“Ok, Jai…. Sit down and write something!”
“But I’m not a writer, I’m a singer and a musician….”
“Well, you’re not playing music or singing right now and you’re bored of reading your mystery novel and too awake for a nap……”
“But I have nothing to write about….”
“Just sit down and see what happens…..”
The inner dialog of a Gemini!!!!
I’m sitting in my room at Shivananda Ashram in the Bahamas just chilling until we start the Kirtan weekend tomorrow night. It’s beautiful here and very peaceful but I find it kind of hard to relax. Where are the sounds of kids, particularly my own sweet little guy? And where’s my snuggly beloved, Nubia?
The attachment I feel to my family is huge, and it’s an attachment I cherish and consider a gift from God. The problem is that when life and work take me away from them, I have a hard time being in the present and focusing on other things. These are the times when I could really concentrate on my music, my japa, resting, reading and (oh no!!!!) writing….
Listening to the ocean, I’m reminded of a time spent very far away, on the shores of another ocean and another continent in another century. It was about fifteen years ago, I think, when I visited my guru’s Hanuman Temple in South India to have darshan of my spiritual mother, who I’ll simply refer to as ‘Ma.’ (She has asked many times that we don’t speak about her in public, and that her photos not be published or distributed.) As was often the case, I arrived at the ashram gates pretty worn out from my life in the West. In retrospect, I certainly realize that much of what I was blaming on western culture was really just the product of my own internal madness. But still, our lifestyle in the United States can get pretty hectic. And I find that when I start to function more out of stress than spirit my heart connection to God and Guru becomes a little contracted and harder to feel. I ‘know’ that he’s always there, but the moment-to-moment awareness of his presence can begin to fade.
Anyway, shortly after arriving, Ma said to me and a few others: “Pack a small bag. We’re going to Rameshwaram!” I didn’t realize that this meant a bus ride, a sixteen hour overnight third class train ride, and another bus ride, so, without delay I happily joined the caravan. Soon, however, as I was getting jostled right and left and trying to fit my body into a much-less-than-tiny spot, I realized we were indeed on a pilgrimage!
But much to my surprise, as the night wore on and the train rumbled and rolled ever southward, my spirits lifted. Being in the presence of a saint changed everything. The mood was one of continuously joyous remembrance. Why this should have surprised me, I don’t really know. I guess I’m just a very slow learner!
After a light sleep and a delicious cup of chai, I sat gazing out the window, half awake and half still in dreamland. As we crossed the rickety old bridge and entered the ancient holy town of Rameshwaram, a blazing red sun burst through the hazy sky announcing the arrival of dawn. It was here in this small island that Lord Ramachandra prayed to Shiva after the great war in Lanka to ask for his blessings in cleansing the Earth of the karma accrued from so much violence and bloodshed. The battles to free Sita and destroy the demon king, Ravana, were indeed fierce and many great warriors fell. In order to do the proper rituals invoking Mahadeva, Rama needed a symbolic representation, known as a Shiva Lingam. So he sent Hanuman up to Mount Kailash, Shiva’s mountain residence, to ask the destroyer himself for a lingam to worship. Of course the great monkey had no problem whatsoever leaping to the Himalayas. After all, he’d already done it several times. But days passed and then weeks passed and he still hadn’t returned. What happened? Could Hanuman have gotten distracted? Sita became restless, yearning for her homeland, ready to sit upon her throne, by the side of her beloved Rama, back in Ayodhya. After all, it had been 14 years of exile, and several months of harsh imprisonment in Ravana’s kingdom. Where was that impulsive monkey?
So Mother Sita took things into her own hands and created a lingam out of the soft sandy beach. But, oh no!!! Just as the worship was about to begin, Hanuman came flying through the sky singing “Jaya Ram Jaya Rama” at the top of his simian lungs. Shiva had been deep in meditation and Hanuman just hadn’t felt that he could disturb him. Thus the delay. What to do? Neither Sita’s lingam nor Lord Shiva’s lingam could be cast away or shown any disrespect. Rama, ever the diplomat, immediately had the answer. He created a temple with TWO lingams facing each other. And this temple still stands to this very day, millions of years later!
(“Millions of years later??? Oh, come on, Jai. Sure, we enjoy these fairy tales as much as the next guy, but, please…”)
And that brings me to the point of this story.
Arriving in Rameshwaram, I was prepared to pay respects to the pilgrimage spots, pray a bit, sing a bit, and enjoy the wonderful association of some very special and holy people. The Ramayana was an amazing story of archetypes and teachings. Certainly we all agreed that it wasn’t historical, right?
Well, after settling in to the ashram that was to become out temporary home (the resident guru rolled out a red carpet of loving tears when Ma came to his door. We were treated like absolute royalty!) Ma gathered us all together and we climbed into a bunch of auto rickshaws. The weather was balmy, with ocean breezes cooling down the intense heat of the deep tropics. Rameshwaram is an island at the very tip of South India, covered with palm trees, tamarind flowers, monkeys, and temples. Buzzing around on the scooters, I saw so many happy faces and laughing children. This certainly wasn’t the same India that I experienced in the northern plains, where hardship and poverty had been etched into the faces of villagers and had bent the backs of the elderly. This place seemed to resonate with joy. And everywhere I looked I saw men and women having their heads shaved in preparation for their ritual ocean baths.
Suddenly the rickshaws stopped. We were standing in front of an old, crumbling stone palace, with faded relief pictures of Ramayana episodes barely visible on the walls. Several old men were sitting in the dirt, softly chanting, accompanied by a wheezy harmonium and tinkling water bowls, their voices trembling with age and emotion as the sounds echoed from corner to corner. What is this place, I wondered as I followed Ma inside. We sat down, and turned to her. “This is Bhibhishan’s palace,” Ma quietly explained, and at that moment a vibration passed through my body bringing tears to my eyes. Bhibhishan was Ravana’s brother, born a demon, but eternally devoted to the feet of Hari. Hanuman recognized him as a kindred spirit and brought him to Rama, who made him the king of Lanka. One of the great characters of the Ramayana, I had always loved him and the fact that even his demon incarnation didn’t stop him from being a pure devotee. And here we were sitting on the same spot where he had sat and sang and prayed. Mythology? Well, something short-circuited in my mind at that moment and the eyes of my heart began to crack open, shedding the rust of perhaps hundreds of lifetimes.
Next Ma took us to a small lake where our guru, Neem Karoli Baba, used to bathe. This was a bit easier to assimilate as he had left his body only a few years earlier. But still it was quite an emotional moment as Ma recounted stories of her times with Maharajji. Walking up the path, she then showed us the pool where Lakshman had bathed. Rama’s brother!! Then we saw the pond where Sita bathed!!! And the altar where she prayed to the snake Goddess for the safety of her beloved husband. Things were getting pretty trippy, to say the least. What was ancient history? What was current other-plane reality? What was myth? What was fact? Ma’s complete acceptance of the absolute reality of all these occurrences was beginning to permeate my own consciousness as I was sightseeing the stages of this very ancient play. Could it be possible that the Ramayana was still being enacted on some mystical plane even to this very day?
We stopped for tea. A few of the older women unwrapped some packets of puris and potatoes and we had our lunch in the shade of an old banyan tree. The chai wallah was quietly chanting: “Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama”, and Ma told us how Maharajji used to see that name written upon every leaf and every stone. The events of the morning began to seep in and I could feel some very strong and strange changes percolating in my cells.
After resting for a spell it was time again to move on, with Ma urging us to pay very close attention to what came next. Walking up the hill, we stopped at a small Hanuman Temple, really just a roadside shrine. The priest was bent at the waist, unable to fully stand up, with a club foot and a strange misshapen torso. His eyes were crossed and his face seemed to express a mixture of bliss and pain. “He’s very special,” whispered my Indian mother. Immediately stopping what he was doing, the priest rushed to prepare us tea and crackers. Ma was extremely respectful of this strange guy and seemed to be suggesting that there was much more here then what might first have met our eyes. (In fact, that may have been the theme of our entire journey!)
Next stop, the top of the mountain. Wow, I was huffing and puffing my way to the summit, trying my best to keep up with these elderly Indian ladies in their thin white saris and old flip flops. How did they have such strength, such stamina. To this day that’s a mystery to me… Arriving at the top, we found a lookout point with a view of the vast rolling ocean in the direction of distant Lanka. Chanting and pujas were being performed to a small shrine but there was no real structure or temple. “What is this?” I asked. “This is the spot where Rama drew up his battle strategies; where the armies of the monkeys and bears gathered to pray before crossing the sea; where the monkey engineers, Nala and Nila, explained to Rama and Sugriva their ‘impossible’ plan of constructing a bridge out of floating rocks and stones.” “How will you keep them from sinking?” asked Shri Rama. “Simply by writing your name on every rock, every boulder and every pebble, oh Lord, the impossible will become possible and your armies can cross the ocean to Lanka!”
Ma’s eyes were shining. “Just one more place to see!” We walked down a dirt path a little bit further toward the cliffs and found a great depression in the ground, with a marble footprint set in the middle. “It was here that Hanuman took his heroic leap across the ocean with Rama’s ring in his mouth proving to all the three worlds the power of true devotion.” By this time our small group of pilgrims were all in tears. The magnitude of these historical events; the greatness of these divine heroes; the unbearable expressions of unconditional, unending love; the Ramayana, alive and true!!! I never questioned it again. No matter how much my mind tells me these things couldn’t really have happened, my heart replies in the affirmative: They DID happen…..
Several years later, I was browsing through the internet and came across a headline from an Indian newspaper stating “NASA proves the historical accuracy of the Ramayana. Remnants of an ancient stone bridge have been discovered connecting the southern tip of India with Sri Lanka.” Well, of course, the worldwide Hindu community went wild about this. Finally, some authentication… Geologists and archeologists are still investigating this amazing find, but some of us don’t need to hear their results. We know already…
Oh boy, talk about rambling, Jai… Will anyone have the patience to read this through to the end? Perhaps I’d better get back to my mystery novel. Or napping. Or a walk on the beach. Or maybe even singing. Anything but writing. Typing gives me a stiff neck and a bad case of the munchies.
Sending lots of love to you all,
P.S. I almost forgot! This video project for “Down On My Knees” has once again restored my faith in humanity. Actually, I hadn’t really lost it, but it sounded good to say that. We very quickly reached our goal, money-wise, for making my first music video. So much gratitude goes out to all of my friends, known and unknown, for showing your support for this new chapter. Now we just have to start filming………