With more than a quarter century of humanitarian work, Maya Tiwari is the founder of the Mother Om Mission, the Wise Earth School - the first school for Ayurveda in North America, established in 1981, and the Living Ahimsa Foundation. From outfitting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to becoming a Sannyasini, to giving it up to be an advocate of Ayurveda, Maya Tiwari speaks about her inner transformation and about the eternal wisdom of India.
Please recount your growing up years as an Indian immigrant in Guyana.
I grew up in British West Indies (Guyana) in South America in a village of less than 500 inhabitants scattered along the mangrove-fringed coast of the Atlantic Ocean. To the West is Cuba, and directly to the East is the vast Amazon forest inhabited by some of the world most exclusive primordial species. As a child growing up, Guyana was a mysterious land, layered with Indian harmonics, African rhythms, and British hierarchies. I was not fully aware of my grandparents' and parents' experiences, but I had an intuitive sense of their emotional pain. In 1887 my paternal great-grandparents, recruited by the British, left Lucknow with other Indians who sought a better life. Like bales of cotton they were ferried across the oceans on a horrific journey where, among other savage acts, men and women were physically and emotionally abused and raped.
At the age of 6 or 7, I had a strong impression that my own innocence had been violated, even though my people never spoke of their past. Somewhere within me, I carried an unconscious memory of the atrocities endured by my elders. The liquid state of my country along with a prodigious sense of ancestral memory gave me a deeper understanding of my own samskaras. My paternal great grandfather was a Brahmin Pujari who had being a head priest in a Krishna Temple in Vrindavan. He had brought with him four other Pujaris (who became the spiritual rock for Hinduism that flourished among the Indian population in Guyana. At the time my great grandfather arrived in Guyana, slavery of the forlorn African population had already been abolished. Many slaves left the sugarcane plantations to set up their own freeholdings and were being replaced by indentured workers from In-dia. But the barbarism of slavery continued decades after its abolition. A vast network of British and Scots used the slave trade in Guyana as a “get-rich-quick scheme”, exploiting for profit the trafficked humans (both African slaves and indentured Indian laborers).
In 1887, there was severe drought in a country which name is derived from Aboriginals, meaning “land of many waters”. My great-grandfather and his accompanying priests conducted a two-month long Chandi Homa to appeal to the heaven for rain. The rains finally responded. On that spot, they in-stalled a Shiva Lingam which later heralded the first Hindu Temple in the village of Port Mourant where my father was born. A catalyst that bridged past to future, my father became a dentist and self-taught entrepreneur who catapulted us into modernity. Education was his master tool.
I was fortunate to glean my life’s purpose at a very early age. Wounds and scars were a continual passage I have had to endure and conquer along my life’s path. I recognized that wounds, once survived, makes us stronger. This power of grace which I gleaned from my elders whose deeply scarred hearts opened conduits of indomitable strength. Through their nurturing ways, they lit the way for my generation to become whole again.
In 1968, after its independence from Britain, Guyana headed toward racial civil war. Fuel added to the fire of its Independence, Guyana became forcibly occupied by the United States while it contemplated the near devastation of war with Cuba (The Bay of Pigs incident during the Kennedy Ad-ministration). I was only 16 when my father sent my siblings and I abroad to study in order to be spared the bloodshed and hatred that would ultimately rage on for endless years. I had already achieved my “A” Level grades at Berbice College, in Rose Hall. My ideal dream then was to become a lawyer, but destiny had other plans for me. Once I arrived in New York City, I applied to New York University to continue my education for Master’s Degree with the hope of pursuing a law degree. I was told that despite my qualification I was too young to be admitted into the law program I sought. But each life is guided by a deeper undercurrent of universal law. Intuitively using my vulnerable state to fuel forward momentum I was led to the next pillar that became my support for the ensuing decade.
In 1972, I met Stella Adler, the great Acting director/teacher, trained by Stanislavsky. Stella’s parents Jacob and Sarah Adler introduced the Yid-dish Theatre to America. She was teaching a play analysis of Chekov’ s play, the Cherry Orchard, and Ibsen’s play, Miss Julie at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She welcomed me into her classes and opened the door to my education of European literature- Ibsen Chekov, Goethe, Shaw, Tolstoy…. As a literature student in Guyana, we were taught only English literature. As far as the British history books were concerned, the continents of India, China, and the Middle East existed in obscurity. For the European colonizers history of the world began in Europe.
How was it being a person of Indian origin aspiring to be a part of American theatre and culture?
Under Stella’s tutorship, I auditioned for classical roles in the theatre but even with her influence major roles in New York’s classical theatre were still determined by the color of your skin. So I pursued a designing career instead. By the time I was 23 years old, I was the celebrated “Maya”, a New York City fashion designer with boutiques in most of America's high-profile fashion stores (such as Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Bloomingdales, I Magnin, Neaman Marcus, to name a few). Throughout the 1970s and '80s, this acclaimed young Guyanese immigrant enjoyed a stunning career with many accoutrements of fame and fortune. My boutique at 66 Street & Madison Avenue, New York City was a frequent stop for countless celebrities including Jackie Onassis, and Rudolf Nureyev. Nureyev was a frequent visitor in my Madison Avenue Boutique. Among my specialties was the innovative full body suit in cotton/spandex (first in the marketplace). Rudolf loved these suits. He wore them in his performances and would come in of-ten to view my new collections before they went public. Another frequent guest was Jackie Onassis. In one of her visits, she fell in love with one of my black tasselled signature “Opera Shawls” which was hand-embroidered with pure silver threads. She was going through her “all black-wear” period, and wanted the silver stitchings removed. We spent two hours in my little work-shop at back imbibing cups of chai while pulling threads.
With an active social life in constant companionship with other celebrated revellers, the creative play of my life had begun to cast an eerie fogbow, shrouding my reality. I found myself progressively losing energy. My dreams were haunted. The fires and blood of the post-independence racial wars in Guyana invaded my sleep. I ignored all the news of Guyana, estranged myself from my family, and tried desperately to rewrite my past by creating a present, which utterly shut it out. I ought to have known that I could not sever the connections to my ancestral roots or ignore my inner anxiety and lack of mooring. As civil war tore through my country, cancer began to wage war inside of me. The ancestral memory I had locked away re-enacted itself. It took the form of ovarian cancer. I was 23 years old when doctors in New York City told me I had just two months to live. They said the cancer could not be cured. Something told me they were wrong, and I was scared. But I look back and realize that my fear was not a fear of death. I was most afraid of the changes I sensed I needed to make in my life.
From high-street designer to a spiritual healer is a long journey. What steered that course?
Five years, twelve surgeries, including a complete hysterectomy, and rounds of chemotherapy later, I felt weak and tattered and was told there was nothing more doctors could do. I retreated to a friend's ski cabin in the snowy wilderness of rural Vermont to get my life in order. It was December and I knew I would find a sense of serenity amid the undifferentiated white of the snow - the perfect landscape for soul searching. Imagine, the outward picture of meditation is a soft expanse of snow. It's a natural state of bliss, or at least that's how I related to it, as a deep form of meditation. After a frenzy of busy agendas and a flourish of fame I felt I had lost track of the sacred in my life. All I wanted was to disappear. I was resolved to meet my maker with whatever dignity I could muster. I was dying. I had no doubt about that.
Time became seamless in front of the constantly burning fire. Images of my father performing his morning Agni Hotra flashed frequently. His mellifluous tenor, fragment of Devi Mantras melded with winter’s silence. I wrote voluminously, and wept until it seemed as if I had no more tears to shed. In my journal I wrote page after page about my personal and spiritual history and poured out the most closely guarded secrets in my heart. I was sus-pended between the subtle and gross bodies, living in a light vortex, resting without sleeping, in a dream state without dreams. I had many visions. One vision, in which my father appeared, proved to be a turning point for me. He shook me to my stubborn core. His words were a clarion call to awaken more fully to my true identity. He showed me that I had been killing myself spiritually, shutting out the nourishing energy of my people by cutting my-self off from my roots. I wept for weeks following my father's appearance and felt the fears, grief, anger, hurt, humiliation and guilt being lifted from my spirit. After four months of unwittingly reconciling these inner conflicts, my emotional and physical pain dissipated. Gradually, I saw where I had deceived myself, where I had allowed myself to become out of balance.
Spring came. At first I thought I was experiencing the peace the Divine Mother gives just before death. But one afternoon, as I walked outside, the crunch of the dried brambles beneath the melting snow was precisely the invigorating sound my body needed. That was the day I came alive again. Two months later I returned to my Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan. I was 29 years old, weighed only 90 pounds and constantly shook from a fierce inner chill. My oncologist could find no sign of cancer anywhere in my body.
A month or so later, I reunited with my family who had since settled in Canada. Father had come into my life again with a definite purpose - to re-unite me with my ancestral past. He explained that our ancestral memories are like a river, flowing continuously from generation to generation. Although we can manipulate the river, we cannot alter its ultimate destination. He explained that when we continue the ancestral traditions the energies of our ancestors give us strength. He reminded me that I was born in the Brahmanical tradition on an auspicious day, Lord Rama's birthday, and that my path in life was a highly spiritual one. I will always remember his last words to me before he left New York: "You are blessed, Maya, and you must never forget Devi's—the Divine Mother's—presence in your everyday life. She has saved you in order to help the distressed in the world and has brought you back to your rightful path."
My father enabled me to reclaim my true purpose and put to rest a life of material desires. Shortly after that he died. He died on the day Guru Purnima. Two months later, I was privileged to meet Pujya Swami Dayananda Sarasvati in the autumn of 1986. He became my Spiritual Father. Once more, the universal law of karma was palpable. Finding my Guru was an act of universal synchronicity.
Returning to India, becoming a Sannyasini, how did Swami Dayananda influence you?
I left New York and the business world to devote myself totally to Vedic studies under the tutelage of Pujya Swami Dayananda. I became the first of my people in one hundred eleven years to return to India, where Swamiji gave me an elemental introduction to the motherland. As we drove that first day to his ashram in Rishikesh, he asked the driver to stop the car. He took me down to the banks of the river Ganges, filled his hands with water, and splashed it over me.
"Welcome back to your Mother," he said. Five years later, I returned to the sacred river with my teacher to receive his initiation into the life of a Brahmacharini. On the eve of my initiation, I stood in the gushing waters of Mother Ganga and restored my life’s purpose back to Her.
In 1986, I began my official studies of Vedanta and Sanskrit under the careful tutelage of Pujya Swami Dayananda. It was apparent in the first years I spent in India (1986-1990) that India had not only lost touch with its indigenous primal healing arts, but had lost confidence in its efficacy. For the next twenty years I returned to India frequently to sit with my Guru and to continue my Vedic studies. I would travel throughout India with the determination to influence the crone Vaidyas to reclaim this immutable system by restoring its “rasa” and taking pride in the way we presented Ayurveda. I have helped a handful of traditional Vaidyas in Tamil Nadu to restore dignity to the treatment of therapists and their process in their hospitals, and showed them how to use environmentally conductive beddings, and products in the patients’ quarters along with introducing simple, organic meals in the hospitals. I also reached out to young advocates and graduates of Ayurveda and inspired them to restore India’s organic-based values instead of the modern prescriptive approach to this Rishi Science. 1997, I was initiated as a Sannyasini in the Veda Vyasa tradition by Pujya Swami Dayananda on the banks of the Ganges River, in Rishikesh.
Having served more two decades as a Vedic monk, I made the radical decision to renounce my monastic title and spiritual moniker— Sri Swami Mayatitananda. This decision was made to “walk a simpler and more accessible life in service of the populations in need,” which I continue to do to this day. I feel blessed to have been born a Hindu, in an ancient spiritual lineage, guided all of my life by noble elders. In renouncing my vow as a Sannyasini, I did not renounce my religion or my ancestry. My life’s experience has shown me that a more precious entity can be found beyond the identification of our religions, and belief systems ~ that is the freedom to simply be.
Giving up the order of Sanyasini, setting up the Wise Earth School of Ayurveda…what made you do it?
My experience with cancer became the lens though which I viewed my life going forward. My miraculous recovery from the death-sentence demonstrated that we have the power to heal ourselves. We are wellness, we are wholeness. Disease is an imposter. As I closed the doors to my fashion business, I immediately began my studies in holistic medicine. I started my studies in Oriental Medicine in Boston, MA. under the tutelage of my Japanese teachers, Michio and Aveline Kushi. I felt driven to discover the inner-workings of the human organism and it ability to heal itself. In 1981, I opened the Wise Earth School in New York City, and began guiding cancer patients at my ontologist’s behest into the benefits of returning to Mother Earth, living simply and organically.
The Wise Earth School is the first school for Ayurveda in North America. It began the profound work of unearthing and restoring Ayurveda’s long-lost education of sadhana wisdom that connect us to the core of our healing and wellness: that is, the original, eternal form of Ayurveda that is based in the cyclical principles and practices of Mother Earth. Through its vast curricula, Wise Earth School of Ayurveda has restored the revelational foundation of Ayurveda and along with it, the traditional Gurukula way of teaching from which it originates. At this pivotal juncture of humanity when the greater emphasis is about material and commercial pursuits, it is critical that we reclaim the spiritual healing thereby restoring the rich legacy of one of the World’s First Medicine, known to us.
My primary mission in studying the Atharva Veda was to restore the non-clinical, authentic origin of Ayurveda. I was not interested in the aberration of clinical modern-medicine value standards that the Government of India had seen fit to employ in the dissemination of “Ayurveda”. My mission was to revitalize, and inform the sadhana-value of Ayurveda, what we refer to at the Wise Earth School as the Inner Medicine Healing principle. Its emphasis is not on an inundation of remedies and medicines but on invoking a person’s innate power to heal. Each and every human person is endowed with the power to self-heal. For example, Food, Breath and Sound (annavidya, pranavidya, mantravidya) ~ are the three foundational templates on which our life force is built. These templates serve as prolific ground upon which we practice the art of sadhana. Food is memory. Eat-ing is remembering. Prana is memory. Breathing is remembering. Sound is memory. Vibration is remembering. What are we remembering? Aham Brahmasmi.
What was appeal of Ayurveda to the western world? How did it receive the ancient Hindu way of life?
The Vedic culture of India has always been known for its holistic metaphors and ways of describing the body - prana, life force, chakras, energy centers - as it is experienced, from the inside out, while Western tradition approaches the body from the outside in. The West believed in only what it can see, measure and prove. But in the sixties, seventies and eighties while India’s indigenous healing sciences were on a near-fatal decline with its technological, and industrial thrust on the upsurge, the tide of awareness was reversing in America.
Restoring Ayurveda to its rightful glory was more easily accomplished in the United States where citizens were becoming overwhelmed by chemicalized exposure and were ready to start reversing toxic living trends. The re-turn to Ayurveda was, in actuality, a return to Mother Earth. And the primary locust for this change began right here in the United States. Wise Earth School of Ayurveda played a central role in this change. In the eighties, about 10 million citizens were already doing yoga in America. The progressive growth of yoga paved the way for Ayurveda. Let us be clear on what has not changed. The age-old denigrating colonial narrative on “Hinduism” continues to reign. This rhetoric is ever present in the media outlets, particularly through publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, Democracy Now, and The Washington Post. For example, with more than 25 million people practicing yoga in the US, fewer than 5,000 may have recognized its origins as a Vedic or Hindu science. To quote Time Magazine in an article they published in 2001, “Yoga came to change America but America has changed Yoga.” Here in the West, the perception of Ayurveda, like yoga, continues to remain severed from its filial relationship to “Hindu-ism”.
I have written six books on Ayurveda, My first book~ Ayurveda: A Life of Balance was written in 1990 and published in 1993, and has endured as a best-seller. Ayurveda~ Secrets of Healing is being used as a text book for training Pancha Karma therapists in several colleges worldwide. In this book, I have also reinvented and introduced the defunct Ayurveda Earth Therapies. Motilal Barnarsidass has been reprinting my books in India since 1996.
Some of my Vedic writings poured out years prior to my actual Vedic studies. It emerged from the intuitive ancestral wellspring~ that sense of knowing, of remembering the cosmic infrastructure that had been imprinted in the vast ocean of samskaras. Eons before birth, the samskaras of each and every human person are retained in their cellular memories. Through billions of years of collective lives, the dharmic tradition of Mother Earth (what Hindus call, `Sanatana Dharma’) is at the root of all of our purpose in the pre-sent life, whether we are aware of it or not.
The Wise Earth School of Ayurveda, now nestled in the mountains of West-ern North Carolina had been training Ayurveda practitioners with my Inner Medicine paradigm for thirty five years. Reflecting the original intent of Ayurveda, the school is a non-profit organization that also fostered the Mother Om Mission (MOM), which charitable education is taken to at-risk populations in the inner cities of New York.
A pioneer in the field of holistic life education for the individual, family, and community MOM’s volunteer instructors provides the first all-inclusive Ayurveda preventative self-care and wellness program (as opposed to a dis-ease care system) for at-risk communities that works. Through its award-winning Wise Earth Ayurveda & Yoga education which are offered free-of-charge, MOM plays an active role in empowering community members. We witness everyday miracles in community members who are transforming their lives by awakening a sense of shared responsibility for their wellbeing and that of their family and community.
Individuals and families in the Caribbean, Latino, African and Indo- American communities of Queens, the South Bronx and North East Bronx, New York who have no access to health care education, traditional or otherwise, now have access to the premium Ayurveda health education programs.
Prejudice, bias and open antagonism is evident in the Western media’s portrayal of India and all that belongs to her. What are your thoughts?
From beginning-less time, prejudices existed with one set of interests against another. The multiple invasions against India by foreign interests were not only to plunder India’s material wealth but more importantly, to decimate its ancient and indigenous wisdom. This was the primary thrust of Europe-an colonization, and its offspring of religious missionaries.
My father would say that while we are born a Brahmin, it is only our actions that would determine if we remain thusly. While growing up, I equated being a Brahmin with the privilege to serve by helping others who were less fortunate.
I was aware that my elders were the spiritual nexus of our communities. My father was a stickler for dharma and ensured that we were taught the Vedic social values by which we lived. As a community pioneer he build a primary school in our village for the less fortunate and sent his children to the same school. He inspired an attitude of seva.
As an emigrant in melting pot of New York City, my Brahmanical back-ground was irrelevant ~ except that later on, I would recognize it as the potent Shakti that bore me through the abyss of cancer and then catapulted me back to India under the careful mentorship of a Mahatma. In the past two decades and more, since having been bestowed the Vedic honour of a Sannyasini (intimated in Rishikesh by Pujya Swami Dayananda in 1997), I have encountered countless reversal of grace and goodwill from the status-quo. A major publishing house in New York terminated my ongoing contract for Ayurvedic books, citing “your new identity as “Swami Mayatitananda”, would limit your marketplace…” My literary agent dropped me, and a few major interviews on national media were abruptly cancelled.
In 2000, I was one of the preeminent speakers at the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit in New York. My Talk was about Inner Medicine Healing, and the horrific damage USA has inflicted to the world food source. I introduced Ayurveda as a preventative health care model. The central message was “each one of us has the power to heal ourselves, and ultimately we can do so without medicine”. I received a standing ovation.
The events that would follow that appearance would raze me to the fibre of my brahminical roots. I have been forced to do battle with the shadows of what appear to be an “anti-Hindu, anti-Brahmin, anti-Holistic medicine” highly organized covert group. I am being targeted through countless assaults on my presence, home and work. While traveling on tour with the Living Ahimsa Peace Mandala, my global mission for inspiring peace, I found myself (food, clothing and environs) routinely poisoned. It took a few years for me to work through the angst of this degenerative human behaviour. Once I was able to tear through the veil of cognitive dissonance that such operatives intend to create, I found myself at the end of its spiralling cycle. Is it not synchronicity that whatever degree of violence we are experiencing, it is a reflection of the horrendous crimes against our Mother, the Earth?
At sixty-eight years of age, I am more vulnerable now than I have been. At the same time, I feel blessed to be given numerous opportunities to grow awareness. I am now confident in my purpose. Was it a coincidence that as I began my work with Living Ahimsa, the acts of Himsa followed me? My recent experience have forced me to scour the depths of my understanding of “peace”; and my desire for creating “inner harmony”. I have discovered that cultivating peace is a messy process as long as human beings are involved, and that inner harmony is the result of sorting through chaos. How do we get through to the light? By accepting that darkness exists in each one of our human frame, and that every person is in the process of fulfilling their karmic destiny in the only way they know how. “Sankalpa” is a most powerful aide to creating inner harmony. On the Living Ahimsa tour, we re-cite the Vow of Ahimsa while creating the Peace Mandala with Mother Nature’s wholesome grains and seeds. Thousands of people take this vow together. A palpable sense of collective healing prevails.
I have presented more than 100 keynote addresses for interfaith global organizations like the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit, and the Parliament of the World Religions. Alongside the Dalai Lama, here is the message I gave at The Parliament of The World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. “By cultivating personal awareness of ahimsa we can find a common language that needs no words—a communion centered in the heart of one-ness. If each one of us makes a commitment to inner harmony, we will surely succeed in achieving the ultimate goal of our human destiny—that of a spiritual freedom that unites us. Ultimately, it is the work of awareness within the individual person that will change the world for the better.”
Mother Nature is my perennial source of inspiration. I love to watch the sunlight shimmering on the frilly edges of the river, to hear the rustling of leaves shimmering in open space, the music of the earth vibrating under my feet….see the fragile neon-green sprout trembling its way through the dense earth.
(2020 © Maya Tiwari ~www.wiseearth.com; www.wiseearthschool.com; www.mayatiwari.org)