Top 5 things I’ve learned after traveling
a year in India

Photograph of flower seller in IndiaIndia is a teacher; travelers are students

People often ask me why I am so interested in India, why I like traveling there so much. There are lots of reasons, of course — from the warmth of the people, to the taste of the food; from the adventure of travel to the colourful festivals; from the flowing, feminine clothes to the sunny skies. The single most compelling reason, however, is probably the attitude towards god and spirituality — and how that attitude affects almost everything about the culture and atmosphere of India.

And what does that difference mean for me (and other spiritual seekers from the west)? It means that when I am in India, not only do I feel more alive than anywhere else (for the reasons listed above), but I learn a lot. I learn a lot about myself, about the world, and about spiritual truths. Travel in India is adventure travel  in every sense of the word. Here are the top five things I’ve learned in India.

1. Don’t worry, be happy

Photograph of door at Roopanghar Fort, Rajasthan, India

Door at Roopanghar Fort, Rajasthan

I’ve traveled for well over a year in India, most of it by myself. I’ve had to deal with crowds, chaos, delays, unhygienic conditions, culture shock, large insects, small rodents, illness and unwanted attention. Among other things. What I’ve learned from all of this is that everything works out. Not only does everything work out, deviations from your original plan sometime turn out far better than anything you could have planned. In fact, letting things happen, instead of trying to control them all the time, is the best formula for magic.

And even if it appears that things are not working out AT ALL, sometimes, it’s just our perception and understanding that is off. In fact, the universe is unfolding exactly as it should. When viewed through a certain lens, everything is perfect, and the universe is 100% supporting us; gently (and sometimes not so gently), guiding us towards our destiny and the lessons we need to learn to grow and learn. And best of all, it is absolutely within our control to view the universe through this lens, which some will call rose-coloured. I don’t know if it’s rose-coloured or not, but I do know that it makes for a much less tense, anxious, unhappy experience of travel, and thus of life.

I wrote an entire article about our control over our perception for Brave New Traveler, called Travel is an exercise in perception. To summarize, “we do not see the world the way it is; we see the world the way we are.” But not only do we see the world through only our own little window — which completely influences the way we see things — we can control how we see the world. India is a particularly good teacher of this truth because India is a very soft, pliable and responsive place: whatever attitude you travel with will be reflected back to you. If you’re frightened, you will have scary experiences. If you’re suspicious, you will be ripped off and even robbed. There seems to be a kind of instant karma at work.

This is why I always advise people to go to India with an open and trusting attitude. I genuinely love India, and genuinely trust (most) Indians, and this is why I generally have very good experiences there. Of course there are times when instinct teaches us to be cautious — and I always listen and respond to these feelings. It also helps that I have learned to trust myself, and that is the root of trust. Traveling in India is one of the most challenging things I have done, and the degree of self-confidence I have built up because of it is incalculable.

2. People are good

Okay, yes, there are exceptions … but when you put yourself in a vulnerable position, and when you open your heart with trust and faith and a feeling of goodwill towards your fellow man/woman, you will largely be rewarded with kindness. Sometimes extraordinary kindness.

Photograph of men helping me replace my mobile phone in Mumbai

Men helping me replace my mobile phone in Mumbai

I have so many stories of people helping me, feeding me on a long train ride when I didn’t pack enough food; walking me to my destination when I didn’t know the way; inviting me into their homes and even families. And I’ve heard loads of other similar stories from people traveling in India, and elsewhere. When you travel, you open yourself up in a new way, and give people the opportunity to help you. It’s a lesson in the interconnectedness of life.

India is, unfortunately, known for con men, touts and other unscrupulous characters who try to rip people off by over-charging and other shady practises, but even many of these people would help you if you needed it. Many Indians are poor and this explains their behaviour to a large degree. I have seen people change in front of me when they realized I was treating them with respect, or when I needed their help. There are very few “bad” people, in my view. (And of course if you think you have come across one of them, you should be appropriately cautious.)

3. Yoga is not about putting your leg behind your head

Photograph of woman giving alms to sadhus in Rishikesh, India

Giving alms to sadhus in Rishikesh

I studied and practised yoga for close to 15 years, even gaining a certificate in yoga teacher training, before going to India for the first time. I discovered that I had been swimming in a yoga pond; in India, I discovered a yoga ocean. There is no way to communicate how vast the difference is between the way yoga is taught and understood in India, as compared to in the west, if you haven’t experienced it. My understanding of yoga completely transformed in India.

The point of yoga is to still the mind so that you can experience the truth of your being. And what is the truth of your being? That we are all part of one god-consciousness; that we are made of bliss; that love is the basic substance of the universe.

Can you reach this understanding through the intense asana (physical) practise of yoga? Maybe. But that’s not the intention. Asana practise is intended to help you relax the body, and keep it fit and healthy, so it won’t distract you in your higher pursuits. It is a means, not an end. I wrote about this in What yoga is.

Photograph of sunrise on the Ganga River, Rishidwar

4. God is love

In India, I discovered a vision of spirituality that makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve come across — the advaita (or non-dual) idea that all life is part of one god-consciousness; that duality only exists in the field of time and space, and is illusory.

I agree with Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “I used to believe that god is truth; now I believe that truth is god.” I agree with Joseph Campbell who said, “People are not looking for meaning in life; they are looking for an experience of life.” I agree with Carl Jung who said that, “The purpose of human existence is to light a candle in the darkness of mere being.” And I understand why Buddha gave a teaching in which he simply held up a flower and said nothing.

My teacher, Swami Brahmdev of Aurovalley Ashram (who is a disciple of Sri Aurobindo), teaches something very similar: he teaches that the purpose of life as a sentient being is to increase our consciousness. We do this by having experiences, reacting, learning and growing. Life is basically a series of experiments, and, with the right attitude, you can see each one as an opportunity to learn.

5. Money does not buy happiness

Photograph of children at a Mumbai train station

In the consumer-oriented and materialistic west, we have come to equate money and happiness. However, in more traditional societies, like India, this link is not so resolutely forged (although that is changing with the rise of the urban middle class). It has been my experience that some of the happiest people I’ve met are also some of the least materially well-off. As long as people are getting their basic material needs met, they can be happy — with the right attitude.

The religious tradition in Indian teaches people to be content, to be grateful and to regularly thank and celebrate god for the gift of life and the beauty and abundance of nature. In traditional India, nature is considered sacred. And the society places a great value on family life and relationships. People know who they are, they are connected to their extended families, their communities and their roots. All of this makes for a base of people who are warm, generous and helpful, and who know what’s really important in life. And meeting people like this has been my experience traveling in India.

Every study on happiness shows these are the things that contribute far more to happiness than a big-screen TV, late-model car, huge house, fancy phone, designer shoes, wrinkle-free face and fat-free figure.

And for people who are afraid to travel to India because they don;t want to face the poverty, please read my Matador article India, poverty and the fear of traveling to poor places.

Summary

Seeing the universe as a loving, intelligent force that always has my best interests at heart — and learning to let go of the need to control, to let go of the need to “be” a certain way, and to surrender to the flow of life — has had an enormous impact on my experience of life. It’s made it much easier. And I am just a beginner on this path …

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55 Responses to Top 5 things I’ve learned after traveling
a year in India

  1. Mridula May 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    The smiles and happiness part, I agree. I am an Indian and I was doing an activity with a group of foreigners. We were surrounded by people and the others pointed out, how readily everyone smiles. I guess I was taking it for granted. I liked the pictures.

  2. Kathy Mercure May 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    Thank you for this post Mariellen! I have always been drawn to India and you helped me to understand why at a deeper level. One day I will go there and experience it for myself.

  3. Mariellen May 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Taking smiles for granted sounds like a good thing to me! It means you are surrounded by happy faces 🙂

    • Amit kumar giri October 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

      I am an Indian (student) of 19 yrs. Right now living in (Madhyapradesh,INDIA). Mam( Mariellen) the way u described my country better to say our country is one of the best i ever heard, the purity of ur writing was quite clear from ur very first word.Thanks a lot for expresssing your honest feelings.
      One thing to all who wants to know about indians ,frnds a true indian is always soft hearted and can never disrespect any individual bt frnds in such a large country it is simply possible to have some bad individuals too . What we learn from our family is that,our life is not only for earning new materialistic things ,its true happines is in living happy with the things that is (your) just think a bit, what is your own ,is just nothing else but are things that you earned from ur birth and ie your family , mom ,sister family values etc and this is what makes india . I am a hindu bt i respect each and every religion of my country equally as i respect my own ,in same way the true indians love and respect others in same way as they respect their own family ,(again exception are seen may be due to miss guidance)
      Sorry, if my words made any one to feel disrespected ,frnds just be happy , feel free to come to my country and enjoy your true life..”TRUE LIFE”.:)

      • Saurabh Bhandari September 10, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

        Yeah.. bro m totally agree with you!!

  4. Mr. Shri May 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Great post and understanding of our beautiful country & people. India teaches you to love everything about yourself.

  5. Colleen Friesen May 25, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    If India is your teacher, it sounds like she has a very perceptive and wise student. Thank you so much for such an insightful and clearly articulated post. I couldn’t agree more.
    I’m traveling with my friend to stay at Aurovalley this September. Looking forward to it. Thanks again for all your wonderful words about India.

  6. anne May 25, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    I love travelling and in fact, i think travelling kinda opens up a whole new sort of portal for us to discover ourselves, learn the meaning of life, and explore the unknown. Sometimes our pressures of life or miserable pasts will be overlooked if you just set aside some time to learn about what the other parts of the world can offer you.

    Travelling eases and tells you that besides our disappointments or grudges, there are better things that can replace those.

  7. Mark May 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    I like and agree with all your points Mariellen..your post enabled me to perform the final sync up to be ready for this trip….June 9th…. 🙂 Thank you!

  8. Krista May 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    There is only one religion, the religion of love.
    There is only one language, the language of the heart.
    –Swami Sivananda–

    Your FIVE LESSONS are really fantastic!!!and really meaningful!!!

  9. Balbir May 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Mariellen,

    Excellent! You know, as an Indian and one who has an over a decade association with a UK-based company, I completely agree with you. When I travel to London, I go with an open mind. Business discussions over, I’m in the streets of London exploring, experiencing, and enjoying.

    However, I don’t find that happening when they visit our country. Agree their stays are short, but they have the evenings to explore the city.

    It’s unfortunate we have cons and touts all over the place. The rich-poor gap widens each day and more con-men will surface. Blame it on the corruption in politics, the hypocrisy that they dole out and vote-bank politics.

    That’s the bane of this country!

  10. Mariellen May 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Thanks Mark, I know you will have a great time in India. Lovely poem Krista, I totally agree. Thanks for your comment Balbir. I went to the anti-corruption rally in Delhi in April. I hope that it amounts to sweeping change. It really is, as you say, the bane of India.

    • humanity first August 24, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

      hi mariellene,,, i love the way you balance the things in your blog!!!

  11. Megan July 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    I love this post – so insightful about travel in India, and about travel in general. It is an incredibly difficult place to travel, but like you, I’ve found that being open to the difficulties and confusion and realising that it’s inevitable, it makes for a much more rewarding trip because you’re not shocked and disturbed the whole time 🙂

    I can’t wait to go back – I’ve only spent a couple of months there and would love to travel for a year.

  12. Mariellen July 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Thanks Megan. India’s like that, it draws you in. I feel so alive when I am there, and so creatively stimulated. Good luck with your plans — I do think it’s a good idea to travel for a length of time in India, to fall into the rhythms and get used to the way of life.

  13. GRRRL TRAVELER September 28, 2011 at 6:03 am #

    Very lovely post!It’s such a beautiful perspective to go in with. I love what you say about “India is teacher and travelers are student.” It’s so right on.She’s very challenging and jarring to young initiates but she’s done you feel transformed… full of compassion.

  14. Ashok kumar September 28, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Dear Mariellen,
    I really happy with your above post, i am in chennai India but am not aware of yoga and other things.

    when you visit chennai India please come to my house.

    My family will heartly welcomes you.

    Regards
    Ashok kumar J

  15. Mariellen September 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    Thanks Grrrl Traveler. I agree, India is a tough but fair teacher!

    Ashok, your comment is THE REASON I work so hard on Breathedreamgo. Only an Indian would write, “my family heartily welcomes you” — and mean it. Thank you so much. I hope to be in Chennai again soon!

  16. surendra singh hada September 30, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    dear mariellen,
    thanks a lot. you are right that money can not by happiness thats why even though india may have lagest no. of poor people but maximum no.of smiling faces.
    and whatever the attitude you carry you will get the same people .
    i have also travelled out of india and there were also some good people and some– for example i took a taxi for the same distance 4 times and all the 4 time they charged differently and the difference was big so its the individual who makes the difference not the nation.
    thanks

  17. Amit Baviskar November 8, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    Namaste Mariellen,

    Thank you for your every effort and visit to India…. India will welcome you again and forever. We are happy to see you in India again.

    Thank You…

  18. Mariellen November 8, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    Thanks for your comment, Surendra — I love what you said: “ts the individual who makes the difference not the nation.” I agree with that. India really is a nation composed of 1.2 billion individuals. That’s what makes it so interesting, and so humanistic in many ways.

    Really appreciate your comment Amit! I am longing to get back to India and trying to make that happen. I love being in India, and always feel more alive, lighter, freer than anywhere else. Thank you for your welcome message.

  19. vikrant November 14, 2011 at 3:14 am #

    Mariellen, Sometimes it takes an outsider to show the true India. The true India is hard to find and most people including the most in Indian just doesn’t “get it”. It looks from your post that you have experienced the true India. Now I wonder what am I doing here in california and all the dollars I earned here is really worth it?

  20. Mariellen November 14, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    You know, Vikrant, over the alomst-six-years I’ve been writing online about my travels in India, I have received an embarrassing number of positive emails and comments, many of them from Indians. It is truly humbling. But I think your comment has moved me more than almost any other. It means a lot to me that my writing has given you pause for contemplative thought about the big questions. Thank you.

  21. Sarvesh November 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,

    I work for a client in San Francisco, and was preparing for a trip for them to spend a couple of weeks in India. I was searching on the internet for experiences that foreigners have had during their travels to India (since I’m an Indian, and may not have the perspective of an outsider) to prepare them for the good things and the bad. I am ashamed to say, that I was afraid there was more bad than there was good, but your article has truly reminded me of what my country really is – a land where real understanding of our true spiritual nature once formed the basis of social life and activity, and the affects of which still exist.

    Just after reading your article I feel a lot better about showing my country off to my American friends, so thank you for reminding me of the great things about my country!

    Sarvesh

  22. Mariellen November 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks so much Sarvesh! India is a very special place, but not everyone can see it. You can only do your best and hope they will open up the beauty of India. Your clients are lucky they have such a caring friend.

  23. Clarisse Châtel November 26, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    I often struggle to make others understand the absolute beauty of India despite the total affront to all senses. I have been lucky enough to experience India and its infinite lessons. Like yoga, the obstacles and challenges were the ultimate excavators that brought me closer to me, to my Atman, to just being. I will forever be a student in search of the real me and my sacred self. Noisy and unsafe transportation, difficult traveling accommodations, caste systems, beggars, spicy thali and unhygienic conditions have metamorphosized into the typical western addictions to drama, money, stress, etc…. Returning to India with my three girls and my husband is something I would love to do, but until then, we as a family are learning to let go, be and breathe. Exactly what India did for me 10 years ago.

  24. Mariellen December 1, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    This is beautifully said: “I often struggle to make others understand the absolute beauty of India despite the total affront to all senses.” I feel I have learned the true meaning of beauty in India, and it’s not about perfection. It is about the humanity and eternity of the moment, the vivid swirl of life, the pathos … yes, it’s hard to put into words. Thanks for commenting Clarisse. I hope you make it to India with your family, and that they see it through your eyes.

  25. Marguerite Sawyer December 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I’m traveling with my friend to stay at Aurovalley this September. Thank you for your every effort and visit to India…. I went to the anti-corruption rally in Delhi in April. when you visit chennai India please come to my house.

  26. Ajay Sharma January 27, 2012 at 3:24 am #

    ………………….awesome! like

  27. Mariellen March 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    Thanks Marguerite and Ajay! PS Would love to visit Chennai again 🙂

  28. Jen April 26, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    Loved reading this,thankyou Mariellen! I’m so happy i came across your blog 🙂 I can feel the warmth and energy of India and i’m not even there yet haha i can’t wait to immerse myself in all that India is!

  29. flipnomad May 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    this is one of the best articles I’ve read… this is my second time in India and it remains to be one of my favourite places in the world because of a lot of things but primarily because one of the reasons that you have stated as well… India makes me feel alive… I haven’t felt this way before and I am continuously feeling this in India…

  30. Mariellen May 6, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Flip, I have a very strong feeling that you are totally embracing India! Thanks so much for your comment and your appreciation. Have a wonderful time on the subcontinent!

  31. Vivek Kumar September 13, 2012 at 3:27 am #

    Hi I m a web designer from Patna, Bihar india I also traveled many cities of India and learned many lessons what i experienced and is unforgettable is that “Money Can’t buy happiness” an so i agree to you.
    Vivek Kumar recently posted..Hello world!My Profile

  32. create a blog March 9, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic
    but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website?

    I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.
    create a blog recently posted..create a blogMy Profile

  33. Denise July 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    I am now 70years old and have visited India twice. What a wonderful country. I loved the warmth of the people, the noise, the colours, the sights. It really has got into my heart. Am I too old to return on my own?

    • Mariellen Ward July 30, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      Denise, I love your comment! You are not too old — age is a state of mind, after all. Please let me know if you need help or encouragement.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..My top tips for DelhiMy Profile

      • Mohammed Yunus January 12, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

        As it is said India is not a country but a continent and as an India i am proud to be an Indian. May God bless our country. There are good and bad people all around the world but in a country like India we do have some bad ones too but its sure not so common like you find in the rest of the world. There are place were you are scared to walk in at day time but in India at least the people are helpful .

  34. Devanshu Agrawal March 23, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    In my opinion India is like a treasure chest which when opened for first time , is full of dirt and dust but once the dust is removed , you started finding the differences in experiences every time and these experiences are the treasure. So don’t let dust come under your way.

  35. Shipra April 7, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    I just love your blog. Amazing. Keep it up.
    Shipra recently posted..Himachal Hill Resorts hopeful of White New Year EveMy Profile

  36. ardan January 7, 2015 at 4:36 am #

    India’s dynamic cutting edge mind-set and ancient cultural heritage makes a complete travel experience enveloping extravagance, undertaking, enjoyment and escape—a destination where all the faculties are reveled.

  37. Sandy March 1, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    Indian culture is fake
    1. Psychologically forcing marriage
    2. Guilt tripping parents who care about what their friends think more than their children’s happiness and wishes
    3. Female infanticide
    4. Caste system
    5. Racism is extreme

    You might not have felt it as a traveller. However, I know these facts from the inside of the culture. I am Indian genetically. They act as if India is a religion and not a country. If you stray away and want to be part of the mainstream society you are living in, you get guilt tripped to the point that whatever way you go you will be miserable. The only thing Indian parents care about is what other Indians will think.

  38. Balram SIngh June 4, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

    Famous Indian slogan for visitor is “Athithi Devo Bhava” which means our Guest is equivalent to God and our culture value visitors equivalent to God. Visitor may not feel this in hotels but they can feel it if they are attached with any Indian family. People in India are social and rich from heart. Proud to be an Indian. Thanks Mariellen for posting this.

  39. Niharika January 3, 2017 at 5:33 am #

    You are white. I am an Indian and one thing I know about my country is that we will go to any extent to be kind towards you. Ask a brown/black person about how “nicely” they are ever treated. I feel this article is too positive towards us. 🙁 Sad truth

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