Friday, August 05, 2005

Two Travelers in the Land of Maya

A meeting of spiritual and material, fanaticism and detachment, in the bustling center of a festival marketplace....

Journal excerpt, June 13, 1988
Boston, Massachusetts

S stood before the columns of Quincy Market. Petite and thin, wearing a simple shirt, loose pants. Silver drum Hare Krishna amulet around her neck. Several other necklaces, pearl string earrings. Her auturn hair showed black roots.

She stopped me and asked if I'd be interested in taking a look at a book on meditation and yoga. She held it out to me, golden-splendored Krishna on the cover.

"I have a book on yoga; thanks," I said.

"This is mental yoga," she countered. "Just take a look at it."

"What organization are you with?"

"Iskcon." The Hare Krishna's term for Hare Krishna.

I looked for a moment. "This is from the Upanishads."


I'd taken a college course in comparative religion and done my own independent readings afterwards, enough to be able to discuss something of the Rig Veda and Brahmanas as well. Sometimes it dumbfounded solicitors. But not her. "I like the old gods," I said. Agni -- "

"Oh yes. The fire god."

"And Prajapati was something of a Christ figure, which was then related to Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita." I added, "I have a friend who's a Buddhist -- "

"Buddha was a reincarnation of Krishna," she said flatly.

"Well, they're all related."

"The book is only a dollar," she insisted. "It's to cover printing costs."

"Let me think it over." I was about to leave when I got curious and asked her, "What made you join Krishna?"

Serenity crossed her face. "Actually it started because I thought it was all so pretty," she said. "And it's safe. I live in the temple; I live alone when I don't live in the temple. You know who you're with. Everyone shares, and it's safe." She gazed across the shopping arcade. "You're not out there in the material world, which is so fake -- "

"Maya," I said. "Illusion."

"Exactly. We see it as that, too."

"That's a concept in the Brahmanas that I like." I added, "My style is to be out in the world, working within maya."

"I was brought up strictly Catholic," she said. "And I like the rituals -- that's one thing that drew me into Krishna."

When I mentioned that spiritually I am eclectic, she said, "In a way I am, too." However, she proselytizes for Krishna, dresses in the saffron robe when her group performs in Harvard Square, and carefully distributes literature in Faneuil Marketplace, which includes Quincy Market. "They don't like us here."

She is in the middle of a six-day fast, to "expiate sins." ("I'm a fanatic -- if I do something I do it all the way.") Working them off by self-deprivation, even of liquids. "The food is easy," she said. "I'm not hungry anyway. But the water is hard."

Her lips at first seemed to glisten with pale lipstick. Then I realized it was flakes of her skin -- cracked, dried, and blanched.

"You're having no water at all?" I asked.

"Two tablespoons a day, because I take medication," she said.

For eighteen years she has suffered seizures, migraines, and sleep disorders from a brain aneurism. "I know that at any moment I could have an embolism," she said, "but that's all right -- you just go with no pain -- " a flick of the wrist, " -- like that."

For all she knows, the aneurism and scar tissue may have stemmed from her father's beatings when she was young. Five years old, she kept calling the police, whom her father told there was nothing wrong when they arrived. Her mother, who witnessed the beatings, told S they had never happened.

She said, "I need to get to the library in Copley Square." She wanted to pick up a book by Albertus Magnus.

We spoke of the Koran. "I didn't like the idea of all those wives," she said. "I didn't like that in the Old Testament, either -- and especially the concept of the leviret. Giving a woman to her dead husband's brother; that sounds incestuous to me. It's not right."

"They wanted to continue blood lines back then," I said. "In Islam, at least, the wives were supposed to be treated equally -- and Mohammad's male followers were dying in battle. There weren't enough men to go around."

"He got where he got because of his wife," S said. "She had the money."

We talked of Thomas Aquinas, who tried to create a scientific view of Catholicism. When S said there were no women priests I said, "Yes there are."

"Not Catholics."

"No, but there are women Episcopalian priests."

"Oh. Well, they're not really Christians," she said flatly. Her belief is that only Catholics are true Christians. On Judaism, she maintained that the Reform Movement came to be to give people an excuse for not following all the Orthodox rituals.

"Actually," I said, "Reform Judaism simply cuts out the Talmud."

"That's what I mean."

"And it stays faithful to the Pentateuch, the Torah. The Talmud was not written down until after the Babylonian exile, and there are two different versions of it -- Babylonian and Jerusalem." She had not known that the written Talmud had come later, or that it took a millennium to be finalized.

When I asked her if she'd read Dante's Divine Comedy she exclaimed, "Yes! No one I talk to knows what I'm talking about when I mention Dante."

S joined the Hare Krishnas when she was 30. Her fellow temple-mates have cautioned her time and time again to be careful with her fasting, to not be so extreme.

"That doesn't matter," she said. "I know I'll feel better about myself for doing this. And I know I can do it." She will stop only if her guru tells her to; she obeys him without question.

S told me that in the Divine Comedy, she best likes the circle of Limbo in Hell, reserved for the virtuous but unbelieving. "That doesn't seem so bad," she said.

The day was hot; we sat in the shade. We were talking about the Kabbalah -- S admiring, as I had, the practice of gematriya -- feeling the power in the manipulation of letters. When I mentioned the concept of hishtavut -- equanimity -- she replied, "In the temple we call that detachment. That the material world does not matter."

Along came a burly, barechested man. S frowned. "I don't see how people can go out like that. He'd feel better wearing a shirt." She shook her head and said, "No regard for what he exposes other people to."

I laughed and chided, "Detachment!"

"But still ... like fat people in bathing suits. Don't they know what they're showing to others?"

I described the nude beach I'd been to in Vancouver -- where people of all ages, shapes, and sizes bathed together in complete equanimity. Earlier, when a friend of S had expressed concern about her fast, S kidded, "I'm not stopping now -- I'm already down to a size 4!"

She was looking around for a water fountain, just to cool her parched lips and spit the water back out; she gargles but does not swallow. She wants to switch to homeopathic medicine -- only herbs. She had stopped her medication once and suffered a grand mal seizure.

I cast my glance about for a fountain. We walked around in an unsuccessful search; then I steered us to the arcade and Swenson's Ice Cream, where I planned to get a soda. "We could ask for water there."

"I don't like to ask. People look at me as though I'm crazy."

"Detachment," I reminded her. "The worst they could say is no."

Swenson's was packed because of the heat. I paid a dollar for a cup of soda and asked for a small cup of water. The counter was manned by young high-schoolers, each of whom said, "We can't give out water."

"I've bought a soda," I said. "Can't I get a little water with it?"

"Sorry. We can't give out water."

S asked, "What about a couple of ice cubes?"

"We can't give out ice cubes." Not one teenager but several told us this.

Finally I was indicating glasses left half-full on the counter, asking, "Is this water?"


I looked at S.

"I don't have caffeine," she said. Sprite has no caffeine.

When we were outside I offered her the small chips of ice in my own drink. She accepted those; I scooped them up in my hand and dropped them into hers until she stopped me, saying she had enough.

"What a show of materialism," she said. "Do you believe that?" I simply shook my head.

We sat on steps just outside the Market. "I used to come here all the time," S said, "when I was married. We were into the whole yuppie lifestyle -- come here every night for a few drinks, eat out. All that rich food. I can't eat that now, no meat. No fish, or dairy."

Fish was the last thing she had given up, over the course of years. She admires the looks of people like Katharine Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ricardo Montalban. "The advanced soul has beauty."

I thought of Joseph Merrick. When I mentioned I looked on age and gray hairs and wrinkles as signs of character and surviving, she agreed. "Almost no one I know thinks like that," she said, adding, "I don't know when I went gray; I use a color rinse." A woman of contradictions.

She asked, "Is it my imagination, or are the women here walking more aggressively than the men?"

I said it could well be true.

"I walk aggressively, or I used to," she said, "but never with a chip on my shoulder."

Her husband, like her father, had been violent. I could in part understand her need for retreat, safety, escape. At the same time, much as I disagree with her fortitude, I could admire it. She was not a mediocre Krishna; she was a true fanatic. Her austerity reminded me of St. Therese -- indeed, S was doing in Krishna those things she may well have attempted in Catholicism.

At the same time, her disregard (philosophically) for the material world is belied by her obsession with physical appearance, and with how she appears to others. Her left index finger was ravaged by burns, an open sore exposing raw, red flesh. I said, "There's a natural, Vitamin A&D ointment, that can help heal that."

She had prepared soup in a microwave a week earlier. The soup had overflowed. "I should do something," she admitted, "so the other people don't have to see this."

"It also eases pain."

"Actually there's no pain," she said. "Although there will be when scar tissue forms. I should go and get a skin graft."

She described a friend of hers who had been close when they were both into the yuppie syndrome, and who is now distant. "She makes $70,000 a year and she's in debt," S said. "She's invested in several timeshare condos, and then was surprised when she found out they have no equity. I warned her they did not. I told her: Invest in a piece of art. She said, 'I have no room on my shelves. I have no room on my walls.'"


Blogger twila said...

Reading this made me sad for that woman. So much pain endured. So confused and contradictory.

12:31 AM  

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