An Excerpt from The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami
I decided to leave Rishikesh and traveled north into the higher elevations of the Himalayas. In Dev Prayag, I came upon a man whose character is forever engraved in the slate of my memory. On a chilly morning, as the stars were fading and the new day's sun about to emerge, I scrambled down a mountain to the place the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda converge. From this point of this confluence the river is called the ganges. The rivers song there was tumultuous. I submerged myself for a bath, ignorant of the power of the current.
As I took a step forward, the rushing current yanked my feet from under me and swept me towards the treacherous rapids. At that moment, a powerfully built man who happened to be bathing beside me seized my arm with a vice like grip and pulled me toward him and then unto the riverbank. My rescuer then placed his right palm on my head and, with great feeling, chanted a series of mantras for my protection. This was how I first met Kailash Baba.
A holy man who appeared well into his sixties, he had a powerfully build and matter, graying hair that he coiled around his head. When unwrapped, I would learn, it extended to the ground. Decades passed since he had cut any hair on his body. He had a square face, large brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a full mouth of teeth, something quite rare among old sadhus. All he wore was a single quilt garment that extended from his shoulders to his feet. In his hand, he carried an iron trident with a huge damura drum tied to the top. This drum had two heads, each about twelve inches in diameter on opposite ends of a hollow wooden drum base. Between the heads a ball hung on a string. When the Baba shook it, he ball bounced back and forth, beating loudly on the drums. A metal begging bowl and an old blanket were his only other possessions.
Kailash baba was the first to instruct me in how to survive as a wandering ascetic. On cold nights we slept on hillsides often overlooking a river. One nght, he offered me his blanket, and although I at first refused to take it, he insisted. For many nights, we slept together under one blanket. He taught me how to procure food and medicine by identifying the edible roots, fruits, and leaves in the forest.
Taking me into the village, he instructed me on the proper behavior in which a sadhu respectfully begs alms. Unlike in the west, the begging of religious mendicants in rural India is considered an honorable way of life because the people receive so much in return from the sadhus they serve by giving alms. And as Kailash Baba was such an exalted person, I, too felt this was an exalted thing to do. He educated me in surviving on dried, flat, chipped rice. Because it is the cheapest food, any grain merchant will gladly offer it, and because it does not spoil, it can sustain one in the jungle for weeks. All that is required for a meal is to add some steam water to a portion of it. He taught me also how to clean my body by brushing my teeth with the twig of the neem tree and washing my skin with mud from the riverbed. Beyond lessons in how to eat and clean oneself, he taught me how to respect not just sacred rivers, temples, trees, the sun, the moon, and the sacred fire, but also snakes, scorpions, and wild animals. He did not speak english, but seemed to have a magical ability to transmit ideas to me, particularly the idea that God was in the heart of all creatures. He taught me to see the soul within the heart of a poisonous snake, for example, and to show my honor and respect for the creature by giving it it its space. And when among other sadhus, he trained me in the etiquette of how to address different denominations and how to eat with them.
As we traveled alone together, he became more and more like a father to me and he lavished affection on me as if I were his own son. Although we never talked, where there is affection of the heart, communication transcends all language barriers. By a simple gesture, pointing of the finger, smile, or frown, he taught me whatever I was to learn. To an onlooker he appeared to be fearsome, unkempt mountain of a man hardened by austerities and carrying an iron trident. But I found him one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever met. Whatever simple food we collected, he always fed me to my satisfaction before he would take anything. When I resisted taking first, he easily defeated me by his innocent glance. In fact, every time he looked at me, affectionate tears filled his eyes. This man, a mountain of affection, drew a love from my heart like a lifelong friend.
From him and other people I was meeting, I had begun to learn more about the different manifestations of God, or deities that made up the pantheon of Hindu religions. I wasn't sure how I felt about all of these deities and the many forms they took; it was all quite foreign to me. But I could see the deep love and devotion these manifestations inspired. My mind was open and I was eager to understand.
A worshipper of Shiva, the aspect of God presiding over material existence and its destruction, Kailash Baba constantly chanted the mantra “Om Namah Shivayah.Sankar,” “Hey Vishwananth,” “Hey Kedarnathjii,” and “Hey Uma Mata.” Whenever we were with other worshippers of Shiva, or Shivaaites, we chanted together. When the chant reached its crescendo, Kailash Baba would enter into a trance and wildly play on his damaru drum. It resounded almost to a deafening volume. That drum made the sadhus wild with joy. Madly. They shook there heads, their matted hair whipping from side to side. Some clapped, while others sprang to their feet to perform a mystical dance.
Among these homeless sadhus, Kailash Baba was highly revered. One aged ascetic in the forest confided to me that Kailash Baba could be several hundred years old. No one really knew his age. He possessed super natural yogic powers to heal the sick and perform extraordinary feats. “About thirty years ago I witnessed his miracles,” this man said. Crowds of people flocked to him worshipping him as God. But, “he told me, “Baba realized that divine life is not about powers or fame. He vowed never to speak of his powers or make a show of them. He had neither disciples nor an ashram but roamed in the forest of the himalayas.” I was not surprised to learn that Kailash Baba possessed great yogic powers, and I was impressed, but it was his character and devotion to his spiritual path that impressed me the most.
As days passed, I began to sense that Kailash Baba wished to enter into seclusion. I didnt want to impose myself on him and I knew it was time to move on. Bowing at his feet, I begged for his blessing. Baba laughed heartily and, with tearful eyes, hugged me with the strength of a bear then offered his blessings with the recitation of a mantra. I was touched both by the unyielding quality of his detachment and the softness of his heart as he bid me farewell. Like a father and son we loved each other, but as roaming sadhus, we sensed that we would never meet again.
The bittersweet experience of developing dear relationships, then moving on to never again see the people I was meeting was part of the life I had chosen. It was difficult for me, but the pain of separation kept the joy of our relationship alive in my heart. As I turned and walked away from Kailash Baba, I prayed to never to forget him. And I never have.