The great epochs of our lives come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.
It was a chilly December morning and like every year the fog had taken the entire north India in its fold. Days had become short and the nights extended their darkness until the crack of dawn making the sun wait patiently. Back in the early 90’s Lucknow was still a small town and during winters folks ushered themselves into warm inviting quilts early in the evening. Cracking peanuts while watching their favorite TV soap or just chatting away with family members over a cup of hot tea was the favorite past time of cozy winter evenings. The “city” had not yet taken over so the mornings too were laid back and the charm of not coming out of a warm bed was a luxury that most town folk relished.
Som, however, was not so lucky. He had a job at the only 5 star hotel in town and to make the early morning shift he had to be up and about before everyone else. He had got used to it in the last 3 years but this time the winter was unforgiving and to top it, the morning fog was making things worse. There had been times when unable to see clearly he had lost his way and his bike had wandered off the road. The otherwise ordinary ride had become an adventure for Som. It was tough but his easy going spirit had no complaints.
Som was a typical Lucknow boy from a middle class family who had been born and brought up in this Nawabi city of yore. The proverbial ‘middle class’ values of hard work and taking responsibility of the family as soon as you were out of college were deeply rooted in him. While he did not feel burdened by the thought that his two younger sisters had to be married off, he knew he must help his father to save for their marriage. His father had a government job but it was the kind that did not come with any fringe benefits, so while his father could educate his daughters, he was not in a position to compete in the demanding dowry market. Everyone in the household was conscious about money yet the family was a happy and contended lot. A good education and a loving environment at home had groomed Som to be a confident young man. The only thing where Som had a difference of opinion with his parents was their religious beliefs. Som’s mother was the quintessential “pious” lady and his father too did his bit to avoid the wrath of powers that be but Som had declared that he was an atheist as soon as he learnt that it was cells and atoms that were building blocks of life and everything around it, not some religious mumbo jumbo. As per his father it was a good sign. “In a beginners mind there are immense possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” his father used to say quoting some Zen master.
It was Monday. As usual Som woke up by buzz of his alarm clock. After lazing around in bed for few minutes, he started the grind – he shaved, brushed and took a bath. But by the time he started making his tea he felt something strange even uncanny about the morning, as if a weird feeling was begining to grip him. He knew he had to get ready and head out. There was no reason to feel depressed but his heart felt as if it was shrinking. Something had taken over his cheerful spirit and he had no idea what it was. It must be the news he had heard about Gauri few days back, Som speculated. Today it will all be over and there was nothing he could do about it. Then he shrugged the thought and concentrated at the water boiling on the burner. A cup of strong tea with buttered toast lifted up his mood and Som was ready to begin the day. He pulled out his bike on to the road to kick start it. To his surprise, even after trying five or six times, the bike didn’t start. It could have been the cold but usually it took just a couple of extra kicks to get the engine roaring. He did not want to take off his gloves to clean the spark plug so he decided to strike once more. Thankfully, he heard the familiar knocking of the Yamaha engine this time.
The fog was dense and the neon lamps were trying hard to light up the road. The dim street lights with fog around them were like evenly interspersed blobs in the sky – a host of UFO’s guiding his way to their alien abode. On clear days Som used to love watching the star spangled sky as it disappeared giving way to the faint rays of the morning sun. Today he chose to go to the alien lands instead. He had been on the road for about twenty minutes when he hit the familiar patch next to the cremation grounds by the Gomti. Som never liked this part of his journey but today he desperately wanted to avoid it. He could have taken the longer detour but since he was getting late he had no choice. As he took a sharp right turn towards the Gomti he resolved to focus on the road so as to avoid the funeral pyres which always caught his attention. It didn’t scare him but it made him think about the fleeting nature of life, about death and about the futility of it all. It wasn’t an inspiring thought to begin the day so he just wanted to avoid it. Once he discussed it with his dad and he came up with something called Shamshan Vairagya. Som had promptly discarded it as spiritual bunkum.
The headlight of his motorcycle tried hard to pierce through the darkness and the fog, but all it could afford was a visibility of less that 5-6 feet. Som wanted to raise the accelerator so he could get past the Shamshan quickly but he was cautious of bumping into something coming from the other side. As if out of nowhere, he saw an outline of a figure approaching him. As it got closer he was able to make out that it was a Sadhu- one of the many mystics who roam the Indian landscape. What was the Sadhu doing here at this time? Was he even real? Even as these thoughts gushed through his mind, the Sadhu began to wave for him to stop. With the fog and the light from the pyres forming a background, the form in front of him appeared magical.
Som wanted to avoid this sudden rendezvous but now it was too late. He would have to stop or he would have run over the man in front of him unless his bike got past through the figure as in ghost movies. Som put on the brakes and stopped. He noticed that the mystic was a lanky man with a long face and deep set eyes. He was wearing light ochre cloth that was wrapped around his upper body and a dhoti to go with it. He did not exactly have a beard but a stubble of a few days. His head was shaved and a few short hair had begun to grow on the sides and at the back of the head. But what really impressed Som was his face – it was lustrous and shining. His eyes had a twinkle that could not be missed and his forehead looked majestic with the Tripundra he was sporting. There was something magnetic and overpowering about him. The Sadhu was someone to whom you just couldn’t say no – not out of respect but out of sheer sense of awe. Smiling at Som, the Sadhu asked :
“Where are you heading?”
“I am going to work. To my office..”
“Work, Yes Sure.” The Sadhu smirked
Som did not know what to say. He knew what the Sadhu meant by his smile. He had himself thought about it many times. What work? Just going to a place in the morning, sitting there the whole day pressing keys, staring at the monitor and coming back listless, drained of life. Nothing to inspire and no passion to drive the energy within. He had questioned this meaningless existence many times when he was in a thoughtful mood but since no answers came he chose to roll over to the next day rather than stop in his tracks.
“Alakh Nirnajan! Drop me till the Monkey Bridge and then you can carry on to your work”. This time the disdain was quite clear. As if the Sadhu was on some great mission and Som was just another uninspired wreck who had no idea what to do with his life.
Som nodded in obeisance and raised his accelerator once he felt the back seat had been occupied. He noticed a very faint but very sweet smell fill the atmosphere. It captivated his senses as he drove on the banks of the river. He was not afraid anymore and was somewhat reassured that he had company for the next few miles of his journey.
“Don’t you feel cold Baba?”asked Som turning his face backwards a bit to make himself audible.
“Even you don’t feel it but since you believe that you do, you feel it. It’s all in the mind”
“How come you are here so early in the morning?”
“I had come to the Shamshan for offering prayers at the Kali Temple. Had some other rituals to perform too.”
“Oh, they have a temple of Kali here?”
“Yes there is a very old temple, a small one, it’s next to the bigger Shiva temple. There is gender discrimination here also.” The Sadhu laughed with a childish innocence.
Som was surprised by the Sadhu’s accent and impeccable English.
“Who are you? If you don’t mind me asking where did you learn such good English? We are not used to Sadhus speaking English. The pujari who comes to my home recites mantras in Sanskrit but I can bet that he understands their meaning no more than I do. I mean You don’t look like our panditji”
“Because I am not. I am a Aghori. And as far as the English is concerned you can say that I am a well educated Aghori. I used to teach Physics at BHU before I took diksha.”
Som was shocked. He felt goosebumps and a bit of churning in his stomach. His mind activated the fight or flight response as his blood rushed to his heart and adrenaline started pumping in his veins. A mild sweat broke out and he could feel the moisture in his gloves. He had heard about the Aghoris on a trip to Varanasi. He had been told that they practiced the occult by virtually living with the dead.They lived on the cremation grounds away from the civilization and hunted for freshly burnt or buried bodies so they can use them for their rituals. They were a cult for whom something as offensive as eating the human flesh was not out of bounds.
“My name is Muktanand. And there is no need to be afraid of me.”
There was a soothing calmness in the Sadhu’s voice. It reassured Som a little bit. He wondered if the Sadhu could read minds.
“I am not afraid but when you hear things that are otherwise taboo in the society you get a little disturbed.”said Som trying to keep his voice steady.
“I can understand that. So what all have you heard?” Muktanand asked Som.
“Oh I have heard a lot of things. I have seen a few videos on the youtube as well. For instance I read somewhere that the Aghoris practiced meditation sitting on dead bodies. Isn’t that eerie? I mean how could the mind be steady like that? ”
“Well to be honest its true but it’s done only to realize the impermanent nature of life. We all know that we will die one day but do you think about it every day, each passing minute. The truth is that most people even though they see people around them dying every day have this notion that it won’t happen to them, ever.The Aghori attempts to break that conditioning with a single stroke. Our path is a- ghor meaning not very difficult or a path that is faster, almost like a short cut.”
“What about the other practices of drinking from the skull, living off the cremation grounds, smearing ash all over the body and so on. It doesn’t look like you do all these things.”
“Ha ha. You are right. I don’t do all these things. But let me tell you that it’s not that I have never ever performed these rituals. They serve a purpose and for me that purpose is over.”
“That is an interesting point. What is the purpose to all this? I mean you had a good life.”
“Everyone has their own definition of a good life and mine was perhaps a bit different from yours. As far as the purpose is concerned I wanted to have the darshan of my Isht – Ma Taara.”
“Who is Ma Taara?”
“Out of the ten Mahavidyas or manifestations of Shakti, Taara is the second. Tara is a form of Durga . As per bhagwat, She is the one who created 1st Seed from which the entire universe took birth in the form of Lord Narayana. In your language you can think of her as the primordial energy from which everything is born”
“So did you see her? How was the experience?” Som was driving quite slowly now. He wanted the carry on the conversation.
“Yes she did grant me her darshan after years and years of practicing meditation and rituals. You know why so many mind bending rituals and such rigor of meditation is required if one wants the Goddess to manifest before oneself?”
“Ya because otherwise everyone will start seeking the darshan. Its like climbing the Mount Everest. Isn’t it ?
“That’s a very simple way of putting it. But it is also true that anyone who wishes to have darshan of the Goddess can have it. The problem is this – if she manifests herself before you will you be able to take it? Let alone the cosmic energy, the physical form is such that one can lose all their bearings and go mad. Imagine someone with blue skin wearing nothing but tiger skin appears before you. She has a garland of severed human heads around her belly with fresh blood dripping from them. Her tongue is lolling out and blood is oozing from her mouth. Just close your eyes and think about it for a second”
“Just imagining such a sight makes me shudder in fear. It is quite disgusting actually if you think about it. But I know what you are talking about.”
“That’s the trick our mind plays with us. This is good. This is bad. This is beautiful. This is ugly. The conditioning of the mind has to go. The only thing that remains is the unrelenting desire to become one with the supreme. There should not be an iota of any feeling or desire left. That is why it is essential to train under a Guru. Someone who can tell the do’s and the dont’s. You know what the biggest danger is?”
“What? There are even more dangers than this.”
“Well, it is said that when the Goddess gives you her darshan, your mind must be absolutely pure. There are two main threats – one of course is fear and the other is sexual desire as the Goddess is very beautiful and she is hardly hiding anything. If any one of these overcome your mind then not only will the Goddess disappear but you will go mad for the rest of your life. Many Aghoris who were not ready have died during the process.”
To say that Som’s head was spinning is an understatement. He was least prepared for this encounter when he started from his home today morning. It was supposed to be just another day. To read about such things or to see them in videos is different but to have a first-hand experience is another.
By this time they had reached the monkey bridge and Som stopped the bike for Muktanand to get down. The Sadhu was smiling and his face looked radiant in the first rays of Sun which were now coming up from behind the shroud of dense fog.
“You are a good human being Som. There is a lot of sanchit karma from your past lives. Not everyone thinks the way you do” the Sadhu had an earnest expression on his face.
And before Som could ask how he knew his name, the Sadhu added.
“I want you to give up this dreary existence. I want you to seek the highest goal. For this I must give you a glimpse of the reality – the supreme truth. You must know that it is not by some accident that we have met today.”
He stretched his arms out and gestured Som to hold them. As Som held his hands he murmured a mantra under his breath. He looked deep into Som’s eyes and said.
“I am going to do Shaktipat or transference of energy from my mind to your mind. Make sure that your mind is free from any desire or emotions. If you have any longing within you, it will certainly come true but you will never be able to get to the higher plain where I want you to be. I want you to take a deep breath and free your mind completely now.”
The next 30 seconds or so were perhaps a glimpse into Nirvana for Som. He felt so complete, as if he has been freed from all his limitations. Like a ball of energy he was floating in the air and even the form of his body did not offer any limitations.
When Muktanand let his hands go Som felt a bit dizzy but he was consumed with a blissful feeling he had never known. By the time he regained full control the Sadhu had already left him. Som saw him walking down the bridge towards the dry river bed. Som waited for him to disappear. He was going towards the direction of an ashram which was on an island in the river.
On the way to his office Som drove his bike as if in a trance – ecstatic and complete within himself. Within the next 10 minutes he was parking his bike. It was a usual day at the back office of the Hotel where he worked. Before starting work he grabbed a cup of coffee and checked the attendance register to see if Gauri had come in. It was her engagement today and there was little chance that she would show up but it was a habit Som had picked up over all these years. He was surprised to see her initials next to her name on the register.
Back on his seat he switched on the HP desktop. He had a picture of Mount Kailasa as the screen saver. He was used to seeing that picture everyday but today he noticed that the mountain resembled a Yogi sitting steadfast in lotus position. The mountain was an image of strength, a symbol of great character, an abode of Lord Shiva himself. He thought about the Sadhu. He was reminded of his eyes, of his confident gait, his fit and muscular body, his calm face, his soothing voice and his gentle and innocent smile, like that of a child. Som wanted to be like him. And why not? He had been blessed to follow the divine path.
Just then Gauri walked in. She was looking stunning in the silk Sari. Maroon always used to suit her. Her big eyes spoke in a thousand ways. Her long hair were tied casually at the back and she was laughing as she talked. Som’s heart missed a beat like it always did. Once again he told himself that she was the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world. There was no point in all this he thought and restrained himself by focusing on the picture of Mansarover. He had chosen a different life now.
Gauri started walking towards Som. She must be coming over to invite me for the event in the evening he guessed. But her look was not that of a friendly colleague. Her demeanor was firm and her gaze was fixed at Som. She was taking strong firm steps even though she moved gently like she always did. She came to his desk and stood there. There was silence for a few seconds, then she said “ Som I have broken up with Manu. The engagement today is cancelled.” She waited for him to respond then blurted out “Are you going to say something? Or will you just keep looking at me?” Som gently stood up and placed his hand on top of Gauri’s “What’s there to say. You know it.” They had no idea for how long they kept holding each other’s hands as tears trickled down Gauri’s cheeks. In that extended moment of time a thought crossed Som’s mind – had he traded his chance of eternal bliss for momentary happiness. Did he secretly wish for Gauri when Muktanand held his hand?
He could not recall and He did not care..