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Supermarket of Identities
I take my meals at a second-storey restaurant on Chengam Road, the main thoroughfare that passes through Ramana Nagar, the area around the Ramana ashram that has become a kind of mecca for a certain type of spiritual seeker. The name Ramana is more or less synonymous with the “Who am I?” idea in the minds of spiritually-inclined Westerners.
The wall at the bottom of the stairs is liberally plastered with posters advertising Western gurus of all ilk happy to supply the answer. In fact, there are many restaurants and coffee shops clustered around the ashram that sport similar walls. In their eagerness to recruit the surfeit of clueless Westerners to their notion of self-inquiry, some guru wannabes paste their notices on top of others so that now, a week into the seeking season, the walls resemble the chaos of India itself, offering the unsuspecting seeker such a confusing array of options that hardly anyone stops to look.
I eat at a table that affords a wonderful view of the street. I see cows pissing and pooping liberally, monkeys robbing the fruit vendors and Jumping Swami hopping up the road against the chaotic traffic emitting strange grunts and squeaks. Somehow, although I have been sitting here for years, it never seems to lose its allure though there are moments when I long for cleanliness and order. Once, for five days running, I watched a man slowly die by the fetid sewer on the other side of the road. Except for the Westerners, nobody took notice until he died. Then someone put out a soiled cloth, lit a candle and left a few rupees. After a day or so the fly-covered body and the rupees disappeared.
The view allows me to observe the various identities on offer. Indians don't have identity issues. They haven't time to waste with such frivolous things, caught as they are in the frantic struggle to survive. There are basically two: householder and sanyassi. A sanyassi is a renunciant, someone who is legally dead as far as the society is concerned. He or she goes through a certain ritual to renounce the world, burns his or her clothing, takes some vows, dons orange robes and wanders off with a stick and a begging bowl.
We see a lot of sanyassis here because they congregate around pilgrimage centers owing to the fact that it is the duty, the dharma, of pilgrims to give alms once they have worshipped one of the plethora of deities that populate the Hindu pantheon. Neither the sanyassis nor the householders make a big deal out of their identities. Most were loved as children and do not have self-esteem issues, unlike the Westerners who have somehow picked up the notion that there is something wrong with them and who seem to have an inordinate longing to be different from what they think they are.
Within the general category of seeker there are two sub-classes: secular and sacred. The secular identities break down more or less on gender lines. The women seem to fancy themselves as latter-day gypsies with their colorful skirts and shawls, and cheap Rajasthani jewelery. The men, on the other hand, tend to favor the pirate image with their swarthy five-o’clock shadows, rakish turbans and Ali Baba harem pants purchased for a few hundred rupees from one of the many Kashmiri shops that line the streets. Both the men and women exude “cool” from every pore. They are rather like kids at a costume party and do not seem to realize they are acting out another cliché. “Hey, we love India,” they seem to be saying. “None of that uptight bourgeois stuff for us. You can really be what you are over here!”
The spiritual identity is predictable and equally comical. It breaks down into two categories as well: the Ramana clones and the sanyassi clones. I took a walk on the inner path with a couple of friends in the early morning just for exercise. Up ahead I noticed a tall person dressed in traditional sanyassi orange. The way he walked seemed a little unnatural. He seemed rather uncomfortable and self-conscious, and the clothing was way too new. As we approached I realized my “he” was a tall, elegant, white-haired Western woman, unlike any Western sanyassi wannabe I have ever seen. Most inhabit the “lost souls” niche and are little more than caricatures. You know very well that within a few weeks or months the costume will be discarded in favor of another “look.”
This one was different. She was self-contained and dignified. Her features were extremely refined and you could tell that she came from a background of wealth and privilege. I suppose she and her husband had grown apart, her children were well-placed in society and with time on her hands and death looming her mind had turned to spiritual things. Ramana is the usual point of entry to the vast world of Vedic spirituality and she had probably attended a few satsangs, been captivated by the obligatory Cartier Bresson photo of Ramana that is meant to lend gravitas to the satsang, read a few books and decided that the time was right to find out who she was. She was almost picture-perfect as a sadhu except for a couple of small details. I don’t think she realized that pukka sanyassis do not wear lip gloss, eye shadow and expensive diamond studs in their patrician earlobes. It was hard for me to sneer, however, because she was obviously terribly sincere. Sincerity has its charm, no doubt, but it is not always the kissing cousin of common sense. In her eagerness to do it right she had decided to make her maiden voyage on the inner path around the holy mountain barefoot.
Romantic as it is to walk barefoot in India, it is not advisable. I met a young man infected with the sadhu disease who picked up a nasty parasite through the soles of his feet. The parasite, which was resistant to all manner of drugs, multiplied – as they do – and its offspring journeyed hither and thither throughout his body and, well, the result is really too depressing to chronicle. He told me recently several years on that he often considered taking his own life.
A few years back there was a troika of overly devotional and equally overweight – too much cheese and wurst – German hausfraus who decided to walk barefoot to the top of mountain on their first day. What it is about this mountain that inspires such foolishness, I have yet to discover. There was a handsome young Frenchman, obviously light in the loafers, who showed up at the main temple one day, threw his clothing, passport and two thousand dollars into the tank then wandered out on the street to beg for alms. He ended up some years later standing in a pile of garbage staring at the sun. This act of penance collected him a few Japanese devotees – the Japanese love quirky, bizarre things like nobody else – and he seemed well on his way to enlightenment when, unfortunately, his feet became infected and he died of septicemia.
Anyway, the hausfraus somehow managed to make it to the top but the way down proved to be too much for them in spite of their devotional exuberance and they had to be carried down by coolies. Their feet were so damaged that they were forced to stay in bed for three weeks and return to Germany without their enlightenment.
I digress. Knowing what I know, I could see that the elegant, dignified sanyassi was in over her head. The inner path can be negotiated quite nicely in a proper pair of shoes or sandals, but only Indians are qualified to do it, although success is by no means guaranteed. One day I heard crying up ahead and came across an Indian woman sitting on a rock holding her foot. She had stepped on one of the nasty thorns that fall from the bushes that line the path. There are thorns and there are thorns and the Arunachala variety are particularly brutal. I have had them come right through my thick sandals and break the skin. Rather than pull it out herself, she preferred to sit by the path whimpering until someone came along who was willing to inflict the pain she was obviously unwilling to inflict on herself.
The other danger the sanyassi faced was even more insidious, apart from the occasional unemployed rickshawalla lurking in the bushes near the bogging ground bent on exposing himself to unsuspecting women – the saw-scaled viper. The good news is that there are only four species of dangerous snakes in India. The bad news is that there are hundreds of millions of each species. And at that time of the morning, one often encounters them on the path. In any case, I do not know how the woman fared and this blog is not about India or snakes. It is about the topic of identity. The other class of sadhu poseurs – the Ramana wannabes – will have to wait for another blog.
A few years back, on my way to India, I stopped in England to visit friends. One day I was sitting in a pub reading The Guardian and sipping a frothy stein of Guinness stout when I came across an article on the topic of identity. The article was entitled “I’m a girl – just call me ‘he.’” It went on to document one of the most recent additions to the potpourri of identities available in Western societies, specifically a variety of no-hormones, no-surgery New York lesbians called “boy poseurs.” The article said this group is “all fiercely intelligent, aged from 16 to 26 and identified variously as ‘boiz,’ ‘hes,’ ‘shes’ and one ‘queer genderfreak trans-boygirl fagdyke.’”
The article, which was served up with a generous dollop of humor, went on to ask, “Have the Americans gone too far this time? On one hand the ‘transboy’ movement seems fantastically avant garde – after all, why should it be possible to buy at least six different kinds of bagel in New York city and yet be limited to a mere two choices of gender?” Apparently this group of women chafes under the onerous inequities that identifying with one’s gender confers and believes that by calling themselves ‘hes’ they will ‘sink the gender boat.’ According to a prominent feminist, Jami Weinstein, ‘If biological females use the pronoun “he” enough, then the power of “he” as an essential category will be eroded and maybe one day “he” and “she” will be on an equal plane.’ One twenty-six-year-old (female) lawyer says, ‘I choose to use the name Dean and masculine pronouns. In part this feels right because most people who look at me take me to be a woman, so using these words helps to disrupt that process a little and opens a space for me to be something more complicated than that, which I feel better fits who I really am.’”
The article went on to describe some of the additional practices that this group have taken up to free themselves of this limited identity: breast removal, breast binding, wearing “frog bras,” using devices that allow them to pee standing up, and dressing like men, etc. Then, as far as I am concerned, we come to the punchline: “Still, every London gay party you go to these days is filled with lesbians having babies (yawn) or lesbians turning straight, if the men are rich enough (yawn). Sinking the gender boat would at least be an interesting new pastime for British lesbians who don’t want to do either of the above and are looking for a new focus. After all, the idea of identity flux, of being able to be whoever you want, is an essential part of the times we are living in.”
Yes, quite. Why? Obviously, because limited identities fail to address the fact that our true identity is limitless. Trying to cram the vastness of one’s self into such tiny containers is painful. The solution suggested by the boy poseurs, that taking refuge in an opposite identity will somehow cancel out one’s former identity, is understandable if somewhat unscientific. If I assert one identity to cancel another, what do I do with the second identity once the first is canceled? If I get rid of it, I am faced with the prospect of returning to where I started. Why? Because the ostensible reason for making this change in oneself is to challenge the limited identities that others project on us. If the purpose were solely to change one’s own view of oneself, there would be no need to perform the outer disciplines designed to erase one’s identity. One would simply change the way one thinks about oneself – which, at least in the case of Dean, seems to have already been done – and be happy with who one thought one was.
While I would argue that “who he really is” is not “complicated,” “he” is clear that his identity is too big to comfortably rest in the shade of a gender category. But the confidence to refuse the identity projections of others is a very rare quality, so we feel the need to continually attempt to educate the world about who we are. Youth is not known as a period of foresight so the boy poseurs are eventually going to have to confront the fact, once they have removed the breast bindings and men’s clothing, the world, heaven forbid, is going to go right back to seeing them as “shes.”
I went through this identity crisis when I was in my twenties. I grew up in the Forties and Fifties – which were not periods of introspection – and, at the age of twenty-five, thought of myself (insofar as I thought of myself at all) as I really was: a “straight (in those days it meant “someone who does not used drugs”), white, Anglo-Saxon businessman.” LSD changed all that.
Within a year I was a “turned-on hippy,” or a “head” – meaning a stoner – and I looked down on my former identity as a “plastic person” with contempt. A few years later I realized that “hippy” was merely a reaction to the limitations of being “straight.” I saw that it was not a transcendent category, that it shared the same existential level with “hippy” and merely saddled me with a different set of limitations.
For better or worse you are what you think you are – and anything you can think about yourself will necessarily be limited. One could argue that the only solution would be to accept the limitations imposed by one’s concept of one’s self, but there is another way – investigation.
India’s ancient texts on the subject of the self, the Upanishads, contradict the view that only limited identities are available to us. They categorically state that our true identity is universal. “Aham brahmasmi” is a mantra called a mahavakya, a “great proclamation,” that sits at the very ontological heart of Vedic culture. It means “the ‘I,’ the self, is limitless.” That this is not obvious to most of us is obvious. However, many people have investigated the “I” and discovered that it is not merely an idea nor is it “complicated,” as Dean believes, but it is a partless whole.
Identity is not, as we have come to think, necessarily specific to our bodies and minds and the roles they play. There is a simple something that is much more essentially “us” than any of these things – our consciousness, our intelligence, the light, some say spirit – that illumines the body and the mind. It is not something one necessarily discovers by merely reacting to the limitations that society’s limited identities impose. However, suffering limitation sometimes causes one to think about who one actually is. And when this kind of thinking becomes rigorous and allows itself to be shaped by the time-tested body of teachings on the subject of the “I” it can lead to the freedom from limitation that Vedic culture calls enlightenment or “moksa.”
It will probably be some time before the boy poseurs strip off their breast bindings and abandon the soft-pack dildo in favor of the hair shirt and the mediation cushion, but they are definitely thinking in the right direction.