When my train pulled into the tiny station at Kahangad, south India, itwas already after midnight. The train had been stalled for six hours inthe middle of a rice paddy that afternoon, with red earth, water, andgreen shoots stretching for miles in every direction, shimmering in theheat. There was no official explanation for the delay. My seatmatespulled out metal tins of rice, dal, and vegetables, which they scoopedup with cold chappatis, and the train filled with the sharp smells ofpickled mango and chilies.
Rumors drifted and multiplied: there was a labor protest blocking the tracks, some people said; engineers were repairing a blown piston, explained others. But there was no sign of protestors, or of engineers. Along with my British traveling companion, Fiona, whom I had just met in a yoga center in Trivandrum, I dozed, ate sticky peanut candy, and fended off endless questions about our husbands--Where were they? What did they do for a living? Were ourmarriages arranged, or "love marriages"? Finally, as mysteriously as ithad stopped, the train had started again.
We were the only people who got off at Kahangad. The dingy station wasalmost deserted. There was no overpass, lugging our backpacks, weclambered down onto the dark tracks, crossed the rails, and climbed thefive-foot wall on the other side into the station. We awakened asleeping rickshaw driver, who dropped us at the locked gates of theAnandashram--exhausted and hungry, at almost one in the morning.
We were drop-in visitors, arriving without reservations or advancenotice. But to our astonishment, the gates were promptly opened, and wewere ushered into the ashram by a man in a white dhoti. He took us tothe kitchen and served us a plate of rice, vegetables, yogurt, and ghee, along with tall steel glasses of the most delicious hot milk I had ever tasted, straight from the ashram's cows. Then he led us to a cleanswept room with two twin beds, hung with mosquito netting. "What time should we get up in the morning?" I asked. I was an ashram veteran by now; I knew that you could offend devotees deeply if you didn't adhere to their schedule. "Is there a meditation schedule we should follow? Is there work we should do?"
He bowed, smiled, and handed us a schedule. "Whatever you do will beRam's will," he said. "There is chanting all day long; join in as youwish, or not. Come to meals if you wish, or not. This is a place to doyour own practice."
The Anandashram, we learned the next day, had been founded by a mannamed Swami Ramdas--revered as a saint and mystic all over India--whoback in the 1920s, had been an extremely unsuccessful textile milloperator named Vittal Rao. Hoping to revive his failing business, Raohad begun chanting the mantra "Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram"--praiseand glory to Ram, "the subtle and mysterious power that pervades thewhole universe." The mantra made him so blissful that he began chantingit day and night, a practice that, frankly, did not do wonders for histextile business. But he was so blissful that he no longer cared.Possessed by the longing to put his whole life in Ram's hands, he wrotea letter of renunciation to his wife, wrapped himself in two pieces ofochre cloth, and took the name Ramdas, or "servant of Ram." He then setout to wander all over India, with three weapons to protect him from all fear: the constant chanting of Ram Nam, the name of God; looking oneveryone and everything as forms of his beloved Ram; and acceptingeverything and all situations as happening by Ram's will.
When he arrived at a train station, he would get on whatever trainhappened to be at the station--that, after all, must be Ram's will. Hewould get off the train whenever Ram, in the form of an angry ticketcollector, told him to disembark. Eventually, his radiance began toattract devotees,who had built the Anandashram around him.
"To serve your fellow-beings is to serve God," Ramdas taught. "In thefinal synthesis of an all-round spiritual experience, you realize thatthe whole universe is your body. Your love and service of anyone in itwill be felt to be but love and service done to yourself."
Ramdas died in 1963, but that spirit of service still permeated theAnandashram. All day long I could hear the chanting drifting from thetemple and shrines--the continual singing of the Ram mantra, punctuatedby the bright clang of silver handbells, blending with the bellowing ofcows and the shrieks of parakeets. But there was absolutely no pressureto join in any activity. As a guest, I was truly seen as a manifestation of Ram--and what Ram wished could not be wrong.