Guiding Light of The Month

All is light, all is love, ignorance and egoism are but vain phantoms, they can be dissolved. And over all things spreads Thy sovereign peace, Thy fecund calmness. - The Mother

I'll cherish that moment without having to interpret what it means or why I was blessed to have it.

For the first time I travelled to India at the end 2016, leaving Northern California barely in time to reach India to celebrate my sixty-seventh birthday on December 31st. I travelled to India primarily to visit two dear, dear friends, Sudha and Surendra Rangnath.

Surendra worked with my now long deceased husband for a couple years in the mid-1980s in New York State. The two guys bonded quickly in part because they were so alike in temperament and outlook, and also because life events, like flooding basements, provided opportunities for serious engineering collaboration. The two of them are/were long, lanky, serious thinking types albeit with really fun sides. Sudha and I also experienced a particular kinship, with especially fun interesting “getting to know you” times as I taught her how to drive. Have you ever seen a proper Hindu, Brahmin, vegetarian, calm lady hunting for a parking spot in New York? It’s a pleasure to see the “hunter” come out? We feel as if we were sisters in some other time.

Years have passed. The Ranganaths spent time in Singapore raising their children, and my husband and I built a life in Palo Alto, California. Yes, Silicon Valley. We’ve visited intermittently, albeit not frequently, but whenever we get back together it always feels as if we’ve only been apart for a few moments, perhaps a couple of weeks. There’s that degree of connection.

I relate all this history, because frankly I am profoundly perplexed by my experience during the two weeks of my stay in India. I experienced a deep sense of familiarity, and an extremely rapid adaptation to what could be perceived as “exotic” and “alien”. Just to take the most mundane: oxen carts, heavily loaded tractors conveying hay, scooters with five family members assembled on a machine meant for one, buses racing to compete for passengers, trucks of all sizes driving as if they were compacts, passenger vehicles with horns blaring, pedestrians risking life and limb, stray dogs and other creatures attempting to cross thoroughfares…… all co-existing. A cacophony unknown to me became quickly a delight of wondrous coordination, as did groups of brightly clad spiritual pilgrims, and other serious seekers seeming to envelope entire complexes and city streets, engaging in all manner of daily living.

Against the backdrop of India’s chaotic, colourful and vibrant splendour, my experience in Pondicherry and Auroville was an oasis of calm. I hesitate to make comparisons or even to comment about differences, because my experience was so unique, being in the care and consideration of the Ranganaths who organized our plans and shepherded me with care and watchfulness. However, that said, I have to wonder whether some of Pondicherry and Auroville’s charm and allure might not well be this touch of calm in the midst of India’s cacophony and pulsing spirituality.

Our time in Pondicherry was almost entirely spent in the French section, a “familiar” geometrically organized space, with an orderly ashram dining room, and the resplendent quiet calm of the ashram complex. This calm sanctum was in counterpoint to the pulsing, at times heated sanctums of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, to name a few. Not more, not less, but different.

Auroville and the Matrimandir afford, and facilitate, an interiorized reflective stance that contrasts to the expansive and exuberant experience created in the Hindu temples, at least to my Western eye. Particularly while sitting by the Lotus Pond with other novice Auroville visitors (9 rows of 24 petals/lotus with water running over and down them, a meditative focus) I thought of the letting go of habit, the washing away of past pains. I felt a calm and connectedness to the experience, sitting there with other “pilgrims” as we waited to enter the inner sanctum. A connectedness I didn’t necessarily, perhaps couldn’t, feel with the reddish-orange clad pilgrims I’d met at Mahabalipuram.

And, this is one of the wonderings I’m continuing to have now, at home in Silicon Valley. I could most easily “understand” the peaceful time in silence at the Lotus Pond and in the Matrimandir, and appreciate it within my own mental context. And, yet, certain moments within the Hindu temples, as in the presence of the reclining Vishnu in Mahabalipuram, not in the “tourist” shore temple but in the less pristine central temple, or in the heated Parvathi side temple in the Bhrihadisvara complex in Tanjore, were extremely vital and intense.  There appears to be some pulsing vital spiritual nature in India (about which I’m reading now that I’m home) that insinuates through one’s “normalizing” defences if one allows.


To visit and touch this “pulsing” nature is tricky. How to “touch it”? Where to touch it? What to make of having touched it, Is hard.

Near to my front door hangs a collage I made with sayings embossed on some of my sketches and drawings. One of these sayings seems to speak to my experience in India, and in Pondicherry and Auroville especially: There is an invisible world out there and we are living in it.

I feel as if I touched different parts of that “invisible” world in each of the places I visited in India. Each gave me a tiny window on the country and the people. And as the wise men and the elephant, I’m not sure I can cobble together a coherent whole. The depth of peace I felt in Pondy looking out of my ashram hotel window at the dawn over the Bay of Bengal is a blessed moment. I’ll cherish that moment without having to interpret what it means or why I was blessed to have it.

-          Judith Stewart

Judith Stewart is a clinical psychologist and art museum docent living in Northern California. She relishes traveling, learning about unfamiliar cultures and lands, and meeting people from around the world. it is with gratitude that she embraces opportunities to write about her reflections and experiences---while traveling, in her work, and on museum tours with adults and school children.

No comments: