There are many things that happen on a typical day when doing a yatra in India. Little blessings, big adventures, getting hopelessly lost and then found again.
These are four short stories that I’d like to share. They are things that happened to me and their experiential quality was the sweetest nectar of both amazement and bewilderment.
When I arrived for my second round of the Kumbh Mela a very kind Maharaj-ji (Neem Karoli Baba) devotee and guru sister sent me a note telling me that Siddhi Ma was still in Rishikesh. My plans in India up until that point simply didn’t allow for me to reach her in time to receive her darshan, I had accepted that fact.
When I heard this news I immediately altered my plans and made arrangements to leave the Kumbh on February 11th, the day after the main bathing day (Mauni Amavasya) on Feb 10. Getting out of the Kumbh that day was incredibly difficult and if I didn’t have the help of some amazingly kind and resourceful ISKCON devotees I would have never made it out. They arranged for me to ride on the back of a motorcycle, with my luggage, for 10km until we reached safe harbor to where I could get a taxi to Varanasi. It was living chaos theory. I never have seen so many people trying to make their way out of any one place.
Over the course of the next 2 days I made my way from Varanasi to Rishikesh, to the Maharaj-ji ashram.
When I first arrived at the ashram in Rishikesh it was around 230 pm. There was not a soul in sight. Only the friendly security guard who greeted me with “ram ram” over and over again. There were a couple of westerners I was looking for but they were nowhere in sight, it was all a little strange. At one point I stepped over a “boundary” to look for someone and an Indian man came out of nowhere and barked at me quite loudly. He spoke perfect english and informed me that the people I was looking for were not there and that there would be no darshan with Siddhi Ma at all. It was somewhat agitating.
This late in February is usually her retreat time so it’s quite rare for her to be in Rishikesh at all. When I arrived the next day to the ashram I did find the kind and generous westerners who lovingly set my expectations that I might not get to see Ma this trip.
After receiving this news, I went to the Maharaj-ji temple and gave him my pranams, my dandavats in fact. I so rarely pray for specific things, like “give me this or give me that” but my ego was so bruised that I had no choice but to ask him to please allow for me to receive this darshan. The thoughts of “don’t you know how far I’ve come?” and “I have so much to tell her” and all the rest of the petulant games the ego likes to play when it’s not getting it’s way all raced through my head and into my prayers as I was on the ground. If there’s any one lesson from the lila of Neem Karoli Baba it’s that it’s all grace and if you listen to it or not is up to you.
Interestingly enough, I think you know what happens next. As I got up from giving my pranams, Siddhi Ma was being walked through the gate some 25 yards behind me. Not only were my prayers answered but they were answered immediately.
Coincidence? Good timing? Grace? Call it what you want. As Ram Dass said in Be Here Now “now you have the data I have.”
The Naga Babas
Of the most notable and at this point almost spectacle like people to see at the Kumbh Mela are the Naga Babas. Even the Indians make special mention of them because they are so wild. To this day they emerge from out of the mountains naked and covered in ash. These are sadhus from ancient lineages that meditate primarily on Shiva so deeply that their energy is so rooted, fierce and graceful that you can taste it. If you come across one at close range you can’t escape their bhava.
There are naked Naga (Digambara, or “sky-clad”) Sadhus who wear their hair in thick dreadlocks called Jata and they may also carry swords. Aghora sadhus may claim to keep company with ghosts, or live in cemeteries as part of their holy path. Indian culture tends to emphasize an infinite number of paths to God, such that sadhus, and the varieties that sadhus come in have their place.
At the Kumbh there are many camps of them, which lineage is which I’m not exactly sure nor could I find anyone to really explain it to me. Upon traversing the massive landscape of the Kumbh I was looking intently at which Naga Baba camp I should sit and take darshan with. I glanced upon one and the guru Baba of the camp was sitting elevated on a pile of sand with Rudrashkas wrapped around his dreadlocks at least 3 feet high. His eyes were rolling into the back of his head at times. He was deep in samadhi. His trance felt authentic to me. When his eyes returned to survey his surroundings he felt powerful and engaged. This was my guy.
There were at least 6 or 7 others sitting around him, all naked, chanting mantra and passing the chillum. As I approached I immediately felt a welcoming energy because it seems that most westerners don’t have the courage to actually sit with them. I took off my shoes and shirt, gave my pranams and said “Hari Om Baba” to the nearest one. He moved over, created space for me to sit and said “coffee or tea?”. In perfect english.
So there I was sitting with these guys and 2 or 3 of them, I forget, spoke perfect english and were just as eager to hear my story as I was theirs. We drank tea and talked very systematically for about 30 minutes. There was nothing uncomfortable. We just kinda sat there. I asked them if they really still lived in the Himalayas. I’m not sure if they were pulling my leg or not but one guy said “yes, very much so. have you been to the Himalaya?.” I said I’d only been to two towns on the foothils, Rishikesh and Nanital. When I said “Rishikesh” many of them nodded and smiled making me think that perhaps that’s where you might start if you were to look for them. There’s no way that could be right as it’s way to obvious but I was searching for some kind of answers. They weren’t really giving them to me. What I really felt is that they just wanted to be respected and not “studied” by a westerner. So we just sat there. They asked me about my guru, a couple nodded in affirmation. As we sat and just watched the fire burn and the ash pile grow I did feel the grounded peace.
I asked why all the ash. The only answer I got was “Shiva! Death and birth.”
There you have it.
Pizza in Varanasi
Upon leaving the Kumbh to seek out Siddhi Ma I had to return to Varanasi for the night. When I finally arrived there I was starving and oddly the only place open within walking distance was a pizza place. That or another samosa on the street. I choose the pizza.
The man at the counter was really a boy no more than 17. He was very modern in jeans and a cool t-shirt. He was fascinated by me. He asked in the typical Indian way “what country you from?” I answered “America.”
“But you wear Kurta” he proclaimed. (traditional Indian temple shirt). I said “yes, I do.”
“And you have Tulsis?!” he gasped. Again, I said “yes.”
“Why? Krishna? you believe?” Once more, I said “yes. I do”
He proclaimed very matter a factly “I don’t.”
For those of you who don’t know, Chotta Maharaj (little maharaj) is a sadhu baba who lives in Vrindvan. He has a very small Vaishnav ashram a few doors down from Neem Karoli Baba on the parikrama.
He sits on the edge of his bed and basically gives darshan all day long to those who seek it. The kicker is it’s said that he’s anywhere between 110-150 years old. In fact, the young purjaris (priests) at his temple say he’s 162.
Whatever the trip is. He’s OLD. Shyamdas once told me “he can’t die. he’s stuck in the bhav.”
He’s basically blind and can hear very little. His head is slumped over but he’s in bliss. When you enter his room another baba helps guide your head to his lap where you receive the “patting on the head” that is his darshan.
It is so sweet and gentle that it must be experienced to be believed. He strokes your head endlessly and repeats a mantra. This time he said “Jaya Radha Bhagavan Ki Jai” over and over again. Time stood still and there was nothing but this sweet little man just pouring love onto my head. Wanting nothing in return. Not even money. He just wants you to have a little taste of Vraj and all the glorious pastimes that have happened there. It’s quite blissful.
The day after I received this darshan along with the group I was with, we deduced (more or less) that while we were receiving this our friend and beloved teacher Shyamdas was leaving his body.
Victory to Radha, the eternal lover of the divine and the universal truth! Jaya Radha Bhagavan.