Back from India I: At Home, Abroad

Cambridge, MA. Six weeks ago I told you that I was off to India for five weeks of travel, teaching, lectures, buying some books, meeting old friends. I termed it a quiet summer — since I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. And so it was. To make amends for my weeks of silence, I now offer a series of reflections on my time there: on the visit itself, in this first entry; a second, on caste; a third, on visiting temples; a fourth, on interreligious dialogue in India today; a fifth, on my research.
     This was my 12th visit to India and/or Nepal (not all trips are equal: my longest was 26 months, my shortest, 2-weeks). As is usually the case, my home base was in Chennai (Madras), a city of more than 8 million people on the southeast coast of India which I first visited in 1982. There is great advantage in going back to the same city over and over, since you can watch the growth of the city, revisit familiar neighborhood shops and beaches, temples and schools, note changes as the city grows and (for the most part) prospers and, most importantly, meet friends again, some of whom I have known for over 30 years. I also had opportunities to travel a bit: to Jaipur, a very lovely city in Rajasthan, where I attended a Sanskrit conference; Pune, near Mumbai, where I gave lectures at the very large Jesuit-run papal seminary, at the University, and at the United Biblical Seminary; Pondichery, the old French colony south of Chennai on the coast, a still-lovely enclave that mixes French charm and a Tamil way of life; and Tiruchirapalli, a medium size city also in the south, near to which are the famed Hindu temples of Srirangam, and the Catholic ashram known as Shantivanam, made famous in the writings of Swami Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths.
     While travel in India is prone to the same problems as elsewhere in the world — delayed flights, crowded buses, overnight trains on which getting to sleep is an art, not a certainty— on the whole, transportation really works well, and is improving all the time. The new airports are on the whole as good as their American counterparts. Indeed, India as a whole is doing very well for itself. I am not an economist or social analyst, and have only anecdotal evidence based on my observations, but it seems clear that the country is thriving: the economic down-turn has not greatly afflicted the prudently run Indian economy, democracy is flourishing after vigorously contested and fair elections this spring, and, at least in the south, the governments are actively engaged in improving the quality of education, health, and job opportunities. I’ll say more about caste in my next entry, but it seems clear that honest efforts are being made to improve everyone’s lot and access to the basic necessities and more. The challenges are daunting in so large and complex a country, but I admire the government for doing many good things, and ordinary people for their hard work in improving their own lives and society. Prosperity, religious faith, and democracy seem to go well together in India.
     Yes, there is still some terrible poverty; there are water shortages; it is too hot in south India at this time of year; the flu has just killed at least 10 people; amidst great religious diversity and tolerance, there are occasional acts of religiously inspired, politically motivated, violence. But it is really important for us to avoid sensationalism, and to pay closer attention to India, to appreciate what’s going on there, and to recognize this most remarkable country with which we share a great deal in common (religiously, and in values) and with which America should work still more closely in the future. To get a feel for the country, in lieu of reading travel guides, I suggest you try reading one of the great national newspapers, such as The Hindu, or its magazine, Frontline. (Indeed, check out the interview with me in the August 14th paper.
     It is also, of course, the home to a tiny Christian minority — and to the largest number of Jesuits in the world. The Society is young in India, and growing. If we want to understand Jesuit values with respect to dialogue, solidarity with the poor, and education, it makes much sense to see in India a major dimension of “the future of the Society.”
     As you know from my previous entries here, I write on Hindu-Christian matters frequently, and such is my work. But a deep foundation for what I do is that I love being in India. I stand out in any Indian crowd as “not-Indian,” but in some peculiar way, India too is my home, and much follows from that simple instinct.
Note: if you have any questions about India or my trip, add them as comments, and I will try to get to them in the succeeding four entries.

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