Sunday 9 August 2015

The love song of the dark lady VI

Chapter 6

When we went back inside, everyone was already beginning to gather for the first session. Galina had already gone. Vera came up to us. She looked uninterested. Indeed, she had looked uninterested ever since we’d met her that morning.

“Galina had to get some things ready” she said. “She asked me to tell you that she’d gone on ahead. But you know where to go, right?”
“I think so,” said David. “The big room up the stairs.”
“That’s right.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I’ll help out in the kitchen. I’m mainly here for the company anyway. Why are you here?”
“I’m here to see Galina,” he said.
“Better say Garudi while you’re here.”
“As I said, I’m here to see Galina.”

We went up the stairs and found what must once have been a sort of conference room, except now there were no chairs. Around the edges there were some cushions and at the front there was a slightly raised area that seemed somehow more luxurious than everywhere else. There were some mats, a microphone stand a little table on which was some bottled water and a glass. Beside this was another place, though not quite so luxurious.

David and I sat down next to each other. Galina was a little in front of us but there was no place on either side of her. She glanced round to see that we were there. There was a sort of smile on her face, but a frown, too that went with it. Too late she seemed to say. Look what happens when you go outside to smoke cigarettes. A few minutes later however she came back to us for a minute or two. At this point I noticed that she had some markings on her face and especially on her nose. It was quite pretty I thought, though rather odd looking. Makeup was out, but face painting was in, but it didn’t matter: the whole effect still worked.  She hadn’t done anything to her hair. There wasn’t much she could do, but somehow the combination of yellowish markings on her nose framed within the blackness of her cropped hair just worked delightfully.

“We’ll talk some more afterwards,” she said to David.
“That’s OK”, he said.
“It’s just I have to concentrate and focus during the meeting. You understand?”
“Of course, don’t worry, there’s lots of time.”
“This is all very important to me. I wanted to show you.”
“I’m very pleased I came.”
“You might find it interesting. I hope so.”
“I hope so, too.”

The room was filling up and Galina returned to her place. She had given us each a little printed pamphlet. It contained what looked like songs. I guessed they were in Sanskrit, but transliterated into Cyrillic. It would be interesting indeed trying to figure out which song to sing.

In the corner stood a table with what looked like some dolls on it. At some point something sounded, chimes or bells or a sort of mixture of both, and two or three people approached the little table and lit some candles and said some words. A buzz went through the room and at that point we were ready.

A man entered the room from a side door followed by a woman. He was dressed in the sort of white loose clothes that Indian men sometimes where. Many of the men in the room were wearing similar clothes. The woman had on some sort of sari type clothing as did many of those who had sat there waiting. Galina’s sari had looked authentic, but somehow I had ignored the dark blue cloth with elaborate embroidery because of how it had enhanced what the cloth had contained. It was all a bit like dressing up, but I had noticed the effect that it had on David. So, too, this woman who was now entering made a similar if rather different effect.  Her beauty was of a different kind, her sari was pale and everything about her seemed light as if she were about to play Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied. What she wore was all very simple and quite austere. She looked modest, and it was as if she would always walk one or two steps behind her man. But I could sense that she was proud of her role and happy to be there on what amounted to a low stage. She was happy to be part of the performance even if she was not the star. She knew that she would get some of the attention and she did.

The man had some kinds of marks of distinction that set him rather apart. The mark on his nose was somewhat different and somewhat more elaborate. But it wouldn’t have mattered what he had been wearing. He had a look that set him apart. His eyes were wild and he smiled like he had recently smoked grass. Perhaps he had, but I doubt it. His high came from a higher source.

He sat down in his place and welcomed us, and mentioned who he was. He spoke English with quite a refined southern English accent. The woman who sat next to him translated every word into Russian. I instantly forgot his name, or rather didn’t bother putting it into memory. It was one of those long Indian names. I didn’t try to store it because I already knew his real name. It was a typical English name that was far easier to recall. I was almost certainly the only person in the room besides him who knew this name. So he was just the guru to me as indeed he was so described by most of the acolytes. He was our guru. So that is how I intend to describe him, too.

The woman was obviously Russian and very beautiful indeed. She looked about twenty-three or twenty-four and I found out later that she was the guru’s wife. Sex was usually discouraged as tending towards acting as a barrier to enlightenment, but an exception was made in the case of the guru. It made sense to make exceptions, otherwise the tendency was to go the way of the “shakers” who died out because they banned procreation. The guru had seen what he had wanted, a rather lovely blonde Russian girl who was devoted to what he was saying and in a way devoted to him. She was one of those Russians who looked as if she might have stepped off one of the Viking boats that first sailed down the Dnepr. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes were blonde as is sometimes if rarely, seen in Finland and Sweden. I knew a little of the story. She had turned up at one of the guru’s meetings. He discovered that she spoke rather better English than his translator at that time, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she had spoken rather worse English. He began giving her some private instruction in meditation and soon the previous translator was dismissed. An added benefit was having married his translator he now had all his translation done for free. But that was not why he had married her. I could see exactly why he had married her.  

It was hard to tell how old the guru was. He had the sort of English, slightly aristocratic look that ages well. He might have been thirty five, he might even have been forty. He had blondish hair and a fresh complexion. He was just the sort who would have been considered very eligible a century earlier.

He looked sincere, he looked like someone you could trust. He had a certain charisma. Perhaps, he even believed what he preached. There is always a certain double mindedness in all of us. Matters of faith are never psychologically straightforward. How could he have been so convincing if he did not himself believe? So yes, no doubt when he talked, he did believe and yet it seemed to me even then that there was something about the whole performance that was a masquerade. There’s nothing so fair and false as a guru.

And yet I don’t want to be overly critical of these people. What they experienced and what I experience is not so very different. I, too, believe some odd things that I can in no way prove. Worse than that, the central tenets of my faith I consider to be beyond reason. They are contradictory or at least contradictory from the only perspective I have which is my own. But what is the difference between believing in a contradiction and believing that the moon is made of green cheese or in a god who is painted purple. I may try in the pages ahead to show the difference, but I’m not at all sure that I shall succeed in a way that is not hopelessly circular. Insofar as I attack anyone else’s beliefs, I am fully aware that as I thrust my knife I leave myself open to the same attack. Yet I can do no other.

The meeting began with some songs. People on either side of David and me helped us with finding our place and we both began stumbling through the, to us, meaningless words. Most of those there however sang with enthusiasm and with understanding. Galina told me later that she had been studying Sanskrit and had the goal of reading these ancient texts easily and even speaking with fluency. I told her that I had read some of the Vedic literature in translation. She emphasised to me however that it was necessary to be very careful as the stories could not be understood directly but only through the mediation of people like the guru. I had probably therefore gained a false impression. It all seemed rather pre-Reformation. These were just the sorts of arguments used against people like Tyndale when he wanted to translate the Bible into English. But then again, perhaps, she was right. I had made nothing much of the stories I had read, beyond that they were ancient stories from a culture that was strange to me. Perhaps, what had been lacking in me, perhaps my lack of understanding had been precisely that I had lacked a guru. We were about to find out.

After the songs the guru proceeded to interpret some of these ancient stories from Sanskrit literature. The songs had been enjoyable in a strange sort of way. After much repetition they became familiar and even I with a little practice soon was able to find the right place just from the first few rather strange notes. They had a way of getting into your head so that a familiar tune and set of words was greeted with pleasure at its repetition. I saw everyone including David, including me, light up eventually as we got to sing one of our favourites again.

But then would come the lecture. The carpeted floor that had seemed rather lush in the beginning became harder as the lecture went on for two, sometimes for three hours.

The guru rambled through various sacred texts explaining stories, going on and on. He would speak a sentence in English that was remarkably bad English, which was then translated into even worse Russian. I gave up trying to understand him quickly as there was nothing to understand.

I’d read quite a few of the central texts of Hinduism, not in any great detail and not with any great expertise, but I paid attention and my academic training was in this sort of subject matter. I was familiar with the basic ideas of eastern religion. But I couldn’t follow anything that the guru said. He’d take some minute little theme and stretch it and twist it and all to no purpose. I began to wonder if he saw his task as one of numbing us into boredom.

When I’d been reading a few of the texts about Krishna in preparation for the trip, it struck me that it was as if the religion of the ancient Greeks had continued to the present day. The stories of Krishna’s exploits with his friends struck me as primitive. They were rather similar to stories of Zeus and Aphrodite and so on, but rather less interesting from a literary perspective. The Greek myths could touch me in a way that these ancient stories about India simply could not. Perhaps, that was simply because I am European and India is an unfamiliar culture, which does not much interest me. Then again I didn’t think it accidental that the Greek myths were rather better known worldwide.

I found polytheism hard to take seriously. There was a god of this and a god of that. There were gods who were monkeys, gods with many hands, gods who looked like elephants. This was the sort of thing that we had chucked out when we chucked out paganism. I know that it wasn’t straightforward paganism, I know that in the end the gods were manifestations of the one god. But it struck me as if we could have retained belief in the Greek gods in the same way by building on those foundations the same structure of everything being one. In this way Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon and so on could all have been manifestations of the one god. I thought this was a way of having your polytheist cake while somehow pretending to be a monotheist.

In the end, it was just idolatry and no more worthy of serious consideration than the worshiping the golden calf. They had Krishna on their little table, but it might just as well have been Hermes. In this I’m afraid I sided with Nietzsche. Belief in the Greek gods was a dead issue. I just differed from Nietzsche in the next step he wanted to make. Perhaps, from his point of view I was still stuck with the Greeks. But I never thought he had adequately shown belief in the Christian God to be the dead issue he thought it was. He no doubt would simply say it was a matter of time. But the point he was making about Greek Gods did not then and does not now apply to the God of Christianity, at least not in my eyes. I couldn’t take seriously anyone who earnestly claimed to believe in Thor or Zeus. It would seem eccentric at best, comical at worst. The only argument necessary would be to laugh. In just the same way I couldn’t take seriously anyone who believed in Krishna. It was faintly ridiculous to believe in this mischievous purple little naughty boy, playing tricks and peeking at girls bathing naked.

There was a depth to eastern mysticism especially in the Buddhist tradition, which was quite similar to aspects of belief in Krishna. If you stripped away all the stories, you arrived at the idea of losing yourself in the one or of finally merging yourself with that one in Nirvana.  There was the idea that this world was a distraction, even an illusion and that, most importantly, the self was a hindrance to enlightenment. The self was considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Of course, this sort of philosophical/theological tradition was a matter for serious thought and consideration. Monism, or the idea that everything is one has after all a serious place in philosophy and some of the greatest minds have advocated it in one way or another. But I had rejected that path long ago.

For me the foundation of everything was the self and to merge myself into Nirvana would simply be to die and to cease to exist. I had long before arrived at the fork in the road where one direction pointed to Hegel and nearly everyone else who came afterwards. The other path pointed to Kierkegaard. That was eternal choice: either Kierkegaard, or Hegel, either the individual, or the collective.

In this sense I could take seriously the path these people all around me were taking, but I thought it was profoundly the wrong path. The guru wanted his acolytes to lose the one thing I thought they must above all other things retain. He wanted them to lose their sense of self. That was the purpose of his interminable lectures, that was the purpose of the songs; that was the purpose of the mantras that were chanted.

But for me the loss of self was the loss of the soul. If successful and the self was lost, there would be nothing for God to grab onto, nothing for him to save. Even the one good deed, such as the gift of an onion, which Dostoevsky suggests, might be enough to save a soul, could not be efficacious if there was no soul to save. The onion could be used to pull a sinner out of hell so long as the sinner was generous and was willing to allow other sinners to be dragged out, too, but what if there was no soul to grasp onto the onion? I shuddered at the loss of self. I looked around me at the vacant eyes and the mouths silently repeating their mantra. The guru had succeeded. All around me were minds that were blank. Even David began to look blank, but that had more to do with his tiredness. I sat there and wondered what would happen next, now that all minds were empty. The guru stopped and began filling all the minds, and I saw that he had a power. Now they would not just whisper their mantra they would sing in a sort of wild release. I got up and found myself joining in. Not just as part of the role that I was playing, but finding myself swept up into it all. I realised then that I was up against a force that was very powerful indeed. I would need help if I was to have any chance of succeeding. I would need David as he had with him the only force that was more powerful than the one the guru had. He had love.