6 Incredible Lessons I’ve Learned In My 20 Years In India
This article was published on The Huffington Post, here.
Twenty years ago I moved into Parmarth Niketan ashram for one week. It was the second week of my backpacking trip to India in September, 1996. I was 25 years old, and I had taken a semester off from my PhD program in California to travel abroad. The unanticipated, indescribable experience of spiritual awakening I had on the banks of the Ganga River was richer, deeper and more meaningful than anything I had ever known. I stayed back in Rishikesh to keep drinking the Ganga’s nectar—literal and metaphoric. After She captured my soul and pulled the drop of water I had called my identity back into Her infinite stream, re-merging me into Myself, I was carried to the feet of one of India’s most revered spiritual masters, H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the president of Parmarth Niketan. The details, the story, the plot of that journey make up a book that is underway. Here I want to share only the most fundamental life lessons that two decades of living in India has taught me:
1. Knowledge and wisdom are critically different
I was a top student and a graduate of Stanford University. My test scores—standardized entrance exams as well as IQ tests—were always in the highest range. I was, I believed, smart. I even believed I was intelligent and wise.
Wisdom is not in facts or figures. It is not in someone else’s discoveries any more than the satiation of hunger is in a book about food.
However, despite my ability to read, assimilate, remember and regurgitate information from books back onto exam sheets with profound acumen, I had no idea what life was about. I had no idea who I was, let alone what the world was. I believed that my personal worthiness was reflected in the grades I received in school. A top grade meant I was worthy. Not the top grade meant I was less worthy. I believed that my identity was an intricate tapestry, woven by the threads of my experiences—the trauma and the ecstasy, the challenges and the accomplishments—and that I was the sum total of what I thought, felt and knew. I was what I could do, where I’d been, how I struggled, loved and laughed, and the minutia of the drama of my life. It never occurred to me that there might be more, that this tapestry was, in fact, only the doorway, a beautiful, intricate doorway but nonetheless only the doorway into the truth of who I am.
In India, at the feet of my Guru and steeped in a spiritual culture that emphasizes content over form, essence over packaging, I have begun to have a glimpse of what wisdom looks like. It is not in facts or figures. It is not in someone else’s discoveries any more than the satiation of hunger is in a book about food. We only learn about life through living –through living with focused awareness on essence, on content, on life in the depth of the ocean rather than in the frenetic undulation of the waves on the surface. Wisdom is what emerges from the Source within ourselves when we are quiet and still enough to create space for it.
2. Money does NOT buy happiness
In the contemporary, mostly Western-influenced model of success, there are a few distinct criteria: financial prosperity, high ranking on the career ladder, social acclaim and status. Most of us spend our lives aiming to achieve these socially determined markers. However, as has now been shown conclusively by every piece of research data from the United Nations to social scientists to spiritual philosophers and theologians, once one has risen above poverty level, once one has enough food to eat, basic medical care and educational opportunities, additional increases in income or professional ranking have very little impact on overall personal joy. Sadly, no, that new car is not the answer to what ails us. Neither is the new pair of jeans or a new mobile phone or a particular brand of champagne. Rather the answer, the deepest and most fundamental answer, is connection. Connection to the Divine however we envision, conceive or worship God; connection to our selves, to the truth of who we are; connection to those around us—not as drinking buddies or shopping buddies or one-night stands, but connection of the essence of who we are to the essence of who they are, soul-to-soul, heart-to-heart connections; connections in which as we say “Namaste,” the Divine within me bows to the Divine within you. This is the soil in which the trees of a truly happy and meaningful life grow.
That new car is not the answer to what ails us. Neither is the new pair of jeans or a new mobile phone… Rather the answer, the deepest and most fundamental answer, is connection.
This truth, of the ingredients of which real joy is made, was an inscrutable mystery to me when I arrived in India. I noticed it immediately, though, as I looked at children in Rishikesh who lived below the Western standards of poverty but in whose eyes gleamed more joy, more light, more brilliance than I’d ever seen. Their eyes shone with a deep contentment that no one I knew had. “There is a secret here,” I realized, and it was a secret I knew I needed to discover.
There is a song which we sing each morning at Parmarth Niketan in the morning prayers that tells us:
Jāhi vidhi rākhe Rāma tāhi vidhi rahiye
Mahaloṇ meṇ rākhe cāhe jhoṇpaḍī meṇ vasa de
Dhanyavāda nirvivāda Rāma Rāma kahiye
Jāhi vidhi rākhe Rāma tāhi vidhi rahiye
Mukha meṇ ho Rāma-nāma, Rāma-seva hatha meṇ
(Wherever God keeps us—in a palace or in a hut—let us be full of gratitude for the Divine prasad and divine connection. Let us keep God’s names on our lips and let our hands keep doing the Divine work.)
This is the same teaching that Lord Krishna gives in the Gita as the sutra for a truly happy and successful life: “Remember me and fight the war,” or more generally “Remember me and fulfill your duty.” There is nowhere that it says, “Remember me so that thou shalt achieve great name and fame,” or “Remember me so that thou shalt become CEO,” or “Remember me and thou shalt win the lottery.” Rather, the key is simple: Remember God, connect with God, sing the glories of God, be grateful to God and thou shalt find the true meaning of life.
3. Time is not the most important measure of our days
One of the aspects of life in India that tends to cause excrutiating frustration for non-Indians is how rarely anything or anyone is on time. “I’ll be there at four,” Indians say when they can’t possibly arrive before six. For those of us from abroad, trained to worship punctuality and lulled into the illusion of control over life through controlling the hours of our day, this lack of specificity and lack of regard for exact time can be infuriating. We try to relieve our own anxiety by extracting meaningless promises: “Do you promise you’ll be here by four?” However, India gives us an opportunity for something far deeper and more meaningful than compliance with our forcibly elicited promises.
We have, in the Hindi language, basically, present moment and everything else. Whether it’s yesterday or whether it’s tomorrow—it is not the present moment.
The Hindi language has 52 letters compared to the English 26, providing exponentially more possible semantic permutations than the Romance languages.There are literally dozens of different words for water, near synonyms but varying subtly depending on whether the water is flowing or still, pure or impure. However, in contrast the variety of words for water and for earth or soil, the exact same word with the exact same spelling and pronunciation, kal, means both yesterday and tomorrow. When I learned this bit of linguistic trivia suddenly everything about Indians’ relationship to time made sense, and tears of understanding flowed down my cheeks.
Here is a culture where it is important to have vast variety in how we speak about our water and soil. It is important to know, without any doubt, whether the water is pure or impure, flowing or still. Yet whether a moment is from the past or the future is only relevant insofar as it is not the present moment. We have, in the Hindi language, basically, present moment and everything else. Whether it’s yesterday or whether it’s tomorrow—it is not the present moment.
Sure, logistically and professionally, punctuality is important. But in terms of the stuff that really matters (not what time the plumber shows up), the stuff of which our own lives are made, India gives us the possibility to explore what it would be like to live a life where we are more focused on aptly and clearly speaking about our water and our soil than on speaking about the past or future. India gives the possibility of a life in which we are focused only on two tenses of time—present moment and all else.
4. Love in the form of ladoos
Indians show their love by feeding you. That is not the only way, of course, but it is one of the most common and most apparent when we move to India from abroad. “Please come home for dinner,” I have been beseeched innumerable times by people who barely have enough money to feed their own families. Financial pragmatics notwithstanding, they are not simply being polite. They really, really want to feed. Through feeding, item after freshly prepared item, glistening with ghee and sticky with sugar, they express how deeply they love you. But I come from California where, in 25 years of life prior to moving to India, I could count on one hand the people I knew who were not on a diet. Everyone was on a diet. We always dieted. Even skinny people dieted. It was just what we did. Every movement ending in “free”, from fat-free to sugar-free to gluten-free, began in California. However, “No, thank you” to dessert or basically to anything an Indian woman is trying to feed you, is not an option. I do not believe there is a Hindi translation of “I’m full,” and certainly not one that carries any weight in an Indian house. There is no such thing as being full until the mother of the home deems your meal complete.
Allowing myself to be fed, literally and figuratively, through the hands of Indian mothers has been an indescribable gift.
Allowing myself to be fed, literally and figuratively, through the hands of Indian mothers has been an indescribable gift. A ladoo prepared, upon instruction, by the cook in our ashram or purchased in a store tastes distinctly different and, I am convinced, has a distinctly different nutritional and energetic impact on our cellular structure than a ladoo from the hands of a woman whose only wish is that you should eat it, whose heartbeat has been rolled up along with the besan flour and sugar and carries, metabolically, her love into our stomach and bloodstream. This may be why here in India we have such a high rate of diabetes but such low rates of loneliness.
5. Truth—not at all costs
I spent my youth believing in truth at all costs. It didn’t matter how painful, the truth must be told. Truth was my religion, and lies of any sort were sacrilege. In the beginning of my senior year of high school my dad and I sat in our local diner eating French fries and drinking milkshakes.
“So, what’s going to happen with you and Eric now that he’s off at college?” Eric was my first love, my “soulmate” in my seventeen-year-old perspective. He was, however, a year older and went off to college while I still had a year left in high school.
“Oh,” I explained to my dad assuredly. “We’re going to stay together but have an open relationship.”
“That sounds interesting,” my dad, the renowned divorce lawyer, said with, I’m sure, all the equilibrium he could muster. “Tell me about it.”
“Well,” I explained. “Of course we’ll stay together forever because we are soulmates and will always be together. But since we are far away we’ll both be free to date other people. Of course we’ll tell each other about it though.”
There was silence. My dad smiled, took a deep breath and said, “Let me make sure I understand this: you will date other people, then you will tell each other about it and you will still stay together forever?”
“Of course,” I replied, emphatically.
My father’s final comment should win him the blue ribbon in parenting a teenager: “Well that sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing how it works out for you.”
To me, truth was the highest good. Truth was both the means and the end. There was nothing that truth could not solve, accomplish or overcome. To imply that anything other than truth would have been a more effective way of maintaining a relationship was unthinkable. Of course the full truth had to be told, and of course that was the highest good.
In India I discovered that most Indians consider the truth quite bendable. When I confronted people about the lies they told me, the answer was always the same, “I didn’t want to upset you, so I lied.” It never occurred to them that I would be much more upset by their lie than by whatever unpleasant situation they were trying to shield me from.
“Right speech”… must adhere to three components: it must be true, it must be kind and it must be beneficial. It is not enough simply to be true.
However, over the years I have discovered so many areas in which what I thought, what I believed, was actually not the highest wisdom. Truth is one of those areas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna speaks about “Tapas of Speech,” or dharmic speech. In order for speech to fulfill the criteria for “right speech” it must adhere to three components: it must be true, it must be kind and it must be beneficial. It is not enough simply to be true. In fact, from a purely mathematical standpoint, the white lies that people told me and continue to tell on a daily basis about when something will be done, why the work is not done, etc. may not fulfill all three criteria (for it is not true) and yet it does, in their perspective, fulfill two-thirds of the criteria: it is, they believe, kind and beneficial. After all, to tell me that something I wanted finished yesterday won’t be ready for another week will cause me distress. Therefore, to be honest is, according to how many people think, neither kind nor beneficial. How much better it is, they conclude, to take some creative license with the facts and give me an answer that will make me happy: “It will be ready in an hour.” The problem here, of course, is obvious, and it is clear that the solution to make one happy is only temporary.
However, despite the fact that the white lies don’t actually feel either kind or beneficial, I no longer feel hurt by them. I have learned over the decades that the bottom-line truth is not always the kindest nor the most beneficial. I have learned to judge my own and others’ speech by a wider and more subtle criteria: Is this truth also kind? Is it also beneficial? Does it, in the words of a great Buddhist teacher, improve upon the silence? If not then even though it may be true, it is not dharmic speech.
6. The world is a family
The culture of the West is focused on the individual. America, and the American Dream, is very much a narrative of individuals, of men and women who, against all odds, pulled themselves up “by their bootstraps” to get ahead. It is a narrative of being the best, achieving the most, being Number One. All of these are admirable attributes, and the philosophy has given birth to two and a half centuries of singular leaders and entrepreneurs. However, it tends to be a philosophy of “me” versus “you” rather than “us.” There is only room for one at the top of the ladder. There can only, by definition be one Number One.
India adopts all who step foot on her soil. The adoption, of course, includes the dissolution of any personal space—physical or emotional.
So in the drive to push itself forward, the culture has lost a crucial element that is one of the foundations of life in India: US. Indian families are large by nature. However, the cultural tenet is bigger than the concept of extended families. The Vedas tell us Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, the world is a family. Everyone in India is family. Suffixes on names are ubiquitous—bhai, behen, uncle, auntie. I still remember the first time a young boy called me Auntie. Being an only child, I had long since realized I’d never be an aunt, and here suddenly was a young boy who seemed to have adopted me. Over the last 20 years it is impossible to count the number of people who have put “ben,” “didi,” “auntie,” or now even “mataji” at the end of my name, through no merit of my own but due simply to the cultural norm of embracing everyone as family.
India adopts all who step foot on her soil. The adoption, of course, includes the dissolution of any personal space—physical or emotional. I’ve had my lap sat on by people I don’t know. I’ve been asked personal questions by random people. I’ve had uncountable women I’d never met stick their hands in my saree to fix the folds or push my bra strap back under my blouse. As family, of course, they are entitled to ask everything, to sit anywhere and to fix my clothes. In the very beginning of my time here I realized I had a choice—I could either feel violated or feel adopted. I chose the latter, and my family has been continually expanding since…
The lessons I have learned in India could fill a book (and actually are filling a book I’m in the midst of writing). However these six lessons have been, for me, fundamental to the transformation that India has wrought upon my life and they are, I believe, humour and facetiousness aside, at the heart of much of the deeper wisdom that draws the West to the East.