Parshat Lech Lecha: When Avraham Met Brahma

Avraham-VijayanandaWhen I was in India, I traveled to the city Haridwar in the north of the country, to the ashram of Anandamayi-Ma, one of the great gurus of the previous century. The president of the ashram at the time was Vijayananda, an elder guru, ninety-two years old. Vijayananda was not his original name; he was born with the name Avraham Weintrob, son of a rabbi living in southern France. Like the Avraham of the Torah, Avraham-Vijayananda also once stood at the crossroads of “lech lecha.”

Before coming to India, Vijayananda had planned to move to Israel. During the War of Independence, he tried to volunteer to fight in the Hagana, but was rejected (it turned out that one of the recruiters in France was a friend of his family and feared putting him in harm’s way). Although young Avraham grew up in a religious house, he was an atheist. One day his discovered a book of Indian philosophy which described the path to “discover G-d within yourself.” The idea ignited him, and he decided to travel to India to learn more about it. He arrived at Anandamayi-Ma’s ashram, and though they generally do not accept students from the west, the teacher felt that this was a special person standing before her, and before he even requested it, she decided to meet with him and accept him into her class. Eventually, she even appointed him to be her successor. Vijayananda has been living in the ashram for the last fifty-five years without leaving India.

I entered his modest room. A number of Jewish books on his shelf immediately caught my eye – Tanach, Tanya, Sfat Emet, Simcha Raz’s Chassidic Stories, and a biography of Ariel Sharon. Vijayananda feels that he never left Judaism, and feels no contradiction between the Indian Videnta philosophy which he practices and his Jewish upbringing. One of his students told me that she once asked if it were true that he was once Jewish. Vijayananda straightened up proudly and declared, “I am Jewish!” Though he never visited Israel, he feels deeply connected to that which goes on here. He had a subscription to the Jerusalem Post and some of his students who live in Israel call him occasionally to keep him up on the goings-on in the country. He sang me an impassioned rendition of Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

I asked him if he had any advice for me from his experience on his spiritual journey, and he responded:

There are many paths to top of the mountain, but if you keep switching paths along the way, you’ll never get there. A person must commit himself absolutely to one path according to one’s own tradition.”

There is something to be said for maintaining interest in many different paths: it allows one to acknowledge the value of others’ paths and to respect them, it can even assist someone in his own spiritual journey. But at the same time a person must have a single path to which he dedicates himself, otherwise, for all his knowledge of others, he will have no wisdom for himself.

According to One’s Own Tradition

After my meeting with him I pondered the advice he had given me. Clearly, having remained fifty-five years in his ashram, he was a living example of sticking to one path. But what of the other piece of advice he gave me, the importance of picking a path “according to one’s own tradition?” Was this is an expression of regret over the path he did not choose? And perhaps, had he known at the time that the same spiritual ideas which brought him to India exist in Judaism as well, would he have chosen differently? Suddenly I imagined what could have been: The Admor Avraham Yaakov, surrounded by grandchildren and students, the light of his Torah guiding the multitudes of Israel. I was saddened – both for the old man with whom I very quickly fell in love, and for Am Yisrael, who did not merit to be enriched by a person who was blessed with a great Neshama. I felt that I must return to speak with him further.

The second time I visited him, my taxi got stuck in traffic and I had only a few minutes before the train to New Delhi. As we separated, we looked at one another and we both understood that this would be our last meeting. As I stood to leave, Vijayananda requested of me: “when you get to the Kotel, pray for me.” On chol hamoed Sukkot I went up to Jerusalem, and when I got to the Western Wall, I fulfilled Avraham Yaakov’s request and prayed for him.

Four years later he left this world, and despite the dominant practice in India – especially among holy men – he requested that his body not be burned but be buried in the ground. The people of the ashram decided to honor his unusual request, which stemmed – without doubt – from his desire to be buried according to Jewish tradition. As such, his body was transferred to France for burial by his Jewish family, who even said “kaddish” at his grave.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov NagenRav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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