Ganeshpuri 1977

Ganeshpuri 1977

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.

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Baba walking through the inner courtyard.

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.

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Murti of Sai Baba

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.

 

 

 

 

God Madness Is A Good Madness

A share from a devotee’s letter on his first visit to Ganeshpuri and Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram.

Ganeshpuri.

I lost my mind and found God. There was that day I spent reflecting that unhappiness was a memory and that happiness was the natural state of being.

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Banyan tree that Bhagawan Nityananda used to sit under.

The tree out the front is a portal like Ganeshpuri is a portal. But unlike Ganeshpuri where the Shakti is like a constant earthquake. And the spirit world is immediate.

What Bhagavan Nityananda gave me I can’t describe except in a child’s terms. It is like he gave me a Willy Wonka lolly, like the endless tasting chewing gum of Shakti. It is like he put a lingam in my head and said ‘off you go.’ It is nuts but I have the rest of the trip to bring this into a meaningful context and apply it in the real world. 

From the Goddesses of the temple with eyes that emitted blue light, to seeing a blue light like a mist coming from me and in my mala beads. And some being telling me I have not left Siddha Loka yet. Then saying a week later ‘you have left Siddha Loka.’ Well what reference does even a spiritual nut like myself have to measure such experiences?

I knew my mental state had become more normal.

But other than to say Bhagavan gave me all the Shakti I needed then and more for the road. 

I know I have the Shakti at home in my meditation. I feel Bhagavan has given me a great gift and I have reformed a personal relationship with a place and perhaps even a guru from a previous existence.

I can only say that Ganeshpuri felt like the most natural place on earth. There was only what was real and no unreal, no pretending. And I lost my mind. God madness is good madness.

See if you can make sense of that. I’m only just getting my head around it.

I know now why Bhagavan Nityananda did not speak or convey teachings. How can you sustain a normal conversation for longer than a few minutes in that place? It is too easy to slip away.

This week I found that my spiritual name is a name of Lord Krishna, I like it, thanks Guruji.

Steadily I’m coming down to earth and the more unreal it seems that all of this happens. But I’m not worried. I have a deep faith in God.

I am not concerned with the fluctuations of my waking mind.

It’s said that we lose the feeling of Ganeshpuri when we return to Australia.  I say to that, ‘so what–why should I care?’ If it is that natural then it’s the way it is supposed to be.

Funny! I had this idea that I once lived in or close to Ganeshpuri as a Muslim. The place felt as comfortable as a childhood place I left and then returned to later in life. There was a strong sense of familiarity about the place.

Inshallah!

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Arunachala, the mountain Ramana Maharshi worshipped.

Arunachala.

Sri Ramana is the gentlest of souls. Truly the love and peace of this place is at first too much. Juxtaposed is the power of the mountain [Arunachala] which exudes Shakti.

But unlike Ganeshpuri where the Shakti is like a constant earthquake. And the spirit world is immediate. Ramana Ashram is the perfect cure for this power and turmoil and madness.

But as time went by the turmoil settles like dirt in a jar of agitated water. And the peace of the place becomes apparent in oneself.

Enough for now. God bless. With love.

Prayer to Shree Gurudev

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Baba Muktananda with Bhagawan Nityananda

By Swami Muktananda

This is my prayer to Sri Gurudev!
May everyone’s life be a paradise.

May the trivial feeling of ‘I and mine’ disappear,
and may the knowledge of Chiti arise in our hearts.

May all beings worship you with love and equanimity,
and may the movement of our breath ever repeat So’ham.

Bless me, that I may worship you with the awareness of you as the Self of all.

May I abandon distinctions of race, religion, and language,
and keep my mind in purity.

May I behold you, Gurunath, in the great and small,
the suffering and poor, the noble and foolish.

Give me simplicity of mind, a humble spirit, and a generous heart.

May I bestow true knowledge.

Grant me this boon, Gurudev, O Self of all!
May I always meditate on you in the temple of my heart

May I always love the all-pervasive light.
May I always be devoted to you, O Guru.

Let my awareness be steadfast in knowledge, yoga, and meditation.

May I ever be a worshiper of Siddha Vidya;
may my mind merge with Chitshakti.

May I always behold in you Rama, Krishna, Shiva, and Shakti.

May I live in Ganeshpuri, where your Siddha Yoga dwells.

Set me free from distinctions of country, language, sect, and race,
and give me equality of vision.

May everyone attain simplicity, truth, courage, valour, discretion and radiance.

May the world be a garden of joy for all,
complete with the wishing tree and the wishing cow.

May Siddha students become masters of their senses
and take delight in Kriya Yoga.

O Gurunath! May I always see you within the temple of the human heart
and feel fulfilled.

Let me fulfill my duties so long as there is life in this body,
and let me remember you constantly.

Let my life be full of my own labor, Gurunath.

May I meditate on you always.

O Gurudev! Grant me this at least: may I always be united with you.

May I behold you always and everywhere, from east to west, from north to south.

You are Parashiva, invisible and pure; you are the very form of Satchidananda.

The universe is in you; you are in the universe;
there is no differentiation in you; you are unsurpassed, unique.

Muktananda Says: Sri Gurunath! May the Siddha Science come to full flower. May our meditation be dynamic. May we find repose in the Blue Pearl.

May I always wander joyfully in the world, and may you abide forever in my heart.

Muktananda says:
O Gurunath! May our lives be the play of universal Consciousness!

Avoid The Lagoon Of No Shakti

‘One should perceive the inner Self through the gift of the Guru’s grace. By this path of the Guru, knowledge of one’s Self arises.’ (Guru Gita verse 110)

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Kailas Nivas

Love, love and more love are the words to describe Ganeshpuri. The villagers, the children, the temple priests and the animals exude love. ‘Jai Nityananda’ can be heard all day long from devotees celebrating their love of the Guru.

We are nine days into our retreat. In the mornings we have been meditating in Kailas Nivas, Bhagawan’s ashram. It is where he lived until shortly before he took mahasamadhi, his death. My meditations in Kailas have been fruitful, peaceful, grounded in the Self.

This morning the voice of the Self spoke to me in meditation, ‘there is no there’ it said. I felt a powerful unity consciousness. My two worlds, the places where my heart sings—the ashram in Mount Eliza and the ashram of the village of Ganeshpuri had become one. There was no difference. There was no tomorrow, no present and no yesterday; there was only the ‘sky of Consciousness’. Devotion for the Guru, the feeling of intimacy with that which I hold most dear was bubbling in my heart.

The Guru/disciple relationship is everywhere in Ganeshpuri. There are at least eight Samadhi temples where disciples still tend their Gurus’ homes even though many of them died decades ago. The relationship to the Guru is not a temporary one it is eternal. It is no ordinary relationship. Once made it cannot be broken for long.

Once in Ann Arbor in the early days of my relationship with Guruji I was upset with him. I was burning in my anger. I felt compelled to confront him. I do not remember what it was about but it had something to do with wanting something that he wasn’t giving me. I ran to his room and knocked boldly. He opened the door, took one look at me and slammed it in my face.

The rage boiled up in me. But then as I stood there staring at the closed door something shifted. I realized that I was behaving like I behaved in every personal relationship. I knew that I did not need another personal relationship. I was confused by them and tired of them. I needed a Guru. I laughed and walked away.

It hasn’t always been like this. In the past I have sometimes let my ego get in the way of devotion. If you let them, the Guru’s tests can burn the heart, dry up devotion, and erase the memory of bliss. These tests are a tapasya, a fire that can burn the ego to ashes. The Guru will, in the course of sadhana challenge expectations, imaginary wishes, dreams or hopes that arise from the ego. The Guru burns up weakness, tendencies that lead to delusion and suffering.

Over the years from time to time I have fallen into withdrawal and separation from the Guru and the Self out of jealousy, fear, anger and grief. The worst moments have been when my mind plummets into the darkness of these emotions. In those times wisdom and love vanish, and good will disappears. I am left with negative thoughts and a contraction in the heart. Devotion is gone.

In Satsang With Baba he speaks about what happens when the disciple temporarily loses touch with Guru’s grace:

You can achieve perfection in Siddha Yoga only through the grace of a siddha, a realized master. The yoga that you receive through the grace of the guru will also be consummated by his grace, and there is no doubt about it. Generally it is seen that once you receive the grace of the Guru you don’t lose it easily.

The Guru is not like an ordinary businessman who would refuse to serve you a cup of tea if you don’t pay the price. Even if the disciple would behave foolishly and turn away from the Guru, a siddha Guru would not become angry with him for quite some time. If a disciple has received the Guru’s grace, why should he be so stupid as to lose it? Why should he begin to live such an impure life that he would lose the grace in the course of time? Why should he be so ungrateful?

Baba’s words speak directly to the dilemma a disciple faces. I have learned that there is no event or circumstance worth giving up oneness with the Self, or the flow of Guru’s grace. I cannot stand the feeling of separation even for a second. To deprive myself of the relationship to the Guru, to the Shakti, to the Self, is a living hell.

I have learned that it is always possible to return to Guru’s grace. When I look honestly at myself, when I see how anger hurts me then there is an opening to see what I have lost. Taking responsibility is the key, not blaming others. It takes humility and an admission of wrong understanding. Wrong understanding leads to what Guruji calls ‘the lagoon of no Shakti.’ He also says, ‘there is no positive situation that a bad attitude cannot ruin. There is no negative situation that a good attitude cannot improve.’

Baba also wrote:

I accept the love of the entire world…I accept the love of everyone and I give my love to everyone without any distinction. I never ask anyone what he shall give me in return for my love.

Baba’s state of Consciousness is the goal of the guru/disciple relationship. And this is the state of Consciousness the Guru bestows on the disciple.

A Reflection on Death

‘There is suffering,’ said the Buddha when he attained enlightenment. As to whether he experienced any joy or relief in the moments after his realisation is unclear. There is no record of any obvious hallelujah, ecstatic uttering or celebration. However his next statement, thankfully, was, ‘It can be overcome.’

As a young boy the Buddha’s parents protected him from seeing life’s passages. The shock of confronting illness, old age and death created such despair in him that he left everything that was dear to him in order to understand the true meaning of life. Death was an enigma and he was unwilling to settle for platitudes.

Recently I had to undergo some medical procedures. And even though my doctors were positive that I would come out of them without dire consequences, which is the case, my mind turned toward death. As a young woman anxious about the future I used to wonder, ‘What will I be like at 30? Where will I be when I am 40? What will I be doing at 50? What does the future hold at 60? Where will I be when I am dead? I felt a definite shift in attitude when I realised I was much closer to death than birth. Death could be the next big event in my life.

Every year I try to go to India on retreat. There, death is present, visible on almost every street corner. Dogs, chickens, cows and people forage in the sewers and garbage piles, beggars plead verbally and subtly for their survival, young boys pander their wares at stoplights, and workers live openly in the streets, bathing, defecating, procreating, eating—everything happens on the street. No transition is hidden. Every creature and person lives on the brink and survival is a constant threat.

God too is everywhere. Shops announce their wares with signs in brightly coloured letters: Krishna Imports, Radha Saris, and Shiva Dosa. The names of the Lord are used to entice customers into shops. Small temples, home to various deities, are visible on every other street, and not just Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Moslem also. Priests pay homage and offer prayers every moment of the day. Perhaps their prayers mitigate the fight for survival. Yet, behind the struggle the atmosphere is alive with a subtle joy.

The Vedas teach that we are more than a body/mind complex and that when we shift our identification from the material, the body, to the eternal, the inner Self, we gain a truer sense of who we are. Death is considered a return to the Divine. When the body perishes, the inner Self, the Atman, which is eternal, is reabsorbed into Supreme Consciousness. It is similar to a deep meditation in which the consciousness of an individual merges into the inner Self and becomes one with it.

Self-realised yogis take what is called maha samadhi, the great absorption, at death. Generally their lives have been devoted to service, meditation and spiritual practice. They attained the highest states of Consciousness possible for a human being. Hence they are considered conduits for the grace of God.

While in India I seek out the company of two saints who passed away many years ago. Their passing, although a cause of grief for devotees at the time, is honoured by burial of their bodies in shrines. Saints, gurus, swamis and children are buried – everyone else is cremated.

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Bhagawan Nityananda’s Samadhi Shrine Ganeshpuri

India is full of Samadhi shrines of Gurus, saints and yogis, some who died centuries ago, some more recently. These Samadhi temples (places of burial) are a haven for pilgrims looking to overcome suffering and for spiritual upliftment. At death devotees continue to worship their Guru as the pure energy of the Self. It is believed that Gurus bestow blessings, teachings, grace and love, long after they have left their bodies.

My first experience of meeting a saint long buried whose Shakti, spiritual energy is still present was in 1978 when I went on pilgrimage in India with Baba Muktananda. I wasn’t convinced that it was possible for a person’s energy to be present after death, and such a long time. We visited one of the most famous Samadhi shrines in India at Alandi, a small village where the young yogi, Jnaneshwar took ‘live’ samadhi in the 11th century. He was a brilliant and much loved Guru who attained Self-realisation in his early teens.

When Jnaneshwar was twenty-two he told his devotees that he was going to take maha samadhi. He asked them to dig a hole in the ground. He told them that he was going to sit in the hole and enter meditation. They were to cover him with dirt and leave him, which they did. The story of his death continues when several hundred years after his burial another yogi, Eknath Maharaj, had a dream in which Jnaneshwar told him that he was being choked by the root of a neem tree that grew close to his body. Eknath dug up the grave to find the body warm and alive, although Jnaneshwar was still in a meditative trance. He removed the root that was around Jnaneshwar’s neck and again covered him over. I had heard that devotees believed Jnaneshwar to be still alive. I was skeptical. It seemed impossible and frightening. I cannot think of a more terrifying death than being buried alive.

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Jnaneshwar’s Samadhi Shrine

On the day of our visit the temple was crowded with pilgrims from all over India. I could see the neem tree, in the middle of the courtyard just outside his shrine. The line was long as we waited single file. 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 above Jnaneshwar’s 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 where Jnaneshwar’s head would be, I felt 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 in devotional ecstasy. 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 intoxicated. I couldn’t believe it. Jnaneshwar’s presence was still there. Disbelief vanished in the face of the powerful energy and love pulsating from the lingam.

In the dusty villages of India birth and death are family matters. There are few doctors in rural India and certainly no embalmer. And so it is left to tribal and village rituals to manage life’s transitions.

During my last visit to India in February this year my guru’s elderly drum teacher, Potya, unexpectedly passed away. He worked on the corner of Kailas, Bhagavan’s ashram,  handing out water to thirsty pilgrims. I looked forward to seeing his smiling face when I walked past on my way to meditate or shop. He spoke no English and he waved, or folded his hands in a silent hello.

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Potya drumming at Kothavala

A few days before I was to return to Melbourne, I noticed that the door to his water stand was closed, and the next day also. I wondered where he was. One morning Percy, the owner of the hotel where I stay told me that Potya had had a massive heart attack. Apparently, he had not been feeling well during the days he was missing from his post and had gone to the local hospital, an hour away where he had died. Percy asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral and I said yes.

On the way to Potya’s house, where the ceremony was taking place, Percy bought some marigold garlands to offer him. When we arrived, there were about 200 people, mostly men, waiting solemnly in the front garden. Potya’s close female relations were in the house bathing, oiling and dressing his body. I could hear the wailing of their sorrow as we stood waiting for them to finish. A few women were outside—some weeping, some saying mantra, some praying. The men were eerily quiet.

They say you are gone yet you are lying peacefully. Bathed, perfumed, clothed, you lay sleeping—quiet now from the sorrow of your body. Garlanded, wrapped in white, your wailing daughters weep the tears of loss. I hear their anguish and yours too…. All may be forgiven with Nityananda’s blessing. From my notes.

After about 15 minutes some men went inside and came out carrying Potya’s body. There was a palanquin covered in straw and a long muslin cloth, on which they gently laid him down. Everyone lined up to say goodbye to him by touching him or speaking some final words.

There was no smell of death, only the freshness of the bath and the scented oil they had rubbed into him. He looked as though he was in a deep sleep and at any moment would awaken to the sounds of his loved one’s grief.

After the farewells more muslin cloth was pulled over to cover him while various dignitaries spoke. They then laid white shawls across him. One of the curious cultural contrasts is that white, not black, represents death. Widows wear white, not young brides embarking on a new life. Next we placed our garlands on him. As I offered my garland I was overcome by emotion as I remembered the tender moments between my guru and Potya when they met for the first time after many years. I said goodbye and wished him a peaceful journey.

Potya’s body was now hidden underneath a colourful mound of green leaves, marigolds, chrysanthemums, jasmine and roses. His sons and male relatives carefully picked him up to carry him to the cremation ground, an isolated spot near the river Tansa which winds through the valley. At a certain point as they walked toward the burial site, the women stopped walking and we stood watching as the men continued on their way. For some reason women do not attend the actual cremation.

This farewell was in sharp contrast to a funeral I attended shortly after I returned to Australia. The funeral parlor was tastefully sterile, impersonal and almost cold. Many of the family, slightly aloof held back from expressing their grief openly. I had made a garland of flowers to offer the deceased. The family looked at me nonplussed when I asked if I could lay it across the coffin. I was remembering the unselfconscious expression of grief and love by Potya’s howling daughters and relatives, who let their loss break through the walls of their hearts to moan and complain to God. The expression of sorrow could not be stilled. Death could not dam heartbreak, but here the unspoken choked the atmosphere. The intimacy of this ceremony paled in comparison to Potya’s.

Sudden death has perhaps the most heartache. I have been shaken to the core of my being when I was awoken in the middle of the night by police with the news that my brother had just been killed in a car accident. But worse than that, was that I then had to break the news to my mother.

In 1981 the SYDA Foundation President, Ron Friedland suddenly died. Everyone was shocked, especially Baba Muktananda, who was the spiritual head and Guru. At the time I was working on the Foundation magazine. I wanted to write an obituary and knew that I had to ask Baba if it was appropriate to do so. It was early in the morning when I found Baba sitting on a little perch in the courtyard of his ashram in India. I tentatively walked up to him and said, “Baba, may I write something about Ron?”

He looked at me stunned, and then burst into tears and sobbed, “No one will ever know how much I loved that man.”

I stood there feeling the sorrow of Baba’s loss, astonished that he permitted his grief to flow and that he allowed me to see his humanity. My empathy flowed toward him. In that moment I felt like his mother. My heart went out to him and I silently offered him comforting words. After a minute or so, Baba’s tears stopped and he said, “Yes, write something.”

Grief and sorrow are natural at certain tragic moments in life. We need to find ways to pass it through the heart as we learn to accept and live with what has happened. The heart must be allowed to breathe whatever feelings arise in it from loss. Anger, fear and grief are natural companions to loss. However we also have to be careful not to cling to them or the pain. If we brood too long we risk the heart freezing in time, shutting down and turning to debilitating despair. In time sorrow will become compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. And, we become more empathic to the suffering of others.

Even though Hindus grieve the loss of the person, they are also reassured and comforted by the understanding that there is rebirth. This doesn’t necessarily still the ache of loss, but it does offer some comfort. The idea of rebirth is both horrifying and exhilarating to me. I am not certain how many of us, given a choice, would want to live again. Yet, life is precious, and the seeking and finding of God, love and meaning is a great joy. In my youth I chased death as a possible answer to existential angst. But now knowing that there is true meaning and purpose, something eternal into which all sorrow can be sacrificed, then, yes, I choose to do it all again. For love of people, for love of Self, and for love of God, I would, if given the opportunity, willingly embark on another life. Would you?