THE MUD AND THE LOTUS
"Destiny is the name we give our bad habits when we realize they cannot be changed." 'The Earth Will Shake' Robert Anton Wilson "Actions are neither white nor black in the case of Yogins." 'Yoga Sutras of Patanjali'
The Sun rises slowly over silent green fields rich in corn and rice. Indians are lined up like cows on a dirt path between fields and tracks, staring blankly up at the railcars whistling past as they squat in their morning toilet ritual.
An amusing scene among many in this country as I stare groggily out my First-Class window two hours before Varanasi on an over-nighter from Delhi.
I'm headed from desperate illness, rickshaw madness, beggar overload and paralyzing heat into the city of Ghats, Temples and Death.
Along the way I am destined to encounter a sly Brahmin Pandit, a teller of fortunes and part-time silk merchant. A redeeming encounter in an otherwise doomed journey into madness.
Delhi was filled with business boredom beggars. Greedy rickshaw wallahs, hunger like a pit in the pockets of their torn pants roaming the streets for rupees. Baksheesh-begging children and Kashmiri rug merchants all with palms out for a dollar.
I became a pocketbook. An object for every Indian with emerging Capitalist tendencies.
On the verge of insanity I barely escaped town, hounded by savage taxi-wallahs and stampeding elephants.
Dark nights lay like shadows unintimidated by a searing early morning sun as the rickshaw-wallah led me from the train station to the wrong guesthouse. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, knowing that he deliberately misdirected me for more baksheesh.
Insanity would bring me to my Waterloo among the floating bodies at the sacred Ghats on the Ganges.
Eventually finding the guesthouse friends had recommended, New Yogi Lodge, off Desaswamedhe, near the bathing ghats, I settle in, believing the coming days will be light, carefree and full of discovery.
Varanasi, or Benares, is the final leg of a Buddhist and Hindu Holy City Pilgrimage that has taken me from Darjeeling to Sikkim, Hardwar, Rishikesh, Dharmsala, Janakpur and Leh.
Varanasi is where Hindus come to die, their cremated bodies spread as ash into the waters of the sacred Ganges. This is a blessing, and washes away the sins of a lifetime. Some bodies go in whole. Dead babies have stones roped to their legs so they will sink. Even so they become bloated and float.
I was unprepared for Karma, riding a dark horse that dogged my footsteps, to bestow painful lessons.
The streets around the River Ganga and the ghats are narrow and crowded. Really nothing more than alleyways, dirt and mud-packed lanes. Even the rickshaw drivers don't come within a mile of the ghats.
These alleys are all lined with shops. Silk merchants, incense, candles, housewares, idols and religious ornaments, jewelry, a pan/betelnut seller on every corner. Hawker stalls in front of any available space. Chai shops and beggars.
The lanes are crowded with animals. Sacred cows everywhere, their horns a constant threat. Dogs goats, rats, mice, buffalo and crows complete the menagerie. Walking is a hazard, shit everywhere.
5 a.m. on the Ganges. There is a smoky, misty, ethereal light as the sun emerges on the horizon. Temples, usually a bustle of activity, prayer and puja lay along the banks, many half submerged, some up to their spires by the deep waters after Monsoon. The temples stand like silent soldiers, watchful over these holy waters.
Walking down the steps of the ghats into the river for my Holy Dip, I feel surrounded by a sense of inevitability. Early morning Hindus are beside me, men in dhoti cloth or langoti underwear, women in saris. We have all come to bathe.
Immersed in muddy brown water, the temperature is perfect. I bathe, cleansing my sins committed in past lifetimes, as bodies float past. Done so many purification rituals in so many lands, maybe one day my Karma will be shiny white and spotless. The Hindus, busy doing ritual puja, barely notice me.
A group of European tourists floating by on a sightseeing canoe stare, incredulous, when they notice one white body amidst all the brown skin. Cameras clicking fast, I become an instant celebrity.
The Indians tell me this holy water is clean, drinkable, and will cure diseases. The Indians are gulping down mouthfuls as I dip cupped hands in, utter a quick "Hail Mary and Jesus", and drink.
Another dead body floats past.
Just up from the water, old wooden palettes line the walk. Umbrellas providing shade from the searing mid-day heat. Groups of Indians half dressed hanging around, gossiping, drinking chai. They all have a hand out for a few rupees and are quick to offer any kind of service to a passers-by.
I sit on a dirty old palette to receive a two-rupee shave, then a massage, my body still wet from the Ganga waters; might as well do the whole trip. My face is washed clean with the 'remarkable' brown waters from the river below.
The wallahs here will do anything. Clip fingernails, clean eardrums, remove teeth, shave you, cut your hair, massage you. I wonder if there is a brain surgeon in the crowd.
In the streets sunlight glares in the heat of the day. As I wander from temple to temple to chai shop I am assaulted, a constant barrage of money changers, beggars, silk merchants, hashish and ganja peddlers.
I experience sensory overload amongst the crowds, smells, sounds of never-ending Indian activity. Thieving rickshaw-wallahs have hounded me from Delhi. Waves of despair wash through me, hopelessness sits like an undigested samosa in the pit of my stomach.
I feel doomed.
The constant harassment from Indian street hawkers is like a carrion buzzard gnawing at my mind. The despair of a failed relationship and desolation of wandering aimlessly for months in the plains have sapped my spirit. Heat, pollution and the frenetic energy of the crowds have weakened this fragile body to the point of collapse.
The psychic pain just intensifies those body reactions and the wheel of Samsara is spinning at a dizzying speed. I have lost sight of my quest. Ultimately, I have failed!
Witnessing all of this, aware of what is happening, I feel incapable of halting the inevitable. I am caught in the spiraling vortex of a whirlpool descent into Hell. Maybe I have been on the road for too long.
I can remember just a few short months past being in the bliss-field of Dharmsala, taking Bodhisattva Initiation. I felt healthy, well, serene. I had direction and the Universe was providing all blessed things. It seems so long ago, now. A lifetime past!
Not much compassion here. Maybe it is a signal, 'Time to return home.' Wherever that is. Maybe it is the Universal River washing the sewage out. I wonder if the cure is worth the pain.
Most of the scriptures in this part of the world relate the necessity for suffering as part of liberation. I have my doubts. This is the inevitability of Karma.
Two weeks of this feels like a lifetime. My body finally succumbs as I lay on my bed in the guesthouse, a limp rag. No energy, no motivation, no life! A day and a night of fever, chills and delirium. A drastic cleansing, if I survive perhaps the world will change.
Two days later, still weak yet recovering, I talk with Kedar, the owner of the guesthouse, in the evening on a roof overlooking the city. A cool breeze stirs children's kites and bats swoop past, I feel peaceful. He tells me stories of a Varanasi not so long ago, when he was a child.
This was a Holy City. There are as many temples as people here. The Gods celebrated. Brahma, Vishnu, Hanuman, Ganesha and mostly the Soma-drinking, Ganja-smoking, womanizing Shiva. The phallic symbol of Shiva, the Lingam everywhere. There was always Puja, Ritual. No beggars then, a happy, prosperous village.
The streets so clean no one wore shoes. Chai was 10 paisa, a tenth of a rupee, and the water was clean. Everyone healthy. Kedar laments the changing times.
He suggests I visit his Guru, a Brahmin Pandit, or educated philosopher. The man's name is Deoki Nandan Shastri. I decide to look him up the very next day.
Pandit Shastri lives in a small crumbling house on one of those winding dirt alleys crowded with cows and goats near the Ghats. Just across from his doorway in another paint-faded building, small steps leading up to a tight entrance, is his 'Silk Emporium'.
The 'Emporium', a small dusty one-room shop, old wooden shelves on three walls lined with bolts of colorful Varanasi silk. Other shelves filled with loose-leafed books, their pages torn and ragged from years of use, tomes of astrological charts, numbers signs and astral geometry.
He sits on the soft cloth-covered floor, legs folded beneath him, bolts of colorful unraveled silk lie helter-skelter with various star charts spread out before his gaze.
As in everything else in India, I bargain with him for a reading, while sipping chai. I am a little dubious and have been approached by a number of hawkers on the street claiming to introduce me to 'The World-Famous Astrologer of American Movie Stars!'.
The bargaining is easy, I don't feel so pushed. We settle on what I want and a time. He has to prepare the calculations.
Two days after first meeting Shastri I returned for a reading. I had given him my date and place of birth, other vital information for him to prepare a chart.
Shastri is a middle-aged Indian, with medium build and a pot-belly, balding hair, glasses, a round face and uneven brown teeth. The face matches his belly. He wears a dhoti, an Indian sarong, a dirty white T-shirt and the ever present Brahminical cord around his neck.
An easy-going man, he is studious, listens well and does not try to oversell his wares. I like him for his casual charm.
He has drawn a square chart with diamond shaped boxes containing numbers and planetary symbols in a notebook. This is a Hindu horoscope, and also contains the Moon in two aspects, called shadow planets. Along with the chart he studies my palm. I have not told Shastri anything about my life as he begins:
"You are a student of Psychology and Philosophy. This learning aspect will continue for the next one to three years, till you are 41-to-43. Then you will apply your knowledge in your work, which will be with people, as a teacher or counselor."
A queer sensation courses through my arms and I am initially stunned. This sounds right!
The Pandit goes on to say that my hand shows a very even balance throughout my life. I am half philosophical and half practical, and must verify for myself through experience the notions I absorb. The softness in my palm suggests an open heart, that I usually ascertain quickly whether I can trust someone.
"You were very ill as a child, then after nine years of age became healthy. You worked in the business world for years, that work proved unsatisfying eventually, and you then turned toward a spiritual pursuit as that called with more urgency."
I am impressed with this Brahmin's accuracy. At first, cynical and curious, I come more and more under his spell, as he unveils the astral influences in my life. Somehow, this man knows me!
When I question him about how he determines this information, is it all in the stars, he looks at me plainly. Without defensiveness he informs me that he has been doing these readings for more than twenty years, that it is not just the stars or my palm, it also is his trusted impressions. His honesty also impresses me.
"You will always have conflict between the Moon and Mercury, your feelings and intellect, and need to cultivate balance here. The triangle in your palm indicates good fortune; you seem to live a blessed existence." I notice myself catching a breath.
Hasn't that been a big part of my conflict for so many years? Being pulled around by my mind, not listening to my emotions. Not so much recently, yet I remember a time when reason was the only motivating factor for me. Now it seems I am lost in a sea of emotions and want to find an anchor.
A sigh of acceptance escapes my lips, knowing this just takes time and awareness.
Shastri reads long-term influences, drawing out my life to over 86 years. He indicates heart problems between 70-to-86, economic success between 43 and 60, a rough period caused by the shadow moon Raju between 58 and 70, yet he assures me the difficulty will be short.
The time spreads disturb me, yet he informs me that this chart cannot be more accurate than that. The influences may not manifest for the whole period.
He advises me that I have a deep spiritual connection with someone, and that when I do marry, that relationship will develop into a profound spiritual experience.
He looks deeply into my eyes, there is a slight expression of surprise and acceptance on his face as he murmurs "This will be your last rebirth on this planet, your last incarnation."
These past few days my illness and suffering come sharply into focus. Karmically, this cleansing had to happen. Awareness of the purification through pain, the awakening potential, ripple through my body like ribbons of electric current awakening every cell.
Somehow I feel as though this is a trial and an opportunity. The stars provide influence yet I have choice.
The Brahmin Pandit gave me the gift of a long-range view. I had received readings before of more short-term experience. All of this is filled with option, possibility. Another door is opening, it is up to me to decide whether to enter or not.
The clouds are lifting, slowly. Glimpses of warm orange light soft and unfocused appear on the horizon. My health is improving daily. I realize it is my own creation, my Karma. Even the rickshaw-wallahs now start at only ten times the price for a ride instead of fifty.
Recovery will take time and I am headed to a more serene place high in the Himalayas. It is time now to pamper this body. Kathmandu is the answer.
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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