Sadhana Mandir Ashram
Today we leave to go home to the ashram. The touring is over. Now we will stay in rest for a while, and then attend the inauguration of the hospital with Gurudev. On the road is a terrible accident. A large truck carrying tons of rocks, turned over trying to avoid another truck. The driver was killed. His body is clearly visible lying in the wreckage of glass, steel, plastic, the steering wheel and many of the rocks he was carrying. Gasoline is dripping unto the road.
We were held back three hours waiting for police to write reports and allow traffic to continue. I was stunned seeing the body; I had never been that close to accidental death before. I prayed for the man and his family, hoping it would be taken care of. Finally we came to the ashram and were swallowed up into its peace and tranquility. The ashram is like an oasis in the dusty countryside. Snowy white buildings, bright green trees, plants and flowers everywhere. Everything is in order, quiet, serene.
The new group is here now and I greet Carol from Chicago, whom I met many years ago and Chris, a lovely young woman filled with enthusiasm. The paths of India are full of “chance” meetings. There was Wolfgang, whom I had not seen in 15 years, and Bertha who I meet after 9 years. One day Brian and I were strolling in Rishikesh near the Swarg Ashram and he meets a woman he went to high school with!
I passed an older, distinguished guest wearing a Sikh turban as I returned from collecting my laundry off the line. My left hand held 6 pair of underwear and over my shoulder I had flung my green shirt. When I came near he greeted me, “Namaste” and bowed deeply to me, hands uplifted in the prayer position. My mind was a mass of confusion. What is the appropriate protocol in a case like this? To not return his bow might be offensive; on the other hand . . . I chose the other hand and raised my hands in greeting. “Namaste.” My underwear swung up to my face, nearly hitting his, one pair of silk pants landing on my right shoulder. I saw his face begin to blanch before I continued on my way.
Evening, Day of Inauguration
I am sitting in the ashram dining room eating our supper of soup and chapati when I hear my name whispered nearby. I cannot see anyone even looking at me. “Psst, Theresa!” There it was again. I finally realized it came from behind the screen at the darkening window. It is Kamal, telling me that my teacher wants to see me. I should come to him at his home in the medical city at nine the next morning.
After dinner we walk down the flower decorated walks to the lecture hall to hear a talk by Swami Veda, the former Sanskrit scholar from the University of Minnesota who a few years earlier took vows of renunciation on the banks of the Ganges, entering the centuries-old order of Swamis, organized by the great philosopher saint Shankara. He sits before us on a small raised box, legs folded, bright eyes shining behind round spectacles, hand caressing his black and white beard.
"Welcome to this holy place," he tells us." I want to give you a special practice that I know most of you do not practice in your daily lives. Practice being lazy. Let your body be lazy, but mostly let your mind be lazy. Sit and do nothing. Just let the divine appear to you. See the spiritual in every grain of dirt. God is everywhere."
The next morning I travel by car with Wolfgang and his brother Victor. We speak of Swamiji, stories, what else? So many Indian people wait outside his door. We wait a while and then are called up. In and out the couples move, until there is only one couple before my standing in line on the porch before the screen door, and a long line behind me.
“Theresa!” the old imperious summons comes through the screen door. I hurry inside to the sofa where he sits.
“Swamiji, I thought you forgot me.” I say and am immediately folded up into a huge, warm bear hug, while held against my teacher he says, “Never, never, will I forget you. Never in a thousand lives.”
He asks how I am and I ask about himself. “You have become so thin, Swamiji”
“Yes. How is publishing going?”
“It’s going OK . . .”
“Yes, it is very, very hard.”
I pull out my gifts. “Underwear for you. And socks and maple syrup and vitamins.” He smiles warmly, a knowing smile. Over twenty years I always thought of his practical needs. He always called me Mommy because of it.
“How long are you staying, Mom?”
When I tell him, he looks pleased and asks, “Where are my two Gunks?”
I say we will meet in New Delhi on November 1st as he smiles and nods. “I will talk with you again.” And he stands, puts his arm around me and looks at the long line that has since formed in the hallway, down the steps, into the yard.
Lying on my bed in the afternoon sun, I am thinking about the group which will leave tomorrow. I have grown to love some of them and am saddened that we will split apart and each go our own ways. That leads me to thinking of Charles and Justin, missing them also. The days ahead loom long and lonely. I close my eyes and find that my heart is full of longing for what I do not know. It seemed like a great longing for love itself, for the power that holds the universe together. Unthought words squeezed out of some deep part of me, "Ah love, come to me soon!"
Suddenly, as if on a screen, the face of Charles is before my eyes, clear and serene. As I recognize him, the face becomes Justin, then Michael, Ralph, Swamiji in rapid succession like a child switching channels on TV. When the face of Swamiji smiles, it becomes the face of Lord Shiva, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and then a round white disk, growing in size and brilliance until it fills my head, my mind, my whole body, leaving me stunned, filled with awe.
I manage to open my eyes to the afternoon cool as Doris walks in the room carrying cups. "Tea?" she asks. "You look like you could use some."
Oh, I’m going to miss Doris very much, I think as we sip tea together and I listen to her exploits in the ashram dining room. After a while she asked for my address so she could write to me. I drew a complete blank. I did not know my address. But more than that, I did not know my name. I tried hard to think, but my mind just jumped over year after year in the past, then decades ago, lives ago, but no name came forth, only images of myself with many names.
“Theresa!” My companion was shaking my shoulder in concern. She must have realized that I could not remember my address. She was saying, “Look at your suitcase!”
Ah, my name is Theresa, I thought. Good. I’ve got that. Now where do I live? Not here in India?
By this time Doris was up, dragging my luggage out of the closet. I read the tag out loud to her and as I did so, my memory came flooding back to me. I then remembered who I was, but now it was just like the feeling of putting on an old coat. Quite lovely, I admitted to the divine, but only a covering.
Shri Kunjapuri Devi Temple
Today a group of us went by bus up to the Kunjapuri Temple outside Rishikesh. It was a small pilgrimage for me since we had to walk up more than 100 steps to reach the top. Once there, it is beautiful. A tiny white temple on the peak of the 2000-meter hill. Everything is painted snow white and we learn that in winter the ground around the temple is usually covered with one foot of snow.
We all crowd into the temple and sit on the white marble floor around the Shiva lingam/yoni. As the two pandits perform a small puja for us, we then close our eyes to meditate. After a few moments I feel something a bit heavy fall on the top of my head. Knowing it was impossible for anyone to even move, we were pushed so close together in the little space, I ignored it until I felt it move down my neck, shoulder, and part of the arm. Then nothing. I opened my eyes and looked at my right arm. Next to it was a huge black spider, its body about 4 inches in diameter, crawling on the wall behind the person next to me. Around the temple it crawled, behind the pandits near the door, and then into a drain for water on the opposite wall. Now I felt honored that the spider chose to bless me that way! “Wrap me in your web, oh Divine One,” I prayed until we were called out as the sun went down.
Tat Walla Baba Cave
Here we are back in the bus again, but this time certainly not a deluxe. The tiny seats are three in a row, a small aisle, and then two seats on the other side. Thus squashed in, in full knowledge of each other’s Western hips, we travel across the Ganges river in a harrowing ride on the dirt road full of potholes and stones. Stories circulate about the buses that fall off mountains each year and we gasp as the wheels come within inches of the drop off, growing deeper with each turn of the road.
We climb up to the little ashram on large rocks set in the dirt of the hill. It has changed much in the twenty years since I have been there. Now there is a little brick room where once stood a tin roof held up by a few tree branches. We enter the dark interior to find Swami Shankar Das Maharaj. The pandit speaks to him in Hindi and calls me forward. Swami smiles broadly, showing beautiful teeth and shining dark eyes as he learns I visited there so long ago and spoke with his teacher a few months before his death. He is thin, and his hands shake a bit as he sits before us in his ochre garments. His sunken cheeks tell me he should have some medical care, but he smiles contentedly as he welcomes us to his home and place of worship.
The group settles down on the dirt in the heat. Swami passes out palm fans to make us cool and offers little bits of rag to sit on. We ask him questions as the camera crew busies itself with lights and angles and film.
“Swamiji, what is spirituality?”
“It is the merging of the self with God, the realization that self is not separate from the divine, the attainment of God-realization.”
The rich answer has everyone thinking hard about the possibilities until someone asks, “How can one achieve that?”
The answer comes back loud and clear, “Meditation.”
Brush away the fly
One afternoon at lunch Michael asks me a question, "What should we do when we are meditating and a fly lands on our face? Should I brush the fly away and thus disturb my meditation, or should I remain unmovable and let the fly walk on my face? Theresa, what do you think?"
I laugh at the idea, probably because I also had the same question many years before. "Well, Michael, you should brush the fly away. If you are really in the state of meditation you will not know there is a fly on your face anyway. If you are not in meditation the movement of the fly will prevent you from putting your mind anywhere save on the fly! It's more important what happens after the meditation. But I think you should ask Pandit Rajmani tonight at the talk."
That evening when the Pandit asked if we had any questions, Michael raised his hand and asked about the fly. Rajmani answered immediately, "Brush away the fly!"
But sir, I thought we should develop tolerance for things like that in meditation. Is that not right?"
"Tolerance? Grow tolerance for people, not flies!"
And Michael looked over at me with a big smile on his face.
We walked through a rarefied atmosphere of Vindhyachal with tall trees waving overhead, sweet smelling breezes, cool, yet seemingly filled with energy, the air so full of peace that I felt we had left India and were walking through some new land, ethereal, perfect, other worldly.
We are led to a raised cement platform beneath a neem tree. Yogis sit there in a group on a sheet of yellow oilcloth. As we approach the tree, smiling our foreign smiles, loading our cameras, wondering what we will experience here, the small group of men welcome us and move off the oilcloth so that we can climb up to sit in comfort beneath the tree. We are too many for the space, but we manage to smash in, sitting on each other's hands and feet, bumping heads and bottoms, claiming a square foot of space while trying to appear earnest and respectful. Finally we are quiet and one of the yogis is introduced to us. He is one of the leaders of this group of agora yogis, those much feared and much revered men of the Indian subcontinent.
From a small cement hut a hundred feet away emerges a man dressed all in black. His hair is very short, as if his head were shaved and were now growing back. He has a fashionable two-day growth of beard. His eyes are flashing in laughter as he approaches us. As he climbs up to the dais, several students bow to him, touch his feet, offer him tea. This clearly is the other teacher of whom we have been told. I find that I am only a few feet away from him, definitely in his line of vision, and able to feel strong natural power emanating from this man. He whispers something to one of his students and says to us in English, "Where do you come from?" Our pandit begins introductions in Hindi, telling him of our group plans, places we have been, why we are there. The yogi, we are told, is called "the ghost" by one of the older monks, and so that became his name: "Ghost Baba." The one next to him is called Kapali, "The Skull." The student returns with a pack of Indian cigarettes and Ghost Baba carefully removes one and lights up. He smiles and blows the smoke upwards, apparently thinking tranquil and yet funny thoughts. "What do you want to ask?”
The group is stunned into silence and we all attempt to think up an appropriate question for this great man. One man from South America, who has never been to India before nor studied with a master decides to plunge right in.
"Why do you smoke?" he says loudly.
"What?" asks the agora baba.
The pandit laughs nervously. This is not a proper question for a great yogi. This may even be called disrespectful. He attempts to explain that this is a new student.
"Well, with all the emphasis on health in yoga, I would like to know why you are smoking when we are told how harmful smoking is to health."
The agora baba holds up his hand to silence the pandit's renewed apologies. "Are you sure that I am smoking? Are you sure you are seeing me? Are you sure you can believe what you see? Do you believe that what you see with your eyes is real? Am I what you see? Why not smoke if I am in the smoke?”
We all try to digest this idea and I feel a mixture of fear and awe creeping its way up my spine. His intense eyes peer into me. "What do you see? Are you sure?" he asks again and then bursts into laughter. "Your eyes are the last things to trust," he continues, "because they cannot see within. They cannot even see within yourself. In order to see inside yourself what do you do? You close your eyes! Perhaps our eyes are badly placed. Perhaps it would have been a better design if our eyes were placed in the center of our palms. There we could just lift our arms to see far away or near, or quickly move from side to side." He laughs at his own idea and several of the group agrees that that would be a good idea. "But then the eye placement would have other difficulties, no? Other questions?”
Someone who has practiced for several years blurts out, "How does one get to samadhi?"
Without stopping at all, he answers as if he had no power to deny the answer, "Get the breath less than six inches, less than four inches and you will reach samadhi." I look around to a mixture of reactions. The fulltime yogis nod sagely; the longtime students open their eyes in wonder at the gift of knowledge so casually bestowed, the beginners look confused. But the agora baba is not finished with the idea yet.
"What type of samadhi do you want?” he asks. “If the yogi can control the breath to the extent of consciously reaching samadhi, then the yogi can choose any samadhi: dropping one body and taking another one, dead or alive; disappearing into thin air, turning into sky, moving underground to live, there are many different ways."
"Did you say moving into a living body? How is that possible?"
The baba turns quickly toward the questioner, "Why not? he snaps. “It is not being used well. Did you not know that we use only 10% of our neurons in our body? Someone else can use the rest of them. Why not?
"How many vibrations are created from the letter A? Do you understand? What type and how many vibrations emanate from the letter A in literature? What is the physical vibrations of this sound? What are the characteristics of the vibrations? What do they do? We have long been aware that sound is vibration, no? Remember in your own scriptures it is written, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.’ Why has Western science not investigated those vibrations of word and sound and the letter A? In our science we study these things. We investigate the energy of all things: elements, bodies, environment, sound, thought, breath. We investigate and then learn to control them. Is not everything energy? Nothing is exactly what it appears to be is it? I could, for example, eat a human body. Actually it tastes very good.”
My heart begins a strange sort of pounding. Is it fear? Fascination? Excitement at unexpected but secretly hoped for knowledge?
As if reading my feelings he says, "Why not eat it? Why should we not eat humans? We eat each other every day, don't we? We are constantly changing elements: we change apana (exhalation) to prana (inhalation), we change thought into words, in business we eat each other for commerce to make a profit. Why should we not eat human bodies? It does not matter. Why not ingest wine, meat, even human meat? When you realize --truly realize--that you are god, you can do that. I cannot eat a human being on my own. Who gives the order? Who puts the thought in my head? Who provides the opportunity? We can do nothing without God.”
After a long silence someone behind me asks, "How can I learn to control the elements?"
"Well, which element do I begin with?"
"Earth first, then fire, then water, then air, then thought and sound."
Our Pandit turns to the group and says, "Remember? We follow the chakras: first muladhara, then manipura, then back to swaddhisthana, and so forth. Just as you have been taught."
Someone asks about the vibrations of the inner self and the vibrations of yogic mantra. The baba tells us that the vibrations of these two are quite different and should not be mixed. Practice one or the other science, whichever your teacher gives you. Follow the instruction of the teacher. He elaborates that the body parts produce 1/10,000 vibrations per second. With the use of mantra, the body parts will change their vibrations and effect change in oneself as well as with the elements and one's environment.
"Babaji, can we then affect the pollution of the world?"
"Yes, why not? Do you know what is the world's greatest pollution? What pollution is worrying the great sages and yogis, even those doing spiritual practice in other realms?"
A few people attempt guesses: pollution of the oceans, smoke from the burning forests, chemicals dumped into the ground, radioactive pollutants from reactors.
The baba answers for us, "Noise pollution, he insists. The great ones are very concerned by the vibrations caused by all the radio, television, computer, satellite, and traffic sounds simultaneously rocketing around the earth. It could be disastrous. The great ones have realized that the only way to counter it is mantra. The powerful vibrations of sacred mantras can change the damage done to the elements by sound pollution."
We speak to him about the work of some saints and teachers who are teaching sacred mantra in the United States. He is pleased to know that one group is chanting Chandi, the incredibly beautiful mantra to the Mother of the Universe. Ghost Baba shows us a sacred manuscript which he lovingly unwraps from its protection of silken wrappings and plastic covers. He hands it gently to the pandit. "I am working on an English translation of this work, the Sundari Lahari."
The Pandit kisses the manuscript in his hands and tells us what it is. I am delighted. Years ago our own teacher taught us about this prayer to the Divine Feminine and taught us to sing some verses morning and evening. The pandit begins chanting and we all join in. It must have been an unusual happening for the little band of yogis. Sitting in front of them was a group of foreigners--Americans, North and South, Europeans, visitors from the Caribbean Islands, from Africa and the Philippines, wearing sunglasses, all sporting cameras, camcorders, cassette recorders, and singing Sanskrit verses hundreds of years old.
Agora Baba stands and wishes us a good trip. He points us to the sacred place in the nearby field and gives us all his blessing. He looks at me for a moment as I lift my head from the bow. He reminds me so much of my own teacher. The strange prickling begins to rise again on my spine as I begin the climb down from beneath the tree and shrug into my running shoes with the rest of the group. Time to move on.
We walk along a dirt road, through beautiful fields while birds sing concerts about us. This is an exceptionally holy place says Panditji, "Here is where a great saint called Bhole Baba left his body years ago." Bhole Baba, the Innocent Yogi, the young accomplished disciple of one of the greatest yogis of the century dropped his body while seated in the state of samadhi and took on the body of another, floating dead down the nearby river. We stand before the place of this event, a small dung covered brick temple painted in yellow with a ceremonial flag flying from the roof. We read the little brass sign on the nearby brick porch: "Built by Bengali Baba in 1917." This is the mahasamadhi of Bhole Baba. All around the place, sacred tulsi plants are growing, sending out their healing oils to waft through the air. A large neem tree whispers overhead.
While we stand deep in thought, an old yogi walks up to us. "Oh, over there last month Horse Baba consciously left his body in front of us. He was more than 150 years old. We will build a little monument to him also. Just last month. Sorry you missed it."
I am overcome with awe at the peace and power of the place, at the thought that great beings do such things, experimenting with form and energy so as to teach others about the secrets of life and death, wondering at the utter simplicity of the place, of the design, of the extraordinary amount of ignorance modern beings have about themselves. If one can do it, surely all can do it. I recall the Christian scriptures where Jesus said, "Greater things than these you will do also." Where have we gone astray? What all have we forgotten? Why?
I walk away reluctantly, my astonishment of the day wrapped like a secret treat to savor later. When I return to the dirt path, I look up to see a beautiful brown and white cow looking my way. She is feeding her calf, standing peacefully still, sharing her treasure with her baby, banging clumsily underneath her soft parts, just like the rest of us on this Earth. I thank the Divine Mother for her generosity and run on to catch the group already getting into taxis.