Acts of Faith: Journeys to Sacred India is a sensitive and enriching exploration of the essential meaning and inner dynamics of sacred India. Through a series of deeply textured narratives on well known masters, ashrams and scared sites, it engages and the sacred intersect, each transforming the other. This unusual pilgrimage show the pathway to the Divine is plural and open, rather than closed or restricted.
While there are many travel books on India, few combine an inquiry into the meaning of India with actual visits to sacred sites, encounters with contemporary gurus, and reflections on perennial themes like ‘faith’ and ‘love’. Using both textual sources and actual experiences, Acts of Faith tries to define what constitutes the sacred, making for a highly interesting cartography of India of the spirit’.
About the Author
Makarand R. Paranjape is a widely published critic, poet, fiction writer and literary columnist. He is currently professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His latest books include Another Canon: Indian Texts and Traditions in English, Altered Destinations: Sel], Society, and Nation in India and Making India: Colonialism, National Culture and the Afterlife of Indian English Authority (forthcoming).
I was reaching up to the box in the loft, groping inside without quite knowing what my hands were touching. On the verge of giving up, I pulled something out inadvertently, which fell to the floor. I stepped down, disappointed that I had not found what I was looking for. But suddenly I noticed what had fallen down. An envelope - and jutting out of it, a photograph. It was of Professor Girdhari Lai Tikku, or Giri as he used to be called, and me. The photo had been shot at the comfortable Tikku residence, 108 W. Mumford Drive, in Urbana, a small mid-Western university town, where I went to graduate school to do my Masters and PhD. Giri, looking very self-assured, had an arm around me. I fit quite snugly next to him, but the body language suggested a certain respect, even diffidence.
Giri was my teacher. Not just a professor whose courses I took but, I was convinced, a real guru. When I knew nothing of pursuing the spiritual life, he put The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in my hands.1 That was almost 15 years before the photo and not long after our chance encounter in the huge foyer of the main library of the university. Though it was our very first meeting, he immediately began speaking to me with an unnerving familiarity, as if I were a well-known acquaintance. I, on the other hand, had considerable difficulty figuring out who he was. He said, 'Of course, everyone is here to study, to get a career, and so on, but tell me what is it that you really want?' I decided to take up his opening gambit, to play along: T want to know who I am.' He smiled, 'Ah, I may be able to help you there; as to your studies and career, that is a different matter.' Actually, he was very helpful in both, much more so than I had ever imagined at first contact. Yet the bond that developed between us was not professional - it was spiritual; it was a bond of love.
Now, several years later, on the morning of the Indian Independence Day, 15 August 1995, I got a call from Professor Braj B. Kachru, another teacher of mine from the University of Illinois. The message was terse, 'I'm sorry to tell you that Giri passed away today' I was too stunned to respond immediately. Professor Kachru added, 'He went peacefully, in his sleep. Rima (his wife) and the kids are ok.' Professor Kachru informed me that Giri had been diagnosed with 'The Big C some months ago. I remembered that he had suffered from a variety of ailments in the last few years. In fact, while I was still at Urbana-Champaign, he had already undergone a triple-bypass surgery.
I recalled that time vividly. It was at the Carle Clinic that I went to visit him when he was still under intensive care. I was feeling miserable, but I wasn't sure if I should be sombre or cheery. My confusion must have been evident to him. The moment I sat down he smiled and said, in Hindi, 'Iss tarah muh nahin banatein (Don't make such a long face).' The atmosphere lightened up immediately. He not only put me at ease, but showed me that commiseration or concern is not the same as passing one's own anxiety on the patient. He was still - and always -showing me the way.
A few years later in 1987, after I had returned to India and was teaching at the University of Hyderabad, Giri came to visit. It was a hectic trip. We also travelled together, taking an overnight train to Gulbarga University in the neighbouring state, where Giri delivered a university-wide lecture in Urdu - a language he hadn't spoken for years. He started a bit tentatively but was so successful in the end that he was mobbed by students for autographs. 'Knowing Persian helps,' he quipped modestly afterwards. On returning to Hyderabad, there was more academic hustle and bustle of a similar sort. In the middle of it all, suddenly, one morning, Giri was taken ill. He could not pass urine and was in great pain. I knew one of the leading urologists in Hyderabad and telephoned him immediately. He advised me to get Giri admitted to the Hyderabad Nursing Home where he was a consultant.
In those days, before the rise of medical tourism, Indian hospitals were not quite what they are today. The room Giri had was modest, with a grey-black slate floor and unpretentious furniture. It was not even air-conditioned. I could see from Giri's expression that he was not quite sure that this was the right place for him to be treated. But he did not say a word. As the treatment progressed, however, he became more and more satisfied, not only with the calibre of the medical attention he received, but also with the politeness and consideration of the staff, not to speak of the cleanliness of the premises. He told me later, ‘The quality of medical treatment was actually very good. My room was swept and swabbed every day. This country has a great future. Most of all, the people are much more caring and considerate.’ Giri recovered quickly. I had the unique opportunity of being of some assistance to him.
Before he returned to the United States, Giri had dinner one evening with Sarina, my wife, and me at our flat in Mehdipatanam, Hyderabad. After we had finished, he told me a story: 'Once, a holy man fell sick in the house of one of his disciples. The whole family nursed him with patience and devotion. They never complained or even regarded this duty as a burden. In due course, the holy man recovered and left his disciple's home. In a few months, the disciple's income doubled.’ He then looked at me and smiled. I said, 'So should I of fortune?' He laughed, 'Don't be too sure of that, but it is puzzling, isn't it, that I had to fall ill at your doorstep?'
While I had a permanent position at the University of Hyderabad, Sarina, at that time, was professionally rather unhappy . Despite two post-graduate degrees from the US, she moved from project, getting neither enough money nor due credit for her hard work, let alone a permanent position. She had begun to apply outside Hyderabad to get a job commensurate with her qualifications. Soon after Giri left, she appeared for an interview for a very good opening with a bi-national organization in New Delhi. Before the results were announced, I had a dream in which the director of the organization, whom I did not meet till much later, told me that she had selected Sarina. I woke up with a sense of great hope and happiness. The dream turned out to be true. Not only was Sarina's salary more than doubled, but secured for life.
These and many other incidents flashed through my mind when I saw that photograph. I remembered that it was taken in the year 1993 the last time I visited Giri. He and his lovely wife Rima had driven up to the nearest airport, Springfield, Illinois, to receive me. As we motored back through the flat prairies of Illinois, I felt flooded with exhilaration an peace. It was a beautiful , sunny summer day. Cruising down the smooth freeway induced a sense of freedom and expansion of being Life seemed to be so good, so full of possibilities.
Giri and Rima were happy too, but seemed rather alone. Their children were away at graduate school, one finishing his PhD in engineering and the other pursuing graduate studies in California. Rima had put on weight an looked joly. Giri was still reading new books, thinking new ideas, but publishing almost nothing. About ‘professional’ academics, he had a simple formulation, ‘Yeh sab bakwaas hain (All of it is nonsense).’ But he really believed in a d lived the life of the mind. Already a full professor for nearly three decades, mere careerism never held any attraction for him.
During that visit,, perhaps the most precious experience was our early morning mediation in his prayer room. It was not really a room but a large walk-in closet in his bedroom, full of pictures of various Gods and Goddesses. Dimlly lit but beautifully decorated it had such wonderful atmosphere. The faint smell of incense always lingered there. I felt tht worship, which is the soul’s contact with the divine, is an intensely private, deeply personal activity. Of course, millions can also pray together, but that is not the same as a secluded, almost intinate contact with God. This was clear as we sat together to worship that day.
It was Giri who had first taught me how to meditate some years earlier. His formula was simple: tell all your senses that you’re about to conduct some serious business; tell them that you will not be attending to them for while, and that they should not try to draw you outward with their perceptions or sensations. After that, you turn inward, closing the doors and windows of themind to the outside world. Once you are reasonably comfortable in a particular place, cleanse your inner being of negatibiy. Cleanse the space around you, starting with the room you are in. Then send out positive thoughts in all directions may all beings be happy; may they all be free from afflictions; may their hearts be purified. Consciously transmitting your positive vibrations everywhere. Your meditation may now commence.
I remembered his instructions as we prayed together that morning. All the pictures of the Gods and Goddesses see offered them flowers from Giri's home garden. Lalitasahasraman, a sacred Hindu text containing a thousand names of the Divine Mother Goddess - the supreme power who directs and controls our lives. This was the great tantric text he had asked me to peruse when I had turned to him for spiritual advice in 1981. He said, 'Study this; it's sufficient. It has everything I have been reading the text with almost unbroken regularity, little realizing what it was actually doing for me. That anticipated the next name. It felt like such a significant act, as if our combined energies were going out to heal and whole room, and everything beyond it, reverberated with a powerful, affirmative pulsation. He had introduced me making me read it and repeat the names after him, he seemed to be reinforcing the initiation.
Yet Giri never acted as if he was my guru; he not even admitted to playing that role. What bound us was a tie of reciprocal affection. But this did not mitigate his directness, even hurtful candour. Once, for instance, he suddenly said, 'You won't make it; you are too earnest, too literal. Loosen up a bit. All of life is a game. Play is too enjoying it, without taking it too seriously.' He demonstrated this by always kidding. Once, for instance, when he was approached by an Egyptain foreign student to sign a political petition, he joked, 'Yes, if you give me two dollars!’ The student was too shocked to respond and retreated after staring at him open-mouthed. I asked, 'Why two bucks?' He replied, ‘One for you and one for me.' After all, he implied, he couldn't simply ignore me, now that I was actually with him.
Thus, he took an interest in me and became deeply involved my life. I, in turn, was devoted to him, considering him my teacher both academically and spiritually. When I look back on the role Giri played in my life, I am certain that it was more than that of a friend, philosopher and guide. He was all those but much more. He supervised my PhD dissertation-on 'Mysticism in Indian English Poetry,’ though he was neither my official supervisor, nor dissertation director. He served as a member of my doctoral committee and even defended me during the viva when another member commented sarcastically that some sentences in my dissertation sounded rather bombastic, if not pompous. Giri said, 'Makarand should be excused for getting a bit carried away now and then; after all, he was dealing with highly inspired mystics.' Everyone laughed. The crisis was averted. I scored a 'distinction', the highest possible grade on the dissertation defense. I was so immature, but Giri overlooked my faults and kept encouraging my inner growth as a spiritual aspirant.
One day, I happened to see an old photo of his, framed in silver, and tucked away in a corner over the fireplace in his living room. The man in it looked totally different, with dark, thick, almost curly hair, a tweed suit and a cigarette in is hand, standing next to other well-dressed people. 'Who is this?' I asked. He pointed at himself silently. The picture was taken when he was an Indian Foreign Service diplomat posted in Tehran. 'But,' I cried, 'it does not look anything like you!' 'Yes, it does not. That is me, but in a different life.' I looked at him wondering, 'You mean, one can have several lives in this, one life?' He laughed and said, 'Just you wait and see.' Somehow, I didn't quite like the sound of that. I thought to myself not so much that I would never change, but that whatever changes took place, they would only occur in me, in this one life that I had. Of course, I was proven wrong, not once, but twice over.
In fact, it was he who had set me on my great adventure into the varieties of modern Indian mysticism. I say varieties advisedly, not only because it echoes the title of William James's famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience, but also because, if nothing else, that was the one thing I understood at the end of my PhD. Spiritual journeys were always diverse, if not divergent. There is neither origin nor closure in the realm of the spirit. Not just that, there is perfect freedom of approach and no laws or dogmas can circumscribe or curtail this freedom. God, being infinite, may be found in countless ways and places. Notions of right and wrong are man-made. There is no absolute rule or regulation; the 'republic of the spirit' is a democracy, not a dictatorship. In it, each of us has to chart his or her own independent and unique course. No one can dictate or prescribe it for us.
Similarly, even the discourse of spirituality is neither unitary nor oppressive. The limitless, even frightening freedom of its myriad manifestations and paths was one of the most valuable lessons that Giri taught me: the pluralism of spiritual pursuits, the openness and wideness of methodology, the utter heterodoxy and excitement of its twists and turns. The multiplicity at the he actually be threatening or terrifying to many. No wonder they slip into the dogmatism of conventional religion with its rigid hierarchies and cunning priests. Or worse, turn to bigots, fanatics or religious terrorists.
From our very first meeting in 1981 near the main card catalogue of the library, I knew there was something special had greeted me as if I were an old friend. I had never met him before; I didn't know who he was, nor had I properly introduced myself. But we plunged right into what seemed to be an old< and when had this conversation begun, and would it ever end, I did not know.
Though I responded positively, I was guarded. I wanted to know the coordinates. Who was he? What was he just being friendly like many Americans are, without any real feeling? I wasn't even sure that he was an Indian; because he was fair and had light eyes, he could as easily have been Middle reading my mind, he introduced himself, telling me his name, saying he was a Kashmiri Pandit, and designation, which was professor of comparative literature. Later, I found out that he lived in Iran for several years before coming the US. From the library, instead of going our separate ways, we actually walked straight to his office in the Foreign Languages Building.
What Giri impressed upon me a few days after we had met was that academics would go on, since I had to study towards a degree, but what he was really interested in were 'other, more fundamental questions’. He did not, of course, spell out what these questions were. All he said was that we should be after the asli cheez (real thing). Perhaps, he was a bit insecure about calling this pursuit 'spirituality’ r something else, thinking that it might turn me off, as it had so many others. But unlike most people who avoided this sort of inquiry, I readily fell for the bait.
I was, as Henry David Thoreau had put it, ‘simmering, simmering, simmering, and it was Giri who brought me to a boil. ‘What should I read?' I asked him, still smarting from a question which the famous Indian author Raja Rao had put me when he visited our campus,’ what do you really want?' I found that, just like Ramana Maharshi's question, 'Who am I?' Raja Rao's question too had no easy answer. When I said that I had come to pursue a PhD in English, he said, 'Of course, but what do you - all of us - really want?' I was stumped for an answer. Dimly, I recognized that he possibly meant something concerning the ultimate aim of human life. But I felt ill-equipped to take that on. I thought that if I could read or connect with something, I would know a little better. So I asked Giri. Unhesitatingly, he took a copy^of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna from his bookshelf and gave it to me. Mahendranath Guptas account of the life, times and experiences of Sri Ramakrishna seemed to offer answers to both of the vexing questions I had been harbouring secretly for years. Who was I ? And also, if I was the ego, then how could I be free of myself? Sri Ramakrishna, with great love and authority, convinces us that nothing else is worth striving for in this world except God. You may call it by any name, realization, enlightenment, liberation, gnosis or emptiness. But it is for this that we are born - nothing else, no one else. Though I’ forget this from time to time, I always return to it because of the absolute clarity with which I first saw in those days.
When I wanted to return to India after my PhD, Giri was the only one who encouraged me. He himself had wanted to go back and once come very close to it, but had to stay in the United States for the sake of his family. So sure had he been of leaving that he donated all his books to the University of Illinois Library, including a signed copy of Jawaharlal Nehru's Autobiography, He was also on the verge of buying a house in Nizamuddin West, an up-market colony in New Delhi. So when I told him that I was keen on going back to 'serve India', as I thought, quite romantically, I might do, he actually said, 'Good. Yahi karna chahiye (That is what you ought to do).' While others thought I was being foolish if not impractical, Giri believed in both India and me. Many years later, I met Giri's guru Swami Ramananda after I had returned and settled down in India. This had been my sincere wish for a long time: to meet the guru of my guru. So when Giri informed that Swamiji was passing through Delhi, I did not want to miss the chance to have his darshan. I visited him at the New Delhi Railway Station, of all places. He was on his way from Jammu to Mookambika, a famous shrine of the Mother Goddess in her mute (mooka) form near Mangalore in South India. I would have been honoured to invite him to my house, but he was surrounded by zealous devotees, who wanted him all to themselves. While in transit, he had chosen to camp at the railway station. This was the only window of opportunity to see him. So, on the busy platform of the railway station I sat awhile at his feet. People were dropping fruit, flowers and other offerings all over him in their eagerness to tender devotion. It would have irritated one to no end, but he bore it sportingly, without the least trace of discomfort or irritation.
I had the chance to eat a couple of grapes that had rolled off over his cropped, grey head and fallen into my hands as prasad or sanctified offering. Later, a little less beleaguered in the railway compartment, he turned to me and said rather enigmatically, 'He (meaning Giri) is a big chor (thief). Bahut bada badmash hai (He's a really big rascal).' I blinked uncomprehendingly.
Swamiji said, 'Suppose I have one rupee, how can I divide it between two?'
'Give each 50 paisa, Swamiji’,I said without thinking.
'Suppose it's a coin that cannot be changed?'
'Give it to the one who can use it for both/ I replied.
Swamiji gave me a toothless smile. The conversation ended.
I have often wondered about the significance of those words. Did Swamiji have 'passage fare' only for one person, that is Giri, and here I was being smuggled in, towards the fag end of his (Swamji's) life, two for the price of one? I don't know. On my part, I was perfectly content that the reserved berth went to Giri. His crossing was sure to benefit me too, however intangibly. Swamiji himself left his body soon afterwards. He was buried at the Sadhu Ghat in Haridwar, a special area by the banks of the sacred river Ganga reserved for renunciates and ascetics. In a profound sense, I am still not entirely sure who my own guru - the person who holds the key to my spiritual identity - is. I have encountered other godmen, great mahatmas and sadhus; many of them were so distant that I could hardly relate to them, while others were more intimate than my own relatives. One of these, Yogi Ramsuratkumar of Tiruvannamalai, was someone whom I felt very close to. Yet it was Giri, to all appearances an 'ordinary' householder, who guided me in a language I could understand and pointed me towards the journey to the Ultimate, long earlier, when I was just starting out.
In a sense, I owe this book to him because he opened the door to the great mystery that lies at the heart of the universe. Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? What is the purpose of life? Such questions are behind most human endeavours and our responses to them have shaped civilizations. Giri also led me to believe that these questions assumed a special urgency in India which, since its earliest recorded history, has come to be identified not with a particular religion or creed, but with the eternal quest of the human race. It is not that spiritual searching is absent in other parts of the world, or even that other human endeavours are devalued in India, but can anyone deny that a man's spiritual longing has found its most enduring, most varied, most inspiring expressions in India? That is why it is here that we find a superabundance of spiritual striving and finding.
It is this spirit of India that I have tried to capture in this book. The different chapters offer vignettes of contemporary India where the profane and the sacred intersect. The object of the book is to show how the terrain of the sacred in India is varied, but ever open. Usually, it is the modern, secular and non-sacred which is seen as the champion of liberal values in our society, thus setting up what I consider a false secular-sacred dichotomy. Unfortunately, what we have in India is a struggle between 'hard' secularists and religious zealots, while what we need is a 'soft' dialogue between the best of both. This would mean a combination of two pluralisms - religious and secular - in alliance against two intolerances. This book suggests such an alliance through a series of textured readings of texts and journeys to places of pilgrimage. My purpose is to reach, both through personal experience and research, that 'India of the spirit'.
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