As Indians we swell with pride to see Sunita Pandya Williams, an Indian-American, walking in space. For me, the event has special significance, since I grew up with her in an upper-middle class suburb of Boston. She lived less than 100 metres from our house; our parents played bridge together; her mom, Bonnie Pandya, learned vegetarian cooking from my mom; and her dad, Dr Deepak Pandya, gave me advice as I pursued a career in medicine.
While reading about Sunita in the newspapers, what I found particularly intriguing, as well as appropriate, is that she carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and a statue of Ganesha with her into space. What a perfect symbol of life touched equally by spirituality as well as science!
During our growing-up years, her parents left a big impression on me. Sunita’s mom would take her children for swimming practice at 4 am every morning! I was convinced they were training to be Olympic athletes. Discipline, hard work and dignity of labour were traditional values that Sunita learned from her American mother. Her dad influenced her and me in a different way.
Dr Pandya, now a retired neurologist and faculty at Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, is a deeply spiritual man. In the late 1970s, during the summers, Swami Chinmayananda frequented the Harvard School of Theology to deliver spellbinding lectures. Dr Pandya attended every lecture and my older brother and I tagged along.
The auditorium was always packed, in fact, the air conditioning could not hold the burden of the crowd. The long summer evenings began with prayer and then a discourse. Those sessions gave us young Indians in America the anatomy of spirituality — atman, karma yoga, bhakti, and maya.
In the car ride home, I was full of questions for Dr Pandya and he delightfully tightened the loose ends for me. We talked about ‘a drop becoming an ocean’, the types of karmas, Jainism and Hinduism, if reincarnation really exists then why didn’t we remember, and all that. Dr Pandya was uniquely placed to explore these questions with us — he was a neurologist — he had seen and handled the brain and also had the knowledge of Indian philosophy. Sunita received her education in physical science and engineering and then training at NASA. Her spiritual training, she received from her father.
Last week, when my father talked to Sunita’s father, Dr Pandya said, “Sunita is a very spiritual person.” The fact that she is a NASA astronaut doesn’t in any way ‘pull away’ from her Eastern spiritual core. Today medicine, astrophysics and space technology increasingly explain how we can heal our bodies and unravel the mysteries of the universe around us. Such explanations in themselves do not prove or disprove the existence of the spiritual realm. For many, spirituality fills a void that science cannot fill.
At 300 kms above the earth inside the international space station, the Bhagavad Gita and the image of Ganesha are tangible reminders of this duality. As Sunita looks upon our beautiful blue and white planet from so far away, she bridges another duality — earth and space. Sunita’s parents have bridged yet another duality — East and West — wherein the cultural boundaries are being constantly withered away by the airways, the internet, immigrant lives and mixed marriages.
Sunita to me, is a perfect embodiment of the reality of the dualism we live in today.
It allows us to take the very best of both worlds — an Eastern mindset that anchors us firmly to our consciousness and a Western scientific discipline that helps us soar in the skies and beyond. Those of us who learn to embrace this duality will be equipped to take a multi-faceted view of life, and practice the art of living by creating oneness within ourselves and the world around us.
The writer is a physician and lives in Memphis, Tennessee and Indore, Madhya Pradesh.