By Suma Varughese
Meet Robert Svoboda, world authority on Ayurveda and author of the famous Aghora Trilogy. An American from Texas who has immersed himself passionately in Indian spirituality, he embodies the best of the west and east.
The extraordinary thing about a Westerner when he gets passionate about India and Indian spirituality is that he bores into it with so much determination and thoroughness that he leaves the rest of us far behind. Dr Robert Svoboda is the first Westerner to have ever obtained a degree in ayurveda, from Pune University in 1980. He has written 11 books on the subject including Ayurveda: Life, Health and Longevity, The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda and Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Recognized as a world authority, he journeys the globe lecturing, consulting, teaching and writing on ayurveda. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at the Ayurvedic Institute, Albuquerque, NM and Bastyr University, Kenmore, WA. He has also made a study and written books on astrology, vastu and tantra. He knows Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Sanskrit and is reportedly familiar with all the little bylanes of Mumbai.
He is best known among the general public for his Aghora trilogy – Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, Aghora II: Kundalini and Aghora III: The Law of Karma. Aghora is an extreme tantric path meant for bravehearts who can bore into any taboo without losing their balance. Says the foreword to the first book: ‘The Aghori sets out to overcome human limitations by shattering internally every restraint, no matter how ancient or powerful the taboo, and also by creating a Body/mind that is able to contain emotional, sensory and other experiences which would consume anyone not properly prepared.’ The series revolves around Svoboda’s mentor, the extraordinary Vimalananda, a sophisticated Mumbai businessman and owner of racehorses, and practicing aghori. The first book, which is the only one I have read, is fascinating for its narration of the aghori’s amazing prowess and experiences, but it certainly takes an open mind and strong nerves to contain the experiences.
Dr Svoboda is an itinerant traveler with no fixed abode. He is quoted as saying in an interview on the Internet: ‘It started when I lived in India for 10 years. It felt like a duplicated effort to maintain a house here. Living without a fixed address became an agreeable habit.’ He has visited India every year since he first set foot here in 1973, and describes his relationship with the country as ‘intense’.
Dr Ramkumar, an ayurvedic physician based in Coimbatore, and close friend of Svoboda, describes him as ‘simple, helpful, kind and extremely intelligent.’
He says, ‘He can certainly be described as a ‘sadhu’ who has no qualms about traveling by train within Mumbai or staying in very small places, sleeping on the floor, and eating whatever is available.’
Businessman Ashish Bagrodia who also knows him well, lauds Svoboda’s piercing intellect and photographic memory. ‘He must be one of the most intelligent people on this planet,’ he exclaims.
With a heart to match, Robert Svoboda embodies the best of the West and East.
From Australia, Dr Svoboda took time off to participate in an email interview. Excerpts:
What are the projects and interests you are involved in right now?
At the moment I have no writing projects ongoing; I am focusing instead on studying the ways in which ayurveda is being presented and taught around the world, trying to understand how best its global progress might be facilitated.
In what stage of your personal journey are you?
I see myself as making the transition into vanavasa asrama, where I will spend more time living and writing in relative seclusion.
Where will you settle? Is it true that so far you have managed to avoid settling anywhere? How does that feel?
I feel exceptionally fortunate to have avoided settling anywhere thus far. If God is kind, I will continue to avoid settling down; if He has other plans, He can make me settle wherever He likes.
How would you describe your relationship with India?
The one word that seems to best describe my relationship with India is ‘intensity’. When I first visited India in September 1973, I hated it for being intensely hot, dusty, noisy, crowded, and confusing. Also, my backpack (which carried all my clothes) was stolen at the Raxaul railway station as I was on my way to Nepal. After two weeks in India I was ready to leave, and didn’t care if I never returned! But I did return – first I went to Bodh Gaya to attend the Kala Chakra Diksha that the Dalai Lama was delivering there in January 1974, then I took the train from Gaya to Mumbai. As soon as I arrived in Mumbai, I felt right at home, and have continued to feel at home there, and in other parts of Bharatavarsha, ever since. After meeting Vimalananda further intensity entered my life; and once I started visiting Kashi, another city in which I feel utterly at home, the intensity multiplied. I still often tire of the India that is hot, dusty, noisy, crowded, and polluted, but now that I can to some degree see beneath this ‘skin’, I find that, overall, my relationship with India is intensely rewarding.
What made you come to India and take up ayurveda?
When I left the USA in March 1973, I never suspected that I would end up living in India. What I expected was a brief visit to Africa before returning to begin the September term at the University of Oklahoma Medical School. Instead, I had many adventures in Africa, culminating in being invited to join the Pokot tribe of Kenya. Having become a Pokot, I interviewed tribal medicine men and women, and was determined to study Pokot medicine more thoroughly. I promised myself to return to Kenya after visiting South Asia, until in Nepal the Peace Corps physician introduced me to the word ‘ayurveda’. At the Kala Chakra I met many physicians of ayurveda and Tibetan medicine. I decided to postpone medical school, and also my return to Kenya, while I studied some ayurveda and yoga. Actually, I never made it back to either.
No plans to integrate ayurveda with Pokot tribal medicine?
No plans to integrate ayurveda with Pokot tribal medicine per se, but I certainly think Ayurveda should return to what I believe were its shamanic roots.
Looking back, you seem to have moved in very unlikely directions. Have you ever checked out your past life to understand why this pull to alternative medicinal systems and to India?
Surely there must be some previous rnanubandhana (past life ties) for me to have spent so much time in India doing so many interesting things. But it is not good to focus too much on the past; one can too easily get caught up in past patterns and fail to appreciate what is happening in the present.
Your Aghora series is justly famous. What consequences did it have for you?
he consequences have been both good and not so good. On the good side, the books have introduced me to some wonderful people, who read them and somehow got in touch with me. On the not so good side, they have encouraged confused people to become more confused, and to try to project their confusion on me – like the guy who wrote me a one-sentence letter: ‘Please send me the mantras for transforming alcohol into amrita post-haste!’
The question we all want to know: Who is Vimalananda and why won’t you tell us his name?
Vimalananda was born and died in Mumbai, and lived most of his life there. There are enough clues in the three Aghora books for any serious investigator to be able to discover his identity, and at least two people have already done so. So why mention his name? If you are adequately motivated, and if you need to know, you’ll be able to discover it.
Would you call yourself an aghori?
I do not call myself an aghori. Maybe someday I will, if I ever actually become one.
What would you need to be or do to become an aghori?
To succeed at becoming an aghori one must reach the stage that the sage Asanga did. He lived about 400 AD, and meditated in a cave for 12 years – one whole tapah – on Maitreya, the Buddha who is yet to come. After 12 years without Maitreya appearing to him he became despondent, and gave up. He wandered into the nearby town, and there saw a dog in great misery, covered with unhealing wounds, worms crawling out of each lesion. Asanga was suddenly filled with compassion for the dog, and within him arose the desire to take the worms away to relieve the dog’s suffering.
But as he bent down to do this he thought, ‘If I pull them out they will die, and that would not be right.’ He decided instead to stretch his tongue out toward the wounds, to permit the worms to crawl onto his tongue. Then he could carefully place them somewhere where they would not need to immediately die.
Unfortunately the stench from the dying dog was so terrible that he had to close his eyes as he stuck out his tongue. As he did this he was overwhelmed with a most peculiar feeling, which caused him to open his eyes – and there standing before him he saw Lord Maitreya instead of the dog.
Although he was most jubilant at having succeeded at his sadhana, Asanga’s previous despondency got the best of him, and he blurted out, ‘How is it that I focused on you constantly for 12 years, and yet you never came? ‘ Maitreya smiled benignly at him and said, ‘All this time, all I required to bring you to realization was one pure spontaneous act of compassion – and now that you have performed it, here I am.’
When I can see the ultimate identity of spaghetti and worms, and experience the same purity in gutter water that I experience in Gangajala, then I will be an aghori.
How would you describe your philosophy of life?
I try to live life one day at a time, as best I can.
How would you describe yourself?
I avoid trying to describe myself; the more descriptors one adds to one’s self-description, the more weighed down with personality one becomes. I’d rather keep getting rid of the unnecessary details of who I have been, to make space for who I might become.
What are the most important things in life, according to you?
According to me one of the most important things in life is to be aware of the inevitability of death, and of the fact that death could come to take you at any moment. This awareness forces you to try to live your life as if each moment might be your last, which makes it easier to avoid getting caught up in typical human internal dialogs and external dramas.
Are you enlightened?
Not to my knowledge.
What have been some of the turning points in your life?
Joining the Pokot tribe. Meeting K. Narayana Baba, the saintly personage who facilitated my entry into the ayurveda college in Pune. Meeting Vimalananda. Cremating Vimalananda and K. Narayana Baba. Being robbed of all my money while on a train sitting in Kanpur station, then having two Benarasi pandits that were my fellow passengers introduce me to Benaras. Pretty much every visit of mine to Varanasi marks some kind of turning point.
What do you think is the purpose of your existence in this lifetime?
To try to deal with my residual rnanubandhanas in the most skillful way possible.
Please describe your daily schedule.
Since 1986, I travel pretty much constantly, so my daily schedule is always changing. But each day I find some time for some kind of spiritual practice and some yoga. Other than that, and the time I have to spend on email, every day is different.
How popular is ayurveda in the West? What role do you think it has to play?
Ayurveda has come a long way from that day in 1974 when I visited the offices of the American Medical Association in Chicago and asked about ayurveda, only to be told that they knew nothing about it, other than that it was ‘some kind of tribal medicine from somewhere.’ But ayurveda has a long way yet to go. Initially, its role will be to help people understand what they should eat and how they should exercise, and to teach them how to rejuvenate. Eventually, ayurveda will become a fully-fledged medical system there, and Westerners will use it to address all their medical conditions. But that will not happen in my lifetime.
What do you think is the future of medicine?
In the long run I think the world will have two medical systems: ayurveda and Chinese medicine; by then, those two systems will have cross-pollinated one another in a very productive fashion, and they will have consumed and digested allopathy.
What daily practices would you advocate for good health?
Never let a day go by without thanking God in the morning that you are alive, without preparing for your own death, and without reviewing your day at night to see where you might make improvements on the following day. Do at least some yoga and meditation. Eat sparingly, and when you are out of balance, fast. And whenever you get a spare moment, sing the blessed name of God!
What do you think is the future of Planet Earth? Will there be a New Age or are we going to self-destruct?
Things don’t look very good for the human race in the long run; we have completely despoiled Mother Earth, and at some point all those karmas will come back to haunt our species. In the short run, it is hard to say, but the signs don’t look very encouraging. The best thing that all of us can do is to pray to Earth for mercy.
How would you describe the Western mind and the Indian mind and how can we learn from each?
The Western mind is a mind of ambition, and the Indian mind, a mind of emotion. Join ambition with emotion, and what cannot be achieved?
What kind of society do you dream of coming into existence?
I dream of a state of peaceful anarchy, in which Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, and every citizen will pay more attention to the needs and wants of others than to his or her own.
What would you say has been your most significant contribution to society?
If I have, in fact, made any contribution to society, it must have to do with playing a small part in facilitating the spread of ayurveda outside India.
What message do you have for Life Positive readers?
Bhaja Govindam! God is Love!
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