Religion & Beliefs

I Went to India, And I Found “Shanti”

Disenchanted with Orthodoxy and religion, I decided to go traveling alone, seeking clarity. Instead, I found comfort with the unknown. Read More

By / June 30, 2015
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“Shanti is the most important thing,” the shopkeeper told me as we sipped chai in his cramped, hole-in-the-wall trinket shop, which I had wandered into by chance.

There was nothing unique about Rajnish’s shop, which was located in a narrow alleyway in a touristy area near Jaipur’s Amer Fort. All of the vendors were selling the same items: god statues, bangles, incense, Aladdin pants, knit bags, and every other knickknack you could imagine getting in India. I don’t know what drew me into Rajnish’s narrow shop. And yet, months later, I can’t imagine having not met him.

I entered his shop to browse—nothing more. He immediately welcomed me like a long-lost friend. I reminded him of his daughter, he said, as he pulled up a stool beside his in the rear of the store and went about pouring me some chai. I insisted that I was just browsing, and that I didn’t need the chai. He wouldn’t hear of it. I sat between him and his Ganesh shrine on the wall.

My immediate thought upon sitting beside the golden idol of Ganesh, the Hindu God of luck, was, This is totally idolatry. But I’m not worshipping it. So there’s that. What would my parents think, I wondered, if they could see me? Upon telling them about my plan to travel to India, my father, a deeply religious man, deemed the entire subcontinent impure: “makom avoda zara,” he called it. A place of idolatry. He was concerned for my soul. Given how far my Jewish identity has drifted from the Orthodox one with which he raised me, it wasn’t an outlandish source of anxiety.

When I was comfortable sitting on the stool—or as comfortable as you can be on a stool—Rajnish immediately started showing me his merchandise. I despaired, fearing another scam. My first few hours in India had been an exhausting trek around Delhi in a taxi operated by a tout intent on taking me anywhere other than the hotel where I’d reserved a room—the experience made all the more frustrating because I knew exactly what was happening, I just couldn’t do anything to set him on the correct course. Even a call to Chabad had been intercepted by one of his co-conspirators.

So when Rajnish started displaying his wares—“historic” brass keys, “hand made” notebooks, and “one-of-a-kind” hookahs—I was skeptical. But I listened politely as he pulled out the items. Then he showed me a pipe. “This one,” he said gesturing towards the engraved, pink piece of marble depicting the Hindu symbol for Om Shanti, “is for Shanti. You know Shanti?” he asked.

I indicated that I was not familiar with it.

He placed his palm on his forehead and gasped. “Shanti is the most important thing,” he said.

“But what is Shanti?” I asked.

He placed his hand on his heart. “Shanti is this,” he said.

I was naturally confused, and he could tell.

“Shanti is peace,” he said. “People work, people are stressed, but the most important thing is to be happy and enjoy.”

I laughed. That was easier said than done.

Rajnish wanted to help me find Shanti. “Shanti is good energy. Shanti is the center,” he said, “Shanti is knowing the earth. Shanti is the most important.”

We proceeded to spend the next three hours in his shop discussing Shanti and the true meaning of inner peace. “How do I find Shanti?” I asked, as if Shanti was a missing wallet I could find at the lost and found. Shanti comes when you’ve found a balance and inner calm, Rajnish explained, and that only comes from knowledge and understanding. When I asked of what, he simply pointed up.

I was starting to understand Shanti. But, since this was a religious concept, and since I was struggling with religion in general, I had a long way to go before fully internalizing it.

***

Over the last year, Judaism and I have had some highs and lows.

I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in South Florida filled with charitable, warm, family-oriented people who value religion. They also find innovation downright suspicious, and regard ambition in a woman as a flaw. Nevertheless, to my parents’ begrudging credit, I was always more of a freethinker. My parents are pillars in our community, but their backgrounds are unusual. My mother was one of the first female traders on Wall Street in the early 1980s, and my father is a Gibraltarian Sephardi. Despite their relative diversity, they deeply wanted me to fit into their community. I was expected to dress according to standards of modesty, and to marry a good boy from a nice Jewish family in my early twenties.

But when my ex-fiancé abruptly ended our engagement last year, my relationship to Judaism and Orthodoxy changed. I noticed how some people in my community started to treat me differently, and for the first time I started to really feel the connections between power and gender and status—and I didn’t like what I saw.

It became painful to be in a room with people who only saw me for my relationship status; to be in a room where girls were either talking about their own marriage prospects, or gossiping about others’.

Then I took a religion reporting class at Columbia Journalism School, where I was exposed to a whirlwind of new ideas, and found myself reevaluating my relationship to organized religion.

From my community, I had learned that Judaism was social and dogmatic, not spiritual. The way I related to religion had no bearing on how I related to God. When I struggled with tzniut, the Jewish laws of modesty, it was because I wanted to fit in with my friends and make my parents proud, not because I actually believed that God cared about the length of my sleeves.

My newfound disenchantment with people who, to me, represented Modern Orthodoxy, translated to a disenchantment with other areas of my religious practice—and dress was the most immediately apparent. Wearing the uniform of a community that I felt out of step with socially and culturally was a little like walking around in a Che Guevera t-shirt: I believed in some of the philosophies, but not how they were executed. I felt like a fraud.

My dissatisfaction with communal practice and norms led me to return to Jewish texts. I had hoped to find solace in the narratives and discourses that I had once spent hours hours debating. But instead of reconnecting with religious doctrines, I felt confused. How could today’s rabbis turn to texts that display a fundamental misunderstanding of science when debating the halakhic ramifications of women’s issues?

My faith, on the other hand, came from my home, and from seeing how my parents lived and treated others. That’s why no matter what happened—no matter how angry I was with God—I always believed there was a God. Eventually, that’s what I was left with: A belief in God (if not a strong connection to him), and an underlying passion for Judaism. But what was I to do at that point?

I tried to find comfort in my community, in the theology of my upbringing. I guess you could say I succeeded in some respects and failed in others. At some point, I stopped trying altogether. That’s how I wound up in India sipping chai with Rajnish and a Hindu deity.

As clichéd as it sounds, I needed to find myself. After the year I had—with personal struggles and professional wandering—I knew that I needed to go to a place that was completely foreign to me, but charged with spirituality. I hoped that the shock of the unfamiliar would bring me back to some sort of connection to God.

***

I left northern India, where I met Rajnish, to travel south. (No Floridian would opt to spend time in a cold climate when 80-degree weather is just a train ride away.) As I travelled, I started to internalize the meaning of Shanti.

Two travelers I encountered—Isaac, a nomadic American backpacker who went to India on a journey of self discovery, and Oriel, an Israeli who was doing his obligatory post-army India stint—helped me to refocus the lens through which I view God.

On a rooftop in Mumbai, Oriel, who was raised in a traditional Modern Orthodox home in Jerusalem, encouraged me not to think of religion as a series of rules. “Think of it as a way to connect to God,” he said. This, for me, was unique. Despite an extensive Jewish education, I never really learned about God. I was taught about religion, text, and laws, but not how to connect to a divine being. So it was interesting to talk to a 22-year-old Israeli with a similar upbringing about God. The fact that there were religious Jews who thought about God as a loving being as opposed to a dogmatic taskmaster was reassuring.

Nomadic Isaac, too, reframed how I envision God. At one point while we hiked along a snaking path on the side of a rocky cliff, he shared his perspective that God may or may not be an omnipotent being, but the concept could also refer to the spark of godliness in every person. Everyone is God. I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking with Isaac and exchanging ideas about God was helping me to find my own inner peace, my Shanti.

Once I started thinking about the Hindu concept of Shanti with my Jewish brain, it started to fall into place for me. In my mind, Shanti sounded a lot like a fusion between the first commandment of knowing God—“anochi Hashem,” I am the Lord your God—and the Jewish concept of tranquility, “shalva.”

In my experience, Shanti is the understanding that you’ll never really understand. I don’t know what is going to happen, I don’t know the root of everything, and I’ll never really know God. But, to me at least, Shanti is being okay with that, being able to make peace with the unknown. To quote Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.” Once I realized that, I was overcome with a sense of tranquility I didn’t even know I had been missing.

***

When I emerged from Rajnish’s shop, the sun had sunk low, and the pink city was glowing. It was beautiful. We took in the view together—a view Rajnish never tires of seeing—and then it was time for me to leave. Rajnish shook my hand vigorously and said he had truly enjoyed speaking to me. It occurred to me that I wanted something, a keepsake to remember what I knew, already, would prove to be a transformative experience.

I looked at Rajnish and said I wanted to buy the pipe. He was shocked—I had made it clear that I didn’t want to shop—but thrilled. I bought the Shanti pipe, not because of what it was (I had no use for a pipe), but for what it represented: the self-confidence and assurance that I had finally reclaimed.

Plus, he gave me a good price.

Previously: Breaking Up is Hard to Do—Especially in the Orthodox World

Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in Tablet Magazine, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.

(Image: Amer Fort, 2008. Credit: Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)