Sunday, January 21, 2007

Between odd men and god men

This is a story from a Kumbh Mela long ago. I was, but a mere child then, but had come across the story of a Japanese sadhavi while riffling through a newspaper in search of my daily encounter with ‘Hagar the Horrible’. The name eludes me but if memory serves me right, she had chosen to demonstrate a siddhi as well as perform an austerity by locking herself up in an airless vault that was buried under the earth during the month-long festival and from which she emerged unscathed. At that time I was the proud possessor of legs that could’ve hidden behind a stork’s and the self-esteem of a newly shorn sheep. Night and day I would dream of discovering a philosopher’s stone of sorts or hope to get bitten by a radioactive insect so that overnight, I too could feel what it meant to be powerful.

As the years went past, in the face of all that was logical and rational, the yellowed memory of the Sadhavi shone like a sun on a corner of my mind that still hung on to magical possibilities. Even today, between thoughts that flit between new cars and newer wars, something deep inside still holds on to the possibility of undying youth, everlasting happiness and attaining the power to be the God that every man was meant to be. And this dream was born because of a little Japanese woman in the world’s biggest confluence of rivers, constellations and people - the Kumbh Mela.

And so began my search for and study of the phenomenon of ‘miracles’. The early search was disappointing though, because almost everywhere I would look, I came up against the popular notion that miraculous powers are not desirable and celebrated yogis like Sri Ananda would maintain that ‘supernatural powers (Sidhis) are nothing but the fancies of the human mind’. But the scar ran deep and my resolute quest continues. The resurrection of Christ, the transmutative miracles of Augustya and Vishwamitra and the legendary exploits of Milarepa and Marpa were all fascinatingly inspirational stories but not road maps that one could learn from and follow. But there was hope yet. Every Kumbh, I would hear about the miraculous feats of Sadhus and saints who would dazzle onlookers with their logic and death-defying display of sidddhis, or attainments. I started reading about and seeking these ‘god-men’ and their fascinating world of magic and mysticism – a seductive world, both enchanting and forbidding.

Perhaps the most famous Sadhu of them all is Tailanga Swami, the tantric miracle worker who lived in Varanasi for more than 300 years and was revered by spiritual masters like Rama Krishna Paramhansa. Another great Siddha (enlightened being) was the ageless Bengali Baba, teacher of Swami Rama, the former Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham and author of the great spiritual classic – Living with the Himalyan Masters. Bengali Baba is said to have performed many miracles but the most famous of them all has been the resurrection of the Prince of Bhawal who was brought back to life by the sage from his funeral pyre. Swami Rama himself astonished scientists with his ability to regulate and alter his heartbeat and his blood flow almost at will. His phenomenal abilities were the subject of a long study by the Menninger Institute. There have been many others like Yogi Haridas who had been buried underground for 40 days and Giri Bala, ‘the legendary non-eating saint’ who was an inspiration for Paramahamsa Yogananda. This Kumbh too will have its share of miracle workers, and those who witness them will have a choice to make – watch and wonder or search without surrender.

The latter path is not without its perils though. Scriptures like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali Sutras promise great powers if, through a meditative practice, one can raise the Kundalini, an energy source that according to Hindu mythology, lies at the base of the spine. But as Gopi Krishna, the author of Living with Kundalini found out to his cost, it’s a slippery path where even the slightest mistake could irrevocably damage both body and mind. But then, every adventure has its dangers, and when the prize is freedom from the chains that shackle the body and anchor the spirit, the journey seems well worth the risk.


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