One winter I was in Vrindavan for Holi. Papa Singh, one of Maharaji’s longtime devotees was there that year. Papa Singh was of the Jat caste and known in his younger days to be very forthright and something of a go-getter. One time when he’d been unable to have darshan of Shri Siddhi Ma for three days, he sent a message to her saying that if she refused to see him for another day he’d drown himself in the river. Shri Siddhi Ma sent a message back saying, “This will never happen. When your time comes, you will die in glory.”
That year at Holi I’d been shooting a lot of video around Vrindavan and remembered that night reviewing some footage with Papa in it, thinking how at peace Papa looked earlier that day, sitting outside his room, wrapped up in a warm shawl, taking in the winter sun. It was a special kind of equanimity that I’ve seen in many of Maharaji’s old devotees. The next morning I was told that Papa had passed away. Later in the morning Siddhi Ma asked that two Westerners should lead some kirtan out on the verandah in front of the room in which Papa left his body. There were perhaps thirty of the old Mas sitting behind them singing the response part of the kirtans. A bier was made for Papa and he was placed on it and all took turns carefully placing flowers on the bier until you could only see his face. It looked like a truckload of flowers. Later a beautiful puja was done for Papa. I’ve always had a lot of fear about the manner of my own death and had often prayed that when my time came – it would be quiet and painless.
I learned that several days before, Shri Siddhi Ma had been traveling with the mothers and when they were in Delhi and changing trains, she had suddenly told all her companions that she intended to turn around and head to Vrindavan. The mothers were concerned because she had a bad cold and they tried to talk her out of going to Vrindavan because they wanted her to take rest, but she insisted.
She arrived in Vrindavan that same day and late in the night she got up from her bed and went to be with Papa. He was too ill to move so a devotee propped him up so he could pranam. Papa leaned over and rested his head upon Ma’s knee, and left his body. Strange to say, after hearing this I had felt tearfully envious of Papa.
I remember thinking that death was so commonly visible in India and that people too often seemed indifferent to the pain of others outside their own circle and how fortunate Papa was to have seen out his last days in Maharaji’s ashram amongst old friends. Later that day – a group of male devotees picked up a bier with Papa on it and we began to walk it through the busy traffic in the narrow streets of Vrindavan. We turned down one little lane in which only three days earlier, I had seen a man who had died. His family had been too poor to afford a proper funeral and he’d only been covered with a ragged blanket. A few cheap candles had been burning around him as he lay there in the middle of a busy street.
Nearing Loi Bazaar a farmer passed us on a tractor and he offered to transport Papa’s body to the Yamuna. We arrived at the Yamuna and the puja was completed and the body burned. As we were walking back along the sandy banks of the river, I remembered the dead man lying in the street three days before, thinking that none of the people I was with would have given him a second glance. And as this thought occurred, two rough looking characters came our way dragging a sack across the rocks and weeds and through the mud. It was the body of some very poor man to be burned – being treated like a sack of rubbish. Instantly four of Maharaji’s oldest devotees went to the two men and began to talk. “That’s no way to treat one of God’s creatures,” one of them said. I was amazed to see these old Brahmin men hustle over and without and discussion pick up the body. We carried it back down to the burning ghat, purchased wood and incense and performed full puja – for a complete stranger. Nobody asked about the caste or social standing of the dead man. Maharaji had always said, “The world is my family.” For those truly touched by what he’d expressed, this was not a “sermon” but words to live by.
Excerpt from Barefoot in the Heart: Remembering Neem Karoli Baba, edited by Keshav Das
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