God! God! God! I was possessed. I ran from temple to temple for ritual worship. I recited scriptures whenever I could. I touched the feet of every holy man I found in the city of Allahabad. The year was 1976 and I was twenty-three.
A few months earlier I had lost my teacher, Swami Sadananda, my spiritual guide who, for the past five years, had played a pivotal role in shaping my life. I had spent my days at the university pursuing my academic goals, and the rest of the time I sat at his feet while he taught me the Vedas, the Upanishads, and many Tantric and Puranic texts. Under his guidance I had undertaken spiritual practices that had convinced me that God exists and manifests in numberless names and forms. I was also sure that one day I would see God, for Swami Sadananda had promised that to me on many occasions. But now he was gone. My conviction was shaken. I felt totally lost, caught between the demands of my worldly obligations and the inner calling of my soul.
I was sure that one day I would see God.
I had good grades and was entitled to receive a scholarship from the University Grant Commission of India, but fear and anxiety gripped me so tightly that I kept running from Allahabad to Lucknow, from Lucknow to Delhi, kissing the feet of professors, vice chancellors, politicians, even clerks and secretaries in the office of the governor, hoping their favor would secure my fellowship. In my spare time I visited dozens of temples, giving special attention to those gods and goddesses who were known for granting generous boons. I was at a crossroads, yet I was far from certain that these roads would lead me anywhere. It was under these circumstances that I met a mysterious yogi who took me under his wing when he accepted me as his student at our first meeting. His name was Swami Rama.
In Swami Rama I found the saintly, loving, kind soul of Sadananda, but he had a greater air of authority and a demeanor that was at times stern and unforgiving. The first day we met was filled with joy; the next three were full of confusion; the months that followed were bewildering. I did not understand him very well, but what I did understand brought me a sense of security and peace. His arrival in my life made up for the loss of my beloved Swami Sadananda, and I was no longer in need of a job, for Swamiji had started the process of securing the visa that would allow me to go to the United States. Freed from worldly concerns, I set out once again in search of God.
One day the predawn hours found me at Swamiji’s feet in Delhi’s five-star Akbar Hotel. He was in a great mood. It seemed as if he were an ancient sage. Not knowing what to do with his limitless wealth of love and compassion, he kept asking, “Tell me, what can I do for you? What do you want from me? Anything I have is yours. Take anything you want.”
So I told him, “I want to see God.”
“Do you want to see God, or do you want to experience God?” he asked.
When I said that I wanted to experience God, he answered, “You will have it.”
“When?” I asked.
“Within a matter of a week or ten days,” he replied.
It seemed unbelievable, yet I sensed that Swamiji was giving me a solemn vow.
“Where?” I asked.
“In the same region where once Mahatma Gandhi had the experience of God.”
“In Champaran!” I exclaimed.
By this time, Swamiji had become serious. “Not exactly in Champaran,” he said, “but nearby, at a place called Giridih, near Jharia, in the state of Bihar.” Then he added, “It is a very well known place.”
I knew that Jharia was India’s biggest coal mining district, but I had never heard of Giridih. I imagined a holy place, or the site of a mysterious shrine, or a place where a great yogi resided. And I was torn between desire and doubt—desire to experience God, and doubt that it would come so easily. Without really thinking, I asked, “Swamiji, is there a shrine in Giridih? Any cave or ashram? Who is there?”
At this, Swamiji’s eyes rolled inward, as though his soul had already reached Giridih. He spoke softly: “There are hundreds of shrines. Once you reach there, you will see them.” Then after a short pause, he added, “Since you are going to be in the presence of God, no need of carrying too much baggage with you. Travel lightly.”
When the sun rose that morning I went to the railway station and bought a ticket to Dhanbad, the station nearest to Jharia. Anyone who has ever traveled on an Indian train without a reserved seat will know that such a journey is in itself tapas, an austerity, a necessary purifying step on the way to finding God.
I pushed through a huge crowd and boarded the train, and after standing wedged between other passengers for a few hours, I finally managed to put my bedding on the floor and sit on it. Remembering that Swamiji had said that within a week or ten days I would see God, I was giving a spiritual interpretation to everything that happened around me. I felt God’s grace equally when those next to me spoke in a friendly tone or when a macho fellow demanded that I squeeze myself into the corner so that he could commandeer most of my bedding as his own seat. When I bought a cup of tea through the window at a station and the vendor walked away with the change, I was thrilled that God had arranged such an easy way for me to pay off my karmic debts. Screaming babies, the smell of unwashed bodies and human waste, the attempt to remember my mantra while people around me played cards, shouted, and fought—it all seemed like a glorious opportunity to maintain inner equilibrium, to remain unaffected by the external world as I set out in search of God. And as the hours flew by and my destination grew nearer, my anticipation was laced with inner joy. Two days after setting out, I disembarked at Dhanbad, and from there I took a bus to Jharia, and then another to Giridih.
When I got off the bus, rickshaw men rushed up offering to take me wherever I wanted to go. And when I told them I didn’t know exactly, one of them said, “Come, come. I know where everybody goes.” I asked if there was a temple or shrine or ashram nearby, and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take you to the right place.” He seemed honest and obviously knew the town well, and I thought that by riding with him I would get a clue as to where I should go. But as we slowly wound our way through Giridih, I began to realize that he thought I was a drug dealer and was trying to fool him with my naive questions. He drove me around for several hours before I asked him to drop me at a rundown temple of the goddess Kali that lay beside a dirt road some distance from town, and by that time he was convinced I was a seasoned dealer who knew exactly where to go and what to do. He accepted the fare I offered without the customary argument and drove away as fast as he could.
Next to the temple there were a few shops selling snacks, tea, tobacco, and pan, and behind that was a jumble of shabby dwellings inhabited by coal miners and their families. It was obvious that this place was stricken with extreme poverty.
I was hungry and thirsty, so I went to one of the snack shops and ordered two samosas (potatoes wrapped in dough and deep fried) and a cup of chai. While the chai was being prepared, the shopkeeper handed me the samosas on a plate made of leaves, but before I could take a bite I noticed six pale children staring at the food. Beside them were two dogs so emaciated that their rib cages seemed about to burst through their skin. They wagged their tails weakly and then walked away, leaving the six children to gaze steadily at the food I was holding. I was extremely hungry, but my body refused to accept a bite. So I split the samosas into seven portions, and after giving one to each of the children, I ate what was left. When I threw the leaves away, the dogs returned and licked the remaining oil listlessly.
These six children and two dogs were just the tip of the iceberg—I knew there were hundreds more in the sprawling slum colony. I had seen poverty before, but nothing like this. In holy places like Banaras, Allahabad, and Haridwar visitors and pilgrims give a few pennies to the destitute because charity to the hungry in holy places ensures religious merit. But here there were no ashrams—and perhaps even no God. The tiny temple of the goddess Kali stood lifeless except at night, when the drug addicts gathered there to gamble and fight. Here there was nothing but hunger and misery.
I was so overcome that I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had some money and could have gone back to town and stayed in comfortable lodgings, but I felt no inclination to do that. Instead I spent the rest of the day walking among the hovels, taking in the misery of the people who lived there. The thousands of men and boys who worked in the coal mines were so deeply indebted to the owners that when they returned after a long day’s work they had barely enough money for a little flour or a handful of rice. Many of them sought oblivion in alcohol, which was cheap and readily available. As evening drew near, smoke from hundreds of crude coal stoves engulfed the colony, and when night fell fights broke out. In the dim lantern light I could see people crying, shouting, hitting each other.
Three days passed as I wandered among the colony’s sagging bamboo huts with their tattered covering of soiled jute cloth and dirty plastic. In the evening and far into the night I sat beside a compost pile, which in the daylight hours was a grazing site for hens, roosters, and pigs. And as I listened to the shouts and cries coming from the huts, I tried to figure out where God was. Is She in these slums? In these human hearts? Are these people suffering because of their karma? Or is poverty the result of ignorance? Does crime go hand in hand with hunger and starvation? Is there any truth when the scriptures say that the poor and meek are blessed, for one day they will see God? Who could be poorer than these people? Or more helpless and miserable? Do they have any sense of God? Lost in these reflections, I did not realize how deeply my heart was sinking into an ocean of sorrow. I no longer had any incentive to search for a shrine or a holy man, let alone for God.
As I listened to the shouts and cries coming from the huts, I tried to figure out where God was.
In the beginning some of the drug addicts sidled up to me, asking for some “stuff.” I repeatedly said I had nothing, and eventually they left me alone. Others asked me what brought me to this place, and when I offered no explanation, they formed their own assumptions; many thought me insane.
Late one afternoon I was standing in front of the tea shop while the workers returned from the mine. Up and down the road those who had a few rupees were milling about, buying a little flour and rice, perhaps a few vegetables for the evening meal. Hundreds of women and children spilled into the road as usual, passing the time. Then off in the distance I noticed a car speeding toward us, leaving a trail of dust. The effect was electric—people scattered like chickens, shoving and pushing to get out of the way as a gleaming Mercedes flashed by without slowing, bathing the crowd in a thick cloud of dust. It was a sahib—one of the mine bosses.
Something in me snapped. “This is outrageous!” I exploded. “This man is exploiting you! You are less to him than the dust beneath his wheels!” My tirade had little effect on the crowd—people already thought I was a madman, so most of them ignored me. But from this moment on, I was obsessed. I could not stem the tide of fury coursing through my veins. “How dare this man show off his luxury car here, under the eyes of these starving people?” I raged to myself. “He is sucking the very life out of them, stealing their labor and leaving them with only a few crumbs. It is an outrage.”
The incident had triggered the part of my unconscious where anger and violence were stored. My mind filled with rage and grief, I remained in the slum colony amid these suffering people. I wanted to know more about them—how they live, why they fight and hurt each other, why they don’t get up and walk away from this place. My dream of God-realization was abandoned.
Ten more days passed. I had not taken a bath or had a real meal. I slept under a tree next to the Kali temple, eating a bite here and there from the tea shop, trying to understand why Swamiji had sent me here. I knew he must have had a purpose, but I found nothing except grief and anger.
Two weeks after I arrived in Giridih, I retraced my steps to Delhi. It was the same journey—one bus to Jharia, another to Dhanbad, and then two days on a packed train to Delhi—but this time the trip was very different. Burdened as I was with anger and grief, everything in which I had recently taken such delight was now just another source of misery. The press of my fellow passengers in the crammed cars, the stench of sweat and excrement, the choking clouds of cigarette smoke, the screaming babies, the whining children, the shouting and joking and fighting only deepened my mood. The hours dragged. By the time I reached Delhi, it seemed as if I had been traveling for months.
When I met Swamiji again, the first thing he asked was, “So, how was it? Did you see God?”
I replied, “All I saw was poverty, and all I experienced was grief and anger.”
With a serious look, he said, “You went all the way to Giridih to come back with only grief and anger?” He paused, and after a moment he asked, “So what are you going to do with all that grief and anger?”
“I don’t know, Swamiji,” I replied.
“Spirituality requires transformation—a qualitative change,” Swamiji said. “When you can transform your grief into compassion and kindness, and when you can transform your anger into indomitable will and the power of determination, then it means that you have begun walking on the spiritual path. When you see things inside or outside yourself, especially things you do not like, then try to understand their cause and their source.”
“Spirituality requires transformation—a qualitative change,” Swamiji said.
“I tried to do that,” I replied. “It only made things worse.”
“You have to compose yourself,” he said. “When you are carried away by your emotions, you help neither yourself nor others. During such turmoil your mind is like a tiny fish caught in a turbulent stream: you can no longer think properly; your power of discrimination fails.
“Overall, you are a good boy. But when you saw the misery there in Giridih you lost your balance, and in that imbalanced state you were not able to remember the purpose of your visit. When you saw that rich man being driven by in a Mercedes, your anger exploded and you jumped to the conclusion that it was he who had caused all the misery you saw. And since then you have been hurting yourself with anger and with violent thoughts. But your actions follow neither the voice of your heart nor the advice of your faculty of discrimination. Thus, even after seeing God, you couldn’t see Him. Even after being with God, you couldn’t experience Her.”
“Where and how did I see God?” I gasped.
“It escaped you,” he replied. “Just like thousands of other good and sincere people, you have been suffering from religious insanity. You were born in a learned family. You have studied the scriptures and you are lucky to have received guidance from Swami Sadananda. And yet you could not overcome your religious addiction to searching for God in temples and famous places. You had this notion that God spends more time at those temples and shrines where the most people go.
“Priests say, and people believe, that in the presence of God all miseries vanish. But visit the holy places here in India or elsewhere in the world, and you will find that the holier the place is believed to be, the greater the misery surrounding it. That is where you find poverty, exploitation, violence, and hypocrisy. But love for God and hatred toward the children of God do not go together. That is why I sent you to Giridih. You needed this powerful jolt to shake your system so that you could overcome your preconceived notions. There were hundreds of shrines in Giridih, but you walked among them without even knowing they were there.
“People build temples, churches, and mosques for God as though God is homeless and his home can be built by helpless people who depend on Him. But in truth, human beings are living temples of God. And how beautiful they are—a fully developed nervous system and brain, a mind equipped with the capacity for linear thinking, an intellect with the power of discrimination, and a soul blessed with the divine light that manifests in the form of free will and the power of determination. In the innermost chamber of this temple resides the Lord of Life, the Divine Being.
“Searching for God and being with God means to come in touch with the core of your own being, where the Lord of Life shines in full glory. And in that light you begin to see yourself and the world around you in an entirely different way. This is called ‘enlightenment.’ When you have achieved that, the world is not a prison, and to be in this world is not a punishment. Taking care of this shrine is called puja[worship]. Entering the inner chamber of this shrine systematically is called yoga sadhana (spiritual practice). Not being caught by the charms and temptations of the world is called overcoming obstacles to spiritual practice. Being in the company of the Lord of Life within is called samadhi (spiritual absorption).
“The outer walls of this shrine—body, mind, and senses—are adorned with all forms of images. Some are erotic, others repellent; some are fierce, while others are gentle. Opening the door of your own heart is difficult. So if you wish to worship God, you had better take care of the temple. Be wise. Decide which particular shrine demands your immediate attention.
“The gates of the big, wealthy temples are tightly locked—as are the hearts of the rich and powerful. Easier to open are the hearts of the poor. The shrines that are crumbling—the human hearts that are breaking—are where your worship of God will be the most fulfilling. The Lord of Life dwelling in such hearts is waiting for those who can render their love and service, and serving these shrines will help you purify your own temple. You will become rich in heart and strong in mind.”
The shrines that are crumbling—the human hearts that are breaking—are where your worship of God will be the most fulfilling.
Being in Swamiji’s presence and hearing this discourse was soothing and inspiring, but deep down I knew I was still caught in my own emotional turmoil. “How can I begin my inner journey by serving the poor and opening my heart?” I cried. “First I must gain emotional stability, mental clarity, and confidence in my own ability to hear and heed the voice of my soul. Worshipping God by serving the poor is a lofty goal, but how can I commit myself to nurturing others when I myself am so spiritually undernourished? I am confused and disoriented. And even though I know I have a master, a spiritual guide who loves me and is wise enough to show me the path, I am so caught up in my own turmoil that I have no motivation to do anything.”
Swamiji smiled gently and said, “The Divine Mother is the source of true nurturance, my son. In her loving care you will find true protection. When my master was fed up with me, he threw me at her feet. She picked me up and held me to her bosom. You are fed up with yourself. That’s a very good sign. Now, just as my master did to me, I’m going to throw you at her feet. And how She raises you and what She makes out of you is totally up to Her.”
With that, he sent me to a shrine called Kamakhya in the state of Assam, east of Giridih. What happened there is another story.