India November 1996
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Swami Rama took Mahasamadhi on November 13, 1996 @ 11:08 PM at the Swami Rama Centre in India.
In Minnesota, Justin and I just finished lunch and went for a beautiful ride in the sunshine after errands. That morning I had the incredible “dream” of Gurudev coming to say goodbye and kissing me gently.
Brian Stoltz from New Orleans heard of the death and wanted to call me. In a dream Gurudev said “No” to him. He tried again. “Don’t you dare! Don’t disturb her. She’ll call you tomorrow.” And I did before boarding the plane to India.
The Danda Swamis
They walked into the compound majestically—forty-three Danda Swamis dressed like fire. All wearing clothes of ochre, burnt orange, bright yellow, crimson, rose, saffron, apricot and peach. They looked untamed, eyes blazing, hair and beards grizzly, years of spiritual practice etched in their somber faces. One after another they entered the huge white tent, with grand, measured strides, emanating power and self-knowledge with every step. Each carried the tall, ochre-covered stick of bamboo that set them apart from the other sadhus, the holy ones of India.
They came to honor one of their own, the swami who “dropped his body,” as the yogis say, fifteen days before. Now, invited as honored guests to the great ceremony in honor of the departed one, they joined the thousands already assembled in the name of this sage, this former danda swami, this master of self, this builder of institutions for humanity, this lover of souls, this writer of spiritual tomes, this avant guard scientist, this teacher par excellence, this most human of yogis, this most divine of men.
The honored one left this plane as he taught others to leave, fully conscious, with three inhalations and one final exhalation, floating out through the top of his skull. His spirit departed according to tradition, leaving his heart to beat in ever-diminishing force over the next hour, continuing its habit of giving for others beyond the human power to do so.
The body lay in state for a day while thousands came to see it. As word of his passing buzzed around the world, students and admirers came from the villages, from Europe, Australia, the Americas, the tropical islands, from the forests and hills, the cities and mountain caves of his native India. All day, all night, they passed by his form, lying simply on the floor, dressed in an ochre robe.
I made the first of those robes for him twenty-one years earlier. “Tree,” he said as I unpacked kimono gifts from his suitcase after his teaching tour of Japan, “can you make such a robe for me in my size and my color?”
“What color is that?” I asked, as I pulled out the white suits, the white kurta and pants he typically wore.
He replied with careful words. “The color of fire,” he said.
And so I copied the details of the kimono, making changes to fit his use over the years, searching for cotton velour up and down the garment district of New York City, pure cotton in the fabric stores of Chicago, pure wool in the shops of London and pure silk in Tokyo, using my accumulated ashram stipends to buy yards and yards of cloth, spending hours cutting and sewing while he was traveling, or late at night after my office work was complete, sometimes during the hours he counseled students or during his short afternoon rest.
I brought each new robe to him whenever I completed it, but he always guessed when a new one was ready. “Tree, where is the kimono you just finished?” he would ask via office phone minutes after I left my sewing machine. Or as I brought his meal in to serve him, “You witch! I know you have two robes for me. Where are you hiding them?”
But after each of my teacher’s trips abroad as I unpacked his bags, I noted that he was missing the robes I sent him away with. Early on I asked where they were. “Perhaps my suitcase was broken into and they were stolen!” he would say with surprised eyes, or “Are you sure I took some with me this time?” in pretended confusion. Eventually I realized that like most of his belongings, he gave the robes away to those who needed them. He passed them along to the mountain yogis, to the danda swamis in the cities, and occasionally to a close student with love. Eventually I learned to stop asking the question and just note that I needed to begin sewing again.
Once, for the most important holiday of the yoga tradition, Guru Purnima, I worked especially hard on a fine, textured silk robe. Hidden in the lining so that it would secretly lay against his heart, were the Sanskrit words, “Beloved Guru” that I tediously embroidered with white silk thread. When I entered his office on that afternoon to make tea, I brought the robe in a big, white box, not knowing that a guest swami was visiting.
“Oh good! Tree is here with my new robe. Take a look, Swamiji. This is a special robe Tree made for me. The robe says, “Beloved Guru” even though you cannot see the words. See? See how she loves?” One could never give more than the guru gave; it was impossible.
“Swamis wear saffron-colored garb,” he had said, “to symbolize the color of fire, the color of knowledge. When you have such determination that you are able to burn all your desires in the fire of knowledge, then you wear that color.”
After his mahasamadhi, Gurudev’s body lay in state in one of the ochre robes with the energy still blazing off his body, until the faithful ones passed prayerfully by, until the politicians came claiming friendship and allegiance, until the curious had their wish of his presence fulfilled, until the news media wrote sufficient stories for their broadcast, until the students received their one final blessing, and until the cremation flames roared through the great logs of wood to reach that fire robe, that fire body, that fire yogi, and unite with him at last.
When the ashes from the funeral pyre were cool enough, they were placed in small brass vessels and poured into the Ganges River at the sacred places that he loved: Haridwar, Rishikesh, Deoprayag, Uttarkashi, and the river branch near the forests of Tarkeshwar. By nightfall the last remnants of his body were all returned to the Himalayas from which he came, and over which he had wandered for so many years.
For fifteen days we mourned his passing. Thousands of students, initiates, and disciples all over the world were represented by the chief mourner, a long-time, beloved disciple named Roshan Lal. He left his home, shaved his head, and began his duties. He sat vigil before the little altar set up to the saint with its flame burning day and night, invited thousands to the liberation ceremonies, and set the flames to the funeral pyre. Each day, after morning prayers and ritual bathing, his wife began the beautiful ceremony of cooking for the beloved. Many times, over the years, she had cooked meals for the sage. She knew which dishes he most enjoyed, which ones suited him best. Now, with a heavy heart, she shopped for the finest ingredients, scoured the kitchen clean, changed into fresh clothing, and began preparing the meal. When the dishes were all cooked, she served them up on a silver tray and called her husband. He offered the food to the spirit of the teacher and then carried it carefully out to the pasture to feed to a cow, symbol of life, motherhood, generosity, patience, symbol of spiritual India. Only when the cow had eaten all that was offered did the mourner return to the kitchen and take as his single meal of the day the leftover food. Now, after a private ritual at the place of the death, we left the little rooms where the great yogi had breathed his last and where his body lay on the floor in its ochre robe. We entered an immense white tent as the fires were lit again, this time in celebration of the sublime life the yogi had lived. Row after row of Hindus and Sikhs, yogis and believers, teachers and students, businessmen and poor farmers, hospital workers and beggars filled the vast space.
It was then that the danda swamis entered the compound. They settled on the tent floor slowly so that their dandas, the bamboo sticks of seven sections symbolizing the seven states of consciousness, never touched the ground. They watched with knowing eyes as the offerings of grain and ghee, flowers and cash, milk and fruit were thrown into the huge fire pit on the raised platform by the chief mourner, a dozen pandits, two thousand followers. They nodded their heads in the sage’s honor as thirteen of their number were given sets of new clothes: freshly dyed robes and shawls in the bright ochre color of fire. With us they bowed in prayer over the feast of rice and lentils, vegetables and sweets that were served on fresh green banana leaves. And then, after the praying and the feasting and the remembering were complete, the danda swamis rose once again and solemnly walked out of the grounds, down the dirt path, and back to their work of becoming a master of self.
It was a beautiful sight that I observed, even though my heart was so heavy. But something strange had occurred during the ceremony. Suddenly there was a shout and out of the crowd jumped a funny little man, dressed strangely in a coat with large various-colored buttons and a curious hat. He started to dance and laugh, drawing much attention to himself. He was scolded in whispers by several in authority and was finally taken to the back of the crowd. After a short rest time he was back. He mouthed jokes, kicked up his heels, bent over in laughter and jumped up again in surprise. The energy around him was joy and happiness, not at all disrespect. I was stunned by his presence and so pleased with him in the midst of all the sorrow and formality. He reminded me of . . . gurudev! Could it be?
Justin and Charles accompany me to the New Delhi airport, but they cannot go farther than the front door. Both have tickets for several hours later—the best we could do on short notice. I join the confusion within alone, dragging my bags with me, hoping I can manage the departure easily. After the long wait in line to check in, I join the line for passport check. "Travelling alone, Madame?" "No group, Madame?" The Indian inspector has trouble with me, no men in sight, no one in charge of me. So my passport is tagged, handed over to a tall man in military garb, and the inspector's hand brushes me away from him. But where can I go without my passport? I stand by the metal detector wondering what to do when the military man returns, smiling a silky smile. I immediately don't trust him.
"Hello, Mam. You are travelling alone? Why did you come to India? Where have you been? Who did you meet? Did you enjoy yourself? Were you always alone?" All this time his hands were riffling my shoulder bag, taking everything out, piece by piece. Clothes were opened and shook out, camera was opened, books and notebooks were flipped open, pages scrutinized one by one. "Please step this way, Madame." I am ushered over to a table where the questioning begins again, each followed by a sickening slick smile. I don't know what he wants, what he is looking for, what the problem is. I am personally checked by a woman inspector who slides her hands up and down my body, round and round, into my undergarments. I am then sent back to my bags. I must repack everything in front of the small group of Indian men who watch carefully. They shrug their shoulders to each other, whispering something in Hindi, but they let me go, following me with their eyes.
In the next room I find a place to sit and wait the call for my flight. The Indian military men take turns passing in front of my chair every ten minutes. The airline had ordered us to be at the airport by midnight; by three in the morning they began boarding. I feel hungry, tired, humiliated, frightened. At 10 minutes before takeoff time, I am given my passport by a military figure who smirks as I thank him. I run into the next room where the last passenger is boarding the plane. I clutched that small, thin blue book tightly all the way to my seat, through the take off, and until the stewardess asks if I would like something to drink.
The flight to Zurich was tedious, noisy, full. In the Zurich airport I discard my white sandals with a strange mixture of relief and sadness. They had carried me along holy streets, ashram paths, sandy beaches, pilgrim spots, and waited for me outside dozens of temples and caves. They had accompanied me well—dodging the cow pies in the city streets, waiting for me to emerge from temples and meditation rooms, slapping up the fine brown dust along my Ganges route, and doing their best to suntan my feet in the curious striped effect that everyone seemed to find so fetching. Now the sole had a crack across it, the straps had 3 additional holes made by my little Swiss army knife as the leather stretched in the weather, the white dye had the look of antique furniture, chipped and darkened with age.
I changed clothes, shoes, brushed my teeth, drank the soymilk Charles had gifted me with as I left and began my 7 hour wait for the flight to New York.
At Kennedy, the Irish immigration official smiles and welcome us home; a Hispanic woman in uniform tells me where the ladies room is, "Welcome home. Looks like you had a long trip." A Black airline employee skillfully rights all the bags on the carousel as they come down the shoot and then hands them off whenever someone looks as if they cannot do it themselves, laughing and giving us the daily news as he toils. A tall, Black skycap tells me the best way to get a cab and then insists on taking me personally past the cab lines, up in the elevator, across the street and handing me into the cab he whistled into place for me! “Absolutely not, Ma’m,” he says as I attempt to tip him. “Just welcome home!” I am home again.
So much traffic, horns and whistles and motors and brakes; a few rain drops against the windshield, refreshingly cool this 19th of November, a few, almost-bare trees line the drive; leaves of brown, yellow, green. Fall leaves, late fall. Deep lovely color, burnished copper, willows weeping over the highway, dull green oaks, dark pines, the swamp of dirty gray-tasseled grass, their heads looking like the well-used dust wands of cleaners. We pass Shea Stadium clothed in lilac light, look out at the flocks of geese winging South overhead, marvel at the housing—the red brick apartments, the little painted frame houses lining the Van Wyck Expressway, so cozy, so familiar. “Welcome home” they all seem to say to me. It is always such a shock after being away for a while: New York works well!
Sri Swami Rama funeral pyre in Haridwar, India
What a typical bandana feast with swamis looks like.