"GRAAANDMAAA, BUY ME A PAIR OF JORDACHE JEANS," my voice would sing out in a whine as we stepped through the wide glass doors of the department store. My dad used to joke that I was the only person he knew who called her jeans by name: my Guess jeans, my Jordache, my Calvin Kleins. I knew when Esprit was in and I wore Esprit matching outfits, starched cotton shirts with pleated shorts, joined at the center by the essential thin leather belt. It was, in fact, too time consuming to figure out what to wear each morning; thus, I would scour my closet the evening before, picking out just the perfect clothes for school the next day. Back then, every season demanded new clothes: back to school clothes, summer clothes, spring clothes, birthday clothes....
Now I live on the holy banks of the Ganges, in Rishikesh, India. I sit each evening as the sun's last rays dance off Her waters, a child's soft, dirty arms wrapped around my neck, dozens of others vying for my hand, finger, or a place on my lap. We are gathered together with hundreds of others to offer our prayers, our thanks, and our love to God in a fire/light ceremony called Aarti. The stress, the tension, the pains of the day melt away into the heat of the flames and are carried swiftly away by the purifying current of Mother Ganga. The children, children who live well below the Western standard of poverty but with an unmistakable glow of joy in their eyes, sit and sing with their heads on my lap, their voices loud and out of tune. In their young innocence and piety, they are oblivious to any sense of self-consciousness. The evening wind blows gently across our faces, carrying misty drops of Ganga's waters onto our cheeks, already wet with tears of divine surrender. Ganga flows quickly, dark as the night yet as light as the day. I am surrounded by people singing, singing the glories of God, singing the glories of life.
I wake each day as the sun peaks over the Himalayas, bringing light and life and a new day to all. I sleep each night in the shelter of Mother Ganga as She continues Her ceaseless journey to the ocean. I spend the day working on a computer as spiritual songs play in the background throughout the ashram on which I live, an ashram not dedicated to one guru or one sect but whose name is Parmarth Niketan, meaning an abode dedicated to the welfare of all. My days are filled with seva, Sanskrit for selfless service. I work for schools, hospitals, and ecological programs. Now I never wear jeans at all, except on rare occasions when I am back in Los Angeles with my parents, and my mother insists that I look "normal." Today, I give away my nicest clothes to others, knowing how happy it will make them. Today, all the possessions I own (mainly books, journals, and a filing cabinet) fit on the floor of a closet at my parents' house.
My parents came to visit me in Rishikesh last Christmas. Christmas had always been a time for extensive wish lists, arranged and rearranged in meticulous order of preference. The anticipatory excitement of waiting for Christmas morning was matched only by the thrill of tearing away wrapping paper to reveal what treasure lay beneath. When my parents came this year, it was the first time I had seen them in four months, and it would be another four months before I saw them again. On their last day, they were generously preparing envelopes filled with the equivalent of more than a month's salary for each of the boys who had cared for them during their visit, boys I call Bhaiya (brother): the cook, the driver, the cleaner. After the envelopes had been stuffed, my mom looked at me, wallet open, and said, "Okay, now you. What for you?" "Nothing," I said without a moment's hesitation. "Oh come on," she said, as though my life of simplicity were simply a show for others. "We're your parents." "Well," I replied, "If you really want to give something, you can make a donation to our children's schools."
What happened? How to go from calling my jeans by name, from being unable to begin the day without a double latté, from a life in Hollywood and Beverly Hills to the life of a nun on the banks of the River Ganga? How to go from being unable to work for more than two hours at a time without a break, from spending more time complaining about my work than actually doing it, how to go from this to working fifteen hours a day, seven days a week for not a cent, but with a constant glow of joy? How to go from being an avid movie fan, to being someone who would rather work on the computer or meditate? How to go from being someone for whom a "perfect evening" meant a nice, expensive dinner out and a movie to being someone who would rather drink hot milk at home?
How did this happen? The answer is God's blessing. My ego would love to say, "Oh I did it. I decided to make myself a better person. I became spiritual and worked to free myself from the constraints of the Western world." But that is only my ego's fantasy. It is not true. The truth is that God picked me up in His arms and carried me forth to the life I am supposed to live.
People ask me frequently, "Wasn't the transition difficult? Boy, you must have had to really adapt. Don't you ever miss the Western life, the life of comfort?" To them I say,
Imagine that you have size eight feet. However, your entire life people have told you that, in fact, you have size five feet. They were not being malicious or consciously deceptive. Rather, they really believed that your feet were size five. Thus, for your whole life you have worn size five shoes on your size eight feet. Sure, they were uncomfortable and tight, and you developed chronic blisters and corns, but you just thought this was what shoes were supposed to feel like; whenever you mentioned it to anyone, they assured you that, yes, shoes always feel tight and always give blisters. That is just how shoes are. So, you stopped questioning. Then, one day, someone slips your foot into a size eight shoe...... Ahhh," you say. "So, that is what shoes feel like."
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But then people ask, "But, how did you adapt to wearing this size eight shoe? Don't you ever miss the way your size five shoe felt?" Of course not.
Coming home to India has felt like slipping a size eight foot into a size eight shoe: just right. I wake each morning and -- just as little children rush into their parents' bed, cuddle under the covers, and lie in Mom's arms before starting their day -- I rush down to Ganga, like a very young child. "Good morning, Mom," I say into the wind as it whips off the Himalayas, onto Her ceaselessly flowing waters. I bow to Her and drink a handful of Her divine nectar. I stand, Her waters rushing over my bare feet, an IV of life and divinity into my all-too-human morning sluggishness. I fold my hands in prayer as the sun, rising over the Himalayas, begins to reflect off Her boundless waters:
Thank you Ma.
Thank you for waking me again today,
For letting my eyes open
In the land of your infinite grace.
Thank you for making my legs able
To carry me to Your banks, and then to my office.
Thank you for bringing me forth to this life of service,
This life of light, this life of love,
This life of God.
Let my work today be in service of You.
May You be the hand that guides mine.
And most importantly,
Please, please, let me be worthy of living on your banks.
Then I walk back up the steps of the ashram, into the blinding light of the rising sun, and to my office. It is barely 6:30 A.M.
The day is filled with work, work on a computer, sitting in an office: proposals for new projects; reports on the projects that already exist; ideas for how to improve the work we are doing; letters to those who generously fund our schools, hospitals, ambulance, and ecology programs; correspondence for the saint in whose service I live my life; and editing beautiful books on the Gita, the teachings of the Mother, books written by brilliant Indian thinkers but checkered with spelling and grammatical mistakes.
"Don't you ever take a day off?" people ask. I laugh. What would I possibly do with a ""day off"? Sit in bed and paint my toenails? And why would I ever want one? My life is the work. I am more at peace, more joyful, more filled with divine bliss as I work to bring education to the illiterate, training programs to the unemployable, medicine to the sick, sweaters to the cold, and smiles to the teary eyed than I could possibly be anywhere else. This work and this life have been the greatest gift from God I could possibly imagine.
Why am I sharing this with you? Why would people who don't even know me possibly be interested in the joy I have found in life? Because it is not what we are taught. We are taught that joy in life comes from having money, a good education, the latest material possessions, relaxing vacations, and a white picket fence around our home. And, if we have all those things and are not happy, our culture simply says, "Acquire more. Make more money, get another degree, buy this or that, take another sun-soaked trip to Mexico, build a higher white fence." No one ever says, "You have the wrong things!" No one ever tells us that money, education, possessions, and vacations are wonderful, that they bring comfort, but that they are not the key to happiness. No one tells us that to be in service is one of the greatest joys in the world.
There are clichés like "It is better to give than to receive," yet these words are more likely found in a book in the self-help section of a bookstore than on our lips or in our hearts. Today, as I see an advertisement for a skin cream that will "restore your youthful beauty" for only $30, I think of twenty children shivering in the Himalayas who can have sweaters for that same amount of money. Which, I wonder, will truly bring youth to my being, the skin cream or the knowledge that twenty children are no longer shivering?
I have found that all the things I used to believe were essential -- as much sleep as my body could take, meals whenever I wanted them, an air-conditioned car -- don't begin to bring the health to my being that being in service does.
On a recent trip back to America, I had just arrived into L.A. after forty hours of travel, preceded by days of unusually long hours preparing for the two-week absence. At 9:45 P.M., I received a message that I must write and send a fax to Bombay, to people who wanted to send six truckloads of clothing, utensils, and food to earthquake victims in the Himalayas. They had contacted our ashram requesting specific information immediately in order to dispatch the trucks. Now, I had not slept in over forty-eight hours (other than a few hours caught on the airplane), and I was just about to brush my teeth and head for bed. But the knowledge that these people were going to bring shelter to those who were stranded, clothe those who were without, give food to a region that for weeks had been without water or electricity was enough of a catalyst to send me right to the computer. As I stood over the fax machine, trying to get through to Bombay, my mother came over for the third time, insisting that I go to sleep: "You haven't slept in days. You have to get up in the morning, and it's already 10:15. Enough!" What? Trade six truckloads of disaster supplies for twenty minutes of sleep? In whose world?
But this was a rationale that I used to believe: my needs came first. Only then, once they were met, could I help others. It's like on airplanes when they describe what to do in case the oxygen masks drop: secure your own mask, then help others. But, I have discovered something different in life. I have discovered the incredible health -- not only mental and spiritual but also physical -- that comes from being selflessly in service. Any friend of mine will vouch for how somatically focused I used to be, always running to take care of this ache, that pain, this "signal" from my body. I would panic at the prospect of getting less than the necessary eight hours of sleep a night, because then I would undoubtedly get sick and the world would come to an end.
Yes, there are times when it is important and healthy to nurture oneself, when one must first take care of one's own needs -- be they physical, emotional, or psychological. There are times when this work can actually make one much more able to be selfless later. However, I feel that our culture today is focused backward: we are taught that the majority of our focus should be on ourselves and then, once our needs are met, we should give a token amount of time and energy to charitable endeavors. And we wonder why we don't feel a divine connection, why we don't wake up each day filled with ecstatic joy at the thought of jumping from bed and beginning the day. Could it be that the priorities are backward, that, yes, we must take care of ourselves, but that our own satisfaction does not have to be our primary goal? Could it be that changing the lives of others is exactly what we need to help us change our own lives? Could it be that a beautiful divine connection can also be found in simple surrender to His will, and not only in ardent, arduous, spiritual "practice"?
For me, it has all been about surrender, to truth, to joy, to God's will. What are my plans? Only God knows. I have no plans, per se. If I were "in charge" I would stay in India forever, building schools, orphanages, and hospitals, ceasing work each day only for Aarti on the banks of the Ganga. But, one thing I have learned is that we are not in charge. Who can know what will befall them? A sudden accident, sudden illness, sudden lottery win, sudden ecstatic epiphany...
I have found that, rather than pretend to have any semblance of control over my life, it is better to simply turn it over to Him. "May I live as Your tool," I pray. "May Your will be my will." And the messages come clearly. His voice is loud and unmistakable, if only I am quiet and still enough to hear. Sure, there are times when I will say to Him, "But why this? That's not how I would have done it." Yet, the answer usually comes relatively quickly; a few hours, days, or weeks later I will understand why He pushed me in a certain new direction.
So, my life is in God's hands. If He ever asks I will certainly tell Him that all I want is to be able to stay on the banks of the Ganga forever. But He has not yet asked. By His divine grace, though, He has kept me there, and every day I am more and more grateful.
This article is excerpted from:
edited by Stephen Dinan.
About the Author
SADHVI BHAGWATI (née Phoebe Garfield) works in Rishikesh for one of India's most renowned saints, Swamiji Chidananda Saraswati, doing spiritual service for schools, orphanages, ecological programs, and scholarly projects. Visit the website of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India.