I spent a few hours this weekend reading Joseph Campbell’s Baksheesh and Brahman, which is Campbell’s journals from a year in India from 1954-55 (I’m now about a third of the way through). Campbell writes that he went to India to find Brahman and instead found politics. He approached his visit from the perspective of a mythologist. In contrast to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who went to India to find God, Joseph Campbell went to observe religious practices. Although the journals evidence his own perspective and prejudices, he makes cogent observations on the difference between religiosity and spirituality (not all that dissimilar to the distinctions made in the Bhagavad Gita about the difference between rigidly practicing ritual and truly believing). He also makes very interesting and still timely and cogent comparisons between the relationship of Hinduism and to the then rather new Indian nationalism and American Protestantism to democracy.
Ultimately, though, it is evident that this year was important for Campbell’s life path and work, as it was for the Beats, and has been for many of my friends who have gone, though not for all. I think about going to India. It will be when I have several weeks and don’t have a venerable and ancient cat who cannot be left behind for a long stretch of time. In the meantime, reading of such journeys can stimulate thought and can be applied to other aspects of my life, though reading and studying (especially in the yoga tradition), is never a substitute for experience. Just reading of spiritual experiences, but not doing the practices to open the door to one’s own experience is like reading cooking or gardening books, but never going into the kitchen or the garden.
My earliest exposure to eastern mysticism was through Salinger and the Beats, which I read avidly in high school and even junior high. The Beats were hipper and smarter than I could ever hope to be (and they weren’t so good to the women, but that’s another avenue to discuss and explore), but I could check out the Beats call to the east. One of the reasons I found the Beats use of the eastern imagery so compelling, was that I wasn’t expected to believe, I was just expected to understand how the imagery could open me up to new experiences and understandings of the deeper self and how it fits into the web of being.
I just finished reading Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, The Beats in India, which is an unsentimental, not particularly flattering, but most interesting account of the Beats and their time spent in India and how it influenced their work. This particular passage resonated with one of the issues that I wrestle with as study yoga and its underpinning philosophy and its relationship to my personal experience of “spirit”: “Mr. Jain explained to Allen [Ginsberg] that all gods are unreal, but most Hindus choose one and use the image of that god (either a picture or a statue) to focus on during prayers, to quiet the mind and soak the heart in the gentle vibes it radiated. Or, after taking your measure, your guru might assign you a god. Apparently, there was a personal god for everyone, Allen [Ginsberg] reported to Jack [Keroac], tailored to your temperament, desires, or inclinations.”
Have you found that the characteristics or image presented by one of the pantheon resonates more deeply with you than the others?
Other interesting books about the Beats experiences in India: Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg, Passage Through India, Gary Snyder