Sitting with the Swami

I wanted to sit there longer. On Swami Veda Bharati's left at the head table two Saturdays ago at University of West Indies’ new Daaga Hall in St Augustine,  I heard each breath he took. They were deep, calm, and measured. His hands rested lightly, if not on the table, on each of his thighs. He held his back straight. Swaddled in subtle orange, he blinked infrequently, his eyes lowered and focused. It was, I suppose, a meditative state that, after decades of study, training and contemplation under Swami Rama of the Himalayas, was now his normal condition.
The Swami was here to lecture and launch his book Wanam - India and Africa: A Spiritual Dialogue. Interested people had formed a Committee and the Behavioural Sciences Department at UWI saw the value of his presence and work so they arranged a symposium and a book launch. Those sensible to the philosophy of intercultural commonalities gathered at the Hall to listen and be inspired.
I was fortunate to be seated next to him, and to hear his words, practised as he is in the philosophies of spiritual traditions across the world and sensitive as he is to the similarities among those traditions.
This, in fact, was the thesis of his lecture: that differences among ethnic groups are artificial; they all share common spiritual philosophies and rituals. Specifically, he spoke to us about Indian and African spirituality, identifying the similarities and suggesting that we confront each other because we do not know our traditions and have allowed our perception of ourselves and each other to become distorted by imperial impositions.
He had made several visits to Africa, his most recent was to Benin and Burkina Faso, a trip arranged through his spiritual son and disciple, Ouedraogo Idriss Raoua from Burkina Faso, who turned up at the Swami's ashram, a man whom the Swami described as having a saumya (an endnote explains that this is a common word in the languages of India expressing the character and nature of a person by looking at whom the same feeling arises in the heart as when looking at a full moon) face and mien.
From this trip, and others that took him to East and South Africa, the Swami offered himself as a visitor to these parts. He had spent some years in Guyana as a spiritual guide so he understood the ethnic divisions there, in Suriname and in Trinidad. He asked to be invited here; he wanted to share what he had seen of African spirituality and what he knew of Indian spirituality. He wanted to make an intervention here in a moment of political and social tension; he wanted to educate and meditate.
He did not go to study Africa, he said; he went to revere Africa. How can one study without sentiment, he asked in his critique of anthropology. Herein is his distinguishing philosophy and from this base, he spoke of many things, including the word Harambee in the Swahili vocabulary. Harambee is a concept of people and communities pulling together to build a new nation. The word and concept were as applied and popularised by Jomo Kenyatta. It is Kenya's Independence national motto.
Harambee, the Swami had researched, is an expression of praise to Ambee Mata, a manifestation of the tiger-riding Hindu Goddess Durga. Indian labourers building Kenya's railway had to lift heavy loads. They would co-ordinate their breathing by shouting "Har Har Ambee" and lift on the final syllable. The word Harambee entered the Swahili vocabulary and this concept of people pulling together to lift the loads that would build an independent nation was adapted by Kenyatta in 1963.
He traced the etymology of the word "witch" in a number of languages as part of his treatise on vodou and shamanism. In Europe, he argued, these people would be respected as wise men and women; in Africa and India, they are labeled witches and shamans.
All this and more he delivered in a low, even tone so that sitting next to him, I too felt calmed. Others in Hall must have been similarly affected; when the Swami took us through a breathing meditation exercise at the end of his lecture, a man at the back of the Hall snored.
But then mid-week, I read about the Chandresh Sharma and Neil Parsanlal exchange during the budget debate, Sharma head-counting to make a point about anti-Indian discrimination, and Parsanlal crying shame that "...on every occasion this has to descend to race..." Except that Parsanlal was the one who paraded his dougla ethnicity in the same Parliament, using his biology as evidence that his political party was multi-ethnic compared to the people he observed on the Opposition benches.
Now, the Swami having left, I am bereft of the calm he inspired but strengthened, for now, against the disingenuous nonsense we masquerade as national debate.
Sunday, September 20th 2009