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Young and Spiritual

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
November 2011
Young and Spiritual When many of us moved to the “material” West from the “spiritual” East in the seventies and eighties, the last thing we had on our minds was to pursue a life dominated by spiritual aspirations. Today not only is the first generation of Indian-Americans more engaged in religious and spiritual quests, but more surprisingly, it is many in the following generations that are often giving up lucrative corporate careers and lives of material comforts in search of inner peace and fulfillment through spiritual pursuits.

Would you be willing to give up your life, your family, and even the name you were born with? Would you renounce career, marriage, and parenthood forever? How about personal passions and goals? Could you live with the prospect of never seeing your father and mother again?

Bhavesh Choksi, 27, has done exactly that.

Turning his back on what most people fight tooth and nail for, Bhavesh, forsaking it all, has taken diksha (monastic vows), and is on his way to becoming a swami in the BAPS Swaminarayan organization. The swamis in this socio-spiritual Hindu organization are bound by a strict code of conduct. They live Spartan lives, giving up even the smallest of luxuries. But most importantly, they are required to break all ties with their past lives and completely dedicate themselves to the order of the faith and the organization.

The fact that Bhavesh willingly and purposefully chose this path may seem a bit extreme to those of us still embroiled in the trappings of the material world. And yet he is hardly a rarity. A growing number of Indian-Americans whose lives are full of promise and possibilities in the sphere of their choice are nevertheless choosing to dedicate themselves to spiritual pursuits. And unlike those in traditional India who sought recourse in the ashram to escape a life of hurt or failure, many of these bright youngsters are propelled not primarily by suffering or setbacks but by an inner calling.

Indeed, Bhavesh is following his dream, walking into a joyous light that most of us cannot even comprehend. His exposure to the Swaminarayan faith began when he enrolled in the children’s group at the Swaminarayan temple in Edison when he was nine years old. At a time when most kids still think of nothing but sports and video games, Bhavesh, who loved playing basketball, was nevertheless questioning the world around him. “I remember him telling me that when he was in seventh grade, he went out to play one evening, and gazing up into the sky, questioned this world and the purpose of life,” recalls his father Bipin Choksi. “He felt that there must be a deeper meaning to this life, and that all things in this world are temporary. It was Bhavesh’s wish since childhood to work towards his own moksha (liberation) and also to serve society in the capacity of a sadhu.”

Pramukh Swami, the spiritual head of BAPS, however, insisted Bhavesh attend college first. Only after he graduated from Boston University did he get permission to pursue his lifelong quest of becoming a monk in their tradition. Bipin recalls that time of conflict—the agony of losing a child. “We knew if he became a Swaminarayan sadhu that we would have no contact with him on a personal level. We did not know how we would handle it emotionally,” admits Bipin. However, when he and Bhavesh met Pramukh Swami for this momentous transition, Bhavesh requested the Swami to bless his parents so that they could handle this separation. “I still remember Swamiji placing his loving hand on my head and telling me, ‘Now Bhavesh is about to sit in God’s lap’ so to keep courage,” Bipin recalls.

“My wife and I felt consoled knowing that our son set out to do what he was born for. Naturally, we do miss him, his sense of humor, everything about him, but we are still happy knowing that he is on the right path, one that gives him, and us, immense joy and peace.”

Bhavesh is now known as Shantyogi Swami and lives in Sarangpur, India. New York devotees who have visited him have come back with a deeper understanding of a sadhu’s life and mission, and commend Bhavesh and other young men for undertaking this divine journey.

A spiritual leap

Amazing as this story is, it is not singular. Several accomplished Indian-Americans have chosen this path in spite of having degrees from Ivy League universities and successful professional careers. Besides those who have made a full transition by leaving behind worldly quests, there are thousands more who have made spirituality paramount in their lives even in the midst of their career and family obligations, often swearing that it enhances their worldly roles and material lives rather than competing with them.

Balasaheb Darade, who has a master’s in science from the University of Cincinnati, is an innovator and entrepreneur. When he interned with the NASA team at Lunar, they offered him a full-time job…which he refused. Thanks to his exposure to the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, and inspired by its founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Darade had found a different calling. He went back to his roots in Maharashtra, India looking to create model villages, applying himself to a movement initiated by Anna Hazare. Imagine having the ability to reach the stars, yet realizing that heaven is in service to the humblest of God’s creations.

Something is surely amiss in our chaotic, frenetic lives as we look for happiness in material achievements, bigger homes, and bigger job titles, only to find that each acquisition leaves us hungry for something more elusive. Shefali Aggrawal, a young New York lawyer who decided to give up a year of her paid professional life and volunteer as a full-time teacher for the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, says, “I am inspired by the change which happens when people are at peace within themselves. I used to work with poverty-stricken and mentally ill clients for years and I realized that while giving legal advice was very important, I could not help effect real change in their conditions. By teaching people skills to manage their mind and emotions, I help them push through big stressors in their life and reach their fuller potential.”


Parneet Gosal, a digital media strategist, launched her own consulting firm after she took an AOL course along with her mother. Her goals for the course were simple even if half-baked: increase her energy level and improve her mother’s health. “I’m like most New Yorkers, juggling multiple balls with a lifelong addiction to overachieving,” she said. “I also consider myself savvy and immune to transient fads. I was by no means convinced that we would achieve either goal.” She adds, “As it turns out, the class helped us with both goals…and then some.” She credits it as being instrumental in her launching of Seedwalker, a digital strategy consulting firm that now counts amongst its clients brands like American Express, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Now a believer and enthusiast, Parneet volunteers to help other New Yorkers take advantage of the kind of class she had done.


Neil Pathak, 17, was brought up by parents who are both physicians and committed volunteers at Isha Foundation, which like the AOL, is a formidable global force in reviving India’s ancient spiritual heritage amongst the movers and shakers as well as the masses across the world. Neil started the Isha program at the age of 12, and credits yoga with helping him overcome his health problems and also acquire focus and clarity. He became the valedictorian of his high school, received several international awards, and got accepted to Yale University.


Recently Neil single-handedly organized a fundraiser for rural children’s health for Isha Vidya. “Spirituality is deeply rooted in my dedication to yoga, as it not only gives me a sense of calm, but also provides me dedication and focus,” says Neil. “I recommend this lifestyle to others. It does not involve balancing two worlds, it simply is an addition to one’s life to result in an overall calmer, more joyful, and more focused life.”


The challenge is even greater for young people who grow up in intercultural homes. Born to a British-Irish mother and a father who is a Hindu from Assam, India, Leena Athparia of Toronto, Canada, learned to keep an open mind: “Both parents were not very religious, but allowed me enough exposure to understand Hinduism and Christianity. I never strongly identified with either religion, but considered myself spiritually inclined.”

A dedicated violinist, Leena found that her experience of music shifted to a deeper level after starting Isha Yoga. Having graduated with a BA and BSc, she is studying to be a naturopathic doctor and has also graduated from a music conservatory in piano and violin.

Yet to her, the whole definition of success has changed, and accomplishment now means a life of volunteering at Isha Ashram, working in its garden, and teaching music to children. “As much as I know I could do well in my career, I feel the longing to grow spiritually,” she says. “Whether it's living in an ashram, or volunteering at the Rejuvenation Center, or contributing my musical skills, I would like to devote my time and energy to what I feel is the most worthwhile—which will always have a spiritual inclination.” She cannot quantify the rewards of getting off the ambition and acquisition treadmill—“they have been more than I could have ever imagined. I see so many around me struggling with stress, and I feel I would have been in a similar situation if it weren’t for Isha Yoga.”


Spiritual Rainmakers


Between Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of AOL and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Foundation, the two spiritual giants have unleashed a global revolution amongst youngsters who have started questioning the ability of material pursuits in providing lasting happiness and fulfillment—if they happen in absence of an underlying spiritual anchoring.


The practitioners, and particularly the volunteers, at both these organizations are predominantly youngsters, and in the case of United States, mostly professionals and successful entrepreneurs who had no shortage of ambition and a proven track record of success. Yet hundreds of them are choosing to either completely dedicate themselves to these organizations, or are deeply committed to them while continuing their inspiring trajectories in the world of work.


While the United States is only one facet of a global army of volunteers and practitioners of AOL, the success and impact of AOL is revealed in the fact that in 2006, its 25th year anniversary in Bangalore, India, attracted an estimated 2.5 million visitors from over 110 countries. Its founder, Sri Sri, a revered spiritual leader is equally at ease whether counseling social leaders such as Anna Hazare or leading a group meditation session of thousands in New York City. Over 2700 people flocked to one such recent marathon meditation event at the Lincoln Center. Many of them were young people who could have chosen to be at a bar or a rock concert instead. Hundreds were passionate volunteers who had given up all other activities to make the event a success.


Sadhguru of Isha Foundation, who describes himself as a mystic, and who has been listed amongst the 50 most powerful Indians by India Today, is casting a wide and rapidly growing footprint around the world by presenting India’s ancient yogic heritage as a spiritual science. His rational approach that stresses experiential spirituality over dogmatic religion appeals to the young all over the world. His dynamic team of volunteers made it possible to search and procure a 600-acre spread of land in the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, where the organization built Mahima, a 39,000 square-feet meditation facility and the first dome structure of its kind in the Western hemisphere. Completed in 2008, the process of converting raw land to a vibrant spiritual destination was achieved in record time—thanks mostly to its large and growing band of volunteers who took time off work and travelled from all corners of the country. Such is the enthusiasm and dedication of the spiritual yearnings of a growing band of young Indian-Americans.


A growing acceptance


This shift toward spirituality seems to be a major change in many second-generation Indian-Americans. Religion or spirituality was anathema to many of them earlier as they tried to merge into the mainstream and fit into school and college, and the larger community. They did not want to appear ‘different’ from their peers. So why this change now?


Part of the answer lies with the evolving Indian community and part of it with America itself. As the Indian population has grown, so have the resources. Where previously there may have been a small basement converted into a makeshift temple for Hindus to congregate in remote outposts of small towns, now there are hundreds of world-class temples across the country, and spiritual leaders regularly visit from India to give discourses.


An example is the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, which runs about 64 temples in the U.S. The sadhus have designed well-structured programs that aim to lead participants in becoming more spiritual and in line with the Hindu faith, encouraging them to lead pious lives and help society. As a result, the organization claims thousands of youth volunteers across all its temples in the U.S., helping out not just within the temples but in society as well.


America is changing too, with temples, mosques, and gurudwaras sprouting up beside the churches. The mainstream is also more open to different faiths and traditions, and yoga, meditation and vegetarianism are becoming common practices. Indeed, health care professionals advocate them for stress control and overall health.


In such an atmosphere, it has become easier to explore spirituality. The practice of yoga and meditation may be thousands of years old but it is perfectly suited to our very stressful modern times. Spurring it on is the phenomenon of social media where everything is amplified with the sharing of favored practices and ideas. Following eastern spiritual practices is no longer seen as weird or exotic.


The tradition of giving back also appeals to many young Indians who have grown up here and are involved with volunteering in temples and spiritual organizations. Some have re-oriented their lives totally to embrace spirituality, becoming teachers or brahmacharis at spiritual organizations.


Snapshots of spiritual lives

So what are the influences that are driving youngsters—who might otherwise be into partying or career-climbing—into spirituality? Young people seem to get into spirituality for a number of reasons including family influence, a sense of belonging with spiritual organizations, or a need to find the meaning of life.


Anand and Mili Gandhi, both in their 30s, have also made spirituality a priority in their lives. Anand works with Ford Motor Company in Detroit and Mili is a physical therapist. Currently both are part-time volunteers at Isha, but plan to move to India to become full-time volunteers at Isha Home School. “Religion was not a huge part of my background,” says Anand. “My mother did pray every morning but I rarely saw my Dad pray. We would go to the temple a few times a year.”

Balancing Indian values with American society while growing up was not easy for Anand. “I did my best to separate my family from my friends since there was a big disconnect,” he says. His training at Isha helped him to see how both worlds could jell by doing many of the things he used to do earlier but with a different awareness. He feels he can now handle difficult situations with calm, is in great shape, and is able to better balance his life. Anand says, “Spirituality is now a big part of my life from the smallest of things in terms of respecting the food I am eating to the biggest of things such as trying to be one with everything around me.”

The spiritual path has also led some to offbeat interests—such as stand up comedy! Ravi Naidu of Atlanta works for IBM. Becoming more spiritual almost seemed to grant him the liberty to try the road less travelled. Religion or spirituality was not a big part of life in his childhood, although all Indian festivals were celebrated. He recalls: “We didn’t have a temple in Atlanta then. If we did I’m sure my parents would have gone pretty regularly, but I wouldn’t have cared for it.”

He encountered spirituality in a roundabout way. “I didn’t know I was looking to bring spirituality into my life,” he says. “I just knew something was missing even though I had a great life. I found out about a talk that Sadhguru was giving in Atlanta and I went. For the first time a ‘spiritual type of person’ was talking about things in a very practical way, very applicable to my life. So, I took the seven-day Isha Yoga program and haven’t looked back since.”

Asked about the rewards of following a spiritual path, Ravi says, “It’s beyond a reward to be given the tools to see life beyond the basics of human survival. To realize that life only happens within this current moment and that I am 100 percent responsible for everything that happens in my life has been the greatest gift and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It permeates my everyday life, actions - my very being. My perspective on life is filtered through the sieve of spirituality.”

For Monica Gupta of Atlanta, who is in her 30s, religion had always been a way of life. A dentist and a new mother, she finds it has been her defining guidepost. “My parents made sure we sat for evening puja daily, took us to the temple, hosted pujas, taught us mantras and bhajans as well as their meanings. They did everything to set an example for us.”

Yet it is spirituality gleaned from her training at Isha that helps her to go to work, come back to her family and do all that is needed, with fewer struggles. “Spirituality is an internal compass that guides you in the external world,” she says. “It does not require one to abandon their everyday duties in daily life. In fact, it enhances the journey and experiences we call life. It helps you function more smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.”

Service is an important part of spirituality as young people learn to give back to the communities. Anju Bhargava, a member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, is the founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, which partners with the Corporation for National & Community Service. She finds the younger generation is very open to giving back and making a difference. “Service, especially yoga, is a bridge builder with the community at large; it increases acceptance of the New Americans, promotes harmony and reduces potential conflicts with the communities in which we reside,” she says. “More than ever, the service mindset, the sharing of resources is important now.”

Spirituality as a self-help tool

Spirituality is an important pathfinder and a self-help tool in an increasingly chaotic and fractured world. More and more young people seem to be internalizing these lessons to make sense of the world they live in. While hurt or failure are not primary motivators for many of the band of seekers, there are certainly a few who come to spirituality to seek solace and find a way out. 

Neil Mathews (not his real name), 24, of Birmingham, Alamaba, had abused substances as a teenager and hung out with the wrong crowd. A few years ago he enrolled in the Isha program and his life turned around completely. He had a yearning to rediscover himself and two years ago he moved to the Isha Ashram in India and volunteers full-time at Isha Home School, working with children.

Spirituality has been the salvation for Jay, (not his real name) a young man who was in prison. Having taken the Art of Living course, his life is transformed and he is undergoing teacher’s training to teach other youths through the public school program, YES for Schools.

Atlantan Sreeratna Kancherla, 33, left the high-paying world of law to work in a university, placing students into village projects in India. Last year she lost her father, and she feels spirituality and meditation helped her navigate through that desolate time and find her bearings.

Besides the traumatic, the path is also a haven for those seeking answers to age-old questions about human existence and purpose. Raajiv Ravi, 33, is a physician in San Francisco who met his Italian wife while attending an Isha Yoga program. They got married recently and his wife has already become a full-time volunteer at the ashram, and Raajiv is giving up medicine to become a full-time volunteer, too.

“Coming from a large family setting, my parents had a total of 12 siblings. The constant coming together of families meant staging dramas filled with Hindu mythology, singing bhajans and offering flowers and fruits to the gods,” he says. Yet none of this helped solve life’s deepest mystery—human existence. “All the religious beliefs and practices couldn’t provide me with the answers that I was looking for.” At Isha he found some important answers. “This program has only made my belief stronger that as a seeker one has to be grounded in the physical world to experience higher growth in spirituality,” he says. “The simple yet powerful kriyas that I’ve learned and come to practice regularly have enhanced my way of living. Whether I’m rock-climbing in Palm Springs or attending underground music events at the Elbo Room in San Francisco, the daily practice helps preserve my inner balance and keeps me focused on the larger aspect of life.” Raajiv has found that this tool helps him stay in the moment whether he’s trekking in the Muirwoods with friends or delivering a key presentation on healthcare taxonomy. His energy levels are great and fear and self-consciousness are more easily transcended. He says, “This newly acquired way of life has helped bring wholeness and vitality into my life. I’d absolutely recommend this to everyone—including the doubters—to give it a try.”


And that brings us full-circle to Balasaheb Darade, who gave up a lucrative future in America for the struggles of village India. He is now working in small towns and villages, places where Internet access is sometimes hard to come by and NASA and glittering America are a world away. He eats the simple village meals, inspires the youth and listens to their ideas and solutions, sharing and giving them visions for the future.

He feels that spirituality has shown him the path for his life. “Spirituality has made me strong. Nothing can faze me. I’m so grateful for everything in my life. There is that fullness and out of that fullness, I want to contribute.”


[Lavina Melwani is a journalist who writes for several international publications and blogs at Lassi with Lavina (www.lassiwithlavina.com).]

Journey to the Moon Within

“My mom still recollects the day she came to my first-grade class wearing a sari. I was shocked because I had never seen her wearing Indian clothes,” says Sheela Rajdev. “When I look back, I don’t think I realized I was Indian or what it meant.”


Like many Indian children who grew up in the American hinterland, she had few markers of Hindu cultural or spiritual life. Her father was an engineer at BASF and mother was a medical director at Henry Ford in Farmington Hills, Mich. “We were not oriented towards any particular religion, no lamps lit at home or God’s pictures,” she says. “I went to the temple and even a church a few times but only for the day camps or math classes.”


Later in life her parents rediscovered religion and things changed when Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Yoga Program came to Michigan.


“The summer before college, I was taken to an introductory talk and with my attention totally elsewhere, half way through I took the car keys and drove off to my best friend’s graduation party thinking I don’t need any advice on how to be happy!” says Sheela.


The next year, after freshman year at college, she and her brothers attended a seven-day Inner Engineering program with Sadhguru. “This time I looked up at the man behind the microphone, opened my ears, and put down a few of the barriers and resistances I had towards so-called spiritual teachers,” she remembers. “I listened to what he had to say and his logic hit me, his wisdom seemed unparalleled and his humor started to soften me up. He was not talking about some God somewhere or asking me to believe in anything but just to look at myself a little deeper.”


How deep?


As deep as she was willing. The more willing she became, the more she discovered. Suddenly the world inside of her, she found, was so much bigger than the one outside. “I realized the difference between religion and a true spiritual process,” she says. She visited India for the first time, spending a month in silence and volunteered at the Isha Yoga Center in Coimbatore, a life-transforming experience. Ten years have passed, seven of them as a full-time volunteer and three of them living in India, all of them extremely happy and peaceful.


“I didn’t realize it but all my life I was trying to fulfill some unquenchable thirst for happiness and [find] a sense of completeness,” she says. “It became so painstakingly clear that nothing on the outside would satisfy me.”


One big question overwhelmed her: “What is this all about and what am I looking for?” Sadhguru’s Inner Engineering program gave her the tools to find this answer within. She says, “That thirst is quenched and whether I do something or don’t do anything the experience is equally as beautiful.”


At the age of 29, Sheela has found the inner contentment that most people struggle all their lives to find. She quotes Sadhguru: “The world is trying to do so many things. We’re trying to go to the moon, to Mars, but, fundamentally, I feel the most important thing is human consciousness, the quality of life here. How happy we are here simply depends on how we are within ourselves.”

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