Foreign scholars over the centuries have undermined Vedic wisdom to the point where many Hindus are uncertain what is real and what is superstition: Steve Briggs
In the late 1970s, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi sent a young American to India to teach meditation to professionals. That journey not only transformed him but also made him an ardent lover of India. Steve Briggs, who now lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, USA, was that young man, who, using the opportunity, travelled all over India, visiting many holy places, temples, saints, shamans, politicians, pundits, swamis, astrologers, and even humble folks. This pilgrimage resulted in the book, ‘India: Mirror of Truth–A Seven Year Pilgrimage’ that catches the soul of India. The well-written book narrates the author’s experiences and insights. After studying English Literature at the University of Arizona on an athletic scholarship, Steve received an MBA and Ph.D in Vedic Studies. Rather than looking at India through a Western glass, Steve meets India on its own terms. With an open heart and mind, he reaches beyond the chaos of sight, sound and smell to appreciate the hugely beneficent spirit embedded in every aspect of Indian life. Though he arrived in India as a teacher, he was more interested in being a student. He says there is probably no other country where God is so alive in everyday life. He understands the real truth lies within a person’s own heart and that India can provide the roadmap to reach this truth. In an exclusive interview to Organiser representative Pradeep Krishnan, Steve Briggs speaks about his life, India, Gurus, etc. Excerpts:
How did you get attracted towards India?
My high school English teacher assigned us Herman Hesse’s classic novel, Siddartha. The story of two childhood friends’ journey to self-discovery woke me up from my somewhat one-dimensional world of athletics. As I viewed the world through each of the main characters’ eyes, the concept of life being a spiritual journey began to take shape. It was a wonderful exercise in introspection because at different points in the story, I identified with each of the characters. The ferryman Vasudev’s contentment made a deep impression as did Siddhartha’s restlessness. It wasn’t long after reading Siddhartha that I got serious about meditation.
What was the turning point in your life?
I grew up in an athletic family. Our father was a state tennis champion and skilled golfer. My brother, sister, and I were nationally ranked tennis players. Not long after I read Siddhartha, I was competing in the US national championships when I had a peculiar experience. The match was extremely close. I was battling against a tough opponent when, for no apparent reason, my awareness shifted at a crucial juncture in the match. Everything slowed down. The tennis ball seemed unusually large and I knew where my opponent intended to hit the next shot. It was a bit surreal. Everything was happening in slow motion. I was playing well, but I didn’t seem to be involved in the match… more like I was a bystander observing what was happening on the court. My composure ultimately swung the match in my favour. It was especially satisfying because the win catapulted me into the top 10 nationally.
How did a Tennis professional become a Meditation expert?
After graduating from high school, I received a tennis scholarship to attend the University of Arizona. Arizona was one of the elite teams in America and the competition was pretty intense. In sports, the smallest margin can mean the difference between winning and losing, and so I looked into meditation with the hope of gaining an edge on the competition. After learning Transcendental Meditation (TM) as taught by Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, I experienced a lot of benefits outside tennis. My grades improved, I felt more content and self-confident, plus I was playing some of the best tennis of my life. I felt inspired, and so I flew to Switzerland to attend a three-month meditation retreat where I spent many hours meditating each day. The whole experience transformed my understanding of life. I would go so far as to say that it changed the course of my life. I returned home qualified to teach others to meditate. Soon, our entire university tennis team was meditating. A year after returning from Switzerland, I helped teach TM to 25 Tennis players, including several former Wimbledon champions. During the ’70s, many of America’s top professional and Olympic athletes learned TM. As a result, athletic training underwent a radical change to a more consciousness-based approach.
Your encounters with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi?
I have many cherished memories of Maharishi, but one or two stand out in my mind. The first came in 1974. We were doing extended meditation at a retreat in a small ski village in the French Alps. It was evening and a full moon illumined the snow peaks outside. It was late by the time Maharishi initiated me into advanced practice and told me to meditate. His instruction had a miraculous impact on my meditation. From that day onward, whenever I meditated, my heart was filled with bliss.
You hold a Ph.D in Vedic Studies? How do you view the Vedas? Some say that the Vedas are mere superstitious prayers to Natural forces. Your remarks?
I studied the Upanishads for years. I also love the Ramayana. Ram and Sita were selfless, ego-free, ideal human beings. And, of course, Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna is a classic treatise on transcending as well as a brilliant blueprint for problem-solving. It’s sad that people view epic figures like Ram and Krishna as mythological characters. However long ago, Krishna and Ram walked the earth just like you and I. But as much as the scriptures inspire me, rituals like homas and yagnas embody the essence of Vedic knowledge. My family has attended Rudra Abhishek for years and I listen to Sama Veda regularly. I find it revitalising. The Vedas are master keys that unlock our fullest potential. Properly understood, they can elevate us to supreme heights of spiritual attainment. Sadly, foreign scholars over the centuries have undermined Vedic wisdom to the point where many Hindus are uncertain what is real and what is superstition. Maharishi explained that the Vedas are blueprints for creating an ideal society. Maharishi described Sanskrit as the language of nature. Vedic Engineering is the process of generating sounds that produce life-supporting influences that spread throughout Creation the way a pebble tossed into a lake causes concentric circles to spread in all directions. That’s why the four Vedas are meant to be chanted rather than read or translated into other languages.
Describe your 7-year odyssey in India. Any memorable experiences with enlightened masters please share.
During my years in India, I enjoyed a double lifestyle. On one hand, I commuted to Delhi’s corporate offices to teach Transcendental Meditation at companies like Airtel, Citibank, Birla Group, and Modi Corp. On the other hand, I lived in an Ashram guesthouse outside Delhi and made frequent pilgrimages into the Himalayas and other holy places like Rameswaram, Tirupati, and Kanyakumari. I was fortunate to meet some exceptional souls on my journeys at holy sites as well as in the boardroom. Above Joshimath, I encountered a yogi who appeared ageless and seemed to know everything about me. He initiated me into a form of Kriya Yoga which has been a part of my spiritual practice for years. While visiting Kanyakumari I had the darshan of an avadhut (one established in non-dual awareness).
What were your experiences in Kumbh Mela? How do you view this world’s largest congregation of humanity?
For weeks I was excited about attending the Kumbh Mela, but I really had no idea what to expect. I planned to stay for a few days, but as circumstances unfolded, my colleagues and I spent several weeks at Prayag. We arrived on Makar Sankranti, the first auspicious bathing day of the 2001 Kumbh Mela. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (mostly villagers) were walking to Sangam. The sun hadn’t yet come up, but the excitement in the air was like nothing I had ever experienced. We walked for several kilometres surrounded by thousands of villagers. Everyone was respectful and considerate. When it was our turn to take snanam, I didn’t even notice the frigid temperature of the water. I recall Sonia Gandhi taking snanam from a boat nearby. Somehow, my friends and I ended up on the front page of a local newspaper. Later that day, we were invited to be the guests of a former Maharaja’s family. Our hosts were absolute angels. They had a large home in the cantonment where we feasted together, played with the children, and shared stories. Before departing, we initiated our hosts into TM. It was a magical time. The memories will remain with me always. The collective sankalp of honouring the Divine set a peaceful and harmonious tone. I never saw a hint of discord during our stay. A lot of credit to the UP government and to the yatris who preserved the spirit of worship.
Tell us about your experiences with Gurus?
Maharishi taught me much of what I know about meditation and the spiritual path. I grew up in a close-knit, Christian family. Soon after I left home to attend university, I met Maharishi, who was like a wise grandfather. He helped me sort out important decisions and inspired lofty ideals for my life. I have so much respect and love for him. In 2008, I returned to Prayag to attend Maharishi’s memorial service. It was a heart-rending day for many. You must know Amma since you’re from Kerala. In 1996, the managing director of Hughes-Escort introduced me to Amma at her Delhi Ashram near the airport. Amma reminds me of Maharishi in many ways. She works tirelessly for others, oversees global programmes including universities, schools, and hospitals, and she cares deeply about the well-being of all creatures. Amma emphasises service to those in need while Maharishi emphasised meditation as a tool for creating world peace. Amma’s immense inner joy is felt by everyone. My family travels to see Amma whenever she comes to the US.
What are your views on Gurus?
Gurus are wonderful guides, but ultimately we need to rely on our own inner GPS. I realised that when Maharishi passed. Maharishi taught me to trust my GPS, and as a result, I feel confident navigating through life. The guru’s methods are not much different from how parents teach their children. Once children become adults, their values are established for life.
What is your concept of God?
God is at once personal and impersonal. I try to embrace both aspects of Divinity. One can enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus or Krishna or Buddha. There is nothing quite so elevating as devotion. One’s Ishta Deva provides a perfect expression to the eternally non-changing Absolute. The formless Absolute can’t be evolved because there is no difference between the point of no evolution and infinite evolution since the formless Absolute is utterly devoid of everything. On the other hand, one’s Ishta Deva can have relations with every aspect of itself. The avatars and great gurus have taken birth to provide an example and to teach humanity how to realise their Ishta Deva. So, wouldn’t it be ideal to explore the innermost heart of Ram or Devi? The purpose of a personal god is to give the formless Absolute a form that is perfect.
Tell us about the forthcoming book, Nirvana Chronicles?
The Tale of the Himalayan Yogis is the story of a young Rajput prince who eludes the Mogul emperor’s army and flees to the Himalaya where he meets his guru, an ageless yogi who shares the secrets of immortality with his chela. Prince Govinda spends his exile in spiritual training and adventures throughout Tibet, Nepal, and worlds beyond the physical. He comes into conflict with a Tantric sorcerer who serves a soul-consuming demoness. After his seven-year exile, the prince returns to Delhi to confront the tyrannical emperor in a daring effort to free his people.
According to a Time magazine cover story, ten million Americans now practise some form of meditation. Millions more have embarked on the search to self-discovery through religion and self-enquiry. How do you view this? Why this is happening?
After a Kumbhakarna-like (very long) slumber, humanity is waking up. Our collective awakening is a natural part of the cycle of time and the progression of our planet through the cosmos. Earth is moving into a region of space that is accelerating our spiritual awakening. Divine forces are helping to remove negativity from the planet. The worn-out values that have caused so much suffering over thousands of years are being replaced by higher values, holistic values that nurture our planet and its inhabitants. No matter how hard the old guard tries to maintain the status quo, be it through financial schemes or political intrigue, a new consciousness is emerging which will ultimately result in Heaven on Earth. There is no turning back.
How do you view Bharat, a unique country with divergent religions, castes, creeds, communities and lifestyles?
India is the Land of the Vedas. Bharat has always been the hope for the world. From the Himalayas in the north to Tirupati and Rameswaram in the south, the eternally reverberating Vedas spread a powerful influence in all directions. Some people ask how this can be true when India’s cities are among the most polluted and its villages among the poorest on earth. Poverty and illiteracy are undeniable realities on the subcontinent, but if we go back even a few hundred years we’ll find that Bharat was the most prosperous land on earth. Look what was found in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple chambers; Rs. 90,000 crore gold. And what about the priceless diamonds and gems that were removed from India’s temples and ended up in the collections of wealthy westerners or foreign museums. India has been pillaged time and again, but it has survived.
During my years in India, I enjoyed a double lifestyle. On one hand, I commuted to Delhi’s corporate offices to teach Transcendental Meditation, On the other hand, I lived in an Ashram guesthouse outside Delhi and made frequent pilgrimages into the Himalayas and other holy places
Pulitzer prize-winning historian, Will Durant, wrote that the Moguls carried out the greatest genocide in recorded history. Despite the atrocities, India has endured and is beginning to thrive again. It’s been a long road back, but Indians understand perseverance. They’re resilient people with the richest heritage and deepest roots of any culture. When Maharishi sent me to India, he said, “make a beautiful rainbow between America and India”. That instruction continues to motivate me. When I asked Maharishi why he was sending Westerners to teach meditation to Indians, he said, “because Indians enjoy having their song sung by someone else.”
Could you please elaborate on your encounters with Himalayan Yogis?
I’ve talked some about Maharishi and Amma, but I haven’t mentioned a Himalayan yogi named, Keshava, who I wrote about in India: Mirror of Truth. Keshava taught me how to approach God in a very personal way by teaching me an age-old Vedic technique that unites the devotee with their Ishta Deva. I’m greatly indebted to Keshava for all that he’s shared with me and my family. I think about Keshava every day and hope to meet him again one day.
Why spirituality is important in today’s world? How can the modern man benefit from spirituality?
Environmental scientists say the world has reached a tipping point in terms of global warming and irreversible trauma to our ecosystems. Humanity is being held accountable for its collective behaviour, its violations against natural law. Our debts have come due. We, humans, are responsible for damaging the planet and harming millions of life forms that call earth home. If we remove the humans, planet earth would quickly return to the paradise it once was. That said, I believe what lies ahead will result in a collective consciousness based on love and mutual support for one another, including how we care for Mother Earth. Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, mobile phones and laptops have made life more efficient. On the other hand, our fossil fuel-based economies are compromising our rivers and streams, our air and land. Our air, water, and earth are on the verge of being unable to support life. Our collective spiritual awakening is coming none too soon, especially in the west where people have material wealth but often lack inner contentment. Many struggles to get along with those they love most.