Josna Rege

151. Correspondences and Convergence (“Chicks Can’t Dig!”)

In 1970s, Books, Education, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on June 10, 2012 at 12:15 am

In the fall of 1974 I enrolled in a course  on Vedanta Philosophy taught by J.L. Mehta, a distinguished visiting professor from Benares Hindu University. In the same semester I also took a course in which we read from the Upanishads in Sanskrit, taught by the eminent Orientialist Daniel H. H. Ingalls. Fortunate students have experienced that thrilling feeling of discovery when the subjects of two different courses converge, and, freshly returned from a year’s study abroad, I plunged into both with near-religious zeal, delighting in the overlap. I confess that I was never a very assiduous student of Sanskrit, so no doubt I made more use of Robert Ernest Hume’s 1921 English translation of The Thirteen Principal Upanishads than I did Motilal Banarsidass’ Sanskrit edition of ten Upanishads with Shankaracharya’s 9th-century commentaries. Nevertheless, at a time when few books from India were available in the States, I treasured just the look and feel of the latter. In retrospect, I see that as a new immigrant I must have welcomed this coming-together of the disparate parts of my life: the opportunity to read Indian philosophy in the original; to imbibe it from an Indian teacher, Indian-style; to immerse myself in an Indian tradition while living on the other side of the world; and to unite the many worldviews and belief-systems to which I had been exposed in a philosophy that granted them all relative reality but trained its eye on one that transcended them all.

The Upanishads were written in a nonconformist era around 600 BCE, in which independent scholar-sages challenged caste, organized religion and priestly privilege; ensconsed in their forest hermitages, they passionately debated the great philosophical questions. Buddhism arose in this era, as did Jainism and a number of branches of Hindu philosophy, including dualist, nondualist (or monist), and entirely materialist schools. Intriguingly, Shankaracharya, though he debated the Buddhists fiercely, was very close to Buddhism in his philosophy, and Gaudapada, his guru, was even closer.  According to Professor Mehta, the difference between Advaita Vedanta’s position and that of Buddhism was that Advaita started with the assumption of a single consciousness or Being pervading the universe and transcending Name and Form, while Buddhism did away with even that assumption, choosing to cling to nothing, not even the idea of Being. Professor Mehta called that latter philosophy Nihilism, but I can see from my class notes (yes, I still have them) that I was skeptical about his bias. Nevertheless, desperately seeking coherence in my own fragmented life, I too was attracted to the idea of a transcendent consciousness from whose standpoint even seemingly polar opposites could be reconciled.

A concept in the course that strongly interested me was that of correspondence between inner and outer worlds, and between subtle and gross manifestations in nature. Consideration of these correspondences was meant to train the intellect toward a state of enlightenment in which all material distinctions were seen to be illusory. The individual mind created the distinctions through the play of illusion and the whole goal of seeking knowledge was to remove ignorance and thereby become dis-illusioned. Thus if one could see one’s breath as corresponding with the wind, or one’s internal emotions as creating external obstacles (as in the famous analogy of the rope snake, in which one is afraid of a rope, thinking it is a snake), one could come to understand how the many names and forms in the world that one perceives as real and different are only creations and projections of the mind; and ultimately, all manifestations of the One.

One of my sources of internal division had nothing to do with either metaphysics or my migrant condition, but rather, with gender. I was raised to disregard gender as a limiting factor in anything I set out to do, but as I came into my teens and encountered the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, I  became increasingly aware that the outside world was not as permissive as my upbringing had been.  Still, my own belief that I could do anything persisted. When I first came to the States, I got myself a job at the newly-formed David R. Godine Publishing (where my boyfriend worked as a printer) by simply showing up every day and throwing myself into whatever work needed doing; which, at the time, involved digging in a basement under the barn to lay the foundation for a floor that would be able to support their biggest and heaviest presses. Eventually my sheer persistence shamed Godine into putting me on the payroll. The following summer, in the Summer of 1971, Andrew and I took a trip to England and Wales, to visit my family and friends. I remember visiting a house full of hippies in Wales who were engaged in a project that involved major earthworks. Imagine my outrage when, in response to my offer of help, one of the men, a self-appointed leader, sneered, “Chicks can’t dig.”

photograph by Steve McCurry

The year after I had taken the Vedanta course, I was living in Andrew’s family cottage in Concord, Massachusetts, trying to lead a simple, self-reliant life. Andrew was working outdoors, building a foundation for a printing press from David Godine on one side of the cottage, and a retaining wall to shore up the hillside on the other. Inside the house, continuing the project of recovering my lost physical links to India, I was teaching myself to cook Indian food from scratch. Of course, given my feminist consciousness, I did not restrict myself to the kitchen; donning workclothes (who said chicks can’t dig?), I participated in digging the hole for the foundation, wheelbarrowing away the earth and sifting it through a wire screen to separate out the larger rocks. Back inside, having bathed and changed into clean clothes, I shifted gears and set about the elaborate process of making paneer, a soft Indian cheese, by boiling milk, curdling it, draining it in a colander, and straining it through a piece of muslin. From the paneer one could then go on to make a variety of Indian sweets. (Believe me, the end result is so delicious that it is well worth all the time and concentration, although it has been years since I have undertaken it. Nowadays I cheat by starting with store-bought ricotta.)

Making chhana (paneer) from Chitra Ammas’s Kitchen

As I stood straining the curd in the kitchen, the gross and subtle correspondences of nature struck me with the force of an epiphany. Here I was, transcending the limitations of male and female by working both outside and inside; the sifting of the rocks from the earth and the straining of the whey from the milk solids were clearly manifestations of the same work, work with one’s hands, neither solely man’s or woman’s but—transcending man-made societal distinctions—both. A profound sense of of well-being washed over me. I had not attained Liberation but I had been given an intimation of Enlightenment.

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  1. Ingalls has a wonderful essay called Shankara’s Arguments Against the Buddhists. What I took from it was his conclusion that Shankara’s differences were more psychological than philosophical or metaphysical. Perhaps with Prof. Mehta, too, there was a sense of ”How could they (Buddhists) give up on the existence of the atman.” I will always remember a day in high school when our friend Maura first read that the Buddha had repudiated the soul. She was livid! The contingent nature of reality is a hard thing to dig!

    • The contingent nature of reality is a hard thing to dig!
      Dig it, brother!
      Thanks for commenting, Andy. Yes, it is hard to accept that there is no solid ground under one’s feet. And yet that seems how we have to live these days, keeping our reflexes alert and keeping the faith, despite the endlessly shifting sands.

  2. I love that you find the convergences, the patterns, the integrity of your own being even as everything changes.

    • And I love that you have affirmed as “the integrity of my being” what I have retrospectively described as a weakness. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderful unexpected ending: enlightenment instead of liberation, beautiful!

    Any guy who says “chicks” is . . . well, I just won’t say it, but what a turkey.

    • Thank you, Sarah. I suppose I was thinking of liberation from narrowly-defined gender roles as well as Liberation as in Enlightenment. And yes, that fellow needed some serious liberation as in a swift kick in the pants!

  4. I love your self-reflection permeating your everyday earthly life!! And I love the photo of the lovely women donned in beautiful saris weilding their pick-axes

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