I’ve been thinking about what I should write in this second letter to you.
I will have to make a choice between two things, I guess. Or perhaps I will end up talking about both.
I’ve been going back to our first exchange, and what I keep thinking is, – when I made you that promise that I’d help you know India, that — that was a very crucial moment. That was a moment of commitment. I made that commitment – said those words myself, and now I have to do exactly that.
But keeping this promise is going to be very tricky. It’s tricky because of two things, – the fact that the subject itself is vast and widely oversimplified and typecast by people, and the second fact that you barely know me. You don’t even know how I look. On what grounds should you give any special consideration to what I have to say, or preach? I know how seriously I am taking this. But you have no way to know. You’ve been an internet sensation for years, Elizabeth. You are no stranger to fans who’d do anything to build up a rapport. …..You can’t really be sure of me before a considerable length of time goes by, can you?
Okay. At the very least, this should be adventurous.
What things do I know beyond a doubt?
One, I genuinely care about this, and about helping you. Two, you genuinely care about knowing this and exploring the spirituality of the East, alongside exploring your own essence and identity. The only gap is our still-fledgling friendship. Had we been neighbours, or co-workers, or mates at school or college, it would have been different. We could have mixed, mingled. Spent time together at work, over talks.
Trust arises out of rapport, and rapport is built over time. But all we’ve got is email and a bit of WhatsApp. Let’s see what happens next.
* * *
I woke up this morning and saw your message waiting. I saw what you said, and now I can comfortably finish writing this email and send it.
Over the last two days, I have been watching your country shake off passivity and wake up to the great social call of setting the order of power right. The massive uproar and uprising that has been building over the killing of George Floyd reach us across the seas, here in India. Maybe most people are too self-centred to lend an ear to these cries, maybe most want to coil themselves up in their comfortable homes and avert their gaze from widespread suffering. But many of us do lend an ear. And we see in your country a reflection of ours.
I am a seaman, Elizabeth, and often on the decks, I have made a statement: “The United States of America is the oldest modern nation, whereas India is the oldest ancient land.”
I draw an important distinction between nation and land, as you would expect. In the US, much of the land is lost to the tides of history; there have been clear breaks between the past and the present; almost no elements of native American cultures permeate modern American society as something mainstream. The story of modern US begins in the colonial era, and the nation is born with the Declaration of Independence, – one of the most popular documents of modern human history. India, on the other hand, has known no clear break with its ancient past, in spite of being subjected to centuries of mixing and mingling, varieties of domination and dominion by different peoples. There has been extreme changes; the Early Vedic lifestyle had transformed into the Later Vedic culture; we saw the rise of Buddhism and Jainism; and then things got mixed up with Greek and Bactrian elements, and later Mohammedan elements too, and there are incredible phases in our history where all these threads were spun together by spiritual philosophers into a common tapestry (the Sufi and Bhakti movements). So, there have been changes; but they have happened gradually, organically, without a clear break-off between the past and the future. — Both US and India are cultural melting pots; the difference is, with the US, the melting pot has been active for the last few hundred years; with India, it is a few thousand years of stories.
So. when I look at your country struggle with its demons, trying to make peace with history, striving to emerge with victory and virtue… I am reminded of my own motherland, and what she goes through every single day.
Perhaps this is a fitting time to be writing to you about this. Explaining, to some degree, why I am doing this with you.
When I saw that you are getting close to Indian culture and are about to explore it even more closely, – coming to India, collaborating with someone here, getting to know Indian spirituality – the first thing I felt was concern.
I immediately thought, ‘Oh no. She’s headed for this jungle of misinformation. — I need to try and help her.’
At this point, I imagine you get a tiny bit frustrated. ‘Does he think I am a fool? Does he think I am a wide-eyed idiot, some new-age Hippie girl who’s willing to stumble blindly into any hokey stuff stamped with ‘Oriental Wisdom’? Doesn’t he think I can handle myself?’
While I felt concerned for you, – I was, indeed, aware of this. I am aware that I am speaking to a person who has a Masters degree in science, is a global celebrity in her field, has handled fame at a young age, and is a trained yoga practitioner and lifestyle counsellor. I am aware that perhaps, you know a lot and there’s nothing new for you here.
But I cannot leave it to chance. Because if there is a possibility that I can actually guide you about what India is, what it was, and what it needs to be; if I can help you know my country for what it really is, and not what some pretender swamis and glorified con-men make it out to be; if I can protect you from getting infected by the curses my country has known for centuries – that arose from the same source as her spirituality; — if there is the slightest possibility of this…… then, Elizabeth, I can’t leave it aside. I have to address that possibility.
If I risk impatience or irritation in doing this, it is well worth it. Because I am doing this – maybe not for you,… but for my country.
I think I saw you for the first time around July 2049. I was pursuing my Masters then. Then over time, I followed your journey, how you earned name and fame, and how you were catapulted into popularity even more. Of course, my own life was speeding along, and I wasn’t that hardcore a follower to keep up with you very regularly. Then one day, I saw that you’d changed. Transformed. And then I knew that this was going to be good. Here we have the perfect recipe for greatness: I want to see where this goes!
It is said in Vedic musings that one cannot attain liberation if one is weak. One cannot call herself a renouncer if one hasn’t ever possessed in the first place. Giving up only has meaning if someone has had something to enjoy, something to cherish. The austerity of the pauper has no more meaning than the chastity of the impotent. It is only one who is strong who can say, ‘I choose not to strike.’ It is only one who is capable of harm who can say, ‘I choose compassion.’
When the emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism and proclaimed the religion of peace across the land, he did not stop at the borders of India. He sent special envoys – his own son and daughter among them – to distant shores and countries, carrying the message of the Buddha. The message of peace, love, service and fraternity.
But before he had embraced Buddhism, Ashoka was quite a different man. He was one brother among many, and had cut his way to the throne. After he became king, he waged a terrifying battle known as the War of Kalinga (c. 265 BCE), which resulted in almost 300,000 deaths in total. It was the bloodiness of this war that changed Ashoka. He gave up the sword forever and embraced peace.
But when he sent his envoys to the foreign lands, accompanying them went vast sections of Ashoka’s army, without any military fanfare, but nevertheless, inspiring awe and respect. — Because Ashoka knew, – even if the flagstaff bears the banner of peace, it would require strong arms to successfully bear it aloft. – Even if you are preaching pacifism, the message carries greater weight when they know that you have already mastered war.
Friedrich Nietzsche had put this same sentiment in other words – “Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.”
So when I saw you take the path of spirituality, I immediately knew that this was going to be right. I thought, ‘This is a girl who has had it all. She had beauty, fame, popularity, respect from her peers. Then she chose to put that aside and turn over a new leaf? – She will make a good yogi.”
I think now you are beginning to guess why I am so much interested in helping you. You are something rare. If your story pays off, then it will mean a world of difference to thousands of people.
And if some charlatans try to exploit your reach, your popularity – and your trust and faith, — then, – well it’s just not acceptable to me.
I have known monks and spiritual people all my life. My schooling took place in an institution under the Ramakrishna Mission, which is the most significant Hindu organization modern India has produced. Of course, there are other organizations, both benevolent and malevolent. You identify yourself as a Jedi. I need not tell you that the Force, and the religion of the Force, are used extensively by the Sith as well. Ramakrishna Mission itself, in the present day, is a mixed bag. That’s no surprise. It is just a reflection of society as a whole. Like anywhere else, 90% of it is chaff. I can tell because I spent twelve years in there. Fortunately, I came in contact with a handful of people who genuinely carried a light within them. Whatever knowledge and understanding I have, it’s because of these people.
Not all of them are monastic people. Neither are all of them our contemporaries. As you know, the past is an ocean you can dip into whenever you like, – if you know how to. I am a disciple of the universe. So among my teachers are people who died thousands of years ago. I will tell you all about it.
I have spoken to one or two other people about you. I told them who you are, what you do, and what kind of help I am trying to offer you. They have offered me their inputs; all of them are very excited about it. To us, this is a chance to do some good. Every day hundreds of my own countrymen hoodwink thousands in the name of religion; every day, millions are taken in by businessmen who sell pseudoscience in the name of spirituality. Have you ever known how it feels to see others use your family’s name to commit crimes? – It becomes anger, hate and grief in your veins, Elizabeth. And now I – we – have a chance to help one genuine person to discover our country in its originality. We will try our best.
Let me end here. In my next letter, I will try to talk to you a bit about the many different kinds of Indian philosophy (it is important to know so that no one can fool you by saying “No, that’s not allowed in our Indian way”), and maybe a bit about our classical music. Or maybe we’ll talk a bit about mythology.
See you soon. Take care.
(To be continued.)