23rd January 2004
29th March 2004
IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
23 January 2004
Chicken Soup (and frogs' legs, snails, and martinis) for the Soul
The reader may be aware that there's a New Age sort of book published not long ago with the title Chicken Soup for the Soul. Since then a string of sequels was put out by the same author. Well, here I'm not writing about that book. The review you're about to read in today's journal is about a book that was published in magazine form in the late 1950's and then in book form in 1961. Though nearly fifty years old, the book is remarkably New Age-y in a folksy American way. It even has something to say about the spiritual significance of chicken soup.
But if it's the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you're missing out on every single [expletive deleted] religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup--which is the only kind of chicken soup [Mother] ever brings to anybody around this madhouse. . . How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?
The name of the book is Franny and Zooey. The author is J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye I wrote about last summer in this journal. Somewhere, years ago, HH Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami discussed Franny and Zooey, but what I have to say does not refer to his remarks.
The title characters, Franny (for Francis) and Zooey (for Zachary) are sister and brother in a large New York family called Glass. The Glass family figures prominently in Salinger's fiction; in 1948, for instance, he published a short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which Seymour Glass, Franny and Zooey's eldest brother, plays in the sea with a little girl and then goes back to his beachfront hotel to shoot himself in the head.
Anyway, for a book published nearly fifty years ago, the central theme of Franny and Zooey is quite interesting--yes, interesting even for Hare Krsna devotees. The Franny part of the book saw print in 1955 in The New Yorker magazine; thus ten years before Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York, people in that city were reading about Francis Glass, a modern American college girl who committed herself to chant the Jesus Prayer constantly. (For more about the Jesus Prayer, see In2-MeC of 24 December 2003. ) Franny's inspiration was a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim. Quite a number of Hare Krsna devotees have read this book too. If you've read it, you know it's about a Russian peasant who walks from holy place to holy place around Russia of the 1800s, taking only bread, salt and water for nourishment, while constantly chanting "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. "
The chanting of the Jesus Prayer is a practice most known in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, although Catholicism has a place for it too. The practice has its root in a New Testament injunction, "Pray without ceasing. " It is expounded upon in The Philokalia, a collection of quotations from early Fathers of the Church. Sample:
Those who meditate unceasingly upon this glorious and holy name in the depths of their hearts can sometimes see the light of their own intellect. For when the mind is closely concentrated upon this name, then we grow fully conscious that the name is burning up all the filth which covers the surface of the soul; for it is written: Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24). Then the Lord awakens in the soul a great love for His glory; for when the intellect with fervour of heart maintains persistently its remembrance of the precious name, then that name implants in us a constant love for its goodness, since there is nothing now that stands in the way.
The practice of chanting the Jesus Prayer is to be taken up under the instruction of a spiritual master. In The Way of a Pilgrim, the peasant begins his chanting with the blessings of a starets, an elderly religious teacher. Franny, speaking in a restaurant to her boyfriend Lane, explains:
. . . the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again--you only have to just do it with your lips at first--then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don't know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person's heartbeats, and then you're actually praying without ceasing. Which has a really tremendous, mystical effct on your whole outlook. I mean that's the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything's about.
A bit later Franny says:
I just think it's a terribly peculiar coincidence that you keep running into that kind of advice--I mean all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons that keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens. Even in India. In India, they tell you to meditate on the 'Om,' which means the same thing, really, and the exact same result is supposed to happen.
It seems that Franny has reached a crisis in her life, much as Holden Caulfield came to a breaking point in Catcher in the Rye. But whereas Holden ends up in an institution for the psychologically disturbed, Franny takes up chanting the Jesus Prayer. About her frustrations with life around her, she says:
Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
Lane is concerned. Not just by Fanny's babbling about how empty life is, nor that she's taken up the Jesus Prayer--but she's pale and moody. She has a headache and no appetite. She even faints in the middle of the restaurant. Later, when they're alone, he suggests her troubles are because they haven't had sex for a month. Which may be a hidden joke by Salinger, since--though it is never stated openly--some of Franny's symptoms indicate that she is pregnant. It's been said, "Motherhood is the cause of all the world's problems. " If Franny is becoming a mother, then it was sex with Lane that put her in that condition. Yet lusty Lane thinks having sex with him again will pull her out of her condition.
At lunch in the restaurant Franny drinks a martini. She orders a chicken sandwich but has no appetite to even take a bite. Lane has a martini too, and while she's preaching to him about the Jesus Prayer, he tucks into frogs' legs, snails, and salad.
I've read The Way of a Pilgrim, and I remember that the pilgrim was firm in his diet of renunciation--bread and water only. He even refused fish offered him by a pious Christian family. People my age remember when Catholics didn't eat meat on Fridays; but fish was a bona fide substitute. Yet even fish was too worldly for this pilgrim committed to unceasing prayer. Salinger doesn't develop this line of thought at all. Another thing is, he has all his characters smoking like chimneys from the novel's beginning to its end.
In "Zooey," the second part of the book, Franny's at home. Her slightly older brother Zooey comes to counsel her at the urgings of their mother Bessie. Franny won't eat. She took only two spoonfuls of Bessie's chicken soup for the soul. Her lips are constantly moving in prayer.
It's this talk Zooey has with Franny that I find annoying. From what I've read about him, Salinger was a home-made Buddhist, as were other 1950's American authors and poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Kerouac etc. were Beats, but Salinger didn't hang out with them; he was a recluse. Anyway, Zooey means to undermine Franny's new-found dedication to the Jesus Prayer, and there is a voidistic thrust to his arguments.
As a matter of simple logic, there's no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who's greedy for material treasure--or even intellectual treasure--and the man who's greedy for spiritual treasure. . . it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.
Now, in the next quotation Salinger, through the mouth of Zooey, seems to be dabbling in that paradoxical line of thought found in Zen Buddhism: that the material world, when seen rightly without ego, is perfect.
. . . there are nice things in the world--and I mean nice things. We're all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every [expletive deleted] thing right back to our lousy little egos.
In one of his hit songs of the 'sixties, pop star Donovan sang a line from Zen Buddhist philosophy: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. " Which means before enlightenment one sees a mountain as everybody else sees it. Then at the moment of satori (the Zen state of peak insight), the mountain fades into nothingness. After satori, the mountain is seen once again--but not as the unenlightened egoist sees it. It has become, to use Zooey's words, a really nice thing of the world.
All right. At this point Pandit Quibblebrain might pipe up, "But devotees also see the material world differently in Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati writes, visvam purna-sukhayate, 'the whole world becomes bliss' for a devotee who's been blessed by Mahaprabhu's mercy. "
Yeah, but chicken soup? Consecrated chicken soup? Murgi-rasam prasad?
Franny wants to renounce. She was an aspiring actress, but now she's quit her college theater. What's more, she's decided to quit college altogether. She realizes she doesn't love Lane. Her mind is following the Russian pilgrim, and it seems her body will soon follow too. Zooey wants her to drink Bessie's consecrated chicken soup, get back into theater, continue her studies, get on with her life as it was. It comes down to this:
You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don't realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don't see how you'll ever move an inch. Detachment. . . and only detachment. Desirelessness. 'Cessation from all hankerings. ' It's this business of desiring, if you want to know the [expletive deleted] truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why're you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line--in one damn incarnation or another, if you like--you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You're stuck with it now. You can't just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect. . . cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to--be God's actress, if you want to.
Pandit Quibblebrain is all excited. He's bursting to point out that similarly, Bhagavad-gita teaches us to be detached and engage our karma in the service of the Lord.
Indeed, Salinger has Zooey read the Bhagavad-gita to prepare himself for his onslaught on Franny's resolve to renounce everything and just chant.
You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either. Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. . .
The Gita emphasizes acting in devotion to the Supreme Lord.
Zooey's final argument so annoys me I shall not quote it. I'll just give a summary. He urges her to act (in both senses of general activity and acting on stage), and to act well, not merely apathetically, by imagining a sickly fat lady out in the audience who is depending up Franny to lift her out of her depression. "Be funny for the Fat Lady. " It turns out that everybody in the world is that fat lady. In the end the fat lady is God. "And don't you know--listen to me, now--don't you know who that Fat Lady really is?" Zooey asks Franny urgently. ". . . It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself. . . "
Work is worship. The poor man in the street, the sickly fat lady sitting at home next to her radio, are God. God means a whole world full of poor daridra-narayanas in need of consecrated chicken soup.
Not this rascaldom, daridra-narayana. Just like one rascal has manufactured this daridra-narayana. The poor man has become Narayana, and the goat Narayana is killed for their feeding. Not this kind of sadhu. Suhrdam sarva-bhutanam. A sadhu will not allow any kind of killing. See in the Christian religion, it is first injunction is "Thou shalt not kill. " If you want to become religious. . . They are simply killing, and still, they are claiming "Christian. "
Shall I say more? I don't think it's worth it. Though I did like reading about self-activated chanting of the Lord's holy name, which is really our goal, isn't it?
Sketches of a Devotee's Pre-Krsna Conscious Life in India
Back in the late 1980's I tape-recorded a series of interesting stories told me by an Indian devotee, whom I shall not name to protect his privacy. These stories relate his life as a young man from a South Indian smarta brahmin family, and trace how he gradually turned away from material life to Krsna consciousness. What you will read below begins in the holy town of Haridwar.
A pretty town of temples and lodges clustered where the Ganges surges out of the hill country into the plains, Haridwar draws swarms of Hindu and Sikh pilgrims from all over India who attend the sunset ceremony at Har Ki Pairi, a sacred spot on the west bank. Votive lamps are set afloat in the river, sometimes so many that for half an hour it seems the Akashganga (Celestial Ganges) has descended from heaven to earth, bringing all the stars down with it.
Evening arati to the Ganga at Har Ki Pairi in the holy city of Haridwar.
Dressed as a holy man, I had no difficulty in getting an evening meal once the ceremony had ended. I simply stood on the footbridge waiting for some moneyed soul to come along who was looking to get relieved of some sin by feeding a sadhu. The standard fare was milk, puris and halvah, served up at any number of food stalls nearby. I found it wasn't very hard to convince my patrons that I was a budding Godman. Some were desperate, ready to believe anything that might help them turn their lives around.
In Haridwar I saw the truth of Sai Baba's prophecy that he and I would meet again, and that I myself would 'become God. ' It happened when a patron took me to a gathering of Sai Baba followers. I did all the moves I'd learned at Shanti Niketana, I sang Chitta Chora and other songs, and my mystic tube played magic upon their minds. There were murmers through the crowd: "Baba has come!" Afterwards a man came to me with tears streaming down his face. "I was not fortunate enough to go to Puttaparthi, but seeing you I feel that Puttaparthi has come to me. " I told him that I really had nothing to do with that place.
"Yes you do, Swamiji, because you are a mahatma, an all-pervading soul. You are linked to everywhere, including Puttaparthi. You are in Baba, and Baba is in you. Be honest with us, Swamiji. You are God. Why hide it?"
As at Shanti Niketana, I vacillated between upright idealism and willfull deception in my dealings with such people, who seemed to be everywhere in Haridwar. My conscience reminded me that when I was in the TVS accounting department I could have swindled huge sums away, but it was against my principles. Why should I become a cheater after having taken to spiritual life? The wicked side of my mind nagged, 'These people want to be defrauded. If they don't come to me, they'll go to someone else. All I want is my maintenance, not their riches. If I can help them by increasing their faith in something, let me. There's no harm. They are suffering. "
A lady schoolmistress of about fifty years of age let me use a schoolroom for the week I stayed in Haridwar. Thinking her pious and intelligent, I confided in her about my dilemma. "I left TVS only two months ago. I am just a beginner in spiritual life, but sometimes I get visions in my mind. People take this as a sign of my divinity. But the fact is I have no control over these visions. All I have done as a sadhu is stayed for a few weeks in Rishikesh. I don't even have a guru. I'm just a fool. "
But she argued, "Shivananda, Bhagat Singh, Aurobindo and so many others were the same way. They were ordinary men who stumbled into being God. You just have to flow along with the divine current wherever it takes you, like a lamp in the Ganges, and you will end up as God. "
I tried to see some sense in her advice. But after a few days I discovered she was having a secret love affair with a Haridwar guru. Without a further word to her I vacated the room and went to Daksha Mahadeva temple at Kankal, four kilometers away. There I met with Anandamayi Ma, the famous yogini. At the time I saw her, she was ill and bedridden, being attended by her young female disciples.
Some sixty years old, her hair worn long and loose, Anandamayi Ma was dressed in flowing saffron and sat upon a saffron-draped bedstead. Though in poor health, she was still receiving guests in the afternoon. I entered with a foreign couple from Europe. After speaking with her briefly, they left; she then turned to me and said, "Anand ho (let there be bliss). Are you happy?"
"No," I admitted.
"Everywhere there is happiness, so why are you are not happy?"
I said, "You may have happiness, mataji, but has not come my way. "
She told the young servant girl to go out and make up a plate of lunch for me. "The thing is," she continued, "you're trying for things that are not necessary. You've gone here and there, searching, searching. But ananda is right there in the heart. "
"Look, mother," I said, "I started out with tantra. That caused the whole trouble--visions and mental disturbances. Then I got bewildered by a South Indian siddha-yogi, Brahmendra Sarasvati, who is not even in this world any longer yet could exert a powerful influence over my mind. Then I went to Aurobindo. "
She broke in, chuckling. "Then you went mad. You left your job, you went to Tirupati, you've even gone up to Neelkanth Mahadev. And you'll go on like this for a long time. You are attracted to siddhis, powers. In your previous lifetimes you developed siddhis, but now you've only a little power, psychic power, left. You should kick this nonsense away. Then you'll find your real path to ananda. "
"Ma, please remove my wrongheaded ideas of spiritual life. Take me off this wrong path, put me on the right one. I need guidance. "
She sighed. "You say that to every yogi you meet. Guidance. . . I never guided anyone. People follow me, but I'm not leading them. They just know that they should follow. But you are looking for someone to lead you, to convince you--and to save you. All I can tell you is, you are saved through purity. If you forget that and just use up your time looking for someone who is powerful, who'll just touch you on the head and remove your all your troubles so that you won't have to do anything to save yourself, you'll be cheated again and again. But you know this already. People come to you for blessings, and you know they are foolish. So don't come to me for that. Anyway, what you've been seeing up here is just meant to make you disgusted. Saaf nahi he--so many of these people, leaders and followers alike, they are not clean. Austerity and cleanliness clears the way to ananda. So kindly go down now and take your lunch. "
I went back to Haridwar. While bathing in the Ganges I saw a baba in water over his nose. He was doing a technique called akamashana-japa. Bubbles rose to the surface from his mouth as he chanted his mantra, but he did not raise his nose above the water for air. This went on for half an hour.
When he came out of the water, I asked, "Swamiji, what mantra do you chant?"
"Mantra and guru should be kept secret," he said as he dried himself with a gamcha.
"But sadhus should teach others, isn't that so? I want to learn how to do akamashana-japa also. "
He looked at me and shook his head. "How many different things do you want to do? Now you chant Vishnu-sahashra nama, you do trotak, and you think by adding more you'll get more. But more of what are you trying to get? Your goal is not even known to you. "
"Babaji Maharaja, what I need is a guru. Why don't you become my guru? You seem to know me through and through. "
"This is another problem you have. You think that because I or someone else can see a few things about you that we must be your gurus. You are attracted to the unreal. You should give all this up and concentrate on the truth. The real mantra is Bhagavad-gita, if you can understand and follow it. "
"But I can't be satisfied with only that. "
"Hah! So you think I am satisfied standing underwater chanting my mantra? If I was satisfied, I wouldn't be doing this. "
The mystic tube in my head buzzed and flickered. I suddenly blurted, "Swamiji, you are chanting the Maha-mrtyunjaya mantra. "
"See?" he said. "Now you are doing it to me. So what is so wonderful about peering into someone's mind?"
"I just came from Anandamayi Ma. You're just telling me the same things she did. "
He grinned for the first time. "We're all on the same frequency around here. Our minds interchange on a platform above the gross senses, like radio communication. Some are more powerful, so they generate signals, like radio transmitters. The rest of us are receivers. We all share the same messages. But the messages we send and receive are not ours. That comes from higher up. You, you're just a small fry bouncing between us. You wander around, get an experience here, an intuition there, but that is the limit of your participation in our network. Garbled signals fading in and out of your head--that's all you can pick up. You're not meant to play this game. You should get out of it while you can. Otherwise you'll just lose your mind to some higher power and become his speaker. Behind eveyone you see up here, no matter how great they are, there is someone greater from whom he gets his power, and he's being manipulated by that power. "
"So how I will ever see the truth, with all this going on?"
"Well, I'm just telling you that this is what goes on up here. Be very careful whom you choose to follow. Remember, the world is full of fools, and fools follow fools. A foolish guru will be popular--he has a whole world of fools for disciples. And a sage will have disciples who are sages, because only sages will follow him. But real sages are hard to find. "
I touched his feet and he blessed me. Then he went on his way.
I returned to Rishikesh. I went to the Shrinivas Mandir, a branch of the Tirupathi temple. Next to it stands the Andra Ashram where prasad is served to pilgrims. There I saw a shaven- headed sadhu with twelve Shri Vaishnava tilak marks on his body. Most sadhus in Rishikesh have beards and long hair, and if they wear tilak at all, they wear the three lines of Shiva.
He was a South Indian, so we started talking in Tamil. I told him, "I am really disappointed that Rishikesh has turned out to be such a useless place for spiritual life. I expected to find great sadhus, but mostly all I've seen is commercialism. If I do meet a real yogi, he won't share anything. "
He said, "You haven't missed much. Even if the strict yogis took you on as their disciple, all they could teach you is, 'The truth is yourself. '"
"What do you mean?"
"You'll find different standards of practice among different yogis, but their philosophy is all the same: 'everybody is God, and you must just realize yourself to become God-realized. ' To overturn that idea, Shri Ramanujacharya came. He started alone, opposed by everyone, because at that time the whole of India believed that man himself is God. Even Ramanuja's own brother, Govinda, was just the type yogi you'll find up here, thinking he himself has become Shiva. But Ramanuja brought Govinda and many others to the right path. He taught what the Alwars taught long before. The Alwars were the greatest of yogis. They had real power, not just cheap magic, but their conclusion was kandu konden narayana yennum namam: 'Finally I've found that the name of Narayan (Vishnu) is the ultimate Truth. ' They pursued yoga to its furthest limit and found that without bhakti, devotion to God, there is no way to be satisfied with the self alone. You are also not satisfied with yourself. That's why you are looking for someone to devote yourself to, to serve, to take shelter of. "
I had to admit that on that count, he was right. I had always felt distant from the Shri Vaishnava doctrine before. It seemed so restrictive to me. But today I listened for three hours to this sadhu, and much of what he said I could now appreciate. The Vaishnavas truly had insights into the deep needs of the soul.
I asked him, "But why are you up here? The Shri Vaishnavas stay in the south. I've not met any sadhus who follow your line in Rishikesh or Haridwar. "
"I came here for seclusion. I don't associate with the yogis. I just stay here in the Andhra Ashram. I study Ramanuja's books and I worship Krishna with offering of Ganges water. Sometimes I give lectures here. "
Then I asked about something that had always disturbed me about the Vaishnavas. "Why do you have to criticize others? There are many paths. I think people have to find their own way to the truth. If every teacher criticized the other teachers and said 'only my way is right,' I think people would become disheartened and would just give up the search. "
"But this is not criticism," he said. "You admit you've become confused by meeting so many teachers. I am telling you why you are confused. Even they tell you that to make progress you must stick to one path. But you can't find the path. That is what Ramanuja came to show. The path is service to Lord Vishnu, who dwells in your heart with you, the soul. Even they tell you that ananda is in the heart. But they don't point out the way to get that ananda. They just leave you thinking that there is no way to the truth, that the truth is just you. And you're confused. You don't know what to do. "
I left wondering why, if this Vaishnava sadhu had the ultimate knowledge, he had isolated himself. It seemed to me that true accomplishment in spiritual knowledge would give one the strength of conviction to go anywhere and discuss philosophy with anyone. But he had cut himself off even from his fellow Vaishnavas.
IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
24 January 2004
NASA: Spirit Rover Not Sending Data
By ANDREW BRIDGES, AP Science Writer
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Spirit rover stopped transmitting data from Mars for more than 24 hours, mission managers said Thursday, calling it an "extremely serious anomaly. "
"This is a serious problem. This is an extremely serious anomaly," project manager Pete Theisinger said.
Spirit is one half of a $820 million mission. Its twin, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on Mars on Saturday.
NASA last heard from Spirit as it prepared to continue its work examining its first rock, just a few yards from its lander.
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked to pinpoint the yet-unknown problem.
"It's not clear there is one cause . . . that would explain the observables we're seeing," deputy project manager Richard Cook said.
Preliminary indications from the spacecraft suggest its radio is working and it continues to generate power from the sun with its solar panels, Cook said.
It was unclear if the problem was with the rover's software or hardware, Theisinger said.
NASA can fix software from Earth, beaming fixes across more than 100 million miles of space. If the problem lies with the rover's hardware, the situation would be far more grave, Theisinger said.
The six-wheeled robot had been scheduled Thursday to grind away a tiny area of the weathered face of a sharply angled rock dubbed Adirondack. Examination of the rock beneath could offer clues to Mars' geologic past. Spirit has since remained immobile, Cook said.
On Wednesday, NASA scientists said a thunderstorm near a Deep Space Network radio antenna in Canberra, Australia disrupted controllers' efforts to initiate the drilling. It has since discounted the weather as the source of the communications blackout.
Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 3 for a three-month mission to search Gusev Crater, a rock-strewn stretch of dusty, streaked soil that scientists believe may be the bed of an ancient lake. If Mars once had surface water, it had the potential to support life.
Sketches of a Devotee's Pre-Krsna Conscious Life in India
Back in the late 1980's I tape-recorded a series of interesting stories told me by an Indian devotee, whom I shall not name to protect his privacy. These stories relate his life as a young man from a South Indian smarta brahmin family, and trace how he gradually turned away from material life to Krsna consciousness. What you will read below begins in the holy town of Deoprayag.
In late September 1974, I moved to Deoprayag, seventy-two kilometers north of Rishikesh. This ancient settlement of brahmins clings to the sides of a forked river valley through which the waters of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda gush. Where the forks join, the rivers form what is from then on called 'the Ganges. ' In these misty Himalayan forest environs I found the quiet haven that was wanting in Rishikesh and Haridwar.
I moved into a cave at the confluence. During my first week there I made friends with the local high school principal, Professor Bhagwat Prasad Khotwala. A cultured, hospitable gentlemen committed to sadhu-seva (service to sadhus), Dr. Khotwala made sure I never went hungry while in Deoprayag. For the next five months this was my base.
I used to often take walks with Dr. Khotwala, his astrologer friend, Mr. Joshi, and other members of Deoprayag's intelligensia. On one walk a large black dog joined us. The gentlemen were friendly to the dog; Dr. Khotwala fed it some badam (fried peanuts). I remarked that all the other dogs I'd seen in Deoprayag were mangy and neglected. Dr. Khotwala smiled and said, "But this dog is a sadhu, and we are sadhu-sevakas. " Everyone laughed, so I took his remark to be a joke.
The next day Dr. Khotwala took me to see a yogi-baba who lived on the side of the Bhagirathi River. We floundered our way down a slipperey embankment through thick bush to the yogi's den, an earthen hollow obscured by overgrowth. He came out to greet us with a hearty smile. His loincloth and matted locks were what I expected to see, but instead of having the typical emaciated physique of an ascetic, this yogi was as stout and muscular as an athlete. Khotwala touched his feet, I made pranams, and Khotwala introduced me as 'Madrasi Baba' (South Indian baba).
"So, Madrasi Baba," the yogi began, "why have you come up here? Why didn't you go to the Shivananda Ashram?"
"I was there. It is useless. " He laughed and bade me to enter his lair. Khotwala excused himself and left. There was barely enough room for both of us to squat inside, but I noted that it was at least shelter enough to keep out the rain. His possessions consisted of a bedroll, a cloth bag and a brass kamandalu (a sadhu's water pot).
"So, you found Shivananda's ashram useless," he continued in his friendly tone once we had settled inside. "Yes, it is useless. And you are also useless, at least as far as yoga is concerned. You don't have the body for yoga, I can see that immediately. Therefore these people tell you to attain everything through the mind. But with the mind you can neither enjoy this world nor become liberated from it. All you can do is think, either your own thoughts or another's thoughts. But thinking is nothing more than thinking.
"The Rishikesh swamis think, 'I am Brahman,' but when it gets cold, their health breaks and their disciples carry them to the hospital. They think they are liberated in this life, but if they can't even maintain their bodies properly in this life, how will they attain liberation, which is beyond the body? They can't do the lesser, so how will do the more? They sit and think, 'I am everywhere and everything is in me. ' What is in you is just three things--kapha, pittha and vayu (mucous, bile and air. )"
I asked him what his sadhana was. "I chant the name of Rama one hundred thousand times daily. I also used to do a full yoga program. I gave that up because I could not find a disciple who could learn it properly. I was taught yoga from childhood by my father, who was a great master of the Patanjala system. But yoga is useful only for a strong man who is determined to sever his link with the world of the senses. I've not found one person who is either strong enough or renounced enough to learn it. It's unpracticible. So now I just stick to Rama-nama. My father taught me this also. He said this is all that is really necessary. But either by yoga or by mantra, you have to get beyond the mind. This thinking, thinking, thinking is useless. "
"Swamiji, you are so stout and strong. How do you get your food?"
"Dogs are also eating," he said, amused.
"No, but do you go to town to get bhiksha, or does someone come here and bring you food?"
"Have a look there," he pointed in the direction of a nearby tree. Peering through the underbrush I could see the large black dog I'd noticed the day before, resting itself beneath the tree.
"You eat through the mouth of your own body," he continued. "I eat through the mouth of his body. "
I mentioned Bala Yogi and his cobra.
"Yes, he's doing the same thing. There is a method to take energy from the body of a pet animal. Then you don't have to waste your time worrying about your belly. There's nothing really remarkable about it. All Hindus make offerings to their departed forefathers by putting food out for the birds. Did you ever think about what this really means? The departed forefathers eat through the mouth of the birds, by mystical connection. Millions of Hindus believe it, but only a few yogis know the actual science behind it. It comes from the Pitriloka (the planet of the forefathers). But people like you should stick to the sadaloka (human society) for your food. "
I told him about the yogi I'd met above Nilakanda Mahadeva, and his recommendation that I go to Badrinath to find bliss. "Yes, go up there. If you do that, you'll never want to go up there again. " He laughed.
"Swamiji, have you realized bliss?" I asked him.
"I sit here, chant Rama's name and look at the river. I am counting my days until I leave this world, that's all. Mother Ganges will take me to bliss. "
The town of Badrinath. The temple can be seen in the middle.
Badrinath--one of Hinduism's most ancient and sacred sites--marks the threshold of Badarikashrama, a mysterious region that lies somewhere in the frozen wasteland beyond the perception of ordinary human beings. Seven hundred years ago the learned Vaishnava philosopher Madhva left his disciples in Badrinath and entered the forbidden region alone. After many days he returned with with a commentary on Bhagavad-gita that he had written in consultation with the great sage Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedic scriptures, who retired to Badarikashrama five thousand years ago. Madhva had also spoken to Nara and Narayan Rishi, two transcendental masters of yoga and renunciation. They instructed him to write a commentary on Srimad Bhagavatam. But except for a few pure souls like Madhva, Badarikashrama remains inaccessible. The pilgrims who come nowadays go only to the Badrinath temple to worship Nara-Narayana Rishi and Vyasa in their Vishnu murti forms.
The arched entrance to the Badrinarayana temple.
Over a thousand years ago, Ramanujacarya came to Badrinath; five hundred years ago Lord Nityananda Prabhu visited also. The word badri is a local term for a berry that is a favorite of Goddess Laksmi. When Nara-Narayana Rishi came here to meditate, She appeared behind Him as a badri tree to give Him shade. The Badrinarayana murti sits in the yoga posture of padmasana, which makes Him a very unusual Deity, as most worshipable forms of Visnu are in a standing posture.
After visiting the temple I followed the road higher into the mountains, wondering where I would stay. I was hungry and chilled to the bones. Soon I saw a small stone house. The smoke billowing from its chimney and the smell of cooking drew me closer. An old brahmin lady answered my knock and sat me down on a straw mat inside. Within five minutes I was eating a hot South Indian-style meal of doshas (hotcakes) and coconut chutney.
Between bites I tried to tell her that I'd just arrived and needed a place to stay, but she simply dropped another dosha on my plate and said, "Eat. This is what you need now. Don't tell me about your meditation and spiritual searching and all of that. What's most important to you is on your plate. Don't let it get cold. "
After feeding me, she ate. Then she cleaned up, put coals in the stove to heat the house and wrapped me in quilted blankets. At last she sat down and said, "Now tell me what you're doing up here. "
"Well, immediately I am looking for a place to stay. And in general I am looking for a guru to teach me sadhana. "
"Where are you from?"
"From Tamil Nadu," I told her.
We'd been speaking in Hindi, but when she heard this she laughed and switched to Tamil--clearly her native tongue. "Ada pavi! You useless fellow! All this way you've come, just to waste your time. What fool told you there are gurus up here?"
"But mother, why are you up here?"
"Not for sadhana, that's for sure. I came here twenty-six years ago to get away from my family in Madras. I sold my property, came here with the money and bought this house for next to nothing. The rest of the money is in the bank, and that's what I'm living from until the end of my days.
"Now I've told you the truth about myself, which is more than you'll hear from these sadhus up here. They have also come for reasons other than sadhana. There's a naked baba up the road who came with a tourist bus from Gujarat. He was robbed by a sadhu and lost everything, including his clothes. The military people took pity on him and arranged an electrical extension for him from their outpost. He gets cashews from them too. Now he sits naked in a hut. People think, 'Such a yogi, naked in the Himalayas. ' They don't see he has an electric heater behind him, and next to that, a full tin of cashews. "
"But mother, the Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath is here. You can't tell me he's not here for sadhana. "
"Fine," she said, "but if they make me Shankaracharya, I could do sadhana just as well as he. You just sit in the seat and automatically you're the guru of a few thousand people. And they come and fall at your feet. I could also sit in that seat and bless people. Why not? The Shankaracharya says we're all one, so I am the same as him. But I am too busy doing housework. "
"Ma, all I want is to learn some special tapas and to get higher knowledge of God. I want to learn from the sadhus, the real sadhus who know how to live by sadhana. "
"Look, boy, you're shivering," she hooted. "With two blankets you're cold. What special tapas are you going to do? The only sadhus you'll find up here live by the hot springs, not by sadhana. If that heat wasn't there, do you think they'd stay? From now on the climate gets so bad that you can't live longer than one hour outside unless you're fully covered. I am sixty years old and I've been here almost half my life. I haven't seen anyone like that whom you dream about. "
Seeing no further reason to stay, the next day I hopped a military truck back to Deoprayag. I gave lectures at Dr. Khotwala's school and got a following of young people. Though I basked in their acclaim, I felt like a fake. In February 1975 I got an invitation to give a lecture at a girl's school in Rourkee. I used this as a chance to leave the Himalayas.
From Rourkee I went to Kurukshetra. Some sadhu had told me I'd find what I was looking for there. But by this time I was losing all hope. My high-flown spiritual ambitions had wilted into self-serving cynicism.
IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
25 January 2004