Four Short Stories

There are many things that happen on a typical day when doing a yatra in India. Little blessings, big adventures, getting hopelessly lost and then found again.

These are four short stories that I’d like to share. They are things that happened to me and their experiential quality was the sweetest nectar of both amazement and bewilderment.


When I arrived for my second round of the Kumbh Mela a very kind Maharaj-ji (Neem Karoli Baba) devotee and guru sister sent me a note telling me that Siddhi Ma was still in Rishikesh. My plans in India up until that point simply didn’t allow for me to reach her in time to receive her darshan, I had accepted that fact.

When I heard this news I immediately altered my plans and made arrangements to leave the Kumbh on February 11th, the day after the main bathing day (Mauni Amavasya) on Feb 10. Getting out of the Kumbh that day was incredibly difficult and if I didn’t have the help of some amazingly kind and resourceful ISKCON devotees I would have never made it out. They arranged for me to ride on the back of a motorcycle, with my luggage, for 10km until we reached safe harbor to where I could get a taxi to Varanasi. It was living chaos theory. I never have seen so many people trying to make their way out of any one place.

Over the course of the next 2 days I made my way from Varanasi to Rishikesh, to the Maharaj-ji ashram.

When I first arrived at the ashram in Rishikesh it was around 230 pm. There was not a soul in sight. Only the friendly security guard who greeted me with “ram ram” over and over again. There were a couple of westerners I was looking for but they were nowhere in sight, it was all a little strange. At one point I stepped over a “boundary” to look for someone and an Indian man came out of nowhere and barked at me quite loudly. He spoke perfect english and informed me that the people I was looking for were not there and that there would be no darshan with Siddhi Ma at all. It was somewhat agitating.

This late in February is usually her retreat time so it’s quite rare for her to be in Rishikesh at all. When I arrived the next day to the ashram I did find the kind and generous westerners who lovingly set my expectations that I might not get to see Ma this trip.

After receiving this news, I went to the Maharaj-ji temple and gave him my pranams, my dandavats in fact. I so rarely pray for specific things, like “give me this or give me that” but my ego was so bruised that I had no choice but to ask him to please allow for me to receive this darshan. The thoughts of “don’t you know how far I’ve come?” and “I have so much to tell her” and all the rest of the petulant games the ego likes to play when it’s not getting it’s way all raced through my head and into my prayers as I was on the ground. If there’s any one lesson from the lila of Neem Karoli Baba it’s that it’s all grace and if you listen to it or not is up to you.

Interestingly enough, I think you know what happens next. As I got up from giving my pranams, Siddhi Ma was being walked through the gate some 25 yards behind me. Not only were my prayers answered but they were answered immediately.

Coincidence? Good timing? Grace? Call it what you want. As Ram Dass said in Be Here Now “now you have the data I have.”

The Naga Babas

Of the most notable and at this point almost spectacle like people to see at the Kumbh Mela are the Naga Babas. Even the Indians make special mention of them because they are so wild. To this day they emerge from out of the mountains naked and covered in ash. These are sadhus from ancient lineages that meditate primarily on Shiva so deeply that their energy is so rooted, fierce and graceful that you can taste it. If you come across one at close range you can’t escape their bhava.

From Wikipedia:

There are naked Naga (Digambara, or “sky-clad”) Sadhus who wear their hair in thick dreadlocks called Jata and they may also carry swords[citation needed]. Aghora sadhus may claim to keep company with ghosts, or live in cemeteries as part of their holy path. Indian culture tends to emphasize an infinite number of paths to God, such that sadhus, and the varieties that sadhus come in have their place.

At the Kumbh there are many camps of them, which lineage is which I’m not exactly sure nor could I find anyone to really explain it to me. Upon traversing the massive landscape of the Kumbh I was looking intently at which Naga Baba camp I should sit and take darshan with. I glanced upon one and the guru Baba of the camp was sitting elevated on a pile of sand with Rudrashkas wrapped around his dreadlocks at least 3 feet high. His eyes were rolling into the back of his head at times. He was deep in samadhi. His trance felt authentic to me. When his eyes returned to survey his surroundings he felt powerful and engaged. This was my guy.

There were at least 6 or 7 others sitting around him, all naked, chanting mantra and passing the chillum. As I approached I immediately felt a welcoming energy because it seems that most westerners don’t have the courage to actually sit with them. I took off my shoes and shirt, gave my pranams and said “Hari Om Baba” to the nearest one. He moved over, created space for me to sit and said “coffee or tea?”. In perfect english.

So there I was sitting with these guys and 2 or 3 of them, I forget, spoke perfect english and were just as eager to hear my story as I was theirs. We drank tea and talked very systematically for about 30 minutes. There was nothing uncomfortable. We just kinda sat there. I asked them if they really still lived in the Himalayas. I’m not sure if they were pulling my leg or not but one guy said “yes, very much so. have you been to the Himalaya?.” I said I’d only been to two towns on the foothils, Rishikesh and Nanital. When I said “Rishikesh” many of them nodded and smiled making me think that perhaps that’s where you might start if you were to look for them. There’s no way that could be right as it’s way to obvious but I was searching for some kind of answers. They weren’t really giving them to me. What I really felt is that they just wanted to be respected and not “studied” by a westerner. So we just sat there. They asked me about my guru, a couple nodded in affirmation. As we sat and just watched the fire burn and the ash pile grow I did feel the grounded peace.

I asked why all the ash. The only answer I got was “Shiva! Death and birth.”

There you have it.

Pizza in Varanasi

Upon leaving the Kumbh to seek out Siddhi Ma I had to return to Varanasi for the night. When I finally arrived there I was starving and oddly the only place open within walking distance was a pizza place. That or another samosa on the street. I choose the pizza.

The man at the counter was really a boy no more than 17. He was very modern in jeans and a cool t-shirt. He was fascinated by me. He asked in the typical Indian way “what country you from?” I answered “America.”

“But you wear Kurta” he proclaimed. (traditional Indian temple shirt). I said “yes, I do.”

“And you have Tulsis?!” he gasped. Again, I said “yes.”

“Why? Krishna? you believe?” Once more, I said “yes. I do”

He proclaimed very matter a factly “I don’t.”

Chotta Maharaj

For those of you who don’t know, Chotta Maharaj (little maharaj) is a sadhu baba who lives in Vrindvan. He has a very small Vaishnav ashram a few doors down from Neem Karoli Baba on the parikrama.

He sits on the edge of his bed and basically gives darshan all day long to those who seek it. The kicker is it’s said that he’s anywhere between 110-150 years old. In fact, the young purjaris (priests) at his temple say he’s 162.

Whatever the trip is. He’s OLD. Shyamdas once told me “he can’t die. he’s stuck in the bhav.”

He’s basically blind and can hear very little. His head is slumped over but he’s in bliss. When you enter his room another baba helps guide your head to his lap where you receive the “patting on the head” that is his darshan.

It is so sweet and gentle that it must be experienced to be believed. He strokes your head endlessly and repeats a mantra. This time he said “Jaya Radha Bhagavan Ki Jai” over and over again. Time stood still and there was nothing but this sweet little man just pouring love onto my head. Wanting nothing in return. Not even money. He just wants you to have a little taste of Vraj and all the glorious pastimes that have happened there. It’s quite blissful.

The day after I received this darshan along with the group I was with, we deduced (more or less) that while we were receiving this our friend and beloved teacher Shyamdas was leaving his body.

Victory to Radha, the eternal lover of the divine and the universal truth! Jaya Radha Bhagavan.

Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

(The titles means Victory to Mother India!)

My Internet connections and wi-fi access has been spotty and unreliable so the following are different thoughts from different moments during the last month here in India. They do not make a complete narrative. Some of the tenses are mixed up as different thoughts were written at different times. Pardon me.

It is Feb 12 and after a week or so of traveling with Radhanath Swami I am back in Delhi for a day before heading to Rishikesh. The last few days at the Kumbh Mela were beyond intense.

I’m not surely really what pulled me to go back to the Kumbh other than getting an invitation from Radhanath Swami to do so. When I was here two weeks ago, it was potent but not like it is now.

There are people everywhere you turn who are getting ready for the main bathing day. I mean seas of people. It is beyond words. Legions of pilgrims, sadhus, house holders and holy men all with God on their mind and praying for the rewards from a bath at the auspicious confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga rivrers.

In the west we don’t have the software installed that allows us to understand what it is that is going on the Kumbha Mela during a peak period. We just don’t have the software. However, if you come to India and take part the software slowly starts to download into your consciousness from the great database in the sky. Very gradually the download progresses and all the little hang ups that you we have disappear. It’s dirty, it’s noisy, it’s crowded, there are too many beggars and whatever other trip is getting in your way fades away when you breathe into it.

Still with that said, I’m not sure why I came back. I suppose that getting to India alone is 75% of the work so since I was already here and had an invitation I thought i might as well take part in the largest festival in the world that is focussed on solely on God.

For me, Feb 10th was a great great moment in my life. Sadly it was dampered when I learned 32 people died trying to get into the holy sangam at the right time. When I first attempted to bathe at 8 am I turned around and went back to my camp because I felt it was too crowded and dangerous. It was just TOO much. And going alone probably wasn’t the best idea. Westerners are like a spectacle at the Kumbh, no matter how “holy” you look or feel.

I went back for attempt number 2 at 1 pm and it was a success. In the middle of millions of people I literally bumped into two friends of mine from Los Angeles. I’m not making it up. I heard my name being called as I was walking…”zach! zach! zach!”

Upon first hearing it I thought it was impossible because the percentage of Westerners at the Kumbh is about .01%. But sure enough, I turned around and there they were! Amazing. Such a small world I suppose. It was so great to be with them when we went to the holy spot at the sangam to bathe at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganaga rivers. Logistically it also meant we could look after each others things while we took a dip!

It is now Feb 12th and as mentioned am back in Delhi. As amazing as the Kumbh was it did leave me rattled and dirty and hungry. Conditions were fine there and I am not complaining. I think all of the people just really shook me a bit. Because of this I checked into a pretty decent hotel in Delhi for a day to recharge, do laundry, eat Western food, use the Internet and clean up.

I just had dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant and the reality of the class struggles of India really hit me. Of course they are worldwide but it is so pronounced in India. This isn’t a western guilt trip complex, it’s just an observation of my incarnation and others too. I really felt the need to plug back into the Matrix for a day. I’m at where I’m at and that’s ok. I make no false claims at being a full on renunciate.

But it hit me during dinner how crazy and seemingly unfair different incarnations are. Anyone of us could have reincarnated into a poor beggar on the streets of Delhi just as we can take form of a middle class white person from America. Nonetheless, there has to be more that I can do to serve others while I honor my incarnation. How that looks, I’m not sure. But there has to be…

From a couple weeks back…

Of the many great aspects of the Hindu tradition, the ability to plot out maps of different planes of consciousness is one of the most profound. There is but one supreme manifestation of “the one” but there are many lens to view the different energies that make up the amalgam – this is worshiping god in the personal form.

The last two weeks I’ve experienced some very extreme pinball like adventures that have shot me through the energetic games of seeking ones own dharma. In a span of 48 hours I was shot through one of the most intense Shiva darshans and then found my way to one of the most beautiful Krishna lilas imaginable.

With my group, we arrived in Varanasi in a whirlwind of a pace that quite frankly pissed most of the group off. The idea of the “yatra” was lost as we shuttled around India in a hurried pace as most of the group were struggling with sickness, regular meals and sanitation. India, when done this way, is not for beginners. A couple men down, we arrived at our hotel and quickly made a place to conquer an afternoon in Varanasi. Saul was doing his best India negotiator dance thus procuring a tut-tut captain and guide that would take us to a ghat which would introduce us to our boatman.

We arrived at a low key ghat that was very much Varanasi minus the plumes of smoke and ubiquitous beggers. We negotiated a boat that would accommodate our group of 20 and then made our way to the famous Sri Kashi Vishwanath Shiva Mandir. This is where things started to get interesting.

We arrived to the mandir around 430 pm or during prime time was one might say. The maze of ancient Varanasi alley ways and mazes is astonishing and powerful. I was so full of Krishna bliss that the Shiva root destruction of the ego energy really worked me.

After the dogma of the different traditions settles it becomes so fascinating how these different energies talk to each other. There are many wonderful stories that are found in the Indian epics like the story of Hanuman or Gopishwar – in both of these examples Shiva basically wants to hang out or serve an incarnation of Vishnu. In a very very simplistic essence the two energies are just colliding and interacting.

While, admittedly, I lean more towards being a Vaishnav in daily practice I can’t escape the fulfillment of needing to get out of bliss world for a moment to root myself in Shivas love.