The ‘Born-again Indian’

(This article, about a Chinese woman who peeped into her previous life to understand a spiritual bond with India, was published in DNA edition dated April 10, 2006.)

Venky Vembu

Every Saturday afternoon in Hong Kong, a small and reverential group of women gather to keep alive an ancient, Sanskritic spiritual and cultural tradition: the recitation of the Lalitha Sahasranamam, the 1,008 names of Shiva’s consort Parvati, and other slokas. There may seem nothing unusual about an assemblage of worshippers chanting that mystical composition by the 7th–8th century philosopher Adi Sankara. But in fact there is: one of them in this group, Angela Wong, is a person of Chinese origin who has, through a remarkable voyage of self-discovery, found a spiritual home in the Indian city of Varanasi, with which she claims a bonding that appears to defy rational explanation…

Angela Wong (left) with her tai chi master

“The first time I went to India was about 20 years ago,” says Angela. “At that time, I was going through a phase in my life when I felt a spiritual vacuum: although I had a good career in Hong Kong and all the material comforts that come with it, I was very unhappy.” Drawn to India by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, particularly his abnegation of any form of organised religion, she travelled extensively in India, and found to her wonderment that this experience had the effect of calming her mind. “Wherever I travelled in India, I felt like I’d come home,” she recalls. “In particular, for some reason that I could only figure out years later, I was drawn to Varanasi.”

Returning to Hong Kong, Angela immersed herself in JK’s philosophy and expanded her levels of engagement with Indian spirituality: simultaneously, she learnt to practice yoga. Soon, however, a succession of mystical experiences led her further into her voyage of self-discovery. “One day,” she recalls, “I was listening to a tape-recording of Sanskrit verses, and although I couldn’t understand the meaning, I was profoundly moved to tears.” The slokas, as it turned out, were about Shiva and about Varanasi, which provided one more inexplicable clue to her relationship with the Shaivite city.

Angela then began to learn to chant Sanskrit verses, and gained admittance to the ‘sloka circle’ of Indian women, where she continues to be a keen participant, oftentimes turning up in a sari. She also learnt to cook ‘Indian food’, and visited India frequently. And it was during one such visit that the last piece in her karmic jigsaw puzzle fell in place to explain her bonding with Varanasi.  

“On that visit to India, I met an astrologer who consults ancient palm-leaf manuscripts to read about one’s ‘past life’,” says Angela. “And it was he who told me what I now believe explains my spiritual resonance with Varanasi: that I had lived for many years in Varanasi in an earlier birth. It’s that that gives me such a sense of belonging in the city.”

That understanding has elevated Angela to a higher orbit of spiritual endeavour. Today, she straddles several belief systems with consummate ease: she practises Chinese traditional medicine, teaches yoga, chants Sanskrit slokas, heads the JK Study Circle in Hong Kong and learns tai-chi from her chi fus (masters). And, above all else, having ‘discovered’ herself, she’s found her peace.

There are, of course, those among us who believe that one’s cultural identity is defined, perhaps even limited, by one’s country of birth. But by seamlessly flitting across the shadowlines that divide countries and cultures and civilizations, Angela Wong demonstrates the limitations of that blinkered worldview. Her life experiences are living testimony that the world is not so big that it cannot be accommodated in hearts and minds that are open to ‘alien’ experiences…


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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6 Responses to The ‘Born-again Indian’

  1. gregorylent says:

    heh, was told often in india, that i must have been an indian in a former lifetime … curiously, never met an indian who would consider that last lifetime he was a farang .. 🙂

    • Venky says:

      Thanks, Greg, for dropping by.
      If Indians don’t acknowledge the possibility that they may have been ‘firangs’ in an earlier lifetime, it’s probably because they don’t want to pass the karmic buck to anyone else! ‘We have no one to blame but ourselves’. 🙂
      In Angela’s case, it was she who ‘discovered’ her karmic links to India, although she may have been swayed by the powers of auto-suggestion.

  2. Pingback: Dim sum days in Delhi and Mumbai | It's only words…

  3. sjarn mansoor says:

    I have a similar situation to Angela. Born in South Africa but I feel totally out of place. I have vivid recollections of having been Indian as well as Chinese.
    Travels to India bring a flood of memories for me.
    I follow a meditation path and I practice Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Every thing blends seamlessly for me.
    I just regret not being Indian and have always felt like I am not at home in my culture and country.

    • Venky says:

      @sjarn Thanks for sharing your interesting experience. With your permission, I’ll write to you offline to know more about your journey.

      • sjarn says:

        Hello Venky
        Apologies I’m only 2years 4months late in reading this message and alot has happened since then.
        Please contact me if you still interested.
        Out of interest, I was also drawn to go to Varanasi.

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