Trip Report: Ancient Wisdom Lessons from India

Posted in: Applying Wisdom
The iconic Taj Mahal
The iconic Taj Mahal

A few months ago my fiancee, Erica, and I took a two week trip to India. As someone with an interest in ancient wisdom, I was excited to see what lessons or experiences I could extract that would be helpful to me and my readers.  But my experience wasn’t of the Eat, Pray, Love variety where I simply went to India, meditated, and found enlightenment. Two weeks is too short for that. However, my experience was useful in that I was able analyze the lessons that I previously learned from AWP in a new context.

Handling wealth and poverty


Being dorks in First Class!
Being dorks in First Class!

Over the past few years I have become what’s known in the travel hacking community as a “churner.”  I sign up for a ton of credit cards to get the sign up bonus. Because of my weird but oddly satisfying hobby, I was able to score two first class tickets on an Emirates A380 flight on the outward leg to India. You might have seen the Jennifer Aniston commercial about it (and yes, I did take a shower on the flight).

The flight was phenomenal. Erica and I drank Dom Perignon, ate caviar, took naps in the lie flat seats, and watched a ton of movies. We felt like (misfit) royalty.


Poverty in real life
Poverty in real life

When we arrived in Delhi, the first class treatment ended. We had problems getting cash, our pickup never showed, and we had to find our way to our AirBnb ourselves. We knew intellectually that India was poor, but seeing it in person is quite shocking. There were Indians living in tiny shacks on the side of major roads, garbage everywhere, stray cows and dogs, and malnourished homeless children.

I’m ashamed to say my tolerance for discomfort has waned over the years, but there is nothing like a trip to India to help build your psychological resilience. You’ll be reminded that there many things outside of your control; negative visualization is simply an act of opening your eyes.

Though the Stoics have the reputation of embracing hardship, the philosophy is more nuanced than simply “hardship is good for the soul.” It’s about being able to handle both the good and the bad with psychological dignity. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a shower 30,000 feet in the air, but you should also be able to remain in good cheer when things don’t go your way and to appreciate when things are simply “normal.” India helped remind me that my life is really excellent, and that the 1% of the time I am somewhat inconvenienced is hardly something to get upset about.

Experience the bad to appreciate the good.

It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil.


Death as a reminder


Varanasi cremation site
Varanasi cremation site

Erica and I visited Varanasi, a city with a spiritual reputation located on the Ganges River. We took a morning boat ride on the river which was beautiful. We were able to hop off and visit one of the top cremation “ghats” in Varanasi (and India). In Hindu culture, being cremated and having your ashes thrown into the Ganges is considered a sacred act that helps you break the cycle of re-incarnation. For this reason, many Indians come to Varanasi to die (some prematurely, as they end up spending many years there before they die).

Sunrise on the Ganges
Sunrise on the Ganges

It’s a bit jarring to see bodies being carried through the street and being burned right out in the open, especially in contrast to western funerals which are more sequestered from everyday life.

Though death is considered “the end” in Western culture, or at least, the end of earthly life, in Hindu and Buddhist teachings, death is simply an intermediary between your current life and your next life. You will be reincarnated into another life until you attain enlightenment.

This idea is enhanced by the physical environment of the cremations. The cremations are not done apart from regular life, but rather, as part of it. The Doms (untouchables who handle the bodies) make sure to conduct the rituals with care and in accordance with tradition,  but it’s not a particularly sad affair that causes all other activity to cease. Not more than 50 meters away people are conducting business, eating, hanging out, and generally going about their day. In the funerals I’ve been to, you take time out of your day to attend the funeral ceremony itself and pay your respects. You separate it out from your regular life, and then you do you best to forget about it.

Though the Indian method of treating the dead runs the risk of desensitizing you to it, there is something to be said about being regularly reminded of it. Though death is not “final,” to escape re-incarnation, you have to do you best to live your life well, in accordance with your duties (dharma). I wonder if this constant, but less intense, reminder of our mortality would be more effective than the infrequent, more emotionally upsetting exposure to death. A sort of slow and steady habit-building approach vs. the shock and awe method.

My Varanasi experience taught me that death is most appropriately used as a reminder for the living. Having a good death is a function of living a good life.

With mind far off, not thinking of death’s coming,
Performing these meaningless activities,
Returning empty-handed now would be complete confusion;
The need is recognition, the spiritual teachings,
So why not practice the path of wisdom at this very moment?
From the mouths of the saints come these words:
If you do not keep your master’s teaching in your heart
Will you not become your own deceiver?
Tibetan Book of the Dead

Status and Identity


Monkeys performing their monkey dharma...
Monkeys performing their monkey dharma…

If you’re a foreigner from a wealthy country in India, you’ll be treated differently than Indians treat each other. To some extent this is due to economic reasons. You try to treat the people with money nicely so they’ll buy things from you. However, I do suspect that India’s long history with the caste system and colonization also plays a role. It’s a bit strange as an American to experience it.

We went to a restaurant that was recommended to us by a family friend. The owner, Arvind was friendly and took us out to drinks at a hotel in the area. The server at the hotel restaurant barely paid attention to Arvind and had Arvind not been a little forceful, Arvind would’ve been left hungry and thirsty.

By default, we had higher status merely because we were foreigners.

This wasn’t the only strange thing though. When we tried to be friendly with some of the locals, as in, treat them as we would want to be treated, they seemed weirded out.

We had a driver take us from Delhi to Jaipur. The trip was about 4 hours and we stopped at a restaurant about half way through (the drivers must have a kick-back arrangement with this restaurant because there were tons of other tourists there as well). We invited the driver to eat with us and he reluctantly accepted. He seemed fairly uncomfortable. Later we saw that all the other drivers were eating outside from a canteen/buffet thing watching a cricket game.

Now, it’s completely possible that Erica and I are not as cool as we thought and he just wanted to hang out with the other drivers, but there were many instances like this where we were down-to-earth and the Indians seemed like they would have preferred we acted like entitled royalty. Arvind was an exception, however, from what I could tell he came from an upper class family so we were on the same status level psychologically for him.

While the hierarchy and scripted roles was very apparent in India, it made me think about the various hierarchies and roles we play at home. While these things are thankfully more fluid in the US, it’s easy to get mentally “locked in” to a role.

Let’s say you’re one of the worker bees at work and you get promoted to a manager role. As a manager, you may be uncomfortable giving orders, praising, and disciplining your former peers. It requires a shift in mindset to be able to perform your new role effectively. If you are unable to transition psychologically to being a boss, you will quickly be demoted or fired.

Another scenario is simply going from dependent child to adult. Once you’re a few years out of college and you’re self-sustaining, the power your parents have over you diminishes, but in your mind, you might still need/want their approval. You also start seeing their flaws as human beings and not as authority figures and it makes you uncomfortable. While they will always be your parents, the relationship changes from adult – child to adult – adult.

Psychologically, most people abhor uncertainty and ambiguity. The caste system or any well defined hierarchy will remove that uncertainty. While your role may be awful and subservient, there is some level of comfort in “knowing your place.”

But we shouldn’t accept that all the roles we play are permanent ones. It pays to know when it’s time to ditch your assigned role for another one. It also pays to know when there there is nothing you can do about the duties and responsibilities you currently have (at least for now) and to accept that you should do them to the best of your ability. To straddle these two impulses requires both detachment and engagement. Detachment because the world is not a static place and you need to be able to dynamically navigate changing environments. Engagement because contributing to the world requires energy and action.

Do the best you can in your current roles, but quickly jump into a new one when it makes sense.

One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies. Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay? As one abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.

The Bhagavad Gita


If you’ve been to India I would love to hear more about your experience traveling there and if you are Indian, I’d love to know if what I experienced was simply a tourist’s experience.