Eknath Easwaran, the founder of passage meditation, describes how the experiences and influences from his childhood through his 20s and 30s shaped him. This story is an excerpt from his book "The Mantle of the Mystic."
I was not a particularly religious child. I was absorbed in my studies, in sports and games, and scarcely thought about ancient India and its spiritual heritage. But all the while I was taking in its rich culture. Though I was too young to be aware of it, my grandmother was planting the seeds of my future deep in my consciousness.
As a teenager I was independent and inclined to question anything I found provincial. My grandmother’s world seemed bounded by our little village; my world seemed infinite.
By the time I left for college, I had discovered modern civilization – modern Western civilization – and the discovery was so heady that it buried everything Granny had taught me.
The door to this intoxicating realm for me was English literature. English, of course, was the key to getting ahead in every British colony, so it was the language of instruction for all institutions of higher education. Granny didn’t pay much attention to British rule, but she must have had some idea of my future because she insisted I learn both English and Sanskrit as early as possible.
By the time I was six or seven I had learned the first verse of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and Granny was so proud that at every opportunity she would tell me, “Recite that poem.” By high school I could read well, and the doors of English literature swung open and let me in. I was dazzled. It was a world I had never imagined. In my remote village I had never seen the British soldiers and civil servants who occupied our country. My only exposure to the West was in our tiny school, where a few dedicated Indian teachers brought us the best of British civilization. There we discovered that England was not just the home of empire-builders, but also the land of Shakespeare, Milton, and Shaw.
My class master, my Uncle Appa, was a great lover of literature. He gave me a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and I carried it with me everywhere and memorized every poem that appealed to me. That is the way I was even then: when I loved something, I had to make it my own.
Then I started going systematically through a series called the Oxford World’s Classics. Only a few of us received that privilege, and we had no choice in what we read; we got what our headmaster wanted us to read. But I devoured it all. Every night I would lie awake late with a hurricane lamp and my latest treasure from Sir Walter Scott or Charles Dickens. I no longer lived in a remote Indian village surrounded by rice fields at the edge of a tropical forest. I roamed rugged crags crowned with heather in the spring and strode through rolling hills alive with daffodils and “primroses by the river’s brim” and other beautiful things I had never even seen. I felt I was on a different planet. Nobody else in my school had this response, but even at that age I never did anything half heartedly. When this world of wonder opened I stepped into it and just disappeared, not to emerge for many, many years.
By the time I finished high school, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach in order to share my passion for literature with everybody I could. And I wanted to make some small contribution of my own to the world of English letters. The teaching part came naturally; I have always had a passion for sharing what I love. Writing – especially in a foreign tongue – didn’t come easily at all, but Uncle Appa encouraged me.
All this absorption in English life and letters had a side effect that I never even guessed at, though it must have been all too clear to Granny. In drinking in the literature I loved, I swallowed everything that went with it: the whole worldview of the West. Thus it was that when I left my village, I systematically began to bury everything I had absorbed at my grandmother’s side. Even India’s rich literature, which I loved, was fit into a perspective shaped by Shakespeare and Milton. It never occurred to me that I was losing anything.
India had been under British domination for two hundred years. It’s difficult to imagine what that means if you haven’t lived through it. It’s not just economic exploitation; generations grow up with a foreign culture superimposed on their own. When I was in college, I never questioned the axiom that everything worthwhile, everything that could fulfill my dreams, came from the West. The science, the wealth, the military power, all demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of Western civilization. It never occurred to most of us to look anywhere else for answers.
I was born just a few years before Gandhi’s return from South Africa. I was too young, and my little village too isolated, to have much awareness of the tragedies that impelled him into national leadership in those early years, but as a child, I had heard wandering sadhus coming through my village sing the praises of Gandhi, the great renunciate.
Only when I got to college did I discover (along with Punch and other British periodicals) Gandhi’s weekly newspaper, Young India. He was pouring his heart out in those pages, and despite the country’s widespread illiteracy, his words reached into India’s villages as copies of the paper were passed from hand to hand and read out in audiences everywhere along the way. India was being shaken from the Himalayas to Cape Kanniyakumari.
But the Gandhi who drew me, even as a student, was Gandhi the man, the Gandhi who experimented with diet and health issues, changing old habits and questioning everything. It wasn’t until a little later, when I was a few years older and more mature, that I became interested in the Gandhi who called the Gita his mother, his spiritual reference book.
I have been looking at my very first copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which I bought when I was a freshman at college with my petty pocket allowance. I read it over and over again and memorized many of the verses. I knew Sanskrit fairly well, and I enjoyed reading it, not only because of its place in India’s great civilization, but also for its literary beauty, which appealed to me very much. At that time I did not have the slightest idea that the Gita is more than just great literature or philosophy; it is a living dictionary for the conduct of daily life. I began to grasp its true significance only when I met Mahatma Gandhi years later and heard him say, on the authority of his personal experience, that the Gita contains the answer to every problem life has to offer.
For graduate studies I went to Nagpur, Central India, a strategic location at the geographic center of India where all the major railways connecting north and south, east and west come together like spokes in a wheel. Nearby lay the town of Wardha, a dot on the map thrown into international recognition as the last railway junction before Gandhi’s ashram. The rest of the way one had to travel on one’s own. I walked the few miles down the hot, dusty road to the settlement that Gandhi called Sevagram, “the village of service.” I arrived at about five in the afternoon and joined a little group of people waiting eagerly to see Gandhi. I was told he had been behind closed doors all day in consultation with India’s national leaders, so I expected to see someone tired, perhaps irritable, with little time for students. I was amazed when out stepped a radiant figure in his sixties, laughing with the others over some joke he had just made. He beckoned to us to accompany him on his walk, and we almost had to trot to keep up with him. But he answered our questions without ever slacking his pace.
After we returned, it was time for Gandhi’s prayer meeting. In tropical India night falls suddenly, so hurricane lanterns sprang up everywhere. We were all seated together on the ground when Gandhi came to take up his seat against a tree. The meeting began with his secretary, Mahadev Desai, reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita, the scripture that Gandhi called the summit of human wisdom. Gandhi’s eyes closed, and I watched spellbound as his body grew motionless. He was so completely absorbed in the words that I felt I was seeing them take human form. He had meditated on the Gita for half a century and had made it the reference for his every action. Systematically, little by little, he had translated his highest ideals into daily life.
Of all the debts I owe Gandhiji, this insight he gave me into the significance of the Gita is the greatest. Throughout India he is considered the father of the nation, which is a very high tribute. But for me, he was the lighthouse of the twentieth century, and the source of his light was the Bhagavad Gita.
In India, we go to an illumined man or woman to look, to have his or her darshan. We believe that when you look at a God-conscious person, it stirs something within you. There is an echo in your deeper consciousness because you are seeing your real Self. Gandhi stirred me deeply by placing before me an image of the human being that was far more radiant than any I had known. He still does. It is this beauty – the same divine spark that is concealed in all of us – that you see when you look at an illumined teacher.
I didn’t understand this at the time, of course, but I went back thrilled and began to study systematically everything Gandhi wrote. I discovered he had a genius for transforming his life, so I tried to follow his example. While others were following his politics, I tried to absorb the way he worked on himself. But it took years for me to realize the real significance of that prayer meeting and the impact it made on my life.