"The world as we know it has hit the wall."Such an emphatic, politically charged statement seems incongruous with the slight, quietly spoken, rather unworldly figure who sits before me. Yet it's that very duality that sums up the growing influence of both this woman and the organisation she represents, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.
The Brahma Kumaris (the name means "daughters of Brahma") is a non denominational organisation run by Indian women of mature years and older committed to achieving world peace through self mastery and the practice of meditation. While some will run from its white robed, vegetarian and celibate dictates, complete with an ashram on the mountaintop, there is no denying its appeal to countless thousands who seek out its simple pathway to peace, within and without.
Sister Jayanti (pronounced Jenti) is the organisation's European and Middle Eastern director and its representative at the United Nations. Her background as a child of Indian parents who migrated to England when she was eight and, in recent years, her demanding role coordinating the Brahma Kumaris' activities in more than 80 countries, have prepared her to act as a bridge between the East and West.
Guests from 55 countries who attended the recent Peace of Mind meditation retreat at the organisation's impressive complex at Mt Abu in the Aravali mountain ranges of Rajasthan were drawn to the quiet authority of this grey haired, 59 year old spiritual leader who battled a raspy throat ("I've just left cold wet London for hot India") to calm us all and reassure us all would be well. For it was literally on our arrival in Mt Abu that the world's stock markets went into freefall and Western leaders gathered in crisis talks to avert economic collapse.
I'm truly thankful now that I was in Mt Abu at that time because I sensed the global reach of this crisis and realised how lucky I was to live in Australia, a rich and secure country compared to so many others. Beyond that, I learnt from Sister Jayanti and other senior teachers of the Brahma Kumaris that the key to healing the world lies within each one of us. And if we can express our inner truth and not allow it to be subsumed in fear and anger, great things await us, says Sister Jayanti.
"People are ready to think about a new paradigm of spirituality because they realise the materialist paradigm that has governed our lives has no value. They realise now that the things they depended on are very temporary and can disappear within a day; savings can be wiped out in a day. It can't be denied anymore." (As a case in point, during our stay on the mountain, the entire banking system of Iceland collapsed, leaving the five delegates at the retreat and their fellow countrymen who, not so long ago, boasted the highest human development index rating in the world, dangling without a life rope, other than their own internal pathways to hope and strength. The HDI is a broader measure of wellbeing than per capita income alone.)
The alternative, says Sister Jayanti, is infinitely more substantial and satisfying: "A spiritual paradigm encompasses love, peace, courage and compassion. And the shift towards this paradigm is happening at a very accelerated pace."
In her crisp, incisive way she describes what has happened in the world this year as "an inside-out idea". "The chaos outside is a reflection of what has been going on inside. As we return to peace within, we will see that happen out there as well."
As a child of India, who reclaimed her roots by joining the Brahma Kumaris at the age of 19 even while she embarked on an Oxford University education in her adopted land, the state of modern India is uppermost in her mind - and heart. And she's not happy with what she sees. When I ask this globetrotter, who spends nine months of the year travelling (reflecting the reality that her London base is the international coordinating office for this rapidly growing organisation which now has 600,000 members) where her home lies, she's very clear: "Mt Abu is my home, Madhuban (the original campus) feels home. I don't have a great affinity with modern India."
Having negotiated a four and a half hour road trip from the thriving city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat to reach the peace and tranquillity of Mt Abu in neighbouring Rajasthan, I have an inkling of what she means. Modern India has an extraordinary energy, but it's exacting a great price. On our way back down the mountain to Ahmedabad, we pass a tragic scene that illustrates the quandary India now faces: on the other side of the modern four lane highway lie several forms covered in cloths, and nearby, three damaged trucks are parked haphazardly over the ditch at the side of the road. Clearly, they have run into a herd of cows, the sacred animal of ancient India, and, I suspect, the cow herder. As other animals graze contentedly on the scanty median strip, another family in India faces the reality that it has lost its husband, father, breadwinner. While cows were once allowed to roam freely even in the midst of city traffic, the reality now is that the trucks that carry the new currency of sand and blue metal and whatever else makes up a highway will increasingly have right of way. And another sacred symbol of old India will pass into history.
Sister Jayanti traces the current shift in India's fortunes to four years ago when the information technology industry almost overnight became an integral part of the Western world's way of doing business.
"People in India began earning very high salaries so that the middle class of India now equals in number the middle class of all of Europe." But such extraordinary growth can't be sustained, just as our much more moderate growth in the West is straining our societies at the seams.
"It's all changed within one generation," says Sister Jayanti. "A father would see his son and daughter-in-law spend on just one restaurant meal what had been his family's food budget for a month. The normal traditions of India just fell apart."
Many of us at Mt Abu for this retreat are conscious of the irony that we are seeking to escape just the sort of materialistic pressure that is encasing India ever more tightly - and we can see the pitfalls that await this fascinating, deeply spiritual land that is (for the time being) turning its back on its ancient wisdom. We are here to listen and to learn from those who maintain its yogic traditions.
The healing begins, Sister Jayanti tells me, when we focus on our own inner wellbeing. "When I do that, I can do something positive for my family, my work colleagues, society and the world. If I have allowed God to heal my pain, my heart can be more generous and open and I can learn to let go and be able to forgive others by changing my feelings.
"But if I focus on negative feelings that are damaging for me, like anger or revenge, in my relationships with God and with others, my lack of forgiveness leaves my soul covered with pollution that impacts on all my relationships. We don't always realise that fact, but it just keeps shooting out, often in unexpected ways. After a bad day at work, for instance, we come home and take it out on the innocent and the vulnerable."
In contrast, we can maintain our equanimity when we are able to nurture our own inner wellbeing.
The organisation's core teaching that each of us is a soul connected to the Supreme Soul and thus interconnected with all others in the Universe, forms the basis of its Raja Yoga meditation. Sister Jayanti explains: "When I say I am a soul, I become aware of my own inner world by being connected to God. In this way, a process of healing and cleansing happens."
Putting yourself in another's shoes is a second aspect of forgiveness, one we all too often overlook, she suggests.
"Remember where I would be if God didn't forgive me. I have to do the same for others. If I treat someone who I feel has wronged me with anger and indignity, I will create a pattern. I will carry this negativity into all my relationships without ever realising it."
It's a deceptively simple outlook, but one that seems ever more needed in our world today where family, social and business relationships are undergoing enormous strain. Yet while we may criticise where we find ourselves at the end of 2008, it's uplifting to realise that meditation was virtually unknown in the West as recently as 40 years ago. As Sister Jayanti recalls, "When I started teaching meditation in London in 1969, it was the only centre outside India. No one was interested - they wanted to learn the physical aspects only. Now people want to learn meditation and how to relieve stress which is very damaging to both the mind and body."
In her constant travels, she also notices a growing awareness of the value of meditation and the self understanding it brings in approaching the two crises our world currently faces, environmental and economic. "There's no lack of money or resources in the world. What is lacking is the will to share it and to learn to have respect for all forms of life."
The rapid growth the Brahma Kumaris is currently experiencing and its reach into the professions, business, media, education and government speaks volumes for the growing awareness of the importance of a spiritual life, that "spiritual paradigm" of which Sister Jayanti speaks.
"For instance, we have violated Nature. The other side is if we start healing Nature and send out thoughts of love and peace, then Nature will start cooperating with us.
"All these things are telling us we have to adopt a new approach based on truth, simplicity, family and love - universal spiritual values that nurture the inner being so we can help those around us. And as these qualities develop, we can leave behind us a better world."
Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.