Thursday, March 09, 2017

Kailash confession (karaoke!)

I was part of our college's first annual "Research Karaoke" session this evening. Eight faculty members each provided a brief, light-hearted snapshot of our work (we have no other forum for such sharing) as our colleagues enjoyed snacks and drinks, including a specially concocted cocktail called the Looming Deadline. I decided to devote my five minutes to my forays into Kailash research. As ever (as the only religious studies person here I'm always representing) it was also an apologia pro vita sua for my field. But it also gave me a chance to provide a synthetic account of where I stand with relation to the holy mountain.
I framed it with some karaoke background to Donovan's "First there is a mountain..." but my highlight was the clip above, taken from a beautifully made documentary about the trip to Kailash by a Russian yoga group. It was ravishing on the enormous screen. "That wasn't me," I confessed. "And I didn't see the trident of Shiva like that. But I have been there, on that path going around the mountain, and I can tell you that Kailash wasn't in the distance ahead but just to the right."
I've had the privilege of going to Kailash twice, I continued, showing this silly picture of me at the visitor's center in Darchen, next to the words 世界的中心岗仁波齐, World Center Kailash. The first time, having only recently learned that it wasn't just mythical, I tried to do what Roland Barthes did when he went to Japan, making of my unpreparedness a virtue. I would forget what little I knew and just see what was there, with help from others who knew what they were doing. But triangulating from the experience of others just got me a third-hand experience. It was a waste of the mountain's time. To get something from the yatra Kailash needs to be a preexisting condition for you. By the time of
my second trip it was for me, too. What did it for me wasn't yoga or the lore of one of the religious traditions for which Kailas is important, but the first critical study of Kailas, Alex McKay's Kailas Histories. (I was very pleased with the layout of my slide.) As you know, this book argues that the Western Tibetan mountain we circumambulated has not been connected to the ancient mythology around Kailas for very long - and isn't the only Himalayan peak to be known, and venerated, as "Kailash."
But what does it say about me that this was what I needed - something cutting through the myth (the mountain which four world religions see as the center of the universe) to make Kailas yet another site of human myth-making? Jonathan Z. Smith would approve: only by seeing Kailash as a mountain among others - as a mountain - could I be scholarly about it. The academic study of religion, my preexisting condition! But going around it - and especially going around it again, the second time - was significant for me, too. Kailash, experienced through circumambulation, spins. Indeed, it spins in two directions at once, with Hindus and Buddhists going clockwise, Bönpo counterclockwise. A paradox?
My current favorite image, I wound up, shows Kailash in a busy scene full of characters, being spun in both directions. The ancient Hindu story - the churning of the ocean of milk - isn't even mainly a Shiva story; although Shiva will step in later to take care of some poison, it's Vishnu's serpent wrapped around the mountain pulled back and forth by gods and asuras, like a giant butter churn. And the mountain in question, Mandana, has not been associated traditionally even with the mythical Kailas, let alone our Western Himalayan peak. And yet, as this painting by a young Nepali (partpart of our group last summer) shows, it is now.

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain. Then there is.

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