see Ramakrishna wanting to build a spiritual practice.
Girish asked Ramakrishna: what should I do? Ramakrishna told him to just keep doing what he was doing and think of God in the morning and at night. Girish said – I can’t do that, my schedule doesn’t allow me to have a morning and a night practice. So Ramakrishna said okay, how about thinking about God when you eat and when you go to bed; and Girish said, I’m sorry I can’t do that, I eat at different times and I sleep at different times, so it’s too confusing for me. Ramakrishna then said just give me your power of attorney, basically meaning that he himself would be the way. And that worked. Girish said alright – you’ll just take over my life.
Then, moving up in terms of an organized life there is the example of Hriday, his cousin and factotum. Hriday was not known to be a spiritual person but the more time he spent with Ramakrishna, the more interested he became in ecstasy. Ramakrishna put him off repeatedly, saying – serving me is all you need. But Hriday was persistent, and one night Ramakrishna went out to meditate and Hriday followed him. Hriday looked at Ramakrishna and saw that he was luminous. He then looked at his own body and saw that it too was luminous. This caused him to panic and he started yelling. Ramakrishna became upset with him because Hriday might wake everybody. In one telling of this story, Ramakrishna rubbed Hriday’s chest to calm him down, reducing the pain of the ecstasy he was feeling.
Finally, an example of the most organized spiritual aspirant is Gopal Ma, an elderly woman who lived in Kamarhati near Calcutta and worshipped Gopala – Krishna as a child. Gopal Ma had become attached to Ramakrishna and one night had a vision of him. The next day Gopala appeared at her house, and for two months she played with him in delight. The young god had been manifested by Ramakrishna. After their sojourn together, Gopal Ma and Gopala went to visit Ramakrishna and she saw Gopala enter into Ramakrishna’s body and come back out. Gopala then vanished, and Ramakrishna told Gopal Ma that her sadhana had been completed. She didn’t need to repeat japa any more and so on. She was upset about that but he was quite clear.
Thus, there is the spectrum from Ghosh through Hriday to Gopal Ma in terms of daily discipline and God focus. Ramakrishna was there for each one of them in a different way. I think that is important because when you think of him as a guide you need to understand that he is there for you in the same way, no matter what your life may be at a particular moment.
Also associated with Ramakrishna as a guide are two lists of directions – in a sense – for life and meditation – the eight tethers and the five moods. The eight tethers – to be conquered – have been listed in several ways, but a composite includes: shame, hatred, fear, pride, good conduct, ego, fame, hesitation, secretiveness, and grief. When you read the list, you see that it comprises what you face in meditation. The five moods are part of the Vaishnava tradition: peace, parenting, the role of a lover, friendship, and being a servant. These moods are obviously not be conquered but describe the emotional tenor of the mind, singly or in combination, when you are meditating at any particular moment.
In contrast to Ramakrishna as an example or a guide, his role as a presence is perhaps more straightforward since it involves current personal experience. In an interesting way, he is a constant in a calm, attractive way that induces trust and acceptance in meditation. He can also be present exterior to meditation, an awareness that is however inextricably linked to meditation itself. For me the meditation creates the presence that can be called upon in daily non-meditative life, but his presence can also be involuntary.
Ramakrishna talked about his bite as like a cobra, not a non-poisonous snake. I think that is a good metaphor for his insertion into a particular life. It’s not something you can get better from. You are either bitten or you are not. There is no half-way.
Finally, I would like to present some valuable instruction that exists on a panel outside Ramakrishna’s room at Dakshineswar, which you have likely also seen. The panel is called Om Tat Sat – the absolute truth. I don’t know who wrote this panel, but probably not Ramakrishna, although he conceivably inspired it. The panel contains a list of principles in threes. I will present them in order:
In human life we should not have: embarrassment, pride and fear; worth pride: compassion for living beings, respect for elders, love for God; worth respect: love for justice, humility, equanimity; worth praise: helpful to others, good behavior, good company; worth happiness: beauty, simplicity, freedom; worth love: knowledge, wisdom, dispassion;
worth disgust: saying ill of others, backstabbing behavior, ingratitude; temporary: wealth, life, youth; things that will certainly happen: disease, loss, death; deliver us from: lust, anger, greed; things we should give: kind words, forgiveness, good treatment to others; worth defending: truth, friendship, self control; worth removing: sloth, overactivity, decadence; worth suspicion: sycophancy, deception, untested friendship; worth wishing for: health, positive disposition, good character; worth interacting and living with: a saint, good books, good thoughts; scarce things: humanity, desire for higher goals, and the blessings of great men; worth praying for: respect for god, love, peace.

Prof Gordon Walker, is Bobby B. Lyle Professor of Entrepreneurship and Chair of the Strategy and Entrepreneurship Group at the Cox School of Business at SMU. His executive training programs include senior management seminars at SMU, the Wharton School, Yale University and INSEAD. He has been listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World. He was named among the best Business Policy teachers in the U.S. in 1994 and 1998 by Business Week magazine and received the President’s University Teaching Award in 1999 at SMU. He is closely associated with the Vedanta Society, Providence.

To Be Or Not To Be

Eternity by Shubhojit

Ironically the song “Be yourself”, is sung by a group called “Audioslave”. The track released in 2005, has great emotional appeal and was loved by many, including both my children; the elder one singing it very well and with great passion. Its repeated exhortation is “be yourself, is all that you can do” even though one maybe “separate or united, healthy or insane” and even if one “may win or lose”. It is an assertation of individuality. Modernity places great value on individuality and freedom of choice. But established societies value conformity, often going out of their way to stamp out individuality, frequently seeing it as something akin to a rebellion.
It would be worthwhile to point out that the path of individuality came to be better defined, since the European Age of Reason or Enlightenment (1685 to 1815). Its main tenet called rationalism, emphasized the idea that we should use reason to acquire knowledge, as opposed to the old thought that the scriptures and the Church, were the only fountainheads of facts. It is in this era that philosophy and science (together with its close cousin: technology), replaced religion or the “word of God” from its pivotal position in society. “God is dead. God remains dead. We have killed him, ” wrote Fredrich Nietzsche a few decades later. It would not be unfair to say that it was this shift of emphasis on reason as opposed to that on belief, that heralded the Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840 according to Arnold Toynbee) as also the American Revolution (1765-83) and the French Revolution (1789-90). This shift is best symbolised in the statement of Rene Descartes who said ‘I think, therefore I am.”
The political and lifestyle changes brought about by this movement were many: including the emergence of the nuclear family, the rise of large factories and cities, the emphasis on individuals’ political rights and liberty, the increased mobility of people due to mechanized transport and the spread of diverse ideas aided by the invention of the printing press. But in short what this did was, to place the individual at the forefront of society, freeing him from the ages-old subservience to feudal structures, monarchy and church. Man, now became not just the master of his fate, but also the captain of his soul: free to decide on his career, on where to live, openly voice his world view, reason about religion and even elect a government of his choice.
Individualism got a major boost from this period onwards and a number of great discoveries and inventions are the result of individual effort and creativity. Ayn Rand is quoted to have said: “Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.” But if you notice all the invention she mentions, happened in and around this period.
Individuality though bestowing upon man (or a woman), great freedom and creativity, nevertheless places inordinate responsibility on the person. It is certainly not easy being an individual. More than a century ago the poet A E Housman wrote a poem, “The Laws of God and the Laws of Man” affirming the same message, in the words “let God and man decree Laws for themselves and not for me; And if my ways are not as theirs Let them mind their own affairs.” But even he confessed to being “a stranger and afraid. In a world I never made”. Being the master of your fate is a lonely business, considering the fact that every choice has to be made by oneself. One is also left to face the music alone, if one chooses unwisely. In a fast-changing world that we live in today, it is not easy to make decisions and always make the right ones. And with globalization offering a mind-boggling array of careers, services, options and goods, choosing itself takes a lot of our energy and time.
For the common man, individuality largely means a freedom of choice. But is choice always such a good thing, and is choice necessarily good for individuals, in all societies? One would be inclined to say yes. But Professor Sheena Iyengar who did a comprehensive study on how choice affects outcome, points out that this is not the case. She says, “Americans tend to believe that they have reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions, that don’t always hold true, in many countries and many cultures. At times they don’t even hold true at America’s borders.” Her study found that “the assumption that we do best when the individual self chooses, only holds true when that self is clearly divided from others” such as the American populace is. But when it came to first generation Asian Americans her study brought forth a surprise. It demonstrated that in closely knit Asian communities where “two or more individuals see their choices and outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationship.” Yet, as she points out, “that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgement of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People who have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.” In other words, assuming that mere individuality is responsible for success universally is a mistake.
Sadly, individuality also carries with it a heavy psychological cost. Ernest Hemingway once said, “happiness in educated people is the rarest thing I know” Education and individuality are closely connected. It is the educated person who is the most discerning and judgmental as far as relationships are concerned. It is thus quite common for the educated westerner to be unhappy in most relationship and continually seek newer ones. The high divorce rates in the West are proof of that. Individuality in a way, cuts us off from other people, making us often feel lonely and depressed. In more advanced nations, where individuality is worshipped, loneliness and depression are rampant. According to a 2017 report by Jo Cox commission on loneliness, Britain suffers a serious problem with loneliness, with more than nine million people often or always feeling lonely. The very next year the country saw the appointment of a minister for loneliness. In February this year, Japan too appointed a minister of loneliness, in a bid to tackle the rising rate of suicides. According to Word Health Organization’s earlier estimates depression was to have become the second biggest disease in the world, by last year itself.
In India we are still torn between tradition and individuality. This struggle happens in many parts of the world but is somewhat more obvious if one happens to live in India and especially in the Northern and North Eastern part. The conflict appears to be between development and retaining one’s cultural identity. People on one hand desire the latest lifestyle changing goodies that capitalistic society brings to their door but at the same time are not comfortable stepping outside the threshold of tradition. The struggle appears in my forms. It can be seen as a struggle between individualism and tribalism, or between egalitarianism and capitalistic hierarchy, between modernity and conformity, and between social stability and progress. It is a conflict which is quite visibly tearing societies apart but what is often missed is the psychological conflict that lies at the heart of most human beings. It is apparent in a young tribal woman who wears skin tight jeans, has her hair dyed blond and yet is part of the agitation demanding steps to preserve their ancient culture. It was equally mystifying to see, during the ongoing farmers agitation, one of my countrymen driving a BMW SUV to the protest site and joining protestors, demanding that the old socialist MSP system be not just retained but reinforced. On another level it is also quite apparent in the city bred tourist looking to destress by spending his holidays in a completely rural setting. To borrow Randy Newman’s words, “it a jungle out there” with ideas and counter ideas co existing in conflict.
If this article leaves you confused about the benefits and dangers of being individualistic, I am truly sorry. As with most problems in life there are no easy answers to this dilemma. I think the only practical solution emerges through experience as we walk with awareness on this confusing road to individuality. And as with everything we do it is important that we retain our balance and resist the temptation to be overly swayed by either side.
To begin with we could start our journey by listening to Rudyard Kipling who said: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
And perhaps end in agreement with Swami Vivekananda who said:
“Some people are so afraid of losing their individuality. Wouldn’t it be better for the pig to lose his pig-individuality if he can become God? Yes. But the poor pig does not think so at the time. Which state is my individuality? When I was a baby sprawling on the floor trying to swallow my thumb? Was that the individuality I should be sorry to lose? Fifty years hence I shall look upon this present state and laugh, just as I now look upon the baby state. Which of these individualities shall I keep?”
I began this piece by referring to a popular sad song and would like to end it on a happier note with a bit of a laugh. So here it goes:
Descartes went to McDonalds to buy a Big Mac. The cashier asked if he wanted fries with it. He replied “I think not.” And poof, he disappeared.

Individuality though bestowing upon man (or a woman), great freedom and creativity, nevertheless places inordinate responsibility on the person. It is certainly not easy being an individual. More than a century ago the poet AE Housman wrote a poem, “The Laws of God and the Laws of Man “affirming the same message, in the words “let God and man decree Laws for themselves and not for me; And if my ways are not as theirs Let them mind their own affairs.” But even he confessed to being “a stranger and afraid. In a world I never made”. Being the master of your fate is a lonely business, considering the fact that every choice has to be made by oneself. One is also left to face the music alone, if one chooses unwisely. In a fast-changing world that we live in today, it is not easy to make decisions and always make the right ones. And with globalization offering a mind-boggling array of careers, services, options and goods, choosing itself takes a lot of our energy and time.
For the common man, individuality largely means a freedom of choice. But is choice always such a good thing, and is choice necessarily good for individuals, in all societies? One would be inclined to say yes. But Professor Sheena Iyengar who did a comprehensive study on how choice affects outcome, points out that this is not the case. She says, “Americans tend to believe that they have reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions, that don’t always hold true, in many countries and many cultures. At times they don’t even hold true at America’s borders.” Her study found that “the assumption that we do best when the individual self chooses, only holds true when that self is clearly divided from others” such as the American populace is. But when it came to first generation Asian Americans her study brought forth a surprise. It demonstrated that in closely knit Asian communities where “two or more individuals see their choices and outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationship.” Yet, as she points out, “that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgement of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People who have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.” In other words, assuming that mere individuality is responsible for success universally is a mistake.
Sadly, individuality also carries with it a heavy psychological cost. Ernest Hemingway once said, “happiness in educated people is the rarest thing I know” Education and individuality are closely connected. It is the educated person who is the most discerning and judgmental as far as relationships are concerned. It is thus quite common for the educated westerner to be unhappy in most relationship and continually seek newer ones. The high divorce rates in the West are proof of that. Individuality in a way, cuts us off from other people, making us often feel lonely and depressed. In more advanced nations, where individuality is worshipped, loneliness and depression are rampant. According to a 2017 report by Jo Cox commission on loneliness, Britain suffers a serious problem with loneliness, with more than nine million people often or always feeling lonely. The very next year the country saw the appointment of a minister for loneliness. In February this year, Japan too appointed a minister of loneliness, in a bid to tackle the rising rate of suicides. According to Word Health Organization’s earlier estimates depression was to have become the second biggest disease in the world, by last year itself.
In India we are still torn between tradition and individuality. This struggle happens in many parts of the world but is somewhat more obvious if one happens to live in India and especially in the Northern and North Eastern part. The conflict appears to be between development and retaining one’s cultural identity. People on one hand desire the latest lifestyle changing goodies that capitalistic society brings to their door but at the same time are not comfortable stepping outside the threshold of tradition. The struggle appears in my forms. It can be seen as a struggle between individualism and tribalism, or between egalitarianism and capitalistic hierarchy, between modernity and conformity, and between social stability and progress. It is a conflict which is quite visibly tearing societies apart but what is often missed is the psychological conflict that lies at the heart of most human beings. It is apparent in a young tribal woman who wears skin tight jeans, has her hair dyed blond and yet is part of the agitation demanding steps to preserve their ancient culture. It was equally mystifying to see, during the ongoing farmers agitation, one of my countrymen driving a BMW SUV to the protest site and joining protestors, demanding that the old socialist MSP system be not just retained but reinforced. On another level it is also quite apparent in the city bred tourist looking to destress by spending his holidays in a completely rural setting. To borrow Randy Newman’s words, “it a jungle out there” with ideas and counter ideas co existing in conflict.
If this article leaves you confused about the benefits and dangers of being individualistic, I am truly sorry. As with most problems in life there are no easy answers to this dilemma. I think the only practical solution emerges through experience as we walk with awareness on this confusing road to individuality. And as with everything we do it is important that we retain our balance and resist the temptation to be overly swayed by either side.
To begin with we could start our journey by listening to Rudyard Kipling who said: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
And perhaps end in agreement with Swami Vivekananda who said:
“Some people are so afraid of losing their individuality. Wouldn’t it be better for the pig to lose his pig-individuality if he can become God? Yes. But the poor pig does not think so at the time. Which state is my individuality? When I was a baby sprawling on the floor trying to swallow my thumb? Was that the individuality I should be sorry to lose? Fifty years hence I shall look upon this present state and laugh, just as I now look upon the baby state. Which of these individualities shall I keep?”
I began this piece by referring to a popular if sad song and would like to end it on a happier note with a bit of a laugh. So here goes:
Descartes went to McDonalds to buy a Big Mac. The cashier asked if he wanted fries with it. He replied “I think not.” And poof, he disappeared.

Paramjit Bakhshi has worn many hats. Starting out at the National Defence Academy, Pune which he had to leave, after two years training on account of an illness, he has been a tea planter, a consultant, an entrepreneur. He also writes poems, columns and short stories.

The Goddess who came to live with Mankind Illustrations:

On a certain day, when the lads came as usual to the familiar rendezvous, they were surprised to see, sitting on the top of the rock, a fair young girl watching them silently and wistfully. The children, being superstitious, took fright at sight of her and ran in terror to Mylliem, their village, leaving the cattle to shift for themselves. When they told their news, the whole village was roused and men quickly gathered to the public meeting-place to hold a consultation. They decided to go and see for themselves if the apparition seen by the children was a real live child, or if they had been deluded by some spell or enchantment. Under the guidance of the lads, they hurried to the place on the hill where the rock stood, and there, as the boys had stated, sat a fair and beautiful child.

The clothes worn by the little girl were far richer than any worn by their own women-folk, so they judged that she belonged to some rich family, and she was altogether so lovely that the men gazed open-mouthed at her, dazzled by her beauty. Their sense of chivalry soon asserted itself, however, and they began to devise plans to rescue the maiden from her perilous position. To climb up the face of that steep rock was an impossible feat; so they called to her, but she would not answer; they made signs for her to descend, but she did not stir, and the men felt baffled and perplexed.

Chief among the rescuers was a man called U Mylliem Ngap, who was remarkable for his sagacity and courage. When he saw that the child refused to be coaxed, he attributed it to her fear to venture unaided down that steep and slippery rock. So he sent some of his comrades to the jungle to cut down some bamboos, which he joined together and made into a pole long enough to reach the top of the rock. Then he beckoned to the child to take hold of it, but she sat on unmoved.

By this time the day was beginning to wane, yet the child did not stir and the rescuers were growing desperate. To leave her to her fate on that impregnable rock would be little less than cold-blooded murder, for nothing but death awaited her. They began to lament loudly, as people lament when mourning for their dead, but the child sat on in the same indifferent attitude

Just then U Mylliem Ngap noticed a tuft of wild flowers growing near the cave, and he quickly gathered a bunch and fastened it to the end of the long pole and held it up to the maiden’s view. The moment she saw the flowers, she gave a cry of delight and held out her hand to take them. U Mylliem Ngap promptly lowered the pole and the child moved towards it, but before she could grasp the flowers the pole was again lowered; so, little by little, step by step, as the men watched with bated breath, the little maid reached the ground in safety.

U Mylliem Ngap, with general consent, constituted himself her champion. He called her “Pah Syntiew”, which means “Lured by Flowers”, for her name and her origin were unknown. He took her to his own home and adopted her as his own daughter, cherishing her with fondness and affection, which the child fully requited.

Bhogtoram Mawroh is a freelance Cartoonist and Artist. He works as Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society.