Robert Arnett's spiritual connections with India and its people.
A transforming spiritual experience at a yoga meditation workshop led Robert Arnett to his passion – India. His journeys to the many villages and cities of India resulted in the magnificently created, award winning book India Unveiled that captures India’s spiritual, cultural and historical essence with breath taking pictures and a picture perfect text!
In October Arnett released Finders Keepers?, the first in what he says is a series of illustrated children’s books. It’s based on a true incident that moved Arnett profoundly, when a little boy, Gopal, found a wallet Arnett accidentally dropped while shopping. It contained enough money for Gopal to be set for quite some time, but he not only returned the wallet, he hrefused a reward.
Arnett skillfully interlaces glimpses of India and Indian life while narrating the incident, and touches on the various religious, cultural and social aspects of India that make the country so unique. Subtly, in simple words, Arnett weaves a tale that not only leads the reader to stop and savor the beauty of India, its warmth, and hospitality, but to hreflect on how the path you choose in life determines not just how you evolve as a person, but also how it affects the people and the world around you.
Robert Arnett spoke in an exclusive interview with Little India about his journey, his deep spiritual connection with India and its people, and why his books are such a labor of love.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about growing up in the South?
I think when I was in the 8th grade in high school my mother had a doctor’s appointment in Atlanta. I came with her and since the doctor’s office was across from the High Museum of Art, I walked and still remember how disappointed I was that all the art was European and not from other parts of the world. My older brother Bill had a profound influence on me. He came home one day talking about the greatness of the teachings of the Buddha and this was when he was a sophomore in high school. I thought he had lost his mind, but he was always ahead of his times as well. I grew up in an era when there was tremendous discrimination against Jews and more so against the southern Jews. My brother, who was in the honors society, didn’t get admission to a northwestern university because the Jewish quota was filled and they felt that students from the South didn’t do as well as students from other parts of the country. When I grew up there was much more discrimination against Jews in the South than there is against other ethnic groups today in America, so I can certainly understand what it feels like living in America today, not being from the mainstream.
You had a spiritual experience when you were invited to the Detroit Arts Institute for a yoga workshop. How did that change your life?
During meditation at the institute, I saw a glimpse of my soul which changed my life. I knew what I was missing in my life was not being taught in the western world. All of us are children of the one creator, that there is something within all of us that is the unifying force regardless of our religion, ethnicity, creed, color, race or anything else. I could never understand why religions tended to divide rather than unite and here was an orientation to religion that was uniting the whole world.
This was 1969, but I continued from 1969 to late 70s in business with my brother and traveled around the country to antique shows setting up art exhibits, then went into holistic health and understood that behind every physical disease are thoughts and emotions that are creating it. I enjoyed that, but continued to feel very compelled to go to India and finally went for the first time in 1988.
What was your first impression of India?
That I have come home. I went to Mumbai and stayed with this wonderful family whose sister I knew in Atlanta. They took me to a lot of temples and ashrams, something they did typically on their weekends, giving me a wonderfully spiritual introduction into Indian culture. Without them I would have been lost. I remember the night that I left on my own to see the Ajanta caves without them. It seemed the darkest night of my life to go on my own, alone without the security of their warmth. It took a lot of courage to venture out, but I will always remember this kind man on the train who spoke English and saw I did not know where to go and what to do and helped me out. I had read all these horror stories in guidebooks and western travelers had told me others, but all I saw was this incredible hospitality in India.
I only stayed in hotels for a handful of days, because when the Indians saw that I had a sincere interest in the culture I was invited to stay with so many people at their homes that even though I practice yoga, I still haven’t mastered manifesting the ability to be in two places at one time! Southern hospitality is well known, but the Indian hospitality made the southern American hospitality pale into nothing.
At the end of the many trips you have made, what were the lessons learnt?
I learnt to live in the here and the now for the first time in my life. I tended to be one who had to be in control of the situation and spent most of my life in the past and future and not in the present. In India to go anywhere you couldn’t buy a round trip ticket and you had to deal with the return on your return, so it was a big change to live for the here and the now and deal with circumstances as they arose, rather than having to have everything orchestrated and it was an amazing thing. Spiritually I learnt that time is an artificial separation from the one indivisible creator and God can only be found in the present tense, in the present moment and here I was searching for God, but not living in the present moment, and that it would be impossible to unite with the force when I am not even in the moment where the force can be experienced.
You met Mother Teresa. What was that like?
I had gone to her home and was told she would be attending the evening prayers. I went, arrived late. The room was dark and 20-30 nuns were kneeling there, but I sensed that she wasn’t there. I didn’t see anyone that was of her physical description so I sat and joined the nuns in prayer.
Twenty minutes later I felt a powerful magnetic force go through my heart and intuitively I said, ah mother Teresa has arrived and there she was, this frail looking woman not too far from her physical death who gave her blessing and feeling the powerful spiritual vibrations I thought all she had to do was come into someone’s presence and they were spiritually uplifted. It was an unforgettable moment.
India has changed considerably today from the time you went in 1988. Does the materialism and industrialization worry you?
I particularly see the differences in the major cities and how much more westernized the people are becoming, especially the younger generation. They are far more materialistic today than even the American youth here in our country and that was disturbing since I have idolized the ancient values of sanatan dharma and thought it was coming to an end. There is a little village of 200 people near the Bangladesh border and there was a little boy, the only one who spoke English. I called him young Gopal and wrote about him in India Unveiled.
When I went back to the same village, as soon as I entered, some of the elders who knew how much I adored the little boy couldn’t wait to tell me that young Gopal had won the twist contest in the elementary school! But then I visited the villages of Tirumala and Tirupati and sanatan dharma is ingrained so deeply in the psyche of people, particularly in rural areas, that I have no doubt that while due to influence of industrialization from the west, the pendulum has swung too far, once it swings back to the middle, India is going to be a far stronger and greater country as a result.
India Unveiled has won many awards and was a labor of love but it almost became love’s labor lost. Tell me about that.
I wanted to get it published in conjunction with India’s 50 years of independence and couldn’t get a publisher. It came to the point where I realized that I had to either self publish it or it was not going to get published. It is very expensive to get a book of this kind published; with all of the color photographs, and then I knew nothing about publishing. I went to my mother, borrowed all her savings to publish this book. The first month we sold books to all our friends, which paid the interest to the bank, but in the second month I didn’t know who or how to sell the books and I went into full blown clinical depression, because I did not know how I was going to redeem my mother’s collateral.
Tell me about the latest book, Finders Keepers?
Finders Keepers? is based on my experience with the little boy Gopal, who found my billfold and returned it and would not take money as reward. He couldn’t understand why I would want to give him money for returning something that was mine to begin with. It came out in mid October and has been very well received. I love speaking directly to the youth, for their minds are so flexible and always seeking the truth. But the beauty is that we know truth when we hear it.
Tell me about the High school library project as well the Author on Campus Series.
I get such touching emails and letters from people who have read these books in libraries that it has become my mission to make it accessible to as many libraries across America as possible. I just got a very nice letter from a lady who saw a slide presentation I made in Nashville. She wrote to let me know how much she appreciated it and added that we Indians come to America in droves to chase the American dream and forget the simple values with which we were raised. I think what really impacts the students when I tour campuses is the fact that they see someone in the mainstream who in spite of having achieved material and professional success went beyond that to seek something more to enrich his life and they too want to stop and see what they can learn from other cultures of the world.
You have spoken before big corporations. What attracts them to your presentations?
Yes, I have spoken before big corporations like Coca Cola, G.E., and Delta. I think these organizations see the advantage of getting their employees to look beyond the traditional yet culturally confining upbringing in a multicultural business world, and how it is to their benefit to understand the mind and motivation of people in other parts of the world. Spirituality may be the last thing on the mind of Corporate America, but as my favorite saying goes: it doesn’t matter how you get in heaven, once you get there, you get to stay. Similarly it doesn’t matter what their motivation is, but I see these corporations and their staff get exposed to the wonderful principles of eastern thinking, and hopefully it will lead to more harmony in diversity and more dynamic thinking within the corporation. It’s a global world and we need to understand other cultures; only then can peace prevail.
That is even more of a requirement especially after September 11 and the shadows of war that loom on the horizon.