This baba, I met unexpectedly. I'd wanted to go to Ganga, the sacred river Ganges, which flows through the center of Rishikesh. The water has attracted sages, saints, and other spirtually-minded folk to meditate along its shores since ancient times. But I was hot and only wanted to swim.
Hoping to find a secluded beach, I wanted privacy so I wouldn’t have to wear a T-shirt and pants in the water like the Indian women do. Otherwise, I would surely be gawked at, even if my swimming outfit was a modest pair of boy-shorts and a sports bra.
But finding anywhere private in India was a challenge, especially on a Sunday. As I walked the dirt path on the ridge alongside Ganga, I passed Indian families on holiday, orange-clad babas carrying metal tiffin tins for begging, foreign tourists, and doe-eyed ashram cows. A lavender multi-headed snake sculpture rose before me, a vision of Lord Vishnu in someone’s yard. Other modest homes displayed small altars nestled under trees decorated with red and gold ribbons. One giant tree sported long red bottlebrush flowers, and lantana bloomed in massive bushes of tiny pink and orange, all signals of spring.
I liked to practice following my intuition whenever I was alone without any firm plans, so when I felt a tug down a narrow alleyway going towards the river, I went. On my left, I passed a low, lumpy structure of rocks set in cement, its open spaces covered with pieces of corrugated sheet metal, burlap sacks, woolen blankets. Its metal roof was covered with black plastic bags held down by rocks. Just past the structure, a short wooden gate revealed a white guy sitting on a mat, head full of blonde dreadlocks. Seeing me, he said, “you can cut through,” and gestured for me to open the gate.
Still following intuition, I went ahead and entered the cement patio. The man was young, and his dreadlocks and scruffy beard made him look like a small blonde lion. From out of the lumpy rock hut, another man emerged, whom the blonde lion introduced as Ram Das. Ram Das was Indian, very dark, an older man with short white hair. Bright white, as white as he was dark. When he turned, I saw a circle of longer hair pulled up into a ponytail at the back of his head, one mark of a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste. But Ram Das’s most distinguishing feature was a milky splotch covering his right iris.
This milky eye would have been creepy had I not suddenly felt like an honored guest: “Sit, sit,” both men said, gesturing to the plastic mat on the ground. The blond lion, introduced as “Shiva,” offered me a cigarette. (Later I realized the generosity of this gesture, as he usually smoked bidis, dirt-cheap Indian cigarettes made with a little tobacco wrapped in a tendu leaf.)
“Thanks, but I don't smoke cigarettes."
“Ganja smoking?” Ram Das asked.
I smiled and bobbled my head, the Indian gesture of ambiguity.
He left soon afterward, once Shiva handed him a hundred-rupee note out of his wallet. Before Ram Das went, he showed me inside the rock hut, his home. He pointed into the dark—the place was practically a cave, with cool cement walls—and I squinted to see a beautiful blond woman sleeping on a wool blanket on the cement. “Parvati,” Ram Das announced. Parvati—yes. Shiva’s holy partner. For a moment, I wondered if she’d been drugged. Probably not, but who could say?
After Ram Das left, I chatted with Shiva. He smoked another cigarette and told me how Ram Das had met him and his girlfriend at a chai stall and invited them to live with him. Shiva spoke his English with a bite in his voice; he and his girlfriend were Danish. He summed up his life at home with this line, “I’m not alcoholic, em, I’m Scandinavian,” and when I laughed, he grinned.
Shaded by giant trees, our spot overlooked Ganga’s sea-green waters. Now was the time for my swim. Shiva continued to sit and smoke cigarettes while I descended the path down to the rocky shore. Fifty yards downriver, I saw it—my secluded beach! I clambered over small boulders to get to the sandy outcropping.
The sand was surprisingly soft on the feet, like a lover’s caress. But the water was—wow. To call it “cold” doesn’t express the sensation’s shock and urgency. Icy needles stabbed my reddening ankles and feet, searing me. I exhaled forcefully. Tantalized by the clear, clean water, I continued to inch my way deeper. When the torture grew too great, I dived forward and submerged myself.
Cracked open, my mind rang with a tingling that thrummed through my body. I tread water, heart hammering away the cold. In detail, I could see the tiny leaves on the trees on the far bank. An orange lotus painted onto a boulder. A man in robes standing under the archway of a riverside ashram. A small maroon bird alit on a nearby tree branch, the exotic bolt of yellow at its throat and blue accents on its wings as wonderful and strange as swimming in such strong, cold water.
The thin clouds of inhibitions and worries that usually float through my mind were gone, and my aliveness tingled, filling me. Blissfully I continued to tread the river water.
“Careful of the current!” Shiva shouted, having climbed partway down the bank. “You OK?”
“Great!” I waved triumphantly. Releasing my reverie, I pushed my limbs against the current and found my way back to shore.
I returned to the cave and went inside. Ram Das squatted at a double gas burner on the floor, stirring a pot. It seemed he had used Shiva’s money for milk, which he was now turning into chai. “You sit!” he called out.
Since no one was gawking at my swimsuit, I wrapped my lungi around my waist and sat down, still wearing my wet sportsbra, with Shiva and Parvati, now awake. They faced a shallow firepit in the front part of the room where she’d been sleeping. “Namaste, Parvati,” I said.
“Namaste,” she said, bowing quickly. Her eyes still had dark circles from her sleep, and her delicate features and thin limbs made her seem more fragile than one would expect of somebody living in a cave.
I noticed that the room’s main support beam was a round post that appeared to be a tree growing up from the floor and through the roof. Past it, Ram Das was carefully pouring a steaming brew into three metal cups and a small metal bowl for himself. When he brought the tea to us, he directed me to sit in a different spot, one where I could look out and see Ganga. “India paradise!” he pronounced.
I agreed after I tasted his chai. Having drunk chai all over India, I am not exaggerating when I say that his was the best. Fresh milk, lots of sugar, and a complex blend of spices that he must have ground by hand. It made for a sweet, creamy tea that tasted both of caramel and pepper. If this man was starting a cult, I was in.
Both Parvati and Shiva called Ram Das a “yogi.” When I said that I was a yoga teacher, Shiva suggested that Ram Das show me “the yoga book.” This was an album of photos depicting Ram Das’s guru in numerous advanced asanas. Even though the guru had long gray hair and a gray beard, most of the poses involved him putting either one or both of his thin, muscular legs behind his head. I ignored his genitals, barely covered by his baba thong, and marveled instead at the beauty of skin, bone, and muscle working together, sleek as an animal. When I got to the picture of him doing ustrasana, a pose I included in my daily practice, I couldn’t stop myself from demonstrating it on a woolen blanket. On my knees, I lifted my heart towards the ceiling and bent backward until my hands touched my heels. Staring up, I noticed the layers of sticks that made up the roof, blackened from years of indoor fires.
“You yogi!” Ram Das said, excitedly. I was excited, too. So many of my India dreams had included finding a real yoga master hiding in a cave somewhere; here was the somewhere cave, and here was the master. Ram Das looked strong and sinewy enough to do difficult asanas like his guru, and despite his white hair, he looked young. His face reminded me of Burt Reynolds, the Indian version. He had good cheekbones and a strong jawline.
Ram Das turned out to be a master in a different way than I’d expected. From his seat next to the tree trunk, he pulled out a bag filled with leafy green herb. I would have guessed it was ganja, except there was too much of it; the bag was almost as big as a sack of flour from a grocery store. Besides, the packaging was commercially-printed, with faces on it, so I doubted it held ganja, which is illegal in India.
Meanwhile, Shiva was roasting a cigarette with his lighter, blackening the paper, which he then ripped open so he could break up the tobacco inside. Ram Das was also working his fingers through the green herb, nearly crumbling it into a powder. Then Shiva mixed the tobacco with the herb and put it into a chillum, a red-clay pipe held vertically. When it was full, he handed it to Ram Das.
Ram Das wrapped a white square of cotton material called a saphed at the base of the pipe and cupped his hands around it. Then he prayed, raising the pipe towards his forehead as he chanted rapidly, his voice low and private. The Sanskrit words, otherworldly to my ears, sounded completely of the place, this habitation that had belonged to Ram Das’s guru and had been inhabited for—who knew how long? Centuries?
“See-ta Ram,” he said to close the chant, and we repeated: “See-ta Ram!” The name of the divine couple Lord Rama and his wife Sita, the chant seemed appropriate since “Ram Das” means “devotee of Lord Rama.” Shiva then leaned over to light the herb at the top of the pipe for Ram Das as he drew smoke through the seal made with his hands gripping the pipe’s base.
The chillum went around the circle. When it came to me, I took the pipe. What kind of anthropologist would I be if I didn't find out what exactly was inside?
However, holding the pipe was a bit of a puzzle. Trying to grip it like Ram Das, I fumbled as the herb inside continued to burn. Ram Das leaned over and manipulated my fingers so that they pinched the pipe, with my thumb on one side and index and third finger on the other. To keep the pipe vertical, he had me fit my other hand behind the chillum, resting the pinky-side of my hand between the gap between third and fourth fingers of the first. That way, I could make the necessary seal to draw smoke by wrapping my thumb around and putting my mouth on the hole made by both thumbs and index finger of my first hand. It was as complicated as any yoga mudra, or hand position which confers energy. “Chillum mudra,” I said.
Everyone laughed, and Ram Das the loudest. “Chillum mudra!” he said several times that evening and then every time the chillum came out. Happily I remembered that with a language gap, one doesn’t need to be witty all the time; just once or twice will do.
The tobacco in the chillum made my head swim, so I lay down and considered the cement wall, trying to be cheerful about my slightly-nauseous, dizzy feeling, which only lasted for about ten minutes.
“See-ta Ram,” a young man called from outside, announcing his entry. When he joined the circle, the chillum went around again. While we were chatting with him, a college student who spoke English, we learned that he lived at the police station with his parents, who were both officers. No one seemed to think that smoking with this guy was a problem.
After the chillum, everything seemed like part of a long, casual ritual. Ram Das began rubbing a piece of sandalwood on a flat circular stone the color of sand. He then added water to the stone while he scrubbed it with the wood. The friction caused a reddish paste to form. Without announcement, Ram Das leaned over and pushed the paste onto my forehead, at the yogic third eye. He dabbed more paste at the base of my throat and then did the same with Shiva, Parvati, and the neighbor. Afterwards, he added a yellow paste over the red, anointing us, and I felt like we had become a small, temporary tribe.
Next Ram Das pulled a bottle out of a small yellow box. He turned the bottle upside down on his fingers and brought them to my nose. His rough fingers squeezed and massaged my nostrils, which began to tingle in the same pleasant way they do just before a sneeze. The scent was intensely floral, as if all of the earth’s flowers were blended together: rose, jasmine, citrus. The smell of the Garden of Eden. Woozy from the scent, I decided it was the smell of bliss itself.
Ram Das also touched the oil to my throat, wrists, and hair. “Wow!” I said. “What is this stuff?”
He smiled his gap-toothed smile, made especially goofy from how his front teeth came down at slightly different angles. He said nothing, moving on to work the oil into Shiva’s nostrils, so Parvati answered. “Special perfume. He goes to a store in Madras to get it.”
“Madras!” This was like a New Yorker flying to Florida for oranges. “Fuck it, let’s go!”
After we all got dosed with the oil, Ram Das then turned on his transistor radio and slowly worked the dial until he got to a woman singing in Hindi. Her voice whined as it wove itself through the radio’s heavy static, an unpleasant sound in any other circumstance, but the novelty of the situation made the music palatable. My nose was still tingling from the oil.
Ram Das went to a metal cupboard and pulled out a plastic bag of peanuts. As he roasted them in a pan on one of his gas burners, Parvati explained that he had only eaten fruit, nuts, and milk for thirty years.
“A real yogi,” I said. “Sattvic diet.”
“Sattvic—yes!” Ram Das said from the stove. Yogis believe that different foods have different qualities, and sattvic foods such as nuts and fruit make one light and balanced. Certainly the white-haired Ram Das, who moved nimbly and sat easily with crossed legs, was benefitting from whatever he ate.
“And it’s so clean in here,” I remarked under my breath. When I’d gone into the back to use the toilet, I hadn’t seen a speck of dirt anywhere.
She nodded. “That’s part of his yoga. Every day he cleans.” Ram Das had already told us that he woke up every morning at 4 to bathe and rub himself with oil. “Hindi name—til,” he said. Then at 5—panj—he did his practice. I resolved to join him early one morning to practice yoga with him.
I imagined he would receptive to it, as at one point, he reached over and grabbed my arm. Feeling my bicep, he proclaimed, “Strong body good!” Then he pointed to the thin Parvati. “You teach Parvati. Make strong body!”
“Happy to,” I said, as Parvati nodded eagerly. This was, after all, my new tribe.
After we feasted on the roasted peanuts, Shiva pulled the chillum out again. Feeling completely saturated from the ganja, the chai, the flower oil, and the companionship, I decided to leave.
When I got up, Ram Das stood too. “Every day coming,” he told me. He spread his hands to indicate his home and the scene there. “Only love.”
“Only love,” I nodded.
“Yes!” he said it with the enthusiasm of a major breakthrough. “Yes!”
“What would be a good time?” I asked.
He squinted, so I pointed at the clock.
“Oh! Anybody time, you come,” he said. Then he moved his hands as if smoothing out a cloth. “Ohm shanti, ohm shanti.” Shanti is Sanskrit for peace, but Ram Das used the term in the more conversational sense of It’s all cool.
"Ohm shanti," I agreed.
“Ohm shanti” became one of our little tribe’s mantras. Was this why I went back to Ram Das’s cave-hut, his kutiya, every day? Because I could just pop in at “anybody time” and feel right at home? I started calling Ram Das “Sita Ram” as Shiva and Parvati did, since Parvati told me that “Ram Das” was more of a formal title. And whenever I showed up, Sita Ram started making chai.
“That’s OK,” I said at first, not wanting to be fussed over. Shiva and Parvati weren’t around that day. “I’m good.”
“Chai compulsory,” he said, continuing to pound ginger root—adaraka—with a rock.
After our chai, Sita Ram and I went down to dip in Ganga together, me in my suit and him with a lungi wrapped around his waist. At the shore, he took it off so he could dip in wearing only his baba thong. I went right into Ganga, but he hung back, pausing in the cold water halfway up his shins.
Of course I had to splash him. Mercilessly. He crouched at first, laughing, and then after a few lame attempts to splash me back, he joined me in the water.
Before I left that evening, Sita Ram said, “Your kutiya. Every day.” And then, “If money problem, here you are sleeping. No money.”
“Gosh, thanks,” I replied.
“You are sleeping. I am sleeping. Cows are sleeping. Good morning, good morning, good morning. You are welcome. Or coming panj o’clock morning time, you’re welcome. Six o’clock, you’re welcome.”
Although I preferred to go back to my own room instead of bunking with Sita Ram’s two cows (as Shiva and Parvati did), it was a relief to know Sita Ram had my back in case I ran out of cash. I liked the fact that he didn’t seem to want anything from me—not money, not sex. Many Indians are friendly, but when they’re this friendly, they generally want something. But not Sita Ram. Only love. He walked me out and gave me a long, warm hug, the kind that fills the heart.
We had another mantra: dhire-dhire, Hindi for “slowly slowly.” Because we didn’t do much at Sita Ram’s kutiya, and when we did, we took our time. Mostly we sat. We sat with chai. With chillum. With perfume. With food. Sometimes I swam in Ganga first, and then I sat.
At home, I never sit. In India, sitting brought wonders. One day, Parvati and I were out on the kutiya’s patio, doing nothing more than sitting upon the earth, when we saw two strange birds in the tree above us. These creatures resembled toucans but had shorter bills curved into scythes. We watched as they plucked berries from the tree with their yellow-orange beaks; we watched them work the berries down into their gullets. Thrilled by this secret show, the likes of which tourists would pay big money to see on a jungle tour, I slowly went for my camera. As I turned, the birds flew away.
The best sitting occurred every evening at sunset, when an invisible temple bell rang out from somewhere along the river. The bell provided a clear, steady rhythm of a double ring followed by silence: ring ring, space. Ring ring, space. Smaller, higher-pitched bells rang alongside this rhythm, jingling like a horse decked with sleigh bells. At times, the bells’ melody was punctuated by the low braying of a conch shell played as a horn. Sometimes Sita Ram stood off to the side and chanted, then blew into his conch, the one that sat on his altar, joining this concert where no one saw the other players. Sitting with my two friends named after gods, I quietly witnessed this aural ceremony that marked the day’s end.
The kutiya had become my refuge. Because although Rishikesh has some mellow areas, Laxman Jhula, where I rented my room, offered too many choices for a person interested in yoga. Vacant wall space and cafes were plastered with flyers for yoga classes, teacher trainings, group meditations, massage lessons, aromatherapy. Dozens of schools offered at least two yoga courses a day. One could stay there a year and not do all the yoga available.
To have so many offerings tempted me to run about acting as if I were in New York City, jumping from one activity to the next and not letting any of it sink in, entirely missing the point of being in India. Instead of believing I needed to spend every hour of every day improving myself, I could try on the Vedic philosophy that there was no self, that what I mistakenly believed was an “I” was actually part of a seamless unity that encompassed everything. With or without yoga, we are all already perfect, an idea that was easier to remember as I hung out with people named after gods.
“You Saraswati,” Sita Ram told me one evening as I was scribbling in the little notebook I always had on me. The goddess of knowledge and the arts, this seemed apt enough.
“Kali!” he continued, pointing to Parvati.
“Ah ha!” she said, raising her eyebrows. She had confided in me that she had easily lost her temper with Shiva before they met Sita Ram, but living with him, she was trying to be more patient and tolerant in this setting where she was called by the name of a goddess, and one considered a protector of the home. But when my friend was renamed as the powerful goddess of destruction, her eyes lit up.
“Oh yes she is,” Shiva said.
“You Hanuman,” Sita Ram christened him, and being the monkey god of devotion did seem to fit, as Shiva-Hanuman had a monkeyish silliness. On the first of April, he and I had talked about posting a picture of him on facebook draped in white, announcing that he was going to stay in India permanently. He didn’t do it, unfortunately.
All this god talk did its work. Parvati-Kali and I were lying on the patio one afternoon when I had a realization. “When we learn that we are god,” I said, staring up at the empty, gray branches of a large plumeria bush, “we can see everyone else as God. And as God, they only want good for us. Everyone offers us either lessons or love.”
“Yes,” Parvati said. Then, after a long pause, “Here, it all seems so clear. But back in the other world, it is much harder to remember this.”
“Yeah it is.” Looking more closely, I saw that tiny green leaves were just beginning to form themselves on the plumeria. With time, it would sprout the gorgeous flowers that Hawaiians use for their leis. “The lessons are the hard part. And that’s what most people give us.”
“So many lessons,” she replied.
“Maybe that’s why life is long,” I said.
Although the four of us had more adventures, of course our days together came to an end. Shiva and Parvati had grown tired of living with a chaperone, and a popular one who always had visitors stopping in for the chai/chillum ritual. The two invited me to go north with them to a little village with hot springs in the Parvati Valley (where else?), but I decided to be ohm shanti and stay put. I wanted to study more yoga asana with my other teacher in Rishikesh, since Sita Ram didn't practice asana after all. His yoga was saucha, or cleanliness, and bhakti, or worship through chanting and prayer. To that end, Sita Ram liked to talk about all the holy places we would visit in the future, the four of us, when we three came back to India: Kedarnath. Badrinath. Gangotri. Yamunotri. Ujjain. Calcutta. And maybe we will. Maybe we will return to the place where we learned to believe we were gods.
Bliss-ercise #3: Go Sattvic!
No one wants to fast, but you can modify your diet for a day or two and notice if you feel a difference in your body and your mood. Choose a day when you don't have much to do so that you don't overtax your body for this experiment. Observe sattvic diet by eating only from the following:
- Dairy (ideally organic)
- Fruit (raw or cooked)
- Legumes (nuts, lentils, etc.)
- Vegetables (raw or cooked)
- Whole-grains (but not processed foods like bread or crackers)
Note that a sattvic diet emphasizes eating fresh, seasonal foods and NOTHING processed. If you don't have your own cow like Sita Ram, try to buy whole milk from a local dairy. Also, eat foods slowly - dhire-dhire- and in moderation.
If you have to consume caffeine, try to stick to black or green tea with or without milk. Certainly chai is OK on this diet!