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Enlightenment entices Westerners to India (video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 12, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 11, 2013 at 11:12 p.m.

A Muslim man sits inside the Old Masjid (mosque) in Changanacherry in Kerala state in southern India and prays the Asr prayer, the Muslim afternoon prayer.

Editor's note: This is Part I of a four-part series on the spirituality in India.

She clutched the rosary in her hand - a gift from her grandparents on her first communion - and considered for the first time, "What do I believe?"

The chain was a reminder of the many years she spent reconciling the message of Christianity with the stern edicts of the church.

It also was symbolic of the Catholic girl she once claimed to be - and was no longer.

Jess Haven, 31, glided her fingertips across the brass crucifix and watched the clear beads reflect iridescent pastels.

She shut her eyes, opened her mouth and recited the only prayer she could muster, a Hindu mantra.

The mantra was derived from Haven's monthlong stint in India in 2011. And, as she repeated the words, she was sweetly reminded that Catholic rosaries, too, derived from India in the third century.

After spending a month in Maharashtra on a Rotary International group study exchange, she felt a renewed interest in spirituality.

She was content to return home to Madison, Wis., and continue her job as a social worker, assisting adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

But she never considered her travels abroad would be the catalyst for a career and relationship segue.

She never thought she'd have the gumption to admit to her husband that she desired a permanent dissolution of their marriage.

She never thought India would force her to dig out her beloved rosary and re-examine the possibilities of faith.

But that's what India does to foreigners. It forces truth and self-examination. That's why so many Westerners are drawn there, she said.

"I'd venture to guess that India has a catalyzing effect on most of its visitors. It shoves what's real into your face, and if parts of yourself and your life back home aren't right, you're going to get gut-punched with it after India," she said.

Haven's initial journey to India was not enlightenment-centered. She was intrigued by Hinduism and desired to learn more about Muslims.

"But I was not your stereotypical American tourist in India with my ashram stay booked online, searching for spirituality," she said. "My hopes were to gain an ability to view life through a lens of connecting with others in a vastly different culture."

Even so, she could not escape the inevitability of truth-seeking.

"India does indeed induce an altered, but very real state of consciousness to those of us who previously knew nothing beyond our Western roles and mores," she said.

Eastern culture is inescapable in India. It's an attack on a person's senses at all times. It's not a country for weak, gullible tourists, she said. It's also not a place to be mentally shielded.

Repeating Hindu mantras became part of Haven's post-India life. She also adopted yoga, meditation and a new appreciation for American culture.

But India seemed to call her back.

Newly divorced and seeking to simplify life, Haven sold her car and relinquished most of her material possessions to her ex-husband.

Any excess storage was moved to the basement of her mother's home.

She was awarded a 12-month Rotary ambassadorial scholarship to complete an independent study in the Southern Indian state of Kerala centered on Gandhian philosophy and based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

A few personal items were all that she packed for the year, intending to buy most of her clothes in-country.

She returned, alone, to India in September and said it's even better the second time. She often refers to her assignment abroad as a social worker's dream come true.

The Beatles and the Ashram

Haven was not yet a zygote when The Beatles visited an ashram in Rishikesh, India, in 1968 to study mantra meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

She can't recall how the influence of the band's trip contributed to The White Album, which sold more than 30 million copies and is revered as one of the best albums of all time.

For American pop culture, The Beatles helped guide the collision of East and West.

The popularity of the band and spotlight they shone on Indian spirituality popularized the country's mysticism and cultural diversity.

Subsequent generations also sought spirituality there. Steve Jobs preceded his Apple empire with an enlightenment-seeking trip to India in the 1970s.

Julia Roberts portrayed the memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert's India travels in the book-turned-movie, "Eat. Pray. Love."

Others also have made the pilgrimage. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, Richard Gere, Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga have all spent time traveling and religious-seeking in India.

In 2010, almost 1 million Americans and almost 6 million Westerners worldwide traveled to India for religious tourism.

Haven has encountered her share of spiritual tourists. They're on a spiritual pilgrimage, part of a yoga tour or following the teachings of a guru, she said. They're invested and intrigued by the spiritual majesty and plurality of India, where Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism all share their roots.

And the antiquity of the temples serve as a living, breathing witness that religion existed in India thousands of years before the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.

"I think the intensity and diversity of religions here is exotic and that fascinates Westerners, especially those seeking spirituality and meaning in life," she said.

Ganga Sivakumar, of Victoria, lived much of her life in Chennai, India, before marrying and moving to the United States more than two decades ago.

She and her husband, T.J. Sivakumar, both Shiva Hindus, have been retired for five years.

Ganga's British accent remains after decades of living in Western culture. When occasion permits, she still wears traditional Indian saris, prepares Chennai cuisine, and she'll still invite guests to share a cool glass of freshly squeezed watermelon juice when they visit her home.

Like Haven, she's assimilated, but she hasn't abandoned her culture, or Hindu faith, which is splashed across the inside of her parlor and complements the spring wreath hanging on her front door.

The Sivakumars understand why India attracts spiritual seekers.

"India has a lot of leaders, people who have found inner peace because of mediations and yoga. There, it's not about what you have and don't have, but it's more about finding yourself by doing these things," Ganga Sivakumar said. "India has always been the leader in these things because that is where it was written."

Her husband agreed. He also noted India is one of the only countries in the world that houses many religious groups, and they all make a point to understand one another.

"You probably don't find so many religions coming together as there are in India. Everybody is accommodated. Everybody is loved. That's how it is," he said.

The peace and beauty of India's simplicity drives people to investigate it, Ganga said. And then, they investigate themselves.

A different view

Not everyone can be moved by the folklore and spirituality of India, but they can still appreciate the culture without desiring to find religion.

When Robert Loeb, of the Victoria-based professional consulting organization, Robert Loeb and Co., traveled to India in 2009, he wasn't seeking a spiritual experience.

"My wife and I like to travel, and we want to go to the more interesting places in the world. India was the most interesting trip I've ever taken," said Loeb, who spent two weeks in northern India traveling to about a dozen cities. "It was the most culturally different country. I've traveled all over the world, but we're Western. India is not Western."

In Loeb's Heritage Mark office, a small painting of an elephant polo match hangs on the rear wall.

"That was one of the things I brought home with me from India," said Loeb, who had the opportunity to ride an elephant while in India.

He and his wife, Margery, toured Delhi, Agra's Taj Mahal and one of the world's oldest cities, Varanasi.

Surrounded by temples, deity statues and religious offerings to gods, Loeb said he wasn't inspired to examine his own spirituality.

He was inspired by the cultural differences, however, and India was the first country that forced him to sit down to write what he learned from the trip.

He's kept the list with him every day in his Blackberry. It lists 10 observations, including that expectations can reduce joy of living; people need to appreciate what they have in the present; to be customer service-oriented from beginning to end; and arranged marriages can work.

"I wrote the list because I wanted to put my arms around it and put it in perspective," he said. "I was pretty impressed with a civilization a lot older than ours. They seem to be a happy people."

Loeb conceded that even though his trip was more about traveling than spiritual tourism, he understands why some have the idea that India is a more spiritually inspiring country than Western nations.

"I felt the energy there, no question. It's real and alive," he said. "I could see why they go there if that's what they're looking for."

Back in India

Haven's fair skin and pale brown hair make her easily identifiable amid the dark complexions of India's Southerners. White women are something of a novelty in India, and Haven has grown accustomed to the curious and sometimes aggressive stares.

She knows she will never blend - even while wearing churidaar kurta pants suits and forehead bindis.

Last month, she moved from Kerala state to Maharashtra state to conclude her studies.

She is also continuing her process of self-evaluation and truth-seeking.

And she knows when she returns to the U.S. to begin her masters of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she will not be able to shed the influence of India's mysticism and the lessons the culture has taught her.

"I think my ideas about spirituality are ever-evolving, so definitely after my many experiences in India they are affected but not shed in my case," she said.

Haven said she's nervous about the transition back to the U.S., but she's looking forward to starting a fresh, new chapter in her life.

"This time, India has been a time of emotional healing and transition for me. I think India has once again done that thing she does and helped me move along and process," she said. "I brought the rosary with me this time, so it has been in India. I kept it under my pillow for awhile."

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