The Practice of Unfoldment
- Neera Kashyap

9.40 pm


Two years gone. Still I wasn't allowed to enter the temple. Stood outside and gazed through the pillared porch into the ardha mantapam leading to the sanctum sanctorum. At least tried. Stepped in and sat down as casually as I could against a carved pillar. I know my body looked at ease, cross-legged in a clean mundu, but I sweated, waited. Someone tapped me on my shoulder. Shankara Swami was carrying the brass lamp that had been lit for the arti. He looked down at me without any expression.


There was nothing more I wished to write in my diary about the day. The sharp stab of rejection I had felt two years ago had dulled into endurance. Both ways it was rejection, nothing to record. I looked up at the fan. It rotated so slowly that I could see each blade move. I didn't need it in this weather, but it kept the mosquitoes at bay. Insects flitted around the naked bulb, around my work clothes hung on nails, but returned to the light. I checked to make sure they were not winged termites.

When I had first been given this room, it had been damp. The timber in the door and window had hollowed out, termite dust coming away as yellow powder in my hands. My room wasn't the first thing I worked on when I arrived from the US to take up permanent residence at Sathguru Achutananda's ashram. It was the last. I had come here to realize the Atman, but the route seemed to move through carpentry, masonry, floor paving, tile laying, electric work, toilet construction, tree pruning, animal husbandry --  the works. I had started with repairing the beams and columns of the temple -- I was allowed in for this, but not for the pujas -- then moved to repair Sathguru's hut. I had not felt the heat inside the same way I had when Kuppusamy, the ashram hand and I entered Sathguru's room through the vestibule as repair men. I saw that the gaps in the thatch had been blocked to prevent rain from entering, obstructing air convection, making the room still and humid. With the help of his attendant Ramaswami, Sathguru moved out quietly one night to take up temporary residence in the temple, while we worked on the repairs.


The bamboo sticks supporting the thatch had split open in parts, so had to be replaced whole. We unblocked the openings in the thatch and covered them with a bamboo mesh to prevent rain passing through. [D1] We coated the floor with red oxide so it would feel cool. I painted the thick walls made with mud, cow dung and chopped straw the colour of earth. By the time we moved Sathguru's few belongings back, I knew it wasn't enough. But I would have to wait. If a devotee came and donated some money, Shankara Swami would see what was of first priority, and then decide. I had suggested promoting Sathguru and his teachings -- nothing big -- just booklets and brochures and a website. Sathguru had smiled and we had left it at that.


The ashram building was an old traditional Tamil house with open and semi-enclosed courtyards, a kitchen yard with trees, plants and a well, a few outlying huts with clusters of trees and sheds and a short track leading to a temple in front. It had been donated to Sathguru by his old childhood friend and devotee, Mutthuswamy, who had also helped run the ashram until he died suddenly a few years before I came. By then, Sathguru and the ashram had come to be known in the region.


During weekly satsangs and special festivals, people would come from nearby villages and towns to listen to Sathguru sing his keerthanams set to his own music -- as he played the veena. I picked up Tamil by studying the songs he sang and discovered their rich philosophical and advaitic content. An ashram celibate student, Brahmachari Nayana had explained to me, that Sathguru’s compositions adhered to strict rules of Tamil prosody which demanded proper rhyme at proper places in the composition. Many songs had an additional rhyming pattern – iyaibu edhugai – which enhanced their musical quality. Sathguru also used Sanskrit words liberally to convey Vedic and advaitic thoughts. The central open courtyard and enclosed verandahs would fill up when he sang. Few understood the classical phrases, but they rose with the music to merge with the stars and with the throbbing of our hearts.


It was his photograph that had pierced my heart right through. Browsing through a bookshop back home in the US, I had reached for a book I had no interest in: Living Saints of Tamil Nadu. The book opened in my hands to his face: bearded, wizened, with deep set eyes that glinted like two fiery orbs, but felt cool. I returned home to meditate. For several hours, I used the mantra I had been given by my Transcendental Meditation teacher to quieten down. The mind settled into a state of restful alertness; the mantra faded. I visualized my body lifting into the air in the position I was sitting – cross legged. My mind was clear of expectations, unlike previous times when I would be anxious. It did not wobble as it had during our training sessions. It stayed calmly in the air about three feet off the ground and then sank back slowly.  


There was nothing I could find on the Internet on this saint  except that he had written books of holy songs and musical compositions in at least three languages, and lived in a southern district of Tamil Nadu. It was enough for a first foray. The second time the attraction was stronger and became permanent.


He looked younger in reality. When Shankara Swami first ushered me into his hut, he indicated silence. The room was dimly lit. Sathguru sat on a low rope-strung stool with rounded wooden legs, his eyes closed. I lowered myself onto a bamboo mat placed against the opposite wall. A low bed against the third wall had the same wooden legs, a thin mattress and a couple of bolsters -- all clad in a beige cloth. Wooden planks served as shelves for books, clothes, articles of personal use and musical instruments. At one end was a space for worship rising from the ground in two levels: prayer utensils and a photograph in the lower, stone idols and a lingam in the higher. Smoke rose from coal embers burning in a pot placed near the lower wall.


I was exhausted by the journey it took to reach here. My mind seethed with resistance and pronounced me crazy a thousand times. The smoke made my eyes smart so I shut them tight to keep them from watering. The dim light of the hut began to glow behind my eyelids. My body slumped a little. Slowly, the exhaustion left. I could feel his meditative state enter me, spread inside me slowly. I surrendered to it and slipped into sleep, woke up into a restful awareness, then blanked out again. He was smiling when my eyes opened, smiling into the distance. The hut was now dimly lit by the rays of the sun. Birds sang tentative notes. I rose a little, extended my body full-length on the floor in salutation. His hand touched my head lightly. That touch never left me in all the years to come.


Outside, Shankara Swami looked at me strangely, retracted his steps from the temple track to lead me to a room among a row of rooms that flanked the central courtyard. He felt as cold as the rusting lock he struggled with. Finally he could push the door open and enter a musty, unventilated room with a metal bed and a bamboo chair that tilted on its broken leg.


On the first visit, I sat for hours with Sathguru as if this was the most natural thing to do – this wasn’t natural at all once I came to stay.


He smiled when I told him about my levitation experience. ‘I had a yoga guru from whom I learnt traditional yoga for some years,’ he said. ‘It was with yoga as the base that I learnt to levitate. One night my father fell very ill. After attending to him, I retired to my room for my yogic exercises, locking my door. Very soon, I had levitated. Suddenly there were urgent knocks on the door. I was six feet up in the air and could come down only slowly. Meanwhile, the knocking became so intense that the commotion caused me to fall with a thud. I had held my breath for the levitation and should have released it. Instead, it remained held in my system, becoming too heavy for me. The pain was unbearable. I felt like a worm squirming in the hot sun. My guru had to be called. He instructed me to start the yogic exercise again, to levitate as usual and then come down. My entire breath, which had become a burning knot, was finally released. My guru was kind but warned me against such dangers. On that very day, I gave up the practice.’


He smiled -- his deep gaze boring into me. ‘Sometimes we need to prove to ourselves that we have balanced our life energy, our samana energy stored in air sacs beneath the pores of our skin. With this, we hope to enjoy the powers that come from body-and-mind control, which can make us levitate or do other things.’ He gestured dismissively at this, looked at his guru's photograph for a while. ‘Sometimes we want to levitate because we want to rise above something very unpleasant, a childhood trauma maybe. We think this will give us the power of transcendence. An easier, more reliable way is to let the trauma come up, be aware of it…of each thought related to it... and to let go of each thought...consciously... to follow the thought to its source and be absorbed by the source.’


So he knew -- he knew the whole bloody business of sodomy. I had bled until I thought I would die. I was ten and he, my mother's brother,  training for priesthood, would visit every weekend and share my room. Three years... three terrifying years till he  moved to work with a priest for a fucking priesthood. The ugliness remained with me. Nobody could bring it out. Not my father -- an alcoholic, or my mother. Nothing could heal it: drugs, wild times, shrinks, meditation, levitation -- nothing. Here it was out, just like that. As if someone had gently whispered to a chrysalis to open and come into its own as a butterfly.


He did not sing that night in the central starlit courtyard, but told stories instead. There were only the ashram members around him. He spoke in English. His voice was soft, yet powerful.


‘The power of the Guru's silence is immense. Not very far from here near Vadalur, there lived, in the late sixteenth century, a Guru, Sorupananda, and his disciple, Tattvarayar, who was also his nephew. They were both fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil and learned in the sastras. Both realized this was not enough and headed in opposite directions in search of another guru who could instruct them in self-knowledge. In a holy place called Govattam, on the banks of the Kaveri, Sorupananda felt deep tranquility. He realized he was in the presence of a great soul. On investigating he found that a holy sage lived there, in almost continuous samadhi, except for some spells of wakefulness in the morning. Sorupananda waited. When the sage came out one morning, he bowed to him in the proper manner and begged him to accept him as his devotee. When he had received the Guru’s grace, Sorupananda waited for Tattvarayar’s return.’


Sathguru's eyes moved over his audience and remained for a while on me. A breeze picked up, blowing a few brown leaves into the courtyard. My eyes closed.


His voice felt more and more like a salve: ‘Tattvarayar had travelled to the north, but he had not had the darshan of any Guru. When he lost all hope, he gave up his search and returned to the south. On his way he met Sorupananda who, by that time, had realized the Self, the Atman. Tattvarayar then received the grace of his uncle. Now see how the influence of self-knowledge works. Slowly, and in its own time. Sorupananda and Tattvaraya began to live together as Guru and disciple. To honor his guru, Tattvaraya composed a bharani which is a kind of poetic composition in Tamil. He convened an assembly of poets to hear the work and assess its value. The great pandits protested, 'A bharani is sung only in honour of a king who has killed a thousand elephants in battle. How can an ascetic be compared to a king of such valour?' Tattvaraya then took the pandits to his Guru and told him about the purpose of their visit. The Guru sat silent, so did the others. The whole day passed and the night, then several days and nights of silence. Then Sorupananda worked his mind and the others regained their thought process! Then they all declared: 'Conquering a thousand elephants is nothing compared to the Guru's power to conquer our egos put together. So certainly he deserves a bharani in his honour.'‘‘



I had read that the powerful presence of a guru could burn off the devotees’ samsakaras. For the first time this idea dawned on me as a probable reality.  


I had worked out how I would say goodbye to him, by beseeching him to make me his disciple. It was not necessary. He sat silent in his hut. Light poured in from everywhere -- through the thatch, the window and the door, his eyes. When I stood before him in supplication -- head bent, palms joined, he bent forward to touch my head, as on the first visit. My eyes smarted, but not from the smoke. I couldn't bring myself to rise. It took a long time.


The night had turned chilly. I switched off the fan, reached out for an earlier diary and opened it at random.


April 13, 1999


Helped Shantaammal in the kitchen grind chutney. Tired of eating sambar rice, sambar rice. Will try making a new sweet with pumpkin and jaggery tomorrow.


Heat got to me this afternoon. Got to Kuppusamy too. He held the ladder while I pruned the branches of a tamarind tree. Made the first notch two feet away from the trunk. Had just started the relief cut when the ladder began to sway. I held to the branch, lost my grip and fell to the ground in a heap. Kuppusamy jumped to help me up. Two large bruises, both on my knees -- blackish blue. Saw Shankara Swami watch me from the storage shed, smiling. Lord, when will this misery go?


The donations are increasing. I try not to keep my eyes glued to the people moving to the donation box. Soon I will ask Shankara Swami if I can change the roof of Sathguru's hut to wood and the thatch to terracotta. Extend the verandah all around. Plant more trees. People are thronging his hut now; there is no space to breathe.


December 3, 1999


Figured out Shankara Swami’s strategy. He releases money for every project needed to improve the ashram, but as the project nears completion he says we need more donations to complete it. The guest toilets remained without a roof for a month before he coughed up the money. Same delays for the fencing, the new cattle shed, kitchen renovations…. I try to follow each negative reaction in me to its bloody source; it scorches my soul.


After lunch, overheard Sathguru say to Shankara Swami: ‘ Don’t waste precious time…don’t waste it. Seek atma anubhava and remain in your true nature.’ S Swami’s body slumped like a half filled sack. I saw I wasn’t laughing, just relieved.


I closed the diaries and stacked them, one on top of the other. I meditated for a while on Sathguru. This worked best to cool me down. I wrapped a thin upper cloth around my bare chest and went out. It was dark except for the dim lights in Brahmachari Nayana’s room and the cattle shed. The wind came from the east, making the palm trees bend to one side. I gazed at the temple for a long time and then entered. There were no conflicting thoughts of being a foreigner, of being impure, of not knowing ritual observances or lacking the necessary reverence. It was as if I had been called to enter and was heeding the call. The pillars in the outer hall felt like vigilant soldiers as I walked past. The sanctum sanctorum was lit by a single oil lamp. It was circular in shape. There was a large Shiva lingam on a raised platform in the centre, marked by ash. The circular wall surrounding the platform had carved stone idols of Ganesha, Dakshinamurthy, Vishnu, Brahma, Durga and others. A fragrance of sandalwood, flowers and incense rose to enclose the lingam and me. My eyes closed.


The attack did not register immediately. The broom slammed against my temple, just grazing my right eye. Shankara Swami towered over me, waiting to strike a second time, his thin face contorted with rage. I sprang up in time and caught his raised arm. A spittle of hate foamed on his lips for a moment. I watched, surprised at how quickly my panic had subsided. Still holding his arm, I plucked the coconut broom out of his hand, flung it out of the sanctum and then strode out through the pillared hall. In my room I collapsed as if I had just been sodomized.


I was too familiar with Sathguru’s teachings to bring up before him issues of justice and injustice, all of which had to be faced with an even hand, with indifference. Word had spread; it was obvious, for I felt like a stranger among friends -- my other beloved ashram friends. They withdrew, leaving me no choice but to work once again on my hurt, letting them go whenever I could focus enough. This time Sathguru also left me on my own to find my own salve. It came from the words of another saint, from a page of a book I opened at random. I never understood the words, but they worked, for I could sleep again. They said: ‘When your individuality is dissolved, you will not see individuals anywhere, it is just a functioning in consciousness. If it clicks in you, it is very easy to understand. If understood, it is profound and simple.’


At the weekly satsang the following week, the night was brilliant with stars. Most people had paid their respects to Sathguru and left. I saw him summon Shankara Swami. My eyes were glued to him, my mind and body alert. He spoke in Tamil.


‘You can start teaching Michael the temple rituals from tomorrow. Start with the morning puja. All the slokas and chants have transliterations in English. First share those with him’. Both Shankara Swami and I remained frozen for a while. I was quick to seize the chance.


‘We need to translate all your songs into English, Swamigal. We need to start a website, print more literature in English so more people can reach you,’ I said quickly.


Sathguru smiled, threw his upper cloth over his shoulder, reached for his stick and began his slow walk to the hut, Ramaswami in tow, carrying the veena over one shoulder. Funds, donations, material improvements were my needs, not his.


Sathguru passed away six months later. He prepared us for this. When he fell sick, he allowed us to bring in devotee doctors for treatment, took the medicines they brought and was passive to our wishes to heal him. During the last days, he asked for his cot to be moved to the central courtyard at night. For twelve nights, we sat or slept around him on our mats, feeling at one with him and nature. On the twelfth night, he passed away in his sleep. It was under the tamarind tree from which I had fallen that we buried him. He had asked to be taken there the night before he passed away. His body was given a thirumanjanam with water from the holy Ganges, decorated, worshipped and placed on a marble plank. By dusk, we lowered this sacred being into the Samadhi pit to the music of his composition, Rama charitram.


I thought I would have to grieve alone. But on the night of the interment, I rose from my bed to answer an urgent knock on my door. Kuppusamy stood trembling on the threshold, a bamboo mat in his hand. He slept the night on the floor below the jackfruit window with the light on. The next night he was joined by Ramaswami. When Brahmachari Nayana also came, I let him weep in my arms, but begged him to go find solace in Sathguru’s hut.


There were fewer visitors now, but the routine remained the same as did the work. It took several weeks before Shankara Swami came to talk. I was in the work shed, planing wood. He strode in with confidence and then stood by, hunched.


‘I wanted to discuss your idea of spreading the word about the ashram, Sathguru’s teachings. Maybe now is the right time. There are fewer visitors, but the teachings should live on.’


I nodded, and then quietened my mind before speaking: ‘We can only respond when people want it. Let it be their need, their requirement. That is how Sathguru always responded. He is present here. He will guide.’


Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist, specializing in environmental journalism; social/health communication and research. She has authored a small book of short stories for young adults, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co, 2003 and contributed to anthologies from Children’s Book Trust, 2003, 2015 & 2016. Her essays have interpreted scriptures and ancient literatures for print journals such as Mountain Path and Life Positive. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in online literary journals Muse IndiaOut of Print Blog, The Bombay Literary MagazineThe Earthen Lamp Journal, Reading Hour, Cerebration and Kritya. She lives in Delhi.