Translate

4 Jan 2012

In the shade of Arunachala: Interview with author Sharon Maas

 

“I’m a black Hindu,” said Aruna Sharan, a writer commenting on an article on the much-admired Western Hindu blog entitled Not all Western Hindus are white. “My path is Vedanta Advaita, as taught by Ramana Maharshi. Aruna Sharan is actually a pen name. Aruna is taken from the holy mountain Arunachala, my spiritual home. And Sharan means ‘refuge’ in Sanskrit, as well as being an alternative spelling of my ‘real’ name, Sharon.”

 

Sharon Maas is author of the best-selling HarperCollins novel Of Marriageable Age, Peacocks Dancing and Speech of Angels.

“I feel I communicate much better through writing than through speech,” Maas said when interviewed for Peacocks Dancing. “I'm actually rather shy -- so to have the stories come out in this form and to find readers is for me an enormous fulfilment.”  The latest story from Maas, written under the pen name Aruna Sharan, is Sons of Gods: the Mahabharata Retold, a unique novelisation of the Indian classic.

Writing Sons of Gods has been a labour of love for Maas, having taken her nearly 40 years. “I first read the Mahabharata in 1973, in India. The version I read was the big fat book by Kamala Subramaniam. I stayed up all night to finish it, and when it was over I decided then and there that this was the Book to end all Books. It was simply amazing. I'd been a voracious reader all my life, but never had I been so floored by a story.”

In her blog about the experience of writing and getting her version published, Maas says, “Everything you might find in a modern novel you'll find in the Mahabharata. There's love, sex and betrayal; gender-change, gratuitous violence, addiction, humour, superheroes, mind weapons, atomic bombs, magic, blood and gore aplenty. Finally there's the mighty battle of Kurukshetra; and, even with victory, ‘good’ is not the clear winner.”

This first experience of the Mahabharata came during Maas’ first two years living in India -- in a cottage near the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, in the shade of mount Arunachala. Her time there in early 70s found her falling deeper in love, not only with this great Hindu epic, but with India itself. She has returned many times since, almost annually, and has come to consider it as home. “I am irrevocably, everlastingly in love with India,” Maas has written. “If you have read any of my books you will know this. People ask, Why India? If you have to ask you won't accept any answer I can give, because the answer is not rational.”

Tell us about where were you born, where you grew up. Are there any remarkable aspects of your family or upbringing you’d like to share?

I was born in Guyana, South America, to a very untypical family. My mother was one of the country’s first feminists, an outspoken, socially active woman determined to change society. My father was a sworn Marxist; he was close to the country’s very rebellious Opposition Leader and on-again-off-again Prime Minister/President, Cheddi Jagan. It was a politically charged atmosphere in which to grow up. I was their only child; when I was three my mother decided my dad was too much of a chauvinist (he wanted her to be a stay-home mum) and so she divorced him. By that time she was already earning her own money and owned her own home, and she had built-in child care with my grandmother and aunts, so it was no problem. Divorce was extremely rare in those days. She must have been one of the first women in the whole country to do so, so it was all a bit of a scandal, and I felt it. I longed for the safety and comfort of a traditional family.

My father remarried and had four boys after me. My mother stayed single all her life. She is now 94 and living all on her own in Guyana. Quite an extraordinary woman.

Were you raised in a religious environment? Was religion, spirituality or any particular life philosophy part of your upbringing?

My parents were both atheist. My mother actually defined herself as a rationalist and a humanist, and raised me on philosophers such as Bertrand Russell. For my father it was Marx-Lenin all the way. They were good, caring people who bent over backwards to help the underprivileged in the country, and I suppose that was as good a religion as any. But it left me wanting.

In those days (1950’s-early 60’s) atheism was of course very rare, not the way it is today. To declare yourself as one was to do something very radical and expose yourself to scorn and disapproval. So they were very courageous people in their own way.

I picked up Christianity quite naturally from the world outside my parents. Mum and I lived by now in her family home, and her very Christian sister taught me all she thought I needed to know about Jesus. My dad had a very Christian brother, and there’s a rumour that those two had me secretly baptised. I don’t know if it is true. And of course, school taught me the rest about Christianity -- prayers and hymns and Christmas Carols and Nativity Plays.

When I was ten my mother sent me to boarding school in England, at my own request. There I got a very thorough grounding in Christianity, as it was a staunchly Church of England school. I can still recite the prayers and collects we had to learn by heart, and recall word for word some of the hymns we sang each day.

So I grew up between these two extremes: radical atheism and devoted Christianity. The atheism satisfied my mind but not my heart. Christianity fulfilled my heart (I still melt when I hear those old hymns) but was inadequate for my mind. There had to be more, I felt. For a while, in my teens, I too was a radical atheist. For another while I went to Church every week; though it was more because I was interested in a boy in that church than for any other reason.

But even as a child under ten I was asking myself questions about God, about life and death, about consciousness. I must have been about 8 when I decided that if there was a God, then He must be Something so utterly magnificent, so vast, so powerful, we humans would be like little ants beside him. And I used to wonder where thoughts came from, and if I could stop them, and what lay behind thought, and whether it was possible for consciousness to die -- not using the word consciousness, of course, but being aware of something in me that was inherently permanent. What is a mind? I asked myself.

Do you call yourself black, mixed race, Latina...all of the above...none? Can you explain if race, culture or ethnicity was integral to your upbringing or faith?

My parents were both mixed race. One of my great-grandmothers was pure Amerindian, but mostly we are descended from Dutch, British and African mixtures. In Guyana in those days we would have been known as Coloured Middle Class, which was a ‘good’ thing to be, because it meant you had been lifted out of the labouring lower class and were just one step behind ‘white’. Our society was very hierarchical, and people were exactly aware of which layer they were in. They looked up at those above them and down at those below them. Women would try to marry ‘up’. Class and race consciousness was a big part of who you were and where you could go.

Once I became aware of the injustice of racism and racial prejudice I began to call myself Black. The word, I feel, eliminates all the ridiculous colour-grading, and turns the ‘one-drop’ system on its head: if you had ‘one drop’ of black, you were racially inferior, even if you looked white. And you’d do your best to deny that ‘one drop’, to hide it, to align yourself with white. So to call oneself Black is to denounce that system.

However, it’s all very well to know intellectually that racial inequality is wrong; it’s quite another thing to overcome the sense of inferiority you get as a child ‘knowing’ you are not good enough. That sense of inferiority seemed ingrained within me; it was as if I constantly wore rags I couldn’t throw off—even though I knew better from an intellectual perspective. And I think it was that sense of inferiority that was the driving factor in my search for my true religion.

When and how did you first come across Hinduism?

Guyana had and has a very high percentage of Indians; something like 51%. They were Hindus and Muslims, and Hinduism and Islam have long been recognised religions in the country, so I was always aware of Hindu culture. In the market there would be stalls selling Hindu artefacts, pictures of Krishna, incense and so on.

It wasn’t till my teens, however, that I got closer to Hinduism; that was because my very closest friend came from a staunch Hindu family. I remember being very curious about it all, but far too shy to ask her parents anything.

So here was I, a teen with very radical ideas but a deep sense of inadequacy; shy yet rebellious and full of inner conflict, totally without orientation, tossing like a boat on a stormy sea. I felt ugly. I was sure no boy would ever like me, and of course that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I grew fat. I smoked, drank and partied, and led a very shallow life. My mother was the most liberal parent in the country, so I could do whatever I liked and go wherever I wanted without restriction -- quite the opposite to my Hindu friend, who couldn’t go anywhere or even talk to boys (we went to an all-girls school; by this time I was back from England). I was desperately unhappy, but didn’t show it. I pretended to be happy-go-lucky and full of fun, but I certainly never felt that way. I felt like a lump of shit.

When I left school I got a job as a journalist for the country’s biggest Sunday newspaper. There too I had a free hand, and I chose to interview interesting people who came in from abroad.

One of these was a Swiss woman named Margaret Cohen. She was a Yoga teacher, and was staying with an Indian man who was a Hatha Yoga teacher. She had come to give a talk. I went to interview her. She told me all about Yoga and from that moment on I was a convert. I knew that this was what I had been looking for all my life.

Mind you, she spoke about the philosophy of Yoga, not about the physical discipline. But when she left, I went to my first Hatha Yoga class. I came out walking on air. I felt so light, so free, so essentially me for the first time ever. It was as if I had thrown off those rags with one fell swoop. I became the most diligent pupil in that class, and within a month I had lost all my excess weight. I also stopped drinking and smoking immediately. A new sense of identity had replaced that old ragged thing I had carried around with me.

But I still had a long path before me. I went travelling for a year through South America, and I realised there was still so much I had to learn, so far I had to go. I went to the library and read every book I could find on Hinduism and spirituality. One day I found there a book about Ramana Maharshi, then completely unknown in the West (and not to be confused with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ guru). When I read it, I just knew. I wrote to the ashram in India and asked for a photo (the one in the book had been torn out) and when it arrived I simply burst into tears. I knew I had to go to India.

I left about a year later, aged 22. I didn’t have much money so I went overland, through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. An amazing trip, but nothing interested me except getting to the destination.

Once I got there, I knew I was at home. I just cannot describe the peace and serenity and yet vibrancy of that place. I lived in the ashram for a while and then found my own little cottage just outside its boundaries; I stayed for 18 months. I immersed myself in meditation practice. The method Ramana Maharshi taught takes you down to the very root of your personality, the source of thought itself, to that solid ground where you are whole, your identity complete instead of splintered and lacking. There, all my inferiority issues melted away to nothing. Ramana Maharshi of course had been ‘dead’ before I was even born, but it was as if he was a living presence there, and still is. The ashram provides no instruction so I had to pick it up through practice, with the help of books and a wonderful German doctor who had lived there for 20 years.

But that was just the beginning—the healing of old wounds was the first step of a lifelong practice that grows more rewarding as I grow older. It’s like having my own source of joy and strength constantly at my disposal, no matter what life may throw my way—if only I turn there.

The ashram is still my home, and I’ve been returning again and again over the last 38 years. One day I hope to retire nearby.

Did you find that your race played any part, positively or negatively, in how you were accepted as a Hindu? or was it a non-issue? Are you the only one of your acquaintance who is, for lack of a better phrase, 'a black Hindu'?

The fact of my deep inferiority through the racism endemic in my native culture was a huge driving factor in my search for a spiritual home. If I had been confident, self-assured, settled within myself, I would probably never have been a seeker. It was the need to know who I truly am that drove me—and who I truly am has nothing to do with race or ethnicity or anything else. Who I am is pure eternal consciousness. That is Ramana Maharshi’s teaching: find out who you are; the practice of Self-Enquiry he taught is the direct way to that true identity.

When he was in the world he never made any distinction between people. Old and young, rich and poor, royalty and peasant, men and women came to him, and even animals, and each received the same loving and compassionate treatment. His essential teaching is that we are one; not in a wishy-washy vague sense, but there really is only the Oneness, and all that separates us one from another is the sense of I-ness. The closer we come to knowing who we really are, so too does our behaviour towards others and the world change: there are no differences. The differences we perceive are all on the surface. He used the example of a film playing on a screen. We live in the pictures. To know that oneness is to see and experience the screen behind the ever-changing pictures; which are mere superimpositions on that screen. Then and only then is it possible to treat every single person with true equality.

And the ashram is run in the same manner. I was never given any sense of being different there, even though, when I first came, I must have looked strange as I had this huge Afro hairstyle. But I was always welcome. Many Indians have told me that I have a Hindu soul and must have been a Hindu in my last life. It certainly feels that way. My race and background is no more than an externality; I no longer consider it important. It’s not who I really am. I do know many non-Indian Hindus, but they are all Caucasian.

There can be no differences in true spirituality. We live in our bodies, but we are not those bodies. Body-identification is the first and most pervasive identification—as we can see today with the emphasis on youth and beauty—and my race, which used to be such a defining factor when I was growing up—has become irrelevant.

In the West nobody knows about my spiritual life. It is private and intimate, and unless someone asks questions I do not talk about it. I certainly don’t go around announcing “I am a Hindu”.

On Christmas day I went to a Catholic service with my landlady/friend. I love to celebrate with Christians or people with all religions, if they are sincere. I feel no need to identify myself as different just because I go a different path. I now live as a black person in Germany, and whereas 30 years ago I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb in this predominantly white society, this time around (I’m now 60) I feel very much at home, and that is how I am treated as well.

Yet still, I’ve felt for a long time the drive to write publicly about race, culture, ethnicity and religion. I began doing this through fiction, in the late 90’s, when my first book, Of Marriageable Age, was published by HarperCollins. It had a moderate success, and two other books were subsequently published. All of these had an ‘Indian’ theme and dealt with culture, race and integration. I went on to write other books set in Guyana, but these were deemed not commercial enough by my publisher. Writing, I feel, is my task in life—my dharma, as Hindus call it. I need to do it, and so I simply carry on, writing what I felt needed to be written, whether or not it gets published.

One of these books is a version of great Indian epic The Mahabharata, which I’ve been working on for over 30 years. As there are already so many versions of it on the market, it was of course next to impossible to find a publisher for it, and so it is being self-published as an e-book. It went on sale as a Kindle book on January 1st 2012.

For anyone who wants to understand the Hindu perspective of life and religion, this is the book to read; but apart from that it’s just a magnificent story too little known in the West. I truly hope Sons of Gods—as this book is called—changes that just a little.

 


The cloud lifted from Pandu’s heart and he rejoiced;

for his sons would be sons of gods.”

 

It’s the greatest story ever told. A most excellent story, deep as the ocean and full of priceless gems. Whatever is not in it is not anywhere. Whoever hears it and understands just a little of it is freed of darkness. It will still be told thousands of years from today. – Veda Vyasa






10 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Stephanie! I just feel like clarifying one little point: in the intro, you described my books as best-selling, but later in the article I said they had a moderate success. The reason is this: they sold reasonable well in the UK (about 60000) but in France and Denmark were indeed on the best-selling lists. In France the first two were right up there next to Stephen King, John Grisham and Damielle Steele... so it's not JUST hype!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, thanks for clarifying that, Sharon -- much appreciated. And thank you so much for granting the interview! It's gotten good feedback via private message already and shared on Facebook, which is always a good sign -- people are reading and appreciating. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks again! And I do hope other readers find Soms of Gods as wonderful as I do.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent interview. I have read Aruna's work and there's a fascinating inclusive quality to her craft - the story, the people, their thoughts. The reader is never left outside looking in. This interview illuminates that impression. Makes perfect sense.

    Wonderful!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I identified with so much of your story. We have so many differences, yet, the things that go on in our heads are always the same :)

    My wife is going to get your book today. She's a slow reader, so I don't know when I'll get to it

    ReplyDelete
  6. What an excellent interview. I really identified with this:

    Many Indians have told me that I have a Hindu soul and must have been a Hindu in my last life. It certainly feels that way. My race and background is no more than an externality; I no longer consider it important. It’s not who I really am.

    When I first went to the Madnir I was really aware that I was the one white person there. Now I don't think of it, I am just another devotee.

    ReplyDelete
  7. वाकई मे लाजवाब साक्षात्कार! अरुणा का जीवन बहुत विविधता से भरा हुआ है। एक नास्तिक परिवार मे जन्म लेने के बाद भी उनकी आध्यात्मिक रुची प्रशंसनीय है। उनका ब्लॉग और 'संस ऑफ गॉड' अपने-आप मे एक अनूठा प्रयास है।
    एक सार्थक और सुंदर साक्षात्कार के लिए T.A.H. आपको हार्दिक साधुवाद। अरुणा जी को सफल आध्यात्मिक यात्रा के लिए शुभकामनायें।
    ।।ॐ तत सत।।

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. My visit to the Ramana Ashramam was in August 1973 and the memory is still very vivid. My guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba brought me to Ramana Maharshi and the path of Self Enquiry. He continues to guide me to this day. I know that "in the end everyone must come to Arunachala"--the space within the Heart.

    Thank you for the story of your inspiring journey. I know that I will enjoy the Sons of Gods.

    ReplyDelete