I found this gem on audio at my local library and loved it so much I bought the book version to read again, and to dog-ear some pages. Holy Cow
, published in 2002, is the story of Australian reported Sarah Macdonald who follows her fiance Jonathan Harley, also a writer, to India for six months. It becomes a two-and-a-half-year quest for inner peace.
When she begins with having her palm read, I knew I'd love the book. (In Courage Without Grace, my main character is a palm reader.) Although Holy Cow is beautifully written, full of humor and wit and thoughtful observations, it is not for the squeamish. Macdonald describes with unflinching detail the crowds (one billion and counting in an area about one third the size of the States), the pollution, the begging, and what seems to be ever-present death. This ugliness seems to be India's strength. When Macdonald sees how happy its people are, a man explains that Indians see those who have a harder life than they do and are grateful, thanking God for what they have. But we Westerners look at the people above us and think, why don't I have what they have? This constant comparison creates our unhappiness. Hmmm...
"India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true," Macdonald says. "It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes."
When Macdonald goes on a silent meditation retreat for ten days, she describes it in her usual candid way, as a "brain enema." This is Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist training technique, and one of its theories states that, "Unconscious thoughts create physical sensations, so letting sensations arise and pass without reacting gets rid of unconscious pollutants within our mind." For the first few days, she is overwhelmed by the silence, the aches and pains, and her restless mind, but by the end she says, "I skip out the gates, down the hill and back into India on air. My mind is clear, my heart is open, everyone is beautiful, everyone is worth loving, the world is wonderful and I feel universal love and compassion for all. For the first time in my life I'm living in the moment and I no longer miss my job, perhaps because my need for outward success to feed the ego has diminished."
Alas, she doesn't maintain the euphoria, and her quest continues as she learns about Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, American Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, Jainism, Judaism, Indian Christianity, and Parsi Zoroastrians, who "leave out their dead for vultures believing it's the cleanest, most hygienic way of getting rid of the soul's temporary home."
"I've made a start in India along my path to personal transformation and inner peace. "The Sikhs have shown me how to be strong, the Vipassana course taught me how to calm my mind, India's Muslims have shown me the meaning of surrender and sacrifice, and the Hindus have illustrated an infinite number of ways to the divine."
And yet, after all her seeking, she adds, "A phrase from the Dalai Lama's teachings comes back to me; 'Some will be drawn to Buddhism but I really think it's best that you try and find truth in the religion of your forebears and ancestors. It is very hard to change religion. I think it's safer not to.'"
Some may say I've left out the best aspect of this book: the people Macdonald meets as she travels all over India in this rollicking adventure. Oh, and the part where her now-husband Jonathan is in Afghanistan--and it's September 11, 2001. There's something in this book for everyone, and what speaks to me is her spiritual journey.
"I've learned much from the land of many gods and many ways to worship. From Buddhism the power to begin to manage my mind, from Jainism the desire to make peace in all aspects of life, while Islam has taught me to desire goodness and to let go of that which cannot be controlled. I thank Judaism for teaching me the power of transcendence in rituals and the Sufis for affirming my ability to find answers within and reconnecting me to the power of music. Here's to the Parsis for teaching me that nature must be touched lightly, and the Sikhs for the importance of spiritual strength. I thank the gurus for trying to pierce my ego armor and my girlfriends for making me laugh. And most of all, I thank Hinduism for showing me that there are millions of paths to the divine."