For Seven Lifetimes
An East-West Journey to a Spiritually Fulfilling and Sustainable Marriage
by Vatsala and Ehud Sperling
published by Inner Traditions
Review by Nellie Levine
I started reading For Seven Lifetimes the day it arrived in the mail, and I stayed up half the night with it, thoroughly engaged, touched, and uplifted. What was so compelling that night - what makes up the bulk of the book, is a collection of letters exchanged between two beautiful people, over the course of nearly a year. These letters were an expression of a courtship unique in many ways. They were the way in which two people met, grew to know and love each other, and ultimately, the way they came together in marriage.
In 1995 B. R. Vatsala, a woman of Brahmin heritage living in India, was perusing her newspaper, looking through the "matrimonials." Arranged marriages are traditional in India, though the tradition can take a variety of forms. The matrimonials are ads placed in major newspapers, through which men advertise in search of compatible wives. These go quite beyond the "personals" we are familiar with. Also, rather than a woman herself replying to such an ad, it is customary for a male relation to reply, and to take it from there. A woman may not even meet a groom-to-be until minutes before her wedding.
Vatsala was a little different, and known as a free spirit in her family. A leading clinical microbiologist by profession, she was highly respected in the hospital in which she worked, and was in demand on the lecture circuit. She lived alone with her mother, with whom she shared a meaningful relationship and a modest lifestyle. Although she had a genuine respect for tradition and a pure love for her country and heritage, she had a more independent as well as individualistic approach to marriage. Looking through the matrimonials was becoming a discouraging ritual. Until she saw Ehud Sperling's ad.
Ehud's ad certainly stood out from the rest. In the book we see the page from the newspaper, The Hindu, as Vatsala herself saw it. It was headlined "Brides Wanted," and included several dozen ads. Ehud's ad, which was placed by a close Indian friend, stated his professional background as a publisher of spiritual books, some personal traits, and made clear he was a Westerner of Jewish faith living in Vermont. He was intent on finding a bride, someone to create a family with, and unlike the other men he would welcome replies from the women themselves. The ad spoke to Vatsala, and she soon wrote her first letter of introduction to Ehud.
I am truly a romantic at heart, have been married for twenty years to the man I consider my soul mate and best friend, and simply love a good love story! I was immediately swept up in this story that first night I lay awake with the book - in the way Vatsala and Ehud met, and in the way they got to know each other.
The letters were not what many would think of as love letters, in many cases. Rather, they were the sharing in fullness, of who Vatsala and Ehud were as individuals. In their letters they both spoke intimately and deeply about their thoughts and feelings on society, culture, religion, spirituality, sexuality, family, heritage, and values. Some days they wrote letters about more mundane concerns - for Vatsala, that might mean describing running home from work in the rain during monsoon season; for Ehud, it might mean sharing walks he had taken with his dog Noogie. Whether simple or profound, the letters allowed the other a pure view into who they each were. The two gained a strong respect for each other, and over time, a very strong bond.
The book is not just letters. Vatsala openly shares her insights and reflections on specific points in her correspondence with Ehud. She shares questions and doubts (always short-lived) that she had at the time, her feelings after she mailed a letter and awaited a response, her belief in God and adherence to spiritual values, her work as a doctor and scientist. We also see the progression of this very long-distance relationship into a marriage - the preparations of a wedding and of traveling to the US. Through Vatsala's words, we see a very genuine portrayal of life in India, as well as a portrait of a woman in love - who really could have been any woman, anywhere, for the voice she has given her heart.
Some women reading the book may initially disagree with my last statement... In one of Ehud's letters, he expresses his wish for a wife to "obey" her husband, and in Vatsala's replies she essentially accepts this - though with an appealing sense of wit. This does make one pause. But, his words shouldn't be taken out of context, and the context in which I read them is one of only love and respect for his bride-to-be. One of the main points I came away from this book with, one of its beauties, and one of the things that make it so unique, as well as so wise with regards to making a marriage work, is the vision of marriage as sacred that Vatsala and Ehud joyously share. There is a spirituality to this - it is a balanced sense of selflessness that works both ways, and helps create a more perfect union, as well as an enlightened family dynamic. Also, Ehud clarifies that he would of course fully respect and honor his wife's feelings, thoughts, and wishes, always welcoming her input. He says in one letter, "Ultimately, the marriage should reflect the spiritual ideals of that greater marriage between the masculine and the feminine. The man must worship the goddess in his wife and conversely the wife must see her husband as her god. We are just reflections of the beloved, striving in our imperfect way for union and liberation. Marriage should be the foundation that helps us achieve those goals." I would hope that the brief reference to obey, would not cause a reader to disregard everything else that this couple openly shares with us. Surely, Vatsala and Ehud have created a beautiful marriage, one of apparent honesty, equality, and shared values.
This book is an updated, revised version of A Marriage Made In Heaven that was first published in 2000, by Ten Speed Press. Vatsala and Ehud have now been married for sixteen years, and this new book reflects those years. I believe the Sperlings' new book is testament to their love and to their approach to marriage. For Seven Lifetimes is beautifully illustrated, and almost feels like a scrapbook in its design. It is a joy to read, fascinating in the way it brings together two cultures that seem very different but find many things in common, delightful for the development of a friendship between two highly intelligent and interesting people, and exciting for the ultimate coming together in marriage. There is much wisdom in For Seven Lifetimes - wisdom on living life well and fully, as well as of course, on creating an enduring, spiritually fulfilling partnership. Whether or not a reader agrees with every point shared in the book, I can't imagine anyone who would not come away from it enriched.
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