Archive for May 2009

The Mixed Blessings of Spiritual Tourism. Rishikesh, 1999

14 May 2009

The distance from Delhi to Rishikesh is about 200 kilometres.

One of the disadvantages of unplanned travel in India is that, although there is probably a train service to the place you wish to visit, an advance booking is essential. So my hard-earned advice is that if you propose to make this particular trip, book a first class ticket on an air-conditioned train rather than travelling by popular bus services, unless you are lucky enough to find a first class air-conditioned vehicle. A hired taxi would also be a very worthwhile investment.

The character-building experience was preceded by a purgatorial one-hour auto-rickshaw ride through the least attractive suburbs of Delhi in morning rush hour traffic because my Indian friend and guide (S) was too parsimonious by nature and necessity to allow me to ‘waste’ money on a decent taxi. Ironically or karmically – more probably bureaucratically – half of the 20 kilometre rickshaw trip turned out to be quite unnecessary because the bus service did not actually depart from the advertised station but from another one 10 km away.

The tediously slow five hour ordeal on wooden slatted seats was bone-jarring and, given the conditions and driving habits prevailing on India’s overcrowded and lethal roads, hair-raising as well. Nevertheless, we eventually reached the extremely venerable city of Hardwar, situated on the Ganges. Here my companion of meagre means and needs insisted that we stay in his favourite cheap hotel despite my readiness to ‘splurge’ a few Rupees more, a gesture which was rejected as an inappropriate and self-indulgent luxury, especially in this hallowed place of pilgrimage. My small room was spartan, with a bloody mattress (literally), a battalion of mosquitoes and a squat toilet which induced instant constipation. But at least the night’s rest was more or less recuperative. Up at 6 a.m. to explore the sacred bathing ghats.

14 February – not only the festival of Mahasivaratri in 1999 but also St Valentine’s for cross-cultural adepts. What a nice ecumenical occasion. Down to the ghats beside the sacred river. Still dark and cold, but crowded. S. dutifully bathed while I declined the purgative experience but gingerly christened myself with a small handful of Ganga water. Then, for a tiny fee, a priest gave us a blessing with marigolds and a two-tone mark over the Third Eye. Actually, S. paid Rs10 and magnanimously suggested 500 rupees would be appropriate for me to offer; fortunately, 50 turned out to be all the priest required. A very quick breakfast in an unsavoury ghat-side café before two more street blessings from venerable itinerant saffron-robed Danda-Swamis toting their characteristic long Staffs. Where else can you get three blessings plus an updated christening in one hour! Things looked promising. Was I now a Hindu? Would the Pope, or the Dalai Lama, be upset about this? Would I be a better person?

Another bone-rearranging rickshaw ride for 30 km from Haridwar to the city of Rishikesh via the little hamlet where S’s – and now temporarily my – Swami protégé lodges (free of charge) with a family of Dalits in a tiny thatched hut. These dirt poor people are Swami R’s converts to Sathya Sai Baba, so it is their duty to feed and shelter him. Drawing aside a thin curtain, they wake the Swami him up to greet us and we sit under the pale early sunlight in the handkerchief-sized backyard, enjoying their very generous bananas and biscuits as prasad (blessed food). In a tree towering over the hovel stands a large sign announcing the Swami’s Mission:
Kali Age Incarnation, Hardwar Rd, opp. J.G.Glass Factory
Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba Learning Centre

We exchange greetings and Swami R proudly informs us that he has been befriended by Baba Ram, who is the president of the local village’s Bharatiya Grib Chesna Parishad (Organisation for the Awakening of Poor [Grib] Indians). So he has a sound base for his Mission.

The self-appointed Swami’s self-appointed task is to go from village to village giving out thin proselytising leaflets about Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings, and to sing bhajans, etc. But in our conversation that morning he constantly harped on the lack of cooperation and, as he implied darkly, worse obstacles, from the local Sathya Sai Baba Centre in Rishikesh. In spite of all the alleged obstacles to his success, Swami R maintains (quite unrealistically to the independent observer) that this area will soon be the biggest Sathya Sai Baba Centre outside the Organisation’s HQ, the thriving township of Prasanthi Nilayam in far distant southern Andhra Pradesh. And, he confides, he needs Rs 5,000 to buy a neighbouring plot as a proper Centre. (Oh dear! What are his expectations from today’s visit? A quick calculation reveals that this is not an unattainable sum, since it is the equivalent of $US100, so I can give a modest but useful donation.)

Swami’s story: originally a teacher of economics and a lawyer, he lived in the main Sathya Sai Baba ashram in distant South India for several years. He has also lived for short periods in several Rishikesh ashrams since 1991. He says he is very dedicated to his important spiritual task but his constant carping and whining seem so, well, Unspiritual. He has nothing good to say of the officials at Sathya Sai Baba’s Centre in Rishikesh – but he may just be echoing his benefactor, my friend S (also a Sathya Sai Baba devotee), who has confided several reasons for complaint about his treatment by the Sathya Sai Organisation down south.

Swami R also appears overly fond of Sathya Sai Baba’s widely propagated disaster predictions to students during the mid-1980s. Although admitting they are only rumours, he is convinced that many people will be consumed by fire this year and that 8 May and 24 October are dates not to leave one’s home; certainly not to travel. (Later, I forgot to notice if anything happened on those specific days, so I imagine it didn’t, as usual with Doomsday predictions – so far, touch wood.)

What am I to make of all this negative stuff in the positive world of spirituality? Is its purpose to show me that the real India is not my cuppa chai? But is this the real India? Maybe it was, once.

Swami R takes us on a spiritual tour of the centre of Rishikesh and across the famously flimsy-looking Lakshmana Bridge. I treat my companions to a frugal vegetarian lunch in the Chotiwala Restaurant and finally hand over to Swami R my rather paltry donation of Rs 500, as previously commanded by S, who has also given him some money from time to time, like many other Indians, mainly elderly Hindus, who are merely doing their time-honoured spiritual duty (dharma).

The morning has heated up, so the river and mountain breezes are welcome. There is much activity and many western spiritual tourists are visible in the town and in the ashrams. The river and Himalayan foothills panorama is inspiring and distractingly photogenic. I can appreciate the strong attraction this setting has for Germans and other Europeans but what central Rishikesh really seems to offer is basic consumer spirituality on the cheap – except in the one or two expensive ashrams with their comfortable consumer flatlets. Up in the wilds of those overhanging Himalayan foothills, perhaps the smaller ashrams are different, more authentic.

The bookstalls in Rishikesh are full of books on the main Hindu saints and especially on tantric topics, which (like a number of Indian gurus since 1960) seem to exert a strong appeal for many foreign seekers. The gamut of literature on offer in the streets ranges from ‘Sex to Superconsciousness’, etc., plus books on Shirdi and Sathya (both of them are Sai Babas), and, for a few homesick British travellers, ‘The Day that Diana Died’.

We try to enter the old ashram where the famed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught the Beatles for a while in the 1960s, but we find entry is not allowed and an attendant at the main gate mutters something about the Maharishi being forced to flee after murders in the ashram committed by westerners – surely not a good career move, karmically. (In Sonepat, Haryana, much closer to Delhi, but still distant from Andhra Pradesh, another self-appointed guru, Siddheshwar Baba (aka Professor Bhim Sen Goel, a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba) set up his own ashram specialising in Kundalini Yoga, which for many years until his death in 1998 was much frequented by those ubiquitous and indefatigable ‘one-pointed’ German seekers of exotic spirituality, and other westerners.)

The return journey to Delhi by bus was equally horrendous but more bearable because, when I confided in S that I had stupidly left my pyjamas behind in the Hardwar hotel, he had informed me that that is in fact a blessing – because someone else will benefit from finding them, and even a double blessing because the loss and the find take place in such a holy site. Apparently you can leave behind a problem or an ailment here, paid for with such a ‘blessing’ for someone else to discover. What a lovely religion! In fact, my pyjama deficit was to bring a third blessing, thanks to S’s solicitous local inquiries: in spite of a couple of missed opportunities on my visit to India the following year, I was finally reunited with my pyjamas two years later (probably washed in Ganges water), by airmail post.

The European Union’s verdict on the Franco Régime in Spain (1939-1975)

12 May 2009

An enlightening insight into the workings of the complex European Union government is on display in the following record of recent debates stemming from simmering European controversies over the distant but not forgotten Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the ensuing Franco Dictatorship (1939-1975).

1. On 11 February 2004, in the Parliamentary Assembly of the EU, a Motion for a Resolution on the Need for International Condemnation of the Franco Regime was signed by 39 (mainly Socialist) Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). As a result, a European Union Political Affairs Committee was set up, with the prominent Maltese Socialist politician Leo Brincat as Rapporteur, to consider this question.

2. Of the 83 EU members appointed to the Committee, 36 were present at the final meeting on 4 October 2005 to adopt (unanimously) the Draft Recommendations (in English and French, but not Spanish) to the Parliamentary Assembly. (

The Brincat Report consists of eight strongly worded recommendations and 100 paragraphs of background information.

3. In its turn, on 17 March 2006, the Standing Committee of the EU Parliamentary Assembly / Assemblée Parlementaire approved the Draft Recommendations for submission to the Council of Ministers. (

Recommendation 1736 (2006)
Need for international condemnation of the Franco regime

1. The Parliamentary Assembly strongly condemns the extensive and wide-ranging human rights abuses committed by the Franco regime in Spain from 1939 to 1975.

2. Public debate in Spain on the question of drawing up a full account of the Franco dictatorship’s crimes was launched in the 1980s and continues to this very day. The debate has further intensified under the present administration.

3. Initiatives started in the early 1980s, aimed at removing symbols of the dictatorship, such as statues, from public places and at renaming streets and schools named after Franco and his generals, have been quite successful.

4. The Assembly hopes that the present debate in Spain will result in a thorough and in-depth examination and assessment of the Franco regime’s actions and crimes. In particular, the Assembly looks forward to the results of the work of the Interministerial Commission for the Examination of the Situation of Victims of Civil War and the Franco Regime, established in October 2004.

5. At the same time, the Assembly underlines that the violation of human rights is not an internal matter of a single country and therefore the international community is as much concerned as the Spaniards themselves.

6. The awareness of history is one of the preconditions for avoiding similar mistakes in the future. Furthermore, moral assessment and condemnation of committed crimes plays an important role in the education of young generations.

7. The Assembly stresses that the Council of Europe is well placed for a serious discussion on the subject. In accordance with its fundamental principles it should condemn the crimes and violation of human rights under the Franco regime at international level.

8. The Assembly therefore calls on the Committee of Ministers to:

8.1. adopt an official declaration for the international condemnation of the Franco regime and to mark 18 July 2006 as the official day of condemnation of the Franco regime as it marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish civil war and Franco’s overthrow of the government;

8.2. urge the Spanish Government to:

8.2.1. set up a national committee to investigate violations of human rights committed under the Franco regime which will submit its report to the Council of Europe;

8.2.2. continue to make available to all historians and researchers all civilian and military archives which may contain documents that can contribute to establishing the truth regarding repression;

8.2.3. set up a permanent exhibition in the underground basilica at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) outside Madrid – where Franco is buried – explaining how it was built by the republican prisoners;

8.2.4. encourage local authorities to erect memorials as a tribute to the victims of the Franco regime in the capital of Spain and in other major Spanish cities.

4. Two months later, the European Union Committee of Ministers met to consider the issue. The result of their deliberations was the following brief official condemnation of the human rights violations committed by the Franco régime, accompanied by diplomatic glosses on Spain’s subsequent achievement of democracy and on the need to condemn all totalitarian régimes.

Ministers’ Deputies
CM Documents
CM/AS(2006)Rec1736 final 5 May 2006

Need for international condemnation of the Franco regime
Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1736 (2006)

(Reply adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 3 May 2006 at the 963rd meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies)

1. Like the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers condemns the repeated serious human rights violations by the Franco regime and agrees that it is important to remember the crimes by all totalitarian regimes so as to avoid repeating the errors of the past. In this connection, the Committee of Ministers acknowledges the courageous steps taken in this respect in Spain itself.

2. At the same time, the Committee of Ministers notes that Spain’s transition to democracy shortly after the end of the Franco regime is an example to all other countries undergoing the same process. It welcomes the fact that the year 2007 will be the 30th anniversary of Spain’s accession to the Council of Europe, which was made possible by that successful transition.

3. As regards the specific recommendations addressed by the Assembly, the Committee of Ministers believes that all totalitarian regimes without distinction, including the Franco regime, should be made the object of a declaration or official day of the kind which the Assembly suggests. Singling out one regime rather than another might create the mistaken impression that some totalitarian regimes are worthier of condemnation than others, whereas all of them collectively merit our reprobation. (

Although the lengthier and stronger Parliamentary Assembly Recommendations (Section 3 above) were reported in the Spanish Press and are referred to in Wikipedia (English), in the articles Francisco Franco and Spain under Franco), this final official European Union condemnation of Franco’s régime (however brief) has not been publicised (possibly because of its brevity and diplomatic patina) and is (so far) missing from Wikipedia (in English and French, but is present in one of the relevant Spanish Wikipedia articles: Dictadura de Franco).