Monday, 28 April 2014

Kohima Karma

Seventy years ago, on April 28th 1944, my father had a life-changing experience. It would have a profound effect on my own life as well. With the passing of time my understanding of its depths of meaning continues to increase. Robert Weston had got involved in a little thing known as the Second World War. At the age of 27, a man who had been brought up in Shepherd’s Bush London, who had spent his teenage years watching Queen’s Park Rangers football club, enjoying sport, and hanging out with his friends in various pubs, found himself on the opposite side of a tennis court in India to a group of Japanese soldiers whose idea of a good time was to die for their Emperor.

Dad was part of the 14th “forgotten” army, the British soldiers who fought in the Far-East, primarily in Burma, against Japan. In early 1944 the Japanese crossed from Burma into India, still the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, although nearing the time of its independence. 4,000 feet above sea-level, Kohima was a place of strategic importance, situated overlooking an important route into the country. The battle that occurred there has been called “the Stalingrad of the East”. British forces combined with Indian and the legendary Gurkhas to meet the attack.  2,500 of them were defending against 12,000 Japanese. As part of my personal process of learning and remembrance this year I read Road of Bones by Fergal Keane, a recent work on Kohima. It proved to be one of the most astounding books I've ever read. I was somewhat staggered to realise that my father had been part of something that made Apocalypse Now look like Noddy Goes To Toyland. If you find that hard to believe then read the book.

The centre of the siege was an area that came to be called Garrison Hill on which was situated the British Deputy Commissioner's bungalow. Its tennis court was the focus of a ferocious exchange. The two sides were dug in to trenches at either end. They were so near to each other that grenades were being thrown between them. There were many occasions of horrendous hand-to-hand fighting against Japanese who attacked with fixed bayonets or brandishing swords, screaming and shouting and showing no fear. To make matters worse they tended to attack in the middle of the night.

Captain John Moreton was one of a number of soldiers whose heroism in the battle became legendary and his story also involved my father.  Moreton was in the vicinity of the terrifying tennis court. He and a small group of men were trying to maintain some observation posts in order to relay information to their artillery. Doing this often meant he had to run around dodging sniper fire. There was almost a week of relentless intensity that was at its worst between 2am and 7am on April 28th when grenades were being thrown between opponents who were separated by barely 10 metres. Moreton was wounded in the shoulder that morning but carried on throwing grenades regardless, and managed to use a sten gun to kill a Japanese soldier advancing towards him. He provided a great service by enabling British artillery to be profitably engaged against the enemy. They were driven back as a result.  Moreton would receive a medal for his pains and went on to a distinguished diplomatic career.

Bob Weston was acting as a signaller to Moreton in a forward observation post cut off on top of Garrison Hill, during those terrible nights. During the same attack in which Moreton was wounded a grenade exploded near his cover, leaving multiple small fragments of shrapnel in his back and left ankle. As if this wasn’t enough, the Japanese were no respecters of the Red Cross flag. Whilst my father was being carried on a stretcher down the hill his little group came under fire. This was clearly a nexus point of destiny as he had a number of opportunities to die but didn’t, thus ensuring a timeline in which I and my own children had the chance of existing. 

The Japanese campaign was not that well organised. Supplies were minimal and this ultimately led to their withdrawal. They suffered as extensively in their retreat as in the battle. It became known as the “Road of Bones”. Starving men committed suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades, a practice my father once said he had witnessed from a soldier determined not to surrender. 

Lung damage was a permanent weakness that affected the rest of Bob Weston’s life. He often experienced chest pains and became short of breath, tiring easily. In 1952 he nearly died of pneumonia. Yet another nexus point whereby I might never have existed. He was granted a small war disability pension. I have a number of memories from my early childhood of kicking a football around in the garden with him when he would have to stop and go and lie down, sometimes for a long time. Eventually a chest infection would be recorded as his cause of death, although he had done rather well to reach a rather fragile 84 years of age.

There was a mental as well as physical legacy that endured beyond the war years. One of the notable differences between Shepherd’s Bush and Burma was the monsoon season. It was bad enough to be in a jungle with the constant background fear of legendarily brutal Japanese madmen suddenly appearing as if from nowhere. The endless rain and thunder made it even worse. Right until the end of his life my father was irrationally uncomfortable in heavy rain and certainly during thunder storms. He was fully aware it was due to his jungle experiences.

We never had any Japanese products in our home. If he saw anyone of oriental appearance he would cross the road to avoid them. This was in the Essex of the sixties before parties of Japanese tourists brandishing cameras had become part of the national landscape. When my father retired, he was gifted by his employers with a Japanese sound system. It was accepted and made use of, thus breaking a long established habit. 

The nightmares were the worst thing. It’s strange that they seemed to intensify as the decades went by. Sometimes it was scenes set directly in the jungle. Usually it was a strange mix where he found Japanese soldiers in the kitchen and engaged in a ferocious struggle with them, flailing about and waking up shouting. Fifty years after Kohima it had got so bad that my parents had to get separate beds because my mother was getting hit by his arms and legs during the fights with the enemy. This was rather sad after forty years of marriage. 

So I didn’t have an action-man father to play football with. I had a father who was often overly anxious about nothing in particular and also had a reserve that I considered to be a false personality. Many males take a strong imprint from their father. I didn’t. All of this left me to my own devices. I became a solitary reader of books. I developed interests beyond the norm. Nonetheless, I was always a history freak, fascinated and perplexed by the processes that had shaped my parent’s lives and, in turn, my own.

I got snippets of information about the war from dad but, knowing what I did about the campaigns against Japan, I understood that he was probably keeping some intense stuff under wraps in archetypal British fashion. One day, long after I’d given up on the idea that he would ever open up on the subject, everything changed. And it changed in such a way as to bring in my apparently divergent life that hadn’t seemed to have any obvious continuity with his. It changed in a way that was as mind-blowing as any of my occult adventures.

It was Christmas Day 1994. Dad had just turned 77. Mum was preparing the dinner and that left me and dad in the kind of awkward conversational zone that I often found tragically embarrassing. I’d been watching yet another repeat run of the great documentary series The World at War and the edition concerning Kohima and Burma had been shown just a few weeks before so I mentioned that I had seen it. To my amazement, the floodgates opened. 

The timing proved to be extraordinary. I was in the rundown to being initiated as a Reiki Master in Glastonbury in a months’ time. It was all part of a process that would see me leave Essex for Somerset the following June. I had been absorbed in Eastern Religions for most of that year and had just created a kind of guru gallery in my hall with a line of about 20 A4 pictures along the wall of everyone from Buddha and Jesus to Padmasambhava, Ramakrishna, Paramahansa Yogananda, and more modern figures like Rajneesh, Adi Da, and Mother Meera. I had a space clear where I intended to put an image of Meher Baba but I hadn’t been able to find one I liked enough yet.

Bob Weston arrived in India in 1942. He hated it. The sight of the Taj Mahal had not moved him in the slightest. The food, the smells, the people, were generally objects of disdain. Despite his indifference, he still had leave-time to spend and played the tourist to some extent. I discovered that he visited a number of temples in Calcutta and this is where the sense of mystery began to come in. Did he perhaps visit the great temple of Kali at Dakshineswar, so powerfully activated by Ramakrishna? British soldiers are known to have frequented Indian brothels.  In Calcutta some of the prostitutes consider themselves to be devotees of Kali. Quizzing him on this was not exactly the sort of topic I could bring up over Christmas lunch in the presence of my mother.  Kali had been quite a strong influence in my life that year and I had a very strong feeling of attraction to Dakshineswar. I did rather wonder what strange forces might be at play.

In 1942 my father was in the city then known as Poona. He spent a lot of time there. Fifty years later I finally got round to taking the sannyas initiation of the controversial Osho Rajneesh, whose ashram centre was situated in Poona. Did my father perhaps pass by the location fifty years earlier? That was a strange symmetry to contemplate.

I felt an increasing sense of mystery on that Christmas morning but the best was yet to come. My father also spent time at an army camp at a place called Ahmednagar. During some free time an officer mentioned that he was heading out on a curiosity excursion into nearby hills where a “holy man” lived in a cave. Dad accompanied him and another man, literally just for something to do. He had no interest whatsoever in Indian holy men. Sure enough a venerable white bearded dude was encountered in his cave home. Blessings of some sort were given. I was completely discombobulated by this. I had started doing yoga at the age of ten. My bookshelves had groaned under the weight of material on Indian spirituality and my father had never mentioned this wonderful anecdote. “I didn’t think it was important” he said.

When normal householders approach a saintly being in India, the hope is for help with the basics of life; health, family, job, etc. Dad saw this guy before Kohima, survived life-threatening circumstances, and went on to father a son who became immersed in Indian spirituality. The wounds received at Kohima were in defence of India. My father would not have thought of it in quite that way. He would have considered himself to have been fighting for Britain and its empire against an evil foe but it was still the case that it was an invasion of India that was being resisted. The Indian concept of karma, now thoroughly imported into western vocabulary, raises some interesting possibilities. Was my father really a stranger to India? Had he perhaps been a warrior there before? Could the same perhaps be said of many of the British soldiers who fought in the east?

The head and shoulders of this photo of Meher Baba formed the image I eventually used of him in my guru gallery. This photo was taken in 1927, the same year he visited Glastonbury.

The missing face on my hall guru gallery was Meher Baba. He had created a spiritual community in the vicinity of Ahmednagar in the twenties and went on to visit the west, becoming quite famous in America amongst the Hollywood set, passing through Glastonbury, and going on to inspire Pete Townshend to create the famous rock opera Tommy. Baba was considered by his devotees to be an avatar, a divine incarnation of comparable status to Krishna and Christ. His most notable feature from a conventional point of view was his 44 year silence. He communicated via a bizarre alphabet board. There are numerous accounts of his tangible emanation of supreme love-bliss. Uptight Brits of the thirties burst into tears at the sight of him. 

I was particularly interested in Baba’s extraordinary activities during the Second World War. He spent years travelling the length and breadth of India rounding up a strange group of characters he called Masts. These were isolated god-intoxicated types who often seemed to be completely crazy. He gathered them together in camps and somehow worked with them on what could be termed the inner plane aspect of the war. For example, one Mast seemed strangely connected with the war in France and, without any knowledge of the situation there, thrashed around in a frenzy of emotional upset on the day it surrendered. During the same period of time that I was becoming increasingly interested in the so-called Magical Battle of Britain, Dion Fortune and Nazi Occultism, the Eastern side of the struggle came into view. I would later create a lecture called The Gurus and the Occult War with the material I would discover. Baba seemed to know of every obscure holy man on the sub-continent. The chances of him knowing of, and indeed having interacted with, the venerable dude in the cave my father met are very high. Meher Baba’s tomb shrine, a place of pilgrimage for thousands is situated near to Ahmednagar.

William Donkin's The Wayfarers is a huge account of Baba and the Masts during the war. It is an entirely unique work.


Meher Baba with Masts. He would often personally bathe people who might not have washed in decades.


These perspectives became visible as I was about to be fully initiated into a spiritual system that arose in its current form in Japan. It was fighting against the Japanese that had permanently debilitated my father. Reiki founder Mikao Usui’s successor was Chujiro Hayashi a former naval officer who had apparently served in the Russo-Japanese War from 1902-1906, became a captain, and later Director of Ominato Port Defense Station on the Shimokita Peninsula in the North of Japan before retirement. Hayashi trained Hawayo Takata who introduced Reiki to the west. The legend is that he consciously deliberately died in May 1940 rather than become involved in the Japanese military again.

                                                                Chujiro Hiyashi

This was complex stuff and again spoke to me of karma and suggested that history works in profoundly mysterious ways that academics may never even glimpse. It was very moving to me that my parents were happy to receive first degree Reiki atunements from me in April 1995 and were reatuned whenever I saw them on my visits back to the family home from my new base in Glastonbury. In fact the last time I saw my father was on a day when I gave him a reatunement. He was very frail and asked me if I thought it was a waste of time? “This is never a waste of time” I said. A month later he was dead. My parent’s funerals were exactly ten years apart, on the first Friday in the Februarys of 2002 and 2012. That in itself has given me pause for thought.


It’s worth telling another family story here that also concerns the war against Japan and hints of mysterious karma. It links two immense world-historical events, the fall of Singapore and 9/11.

 The Weston family. Summer 1939. Robert (my father) at left end of sitting row. Bert extreme right standing.

I never met by father’s brother. Bert was also swept up in the gigantic events of the Second World War. Not long after the birth of his first child Edward, he was called up and sent to the Far East. It was his misfortune to find himself in Singapore.

After Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Japanese lost no time in putting their enormous geo-political plans into operation and rapidly attacked British colonial targets. The most strategically important was Singapore on the tip of Malaysia.

One of the great jewels of the empire, the city was heavily fortified all around its sea-front but a belief that the Malaysian jungle terrain was impenetrable to any invading army had left its land-side undefended. This proved to be a catastrophic error.

The Japanese moved with great speed and ferocity and despite having smaller forces captured the city in February 1942 after the British and Allied troops were forced to surrender. Appalling savagery characterised their conduct throughout the entire campaign. Australian soldiers who had surrendered were doused in petrol and set alight. In Singapore itself, nearly two hundred patients and staff at the Alexandra Hospital were killed for sick kicks.

It was the greatest British defeat in the war and in many ways our entire history. Retrospectively it probably signalled, more than any other event, the dissolution of the British Empire. The myth of white European superiority, already well-dented, was essentially destroyed. Nothing would ever be the same again.

My uncle Bert was amongst nearly a hundred thousand Allied soldiers taken prisoner. All that is known of his fate is that he ended up as a prisoner working on the notorious Death Railway of Bridge over the River Kwai fame. He never returned.

I’m not going to linger over the kind of treatment the prisoners received. I do consider it to be an essential part of any education that purports to cover the twentieth century to include the details and would refer those interested to Lord Russell of Liverpool’s masterly The Knights of Bushido.

Bert’s son Edward scarcely knew his father. He was by no means alone in coming into incarnation with such a destiny at that time. In due course he made a success out of his life and in turn raised a family of his own. Christmas card round-robin letters informed the greater family of his sons’ welcome progress. One of them left Britain for America and secured a job working in one of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In early September 2001 various circumstances arose that led him to decide to take a holiday off work on the 11th in order to play golf. As a result he escaped another enormous event on the greater world stage.

I can’t help but note a strange symmetry in the life of a man who never knew his own father due to his involvement in a huge historical event but whose own son was spared a similar fate. To emphasise that something far from random was at work, Edward’s son later found himself in London, traveling on an underground train on the morning of July 7th 2005. He soon became aware of, but was unharmed by, the bomb explosions and chaos of that day.

Millions died in the conflicts that characterised the twentieth century. Part of the horror that accompanies this comes through a feeling of meaninglessness and general futility. There’s no doubting that a lot of the suffering makes no immediate sense at all.

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of karma, group souls, reincarnational processes and hidden forces at work behind world-historical events. I’m inclined to feel that my little family story gives a glimpse of such things in motion. I tend to think they are more widespread than many would suspect once one is able to spot them. The presence of any such episodes serves to change one’s attitude to the mystery of how we find ourselves alive in this particular epoch and what we might become involved in. It helps to loosen the grip of a grim materialism.