By Jasjit Mansingh
A woman’s journey into the self and the spiritual begins with the tragic death of loved ones. Seven years on, she finds herself in a place of certainty and equilibrium
Spirituality’ has become an almost suspect word in the high-tech world of instant communication today, which encourages more consumption. Yet there is something missing for most people in this, and ‘spirituality’ is seen as a kind of quick-fix panacea for the slings and arrows human beings suffer simply because they are human. It is the price they pay for being endowed with consciousness and an intellect that questions. I shy away from using the word ‘spirituality’. Yet I know in the innermost core of my being, without any doubt whatsoever, that the Spirit exists, and that to live in a spiritual way is the only sane way to live. It has taken me seven long years to reach this state of certainty and equilibrium.
The wake-up call is inner restlessness that may manifest as impulses and desires. To be caught in fulfilling these usually does not help. Chances are that it will manifest as disease; break that into ‘dis-ease’. Sometimes the wake-up call is an external event—a personal tragedy, for instance. It can lead to a breakdown, or, if the Gods are with you, it can lead you to the beginning of a truly spiritual understanding.
Looking for meaning
In 1996, I experienced this restlessness over six months. Nothing was going right, and I was almost dysfunctional. Medical examination revealed no organic cause, yet I was convinced I was going to die. Death came. But it got my daughter, who worked for rural development in Kumaon, at age 33, and her daughter, at age three-and-a-half. They were with us in Delhi in July, and by end-August they were gone. Mushroom poisoning? Everyone asked, but….
There were no buts. It happened, in her own home. Picked from the forest nearby, she, Oona, cooked and served them. The fatality rate is 50 per cent. Dead right. We, in Delhi, didn’t even know anything was amiss. Ilya, the little one, died there. Oona was brought to Delhi but couldn’t be saved.
Did any of our lives have purpose and meaning? Yet there was conviction that there must be meaning. I set out to discover it. I would put down on paper and examine all the evidence I could muster. Ask somebody with insight who might be able to make sense of it and see if there was a pattern in the totality.
For 15 months the computer was my ally. The external world faded into insignificance. The reality was Oona. I received inputs from her friends when they got to know what I was doing. I received insights from acharyas who knew nothing about Oona but were well acquainted with the devastating effects of grief. And I received ‘help’ from people and books I happened to ‘come across’. Slowly I began to understand that there was method in all these different ways. That nothing really happens ‘by chance’. I began to pay attention to the faculty known as intuition. I would think a thought and notice that soon, it actualised. It made me smile a little smile of knowing.
By the end of two years I had written 500 pages. Another ‘chance’ encounter suggested that I publish it. I read it a year later with my editorial mind and pared it down. I had actually given birth to Oona again, in another medium. It was not a planned happening. Anjolie Ela Menon, who knew and loved Oona, painted a portrait of Oona in 1997. She remarked that the portrait had a will of its own. It was the feeling I had when I was writing. That I was only an instrument, there was some other power at work. Dare I call it God, the arch Creator?
Oona Mountain Wind (Srishti/Bluejay) was published in 2000. Besides reconstructing what happened, resurrecting Oona and Ilya, it answers my main question at the time: is death really an ultimate nothingness, at the thought or experience of which we are devastated, grieve, or live in terror?
Journey of self
Ramana Maharshi’s question ‘who am I?’ holds good. Peel away layers of the material body, the restless fickle mind, the discriminative intelligence, and you will reach That which experiences all this. That awareness, or Consciousness is the Subject, the real ‘I’ which stands apart from the transient objective phenomenal world experienced through the senses and the physical organs of perception. It is the embodied Self. It is the Spirit.
The journey continues. The Bhagavad Gita came to me, again and again. Strangely, I had read a marvellous translation during the summer of my unrest. It takes on an entirely different meaning now. It compresses ancient wisdom. Arjuna is in despair, unnerved by what he has to face—destruction of his kinsmen and his teachers on the battlefield. The Lord lets him into the great secret: “Never did I not exist, nor you, nor these rulers of men; nor will any one of us ever hereafter cease to be.” Believe that and your own battle against grief is won. I believed.
In case doubt persists, Krishna hammers home the point: “Know that to be indestructible which pervades all this.” And: “Unborn, everlasting, unchangeable, and primeval, the Spirit is not killed when the body is killed. It is everlasting, all pervading, stable, firm and eternal. It is said to be unperceived, to be unthinkable, to be unchangeable. Therefore, knowing it to be such, you ought not to grieve.”
The road was long and lonely but fairly well-travelled. Two mutually supportive lessons were: drop identification with the body, and shift focus from the ever-changing to that Unchangeable. The first teacher of Vedanta I met in November 1996, barely two months after Oona ‘died’, advised: “Remember her. And you will find she is more with you now than when she lived away in her own home.” She is. I see now that he put me on the path of meditation but I didn’t think of it in those terms seven years ago.
Patterns and coincidences
Two days before writing this article, I did a reality check with another Teacher I found in 1998, when the writing was almost done. He read what I had written and we discussed then the ‘meaning’ of life, which I included in Oona Mountain Wind. He is Swami Bodhananda Saraswati of the Sambodh Foundation.
The need for a check was occasioned by three things that happened on the same day (November 10, 2003), and my response to them. A letter, handwritten, from an American friend, Granville Austin. “It’s a splendid book. I doubt any child anywhere has had a more descriptive and moving memoir. You evoke Oona wonderfully so that she emerges as you go along. The weaving of your and others’ memories with letters to and from her works brilliantly. If Oona, herself, was a work of art, living a life of art, so Oona Mountain Wind is a work of art.” He continues: “I was fascinated by your search for meanings, for transcendental manipulation of events and individuals’ lives. Fascinating also how so many proponents of faiths express the same or similar thoughts/doctrines….”
I did another book, for the younger reader, entitled Oona, published by the National Book Trust (NBT) in 2003 specifically to share her life and experiences in the field of development and environment with young people; and perhaps encourage them to consider natural resource management as a career. It has many illustrations and includes Oona’s own writing, accounts of her travels in diverse parts of the country and her reactions even as a teenager. In my mind she has always been secular and pan-Indian, a perfect role model. Oona had been prescribed as a course reader for the middle school in a Delhi school.
The third event of that day was another letter. This was from NBT informing me that no translations into any regional languages were planned. The interesting thing was my reaction to all three events—neither elation, nor distress. I truly felt I could take the swing of the pendulum without being disturbed. It was the state of equanimity advocated in the Bhagavad Gita—samatva—to be the same under all circumstances.
Around December 2, 2003, Swami Bodhananda called to announce he was back in Delhi and had work for me. I went to see him with a copy of Oona as guru dakshina. I was to edit his new book that he wanted out in three weeks. It is titled The Seven Hindu Spiritual Laws. Seven! It was seven years since Oona and Ilya died. As I looked into it, the resonances increased. “For lasting happiness you need to know who you are. The issue involves your spiritual well-being…” “Dharma is to understand one’s own talents and needs and being sensitive to others’ needs and talents.” “Your restlessness is the whispering of eternity.”
I asked Swami Bodhananda if he would comment on me (since he has known me for five years). I quote: “I find a great change in Jasjit from what she was when she was going through the inconsolable grief of her daughter’s tragic death, desperately trying to make sense of what happened, and why it happened. Now she is contemplating the deeper meaning of life, reflected in a young woman’s life, work and death, and its message for the youth of the day. Jasjit draws from the deeper springs of philosophy and religion to present a wholesome philosophy of life, of hope and purpose, of sacrifice, and dignity and courage in the face of personal tragedy. Her thoughts are indeed valuable lessons for the youth on how to face the challenge of life and make life a spiritual journey.” I noticed he wasn’t shy of the word ‘spiritual’. I thank him for the validation of what I have tentatively felt within myself.
Why do I write about Oona, I sometimes asked myself. She was the wonderful specific in my life. I want to share my good fortune with anyone who is interested. Swami Bodhananda said of her during an early meeting: “I wish I had known her…thank you for writing.” Let me quote what he says now: “Oona was a restless soul—romantic and adventurous. She lived in the middle land of modernity and tribal wilderness, scholarship and pure experience, seeking the meaning of life and solutions for contemporary human dilemmas. She moved like the wind, difficult to grasp but touching the hearts of all who came into her life. Oona’s heart was not in this world; she was a celestial being who bloomed like a morning flower and before anyone could grasp her, she was gone. But the fragrance remains.”
Path of action
Speaking of the Law of Change (maya), Swamiji talks of the role of external circumstances in the context of Bhishma, lying on the bed of arrows awaiting ‘death’: “That condition was required for expressing his potential.” Each one of us, he says, is a field of infinite potentiality. The purpose of life is to discover your uniqueness and expressing it. But if the mind is full of distraction, chatter and grief, it cannot tune in to the Universal Intelligence which guides us if we are open to it.
I use his comments to assess these last seven years of my life. “To quieten the mind,” he says, “pursue a course of action. Don’t react. Do the right thing. Don’t fight. Just watch.” Writing is my calling. All the material I needed was at hand. The ‘external circumstance’ happened. Did I have a choice?
If I needed validation from yet another source, it came. I met a young woman I hadn’t seen for perhaps 12 years. She had been a friend of my son. “You know, Aunty Jasjit, I never knew Oona,” she said. I asked if she had read the book. She had, just a few weeks ago. It was apparent that she was caught in a time warp: either of 12 years ago, or seven years through my world in the book. Finally, she smiled and said somewhat hesitantly: “You know, you look so different.” I know that physically I have not changed much except for the grey in my hair. I waited. She continued: “You look…(I could see her searching for the right word)…happy.”
In Swamiji’s The Seven Hindu Spiritual Laws, I came across two snippets that I noted down: “Yoga requires a supremely active person. That person alone attains absolute quietude and, in that process, invokes the Infinite Power of Spirit. His/her actions are aglow in the light of Spirit and whatever he/she touches becomes a success.”
More to the point: “The supreme act of spiritual intelligence is to be happy now, as you are.”
Apart from Oona Mountain Wind and Oona, Jasjit Mansingh has edited, selected and translated stories from Punjabi in Time Out: Stories from the Punjab (Srishti). She also contributed to Japjee: The Morning Prayer (Himaja Books) and The Eicher City Guide: Delhi.
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