So I went to the chant the next morning, all full of resolve, and the Gurugita kicked me down a twenty-foot flight of cement stairs--or anyway, that's how it felt. The following day it was even worse. I woke up in a fury, and before I even got to the temple I was already sweating, boiling, teeming. I kept thinking: "It's only an hour and a half--you can do anything for an hour and a half. For God's sake, you have friends who were in labor for fourteen hours . . ." But still, I could not have been less comfortable in this chair if I had been stapled to it. I kept feeling fireballs of, like, menopausal heat pulsing over me, and I thought I might faint, or bite somebody in my fury.
My anger was giant. It took in everyone in this world, but it was most specifically directed at Swamiji--my Guru's master, who had instituted this ritual chanting of the Gurugita in the first place. This was not my first difficult encounter with the great and now-deceased Yogi. He was the one who had come to me in my dream on the beach, demanding to know how I intended to stop the tide, and I always felt like he was riding me.
Swamiji had been, all throughout his life, relentless, a spiritual fire-brand. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, Swamiji had been born into a wealthy family and had been expected to enter the family business. But when he was just a young boy, he met a holy man in a small village near his, and had been deeply touched by the experience. Still in his teens,
Swamiji left home in a loincloth and spent years making pilgrimages to every holy spot in India, searching for a true spiritual master. He was said to have met over sixty saints and Gurus, never finding the teacher he wanted. He starved, wandered on foot, slept outside in Himalayan snowstorms, suffered from malaria, dysentery--and called these the happiest years of his life, just searching for somebody who would show God to him. Over those years, Swamiji became a Hatha Yogi, an expert in ayurvedic medicine and cooking, an architect, a gardener, a musician and a swordfighter (this I love). By his middle years, he had still not found a Guru, until one day he encountered a naked, mad sage who told him to go back home, back to the village where he had met the holy man as a child, and to study with that great saint.
Swamiji obeyed, returned home, and became the holy man's most devoted student, finally achieving enlightenment through his master's guidance. Ultimately, Swamiji would become a Guru himself. Over time, his Ashram in India grew from three rooms on a barren farm to the lush garden it is today. Then he got the inspiration to go traveling and incite a worldwide meditation revolution. He came to America in 1970 and blew everybody's mind. He gave divine initiation--shaktipat--to hundreds and thousands of people a day. He had a power that was immediate and transformative. The Reverend Eugene Callender (a respected civil rights leader, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr. and still the pastor of a Baptist church in Harlem) remembers meeting Swamiji in the 1970s and dropping on his knees before the Indian man in amazement and thinking to himself, "There's no time for shuckin' and jivin' now, this is it . . . This man knows everything there is to know about you."
Swamiji demanded enthusiasm, commitment, self-control. He was always scolding people for being jad, the Hindi word for "inert." He brought ancient concepts of discipline to the lives of his often rebellious young Western followers, commanding them to stop wasting their own (and everyone else's) time and energy with their freewheeling hippie nonsense. He would throw his walking stick at you one minute, hug you the next. He was complicated, often controversial, but truly world-changing. The reason we have access now in the West to many ancient Yogic scriptures is that Swamiji presided over the translation and revitalization of philosophical texts that had long been forgotten even in much of India.
My Guru was Swamiji's most devoted student. She was literally born to be his disciple; her Indian parents were amongst his earliest followers. When she was only a child, she would often chant for eighteen hours a day, tireless in her devotion. Swamiji recognized her potential, and he took her on when she was still a teenager to be his translator. She traveled all over the world with him, paying such close attention to her Guru, she said later, that she could even feel him speaking to her with his knees. She became his successor in 1982, still in her twenties.
All true Gurus are alike in the fact that they exist in a constant state of self-realization, but external characteristics differ. The apparent differences between my Guru and her master are vast--she's a feminine, multilingual, university-educated and savvy professional woman; he was a sometimes-capricious, sometimes-kingly South Indian old lion. For a nice New England girl like me, it is easy to follow my living teacher, who is so reassuring in her propriety--exactly the kind of Guru you could take home to meet Mom and Dad. But Swamiji . . . he was such a wild card. And from the first time I came to this Yogic path and saw photographs of him, and heard stories about him, I've thought, "I'm just going to stay clear of this character. He's too big. He makes me nervous."
But now that I am here in India, here in the Ashram that was his home, I'm finding that all I want is Swamiji. All I feel is Swamiji. The only person I talk to in my prayers and meditations is Swamiji. It's the Swamiji channel, round the clock. I am in the furnace of Swamiji here and I can feel him working on me. Even in his death, there's something so earthy and present about him. He's the master I need when I'm really struggling, because I can curse him and show him all my failures and flaws and all he does is laugh. Laugh, and love me. His laughter makes me angrier and the anger motivates me to act. And I never feel him closer to me than when I'm struggling through the Gurugita, with its unfathomable Sanskrit verses. I'm arguing with Swamiji the whole time in my head, making all kinds of blowhard proclamations, like, "You better be doing something for me because I'm doing this for you! I better see some results here! This better be purifying!" Yesterday, I got so incensed when I looked down at my chanting book and realized we were only on Verse Twenty-five and I was already burning in discomfort, already sweating (and not like a person sweats, either, but rather like a cheese sweats), that I actually expelled a loud: "You gotta be kidding me!" and a few women turned and looked at me in alarm, expecting, no doubt, to see my head start spinning demonically on my neck.
Every once in a while I recall that I used to live in Rome and spend my leisurely mornings eating pastries and drinking cappuccino and reading the newspaper. That sure was nice.
Though it seems very far away now.