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  • Writer's pictureAlex Fear

Meeting Living Saints

When I arrived in Pune, India I decided I was going to embrace any new deity or guru that I came across with a deep religious fervor. I saw figurines all over the place of a staunch Jabba-the-Hutt-like man with red "u" shapes all over his body. So, I did a reverse Google-image-search on him, and found out he was Swami Sammarth, a 19th century incarnation of the Dattatreya. The Dattatreya is itself an incarnation of the (sort-of) holy trinity of Hinduism; Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer, and Shiva the destroyer. How exactly they can be incarnated as one being, doesn't seem as important in Hinduism as explaining the trinity in Christianity. According to the internet, Swami Sammarth claimed to have sprouted from a Banyan tree. He has a lot of miracles attributed to him. Including some in which he changed people’s gender, sometimes against their will. So, in my spiritual fervour I bought a statuette of him and a book about him in regional language.

A few days later I flippantly decided I was now a follower of one of Swami Sammarth’s disciples, Shree Sadguru Shankar Maharaj. He was renowned for having very long arms and a drinking problem. Though it said in his biography that his whisky drinking was a kind of smoke screen that hid his enlightenment from spiritually ignorant people. Me and my boyfriend went to his Ashram and were the only white people queuing up to see his samadhi. A samadhi can be a place where a guru died, though the word is also used to describe a transcendent enlightenment state. There's a blurry line between the two. There was a huge queue to see the samadhi room which had a statue of him swamped with bright flowers. As we got closer people started quietly chanting a mantra to Swami Sammarth, ‘Om Swami Sammartha Jai Jai Swami Sammartha.’ It was a moving experience to feel welcomed by this other culture into this very intimate shrine.

My interest in Indian gurus came from wanting to find someone in recent history who was genuinely enlightened. Someone who didn’t have the scandals that Osho, Sai Baba, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had. I was in a bookshop in Glastonbury and found a little book from the 70s with questions and answers with someone called Ramana Maharishi. There was a black and white picture of a topless grey-haired Indian man on the cover looking serenely into the camera. When Ramana Maharishi was in his teens he had a moment where he was overcome by the fear of death. He lay down on the floor and imagined he was dead, and in that moment everything changed for him. He realized he was not his thoughts. Reading the book of questions and answers with him was thought-provoking, magical, and depressing all at the same time. Then I had an experience on magic mushrooms that I really related to his teachings. I saw all the thoughts that make up myself drifting away like stars. I could see that they were parts that make up the illusion of a singular self. It was scary because there was a feeling that if I accepted this idea of non-self, it would be a sort of death that I wouldn’t come back from.

Another guru I think is very genuine is Rama Krishna. He would involuntarily go into spiritual trances, he also dressed up as a woman for six months once to experience feeling like a consort of Krishna. Where Ramana Maharishi seems calm and collected, Rama Krishna seems to have more of a wild deranged awakening. Though the line between mental health and awakening blurs for both of them. After his experience of death Ramana Maharishi went into a catatonic meditative state for years. He was put in the back room of a temple where he wouldn’t eat, and rats and bugs would bite him.

One question that came up for me was, how come Ramana Maharishi and Rama Krishna have this following in the west and Swami Sammarth and Sadguru Maharaj don’t? Sadguru Maharaj actually spent ten years in the UK after a western acolyte took him over there. But I didn’t find any record of what on earth he was doing there. Did people just think he was a drunk with long arms. Ramakrishna had his disciple Vivikenanda who gave lectures on Hinduism in the US in the 1890s. And Ramana Maharishi lived in the first half of the 1900s when there was much more of an appetite for mysticism in the West with things like the Theosophical Society. But I think there’s also the issue that Swami Samarth and Sadguru Maharaj’s lives have become so bogged down in miracles that their teachings have been overwhelmed. I went to the birthplace of Adi Shankara, a Hindu mystic, founder of a movement that says there is no separation between us and the divine. I thought he was more of a philosopher but there were loads of fiber glass dioramas of him performing outlandish miracles, one involving a crocodile. I really got the sense there of how easily miracles can be attached to someone.

Later on in the trip I booked me and my boyfriend into the ashram of a living guru called Amma or Mata Amritanandamayima. Known to many as 'the hugging saint' because she’s travelled around the world blessing millions of people by hugging them. I was amazed to find out that we could actually meet her. That she was singing and hugging people seven nights a week in a huge Ashram built over the fishing village where she grew up. At first, it felt pretty weird to be in a place that was full of photos of one living human being. I’d only experienced that before when I was in Bahrain with pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa everywhere. Though this was slightly more ad-hoc with some of the pictures just printed out and selotaped to the walls. Then I met her – well I queued up for an hour and was one of the hundreds of people on stage that she merrily squashed into her chest. She has assistants all around her that wipe any grease off your forehead and get you to kneel in the right position to hug her. And she gave me a mantra which she whispered into my ear.

It was a moving experience – though I don’t know to what degree that was just being hugged by someone so famous. It also felt pretty great after Stephen Fry kissed my hand and Joan Rivers signed my neck. Then when I left the ashram, I felt I’d left somewhere safe, where I was cared for. But I had questions like, why she was singing for two hours every night even when her voice sounded like it was about to give up? How come the ashram seems to favour western devotees? And if she’s had this global following for years and is verging on omnipotent, how come the only English I heard her speak was, ‘Two line please!’ While handing out food to thousands of people. I think there is something special about her, you can see that in her endurance. The way she can stay there hugging people, making people feel loved for over 24 hours. I found myself thinking about Marina Abramovic and her performance 'The Artist is Present,' where she sat opposite 1545 people one at a time for around five minutes each.

I went away to quite a serious yoga ashram for a while. But I was very glad to come back to this mad place where this lady sings so hard she looses her voice, flinging her arms back while hundreds of people join in. There was a biography of Amma’s life in our room. It’s what in religious terminology is called a hagiography, basically a very reverential mythic interpretation of the person’s life. It’s a unique gospel, this story of a girl growing up in a tropical fishing village, who starts channeling Krishna. She becomes so immersed in God at one point that she lives on the beach, eating among other things glass and feces. She gets brought food by eagles and cures a leper by licking his wounds. I heard a lot of people talking about their own miracles and coincidence stories involving Amma. At one point I gave her a light up pencil topper that I’d bought off a lady on the train. I think I wanted to amuse her and make her notice me. She smiled wildly and showed it to some children. Her assistants told me, ‘Amma liked it, Amma liked it.’ Then two days later I was passing a stall where American women sell Amma’s old stuff. One said, ‘Do you want this?’ Holding out the pencil topper to me, having no idea that I’d given it to Amma.

But after leaving Amma’s ashram I started questioning the entire nature of gurus. Is someone ever so enlightened and infallible that we can put our trust in them entirely. I read in ‘The Guru Papers’ by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, that there’s a belief, the more enlightened someone is the less likely they are to abuse their position. But in actuality these transcendent states of mind don’t protect against the insidiousness of being followed by thousands of people. One interesting question is, do these transcendent states even always confer morality? Can someone be having an experience of non-duality or oneness and still do the kind of dubious things Sai Baba and Osho did?

I went to Ramana Maharishi’s Ashram and stood in front of his statue. The statue is all in black which felt like a very powerful representation of this person who represents a non-dual void state. But I found myself, questioning things he’d said. He says that the true self, the divine, is the awareness beyond thought - the thing that observes your thoughts. But I’d read a book called ‘I Am a Strange Loop’ by Douglas Hoffstadter that says consciousness is created by the fractal looping and repetition of thoughts. This would mean that awareness and thoughts are actually two sides of the same thing, they both create each other. I don’t doubt Ramana Maharishi’s enlightenment experience. But I wonder if explanation of that experience will always be conjecture.

There’s a guru called Nisargadatta who I originally wasn't into. In old black and white videos he seems like an angry old man, shouting and smoking and wagging his finger at the camera. But I found myself empathising with his explanation more than Ramana’s. He said, 'Witness consciousness is not permanent, the knower rises and sets with the known.' That even our awareness is transient. Though this is me, someone who has problems meditating for more than a few minutes, judging the teachings of two spiritual heavy weights.

In Tiruvanamalai where Ramana Maharishi’s ashram is, the line between homelessness, enlightenment, and mental health issues is quite blurry. There’s a lot of extreme looking people with rudraksha beads wrapped around a single matted dreadlock of hair and turmeric smeared over their faces. But the most extreme looking is a 'siddha' (a living enlightened being) called Thoppi Amma. She has a long dirty skirt which she hitches up, as she walks around like someone in Victorian London. She has a stern look, a plaid shirt, a huge matted tangle of hair, a baseball cap, and food all down her front. People try to give her hats as a way of receiving her blessing. I saw a Youtube video of someone repeatedly trying to give her a hat and Thoppi Amma getting angry and grabbing their hair. But she apparently walks around the holy mountain at the centre of Tiruvanamalai once a day. And when I suddenly bumped into her, she smiled at me.

Another is Swami Mouna, who spends every day in silence covered in ash, sitting on his one dreadlock and looking at an altar of a deity called Balaji. He only moves briefly to give people a darshan (blessing) where he holds out one hand and looks at you. He also does a puja (ritual) where bells either side of the stage are rung so loud you think you will go deaf. He goes to the toilet briefly, once a day, then sits back on his dreadlock in front of the altar. People are building an ashram around him, and he has a young slightly gothic looking Russian girl who has been assisting him for five years. I watched a video of her talking with some hippy guys. One asked her, ‘Is anyone recording his life like writers did with Ramana Maharishi.’ Which is kind of a stupid question when he just sits there all day saying nothing. He has no doctrine or explanation, he’s just a living representation of devotion.

There’s an idea that just by being physically near an enlightened person can convey a bit of that experience to you. I’ve read so many accounts of this that it seems like a very real phenomenon. I don’t think it happened for me with Amma or Mouna Swami – but maybe that’s my cynicism. I probably felt it more in front of Ramana Maharishi’s statue. Though I think it’s easier to put someone who is no longer living in that God-like enlightened position. I don’t think I could ever be a fully dedicated follower of a single person – living or dead. But I'll never stop being interested in what is happening inside the black box of these guru's brains.

You can get copies of my novel "The Space Between Galaxies" at Amazon or Lulu

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