Görlach: You left the US to live in India: what were the reasons for this spiritual quest?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: I wish I could take could credit for having the clarity to leave America and come to India on a spiritual quest. I would love to say in retrospect that yes, I recognized the shallowness and superficiality of that world dedicated to consumerism and individual achievement and that I left that for the spiritual world. But actually, that isn’t how it happened, I came to India with a backpack in the middle of getting a PhD in Psychology. I had done my undergraduate degree at Stanford and then was doing a PhD in Psychology, but I loved to travel. I had spent a lot of time traveling during my life. We came to India on a semester off of school, with backpacks.
The only reason I even agreed to come to India, a country I knew nearly nothing about, was because I was already an avid vegetarian. Traveling in Europe and South America and other places where I have traveled as a very strict vegetarian, not speaking the language was very difficult. I knew that in India it didn’t matter whether you spoke the language, whether you were in a small town or a big city, you could easily get pure vegetarian food. As embarrassing as it is to admit 25 years later, that was actually the reason I agreed to come to India – that I would be able to comfortably and happily eat vegetarian food.
When we got to Delhi, I opened up a 500-page Lonely Planet guidebook and said “Rishikesh.” I didn’t know anything about Rishikesh, but I’ve always been a nature person and loved the mountains and rivers, and Rishikesh sounded like a beautiful place. So I chose Rishikesh to come as the first place. When we arrived in Rishikesh after putting our bags in the hotel, I said “I’m going to put my feet in the river” and that was all I had in mind. Just cooling off, freshening up, and yet the Divine had other plans.
As soon as I got down to the banks of the Holy River, I had an experience that transformed my life. It’s an experience that 25 years later I cannot put into words. It seemed like a veil was pulled off of, not only my eyes, but off of every way of seeing and knowing I had in the world. Suddenly, I could really see. I could see the Divine and I could see the truth of myself and I could see how myself was connected to the Divine and the Universe. I burst into tears. It was at that moment that I knew this was where I need to be.
After that initial experience, every minute and every moment of those early days in India just expanded my awareness, my consciousness and my experiences so much that every minute of the day was a spiritually transforming experience. I knew that more than anything else in the world, I wanted to stay here in this sacred place and to keep having these Divine experiences and to keep expanding the Divine awareness.
Then, a short time later, when I found out about all of the charitable and humanitarian programs that Pujya Swamiji** was leading and running, I knew that this was really where I was meant to be. I realized that every year so many people get advanced degrees, M.D.s, Ph.Ds. etc, but there is no direct correlation between number of people with advanced degrees and misery or despair in the world. But, everything he was doing here was having a direct impact on the lives of people around him, and I was being given this very sacred opportunity to be part of something that really made a difference.
California is seen, at least outside of California, as a place where spirituality flourishes. Have you been made aware of spirituality from your childhood on?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: No, I had not been aware of spirituality from childhood. California is seen like that a lot these days; I don’t think it was seen like that in the 1970s. If it was, it was something that I was not aware of. I was raised in a reform Jewish family. We were not very religious. My mother was raised in an Orthodox family, but chose not to continue in the Orthodox tradition. I did have a Bat Mitzvah, but really it was for my grandparents. We only went to Synagogue for my grandmother. It was something that one did for the family, for the culture, for the community. I don’t remember religion ever being about God. So no, I didn’t have a spiritual upbringing, in that way.
For me, the deepest spiritual experiences that I had prior to coming to India took place in nature, in the mountains. I used to think God only lived in the mountains because that was where I experienced God: in the trees, in the mountains, in nature. I wouldn’t use the word God to describe it, but it was the experience of being connected to something very Divine, something all pervasive, something all powerful, something all present, that connection to the Divine universe.
Görlach: You are teaching meditation, a spiritual technique applied in various religious traditions, nowadays also been advertised to stressed out managers in the Western world. If at all possible to say this in short, what is the essence of meditation and how can each and every one of us come to enjoy the fruits of this practice?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: Meditation is literally coming home to yourself. It is much more of an un-doing than a doing. People sadly think of meditation as a very complex, sophisticated, complicated, doing, but it isn’t. It is a practice through which we actually un-do the falsehood, the illusion, that otherwise we are mired in. Most of us identify, for example, as our bodies, as our titles, as our careers, as our histories, as our bank accounts. That identification with the external, ephemeral, constantly vacillating reality is what causes suffering because then I need to move through the world grabbing and grasping. There are things I want, there are things I don’t want. This leads to attachments, to competition, to jealousy, to feelings of scarcity within ourselves and within our world.
Meditation removes all of that identification and actually connects us with the truth of who we are, which is infinity, purity, consciousness, divinity, love, truth. It doesn’t matter what word you use to describe it. We can say soul, we can say spirit, we can say divinity, we can say consciousness. That’s the truth of who we are, by any word. Meditation, by slowly, slowly helping us let go of the false identities, brings us to the true identity. I think about meditation very much like a hot bath, for the soul. When you come home at the end of the workday and you want to take a hot bath, in order for that hot bath to feel really beautiful and wonderful, the essential prerequisite is that you take off all of your clothes. If you try to get into the hot bath with your suit, tie, shoes and hat, it’s not going to be very comfortable at all. In the same way that we get naked of our clothing before the bath, meditation is that which enables us to get naked of the clothes that we stick on top of the Self. Then, once naked of the illusion and ignorance of the false self, the artificial “coverings,” we can actually have that experience of sinking into the joy and the peace of the Self, the way the physical body sinks happily into a hot bath.
Görlach: When East and West meet, how can they enrich each other, complement each other?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: It’s hard to generalize about East and West. On a spiritual level, for me one of the deepest and most powerful teachings of the East, particularly of the Hindu tradition, is the idea that the core of who we are is divine, that we were created not just by the creator, but of the creator. It means the core of who we are is divinity. That core is pure, it is perfect, it is complete, it is whole. But, under the influence of ignorance, we have falsely identified with the physical body, with this ephemeral existence of titles, roles, careers, colors, races, castes, creeds, bank accounts etc. Therefore, in that illusionary identification, we suffer. So the Hindu spirituality is not about having to become pure or become saved in the way of salvation; it’s rather about returning to purity, becoming free or liberated from the ignorance of the mind, from the ignorant identification. We speak about freedom and liberation rather than salvation. So for me, that’s a very core and very beautiful difference between the spiritual cultures of the East and the West.
On other fronts, it’s obviously very difficult to generalize, other than to say that both cultures, both worlds, have so much to offer each other. There’s an attention to detail, efficiency, effectiveness, and to excellence that isn’t necessarily part of the common culture, at least in India. I can’t say in all of the East, but at least in India. And yet, here there is an attention to the soul, to the heart, the spiritual connection, family, community, spiritual evolution, the greater karmic purpose. That attention is much more so here in India than in the West. I think an ideal situation would be to have the external professional efficiency, effectiveness, commitment to excellence, commitment to detail, commitment to promptness that the West really has come to personify coupled with the awareness, attention and intention towards spiritual growth, connection and oneness that is at the core of Indian spirituality.
Görlach: What’s the situation of women and women’s rights in India where you live most of the year?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: In India it’s a very interesting situation. On the one hand, the Hindu tradition worships the Divine Mother, the Goddess, more than any religious tradition or culture that I know about. In fact, coincidentally, we are now in the midst of very the days of Navratri, nine days dedicated to the Mother Goddess, to the Divine in the form of the Feminine. For 9 days twice a year, we worship the Divine Mother in her various forms. Of course, it’s not only these two holidays; these are two specifically dedicated to the Divine Mother. There is, in general, great worship, a great reverence, for the Goddess in the Hindu tradition. Yet, tragically, ironically, India has a long way to go with regard to women’s rights, women’s protection, to treating the girls and women who are in our lives in human form with even an iota of the same respect and reverence that we treat the feminine forms of the Goddess in our temples.
In fact, this is something that we speak about a lot. My guru, Pujya Swamiji,* is an avid and staunch advocate for women’s rights, women’s respect, women’s equality and for ending practices against women and girls that are still far too common such as female femicide and infanticide, dowry and domestic violence. He has been a very active, vocal advocate for a reverence of the Divine feminine in the very living and breathing forms of the women and the girls in our homes and in our societies. A lot of the work that we do for women and girls, including free education and vocational training as well as the work we are doing for sanitation and hygiene (including menstrual hygiene), ending early child marriage, and other projects are rooted in the commitment to bringing about not just equality, but also deep respect and reverence for women and girls. There is still a long way to go, but in the 25 years that I have been in India, I have seen a major improvement, so I have a lot of hope and optimism that the spiritual culture in our temples and the culture of our homes and communities will be able to intersect and overlap a lot more than they currently do.
Görlach: Meeting up with female religious leader’s from all around the world in this year’s Lindau conference: what do you hope to learn and what are you eager to share?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: I am assuming that this conference will be happening virtually due to COVID. However, coming together with women religious leaders in past international conferences and summits by Religion for Peace, the United Nations, Parliament of Religions, KAICIID, and other organizations is truly a very special and wonderful opportunity to be together with sisters of faith. I spend a lot of time at conferences with powerful women leaders of various spheres of society including political leaders, business leaders, entrepreneurial leaders, celebrity leaders etc. But coming together with women spiritual and religious leaders is a very special, unique blessing. Coming together with sisters of the Divine is something that I really treasure and really look forward to very deeply.