Delhi roads teach some lessons in spirituality like nothing else can. You are lucky if you stay alive to learn.

Through millennia India has been a magnet for people in pursuit of spirituality, people who have risked life and limb, crossed oceans and mountains to come and sit at the feet of enlightened masters in the hope of attaining a higher consciousness, sometimes helped by a bit of hash or coke. The Beatles, Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere... can't all be wrong! While meditation and yoga are two of the many paths to higher consciousness, and while Delhi roads have the power to drive you over the edge literally, if you have any inclination towards spirituality, driving in Delhi has many lessons for the able student.

For starters, you are convinced that there has to be a higher force in the universe. No physical or natural law can explain why in a city with four million motor vehicles, with road users utterly lacking the self preservation instinct, or any respect for others' life or property, only four or five souls transmigrate from the streets of Delhi every day. Even the most die-hard atheist is likely to start believing there is some divine intervention.

A victim a day

Theoretically only human beings can have driving licenses. However, in Delhi, I wonder if that is true. Are Blue Line bus drivers androids or terrorists or a unique species? Painted on the outside of each bus is the legend: “Propelled by Clean Fuel”. What is not painted is: “Driven by demonic fury”. The decrepit condition of these buses would convince even a dodo that they cannot be controlled mechanically. They must be controlled through psycho kinesis. The android drivers are devoid of any human civility. Their daily prayer seems to be: “Oh Lord, give me this day my daily victim, but deliver me from prosecution!” From a spiritual perspective, this teaches you about paradoxes. Life is full of them. Probably the most recognised is the paradox of good and evil. Some human beings are good, some are evil. Most of us are somewhere in between. This is the basic stuff of life.

Some schools of spirituality believe that if you are not always stretching yourselves to the limit, then you are not evolving as human beings. Motorcyclists in Delhi are hardcore adherents of this school. Like moths, who hurl themselves into flames, they hurl themselves before cars, buses and trucks. Delhi bikers are automatically enrolled in a secret society the objectives of which include running through red lights, cutting across several lanes in front of hurtling traffic, and tempting death as frequently as possible. Like trapeze artists, their aim is to tempt fate but not let the soul separate from the body. But the eternal wheel of life necessitates that some will. Darting through traffic, hitting wing mirrors of as many cars as possible, fatalists one and all, they risk anything to gain that split second advantage. Proving the primacy of mind over matter is important for spiritual development.

Inculcating humility is essential to spiritual growth. However, if one didn't encounter arrogance how would one recognise humility? To teach us humility we have the call centre cab drivers. They are easily recognisable by their battered white Qualises, Taveras and Innovas with yellow plates, usually bearing HR and UP numbers. Most of them also fashion their looks after Bollywood villains. Unmindful of minor irritants like traffic rules, they go haring around the city scraping cars, kerbs and anything else that comes in their way. They are true spiritual masters because they put the fear of God into people.

Immutable rules

Spiritual teaching is also imparted by three-wheeler drivers. Their chariots are painted green, because they drive on CNG, an eco friendly fuel. But their friendliness is limited to their colour. They also have a secret society with some immutable rules. One, you must not drive in one lane, always straddle two. Second, you must not allow anybody to overtake you. Three, you must turn around suddenly, and frequently, in the middle of the busiest road without first looking to see if there is any traffic behind you. Four, you must drive with only one hand (the one on the accelerator) and one foot, the other one is usually tucked under your bum (a new asana?). Five, you must overcharge. Six, thou shall resist going to the destination of the passenger. Seven, you must park three or four abreast on busy roads.

Their rear view mirrors are pointed inwards towards themselves: “Know thyself”, our scriptures remind us! Their ear-shattering engines, and blaring Bollywood music, drown out all other road sounds including the warning horns of other road users. Oblivious of everything except potential passengers, they believe that what they don't see does not exist. Woe betide anybody who comes in their way. They teach us serenity. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Remember, all of God's creatures must have equal rights on earth. India has the largest cattle population in the world, and the second largest human population. Delhi's roads are the natural habitat of both. Being both social and spiritual, our neighbourhood cows have frequent conferences, meditation and cud-chewing sessions in the middle of the busiest roads. Occasionally a cow or a buffalo will step off the kerb, from behind a bush on the road divider, just as you are driving up. If your reflexes are not as good as Schumacher's then instead of spirituality you will attain divinity (heavenly abode). The second category of pedestrians, technically members of the species homo sapiens, are only distinguishable from the four legged variety by their physical features, not by their behaviour. Both species roam the roads freely in the midst of Kafkaesque traffic and believe that the date and time of death are preordained. That is the abiding lesson for the student of spirituality.

In most countries, when going around a rotary, the rule is that the vehicle already on the rotary has the right of way. In this city of high fliers and climbers, we actively promote brinkmanship and risk taking! After all without inner strength how could we ever hope to deal with Pakistan and terrorism? So, the rule is: when you approach a rotary, you sit on the horn and the accelerator, heading for the gap which must appear magically between two vehicles. As divinely ordained, it usually does. However, sometimes the inscrutable cosmic forces are out of synch, and the gap closes. Roads littered with splintered glass bear testimony to the fact that man has still not overcome all cosmic forces. In this sport, the police set the example. After all, as law enforcers, they don't have to observe it. Gods are always above terrestrial laws. “Tu jaanta nahin mai kaun hu-n?” is a spiritual question that erring drivers often put to traffic policemen. “Who am I?” is a question all spiritual seekers ask themselves daily.

For those seeking to understand the mysteries of the universe, there is much to learn here. Somebody once defined spirituality as “the attempt to be in harmony with the unseen order of things”. In Delhi you begin to believe that there must be an unseen order in operation, and that there is harmony in chaos. The Good Book says “the meek shall inherit the earth”. We know that, no matter how powerful or agile your chariot, there is always someone more powerful or more aggressive. Drivers who want to stay healthy in Delhi take the middle path, as recommended by the Buddha. They have realised that excess of striving leads to scrapes and excess of relaxation leads to eternity.

Detachment, we have been told, is an important element of spiritual development. No matter how evolved your driving may be, some time, somewhere some dude is going to hit your beautifully maintained car. At that time, you must remember that you are not your car. You are not even your body. You are only an instrument of God. You must forgive those who know not what they do. Om Shanthi, shanthi, om!

Noni Chawla is a photographer based in New Delhi.