Whether you seek it or not, consciously or unconsciously, being in India is a true wakening of the five senses and in some cases, the sixth sense too. And so it was with me on a recent India Smithsonian Journeys trip. Our group was returning from a trip around Delhi, culminating at the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our nation in New Delhi. The visit had been wonderful and hundreds of school children in their bright and clean uniforms were also there lending the space a great energy. In keeping with the Indian tradition of treating a guest as a god, all the children were eager to shake hands with the Smithsonian visitors, and some even wanted to have photographs taken with the guests from overseas.
As we were heading back to our hotel in the middle of evening rush hour traffic, we saw a sadhu (an ascetic) sitting on the ground in a traffic island, saying his evening prayers. Having renounced the world to seek union with the Divine, the sadhu owns nothing and has no fixed address. I shall never forget the sight of this holy man against the setting sun, in his faded orange robe with his matted locks piled up high on his head, oblivious to the traffic or people around him. He emanated peace and a higher learning, a knowledge forged in the fire of his faith. Seeing him, I too was transported to an inner world, where divisions of race and religion, rich or poor, do not matter, where I too could seek a Higher Truth. That single moment defined how mystical life really is and how we chain ourselves to the mundane everyday. In the middle of all of life’s cacophony, there is an island of peace and realization—only we do not know where to look for it.
India is a sensory overload—don’t doubt that for a minute. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, there is an excess—of people, color, sound, touch, taste, and smell. There is no escape from the sensual experience India offers. It is the one place in the world where you feel most intensely alive, be it in pleasant or not so pleasant surroundings. You will be bedazzled by the bright colors Indian women sport—the heady pinks and yellows together looking not garish but fantastic, the bright orange marigold garlands strung up everywhere, and the yellow of the lemon and green of the chili strung together on shopfronts to avert the Evil Eye.
You will be greeted by a cacophony of sounds—the incessant honking of cars, as if everyone is intent on signaling their existence, haunting classical melodies, and joyous folk songs. Bite into an Indian dessert and the world’s sweetness will drench you. Or choose to taste a spicy Indian pickle and the chili in it will have you wanting to drench yourself in a monsoon shower! Smells waft around you everywhere you go in India, evocative like the scent of the first monsoon shower hitting the parched earth and of heady flowers that you want to draw like a scarf around yourself.
The point is that your senses are in top gear in this country. Yet in this ancient country of mine, in the middle of this entire sensory overload, you can have a deep spiritual experience, which draws you inward, into an interior world that is endless, mystical beyond description. That to me is the enduring beauty of India.