When my train pulled into the tiny station at Kahangad, south India, it
was already after midnight. The train had been stalled for six hours in
the middle of a rice paddy that afternoon, with red earth, water, and
green shoots stretching for miles in every direction, shimmering in the
heat. There was no official explanation for the delay. My seatmates
pulled out metal tins of rice, dal, and vegetables, which they scooped
up with cold chappatis, and the train filled with the sharp smells of
pickled 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 our
marriages arranged, or "love marriages"? Finally, as mysteriously as it
had stopped, the train had started again.
We were the only people who got off at Kahangad. The dingy station was
almost deserted. There was no overpass, lugging our backpacks, we
clambered down onto the dark tracks, crossed the rails, and climbed the
five-foot wall on the other side into the station. We awakened a
sleeping rickshaw driver, who dropped us at the locked gates of the
Anandashram--exhausted and hungry, at almost one in the morning.
We were drop-in visitors, arriving without reservations or advance
notice. But to our astonishment, the gates were promptly opened, and we
were ushered into the ashram by a man in a white dhoti. He took us to
the 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 be
Ram's will," he said. "There is chanting all day long; join in as you
wish, or not. Come to meals if you wish, or not. This is a place to do
your own practice."
The Anandashram, we learned the next day, had been founded by a man
named Swami Ramdas--revered as a saint and mystic all over India--who
back in the 1920s, had been an extremely unsuccessful textile mill
operator named Vittal Rao. Hoping to revive his failing business, Rao
had begun chanting the mantra "Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram"--praise
and glory to Ram, "the subtle and mysterious power that pervades the
whole universe." The mantra made him so blissful that he began chanting
it day and night, a practice that, frankly, did not do wonders for his
textile 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 wrote
a letter of renunciation to his wife, wrapped himself in two pieces of
ochre cloth, and took the name Ramdas, or "servant of Ram." He then set
out 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 on
everyone and everything as forms of his beloved Ram; and accepting
everything and all situations as happening by Ram's will.
When he arrived at a train station, he would get on whatever train
happened to be at the station--that, after all, must be Ram's will. He
would get off the train whenever Ram, in the form of an angry ticket
collector, told him to disembark. Eventually, his radiance began to
attract devotees,who had built the Anandashram around him.
"To serve your fellow-beings is to serve God," Ramdas taught. "In the
final synthesis of an all-round spiritual experience, you realize that
the whole universe is your body. Your love and service of anyone in it
will be felt to be but love and service done to yourself."
Ramdas died in 1963, but that spirit of service still permeated the
Anandashram. All day long I could hear the chanting drifting from the
temple and shrines--the continual singing of the Ram mantra, punctuated
by the bright clang of silver handbells, blending with the bellowing of
cows and the shrieks of parakeets. But there was absolutely no pressure
to join in any activity. As a guest, I was truly seen as a manifestation of Ram--and what Ram wished could not be wrong.
Even the cows were treated as divine beings--chanted to from the Vedas
every morning, led out into the cool of the day, and brought back in the hot afternoon to the shelter of their shed. I took to meditating in the cowshed, which was swept as clean as a temple. A sign on the cowshed read, "Man, through the cow, is helped to realize his oneness with all that is. Rishis of yore saw in the cow divinity and venerated it."
In yoga, the word for this kind of devotion to God is "bhakti." And
there at the Anandashram, I encountered the truest spirit of bhakti I
had ever met--not a dry, ritualized worship, but a bowing down to
exactly what is, in every moment. Stalled trains, heavy backpacks,
lowing cows, the curious seatmate on the train who will not stop
talking--all these are seen as God incarnate. The bhakti yogi bows in
worship before it all, and gasps. And the world, as if to repay such
devotion, lights up and shines.
After I'd meditate in the cowshed, I'd walk to the dining hall and drink the milk the worshipped cows had given back. I think that it's no coincidence that it was sweet, rich, thick, bursting with flavor--like no milk I'd ever tasted.