Asia

Sikhism symbol

Sikhism: The Fifth Largest Religion in the World

Sikhism: A Tradition Striving for Unity and Truth

Sikhism guru_nanak
Guru Nanak

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world(one of the fastest growing, too) and originated in Northern India in 1469. Sikhis (meaning disciple or learner) are monotheistic, believe in the unity and equality of all mankind, engage in selfless service, and strive for the prosperity of all life. There are over 25 millions Sikhis in the world.

Sikhism originated in a guru tradition in 1469; Guru Nanak was the first to establish what because a religious tradition over the course of centuries. Ten gurus followed in Guru Nanak’s footsteps and after the death of the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Guru Granth Sahib became the literal embodiment of the eternal, impersonal guru and serves as a guide for Sikhi’s.

The Ten Sikhi Gurus (each represents a divine attribute) are:

  1. Guru Nanak – Humility
  2. Guru Angad – Obedience
  3. Guru Amar Das – Equality
  4. Guru Ram Das – Service
  5. Guru Arjan – Self-sacrifice
  6. Guru Hargobind – Justice
  7. Guru Har Rai – Mercy
  8. Guru Harkrishan – Purity
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur – Tranquility
  10. Guru Gobind Singh – Royal Courage

A couple of the Sikhi gurus are also Bhakti saints giving Hinduism an interesting relationship with the origins of the Sikh religion. The goal of the Sikhi is unison with the divine and they believe that no one tradition has a monopoly on the divine and emphasizes the “five thieves” of god’s presence: lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit.

The Origins of Sikhism

Sikhism was created in the Punjab region, which is between India and Pakistan. In the time of the first Guru, Guru Nanak, there were two competing religions of the Muslims and Hindus. Legend says Nanak went into a river at 28, proclaimed there is no Hindu or Muslim, only god and that he continued to bring Sikhism into the world.

The 5th Guru, Arjan was a scholar and helped to build the Sikh religion by creating the first scripture. However, he was seen as a threat by the state and executed for his faith in 1606.

The 6th Guru, Hargobind eventually moved to militarize the community and the Sikhs learned to fight to preserve their faith. They became relatively peaceful until Tegh Bahadur, the 9th guru, was executed in 1675 by Aurangzeb, the Moghal Emperor. The Moghal Empire consolidated Islam in South Asia, and spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture as well as the faith.

The 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa as a military group so that they could forever defend their faith.

The Sikhs continued to rebel against Muslim oppression and eventually became a state of their own. But then they were defeated by the British. Then they became peaceful for a while, until 1919 when there was a massacre of over 400 dead and 1,000 wounded by British soldiers who fired on a crowd of protesters. A few historians signify this event as the beginning of the decline of the British Empire in India.

The Sikhi god: Ik Onkar

Ik Onkar is the Sikhi word for god and means ‘all pervading spirit’. This spirit has no gender, is beyond time and space, is without form, beyond the comprehension of humans, but not completely unknowable. The spirit is visible sikhism_ik_onkareverywhere to the spiritually awakened through the heart or “inner eye”. The religion prescribes meditation to allow for communication between god and man.

The Opening Line of the Mool Mantar:

“There is but one all-pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, you will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!”

The ultimate goal of a Sikh is to be completely united with god. They achieve this state of liberation (mukti) by focusing on god rather than themselves.

Maya: the Worldly Illusion

Maya is a spiritual concept that has evolved over time and crosses over nearly every eastern religion in one way or another. Literally, Maya means delusion, extraordinary illusions of power, the veil of perception, magic, and “unreality”.

These worldly illusions are viewed as a direct opponent of realizing god in this lifetime (the goal of the Sikh is to realize god). It is believed that the object of Maya, or object of the senses, lust, desire, attachment, ego, greed, and anger which are known as the 5 thieves and are believed to take away from the individual’s relationship with god by distracting and hurting the individual.

Once god is fully realized, the individual is considered jivanmukta and liberated in this lifetime, which is a belief also shared in Hinduism. After this liberation, the individual is ceaselessly united with Brahman (the supreme truth underlying all of reality, but hidden by it). Sikhs also believe in reincarnation and karma.

The Khalsa – the Nation of Sikhs

The Khalsa is the collective body of all Sikhs. The Khalsa was initiated on March 30 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh guru. The word Khalsa means “sovereign”, “free”, or most often “pure”. Being initiated into the Khalsa is a type of baptism and males are entitled Singhs (lion) while females are titled Kaurs (princess).

The Khalsa is responsible for all executive, military, and civil authority in the Sikh society. They are considered the pinnacle of Sikhism and perform no rituals and believe in no superstitions. They only believe in god who is the master and creator of all, the only destroyer/creator.

A Sikh is defined as any human being who faithfully believes in one immortal being; ten gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, the teachings of the ten gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth guru.

Culture, Observations, and Rituals of Sikhism

Most Sikhs wake up early to meditate on the name of god. Then he/she bathes in a pool of nectar (I’m not really sure what this means, probably some type of sweet herbs and spices). Then he chants the name of the lord. All sins, misdeeds, and negativity is erased through this process. When the sun rises, the Sikh is to meditate on the name of god again. The idea of the Sikh’s existence is to worship god so that they can maintain a close relationship to god.

There are 5 K’s(panj kakaar) or articles of faith that baptized Sikhs are obligated to wear:

  1. Kesh – uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in a Dastar (a style of turban)
  2. Kanga – a wooden comb, usually under the dastar
  3. Kachera – cotton undergarments worn by both sexes to symbolize chastity
  4. Kara – an iron bracelet, a weapon and a symbol of eternity
  5. Kirpan – an iron dagger of differing sizes. In the UK it is very small and in Punjab it can be up to three feet long.

Sikhs are also very interested in music, many instruments were supposedly created by gurus. These instruments include the Rebab, the dilruba, the taus, the jori, and the sarinda. They would often play drums or Nagaras while marching into battle.

The Modern Sikh and Sikh Statistics

There are about 27 million Sikhs worldwide and 83% live in India. 76% live in Punjab where they form Modern_Sikh2/3rds of the populace. Sikhs were some of the first to migrate to Britain from India and were used in the Indian Civil service and so were spread out over the entire British empire. Many have spread throughout Europe and Northern America.

The caste system is still very prevalent within the Sikh religion, even though their gurus denounced the system. Untouchables, or Dalits still face harsh discrimination.

The first gurdwara (place of worship) was established in the United States in Stockton, California.

Discrimination against Sikhs has risen since the 9/11 attacks. They are said to be often confused with Arabic or Muslim Middle Eastern men because of their turbans and CNN suggested an increase in hate Crimes against Sikh men after the attacks. I’ll leave it to a few clips from CNN and other news to show you what I mean by discrimination (it involves racism and persecution because of ignorance).

  • The U.S. has the highest murder rate of affluent democracies. America had an extreme homicide rate of 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2008-2009, compared with a 1.43 rate in England and Wales and a 1.3 rate in Italy. Japan has 1/10 of the murders of the US. Don’t be surprised about how often this happens.
  • [September 24th, 2013] A Columbia University professor who wrote about hate crimes against Sikhs may have become a victim of one himself when 12 to 15 people attacked him while shouting anti-Muslim slurs, police said.
    Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh and a professor of international and public affairs, said the attackers were yelling “get Osama” and “terrorist” when they swarmed him Saturday night near Central Park in New York.
    “There were about 20 of them. A few surrounded me, and started punching me,” Singh said, according to the Sikh Coalition. He suffered injuries to his face, including displaced teeth and a possible fracture in his lower jaw. CNN ARTICLE
  • [August 5th, 2012] There was a shooting of 6 people in Wisconsin in a hate crime on August 5th 2012. ‘He said members described the attacker as a bald, white man, dressed in a white T-shirt and black pants and with a 9/11 tattoo on one arm — which “implies to me that there’s some level of hate crime there”.’The gunman started shooting in the parking lot, then entered into the temple and proceeded to open fire. Most of the victims were leaders of the church, men with turbans. CNN ARTICLE
  • [September 13th, 2015] A Sikh American man says he was taunted as a “terrorist” and “bin Laden” by another driver this week, and then beaten unconscious in his car. Police in the Chicago suburb of Darien are investigating the alleged incident as a hate crime and a road rage incident that escalated into a violent attack, Chief Ernest Brown said. CNN ARTICLE
  • [January 6th, 2016] A $10,000 reward is being offered in the slaying of a 68-year-old Sikh man brutally murdered in a central Fresno convenience store on New Year’s Day. They have video of a light-skinned suspect between 16 and 18 with a red hoodie that waited outside for about 5 minutes for a man named Gill to be in the store alone. Once Gill (Sikh man without any Sikh attire on) was within about a foot, the suspect stabbed Gill repeatedly. Gill tried to push himself away, retreated and picked up a golf club. The suspect knocked Gill to the ground before returning to the cash register, which he could not open. He then took something from a shelf and walked out of the store in the same direction from which he approached. Gill died of his wounds minutes later. Sikhs were anxious about heading back out into the community because of another attack that occurred on December 26th. FRENSO BEE ARTICLE
  • [March 2nd, 2016] Balwinder Jit Singh says a passenger beat him while calling him a terrorist and a suicide bomber last year in Inglewood. YAHOO NEWS ARTICLE

So this is very real, and its happening right now. This article from THE INTERCEPT talks about how Donald Trumps campaign makes it extremely hard on Sikh’s because hatred and violence are condoned. These are Americans that are discriminated against in our own country. And in lots of cases the police turn a blind eye, refuse to investigate, or whatever nonsense racism and ignorance they can make up. But this seems to happen a lot and we, as a nation, should not allow this kind of intolerance or ignorance. This is the 5th largest religion in the world!

 

References:
  1. Institute of Sikh Studies
  2. Sikhs dot-org
  3. BBC Religion
  4. Sikh Coalition
  5. Sikh Net
  6. Maya Wikipedia
  7. Sikhism Wikipedia
  8. Religion Facts

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Buddha in the Shwedagon (Free Yoga Photo) by Elliot Telford

Looking Back to Asia

Remembering 15 Weeks in Asia

I feel very lucky to have gotten through the entire trip throughout Asia without more than a couple of bruises and an empty bank account. India and Thailand were the highlights of the trip and Kathmandu, Nepal and Myanmar both beckon return journeys of significant lengths of time.

The trip began in Mysore India in late January and ended in mid-May flying out of Hanoi, Vietnam. Most of the below photos are from the first three months of the trip in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand… enjoy!

PS: You can click on the photos for enlarged images, they are big

Cast Bronze Shiva for sale by Elliot Telford

Cast Bronze Shiva for sale
Strangers in Dhaka by Elliot Telford
Strangers in Dhaka
A Poor Smile by Elliot Telford
A Big Impoverished Smile
Poverty in Bangladesh by Elliot Telford
Poverty in Bangladesh
Dhaka city street by Elliot Telford
Dhaka city street
Dhaka Bangladesh by Elliot Telford
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Homes in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Homes in Mysore
Village in Dhaka by Elliot Telford
Village in Dhaka
Neighbrohood Alleyway in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Neighbrohood Alleyway in Mysore
Rickshaw in Bandladesh by Elliot Telford
Rickshaw in Bandladesh
Buddha in the Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
Buddha in the Shwedagon
Temple in Nepal by Elliot Telford
Temple in Nepal
Spires of the Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
Spires of the Shwedagon
Kathmandu, Nepal by Elliot Telford
Kathmandu, Nepal
Dhaka Street by Elliot Telford
Dhaka Street
The Shwedagon by Elliot Telford
The Shwedagon
Monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda by Elliot Telford
Monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda

IMG_9552

Mysore Hindu Temple by Elliot Telford
Mysore Hindu Temple
River in Thailand by Elliot Telford
River in Thailand
Street Construction in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Street Construction in Mysore
Alleyway in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Alleyway in Mysore
Gangsters in Kathmandu by Elliot Telford
Gangsters in Kathmandu
Laundry in Mysore by Elliot Telford
Laundry in Mysore
School kids in Kathmandu (pre-earthquake) by Elliot Telford
School kids in Kathmandu (pre-earthquake)
Indian man thinking by Elliot Telford
Indian man thinking
Indian man riding bike by Elliot Telford
Indian man riding bike
The Jois Shala Wall
The Jois Shala Wall (practiced here for 3 months)
Mysore Alleyway by Elliot Telford
Mysore Alleyway
South Indian Construction by Elliot Telford
South Indian Construction
Mysore River by Elliot Telford
Mysore River
Gokulam Coconut Stand by Elliot Telford
Gokulam Coconut Stand
Chakra House in Gokulam by Elliot Telford
Chakra House in Gokulam

Looking Back to Asia Read More »

Biggest Hindu Temple: Akshardham (the Hindusim & the Caste system)

The 5 Major Problems with Hinduism (esp. the Caste System)

Modern Hinduism

As humans, we like to idealize about things that we don’t necessarily experience. The grass is always greener where you aren’t.

Recently, this has occurred quite often in the way that Westerners view eastern religions in the yoga community. I definitely experienced this before I saw the religions in action when I visited southeast Asia.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions on the planet and is the primary religion in Southeast Asia and India. It is the world’s third largest religion, after Islam and Christianity with one billion followers.

Hinduism is far more of an aggregation of diverse traditions, rituals, and philosophies rather than an organized religion. Despite this traditional disparity, which has unified since ancient times, modern Hindu philosophers have helped to universalize the religion into several core concepts:

  • There is a divine nature in all beings
  • Dharma and right living
  • Social Justice
  • Peace
  • Shared sacred literature

Together, these concepts combine to make up the modern philosophical view of the Hindu religion, which is really more of a category of rituals and traditions than an organized religion. The diversity of the religion is astounding.

Hinduism has had a profound effect upon India and has helped to form the social and cultural norms that have spread throughout southeast Asia. In reconciling the religion’s philosophical ideals with the modern culture of India and other Asian countries we can start to see some major problems with the religion’s traditions in regards to the functioning of humanity within their society.

These problems begin to show up in the structure of a society, as well as cultural tendencies, individual habits, and norms that are commonly accepted by the population. The following are the six major problems with the philosophical tradition:

  1. The Caste System
  2. Ahimsa
  3. Samsara
  4. Moksha
  5. Marriage
  6. Responsibility

The Caste System

The caste system, or separation of classes is probably the largest problem within the Hindu philosophies. People are born into their caste and cannot change it. There are five social classes defined by the Vedic philosophies: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Dalits. Varna, meaning class, and Jati, meaning caste, will help us to understand how the caste system is structured and implemented.

Brahmins are priests and teachers and are engaged in obtaining the “highest” spiritual knowledge. They are traditionally holy men with training from the age of 5, but can also be warriors, fishers, or other such professions. One usually continues the profession of their father and ancestors.

Kshatriyas are military elite and rulers. During wartime they protect and during peaceful times they rule. These were typically not chiefs, but the ruling elite.

Vaishyas were the class of farmers and cattle rearers until the more modern period where they transitioned to become money lenders, traders, and land-owners. There are lots of sub-castes in Vaishyas and there have been revolts by the class throughout history.

Shudras are the final caste in the system besides untouchables, or Dalits. Their duty and function is to serve the other castes, which has many potential problems for the members of the class. Some scholars believe that members of the caste were rejected by the other classes and therefore became the lowest class on the metaphorical totem pole.

Dalits are arguably not a caste, but rather untouchables and those rejected by society at large and make up about 20% of the population. India has passed several laws to protect this group of people because they are historically very discriminated against. They are also known as the casteless people.

One is born into a caste based on their family and are derived based on their occupation, though it wasn’t always the caste (get it?). The modern version of the caste system is a result of the colonial British Empire and served to provide administrative structure for the regime. It is essentially similar to slavery and modern India’s government has fought this discrimination with affirmative action, job reservations, and government jobs for the lower castes.

It’s pretty easy to see how the caste system promotes slavish living conditions and discrimination. It has influenced other religions and other countries, especially in the Indian subcontinent and is very visible in the social structures of most of the southeast asian countries. The promotion of the caste system is the biggest problem in Hinduism.

Ahimsa

Ahimsa is the concept of non-harm and means not to injure and applies to all living beings. Although the concept has many positive functions in human society, it promotes passivity for injustice and is probably one of the largest contributors to the reason that the caste system exists at all. Non-harm in nature is not possible, as the consumption of living matter is completely necessary for the sustenance of life. I am not saying that peacefulness isn’t possible, but life itself is somewhat of a violent process.

Certain individuals require meat for optimal nutrition. Animals shouldn’t feel guilty about living according to their nature, which humans have defined as immoral. So Ahimsa is a great ideal and peace is something we all should strive for, but it’s not necessarily possible in the reality we live in. Even your body is a battlefield for bacteria and micro-organisms. It is simply the way of things in the world.

The concept itself beckons respect for all of life. This is something that is very positive, as it denotes appreciation and promotes consideration of the divinity of all beings. Therefore, if you hurt a living being, you hurt yourself, according to the concept. However, in practice, you must injure other beings to feed yourself. Plants, trees, fish, and all of life is used for humanity to prosper so why are animals different?

Essentially, Ahimsa renders people very peaceful, which is positive, but it can also lead to passivity and acceptance of things that probably should not be acceptable. An example of this is the caste system. As we go down this list, you will start to see some patterns arising that play off of each other and contribute to a climate that is the Hindu religion in modern India. Gandhi was one of the primary promoters of Ahimsa.

Samsara

Samsara is the repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth believed by most eastern religions. The idea is that your current life is one of many past and future lives that all affect what you are experiencing now. Karma is what affects your destiny, but the Buddha taught that there was no beginning to the cycle, just an end that comes with Moksha, or liberation from the cycles of deaths and rebirths.

Obviously, this can breed complacency in life as well. There is no evidence to suggest that any of this is real (subjective data is not evidence) and it can lead, again, to acceptance of behaviors and circumstances that might otherwise be fought against. It also takes away from the present moment and can allow an individual to blame circumstances outside of reality for their current predicaments.

Moksha

Moksha is the concept of liberation from Samsara. This is the end goal of the Hindu ascetic’s karma and life. This is essentially an equivalent to heaven for the Hindu and denotes enlightenment, though it differs from the Buddhist ideals of enlightenment because in the Hindu religion, Moksha requires death. It represents self-knowledge, self-realization, and freedom, but also the completion of a fulfilled life of Dharma.

Again, this can create complacency, but on the flip side it can create acceptance for difficult circumstances and hope for the future. It also lends itself to an idealization of the end of life, rather than the present which can be negative. Moksha is a powerful idea, but again there is no evidence to suggest that reality does in fact work this way, so it can lead to delusional behavior.

Marriage

Hindu marriage is a traditional union where two individuals join together to pursue Dharma and Moksha and is recognized by law. Consummation is normally required for the marriage to be validated and most rituals lead to the consummation of the marriage. Marriage is normally arranged by the family, but is not necessarily an indicator of higher divorce rates, or unhappiness in the relationship. Modern India is changing this, as individuals are starting to appreciate choosing their spouse, rather than having their marriage arranged.

Marriages are arranged according to a variety of factors including: astrology, genealogical records, parental relationships, and wealth. Normally, parents arrange the marriage, but in modern urban India, this is changing rapidly.

There are eight types of Hindu marriage, but their differences are mostly ritualistic in nature. Divorce is supposedly extremely rare in Indian marriages.

The biggest problem with Hindu marriage is that there is almost no choice in the relationship. Though many individuals are happy, there are certainly those that aren’t and that are required by their culture and religion to maintain the relationship. If you take the view that marriage should always be eternal this might be a positive thing, but if you believe in free-will and individual happiness you might think this is negative. Hindus tend to be very accepting of their marital circumstances so normally they don’t disclose the circumstances of their relationship freely and tend to be oppressed because of gender roles in India.

Conclusion

There are always positive and negative aspects of philosophical concepts, depending upon how they are implemented. Many of these problems can also be very positive, such as increasing acceptance of circumstances and ability to cope with harsh realities. However, some also lead to very negative things, such as not caring about the environment, massive pollution, separation of people by genealogy, and extreme poverty for those who are not accepted by the culture’s standards. Discrimination is relatively normal in the Hindu religion and especially in southeast Asia and the Hindu religion definitely contributes to this.

Many aspects of Hinduism are positive, but these are the major negative issues with the religion. Philosophy is often paradoxical, so if anything is unclear please comment below. Additions are also always welcome!

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Dhaka Streets_1

Returning to the West

The past few days have been a difficult adjustment period. The accumulation of stress over the past few months was nothing short of monumental and I needed time to allow everything to process.

Budget traveling in Asia was fun, rewarding, and a life-changing experience. I would do it again, but I would have planned things much differently, spending more time in Myanmar rather than Vietnam and Thailand because of the touristic climates of the latter two countries. Vietnam is also particularly difficult as an American; there are massive amounts of propaganda about the war and people just aren’t excited to have you in their country. At least that was my interpretation of my experiences.

India was exactly what I needed; a combination of challenge and pure peace, allowing me to move far deeper into my yoga practice and mediation than I had anticipated. Nepal was a much-needed rest and I feel so lucky to have avoided the earthquakes and the devastation that they caused. Then Dhaka happened.

After I while, I realized that the east is so similar to the West; we are all essentially the same in our humanity and have differences and unique qualities that separate cultures, individuals, and groups of people. And in that uniqueness, comes a diversity that is relatively similar; there are always good people and bad people, people looking to take advantage of you and people looking to help you.

This is why perception is such an important part of the human experience; we base our decisions off of what we have experienced in the past.

Dhaka was so hard because of the way that their society is organized. People are willing to be completely wrong when trying to help you, as long as they can feel like they’ve helped you. They look up to white people and at the same time despite them. It seems that every sword has two sides.

Dhaka was probably the hardest day of my life, but it was also one that gives me the most hope. When people work together we can do anything we want. The way people worked together to help me was truly an incredible thing to witness.

I need to return to Myanmar because I was only able to visit Yangon, but the people were so nice. They went about their business until you came into contact with someone at a restaurant, or through whatever interaction and they were so kind. Far nicer than any country besides India, which I found to be somewhat similar. Thailand was close to Myanmar, but the people seem to be so sick of tourists. Though Bangkok is not really a city I am looking forward to visiting in the future, the north of Thailand was breath-taking and the locals were so nice. But I think they were as sick of the foreigner party scene as I was.

The came Vietnam, which I had always heard great things about. There is probably a lot racism against Americans because of the Vietnam war and the people seem to have taken on the victim mentality completely, like they are entitled to things because of it. And its hard to argue that they shouldn’t.

In the south of Vietnam I was scammed at every opportunity possible, there seemed to no stop to what people were willing to do for a bit of money. The only reprieve was from the people we were already staying with, who tended to be very kind and thoughtful and wonderful towards their clients. There were a lot of very nice people, but there was a lot of dislike directed at me for no reason by people in general. It was probably due to being American, which I think is obvious when I travel.

Coming back to the West through Berlin was great; the country is very in touch with its history and many of the exhibits of the wall in the city are completely eye-opening, full of facts and personalized stories, and bring the situation to life. It was nice to see both sides of the equation as well; how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power and why it was even a possibility in the country. A nice change from the one-sided propaganda in Vietnam.

Now I am in Prague, but spending the day recovering rather than traveling around. Two more days here should make for a lot of history and good food, site-seeing, and spending time with my family. I’m going to write an article on Berlin after this, so stay tuned for more experiences about the journey I am on.

 

Returning to the West Read More »

"Rough diamond" by Unknown USGS employee - Original source: USGS "Minerals in Your World" website. Direct image link: [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rough_diamond.jpg#/media/File:Rough_diamond.jpg

Diamonds in the Rough

“A diamond has the highest hardness and thermal conductivity of any bulk material; it can be contaminated by very few types of impurities. Most natural diamonds are formed at high temperature and pressure. A material with superlative physical qualities, most of it original from the strong bonds between its atoms.” -Wikipedia

Sometimes, people rise above their circumstances to greatness. They are forged, hardened by pressure and time to rise above their surroundings and to become more than anyone thought they could become. I’ve been lucky to witness this in several people from all over the world. People all over the world have the capacity to be greater than their circumstances would “normally” dictate.

There’s a popular saying going around now: “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.” I have come to believe that this is completely untrue and a complete idealization; all you have to do is look at the amount of corruption in much of our species to know that people often take the easy way out. Look at the US senate, can you really say they are doing the best they can with what they have?We are lazy beings, like all other mammals we want to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sun and the food it grows. (in balanced quantities of course)

This isn’t to say that people will always take advantage of everything they can; instead, its acknowledging that there will always be both sides to the equation; those that take complete advantage and those that take none and in fact give willingly with no thought of receiving. I’ve witnessed a lot of both lately while I’ve been traveling.

Yesterday was a rough day for me; the traveling and budget have gotten to me and I’m exhausted (you can read yesterday’s article on my mental fatigue here. But the equation will always balance itself out. Today I met an absolute gem of a woman on my way to the Minh Mang tomb. Her name was Rei Nguyen.

Rei was a farmer and told us that she and her husband made around 5 million dong per month (about $250). She sent her kids to a school that cost about 2 million per month, in the city of Hoi.

My girlfriend and I rented a scooter for $4 and headed to the tomb this morning, pretty excited to see the most renowned tomb in what appears to be the cultural center of Vietnam. Largely affected by the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War), we were able to see a lot of the effects of the war in our travels, most particularly the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). There was a good amount of propaganda at the museum, especially geared towards the use of illegal chemicals such as agent orange, the US’s involvement in the war, and Vietnam’s victims. This is not to say there wasn’t massive effect from illegal chemical weapons used by the US, but there was no mention of Russia, or of the civil war in Vietnam. As usual, there was a scapegoat to take the blame and the US took full brunt force of it; it’s probably deserved. (again, I’m not saying I know the situation, but I’ve seen this before in WWI & WWII propaganda, Civil War propaganda, and pretty much every war in history is necessarily affected by propaganda where one country is blamed for the entirety of the war)

Rei’s english was incredibly good for anyone in Vietnam, let alone a farmer with an education that ended when she was 12. She works 10 hour days out in the fields with her husband and eats mostly rice and noodles, though she wasn’t malnourished as far as I could tell. She was extremely kind to us, showed us a shortcut to the tomb and then invited us to her small house by the river to talk and have some tea.

The tomb was incredibly peaceful; death has a way of making the life so powerful.  We walked around the tomb for a couple of hours in the scorching heat and humidity, then returned with her to her home.

Happy_in_Vietnam

I noticed she was lucky enough to have electricity and running water; he house was small, with wooden walls and a tin roof and she graciously offered us tea while we spoke about her life and how my life was very different from hers. She ultimately ended up asking for money for her children’s school, but it was far more of an afterthought than most of what I have experienced in Vietnam. Most will ask for money, then turn their back and mutter under their breath when you refuse their service. She offered us a kind smile and sharing of words and experiences that has been unique in my trip to Vietnam.

In this trip, I’ve met people poorer than you can imagine that still show kindness and refuse to take extra money no matter how hard you try. I’ve met people who I’ve gotten along with like I’ve known them my whole life.

One sterling example of this is one of my Muslim friends from Yemen; probably the one of the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met. He owns about six AK47’s at his home and Yemen and left to pursue a more peaceful education in Mysore. Yemen is currently in Civil war and he has been directly affected by it with the death of some of his immediate family members, yet still he pursues kindness and happiness relentlessly. I was with him while it started and there was definitely a lot of swearing and frustration, but it didn’t change his outlook. He goes against any stereotype I could have held against someone of the Muslim religion.

The owner of the Chakra house, Rajesh was like this as well; one of the nicest and most relaxed people I have ever met. He and I will be friends just like the day I left if I ever return to Mysore (which is highly probable). It’s funny how you meet people who you feel like you’ve known your whole life when you travel.

People are individuals and that’s how they should be treated. One is not representative of the whole, because there is so much variation in our species. So at the same time that there are all of these awesome people I have met, there are also some abominable ones.

Let me give you some examples, from history. I don’t like to talk about negatives in reality because people can change and who am I to judge them. With that said, world leaders are different and I feel at full liberty to judge their decisions. There are some terrible people in our world: Kim Jong Il, definitely not doing the best with what he has especially after his most recent execution; neither did Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. Even American leaders smell of stank corruption that can ruin the people: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Nixon, Ulysses S Grant, Kennedy. Even the greatness of America has such powerful potential for corruption because of the essence of its power.

The truth is, humans will look out for themselves before others and in our modern world we absolutely HAVE to expect this from everyone. Think about it this way; even if you are about self-sacrifice, you would give to your children first and foremost the greatest opportunity to succeed in the world. We look out for ourselves before others and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply the reality of humanity. This is why the US is struggling right now, our system of checks and balances has become completely unbalanced in the wake of our economic prosperity in the 80s and 90s and leaders continue to take advantage of the people they rule just as they have since the beginning of time.

Unfortunately, this can even apply to our immediate family. You see celebrities with major mental and stability problems, likely because they can’t even trust their support systems and families anymore (this is just my observation, feel free to comment on it). It’s really sad, but that’s how money can corrupt people. Greed, it seems, is simultaneously the great human strength and weakness.

But on the other side, there are people who will give without even caring about what they receive; they give kindness freely and love as often as they can, as long as their basic needs are met. Sometimes, they even defy those. Remember to think of it as an equation, because that’s what the world we live in requires.

Writing yesterday made me feel so much better, today the same. I really hope that these comments are misunderstood, I am trying to be very objective and am applying my experiences to the greater scope of the world we live in together. I walked around today with a big smile and decided that I would kill my fatigue with kindness and it has worked. I feel a hell of a lot better.

Please let me know what you think of this article in the comments, or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/padayoga

I always love to hear from readers.

Diamonds in the Rough Read More »

dark_cave

Exhausted in Vietnam

At this point, I am ready to leave Asia. This journey has been a long one; its been almost four months since I left sunny California to head to India.

India was rough; I got food poisoning 3 times, the third time for an entire week before I was able to get my hands on some probiotics and it was not a fun experience. I continued my Ashtanga practice the whole time and it was definitely an empowering experience, but one that I don’t ever want to experience again.

India became very peaceful for me. I was free to meditate for 3-4 hours a day and write stories and make music when I wasn’t meditating. Boredom was absolutely a big part of India and I was already excited to go back to work after a month. By the end of my time there I was so sick of the extra attention of being white and not having anyone to really connect with. When I’m on long trips like this, I always start to miss my family and friends… A lot.

My progress in the Ashtanga practice was unmistakable, but by the end it really wasn’t important to me anymore. Where was I going anyways? So now I can do full lotus, supta kurmasana, and I can pretty easily get one foot at a time behind my head; but so what? What does that mean for my life and my happiness? Absolutely nothing. I listened to Alan Watts a lot in India and my favorite quote of his was: “So when you have achieved enlightenment, so what? What now?” and that’s where I think I’ve ended up.

So by the end of India, I was exhausted. It’s not easy to live in a third world country; the boredom alone is enough to drive you a little insane. But then I headed to Nepal.

Nepal was a breath of fresh air and a nice rest for me. I stayed with people who didn’t hesitate to act when the quake happened; which I was very lucky to avoid. These guys enjoyed their lives so much and I met people from around the world that I had an absolute blast with. I stayed in the city the whole time because my budget over here was very strict; I came over with less than $3,000 for 4 months of serious travel and I’ve been to 6 countries, all of which are very poor.

After leaving Nepal, I was lucky enough to meet up with my girlfriend/best friend. She was a much-needed break from being alone. We planned to meet in Myanmar, but a technical difficulty with my flight on Biman Bangladesh airlines (NEVER fly with them if you can avoid it) left me stranded in Dhaka for an overnight stay in the airport.

I was lucky; a family that I met in the airport randomly and extremely kindly  offered to let me spend the night at their apartment. They gave me kindness that I won’t soon forget. Then, in my first real terrifyingly close encounter with extreme poverty conditions (which I was a part of for a solid day) where I begged for water and for help. A girl named Anna came to my rescue and helped me to find the family’s apartment that I had completely lost. Another stroke of luck and kindness that I won’t forget; neither will my stress response system.

After narrowly avoiding some terribly consequences in Dhaka, I was able to get a new flight to Yangon, Myanmar and was excited to see a tiny bit of westernization for the first time in months; sky scrapers, parks, and paved streets were never so beautiful to my eyes. And I got to see my girlfriend again, which was what I was really looking forward to. The culture of Myanmar was the easiest for me to cope with in Asia; people were kind and treated you like a human rather than a commodity. Bangladesh was the worst; people will absolutely take as much advantage of you as they possibly can and all of the westerners that lived there looked completely exhausted as a result.

We moved on to Thailand which was surprisingly touristic, but again nearly everyone was more concerned with your money than with anything else about you. It gets exhausting over time to have people trying to get from you and sell you on things. In Thailand, we visited Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, and flew from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Bangkok was not fun for me; it reminded me of a combination of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, but at least they were used to tourists.

Ho Chi Minh was far different from my expectations; most everyone in the city is trying to take your money by offering Rickshaws, taxis, even random scooterers will stop you on the side of the street and try to get you to ride their scooter. And people are always trying to please you, even if they are completely wrong. This is part of the reason I got so lost in Bangladesh; if someone doesn’t understand you, they’ll make something up that they think you want to hear. It’s frustrating to say the least.

So we took the night buses from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, which was another breath of fresh air; kind of. Out hostel was amazing, I highly recommend Mozjo Inn if you are ever in Vietnam, the hostel alone is worth a trip to that city. We went scuba diving there and it was amazing! No license required.

Hoi Anh was next, which is an extremely touristic town and didn’t have too much history, though the influences of China and Japan were incredible to see.

Today, I am in Hue, which is a great city, but relentless. I am tired of the extra attention, tired of people trying to sell me things, tired of people who are trying to take money with a huge smile on their face. Most act like they want to know where you are from then are quick to turn around and try to sell you things. It’s nearly impossible to actually meet anyone over here, especially due to the fact that they view you as a commodity. We’ve exchanged some nice jokes with our hostel owner and a couple of waiters, but most aren’t interested in us unless we have money. Its disheartening to see, but it goes to show that human are the same; we love to idealize about the peacefulness of the East, but the truth is that its even more chaotic than America.

This becomes obvious when you pay your first 5 dollars to enter a Buddhist temple. Money runs the world now and its painfully obvious here with the amount of poverty that exists.

Surprisingly, just writing this article has made me feel a lot better. It’s so tiring to be harassed ALL the time. Sometimes, its nice to just be able to share a smile and continue on our separate paths. It’s also weird to miss America, but I know that this will pass, just like all things and I will be doing my best to enjoy these last few days to the fullest. But man, I am tired. Ready to meet up with my mom and sisters in Germany and return to the west… and I am very excited to come back and keep teaching yoga, making music, and to see all of the friends that I miss a whole hell of a lot. Its been a long journey and I am seeing the end in sight and am happy about it; a sign that I am where I need to be.

Please don’t take this as a negative review of Vietnam; this has just been a long, arduous trip for me, partially due to the budget, partially due to the amount of ground that I’ve covered in the past month and a half. But keep in mind that the people here in Asia will get everything that they can from you, just like in the rest of the world. I know that once I am in a comfortable bed again, I’ll look back with fondness on these hardship and eventually, I’ll want to do it again 🙂

 

Exhausted in Vietnam Read More »

Mysore Palace, India

Mysore, India

Arriving in Mysore concluded one of the longest days of my life. I have trouble sleeping on planes and I was sitting in the middle the whole time, thank god for spinal twists. I got into the airport and paid for a taxi to Mysore which was about $80 for a 4 hours trip. It was 3am and my only option until 9am. Pretty easy decision to make.

So I get my driver, he is very nice and respectful, etc and we drive for a while until stopping for tea. Now this was an obviously milk based tea, in India they call it tapas, and I was very happy to not get sick. This is when I started to realize that nobody here really speaks english, but some can communicate a little. I need to learn Hindi.

I arrive while the sun rose, though there wasn’t a sunrise due to the indian_cow_eating_trashfog. Trash is everywhere. So is shit. So are stray dogs. Cows line the streets. Some are yellow, probably from eating curry and such, it didn’t seem to be a problem of malnutrition because a lot of the white cows were eating trash too.

So the driver found my hotel and I knew that I would have to stay up as long as possible to beat the jet-lag. So I strapped on my Vibrams, took out my camera, and went to go explore Mysore.

The first thing that really caught my attention was the stray dogs. They are everywhere, and you can tell they are nocturnal because stray dog in mysorethey were active in the morning then slept in the afternoon. So they litter the streets, searching through trash and tend to be individuals, at least from what I saw, there wasn’t much pack behavior during the day.

This brought me into the streets. Litter is everywhere, though there isn’t too much fecal matter on the sides of the streets, because it’s mostly in the gutters and in random grassy patches.

Mysore city Streets

Mysore Streets

Mysore Streets

So I spent the day meeting people and taking their pictures and just generally trying to be friendly and nice. People here are extremely nice and just want to share a smile, I think a few of them think that me taking their picture is a big deal. Most just make jokes with me about it when I try to take their picture though.

So I headed over the palace after a while, I wanted to see where the Ashtanga Yoga Shala was because I have to register today. I got lost.

There’s nothing quite like being lost in a foreign country with no knowledge of the local language or customs. It’s like a whirlwind of trying not to get hit by cars or scooters as you walk, avoiding stepping into a big pile of cow dung, trying to find a bottle of water, telling rickshaw drivers to leave you alone because you just want to walk. Seeing weird crow-like birds, stray dogs, cattle pulling carts, markets with random stuff I have never seen before makes me feel free in a way that nothing else can. There is a lot of pain and suffering here, but there is so much happiness. I’m writing another post about the people, so you will see some faces in my next post.

So I made my way to the palace after finding a map and it was 200 rupee to enter. 3 bucks, pretty expensive for India. Inside, some kids saw me and wanted to take pictures with me and as soon as one saw that I was responsive, the whole group started taking photos together with me. It was fun for a few minutes while we were messing around and I was trying to get them to take serious and funny pictures, but a line started to form and people started to encircle me. I was not down with that so I said thanks and took one more, then left to keep walking around. Here are my good pictures from the palace:

Mysore Palace Statues

 

Mysore Palace Wall Statues

Mysore Palance Entrance
Mysore Palance Entrance

Mysore Palace Towers Mysore Palance Trees Flowers in Mysore Palace

The architecture here is amazing. There is a juxtaposition of rich and poor, so close in proximity that you see such nice things surrounded by absolute poverty.

After my trip to the palace, I headed back to the hotel assisted by a rickshaw driver that definitely took advantage. Instead of about 10 or 12 cents, it cost me half a dollar. Suffice to say I am putting my game face on and that is not happening anymore (I am on a strict budget). I don’t like people trying to take advantage of me because they feel they deserve my money, because they don’t unless they provide enough value in their service to earn it. I don’t like charity or donations, because economically it is unsustainable and I usually find there is a lack of responsibility behind how the money is used, making it wasteful. How can I know if that driver used my money for his own booze, or for food for his children? I can’t and it’s not my responsibility to know.

I’m always kind of surprised at how impervious I am to people selling me things and trying to convince me of things. Must be all of the propaganda I am regularly exposed to. What can I say, it is the American in me to be skeptical of everything.

Mysore, India Read More »

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