By Orit San-Gupta | 27/08/2009
I first traveled to India in 1979. at that time there were not many Israelis in India. Nor were there fax machines or Internet cafes, so in order to contact Israel one had to wait in line at the post office and phone via switchboard. My journey was not a post-army trip, and wasn't meant to find tranquility or profession. It was prompted by a thirst for the truth, the longing for a path, spiritual journey. The urge was clear and strong: I am going to find a teacher, to learn a path. I did not know what that meant, but it was clear to me that I must do it. A kind of command from an inner voice.
After saying goodbye to my tearful mother, I boarded the plane. We flew directly over Iran. Six hours later, I was looking down on a shantytown that adjoins Bombay and saw vast expanses of slums. Maybe that is the culture shock began.
It began by chance at the Reali School in Haifa. When I was in eleventh grade, I can remember sitting with my boyfriend and a few other friends at a pizzeria, and feeling an abysmal emptiness. It seemed to me that everyone was having a good time and I said to myself, ‘his can't be life. It's not possible that this superficiality is all there is.'
The ideals presented to us at school were personal excellence and success. Engraved on the school's crest were the words, “walk humbly,” and the impression I received at home and at school was that one has to study, in order to acquire a respectable profession and get married. In other words, you have to blend into the fabric of society. I accepted all this without argument. Even though I was raised o believe that first and foremost you have to be a mensch, I was still left with a feeling of pointlessness. Perhaps because I never dared to express this feeling. I felt very much alone. Even so, I did not go out of my way to search for a way out. I never imagined any such possibility existed. Due to a problem with my shoulder, I decided to participate in as much physical activity as possible. Among the extra –curricula activities offered at Reali, I found a yoga group, and when I was told it was like gymnastics, I enrolled.
I was flooded with a clear and consistent vision, combined with a lambient joyousness. Anew concept of reality glimmered within me. I continued to attend classes and began practicing every day at home. I said very little about it, but even the. Even though I had very little knowledge, the practice of yoga took on great significance.
Meet me Tuesday at 15:00 at Jaffa gate. We'll go out for a drink of carrot and we'll meet with him.”
My first meditation teacher, Murray Rogers, was an Anglican missionary. He wore a monk's habit, had silver hair and was very down to earth. I was so shy I could barely open my mouth. Once a week he held an open meditation meeting at the Christian Information Center. His regular group consisted of eight or so people in their forties and fifties, and they had been meeting like this for years, twice a day: sitting cross-legged on cushions, arranged in a loose circle. The bell sounds: they walk slowly. For 30 minutes. Circling the room once, and sit for 30 minutes more; the bell sounds.
Tremendous concentration would seize me, and the room would pulse with a living silence. Not a word would be uttered. Then everyone would get up and leave. I attended those meetings for the next two years whenever I could, going there straight from the army. On one occasion Murray asked me not to come in uniform, because it made the people there uncomfortable. Until then it had never occurred to me that the uniform bothered anyone. After all, we are serving the homeland.
In the Aurobindo ashram
A few days after I landed in India for the first time, I found myself sitting in a fancy Chinese restaurant in Bombay with Mr. Balaji and his Japanese wife, and a respected Sikh industrialist and his wife. Balaji was the Zim shipping company's agent in India, and my father was his boss. The Sikh slowly and carefully removed all the rings from his fingers and washed his hands in a small bowl of hot water that the waiter had brought for that purpose, without splashing a single drop. My eyes were riveted to those delicate hands that were as well groomed as a woman's hands. The Sikh began to eat: his right hand took the chicken apart and he deftly put small pieces of chicken and rice into his mouth.
In my mind's eye, my father appears, repeating his famous maxim, ‘Only barbarians eat with their hands,' to the background strains of ‘Aba-ni-bi Obo-e-bev,' the song that won the Eurovision song contest that year. The restaurant is dark and I feel strange among these wealthy Indians, who are trying so hard to make mm visit pleasant. I cannot avert my eyes from the man and his genteel motions, engaged in eating as if it were an act of art. I feel myself turning pale: the foundation stones of what I conceive as cultured are crumbling before my eyes.
Two weeks later, in southern India, in the Sri Aurobindo ashram. I am washing dishes in the dining hall. Sri Aurbindo gave innovative interpretations to the doctrine of ancient yoga, and connected it with the modern world and the theory of evolution. At first, he was one of the principal leaders of the Indian opposition to British rule. As an honors graduate of Oxford, Aurbindo returned to India in his twenties and held a few important positions, such as vice director of Baroda College, and later on the editor of large newspaper in Bengal. The British accused him of being one of the leaders of the terror movement. And he spent a year in jail until he was acquitted. After his release from jail, he left politics and devoted his life to yoga and it renewal, and to writing about his revolutionary outlook. He was exiled to Pondicherry, a small city that was under French rule at that time, and he gradually set up an ashram, a community of his student-disciples.
Most of the conversations around me are in Bengali. In my room, I mostly sweat, read Aurobindo and mediate. Whenever I read, I notice something strange. Every time I see the letter “J” my eyes seek “Jew”…It is as if am seeing this “Jew”, but I am only imagining it. The truth is that there is very little that relates to Jews. Usually, it is words like “jewel” or “jealous”, but my consciousness apparently seeks familiar places to seize onto.
The intensity of the training is the crowning jewel. I myself do not understand exactly what is happening to me. I mediate with a teacher. We sit together, at first for half an hour each day and them three times a week, for two or three hours each time. We sit facing one another. Eyes closed, our hands placed one atop the other or on our knees. Back straight, turning neither to the right nor the left, not backward or forward. Just sitting. It is hard for me to sit like that for hours on end, sometimes I move my leg, quietly lean forward. Opposite me is absolute silence, no bodily motion whatever, but inside, I can see intense concentration.
I perspire. I feel as if waterfalls are washing over me. From one day to the next my concentration intensifies. It is hard to explain, because no instructions have been given; I am apparently doing nothing. Even so, my concentration intensifies, and in this nothingness, my perspiration increases. Sharpening and expanding at the same time.
When the training session is over, he perspiration slowly abates …I am astounded by it, as I have not stopped doubting and I am in no hurry to believe. I am seizing onto the physical phenomena in order to ascertain that I am not imagining anything, that I am not hallucinating or being brain-washed: my pulse drops from 70 beats a minute to 48, and stays that way throughout my months of training.
Of its own accord, my concentration focuses on a specific part of the body and does not leave it. There is a feeling of sitting opposite an impregnable wall, but one that echoes and lives opposite the consciousness includes, according too Patanjali (the father of yoga, who lived in the first century C.E.) sensations of “I am here,” bliss and understanding. When the eyes open, the world is not the same. The abilities to contract and expand, which continue to increase and improve while I am engaged in the meditation, do not disappear. Rather, our eyes look outward, whereas before they were looking inward. The world is full of the fragrances of expanses, the dew glistens on a petal, the breeze caresses the cheek, the chirping of the birds is a song. Waterfalls of the bliss sing to every organ of the body. Is this religion?
Training is stabilization, Patanjali reminds me; daily training without compromise, without excuses, without drama. Without any high-sounding words, without commandments of one kind or another, without any belonging to one people or another, to one religion or another. One needs neither doubt nor belief. Yoga is the path of an individual seeking the truth, the longing to know. There is something frightening in this simplicity, something isolated from everything. There is no hand to grasp, there is no tribe, there are no rituals. Even so, I cannot evade something that is present in that sweltering training room: it is impossible to withdraw, what we know does not leave us alone.
What does it mean to you be a Jew?
In 1982, I decide to go back to India. On the way to Kashmir I meet two male teachers from Germany. We become friendly on the train and decide to travel together. They are two good friends. One of them, I think, is attached to me, although I am actually attracted to the other one. In the evening we arrive at a little city called Jammu, if I am not mistaken; the town is pretty dreary, but it has a hotel where we are offered a room. A small room without windows, with three beds, a fan and probably a lot of fleas.
I cannot fail asleep that night, and lie in bed gripped with terror that they would attack me with knives and murder me. We traveled for two or three weeks, as friends. I did not tell them that ghostly spirits wearing Gestapo uniforms chased me all that night.
One day I climb to a small temple to Shiva at the top of the mountain. The hike up takes a few hours, with the path winding in circles to the peak. I am surrounded by Indians, not too many, mostly in groups, who are climbing up and chattering, as if on a family outing on the Sabbath, a pilgrimage to graves of the sages. When we reach the top, we discover a relatively large Shiva-Lingam, perhaps the size of man, I no longer remember.
Like chameleons, the chattering Indians abruptly change their skin and become reverent. They approach the Shiva –Lingam, prostrate themselves fully and stretch out their hands to the shiny black phallic form.
I too want to bow down like that, a physical need to express a feeling of abnegation and awe in the face of this symbol of god. The Jew in me subdues the feeling: this is far enough. As strong as the emotion may be, I will not bow down.
I head south, back to my home in India, to the Aurbindo ashram. The endless journey by train takes three or four days. On the trains from Delhi to Bombay, from Bombay to Madras, from Madras to Trivandrum. I am asked the same questions: Where are you from? What is the purpose of your trip to India? Where are you going? And these questions, which the well-meaning Indians ask out of curiosity, echo on this journey like the riddle of the sphinx, like koan of Zen teacher, “Know from whence you came and where you are going.”
At the ashram, I meet a Jewish woman of about 60 from Poland. Martha Goheh is a Holocaust survivor who was married to an Indian for about 20 years, and since her divorce she has roamed the world, searching for her place. In one of our first conversations. She asks me, “What does it mean to you to be a Jew?” At the time, we were standing in her small kitchen, she was making tea, and I was leaning against the doorframe.
“To me, being Jewish means that somehow belong to the tribe of the descendants of the same Abraham to whom God said, ‘Go thee,’ and he went,” I answered.
I remember how she looked at me. She herself had lost her Jewish identity in the Holocaust. The years in the camps had caused her to lose faith in every ideology and the feeling of belonging to any group whatsoever. She survived the war because she knew French and was blonde-haired, and managed to obtain false papers. Apart from a half-sister who lives in Haifa, not one shred was left of her previous world. I don’t know why my answer surprised her so, but a few years later, and with that same restlessness, she immigrated to Jerusalem.
My grandfather’s name was Abraham. He was a God-fearing Jew and observed the mitzvoth. From him my father absorbed integrity and fairness, moderation and industriousness. Like many others, my father left religion after the Holocaust, but kept a traditional home, and in his father’s house always observed the mitzvoth. When my grandfather died, my father went to synagogue twice a day for a whole year, to say kaddish. I remember that as a small child this impress me very much, since I knew that my father was not at all a believer. My father was sick of God and sick of Jewish fundamentalism. Until his dying day, he did not deviate from that path,. He went to synagogue on the Jewish holidays, he loved the tunes, but he kept his distance from pedantic observance of the commandments and from blind faith.
Over the years, he traveled around the world. His work took him to the far east and to Europe and he took an interest in their cultures, loved the outside world and felt comfortable in it. Even so, his Jewish identity was clear to him; he knew from whence he came and where is home was. Imagine that had I asked him what being Jewish meant to him, he would have answered, “My father was a member of the tribe and I, too. Am a member of that tribe.”
On my fourth trip to India, I lived for a few months at a Christian ashram in the south of the country and translated the “Yoga Sutra,” the classic text of yoga, into Hebrew. My money ran out. Father Griffin, a broad-minded man with noble soul. Allocated two rooms to me, one for living and one for writing. He even gave me a typewriter (I translate first into English in order to consult with others, and only then into Hebrew), and even sent the secretary to the nearby town to buy paper and toothpaste for me. Father Griffith reads and responds sympathetically, “Keep at it, keep at it – the English biologist Rupert Sheldrake sat here a year ago and wrote his famous book. It is no coincidence that you are sitting right here and writing.”
The place is clean, there are no thefts and they are hospitable. In India that is a luxury, and is not simply coincidental. After all, this is a Christian ashram. One evening, we – a group of 12 people in their twenties, from all over the world – are sitting on the banks of the Kaveri River, which flowed past the ashram. The river is almost dry. We are celebrating the departure of several of the people the next day. Everyone was in good spirits, and I, without thinking too much, said jokingly, “The Last Supper.” And then a good-looking guy from New Zealand, with whom I had become quite friendly, says, “You Jews killed Christ.” Silence. No one answered him. No one defended me.
For the first time, that sentence is not a piece of fiction to me. I understand for the first time the pain of Christians over the crucifixion of Jesus; I fill sorry about it too. I feel that amiable New Zealander spat out something mythic, and that we had already faced this situation on countless other occasions: Christians and Jews.
After twelve years of study and training, I now live with my family in Jerusalem, where I teach yoga. All these years, the silent training is the lead actor on the stage; texts have importance only when they clarify what happened in the training itself. When practice of meditation and movement is at the center, silence is conceived as a supreme value, and speech as something that distances one from truth.
Almost by accident I join the Elul beit midrash. Words, a lot of words. People sitting together and trying to understand Jewish texts. We learn the Talmudic tractate of Berachot . There is a melody that plays amid the words. Amid the words of the sages and the words those studying in the room. The search for truth through study, through understanding the mitzvoth, and for the religious among us, through observance of the mitzvoth.
My study partner is a graduate of an advanced yeshiva. If there was any one individual who succeeded to light the path of Torah study for me, it was he. The commentator Vyasa. The Rashi of Patanjali, says that every thought that distances us from clear vision is pain and every thought that brings us closer to clarity is not painful. Which can also be understood in this way: every thought that distances us from the Blessed Be he is a painful thought. For me, the continuous and intensive study of the Jewish bookcase was a quest for thoughts that bring us closer to Him.
As a Jew who grew up in a home in which expressions of Judaism revolved mainly around the rituals of Shabbat and the festivals, and around the memory of the Holocaust, the study and the understanding of the observance of the 613 mitzvoth was new and exciting.
“We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have spoken falsely …” echoes the emotional prayer of Yom Kippur. The room is packed with people. Some are my friends from Elul. It is hard for me to say all the words with full concentration. After a few sentences the concentration fades away, and empty words remain. I refocus, and am again able to pray with the proper intentions. The words of the cantor penetrate me deeply. Yoga position flash through my mind but they have no place here. Suddenly, at this moment, the two worlds seem disconnected from one another, and it is a difficult feeling.
At Elul I met Jews, secular and religious, whose identification with their Judaism is absolute. As one of them said to me, “Before I am a women I am first a Jew.” Envied her sense of confidence. For me, prayer is silent: it is meditation, the sitting, the position.
When I stand on the yoga mattress at the beginning of a session, there is nothingness, and then a feeling of being drawn toward something beyond me. I t has no name, or face, or form, but moving body is a prayer to that something. And the body moves cleanly, without words, and the more it moves, the more the movements become a bodily expression of devotion.
And there are days when this is impossible. Such as Yom Kippur, for example.