By Geeta Rao
In the cross-cultural churning, an urban, westernised Indian has always been sceptical about the spiritual richness of the country. But it is never too late to come home. Back to the source…
creative director of Ogilvy, based in Thailand. She is now concentrating on deepening her meditation practice in vipassana. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
It has come as a late realisation to me that the further you go from your roots the more your roots pull you back. My friend Danny Coomar from Argentina has just sent me a mail from Cuzco, Peru, at the base of Machu Picchu, the mountain that has great spiritual significance for South Americans and is known as a powerful centre for cosmic vibrations.
Coomar and I got to know each other as colleagues on international assignments with the same company. He was based in Vietnam and I was based in Thailand and we often had to talk on work.
We had wide-ranging discussions on spirituality and getting off the fast track. And then came this mail. There was Coomar up in the mountains on a sabbatical in the freezing cold, running 10 km at high altitudes, practising tai chi and thinking about life. But most importantly, he said he had opted to do his soul-searching in his own country because he had learnt to appreciate his rich heritage only after he lived abroad.
I am doing precisely the same thing in India. I decided to take a year off and be a bum. A dharma bum without doubt but a bum nevertheless. Being a typical product of my generation—an urban westernised Indian—I have always been sceptical of the great Indian spiritual thing. Not a non-believer but definitely a non-believer in spiritual excess. But like Coomar I have realised you have to go away to come back. Sometimes physically and literally, sometimes figuratively.
For years I laughed at my father doing his morning yoga. I thought it was boring, really non-intensive and frankly not inspirational. Looking at the Pilates class curriculum in the US, I saw how much of the core abdominal strength came from yoga asanas.
In Thailand I saw how much of the famous Thai massage was influenced by yoga, where every move was a guided asana. In the Bikram Yoga/Power Yoga class in Bangkok, I was the only Indian and I was the only one who could not manage the complex asanas while my Australian and Thai classmates went from stretch to stretch and asana to asana with ease, looking at me with shades of bewilderment.
As an Indian I was supposed to have a head start on this stuff. Well I huffed and puffed my way through to respectable completion but not before vowing to get a fix on Patanjali.
What was the point I had missed, I wondered? Was it the fact that there was more flexibility and experimentation in the eastern approach to yoga than I related to? Yet for the final fix I found everything falling into place only when I went to the Yoga Institute in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, and saw how ashtanga yoga was a holistic approach to balanced living.
My grandfather was a well-known vaidya of his time but as far as we were concerned, ayurveda was yuck—chyawanprashes, Charaka and churans. Pink and blue pills were infinitely more interesting. And in later years I must admit I have found it easier to read New Age motivator Deepak Chopra on ayurveda rather than my grandfather’s texts even though purists may scoff.
At a spiritual retreat in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, Martin, a young dharma teacher based in France, asked me if I knew his guru who lived in the Himalayas. Of course I didn’t. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the Himalayas for that matter but it did get me thinking. Years later, I did track down Martin’s guru Satchidananda Maharaj in a small kuti in Dharamkot above McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala.
We had a wonderful conversation on existence and God and how Indians were losing the plot while westerners came with more discipline. With hot sooji halwa made by the guru himself, it was my first encounter
with a honest-to-goodness Indian guru from the Himalayas. But he came to me via the French Pyrenees. My list of rediscovery can go on.
In Bodhgaya, Yvonne, a teacher in the Buddhist tradition, asked me if I knew her guru in Shirdi, 285 km from Mumbai. Yes I did, I said confidently. But her guru was not Sai Baba; he was a living guru whose artis and bhajans are famous in Shirdi.
Even Ramesh Balsekar, who is the last living disciple of Nisargadatta Maharaj and who I discovered was almost my neighbour in Mumbai, was first introduced to me along with advaita philosophy by a western teacher named Christopher Titmus.
In the cross-cultural churning everyone else seemed better informed about India while I knew a lot about Europe and the US. I suppose it comes from being part of a generation that did not state confidently, “we are like this only” but wanted to be like them only.
Many of us opted for westernised worldviews—our degrees were from the best institutes in India and the US. And when it came to jobs, the World Bank, electronic media and investment banking were among the milestones of our success.
And while we were discovering the world outside, India was being co-opted by the world. A bit like cotton going to Manchester and returning as an expensive cloth. Ayurveda is being repackaged brilliantly in America and will soon be re-sold in India. So will tantra, sattvik food, meditation, neem and so on.
Our post-Sony playstation generation next may well believe yoga is an American fitness regime, ayurveda a branch of allopathy, and that the Buddha stopped off in California en route to Kushinagar. But it is never too late to come home. Back to the source… Like Coomar I have learnt to appreciate the richness of my own culture. But not before discovering and exploring the world outside.
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