Holistic Living - A river sutra
by Life Positive
I come from a wealthy Jewish family living in Hollywood. I was completing my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I had everything that you could want in the West—good future prospects, a family that was as generous and giving as any family could be.
But when, while visiting India, I saw the little children living near my guru Swami Chidananda Saraswati's ashram Paramarth Niketan, in Rishikesh, I realized how false that sense of happiness was. These children may not have fancy clothes and toys, but they have sisters and aunts telling them Lord Rama and Krishna's stories from Indian mythologies. They may have never seen CD players, but they have loudspeakers singing bhajans (Indian prayers) all day. More importantly, they are happy.
It all happened in a strange way. My friends were planning to visit India, so I came along for a lark. I was not religious at all. I was a rational, worldly person who had everything going for her exactly the way it should be. But then events began to fall in place. We were sitting in Delhi when I picked up a travel brochure and the first page to open was about Rishikesh. So, I said: "Let's go to Rishikesh." The only hotel near the Ganga was next to Swami Chidananda's ashram. I also discovered that the ashram was a shortcut to the market, better than the dirty alleys with cows.
Each time I walked through the ashram, I felt drawn. I didn't know why, which meant that there must have been a reason I was unaware of. So I decided to follow my heart. One day, I walked into the ashram and said: "I want to stay here." It was as simple as that. I just wanted to sit on the banks of Ganga and gaze at its serene waters. Just after sunset, row after row of diyas and flowers would come floating down the river like something magical and wonderful. It was one of those inexplicable moments that bring tears to your eyes. There, on the banks of the sacred river, I wept, and realized the joy I had missed all my life.
Even my meeting with Swamiji was a strange experience. I was told that he was the president of the ashram. I had no idea that he is a spiritual leader as well. When I told him of my wish, he just looked at me gently and said: "This is your home. Stay whenever you want, leave whenever you want."
When I came out of the building, doubts began to surface. Did I really want this life? Was I prepared to leave my family and stay here? We all have a rationality that often stops us from following our heart. But God did not let me make a wrong choice. There is a hand pump near the ashram. As I reached the pump, my legs froze. I just couldn't walk ahead. Initially, I thought that I must have contracted some weird disease. Then, a group of kids came running down the bend. Instinctively, I turned backwards. And I realized I could move in that direction. So I said fine, perhaps this is what I am supposed to do. And I stayed back.
I have introspected a lot about my life. At college, I thought I was studying clinical psychology to help people. But who was being helped at the end of the day? Would a child be helped because I had got an A in an exam, or had written another good paper, or had said something smart in class? With Swamiji, I was being offered an opportunity to actually help children. Now, when I go to sleep, I can say, there is a school standing where there wasn't one before because of the work that God let me do.
Today, we have about 30 schools in the Himalayan region. We also adopt schools. Everything is provided free including mats, uniforms, shoes, sweaters. It is not only the education they get but also good samskaras (upbringing, moral values).
I still go back to Beverly Hills about three times a year. I tell myself that I'm doing seva (service) most of the time, so I can take some time out to do seva for my parents too. But every time I go, there is less of me there. My parents would say: "Come, let's go for a movie." But I can't force myself to show interest. Now, my parents are beginning to understand. My mother told me recently: "You're looking like a fish out of water over here." But they are so supportive. Normally, you'd expect them to say that since I'm the only child, I should go back. But they understand. They are proud of what I'm doing.
There is a strong tradition of spirituality in the Jewish culture, but it is not taught in temples or Sunday schools. If you want to understand it, you study the Kabala. When I read about Israel, I do feel a strong connection. They are my people. But that's culture, not religion. I can't believe in a God sitting in a temple. There might be something there, but a personal experience of God? No!
I came to India, and on the banks of Ganga, I found God. It wasn't a rational decision or an intellectual reconciliation of two cultures or religions. It was about the meaning of life, about why we are here. People ask me what is my religion. I tell them I'm Jewish. But if you ask me where I feel God most, I would say on the banks of Ganga and in Vrindavan. Lord Krishna is there, I can feel him there. It is a joy that you just feel within you. You can't explain it, you can't rationalize it. It just wells up deep within and takes you in its flow.
Phoebe Garfield, India
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