Published: March, 2007
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 meters 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 Bhagavat Gita and a statue of Ganesh with her into space. What a perfect symbol of a life touched equally by spirituality as well as science!
During our growing years, her parents left a life-long impression on me. Sunita’s mom would take the 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 labor were traditional values which 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 1970’s, during the summers, Swami Chinmayananda frequented Harvard School of Theology to deliver spell-binding lectures. Dr. Pandya attended every lecture and my older brother and I tagged along.
The auditorium was always packed – the air conditioning could not hold the burden of the crowd. The long summer evenings began with prayer and then a discourse. For me the session introduced the anatomy of spirituality – atman, karma yoga, bhakti, and maya. The lectures created a scaffold for me to build an understanding of Eastern philosophy.
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? Dr. Pandya was uniquely placed to explore these questions with us – he was a neurologist – he had seen and handled the brain, and he had a deep and wide knowledge of Indian philosophy.
The discourses intertwined with practices of meditation taught me spirituality. My school and college work taught me the tools of science and medicine. Likewise Sunita received her education in physical science and engineering and then training at NASA. The spirituality training she received from her father.
Last week, when my father talked with 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. To many of us today, science and spirituality are not a contradiction at all. They are the dual or twin realities of existence, the two sides of the same coin.
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 of themselves do not prove or disprove the existence of the spiritual realm. For many, spirituality fills a void that science cannot fill. And so, one is not complete without the other.
At 300 km up above the earth inside the international space station, the Bhagvata Gita and the statue of Ganesh 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 Williams – an Indian-American – is a perfect embodiment of the reality of dualism we live in the modern day. A duality that 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 and focus that help 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.