Unshakable Faith: Survivors of the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

Even after the loss of their own in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, a Virginia spiritual community continues to believe in one consciousness.
By April Witt
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Naomi bent over the exotic, blood-red flower blossoms that flourished in the ashram garden and breathed in. It was a delicious moment of perfect peace: Naomi Scherr, just 13 years old, her shoulder-length strawberry-hued hair damp from the Indian heat, her face full of wonder at the beauty of a world she was just discovering. It was the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008.

Lingering in a sacred garden on the outskirts of the busy Indian port city of Mumbai was just one more blissful interlude on the 10th day of what had been a joyous spiritual journey for Naomi, her father, Alan Scherr, 58, and 23 fellow pilgrims with an international meditation group based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Inside the ashram, young monks chanted hauntingly beautiful prayers in Sanskrit for the spiritual tour group from the Synchronicity Foundation. "It was heaven," recalled Helen Connolly, a yoga teacher from Toronto who was Naomi's roommate on the trip. Afterward, as their giant tour bus threaded past the tiny motorcycle taxis called tuk-tuks that clog Mumbai's streets, Helen had the dreamy sense of being inside an orca as it swam through schools of minnows.

Later that evening, in a rented hall in downtown Mumbai, the pilgrims sat meditating with the America guru who had led them to India: Master Charles Cannon. Indian locals wandered in to join them and greet the visiting guru, a trim, quietly charismatic 63-year-old mystic with a down-to-earth manner. Master Charles teaches a holistic view of the universe in which everyone and everything -- sunlight and shadow -- are one unified consciousness; and in which the events of this world, whatever they may be, are somehow meant to be. As Master Charles brought this night's session to a close, pilgrims and locals spilled onto the dark streets, still relishing the blissed-out, almost opiated state that some longtime meditation practitioners achieve. Master Charles, however, sensed shadow. As the guru and his followers made their own way back to their five-star hotel, the Oberoi, Master Charles had the incongruous sense that something was about to happen. Be alert, he thought: Ah, it's very close.

Four days earlier, on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 22, a small boat launched from the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi. Its passengers were 10 young men who had spent months training for this moment. Each carried a large rucksack stocked with Kalashnikov ammunition, two 9mm pistols, hand grenades, an Improvised Explosive Device and a cellphone. The young men, terrorists recruited from across Pakistan, journeyed into the Arabian Sea. They were headed more than 500 nautical miles south -- to Mumbai.

Soon after embarking from Karachi, these men schooled as jihadists, holy warriors for Islam, shifted to a larger boat as prearranged, according to a dossier Indian officials later compiled detailing the terrorists' movements. One of them told authorities that the larger boat belonged to a commander of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant Islamic group that has been fighting Indian rule in the heavily Muslim border region of Kashmir.

The following afternoon, the jihadists' vessel came alongside an Indian fishing boat carrying a crew of five. The jihadists boarded the fishing boat and killed four of the fisherman. They kept the captain alive to help navigate the remaining three days of their journey.

On the afternoon of Nov. 26 -- the same afternoon that Naomi and her fellow pilgrims were admiring flowers in an ashram garden -- the jihadists set anchor four nautical miles off Mumbai. Then they waited and made final preparations for the night ahead.

What lay ahead was terror and slaughter across Mumbai -- three days that came to be known as India's 9/11. What lay ahead in one tiny corner of the city was a strangely synchronistic meeting of the yin and yang: American mystics who believe they are one with the universe encountering terrorists with guns in hand. What lay ahead, Master Charles would come to say as survivors struggled to understand and heal, was the eternal oscillation of sunlight and shadow, "the experience whose time has come, the happening of the happening."


As soon as it grew dark, the 10 jihadists loaded their rucksacks into an inflatable dinghy equipped with an outboard motor and headed for shore. They left the fishing boat captain behind, his throat slit. It took one hour and 15 minutes, navigating by a Global Positioning System device, to reach shore at about 8:30 p.m. They quickly divided into small, heavily armed teams and fanned out across Mumbai's commercial district. Dressed casually in khakis or cargo pants and carrying backpacks, they looked like ordinary college kids.

Their mission was simple and terrible: "Inflict the maximum damage," they were told by their handlers in Pakistan, according to cellphone transcripts compiled by Indian authorities.

And that is what they began to do.

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