One of the more interesting parts of “growing up Chopra,” was the range of people my sister and I were exposed to–from celebrities to heads of state to Nobel laureates and all the rest. As a teenager growing up in Boston, the emotional response to these experiences ranged from titillation (Madonna) to indifference (Elizabeth Taylor), to total fascination (Michael Jackson). But the most memorable was the little Indian Guru who over the years became a symbol of something very primordial to my whole family.
I remember the first time my parents dragged my sister and I to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is some rural outpost in India outside of New Delhi. I was about 11 years old and I hated them for it. “Drag” is the literal case here because it was 1986 and the Boston Celtics (my boyhood favorite team) were on the run to the NBA Championship. Alas my parents decided that we needed to travel to the old country to see our grandparents and visit the ashram of some old Beatles Guru that they had become enamored with. This caused considerable family friction: if Larry Bird was my Luke Skywalker, the dude known as Maharishi had literally just become my Darth Vadar.
In those days, India was not the bustling land of plenty and opportunity it is today. Getting to India in the first place was a hell of an ordeal. Getting to Noida where Maharishi’s ashram was involved taking a convoy out to what appeared to be the sticks. The upshot was that almost since my father’s first encounter with Maharishi, he had been mysteriously seemingly anointed “the chosen one” by the “movement” that surrounded the Guru and hence we were treated with an overt sense of deference and importance. In India this meant getting an escort of Maruti cars from Delhi to Noida almost upon landing at the airport in the middle of the night.
That was just the beginning of the mysterious journey. Once we we arrived in the ashram, a quiet compound awash with candlelight and the fragrance of fresh flowers, we were sequestered to a room where we waited, and waited, and waited. It was truly an exercise in patience and endurance, to wait for hour on end in pursuit of an encounter that meant nothing to me.
Finally, about nine hours in, I was handed an ice cream cone by one of the movement handlers and we were escorted into a massive auditorium where a few thousand people seemed to be seated. At the head, atop an flower covered pedestal sat the diminutive Maharishi. As the VIPS that we were, we were ushered to the front row and seated in full view of “his holiness.” He seemed to be midstream on a long dissertation about the meaning of life which to my 11-year-old brain, really didn’t register as highly important. He didn’t as much as blink upon our entrance, take an extra breath or make an aside glance to acknowledge our presence. He just droned on.
But then, a moment later, he stopped. And he stared down at the four of us, my parents, sister, and I. It was as if he had stopped mid-sentence, mid-thought even. And he just stared at me. And pointed at me. Despite my 11-year-old hubris, I was shrewd enough to know that this was a big deal and all of a sudden the glare of the spotlight burned right through me. Maharishi paused and spoke into his microphone, “come here, you can?”
I stared at my father unsure what to do. “Go, go…” He urged.
I gestured to my older sister Mallika to come with me and she just shook her head. “Go dummy,” she whispered.
So with the hushed glared of a thousand eyes on my back I staggered forward awkwardly.
After a seeming eternity, I stood in front of the great Maharishi. I knew from the Indian comic books that I collected that you were supposed to bow down and touch the feet in a show of respect to these old sadhus. Not sure what else to do, I started to get down to my knees, balancing my ice cream cone in my hands.
Maharishi laughed and reached out and stopped me. “No…no…no…” he giggled. “Americans do not bow down at the feet of anyone,” he said.
I stared at him awkwardly not sure how to respond, holding my ice cream cone tenuously. “Um, I’m not really American…” I divulged the great discomfort of my upbringing as the son of a an immigrant raised in America, the only brown Celtics fan I really knew.
“Indian?” Maharishi giggled back at me.
“Not really…” the flip side of my identity conflict was now out in the open for everyone to see.
Maharishi nodded slowly. I looked in his eyes. There was a gentleness to them, something very comfortable that put you at ease.
“Then what are you?” He inquired.
“Um…” I stammered. “Um, I don’t know. I guess I am…I’m just uh. I guess I just am…?”
And he started to laugh again, this sweet innocent infectious laugh.
“All these years,” he started to speak. “I have meditated and studied,” he giggled even louder, “to come upon this revelation that you already know!”
“We just are!” He put his hand on my head. “You are a very wise boy just like your name Gautama.”
He then grinned, the same way I see my little baby son grin in the morning now when we wake up together over 20 years later from that moment. “Now, will you share your ice cream with me?!”
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi will be remembered as one of the great modern teachers and yogis of this era, a true Guru in every sense of the word for the millions of lives that he touched. His wisdom will be missed but surely leave a legacy for generations to come. That’s all nice and good, but to me, he’ll always be the sweet old man, with the sweet old giggle, that gave me a special moment when I least expected it and with whom I shared my ice cream. And btw, he loved chocolate ice cream just like me.