Search This Blog

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Context 2: The Spiritual is the Political

This is the other side of India that's never far away. I've hinted at it, but have waited until now to address it because so much else has been going on these past couple of months. It would be inhuman not to pay heed to the crushing poverty, pollution and disease that characterizes much of life across the subcontinent. Indeed, it would be impossible to do so.

One of the most compelling reasons I'm willing to work with the LBWF is because the young men behind it are from the villages. Each of them have worked to get an education and each has met with roadblocks. As I'll address in another but related post, much of the roadblocks has to do with systemic corruption. It's not just a few bad eggs; this is endemic to Indian life from the top down and back up again.

It would also be idiotic to claim that I'm here for some “spiritual” purpose that blinds me to what I encounter. I'm truly hoping that any “spiritual” advance I make aids me in being a better, more useful person for others. Knock on wood.

Where does one start?

Let's start with the beggars. Let's start with leper, the polio victim, the chronic birth defects and ask why it is that they're in the streets? The first thought is that there are no facilities or aid at any but the most rudimentary levels. This leads to further whys and how comes. You see this in Bihar, of course, just as you would, of course, expect to see it in Bihar. But you see it in the cities in other states; it's more a matter of scale, perhaps. And it's pervasive.

I think the cycle might be something like poverty unmet by politicians who don't really care becomes neglect which fosters more poverty and neglect. It may not just be the politicians. The Indians themselves have to take some responsibility in this. Just as we in the states have to take responsibility for continuing to feed the corporatocracy there. In our favor, we still have some decent social support (though not enough) and I think that for all its faults, healthcare has gone a long way to eradicating the sites you seen here.

In any event, it has to be frustrating. Kapil and Mahendra and I have discussed this at great length and they're the first to admit that if India is to be strong, she has to tackle corruption at the bureaucratic level and more aggressively pursue developing education and healthcare, particularly among the poor. In the meantime, it's left up to small groups to do so. Although you do see initiatives from larger institutions.

Case in point are some of the social projects from the FPMT that I've mentioned elsewhere. There are other swamis and teachers with followings who build schools, etc.; but so much more needs to be done and it needs to come from the publically elected sector as much, if not more so, than the private (or religious) base. If only to restore some faith in the elected officials?

At issue, too, is getting buy-in, I'm sure, from the international community. India's in good position because she's our ally, has nuclear weapons and in general, will probably never come under censure from the World Bank or the U.S. for corruption in diverting funds, etc. (see Honduras, for instance). However, it could also be that with the projected growth of the Indian economy, infrastructure may receive a significant boost and perhaps real strides will be made in healthcare and education. Or as a number of people have said, it will stay in the pockets of the upper-classes and inside their gated communities.

It's a lot to wrap one's mind around. I've followed Indian politics for quite a while; but I can't honestly say I get it. Part of the issue may well be that across the board, politics is a dodgy business. It's too easy to dismiss political engagement as a fool's errand, simply because everything we as humans do, is political. Opt out of voting? That's a political decision. Say that you're apolitical? That's a political statement. And so on.

It seems to me that if change is going to happen, it's going to have to come from an engaged population here in India (just as, I hope, we're seeing the seeds being sown in the U.S. with the occupy movement). I hear a lot of complaints not just from the poor but from the well-off, too; so I would almost be willing to say that when you hear the more comfortable class start to beef, then you have a greater chance at seeing some kind of social change more immediately.

The past few weeks, I've thought a lot about the beggars; Leigh went into the one of the hospitals and came out shellshocked. I don't think I need to do that, myself; but Kapil pointed out that if you go to Gaya, there's a big hospital and apparently, a pretty good one; but the doctors will tell you that they can treat you in their clinics in Bodh Gaya, which are pretty gross; but the doctors can charge a higher fee in that case. At the end of the day, what does someone do who's diagnosed with some crud that they have to travel miles for treatment for? That can add up. But then, with the promise of examination and treatment in a hovel (and additional fees, one presumes), which is the better option?

Hence, the pervasive hacking, spitting, hawking and more spitting. It should be a simple matter of education about hygiene, but I don't think that's on anyone's docket. It's easier to wear a mask, hawk and spit on the roadside than it is to enact legislation to clean up the particulate matter in the air, the pollution in the aquifers and waterways and actually deal with the underlying issues. Admittedly, we in the states much more garbage per capita and are not strangers to shitting in our bed, but we've made substantial gains in some very real areas.

I'm playing out this comparison for the obvious reason: I'm from the U.S. and I'm traveling in India and it raises as many questions in my mind about the country I come from as the one I'm visiting. There are no perfect nations, no perfect societies. Never have been, never will be. Or at least, not as long as we put our own interests before others'.

This brings me back to one of the main reasons I am here. Buddhism's main ethical concern is this matter of acting in the interest for others and the ramifications of that ethic. It's not just a matter of feel-good philanthropy or some sense of noblesse oblige. It's an acknowledgement that if one suffers, we all suffer. If one person goes unloved, then we all have a hole in our heart. This is not sentimental bosh. It's the fabric that binds us and it's also what keeps a lot of people going who are doing significant work on tackling the ills of the world.

The keynote of my time in Bodh Gaya has been working on generating bodhicitta (aka, the mind of enlightment); it's often called loving-kindness or altruistic motivation, but it's also the union of those key factors with wisdom which acts to guide the motivation in a productive path. I can't lay claim to being adept at either of these, but having seen what I've seen in India, I now feel that they are the two principle means by which we may just survive on this planet.

In the meantime, she gets the last word. Perhaps we need to listen more deeply:


  1. Hey John, Do you live in Dharamshala, I am also interested in Budhism and located at somewhere around you. we can talk if you like, Just leave a comment on my blog.

  2. John, interesting that you travel a lot.. we can exchange mails if you like, please leave your e mail address in my comments, I won't publish it (: