What a deep relief it was to hear those sounds and smell those smells once again. Bells, chants, heart-rending cries of “Radhe Radhe,” incense, sacred fires, cow dung burning…… I was back in my holy Vrindavan again; the land of Radha and Krishna; the ‘dham’ (pilgrimage place) where I first met my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
It was the mid-90’s and my heart was feeling parched. Thirsty for some sweetness, some balm, some bhav. Life in the west had been heavy for me. Though from the outside looking in all seemed wonderful, my insides were hurting and needed a good dose of divine comfort that I hadn’t been able to find back home. So it was back to India for me and I was inwardly rejoicing as the rickshaw brought me close to my Guru’s ashram.
But on stepping into that abode of peace I was instantly accosted by my old friend Dinesh, one of the helpers at the temple. “Jai Gopal, you must come!!! One of our temple staff has died and we need help with the body!” Fresh off the plane and it was dead bodies already…. “He’s died of tuberculosis and we have no one to help prepare the funeral pyre and carry the body to the Yamuna for cremation. And we need to borrow your ‘Sweez knife’ (Swiss Army Knife) to cut the ropes.” Oy Vey! What could I say?
So we ran to the Ramakrishna Mission Hospital where I watched as the remains of a little old guy were washed and wrapped in fabrics, flowers and oils. “Chant!” I was ordered, so I began singing “Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram” over and over again. Finally ready, the body was lifted on to a kind of wooden pallet and we began our walk through town to the river banks. “Ram Nam Satya Hai!” “God’s name is the only truth!” We repeated these words as we paraded through the streets of Vrindavan. People came out of their homes and shops to pranam to us and I felt honored to be part of an ancient ceremony. Until the ant appeared, creeping from underneath the covers of that eternally sleeping body! And crawled down the bamboo stick that was resting on my shoulder! And gently stepped on to my skin! And not-so-gently bit me!!! OH NO! My paranoid, neurotic, Jewish inner child screamed, knowing without doubt that I would be next in line for this suddenly not-so-wonderful ritual. (Well, since I’m sitting here many years later writing down this story I guess we can surmise that I was safe and didn’t die from tuberculosis……)
Anyway, we finally arrived at the sandy shores of Mother Yamuna, one of the great holy rivers of North India. The very same waters where little Gopala played with the cowherd boys and girls; where He conquered the demon Kaliya, wildly dancing upon his serpentine head; where He bathed under the gentle midnight moon with His beloved Srimati Radharani. But while the others were either prostrating and praying or building the funeral pyre, I sat sweating and fretting about my bug bitten shoulder and impending doom.
Ok, let’s get back to the real story now.
I sat and watched as the fire was set and the body of this old man was consumed by the hungry flames. My japa beads were turning: “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram.” The transience of material life revealed itself to me as what was once human became smoke and ash. Fears of my own mortality quieted down in the mantra’s rhythm and a tiny taste of eternity penetrated the core of my being. “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram…..” In the West we are so protected from death, and as a result we can never really make friends with it until he’s pounding down our door, gripping the reaper in his long, icy fingers. But in India life and death live side by side, hand in hand, and there is a greater peace surrounding the passages we all must cross in our endless journey through time. Many yogis spend years watching the bodies being consigned to flames in the burning ghats on the shores of Mother Ganga, the holy Ganges river. When the truth of time and existence fully dawns within them they are then ready to truly enter the path of Bhakti, or devotion and surrender to the Lord of Mercy and His divine beloved.
Thus was I meditating that sunny afternoon in Vrindavan, when suddenly a thunderous sound shook me from my reverie. There in the distance, framed by a tornado of dust and sand, was a herd of cows galloping right toward where I was seated. Cow bells clanging, footsteps pounding; I was about to be trampled! What a day this was turning out to be…. But as the final moment approached and I leaped to my feet in desperation, the cows simply stopped running and formed a circle around the smoldering pyre. Softly lowing, plaintively mooing, these cows positioned themselves in what looked like a protective ring around the burning body. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” I turned to see Dinesh watching this bizarre phenomenon. “Yes, it is,” I said. “What’s going on?” Dinesh then explained to me that this man was a very shy person who worked at the ashram taking care of the cows. He had no friends or family but gave all of his love and attention to milking, brushing, and feeding the cows, especially the little calves who were born in the ashram farm. No one was ever able to engage him in much conversation but he could often be seen chatting with his babies or with their mommies as he gathered milk for the older ashramites. What was he saying to them, his bovine confidants? We’ll never know. “But what we do know,” continued Dinesh, “is that his friends the cows have come to say goodbye…” There were tears in Dinesh’s eyes as he told me this, and I, in turn, choked up as well. How little we actually know about life, about love. A seemingly unknown, unloved old guy, surrounded by hundreds of his closest intimate associates as the flames consumed the last remnants of his earthly life…
I didn’t know this man, but I’ve thought of him many times over the years. My son, Ezra Gopal, loves to hear this story and at first didn’t believe that it was true, that I hadn’t just made it up. But I thank this nameless, faceless guy for teaching me about love, and that the truth can’t always be easily seen from the outside; and I pray that I will be surrounded by as much love and caring as he was as I embark on my life’s final journey……..
Ram Nam Satya Hai!!!