by Edward B. Rackley
Historically, most “first contacts” were initiated by westerners. First they came as commercial explorers and intrepid traders. Later they arrived as occupiers and settlers: Victorians, colonials, missionaries. Progenitors of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It’s easy to be ashamed and indignant about this historical aspect of global encounter. Those who aren’t point out that cruelty, plunder and occupation are immutable norms, as human as domesticity or story telling. I often wonder what of today’s norms will repulse future generations. Television, our use of chairs for sitting, other norms less benign. It could be anything.
One such norm, transplanted religion, intrigues me because of its dual aspect. Missionaries transplant religion across cultural divides and feed it to non-believers, sometimes with messianic zeal. Spiritual seekers transplant themselves into different belief systems, unknown cosmologies, strange practices before an alien divine.
Of these two sides of transplanted religion, I find spiritual seekers the more intriguing. In my experience, missionaries exude righteousness of purpose, sometimes tempered by a humble certitude. They are earnest, committed, leaving little to chance. Spiritual seekers tend to be grounded in curiosity, a healthy dose of insecurity and imprecision. Uncanny things happen in their company.
Zealots and messiahs
That said, I’ve met missionaries working in difficult contexts whom I could respect—not all are zealots. We met in places from which aid workers, diplomats, entrepreneurs and every other would-be savior had long fled. But I’ve also seen missionaries wait out the worst periods of internecine violence, only to become sectarian supporters of one ethnicity over others. The role of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan genocide is a famous example.
During Congo’s war, I once stayed in a rural village with an American Baptist family living there for generations. Over time, they had abandoned proselytizing and the conversion imperative for more thoughtful, constructive works. According to the wife, her great-grandfather had first settled there in the early 1900s. Upon arriving, his first public act was to toss the local shaman’s fetishes into the river and burn down his hut. Back then, a heathen was a heathen. Now, she explained without pride, shamans are consulted before the missionaries begin a project; their children attend the mission school.
Both aspects of transplanted religion, missionaries and seekers, are viewed skeptically, for different reasons. Missionaries have God on their side; inside they know their calling is just. Not so for spiritual seekers, clearly the meeker, the less certain of the two. Because they have no version of righteousness to defend, their preconceptions of otherness are generally positive, albeit sometimes naïve and romanticized.
I remember an Osho devotee I met in Lucknow, a seemingly wealthy divorcée from L.A. I was on my way to Rishikesh, a pilgrimage site in the Himalayan foothills. The year was 1992 and Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, or Osho as he later preferred to be called, had recently passed away. A group of his sannyasin had set out from their Pune headquarters to identify other living sages, substitutes for Osho.
We had just finished darshan with a guru called “Poonjaji,” a sweet and ironic elderly man with a tattoo of a wristwatch where he would normally have worn one. A close group of six disciples sat on stage with Poonjaji during meditation and the talk that followed. They were mostly westerners; many wore the deep crimson robes of Osho sannyasin. A festive sense of connection pervaded the room. It was a similar vibe, I imagined, to what Osho offered his community. As devotees came forward to kneel for his blessing, a touch on the forehead, the guru joked, “Anything you touch will bite you, wait and see.”
As the room emptied I found myself facing a woman with large pendant earrings, from which white ceramic cubes dangled and bobbed to distraction. As she enthused about how radiant Poonjaji seemed that day, I noticed that each side of the white cubes bore tiny images of Osho’s bearded face. The many faces of a shrunken guru, bouncing beneath a devotee’s ears—it was all too jarring. In that moment, she embodied the caricature of a spiritual seeker: grasping and ecstatic because hollow.
As I walked outside, a phrase I had copied down that morning came to mind: the taming power of the small. The Osho earrings weren’t just mindless baubles. How much she needed the constant presence of her ideal, this guru, to remind her of … something dear to her, something unchanging. Her vulnerability suddenly made her real, and my judgment a lazy habit of thought.
If curiosity is a reliable indicator of an active mind, then spiritual seekers can at least be credited with having a brain. Unlike missionaries, seekers are empty vessels and their mental life moves in a particular way. They are “strangers and pilgrims,” curious people “moved by disappointment with the familiar,” Alan Watts wrote. A beatnik scholar and Californian convert to the “mysticism of the East,” Watts was the first figure of transplanted religion I read as a teenager. The Way of Zen struck me, but The Wisdom of Insecurity slammed my teenage mind. Leafing through it now, it’s still a potent reflection on the flux of individual identity, of our unfulfilling drive to “fortify the I.”
Filling the vessel
Leaving Zimbabwe in 1991 for my first visit to India, I traveled directly to the Sivananda Vedanta Ashram in the wooded hills above Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala. Through a friend I knew the Ashram would be holding a five-week intensive training for aspiring yoga teachers, which I was not. I knew nothing of yoga besides its sequence of warm-up of postures, the so-called “sun salutation.” The training would force me to dive deeply into yoga, well over my head—exactly how I like learning experiences to be.
Yoga basically means “union,” it is the Sanskrit ancestor of the English word “yoke.” In practice it is an integrated ensemble of eight paths or “limbs,” described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (200 BCE). Each limb compliments the others; practicing them together prepares the aspirant to “transcend the ephemeral universe.” What is known in the West as ‘yoga’—a cycle of postures or asanas—is just one of Patanjali’s eight paths. For a $30 yoga class in Manhattan, you get one-eighth of the real thing.
Life in the Ashram was closely structured around a long list of “austerities,” practices intended to silence and prepare the body and mind. There was no “free time”; the very concept now brings a smile to my face. The day was carved into neat slots of specific, mandatory activities from 5 am to 10 pm, with six hours of asanas a day. Silence, except during chanting, was strictly observed. Within a week, the rhythm of daily activities had become a natural flow.
Days passed and the start date of the training neared. Scores of participants arrived from around India and the world. A handful of teachers began to arrive as well. These were a mix of Swamis or monks, and Brahmacharis, aspiring monks and nuns who had taken vows of celibacy. Besides being experienced yoga teachers, all were lucid expositors of Advaita Vedanta, the school of Hindu philosophy followed by the Sivananda Order.
The lead trainer, Swami Sankarananda, had the physique and bearing of a career military man. After years of apprenticeship and study in India, he was now running another Sivananda Ashram in the Catskill Mountains. Later we became friendly, bonding over shared experiences in different African conflicts. An anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, he later served in Angola as an army officer during Savimbi’s pro-western insurgency, backed by South Africa and the US.
The training came and went. I stayed on at the Ashram teaching yoga classes and studying Vedanta and Sanskrit under the permanent staff of Swamis and Brahmin priests. In the quiet of the Ashram, six months passed quickly and the time came to discover the rest of India. I headed slowly for Rishikesh, savoring rural areas and avoiding cities, stopping at other Ashrams and yoga centers on the way.
The Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, another branch of the Sivananda Order, was my final destination. Permission from Swami Krishnananda, the head monk, was required for entry. No interview or references were needed. I had only to sit through darshan and ask to stay during the discussion period that followed. Easy enough.
Sitting on a raised dais, Krishnananda was decorated with flower garlands around his neck and surrounded by disciples, many of them internationals. The feeling in the room was unlike anything I knew from other Sivananda Ashrams, had glimpsed with Poonjaji in Lucknow or other gurus met along the way. The room was crowded; the vibe was anxious and somehow intimidating.
After meditation, Krishnananda gave a short lecture. A number of things struck me. On asceticism and renunciating worldly life, “We do not deny the universe; we deny a universe without God.” In a long riff about the impossibility of politics to ever end suffering, an allusion to Sartre: “The sole function of the ego is to repugnate [sic] the other.” Eyes sparkling, adorned with flower garlands, I began to suspect this was an exceptionally bitter man.
The time came to declare my wish to stay. The Swami would decide the appropriate length of my visit. I raised my hand and spoke. “You are a seeker, wandering from place to place,” he informed me and the crowd. “You are looking but you do not see.” Some in the crowd turned to look at me. Clearly this was no usual rebuke. Inside I burned, but he was right.
The left hemisphere
A month later I left India to return to work in Somalia and Sudan. Two years passed. Somalia scarred me, almost killed me. The cynical manipulation of relief efforts by Sudanese military enraged me; the failure of aid agencies to condemn this disgusted me. By early 1994, my idealism was desiccated. I wanted psychic recovery. A few months back at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala would sort me out before I began doctoral studies in New York later that year.
When the Rwandan genocide broke in late April, my plans changed. By mid-May I was on a plane to Kigali to help start relief operations, working through the end of August when studies began. Off the plane from Rwanda, Manhattan was overwhelming. I sought refuge at the Sivananda Ashram in Chelsea, on 24th and 7th ave. Rent was offset by various chores. I taught regular yoga classes, prepared recycling materials for pick-up, helped out in the kitchen. The daily structure, observances and austerities were identical to the Kerala Ashram. In my spare time I pored over Marx, Aristotle and Plotinus, attending evening lectures on the same.
Some weekends I took a bus to the Ashram in the Catskills, where my relationship with Swami Sankarananda deepened. At dusk one frozen winter day, a milk cow escaped from the barn. We leapt up from chanting and bolted out the door in bare feet. An hour of shouting and calling through thick underbrush turned to laughter as we ran the cow to exhaustion, then led her back by the nose. Months later I was told, without elaboration, that Sankarananda had disappeared from the Ashram to elope with a Brahmachari. That he was human I could appreciate. But his absence from the Order was a painful blow. I decided to leave Ashram life for the concrete tundra of secular Manhattan. I taught yoga there for a couple more years, but gradually lost touch with the Order.
In 2005 I was in London working as an adviser on Darfur to the British government, a heady but brutally exhausting job. Inebriated with fatigue, I needed simplicity and silence. I remembered a Sivananda Ashram in Putney where I’d taken a class or two years ago. I looked it up and took the train out for a visit. I was nervous, like seeing an old lover.
The reunion was sweet, subdued, and therapeutic. The head Swami was warm and welcoming, interested in my previous life in the Order but never prying. He remembered Sankarananda fondly. Everyone in the Order does; he was an incandescent light. I continued my visits to Putney, and my health and energy improved. Yogic practices and observances returned to my daily life without effort, almost unconsciously. I repeated what I’d said for years: I must get back to Kerala.
I had my chance this summer. The Ashram had grown since my last visit in 1994. New buildings and dormitories had sprung up among the coconut and rubber tree plantations. I walked in the gardens by the lake, checked on the ceiling paintings and murals of the Gita etched in my mind from years before. On the wall of the main worship hall, I noticed a photo of Swami Vishnudevananda, founder of the Ashram and Sankarananda’s guru, who passed in 1994. The caption stated he was performing a “fire walk” in Amritsar.
In the image, Swami Vishnudevananda did not regard the smoldering embers as he made his way over the short distance. His face was open and readable, smiling as he always did. He was still relatively thin; I guessed the photo dated from the early 1980s (as here right). Two disciples stood behind Swami Vishnu, preparing for their turn on the coals. One I recognized immediately: Swami Mahadevananda with his Roman nose, straight black hair and rotund belly. In between Mahadev and Swami Vishnu was another disciple staring down at the smoking coals, revealing little of his face to the camera.
I stared at the photo. Which western disciple would have been closest to Swami Vishnu in the early 1980s, on the Pakistan border? In a gestalt flash, I recognized the profile as a young Sankarananda, years before he was inducted into the Order. Seeing him again brought back a flood of feelings. My history with this Order, its thoughtways and lifeways, was not over. For anyone who bothered to look, it was a mere photo on a random wall. For me, it was a precious fragment of meaning on an otherwise opaque personal journey.
I spent my final days in Kerala not at the Ashram, but in a sleepy beach town called Varkala. Precariously perched on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, it was beautiful. I wandered around, I ate, I read. On a quiet afternoon with no wind, a sign advertising yoga classes led me to a thatched hut in the village. A teacher waited inside while his young daughter sat coloring pictures. We chatted; I was the only student. Upon hearing I’d studied at the Sivananda Ashram, he gazed at me for a long moment and smiled. Did I know Swami Sankarananda? We traded recollections; he had been a teacher to both of us. He was an exceptional human being, we agreed, and sat down for opening prayers.