Several years ago I was sitting in the courtyard of my guru’s ashram in a small North Indian village, taking the sun, drinking chai, and watching a family of monkeys dance and fight around a few bags of rice. Bells were ringing in the distance and the sweet smells of marigolds and incense were mingling with the pungent aromas of spicy Indian food. The chilly mist of morning was slowly dissolving into the languid afternoon warmth. I found myself smiling at the futile efforts of the ashram manager shaking his stick at the persistent family of monkeys. Could he remove the monkeys, or would he have to move that delicious Basmati rice? Hmmmm……
This beautiful temple to Hanuman has always reawakened a deep river of emotion in me as it’s the place where I first met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and where the course of my life was radically changed. Whenever I visit here I find myself in tears, sometimes crying from overwhelming love, but more often crying out of loneliness and longing. However, on this day, listening to the old women endlessly chanting “Hare Krishna,” I was drifting in a cloud of contentment.
Sitting next to me was my chai partner, a very old and perpetually smiling devotee known simply as ‘Papa,’ a man who had been with Maharajji since the 1940’s. Papa’s leathery, toothless face always seemed to shine, even with his declining health, and his eyes held the gleam of one fixed on the divine, one who frequently received visions and visitations from his long deceased guru. Suddenly Papa turned towards me, his face uncharacteristically severe, and told me in his tremulous voice to go into what used to be Maharajji’s bedroom and sing eleven Hanuman Chaleesas. The Hanuman Chaleesa is a 40 verse prayer to the monkey god, “The Remover of Suffering” that was very loved by Maharajji. I, as usual, was feeling lazy and so I was bit reluctant. After all, I was already in a pretty good mood. Why spoil it with what I perceived as ‘effortful sadhana?’ But Papa pushed me, saying rather forcefully: “It’s the very least we can do! It’s the very least we can do! He who has given us everything……..What can we give back to him? Just our songs and our gratitude…….”
There were tears in Papa’s eyes as he said this to me so, to please my old friend and not get on the business end of his razor sharp tongue, I quickly grabbed my harmonium and went into Maharajji’s room to sing.
As soon as I entered the room I felt a change come over me. Perhaps it was the elaborate display of flowers on what used to be Maharajji’s bed, or the softly flickering oil lamps, or the wafting incense, or the huge photo of Baba gazing deep into my soul. But as I was singing, my voice bouncing off the whitewashed clay walls, I began to imagine the embodiment of love lying there, simply enjoying…. I had been in the habit of doing my ‘spiritual practices’ for myself, my own salvation, my ‘enlightenment,’ sometimes even my sanity. But now I found myself singing as an offering of thanks, as an expression of the deepest gratitude for a love and grace given totally without condition. Singing just to bring joy to He who is the source of all joy…. And my heart began to open in a way it had never opened before.
Papa gave me something that afternoon which is still growing inside of me. Although I forget way more often than I remember, I try to say thank you to God and to my guru every day, not just the fun and easy days, but really every day. Thank you for my life, my breath, my love, my challenges, my suffering, my happiness. For sure this is so much easier said than done, but when I can remember to offer my songs, my work, my heart, as a gift, without expecting or demanding anything in return, I can rest for just a moment in the sweet ocean of peace. And it seems there’s always more to be thankful about….