Bodh Gaya, Bihar, where Buddha achieved enlightenment, offers many sites, including the Great Buddha Statue. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Raj Ghat is one of two major New Delhi sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
By the end of my two weeks in India, I had grown accustomed to the spiritual yo-yo that is a jam-packed, first-timer’s trip covering Delhi and multiple states.
One moment I was meditating with crimson-clad monks under the same tree that Buddha sat under when he reached enlightenment. The next, I found myself on the second seven-hour car journey of the day, darting through cows, unrelenting honking, uneven roads and touts armed with babies scratching at my passenger-seat window (and heartstrings).
Two weeks of self-inflicted psychotic — but admittedly productive — traveling through India’s spiritual, cultural and culinary wonders had me exhausted yet totally wired, running on amazement, adrenaline and, perhaps, too many cups of masala chai.
For someone who makes time for rejuvenating and traditionally Indian practices such as yoga and meditation at home, I was struck by the irony of my depleted state on my final day in Delhi.
Enter Shantum Seth, the Buddhist scholar and Zen Buddhist teacher who has contributed his expertise to several BBC productions and who is a Buddhism consultant for the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the government of India.
Seth also leads spiritual tours of India through his guided tour company, Buddhapath. Among his past pilgrims are his own teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master, and even actor Drew Barrymore, who raved about him on “Late Show With David Letterman” after Seth helped her achieve a shift of consciousness during a solo trip to Delhi.
I met Seth at the tail end of the International Buddhist Conclave, an initiative by the Indian government — under Seth’s guidance — to promote the country’s Buddhism sites, including three of the four major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. These include Bodh Gaya, where Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree; Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first teaching of the Dharma; and Kushinagar, where Buddha died at age 80. (The fourth major pilgrimage site is in Lumbini, Nepal, where Buddha was born in 623 B.C.)
During the sightseeing portion of the Buddhist Conclave, I thought spiritual epiphanies would come generously and almost aggressively, like spices in the first bite of a North Indian curry. But the tour guides I had met were mainly Hindu and, though well-meaning, they explained the sites from a historical point of view. What I wanted was guided spiritual instruction and time for quiet contemplation.
After the conclave concluded and our flight from Varanasi to Delhi landed, Seth offered to take me to Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi. This large property, called Birla House, was where Gandhi resided for the last 144 days of his life. It is now a well-maintained museum that includes the room where Gandhi slept, as well as the outdoor prayer ground where he held a nightly mass congregation. This was also the location where he was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948, five months following the independence of India.
I had wanted to visit, but it was a Monday, the day the museum is closed. Seth told me we would try our luck anyway. This was an example of his modesty because, upon arriving, employees ushered us in like family. While the indoor house — holding the few earthly items Gandhi possessed, as well as dioramas and videos depicting his life — was closed, we had the all-important outside grounds to ourselves.
I particularly liked the stones strewn about the manicured lawn — these feature quotes by Gandhi’s contemporaries and give insight into how his philosophy has resonated inside and outside India.
Though Gandhi Smriti has no direct link to Buddha, Seth often begins his tours here. It offers one of the most profound experiences in the entire country: a walking meditation that retraces Gandhi’s final steps.
Together, in silence, we completed the short stroll. It was exactly what I needed.
“If you scratch any Indian, Gandhi is there,” Seth said. “Gandhi is in everyone when we want to wake up to it.”