When I was growing up, my family kept chickens. We always had about a dozen of them at any given time and whenever one died off--taken away by hawk or fox or by some obscure chicken illness--my father would replace the lost hen. He'd drive to a nearby poultry farm and return with a new chicken in a sack. The thing is, you must be very careful when introducing a new chicken to the general flock. You can't just toss it in there with the old chickens, or they will see it as an invader. What you must do instead is to slip the new bird into the chicken coop in the middle of the night while the others are asleep. Place her on a roost beside the flock and tiptoe away. In the morning, when the chickens wake up, they don't notice the newcomer, thinking only, "She must have been here all the time since I didn't see her arrive." The clincher of it is, awaking within this flock, the newcomer herself doesn't even remember that she's a newcomer, thinking only, "I must have been here the whole time . . ."
This is exactly how I arrive in India.
My plane lands in Mumbai around 1:30 AM. It is December 30. I find my luggage, then find the taxi that will take me hours and hours out of the city to the Ashram, located in a remote rural village. I doze on the drive through nighttime India, sometimes waking to look out the window, where I can see strange haunted shapes of thin women in saris walking alongside the road with bundles of firewood on their heads. At this hour? Buses with no headlights pass us, and we pass oxcarts. The banyan trees spread their elegant roots throughout the ditches.
We pull up to the front gate of the Ashram at 3:30 AM, right in front of the temple. As I'm getting out of the taxi, a young man in Western clothes and a wool hat steps out of the shadows and introduces himself--he is Arturo, a twenty-four-year-old journalist from Mexico and a devotee of my Guru, and he's here to welcome me. As we're exchanging whispered introductions, I can hear the first familiar bars of my favorite Sanskrit hymn coming from inside. It's the morning arati, the first morning prayer, sung every day at 3:30 AM as the Ashram wakes. I point to the temple, asking Arturo, "May I . . .?" and he makes a be-my-guest gesture. So I pay my taxi driver, tuck my backpack behind a tree, slip off my shoes, kneel and touch my forehead to the temple step and then ease myself inside, joining the small gathering of mostly Indian women who are singing this beautiful hymn.
This is the hymn I call "The Amazing Grace of Sanskrit," filled with devotional longing. It is the one devotional song I have memorized, not so much from effort as from love. I begin to sing the familiar words in Sanskrit, from the simple introduction about the sacred teachings of Yoga to the rising tones of worship ("I adore the cause of the universe . . . I adore the one whose eyes are the sun, the moon and fire . . . you are everything to me, O god of gods . . .") to the last gemlike summation of all faith ("This is perfect, that is perfect, if you take the perfect from the perfect, the perfect remains").
The women finish singing. They bow in silence, then move out a side door across a dark courtyard and into a smaller temple, barely lit by one oil lamp and perfumed with incense. I follow them. The room is filled with devotees--Indian and Western--wrapped in woolen shawls against the predawn cold. Everyone is seated in meditation, roosted there, you might say, and I slip in beside them, the new bird in the flock, completely unnoticed.
I sit cross-legged, place my hands on my knees, close my eyes.
I have not meditated in four months. I have not even thought about meditating in four months. I sit there. My breath quiets. I say the mantra to myself once very slowly and deliberately, syllable by syllable.
Om. Na. Mah. Shi. Va. Ya.
Om Namah Shivaya.
I honor the divinity that resides within me.
Then I repeat it again. Again. And again. It's not so much that I'm meditating as unpacking the mantra carefully, the way you would unpack your grandmother's best china if it had been stored in a box for a long time, unused. I don't know if I fall asleep or if I drop into some kind of spell or even how much time passes. But when the sun finally comes up that morning in India and everyone opens their eyes and looks around, Italy feels ten thousand miles away from me now, and it is as if I have been here in this flock forever.