If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest questions of life… I should point to India.

                                                                                                                                       ~ Max Mueller

Before I hit the road, I bravely attempted a normal lifestyle and a couple of respectable jobs. But between handling the housework, the shopping and the bills, the office phone ringing, the telex machine jamming and the paperwork piling up, I would gaze out of the window and wonder what the big wide world had to offer… So one chilly Parisian spring morning I boarded a Syrian Airline flight to New Delhi.

I had heard that India is the most spiritually orientated country in the world so it seemed the fitting place to continue my search for the meaning of life. I arrived at dawn and the sunlight was softened by the dusty haze, giving the warm air a promising mystical feel. I ignored the crowds of touts that didn’t quite fit into my rosy picture of a semi-enlightened population, and took a rickshaw into the city. As we drove past the ramshackle shelters on the roadside, patched together out of bits of tin and plastic, waves of shock and awe engulfed me. 24 years later, the scene is still vivid. With no bathrooms, obviously, families were out on the streets, having their morning bucket baths. And worse.

“Is India nice?” I have often been asked. Well…there are many superlative adjectives that may partly describe the full feature, action packed, epic 3D movie that is India. “Nice” is not one of them. “Mind-boggling” comes close. It is extraordinary, awesome, overwhelming, horrifying, powerful, eye-opening and enlightening. India is a crash course in Life.

I was not a born “believer”. As I saw it, I was far too logical for that. I had been brought up atheist, thank God. Yet it didn’t take me long in India to feel, and see, that there is more to this world than meets the eye. I should tell you, at this point, that I never smoked any substance that could alter my perception. A friend once gave me a try. I didn’t inhale; I coughed uncontrollably and wheezed for three days. End of story. My experience with alcohol was the same short-lived. So I remained very rational, very clear headed, and didn’t leave too many brain cells along the dusty road.

My first partner, with whom I left to India, had lived there for seven years. He took me on tour. We spent one year traveling the length and breadth of the country, through dusty towns and holy sites, barren plains and high mountains; through the coconut palm-clad south and the hippie-clad beaches. We slept in trains and in temples, in villages, pilgrim shelters and chai-shops. On beaches, rope beds, mats, and hard floors. It was nine months before I had a hotel room door I could shut and say, “This is my private space!”

On my first day in India we had gone straight from the city, on a crowded local train, to a nearby village. I will courteously spare you the details of that journey. We arrived at the simple home of my partner’s friends, conspicuously poised on a bicycle rickshaw. The whole village came and stood, sat and squatted around us, mouths wide open, watching us drink chai tea. Most had never seen a white woman before and there was nowhere to hide from their unabashed stares. The next morning at four there was a sturdy knock on the door. My partner reported, “The village women want you to walk to the toilet field with them and then to bathe in the river.” I flatly declined. We went later by ourselves down to the river. A baby’s body lay naked on a sandbank. Death in India is not hidden behind closed doors.

Two weeks after leaving my cultured and protected middle class life, I was engulfed in the largest religious festival in the country. The “Khumba Mela” is an enormous mass gathering held every four years. Millions come from all over the motherland to cleanse their karma in the dubious waters of the Ganges.

I remember sitting at one camp watching a dreadlocked “sadhu,” who was stark naked and covered in ash, smoke a huge silver chillum, while a band of guys wearing short tunics and peacock feather hats played devotional chants to God on extremely off key instruments. I had to pinch myself! This was not the world I knew, of intellectual conversation and table manners. Mere weeks earlier I could never have imagined such a scene, yet here I was, plunked right in the middle of it. It was an eye-opener to the different realities on one planet. I could feel my mind and my tolerance level being stretched daily. My partner informed me that marijuana is not seen there as a recreational drug but as an enhancer of consciousness. A “sadhu” is a “spiritual seeker,” and worshippers of Shiva could buy their weed at government shops as part of their quest for enlightenment.

It’s an understatement to say that the Indian mind works very differently to the western one. Concepts which may be challenging for us are commonplace for them. They understand that diversity is not different from oneness. So the many colorful gods of Hinduism actually describe the many aspects, the multiple facets, of the one godly energy. Obviously, as soon as you try to describe God you fail miserably, so you can anyway only portray a feature. Hence, the more the merrier! And although, like all of us, they tend to get caught by the illusion of separatism, the Indians are still extremely tolerant. The vast majority of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religions in India live happily side by side. Only the good old media, reporting the rare cases of fanaticism, would have us believe otherwise.

India is Earth’s cradle of spiritual quest and, since the ‘60s, the search for a deeper understanding of our physical life has led many seekers to journey there. There is a common, and ambiguous, spiritual teaching, “The material world is an illusion.” We used to joke that this becomes laughably apparent in India. Indeed, everything starts to fall apart moments after you bought it!

Along this line there were, specifically, two little events at the Mela that really made me start to wonder. One sadhu had given me two unusually large “rudracks,” a “holy” seed. At bedtime, I put them into my money belt along with my camera, which I always slept with, deep inside my sleeping bag. The next morning the seeds – and only the seeds – were gone.

The second surprise came later when I had my photos printed. Out of shyness and respect I hadn’t taken many close-up pictures, but one elder sadhu stood out to me. Just as I clicked he saw me and put his hand up in a gesture of refusal. I wondered whether his hand would be blocking his wizened face. When I had the pictures developed I was mystified. The photo I had taken before him and the one after were side by side on the same negative strip. His photo was simply not there.

Of course one can disregard the facts and say, “well, maybe this and maybe that.” Maybe. Me, I had no explanation. I had to start an “open” box in my logical mind where I store things I just cannot sort. The box is pretty crammed these days. It is not easy for our western trained minds to accept that we do not know. Nor to allow the mysterious, to accept that there are happenings we cannot explain, and a subtle world we cannot even describe.

Donkey years later, someone loaned me a book, First Light. Carol O’Biso, a rational American lady describes her visit to New Zealand to bring old Maori statues, called “Tiki,” to an exhibition in the US. The Maori believe that a spirit lives within each Tiki. She, a logical westerner, did not. For the catalogue, each Tiki was classified and photographed singly. Yet the largest, most powerful Tiki was not on her negatives. I was glad for this confirmation that I hadn’t lost my marbles.

India is one of the toughest classrooms, but the reward is priceless. Once you get past the surface, once you can accept the hustle and the bustle, the chaos and the poverty, the dirt and the dust and the noise and the smells, you start to feel the powerful spirit of the country. The air is vibrant. It is an almost tangible field.

It seems to come from the unwavering faith of so many people for so long. It doesn’t matter that they appear to be praying to many different gods, or that the rituals are excessive and imposed by authoritarian priests. What matters is that they all believe, they all pray, they all offer, every day, their devotion.

India teaches surrender. It’s too huge, too crazy and too strong. You just can’t fight it. It’s a country of extremes: too hot, too crowded, too noisy… and what can you do about it? Absolutely nothing. You can leave of course, and many do. Things just don’t work like they do in many other countries and after a time you stop asking, “Why is the bus so late?”, “Why is the shower cold?” and “Why is the electricity off, again?”

The answer is simple: It just is.

And after a time you have less expectation, less frustration, and more appreciation. Everything that works is something to be grateful for, rather than something to be taken for granted. That was India’s gift to me.

I learned gratitude the hard way, but I was a fast learner. One day early on in my visit, after a few hours of sitting on the bare and bumpy wooden train seat I exclaimed, “My legs are sore!” In reply, my eyes were drawn to the far corner of the carriage. A man was sitting there, with no legs. I hastily revised my comment, “Thank god I have legs to be sore.”

In India you discover that anyone can be your guru. What did all the beggars teach me? You can’t take on the suffering of the world. Nor are you asked to. You can’t help everyone. Nor do you need to. We each have our own life, our own learning. If a beggar makes you feel guilty about your status, if that makes you feel you have to give, then you may be missing their present to you: gratitude for all you have.

On the desk of the New Delhi tourism office was a sign: “You do not come here to change India, you come here to change yourself.

Years later, in Thailand, I was struck by a very crippled young woman on the pavement. Amidst the superficiality of busy Bangkok, she emanated an outstanding peaceful and loving energy. I wanted to tell her, in my very limited Thai, that she was beautiful, but it is a tonal language. The word “suay” means either “beautiful” or “bad” depending on a subtle pitch of the syllables. I didn’t dare get it wrong. Once again, in the face of her radiance and fulfillment, it was I who was on the receiving side.

The word surrender has to us a negative connotation. But in fact it is most beautiful, because it is a doorway to the beyond. Surrender is full acceptance, allowance and approval of the way things are. It is the recognition that there is absolute intelligence behind the workings of the universe. It is our devotion, our total trust and our complete let go.

I came to understand that surrender is a portal. There is no more resistance, no more struggle, no more push. It opens the door to loving the world and to your own self love.

I knew a pretty Nepali woman, a housemaid. She was always smiling. She was older than me and looked younger. She had borne ten children. Seven of them had died.

Such people show us the power of surrender.