VIDESHI—An American Pilgrim in India
19.5 hours of painful air travel from USA, Los Angeles to Delhi, India.
The time warp of jet-lag is as horrendous as the subcontinent is huge, dry and brown. That is a challenge. To come up with creative adjectives that describe India that are go beyond the generics. But there it is: India is huge. India is dry. India is brown. The ground is brown. The air is brown. The sky. The buildings. Roads, cars, inhabitants… that’s just the way it is.
After 19.5 hours of flight in coach is synonymous with cattle-herding with microwave-food: Squeezed tight seats, BAD movies on a tiny screen with headsets that YOU KNOW were never cleaned, in spite of coming from a “sealed” bag.
19.5 hours of flight followed by customs and the chaos of Delhi at 10.40 pm on no sleep. I hail a driver to take me to my Guru’s local ashram in the city. I’m passed out after a “bucket shower” and cold ramen from a dirt-road side market. Some residences don’t always have hot running water for long. You take a shower with a bucket to fill and pour over your head and body. It WORKS!
I wake in 5 hours in the pre-dawn India which is already bustling and dusty. I stumble out to the road. My driver is waiting in his tiny, rattling, Hyundai sedan. Cordial and helpful he loads my bag and greets warmly.
Back to Indira Ghandi Int’l airport for my second phase of travel to my Guru’s actual dham—his home, village and main ashram in remote northern India.
The India plane seems comparable to the taxi Hyundai and three hours later I’m in Lucknow, hailing my pre-arranged driver to take me to the village of Mangarh.
It’s been 30+ hours since I woke to shuttle to LAX. I don’t know what day it is. India is a half day ahead I think. Or is it two behind? Or is it six of one and a dozen of the other?
A harrowing drive.
“Highways” in India are two lane roads, some of it actually paved, and when drivers want to pass, they blow their horn and do it. You are sensible if you assume a head on is inevitable because India driving makes Brooklyn New Yorkers look like a polite PTA moms. Yet I’ve never even seen a fender-bender in India before. Go figure…
No signals, signs or lanes. Just working chaos. Look out for that BUS!
HOME, SPIRITUAL HOME!
I arrive at the ashram and check in. I am assigned a room and I figure I got about 12 hours of loopy-brain-punchiness that’s cheerful and surreal before I HIT THE WALL. That is ALL of your jet-lag hits in a single moment and you MUST-SLEEP-RIGHT-NOW.
In the meantime, I feel exuberant and delusionally energetic. And not hungry when I should be famished. Trespassing through nine time-zones puts your fatigue into shock. You’re in trouble, but you can’t feel it.
I settle my room with a bath (bucket, spigot and toilet) and clean up for evening satsang, the evening devotional kirtan chanting sessions. My Guru, Maharaji, doesn’t make a satsang appearance and I’m disappointed.
I am told in the morning he left. He flew to Bhubaneswar in Eastern India that afternoon for a five day program for his devotees in the region.
MY STAY HERE IS USELESS WITHOUT HIS DARSHAN! BEING GRACED BY HIS MERE PRESENCE IS WORTH 30 YEARS OF PLANE TRAVEL!
And now… nothing!
A thick, Apu-Indian accent informs me: “You can go to Bhubaneswar to attend if you like. It is a free country, kind sir!” His sarcasm is polite as India always is but it’s still noticeable!
“Please find me a driver.”
“A driver will be here in 15 minutes to take you to the airport.”
I fly to Bhubaneswar to see my guru. The driver takes me to a hotel “for Westerners…”. Indians are well aware of Western culture and accept, without judgement, that we are…”spoiled” and require running water in the showers and queen size beds. They call us videshi’s (vid-desh-ees); a mild slang term for “white people”.
But the hotel desk clerk is being very odd as I check in.
He is nervous and keeps fumbling and seeming rather overwhelmed. He keeps turning to other employees and whispering and they point towards me. Something is up.
I check in and am given the lowdown: food, service, etc.
The hotel staff acts like little school girls around me. The desk clerk, the valet… they can’t seem to hold it together around me.
I was used to this in the remote villages as many villagers never see white people so they assume you MUST be a movie star. But Bhubaneswar is a major metropolis and one of the most advanced, progressive cities in the subcontinent.
I am close enough to the satsang venue to walk from my hotel. My room actually overlooks the bhavan (hall) where my Guru will be giving darshan (divine vision) of his Divine Grace.
I am overjoyed.
My trip has turned into another unpredictable adventure. Maharaji is boundless. I just try to keep up.
During the mid-day there is no satsang. I’ve got time to kill. I google and look at the logistics: I’m in the land of Navadwip: the town Mahaprabhuji Chaitanya appeared and took birth. The temple he lived near at the end of his appearance on Earth is nearby. It is the same temple he vanished from in front of dozens of people. It is a MAJOR temple—one of the four tirths in India.
It is as large as a city and is a specifically sacred temple to my tradition. Jagganath Puri to a Krishn devotee is like the Mount of Olives to a Christian.
It’s a three-hour commute through dusty countryside and I am in disbelief that I will take darshan of this Dham. We arrive around 10am and there is a line of over seventy people to enter so I take my place. In about a half hour I approach the entrance. I am speechless. I am almost in tears as I cannot believe my sojourn has led me here. A place I never even considered coming to but dreamt of.
The entrance is directly in front of me. A man with an official mustache gazes at me. He is the gatekeeper. He casually shakes his head “no” and points to a sign: “NO WHITES”
I tell him in my chhota (little) Hindi that he doesn’t understand:
I’m no tourist.
I’m a qualified devotee.
I have travelled for four days to be here.
I wanna start be the big-mouth American they expect and begin shouting, “Yo man! Do you know who you’re dealing with? Do you know WHO my Guru is?”
He waves me on with no consideration. I am a mere annoyance.
I see quickly that there is NO way he’s making an exception.
I begin to do the videshi dance: “Lemme speak to a manager!”
There is no such thing.
Lemme speak to your supervisor!
No such person.
He is the first and last line of defense.
This is racist! You can’t keep me out because I’m WHITE!
A local says it aint about race. “White” just means tourist. They don’t want tourists fouling up the place. It is preserved for the natives of Bharat Varsh—India. They don’t wanna bunch of yoga class-café-latte Westerners stinking up the place.
I get it.
I respect it.
I accept it.
I also begin to weep.
I’m standing a few feet from entering the temple my own sacred, sadguru, Maharaj Kripalu, vanished into the Divine abode during his appearance as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu five hundred years ago.
Providence has delivered me, spontaneously to this threshold and NOW I CANT GET IN BECAUSE OF THE COLOR OF MY SKIN!?
I’m weeping. I do not know what to do and I am so sad, my head lowers into my palms and I weep.
No drama. No histrionics. Just tears.
Heartbroken tears. I am longing to have darshan—divine vision, of the altar Chaitanya ran to and vanished before. I am in virah, a state of intense spiritual longing.
There’s a tap on my shoulder…
“They cannot let you in. It is forbidden.”
Yeah but… and I plead my case to this Hindu stranger.
“It’s not racial. I am a priest. I work within the temple. There’s nothing that can be done.”
I ask him to show me to the office. Security. Management.
“This is not America. It will do no good to appeal!” He says in the classic Indian cheer and sarcasm.
“Come with me. Even as a priest, I cannot get you inside. But I can SHOW you inside. Come with me!”
I follow him.
We cross the huge road flanking the temple entrance. It’s like a Western movie town: popup buildings on the opposite side of this temple city I cannot egress.
He leads us into a four-story dilapidation, “This is a local temple library. We can view INSIDE the temple from the roof!”
He gives some secret signs to the on-duty clerk and up four flights we go to the roof!
AND LO AND BEHOLD I AM GAZING DOWN INTO THE TEMPLE WITH A BIRDS-EYE VIEW!
Mahish, my new confidante and guide, gives me a virtual tour of the grounds, pointing out the enclaves and avenues within: “and that building, the open roofed one, to the right of the shikr, is the very spot Mahaprabhuji vanished from!”
I gazed into the heart of the temple. I became absorbed in its prominence and sadhana.
My tour guide escorts me on a parikrama around the temple walls. He points out the entrances, the posts, the local temples surrounding. We spend 3 hours on his bicycle-rikshaw—his thin frame peddling my big American body around the village of Puri surrounding Jagganath. Mahish cycled me, tirelessly, to the leela sites Lord Chaitanya gave satsang with his Goswami disciples. The very sites I had read of but only fantasized to be there.
Our tour began to conclude upon the beach that Shri Chaitanya himself carried the lifeless body of his adored disciple, Hari Das, into the ocean and wept as he set his body free in the waves of the Bay of Bengal.
Mahish cycled me back to where the taxi driver lot was and we said goodbyes. I gave him a moderate donation for his efforts and thanked him, from one sadhu-devotee to another. He bade me well and off I went.
I look back on this event and know that Mahish was a Dasa—servant—of the Lord, dispatched to rescue me as my tears of longing evoked God’s grace.
That evening I was privileged. As a Westerner I was given a seat in the satsang hall alongside my Sadguru, Kripalu Maharaj. I was the only Westerner—videshi—there. He made small jokes at my expense in Hindi and I adored Him.
An Indian devotee chuckled as he explained Maharaji’s ribbing of me: “He’s saying you are smiling at the actors performing on the stage but you have NO idea what is being said!” it was true and everyone near was chuckling too. It Was an honor to be the butt of Maharaji’s ribbings to laugh with the devotees.
Cricket Aint Baseball
When I began to check out at the hotel the clerks and staff acted as unusual as before. As if they were love-struck teenagers.
“Excuse me sir…” the clerk began in accented English, “I know this is terribly inappropriate, but may I please have your autograph?”
He felt ashamed as if he’d crossed a line, “I apologize. It was incorrect to ask such a thing. Please forgive me!”
“No, wait a minute… who do you think I am? I’m just an American on holiday.”
“Yes sir. I apologize! It was rude of me to impose. But I am… we all are… such HUGE fans of yours. We may never get this chance again and I MUST ask you to please let us take your photo and an autograph. I am sooo sorry sir!”
The other staff were all gathered around, waiting for my acquiescence.
“No… please. I seriously don’t know who you think I am.”
They seemed convinced I was a huge celebrity and was trying to travel anonymously. That I was being incognito to avoid fan mobbing.
“We all know who you are sir. We are ashamed and humbled. But you are such an icon here in India we MUST at least ask for your photo and autograph. Please do not take offense.” Finally, they disclosed who they thought I was.
“You are Kevin Pietersen good sir! We are very well aware of who you are and are honored with your visit!”
The sport of cricket is as popular in India as NFL is in the US. When I returned to my room for my few last belongings I googled this Australian cricket player they thought was me.
I WISH I LOOKED LIKE THIS GUY!
I decided to do the right thing:
I strolled through the lobby and gathered the staff.
“Ok. Here’s the deal. Each of you get ONE photo with me but NO autographs!”
Get a darshan.
Give a darshan!