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"Friends, We Have Arrived: An Inter-faith Journey Through India"

By Richard 'Aryeh' Nanas, LCSW
(Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy)

Its still unclear to me whether the group of people that traveled throughout India with Shantum Seth were the most passive individuals that could be assembled to travel together, or whether we were near-Boddhisatvas living in the minute and continually feeling filled by the present moment and the constant visual, auditory and tactile stimulation of the journey. In any case, this was a group that could sit for hours on buses in strange, unfamiliar areas rarely asking where we were or where we were going. This happened, day in and day out, throughout the interfaith journey organized by Shantum. When the bus stopped, after hours of travel, the travelers rarely got up until Shantum announced, "Friends, we have arrived!" It truly was a magical mystical journey.

Now back home on the Central Coast of California where it is full-on Spring, I don't know what part of me has arrived and what I have brought back from India. I remember my next to last day in India, in Delhi. I was sitting in the garden of the guest house. I had a 900 plus page Indian novel with me. I couldn’t even pick up the book because my head was so full and unable to process new material because of the myriad experiences of the previous six plus weeks. While in the garden Shantum’s magic of materializing amazing individuals to meet continued to work, while Shantun was no longer present. While I was gazing out, mezmerized by the birds of Dehli, I began talking to this guy who turned out to be the Indian novelist, Rana Dasgupta whose novel Tokyo Cancelled has been published internationally. We made conversation and then he asked me what had ‘struck me’ on the journey. What an easy question after doing ‘strucks’ with the group on an almost daily basis. And of course, I couldn’t answer. My internal hard-drive was so full it could not process. What did I say? I mumbled something about being surprised when I was told that India could no longer be competitive in the world tea market because tea can be cultivated more cheaply in Africa. This after a six week inter-faith journey to spiritual and faith communities throughout India. This after almost daily group meditations in caves, on beaches, in the Himalayas, on rocks, in chapels and meditation rooms and every other place we could gather to sit. Cheaper to grow tea in Africa.

The journey was so full and so intense, and for many of us, it was the trip of our lifetimes. The trip was intended to re-unite friends of Shantum that had traveled on his In The Footsteps of the Buddha tours and was intended to be an extensive journey into the variety of religious and spiritual communities that make India such an attraction for so many of us.

Ten travelers plus Shantum and his wife Geetu and their daughter Anamica, began the journey. From the original group of ten, eight people continued throughout the entire journey. The group included people from Norway, Switzerland, Canada, England and the US. At times some people dropped off after a segment and others joined for other segments. The journey was divided into five segments: East; North; West; South and a final segment in Dharamshala to witness the Dalai Lama’s public teachings and visit with the Tibetan community in exile. The first four segments had between 9-12 participants and the final segment had 24 members.

So what happened on this trip?

The East:  

Some of us traveled from Dehli, others from Calcutta. The group met together in the temple city of Bhubaneswar, capital of the state of Orissa. Most of us were just beginning the recovery from the trip through multiple time zones. The original plan had been to explore Calcutta and Bengal. Orissa was not on the itinerary, but the extensive outbreak of bird flu throughout Bengal caused a last minute cancellation of that segment.
While many of us would have loved to get to know Calcutta and Shantum’s programs in Bengal, the time in Orissa turned out to be an wonderful experience. This segment was primarily about traveling to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain historical remains throughout the state, but it was embellished by chance encounters of various kinds with fascinating people.

Because of Shanum’s connections we were invited to have tea with the governor of Orissa in his official residence. Two days later we were back for the official garden party on Republic Day at Raj Bhavan. The dress was formal or national and we were dressed ‘tourist’ but the petite white bread sandwiches with the crust trimmed off united us all. At the party, the governor introduced Shantum to the Artist, Jatin Das, who then invited us over to his studio for drinks and the opportunity to watch him prepare for the film festival on Art Documentaries and Shorts that was to open within days.

The encounters with the governor, artists, scholars, students and teachers greatly embellished the time in Orissa, but clearly the highpoints involved our encounters with the historic (and at times current) spiritual sites that we visited. Who will forget time spent meditating at ancient Hindu and Jain caves while we were protected inside the caves and torrential rain drenched everything outside? How to describe the sensations when we visited the spot where Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism after truly understanding the horrors of war and devastation and slaughter that he had been involved in. We sat on a rock over the spot where Asoka’s edicts were carved in stone. Shantum gave a dharma talk and we meditated. Wasn’t this really what the journey was about?

The Eastern segment required long bus rides throughout the Orissa countryside to travel from site to site. I remember during one of these long rides thinking what could be better than sitting on this bus with a sweet sangha watching the Orissa countryside pass by. My thoughts went from the macro of observing large masses of humanity in the cities to the micro of wondering what that woman was doing squatting alone in the middle of a rice patty. What is her life like? What is she observing?

I feel inadequate to the job of describing the variety of Hindu  temples, pilgrimage sites, and religious archeological remains of the great Buddhist presence that existed in Orissa. Others on the journey would be better able to describe what we visited. When I look at the photos of the variety of temples and remains, I am quite simply awe struck. I can stare at the detail in one photo, of one tiny segment of some of these temples, and gain new and greater appreciation of what we saw. It was so overwhelming and we saw so much, that occasionally the magnificent became too ordinary. Fatigue, hunger and heat at times were a match for our intent to remain mindfull and fully explore the present moment.

So much more to describe in Orissa from the seaside in Puri; the fisherpeoples’ village, the ‘eco’ restaurant; the truck stop restaurant; Lake Chillika and the dolphins; the magnificent Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri; the Sun Temple; Raghurajpur Village; the tribal fair and so much more. Going to a more micro level, we could mention being on the bicycle rickshaws in the dark, on the rutted narrow path coming out of the tribal village. So much, and so much left out. And I still have not mentioned the swastikas which were everywhere and mean the exact opposite of what I was conditioned to believe because of the Nazi use of the symbol.

The North:

After the relative calm of Orissa, the journey through the North began with a bang in Dehli. Our sleep-deprived selves (ignoring the argument about the existence of ‘the self’) hit the Nizamuddin area and we knew that we were about to experience something quite different. What we saw was what appeared to be a densely packed Moslem area that made many of us feel like we were in the Middle-East in some unidentified period of time.

The visit began with a meeting with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a great Islamic scholar and advocate for peace. His thesis is that Islam is a peaceful religion and that terrorism is unlawful. He feels that according to his interpretation of Islamic Law, only a state has a right to go to war. To him, jihad is a peaceful struggle with the book (the Koran). He told us that he believes that Islam does not require the entire world to be Islamic and he believes in inter-religious dialogue. To the Maulana, India is the best place for Moslems to live in the world. Only in India can Moslem live in both peace and in freedom. We were introduced to the Maulana’s daughter who has a Ph.D and is a scholar in her own right, and his grandaughter who  is working in cinema.

In the Moslem quarter we walked through the bazar, walked by a great Mosque just as Friday prayers were beginning and we ended up at the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a great sufi mystic. There we were entranced by the Sufi singing and chanting. We could have stayed there all night, but we were expected at Shantum and Geetu’s home for a late dinner.

The next day was spent in Old Dehli. Most of the group would describe it as the most intense day of the journey. It was the most crowded area that most of us have ever seen. It was a major effort of Shantum and his guide helpers to keep us together in that intense space with ricksaws, motorbikes, cars, and thousands of individuals and animals all honking and jostling each other in very narrow streets. The fumes and noise and traffic was overwhelming. Near accidents were constant on the rickshaws, as they were while walking.

What was most amazing in Old Dehli was the variety of religions and religious practices in such intense close proximity. The Jain Temple and Bird Hospital; the Shiva Temple; the Sikh Gurudawa; the mosques and probably other religious institutions were all practically next door to each other. The swirling crowds of Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Jains and others that I couldn’t identify formed an amazing mosaic. If this mass can live together, possibly there is hope for the world.

The last whilrlwind day in Dehli started at the Ghandi Smiti where we walked Ghandi’s last steps. Then in quick succession, we shopped at FabIndia; toured central Dehli; and visited the Bahai Lotus Temple. Ast the temple we had an opportunity to learn about the Bahai religion and we were able to meditate in the main sanctuary. The Lotus shaped building was georgeous in the late afternoon/ early evening light. From the temple were were back to Nizamuddim to return to the Sufi shrine for a music festival. We had an opportunity to listen to Shanti Shrama Dagar one of India’s great raag musicians. We were fed at the shrine and then we ended our day with the chaos of the railway station to make the 10:30PM overnight train from Dehli to Hardiwar.

After Dehli we stayed at the Glass House on the Ganges, one of the most unique hotels on the journey. Sinuated on the Ganga, one hour above Rishikesh, it was located in a beautiful spot. While there we visited Shantum’s property on the Ganga and went to the awe-inspiring spot where the Ganga began at the confluence of rivers coming down from the Himalayas. Above this confluence, we climbed a hill to visit a guru whom Shantum had heard about. Unfortunately we woke the guru from his nap and we did not have a good connection with this man. We had better luck at the Divine Life Center (Shivananda Ashram) the next day. Swami Padmanabhnanda explained to us that there is no such word as Hinduism. The word was invented by Westerners. He told us our job, while on this planet is to uncover our divinity and understand that divinity (being divine) is the goal of life. His somewhat curt statements were framed by his statement that highher philosophy is to be lived, not talked about.

The rest of the day was spent in Rishikesh. We spent some time with an ayuvedic doctor, and then some of the group went off to find the Maharishi’s Ashram which was so significant in the 60’s when it was a temporary home to John, Paul, George and Ringo (for a shorter time). Shantum managed to convince the gatekepper to let us into this closed site (closed due to a dispute between the Maharishi and the government) and we wandered through the various empty buildings that spoke of the vibrant community that once existed here in the flower days (daze). The next day we found out that the Maharishi had died—probably near the time that we were exploring his Rishikesh Ashram that made him such an important spiritual figure in the 60’s and 70’s. On the way back to meet the group, passing through gangs of monkeys on both sides, we passed the Last Chance Café with its great sign, “Life is Smile”.

Those in the group that did not explore the Maharishi’s ashram, spent time shopping in Rishikesh and attended the evening aarti on the Ganga. The aarti is a riverside religious ceremony accompanied with chanting monks, symbols, flaming torches, drums, and trumpets. The group at the aarti were moved by their sense of the beauty and devotion implicit in the ritual. The power is enhanced by the light at sunset over the Ganga.

The visit to the North also included white water rafting on a beautiful section of the Ganga with a great Nepalese guide. Leaving Rishikesh we spent time at a major Hindu pilgrimage site on the Ganga. The site is thought to be the site where Shiva desended to save the world. The devotion of the pilgrims who come to do ritual bathing was mezmorizing and the group had to be rounded up to get back on the bus.

From Rishikesh, we went to Dehradun, the site of Shantun’s proposed retreat center and the site of his many year childhood retreat at the Doon School, a boarding school for the Indian elite. The group spent time interacting with students at the school about the possibility of integrating mindfulness education into the curriculum. The gift to the group was the interaction with this upcoming generation of India’s power elite. The downside, particularly for the British travelers, was the adversive reaction to the boarding school system. Many of the British felt that they were observing the worst of their boarding school system.

In Dehradum, after the Doon School, we spent the day of Tibetan new year (Lobsal) with the head of the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and from there wandered into an orphanage that boardered Shantun’s proposed center. Cramming another activity into a very cold day, we visited Rajiv and Swati who run a Yoga center and have been teaching Iyengar Yoga for more thatn 35 years. The late evening ended with an amazing Japanese dinner prepared by a macrobiotic teacher at Nita Roi’s house.

The following day ended with a bus and train ride across Punjab to reach Amritsar, home of the Sikh’s holy site the Golden Temple. We arrived very late at night and attended an inter-faith gathering the next morning. Shantum gave a nice presentation on Buddhism and peace. From the conference we went to the Golden Temple. For most of us this was a spectacular day. After being in many religious sites that were not well taken care of and appeared quite unhygienic, the Golden Temple was beautiful and spotless. In fact it seemed that the floor cleaning never stopped at the Temple. It would have been better if we were not shoeless and sockless and water was not being cotinually poured on very cold stone floors on a very cold day. Even with a down jacket, it was cold.

The Temple itself was very alive, and it appeared to fill so many purposes. In and of itself, it was beautiful. It served as a devotional site for the Sikh’s and a site of active worship and learning. It also was a place that the Sikh’s could demonstrate their conviction that religious instruction sounds hollow and hypocritical to hungry people. Thus the Sikhs serve, on a volunteer basis, up to 200,000 free meals a day. As we toured the kitchens and watched the endless meals being served, all by volunteers, we were deeply impressed by the selfless service being demonstrated. We noticed entire multi-generational families working together to prepare food for the visitors and we heard that when there is a natural disaster in India, the Sikhs are among the first to arrive and help. It is clear from what we saw at the Temple that the Sikhs have tremendous organizational skills. The temple was also a wonderful place for the group to sit while live devotional music continually poured out in the background.

Shantum had a friend meet us at the Golden Temple. He was an important Sikh journalist. Like many of the Sikhs that we met, he appeared to exhibit a strong sense of inner satisfaction or contentment. Shantum mentioned that all Sikhs must visit the Golden Temple once in their lifetime as Moslems must visit Mecca. The Sikh immediately responded and said that the difference is that our Temple is open to all regardless of religion, gender, caste or any other differentiation. Only Moslems can visit Mecca. This openness to all was an impressive feature of the Sikh religion.

The West:

After a minimal amount of sleep, we flew from Amritsar to Dehli to Mumbai to begin the Western segment. Mumbai was a whirlwind that began with a boat ride to Elephanta Island to a world heritage site with ancient carved Shiva caves. In Mumbai we spent time with the Parsis ( after driving through hours of traffic). Dr J.N. Sidhva taught us about Zorastrian Culture and religion. He was a wonderful host. Later we were brought to a Parsi housing project and we had lunch with our hosts in the Parsi Center.

After the wonderful time with the  Parsis, we visited the Ambedkar Stupa, dedicated to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was an untouchable (scheduled caste member) and was the chief architect of the Indian constitution. He worked to improve the position of this class and ultimately felt that the only road to improvement for this caste was to leave Hinduism. He studied various religions and considered Buddhism to be the religion in which he felt most comfortable and the religion that offered untouchables the way out of the caste system. When Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, hundreds of thousands of others converted with him.

A number of former untouchables who converted to Buddhism met us at the Ambedkar Stupa. The group had a sitting at the stupa, and then the new Buddhist leaders accompanied us to the airport and educated us about the issues of both the untouchables in India, and the issues facing those who have converted to Buddhism. In addition we became acquainted with a number of the projects that the group has undertaken throughout India.

From Mumbai, we flew to Aurangabad and arrived late at night. The focus of this part of trip were  visits to  the world heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora caves. The sites represented ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Jain worship sites. They were used for prayer, meditation and monastery use. The incredible process of designing and creating such intricate rock carved temples and monasteries is really beyond my ability to describe and can only be described as one of the wonders of the world. How can we truly take in the fact that such immense projects were completed using only hammers and chisels? As is typical of this journey, we had the opportunity to experience group sittings in the caves and we had an im-prompto concert by members of the group in one of the almost acoustically perfect temple caves at Ellora. The journney through the countryside on the trips between Aurangabad and the sites always yielded some special unscheduled delights such as walking through a cotton field and watching American Wrestling (the worst of American culture—if there really is a worst) with villagers in a tiny rural Indian restaurant. The smiles that we shared leaped over linguistic and cultural differences while the wrestlers performed their comedic pseudo-sport routines.

The South:

The journey to the South began as we flew from Aurangabad to Mumbai, met four new members, and flew to Kochin in the state of Kerala. Kerala appeared quite different from the previous areas we visited in India. Some of the difference was due to the large Christian population, the communist State Government, and the 100% literacy rate of the population. We were told that Kerala was about 60% Hindu, 20% Moslem, and 20% Christian. We met with a number of Shantun’s friends in a boat club in Kochin and they talked in a quite animated manner about the way in which the different religious groups live in a harmonious manner in Kerala.

This segment of the trip was the only segment with some built in tourist relaxation activities, although for the most part, most of the group was on the go from relatively early morning to late in the PM. The major exception was an almost 24 hour period on houseboats through the backwaters with time spent lazily birdwatching and watching the activities of the people in the villages by the shore. The scenary was stunning and the time on the houseboats will probably remain prominantly in our memories. In addition to the sight-seeing, it was a time to deepen the connection with the fellow travelers on the boats. A number of group members also made use of the ayuvedic treatment options which were available in the various places  we stayed in Kerala.

In Kerala, we visited a synagogue (quite meaningful to the Rabbi and her husband who were on the journey), a number of churches, Hindu Temples, ashrams, and numerous Hindu festivals. We were grounded for a day (at a resort) due to a general strike, and we had to make special plans to leave Trivandum because of a massive Hindu festival that involved women boiling rice in most of the streets of the city (the flame used to light the cookers came from the temple and spread throughout the city). Needless to say, traffic was blocked by the rice cookers which were going on in the streets to music and large crowds. As always, Shantum was flexible and able to adjust to whatever the situation required.

While there are many great memories of the time in Kerala, probably the most vivid memory is the time that we spent at the Southernmost tip of India. This was the point where the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal all come together. Many of us went into the sea  along with many Indians also make a type of pilgrimage to that spot. It was stunning to visualize that the entire subcontinent of India stands North of where you are. We were also there on an amazing night when we saw the sunset with one turn of our head, and we saw the full moon with the turn to the other side. The site also contained a Gandhi memorial where his ashes were first placed before being dispersed throughout India, and a memorial to Vivekannada, the first yogi and Hindu sage to visit America in 1893 for the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. What a night, what a site!

In Kerala, two Ashram visits also stand out in memory. The first was the time spent at Ammaji’’s  (Sri Myiata Amritanandama Devi’s) Ashram in Amritapuri. We were deeply impressed by the humanitarian service that Amma’s work inspires, and the variety of nationalities that live together at the ashram. We had a wonderful sit on the beach by the ashram. The second ashram visit was the visit to the Ashram founded by Swaimi Shree Narayan who was a great Indian social reformer and an advocate of the abolition of the caste system. He was a strong believer in social equality and taught non-violence and ahimsa. Swami Narayan pre-supposed the conversions of the ‘new-Buddhists’ since he was quite tolerant of those who converted out of Hinduism to avoid the caste system. This was in contra-distinction to Ghandi’s position against converting out of Hinduism.

All-in-all, the Kerala visit was full and rewarding. We experienced incredible physical beauty and immersed ourselves in a richly rewarding mix of religious, spiritual, cultural, political and communal activities.


The last segment of the Inter-faith joiurney was back to the North to spend 10 days in Dharamshala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the home of His Holness The Dalai Lama (HHDL). The journey began in Dehli where the group expanded to 24 members. The first night was spent at Shantum and Geetu’s home in Dehli getting to know each other prior to an over-night train ride to Pathankot. We arrived in Pathankot early in the morning and then split the group into a number of 4-wheel drive vehicles to make the journey up the mountain to the Dharamshala area (actually we stayed in upper Dharamshala in McCleod Ganj). Much has been written about the harrowing ride and roads to McCleod Ganj, so, needless to say, everything that has been written about the ride is correct.

This segment was distinct from other segments, since we were never in one vehicle and there was a variety of individual options for the day’s activities. Some of the group went to HHDL’s teachings everyday, while others went to some teachings and attended other available activities. In addition to the teachings, some people went on a trek up the Himalayas; visited the Tibetan Children’s Village; visited the Tibetan Nuns Project; visited Norbalingka (Tibetan  Monastery and Cultural Center); visited a tea plantation; visited with the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile; visited with HHDL’s brother, a major thinker in his own right; spent time with a few Western monastics who are doing good work; met people working with victims of torture in Chinese prisons; met with ‘New Buddhists’ who are former untouchables; attended afternoon classes with HHDL’s English translator; attended  a Tibetan Music and Dance performance; met with a Rimpoche who heads the library of all of the Tibetan works that have been brought out of Tibet: and had an early morning visit to a monastery to observe the offical Tibetan Oracle while he was in a trance in order to divine the answer to an important question that was put to him. Many of us received blessings from the Oracle.

While the myriad of activities were going on, each of us had at least two significant backdrops that were always going on. The first was the grappling with the teachings of HHDL and the teachings given by the translator. Without going into detail, clearly ‘emptyness (no self)’ and ‘dependant origination’ were concepts that many of us were struggling with. How do we understand these concepts and how do we integrate them into our lives? There was tremendous depth in the teachings, and the aformentioned two concepts were only the beginning. Those of us on the trip that had previously embraced Buddhism found many concepts in Tibetan Buddhism that were intriguing but stretched us to new intellectual and spiritual levels. The meeting with HHDL’s brother introduced us to an amazing person, who renounced his incarnated position, but still considered himself a Buddhist while having his own difficulties with many aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and its rituals.

The second backdrop to everything in Dharamshala were the people that we were randomly meeting everywhere we went. It was clear that the people (foreigners) in Dharamshala were there for one of three reasons. Either the foreigners were Buddhists, or they were spiritual seekers, or they were people who were involved politically and culturally with the Tibetan people’s struggle. Everyone that we met had an amazing story.  Often at the teachings we would be sharing mats and books with Tibetans, French, English, Americans, Israelis, or a number of other of nationalities. Clearly we saw Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Spanish and so many others. Even some of the Kashmiri shop-keepers had some unusual stories of why they ended up in Dharamshala.

All of the participants were deeply touched by the situation of the Tibetan refugee community, and the people in Tibet. Each of us in our own way will keep the Tibetans in our hearts. Some of us will re-dedicate ourselves to support the political struggle of the Tibetans, while the rest of us will at least explain the situation to all of those that we meet.

While all of the above, and more, was going on, this new, larger group of travelers were dealing with each other and with Shantum and Jagdish. The group came together at many occasions for activities, sittings, meals and the process sharing of ‘strucks’. For some on the trip, the relationships formed might be the most significant aspect of the journey. The last day in Dharamshala ended quite powerfully with may people in the group taking the three refuges and the five mindfulness trainings. For some of us it was only after tremendous inner reflection that we were able to participate in the ceremony, while for others it was clearly who they had always been.

The last day in Dharamshala ended with us going back down the mountain to Pathankot and then an overnight train to Dehli. We arrived in Dehli very early in the morning and this should have been the end of the trip. Instead, Shantum, who always goes far beyond the minimum required, had us transported to a hotel for breakfast. At breakfast, there was more sharing and Shantum had unexpected gifts for all of us. In addition we were oriented about going out from the bubble that many of us had inhabited for 6 weeks, into the world that we thought that we had known. It was an emotional parting from the trip of a lifetime.

Blessings to all of the participants, guides, staff and to all of the people of India. You have all enriched us in a way that you may never know. May all of the religious, spiritual and faith communities of India experience the peace, joy and the sense of connectedness that we were shown.


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