As a Candle Whirled
(This article was first published in Vedanta magazine July-August 2012)
I sat alone with streaming eyes, yet these
drops were not from sadness;
They were through fullness that Thou,
merciful One, hadst given me hearing
for Thy precious song (1)
Flying at 35,000 feet over Bhagdad, I lift the window shade and gaze out into the night sky. A crescent moon lies on its back with one star in attendance, ahead I can just make out a faint red glow on the horizon. I am en route for India - the land of seeing and the land of seers – heading off into a new day.
It was in 2001 that I first came into contact with Sri Ramakrishna. It’s hard to believe now that I knew nothing of him before that day a little over ten years ago when I happened to pick up a copy of the book They Lived with God and first began to feel the pull of a very great soul. At first there was much about Hindu devotional practice and Vedanta philosophy which was unfamiliar, but there was no denying that whenever I turned my mind in Sri Ramakrishna’s direction I could feel a faint pulsing, as if sound waves were echoing in the cells of my body. The depth of this man’s self-surrender had clearly made such an impact on the world that the air was still ringing with the light and force of it.
The more I read over the years, the more I thought I would one day like to visit the Dakshineswar Temple just north of Kolkata where Sri Ramakrishna had served as a priest, undergone his spiritual practices and taught his disciples, but I certainly had made no plans to make such a trip. In fact, the original impetus for this pilgrimage didn’t initially seem to come as a result of anything to do with him.
I was watching a TV programme one evening about the wandering minstrels known as the Bauls of Bengal. The programme documented something of Baul philosophy and tantric practice. It also followed some Bauls on trains and busses as they sang their soul-stirring songs of love, joy and longing for union with the divine. I had no idea that anything unusual was taking place while I was watching, but after the programme I turned-off the TV and went to bed with a mind full of light. It was only then I realized that the programme had communicated something more than information but I had no idea what, so I decided to begin finding out more about Bauls the very next day.
Baul life is unconventional, non-conformist, often misunderstood and ridiculed. Their music is palpable, their songs capable of disturbing, inspiring and drawing others like magnets. It became quickly apparent to me that the spirit of Baul life, as traditionally lived, has much in common with that of Sri Ramakrishna and that the inspiration which I had received through the TV programme was clearly part of that larger stream which had “hit” me all those years ago when I first began to read about Sri Ramakrishna.
When I discovered that much Baul activity goes on in Bopul, West Bengal, an area not far from the Dakshineswar Temple complex, the desire to go there on pilgrimage quickly grew in me. Coincidentally, some money which I’d had in a 10-year savings account had just been released. It was clear what I had to do: in a matter of weeks I had booked the flight, got the visa, had the injections and was on my way.
I knew that I wanted to visit the Dakshineswar Temple, the shrine of Mother Kali, and the room in which Sri Ramakrishna had lived and taught. But it had also become clear to me that this pilgrimage was about more than visiting specific places. What the TV programme had done was reawaken in me the poetry of the love song. My quest, like that of the Bauls, is to dive deep into the depths of the soul and discover the Moner manush or ‘person of the heart’ where the divine is enshrined.
So when I go to the Belur monastery office on the day of my arrival and Naren Maharaj asks me if I’d like a list of places to visit connected with the life of Sri Ramakrishna, I am already clear that I have to resist the temptation to pack my days too full. The point of this pilgrimage is not so much about where I go or what I see; the point is to travel in Baul-spirit. Like walking; like breathing. Take the name of the Beloved into the heart. Allow for the unexpected. Appreciate all. Let the heart-song take over and see what happens!
In preparation for the pilgrimage I’ve been reading Swami Vivekananda’s Inspired Talks, just one page per day, letting myself soak in the scope of his vision and the depth of his inspiration. So naturally, the first place I am drawn to after breakfast on my first full day at Belur Math, is Swamiji’s room.
Walking through the temple grounds in the early morning my mind begins to quieten: Let go of your ideas. Take things as they come. Enjoy the scene of Mother’s Play as it arises. All is Her theatre: the theatre of anything can happen. Whatever comes, feel Her to be beautiful. Relinquish all thought and all questions; pray only to see the light of Her face everywhere.
Climbing the steps up to Swamiji’s room I am accompanied only by the caw-cawing of the crows. Standing by his window, conscious of the sun rising behind me on the other side of the Ganges, gently warming my back, I peer into his room and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. These are the things he has touched: his turban, his walking stick, his shoes and musical instruments. They are so personal, these things. It is as if any moment me may open the door and walk in to fetch them. A thin beam of light shines into the room through a crack in the curtains and falls across a small wooden altar on the desk. This altar contains an image of Swamiji as a wandering monk. Someone has lovingly placed a rose on the altar and I watch as the sun slowly spreads its light across the petals at his feet.
Becoming aware of some quiet footsteps behind me I watch out of the corner of my eye and see a swami coming to pay his respects. He kneels at the other window and prostrates himself on the ground. The movement is soundless; the simple, supple gesture of a body used to devotion. The swami leaves and I stand for a while alone again listening to the water of the Ganges lapping softly against its banks. Then I too kneel and touch my forehead to the ground. As I do so my heart swells and fills; tears begin to stream down my cheeks and a quiet resolution arises in me: 'Don’t be afraid to let your heart be seen'. There is no voice; just an inner knowing that this is why I have come. This is why I am here. Defences are dissolving, banks are crumbling and I let the tears flow as the Ganges flows, untroubled beside me.
After sitting a while in meditation I get up and walk down the steps from Swamiji’s room towards the bank of the Ganges. I glance down into the water and there just a couple of meters from my feet I see a body floating. Still jet-lagged and culture shocked, I stand staring, trying to take it in. At first I think it is some kind of grotesque, life-size, blow-up doll; some sinister dummy. But the presence of the crows pecking at the face quickly tells me that this is real; a real human body.
It is the body of a man, the brown skin has a grey pallor, the limbs, stomach and face are swollen. Then I notice that the body had been placed on a raft of Bel leaves and that some yellow flowers have been scattered. I realize this must be a kind of burial but it wasn’t immediately obvious because the leaf-raft is falling apart. The body, the leaves and the flowers are all parting company. Everything is quietly drifting, freely floating in its own fashion back to the ocean.
Death has always appeared static to me before, in hospitals or funeral homes. I have never seen death floating like this, moving so fully in the mid-stream of life, and at the same time, so utterly detached from it.
Walking along the river-bank, following the body as it floats down-stream, I see a group of young men ahead of me. They watch the body approach in silence for a few minutes, then they catch sight of some young women dressed in their finest saris for the Sri Sri Saraswati Puja later this morning. Their interest in the body – the dead body – evaporates.
Further still along the bank some children have also noticed the body floating on its slowly disintegrating bed of leaves. At first they point excitedly and giggle: Ugh! After a while though they gradually fall silent and become serious. Then, noticing my approach, one by one the children shift their gaze. Their solemn eyes, so recently considering the corpse, now come to rest on me.
Meanwhile, still trying to get a handle on this happening, my mind is rushing on. I’m thinking about the environment, about hygiene and disease, worrying about the people a little further downstream who are even now standing washing themselves in the river just a meter from where the body will shortly pass. But even as my mind spins-on in this fashion I see that it is useless. The body is simply passing me by, unconcerned, unimpeded by my thoughts.
Some words from Swamiji’s Inspired Talks return to me: Let it flow as a current through your mind; let it be whirled as a candle before your eyes, without asking who holds the candle, and you will get the circle ... Do not try to pick out the themes and so destroy the pictures. (2)
By now, crowds of people are arriving at the temple for the Puja. Conch shells are being blown, bells are being rung. The temple is resplendent, the atmosphere festive, but I walk quietly back to my room. I’ve already seen more than I can take in for one day.
Some days later while waiting outside Naren Maharaj’s office a woman approaches me and introduces herself saying she is an English teacher organizing a school trip for her children. They are coming to visit the monastery on Thursday and then they are going to visit a local school where there is a chair once used by Swami Vivekananda when he attended a prize-giving. The woman says she’d love to “show” me to her children. Would I accompany them? I agree.
On Thursday Dhira comes to pick me up for the school trip as promised. Grabbing me by the wrist, as if she’s afraid I might escape, she leads me to the front entrance of the Temple where the school bus is waiting. The children gather round me, excited to see a foreigner at such close quarters, some of them taking pictures. Once I’ve been introduced to all the staff we climb aboard the bus and set-off to visit the Chair.
On the way, some of the girls are eager to recite some English nursery rhymes for me. The bus shudders and shakes; car horns honk; bicycle bells jangle. Twinkle, twinkle little star..... Music blares from radios; beggars clang their metal alms dishes. Jack and Jill went up the hill.... Sounds merge. Nursery rhymes blend in to the Great Cacophony of All. Undeterred, the children continue their recital, staggering and swaying around in the aisle as the bus bumps through the pot-holes and swings round the bends.
At the school, the headmistress explains that it was in 1901, one year before he died, that Swamiji came here to give out prizes. He was already sick with diabetes, and had refused the invitation several times, but had eventually agreed when pleaded with. When we have all been upstairs in groups of 10 to pay our respects to the Chair, I teach the children a rhyme which I used to teach some of my English students and then, before we leave I tell them that some people in the international guest house where I’m staying have travelled half-way round the world to visit the temples in Belur Math and how lucky they are to live right here on the doorstep! The girls hadn’t seen things this way before. Newly aware of their privileged position in the world they look up at me with wide, sparkling eyes and when it’s time to go they won’t leave the classroom until they all have my autograph.
Emerging from the school, we are awash with vitality, buoyed-up on a rush of energy which seems to radiate through us all. It’s as if we have all been immersed in one enormous feast and, as we wave our goodbye’s, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that Swamiji has enjoyed our visit to his Chair as hugely as we all did.
At first I find it impossible to meditate in Sri Ramakrishna’s room at the Dakshineswar Temple because tears keep welling-up as if someone has left a tap running. So I just sit on the floor among a few other people and quietly take in the scene around me. High up on the walls surrounding the room are photographs of all the direct disciples. As I sit I remember their stories, calling to mind all those people who stepped over this threshold, as I’ve just done, to make acquaintance with a man who was to change the direction of their lives forever. People continue to enter the room, some of them sit to meditate, others stand for a while, some casually look around and walk out again.
After a while a man dressed in a simple white cloth enters. Without looking around, he walks to the centre of the room, lifts his face towards the photographs of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples, raises his arms, turns once – almost as a Dervish whirls – then steps out of the room, into the bright sunlight and is gone. The moment passes before I’ve had time to register what happened. Who was that man? Where did he come from? Where did he go?
I had seen many imposing temples, grand shrines and striking images on this trip but nothing I had seen communicated so eloquently or described so gracefully what is, for me, the essence of Sri Ramakrishna’s life: utterly unselfconscious, spectacularly simple and so swift I could easily have missed it.
A few days after my visit to the Dakshineswar temple, towards the end of my stay in India someone mentions a book about Sri Ramakrishna which I might enjoy. I borrow the book from the guest house library and there, in the final chapter, read that some weeks before his death Sri Ramakrishna had said: A band of Bauls descends upon a house. They chant the name of the Lord and dance with joy. Then suddenly they leave. As abrupt in going as in coming! And the people know them not. (3)
Recalling the sudden appearance and disappearance of the man in Sri Ramakrishna’s room, the connections are immediately clear to me, but it’s not until the day after I return home as I’m standing in the kitchen making coffee that I fully register the impact of what I saw in that room in Dakshineswar. It’s only here, now, in Amsterdam that the memory of that one Baul-like gesture flows as a current through my mind and I get the circle: the phenomenal reach of it.
A pilgrimage leaves many impressions on the mind. Before setting out I had certain ideas about where I was going. When I returned I had ideas about where I’d been and what I’d brought back with me. Whatever my meanings and interpretations though, the actual experience – the pulse of the pilgrimage – can’t be described in these terms because it is not ‘mine’. As the body flows, as the Ganges flows, so the pilgrimage flows. The Kali-continuum is everywhere and nowhere: composing-decomposing-recomposing. The brilliant colours of the saris; the perfect petals of the rose; the solemn eyes of the children and the crows feeding on a rotting corpse… All points to the same divine conception: the inexorable rhythm of the heart-song, as intimate as it is immense.
1. Book of Daily Thoughts and Prayers Swami Paramananda p. 214
2. Inspired Talks, Swami Vivekananda p. 126
3. Sri Ramakrishna; a prophet for the new age Richard Schiffman p.227