Foreigner … chapter 9


Amar Puri knew that the threat was very real, so he called a few sadhus in for consultation. He asked two of his old devotees, who were merchants from Ujjain to go out in the middle of the night and gather supplies; gold and silver plates, musk crystals, the paper-like bark of the silver birch tree, various herbs, and other magical items, so that he could foil Bhairon Baba. The samharini kritya, one of the most powerful of the sixty-four tantric krityas, can be used to kill. Amar Puri knew that once Bhairon Baba had intoned his mantra and sprinkled his offerings over his dhuni, there was no hope.

“If you are planning hocus-pocus, then count me out!” Hari Puri shouted from inside the tent.

Meanwhile I was trying to dig my heels into the cold clay, twist my wrists free from the goons who were pulling me away from the rites. The bigger one barked at me like a dog. I was being humiliated and I was afraid that I would be beaten. Red-caped baba-cops, kotwalis arrived on the scene and I closed my eyes and repeated my guru mantra to myself.

As they pulled me past the boundary of the sacred enclosure, my two oppressors suddenly let go. Hari Puri and Amar Puri were standing there with Pandit Shesh Narayan. Amar Puri dressed down the man-handlers and then dismissed them, shooing the curious onlookers away with his stick.

My heart thumped in my throat when Hari Puri told me not to eat or drink anything that was given me. I asked if there was something I should know. Hari Puri assured me that everything was fine and that I should return to my funeral. He told me that Pandit Ji would soon perform my last rites.

The new initiates had formed a solid mass of flesh surrounding the pyre. I was pushed and pulled through until I was in front of the flames. I saw Pandit Ji making his way toward me and I looked around and saw nearly everyone had his eyes closed. The smoke hovering over us seemed to be made up of the thousand souls of the Ordinary, waiting for the door to the Extraordinary to open. Or perhaps it was the vaporous ashen Shiva, giving his blessings. Shiva, Shiva, Shiva.

What was I doing? This was madness. The fire was sucking all of the oxygen out of the air. Who was the I who was renouncing? Who was the I who would receive something called a sacrament? Was I this adventurous young man from a good family in America? I was not my body or my mind but weren’t these thoughts mine? Maybe they were just flying through me, past me. Maybe I was attached to thoughts and memories, causing me to identify my self with my thoughts. My memories were a story in the present tense, creating the illusion of a past.

Even if I said to myself, “I renounce my attachment to the illusion of past and future!” I would still be stuck with the “I.” I could smell the hair on my shins singeing. I could smell my body being cremated. Time moved very slowly and then stopped. I saw my life played out before me, not in the past, but in the present, and I understood that I was telling the story in the context of now. I’m ready, I thought. I am witnessing. But, I am also trying to make sense of what is happening. My rational mind determines what I witness. It picks up certain sensory impulses, puts them into categories and then asks culturally driven questions such as what they symbolize and what the whole damn thing means. But that’s not me. I’m someone else who is just watching, witnessing, staring.

The morning fog rolled in as dawn broke. I shivered and struggled to get closer to the fire that was a shadow glow of its raging glory during the night. Pandit Shesh Narayan had performed my funeral rites. I was now ritually dead. My body, my five gross elements of earth, water, air, fire, and space, was reduced to ashes that commingled with the ashes of the other initiates in the great funeral pyre.

Eyes opened as the acharya, accompanied by the sacred council, approached our pyre to whisper-blow the Mahavakya, also known as the supreme statement, a vedic mantra, into our ears. This sound from the lips of this sadhu, whose human body represents Adi Shankaracharya, ends the cycle of births and deaths. Once you have heard this sound, return becomes impossible. Like the taraka mantra that Shiva himself whispers into the ears of the dying in Kashi, it is a boat that carries one across to the other side.

Towering above the other members of the sacred council was Bhairon Puri Baba. I tried to avoid his gaze but it was impossible. Our eyes locked for only a second but that second was enough. I knew that it was all over as he marched toward me, pushing away the sitting initiates. My body went limp and all resistance vanished. I heard someone call my name and could barely make out Kedar Puri’s face through the fog. He stood just outside the enclosure, signaling for me to get up and leave. How could I? I was so close now. I wanted to receive the mantra.

Bhairon Puri was closing in on me like Death himself, followed by his hooded henchmen sadhus. There would be no negotiation. I stood up and, trying to make myself invisible, moved toward Kedar Puri. Taking my hand, he pulled me away and said, “I told you so.”

My chest tightened and tears welled up inside me. I felt small and insignificant. I wanted Kedar Puri to shut up but he wouldn’t. How could I face Guru Ji? How could I face any sadhu in the akhara? I had been humiliated and I wanted to run away.