Ah, India… The land of dreams, exaggerations, unbelievable stories and mythological figures; where the line between the ‘spirit’ world and the ‘real’ world is very thin, indeed; where monkeys and elephants are Gods, and cows are the Great Mother; where the lilting song of a bamboo flute is the signal for a dip into divine ecstasy; where Lord Hanuman himself sneaks into your room and steals your fruit; where clanging bells endlessly announce the rising and setting of the sun; where God-like men and women walk the same dirt paths and drink chai from the same cracked cups as we do; where 250 year old ‘sadhus’ with long winding dreadlocks periodically rejuvenate their bodies through herbs and rituals and vow never to touch their feet upon the Earth.
Wait a minute! Two hundred and fifty years old? Never touch the Earth? That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?
Thus begins the story of the Baba in the stilt house.
I was traveling in India sometime in the mid ’70s, still floating in that cloud-like euphoria of semi-youth, searching for a deeper connection with my Guru, who had left his body in 1973. I had spent an amazing winter in West Bengal with the Bauls (see my earlier blogs), visited some breathtaking but slightly scary Tantric shrines out in the desert (picture a pile of carefully stacked, freshly oiled human skulls. Yikes!); and bathed in the ocean of pure essence in Sri Ramakrishna’s bedroom on the outskirts of Calcutta. But summer was approaching and Bengal was just getting way too hot. And the bedbugs were getting bigger and bigger and bigger!!!
It was time to go north and settle down for a while in my Guru’s ashram in the holy town of Vrindavan, where 5000 years ago Lord Krishna danced with the Gopis, a dance that still continues to this day.
Life in Vrindavan in the 1970s was quite idyllic, at times even heavenly. There were no cars and very little construction and every other house was a sacred temple. Medieval India. The songs and prayers that emanated from each little ‘mandir’ blended in the ethers becoming a kind of symphonic masterpiece of mantra; the sound of 1008 hearts being ripped open in desperate longing and ecstasy. Every day I would wander around, listening to Kirtan, sometimes joining in, drinking chai, eating milk sweets and napping. I wasn’t in the habit of going to see gurus at that time. I had my Baba Neem Karoli, I had my path; other ‘darshans’ and instructions were a distraction to me. I was sustained simply by the kirtans of this deeply sanctified place. But I did keep hearing about this ‘sadhu’ named Deoria Baba, who, according to the legends, was hundreds of years old and was a practitioner of the ancient and very secret Kaya Kalpa rejuvenation techniques of Ayurveda. Every hundred years or so he walked into the river and emerged a while later as a young man! I was told that he lived in simple bamboo stilt houses and never came down to touch the earth. He would instruct his disciples from about ten feet up, his long dreadlocks dangling over the wooden railing. After seeing a picture of this Baba, I was quite intrigued. He looked like some kind of super thin aboriginal ape-man with eyes that pierced the veils of personality and separateness; like someone from outer space. And he was said to be one of the great ‘siddhas’ of modern times. All this was very interesting to me, but most appealing of all was the fact that Deoria Baba highly revered my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and took any and all of Maharajji’s devotees under his wing.
Well, it just so happened that Deoria Baba was camped quite near Vrindavan that spring, on the other side of the Yamuna river. So some friends and I decided to embark on a pilgrimage.
Finding a boatman that hot, steamy day was a daunting task. Usually they swarmed the banks of the river looking for customers but somehow the shore was completely empty on this occasion. So we waited and waited, humming kittens and rock & roll songs under our breath all the while wondering what this renowned sadhu would say to us, disciples of another guru. Finally a boat appeared and we piled on. The Yamuna crossing isn’t a long journey in terms of time or miles, but there is a breath of transcendence and peace that seems to hover over the surface of the waters. Crossing the river, and even more so, bathing in it, are deeply transformative events, as Yamuna Devi blesses each and every one who takes the time to ask for Her grace. So as I disembarked on the other shore I had already entered into a kind of altered state. The pastel colors were sharper, the sand felt softer on my bare feet, the wind was so gentle in my long hippy hair… A short walk brought us up to a bamboo gate and a few sadhus lounging in the mid day sun. They asked us who we were and where we had come from, told us to wait and disappeared inside the ‘ashram.’ Time slowed. Silence descended. I could clearly here the beating of my heart and the internal repetition of my mantra. Suddenly the sadhus came running back, yelling at us: “Come, come, Baba wants to see you NOW!” We were ushered across a stretch of sand to a rather strange sight. There, crouched on a rickety old platform, propped up on stilts of sticks and branches, about ten or fifteen feet in the air, was a very old man, Father Time himself, his hand raised up in blessing. “You come from Baba Neem Karoli? Ashirbad, Ashirbad, Ashirbad (blessings, blessings, blessings). Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya!!!!! Ashirbad, Ashirbad.” He had us repeat that ancient mantra to Lord Vishnu over and over again, while his disciples piled fruits and sweets on us which I put in the front shirttails of my long handloomed ‘kurta.’ The atmosphere became completely other-worldly. I couldn’t feel my legs, my feet, my body. Chanting “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya” the ground beneath me seemed to float, as this strange old man completely readjusted my molecules. Waves of energy streamed from his open hand. Then, just as suddenly, he said “Jao!”, GO, just like Maharajji used to do, like an Indian would speak to the neighborhood dog begging at the lunch table for scraps. I stood up, lost my balance, dropped all of my fruits and sweets, stooped to pick them up, dropped them again and noticed a very funny twinkle in Deoria Baba’s eyes. How familiar he looked. And then he was gone, disappearing into the dark recesses of his space-ship-esque bamboo hut.
So that’s the story of the Baba in the stilt house. Not much of a story, really. But when I reflect on the blessings that I’ve received over my life I can’t help but feel amazed and grateful. What did I do to deserve the ‘ashirbad’ of a prehistoric God-man? Not much! But still those blessings came. And I believe that they’re still coming. As long as I can stay just slightly open, just slightly quiet for a few teensy little moments, God’s ever-present grace can always be felt…
PS. This is an excerpt from “By His Grace”. By Dada Mukherji, a long term devotee of Neem Karoli Baba.
“Deoria Baba, himself a great saint, comes to Allahabad every year during the Magh Mela or the Kumbha Mela. A few years back he was here and some of his devotees who are well-known to us came to our house for satsang. They said that the night before they had been sitting around Deoria on the sand and someone came who said that he used to go to Neem Karoli Baba, but he is not there anymore, so he cannot go. Deoria Baba actually shouted at him, “WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? CAN SUCH A SAINT GO ANYWHERE? HE HAS DONE SUCH TRICKS MANY TIMES BEFORE! HE IS ALIVE, AND HE ALWAYS WILL BE ALIVE!”