Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Rebel fights on- (Part 2)

(Second and final part of my interview with Canadian Esther Friede where she opens out a bit more and shares her personal side with us.)

Being an Indian Hindu, it felt rather strange to be taught verses from the Bhagavad Gita by a Westerner. It felt stranger, when I started realizing I am confiding in that person details of my life that I have hardly shared with anyone. Even more strangely, it started to feel good doing so and I would look forward to those conversations which would give me some strange kind of a solace. That is exactly how my relation with Esther Friede has blossomed over the past few months; from being a story’s subject to slowly evolving into a friend cum guide.

Esther with the children of her Ashram 
There is something oddly reassuring about Esther’s personality. Even though I haven’t yet met her, I always feel comfortable with her positive outlook toward life, her kindness, her patience, her simplicity and genuineness , all of it combined makes her a wonderfully human person; unlike any I have met in my life. Her stubbornness to not give up, to keep fighting and her belief in God despite all odds really moved me and made me want to help her at all costs, as if I too was in this fight with her, as if I am helping a family member.

All this might make one feel that I am biased about my whole approach towards Esther’s story as a journalist. But it really is the other way round. It is rather the honesty in her tale that makes me want to keep fighting harder, that makes me believe that there is something worth fighting for. And if in the end I do mange to contribute even one percent in her victory, I would feel I have done something good and worthwhile in my life after all.

So taking over from my last post, I explore some different facets of Esther; her personal side. Giving the land-mafia issue a pause, I try and delve on her human elements. Here she opens up on her relationship with ‘God’, her fears, her ‘Indian-ness’ and gives a short message to the Indian society.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q.1. You latest blog post questions India’s civility and Haridwar’s holiness. What exactly brought those feelings on?

Ans: I just can`t believe what is happening to India – the reason I came to India was for spiritual reasons – and to see this kind of corruption, violence, lawlessness in a holy city, of all places, I am just astounded!  What I don`t understand is that I have tried to get help from people – who have turned their backs when they could really help us put a stop to it. The place is full of big ashrams supported by a lot of wealth and influence.  You would think others would stand by us and demand justice and not want to have a holy place tainted by these kinds of corrupt activities.  When I first came to India in the 60`s to study with my Guru, I remember he used to say that one day India would overcome its difficulties, and become an advanced nation – both spiritually and materially.  Well, some of it is coming true.  On the one hand, material wealth has increased – but so what?  The disparity in society is so much greater. In my view, real development is about becoming more civilized, taking care of people, caring for the less fortunate, uplifting the nation as a whole, having honest governance that makes it possible for people to contribute to the welfare of society. I believe that in the heart of most people there is a desire to do good and a country where there is honest governance, lawful process, is able to benefit from the talent, drive, ambition and hard work of its citizens. People in India that I met before used to be kind, gentle, hospitable.  I was never afraid to go anywhere by myself. I literally felt like I was walking on holy ground when I went to the Ganges – or was anywhere in its vicinity.  Our ashram was so peaceful.  I still have a hard time reconciling the India I loved with what is happening now.

Q.2. You had mentioned to me that you tied a Rakhi to a friend of yours recently. You also seem to be quite inspired by the sacred Hindu book the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ besides knowing and enjoying quite a bit of Indian festivals and rituals. So despite all the negativities you have faced here can I say that there still is some Indian residing in you somewhere?

Ans: That part of me will never go away.  My Bhagavad Gita is daily food.  Whatever I study, I always compare it to the Bhagavad Gita.  I have started a blog – just got started recently – on the Gita.  I think the Gita is a phenomenal work, far deeper than it appears on the surface and the older I get, the more meaning it has for me.  Yes, I tied a rakhi on a good friend of mine to protect him when that festival came around.  Navratri is one of my favourite festivals because of its worship of the Divine Feminine – which is very significant.  Of all the countries in the world, the honouring of the Divine Feminine has disappeared and can be found only in the history of its ancient cultures, in archeological remains.  India is one of the only ancient civilizations with a continuous living history of this tradition.

Esther(center) with some kids of her Ashram
I sometimes think I am more Indian than some Indians. So many things feel completely natural for me, even though I was born to European parents who knew nothing about India. It is my samskaras from past lives that bring this about and will no doubt continue. When I first set foot on Indian soil, I felt like I had come home.  I feel at home in a sari;  I eat Indian meals regularly with my hands, Indian-style – a snack for me might be simple chapatis with Indian mango pickle, onion and dahi.

After my first trip to India, I hand painted a murti of Gayatri Ma which I still revere. I worship and meditate in Indian ways. When I came to India when I was still young, I visited with Sri Ananda Moyi Ma several times and have a habit of visiting Indian saints –especially the women saints – so I got hugs from Amma many times, learned about Sahaj yoga from Sri Nirmala Devi, sat at the feet of Mother Meera.  I visited SatyaSai in Puttaparti, knelt at the tomb of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in Pondicherry, paid my respects at the tomb of Gandhiji, paid homage at ShirdiSai’s tomb. Of course, ultimately, I am devoted to my own Guru, Swami Devananandaji, but deep within me is the habit of taking the dust from the feet of highly developed beings however they may be embodied or even if they have left the body.

I have been down the Ganges with my Guru from Rishikesh to Varanasi, through the south of India with a friend, into Punjab, Rajasthan, Bengal.  There is still so much to see – I don`t know whether I will get to see it all in this lifetime – but it is as if I have an Indian soul……It is strange – when I see an Indian person, inside I feel like I am meeting a ``landsman`` - that is a German word for someone from your own country.  Of course, they wouldn`t know it – because I don`t look Indian.  It is really an inner thing, which is hard to explain.

Q.3. Is there still anybody in India whom you trust with your heart? Anyone whom you have faith or belief in or whom you can call a friend?

Ans: I trust my Guru with my life.  He is one in a million – I think God threw away the mould after He created him.   So it is hard for anyone to live up to that standard in my books.  And I am not just being starry-eyed and na├»ve.  I am in my 60`s, have considerable life experience now and I can honestly reflect on my time with him and still feel the same way.  I became very wary lately of people in India, don’t know whom to trust and have difficulty now being open-hearted in India, which is my nature.  I can’t understand the apathy of the many of the people around us in India. Recently, though, a few people have come forward to help who are showing a genuineness, courage and faithfulness that has really moved me. If it weren`t for them, the ashram may already have fallen into the hands of the mafia.  These people are restoring my faith – that there are still some really good people in India.

Q.4. What’s the update on the personal front? What occupies your mind and time these days? How do you keep your mind away from all negative emotions that are natural to seep in?

Ans: I see life as a journey of continual learning, growth, development and service.  Each phase of life offers new lessons.  I am very active and engaged in life.  For 4 years I had been serving as the Spiritual and Religious Coordinator (a chaplain) in three long-term care facilities, looking after the spiritual needs of the elderly and dying as well as young disabled adults. I was probably one of the first with Hindu spiritual training that made it through the difficult process of qualification (that has for so long in Canada been predominantly Christian) to become a chaplain and pastoral counselor. I had to leave that role because it did not give me enough flexibility to come to India and stay long enough to deal with the mafia issue. 

Now, I have my own private psychotherapy practice, where I do counselling for couples, families and individuals, adolescents and children.  I get a chance in my private practice to serve people, help them find hope through difficult challenges and facilitate finding solutions to their personal problems.  Life is not easy for anybody.  Nowadays especially, there is so much stress and anxiety, even amongst children.  
Esther Friede
More recently, I have been studying cybercounselling which will enable me to offer my counseling services online to adults anywhere in the world.  I am very excited about that. That would give me the most flexibility – because I could be anywhere in the world too as long as I have a computer and an internet connection.  I would like to write, turn my attention to that more fully.

I am a visual artist and have done a lot of art work – drawing and painting, and some work with fibre.  I have some training in the style of Renaissance Masters, and I have had some lessons in Chinese brush work.  But my natural spontaneous work is modern, a lot is abstract in oils and acrylics.  I also used my creativity to explore the inner psychological and spiritual life and have notebooks filled with symbolic drawings of the Divine Feminine.  I haven`t had much time for my art work lately.  I used to have visions of spending my later years at the ashram in service, working with children, in spiritual reflection, meditation and being creative as a writer and artist. 

Needless to say, that vision has been rudely altered by these recent developments with the land mafia.  Now, all I can think of when I think about the ashram is what next steps to take to defeat the mafia…..when I go there – I am constantly seeing lawyers and going to court, writing letters to try to drum up support……I still live my spiritual life, meditation and worship. I am struggling to make this battle part of the path.  I think of Arjuna in the Gita. I sometimes talk to God ``Bhagwan, if this is what you want me to spend my energy on – OK….I don’t agree with You – but if that is your will. ``   That is how I deal with the negative emotions.  I may feel them, try to process them and then put them into context of what my spiritual life is all about – discover and live the spiritual meaning behind the challenges facing me.

Q.5. At present what do you care for the most? What scares you?

Ans: I would have to say that it is my spirituality that means the most to me – in a different way than before. While it has been the underlying theme of my life, as I age, of course, I have had to come to terms with my mortality in ways that I did not think of in my younger years and most recently, life also has brought me to spiritually companion those who are dying.  I think about the four ashramas as taught by the Hindus – the four stages of life – Brahmcharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa……so I consider myself to be in the Vanaprastha stage in life…going towards Sanyasa – though I have been a sanyasin for most of my life, I still have always been active in the world, studying, learning and serving.  In the west, the ideal form of aging is to keep busy as long as possible.  In the Hindu way of life, the ideal is to turn to God, to become reflective, contemplative. What scares me the most is the thought of near the end, losing sight of God, my soul, my purpose for which I came to this earth, of my consciousness being distracted from its main purpose. You can check out the blog I started at which is all about completing one’s life.  Of all the blogs I started, this one gets the most hits.

Q.6. Endless issues hog the media space in India every day, yet important and serious issues like yours hardly find any light. Do you feel left out? Do you feel that some mileage from the media would help your cause? Your views on the Indian media as a whole in present times.

Ans: I am a little baffled why I have not been able to attract the interest of the mainstream press.  I would have thought that if the media took up the story of attempted theft and corruption, that the exposure would discourage the criminals. I was hoping that media coverage would highlight our cause and reach people who are interested in overcoming corruption in India – that people would come to our defense, support us – and perhaps with greater numbers, this fight could be won sooner.  Maybe the secular world of media doesn’t care about ashrams and religious folks – and think this isn’t mainstream enough to sell papers……

My feelings about the media are not only about the Indian media- I feel the same about the media in the rest of the world.  I don`t like the sensationalism and preoccupation with bad news, trivial things, celebrities.  I would rather read blogs like Daily Good – which reports good news or specialized magazines or blogs of my choice that are focused on issues of interest and are well written. 

I see the value of media in a democracy as a way of making issues transparent and providing interesting, educational and insightful commentary on matters that concern society and of taking up good causes. It could play a more enriching role in the culture of any country if it was truly civic minded. But sensationalism and trivia sells – just like junk food – which may not be good for you. I am realistic enough to know that media needs to be commercially viable but sometimes I think it could raise its standards and still be commercially viable. The media has so much power over people’s minds that if it was used in the right way, it could play such a significant uplifting role in the whole culture.

Q.7. Do you wish to give any message to the people of India or to anyone else in particular?

Ans: Sounds a little grandiose to be giving a message to the Indian people – but now that you have asked, yes I do: Rise up! Become your best and highest self! The power in each person is greater than anyone can imagine for God lives in the heart of each living being! Live boldly, imaginatively, creatively, devotedly with an open heart!

Now that I have had a taste of the corruption in India in the worst way, I would also like to say that when corruption takes a hold in a country it is because people are complicit – perhaps not in an overt way – but through apathy, indifference and acceptance of it. I understand that life is tough and that everyone is trying to take care of themselves and their families but sometimes, we just have to take a stand for the betterment of all and say enough! 

Many Indians have given up on India and go abroad where they find a lot of opportunity for their talents, ambitions and aspirations for their families.  Indians are probably one of the largest diaspora communities in the world.  What I would say to them is  -  don’t forget your roots and share some of your success with the people of India itself.   Give back to your home country – not just in time and money – but in bringing some of the values you have found elsewhere that inspire and motivate people to create a flourishing society.  Put pressure on the country to wipe out corruption, to put in place honest governance, social reform.

I ran away from the materialism of the west to seek simplicity and spirituality in India and was welcomed with open arms then.  Something has gone seriously wrong in India in its headlong rush to catch up materially with the west and it is the west that now is hosting more and more spirituality. I can’t begin to tell you how many new temples, centres, mosques have been built not only by Indian people, but by people from all over the world who bring their spiritual heritage with them. Throughout the west, ashrams, meditation centres, communities are being established – the west is welcoming this. Even large hospital systems in my city are teaching meditation practices to people suffering from pain, anxiety and stress.


(To read the first part of my interview with Esther, click here.)

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