Dispatches from Delhi: Report 9

In my last dispatch, I ended on the premise of trying to understand my culture through interaction with one of its holy men, posing the query: what is the functionality of a guru? After meeting my grandmother’s guru, Swami Grishanand Saraswati, the answer became quite simple. A guru is a man who forsakes the banality and materialism of everyday life (in Swami Grishanand’s case, at 18 years old) for a purely spiritual existence, fulfilled through total dedication to studying the Vedas, Bhagavat Gita, Manu Smriti, Srimad Bhagavat, and various other canonical Hindu texts in order to achieve a greater comprehension of the celestial workings of the universe. But this comprehension is not a paltry tool used to pull the wool over the eyes of those lost in the world, seeking guidance or direction in lives they cannot seem to properly helm. Just as water seeks nobody to consume it, a guru does not seek followers to thirst for his knowledge. He doesn’t place money or praise or control as motive. His goal is the achievement of self-betterment through conscious reflection and the genuine care for his fellow man.

Swami Grishanand Saraswati

To put it bluntly, a guru is a wise man, but he does not care whether or not you listen to him.

Some people only come to a guru when they want something, whether a blessing to cure a particular ailment or well wishes for monetary income or simply to act like they’re doing their guru a favor by being his student. These are the kind of people on whom Guru-ji spends little to no time in a one-on-one setting. But come to him without reservations or material desires, armed with a willing heart and an open mind, and see what a powerful individual he becomes with his knowledge.

On Swami Grishanand’s birthday, hundreds of his disciples from all over India came to pay their respects. They brought food, gifts, and money to show their devotion to him for changing their thoughts and lives with his teachings. But Guru-ji gave the sweets to the hungry; he found ways to dispense the gifts among the poor; and contrary to my ideas of religious figures’ unscrupulous attitudes towards monetary accumulation, all of the money that was given for Guru-ji’s birthday was to be spent entirely on building and maintaining ashrams and orphanages.

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the effort people put into these things, but material goods take nothing to cultivate when compared to the simple spiritual connection of being with one’s guru just because one appreciates his person, wants to hear what he has to say, and desires to apply that higher knowledge to his or her own life.

Hundreds of disciples celebrating.

For example, while I was in Jabalpur for Guru Purnima, a holiday celebrating gurus across India, I spent the day going to various points along the holy Narmada river with a friend of my grandmother’s, a man I will call P. P was born poor (and I mean Indian poor), finished high school through correspondence, and started working at 12 years old. Today, at 44 years old, he is a highly successful businessman who owns and operates his own steel import/export business in Dubai with offices all over the world. He wants for absolutely nothing. To put this in perspective, if he wished to expand his operations by moving stateside (which would be laughably easy at this point in his life), he could be pulling $200,000 a month without breaking a sweat. But material concerns aren’t his primary motive, which is why P is one of Swami Grishanand’s closest disciples despite only knowing him for five years.

Birthday Celebration.

What makes a wealthy businessman and a holy man so strongly connected? Again, the answer is simple. They desire nothing material, except the trust and faith of one another, the pleasure of one another’s company and the discussion of their thoughts. P told me that he never once tried to achieve wealth for himself; he wanted to be rich since he was 12 years old so he could provide for his family and ensure they would never want for anything. Swami Grishanand did not seek spiritual knowledge for praise, money, or to trick people into worshipping him through accruement of false virtue; he left his home and family at 18 years old for the ashram because he was seeking personal fulfillment, a fulfillment through which he could help his fellow man. Both men have great lives and extraordinary physical and spiritual presence, but they both also concede wholeheartedly that the greatness of their lives, though shaped by selfish and logical choices, are only made possible through selfless devotion to something greater than their individual selves. And that selflessness feeds their selfishness. And their selfishness powers their selflessness. And so it goes.


Birthday offerings for the Swami.

THAT is the beauty of Hinduism. The serenity of true spirituality is rooted in the power of logical decision-making. And the greatest logic comes from understanding that to achieve an enlightened state of mind, one must be willing to forgo the hubris of human reason for the calm maturity of spirituality. There are no musts or must-nots. Choice is duty, duty is love, love is freedom, and freedom is choice. Hinduism rejects duality and says that all things are one. That’s why a guru both cares for his fellow man, but does not care enough to force them towards enlightenment. That’s why a wealthy businessman and a humble holy man can be the best of friends. I’m young, so I can’t grasp it fully yet, but the fact that separation is just a human invention is a very powerful idea that is now firmly implanted in my mind.

And as such, I learned that the purpose of a guru is to help reform his disciples’ idea of duality into non-duality, to remove barriers of separation for the open space of unity.

Overall, here’s what I have to say: What a trip! And I mean that literally and figuratively.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 8

Two nights ago, my grandmother asked me if I wanted to accompany her to Jabalpur, a city in the Madhya Pradesh region of India, to receive blessings from and pay respects to her guru on his birthday. Coincidentally, this event just happens to occur under the next full moon in one of India’s most culturally significant cities. In fact, Jabalpur’s colloquial name is Sanskaardhani or “culture capital” because it was once home to the Kalchuri and Gond dynasties and developed a syncretic culture as a result of the intermittent influence of the Marathi and Mughal empires, combining Hindu, Muslim, and Jain cultures and influences into one singular area. Due to this differential cultural mix of religious faiths coupled with the region’s dominant dependence on rural agriculture, Jabalpur remains largely unchanged in its spiritual significance to the Indian community at large. It is home to a large community of holy men, women, and orphanages of abandoned children all either well versed in or currently learning the various aspects of Vedic literature.

When she told me all this, my grandmother and I got into a discussion about faith versus reason, her obviously discussing the former, and me in my 20-year-old naivety pushing the latter. The whole argument actually started because after pushing all this history aside, the question kept nagging at my mind: why did she need a guru in the first place? I am not at all denying the experience that it would provide me with and it would be an unforgettable part of my growth at this point in life. But at 75 years old, she has already achieved a sufficient amount of financial success and emotional fulfillment in her life without ever seeking the guidance of a spiritual teacher.

So what had changed in the past few years to facilitate this change?

She said that nothing had changed, that things were the same. I said something had to be different. She said no and said that as she got older, she realized that the events in her life, however driven by human factors like her father and husband and children, still answered to the divine intervention of an ultimate superpower; call it God, Bhagavan, whatever. I asked if she really believed her own power of thinking and choices and environmental situations had not achieved the changes that created her present. She said no, that destiny had ultimately chosen her path for her, and no matter what she might have done to deter from or adhere to that path, it was all preordained by this ultimate superpower. As such, she felt the urge to find a guru who could use his knowledge of Hindu canonical texts like the Vedas and Mahabharata to provide her with insight on how to continue living well through the most ancient codices of the world’s oldest living faith.

I was more or less confused because my grandmother was applying reason to faith in a way that they did not necessarily contradict each other. She was not saying that her thoughts and actions had no bearing whatsoever on her life, but that there was a guiding hand behind each and every one of those thoughts and actions that had laid out a plan for her, a plan that stood as a simultaneous consequence and refutation of her conscious decisions. I am looking forward to this trip because I am not an incredibly spiritual person in the textbook sense of the word, but I want to understand my culture as it is: faith AND reason, spirituality and philosophy, a way of thinking and a way of life. I am still a little “iffy” about the whole thing, but I am not one to be so close-minded to such a grand new experience.