“All men dream,” said T. E. Lawrence, “but not equally.” Artistic, introspective and questioning, even as a child it was clear to those around me that I was, in Lawrence’s terminology, a “dreamer of the day.” I disliked what I regarded as the shallow materialism and trivial ways people interacted in the West. But above everything else, I deplored groupthink. It was the unknown, new ideas, different notions about how to live that attracted me.
Already, at sixteen, I had become a vegetarian. I loathed the idea of eating animals, though it also enabled me to avoid the worst of British cuisine. I was also interested in spirituality, though I knew little about it. I meditated (or tried to, at least) for the first time at the age of fifteen.
At seventeen I started making a more serious study of spirituality, mysticism, the esoteric and religion, with my reading mixing serious and scholarly books with more popular and no doubt somewhat superficial books on these subjects. I also began practicing meditation (including Kundalini) much more regularly, at certain points pushing myself quite hard, sometimes fasting or making my diet stricter.
I was interested in much of the spectrum of religion that I was discovering, from polytheistic religion and shamanism (I read Mircea Eliade’s classic book on the subject, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, at around 18-years-of age) through to the Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
It awakened my creativity. I had been good at art, but had always been perplexed, never knowing what to draw or paint. To a certain respect, this is the quandary of the modern age, at least in the secular West. What is worth saying? What is worth expressing? Self-expression, of course, has been elevated over all other types of expression. But, in that regard, I had grown up quicker than those around me, and before I was twenty, I had become bored, even somewhat disturbed, by the bar and club culture, which I perceived as empty.
Now at 18 I was painting on board – oil and acrylic – and drawing, the overriding themes being the transcendental and the surreal. At around twenty-years of age I entered Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. It was – and is – a prestigious art school, and this was one of the most creative periods of my life, and undoubtedly among the most formative. But, even here, among my peers, my interest set me apart. In regards to my tutors, it was a different story. Some at least had a serious interest in Eastern religion, yoga, and so on.
At Saint Martins of College of Art and Design, a couple of years later, I was able to take “Cultural Studies” lessons under a tutor who – if my memory serves me correctly – told me he had been initiated into a Sikh Tantric family (Tantra is usually practiced by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains). He had also studied martial arts, and was knowledgeable about Islamic art.
By now, I had begun staying annually in a Catholic monastery. I did not regard myself as Christian. My family was essentially secular – “Church of England”, but without the going to church part. But I felt that I should at least experience the monastery life. I was well aware that in some Eastern countries – Thailand for example – entering a Buddhist monastery is considered a rite of passage for young men.
But, I also felt that I had to experience or get to know authentic Christianity, since this was the religion on which so much of British culture (e.g., art, law) was based, even if its culture had become secularized over the centuries. The monastery, undoubtedly, was a very valuable experience (the monks were very open-minded), though I was not convinced by the claims of Christianity.
I moved to New York in my late twenties. That put an end to visiting the monastery, although I managed to visit once more on a flying visit. On reflection, despite still buying books on spirituality (Taoism, Buddhism, and so on) every week, it was perhaps the least spiritual period of my life. At least for a few years. I began eating meat again. And my interest shifted to philosophy.
I spent a couple of years reading German philosopher Georg Hegel. After that, I read Jiddu Krishnamurti for a few years. I admired Krishnamurti’s challenging of authority, and his insistence that each of us think deeply for ourselves, or, perhaps more accurately, endeavor to live authentically (something that is so obviously lacking in the West, especially among those who hold themselves up as the moral authority).
At around this time, I became initiated into (the fraternity of) Freemasonry. Ignorant minds associate this with corrupt businessmen and politicians. In actuality, founded in the year 1717, Freemasonry is a semi-philosophical, ethical, and semi-mystical society. It influenced Western esotericism in the modern age, and, because many of its thinking members have always been interested in religions (especially of the East), it also helped to introduce the West to certain non-Western forms of spirituality, religion, symbols, etc. Although, the scholarship of this period was sometimes questionable, the premier Masonic journal, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, published a paper about “Brahminical Initiation” in the year 1890, and “Masonic Landmarks Among the Hindus” in 1891.
Other religions were also of interest to different members of the fraternity, and articles about these turn up regularly in Masonic magazines, journals, and encyclopedias from the nineteenth century. Seeing it as a universal brotherhood, a number of important non-Westerners joined, especially during this century,including the young Swami Vivekananda.
My first book on Freemasonry (Freemasonry: A History) was published in 2005, with a Polish edition published in 2006. I began writing another one on Freemasonry and esoteric spirituality the next year (it is scheduled to be published later this year), and I am currently working on a book on esotericism and Islam.
My observations of, and researches into, esotericism had revealed the essential problem of spirituality for the Western mind. It had, on reflection, disturbed me even as a young man, though I had not been able to articulate it. The Westerner wanted spirituality, but he also wanted it to be scientific, so it could be controllable by him. Books on spirituality often interpreted it through psychology (especially Jung). Practices were often seen as therapeutic or even as one-man therapy sessions. Deity, a demigod, angel, symbol, and so on, were interpreted as representing nothing more than the parts of the psyche. Obviously this was nonsense, and I knew it.
I found it disturbing. But I had never found a religion with which I was comfortable. I just could not imagine thinking of myself as a member of one.
I had been writing about problems affecting Hindus, especially violence towards Hindu girls and women in Pakistan, for People of Shambhala – when no other Western outlets were bothering to notice. I empathized with the Hindus greatly, and had begun to have the feeling that they were, in some way, “my people.”
I had read the Bhagavad Gita at around the age of twenty. The image of Arjuna and Krishna had made a powerful impact, and one that I did not forget, though, at the time, I was more interested in symbolism and mythology and abstract ideas, than religious teaching per se. I was, nevertheless, attracted to Hindu culture aesthetically, and I also read a small amount of the Vedas (the Rig Veda in particular) as well as more serious and scholarly works on Tantra (especially by Ajit Mookerjee).
Now, writing about the plight of Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh, I felt I should reread the Bhagavad Gita. I had continued the practice of meditation (especially Kundalini), and had recently reverted to vegetarianism. I wasn’t expecting the Bhagavad Gita to affect me in any great way. After all, I had now studied Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, even Zoroastrianism, Freemasonry and esotericism. I had stayed in a monastery, and had written two books on spirituality, symbolism, and esotericism.
But I was amazed when I read it again. The meditations I had settled into were all described. More strikingly, and unexpectedly, so was my worldview. If someone had have asked me, at that point, ‘what do you believe?’ I could just have given them a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. There was really nothing missing and nothing added. Before this, I had felt that I had made up my worldview and spirituality.
Now I was struck by the realization that I was already, in some sense, a Hindu. I thought about this for several months before saying anything to anyone. But, to deny it was not possible. If I had not already, I resolved to embrace the Sanatana Dharma. Since then, I have been meditating, reading the Bhagavad Gita, and conducting puja regularly. I hope, in the future, to write more about Sanatan Dharma, and about issues affecting Hindus, and to engage with the Hindu community, whether in the East or West. If you want to contact me, or if you are interested in submitting an article to People of Shambhala, you can reach me at editor [at] peopleofshambhala.com, or use the contact form here.