India'sVedic culture has a lot to offer to the West. Rudyard Kipling had said: ?East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.? But the two are meeting. On one hand, business and communication technology is bringing the world closer and on the other hand, slowly but surely, the universal teachings of Sanatana or Vedic Dharma are helping the people in the West to get in touch with their spiritual roots.
A discussion with Shri Jeffrey Armstrong also known as Kavindra Rishi, Communication Director of US-based Vedic Friends Association (VFA) and founder of VASA (Vedic Academy of Sciences and Arts), during his visit to India last year, shed light on what the world can learn from our culture and about the changing image of India abroad. His thoughts are very relevant today and are a clear indication of the fact that the solutions to the problems of the world, including environmental degradation, crime, terrorism, health and mental peace can be found in the world'soldest living way of life.
Shri Armstrong has been teaching Vedic knowledge for the past 10 years. ISKCON founder Shri Prabhupaad was his guru. He has been a practicing Hindu for the past 37 years and his wife for the past 27 years. He is an expert in martial arts, including kushti. He has degrees in psychology, history and comparative religion and English literature. He has written books like Karma: The ancient science of cause and effect. (See his website www.jeffreyarmstrong.com for his other books.) Here are excerpts from the thoughts expressed by him.
What are the objectives and mission of VFA?
VFA is a means to connect to the larger Hindu/Vedic community. VFA includes people like Dr David Frawley (also named Vamadev Shastri, after he was conferred the title of Vedacharya) and Shri Stephen Knapp. One of our many objectives is to project the proper image of Hindu culture in the textbooks of North America.
We feel that forcible or coercive religious conversion is not the way to make progress. Many people in the West experience a spiritual vacuum while following their religious practices. We fill up this need of gaining the true knowledge about oneself. The eternal philosophy for mankind as described in the Vedic culture is thus applicable to anybody, anywhere and anytime. This is where the Vedic teachings differ from the Western evangelical tendencies.
How were you introduced to Vedic culture?
I was born in a Protestant Christian family. Methodists and Presbyterians do not usually evangelize as much. In fact most western Christians do not know about and would not like the concept of forceful evangelism in India or other countries. As a child I used to ask questions like: ?Why God loves people, but sends to hell the non-believers (of Christianity)?? I used to ask questions about re-incarnation. Since the 5th century AD, the Catholic church has ceased to believe that there is soul before birth. Seeking answers to these questions, I eventually ended up in India, found my guru and spent five years as a brahmachari in his ashrams. Then I studied Jyotish or Vedic astrology as well. While still physically in US, I was already living in India by my conduct and my daily meditations. The vani (vibration) of India'seternal truth was always with me.
What are your areas of interest and activities?
My areas of interest include writing poetry on Vedic topics, Vedic astrology, Sanskrit, study of the Vedas, alternative medicine and history. Many Indians are my gurus in this quest for eternal wisdom.
I have trained many successful corporates in understanding their self and knowing what their true identity is. College age children of NRIs also tend to ask questions about Indian customs and so I became a teacher to them too. I also teach how to communicate about the teachings of Hindu dharma, which is a very important task.
I give lectures on Vedic astrology & science, Vedanta, Rajyoga, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads, Yoga philosophy and more. I have travelled the world over teaching the Hindu/Vedic dharma.
What is the image of Bharat in the West at present?
The earlier misconceptions about this country are changing fast, partly with the growth of IT, outsourcing and its emerging global economy. Views about its caste system and beggars still prevail to some extent, but that is also changing fast. India is being looked at as a combination of profound spiritual tradition, intelligence and high-tech development. The middle class in the West knows more about India than they used to. The growing entertainment industry of India has played its part. Bollywood movies are making their presence felt there and actresses like Aishwarya Rai have greatly helped in changing the impression about India, through her roles in movies. Indian spiritual gurus like Deepak Chopra, A.C. Bhativedant Swami, Maharishi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and many others have also played their part in changing the perception about this country.
The aspects of Indian culture that appeal to the westerners the most include Yoga, Ayurveda, vegetarianism, organic gardening and self-actualisation. Interestingly, about 80 per cent of the people there who take interest in Indian culture are women?including women who are successful in their business or profession. About 10 per cent of North Americans practice Yoga, of which 80 per cent are women, although the number of men practicing Yoga is also increasing.
What does Bharat have to offer to the world going forward?
More and more people in the West now want to learn about India and its culture but Indians for the most part have not yet found their voice, though this is changing rapidly. Thus, people from the West still don'tknow about many of the things that India has to offer to the world.
For instance, the family system in India. Indian family values are so profound. There is so much intimacy and love in the family life here. This goes much beyond what Bollywood has to offer. India'sfamily values date back to Ramayana. Indian children show so much sweetness and respect, unlike their Western counterparts. Indian women also carry themselves gracefully. The West needs to have better family ties, which are in shambles at present. Without that material prosperity falls apart. ?Independence? of an individual, although a good concept, in the West it many times turns into ego and excessive competition. If this sense of independence in the right sense is combined with Indian values, it will be like milk and honey.
So, Indians need to speak out professionally and share their knowledge and spiritual intelligence with the world. India has been the source of so much beauty and wealth to the world. The content is very valuable, but the packaging should be improved. Kipling had said that the East and the West shall never meet but they are meeting now!
The West has produced the astronauts of the outer space. But the technology to develop the inner space came from the rishis of India. Now both these spaces should meet. We need to take the inner technology and then go to the outer world. The various forms of Yoga like Bhaktiyoga, Karmayoga, Dnyana-yoga and Rajyoga are the tools to achieve it. The asanas of Hatyoga are just the tip of the iceberg.
Western corporations also need to learn from Indian culture. Rome was the first corporation in the world. The British learnt it from them to exploit the world. Most corporations are organisations without a soul and conscience. If they have conscience, then they are not bad. But only running behind money without concern for values and the environment is behaving without conscience.
What has been your opinion about the ground realities in Bharat?
Indians have retained their culture despite so much pressure. Indian television has a more global perspective than in the West. Besides, most Indian cities are safe. If we had so many poor people in the West, there could have been killing on the streets. I pay my tributes to the values of Indians. One can just compare the flood situation last year in Mumbai and New Orleans. While Mumbai witnessed no looting or arson, New Orleans faced a great civilian crisis. Moreover there was discrimination against the blacks there. There is more danger in the Western superficial value system.
However, Indians need to improve in some areas like cleanliness. The biggest disappointment for foreigners when they land here is the lack of cleanliness and order. Moreover, gender discrimination remains here too, just like in the West.
What is your advice for the youth of Bharat?
Indian youth should not lose their culture while becoming modern. At the individual level Indians should practise spirituality and study some Vedic literature on their own each day.
The government also needs a consistent policy and a vision to retain Indian values. Without that, it will get fragmented and degenerated. If India does not get patents for its traditional knowledge, including medicines, the West will take them. A sustainable lifestyle vision is required for survival in the coming years when oil is going to become scarce. All these aspects transcend politics or spiritual viewpoint.
Moreover, consuming Western products and allopathic medicines indiscriminately should be avoided. In the Western model, healthcare costs are also very high. The use of Ayurveda for preventive healthcare is very important and needs to be revived.
VFA is convinced that Vedic culture has resources that need to be shared and the truth told. The colonial lies need to be revealed and reversed. We at VFA will continue to stand up for the truth of the greatness of Bharatiya culture.
The most important things that Indians need to do are:
Retain their identity, develop self-esteem and be proud of their heritage
Reclaim their voice and speak the truth collectively and talking the truth is not aggression. It is definitely better than war, which is an endgame. I want to inspire this voice of reasonable truth telling.
Indian corporations should try to be green and clean, which is a big challenge and the future depends upon it.
During his interactions with westerners and Indians alike and his visits to India, Shri Armstrong has been getting encouraging response about rediscovering the ancient teachings of the Vedic culture in making the human society and this planet a better place to live. The sun rising from the East is slowly heading West with its spiritual brightness!