A Visit to the Alaknath Mandir by Hari Meyers
This is Chapter 22, "Some Things End", from Hari Meyers' unpublished work, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, an account of a summer journey the author took with his then 15-year-old son to India in 1989.
The train's arrival brought a brief burst of life to Bareilly Junction. It was 5:40 a.m. Porters leapt to their feet, but my son Max and I were the only disembarking passengers and could carry our own bags. The fruit vendors looked hopefully towards us. My sandals and Max's shoes swept loudly over the silent station's cement floor; our footsteps echoed in its almost vacant cavern.
Outside in the spreading light, a few rickshaws were parked on the cobblestones. The first-in-line wallah quickly dusted off the passengers' seat with a flick of a rag. The others remained curled up on their vehicles with eyes closed.
"Alaknath Mandir," I directed the rickshaw wallah to Ganesh Baba's ashram.
Max and I took an interest in the sleepy streets of this traditional town only because we knew Ganesh Baba had walked them so many times.
"I wonder if it was strange for Baba coming back here after so long?" Max asked. "How long was he away altogether?" "I think he was in the States eight years and Europe for awhile on both sides of that. But you know Baba; he took everything in its stride. He was at home everywhere."
Ganesh Baba had gone to the United States originally for an operation on his eyes. He was a lifelong diabetic I saw him give himself insulin shots many mornings in the backroom of our house and blindness threatened. Western devotees brought him to New York for the surgery that saved his sight. His bottle-thick glasses exaggerated the sad wisdom of his eyes. I wondered if he'd seen these streets more clearly upon his return.
The cloudless sky had lightened as we arrived at the gates of Alaknath Mandir. Morning bells rang. From the huge pile of shoes stacked outside the gate, all the life of this town seemed to be there. The sound of swishing garments at the entrance mingled with the mumble of prayers that flowed from within. Devotees were performing puja, bowing before altars where prasad of rice balls and plucked blossoms were offered.
We paid the driver and bought two strings of flowers. A Western couple, their foreheads smeared with ash and dotted with bright yellow paint, emerged from the mandir. Both were tall. The woman's hair was cropped short; the man had a sparse, dark beard.
We introduced ourselves. His name was Thierry, her's Madhu, Sanskrit for "honey." As I might have guessed, a connection to Ganesh Baba drew them there. Baba stayed in France for six months between leaving the States and returning to India. Madhu met him there and was named by him. Thierry had never met Baba. They were friends of French Carol's, who was with Baba when he died.
This, their first journey to India, began with a visit to this mandir about two months before. They had since toured Kathmandu and much of northern India, returning now to say goodbye before heading to Delhi and their flight home.
Max and I made our rounds of the temple altars, performed our puja, placing the flowers we had purchased around a statue of Ganga. In return a priest painted our brows with Shivite streaks of yellow. The bells stopped and the crowd of worshippers dispersed. Quiet descended. Alaknath Mandir presented a scene full of devotion. This was the authentic, ancient India, revealed to me during my first journey only after long, assaultive months. I dropped into its serenity with gratitude.
This was as close as one could get to the hermitages of scripture, the sort of place the exiled Ram might have offered his protection. Symbolically, as though to honor such connection with a forest retreat, Alaknath Mandir had two tethered bucks with twirled horns. One stood in front of the garage-like tin structure, in which we were told we might store our bags, and the other lay prone over folded legs before the tiled room where the ashram's main dhuni, a sadhu's smoking circle, was lorded over by Shri Mahant Dev Giri Baba.
We were invited to join this dhuni. Sadhus were gathered here for a morning chillum. Dev Giri Baba was clearly in control. He passed a small ball of hashish to a young sadhu beside him who swiftly, in the palm of his hand, worked it and some flakes of tobacco into a resinous ball which he slipped into the cone of the chillum. Dev Giri Baba reached into the glowing embers in the ceremonial fire pit at the center and removed with his fingers a glowing coal. Slowly he placed it on top of the chillum and then exercised his unquestioned right to the first few puffs. The chillum was then passed clockwise. When it came to me I took a very cautious hit.
I knew Max had smoked marijuana before. It is prevalent on every school campus in California and it would have been foolish for me to pretend he had not tried it. I could never be so hypocritical as to censure something I myself have honored. Both Father* and Ganesh Baba, the two wisest men I'd known, were grateful consumers of the herb. The important thing, I felt, is to provide a respectful, even sacred, context for its use so that the expansive and transcendent state it induced might be viewed as illuminating rather than an escape into numbness and oblivion. Such a context was beautifully demonstrated at Alaknath Mandir, where sacred chants were uttered and blessings invoked.
Shri Mahant Dev Giri Baba was a handsome man, much younger than I would have thought a chief guru of an ashram to be. His eyes were piercing beneath dark brows. They did not focus on anything particular for long but he sat with a soft gaze stare at seemingly nothing. His beard and hair were a sandy brown, unusual for Indians, and he wore his hair sadhu-style, in tightly-matted dreadlocks. I was puzzled by the incongruity of the expensive watch on his left wrist. Not a word was spoken as the chillum was passed around. Dev Giri Baba ran a solemn dhuni.
Afterwards Thierry took us out to the garden to show us Ganesh Baba's "samadhi." Samadhi usually means the trance in which a particularly adept yogi may enter and merge for moments with the absolute and infinite. The death of an awakened sage is often spoken of as "entering mahasamadhi," the great trance. Here however, the word denoted an actual monument built as tribute to a teacher. Since awakened ones are buried rather than cremated, Ganesh Baba's bones lay there and the community intended to build a "samadhi" to him. All that currently marked the spot was a square foundation and in its center, amongst the tall grass and weeds, a crudely carved stone lingam.
Max and I remained by the lingam when Thierry left us. Max placed his interlaced fingers to his lips. A long, curled lock of his hair fell over his forehead, its shadow streaked his cheek like the tracing of a tear. My own tears flowed freely. They streamed through the dust on my cheeks and drained into the delta of my beard as I remembered the first time I saw Ganesh Baba.
It was on the Amarnath Yatra, a pilgrimage I, ten other Westerners, and about 15,000 Indians took in August of '68. We crossed snow covered peaks in the Kashmiri Himalayas to a cave where a naturally-formed ice lingam waxes and wanes with the moon. I was not fully recovered from a recent bout with hepatitis. Only desperation could have caused me to undertake a journey of eight days over peaks 17,000 feet in height in my weakened condition. I felt stuck in spiritual crisis and hoped the pilgrimage would really kill me, if I weren't dead already, or, if I were, move me on to some more significant loka (plane of consciousness) in Shiva's realm.
An Englishman named Jasper was on the yatra. I'd met him long before in Benares. He was one of the earliest Westerners to have gone completely sadhu and had become something of a legend an aristocrat, a junkie, a candidate for canonization in the Road Hall of Fame. He came into camp that first evening holding an umbrella against the sun's last light over the head of an ochre-clad sanyasin, Ganesh Baba. Jasper was well over six feet tall, Baba barely five feet. Jasper, thin, taut, looked like a marathon runner; Baba, roly-poly, white-bearded, looked like an elf. The two of them brought up the uttermost rear of the entire pilgrimage every night. Never in a hurry, true to his lumbering, elephantine nature, Baba was always the last one in.
After the pilgrimage, Baba lived with us in the house a group of us Westerners had rented in a beautiful country spot on the side of Dal Lake opposite Srinagar. He spoke to us incessantly of the nature of consciousness, took us, insight by insight, beyond and within the perceptual illusion, what the sages call maya, piercing the dualities of what he liked to describe as five sub-atomic levels below our normal awareness. Every time Baba approached the ineffable, the ultimate expression of what the Upanishads describe as "Tat Tvam Asi, That Thou Art," the metaphors failed him and he'd call for another chillum. He would come up against a limit to his own impressive powers of expression. A tear would form in his eye, a tear, which, magnified through the thick lens of his glasses, contained all the sorrow in man's collective inability to jump the gap between matter and spirit. It was Baba's failure to convey the ultimate that sent me on to Father.
It was on another pilgrimage, the Rainbow Gathering in California of 1984, where, after sixteen years, I saw Baba again. He was seated on a rock, surrounded by a few devotees who had driven him out from New York. Baba recognized me immediately.
"Hari," he said, "at last, someone who knows something. Take me where you're staying and save me from these idiots."
Baba lived with us on and off for two years until he returned to India. We thought he was well in his eighties when we first met him at Amarnath, which would put him in his late nineties when he stayed with us. Max and I believed he had passed one hundred years of age when he died. He was a yogi and kept his pre-awakened past from us. No one can ever be sure just how old he was.
Back at the Alaknath Mandir, Max said, "All I can do is say 'thank you' to Baba. He was so good to me, Dad. He took me aside all the time, told me to have patience with you and Mom. It was like he and I knew something no one else did." He shook his head slowly and repeated "I'll never forget you never."
We sat in silence for a long while before the lingam.
"God, I'm glad we did this, Max. Came here, I mean. Not just Bareilly. India. It's ending something for me, I feel. I hope it's beginning something for you."
Max looked hard at my still stained cheeks.
"Don't get too spiritual on me, Pop. O.K.?"
"I'll be good, I promise," I said, but wondered what loose edge in me he feared. I imagined he was a touch worried that he would be marooned here if I really "lost it." Funny, his mother, too, came to fear my spiritual aspirations. She loved the almost fanatic fervor of my commitment to Father when I first met her but came to act in time as a moderating force against these extremes in me. She feared a messianic fervor might again grab me and I'd abandon her after all, that's what my quest amounted to with my first family, abandonment and lose myself once more in India or some other mystic realm.
"But you must know, Max," I thought to myself, "the force of my devotion to you, how fully I have accepted, even more, embraced my dharma as your father." My own fatherhood was the path I doubted least, the strongest of my present promptings towards God, the one area in my life free from the accusation of "failure."
Bareilly was a piece of the ancient and quiet India I had sought. On my own, I might have stayed there a few days, but Max wanted to move on. I was content in the simple realization that it still existed. Without Father and Baba I no longer had any essential relation to it.
We talked with a young sadhu, the one who deftly prepared Dev Giri Baba's chillum. His name was Salone and he spoke a serviceable English. His name was on a list Amy had given me. Amy knew Baba in India and housed him when he stayed in San Francisco. She visited Bareilly after his death and briefed us on whom to look up on our visit. I asked Salone to present us to Dev Giri.
Salone went quietly into the tiled room and said something to the guru who rose slowly from his supine position and motioned us in. The four of us sat in a dhuni. I told Dev Giri Baba that I was a friend of Amy's and that I had some money from her.
"It is to help complete the samadhi," I said both cautiously I was aware of a possible disrespect in my telling the head guru what to do with an offering and with some emphasis, somewhat suspicious that it might be used for some other purpose. Salone translated.
Dev Giri Baba's response was completely impassive. This was a man who dispensed ash to proffered brows without looking into the face of the supplicant. I removed from the rear zipped pocket of my money belt 400 rupees. I hated to hand these over to Dev Giri Baba. Father gnashed his teeth in anger over the hypocrisy of Indian gurus. The watch on his wrist and his refusal to look at us or the other supplicants before him caused me to judge Dev Giri Baba as one whom Father would have chewed up and spit out. But the money wasn't mine. Amy wished me to present the money at Bareilly. It was an exercise in my own non-attachment.
Dev Giri Baba, without deigning to look at them, slipped the notes under the rug he sat upon. There was on the wall of this room one black and white photo of Ganesh Baba. Though he was once honored and revered here, he seemed mostly forgotten. I wondered if any there loved him as we had. Perhaps not. Ganesh Baba had, after all, given his last decades to the Western hippies.
When we left Dev Giri's presence, Salone guided us to the completed samadhi of Ganesh Baba's own guru. In a very small room there was a lifelike marble statue of the man. Salone explained haltingly that a similar statue would be made of Ganesh Baba and would sit in a room to be built on the foundation that we saw out on the grass.
"But it is costing too much," he said. "10,000 rupees, so much money."
Salone was off that morning to take the French couple to visit his own father, a local pundit. Max and I went along. We engaged two rickshaws and moved through the streets of the town, stopping for Limcas and curds for us and purchasing sandeshi, goatmilk sweets for the pundit.
Pandit Rameshwar Pandaya, Salone's father, lived in a modest room. He spoke English and launched immediately into the relationship between psyche and breath. The psyche, he claimed, could either spread out infinitely or concentrate itself into a single point. The practice of yoga utilized this latter capacity. "But yoga," the good pundit proclaimed "is ultimately a 'death trip' because eventually you have to stop the breath." He then described the sushumna, which is generally spoken of as the channel on the subtle body, roughly corresponding to the spine on the gross one, through which the aroused kundalini energy travels.
"There are certain siddhis and powers," he declared, "which appear at each level attained by the consciousness rising in the sushumna. But these are vanities, to be avoided. There is also another channel by which the energy can transform. It is the bakunda. No siddhis are there but liberation only."
Pandit Rameshwar shifted to a more personal note. "I know you were devotees of Ganesh Baba. So was I, and he of me. He was a 'high guy.' He loved me too much. If I did not go to the mandir for even two days, he would come here and ask me where I have been."
A sweet but cranky man, the pundit was clean shaven save for a white moustache. His white hair was cropped close, crew cut style. His eyes were dark and sunken. He sat bare-chested with holy mala and sacred thread prominently dangling over and around his caved-in chest. His posture was stooped with rounded shoulders.
As we left, Max said to me, "The swami might have been a good friend but he sure didn't learn posture from Baba."
Anyone who had spent even a few moments with Ganesh Baba had surely received his sermon on posture.
"Keep your back straight," he would say. "This is the very first prerequisite for evolution of consciousness. A straight back means a clear channel to the divine, just like a lightning rod. Man had to stand up first before he could ever conceive of his connection to God. We had to become homo erectus first, then homo sapiens."
Baba himself, rotund as he was, was a perfect example of disciplined posture. He passed out of form, in fact, while sitting up straight in meditation, entered mahasamadhi in a classic, admirable pose. Ganesh Baba died in the hill station town of Nainital. His body was taken by taxi to Bareilly for burial. French Carol rode in the cab with the corpse and reported that Baba's body never slumped nor swayed, even over those winding mountain roads, but sat upright in the back seat of the taxi, ramrod straight.
When Max and I expressed some concern about making our train, Salone escorted us through Bareilly's back alleys to the mandir. We gathered our bags and sat in a last dhuni with Dev Giri Baba. Salone prepared a chillum even faster than previously. He nodded his head toward the guru. "He says 'thanks.'"
I imagined the thanks were for the money. Dev Giri said not a word. He took the first few pulls of the chillum. Again Max and my puffs were cautious. Salone held the chillum for Max so he could get a second pull.
Max started laughing in the rickshaw on the way to the station. "No wonder you guys all loved India in the old days. You were stoned all the time, weren't you, Dad?"
I admitted that was true.
"Being this stoned takes all the hassle out of it," he continued. "This is such a ridiculous place. Who could take it straight?"
My reaction was different. I tried several times to speak but each time I was overwhelmed with mourning. The death of Baba, this farewell to an Indian ideal long held broke me down. My sobbing and tears were uncontrollable. I knew Max was disturbed to see me like this.
"It's all right," I said. "I'll be all right."
I cried some more and spoke haltingly again. "It's just that Father's gone, Baba's gone, and I feel India too is over for me."
The paved road was flat beyond the town itself and then the train station came into sight.
"I'll be all right," I repeated to Max. "I just don't know what's left."
Max, bless his heart, answered quickly and with much feeling, "We're left, Pop. You, me, and Danny, we're what's left."
* The Bengali sage Ciranjiva Roy was awakened in 1966. From the village Sonarpur in West Bengal, he was taken in 1969 by his earliest western devotees, all of whom affectionately called him "Father", to San Francisco, where his home remained open to all seekers and from where he constantly broadcast his vision of the new harmonious period of time which he called "Siva Kalpa". He died in San Francisco on March 22, 1982.
Copyright © 2008 Hari MeyersAnother story which might be of interest comes from the Amarnath yatra in Kashmir. There were eleven westerners on that pilgrimage. We were ill-prepared with clothing and had no food with us whatsoever (and I had just recovered from a bout with hepatitus, had been in the Srinagar hospital less than a week before the yatra well, we were crazy then). We were fed in the nights by sitting in the enormous circle with the sadhus. The first night, whoever was in charge of the servers directed them not to serve us as we were not bona fide sadhus. When Ganesh Baba learned of this, he refused to eat his food. "If they don't eat, I don't eat," he declared. We were served regularly after that. If Baba had refused to eat, numerous sadhus would have followed his example.
The author may be reached by writing to harimaya108 at yahoo.com. He adds:
A Visit to the Alakha Nath Temple in Bareilly Ganesh Baba Serendipity Home Page