There's a part of my life that I rarely write about on here. I've been practicing meditation for more than forty years and have a great interest in all things spiritual, which has taken me many times to India. People who know me personally know all this of course, though somehow I've always felt it was appropriate to keep it all separate from my bookish life. But the other day I got the offer of a review copy of this newly published e-book and enjoyed it so much I thought I'd tell you about it.
'I'm just an ordinary old man', Tony Butcher says in this book, and it's true in many ways, though not in others. He's a retired schoolteacher, happily married since he was 21, has a passion for cricket. Many years ago he learned the practice of transcendental meditation and it evidently filled some kind of gap for him, bringing many benefits to his everyday life. He became a keen attender on various advanced and residence courses, and it was on one of these in early 2001 that he heard of a forthcoming tour of the sacred sites of north India and felt what he describes as a calling to go. The limit of his travel experience had been family holidays in Spain and Greece, but he was soon down at the travel agent booking a flight to Delhi, much to his own and his wife's surprise.
Luckily - though in Tony's view nothing is really just up to luck - he started keeping a diary and it is this that he has edited for the e-book. For anyone who loves or longs to go to India, this will certainly feed the flames. We hear about the flight:
It always occurs to me that setting off on an aircraft journey replicates what happens when we die. First of all we are relieved of our possessions. Next we are separated from our family and friends and herded into a waiting area. Lastly, we are whisked off to another place where life is very different.
We hear about the fabulous Imperial Hotel in Delhi, where the tour party spends their first few nights, and about his first impressions of that glorious, mad, perplexing, loveable country. But we also hear about the ideas that lie behind the tour itself - the company than ran it is dedicated to taking people to visit the most revered spiritual sites in India, places where, whatever their belief system (Hindu, Buddhist, Tibetan etc), devotees have spent their lives looking inwards, turning away from the distractions of the world of the senses. Tony loves every minute of it - from the start it clearly fulfils some deep spiritual need, but he also loves the people, the hotels, the food, the train journeys, the boat rides on the Ganges and much much more, and writes about them with great warmth and enthusiasm. But then, on a visit to a temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, things take an unexpected turn, as he finds himself in front of a shrine dedicated to the goddess Durga:
One look was all it took! It was love at first sight! At the time I didn’t even know that it was a representation of Durga. I began to chant spontaneously. Lots of chants came from deep inside me that I had never heard before. I felt a deep feeling of reverence for her and spontaneously prostrated myself at her feet.
So, in this completely innocent and spontaneous way, Tony's life shot off in a direction he had never anticipated and did not fully understand. As he goes on to explain in the book, from this point on, every time he saw a representation of Durga, whether in a temple, or even just as a cheap statue or painting, this spontaneous chanting would automatically begin. The chants were in the ancient Sanskrit language, and he had no idea what he was saying, but numerous temple priests and sanskrit scholars verified that they were completely authentic. From that day forward,, Tony became an ardent devotee of the goddess, and this continues today.
For a non-Hindu, this all sounds probably very puzzling and inexplicable. Evidently the phenomenon of spontaneous chanting is well-known in India, but occurrences of it are rare today. The explanation he has been given and that he fully accepts is that he must have been a devotee of Durga in a previous incarnation and that the memory of his previous practices has just been brought to the surface. I'm happy with that myself, but it would be interesting to hear an explanation from someone who is totally sceptical about all such matters.
The book is quite short and I read it in a sitting, with huge enjoyment. If you think it might interest you, you can find in Amazon by clicking here. Fascinating stuff.