Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New yatris

My latest piece on Kailas (so far there have been a few talks, one five minutes long, and another soon to appear in a volume of photographs one of our party took last year) is going to be rather playfully structured. Its subject is people (including me) for whom Kailash, and the trip there and around it, don't have a set, given meaning, as arguably they do for those Tibetans who come circumambulate, and those Saivites who come seek darshan of the god. The experiences of these people - new yatris, I might call us - are worth considering, I argue, because there are more and more of us, and because negotiating between the needs and desires of the more fixed and the more exploratory visitors will be an increasing challenge as Kailash becomes a more accessible world religions tourist site.

This point is a little different from that of Alex McKay, who laments the 20th century framing of Kailas by "world-religions" discourse. It functioned before, as most sites in the Himalaya did, in much more local ways, defined by idiosyncratic "renunciates" and existing well beyond the reach of organized systems of ritual and scripture. The idea that Hindus and Buddhists have since time immemorial been making their way there is itself part of this modern framing, McKay argues. (It seems some think his argument exaggerated and wilfully ignorant of local-language literatures. I found my way to the new yatris - I originally called them "yatris of the future" - in part as a way of referring to McKay's historicizing without pretending to be able to assess it.)

Whoever the yatris of the past were, and of more distant pasts, more and more of the yatris of the future will be different from them. Even those who hail from the Hindu and Tibetan world will be engaged in something new, and understood in new terms (perhaps including heritage, nature, spirituality). But those from farther afield, from China, Russia, the West... we are the most uncontroversially new yatris. While some of us may be devotés of one of the historic traditions for which Kailash is important, most will be coming to a place known to have great spiritual significance for many other people. "You are trekkers," I will never forget a South Indian man in a red duffle coat passing me at Dolma La saying as he looked down from his pony, "we are pilgrims."

The "mountain sacred to four religions" description names the trekker's awareness, and I'm coming to think that only really means something for the new yatris. Old yatris encountered people from other traditions, sure; that's common enough across Asia. A few of them might have triangulated from this (the way Bernbaum thinks encountering different religious accounts of a place refreshes our depth experience of its "sacred mystery") but most were presumably some kind of uninterested inclusivist: others rightly sensed there was something going on here but didn't get the whole picture. There was nothing to learn from their misconception. (You wouldn't make the arduous trip just to find out if something was really going on there, if Shiva really had his abode there, if it really was the crystal palace of Denchog!) (On the other hand, this didn't mean the misconceptions of others were dangerous and needed rooting out, just uninteresting.)

The new yatri is a pluralist - which in many cases (as Tomoko Masuzawa forcefully argued) is universalism under another name, but might (also) include all manner of seeker openness. Each of the different takes on the mountain seems potentially significant, even if none of them can be taken as final. (The closest to final might be what each person gets from their encounter with the mountain.) The experiences of other yatris, new and old, are an object of fascination. Old yatris arrived with manuals telling them what a properly primed mind and heart would be permitted to perceive. The new yatri knows there are many manuals. She might think minds and hearts can be primed to perceive different realities, but hasn't come in search of only one of these realities.

Now have I any evidence for my claims, and especially for the gross generalization that all these "new yatris" have structurally similar experiences? Not a lot. But also not just nothing (or nothing but my own inchoate gut feelings). Since returning from my second kora last year I've watched more than my share of videos and read more than my share of accounts of other new yatris. With faux modesty I'll say I'm just discussing those which I found most interesting, but they should add up - as they have for me - to a vivid sketch of this emerging breed.

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