Tom Hodgkinson meets Sister Jayanti, meditation teacher and European Director of the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual University
As soon as the voice of reason rises from your godlike mind to enunciate the nature of things, the terror in the soul dissolves, the walls of the world fall back, and I see what comes to pass throughout the void. The holy godheads are manifested, and their tranquil thrones; the winds do not buffet them or clouds bestrew them with storms, nor snow, clotted by piercing frost, profane them with falling hoar – Epicurus
I arrive one morning at Global Cooperation House, the London HQ of the Brahma Kumaris or “BKs”, the Indian spiritual movement my dad joined in the late 1980s. It’s a rather boring-looking modern building, like a conference centre.
I’m here to see Sister Jayanti, who is European Director of the BKs, as I’ve decided to take a meditation class. The BKs practise a form of yoga called Raja yoga, which is defined by yoga academic James Mallinson as the “easy yoga”. Its benefits, he says, are designed for people who are busy with work and family. There are no weird mantras or special exercises.
I’m shown to Sister Jayanti’s room. Outside I’m asked to take off my shoes. Inside Sister Jayanti, a small Indian woman in her 60s, with long hair plaited down the back, is sitting on a cream-coloured armchair. There’s a coffee table and a large picture of Brahma Baba, the founder of the movement. Also on the wall is a curious egg-shaped symbol.
It could all look a bit weird to many people but since my dad started meditating when I was 13, I’m used to it.
Jayanti Kirpalani was born in India in 1949 and came to the UK with her parents when she was eight. Her mother was a BK. She went to Orange Hill Girls Grammar School in Edgware where she was the only Indian girl. She went on to study at the School of Pharmacy in Brunswick Square, part of the university of London, because she wanted her own money and career. But soon she gave up to become a full time spiritual teacher.
She has worked tirelessly since as a meditation teacher, and has helped Brahma Kumaris have grown in stature and influence as an organization. In 2017 she led the meditation sessions at Davos.
What is meditation? In the West, meditation has become the helpmeet of busy lives through its secular offshoot, mindfulness. The mindfulness craze has taken a millennia-old spiritual practice – designed to unify us with a higher power and reduce suffering – and turned it into a means of getting a competitive advantage over your rival in business, or a means of surviving a stressful job. When you hear that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, meditates each morning for half an hour to get “focus”, you can be sure it has degenerated into a money-making technique.
I start by asking Sister Jayanti for a definition of meditation. She says it’s all about training the mind to focus your thoughts in a certain direction. It’s also about becoming conscious of your incorporeal self. And it’s about connecting to a divine spark or energy.
Jayanti says the de-stressing is a side effect.
“Meditation will definitely reduce blood pressure, calm the body down, give you greater stamina, help you develop your tolerance capacity for pain or heat or cold – all of that is absolutely a fact – but that’s not the purpose of meditation. When you meditate you connect to an inner being and find qualities that are in the spirit, the soul.”
This means that yogis very definitely believe in the existence of a soul. And they have this in common with most religions and also with Socrates. In one of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo, Socrates discusses death. He has just been sentenced to death by the Athenian state for supposedly “corrupting the morals of the youth” and “worshipping false gods”. His friends are grief-stricken but Socrates shows no fear. This is because, he says, he believes in the existence of a soul. The whole point of philosophy – meaning the “love of wisdom” – is to free yourself from slavery to the body and cultivate your non-physical self.
This is an extract from a longer piece which appears in Idler 76, Jan/Feb 2021.
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