Image credit: Sophie Lévy Burton
SATISH I WAS struck whilst reading your spiritual memoir, Autobiography of a Pilgrim, that you’ve now spent more of your 86 years living in England, in Devon, than in India. For me this epitomises the magic and mystery between our two countries, the flow and exchange between them. How have you found being a pilgrim in England?
I found nature in the English landscape very inspiring … Not only when I walked to Iona, but also in Glastonbury and the Pilgrims’ Way in Canterbury – even Walsingham, Lincoln, York, Durham, all those spiritual spots – all inspiring because I felt the presence of many, many spiritual travellers who have walked that path. They are an embodiment of the spirit, of nature, and also of a sense of the sacred.
You have described your life as an eternal walk, a pilgrimage without destination, searching for the soul, the source.
A pilgrimage is as much an outer journey as it is an inner journey – but it doesn’t matter in which landscape you are making the journey, it could be Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Iona, Varanasi … It’s a mindset and a heart-feeling for the inner journey that you are making. You see the sacred and the sense of the sacred in nature.
These are mystical journeys?
The inner journey has to be mystical – whatever I have written about the real experience, the mystical experience you cannot describe in words: you can realise it but not write about it. Words are always left hemisphere of the brain, on paper and on page – but real experience is seeing something more than appears to your eyes! Seeing through the third eye … Our two eyes see the object only but the third eye sees the subject! And the meaning – and the spirit – and all inner beauty.
What exactly do you see?
I see the wild sacred … seeing something spiritual and divine within the soil and within the rocks.
This is the Gaia theory, isn’t it?
Well, until the Gaia theory was written about 50 years ago (by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), scientists always thought of the earth as a dead rock and of nature as a machine … But Gaia brings the idea that the earth is a living organism. If you see Gaia as a Goddess of the earth then it’s more than a science, yes it’s a mystical experience; God is no longer behind the clouds, in heaven, in an angelic space. Now God – and Goddess – are in the earth, the trees, the mountains, the rivers, the oceans, the insects and everything else! Gaia brings that – and, yes, I see Gaia as a sacred place …
You were born in the deserts of Rajasthan. Do you think it’s easier to have that mystical experience in a landscape that’s more lush and abundant, like Dartmoor?
Not at all. The Desert Fathers were in the desert: Palestine, Sinai, Egypt, etc. – they spent 40 days discovering their own inner spirit and inner journey. In Rajasthan I was walking as a monk and a pilgrim in the desert discovering my inner spirit. The desert has its own beauty. The desert has its own depth. The desert has its own mystery.
I think in my romantic imagination I had thought there was a special connection to the fertility of the British landscape. There’s an intense lyricism in your writing when you describe walking through the length of England to Iona. There’s the dramatic moment when you reach the white sands of Iona and collapse with emotion and need to be helped to the Abbey. Were you overdramatising?
Not at all! Of course, coming from an Indian background and being Jain, I came to England and found that experience in the British landscape. It has been inspiring and moving. But equally I was in the Amazon four years ago; I found the same spirit in the Amazon that I found in Lindisfarne or the desert. And Mount Kailash or the River Ganges.
But you weren’t visiting them as a tourist but as a pilgrim …
You can go as a tourist to Dartmoor or Lindisfarne and simply not see anything, or you can go as a pilgrim – then the connection between inner spirit and outer landscape can take place and make it sacred. I think to some extent your spirit and the spirit of nature has to connect. Otherwise you only see landscape, you only see trees. You’ll only see sand. Connect with your spirit and you’ll see the sacred nature of nature everywhere.
Because it’s the same God?
The same God, everywhere! It’s very moving. Of course it would require a very great saint to rise about the concrete jungle and see the sacred in towns and roads, but it is not impossible.
Is there anything you miss from India living in England?
I miss more practical things. I was brought up eating mangoes and that I miss! But spiritually speaking, I miss having everyday conversations with ordinary people, peasants, farmers, etc. about the divine spirit – about God and spiritual values … For example, spiritual philosophy is far easier and natural to us. The idea, ‘See yourself in all living beings and see all living beings in yourself …,’ well, in India it is naturally and easily discussed with ordinary folk. But here even with highly educated intellectual, analytical and pragmatic people – well, you have to work hard to find people you can have that in-depth spiritual conversation with. India is a more God-intoxicated country.
Is India still leading the world spiritually?
It is becoming far more industrial. It is a challenge. Traditional India was craft-dominated – weavers, potters, farmers, real work – that work gave them their livelihood – they were not sitting behind a desk – this was the sattvic way of life. A sattvic way of life is more artisan, more artistic, more creative, and more imaginative. The industrial and mechanised and formalised way is rajasic or even tamasic.
The Hindu way of understanding the structure of the Universe?
Isn’t this an idealistic vision?
Not at all. I would like to see the whole society being a society of artists. We have put art and artists on a pedestal. We think a few privileged people can become dancers, painters, playwrights and actors. The distinction between ordinary people and artists is dangerous. There is a saying in India that an artist is not a special kind of person but every person is a special kind of artist. We can all live like artists and traditional India was exactly this, farmers grew food like an artist, other workers made buildings, clothes, embroidery, glasswork and thatching like artists – even making butter and yogurt was an art.
Are you saying that creativity is ultimately a divine principle, or that divinity itself is creative?
Creative and regenerative! If you take divine nature and then take one sweetcorn seed – it goes into the soil – then it has two corns and this multiplies, then that is covered by silky clothing – it’s a miracle, a work of art. That’s all divine sacred nature. Nature is a work of art. The divine is an artist.
During Covid, as people around the world paused, there was a great return to that spirit you are referencing, people became artists again, they baked bread, they painted. Lockdown was a sattvic experience, if you like.
Yes, absolutely. And our modern society sees people as consumers, but traditional Indian society will look at people and see them as artists and makers. The word art means making. Art should be an integral part of everyday life. Spirituality is to make life beautiful. Beauty and spirituality are twins for me.
Through our printed editions of MONK we have running the Platonic blessing: ‘Only the good, the true and the beautiful shall enter.’
Excellent – because Truth, Goodness and Beauty are three divine principles. Truth is what is real, but real is not enough. It has to be good. But truth and goodness come together – their marriage produces the child of beauty. Truth by itself is not beautiful. Goodness alone is not beautiful.
Do you think people are born with this instinct toward God … this sense of the divine and sacred? Is it a gift?
Children are born pure. They have a sense of the sacred built in, like a seed. But the child is then conditioned by family, education, schools and media … their natural spirituality cannot flourish and blossom. But every child has that potential to be self-realised.
As a child you had that seed grow. When you look back at your life and see your nine-year-old self telling your mother you want to become a monk, how do you feel? She must have seen that seed, somehow.
My mother was a very spiritual person. She would not want to stop her child following a spiritual path. I was taken under her guru. She knew where I was going and she knew I was in safe hands. She recognised the spirituality in me. Not all mothers would have done so. She noticed something different in me, something … I don’t know what and we can’t ask her, she’s no longer in this world. When I was four years old I asked her: ‘What is death? Why do people die?’ We talked of the soul, of atman, and all this so early on.
I wanted to ask you an ecological question, but phrase it in a theological context. I’ve been thinking a lot about Shiva’s Dance, this idea that the Universe is a living dance and is evolving … that we are all interbeings, interdependent – all things you’ve written about. It strikes me that if we are all part of this dance … we are actually out of step, in a bad rhythm … I mean, since you wrote Spiritual Compass in 2007, the world is in a far worse state. How is it possible that we seem to be getting worse? And where is God in that dance now? After all, this is the sacred Gaia you’ve referred to. It’s a big question, I know, but hugely important – only this morning the government has rubber-stamped fracking in England, which of course previously was banned because of the earthquake issues.
Yes, it’s a big question … In this divine dance – and the Universe is a dance of Shiva – the dance and the dancer are not separate, but there is a wild dance within this. On the divine level good and bad are put together – that duality is there. What we are doing to the world – the diminishing of biodiversity, the pollution of our oceans and rivers, the destruction of rainforest, fracking, dependence on fossil fuels – all these things are part of that dance.
No, I just don’t get it. I’m not convinced.
Dancers can choose to dance – we are all part of it. We can choose to dance in a way that is more beautiful, more sustainable to our sacred planet – regenerative and fulfilling … Or we can dance in a wild and destructive way – wild is perhaps not the right word, as the wild can be very beautiful …
But why doesn’t God stop the destruction?
God is not here to stop – God is there to be. The idea that God is an off-planet being – that God is separate from what is going on – God is not only good, God is neither good nor bad. God is everything. Night is God, day is God. Coronavirus is God, health is God. Volcanoes are God, cool rivers are God. Within that divine formulation, each and every one of us has the possibility to create that dance – the beautiful creativity of nature … If everything were beautiful and perfect and kind – if everybody was ecological and artistic – there’d be no action, nothing would be needed! But having this force … remember that even in the wind you have a storm.
But surely, Satish, God is not at war in Ukraine?
It is, it is exactly like that. Nothing is outside God. We are talking about our human action, our own making. The Second World War, the First World War, the Vietnam War, all poverty, all hunger – all these things are part of a very big scheme – we can’t say something is God and something is not God.
How do you stay so optimistic?
I stay optimistic because we are capable of peace. This is the challenge the divine spirit of God gives us to make. It’s all a divine scheme to keep us active and keep us moving. With no conflict we would have no Christ, no Buddha … With no hunger, then there is no food to be grown. These two forces balancing together, moving together. Our work and to some extent the work of humanity is to foster that positive, artistic and creative spiritual experience. If you think there are nearly eight billion people on this Planet Earth, but only a few million people are engaged in war … All the while doctors are healing, teachers are teaching, mothers are raising children, farmers are farming … The majority of the world is in a positive energy … Everything else is there to challenge us … to make good.
And we must do it.
Yes, we must!
Just as you were saying that I was reminded about the British Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday and the astonishing fact that 63 % of the world population apparently watched it. Over four billion was the figure.
63%! Of the whole world. That’s amazing.
I try to look at everything from a theological point of view … I wondered what moved people to do that, of all faiths and none I expect. It’s encouraging, it made me optimistic about the wicked world because … it’s about death and a woman whose life and like we won’t see again … people reaching beyond themselves … That sense of loss … Purging something, perhaps, and on a global scale.
I was a viewer. I saw a very sacred experience. A very divine experience. Seeing everybody there was like a meditation. The concentration, the focus, the attention. Each step was like a meditative step – even the soldiers were not soldiers, they were artists – the whole performance was a work of art, 2000 people in Westminster Abbey and each person sitting in the right place and everybody equal – the American president sitting with everyone else – even King Charles was just one person there – it shows that if our politicians and our media can take on the equanimity and magnanimity of the Queen and live that kind of life, then it is possible to live that kind of life. She was an example – see how she managed the Commonwealth – Rhodesia, South Africa, black and white people – she listened to everybody without condemning anybody. She said that she wanted to learn from everybody’s wisdom – it shows that it is possible! She showed that we cannot divide the world into God and not God. The world is God. The dark, the night, the flowers, the thorns, everything is divine.
You talk very openly about your dreams in your autobiography, as if they are a spiritual marker in this narrative of the soul. Do you dream now – and do you dream in English?
Ah, good question! I do dream, I do dream. And I dream in English. Because now for the last 50 years I have been thinking and speaking in English – I live in Hartland, a small village in Devon where there are no other Indians – and so I speak in English and I dream in English. And I dream about water. They are recurring dreams … again and again! I dream I am walking along rivers – or walking along the lakes – or by the sea – walking and water – even swimming. I think water has a flow, is soft and hard at the same time – and it has no discrimination about anyone – water does not say that only good people can drink me – whether you are saint or sinner – poet, priest or prisoner – whoever you are you can drink water and your thirst will be quenched. Water will take your dust away, your dirt away. Water will clean itself by flowing. So the quality of water is so important – these are recurring dreams, again and again … So I now feel that water is my teacher. Water is my spiritual guide. I must be like water. If I can love and recognise and accept and bless those who may not be good – or harm me – or insult or annoy me! If I can be kind to them like water – so my dreams and my thinking about water are very similar.
And living in Hartland, in Devon, in this ancient Christian culture, as you’ve said, the only Indian … What is your relationship to Christ?
Ah, Christ … Christ was a great teacher. I dearly love his teaching, love your enemy, turn the other cheek. It’s not just an ideal, it’s a practical, pragmatic, political and social teaching. Christ says you must love – not like. Anyone can like– but you must love! You must love them even if you don’t like them. For me Jesus is a great teacher. Sadly some who believe in Christ don’t practise this. It’s unbelievable – they always say we are Christians in our love for Jesus Christ but in their practice there is no love, only judgement. Christ is more than rituals and traditions. He is a kind of saint, a prophet of the world. I don’t have to be a church goer to believe and honour and practise.
Is that one of the lessons we can take from the planet – the planetary flow between cultures and countries – taking parts of each to make a whole? Taking wisdom from Buddhism, the Jains, Hinduism …
But ultimately Love is the religion. Love thyself and love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Radical love. On a personal level, an intimate level and an ultimate level – a love of God – and love of the universe. That is part of our existence.
OCTOBER 2022 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK
A longer version of this interview will appear in the MONK print edition Shiva’s Dance, an India special issue Spring 2023.
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