Living in the Holy Land of Israel is a daily lesson in tolerance, acceptance and compassion. A confrontation with ones deepest self that has many questioning the very essence of their existence on planet earth. As the rockets rained down on many of our cities, the fight to survive became imbeded even more deeply into the psyche of the nation, finding peace within and without is of the essence. It has been the daily agenda for the people as much as it is for the Prime Minister.
Life in Israel is governed by many rules, modesty, religious and political. The restrictions are not imposed but many of us feel them in the small details of daily life. In Jerusalem the modesty wars are in full force, for women here it is a challenge to dress in a way that they are used to without succumbing to the pressures of those around them. Being religious means looking the part, covering oneself to the extreme in the height of the summer heat. The laws which the Jewish Orthodox abide by is “walk modestly with your God” and in Deutoronomy there is a prohibition against dressing in clothing of the opposite sex, so that women are not permitted, by Jewish law, to wear pants and they must adhere to strict modesty laws to cover their collar bones, arms, knees and feet.
Women are surely beautiful creations of God, they are sensual, sexual and desired. Unfortunately many cultures around the world have tried to suppress the feminine both the body and the spirit. Women in some cultures can be killed for having a voice, an opinion, an expression of their most beautiful self. So it is no wonder that women today find it so difficult to know whether sexy is in or modest is better. In Jerusalem, I too have gone through the struggles of being true to myself whilst being true to my faith and people. We all have a need to belong and in our world today, belonging is about sameness, we gravitate towards those who are just like us in dress, attitude and belief and finding and living according to our own inner guidance becomes more difficult.
The war is not only between nations and religions, each of us is fighting a war to feel free in the terrain of our inner self. From a young age we are conditioned to be a certain way, to believe that those who are different to us are not like us. We dress in ways that don’t reflect our true self because we really do not know who that self is, we try to fit in becoming lost in the maze of expectations and rules set for us by those around us, we know there is a better way but we don’t know what that way may be.
The call for peace has been a long and arduous journey both for the land of Israel and it’s people but every year there are hundreds of young soldiers, girls and boys, who hang up their hats completing their Army Service to embark on another type of journey to find peace within, travelling from one Holy Land, Israel, to another, India.
This rite of passage is one that many of us need to take, not only to discover Incredible India and see the greatness of the Taj Mahal but to enter into the depth of our heart, find the authentic self behind the beliefs of our society and find our own greatness. So just like the Israeli Soldier straight off the battlefields, I embarked on a journey to discover my true identity and to ask myself the deep questions to which I found the answers from the small yoga town of Rishikesh to the Himalayan mountains at Ananda Spa. India is everything people say it will be and more, the streets are filled with people, men in Kurtas, women in their coloured Sari’s, cars, cows and the remnants they leave behind. No one gets used to this side of India but the people who come always end up finding more than what one can feel with the five senses. Rishikesh is a small town on the banks of the Ganges River and ever since the Beatles rocked up at the Ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh yogi in the late 60’s, people have been coming to this town in search of self.
Ashram life is not for the faint hearted and a week at Parmath Niketan Ashram was enough to send my ego packing or maybe it just drowned in the Ganges where I, like thousands others bathed each day in this river that rushes forth from the Himalayas and purifies all who bath in it, giving life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation. Parmath is known for it’s very famous Sunset Ganga Aarti Ceremony and draws between hundred and thousands of visitors each day including a recent visit from Prince Charles and Camilla. The power of the Aarti transcends the borders and boundaries of launguage, culture and religion and dives straight into one’s heart, carrying one to heaven. The divine light ceremony is filled with song, prayer, ritual and a palpable sense of the divine. Aarti is the beautiful ceremony in which dias (oil lamps) are offered to God, the essence of the ceremony, is that all day long God offers us light – the light of the sun, the light of life, and the light of his blessings. Aarti is the time to say thank you and we offer back the light of our thank you, the light of our love and devotion. It is time to break free from the normal stresses and strains of everyday life and gather together in joy, reverence and peace.
As the week drew to a close, I began to see my own truth so very clearly. I understood that our life is not about sitting around doing nothing, swimming on the banks of the river, meditating, being, just surviving and that a life of poverty and renunciation is not what God intended for all of us. We are not here to beg for our livelihood but to create it by using the talent with which we have been endowed, the question is how do we bring the ways of the East together with the West so that our lives have both meaning and material success and in India answers are always found in the most unlikeliest of places and little did I know that finding bliss would be as easy as a 45 minute ride to Ananda Spa in the Himalayan Mountains. Living the holy life just got a whole lot better.
Arrival at Ananda is an experience beyond words, as the Palace doors swing open the feeling is one of having arrived. A special welcome includes receiving a beautiful Radraksha mala necklace and your very own personal butler to escort you to the room. The resort is built around a Maharaja’s palace and features a restored Viceroy’s Palace, world-class Spa, 75 deluxe rooms and suites and 3 villas with breathtaking views of the Ganges River but the soul of this place is the wellness philosophy which they teach with such service and love and the people who make all of this possible but at the heart of this incredible retreat are the teachings and principles of the East and the West. The focus is on rediscovering happiness and self-contentment, something we’re all searching for everywhere else outside of ourselves instead of within. Ananda offers a plethora of treatments, activities, food choices, wellness techniques, detox cleansing practices and yogic teachings of Vedanta, where I learned that spirituality, Religion and God is possible within the material existence and that achieving success is not against God but can only be achieved with God. To create a life that is rich both spiritually and materialistically takes great skill. We must all strive for a better life in every way possible and through the Vedanta classes at Ananda, I finally rid myself of the guilt for wanting to live with the standards with which I do. Frugality is not for everyone, it is given to a Brahman, not everyone is here to live like a Gandhi, there are standards for us all and achieving that standard is what will bring us happiness, peace and contentment.
With the highest standards of service, luxurious accommodations, breathtaking mountain views and innovative dining with the finest of Ayurvedic, Asian and Western cuisine based on the values of traditional cooking, Ananda is an internationally recognised oasis offering an enriching experience designed to restore, renew and revitalise. As a guest I immersed myself in a complete rejuvenation experience in the 21,000 square foot spa, with an extensive selection of therapies in the 21 treatment. The Spa also features luxurious hydrotherapy facilities, a Beauty Institute, outdoor temperature-controlled swimming pool, sauna, steam rooms, fully equipped gymnasium. Experiencing the way of life at Ananda I learned to embrace and honor the standards by which I wish to live. To design a life with meaning and material success, there was still the lesson of being free to be me that I was yet to conquer.
As in Israel, the women in India also find it difficult to feel free to wear what they want, to dress in a way that is comfortable for them and not be ruled by the outdated “laws” of modesty. The Hindu belief is that modesty through appropriate dress has the energy to transmit spirit and substance. The Sari worn by Hindu women covers her navel and legs in contrast to the dress of Hindu deities and other symbolism in Hindu temples and the art works of Hinduism which is explicit, celebrating eroticism and human sexuality. Modesty laws vary in degrees from one culture to another with each major religion having developed their own set of moral codes covering issues of sexuality, morality and ethics. To many this outdated “law” was created by man, not by a creator who made us beautiful and sensual. What I’ve come to understand is that modesty can mean many things and that the lustful stares of men should not have women running for cover and as Kurt Cobain said “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not”. I believe we all need to be true to ourselves, however that may look and that not covering our shoulders, wearing jeans or exposing our knees, doesn’t need to mean that we are not respectable women. What I discovered in India was a great appreciation for myself, my style and my soul and maybe for some it is best to stop following the modesty advice of others and listen to Marilyn Monroe instead “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you’re a woman, but loose enough to show you’re a lady”.
Peace can only come from a love and acceptance for ourselves and others, not an encouragement of separation, division and difference. The Indian mystic, Osho put it so beautifully, “If more and more people can become aware, the world will be a totally different place. If the world becomes a little more conscious, soldiers will throwaway their arms and hug each other, sit down together under a tree and gossip. The politicians and religious leaders cannot force all the armies to kill, to murder, to convince anybody that for God’s sake you have to kill. Strange, because God has created everybody and whomsoever you are killing, you are killing God’s creation. If it is true that God created the world, then there should be no war – it is one family”.
There are times in life where we are called to travel to faraway places, we may not know why this particular place calls us and just as my fellow Israeli soldier who embarks on this journey leaving one holy land for another, I too now understand him wanting to leave the rules behind, to embrace life instead of death, learning to be free from the inside out and finding the peace inside oneself, taking it back to ones homeland and learning how to live that peace in daily life.