The World Is My Family
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
Mother From America
In the words of Dada, “We all think we are chasing the guru, but really, you see, he is chasing us.”
All I knew about the hardships of India made me sure I didn’t want to go there, yet in October of 1971 I found myself at JFK Airport with two friends, waiting to board a plane for Bombay. A large crowd of our New York “spiritual” group had come to see us off, or, as I suspected, to make sure we actually got on the plane. We were all three in varying states of panic, wondering what we were doing. Both the panic and the confusion were to intensify a hundredfold when we actually arrived in India.
We three, like nearly all the group of Westerners we eventually joined around Maharajji, first heard of him through Ram Dass. Yet, though my life totally changed after the night I first heard Ram Dass lecture, I did not feel drawn to go to India. Partially, the mystique of what going to India represented in those days made it seem presumptuous for me to even consider the trip. Nor was it clear to me that the power of the awakening I had experienced was, in fact, a connection with Maharajji—that he could possibly be my guru. We had all heard how difficult it was to find him. And what if he sent me away as he had others?
Now, three years later, I was going to India, but I still hadn’t the temerity to chance rejection—I was going to see some south Indian saints and perhaps later “visit” up north, if there seemed any hope of being received.
Coming off the plane in Bombay, we were met by an airline representative (in India, a feat in itself), who advised us that we had reservations on an afternoon flight to New Delhi and that tickets were waiting for us at the counter. This was a stunner, but after a twenty-six or twenty-eight-hour fight we were too dazed to feel more than mild wonder. After all, we were in India—anything could happen here. (This mystery of tickets and reservations to Delhi was never solved in any “reasonable” way.) In Delhi, we thought of going to the American Express office to ask for messages, as we had planned to do in Bombay. After all, since we were here, there must be a message. There was: “Go to Jaipuria Bhavan in Vrindaban. Maharajji expected soon.” It was signed, “Balaram Das.” We didn’t know who that was.
We learned that Vrindaban was not far from Delhi and that we could get there by an afternoon train. Somehow we never thought of pausing in the relative Westernness of Delhi. The message said go and go we did. We thereby learned the first great lesson of India: Never travel by third-class unreserved coach! It was the equivalent of a three-hour ride on a New York City subway at rush hour, with the addition of sunshine, dust, and engine smoke pouring in the open windows.
Eventually, we battled our way off the train at Mathura, and in the glowing dusk of the Indian plain, whose beauty we could not then appreciate, we found a bus to take us to nearby Vrindaban. There we were put down in the large bazaar of what to all appearances was a thirteenth-century village of winding alleys full of people, rickshaws, dogs, pigs, and cows. By now it was dark and most of the illumination came from lanterns in the shops lining the streets. We asked for directions to “Jaipuria Bhavan” in our nonexistent Hindi and were directed first up one alley and then down another. It grew later and the shops were beginning to close. Our panic grew with our exhaustion and hunger, for even if we came upon the hostel we would not recognize it, for every sign was in Hindi. We began to envision ourselves huddling for the night among the cows in some doorway.
Then suddenly approaching us appeared a Westerner—someone whom I’d met the year before in California. In hysterical relief, I threw my arms around him, but he, an old-timer in India, was totally calm in the face of our emotion. Oh, yes, Jaipuria Bhavan was just there, around the next bend.
During the next few days, the small Western satsang (community of spiritual seekers) began gathering at Jaipuria Bhavan, awaiting Maharajji’s arrival at his Vrindaban ashram (monastery). Many of them we knew from America, including the mysterious “Balaram Das” whom we’d known as Peter. We heard their stories of Maharajji with relief and anticipation. He didn’t sound so fierce and terrifying after all. Then word came that he was here! The next morning we could go to have his darshan.
I arrived at the ashram a little late with Radha, nervously clutching my borrowed sari and the offering of flowers and fruit. We circumambulated the temple and pranammed (bowed) to Hanumanji, then approached the gate in the wall between the temple garden and the ashram. How well I remember that green wooden door! When we knocked, the old chaukidar (gate-keeper) opened it a crack and peered out at us. Then, as each time afterward for as long as I was in India, I wondered if he would let us in. But he stepped back, pulling the door open for us. I looked through, down the vista of the long verandah along the front of the ashram building. At the far end, Maharajji was sitting alone on his wooden bed. When I saw his great form, my heart jumped so that I staggered against the gate. That first sight of him is still piercingly clear in my memory.
Radha had already rushed through and I ran after her, losing my sandals along the way. It was all so simple and familiar—bowing at his feet, giving the fruit and flowers (which he immediately threw back in my lap), weeping and laughing. Maharajji was bouncing, smiling, and crowing in English, “Mother from America! Mother from America!” During that first darshan, though Maharajji spoke mainly in Hindi, I understood everything without the interpreter who stood nearby. And I recognized the love that had poured through Ram Dass, that had irresistibly drawn me to India: Here was the source.
– Excerpt from Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass
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