I’m getting ready to go up to Hudson to paint a mural at Sadhana Yoga. I’ve only done a few murals so I’m a little nervous, but excited too. Any large canvas is a freeing experience to create on, and walls are as good as any. Body parts even better!
The theme of the mural is the sacred grafitti found in the holy town of Vrindavan. The divine names of Radha and Krishna are painted there on almost every wall, tree trunk, lamp post and rickshaw hood. For many renunciates that spend their days there, the main service that they perform is to paint and repaint these names with coarse brushes and a small steel tiffin of paint. Sometimes they are painted in English, more often in Sanskrit.
In Hudson, I’ve been asked to paint them in Sanskrit, even though most people that see it won’t be able to read it. Sanskrit is written in a script called Devanagari, said to originate in the heavens. For this reason, the lines themselves are considered to be purifying to look at, even if they are nothing but pretty curves to the beholder. A sacred word, like ‘om’ is considered to be the same in quality, whether written, heard, spoken or just seen.
Aside from divine names, I’m also planning to incorporate another touch of Vrindavan – green parrots! These beautiful birds used to be present everywhere there – screeching and twittering on every branch and phone line. I remember a book I used to read as a little girl – ‘But Where Is Green Parrot?’ These days they hide in real life too, but you can still see the telltale flashes of of electric lime in the trees in the less inhabited areas of Vrindavan. In the stories of Radha and Krishna, they often act as messengers, carrying secrets between friends and lovers or acting as confidantes.
Parrots have the wonderful ability to remember language and repeat it, something that is both celebrated and looked down upon in bhakti yoga teachings. Sukadeva (literally, best of the parrots), the reciter of one of the most important bhakti texts, the Srimad Bhagavatam, is praised for his feat of speaking the text for seven days and nights continuously, imparting the wisdom just as he received it from his teachers. But the same teachings also warn us not to become parrot-like and repeat things that we hear without deeply understanding and internalising them.
I went for a long walk this morning in the unexpected dazzle of spring sunshine. It makes all the difference when every other day dawns under a thick, grey sky. Whenever I walk, I pass lots of different people – the blonde mums walking their kids to school (three steps in front while the nanny juggles two kids and all their schoolbags); men with briefcases; teenage girls deftly texting as they sidestep lampposts and ditches, all without looking up.
I’ve started forcing myself to say good morning to everyone I pass. A friend from Belgium walked with me once and marvelled that English people were so unfriendly. He said that everyone, young and old greets each other in Belgium, even if they cross paths all the time. A little ashamed, I realised that I didn’t often make the effort to acknowledge anyone. Maybe I’m shy, or just lazy, or maybe we’ve all fallen out of the habit.
The gentle art of saying hello seems tied to slower times, or perhaps just more rural settings. One of the opening scenes of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast sees the heroine, Belle, sing a wistful song about how she wants to leave her provincial country life where nothing ever happens, and everyone is in her business. It may not sound much fun, but the entire song is based around her greeting everyone in the village, and I always remember wishing I lived in a town where every morning was full of so many exuberant greetings. There’s something so basically human about wishing a fellow soul ‘good day’ – something that Ebenezer Scrooge also realised after his night of realisations. The scene where he throws open his window and shouts, ‘Good morning!’ at a little boy down below always stuck with me.
Last November I spent the month in the village of Vrindavan, India, where almost no one passes without greeting ‘Radhe Radhe!’ It was a refreshing nudge out of my usual habit – avoiding eye contact, and minding my own business. Though sometimes in the West we guard our personal space, putting in ear phones and practising staring into middle distance, in India, and many other countries, this barrier doesn’t exist. I hope that more and more of us will remember what a wonderful difference it makes to simply look someone in the eye and say ‘good morning’. For now, I’m practising, even if it meant scaring the local teenage postman this morning. He looked back at me, quite bewildered as I continued walking past. Ah well.