September 15, 2012

Double Vision: Revisiting the Container of the East-West Encounter

My essay, "Double Vision: Revisiting the Container of the East-West Encounter" (written in October 2011), appeared in the first issue of the Journal of East West Psychology Israel. Scroll down for the Hebrew translation on this page and for the (original) English article here. Am also reposting the latter below.

Double Vision: Revisiting the Container of the East-West Encounter

A pure space of East-West encounter is not conceivable today, since successive encounters have already transformed both the East and the West into hyphenated or hybrid spatialities. Creating a more holistic and authentic personal spiritual culture requires that I make conscious all the narratives, traditions, and beliefs, that form part my experience. The ecstatic path is one trajectory to seeing the East-West as a place signifying doubleness and globality rather than as indicative of polarities.


The Thursday before I wrote this essay, I went to a 5Rhythms class and tried to dance my way into the two polarities of “East” and “West” as they play out within me. I was trying to replicate a tantric experiment I had found in Anand’s The Art of Everyday Ecstasy (1998) where an integration between the inner feminine and the inner masculine follows when one embodies, first, one’s female or anima side, and then, one’s male or animus side. For me, dancing as my inner woman and as my inner man had proved to be particularly revelatory; I was hoping for a similar breakthrough during 5Rhythms.

I had no success in embodying the “East” polarity in me. The music was not helping, but also my head was asking too many questions: “What do you mean, East? Which East? Do you want to dance as the girl from Ranchi, the girl born in a Marwari family, the hip Delhi girl, or what? Which of the values/behaviors that you associate with each of these identity-positions do you want to become? And do you really want to become these role values/behaviors?” Not surprisingly, I gave up quite soon, and began to enjoy just moving, just dancing, just being the body in the body.

It was a while later that a piece of music featuring the bansuri came on. My body heard it before my mind did, and I found myself creating the classical dance movements and gestures I had practiced as a child, and later, as part of the college dance team. I realized that my body knows how to move to Eastern rhythms, and it knows how to move to Western rhythms, and it takes great pleasure in rhythms that combine these styles.

The demarcation between East and West is less clear when we are not talking about music or dance. In life, don’t we all occupy a hyphenated or hybrid space: “East-West” rather than either “East” or “West”? For, East and West—which have never been static formations unlike the concepts formulated about them—are today, more than ever before, not discrete, independent spatialities. My brother streaming Dexter online to watch in Chennai; a white Bollywood blogger living in Minnesota; a Gurdjieff Movements Group in Kasauli; mud altars for Ram, Sita, Hanuman at a yoga studio in Chicago: these are just a small part of the intense intermixing that marks our contemporary cultural moment. The hybrid cultures that are emerging—this includes religio-spiritual cultures and containing myths for individuals, groups, and communities—are very much inter-, trans-, and multi- versions to those located in the older polarities of East and West.

My Containing Myths 

I find that my personal spiritual culture is made up of religious and spiritual beliefs from many traditions: they come from the East, from the West, from places that fall in between, and from directions that are neither East nor West. An important task right now for me is to make these beliefs and traditions conscious so that I can consciously choose and create a containing myth to hold me during this part of my transformation/passage, using procedures of inter-, trans-, and multi-.

My earliest containing myth was shaped by the framed images and figurines of gods and goddesses in my mother’s puja room. A large poster-picture of Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Ganesh sat in the center: for a long time, I was not aware that the trio holds particular significance for the business community, being divine commissioners of material welfare. I was not aware of belonging to any specific tradition of Hinduism; I did not know that different traditions existed. I just knew that I was supposed to fold my hands in a pranam before the deities in the morning before I left for school, and that if I had a test or exam that day, I was supposed to wait for Mum to give me a prasad of curd and batasha . On Diwali, we performed a havan and Lakshmi aarti : I did not know that these two rituals came from two different traditions and that most of my classmates did not celebrate Diwali in the same way. My parents did not ask us to engage in religious practices any more than this and this, pretty much, was the extent of my religious practice.

I took it for granted that the Gayatri Mantra would protect me. I did not think twice about the extensive Griha Pravesh puja we performed when our family moved into our own house. And, despite being non-Bengalis, of course we visited the pandals in different neighborhoods every Durga Puja. There was no other way to be. Everyone around me was either Hindu, or I perceived them as such (for example, the young indigenous girl working as a domestic at our house). Hinduism was the default affiliation in that world.

At the same time, I did not feel particularly connected to the larger trends of Hinduism. Our family was not big on visiting temples and I remember feeling uncomfortable and at a loss whenever I did find myself in one. This feeling intensified when I visited my extended family on my father’s side: they owned their participation in religion in a way that was unfamiliar to me, and they even sang different songs during the aarti! By this point I had learnt that Mum was not a Marwari, i.e., she was born in a different community from Papa’s, and, I think in part internalizing her discomfiture around orthodox Marwariness, I was embarrassed to be so different. Yet, at other times, especially when I won academic achievement or poetry recitation prizes at the Agrawal Sabha—our clan organization—I was happy I was not like the other Agrawal girls.

I think I realized that I was being raised in a way that enabled me to bypass (relatively) the patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes that limited most of the other girls in my community. Mum encouraging, even expecting me to study and to top the class. Mum and Papa performing the Diwali havan as equals; Mum leading us all into the chanting of mantras. Mum and not Papa in charge of the household accounts. Still, it was not easy to not feel like an outsider because of our put-together, collated, non-traditional family culture.

It is only now, in writing this, that I recognize how I have been confusing my community’s culture and values with my family’s culture and values. I was raised amongst people who were conservative and narrow-minded, yes. But my parents, and especially my mother—while they did not outright challenge the norms of our society—did try to create a more open, enabling environment for my brother and me. This sifting through is, I can see, another important task for me.

Much later, when I was in college and people asked me which community I belonged to, I would always say my dad was Marwari and my mother was Punjabi.

Then there was school: an Anglican convent-run institution, where we recited the Lord’s Prayer during the morning assembly and memorized biblical morals as part of our Moral Science class. Industrial Ranchi—where I grew up— was a cosmopolitan place in its own small-town way. Early on, the idea that there were multiple ways of being was brought home to me, although my situatedness in the Marwari community made it difficult not to let my seeing of these “others” be colored with classism and even a tinge of racism and xenophobia. The nexus between mainstream Hinduism and a fundamentalist intolerance of the other, of course, came to a head in 1992 with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, although it did not unfold itself to me until the Gujarat genocide of 2002.

Being an avid reader, I devoured stories about gods and goddesses from the Puranic tradition as much as those about the lives of Christian saints. The 1980s were also when the national television serialized as docudramas the two Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. These tellings affixed themselves as standard versions of the epics in the modern national imaginary, and funneled into a kind of group consciousness that was emerging around a rigidifying Hindu identity.

The deployment of Hindutva by fascistic rightwing groups was a major reason I shied away from the rituals and practices of Hinduism as a young adult. Yet Hindutva, as we have come to know it, is nothing but the political expression of a culture-wide intolerance and hostility towards other communities I had sensed in the Hindu middle classes during my growing up years.

My first job was in India’s capital city, Delhi. While living here, the places I went to, to come home to myself, included Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah, the Gurdwara Sahib a few blocks from my apartment, and the courtyard of Jama Masjid. Delhi exposed me to the syncretic traditions of South Asia, but I was still coming at them from a postcolonial secularist perspective that was not entirely convinced by, or of, the mystical and the metaphysical. In time, I started opening to the sacred, secretively at first and more boldly lately, and explored spiritual ideas and practices stemming from different traditions within Buddhism, yoga, Native American spirituality, Jungian psychology, shamanism, tarot, etcetera.

Double (Multiple) Encounters

As someone who inhabits many or at least two worlds, I feel that I need to conceptualize spirituality doubly, if not multiply. Such a doubled/manifold conception/knowing is necessary for any migrant to feel at home, and aren’t we all migrants in this world? It is in finding parallels and correspondences, and in creating liminal, syncretic, transversal conceptions, that the container of the East-West encounter seems most useful to me.

Writing this essay has given me the opportunity to look at my earliest containing myth in a very deep way. I had a resistance to making my narratives of childhood up-to-date with my felt adult experiences, and had not realized that this was an area I needed healing in. To create a more holistic spiritual culture/containing myth for myself, I must unloose the religious traditions I was born into from their problematic cultural-political manifestations and understand them. Then I can make a decision about how to own them. I am grateful to be a student at a moment when many paradigms are available to me to learn from. I have just begun studying Advaita Vedanta and trying to hold nondual awareness in my everyday life, and will soon begin studying with a teacher in the Western mysteries tradition. I am feeling called to volunteer to be an abortion doula so I can help women hold the mysteries of grief and love. My art has been to dark places and I would like to be able to go with it into other ecstatic modes as well.

The path I find myself resonating most strongly with today is that of the ecstatics. Ecstatics traverse all dichotomies in their ecstasy of oneness, and the dichotomies and disconnects of East and West fall through along with all others. Poetry, music, dancing dissolve the perception of separation for the journeyer, and allow them to experience the knowledge of the Self, and to practice this knowledge, in a very complete way. Abida Parveen (2010) sings Bulleh Shah, “Sanu ishq laga hai pyaar da.” I am smitten by the Beloved. “That the dancer is lost, and only the dance remains,” says Osho (Hillmann, 1978). Gabrielle Roth (2011) writes, “We dance to shed skins, tear off masks, crack molds, and experience the breakdown—the shattering of borders between body, heart and mind, between genders and generations, between nations and nomads. We are the transitional generation.”

Reality is unknowable, but love and compassion, I believe, are the only reality, and I would like to be (in) love and compassion more completely. At the same time, I want to integrate my analytical self onto the spiritual path, so that all intellectual enquiry I engage in is an enquiry of love. Such an East-West encounter would truly be a global encounter.  


Anand, M. (1998). The art of everyday ecstasy: The seven tantric keys for bringing passion, spirit, and joy into every part of your life. New York: Broadway Books.

Hillmann, R. (Director). (1978). Osho bhagwan - the movie [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from

Shah, B. Nigah-e-darwaishaan [Recorded by Abida Parveen]. On Coke Studio – Season 3. (2010). 

Roth, G. (2011, May 16). The spiritual power of dance. Huffington Post. Retrieved from