Autobio – my conscription dodge

Hey there UCommunity, my history is an unusual one, for some, and I write to capture it for us all as something to learn from. My ten years in the brahmachari ashram, or monastic yoga training college during my twenties, really brought the best out of me. Being trained in pukka brahminical priestly standards and practice, placed strict parameters in place for me to aspire to and I had some good role models. And with my capacity for self-discipline, foreign languages, as well as dancing, singing and feasting, I was able to excel, for a while.

At some point after about four years, I began to get a bit bored, and being the early 1990s in the old Apartheid South Africa, I was still obliged to do military service for my country, like every other white male. I had deferred it, partly as a student at UCT (university of Cape Town) and then the ashram college, for six years altogether and was already 24, but for some reason I can’t explain, I felt compelled to face my fate and arrive on the day that my papers demanded me to appear for military training that year. It was two years off to military boot camp – full throttle. I mean, there were guys fighting on the border for years as a grew up in my youth. The Nationalist Party of the Apartheid government placed troops on the border to fight black freedom fighters and communist-trained locals wanting their land back throughout the eighties. War raged in multiple countries north of my border for my entire early youth.

You can imagine the paradox of worlds meeting here in my mind and on the ground. I even now struggle to imagine the absurdity of the picture, but if I wasn’t there myself, I wouldn’t believe it. It came to a head after four years of strict celibacy and full on ashram training, raising at 4.00am every morning all year long to meditate for two hours, chant for two hours, and hear lectures for an hour, or give the lecture. I was trained well and ended up training others. Anyway, I had been living in saffron robes all the time and no longer had any western clothing, beside my slippers and a woolen hat for the shaved head. There were simply thicker shawls, and all cotton from India.

Not intimidated about being myself against the world, regardless of their opinion, I arrived at the military base in Cape Town on the morning of my conscription in my saffron robes and shaved head, and slippers. It was a fast day, I remember, we had them every fortnight, called Ekadasi – the 11th day of the lunar cycle. It was a fast day so I had only been eating raw fruit, if anything. My ashram head teacher dropped me off with the temple car, and I went into the military base. The details are fragmentory already after 30 years, but I know that I joined the crowd of a few hundred other eighteen-year-old guys there for call-up.

I remember one higher rank officer seeing me in the crowd and throwing some critical remarks already. Anyway, I boarded a bus and was driven 18 hours or so overnight inland to a desert military base proper, where we all disembarked, at the town called Bethlehem in the Orange Free State, as it’s known in old South Africa. I had met another vegetarian on the bus and we chatted a bit. Our fates were to differ it transpires. At the first announcement to all the new recruits, there was an officer that gave a speech in which he said, if there are any who have objections, they can come forward, or something to the effect of giving someone like me, in saffron robes and a shaved head, and slippers, the chance to have a say, which was pretty decent.

I ended up going for a full medical inspection and urine test with all the others, but at some point, was called into an office to meet with several other officers, one a psychologist, for an interview. I was interviewed for some time, I forget how long, but during that time I answered all their questions and explained myself in detail, my conclusion being that I only eat the food cooked at my temples by other priests, and so won’t be eating any of their cooked food and will only be eating raw fruit and veg while I’m with them, so probably won’t be much good as a soldier. I was direct but diplomatic. I never objected to military training, only to the need for dietary requirements.

They were not English first language men like me, so I spoke Afrikaans, my maternal grandmother’s language, as much as possible, but they were educated and spoke perfect English to me. I was never abused in any way whatsoever throughout my entire experience at that base. By the end of that first day, they told me that they would be sending me home on the next train in five days, and that I could have an empty barracks to myself, and help myself to any fruit or veg in the kitchens that I like while I’m there. I was basically honorably disqualified. They asked me to go through the proper channels of objection for the following year’s call up, which I was still eligible for, but by the following year, the government of South Africa was being peacefully negotiated over to the new ANC party under Nelson Mandela. So I never bothered, conscription was over, along with Apartheid.

I hung around in the military base for five days by myself, doing my two hours a day meditation and eating fruit. Eventually they took me to the Blue Train, a nice comfortable public train, ticket paid, along with five days wages, for having been in the army. How’s that for efficient, and decent. Apartheid government they were, driven by a subjective political religious doctrine that as Dutch Reformed Church members, they are a better race, but they treated their officer material well, now that I think about it. I was a university educated 24 year old, much too old to mold like the other new recruits, and they probably didn’t want the paper work, so they did the simplest thing and let me pass. They still gave me a warm winter military coat to wear while I was there, since it was winter and I was in my saffron cotton khadi cloth, and the beanie.

A week later I was back at the yoga ashram with my head teacher and the other students, reinvigorated to continue my life as a monk. I could have been sent to jail there for insubordination or something, or two years boot camp or border war, but was spared the jaws of fate, thanks to voluntarily taking sanctuary of the monastery instead. I ended up staying a monk for another six years, 10 years in total, and that incident with my military conscription will always be one for the books, hey?

One thing I learned from the experience is that sometimes your government is in the wrong and can be the very enemy who wants you to fight for them. And sometimes we need to have a resistance against overbearing military powers or regimes that remove our human rights for their selfish ends. And it can be a passive resistance, a boycott, divestment or sanction of the regime on a personal level, that can have its effect as we think globally and act locally.