Early in the morning, we found ourselves heading out to “Bengali Tola”, the ancient part of Varanasi historically settled by a large community of people from Bengal, and still with a sizeable Bengali community living there.
For the benefit of those of you who may not already know, Varanasi is an ancient city in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, situated along the banks of the Ganga river, and said to be the oldest living city in the world. Considered to be Lord Shiva’s favourite place, the Hindu people regard it as especially holy, and that dying here brings salvation for the soul. And so cremation on the Ghats of the Ganga in Varanasi is one of the biggest “tourism” activities in the city! It is a sight at once fascinating and confronting as you amble along on your scenic boat-ride along the Ganga, to suddenly come upon multiple funeral pyres on the Manikarnika or Harishchandra Ghats (they run 24×7!), with a veritable mountain of pyre logs stacked alongside. You can’t look on, nor look away.
Having done the boat-ride the night before and seen the inevitable sights, we were in a contemplative frame of mind this morning. We were headed to try and find the 150-year old house of Lahiri Mahasaya, a legendary saint in my meditation tradition of Kriya Yoga (“me” in this case is Saurabh, one of the co-founders of Imageryworks, the company behind the Mindbody Mastery program, and “we” was a party of four – my wife Shibani, and Anne and Rod – two friends from Melbourne).
Those of you with exposure to Kriya Yoga or who have read Paramahansa Yogananda’s spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi“, would recall that Lahiri Mahasaya was miraculously summoned to a cave perched atop the Dunagiri hills in the Himalayas in the mid-19th century, to be initiated into Kriya Yoga by the mysterious Mahavatar Babaji, and instructed to commence teaching this simple but highly effective meditation technique.
And speaking of mind-body mastery, here was a man who was known to have complete and instantaneous awareness of events from distant places, make uncannily accurate observations about events far into the future, routinely appear in two distant places at the same time, make his body appear and disappear at will to a camera, not to mention the more esoteric experiences of many of his students that attested to his transparent, unbroken divine/universal consciousness.
I had a sense of occasion this morning. All through this one-year India sabbatical, we had tiptoed around the sites associated with this legendary saint and teacher’s life – in Haridwar where we are based, and where there is a memorial in his honour, in Serampore (near Kolkata), where there is a temple dedicated to him, and even meditating in the aforementioned Himalayan cave! But we had not yet made it to the epicentre of his story – his humble house in Bengali Tola. Walking along the cobble-stoned alleyways of Bengali Tola, I was mindful of Yoganandaji’s words, “Unknown to society in general, a great spiritual renaissance began to flow from a remote corner of Benares (as Varanasi is also known). Just as the fragrance of flowers cannot be suppressed, so Lahiri Mahasaya, quietly living as an ideal householder, could not hide his innate glory. Slowly, from every part of India, the devotee-bees sought the divine nectar of the liberated master“.
We wanted to get there before sunrise, simply pay our heart-felt respect, and meditate for a while. But it took some getting there after wandering around the maze of (very) narrow alleyways. Fortunately we had arrived just the day after the launch of the “Swachh Bharat” campaign – an ambitious and long over-due campaign by the dynamic new Indian government to clean up the country (and keep it clean). Never in my life had I seen the streets of Varanasi so clean! We eventually found the house but unfortunately it was closed (it is only open to public once a year for the Guru-Purnima festival). And so we sat on a ledge across the alleyway (in truth it was someone’s door-step!) and meditated.
Now, you have to visualise this scene – four earnest people, sitting quietly with our eyes closed on a random person’s door-step, facing a really narrow alleyway (no more than 2 arm-lengths!) that was just coming alive from the night’s slumber, with cows, dogs, bicycles, motorbikes and people literally brushing past us. But take my word, I have rarely experienced meditation so deep as I did that morning. It had an instantly absorbing quality, and all four of us felt it.
We awoke refreshed, and duly made our way to the Dashashvamedh Ghat – Varanasi’s most famous and prominent Ghat. Even at 7am it was a beehive of activity, with the faithful thronging to take a dip in the Ganga, praying, chanting, and in most cases also unwittingly being fleeced by the faithless. After having turned down the fourteenth offer for a spectacular and “cheap” boat-ride/hotel/special prayer, the tranquility of the morning’s meditation was beginning to wear off somewhat. And so I am ashamed to admit, I was very much on-guard when the dreadlocked and saffron clad Shomendu Chattopadhyay approached us with a beaming smile. He looked to be in his 70s, and asked me in chaste Hindi from where I had come. I testily asked him to first tell me from where he had come, to which he laughed and said “I have been wandering this blessed country as a Sanyasi since the age of 8, so I come from nowhere and everywhere, and I am going nowhere and everywhere”. Intrigued as much by the answer as the poise with which it was delivered, I then asked him, “Have you found God? How is he?” Again the same hearty laugh, and an answer-in-the-form-of-a-question, “That depends on how you are. As you are, so is God, for you are God. So how are you?” Impressed and sufficiently disarmed, I asked him about his life. After wandering for a while in his younger years (from the age of 8!), he had settled into the Ramakrishna mission (founded by his idol, Swami Vivekananda), and taught meditation for many decades. And now he had chosen to wander again. That was that! A startlingly minimalistic account of a lifetime, don’t you think? Through it all, what struck me was his remarkable poise, easy bearing, and old, wise eyes. My mind went back to the question I had asked Swami Ashutoshananda as recounted in an earlier blog – “How do you know if someone is enlightened?” “By that person’s natural ease at all times and in all circumstances”. Shomendu spoke about the Ganga (to which he reverently referred to as “Mother”), his dismay at its current parlous, polluted state, and his rising hopes for a clean-up under the new Indian Government’s Ganga Action Plan. Incidentally he also referred to the Sun as the “Father” – a logical worldview I felt, as between them, the Sun and the river do directly sustain all life (though I did wonder where he might have fit in “air”!).
Some days later we found ourselves clambering up a steep hill in the Eastern Himalayas in the Indian state of Sikkim. Atop the hill was the gorgeous 17th century Sanga Choeling monastery – one of the oldest in Sikkim. After taking in the stunning 360 degrees view of snow capped mountains and lush green valleys, we meditated for sometime inside the monastery. My abiding memory is serenely meditating while an old monk was chanting and rhythmically beating a drum (!), and then the long, happy time we spent chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum“, the sacred Tibetan mantra in front of an idol of Lord Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche as he is lovingly known), the mystical saint from the Swat valley (in modern-day Pakistan), who had introduced the Buddha’s teachings into Tibet in the 8th century. There is something distinctly stirring about this mantra, particularly in the rarefied air of the Himalayas – I felt this strongly in Ladakh (the starkly beautiful high-altitude desert that straddles between Kashmir and Tibet), and then again here in Sikkim.
As we were preparing to descend, we got talking to a young monk by the name of Tenzing Chopel Lama. He stood out amongst the other monks on account of his long hair! Seeing our confusion, he apologetically explained that he had just days ago returned to the monastery after a 7-year solitary retreat! Apparently it was 3 years, 3 months and 3 days followed by a short break, and then another 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. Naturally impressed, I asked him what he had experienced in the 7 years. Quite innocently and humbly, he confided that he had experienced deep states of concentration and bliss – days and weeks of single-pointed awareness; and ultimately, grand visions of the living Buddha and Lord Padmasambhava! Having missed out on asking Shomendu in Varanasi, I eagerly grabbed my chance this time, and so here are the promised answers to our two standard questions:
1. What makes you laugh?
The mind. The mind is like an eagle – the higher it soars, the more it sees. I laugh when I see people so unnecessarily troubled in or by their minds, when that mind is itself the most obvious and powerful ally in their salvation.
2. What do you do about mosquitoes?
As a monk, I have pledged not to harm any living being, let alone kill it. A mosquito has as much right to live as I do. And if to live, it has to suck my blood, then so be it. I have to develop the strength of body to withstand its attack, and the strength of mind to welcome it with compassion.