There’s something about Wes Anderson movies that makes them better on subsequent viewings and it was after the fifteenth viewing of the Darjeeling Limited that I downloaded the soundtrack, which introduced me to the wide world of Indian music. I downloaded a bunch of random Indian music and forgot about it when I got busy with work. Several weeks later on a bus ride through the Korean countryside I rediscovered the music in my iPad scrolling through artists with names like Shiv Kumar Sharma, Anup Jalota, and Ravi Shankar, I settled on an album named Darshan by the Gundecha Brothers.
Night fell, the droning of what I thought to be sitars intensified and the Brothers Gundecha began chanting in a language I didn’t recognize as a waxing gibbous crested the mountains and bathed the fields and rice paddies in a milky light. I sat watching the landscape pass, the winding road made its final loop before straightening out into the valley below where the bus was swallowed up into the vastness of the uninhabited moonlit valley. I felt an inexplicable joy begin to rise in my breast that gained in intensity as the bus rumbled on. By the time the second album, Tears of a Lotus, came on the feeling was almost overwhelming, an intense numinousness, a connection to everything and everyone, a realization of some tacit understand between all that exists, compassion, love, sadness, a joyful emptiness. But as it is with things like this words are just painted fire.
If you’re still reading you may have written me off as a transcendentalist, hippie, psychonautic drug gobbling, love fester or someone who’s gone off their meds. I assure you I’m neither. I’m a skeptic, lover of science, fan of the Four Horsemen( Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett), don’t use drugs, prescribed or recreational, have short hair and am against making normative claims on truth and god. I range from being an atheist to agnostic depending on the day I’m asked. I do know that I had a numinous experience on that bus and have had such experiences since when listening to the Gundecha Brothers.
When I arrived home the next day I googled the Gundecha Brothers and found out their music is Classical Hindustani, or Northern Indian, of the Dhrupad tradition and was amazed when I read the following “Dhrupad is the most ancient style of Hindustani classical music that has survived until today in its original form. The Dhrupad tradition is a major tradition of Indian culture. The nature of Dhrupad music is spiritual. Seeking not to entertain, but to induce feelings of peace and contemplation in the listener. The word Dhrupad is derived from DHRUVA the steadfast evening star that moves through our galaxy and PADA meaning poetry. It is a form of devotional music that traces its origin to the ancient text of Sam Veda. The SAM VEDA was chanted with the help of melody and rhythm called Samgana. Gradually this developed into other vocal style called ‘Chhanda’ and ‘Prabandha’ with introduction of verse and meter. The fusion of these two elements led to the emergence of Dhrupad.”
Now, as I mentioned, I wasn’t some kind of mystic or searcher looking for a spiritual experience just a guy on a long bus trip trying to pass the time and broaden his horizons with some new music. I do believe if I had a normative idea on the “truth” or what god is or isn’t I wouldn’t have experienced what I did or if I had experienced it I would have marginalized it. I like what the Dali Lama said about the truth; as soon as we claim to know the truth in a normative fashion that’s when we cut ourselves off from growth or ever knowing any form of the truth. The experience also made me wonder why human beings seem to always want to quantify or put numinous experiences in a box. Why does everything have to be explained away? I recently saw a video of Christopher Hitchens, like Carl Sagan before him, challenging people to be amazed at the wonders that surround them, from the event horizon of a black hole to the pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. I’d like to extend that invitation; be amazed by the amazing it’s all around us if we’re open to it, don’t close yourself off to new truths by believing in old dogma.
Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.