Mythological stories of Purana, Dastan, describing the early land formation and the creation of the earth are reflected in the geological myths in Kutch. Here, the churning nature of the ocean, the salt desert, frequent earthquakes, and allegories of world turtles form foundational beliefs. Yet belief and myth have been shaken many times over by natural and political turmoil. Therefore, the stories have been carried and echoed in fragments of rocks, archeological ruins, and Jurassic and ammonite fossils. Geographically, the place is known for its searing sun, hot temperatures, low rainfall, and desertification, all of which affect possibilities of new life. In such climatic conditions people lead minimal lives in the isolation of the desert – pastoral, nomadic, with their uninterrupted gaze on the horizon. The desert land has been the walking grounds for reptiles, mariners, mystics, Sufis, traders, pilgrims, and conquerors. Criss-crossing paths, restless days and nights, ups and downs, and frequent seismic activities prevent stable life here. When a mystic poet utters his/her* words:»[…] Temporary dwellers on the planet,« more than magical or supernatural realms are at play; it is a practice of living in a peaceful, well-disciplined way with minimum resources; a state we may call »Mystic Living.«
Prequel: Magic or Metaphor
A note from Goutam: Thank you for letting me know about your idea to include two more people from Kutch for a discussion. It is a great idea to listen to the voices of those living there and experiencing the rhythm and the knowledge of the landscape. It is precisely in telling everyday stories and not transfiguring the landscape into a fairy tale, a magical place, that I see the great potential to grasp the so-called »magical« or »spiritual« and »non-rational« as something not separate from us, but as a common understanding of ourselves as part of a whole.
A note from the editor: When I invited Goutam, Bodhisattva, and Charmy to write about their »Desert Lab« project, starting the dialogue, the working title for the second Solitude Journal was still On Magic, and Spiritual and Non-Rational Realms.
A note from 🪐: Regarding what we explored in Kutch and what we like to call »Mystic Living,« the pairing of magic with the non-rational – as used in the working title for this issue – is misleading. There are many different aspects to this, but one example is the way how magic and miracle operate on different levels of rationality. Magic is demonstrable, while miracles are not. Miracles by definition derive from a realm that can never be captured by the rational. Miracles defy reason. Magic, however, is about things that have a basis. It is interpersonal, and it is about communication. Here, one can invoke Clarke’s Third Law and its restatement: »Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,« and therefore any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. When we talk about magic, we mean it in this sense, not distinguished from the rational, just belonging to a different scale of things on the same continuum of reason. What we don’t know or understand in the region may seem »magical« to us, but could just be commonplace to everyone who actually lives there. It is important to remember that these people are not our »spiritual« guides. It’s not their job to lead the city-dweller (or White man/woman,* etc.) to wisdom, nor are we here to lead them to greater science or civilization. They don’t have any special wisdom, either, in a non-rational sense. One should eschew anthropological nonsense and not fetishize communities.
What we have instead are possibilities of learning from each other, which do not require cognitive jumps of miracles or new dichotomies between the natural and supernatural. People, animals, and other beings that inhabit the planet have incredible knowledge and craft, some explicit, some tacit, some understandable, some not yet so, that are testimonies to hundreds of thousands of years of different kinds of adaptation. We have many environmental challenges and stressors. Desertification is real. Much of the world is running out of fresh water. Land is becoming too saline and dry to support life. We are in the midst of a mass extinction. All of us need to learn from those who live in the desert. We need to understand what we can do better, and we need to change our ways really fast. Let us just be humble that we don’t understand everything, and be open to learning from beings that know more than we do in conditions that most of us are thoroughly unprepared for. Most of humanity won’t be able to find direction in a desert or a city if they are dropped in it without a map or a GPS. Most humans wouldn’t know how to manage a forest safely so we don’t have forest fire outbreaks. Indigenous populations are less than 10 percent of the global population, and occupy about 25 percent of the land, but manage 80 percent of planetary biodiversity. The Amazon forests are a result of indigenous agricultural practices over thousands of years. You can call it magical, spiritual, wisdom of the ancestors if you like, but I would call this knowledge. Knowledge has many different forms. To me learning is about humility. If there are those that know better, maybe I should just listen and learn – not because it’s magical, but because it is vital. This applies to many knowledges: Most of us wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing a broken electronic device or a machine, so we could do with training given how much waste we produce.
🌏: When a BJP politician offered to sponsor a new well, the villagers went to the bhopa to ask for the goddess’s advice. He went into a trance and began to shake and tremble to the chanting and percussion beat of the onlookers. This is the usual ritual with the villagers’ shaman. He indicated an area in the village about two kilometers away where water could be found. A group of villagers went there and the bhopa once again went into a trance and struck his spear into the earth. When the villagers dug there, they managed to strike water at 22 feet even though water in the surrounding wells was at a level of 150 feet.
The villagers are convinced that it was through the goddess’s blessing that water was struck. It was not always so clear-cut. Sometimes even after the villagers got a green signal to dig a well from the bhopa, they did not strike waters. Failure is usually attributed to bad luck or fate. In most cases, villagers rely on both technical and religious indicators to choose a site to dig a well. Usually technical aspects of knowledge for example, the location of trees and old wells, predominate. Hence, at one level, consulting the bhopa is more a ritualistic and symbolic practice.
– Lyla Mehta, The Politics and Poetics of Water
🪐: One way to convert magic into science is the colonial way, that is, what we do not understand the frameworks and systems we already have, and discard whatever doesn’t fit. The other is the anticolonial approach, that recognizes these systems as new ways of reorganizing knowledge, transforming the limits of what we understand to be the sciences. So these are not new knowledges but transformation of the limits of what we consider to be knowledge. The former is about technoscientific specialization, the latter is interdisciplinarity in practice. In the former, knowledge absorption is the goal. In the second, it is creating the grounds for knowledge. It breaks open the future, and says these aren’t lost traditions or anything. They do not belong to the database of the has-been, but are in the present and are about the future.
When we render »knowledge« or »magic« into frameworks or systems we do understand, then the people holding that knowledge become dispensable. What we gain is marketability at the cost of the human. Thus if you can render the »magic« held by the »native« into science, you no longer need to keep the native alive. To discover nature’s secrets you can destroy nature. This has been the genocide and ecocide of colonialism. For coevalness, we need to recognize beings – humans and non-human beings – as living, embodied repositories of knowledge, which cannot necessarily be rendered or transferred from magic to science. Hence »tantra« or its many iterations, recognizing the continually transforming and breaking boundaries of knowledge and science. Tantra is not anti-science; it is open science.
🌏: There was an old tree that was burning in the summer heat by a lake. A little bird used to dwell in its lap, and was sad about it. There was a moment when the bird was found flying back and forth between the lake and the tree. Each time, the bird dipped herself into the lake and held water in its tiny wings to wet the burning tree. The bird was continuously doing this until the rain came with a heavy thunderstorm. This story can be seen as a traditional moralistic fable (Hitapadesh). But in the summer afternoon in a clear blue sky, you have the magical appearance of sudden rain with thunderstorms. Kabir says » […] khuda bhi ro pada uss choti-si chiriya ka hosle dekh ke’: even God began to cry seeing the determined little bird.