Monday, July 31, 2006

“let us read” - on commentary

Very often as we read, my teacher, Prabhakara Shastry (aka Shastry Garu) will take the opportunity to expand on a point he considers important. This discussion may take just a moment, or may equally well take up much of our reading session. But once Shastry Garu has said what he wants to say, he usually pauses for a moment thinking, and then says, “Let us read.” Then we resume our reading of the text. For this reason, from time to time I will be posting bits of those comments under the heading, “let us read.”

We are each reading a different edition of the same text (the Sanskrit Vinayavastu), and today we come across a passage where the editor of one edition has placed a dan.d.a (a kind of period used to punctuate Sanskrit texts) in a certain spot, while the other has not. Shastry Garu observes, “This dan.d.a is a commentary. Putting a dan.d.a is making a commentary. Whoever has edited the book has commented on it. If you copy all the words of a book by hand, thinking you have not changed a thing, that is also a commentary. Any book that comes to you in any way, you are commenting on. Even just carrying a book from place to place is a commentary. Some books you may wrap carefully in cloth and carry like that. Others you just grab and go. When you carry it carefully, you are commenting that this is a very important text, the other is not. You cannot touch a book without commenting on it… Let us read.”

life in a ‘ladies hostel’ - hazing, indian style

In India nowadays, a form of hazing called ‘ragging’ is an integral part of college life for all incoming students, not just those seeking to join a fraternity or sorority. All upperclassman have the right to rag on all freshmen in their schools. Some of the senior girls in the hostel I stay in have decided to ‘rag’ some of the incoming freshmen, and for days I am privy to all their planning and plotting. One night, as I walk past the dining area, I see that the ragging is in session.

Ragging, as it turns out, is not merely a way to wield one’s power over those socially weaker (though of course it may be that too), but in fact involves both ragger and ragged in a set of social commitments that will last throughout their college careers. Once the junior has successively passed through the ragging, the senior will tell them that they can come to them with questions or problems while they are at college, and if any other senior students attempt to rag the junior, the seniors have an obligation to head them off. In essence, the younger must demonstrate their willingness to show respect and humility towards their elders, and the elders must protect and take care of them as they are able. Ragging continues until both sides accept these roles in relation to each other.

Seniority is based here not on social, economic or caste position, but simply on one’s year in college. At least in theory. Once a senior is satisfied that the junior has accepted the terms of the relationship as they see fit, a kind of friendship may begin to take shape.

In the hostel I am living in, the upperclassmen have chosen to rag the freshmen in the hostel because one of them have behaved in a way that seemed arrogant towards the seniors. How did this arrogance manifest? Mainly in giving flip answers to polite questions, as far as I could tell.

This ragging continues from the first day of classes until a ceremony called ‘Freshers,’ in which the upperclassmen stage a night of entertainment for the freshman, usually a few months into the first year. After ‘Freshers,’ all ragging stops. It may stop earlier, if the seniors are satisfied that the junior students are appropriately respectful towards their elders. My friend Sharada explains to me that once the freshman have satisfied them with their handling of the ragging, if any other girls want to rag them, they will say, “No, please don’t. We have ragged them and they answered properly.”’ If the upperclassman are still not satisfied by the time ‘freshers’ is held, what happens, I ask? Are there any repercussions after the day of Freshers? ‘We are their seniors,’ Sharada explains. ‘So there will definitely come a time when they need our assistance or guidance, and we will not give it to them.’ Effectively, if the junior students do not agree to their side of the relationships by showing respect to their elders, the elders will not take them under their wings.

At least this is how it is meant to work in the college that my friend in the hostel attends. Engineering colleges are notoriously bad for ragging, and there it has gone as far as some of the worst fraternity hazing incidents. A couple of years ago, a boy died jumping off a roof when given the choice between jumping and walking barefoot over glass. Since then, ragging is banned and police will come to campus during the first months of the year in an effort to prevent it. It continues of course, though perhaps with a bit less venom. My friend Sharada at once laments the harshness of ragging at engineering schools and justifies its use in her own, albeit in a milder form.

The night of ragging at our hostel consisted in making freshman talk about themselves and their hobbies and then meet challenges. One freshman cites singing as her hobby, and is asked to song for the group. One who names watching football as her hobby is asked to name all the members of India’s national team. She is unable to do so, and is told to have the list memorized for the following day. Those who seem submissive are let off lightly. The arrogant girl leaves with a list of eight tasks.

The ragging would have continued the following day, but the arrogant girl calls her parents and have them call and complain to the manager of the hostel, who is also effectively its RA. She puts a firm stop to the ragging. The upperclassman have been outmaneuvered.

I return from Hyderabad a few weeks after this took place, and in that short time, I can see that the freshman who handled themselves satisfactorily that first night have formed bonds with some of the upperclassman. Friendships are in the offing.

The arrogant girl whose parents called to stop the ragging eats alone with a couple of other freshmen who had taken her side. They make little eye contact with their housemates.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

two discoveries in hyderabad: lost and finds

In the city of Hyderabad – or Hydro as Sangeeta calls it – I make two discoveries of note. It is in this state of Andhra Pradesh that His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently conferred the Kalachakra initiation at Amaravati, a major Buddhist site whose importance seems to have peaked some 2,000 years ago. In my attempts to learn more about the history of Buddhism in Andhra, I learn that the state is full of old monasteries, cave complexes and stupa sites, in various stages of archaeological excavation. Several such sites are in the vicinity of Visakhapatnam, and I plan to visit them soon.

The other major discovery I make in Hyderabad is pretty far from this first. In many ways. Though I went to Hyderabad full of plans to use the time to deepen my study of Sanskrit grammar, when I actually arrived I rapidly discovered that I urgently needed some rest. I did do some Sanskrit, mainly to keep Sangeeta company while she did hers, but mostly …how to put it? I rested. On Sangeeta’s couch. In front of Sangeeta’s TV. It turns out that Sangeeta had the entire first season of Lost, a show I had never seen. Within the eight days I was in Hyderabad, Sangeeta and I watched the entire first season together. It never occurred to me that I missed American television. In fact, I had lived in a house without television for most of the last seven eight years or so. Yet the show’s basic premise struck me as eerily familiar – that one is dropped into society with people one does not know, in an environment operating on principles that continually challenge one’s assumptions and which one must continually re-assess … well, that is not too bad a model of the experience of trying to figure out how to manage life and get research done here. But watching Lost, someone actually gives you the back-story. And somehow, there is great comfort in the hope that we viewers actually will come to understand the principles of the reality operating on the island --a hope I cannot always afford to indulge in my own life. In the meantime, from the scene where they first realize Sun speaks English, Hurley has given me new language for responding appreciatively and with poise to the surprises life here can throw: “Didn’t see that coming.”

So maybe it was not just about getting some needed downtime, or pining for American culture. But in any case, we are already plotting ways to get a copy of the second season… and friends, I know you are all a full season ahead, but please do not spoil any of the surprises to come. Especially if things do not become more clear!

‘tribals’ take a train

My Sanskrit teacher has to go to Hyderabad for a week to attend to some family business. With class, there is no reason to stay in Vizag, and I seize the chance to spend some time with Sangeeta in the much bigger and more cosmopolitan town of Hyderabad. I take the overnight train there with my teacher, who will not hear of taking an upper class berth. We travel ‘sleeper class’ and have for traveling companions four women who have never been on a train before, or on a bus, or in a town. They are from a ‘tribal area’ and have been selected to travel to Hyderabad for six months of training to allow enable them maintain a solar electrical facility that is being donated to their village.

Their village is in an isolated patch of the mountains in Orissa, a neighboring state and has no electricity or phone services. They share no language with anyone but their translator, and I seem to be no stranger to them than everything and everyone else in their new environment. I find this quite a relief. They were selected because the four of them had banded together and started a ‘self-help society’ and received funding to help them make and market local crafts. They were enterprising, alert and obviously bright women, ranging in age from about late 20s on up. Apparently it took a month of convincing to get them to leave their village, their families, their terra cognita, their everything. But here they were, about to start what clearly would be the experience of a lifetime. They were a bit startled when the train first pulled out of the station, but on the whole struck me as remarkably self-possessed and frankly less awed by their new surroundings than most foreign tourist might be.

I have no doubts that the village’s solar electricity will be running well for many years to come.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

five blocks from a beach i do not visit

For the first solid month of my time in Visakhapatnam, I have done virtually nothing but Sanskrit. Once I have had breakfast at the hostel, I go straight to my teacher’s house and begin the day of studying. He has given me the use of one room in his house that has a separate entrance. I arrive and begin translating what we have read the previous day until he arrives and we begin to read more. Lunch is served at noon, and we usually wrap up the morning reading at about 1 pm. I cross the street to the hostel where meals are served, and hope there are still vegetables left. Lunch is unvaryingly rice, dal, rasam, some vegetable dish and yogurt. If I arrive too late, I may miss the vegetable dish. After lunch there is a break which I use to write up the morning translation, and to rest.

By late afternoon, we are back at it. Before we move on to a new section of the text, I am required to read aloud the Sanskrit that we have just read together, indicating with my inflection that I have understood the meaning, and being prepared to identify any forms and vocabulary as Shastry Garu chooses to grill me on. There are breaks for coffee and for Shastry Garu to collect the fresh drinking water that is pumped by the municipality only for an hour in the evenings. At about 10:30 in the evening, we wind down. When we read much later than that, as we often do, my teacher will walk me back the two blocks to where I am staying, for safety. Shastry Garu is 70 years old, and I can only hope to have that sort of stamina when I reach his age. And the extraordinary generosity with my time.

Days pass like this, then a week, then a month. We have not taken a single day off. The house I am staying in is five blocks from the beach, a long sandy stretch on the Bay of Bengal. Though this is just an easy five minutes’ walk away, and I know a little physical walking exercise would do me good, I have not seen the sea even once during this month. After the two months of enforced leisure time in Pune, the time Shastry Garu offers is far too precious for me to even think of a stroll on the beach.

Friday, July 21, 2006

blogging after 7/11

I write this blog entry knowing I may be unable to post it. The Indian government has blocked access to, which hosts this little blog, as well as quite a few other sites. It did so – ostensibly – in the belief that blogs may have been used blogs by the terrorists in orchestrating the devastating attack on Mumbai (Bombay) two weeks ago. Hundreds of people died in the blasts that targeted commuter trains during evening rush hour. One by one, a series of bombs planted in seven different trains, taking the lives of hundreds of workers packed into the cars that were bringing them home after a long day’s work in the center of the city.

That horrific attack took place on July 11, earning it the name 7/11. Like 9/11, the attack is thought to have been engineered by extremist Muslim groups. Like New York, Mumbai is the financial capital of this country. But the issues at stake in responding to a terrorist attack are far more volatile here in India than they had been in the States, the major issue being the possibility of ‘communal violence.’ Communal violence is used here as a catch-all phrase referring to inter-caste fighting, fighting between ethnic or racial groups and, as most relevant in this instance, violence perpetrated by followers of one religious group against another. For days after the 7/11 attack, while newspapers were quoting unnamed government sources pointing to a Muslim group called Lashkar as the authors of the ruthless attack, the government itself officially declined to point fingers, saying not all evidence was in as yet. The reason? Fear that violent reprisals would be taken against Muslims across India. As the nation’s largest ‘minority,’ Muslims form a substantial portion of the Indian population, living and working right alongside non-Muslim Indians in all spheres of public life.

Concern that anti-Muslim rioting could break out has tempered reactions since 7/11, and such concerns are eminently well-founded. Just days before the 7/11 attack, supporters of a right-wing Hindu group Shiv Sena had gone on a rampage in Mumbai after the desecration of a statue of the wife of one of its heroes, overturning cars and ransacking businesses. It is worth noting that blogs are not the only websites that Internet users within India have been unable to access since 7/11. A long list of pro-Hindu sites, including some extremist and rather incendiary, were likewise banned, as the Indian government has struggled to avert the feared ‘communal violence.’

Unlike the flag-waving., ‘these-colors-don’t-run’ sentiments aired on American networks after 9/11, Indian TV stations are broadcasting appeals for tolerance, with personal statements from a long series of Bollywood film stars, cricket players and other popular figures.

So far, people seem to be listening.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

sangeeta comes to vizag

My room in the ‘ladies hostel’ in Vizag is small, but has space enough for two narrow twin beds. Every other room of this size has two, or even three girls living in it. I have warded off the attempts by the landlady of this off-campus dorm housing to install a roommate in my room with the promise that my friend Sangeeta would be coming to Vizag and would stay there with me. I finally make good on that promise. We travel back from Hyderabad together, after my restful week there, and the very morning we arrive, begin working with the professor on Sanskrit.

She will be here for six weeks. This is very good news for me. The work I’ve done on my own here has been enough to sustain me, but Sangeeta’s company makes all aspects of life here that much richer. We each sit in the room while the other reads with our teacher, working on our own translation of following the other’s reading as time allows. We grapple together with the challenges of life here – getting our laundry dry in this monsoon weather, keeping the mosquitoes away and managing to stay healthy on hostel food. At the end of each day, days that are long and full of our Sanskrit texts, we hold ‘story hour,’ trading tales from our respective texts.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

from the text - a taste of heaven

This story is just one of the three to five stories a week I am reading and translating from Sanskrit since I arrived here in Visakhapatnam. The Buddha has just told a much longer story about a nāga (a snake-like being that lives in the sea) who becomes convinced of the truth of Buddha’s teachings and strives to support the Dharma in some unlikely ways. When the tale of his doings is complete, some monks ask the Buddha how that nāga had come to have such convictions. That leads to yet another of the literally hundreds of stories in this text:

‘Some monks had doubts arise, and put their question to the Buddha, the Blessed One, who cuts through all doubts. “In what did the nāga youth find faith for the first time?” they asked.

The Blessed One said, “Long ago, Monks, within this fortunate eon, among a populace whose lifespan was 20,000 years, a teacher arose in the world by the name of Kāśyapa, a tathāgata, an arhat, a perfectly enlightened buddha, endowed with knowledge and conduct, a sugata, an unsurpassed knower of the world, a charioteer who tames beings, a teacher of gods and humans, a buddha, a blessed one. He himself was teaching the Dharma to the śrāvakas: ‘Monks, with forests as your bed and as your seat, with vacant buildings, with mountains, ravines, hills and caves, with bunches of straw, cemeteries, meadows, woods and plains, and with wide open spaces as your bed and seat, meditate. Do not be neglectful. Do not later become remorseful. This is my instruction.’

“Then, Monks, some went to the terraced slopes of Mount Sumeru and meditated. Some went to the banks of the Ganges river, some to the great lake of Anavatapta, some to the seven golden mountains, some went among the villages, hamlets, provinces and royal palaces, and they meditated.

Meanwhile, overhead, above the terraced slopes of Mount Sumeru, a little nāga boy, just newly born, was being carried off by a garuda, king of the birds. He saw them dwelling, engaged in meditation, study, yoga and contemplation, and when he saw them, his mind became clear and full of an intense faith. With this intense faith, the nāga boy reflected, “These noble ones indeed have been released.” Moving on from this form of suffering, he died and was reborn in Varanasi, in a brahmin family immersed in the six brahminical activities. He was raised, brought up and became big. Later, he renounced under the teachings of the perfectly enlightened buddha, Kāśyapa. Making effort, applying himself diligently, greatly striving, through the removal of all delusions, he realized arhatship. He became an arhat, and became worthy of honor, worthy of worship, worthy of reverential salutation.
He reflected, “From where have I moved on? From the animals. Where was I born? Among humans. Where are my parents?”

Then he saw his parents in a nāga dwelling, crying. He went there. Having gone there, he began questioning them, “Mother, Father, why are you crying?”

They said, “Noble One, our newborn little nāga boy was carried away by a garuda, king of birds.”

He said, “I myself am he.”

“Noble, he was in such a wretched nāga form that we cannot imagine him even in a higher rebirth, much less attaining such qualities.”

He made them remember things, and the two of them fell at his feet, saying “Noble One, you have acquired such collections of good qualities! Noble One, you are a seeker of alms. We are seekers of merit. Every day, come only here for your meals, and then go back.”

Every day, after enjoying heavenly nectar in the nāga residence, he came back. He had a novice monk as a resident disciple. The monks asked him, “Where does this teacher of yours go to do all this eating?”

He said, “I don’t know.”

They said, “He goes to a nāga dwelling and feasts on heavenly nectar. Why don’t you go too?”

He replied, “He is highly advanced, with great powers. How could I go where he goes?”

They said, “When he is leaving through his extraordinary power, you grab on to the edge of his robe.”

He said, “Mightn’t I fall?”

They said, “Dear fellow, if it holds hangs on to the edge of the robe, even Mount Sumeru, the king of mountains, would not fall, much less you.”

In the place where he disappears, he made a mark there. Having gone to that spot ahead of time, he waited there. And when he thought that he was about to disappear, he grabbed the edge of his robe. The two of them traveled through the sky, and at a certain point, the nāgas saw them. They set up two seats and cleaned two sitting spaces.
He wondered, “Why are they arranging another seat?”

He turned around, and at once saw the novice monk. He said, “Dear fellow, have you also come?”

“Teacher, I have come.”


The nāgas reflected, “This noble one is highly advanced, with great powers. He is capable of digesting the heavenly nectar. The other one is not capable.”

To the one, they gave heavenly nectar, but to the student they gave ordinary food. He carried the teacher’s begging bowl. As he took the begging bowl, there was one grain of rice left sticking to it. He tossed it into his mouth, and the flavor was heavenly.

He reflected, “This is how stingy these nāgas are! We are both seated together, yet they give him heavenly nectar, but to me, ordinary food.”

He began making a resolute prayer. “Since I have engaged in a life of celibacy under the Blessed One Kāśyapa, the perfectly enlightened buddha, unsurpassed, a great object of offerings, therefore by this root of goodness, after removing this nāga from this house, may I be born right here.”

In that very life of his, water began to drop from his hands, and the nāga also developed a headache.

He said, “Noble One, the novice monk has had an ignoble thought. Please make him avert it.”

He said, “Dear fellow, these indeed are calamities. Avert your mind.”

The student spoke the verse:

The thought is thoroughly engrossing. I am not able to avert it.Right as I stand here, Good Sir, the water flows from my two hands.

After removing that nāga from the house, he was born right here. Monks, it was there that the nāga youth first gained faith.’

- From the Vinayavastu, the very first text appearing in the Tibetan Buddhist canon. (Translated from Sanskrit.)