1. Maha Kumbh Mela.
If you are a spiritual seeker, India is a very special place and very enticing in its spiritual allurements. But recent news from India has not been very good lately. India, like a lot of large countries, is not immune from some very serious problems, both ancient and modern. But there is also lately some inspiring news from India. Every few years there is this gathering of India’s holy men and ascetics and gurus. This takes place in northern India every 3 years, and every 12 years there is this major gathering in Allahabad by the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. HuffPo has some marvelous photos from this year’s gathering, which is supposedly the “world’s largest religious festival.”
Ash-smeared, naked sadhus make quite a scene. The images are not all edifying! But there is no denying the religious and spiritual intensity of these people and this gathering. No doubt the fakes and charlatans are there; no doubt the “weird” is also there. And there is much that is simply bewildering…like the use of cell phones and internet by people who have “renounced everything”. And one wonders about the emerging and growing middle class in India, which supports these sadhus with donations. How much of this is simply a kind of cultural reflex which will not endure under the increasing onslaught of modernity? How much of this is motivated by a need to keep “spiritual appearances” while pursuing the benefits of greed—India spends more money and uses more gold for jewelry than any other country in the world. You want to have the sadhus around to make it all seem very spiritual while the rest of society goes quite a different direction. This also took place in many Catholic settings with Catholic monks serving that role.
But then there is that silent sadhu who slips out of his forest dwelling or his Himalayan cave, in silence, without any self-promotion, partakes of the festival, then silently slips back to his abode. India has many such as these—the real ones, the silent sacraments of the Real. Of course we have our own large “religious gathering”—it’s called the Super Bowl, the sacrament of the unreal!
2. Two new books of some interest. One is a new history of the Vietnam War: “Kill Anything That Moves.” It lifts the fog of war and reveals how really, really bad we were—literally millions of civilians were killed. My Lai was not an aberration but a regular occurrence. This is a thoroughly researched work that does not allow the military to hide what happened.
On quite another note, there is a new book out by the Catholic historian, Garry Wills: “Why Priests?” It is so new that I haven’t seen it yet, but reading about it is intriguing. It presents a rather radical position—that the priesthood in the Catholic tradition is a totally “made-up” reality, fabricated by early church people who were more interested in power maintenance. Wills tries to show that there is no continuity between the modern priest and the apostolic church. It is purely a function of power, clerical power held very tightly. To someone who has grown up and has been educated within the Catholic tradition, this sure does sound radical and truly unbelievable. If someone else were saying this, I could easily dismiss this line of thought. But Garry Wills is a true and good historian and a longstanding Catholic. So it is not so easy to dismiss what he says. Just reading what has come out about this book makes one want to see more of his argument. It may have a revolutionary effect!!
3. Has anyone seen the story from Russia about a family of Old Believers who hid out in the Siberian wilderness for almost 50 years—they never even knew about World War II, they were so isolated? They were Old Believers, a sect of the Russian Orthodox, who thought that even the main Orthodox church had compromised with modernity. These people did not approve of any accomodation with Stalin, and so they headed off for the Siberian wilderness. It is so vast that it’s not hard to get lost there. Anyway, they lived there in isolation, like some radical hermits, totally cut off from the modern world. Until some Russian geologists surveying their area stumbled on them.
4. For a bit of diversion I have been reading about mountain climbers—especially in the Himalayas—and rock climbers. Fascinating folk. The kind of focus and determination required to do one of these world-class climbs is something that is badly needed in any spiritual journey. As Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to summit Everest, put it: “One does not conquer the mountain; one conquers one’s self.” What’s really inside you, what you are truly made of, all that becomes apparent as you hang on a ledge thousands of feet up!!
5. And finally there is this charming story of an urban hermit, actually a homeless person who turned his homelessness into something positive.