For Seven Lifetimes - An Interview with Vatsala & Ehud Sperling
by Edie Weinstein
Imagine combining the best of two cultures, two spiritual traditions, two lives in a savory blend of masala and matzah. Israeli born Jewish Ehud Sperling, founder and president of Inner Traditions and Bear and Company Publishing and Indian born Hindu Vatsala Sperling, a Clinical Microbiologist and Homeopathic Physician, have taken metaphorical pen in hand and co-created a book that not only reads like a love story across time and place, but has the appearance of an intricately designed coffee table tome even though it is in paperback. Its lush renderings of their love story are embellished with gorgeous photographic imagery. As a reader, you will be taken along an intimate journey with them, by reading their cor-respondence with each other. It is called For Seven Lifetimes: An East-West Journey To A Spiritually Fulfilling And Sustainable Marriage.
Wisdom: Can you explain the book title?
Ehud: The origin of the concept comes from the Vedic wedding ceremony. Unlike the Western ceremony, which talks about "Until death do us part", in the Vedic ceremony, that doesn’t end the story. You go for seven times and then you are liberated, you are complete. It is kind of a literal understanding, so if you believe in reincarnation, you can think "I will be with this person for seven lifetimes." Another way of looking at it is, metaphorically or esoterically, that you have to look at the seven rays or all of the times that seven appears as the complete set of an experience. The color spectrum is a good example. In that sense, the way to look at it is that you are getting married to be liberated, to get to the seventh chakra. Another way of looking at it is that this journey of marriage is the journey through the seven chakras. Marriage is meant to be a platform for the raising of the spiritual energies from the lower chakras to the higher chakras.
Wisdom: The other thing that came to mind when I read the book title, was the Seven Blessings in the Jewish wedding ceremony and the seven generations in Native American tradition. The significance of seven runs through every aspect of life.
Ehud: It’s orientating us as a couple to that idea of marriage. So much of the Western world is involved in trying to figure out the relationship; the gender roles, what does our relationship really mean? The idea here is that once you make this commitment, there is no discussion about this relationship anymore. Rather it is about the family, about achieving some growth and, in our case, spiritual growth through the marriage. There is a wonderful part of the ceremony in which Vatsala’s father met me on the way to the wedding venue. Actually I’m not going to the wedding. I’m going to the forest to attain wisdom. Actually there is a picture of me in the book decked out in flowers, walking in a procession.
Vatsala: In the Vedic marriage ceremony, it is an enactment of Shiva and Parvati. In the mythology, Shiva is known to be a renunciate. He likes to wander off into the deep woods and the Himalayas engrossed in meditation. The bride symbolizes Parvati who is determined to marry Shiva. He is going off to the forest. Parvati’s father comes to meet him. He says: "You’re running off to the forest to do what? To gain Wisdom? You don’t have to do that. All you have to do is get married to my lovely daughter and living the life of a householder, according to the eternal principles made of the Vedic under-standing of life. If you do that, you will attain all of the Wisdom you are looking for." That’s what the father of the bride is supposed to do and that is what my Dad did.
Wisdom: Is it the concept that marriage in and of itself helps you to gain Wisdom?
Ehud: The concept is even more dramatic than that. The fourth part of the book is called The Ashram of the Householder. The ashram is the house. That’s where the spiritual activities take place. The idea is presented in the book on page 252. Vatsala’s lineage is Shivaite. She is from the family of Shiva. Other Indians are Vishnuites and follow Vishnu. That’s why the ceremony for Vatsala centers around the mythology of Shiva and Parvati. In fact, Vatsala’s brother and his wife would go each day to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, which is where Vatsala’s family originates. This is a classic temple for Shiva and Parvati. There is a kadambe tree under which they got married. They made offerings to the Goddess Meenakshi every day until they got married. We made a pilgrimage and thanked her.
Back to the household as an ashram; it is an important concept in life and not just in Hinduism. Without householders, there is no continuation of the generations. If you are going to become a renunciate, or sadhu, an ascetic, you’re not going to procreate. On a certain level, they consider the highest attainment, to be that of the householder. The goal here is to create a household for the growth of the spiritual natures of the couple and family. That is the fundamental mission of the marriage.
Wisdom: In the book, I read how the two of you met via a rather different classified ad than you would see in a Western newspaper.
Ehud: It’s a totally different concept; a coded language, actually.
Wisdom: A lot of the focus is on astrological charts and family lineage.
Ehud: They are looking to create a situation in arranged marriage where there is such a high degree of compatibility that there is going to be an opportunity for success. In the West, for the last 200 years, this idea of romantic love being the touchstone to marital bliss, only has a 50% success rate. Arranged marriage has a much higher success rate.
Wisdom: Would you consider yours an arranged marriage? Arranged by the Divine, since I looked at the way you connected as a delicious delayed gratification of writing those letters, you got to know each other over time.
Ehud: Exactly. Vatsala’s mother was involved in that whole process and she read every letter, too, and with her daughter, decided if this guy who was writing was worth following up on. We arranged it in a bit of a different matter, because life has changed. Traditionally, the parents would arrange the marriage, for the young girl in her late teens or early twenties. Here Vatsala was a professional woman already in her thirties and her parents were already quite old and not in a position to be running around the countryside. They had already arranged the marriages of her five siblings. By the time it was Vatsala’s turn, they had run out of steam and Vatsala picked up the mantle herself and pursued the activity, but she did it according to the principles of the arranged marriage. We didn’t talk or meet until almost a year of correspondence. I met her for the first time with her family and I had to decide if I was going to get engaged. There is no test drive, no living together for a time. None of the things we do in the West existed. One meeting for half an hour.
Wisdom: Did it feel like the Western concept of love at first sight?
Ehud: I had said to myself: "You’re a spontaneous type of person. You mustn’t be spontaneous." They came; her family and we chatted for awhile and they said "Ok, are you going to marry our daughter?" and I said "I’ve got to think about it." They left and I said I would make the decision the next day. The problem was, I had nothing to think about. We had spent a year exchanging the thoughts in our heads, so we knew more about each other than most couples who are married for five years. It was really kind of a joke and the next day, I said, "Of course", and we were engaged. The wedding date was set and then the wedding happened. The first time we kissed and the first time we were together as a couple was after the marriage.
Wisdom: How many years have you been married?
Ehud and Vatsala together: Fifteen years. The 22nd of February will be fifteen.
Wisdom: Mazel Tov! Does it feel like it was "B’shert" (Hebrew for ‘meant to be’) and that you had been moving toward this all of your lives and that everything led to this moment?
Ehud: Well, originally, Vatsala had titled the book ‘Manzil’ which is an Urdu word; a beautiful language, a language of poetry, that is a combination of Hindi, Persian and Arabic, which is spoken in Northern India. The meaning is "goal." The idea is that anything is leading up... so it is exactly what you said. The whole goal of our lives was leading up to this marriage.
Wisdom: It gives hope to those to people who are moving toward that idea. You reinforce the concept that we are each preparing to meet our Beloved.
Ehud: I want to reinforce it more. I’m not sure if you reached the part of the book where I meet Om Narayan Rishi at the wedding of Harish Johari’s daughter Swapna. Harish Johari, a dear friend who has passed away and was the author of eleven books published by Inner Traditions, invited me to the wedding of his youngest daughter, who I knew since she was a child. I went to Delhi for the wedding and was in the wedding party and was involved in the pre-wedding activities. Swapna was a quite sophisticated young lady and I was shocked since this was the first time I really encountered arranged marriage. She spoke fluent English, had a degree in English literature, was accomplished on the sitar; highly cultivated lady from a highly cultured home. I am asking "How is this possible? Her father and mother picked this guy and she’s going to marry him?" It was a little weird to me. Harish, myself and a few other people were sitting together in a room that is part of the temple complex. Harish had invited his yogic and occultic teacher, a man by the name of Om Narayan Rishi. He had not expected him to show up since he was 99 years old. Om Narayan was famous for his yogic feats. Someone would drive a truck over him or bury him underground. He taught Harish all of his occult knowledge; astrology and numerology. We were sitting in the room and in bops Om Narayan Rishi. He sits on the floor and starts conversing and, at some point, Harish points to me and says: "This is my publisher from America and what do you think about him? Do his horoscope." If you have ever seen a horoscope calculated, you either have to do it with a computer or an ephemeris. It’s quite a job to calculate a horoscope. Anyway, I give him my birthdate and he did it in his mind. He wrote it down and I checked it against my computer horoscope and it was correct. He had the sky in his mind, if you will. He is 99 and I was in my forties and he pats me on the head and says: "Nice boy. This boy is going to marry a high born Hindu girl between January and next June." And I thought, "This is crazy! You don’t meet Indian girls at a disco or party."
Harish said: "I’ll help you." When you read the story in the book, you’ll see that eventually I show up in South India and meet up with Vatsala. There are close to a half a billion women in India, how is it possible? You gotta believe as you do and we do that there is a certain fated nature to these things.
My friends were saying "How could you do this? How could you marry someone when you have never been with her?" For Vatsala, it was even more courageous. Think about it, she was the Chief of Microbiology services at a major hospital in India; a highly regarded professional. Her whole family was there. Never met a Jew. Here is this guy who shows up from America and whisks her off. What kind of courage does that take?
Wisdom: For both of you! A whole new country and culture.
Ehud: I was coming back to my world. I was surrounded by my people, my publishing company. I had a firmly established environment. Vatsala was giving all of that up, into a completely unknown world, so much so that she couldn’t believe it when we drove from the airport in Boston into the woods in Vermont, that there was no one around. She had never experienced it, since she had grown up as a city girl.
Wisdom: Was that frightening for you to be in an environment that was so dramatically different than what you were used to?
Vatsala: Yes. It was quite challenging in the beginning. I had a big help from Ehud’s dog, Noogie. The place where we live is so quiet and very much in the middle of the woods. I arrived in the middle of winter and I had never heard the snow sliding off the roof. In the beginning I got upset about it and then I started watching this dog. If he is taking a nap, then I had nothing to be concerned about. He got me comfortable in the home.
Wisdom: So the dog adopted you too, or you adopted each other.
Wisdom: When I read the book, what I was really impressed by was the intimacy of the letters. How does it feel to have your personal life laid wide open to the world?
Ehud: That’s been a recurrent theme when people have discussed the book with us. We just read a review on Amazon and that was one of the comments the reviewer made. She loved the book but said she was almost feeling guilty about peering into this intimate relationship.
Vatsala: Actually, I believe that people don’t own their thoughts, even if they are in their individual mind. Thoughts are a universal phenomena. I am also a Homeopathic Physician. Homeopathy is about mind and thoughts and spirituality and I believe that you can’t trademark thoughts. When we were exploring our lives together and what it was going to be, we had to exchange those thoughts. If we are going to exchange them, how private are they?
Wisdom: I didn’t feel like a voyeur reading them. I felt like I was privileged to be let in to your thoughts. The best writers that I have ever read, create such vivid imagery, that it is as if you are living it with them. The two of you do that. It is encouraging others to be that transparent and genuine in their correspondence with each other.
Ehud: There is an intention with this book and that intention was to provide our son with insight as to how he came into the world. That’s how the project began. It didn’t begin as us wanting to publish a book. It was so that our son could read it when he was going through puberty and becoming a young man. Then a friend of ours who is a literary agent started thumbing through the manuscript, really liked it and wanted to represent it, so we said, "Fine." Vatsala started writing the contextual materials to help explain the letters and explain how the process went on. By this intention of wanting our son to have this document, we had to let go of all of that as a private expression, because we were offering it up to another human being; our son and now it is being offered up to whoever wants to read it. Can other people be helped by our experience? Can they find a blue print or guide, if you will, for their own journeys? It has happened. In fact, there was one lady in this town that we didn’t know who picked up our book in a local coffee shop and couldn’t stop. She spent the whole day reading it. She ended up having an arranged marriage.
Vatsala: Actually with a guy in India.
Ehud: We have had people use these ideas in on-line dating and using the principles, saying, "I’m not just going to go for romantic love, I’m going to develop a values based relationship and see if those things are there first and hopefully romance and Eros will enter the relationship; it won’t determine the relationship."
Wisdom: What are some of the values you hold dear in your marriage?
Ehud: This incredible "Vitamin T" that Vatsala brings into the relationship and she got from India which is ‘tolerance’. This fundamental understanding of tolerance is at the base of human relations and it goes from individuals to families to cities to countries, etc. This shared value in sharing our religious heritages. I’m still very much a Jew, born in Israel, one of the first sabras born after the War of Independence. Vatsala is a devout Hindu, but there is no religious strife in our household. The oldest continuous Jewish settlement outside of Israel is in the Southwest of India in Cochin. That community has been on-going for 2000 years. Of course, you will see them in the book, that they come up. The idea of hospitality in the home; that the guest is like a God. Vatsala could not have gotten involved in any relationship that would have required her to subsume her values or Hindu identity. In fact, in my ad I said that as a husband I would be supportive of her religious practices. I wanted to marry an Indian woman and wanted her to remain Indian. I didn’t want her to become Westernized and Vatsala has remained every bit the Indian she was when I first met her.
Wisdom: You have remained unique individuals even as you have blended your hearts and your lives.
Ehud: It is exactly what we have done. People get hung up on religious ideology. What I am hung up on is the spice of life. It is fantastic to have this intimate relationship with India in the form of my wife. I don’t know if you have run across a Rabbi Hartman; he is one of the world’s leading Maimonides scholars and he has The Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He used to come up to Vermont on vacation and got friendly with us and used to say, "Vatsala, the Jewish girls should be like you." Her respect for elders and the way she treated people, conducted herself, was his ideal for the proper Jewish girl.
Wisdom: As we were winding down the interview, I had asked about the challenges they faced over the years and for Vatsala it was, as an avowed vegetarian, learning to cook for her husband. Ehud added "and not try to convert me to vegetarianism and let me remain the carnivore that I am." and charmingly, when I posed the question to Ehud, Vatsala chimed in "You have to think really hard", and together they laughed as Ehud responded "She is such a fantastic human being, that the challenge is to maintain the level of excellence that’s required to have a woman like Vatsala be your partner."
For more information: www.inner traditions.com
Edie Weinstein is a writer, speaker, interfaith minister and Bliss Mistress who invites people to live rich, full, juicy lives. She writes a daily blog for Beliefnet. blog. beliefnet.com/blissblog www.liveinjoy.org