Hidden Journey: A Spiritual Awakening
by Andrew Harvey.
Henry Holt: New York, 1991,
253 pp., $22.50.
Andrew Harvey has a gift for spiritual experiencea—an openness and attunement to the surprising manifestations of the Divine in the contemporary world—and also the rare ability to render it as "real" in his writing. Born and raised as a child of English parents in India, he was "put through the mindless rigors of private education in England" from age nine, won a scholarship to Oxford at nineteen, and became one of the youngest fellows of All Souls three years later. Despite his success in the academic and literary world (he soon began publishing fiction, poetry, and translations that have grown now to eighteen volumes including two memoirs), at age twenty-five he found himself suffering insomnia, nervous hysteria, and a pervasive sadness, and decided to flee "the concentration camp of reason" he found in the West to search for "the strange and bounding joy I always felt when I thought of India."
Harvey first returned to India in 1977 and has become a kind of literary and spiritual commuter and communicator between India, England, Europe, and America, where he came on a fellowship to Cornell and returned again to teach at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. On one of his return trips to India in 1980, Harvey's spiritual search led him to Ladakh, a part of old Tibet that is now India, to be with "one of the greatest Tibetan masters then living, Thuksey Rinpoche." With that master as his guide, Harvey immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism, an experience recounted in A Journey in Ladakh, a book that belongs in the same high rank as Christopher Isherwood's classic My Guru and I.
We learn in his new book, Hidden Journey, that Harvey's dramatic "spiritual awakening" began several years before he met the Rinpoche; that in fact he believes he was led to the Tibetan master through the guidance of an even more powerful guru who he made no mention of in A Journey in Ladakh because "she was still too profound a mystery to me to begin to speak of her. "
On his first return to India in 1977, Andrew Harvey visited the ashram of Aurobindo in the former French colonial town of Pondicherry, where he found himself disgruntled, writing to a friend that he thought Aurobindo's philosophy of evolution was ridiculous. Harvey expressed his disdain to JeanMarc Frechette, a French-Canadian seeker he met at the ashram, denouncing "the escapism of ashrams in general and the uselessness of Eastern wisdom in the face of the problems of the world." Frechette was amused at the young Englishman's impassioned anger and advised him to "sit down, shut up, open, listen, and wait. Give your soul a chance to breathe." Andrew took his advice and a week or so later "I had the first vision of my life, which overturned everything I had known up to then." It was a vision of Aurobindo, sitting in a white room in ancient India, followed by an experience of entering "a cloud of swirling light," which he saw as divine light, or "The Light."
Harvey began to read Aurobindo's major works of metaphysics—The Divine Life, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita. The work that made the deepest impact on Harvey was The Mother, in which he found "a vision of the Divine that satisfied my heart and mind and answered my profound needs—for a belief in a dynamic Feminine Power that could reshape a world I experienced as deformed by patriarchal rationalism and greed; for a relationship with the Divine that would be fearless, unpuritanical, and completely intimate, as the ideal relationship between mother and child."
His new friend, Jean-Marc, not only shared that view, but added his own belief that "this is the time of the return of the Mother. Goethe foresaw it at the end of Faust, when Faust was redeemed by the Mothers. Ramakrishna knew it. Even the Catholics seem to know it in the increasing sacred importance they are giving to Mary. She is returning to save a tormented creation."
A year later, Jean-Marc wrote to Harvey that he had met in Pondicherry a very young woman "whom I am sure is a Master (at the very least)" and urged him to come see her as soon as possible.
Her name was Meera, which Jean-Marc explained means "miracle" and "is one of the holy names of the Divine Mother." She lived in a small house about a mile from the ashram in Pondicherry. Every day at five she gave darshan, "where you go and sit with her in silence and let her put her hands on your head and look into your eyes."
Andrew and Jean-Marc entered a bare white room with eight or nine other people, mostly Indians, who had come for darshan. "There she sat, a seventeen-year-old girl, surrounded by no ritual paraphernalia, offering neither discourses nor speeches, only her presence, her touch, her gaze .... "
When Andrew saw her coming out the door after darshan two days later: "All around her...was a blaze of Light—white diamond light—all the brighter for being in the darkness of the doorway. The Light was of the same pure, piercing whiteness that I had seen in the vision Aurobindo had given me the year before . . . beyond any doubt I was seeing with open eyes the Divine Light and Meera burning in it."
This experience of light did not mean or require an exclusive spiritual devotion. Harvey asked Meera if she would have taught him through Christ if he were a Christian, and she answered yes, explaining that "the Divine Mother can teach her child through any of the religions, any of the gods, any holy teacher."
Andrew came to believe, that "the Divine Mother's light, through Meera's presence on earth, was pouring down into humankind." When he told an English writer friend what he believed about Mother Meera, his friend leaned forward and said "Andrew, keep what you think you know to yourself. Don't open yourself to slaughter."
For seven years, he avoided what was for his career as a writer the risk: committing to paper what he believed about Meera. He finally surrendered to the pull of her spiritual power and to the duty he felt to transcribe his experience.
Harvey's account is more "mystic" than most, and its superficial outline so bizarre to Western minds as to open it immediately to the suspicion and questioning his friend feared. Yet his story is rooted in the universal language of spiritual quests—the well-worn path from agony to awareness, to transformation, and a new life. A new life not of cosmic answers and devoid of pain, but rather, as Harvey states, " ... I have not stopped suffering, but doubt has gone. My desires, anxiety, and ambitions have not disappeared, but they are ghostly to me, and I am no longer driven by them."
The other factor that anchors Harvey's sometimes ethereal tale is the persona of Mother Meera herself. The youthful and earthly beauty of this unlikely avatar hardly seems fitted to the title "Ma" that she is given by her faithful followers. Ma lives modestly wherever she goes, and we glimpse her gardening, or serving tea, or cleaning the stairs, teaching her down-to-earth message: "I am not interested in ashrams. I am not interested in founding a movement for people who do not want to work, who want to sit around and think about what they think is God. I want people to work. People should go on living their ordinary lives . . . . I want them to work—with my light behind them."
She seems to have only a few disciples, none of them powerful people in the world's eyes. Her darshan does not attract great hordes, and she seems perfectly content with that. She does not have her own limousine or videotape, or any of the luxury trappings of our popular transformational gurus. In Harvey, she now has what she seems most to deserve: an astute disciple who has introduced her to the world by telling of her work through his own experience.
"All my life I had worked with words, wanted to use them, to master them; nearly everything I had learned had come to me through words. But in Meera's silence I returned to a deeper learning, the one I experienced in music when my whole being was addressed, the one I had known as a child .... "
Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter whose latest books are Returning: A Spiritual Journey and The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography.
Image: Andrew Harvey, courtesy of Christine Cox.