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Snake-charmers and meditation in Rishikesh

“Life is like my snake,” says 56-year-old Gobal as he takes my hand to help me gently caress  the head of a Rajastani cobra, standing fully erect, looking straight into my eyes with its dark intoxicating stare.
“If you caress it harshly, it will bite you. If you are scared to do it, you will miss the feel of its beautiful skin. You need to balance your touch.”

The green hills of Rishikesh forming the backdrop to the brown Ganges River are ‘high’ most of the time, covered in fluffy cotton-like clouds, as if to keep up with the foreign marijuana smokers. I am staying with my partner in a cottage, nested in a big colonial mansion, from where we watch the pink and yellow Hindu temples by the river – beautiful tall wedding cakes, ready each day to be devoured by the ‘smoking’ hills.

When I get out of my busy schedule of daily yoga and meditation classes, my partner and I spend time with my guru.  He is no ordinary snake charmer, not like some snake charmers I met in the magical city of Bhaktapur in Nepal, where each move the snake makes guarantees one Nepalese rupee for the charmer. Gobal does not ‘charm’ his snake only to collect money but to captivate his audience with his very life.
I watch Gobal make a bin for my partner. This Indian instrument, usually used by snake charmers, is made of a gourd.  Gobal spends about five hours perfecting it and two days teaching my partner how to play it.  He is very happily and totally absorbed in both tasks. He certainly knows this is why he is here, in Rishikesh, and on earth.
Gobal lives in a green valley, with his extended family, under a tarp patched together from potato sacks and held in place by wooden poles.  The beds of the family members are wooden, too, except for the matresses which are made of thick ropes. Their drinking and washing water is the thick monsoon raindrops collected in two big brown clay pots, their detergent ash and dirt, their pets two dogs and two cobras, and their kitchenware steel dishes and huge round leaves, kept under another tarp hut but smaller.  There is no bathroom.  The living area is where the beds are and TV consists of talking and listening to each other or entertaining their guests.
“Try to live in the present moment,” chants my yoga teacher Devandra as I close my eyes to meditate but my mind still wanders away, thinking about Gobal and how he is so much better than me at ‘being’ in the present.

When he is talking to me, when he is breathing life into his bin, when he is playing with his grandchildren, when he is talking to his snakes, he is fully there, always with a smile. When I talk, he listens to me and only me – he does not think about anything else – total concentration and full eye contact.
When I am not not with Gobal, the snake charmer, or at my yoga and meditation classes, I go to Laxman Jula, still in Rishikesh, to visit a bookstore where the books of many magical Indian writers of yoga, meditation, crystal healing, and Hinduism are displayed, and each time, I go by a leprosy colony. Each time I walk by, I see hands with no fingers resting against the walls of the colony, and the eyes that belong to these hands quietly follow us, those with fingers, going by. 

With each beat of a passer-by’s heart, yet another appendage  falls off one of the residents at the colony – at each moment and in the present. All these unfortunate lepers have to live in the moment, just like the snake charmer.  They cannot afford to think about the past or the future. A finger lost in the past is no more and the one that is going to fall off is unavoidably lost. What is still there on those hands is all they have to cherish in this moment.
In Rishikesh, like in many other parts of India, many Nepalese work as waiters or cooks. The waiters of the restaurant we frequently visit near our cottage are all Nepalese, mostly in their twenties.

Their county is too poor to provide them with job oportunities within its own borders. These young people work from 7 am to midnight with almost no breaks during the day and no days off during the week. Only two months of the year they go home to their country – unpaid leave, needless to say. 

They are younger than me, as young as my students, in fact, but all they can do during this period of their life, if not all of it, is to work almost like slaves. They have no possibility to lead the lives so many of us do in the west, with enough money to house, feed, clothe, even entertain us. These Nepalese waiters, too, have to live in the moment, just like the snake charmer and the lepers. They simply have no time to mourn over the past, neither can they worry about the future – now is when they have to work, this very moment, to ensure their own survival as well as that of their family back in Nepal.
And yet, light continues to radiate from the exhausted eyes of the Nepalese waiters, from the leftover existence of the lepers patients, and from the snake charmer’s ageless face. This light is the light of the moment – the moment most of us never manage to hang on to.
This moment is what my friend Prakash in Rajasthan, India, has been hanging on to too, over the past month or so. He is suffering from stones heavily weighing down both of his kidneys.  He has been trying to alleviate the severe pain by taking the medicines prescribed by his doctor, but to no avail. He can go for laser surgery which costs only 300 US dollars. He can, at least for a while, be pain-free. But 300 US dollars means about 12,000 Indian rupees – an amount most Indians cannot even make in a year. I offer Prakash the money but his pride would rather hang on to the pain. For him, too, each moment is to be lived, even if it is burdened with pain.

As I listen to Gobal, my guru, the snake charmer, pulling the most heart-piercing Indian melodies out of his bin, I know I am not brave.
Mother Teresa was brave, comforting those whom we do not even dare look at and choosing to make a difference in their present… The Nepalese waiters are brave, accepting a life of bare subsistence… The lepers are brave, facing each new moment of further loss… Prakash, choosing to live the moment with pain…

Gobal, my guru, the snake charmer, is brave, embracing the present as his only happiness in life…

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