I haven’t posted in over a month. I was in India and London and I found or made little time for being on-line, except to share pictures with family here in the USA via FaceBook. I’m glad for it. I hadn’t been to India in ten years and it was a time to re-connect with family. Despite language barriers with some members – I don’t speak our mother tongue – I left India feeling that stronger bonds had been forged even with relatives with whom I could not do much more than smile, hold hands and shed tears over the language gap that fell between us. I was in India to celebrate the wedding of a cousin’s son. I was also there mourning loss from connections not formed and lives not led because I had grown up assimilated into USA Anglo culture.
I wrote about this last year in I am angry – acknowledging the price of assimilation.
This trip to India, I was fascinated by how I started weaving new narratives around my assimilation experience.
One new narrative emerged around religion, culture and ritual. I come from a very religious family. In some ways, it is extraordinary that all three of us (my brother, sister and I) grew up as assimilated as we did given in particular how steeped both sides of our family are in scripture and ritual. My father, for example, is incredibly well versed in the traditions of our family practice of what is now called Hinduism (but is more accurately called Sanatana Dharma).
Until recently, I have tended to focus on the loss that goes with not being rooted in our religion and culture. Sure, we had pujas – religious ceremonies – in our house, but we-the-children didn’t inherit or claim the practices as our own.
My cousin’s son’s wedding included endless rituals. My uncle explained many of them to me. Early on, we were in the groom’s family room at the wedding hall and my uncle mentioned how one icon represented our ancestors. You see, he told me, we call them in to be here with us for guidance and blessing and at the end we will ask them to leave. He said this after he explained to me the ways in which we also were calling in the elements (ether, air, water, fire and earth) and the planetary forces into the wedding ceremony.
When I heard all this I wanted to laugh out loud. At once, I saw so clearly the absurdity and the profound universality of a journey I had been taking to find just these sorts of rituals and relationships. That is to say, little brown skinned me with roots in one of the oldest cultures in the planet had become a new age, hippy-ish wanderer grasping on to the traditions of indigenous cultures in what we now call the Americas. At one point, I said to my cousins that it was extraordinary to be watching my family members perform rituals that go back thousands of years. My cousin’s son – age 28 – corrected me with ‘hundreds of thousands of years.’
Ancient spiritual ties that I was searching for were right under my nose all along.
Yet, I didn’t tune into them. As I look back, I see that I often came very close. I had the calling, but the not the courage – the word that comes to mind – to follow hunches that wanted to nudge me, for example, to live in India for a year to learn the language and culture of my family (I ended up doing a meagre 2 months when I was thirty). The ‘almost-but-not-quite’ efforts to root myself in my Indian and Vedic heritage is fodder for another post, perhaps. One of my main points here is that at the same time I mourned the loss of my roots, I smirked at how – like many White people – I became a searcher, grasping at the traditions of others to fill the void.
The point doesn’t end there, though. Underneath the smirk, lay satisfaction. Talking with one cousin, I found myself stepping into a narrative that tells a story of how I – uprooted and lost – eventually rooted myself through a mish-mash of experiences in different traditions and working with multiple communities of people. Hats off in particular to the School of Movement Medicine, which I used to describe affectionately as hosting a practice where “White people go tribal” (I know, I know, White people have their own tribes…yet, people knew what I meant when I said this and when I say ‘White’ I was including my coconut self). Through my work with the School and other practices, I brought to consciousness inside me a connection with our ancestors, our elements and our spirit.
Maybe that’s the overarching point of all this, of my journey to date: different tribes have their rituals and their inheritances which seem unique to them, but all of it distills down to commonality. Our ancestors, elements and spirit – we share these. No me, no my or mine.
We need these connections. I’ll be truthful, I’m a bit envious of the roots people in my family have, especially the younger generations who are doing a wondrous job of fusing the ancient with the modern. Ritual brings connection and comfort. Getting up in the morning and starting one’s day by going to the prayer room or the altar in the corner of the kitchen and connecting with all that was and all that is can be a beautiful, nourishing experience.
As far as I can tell, this is precisely what many new age seekers are doing – drawing upon anything and everything to create comforting rituals that have interconnectedness at their heart. Coming from an ancient tradition that is often a source to which new age seekers are drawn, I used to scoff at such seekers. However, of course, I’m guilty of what I charge.
I stay in a room in a house in New Mexico where I’ve created a sacred altar. Sometimes I feel sad when I look at it – I recall my parents’ altar – one that has deep roots but no longer feels like part of my inheritance. I wouldn’t know how to worship at it. My altar is a hodge-podge: crystals, shells and objects acquired through invented new age ceremony and objects rooted in ancient traditions.
At the same time as feeling the sadness, I take joy in this altar and in other practices I’ve created for myself through my connections with others and with a variety of traditions. These practices are enabling me to be connected to ancestors, elements and spirit. They provide me with comfort. They might not be as powerful energetically as ancient vedic rituals performed according to custom, but they do have power.
One cousin went so far as to suggest that I am indeed very powerful these days, having created connection to ancestors, elements and spirit within my self and not being reliant on externalities and specific inherited rituals.
I don’t feel comfortable assessing how powerful I am or not, but I do know that my sanity is currently tied to my newly found capacity to root my creativity and power in ancestral ties, the elements and spirit, as well as in love and justice. This rooting has allowed me to overturn an oppressive regime of being led by fear, loathing and punishment.
I see people not of Vedic-India ancestry grabbing bits and pieces of the science, philosophy and ritual out of context. I sometimes want to be critical of them, because what they are doing does seem out of context and I often assume it (rightly or wrongly) to be ignorant. For example, rooms of people chanting mantras without understanding the true meaning of the words, with much mispronunciation and without understanding their history and origins.
At the same time, I am aware that because of my upbringing I end up relating to it all in much the same way as the ‘foreigners’. Now, after this trip to India, I am starting to think that what really matters is the end result – whatever the origin of spirit-rituals I may use, do my practices result in my being inspired, feeling grounded and using creativity and power to step up against injustice and co-create beloved community?
As my twenty-eight year old, newly married cousin pointed out to me during one of our late night chats about our family: “You say that you lost our ways, but it seems to me that you are deep in them – you’ve just arrived at it from a different path.” Well, this isn’t a verbatim quote, but it is the gist of what he observed and what I, too, had come to see while I was in India.
What once was a story solely of loss and longing is now also a story of wholeness and connection. Hallelujah for that!
Picture from my cousin’s son’s wedding, of the groom’s family room at the wedding hall (Feb 2015, Bangalore India)