Of Travel and Learning

Travelling comes naturally to those who are smitten by the idea of wanderlust. Though our busy schedules don’t easily permit the time to unwind, we somehow try to find a way. This is precisely what happened with me when I was posted in the clamorous city of Gorakhpur. Located at the far-east corner of Uttar Pradesh, the town serves as a religious center for many god-fearing Hindus. It also has the distinction on falling en route the famous Buddhist circuit. Having already explored much of the city’s surroundings, I decided to take a day off and make a quick trip to Nepal, which is barely an hour’s distance from Gorakhpur. My destination was Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. I’d heard many tales from my colleagues about how wonderfully the sacred place was preserved and how magnanimously the richer Buddhist countries had constructed monasteries around the holy shrine. Without further ado, I contacted the nearest travel agency and booked a cab.

The driver arrived fifteen minutes before the designated hour. I couldn’t help but appreciate his punctuality for time is the most sought after but the least valued commodity nowadays. He was a tall and plump fellow, who appeared to be a little too talkative for his own good. As we began our journey, he started telling me stories about how he’d driven to Nepal on multiple occasions and how thoroughly he knew the length and breadth of this country.Though his narrative kept me hooked for a little while but quite soon I lost interest and began to enjoy the beauty around me instead. He continued to talk incessantly but with an open window on one hand and a view of the Himalayan foothills on another, his voice relegated itself to being nothing more than needless background noise. Before long, we reached Sonauli, the last town on the Indian side of the border and crossed over to Nepal.

Lumbini was even more incredible than I’d thought it would be. The massive compound of the shrine was divided into eastern and western wings, separated by an artificial pond, in the middle of which stood a huge stupa, housing the ancient relics of Buddha. From my limited understanding of the religion, I’d gathered that the beliefs and consequently the symbols of all three of its branches- Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana- varied. However, there was a set of multi-coloured flags which graced almost all the monasteries, irrespective of the sect that they belonged to. The driver, sensing my confusion, spoke up.

“These flags are like a connecting string, Sir”, he said, “They unite all forms of Buddhism into one. It is said that the colours of these flags reflect the colours of Buddha’s aura. They stand for peace, compassion, strength and wisdom”.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked impulsively, impressed by his explanation.
“Aren’t we all, Sir?” he replied with a smile.
“Buddha stands for enlightenment”, he continued, “And that enlightenment can come only through inner bliss- happiness, if you may. In one way or the other, aren’t we all striving for happiness? Some find it in their jobs, others in their families and yet others in their hobbies. Ultimately, we are all treading the path which leads to the Buddha”.

For a moment, I was rendered speechless. His understanding of a religion that he did not even follow was immense. In a world plagued by ignorance and superficiality, how many people had the courage to arm themselves with knowledge?
Most of the remaining part of my trip was loaded with conversations. As it turns out, the driver had left a cushy engineering job in Delhi in order to come back to Gorakhpur and look after his parents. After their demise, he had developed a keen interest in religion and had picked up a couple of sacred books belonging to different faiths. Till now, he’d read the Gita, the Quran, translations of the Tripitaka and bits and parts of the Avesta. He had picked up all of these books from the stalls at railway stations which carried crude copies of the actual texts. He hadn’t yet been able to lay his hands on the Bible but he wanted to read it soon. Call it curiosity or admiration but suddenly, he didn’t seem so talkative anymore.

As he dropped me off at my place later that evening, I asked him where I could reach him. Quickly, he pulled out a paper and scribbled something over it. Abbas Hashmi, it read, followed by his address and phone number. I learnt a lot from him that day and no monetary reward could ever compensate for it, which is why I couriered him a copy of the Bible, as soon as I could. Knowledge, after all, begets knowledge and that is where real power lies.

Maybe this was what the oft-repeated secularism was truly about- A Muslim driver, carrying a Hindu passenger to a Buddhist shrine. Maybe this was the true essence of India. Maybe this was what harmony and reconciliation really meant. Everything else was mere rhetoric, specifically designed to manufacture a demonic ‘other’ by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the impressionable and creating abstract divisions to garner votes.

On that note, Happy Independence Day.


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