In 1977 Das and I joined a large group of devotees from America for our first trip to India. We were to spend three months in Baba Muktananda’s ashram, Gurudev Siddha Peeth. After a long drive through the rural landscape of small dusty villages and parched country, the bus from the airport pulled up outside the ashram.
I had seen pictures and videos of the ashram, but I was unprepared for its beauty—a small palace, it gleamed shakti from every corner. We walked through the gates to a small marble courtyard and it took my breath away. ‘Leave your ego with your shoes’ demanded the sign above the shoe rack. Amused I took that as my first Ganeshpuri command.
Immediately, I felt an acceptance, a familiar welcome that was Baba. He was sitting on his perch at the front of the courtyard waiting to greet us. The atmosphere was exotic and inviting. There were date palm, mango and banana trees planted throughout. We all sat down. After a short while he told us to take rest. We were shown to our rooms and I collapsed on the bed for almost twenty-four hours. The next morning I awoke to clanging bells and a loud chant blaring over the loudspeakers. Nityananda Mahan rang out as I made my way to the program. I was cold from the early morning damp and not used to walking on the marble floors, which sent shivers up my spine.
The Ann Arbor ashram was a small world compared to this one. Life was big here. Hundreds of Westerners and Indians worked together, meditated together, ate together, and lived together. More devotees came on the weekend often bringing delicious sweets and curries.
I became aware that I had been carrying a burden of some sort, and that I now felt much lighter. A subtle weight had been lifted. It was easy to settle into ashram life. There was little discomfort or friction.
We were asked to report for ashram seva, service to the Guru. I was given a mop and a bucket and told to scrub the floor of the outer courtyard where everyone entered. The ‘ego’ sign was visible as I washed and scrubbed.
Every morning for the next three days I went to the seva desk for my bucket and brush. I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed each marble tile with great thoroughness and inner joy. My acceptance was so deep that when they told me to scrub the cracks with a toothbrush, I was still ecstatic, such was the exalted condition of my spirit.
The outer courtyard comprised the entrance to the large courtyard where Baba sat, and to the temple that held the murti of Bhagavan Nityananda. Bhagavan sat at the front of what used to be the meditation hall; he was life-size, dark brown, and beautiful. Baba went to see him each morning as the priests bathed him. I sometimes got up early to watch him garland Bhagavan and participate silently in his devotion. As Baba greeted him, a tangible sweet feeling permeated the atmosphere. It was intimate, affectionate and moving. Bhagavan seemed to light up as Baba silently moved around him while reverently chanting mantras.
After breakfast I raced back to the hall, where a small group chanted the Rudram, an ancient Vedic prayer to Shiva. The Sanskrit words were long and difficult to pronounce but I was soon able to follow along. The Shakti responded to this prayer with a mysterious power and vibrated throughout my whole being. The Rudram and the Shiva Mahimnah Stotram that we chanted in the evening both have a mysterious effect and uplift my soul every time I chant them.
In the mornings after seva I sat in the inner courtyard where Baba conducted ashram business. I watched him work as various managers and secretaries came to him with questions and reports. He was more approachable here than when he was traveling in the West. He sat out there sometimes for a few hours. Many brave ashramites asked him questions about spiritual and worldly life. Although I could not hear his answers, most walked away beaming. I wanted to approach him, but I didn’t have a question. I was in deep communion with him on the subtle plane where the Shakti was dancing and no words were necessary.
Baba was always at ease, in control and yet not in control, active and yet not active. He participated in life and yet was detached. There was an enigma in his presence. I treasured this time. He was beautiful to watch, his self-mastery apparent. There were few people and I was able to sit close and bask in the loving energy that flowed from him. My mind was quiet and I meditated even though I was watching everything. There was stillness at the centre of my being. For the first time I meditated with my eyes open. As my awareness moved around the courtyard, the Self was tangible. I watched, I listened, I saw, I observed and I remained connected to the Self. Sitting there is etched in my memory.
Some weeks after we arrived, Baba organized a four-day yatra, a pilgrimage to some of the local holy sites. I looked forward to Alandi, the samadhi shrine of Jnaneshwar, one of India’s greatest saints; to Dehu, the birthplace of another saint, the poet Tukaram (one of Swamiji’s favorites); to Shirdi, the village where the famous Sai Baba had lived and to Poona for a rest.
Baba warned us not to give money to the beggars. Wise advice, for at the first stop we were assaulted by a mob of children pleading for money. My heart went out to them but I heeded Baba’s warning. He was generous to a fault when it was appropriate. He built homes, hospitals and schools around Ganeshpuri. He fed and clothed the locals and gave them jobs. He did not, however, want us to give money to street beggars.
Once, when I walked the streets of Bombay alone, I made the mistake of ignoring Baba’s advice and gave some money to a child that had no hands. I was immediately assaulted by a crowd of children. They grabbed at my purse. Fortunately, a taxi driver intervened and chased them away with a big stick.
Alandi was the first stop. Jnaneshwar was a born siddha, who translated the Bhagavad Gita into Marathi at the age of fifteen, for the local people. When he was twenty-two he told his devotees that he was going to take live samadhi. He asked them to dig a hole in the ground. He told them that he would sit and enter meditation and then they were to cover him with dirt. And so they did. This is a kind of samadhi where the consciousness of the saint stays with the body and continues to give blessings to devotees.
Several hundred years after his burial another holy man, Eknath Maharaj, had a dream in which Jnaneshwar told him that he was being choked by the root of a tree. Eknath dug up the grave to find the body warm and alive, although in a trance state. He removed the root that was around his neck and again covered him over. It is believed that he is still alive. I considered this to be an unbelievable story. I cannot think of a worse death than being buried alive.
The temple was crowded with pilgrims from all over India. The line was long as we waited single file. The Brahmin priests ushered us one by one into a small room no bigger than a closet. The floor was dark grey stone polished to a shine from the millions of bare feet that had made their way there. It was hot and the only light came from a small window carved in the stone walls. Two priests chanted mantras as we passed by. In the centre of the floor in line with his head was a square with a black lingam, an esoteric symbol of Shiva, covered in flowers. I looked down and offered some flowers. As my hand came close to the top of it I could feel waves of energy and heat pouring out of it. In my mind I heard a rushing sound like the wind and I fell to my knees. I heard myself muttering, ‘Oh my God, he is alive; he is alive!’
I looked up into the face of the Brahmin priest across from me as he reached out to stop me from falling on top of Jnaneshwar’s head. He was smiling in amused agreement. I unsteadily rose to my feet with his help. I was completely intoxicated. I couldn’t believe it. There was no doubt that his presence was fully there. I consider that one of the most wonderful moments of my spiritual life. Now it is impossible to get that close to Jnaneshwar. I feel fortunate to have had his blessing and darshan.
The next stop was Shirdi, the home of the 20th-century mystic Sai Baba. No one really knows his personal history except that he arrived in Shirdi and took up residence in an abandoned mosque. It soon became obvious that he was a great siddha yogi and devotees gathered around him. Many were cured of illness and attained deep states of meditation. Since then Sai Baba has become a legend and his picture is found in almost every taxi and shop in India. He is renowned for miracles. Women pray to him for sons, fathers for dowries for their daughters, mothers for their sick children, and executives for wealth and power. No wish is too petty or worldly for Sai Baba. He once said, ‘I give them what they want, until they come to want what I have to give them.’
I was astounded by the unabashed voicing of wants and needs in the Indian culture. It used to be difficult for me to articulate what I want and then to ask for it. It somehow never felt quite right, as if my true needs are always being met. Worrying about myself caused an anxiety I avoided. I prefer to pray for others while and hope that if my prayer reaches others, it will touch me also.
We were to spend the night there and were settled in large open rooms with straw mattresses on the floor. The accommodation was rudimentary but the atmosphere wonderfully joyful. We went to evening Arati, prayer, which was held in a small hall that contains a life-size marble statue of Sai Baba. There was energy, enthusiasm and excitement as devotees sang out the Arati, and danced in ecstasy. They were uninhibited and unselfconscious in their expression of love. I watched in admiration at the ease with which they showered their praise and adoration.
After it was over I wandered out to find a toilet. Shirdi was not particularly clean and so I was uncomfortable. I walked into a smelly, damp mud hut with three stalls that had holes dug in the ground. I had become used to squatting and was even beginning to prefer it, but I was not prepared for the filth. I headed for the last stall thinking that maybe it would be the cleanest because it was the furthest away. I walked in and was horrified to discover a dog at the hole eating faeces. I was disgusted and repulsed. He looked up at me. His bright yellow eyes bored into me. Our eyes locked and I heard a voice in my mind, ‘I am ashamed, please don’t hurt me.’
Horrified, I turned and ran out to find another toilet. That night my sleep was restless. I could not free my mind from the image of the dog’s despair and suffering. The next day as we headed for Dehu I felt sick. I got worse as the day wore on and by the time we got there I was so sick I had to be driven back to the ashram. Once back in the ashram I quickly recovered but it was not over. Our first night back Das had a dream in which the dog came to him and attacked him. Das told me that he battled with him in his dream state for what seemed all night and, in the early hours of dawn, was finally able to fight him off.
Baba sometimes spoke about fallen yogis who can get trapped in the body of animals. The next day we agreed that the dog was probably a fallen yogi, trapped in the body of the dog. The dog was experiencing intolerable shame and suffering. To this day I remember the pain in his eyes. It was as if there was a person in there. I will never forget the degradation I felt in that soul. I had experienced the best and worst of India.
Even though Baba’s physical presence is gone, his shakti resonates everywhere. I once heard him say that when he leaves his body he would remain in the hearts of his devotees. I am grateful that he has taken residence in my heart. I have noticed that the disciples who hold to his feet and teachings are radiant with his blessings; their lives are fuller and richer for having him as their Guru.