Patrick LevyHomeTales of Wisdom ExcerptsExcerptsSÂDHUS, going behond the dreadlocks
It was still dark over the Ganges. Behind us a bulb hanging from a wire, shed a yellowish glow over the temple gates and three intertwined dogs lying together. A small crescent of the moon descended slowly in the sky and lapping wavelets expired on the bank. Sitting beside Anandababa, just slightly behind him, I contemplated my first night as a wandering renunciant. I had been cold, rolled up in my grey, thick threaded cotton blanket under the banyan tree in the temple courtyard. But a female buffalo had come to lay down near me. This deity from the realm of grasses and daisies ensured that I had a beautiful night, next to the heat of her huge, tranquil body and soothed by her deep sighs. A true nativity.
We are sâdhus*, homeless begging monks, mystical wanderers, renunciants, philosophers, followers of non-action, worshippers of Shiva, hashish smokers, miracle-workers, holy men. Swami* Anand Vishvatma Saraswati Baba is my guru, my guide. He calls me Prassad - the Offering.
He is forty years old, has the slender body of a man who skips meals, light brown skin that is slightly wrinkled around the eyes and a narrow nose. His broad mouth is set in a permanent grin on his long and thin face. He often laughs. Three large horizontal lines of ash run across his forehead and a thin vermilion stroke rises between his eyes. He wears the colour of fire; a lungi* and a cloth around the chest, and a turban from which, a high coil of dreadlocks emerges.
The Sâdhu order has a history that dates back more than five thousand years. They are direct descendants, from masters to disciples, of the rishis*, the original seers whose stories are told in the most ancient legends and the first books. They declare themselves to be Brahma's first born, who emerged from his creative breath. They conceived the Gods and told their myths. The ancient hymns of the Rig Veda*, which they authored, sing their praises: ‘They carry the sky and the earth, ride the wind, and know the connection of being and non-being…’ They gave teachings to the Gods, were advisers to the Princes and cursed those who, they decided, were going to die. Alexander the Great called them gymnosophists. Buddha practised terrible mortifications with five of them before leaving their practices to start the Middle Way. Sankarâchârya* classified their thought into schools.
We had left Varanasi by bus, the day before, at dawn. Around noon we got off in a flat chequerboard landscape of brown and green parcels of land. At the end of a dirt road, flanked with fallow paddy fields and small fields of young dense wheat, we arrived at a rather large village, on the banks of the Ganges. It had flat roofed, whitewashed, one or two storey square houses packed together, with gates opening on courtyards inhabited by four or five buffalo cows. The paved streets seemed golden scattered with pieces of straw; and dung patches with imprints of the little hands that had flattened them were hardening in the sun around the base of the walls.
Delighted to see newcomers, the local children followed us noisily, laughing and joking. Then the teenagers brushed them aside and took their place. One head of family greeted us with Hari Om!* and another followed. ‘Chaď Baba?’ asked a woman in a red sari. A young girl was already bringing over cups of slightly sweetened lukewarm milk. ‘Dudh, Babaji?’ she offered, bowing gracefully.
We arrived on the ghats, the paved slopes to the river. Anandababa joined his hands and bowed whilst praising the river ‘Ganga Ma!’ I followed his example. We sat on our folded blankets under the shade of a young banyan tree that stood between the temple and the river.
Some of our young escorts assailed me with questions of no real interest: how much, where and when? Anandababa explained to them that I was a Westerner and had come from France to take the saffron coloured robe and follow the path of renunciants, but that I had only been samnyâsin* since this morning. He pointed out that I was wearing a kurta and white pyjamas*, the colour for novices, and informed them that I speak Hindi. As they continued with such questioning, my guru taught me a magic formula, in front of them:
‘Agar aap in prashno ko rokna chahte ho to kaho: Sadhu ka koď bhoot kaal nahin. To put an end to these questions, say: a sâdhu has no past.’
It was the response he had used to curb my curiosity a few days earlier.
‘But kaal also means tomorrow,’ I observed.
‘A sâdhu does not have a future either,’ he asserted and burst out laughing.
This made us all laugh.
‘Namah Shivayah*! Shanti, shanti, shanti…’ added my guru with solemnity. Holy words, which summon mindfulness. And everything became calm.
Down the steps, three boats gently creaked at their moorings. The Ganges glittered in the sun as it flowed before us, unhurried and majestic. In the distance, a fisherman was casting a net from his boat. On the other side of the river, edged by a border of foliage, a vast band of sand extended to the sky. In this flat, empty landscape, time itself seemed to have been forever indolent.
Our young friends also had a taste of passivity in our company, and then went off to do other things.
Anandababa slipped his hand into his bag, withdrew his chillum and then began to prepare a mixture of hashish and tobacco… ‘Caw, Caw.’ A raven perched on a nearby street lamp and cawed. Anandababa looked at it before answering the greeting with gravity: ‘Caw, Caw, Caw’ he croaked in a convincing voice. ‘Ram, Ram!’ the fisherman greeted us from far away. ‘Namah Shivayah! I salute Shiva’, shouted back my guru. Two pujari brahmins, with oiled black hair coiled in a bun and cast threads running across their bare chests, came forward to receive our blessings. ‘Om Narayan! Namah Shivayah!’ Anandababa held out a white cotton strip in front of him. The two priests sat down. ‘Where do you come from, Babaji? Where are you going?’ They also inquired about me; Anandababa told them that I was a Frenchman, and that I had come to follow the path of renunciation, etc. Then my guru told them:
‘The king, who believes he lacks something, suffers the pangs of poverty just like a beggar. In the same way, the man who believes he is his body, is dominated by birth, sickness and death. But if he frees himself from this belief, he finds joy. Under the influence of maya*, that which is perfect thinks it is not.’
In Hindu philosophy, maya, often translated as illusion or ignorance, is the name of the projection power of the mind, which transforms that which is perceived into the belief that that which is perceived is real. Thus, a fundamental and parallel mistake is created: the belief that we exist as a separate entity. Anandababa would often talk to me about it.
‘That which is in the sun is also in the man, says an Upanishad*,’ agreed one of our hosts.
‘Babaji is a jivan-mukta*, a realised being,’ both attesting and questioning the other.
‘How could the only Being, the unique Self, be divided into two and say that he has not realised his other half?’ answered my master with a smile.
‘Haré Haré!’ applauded our guests whilst bowing.
‘Chillum, Panditji*?’ suggested my guru.
They placed a twenty rupee* note on his blanket and one of five on mine, and then left.
Anandababa, having prepared the chillum, rummaged through his turban and pulled out a box of matches which he handed to me then raised the conical pipe in front of him and pronounced high, loud and long, like a hymn, an invocation, a blessing, a thanksgiving, a proclamation and a vow all at the same time: ‘Aaallaaak!’ which in this ritual was the only prayer.
‘What is Allak*, Babaji?’
‘The 'imperceptible', the formless, the supreme jewel!’ he exclaimed. ‘The wish to receive the darshan*, the vision of being. The aspiration to be aware of oneself and conscious of everything here and now. Everything is darshan, the supreme sight.’
One remains silent whilst the chillum is passed around and even for a while afterwards. One welcomes this moment of transition when, under the effects of cannabis, the brain alters, tears its veil of habits and sees through the illusion.
We crossed through the veil, tore the illusion apart, savoured the vision, remained mindful and dwelt in the presence…
A child brought two cups of chaď. ‘Haré Haré Mahadev! God is powerful since he looks after us so well.’
A plump brahmin with thick glasses left the temple and, placing himself directly before the Ganges, called out to Durga in Sanskrit with full lungs. It was at the same time a comic and pathetic scene.
‘He's so short-sighted. Durga will have to come up very close. But then again he's shouting so loudly that she might take fright,’ I remarked.
Anandababa burst out laughing.
‘He is calling his mother!’ he said. ‘Durga is the shakti of Shiva, his creative power and so she is the origin of all things.’
The brahmin sat down on a white towel, lit a large thumb sized piece of incense, and holding it between his fingers performed his puja*. He finished with three Om*. Before returning, he gave us ladus, fried balls of sweetened rice, that he had brought as prassad* and whose quintessence had been accepted by the divine.
A few minutes later, a man came to speak to us. ‘Hari Om! Namah Shivayah!’ He bowed with respect to touch Anandababa’s feet and then brought his fingers to his eyes. Anandababa received the reverence with indifference, as it should be. ‘Hari Om!’ He started to bow before me and so I quickly signalled for him not to do so. He was one of the landowners who had greeted us upon our arrival. ‘Where do you come from? Where are you going? Do you need anything?’ Anandababa told him that I was a foreigner… had taken the saffron robe yesterday… etc. ‘He makes him laugh,’ he added.
He never used the first person singular or plural. He referred to himself as this body or he… but he could also designate anything and everything else. For him everything was all included in the same unifying impersonal. I have sometimes erased this trait in order to make the reading easier.
The man took our darshan, enjoying serenity in our company, and then rose to leave. Anandababa offered him a ladu and gave one to me too.
A forty year old man then took his place. Hemachandra Vaninath was the owner of a textiles and shawls shop and he wished to smoke a chillum with us. My guru requested me to prepare it. Together they conversed about a stanza of Kabir*: 'Ride the mount of silence to find your guru.'
‘What is silence? Can he say?’ questioned my guru.
Hemachandra reflected then declined humbly,
‘The question is too great for me, Babaji.’
‘Bom Bom Bolé Bholénath! Allak!’ The chillum went around.
We shared in communion with our visitor, a conscious moment without speech. The wind shivered in the dust. The fisherman cast his net upon a wave. A dolphin leapt out of the waters and dived back in. A flock of sparrows swooped in a quivering movement across the sky.
‘Silence is what he does not hear,’ said Anandababa. ‘Although he does not hear it, silence lets him know something of the unknowable.’
Then we heard the loud rattling of a dead banyan leaf falling between the branches just when everything was still!
‘There is silence between two thoughts,’ Anandababa went on, ‘and if he is attentive to this, he can also know the unknowable in that way. Guru is everywhere. But silence is a good vehicle for finding him’ he concluded.
Hemachandra put a twenty rupees guru-dakshina* on Anandababa’s blanket. My guru blessed him: ‘Sarvam khalvidam Brahman…* all this is Brahman, offered by Brahman and received by Brahman,’ and gave him a ladu. Our host then left to attend to his business.
Passers-by greeted us from afar. ‘Hari Om! Ram Ram! Namah Shivayah!’ Anandababa was cheerful. He seemed to consider the world with a benevolent amusement. It was the springtime and the days were pleasantly warm.
The shadow of the temple gradually got longer and covered the ghat.
After sunset, we joined a dozen hairy, turbaned sâdhus in the columnar hall of a temple dedicated to a glorious four armed Vishnu holding weapons. Laid down here and there, between the plinths of the grey stone columns, the babas' blankets formed alleyways and quarters, transforming the hall into a small inhabited labyrinth. One was studying a Sanskrit treatise, which must have given him material to reflect upon as he was nodding his head. Another was reading The Times of India whilst adjusting his glasses every ten seconds. The others formed groups and talked quietly.
‘Where do you come from, Babaji?’
‘They were there and now they are here,’ answered my guru joyfully. ‘Such is the magic of maya. And yet, are they ever anywhere else?’
‘My answer is that I come from India,’ interrupted a young sâdhu.
‘Would Babaji like to lay his asan* here?’ suggested a renunciant who looked like Tagore.
‘He cannot imagine a single place where he is not,’ replied Anandababa in the impersonal, gently laughing.
This answer, I noticed thereafter, set him instantly into the category of people who truly deserve respect. It revealed him to be a scholar and a well mannered man, which is a quality appreciated amongst renunciants.
‘Your wisdom is like a million suns,’ retorted Tagore, who was not lacking in style either.
Anandababa accepted the place that was offered with a smile. I laid my blanket behind him, and then went around to pay my respects to the babas. ‘Where do you come from? Where are you going? Do you need anything?’ 'The unchanging reality manifests itself as freedom’, the reader of treatises told me. Chillums passed from hand to hand here and there several times. An abundant meal was served by the temple’s brahmins and their employees: ‘Rice, Ramji? – Daal, Ramji? - Vegetables, Ramji? - Curd Ramji? – Chapati, Ramji?’ Everyone ate by themselves in their own little space.
They called each others ‘Maharaj! Guruji! Panditji!’ The youngest was about fourteen, the oldest seventy. They came from every social background and were from various states of the sub-continent and, despite meeting just two hours earlier, they seemed as if they had known each other for ages, so simple and attentive they were. They formed quite a disparate gathering yet not in a gloomy precariousness, but on the contrary, in a holy nonchalance but with some aloofness.
I laid down my blanket under the stars in the courtyard on a beaten-earth floor. Before falling asleep, I knew myself to be the son of the Earth and the Sky for the first time in my life.
Anandababa awoke me well before dawn; we took a bath in the dark, smooth and cold Ganges. We meditated on the ghats, facing towards the East. ‘Observe the glimmer that precedes daylight slowly entering the dark of the sky; rise with it,’ said my guru. ‘Don’t miss the first ray of light. It is a darshan of illumination.’ I missed that moment. My meditation had been nothing more than an inner dialogue.
The sun had risen above the sand strip on the opposite bank with its line of foliage. The sky was still indigo on the horizon but was already azure and almost lavender higher up. In the dull tinges of dawn and its humid silence.
The boatmen awoke one another calling ‘Rajar! Krishna! Gopal! Chitraksh!’
Anandababa rose. We took our bags and blankets on our shoulders and with komandalu* in hand we left.
I had feared this transition from being sheltered to homelessness. In the end the shock was not too bad. What frightens us is often more threatening in thought than in reality. Anandababa says that he could never be in need of anything as he affirms that the world is the reflection of his consciousness. As for me, I have neither this confidence, nor the aloofness of my peers.
‘Where do you come from? Where are you heading? What’s the purpose of your stay amongst us?’ inquired the head of the village we were passing through.
He was playing cards with his friends on a wooden bed in front of the gate of his house.
‘There is only one mother for all. From her they are born, by her they are fed, from her they come and go,’ Anandababa said.
The villagers hurriedly rustled up food for their hospitality. The fathers gave orders to the elder sons who conveyed them to the juniors who passed them on to the sisters who carried them out. Pretty young girls brought chaď, biscuits, bananas, vegetable biryani accompanied by puri (fried wafers).
Seeing them touch the dust of my feet to their eyes seemed to me an undeserved honour and moved me deeply, although this ancestral manner of expressing respect was not really addressed to my person but to the holiness of which I was for the moment an instrument and agent.
Hindu holy books are full of recommendations on seeking the company of saints. Sâdhus (the word means a good man or a saint) walk the streets, sit by the temples, camp under sacred trees, dwell in ashrams* and akhara* that are found everywhere. They are noticeable, available and approachable. They are called Baba meaning Father. One goes to the temple to pray to a God and one calls on a sâdhu to associate with God, to attend a living example of holiness, request advice, ask for an opinion, to ponder on what lies further than beyond, converse about the Invisible Whole or the nothings of daily life, smoke a chillum or receive a blessing. To do nothing in good company. Take the darshan: see and feel blessed to have seen, to be there and enter awareness.
If the ambiance is pleasant, the advice judicious, the darshan uplifting and there is an air of holiness, the baba becomes a one day guru for someone. And it is a blessing.
Hindus love to love. Adoration is the attitude by which the ego takes pleasure in diminishing. When admiring with the heart, one receives as much love as is offered. Adoration contains nirvana. It is not a question of believing, it is more about blessing.
India is on the brink of modernity. The oxcart and the tractor, water at the well and microwave ovens, clay cups and plastic bags, oil lamps, private generators and nuclear plants, blacksmiths and the world's leading manufacturer of steel, rickshaws and cable TV, snake charmers and electronic component plants, corruption and samnyasa (renunciation) all coexist here. Twenty million beggars and five hundred thousand newly qualified engineers a year, of whom a great number went to pray in a temple or received a blessing from a sâdhu before taking their exams. Apparently renunciants represent half a percent of the male population.
A world of words
We would stay from one night up to three or four weeks in a holy city, a large temple, a dharamsâlâ* or an akhara. Dharamsâlâs are hostels of varying degrees of comfort, established for pilgrims and wandering monks, which are financed by wealthy businessmen. A baba ashram or an akhara is a kind of monastery, maintained by sedentary sâdhus, that accommodates wandering renunciants and to which grihastha*, householders and benefactors, pay a visit at various times of the day. There, they smoke chillum, discuss various matters and take decisions whilst peacefully waiting for the rice or wheat to grow. In some areas, each village has three or four baba ashrams. In towns, they are often coupled with a temple, whose income is used to maintain a dwelling place for sâdhus. Large akharas, founded from the 10th to the 12th century, consist of several branches with a register of tens of thousands of babas. In such places we could get a room or just a small space under a shed or a tree or in a chapel, where we could lay our âsan - at times with over fifty others.
‘Ram Giri, do you have some space in your room?’
‘There are only two of us.’
This is how things were arranged.
When a renunciant is not wandering, his day is spent in casual idleness. He takes his bath, washes his clothes, accomplishes a ritual of varying length, chants some murmured devotional songs, recites mantra, does reading from an Upanishad etc. He chatters, gossips, receives people, reads the newspaper, smokes chillums and drinks chaď. I listened and I read. I carried two small books in my bag, the Avadhűta Gîtâ* and the Ashtavâkra Samhitâ. I had also found a second-hand copy of André Malraux's Anti-memoirs in a book store.
The âratî* puja, a short collective ceremony, brought a circle of sâdhus together at sunset. Conversations and devotional songs alternated during the evenings. ‘Shiva Om Shiva Kalpataru… Jay Ma…’ Each one withdrew, in his own time, to retire under his blankets with his bag as a pillow.
Our benefactors, the coolies, bank managers, salesmen and the professionally unemployed all came to huddle around our sacred pipes and our darshan. We were a refuge for the lonely, the misfits and the immoderate cannabis smokers; we were a blessed sight for pious people and were seen by them as idols in the flesh. We philosophised with scholars. We taught, advised, blessed… We beautified the days of those who mingled with us.
We also camped in the open air, on the river banks, beneath a rock or under a tree. We shared a baba's remote kutir*. We washed in rivers or under pumps. We slept on a farmer's veranda who invited us to bless his home. He gorged us with milk that had just come directly from the buffalo’s udder. Happy are the people who make a desire out of kindness. For nothing gives as much happiness as helping others.
In all the cities and many villages some places are always inhabited by babas, even though they may not be the same ones from one day to the next. They can be large trees, or the side of a temple, or a ghat. At times we would convene in such places with a circle of sâdhus around the dhooni* - the holy hearth. Those who have settled there, take in wanderers who are passing by. They have possessions like kitchen utensils, a scooter, a transistor radio. A few plastic sheets make a roof and a stone idol makes a temple.
With a blanket, a lungi, a piece of string and a stick; given a small space along a wall, one can arrange a splendid haven. Under this tent, protected from the sun and attention of passers-by, I peacefully contemplated the world, and protected from the dew, I slept well at night.
There were many times that we could have found more comfortable accommodation, but my guru decided differently. In this way we would constantly experience a whole range of very different lifestyles.
When we settled in streets, I had to go and receive our meals at places where food was handed out. Rumours spread ‘After the morning puja, the temple of Shiva will offer rice and vegetables. There is an offering of puri at Mankarmahini Temple.’ Anandababa refused to go. A disciple does not leave his master fasting, so I waited squatting with around fifty other sâdhus.
Sometimes, the meal had to be paid for by one and a half hours of praising Ram-Sita Sita-Ram with conviction. Prayers for food. A scandal! If we had no money, I preferred to skip meals. But when we did have some, we dined in restaurants.
Indian poverty is terrifying. Cycle-rickshaws and coolies work like beasts of burden for the price of their food. Families live in the streets. Children dressed in rags hold out their hands. But we are not poor. We own whatever we have in the bags we are carrying. Yet we receive a lot of offerings, so a carefree life is possible. A sufficient number of benefactors and institutions provide for our needs; over a long period we do not miss anything essential. So in poverty, we are princes. ‘You are bound to act,’ says Krishna addressing Man in the Bhagavad Gîtâ. But the sâdhu replies ‘No, I am not anymore. I will not do anything.’ If the essence of Man is action, then not to act is to be freed from the human condition. Akarma is tapas, our discipline.
Thus, it is not aimed at compassion and altruism - to work for the benefit of others in the name of God or that of a higher principle. We follow the way of samnyasa. ‘Renunciation does not mean “I” refuse objects,’ taught Anandababa, “because this I does not exist. Vairâgya is a metaphysical rejection signifying the dissolution of me and my and of maya, the world.’
Some householders do not wish to have any contact with us and ignore us. They think we are lazy, dishonest and drug addicts and they assume we take advantage of credulous people. This is not always untrue. For others, we are holy men. They greet us with the names of Gods and touch our feet with respect. They come towards us to contemplate holiness, benevolence, and at times wisdom and to approach the bliss of which our way of being is a manifestation. They offer us money, clothing, food, according to their means, and thus sow merits on the beneficial side of their karmic scale. To be useful to us is to assist God. Through us, the divine One looks at them kind-heartedly. They consider us to be the ear of the Gods. They believe we have insight, penetration and psychic powers… of that I doubt, of course. I am not a saint but we represent saintliness. We personify the self-restraint of non-action and chastity.
One gives us offerings, not alms.
And we do not thank, we bless.
The use of cannabis is a tapas, an ascetic discipline and a gateway to the sacred. The chillum-baba finds in it a connection with God, a more intense surge of devotion, a vision of the world less numbed by conditioning and his own habits, or an access to the fourth state of consciousness, which is that of the witness. It is a means to an end. Would it be more authentic to attain this through abstaining? Babas do not attempt to make judgements or hold an opinion concerning the purity of their practice. They have given up judging and classifying altogether. For them purity is being authentic. And Reality is what they live in the now of consciousness. Going beyond conventions, taking short cuts and casual intrepidness are the marks of this spiritual path, which is also an adventure.
Shiva is a sombre, nocturnal God and even lunar in some of his representations. He is the Destroyer and is known as Kapâlamalin, the skull holder, with eyes of fire and a cobra coiled around his neck. He dwells in cremation grounds with vultures and jackals in the company of reckless ascetics. In the Puranas*, he is described as being surrounded by a court of gnomes, demons and phantoms. In him, I saw God as a benevolent anarchist and had chosen him for Ishwar*, my chosen figure of the divine. But he is also a solitary hermit when, as Yogiraj, he meditates for ten thousand years on Mount Kaďlash. He is the bearer of the manifest aspect of reality and watches over the world. By his stillness, he triumphs over maya and establishes the victory of consciousness over body and senses. We inhale his spiritual seed through the chillum, the symbol of his lingam*, the cosmic phallus which represents both creative and destructive energy, or in other words the universe or that which is known.
Cannabis does not produce hallucinations in the way that the mind creates objects and situations within itself, as for example during dreams. On the contrary, it reveals things as they are, stripping our apprehension of reality from its usual utilitarian, materialistic or ordinary representations. This is why it is thought of as a tapas. It transforms the hypnosis of the world. Through this process, the awareness that sees this hypnosis remains alert. And in this awakening, what we consider to be real is shaken. Our habits and things we take for granted are hypnoses whilst surprise is divine.
Baudelaire spoke of it as an initiation to a new reality, which makes it possible to gain insight into the shape of things beyond their presence. It produces an effect of displacement, which unmasks the identification that we have either of ourselves, or with the constructs of a reality that allows the mundane to dominate. It stimulates astonishment: the function which awakens the mind. It also makes you laugh.
But it is not easy to function in this modified, amplified, changing and hypersensitive state of awareness created by the consumption of charas and ganja – hashish and grass. I often let chillums pass by. During certain holy days, the babas smoke about fifteen of them before sunrise, and strong ones at that! Even at a quarter of this dosage, cannabis is not a dabbler’s game and my advice would be not to try it. It is a sacrifice, a fire in which reality is consumed, and a means through which consciousness is investigated. The point is not merely to give in to the somnolence that THC* can produce but to become aware of the forces of maya at work in one’s own mind, of observing it while still harmoniously involved in the stream of events. Giving up awareness would be a failure; yielding to somnolence, out of the question. Surrendering to intoxication, losing one's discernment and neglecting good manners or the order of precedence would be a fault.
Anandababa was not a constant consumer of it. He was already in a blissful flow of harmony and shrewd awareness without this stimulant. Yet he would not refuse a chillum and offered many.
Since religious consumption of cannabis is lawful, sâdhus are allowed to carry it on their person. We acquired it at government stores as well as less official sources. In some areas, one can find, beside the village wine shop, a discrete bhang* outlet, which is generally a large wooden cupboard covered with an awning. On the racks, one finds ganja (cannabis flowers) carefully tied up in newspaper packages of two kilos, one kilo, five hundred grams, two hundred and fifty grams, and even smaller and at very low prices. There are also bhang balls kept in iceboxes that cost five rupees. Just one of these balls of fresh, chopped and fermented hemp produces more of an effect than a whole day of smoking the bad quality charas one often finds in India.
But in other areas, there are no such shops. So through creating economic relationships our tapas is a service to society. Our devotees and our benefactors, and even some officers of the police and army, spent a while in our company and sometimes shared chillums with us. Now and again they requested to take a small quantity of it home.
In the evening, when we were alone, before a dhooni under the stars, or in a room by the light of a candle in a jar, Anandababa spoke to me. He taught me the philosophy of his school and lineage.
‘The universe is only one being,’ he said. ‘It is called Brahman, the Immutable One. There is nothing one can say about it, but to give at least an indication, one says that it is Sat* (being - existence - reality), Cit* (consciousness - knowledge) and Ananda* (bliss).’
His teachings formed a metaphysics based on consciousness. It contained many strange Sanskrit words, which I could not completely remove and put into translation because they often have several meanings. Including them makes heavier reading but it enables the opportunity of considering the topic on several levels, which, of course, are merely articulations of the imperial One-without-a-Second, aware of its eternal and unchanging oneness.
‘Atman-Brahman (the Changeless One, Being without distinctions, the most inner being shared by everything…), with maya, (the first modification of Brahman, the first ‘other’, the energy which gets movement moving, the cosmic illusion in which the world of names and forms is produced) creates jiva* (vitality, life, the individual, a man with 'me' in his thoughts) and Ishwar (God).
‘Jiva and Ishwar together build the universe. Ishwar is the objective aspect, jiva the subjective aspect.’
I found this a rather clever philosophy, which finds a solution to the problem of the existence of God by ranking him among the illusions in the role of the sentient world and of Creator of this world.
‘Ishwar transforms the power of maya by assigning objects their determinants. He creates differences in non-uniformity. He organizes the universe, nature, the outside world, the physical body. All that appears, appears in the duality of which maya is the cause - the other.
‘When he dreams, jiva (man, me) is like God: He creates other men, animals, mountains and even Gods! During jiva’s waking state, Maya creates Ishwar, (Gods, nature, a universe of names, forms and feelings) and jiva (man and life.) But actually, only cit – awareness - really exists. See that.’
Thus spoke Anandababa.
He was not concerned with the physical or biological reality. He spoke about consciousness, its states, its shapes, its majesty, its rituals, and of the meaning of its modifications. He spoke of its Oneness. And this way of describing reality was also a means of freeing oneself from it.
‘For some people, the world is a story: it was created by a being who was never born, was never conceived but had children and avatars and a whole story ensued. Oneness has no story. For those, like you, whose intellect can concentrate and understand and for whom Brahman as consciousness is only covered by a veil of ignorance, sankya (the method of intellectual inquiry) and vichara (discrimination) are effective. By investigation and discrimination, one can understand and attain the One-without-a-Second.’
As we were walking through a village, a sâdhu on a motorbike caught up with us to offer his guru’s hospitality. We arrived, with three of us on the motorbike, in front of a vast rectangular storage place covered and enclosed on three sides by corrugated sheets. About fifty men had gathered there hosted by a baba sitting on a large takhat* surrounded by a dozen of his shishyas*.
‘Ballaknath Baba,’ whispered the envoy.
His stomach formed a paunch above the gomcha*, which was no longer white, that he wore around the hips. The remainder of his body was rather thin but his face had a dilapidated look, with a boil on the nose, a falling mouth, a white and unkempt beard, and dreadlocks falling on his shoulders.
‘How can a mountain and a precipice be compared? One goes towards the sky and the other into the depths!’ said Anandababa bowing to the guru’s feet and laughing at his own insignificance. Ballaknath Baba stopped him and bowed as well saying: ‘But one is the condition of the other.’ He invited him to sit beside him. I sat down in the assembly. The conversation began again; the chillum was passed from hand to hand. ‘Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you need something?’
In addition to this shelter, this akhara included a kitchen, a few rooms, and to its left, a five-storey temple which was under construction. A small white Maruti-Suzuki was parked to one side.
Anandababa and Ballaknath Baba were chatting away. I heard: ‘Neither passion nor detachment…’, ‘Wheat and white radishes…’, ‘A reality that nothing can disturb…’
A young man gingerly stepped over people and made his way to come and sit beside me. Bhagwat Sharma was preparing for a Masters in English Modern Literature. He told me that Ballaknath Baba was born in this village and had left it at the age of nine to become a sâdhu.
‘He returned forty years later, in 1997. People believe in him,’ Bhagwat explained simply. ‘He recommends living modestly. He preaches love, fraternity, peace, assistance, reconciliation between people and communities. He started a tradition: the day after the new moon of February, our village offers a meal to all the local villages. He says that the merit of our actions will make Kawali a holy place and a pilgrimage like Varanasi.’
A little higher than the others on his takhat, Ballaknath Baba was also listening to what was being said here and there whilst alimenting the chillums. He tore the end off a thick piece of hashish that was as long as a finger and gave it to a man on his right. The man prepared a chillum with a shaft as large as a water glass. Then his cell-phone rang and he answered.
He did not play the role of a guru. He was a village saint living with his flock, creating a social life, shaping an awareness and an atmosphere whilst promoting harmony. On his left hanging in a frame was the portrait of a bearded, grey haired, stern looking old man.
‘It's his guru! He could become invisible and heal people,’ Bhagwat Sharma informed me.
‘Could he order rain and sunshine too?’ I retorted looking at him sideways.
‘The villagers are simple, but their thoughts are elevated’ answered Bhagwat gracefully. ‘They try to be aware that what affects one, affects the other, just as much here as everywhere else.’
Arrivals and departures followed one after another in the assembly. Villagers passed by and stayed a while. They paid homage to Ballaknath Baba, then to Anandababa, then to each shishya baba, bringing the fingers which had touched the knees of holiness to their eyes. Finally, sitting down in the assembly, they requested news. Before leaving, some left a banknote or two. One of the shishya led a woman in front of the lingam erected in the courtyard, and there, he stroked her gently on the head with a peacock feathered object, pronouncing a mantra*.
‘He preaches the ideal and not the idol,’ said Bhagwat Sharma. ‘Whatever you do, do it for humanity, not for yourself.’
A group of children, aged between four and fifteen, suddenly arrived in a deafening tumult to look at me closely. Apparently, they had not often seen a white man. They asked me, all at the same time and in different ways, to look at them, see them, know them. They wanted me to give them the darshan: my awareness through looking at them. I looked into each of their eyes for a few moments, trying to be present, without missing anyone.
At nightfall, a light bulb hanging on wire above the assembly was suddenly lit. So the light was blessed ‘Om Namah Shivayah!’ A man brought an aluminium bowl in which four large dung cakes were lit. The takhat and its turbaned guests, and the puffs of chillums surrounding them now seemed to float on the clouds of smoke the dung was producing. It was like an image, in the world of mortals, of the Gods in their celestial palaces of the kind one sees on temple frescoes.
The cook served us dinner and another man led us to a room with a pile of mattresses.
The following day, Bhagwat Sharma, and a group of five young men claiming to take me for a visit to the village, took me to the room of one of them to offer me hot milk and to talk.
Several posters of Yuvraj Singh, the famous cricket player covered the walls of the small room which opened on to a shed where a red Yamaha was parked. On the side adjacent to the road the shutters remained closed. We all sat on a large takhat covered with a thin mattress and they allocated the rolled up quilt to make a bolster for me.
‘Why are you a sâdhu?’ ‘Do you believe in moksha*?’
‘Baba life moksha hai. For me, liberation comes from being a sâdhu.’
I pulled the Astâvakra Samhitâ out of my bag and read:
Everything that exists is in being.
This is what is known
When one has become nobody
And owns nothing. [15 6]
‘Atchaaa!’ they all admired.
‘But do you know that?’ asked Bhagwat Sharma.
‘I think about it and then I forget,’ I admitted. ‘I am a novice.’
My host prepared a kind of a chillum, introducing hashish into a decapitated bidi*. ‘The elders do not hang out with the young ones,’ he said to justify that they did not smoke at the akhara.
‘So everyone smokes here?’
They answered laughing:
‘Not every one.’
‘Some play cards.’
‘Wheat grows by itself.’
So if this village had two thousand inhabitants, half being women; less two hundred and fifty children under sixteen; less two hundred men who play cards, that left five hundred and fifty men who smoked cannabis regularly. A quarter of the population, I figured.
‘What about women?’
‘Sometimes they take bhang.’
‘And is it the same in every village?’
‘I don’t know if it is like this everywhere, but in Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, yes and probably in the Hindu areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihâr.’
A population of about two hundred million.
We spoke about genetically modified rice and about Monsanto's latest trick. ‘As far as the law is concerned their seeds are not sterile, but if one sows the rice harvested the year before, many grains do not germinate.’ said one. ‘We cannot afford to lose twenty percent of the harvest,’ explained another. The father of one of the boys had bought an American buffalo. There was no shortage of water. Harvests had been abundant for many years.
They guided me through the village with its paved lanes, cubic houses, open gates and the omnipresent dung cakes stuck onto the walls. We passed by a wedding hall, a woodwork shop, a pariah* quarter of adobe and plastic sheet houses and a settling tank planted with water lilies. In a shelter was the tomb of a late baba and his framed portrait was adorned with garlands - his samadhi*. ‘We venerate them as holy saints after their death,’ whispered Bhagwat Sharma, ‘but we honour them simply as saints during their life.’ And in front of the temple we saw ‘The pujari is an employee, a servant of worship; Ballaknath Baba is a saint.’ The hairdressers was a little akhara of playful banter and laughter. I did not manage to follow the conversations or grasp their play on words. Everyone was joyful.
It was there that Rohtash Sharma, the Maths teacher, wishing to tell me a secret, took me away. He led me to his fields where he told me he thought babas were crooks and liars and that he attended the akhara. But one day, Ballaknath Baba gave him twenty thousand rupees making it clear, ‘Don’t speak to me about this as long as I don’t speak to you about it.’
‘I was poor then. Twenty thousand rupees is a very large sum for somebody who hasn’t even a thousand. Then, I became lucky and I earned more than one hundred thousand rupees a year.’
‘Atchaaa!’ I exclaimed in amazement. So it turned out that the village saints also secretly strive for the material well being of their people! This was something previously unknown to me.
Ganesh Sharma lifted a long white radish out of earth, washed it and offered it to me. He then told me his secret. One evening, he went to the akhara. ‘I was with three other men,’ he specified… ‘Ballaknath Baba was feeding a little fire with kindling. He was angry. 'Go home!' he shouted with a sullen look and then locked himself up in his room. But we remained in front of his door and, a little later, although he had not come out, we saw him coming back from the road.’
So the previous guru could become invisible and heal and this one could pass through walls without being noticed.
‘Why is this a secret?’
‘Because if I had spoken about it no one would have believed me.’
There had been four witnesses to this marvel, but I did not believe it either. Why would Ballaknath Baba be invisible leaving and visible returning? Nobody walks through walls without being noticed.
When I found Anandababa again he was somewhere in the fields. Here and there brick shelters housed powerful motor pumps which were adjoined to concrete tanks. We sat down on a rope bed found in one of them. The edges of the plots had been dug out to create an ingenious irrigation system, making it possible to flood precise areas of the land.
The chlorophyll and peppered thyme scent of the young wheat perfumed the air which was filled with the calling of distant birds, and the nearby buzzing of flies. The vitality of the thick green wheat struck one’s eyes.
‘How did it all begin according to you, Babaji, or in your mythology?’
‘Tat sristvâ tad evânuprâvistat, says Taittirîya Upanishad, 'having projected the universe, he entered it.’ This is why he is Visvam, everything,’ explained Anandababa.
‘Who is this “he”?’
The ears of grains were listening motionless. An almost full moon appeared in the red and blue sky.
‘In Prasna Upanishad it is said that Brahma, the Creator, eager to procreate, accomplished austerities in the form of meditations. It is then that he created the first pair, Rayim and Prâna, matter and energy, then moon and sun, food and the eater. It began with two.’
‘And who created the Creator?’
‘The Atman (Oneself) was alone. His first words were 'I am', but he did not find any pleasure of this. He did not know any other. This is why he wished to be two. The second was the object of desire which then took on multiple forms.’
‘And who created this Atman that could not bear loneliness?’
The sun leant on the horizon to listen… ‘All this is Brahman. And you are him. It is you, Prassadji, he, the Creator, and the creator of the Creator. You project a universe, then you enter it and you distinguish moon from sun, food and the eater, desire and the object of desire.’
‘To recognize in each and every thing a manifestation of oneself must make one become very kind, Babaji.’
He laughed uproariously. A tractor passed putt-putting by. A boy crossed the fields on his motorbike to go and start up a pump. An ox-cart glided silently on the horizon. Then the sun disappeared and the dark night covered everything.
‘And you Guruji, what do you say about it? How did it all begin?’
‘Ignorance is beginningless because ignorance created time,’ he said. Before there was the projection of a world, Brahman (the One without second) existed alone. Through maya (differentiation), it became Ishwar (Gods) and the world itself and it entered it as jiva, (me, a person in a subject-object relation). And jiva worshipped the Gods.
‘But Jiva had the desire to inquire into its own nature. The rishis discovered that when, through research and meditation, maya was conceived of, recognized and understood, only Atman remained (Oneself, consciousness without differentiation).
‘To this consciousness residing in its own nature they gave the name moksha, liberation. They called the other consciousnesses, servitude, samsara* (succession of births) and maya (illusion, misapprehension). Servitude is produced by a lack of awareness which therefore disappears with awareness. In consciousness, the subject is just another object. So’am, I am That*.
‘Atman is at the same time consciousness of the ego, the mind, the senses and their objects, and consciousness which witnesses all of them together.
‘Mental action consists of two types of successive modifications: the internal and external. The internal modifications take the form of 'I'. The external modifications take the form of 'That' and reveal external objects. The external objects are known by the five senses and the mental mind.
‘The consciousness which reveals the perceiver, perception and perceived (the external object) at the same time is called the Witness or Witness consciousness (turiya).
‘The objects are outside the body; the ego is inside. But the distinction between inside and outside applies only to the body, not to the Witness, nor to the Atman.’
Anandababa described and guided me in this chaos of strange concepts in which the same word can define a function of the brain, a state of consciousness, a type of consciousness or an experience. He based his explanation on the three states of consciousnesses that we generally know about (the waking state, dreaming and deep sleep) and revealed a fourth: the witness of all three, that transcends them, is always aware, immutable, ever present and covered only by the veil of appearances.
‘During dreams, consciousness is not distinct from its object. It is the dream. Just like a dream, this world is an appearance on the unchanging, immutable Brahman. During deep sleep, consciousness is not aware of its state (of being asleep). During the waking state, perceptions change, thoughts come and go, but a consciousness perceives them and this is always the same. In the same way, Brahman remains unchanging although maya projects a world. Reality is a fraud. The conscious principle is the only reality. Ethadh Athmyam idham sarvam: All that is the Oneself of This (Brahman). See that.
‘Saraswati babas seek and recognize this consciousness, this single witness of all the internal and external creations of the mind.’
What would the Ashtavâkra Samhitâ have to tell me that day?
See that the forms of things are just things and in reality nothing else. Then, in an instant, freed from all bonds, you will be in your true nature. [9, 7]
I was there sometimes. But only for an instant.
We took the road again two days later.
Online book shops
UREAD $ 2.70
UREAD Rs 250
FLIPKART Rs 250
QIMPLYBOOKS Rs 2000
INFIBEAM Rs 200
Also available in Kindle $ 9.99
 The “*” refer to the glossary.
 Babaji, both a respectful and affectionate way of addressing a sadhu or a saint.
 Darshan: To see, to have seen, to consider oneself blessed through being present, to experience inspiration through meeting, seeing differently, seeing differently having seen... someone, a sage or a saint, an idol, a view, a light, the sweetness of a moment, and to feel a particular kind of exaltation. A darshan is a moment to find oneself facing the Real. It is the presence without any influence of the past (which no longer exists) or the future (which does not exist.) It is also a point of view, a demonstration and a school of thought. The ultimate darshan is the vision, freed of the veil of duality in a non-dual transcendance.
 A copper or steel recipient used by ascetics to transport water.
 The fourth state of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep and Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness which transcends the other three.
 Avathara – the descent of the divine. An incarnation of God in a living being – human or animal. Gandhi has recently been added to the list of Vishnu Avathara which includes a fish, a tortoise, Rama, Krishna an sometimes Buddha.