Fiction: The practice of unfoldment

Neera Kashyap
January 2, 2000
9.40 pm
Two years gone. Still wasn't allowed to enter the temple. Stood outside and gazed through the pillared porch into the ardha mantapam leading to the sanctum sanctorum. Tried, though. Stepped in and sat down as casually as I could against a carved pillar. I know my body looked at ease, cross-legged in a clean mundu , but I sweated, waited. The tap came on my shoulder. Shankara Swami was carrying the brass lamp that had been lit for the arti. He just looked down at me without any expression. There was nothing to defy. I just edged out.
There was nothing more I wished to write in my diary of the day. The sharp stab of rejection I had felt two years ago had dulled into an omnipresent weight of endurance. Both ways it was rejection, nothing to record. I looked up at the fan. It rotated so slow I could see each blade move listlessly. I didn't need it in this weather but it kept the mosquitoes at bay. Insects flitted around the naked bulb. They hovered about my work clothes hung on nails, then returned to the light. I checked to make sure they were not winged termites. The golden grain of the jackfruit tree glowed in the door panels. I had put them in after carefully selecting dry logs from a shed at one end of the ashram. For my bed and chair I had used mango - not the most solid but would do. When first been given this room, it had felt damp all over. The timber in the door and window had hollowed out, termite dust coming away as yellow powder in my hands. 

My room wasn't the first thing I worked on when I arrived from the US to take up permanent residence at Sathguru Achutananda's ashram. It was the last. I had come here to realize the Atman but the route seemed to move through carpentry, masonry, floor paving, tile laying, electric work, toilet construction, tree pruning, animal husbandry - the works. I had started with repairing the beams and columns of the temple - I was allowed in for this but not for the pujas. Next came the repairs to Sathguru's hut. Earlier, I had not felt the heat inside it the same way I did when Kuppusamy, the ashram hand and me entered Sathguru's room through the vestibule as repair men. I saw that the gaps in the thatch had been blocked to prevent rain from entering - obstructing air convection - making the room still and humid. With his attendant Ramaswami’s help, Sathguru moved out quietly one night to take up temporary residence in the temple while we did the repairs. 

Some bamboo sticks supporting the thatch had spliced open, so had to be replaced whole. We unblocked the thatch openings and covered them with bamboo mesh to prevent rain from entering. To slant rain water clear off the walls, we projected eaves of dry timber off roof corners, and coated the floor with red oxide so it would feel cool. I painted the thick walls of mud with a mix of earth pigment, cow dung and chopped straw. I knew all this wasn't enough when we moved Sathguru's few belongings back. But I would have to wait. If a devotee came and donated some money, Shankara Swami would prioritize and then decide. I had suggested we promote Sathguru and his teachings - nothing big - just booklets and brochures and a website. Sathguru had smiled and we had left it at that.

The ashram building was an old traditional Tamil house with open and semi-enclosed courtyards; a kitchen yard with trees, plants and a well; a few outlying huts and sheds beneath tree clusters and a short track leading to the temple in front. It had been donated to Sathguru by his old childhood friend and devotee, Mutthuswamy who had also financed the running of the ashram until he died suddenly - a few years before I came. By then, Sathguru and the ashram had come to be known in the region.

During weekly satsangs and special festivals, people would come from nearby villages and towns to listen to Sathguru sing his keerthanams  written and set to his own musical compositions - while he played the veena. I picked up Tamil by studying the songs that he sang and discovered their rich philosophical and Advaitic content. An ashram celibate student, Brahmachari Nayana had explained to me that Sathguru’s compositions adhered to strict rules of Tamil prosody, with proper rhyme at their proper place in the composition. Many songs had an additional rhyming pattern – iyaibu edhugai – which enhanced their musical quality. Sathguru also used Sanskrit words liberally to convey Vedic and Advaitic thoughts. The central open courtyard and enclosed verandahs would fill up when he sang. Few understood the classical phrases which, regardless, rose with the music to merge with the stars and with the throbbing of our hearts.

It was his photograph that had pierced my heart. Browsing through a bookshop back home in the US, I had reached for a book I had no interest in: Living saints of Tamil Nadu. It opened in my hands to his face: bearded, wizened, deep set eyes radiating like fiery orbs that felt cool rather than hot - cool fire. I returned home to meditate. For several hours I used the mantra I had been given by my Transcendental Meditation teacher to quieten down. The mantra faded into a state of restful alertness. I visualized my body lifting in the air. Unlike previous experiences of anxiety, my mind was clear of expectations. My body lifted the way I sat, cross-legged. It did not hop as we had hopped during our training sessions. It stayed calmly in the air about three feet off the ground, and then sank back slowly.   

There was nothing I could find on the Internet on this living saint except that he had written books of holy songs and musical compositions in at least three languages, and lived in a southern Indian district. It was enough for a first visit. The second became permanent.

He looked younger in reality. When Shankara Swami first ushered me into his hut, he indicated silence. The room was dimly lit. Sathguru sat on a low rope-strung stool, his eyes closed. I lowered myself onto a bamboo mat placed against the opposite wall. A low bed against the third wall had the same wooden legs as the stool, and was covered by a thin mattress and two bolsters clad in an ochre-colored cloth. Rough wooden planks served as shelves for books, clothes, articles of personal use and musical instruments. At one end, was a space for worship rising from the ground in two levels of mud - prayer utensils in the lower and a photograph, stone idols and a lingam in the higher. Smoke rose from coal embers burning in a dark concave pot. 

I was exhausted by the interminable journey it took to reach here, my mind seething with resistance and pronouncing me crazy a thousand times. The smoke made my eyes smart so I shut them tight to keep them from watering. My body slumped a little. The dim light of the hut began to glow behind my eyelids. Slowly, my exhaustion left with my thoughts. I could feel his meditation. I could feel it enter me, spread in me slowly, peacefully. I flowed into it and slipped into sleep. When I woke it was to a restful awareness. I saw him smiling into the distance. The hut was now dimly lit by the sun’s rays. Birds sang tentatively. I rose a little and face down, extended myself full-length on the floor in salutation to him. His hand touched my head lightly. That touch never left me in all the years to come.

Outside, Shankara Swami looked at me strangely, retracted his steps from the temple track to lead me to a room among the rows lining the open central courtyard. He felt as cold as the rusty lock he struggled with till he pushed the door into a musty unventilated room with a metal bed. Its sacking sagged and a bamboo chair tilted towards its broken leg. 

I had not kept a diary on my first visit. It was only when I had come to stay and felt sick with conflicting thoughts that I had started it, so my mental turbulences would look saner on paper. On the first visit, I had sat for hours with Sathguru as if this was the most natural thing to do. Once I had come to stay, I saw this wasn’t natural at all. 

He had smiled when I told him about my levitation experience. "I had a yoga guru from whom I learnt traditional yoga for some years,” he had said. “It was with yoga as base that I learnt to levitate. One night my father fell very ill. After attending to him, I retired to my room for my yogic exercises, locking my door. Very soon, I had levitated. Suddenly there were urgent knocks on the door. I was six feet up in the air and could come down only slowly. Meanwhile, the knocking became so intense that the commotion caused me to fall with a thud. I had held my breath for the levitation and should have released it. Instead, it remained held in my system, becoming too heavy for me. The pain was unbearable. I felt like a crushed worm squirming in the hot sun. My guru had to be called. He instructed me to start the exercise again, to levitate as usual and then come down. My breath, which burnt like fire was finally released. My guru was kind but warned me against such dangers. On that very day, I gave up the practice."

He had smiled - his deep gaze boring into my being. "Sometimes we need to prove to ourselves that we have balanced our samana energy so we can enjoy the powers that may come from body and mind control to make us levitate or do other things." He had gestured dismissively at this, had looked at his guru's photograph for a while and said, "Sometimes we want to levitate because we want to rise above something very unpleasant, a childhood trauma maybe. We think this will give us the power of transcendence. An easier more reliable way is to let the trauma come up, be aware of it…of each thought related to it.....and to let go of each thought...consciously...follow the thought to its source....get absorbed in the source."

So he knew....he knew the whole messy bloody business. I had bled till I thought I would die. I was 10 and mother's brother for priesthood would visit every weekend and share my room. Three years....three terrifying years till he got ordained and moved to train with a priest for a damned priesthood. The ugliness remained. Nobody could bring it out..... not my father - an alcoholic..... nor my mother - using her brother as her safeguard. Nothing could heal it...drugs, wild times, shrinks, meditation, levitation....nothing. Here it was out, just like that. As if someone had gently whispered to a chrysalis to open up and come into its own as a butterfly - a very tired butterfly with wings still wet, needing rest.

Sathguru did not sing that night in the central starlit courtyard but told stories instead. There were just the ashram inmates around him. He spoke in English. His voice felt soft, yet powerful. 

"The power of the Guru's silence is immense. Not very far from here near Vadalur, there lived in the late sixteenth century a Guru, Sorupananda and his disciple Tattvarayar who was also his nephew. They were both fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil and learned in the scriptures. Both realized this was not enough and headed in opposite directions in search of a guru who would instruct them in Self-Knowledge. In a holy place called Govattam, on the banks of the Kaveri, Sorupananda felt a deep miraculous tranquility. He realized he was in the presence of a great soul. On investigating, he found a holy sage lived there among the rushes on the river, in almost continuous meditation except for some spells in the morning. Sorupananda waited. When the sage came out one morning, he bowed to him in the ritual manner and begged to accept him as his devotee. When he received the Guru’s grace, Sorupananda waited for Tattvarayar to return from his walk." 

Sathguru's eyes moved over his audience and remained for a while on me. A breeze picked up, blowing a few brown leaves into the courtyard. My eyes closed.

His voice felt more and more like a salve: "Tattvarayar had travelled to the North, but he had not had the darshan of any Guru. When he lost all hope, he gave up his search and returned to the South. On his way, by good fortune, he met Sorupananda, who by that time had realized the Self, the Atman. Now see how the influence of Self-knowledge works.....slowly, and in its own time. Sorupananda and Tattvaraya began to live together as Guru and disciple. To honor his guru, Tattvaraya composed a bharani which is a kind of poetic composition in Tamil. He convened an assembly of poets to hear the work and assess its value. The great scholars protested, 'A bharani is sung only in honor of a king who has killed a thousand elephants in battle. How can an ascetic be compared to a king of such valor?' Tattvaraya then took the scholars to his Guru and told him about the purpose of their visit. The Guru sat silent, so did the others. The whole day passed and the night, then several days and nights of silence. Then Sorupananda moved his mind a little and the others regained their thought activity! Then they all declared: 'Conquering a thousand elephants is nothing compared to the Guru's power to conquer the rutting elephants of all our egos put together. So certainly he deserves a bharani in his honor.'" 

I had read that the powerful presence of a guru could burn off the devotees’ samsakaras. For the first time this idea dawned on me as a possibility.  

On the second visit, I had worked out how I would say goodbye to him - by beseeching him to make me his disciple. It was not necessary. He had sat silent in his hut. Light had poured in from everywhere - through the thatch, the window and door, his eyes. When I stretched before him in supplication - head bent, arms stretched, palms joined - he bent forward to touch my head, same as on the first visit. My eyes smarted but not from the smoke. I couldn't get myself to rise. It took a long time. 

The night had turned chilly. I switched off the fan, reached for an earlier diary and opened it at random. 

April 13, 1999

Helped Shantaammal in the kitchen grind chutney. Tired of eating sambar rice, sambar rice. Will try making a new sweet with pumpkin and jaggery tomorrow. 

Heat got to me this afternoon. Got to Kuppusamy too. He held the ladder while I pruned the branches of a tamarind tree. Made the first notch two feet away from the trunk. Had just started the relief cut when the ladder began to sway. I held to the branch, lost my grip and fell to the ground in a heap. Kuppusamy jumped to help me up. Two large bruises, both on my knees - blackish blue. Saw Shankara Swami watch me from the storage shed, smiling. Lord, when will this misery go?

The donations are increasing. I try not to keep my eyes glued to the people moving to the donation box. Soon will ask Shankara Swami if I can change the roof of Sathguru's hut to wood and the thatch to terracotta. Extend the verandah all around. Plant more trees. People are thronging his hut now - there is no space to breathe.

December 3, 1999

Figured out Shankara Swami’s strategy. He releases money for every project needed to improve the ashram, but as the project nears completion he says we need more donations to complete it. The guest toilets were without a roof for a month before he coughed up the money. Same delays for the fencing, the new cattle shed, kitchen renovations…the works. I try to follow each negative reaction in me to its bloody source…it scorches my soul. 

After lunch, overheard Sathguru say to Shankara Swami:”Don’t waste precious time…don’t waste it. Seek to realize your Self and remain in your true nature.” S. Swami’s body slumped like a half filled sack. I was glad to note I wasn’t laughing, just relieved. 

I closed the diaries, stacked them together and meditated for a while on Sathguru. This worked best to cool me down. I wrapped a thin upper cloth around my bare chest and went out. It was dark except for the dim lights in Brahmachari  Nayana’s room and the cattle shed. The wind came from the east, making the palm trees sway and bend. The temple rose in the dark from its powerful broad base to taper up to a flat spire, its carved ends upturned. I gazed at it for a long time and then entered. There were no conflicting thoughts of being a foreigner, of being impure, of not knowing rituals or lacking the necessary reverence. It was as if I had been called to enter. I walked past the pillars in the outer hall which stood like vigilant soldiers. The circular sanctum sanctorum was lit by a single oil lamp. There was a large Shiva lingam on a raised platform in the center marked by ash. The wall enclosing the platform had carved stone idols of Ganesha, Dakshinamurthy, Vishnu, Brahma, Durga and more. A fragrance of sandalwood and flowers and incense rose to enclose the lingam and me. My eyes closed.

I did not register the hit immediately. It slammed against the side of my forehead, just glancing off my right eye. Shankara Swami stood above me aiming a long broom at me for a second hit, his thin face contorted with rage. I sprang up in time and caught his upraised arm in a tight grip. A spittle of hate foamed on his lips for a moment. I watched, surprised at how quickly my panic had subsided. Still gripping, I plucked the broom out of his hand, aimed it to sail out of the sanctum, and then strode out through the pillared hall. It was in my room that I collapsed as if I had just been gored alive.

I was too familiar with Sathguru’s teachings to bring up before him issues of justice and injustice, all of which had to be faced with an even hand, with indifference to both. Word had spread; it was obvious, for I felt like a stranger among friends, my other beloved ashram friends. They withdrew, leaving me no choice but to work once again on my hurts, letting them go whenever I could focus enough. This time Sathguru also left me on my own to find my own salve. It came from the words of another saint, from a page of a book I opened at random. I never understood the words but they worked, for I could sleep again. They said: “Suppose somebody abuses you and you try to find out who it is. Is it the body? It is not the body. Then what could it be? Finally you come to the conclusion that it is spontaneously happening out of whatever that body is. You will not attribute it to any individual. When your individuality is dissolved, you will not see individuals anywhere, it is just a functioning in consciousness. If it clicks in you, it is very easy to understand. If understood, it is very profound and very simple.”

At the weekly satsang the following week, the night was brilliant with stars. Most people had paid their respects and left. I saw Sathguru summon Shankara Swami. My eyes were glued to him, my mind and body alert. He spoke in Tamil.

“You can start to teach Michael the temple rituals from tomorrow. Start with the morning puja. All the slokas and chants have transliterations in English. First share those with him”. Both Shankara Swami and I remained frozen for a while. I was quick to seize the chance.

“We need to translate all your songs into English, Swamigal. We need to start a website, print more literature in English so more people can reach you,” I said quickly.

Sathguru smiled, threw his upper cloth over his shoulder, reached for his stick and began his slow walk to the hut, Ramaswami in tow, carrying the veena over one shoulder. Funds, donations, material improvements were my needs, not his.

Sathguru passed away six months later. He prepared us for this. When he fell sick, he allowed us to bring in devotee doctors for treatment, took the medicines they brought, and was passive to our wishes to heal him. During the last days, he asked for his cot to be moved to the central courtyard at night. For twelve nights, we sat or slept around him on mats, feeling at one with him and nature. On the twelfth night, he passed away in his sleep. It was under the tamarind tree from which I had fallen that we buried him. He had asked to be taken there the night before he passed away. His body was given a ceremonial bath with water from the holy Ganges, decorated, worshipped and placed on a marble plank. By dusk, we lowered this sacred being into the Samadhi pit to the music of his composition, Rama charitram.

I thought I would have to grieve alone…. alone….alone. But on the night of the internment, I rose from my bed to answer an urgent knock on my door. Kuppusamy stood trembling on the threshold, a bamboo mat in his hand. He slept the night on the floor below my room’s jackfruit wood window, asking if we could keep the light on. The next night he was joined by Ramaswami. When Brahmachari Nayana also came, I let him weep in my arms, but begged him to go find solace in Sathguru’s hut.

There were fewer visitors now but the routine remained the same as did the work. It took several weeks before Shankara Swami came to talk. I was in the work shed, planing wood. He strode in with confidence, and then stood by, hunched.

“I wanted to discuss your idea of spreading the word about the ashram and Sathguru’s teachings. Maybe now is the right time. The visitors are less but the teachings should live. Also, there is very little money.” 

I nodded, and then quietened my mind before speaking: “We can only respond when people want it. Let it be their need. That is how Sathguru always responded. He is present here. He will guide.”

1. intermediary space between the temple exterior and the sanctum sanctorum
2. a garment tied around the waist by men

Bio: Neera Kashyap has published a book of short stories for young adults, ‘Daring to Dream’ (Rupa & Co.) and contributed to several prize-winning children’s anthologies. As a writer of poetry, haikai, short fiction and book reviews, her work has appeared in several international literary journals and poetry anthologies. Her short stories have appeared in international journals which include Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific, Spillwords, Papercuts & Setu Mag; the Indian journals include Indian Quarterly, Out of Print Magazine & Blog, RIC Journal (Indo-French), Guftugu Journal, Teesta Review, Usawa Literary Review, Muse India, The Bombay Literary Magazine and Yugen Quest Review. She lives in Delhi.

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