By Suma Varughese
When a person moves into spirituality he leaves behind the safe and sanctioned spaces of religion and society, upturns existing equations with family and friends, and unsettles his environment so much that he often withdraws into himself. when and how should he step out of the closet?
At home, Tuka’s wife made a great ado. Said she, “What is going to happen to my domestic affairs! Since the master of this home began his contemplation of Vithoba, we have lost our social position among men, and we have not enough to eat.”… But Tuka would not drop his heart’s resolution. With feelings of heartfelt love, Tuka’s tongue delighted in repeating God’s names.
– Life of Tukaram by Justin E. Abbot.
Many seekers know what it is to be in poor Tukaram’s position. They have experienced first hand the poignancy of forging a relationship with God only to find that in doing so they have set adrift some of their most cherished human relationships. Family, friends and colleagues can often respond with derision or censure. Comfortable equations are disturbed, disquieting possibilities are raised. Like Prometheus bringing fire from the heavens for mankind, they have to pay a price for venturing into the unknown and staking a claim on divinity.
For in the process, as T.S. Eliot put it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, they “disturb the universe.” They question conventional morality and concepts of right or wrong. They often want to buttonhole others and make them see the light. They can no longer be as quickly manipulated. They no longer want to simply float along with the rest of the crowd and have fun. They want to assert their independence and individuality. They want to be themselves. And that’s not the most comfortable situation for others.
Says costume designer, Kamini Asrani, who faced a domestic storm when she began to seriously pursue Vedanta, “My in-laws and friends made me feel that I was running away from my duties, neglecting my children and doing something unnecessary. They also had these ideas that gurus exploit and they feared that I would be a victim. I used to undergo a lot of internal conflict. Ultimately, I stopped discussing what I learnt in class with my family.”
Mitali Sengupta (name changed on request) also faced ire from her family when she began to show interest in the occult as a way of looking for solutions to her marital problems. “I used to go to séances and learnt auto-writing. The family was very upset. They would not allow me to keep a lit diya at home, as required. The children were very frightened at the thought of my contacting spirits. I also used to move from one practice to another. For instance, I have done past-life regression, sahaja yoga, life after death, channelling, yoga etc. So close friends would ridicule me, but I felt that that was my path.”
Nisha Kapoor (name changed on request) also finds it hard to share her spiritual interest with her husband. “He’s not very receptive to talking about it, “ she says. The two have their differences, but the partnership continues. “I’ll live with faith and gratitude. He can live whichever way he wants. I do my duty to my family and see my householder life as a sadhana, just as much as living in the Himalayas may be.”
When Vipin Roy (name changed), 24, decided to quit journalism and follow Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his parents were aghast. “They couldn’t accept the fact that their only son would not be there to take care of them in their old age,” says Vipin, today a senior AoL member.
Sometimes, the internal dissensions can scar a family for life. Rama Vaidyanathan, a voice consultant, recalls the furore caused by her eldest sister’s decision not to marry and to become a swamini. “My father reacted very violently. He threw her out of the house. Things were very bad for a long time. I think he was afraid of what society would say, especially as there were three more daughters to be wed. It affected all of us emotionally, especially my older sisters. I think we all resented her for creating so much tension within the family.”
Eventually the sister, Geeta, refrained from taking robes for 10 years, waiting until the others sisters were wed. “She was a practising gynaecologist for those 10 years. Today, as Swamini Brahmaprakashananda, she has joined Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s movement and takes care of a new ashram in Nagpur. She also teaches a three-year Vedanta course. Before he died, my father made his peace with her. He was eventually very proud of her when he saw people touch her feet. But we all paid a price for her decision,” recalls Rama.
Choosing the road less taken, or following your heart, has repercussions not just for the individual but for those around her. Society is an arrangement of mutually agreed-upon conventions, and when one person bucks the rules, she creates ripples across the surface. Ripples that must be quickly condemned or put out before they threaten the social norms. “If society had been enlightened enough to appreciate my sister’s decision or to laud our family for having a member willing to devote her life to its betterment, we might all have benefited from her actions,” says Rama.
The seeker then ploughs a lonely furrow, compelled to follow what she herself hardly understands, helpless in the face of her family’s disapproval, yet led by a force stronger than her to let everything go rather than sacrifice her soul’s search for truth.
Leo Tolstoy, novelist and mystic, also faced severe resistance from his family when his search for the truth led him to embrace the simple and natural life of the peasantry. The former aristocrat turned his back on society, gave away his inherited land to his peasants and even gave up writing the novels that had earned him such repute. His wife never forgave him for his actions and the couple were bitterly estranged. Eventually, he left home and died in a lonely railway station in the company of his sole supporter, a daughter.
These choices are not easily made, but they are the stuff that character is built on. The very society that condemns the breakaway, eventually follows him. Tolstoy’s radical views influenced millions of people, including Mahatma Gandhi.
But all this is additional pressure for one whose exposure to spirituality has already led him to question his life choices, priorities and behaviour patterns. Little wonder then that many choose to go undercover and eke out their spiritual practice in private. And thus is born the closet seeker.
Says Swami Brahmavidananda, a teacher of Vedanta in Mumbai, “This problem arises because society is largely focused on material goals. When a person shows interest in spirituality, the predominant resistance comes from the partner who is afraid he will become a monk. When it comes to a woman, there is a fear that she will neglect her family or not have sex. If the seeker is young, parents pressurise them to get married or to settle into a job.”
Take Mrinalini Rao, whose mother demurred at her increasing involvement with Vedanta. “As I began to attend more classes and chose to remain single, my mother began to worry. She still has not given up on me, but I do not believe that marriage will give me any more security than Vedanta does.”
Closet seeking, according to the Swami, is a valid response to these pressures in the initial years. “In the beginning a person does not have enough inner resources or intellectual argument to handle these issues. Resistance is like the wind. If the flame is small, the wind might put it out. It makes sense at that stage to protect it. However, once it is strong, then the wind only spurs it to greater growth. When the seeking has created a sense of inner certainty, the seeker can stand up to resistance and at that level he will earn the other’s respect.”
Often the withdrawal arises out of the seeker’s own misguided enthusiasm to share his benefits with others. Recalls chartered accountant and seeker, Ajay Kalra, “It was with the Art of Living that I first got to know about spirituality. The meditations and satsangs gave me wonderful insights into life and much joy. Because it was such a positive and uplifting experience for me, I wanted to share it with everyone, but I encountered a lot of resistance from unexpected quarters. My innocence was shattered and I went into a shell. I also found that some people used my spirituality against me at work. I remember a former boss asking me snidely, “So when are you shifting to Pune?” (referring to the Osho Commune).
“All this sent me to the other extreme. At least within the corporate circle I was not open about my spiritual leanings, though sooner or later people learnt that that was the real me.”
Proselytising is a common failing with all or most seekers. Some, like Kalra, do it under the innocent desire to make others as happy as they themselves became through the practice. Others, because they want to bolster their own belief. Says Aalif Surti, a senior executive producer at Star TV and a disciple of Swami Chaitanya Bharti, a direct disciple of Osho. “I went through a phase of trying to convince others so I could be more convinced. I’ve made my peace with it. I’m happier today to keep it to myself, not out of a sense of withdrawal, but because I really don’t need to talk about it.”
Artist and seeker Baiju Parthan throws light on the proselytising phase: “In the beginning, a personal crisis happens and you reshuffle your perceptions. That period needs confirmation and corroboration. One is unsure of what one is going through. One is almost convinced that one has found the answer, but no one listens. Then one withdraws. That’s when closet seeking begins.” He adds, “When I was much younger, I used to suffer, because no one could see my point of view. Later on, I saw it as a very personal thing, and slowly the need to talk disappeared.”
Parthan does not talk overtly about spirituality to his artist friends. “If I say I’m looking for heaven or enlightenment, I am in trouble. We live in a scientific world. Everything has to be corroborated. Metaphysics cannot be corroborated. So people are suspicious.”
Anand Tendolkar, a Reiki master who runs corporate workshops on a number of subjects, was once upon a time a typical corporate executive. An engineer and IIM (B) alumni, he handled a high pressure job in an advertising agency when the wake-up call happened, in the form of a heart attack. The attack triggered off a profound change of heart, and Tendolkar arose out of his sick bed, a Reiki master. “When I decided to quit the job and become a Reiki master, my family and friends were horrified. They advised me to take long leave and not quit the job. But I decided not to keep an exit policy. There was an inner knowing,that determined me to plunge into the ocean without knowing swimming. It was not a conscious decision. A kind hand guided me.”
He adds, “My family thought I had totally lost it. They are a highly qualified bunch of professionals, and to them any livelihood meant lengthy qualifications. As for my poor wife, she went to a shop and picked up an engineer-cum MBA package. But when she took it home and unwrapped it, out popped a Reiki master! She has coped with the situation very well and has never opposed me, though she herself is not on the path.”
He sums up the impression many people have of seekers. “First, they think you are weird. Then they ask if you have a problem. Finally, they warn you against getting ruined by joining a ‘cult’. But seekers are inner-directed. What the world thinks of them is not paramount; they know that their first responsibility is to themselves. They are free from the need to look good.”
When Desiree Punwani, an enthusiastic follower of Buddhist practices, felt an inner urge to shave her head, this upmarket housewife offended most of her socialite friends. “Complete strangers would walk up to me and tell me how good I looked, but I got a very strong negative image from my friends’ circle. If you challenge the norm, people get very disturbed, as if you are a threat.”
In my own case, as a writer for Life Positive and an ardent seeker, I am hardly coy about my interest in spirituality. Yet, there are areas in my life where I do not parade my convictions. One is among my Syrian Christian community, with whom I mingle with very little indication of the subversive thoughts swarming in my head. The second is among fellow journalists, most of who are committed to one ism or the other and have little use for a ‘soft subject’ like spirituality. I am uncomfortable about not being myself in these areas of my life, but at the moment I do lack the inner strength to ‘out’ myself.
So how does one handle the disturbance one releases when one stops swimming with the tide and to use the Buddha’s words, ‘swims upstream’ instead? Says Swami Brahmavidananda, “The first thing is not to flaunt it. Do not create unnecessary disturbance. Two, if you have a good relationship with your family, expose them to the teachings. Three, show responsibility in other areas. Spirituality should not be a form of escapism. Four, avoid acting holier-than-thou, the worst thing to do. Finally, do not convert others. Let them be.”
Adds Mrinalini Rao, “I’m a trained psychologist and I see resistance as a beautiful thing. They want to be on your side but something holds them back. It is better to meet resistance with rationale and logic. Eventually, your family wants you to be happy and fulfilled.”
Others gradually learn to develop the resilience required to show their true faces to society. Says Ajay Kalra, “The real openness began when I began to write about my spiritual experiences and sent the mail to everyone, including some non-seeker friends. When I got positive feedback from the latter, I felt I had opened doors and windows within myself and let the air in. I feel that it is important that you should be who you are.” He adds a rider though. “It’s necessary to use discretion. It’s not something to tom-tom about. And you need not force your views upon everyone.”
He sums it up, “Benefits of opening up are far greater than of keeping it in.”
Parthan, whose paintings are alive with the search for spirit, has found his own way to come to terms with the situation. “The closet seeker encounters a crisis of sorts when he discovers that his inner reality is so different from his outer reality. That’s when he builds bridges. My own is to express myself logically and scientifically.” He adds comically, “In a convoluted, roundabout manner, I talk about spirit all the time.”
Many seekers eventually choose to keep this part of their life to themselves, but out of strength, not weakness. Says Titoo Ahluwalia, former head of marketing research agency MARG, and a follower of the Bihar School of Yoga, “I don’t need to wear it on my sleeve. Spirituality is better handled through an internal dialogue than through an external one.” Having come full circle, the seeker returns to solitude, but this time in conscious freedom.
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