Musings From the Banks of the Ganga: Cultural Appropriation
Rishikesh is an ancient town nestled between an untouched and wild northern Indian jungle and the holy Ganga river. Saints, sages, and seers have been coming here for literally millennia to meditate and seek enlightenment. Holy and serene, it is a special place of peace and tranquility.
Tens of thousands of Indians come each month on pilgrimage from tiny villages all over the country to see the temples, to bathe in Ganga and to feel the touch of god on their lives. Poor beyond our ability to understand poor, it takes days, a week or often more for them to get here in massively crowded un-air-conditioned buses. They will sleep on the ground, carrying all their belongings in a small bag on their head and eat meals that barely would count as a snack for us. Smiling throughout.
They wear their finest clothes, what my grandmother would have called their Sunday best. Beautiful saris of every color under the sun. Bright and brilliant, they shine and sparkle as they walk together thru the streets. Shoeless, but adorned with every piece of jewelry they own. Penniless but beautiful; simple but so full of dignity. It is a pilgrimage, in Sanskrit it is called Yatra.
In Rishikesh, perhaps for the first time, they meet people from other lands, from America and Europe. People who are perhaps coming for similar reasons, seeking to touch the face of the infinite and experience for themselves the sublime that is holy India. These foreigners come to learn, they say, to study yoga and meditation and to open themselves to new wisdom.
But these visitors come without showing the respect and honor of their fellow pilgrims. Far from their best clothes, they wear their worst. Ignorant of or ignoring the customs here, they wear shorts, tank tops, or yoga pants that leave little of their anatomy to the imagination.
"This is what I like to wear, and why not," they say. "It's not about what I wear but what I am or can become that matters," they proudly proclaim as they assert their own unique importance, and attempt to take control of their journey.
What they have completely missed is that this quest must begin with surrender. A true seeker begins by leaving themselves and their ego behind and accepting the direction of an older and wiser tradition. It is no longer about "you", it is about everything else.
Those who come dressed in western "yoga clothes" or hippie attire (and I love it also) will never find a true teacher here. The teachers they find, and many will present themselves, will be more interested in their bodies and money than their spirits. Clothed in their own ego, they will never be welcomed into the quiet company and wisdom of the true guru, the one who can lead you from darkness to light.
But those who do come with respect and humility, adopting local clothes and manners, will be welcomed by all. Here merging with the culture is not viewed as mockery or "play acting", but as a sign of a respectful nature and a gentle heart. With their journey begin this way their real teacher will find them and the true joinery begin.
The ancient saying "when in Rome..." is nowhere more true than here. Come, surrender, and let the universe guide you.
David Anderson is a traveler who has visited over 60 countries and lived in Hong Kong, Nepal, Indonesia, Fiji and lots of other places. It was while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji many years ago, that he met and married his wife, Soni. For almost 20 years he was a CIO/CTO in multiple companies.
He came to yoga in 2000 and it has grown to become the dominant theme in his life. He is now the CIO-Yogi, combining the principles of yoga with technology management as he teaches and consults around the country. Together, with Soni, they go to India twice a year, taking small groups to study and enjoy amazing India.
David has taught more than 3,000 classes here and around the world; and is also registered with the Yoga Alliance.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons