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Chai for the Soul

June 2004
Chai for the Soul

Chai for the Soul

What could be better than the quintessential Indian brew to set the stage for Eastern spiritualism? That seems to be the operating belief of this new and unique caf� and Vedic bookstore.

By Murali Kamma

"Namaste." I heard this genial greeting as soon as I walked into Amma's Chai House and Vedic Bookstore in Decatur on a quiet afternoon. This small yet inviting store is located in a corner of North DeKalb Square on Lawrenceville Highway. The casual and serene setting along with their signature chai can be perfectly conducive to a plunge into the ocean that is Indian mysticism and spiritualism.

In his quest to share his deep conviction for eastern spiritual traditions, Jesse Arana, a transplanted New Yorker, envisioned a place that would be non-threatening and inviting to the increasing number of Americans who are curious about these traditions. "I wanted a very functional operation where we can meet the spiritual needs of as many people as possible ? both Western and Indian. Many Americans are not going to go to the Hindu Temple in Riverdale. Coming here is easier for them," he elaborated.

Jesse calls Amma's Chai House "a spiritual bookstore, caf�, and meditation center" and sees his enterprise as an extension of his talents, interests and experiences. "It's like a little home. If you come to my house, the environment is exactly the same." Right down to the lovely cup of Amma's freshly brewed chai that warms you as you browse through the many books or just soak in the calm and inclusive atmosphere pervading the store.

Notes Jesse, "Our spirit is one of tolerance and universal acceptance, the message that Swami Vivekananda first delivered in 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, where, speaking on behalf of all yogis, he introduced yoga to America."

"Amma's Chai House is the perfect place to relax while perusing classics of Vedic and yogic literature over a cup of genuine homemade chai," observes Gabriel Mojay, principal of the Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine & Aromatherapy in Atlanta.

The cozily furnished shop is adorned with various pictures and icons, and the backroom is a lovingly created sanctum that functions as their meditation center. In addition to the books and CDs, there is also a limited but eclectic collection of spiritual videos, which one can rent for a nominal fee. For their special hot chai, which is sweetened with jaggery, they use a blend of green and smoked cardamom. Decaf chai, soymilk, and regular coffee are also available. Items for sale range from incense holders and prayer shawls to sacred jewelry such as Yantra pendants and Rudraksha earrings. There is also a selection of chanting beads in crystal, rose quartz, sandalwood, and lotus seed.

Jesse was in the store that day with his associate, Jeff, who was holding a copy of C. Rajagopalachari's translation of the Mahabharata. After they asked me if I wanted anything, Jesse and I settled down for a pleasant chat. At least on a couple of occasions during our conversation, Jeff interjected with friendly comments, but for the most part he was happily absorbed in his book.

Jesse Arana was born in Geneseo, a small college town near Rochester in New York, where he was exposed from a very early age to a lot of academic ideas. Both his parents are artists and his father, who is Jewish, used to teach at Genessee State University. His mother is a native of Puerto Rico. Even though there was little racial diversity in the town back then, he "was raised in a very liberal, constructive and multicultural environment." When Jesse was fourteen years old, he met a college student who had studied Hinduism and was spiritually inclined. This encounter proved to be a defining moment for Jesse and he embarked on his own lifelong quest.

"I've always had a deep yearning for inner peace and to feel a connection with the Divine," he remarked. "So I started reading various books on spirituality, ranging from Ram Das to Thomas Merton to Tao Te Ching. My personality was very dynamic and I was very much interested in the arts. I was quite different from the typical American kid of that time." Both his parents are atheists and scientific rationalists but, as Jesse noted, they did not oppose him and have even tried to support him as best as they could.

"Henri Nouwen's Genessee Diary, which is the story of a Jesuit priest who is very much seva-oriented, made a big impression on me. In this work, he recognizes the deepest aspects of the contemplative tradition within his own Catholic experience. Even though I was only fifteen years old, I went on a retreat at that Abbey after getting permission." While returning from the Abbey with his mother, Jesse had an epiphany and he felt "an intense connection with the contemplative life." He decided to become a monk. "The retreat allowed my heart to open up to a completely agape type of experience as a kid," he added.

Jesse has been a student of Hinduism and Buddhism for about eighteen years. His Param Guru is Sri Karunamayi, and his Lama is Traktung Kehpa Rimpoche. He studied yoga-asana with Aadil Palkhivala, a senior disciple of BKS Iyengar, and also with Adele Gale. In addition to yoga and meditation, Jesse has studied Sanskrit and Indian classical music. At the age of twenty-five, he walked across the U.S., visiting fourteen Catholic monasteries and about ten to fifteen Tibetan centers. "That was when I met my Lama, who asked me to get a job and return to the world," Jesse said. "He also gave me a philosophical understanding of non-dualism." In Philadelphia, while working for an interfaith newspaper, Jesse realized that along with a creative bent he also had a technical aptitude. These skills facilitated his transition to the corporate world, where he became a graphic designer and Internet developer.

On moving to Atlanta in 1997, Jesse found that it was a booming city with a very diverse and spiritual environment. He worked at Bell South and IBM, among other companies, before ending up at Webtone Technologies for about three years. Many of his friends and acquaintances began requesting him to share his knowledge with anybody who was interested in Indian spirituality. Jesse turned to his mentors, who then blessed him and asked him to start teaching meditation and some other aspects of the yoga system.

The puja schedule at Amma's Chai House includes Sri Vishnu Sahasranama and Sri Lalita Sahasranama, both of which are performed in the prayer room on Fridays. There is a yoga class for beginners on Saturdays, and ?Kirtan: The Yoga of Chant' is conducted every Tuesday evening. Upcoming programs include a class on Vedic astrology and a workshop on Ayurveda. "A large part of the purpose of this place is education," Jesse stated. "More and more people want to know about Eastern spirituality. One function of the store is to get the right book or program to the right person. Here it's more informal and it's easier to communicate with a Westerner. What's amazing, though, is we also get a lot of Indians; I'd say it's fifty-fifty. I think a lot of people appreciate the blending and synthesis we achieve here. All in all, we definitely have a community building up."

"Jesse is an amazing personality," says Dr. G.V. Raghu, president of the Hindu Temple in Atlanta. "He looks young but has a wealth of experience in life. He is definitely a spiritual seeker. He knows enough about Patanjali's Yoga Sutras to do a translation, write the commentary, and even teach a course. He is also artistically talented. Amma's Chai House is more a spiritual place than a caf�, where he spends most of his time talking about spiritual masters and yoga."

Amma's Chai House has three other staff members. Daniel Bastacky, a certified instructor of the Chopra Center for Well Being, is the founder and president of the Georgia Association of Ayurvedic practitioners. He is also a professional photographer and martial arts instructor. Matthew Lake, a spiritual practitioner since his early teens, teaches bhakti and bliss meditation. He is also a graphic artist who created Meledeam, an online game that has been available for a few years. Srikara Das, a Vedic astrologer and palmist, has studied and taught the Vedas for over twenty-five years. He traveled extensively in India and lived there for more than six years.

Amma's Chai House and Vedic Bookstore is really a multi-purpose mandir for the religiously inclined, and although the emphasis is clearly on Hinduism and Buddhism, everybody is made to feel warmly welcome because the emphasis is on personal spiritual quest rather than on dogma.

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