Friday, January 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Swamis

The day begins with Krishnammal doing the “flag hoist” at the Republic Day celebrations in Nagapattinam. Only she didn’t, as we all arrived ten minutes late, which is par for the course. All the veterans and heroes of Tamil Nadu received shawls (more for the collection), and while Amma was receiving hers, a totally awful military band was honking away at “Roll Out the Barrel”. I’m sure they had no idea of what they were playing.

We bid a tearful goodbye to LAFTI staff. Krishnammal has arranged a car from a well-wisher in Thiruvarur (she seems to have access to cars virtually everywhere) to take us on our seven-hour ride back to Chengelput.

As we drove toward LAFTI, we saw another set of pilgrims, these dressed in orange and green, headed to the mountain temple of Palani to worship Lord Muruga, the Lord of Six Directions, and the god of social justice. He is always depicted as a ten or eleven-year-old boy, riding on a peacock with a spear in his hand. Muruga pilgrims tend to be a bit poorer, I think, than the Ayappa pilgrims.

January 30th seems to be an auspicious day this year, something about the sun and the moon being totally opposite from each other at 6:30 A.M., and so we met with more pilgrims – these in white and yellow - on the way back to Chengelput, this one for Amma’s beloved Saint Ramalinga. He was a saint savant of the middle of the 19th Century, and in many ways seems to have been the Indian reincarnation of the 17th Century Quaker George Fox. Both celebrated the inner Light, shared by all beings; both preached that this inner Light went beyond the confines of race, religion, or national origin (and, for Ramalinga, caste as well). They also had some religious practices in common, such as meditating on a flame in front of a mirror, a practice that has since fallen away among Friends, but was apparently common at an earlier time.

We first visit a rather makeshift little monastery (followers of Ramalinga, like those of Fox, are not big on ostentation.) It was founded by two people, a wife and husband team who worked with Amma in the Valivalam struggles of the 1970s, and they both remember me from 1977. They are engaged in producing herbal medicines for “women’s complaints”, and, of course, feeding anyone who manages to come by.

The wife is a brilliant singer, and in the ‘70s, the pair walked from village to village singing of the Light, and calling the people to the struggle, a very brave thing to do at the time. We hear her sing a prayer to Ramalinga and her voice is thrilling. The husband swami took a vow that he would not speak in 1979, and hasn’t spoken since then. However, dressed in a tied-up white sheet, he makes himself well understood through a very dramatic sense, some meaningful grunts, and by writing on the ground or on other people’s palms (in Tamil) with his finger.

We have coffee, and the swami asks for my filthy handkerchief. Although I don’t understand it the first time, it finally becomes clear to me that he is trading me a white towel for my handkerchief. Of course, I can’t turn down a towel from a swami, even if it was my last handkerchief. Krishnammal tells me that, in her experiences, the swami is a successful fortune teller.

As we leave, one of the disciples who speaks English chases after me excitedly. “The swami says you look like a white pigeon.”

“You mean a dove.”

“Yes, a dove.”

But the swami is not satisfied, and chases after the car.

We stop. And the disciple says, “The swami also wants to say that he sees your heart is a white pigeon.”

I can live with that, and I think a prefer ‘pigeon’ to ‘dove’; after all, I’m just a regular guy.

We drive on to Vadalur, the center of Ramalinga’s revelations. Here is where he first ‘saw the Light’. Unlike George Fox, Ramalinga (although he left school at age 8), like many Tamils was a great systematizer, and wrote treatises on the nature of the Light, of reality, and of the relationship between mind and body. He built a great pink temple here, but the heart of the place is a kitchen. He came to understand that hungry people could think of little but food, and so in the 1860s, he started a communal kitchen to feed whomever came along. It is said that the same kitchen fire he started some 150 years ago is still burning.

There is a large fairground surrounding the temple. Thousands of people will camp out here, awaiting the alignment of the three lights – sun, Ramalinga’s, and moon – on the 30th. Everything is being readied.

Further along, we meet up with another pilgrimage. These pilgrims are all in red, 90% women, and most seem to travel by bus. They are coming to worship “Mahashakti”, the great female power of the universe. Everyone, it would seem, is on the move. So are we.

We reach Sathya’s house. Bhoomi is here from Cambodia, having smuggled his ‘holy hand grenades’ – wonderful Cambodian mangoes – through customs, as these are greatly beloved by Jagannathan. Also here is a real preaching swami in orange – Swami Swatantranada (the ‘bliss of freedom’) - whom I knew as Jagdish some 32 years ago, having met him at the same international seminar where I met Krishnammal, a year before he took his sannyasin vows. This gentle soul, always late, has started two very successful ashrams, one in Rishikesh, the other in Vrindavan, the home of Krishna and the cow maidens. His ashrams are open to all, including Dalits, and he holds a celebration for the sweeper community (the lowest caste of all) once a year. Said to be a very good lecturer, Amma hopes to enlist him to build her army of compassion, appealing to the various trustees of temples, and the people themselves. He is also a protégé of Swami Ravi Shankar, author of “The Art of Living”, whose public support could make a big difference is reaching out to a larger public.

Bhoomi is as handsome and terrorist-looking as ever. He seems to grow taller every time I see him (which must mean I am shrinking). He is only here for a day, as he has a conference to go to in Hyderabad, though I will see him before I leave. He is thinking of moving back to India, slowly, as he completes the training of his staff in childhood mental health back in Cambodia. He would like to establish Gandhigram as an international training and retreat center. Someone would actually have to do it. We point at each other. I’d love to be there, but my work is with Krishnammal, with no fixed abode while I am in India. As long as she is here, and she is traveling, and I am here, I carry my house around like a turtle.

Maybe a turtle pigeon.


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