India is disconcerting. The country with the highest increase in mobile phone purchases is also home to 40% of the world’s fauna, and the only natural habitat of tigers. At the same time, its population of over one thousand million makes it the second most densely populated country on earth. The biggest democracy in the world is also the most religious country in the world.

India is amazing. How can one interpret this country? Which is the India one must watch: contemporary India, traditional India, or eternal India? Can we talk about a single India… or maybe we should address it in plural?

India is fascinating. 29 States, 18 official languages, thousands of dialects, a myriad of religions, 6000 daily newspapers….

The “problem” is not just how to interpret this country, but how to see the rest of the world after having been in India. It is not a place one can visit, behold, analyze, appreciate, judge, and then forget.

India is not to be seen, but to be lived. India makes you face your humanity. It makes you regard human nature in all its shame and magnificence, to hate it and love it at the same time, to accept it as it is.

India is like a virus – it invades your body and transforms you. It is no longer you who visits India – it is India who visits you. Before this possibility, more than one visitor chooses to dodge it and prefers to close off his body and soul, lest he come to question his outlook of the world. It is easier to forget its peoples; to make believe none of them exists except in one’s imagination. It is simpler to believe that, sooner or later, such a chaotic country as this will end up destroying itself, drowning in its own contradictions. It is more practical to forget India that to attempt to understand it because, in the end, how can one accept that cows also have the right to stroll along the streets of any city? How can it be normal that a person who owns a mobile phone can share with cows what he just ate as Prasad (food consecrated in a temple)? From the moment we accept that all of this is part of reality, anything is possible.

However, whether we have been born in India or not, the question of how to think of it, how to understand it, remains the same.

An old proverb says that “To know India, one needs three lifetimes”. This is a splendid metaphor to explain that, in this country, nothing is exactly what it seems and that it takes time to understand it.

Being in India means that one is overcome by sensations, aromas, colors, emotions, questions; that one makes an effort to seek answers; that one faces one’s desires and one’s deepest fears. Being in India means to be blinded by the sun and deafened by the rain. Being in India means to attend the struggle for life in the depths of your being. Being in India means to see how your self-sufficiency breaks into a thousand pieces. Being in India means to feel free – and helpless. It means not forgetting for a single instant the wonderful and strange energy that surrounds you.

Being in India means to understand that life is a paradox. It means to be forced to consider the issue of existence. Being in India means to choose, more than once, to be deaf and blind in spite of knowing that we will never be so altogether. Being in India means to feel alone, to feel human; to learn to accept the unexpected instead of fighting it. Being in India means to know that time is subjective except in the case of births, deaths and weddings. Being in India means never to know boredom and to know desperation often.

Being in India means to learn to laugh at fortune and misfortune. Being in India means to learn to trust. Being in India means to know that everything changes and that nothing is lost, except memories. Being in India means to be part of a living tradition; to be modern and traditional at the same time. Being in India means to behold eternity in a fleeting instant.

What can India’s contribution to the rest of the world be? This is a question whose answer we are invited to uncover. In India, there is nothing more sacred than a pilgrimage. But the basic issue is not so much the visit to the temple as the journey itself. Because in India, it is never forgotten that life is nothing but a journey and that, in the end, the most important journey is the one we make towards ourselves.