Shiva & Buddha Together

After all the years in which several girlfriends and I sat around planning grand trips involving sky-diving, snorkeling and weeks in Bali – we decided just like that, to set off to Sedona, Arizona. It sounded like the most exciting place on Earth. Like the son said, there is such a matching ring to it, that it is fun to say it together.

Driving to Sedona from Phoenix, Arizona was surreal and giggly. The full moon shone down on the desert landscape with giant cacti illuminated in the glow of the moon. The constellations traveled with us. I gazed out the window, not really knowing how harsh the environment was. It was all muted and beautiful in the moonlight. The cacti stood out tall and distinct, and I was wondering how tall they must have been to stand out like that. I was to find out two days later that they could be as tall as 40 feet tall, and not for the first time I thought of how precious life must be to thrive in environments like these. Arizona is of course very proud of its cacti: The Arizona State Bird is the Cactus Wren and the State Flower of Arizona is the Saguaro Cactus Flower.

Hiking in Sedona is an experience unto itself. The vast expanse is humbling, the red rocks, layers upon layers of it, that were once the ocean bed is mesmerizing to look at. Hiking to a vista point, each of us I am sure had different things in mind. I had my backpack on for no real reason. When quizzed about its contents, I sheepishly acknowledged that I had in there a book and a kindle among other things so I could sit in the wilderness and read. The friends had an amused expression on their face, and teased me about it, but found me a good spot nevertheless in which to leave me to it.

As I settled in to read, there was much head-shaking, but indulgent smiling. I tried to calm my senses to the levels reading requires. I had with me a travel book : The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book won the author the 1979 National Book Award in the category Contemporary Thought[6] and the 1980 National Book Award for Nonfiction (paperback)

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Traveling through the plains of the Ganges and eventually going up to the upper reaches of Tibet, it is a book that I have long wanted to read. The Buddhist teachings and Zen mode of life are especially attractive to me because of the restlessness that underlies our mode of life. If centuries ago, when technology was not as pervasive as it is now, philosophy saw the wisdom of building in pockets of stillness into our lives and forming affinities with nature, how come we are remiss in finding access to these fundamental things after all our progress?

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Do we need Science to point us towards these again? Science has already started acknowledging the importance of exercise, sleep, meditation. For Nature, there are now studies being instituted in various countries to see the effect of nature as we cluster round closer and closer to each other in urban surroundings. Forest bathing as a concept has long been practiced by the Finnish and Japanese. Known as Shinrin Yoku in Japanese effects on our well-being are now being studied from a scientific perspective. Would we embrace nature if Science pointed us to?

While I started out fake reading for a pose, pretty soon, I was transported to another world. Sitting in the hot lands of southern Arizona – the land of soaring eagles, vast expanses and red stone, I was joining the author on a journey to glimpse snow leopards in the Himalayas, passing stupas and taking in the Buddhist teachings on his journey. Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas is fierce and awe-inspiring as was the desert in which I sat.

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“Hey Girls! listen to this – Let me read out a passage out to you – see how Shiva comes alive here in Fay Canyon, Arizona?” I said, and started reading:

“Yet in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dot on the women’s foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile – that is the greatest miracle of all.”

By the time I looked up, there was much laughing and I looked to see that Shiva did not really need to dance in the spicy foods of the Ganges plain, A Shiva-ni was attempting a Shiva Tandavam right there. The poses were fierce, powerful, sloppy and funny all at the same time, and somehow totally at peace with the Garuda-esque surroundings of Sedona.

The giggling photographer looked slightly abashed and said “These girls lost you at Calcutta, and started dancing instead!”

I landed up giggling too, and like a bunch of tickled snow leopards fleeing the thudding of Shiva’s feet, we made our way out of the canyon lands towards our next stop.

I don’t know how much one’s readings can alter one’s surroundings, but I was quite astounded at our next stop. We were in a stupa with a Buddha statue. Sedona Arizona is well known for its mystic yearnings in its rustic surroundings, but I was still pleasantly surprised to find a quaint Stupa nestling in the canyons surrounded by naturally formed stupas of red stone, and a Buddha statue carved of wood.

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There probably is a reason for our richest myths and stories to emanate from awe inspiring places in nature, for it is where we can lose ourselves in order to come back to ourselves better.

How Squids Shaped Our Myths

We are familiar with the Pangea theory (large hulk of a landmass floating together, and breaking apart into the continents of today, current day India going and joining up with the Eurasian chunk and creating the Himalayas in the process etc). Supporting evidence for this theory has been largely in the form of marine fossils found in the Himalayas, a region that is landlocked today.

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Pangea animation from Wikipedia

It was while reading Squid Empire by Danna Staaf that I realized how intertwined the evolution of the world, our myths, theories and culture are.

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Culture is a funny word. It is supposed to capture the intellectual and sociological elements of a group of people living at a certain point in time in a certain place. The clothes, the food, the music and drama, the myths, the beliefs, the societal graces etc are what loosely constitute culture. It always amazes me how a word that is essentially an observation of life can be taken by the self righteous and used to noisily monger about the manger (but that is another post for another day.)

It is not surprising that our myths reflect our surroundings. Some cultures where myths have intertwined with religion are also reflective of the evolution of mankind over time in these places.

Indian myths, for instance, say that the Himalayas are home to the Gods. At the time when the myths originated, the Himalayas were probably looked on with awe (they still are, but probably more so 5000 years ago), and the only beings capable of living and scaling the mountains were attributed to having god-like capabilities. (Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, apparently could be reached at Mt Kailas, Himadri Range, Himalayas. )

Lord Vishnu (The preserver), was always depicted with a conch and a shell. I have often wondered why Vishnu had a conch and a shell. Why not a sword and scythe?

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Shiva-Vishnu: Image from Google Search

But like a minute puzzle piece waiting to chink into place, I realize that these were the fossils found in the Himalayas at the time. Nautilus shells, and ammonoid shells. They are shaped like conches and shells. Of course, they became the accessories for the popular gods. <Pictures of ammonoid shell fossils below>

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Quote from The Squid Empire by Danna Staaf:
Just on the other side of the Himalayas in India, certain coiled ammonoids fossils are named saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu, and are believed to offer spiritual rather than physical healing.

Quote from: Adrienne Mayor’s paper on  (Fossil Appropriations Past and Present), (Classics and History of Science, Stanford University)

A current popular exhibit called “Mythic Creatures” at the American Museum of Natural History (May – Dec 2007) demonstrates how some stories of fantastic creatures, such as griffins, unicorns, and water monsters, arose from observations of extinct animal fossils around the world.

There is always a beauty to observing the natural phenomena around us. We are minute in a large throbbing cosmos, occupying a still thriving ecosystem on Earth for minuscule specks in time.

When you think about life that way, it seems beautiful:  a gift meant to be nourished and cherished. Did the squid think they would influence homo-sapiens millennia later, and help shape their culture? Probably not. But they did, just by existing.