From Back to Godhead
The desire to be soul-conscious inspires a move to a soul-compatible place.
“The soul [jivatma] is unborn, eternal, immortal, and primeval. It does not die when the body dies.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.20)
I first heard details about jivatmathe soulin 1971 during my maiden overseas trip. I was reuniting with my then-boyfriend (later husband) John in India, and to me, a born and bred atheist, jivatma was a quaint irrelevant idea.
An idea, however, can be like a seed: it can germinate.
As a wizened juniper sapling clings to a weathered cliff, so, despite the harsh winds of skepticism and flurries of distractions, the idea of jivatma embedded itself in my heart and grew into wispy “what ifs.” What if the body contained an infinitesimal spiritual particlethe soulthat is the antithesis of the body, a particle that wasn’t born and doesn’t die, that was indestructible and everlasting?
What if the soul is the body’s source of life and consciousness, as the sun is the universe’s source of heat and light? What if life doesn’t come from a perishable, chance combination of material elements? As a photojournalist exploring Mumbai, these musings coaxed me from blaring car horns and teeming streets to some curious transcendent possibility. The mythical, irrelevant idea of jivatma began delicately to undermine what had been for me a lifetime of hidden hopelessness: what’s the point of life, of peace, of accomplishment of anything if everything is a fleeting combination of elements? Why distinguish evil from honorable, orderliness from mess? And why work so hard?
More than a consoling theory to save me from confusion and gloom, without my intending it, the plausibility of jivatma gradually changed my perception. Early one morning, before Mumbai’s bustle began, I watched a bullock cart lumber up to one of the city’s most popular sweet shops. Immediately, four robust men from the shop began unloading the cart’s six twenty-gallon aluminum containers of fresh milk. One after the other they emptied the containers, the milk flowing like a waterfall in springtime, into six huge black iron woks that already had high flames under them. Skinny boys, holding long brass rods with wide flat ends, began stirring the milk. Meanwhile, a woman in tatters with three small children in equally threadbare clothes walked up. She tipped over each one of the empty and now relatively light containers, allowing the tiny bit of milk left in them to trickle into an earthen jug one of her children held. By the time she had tipped over all six containers, her jug was full of fresh milk. The sweet-shop workers ignored her, giving me the impression it was a regular routine. This woman carried herself with such dignity and cheer, was so conscientious of her task and loving with her children, that despite her humble activity I found myself considering her not a poor person or a woman or an Indian, but an individual animated by a noble, shining, divine spark. The soul’s presence was becoming conceivable.
In Bhagavad-gita Krishna claims that the core of Arjuna’s dilemma, and so also the core of mineand everyone else’sis that we’ve forgotten who we are. We’re a soul (jivatma), Krishna says, that resides in the temporary body. The soul is subtler than the senses and so cannot be seen, touched, or tasted. It is beyond intelligence, which acquires and analyzes information, and beyond the mind, which wants to exploit what the senses perceive. The soul is beyond time and space. Its presence in the heart animates the body, and its absence reveals the body’s true nature: a corpse.
A Move to Simplicity
So, decades after Mumbai, pushed by the sickening endless stress of Los Angeles life and pulled by a spiritual call, John and I put aside our fear of amenities lost to raw simplicity, packed all we owned into boxes, helped our daughter Priya mark each box with its contents, put them in a rented truck, and headed north. Trepidation melded with hope and joy as a five-year-old and two graying pioneers with young hearts waiting to be unboxed drove off, ready to be all they were meant to be, ready to renew their love for life and for each other and to explore their own lovability, ready to be themselves-jivatmas.
As we passed the modern clutter of human attempts for happiness in the form of cavernous malls, places for fast and thoughtless food, rows of office buildings, alluring yet dizzying shopping centers, I considered that simply by observing myself I could experience jivatma’s presence: how I always sought happiness and jivatma is always happy; how I didn’t want to die and jivatma is eternal; how I yearned for meaning and understanding and jivatma is purposeful and knowledgeable; how I was convinced of my importance and jivatma is innately important; how, despite my age, I felt young and jivatma is youthful.
It didn’t end there. I thought of how at odd moments, while being caressed by the ocean breeze, I could feel that I was self-satisfied and loved to give of myself; jivatma is fulfilled and flourishes through selfless service. I really didn’t need to compare myself to others or to be special and popular.
In all the many years between Mumbai and Los Angeles the tenacious idea of jivatma remained rooted in the rocky outpost of my heart. And now part of me wanted to try to be who I am, try to untie the knot of ignorance that made me misidentify myself with my mind and body. Maybe I was an alien in the city hubbub because I was alien to my actual self; maybe it was jivatma who cried from my heart, “Go beyond the surface of existence!” Jivatma, my mysterious inner voice, knows that the body and mind it gives life to have a refined importance and purpose. Jivatma is dedicated to that purpose.
That tiny spiritual particle rejects the way I misuse my body, my mind, and a society that supports such misuse. But to be jivatma-conscious I felt I needed a jivatma-compatible place. Fortunately, John wanted the same for himself, and we both wanted it for Priya.
Sharanagati, a Hare Krishna community in British Columbia, Canada, was austere and remote, but it was perhaps the only place where my family and I could learn that sacredness wasn’t complicated and impossible. I am, and we all are, already sacred. To realize our sacredness, some of us like my family and Ineeded to live in a place more sanctified than a city, a natural place with people who lived lightly on this earth, people filled with wonder and love, yearning and gratitude
Deciding to Live With Resolution
Three days and fifteen hundred miles after leaving Los Angeles, John, Priya, and I pulled into the driveway of our small, chocolate colored, wood-sided Sharanagati rental. Until this moment the house had been sight unseen, and as I peered through the windshield at its small windows and noted the path an animal had made burrowing through the straw-bale insulation in the house’s crawl space, misgivings crept over me. What kind of place was this? Stiff from sitting, I stepped down from the truck into Sharanagati’s silent, spacious beauty. Its unsullied air, its endless sun-soaked hillocks and draws, its huge brilliant blue sky brought me face to face with some profound yet warm reality that welcomed and embraced me.
I was elated. John, Priya, and I had actually done it. We’d broken free. We’d made a scary, revolutionary move not based on our work, on what others expected of usand certainly not on the climate or on our convenience!-but on what was best for us as a family and as individuals. Even the still unknown condition of our rental didn’t dampen my spirits. John and I figured our monthly expenses here would be a third of what they’d been in Los Angeles.
A couple of days later, just after we’d emptied our last moving box, I was on the southern slope next to our new home, pulling weeds and shifting rocks to make space for a garden. It was a torrid and windless June afternoon, and when I paused under the shade of a large fir, I became aware of a layer of activity at ground levelblack ants; blackand- red ants that, I discovered, gave a wicked bite; small, medium, and large ants. They walked hurriedly for a few inches and hesitated, sometimes consulting briefly with ants going the other way, slightly altered their course and rushed on. Soon I’d uncovered six large ant colonies under different rocks, each highly populated and furiously busy, and several containing about a hundred large, whitish, well-organized oval eggs that looked like rows of puffed rice. Every ant was acting in its specific function, with some clear and highly motivated intent. Apparently it was never discouraged and was rarely confused, even when its home was disturbed and the activity around it frenzied. By their nature the ants were determined, disciplined, and harmonious.
I, however, was not an ant. Although I appreciated their resolute determination and cooperativeness, unlike them I didn’t act simply out of instinct but had choices: I could choose to battle the ants or to ignore them. Although ant bites discouraged Priya from gardening, I could choose to be conscious of the higher self and to act according to its promptings, or to ignore the inner voicethe soul’s voice that wanted more than an ant-free garden. That voice wanted to be free from slaving to wants; it cried for something beyond getting educated, making a living, raising a family, and leaving a good name for posterity. It insisted, “Life is more than a perpetual war against various troubles and miseries. It’s meant for more than eating and sleeping, sexual satisfaction, work and recreation.”
Bhagavad-gita unequivocally informed me that I was meant to function as jivatma that is, to participate in the spiritual dimension of life. To do this was another kind of struggle as I, jivatma, transformed the theory of jivatma into practice. But I am an ordinary person, not a saint. Would this work? In these first weeks, the novelty of plowing the earth and the luxury of silence and open space made Sharanagati life a delight. But as weeks became months, years, and decades, would I become robotic instead of resolute? Would this new life become as mindless as my old one?
Maybe, by following Bhagavad-gita’s straight forward guidance, in our country setting my family and I, whatever our shortcomings, could live as jivatmas. The bedrock of our attempt would be resolution our ongoing decision to defy our own contrary moods and doubts while trying to make the best choices, big and small, in the present moment. My husband and I could easily lose our focus and return to Los Angeles. But for our own good and because it was the best place we knew of for our daughter, we didn’t make that choice. We stayed. In Sharanagati, swaddled by nature, we felt the chastity of our antlike resolution would take even a grain of faith seriously and suspend unbelief; the mystery of resolution would allow us to trust the intangible, knowing that external events did not and never would possess ultimate power over us.
When on my knees by myself in my garden or my bedroom or a temple through resolution I would take responsibility for my life, subordinate my feelings to my values, and risk replacing my old patterns of thought with fresh ones offered in the Gita. Through spiritual resolution I’d act for the good of jivatma and, with simple sincerity, avoid diversion and dryness.
So, “resolute” meant to keep focused, to tolerate troubles (including mosquitoes and children’s messes), to be flexible before challenges, to discriminate between what to and what not to do, and to learn from mistakes. After trying eco-friendly but ineffective ant deterrents, I avoided admitting defeat by ignoring the ants, only to discover that black bears enjoyed turning over our garden rocks to find and lap up colonies of them. Bears checked the ant population, and all I had to do was replace bearturned rocks. (These bears were people-shy, so we didn’t have to fear them. In fact, we hardly even saw them.) If I could remain clear and resolute, at least some problems would work themselves out.
“Irresolute” would mean that, discouraged by my dullness, upset by difficulty, and neglectful of jivatma, I’d live a humdrum life feeling like lost luggage, vulnerable to changing fortunes and others’ opinions, with a blind hope in future happiness. And I’d avoid the frightening experience of being alone and feeling the emptiness and futility of an existence captured only by externals by being engrossed in work or using the many distractions society offers.
The most important decision in my life fell to me: to accept my role, fulfill my duties, and at the same time, become aware of my identity and purpose. From the strength of resolution I could approach the choices and events in my life consciously, whether I was in the city, the country, or in between. But for now, John, Priya, and I were glad to be in the country. A month after we arrived in Sharanagati, Priya and I were planting our third pear tree when a plane flew high overhead, leaving a sky-long trail of white exhaust. Astonished, Priya looked up and said, “What is that?” with a tone that made me also wonder why it was necessary for a great, noisy metal contraption to mar the boundless pure blue yonder.
Ants were still busy at our feet, but there were fewer of them.