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Mataji vs. Mother Teresa

May 8, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Cocooned in the blissful spirituality of an ashram, a Jewish soul still yearns to help others in need. But what to do when the guru forbids it?

Calcutta. 1979. The contest was between Mother Teresa and my guru.

After nine years of living in the ashram in the woods of eastern Massachusetts, and serving as our guru's personal secretary and the ashram's administrator, I was rewarded with the opportunity of accompanying Mataji on one of her periodic trips to India.

Mataji was a 76-year-old Indian woman who had been teaching Vedanta philosophy and meditation in the U.S. since 1927. Mataji herself was like an embodiment of one of India's goddesses -- alternately loving and demanding, gentle and fierce, merciful and merciless.

After we arrived in Calcutta, while Mataji was preoccupied with her Indian devotees, I made friends with Janice, a young British woman who had come there to volunteer at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying.

I had been an admirer of Mother Teresa for years, ever since I read Malcolm Muggeridge's account of how the Albanian nun had left the enclosure of an upper class school for girls to tend to the putrid bodies of those dying on the streets of India.

Mother Teresa's aim was not to save the lives of these unfortunate souls, but merely to give them a respectable place to die. "They lived like dogs, but they will die like angels," was her motto.

I visited her Home for the Dying and was moved to tears. The large, white-washed hall shone from something more than cleanliness: the devotion of the diminutive nuns in their white, blue-bordered saris tending patiently and lovingly to the gaunt, often cantankerous, patients with their foul-smelling running sores and emissions.

This was the highest level of selfless giving I had ever witnessed. I yearned to be part of it.

This was the highest level of selfless giving I had ever witnessed. I yearned to be part of it.

One Tuesday I informed Mataji that I would be joining Janice to volunteer at the Home for the Dying that afternoon. Mataji vetoed my plan. A Bengali film director had invited her along with her retinue to a special viewing of his latest film, "Mother." Mataji insisted I attend.

I balked. I hated those mindless, endless Indian tragicomedies, with their maudlin themes and their (no less than) fifteen song-and-dance numbers. I pleaded with Mataji to let me go to Mother Teresa's.

She refused. "It's not your path," was her final word on the subject.


"What is my path?" I wondered, as I seethed through three hours of melodrama.

Innately spiritual, I loved the ashram's three daily periods of meditation, and believed, as the Eastern way taught, that someone meditating behind cloistered walls could uplift the vibrations of the whole world.

On the other hand, the Jewish activist in me could not be silenced. A college student at Brandeis in the Sixties, I had been active in S.D.S. and the anti-Vietnam War struggle until I read a quote by Zen teacher Alan Watts: "Peace can only be made by those who are peaceful."

Put off by the aggression and hatred of S.D.S. leaders, I went to India for my junior year to seek a deeper, truer way to save the world.

As much as I valued the path of Eastern spirituality and meditation, I was uncomfortable with its subtle scorn for the physical world. Many distraught souls came to our ashram, and Mataji usually welcomed them into the uplifting, healing atmosphere of our wooded retreat. But the help proffered was spiritual, not physical. The purpose of all our spiritual endeavors was to transcend the world, not to become embroiled in the lowly level of physicality.


The blizzard of '81 devastated the Eastern seaboard. Forty-five-foot tidal waves ravaged the Massachusetts coast. Scituate, a town just south of the ashram, was declared a disaster area. Scores of homes were destroyed and hundreds of local residents found themselves homeless. Those who had no place else to go, including many elderly people, were put up on army cots in the local high school. The radio issued constant calls for people to take into their homes these traumatized disaster victims.

The ashram had several retreat cottages for guests. Two of them were empty. It was obvious to me that we should make them available to two homeless families, especially elderly people. Mataji was then at our California ashram. Sure of her approval, I phoned her for permission.

My guru was adamant: the ashram was a place of spiritual succor, not a social service institution.

She refused. She said that the rarefied atmosphere of the ashram would be brought down by housing "you don't know what kind of people." I begged and pleaded. My guru was adamant; the ashram was meant to give spiritual succor, not to be a social service institution. When I hung up the phone, I stood there and wept.


Four years later, I came to Jerusalem to study Torah Judaism.

During my first week of studies, I noticed that when the other women emerged from the ladies room, they would stand for a minute facing a wall with their eyes closed, muttering something. When I inquired what they were doing, I was told that just as there is a blessing to say before and after eating or drinking anything, there is a blessing to say after using the toilet, acknowledging the Divine source of all the bodily functions. I was blown away.

The more I studied, the more I was struck by how deftly Judaism straddles the paradox of the spiritual and the physical. Without a doubt spirituality is important -- just as important as in any Eastern religion. But physicality is not abandoned. Rather it is embraced and made a part of the spiritual path.

This is most vividly illustrated by the concept of Shabbat. In the Torah, God commanded: "Six days you should work." Read: fix the world, get your hands dirty. "On the seventh day you should rest." Read: let the world go, immerse yourself in spirituality.

I learned that the commandments of the Torah are divided into two categories: those between man and God (e.g. eating kosher food, praying) and those between man and man (e.g. not speaking negatively, visiting the sick).

Helping other people is mandatory, and considered more important than indulging in a spiritual experience. The Torah relates how Abraham, the first Jew, was experiencing a vision of God when three travelers passed. Abraham broke away from his rapture in order to attend to his guests. Rashi, the great medieval scholar, comments: "From this we learn that receiving guests is greater than receiving the face of God."


The goal of Judaism is not to transcend the physical world, but to uplift it. And that applies to every physical action and every physical object.

I loved the Hassidic tale where a father asked his son as he was sitting and studying, "On what do you meditate?" The son recited the Torah passage he was currently focusing on. "No," replied the father. "I mean on what do you meditate?" "On what? On a chair."

At last I met people for whom there was simply no line between the spiritual and the physical.

Judaism is a religion in which every chair and table, every bed, telephone, and car can become not only a vehicle for my spiritual attainment, but itself spiritually elevated.

Most impressive, I met people for whom there was simply no line between the spiritual and the physical.

One petite Yemenite woman who established and ran a community center for the indigent elderly told me that when she needed recharging, instead of a coffee break, she would take a prayer break and say Psalms. A friend of mine, a fifty-five-year-old Israeli woman raised on a religious kibbutz, in order to generate spiritual merit for the Jews living in Hebron, adopted two Down Syndrome babies who had been abandoned at birth. My deeply learned and mystical Rebbetzin is the mother of fourteen children.

I had finally found a way to integrate Mataji and Mother Teresa -- seamlessly.


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