The following is a transcript of a talk given by Shivaya at the Ram Dass retreat at the Christine Center in Willard, Wisconsin, in July 2004.
I’m about to begin a story that, if it actually hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it myself. Yesterday, Ram Dass said that we’re not going after the guru, the guru captures us. Mine has been an interesting journey, and I’ll tell you how Maharajji—Neem Karoli Baba— “captured” me.
In New York City, I read a book, Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. In this book he described a lot of unbelievable, incredible things that happened in India, miracles and wonders, and I was captivated by this. At the end of the book, it said if you want to pursue Kriya Yoga, when it’s time, a teacher will appear.
A few days later I opened The Village Voice — I was living in Greenwich Village — and in the personals column, which everybody read, there was a little article that said “Yogi Ramaya — just arrived from India to teach Babaji’s Kriya Yoga.” My God, I couldn’t believe it! I had just put the book down, and there’s Yogi Ramaya, just arrived off the boat! I called him, I was his first devotee. He didn’t know anybody — his guru (well, it was Babaji) — told him to go to America and everything would be all right. And he did. Needless to say, Yogi Ramaya became a very big teacher, guru, around the world. He has many centers. But at that time he was just this Indian yogi, a little guy wrapped in a white sheet.
I studied Kriya Yoga with him, and I was using as a visual aid a photo of Babaji, the master of Kriya Yoga. Every day I would sit in front of a picture of Babaji in my living room, and meditate on him. At that time I was in a sort of crazed state, doing hours and hours of meditation a day. I would start in the morning and meditate all day. I would go to people’s houses for gatherings, and they would find me in the closet, meditating.
While sitting in front of Babaji’s picture one day doing my meditation, I had this sensation that somebody was in the room with me. The sensation was so strong that it forced me to open my eyes. When I opened my eyes, Babaji was sitting in front of me, in my living room in Greenwich Village! Naked, in his usual posture that I saw him in while meditating. He said to me in some telepathic way, “What do you want?” I said to him, “I want to go to India, but I’m really terrified to go. I really want to go there.” At that point Babaji raised his hand, held his hand up, and motioned to me. And he said, “You will go to India, and you will have no fear.” At that point his hand went back into his meditation position, and shortly after that I was just sitting in front of a photo of Babaji. (It wasn’t until I met Uma that I found out this gesture is a mudra for dispelling fear, called abhaya mudra.)
I knew then that somehow I was going to get to India. Through a course of many wonders and miraculous happenings, I did go. I got a chance to go to Woodstock — I probably met many of you who are here — you may remember me, I was barefoot! (Laughter) Right after that I headed for India, first traveling around Europe and Africa. I had no money, I landed in Europe with no money, but I knew that God would get me to India. After almost a year of traveling all over Europe and Africa and the Canaries, I did get to India. Still with nothing.
I landed, and went racing to Benares, because in Yogananda’s book he always talked of these incredible wonders and amazing beings in Benares. This was the heart of India, Shiva, so I went racing to Benares. When I got to Benares, I realized on the rickshaw ride from the train station to the river that I was in a very strange land. Alongside me, walking by the rickshaw were three completely naked men, covered in white ash, carrying tridents and pots in their hands, walking down the center of the main street of Benares! I thought, What IS this?! How is this possible? Nobody was really paying any attention to them, and they weren’t paying any attention to anyone else.
This was all really odd. I got a room and then went right to the river. That was all I knew about, this Ganga River. I got to the Ganga, and I remember looking at the river, and the next thing I knew, I was out in the middle of the river, I was completely naked, and there were children swimming around me throwing wreaths of flowers over my head! On the shore, I could see hundreds of people screaming and yelling. Realizing I was naked, I thought those people on the shore were waiting to kill me, and these crazy kids were just out there throwing flowers around. I swam back to shore — I knew I had no choice, I had to just get out of there. I was terrified going up to the land, but as I swam in closer to the shore, I realized they weren’t screaming angry, they were all cheering and shouting things like, “Ram, Ram, Shambo, Hare.” I ran and got my clothes; I didn’t know what was happening. People were running over throwing flowers on me, and I was sort of confused, I didn’t know what was going on, but I just raced to my room. I asked a friend who was there what happened, and she said, “I don’t know what happened. You were on the shore, you took off all your clothes, and sort of disappeared into a hazy light. The next thing I saw was you far out in the river with a bunch of kids around you.” It was all very confusing, I still don’t know what happened to me that day.
While in Benares, I was in my hotel room, and I was about to prepare a chillum, which is a mixture of hashish and tobacco, smoked in a pipe. I was preparing this chillum to try to settle my head and put together what was going on here. A man appeared at my door and said, “Can I share that with you?” He was an elderly gentleman, white hair and a mustache, and a sport jacket on. He looked very much like a member of the police department to me. (Laughter) He looked very official. And I don’t know why, but I said yes. His name was Baba Singh, and he then invited me to come to his home and have dinner. His wife was the most incredible cook I had ever met, and I wound up staying three months at his home. In this time I found out that he was, in fact, formerly a policeman. He confessed to me having done dastardly deeds while with the police force, but then he had met a yogi. He left the police department and went into meditation practice, and transformed his life. And then he put me through some tasks.
The first thing he had me do was go to the burning ghats. I had to go and stay at the burning ghats all day and watch bodies burning. And I had to choose one body and watch it from beginning to end. It took about three, three and a half hours for a body to burn. I would usually have breakfast, catch three bodies burning, head back for dinner, then do an evening sit, catch another body or two at night. In Benares, if you die there, you’re guaranteed to go to heaven, so millions come just to die in Benares. So the fire in the burning ghats in Benares burns twenty-four hours a day, and has never gone out. There is always a body to burn. One day I counted forty-four bodies burning, but I was concentrating on one.
Baba Singh never told me what I was supposed to be doing, but one day, after almost a month of sitting there, I did have this experience where I went out of body, and I was actually watching my own body on the pyre. They burn the bodies on these wooden pyres, and I went into some sort of a mental flip, and I was watching me, watching my body incinerate. When I got back to Baba Singh that night, he looked at me, and he said, “Today it happened.” He knew something had happened that day, and something had happened. The fire had incinerated everything I had thought and known of myself, and the temporal nature of life was staring me in the face.
And then he said, “Okay, now you’re ready for your next task.” Benares is filled with lepers and beggars and cripples, many of them in very advanced stages of disease, near dying. He told me to go out on the street in Benares and “find a man who has no arms and no legs, and is happy.” I said, “I’m not really sure, what are you telling me to do?” He said, “Go out there on the street. Benares is filled with people who have no arms and no legs. I want you to find one who is happy, and stay with that man until you know how he can be happy.” How can a man with no arms and no legs, no ability to do anything, be happy? Baba Singh said, “Find that man, and stay with him.”
I went out on the streets, and actually, across from the post office, was just that: there was this little Indian baba who had no arms and no legs, just some little stumps, and he was sitting on the ground and singing kirtan — he was singing God’s name, “Hare Krishna, Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya…” And he was laughing, and he was just kind of bouncing with joy. Well, I went over and I sat down with him. He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him — I had found the one I was looking for. And I proceeded to spend my days with this little body on the street. I would hold chillums for him, hold bidis for him to smoke. I became his arms while we sat there, and we just had the greatest time! He taught me singing, and I was doing these chants with him, and we were singing and laughing. And he was talking a lot to me, which I couldn’t understand very well because I was still new in India, but I could tell from his expressions what he was saying. He would take his little stump of an arm, and point out to me people who were walking by who had arms and legs, all of their bodies whole, and he kept telling me to look at their faces, look at their faces. “They have no God,” he’d say, “they have no God. Look how unhappy they are!” And he would make these expressions to me, mocking their sorrowful faces and joking. He would motion to me, they have arms, they have legs, and just look at their faces. But his heart was full. So he showed me something there, that it was just this knowing of what Bhagwan is, this God that was in him that was filling him with joy every moment.
I knew this was what I had to find. Of course, you don’t know where to find it, you don’t know how to find it, you don’t know what to do about it. I knew it was time to leave Baba Singh. I had stayed three months, enjoying his wife’s cooking, and doing these tasks with him, and sitting and talking about God every day — that was how we spent our days whenever we had time.
I went off to meditation courses, started practicing meditation, doing a lot of sitting. I was with Ram Dass at a course when that book, (joking) what was that book called? BE something? Be Here Now? That book arrived, and that was my first look at Neem Karoli Baba. That was the first time I had ever seen his face, that beautiful face. And we sat up all night at the end of the course — we waited until the end of the course to look at the book — there were all of these pictures, and it came in different parts. Everybody was reading different parts of the book, and I read this part that said you can’t find him. He’s off in the Himalayas, and nobody can find him. I thought, well, okay, that’s that.
At that time, Ram Dass was taking a bus — there’s even a story about it that maybe some of you know — he took a lot of his friends onto a bus, and on that bus trip, all those people on that bus met Maharajji in Allahabad. Unfortunately, Ram Dass discouraged me from going on that bus trip… (laughter). His bus was full and I wasn’t one of the friends…(laughter)…and I couldn’t go on the bus. That was in 1971, and everybody on that bus met Maharajji… But it didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know any of that at the time.
I went off on my journey, and eventually in 1973, I was on the street in Delhi. I met a friend, Marty, who I had done a lot of meditation courses with. Marty looked like he was out of his mind. He was just bouncing around on the street, and he used to be a pretty quiet, meditative kind of guy. And now he was jumping around like a mad man. “Marty, Marty, what’s happened, what’s going on?” He said, “Well come on, I’ll tell you about it. Let’s go have lunch.” So we went to have lunch together, and he pulled out a picture of Maharajji. “I have just been with Neem Karoli Baba.” It was a few years since I had seen his picture in the book, so I said, “Who’s Neem Karoli Baba?” And he said, “You know, Neem Karoli Baba, from that book that Ram Dass wrote.” And I said, “Oh, the one I saw a few years ago.” He said, “He’s the greatest saint in India.” And he told me, “He’s up in Nainital. You can get a bus at 11 o’clock tonight, you’ll be in Nainital in the morning. Go right to Maharajji.”
Well, I got away from Marty pretty quick after lunch, because I thought he just seemed a little nuts, and I didn’t want to end up like him! So maybe this Neem Karoli Baba wasn’t for me. And I just went on my way from there, a little happy to get away from Marty. He just couldn’t stop raving about this Neem Karoli Baba, and I had heard enough. I went off to see a money changer. In Delhi at that time, money changing was actually out in the open and there was one that had sort of an office, it was a room with a small desk and two chairs. And you would come in and sit in one chair, and he would sit in the other chair, and you’d give him your money, and he’d give you rupees. And on the desk was a photo. It was a photo of Neem Karoli Baba. I said, “Gee, I just saw that picture. How come you’ve got that picture on your desk?” There wasn’t another thing in the whole room. He said, “Well, he’s Neem Karoli Baba. He’s the greatest saint in India. Just having his photo around is a blessing. Besides, all his devotees come here to change their money.” I thought okay, and I didn’t think much more of it, but thought it was interesting that twice I saw this photo of Neem Karoli Baba in one day.
I had been a number of years in India at this time, and had met quite a few people. I had a very spiritual friend, Mahendra, who lived outside of New Delhi, and I went out to see him and stay the night with his family. His wife went to prepare dinner, and while she was making dinner, Mahendra said, “You know, many westerners have come and stayed with me over the years. I have pictures of them, maybe you know some of these people.” I said, “Well, maybe I do, let’s see the photos.” And he pulled out a big album, and on the front of the album was an 8 x 10 color glossy photo — of Neem Karoli Baba! I said, “Mahendra, how come you have this photo?” He said, “That’s Neem Karoli Baba. He’s the greatest saint in India! He’s protecting our household. You have to have a picture of Neem Karoli Baba. ”
At this point, Mahendra’s wife came in and told us dinner was ready. I turned to Mahendra and said that I couldn’t have dinner with him, I had to go catch a bus! He said, “Where are you going? It’s almost 10 o’clock.” I said, “The bus is at 11. I can still make it.” “But where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to see that Neem Karoli Baba!” He said, “Why don’t you go in the morning?” “No, I have to go now. This is the third time today that this face has come before me. And everybody has said the same thing to me: he’s the greatest saint in India. I just have to go right now, I can’t wait until morning.” And I went racing off to the bus station, got on the bus, went up to Nainital and got there in the morning.
I had a little time before catching the bus that went out to Kainchi, where Maharajji was. A very raggedy old beggar came over to me, looked up at me, and pulled on my arm and said, “Chillum? Chillum?” Well, I was a smoker at that time, and I thought I had enough time before the bus came, so I said, “Okay, let’s go.” And this little skinny guy, his clothes were all tattered, took me to the place where all the beggars went to have their tea, which was down in this hole-in-the-ground chai shop. All the rickshaw drivers and beggars came there, because they sold the tea there for just a few paisa, very cheap. So we went down there and had tea, and he made a chillum. This was the first time I was actually touched — it’s interesting how these things happen. Even though I had seen the photos of Maharajji enough times that it drove me up there, this little ragged beggar man was the one who showed me real devotion. He lifted the chillum up to his forehead before smoking it, and uttered “Neem Karoli Baba” with such devotion. I had never heard any name spoken with such love in my life. And my heart was just torn open at that moment, when he said Neem Karoli Baba.
I got the bus and went off to Kainchi to see this Neem Karoli Baba. I was shaven at the time, I had shaved my head, and my face was clean-shaven. A man on the bus — I didn’t know who he was, it was a very strange encounter — had a Nehru hat that the followers of Gandhi wore, a new white cap. When I think back on a lot of these stories, I feel like it was Maharajji there, playing games with me all along the way. He gave me this white hat because the sun was very harsh, and he said you need something on your head. Well, I had a cloth wrapped around my head, but he said, “No, no. Put this hat on.” Well, it looked a little silly, but I put it on. When I walked into the ashram, Maharajji was sitting off in the distance on a wooden taket, and he looked over and burst into laughter and said, “Gandhiji, Gandhiji has come!” Everybody was laughing, I was laughing, we were all hysterical, in this joy together. What a welcome! It was like coming home.
I thought it was good schtick to have the hat, because I didn’t know much about the guru thing. I knew that I had a good gimmick going here with the hat: oh, Gandhiji is here, he’s laughing, I’ve got a connection, I thought it was kind of cool. So of course, I wore the hat every day after that.
There was a man named Dada who was very close with Maharajji. He had a very intimate relationship, took care of him in many ways. Maharajji often stayed at his home. Dada smoked a lot of cigarettes, and at the time, all the devotees around Maharajji were very pure, and of course nobody was smoking tobacco. And every now and then Maharajji would say, “Go away now, Dada.” And of course that was time for Dada to go away and have a puff. And I saw Dada going off to have a cigarette, and I was a smoker. I thought, well this is a chance to go over and hang a little bit with someone who’s close to the boss. So while we were having a cigarette, I just off-handedly said to Dada, “Gee, it would really be nice if I could have a little alone time with the Baba.” Not having any idea what I was talking about. I just thought it was a good thing, that we should connect in that way. But what chance would there be of actually being alone with him? Well, we came back after our cigarette, and a few minutes later Dada came over to me and said, “Maharajji will see you now.” I was totally freaked out. I mean, what would I say to him? I had no idea what to say to him, what I was going to do, I had just more or less wanted to see what would happen.
Maharajji had a little room that we referred to as the “office.” This was where Maharajji would do his “work.” So Maharajji was in the office, he would see me now. I was on my way, I was walking over there to see him, my body was kind of trembling. I was about to sit and look into the face of the man who some people thought was “the greatest saint in India.” I wasn’t jumping at his feet. He said, “Kya hai? What is it?” in a harsh tone, and I was really freaked out — now I had to come up with something. I didn’t know what was going to come out of me. And then for some reason I lied. (Laughter) I said, “Maharajji, I’m horrible with my practices. I try to fast and I can’t fast.” That was a lie, because I had done a lot of fasting at that time. But I said, “I try to fast, I can’t fast. I try to keep silent, I can’t keep silent, I keep talking.” He just looked at me and said, “You keep silent.” Maun, the word for silence. Okay, my private audience was over. “Jao!” You be quiet. Go!
Right after that, Maharajji came out of the office. He had just come into the office to take care of me. Did it, jao, he went back onto the taket outside the office. He sat on the taket, I sat down next to him. The first thing he did was lean over to me and say, “Gandhiji, apka nam kya hai?” Well this was the great moment when Maharajji asks you your name. It’s like your connection to him. We had just left his office where he told me not to speak, and then the first thing he does is turn to me and ask me my name. My mouth opened up, nothing came out. He just turned away from me. He went on calling me Gandhiji the whole time I was there.
I managed to have a number of other private moments with Maharajji that were really outstanding. All of these in little ways bringing me to the point where I knew I had to get to the feet. I wasn’t there yet. When I came to the ashram there was a devotee who would make tea for everyone in the afternoon. They cooked the tea in these pots that were put right on the fire, so they would get totally blackened. Nobody was helping this devotee with the cooking and cleaning. So I asked if I could help him clean the pots after the 4 o’clock tea. He said, “You don’t have to.” But I said, “ Well, I want to,” and he said, “ In that case, you can.” I had just been there a few days, and I had read a lot about ashrams, and to have a job in the ashram was a good thing. I thought this was really cool: I connected with the Baba, and I got a job! So I was cleaning the pots one day, and of course, when you’re cleaning the Baba’s pots, you don’t want there to be one spot on those pots. And the pots were blackened. So I scrubbed and scrubbed. You use ash to clean them, you rub ash on the pots, and I really got those pots like new. It took me a long time.
In Kainchi, there’s the temple area in front, and in the back of the ashram is where people sleep. There are showers and rooms, and it’s where the westerners would take food and tea. There was a very narrow path that went from the gateway that came into the back all the way up to the back where you took tea. It was only wide enough for one. As I was leaving one day, I was going along down the path, and Maharajji was walking up the path. Here he came, the Baba, and we were going to meet! What was going to happen? I was always excited about what was going to happen when we met. So we were coming close to each other, and of course I stepped off the path. I stepped on the side and folded my hands, and he came up to me and stopped right in front of me. It was interesting, I had always thought of Maharajji as sort of a mountainous, humongous being. And there he was, he was only maybe 5’5”- 5’6.”
But big in his presence. I was looking down at him, and he looked at me. I was always a little shy about making direct eye contact with him, but I looked at him. He let his body kind of relax, and then I saw him take this deep breath in, he was breathing in and breathing in, and suddenly screamed, “Jao!” He screamed it just inches away from my face — it means “go.” With this lion’s roar he screamed “Jao!” Well he was screaming at me to go, but wanting to suck every last breath out of our moments together, I didn’t immediately run. I stood right there in front of him saying, “Yes, Maharajji, yes.” Like I didn’t quite understand that jao. And he gave me another quick one, and it was clear it was definitely time for me to head down the path.
It’s a funny thing about the experience between Maharajji and the people around him. At times he appeared to abuse people, but they would be going into ecstatic states, while he was yelling all sorts of things at them. And in that roar of his “jao,” I realized that if anyone had been watching, it would have seemed like I was being reprimanded. My own personal experience was an incredible wave of love…it’s beyond love…it’s not like the love that we ordinarily think of as love, and a connection that was so deep and profound, yet from the outside looked so aggressive. So the outer appearance was much different from the experience that was going on inside me.