The Tree of Knowledge
Swami Rama of the Himalayas
I had been hearing stories about Swami Rama since I was a child. They usually centered around his intense austerities, his association with the prince of Bhawal (who had returned from the dead), and his yogic powers. In all the stories, he seemed more like a hero in a fairy tale than a real person. For example, Agamachari, a great Sanskrit scholar from Banaras, once told me that when Swami Rama was a young man he did an intense meditation practice on the bank of the Ganga just across the river from Banaras, and a highly educated dwarf who had died ninety years earlier brought him milk and sweets every night. I found the story thrilling, but it seemed like a fantasy. Agamachari also told me that in those days Swami Rama was known as Bhole or Bhole Baba.
Ever since I first met Swamiji I had been interested in discovering how he carried his Himalayan caves into our chaotic world. I had been vigilant in observing how he taught me, how he taught others, how he kept the mundane world and the spiritual world together — and once again I was brimming with excitement. I was convinced that by now I know about him, and I wanted to write his biography right away. But when I again asked his permission he replied, “Does anyone allow anything to be written about himself in his own lifetime?” So I postponed the book, but the idea never stopped brewing, and I continued to spend as much time in Swamiji’s presence as he allowed.
In 1987 Swamiji gradually started to channel his energy into building a fully equipped medical complex in northern India, just outside the town of Dehra Dun. His students from all over the world joined him in this endeavor, and by 1990 the project had taken off. The area that this medical complex was designed to serve is one of the poorest in India, and the sudden infusion of money, job opportunities, and publicity –– both in India and in the United States –– attracted a swarm of opportunists. It was then that an amazing number of tales about Swamiji, both positive and negative, began to circulate in both countries. Swamiji was at the center of it all. He was put on a pedestal by some, and vilified by others. A host of people in India — officials and prominent citizens as well as ordinary people –– honoured him as a great humanitarian, while others accused him of being a CIA agent. Many Westerners revered him for his spiritual wisdom and charitable work, while others sought every chance to prove him a scoundrel. In the midst of all this commotion I found him as calm and tranquil as an elephant immersed in a lake on a hot summer day. (…)
I had been around Swamiji since early September, and everything that took place during this time confirmed my conviction that Swamiji was the master of all the yogic practices he speaks of in ‘Living with the Himalayan Masters’. In the words of the sages, he used to say, “You have a body, but you are not the body. You are in the body, yet you are beyond the body. Birth and death are like two commas in the poem of life. For a yogi there is nothing like death. Just as an ordinary person takes off an old tattered garment and puts on a new one, so does a yogi cast off his worn-out body and assume a new one.” That is how he himself left his body.
People all over the world have different reasons for believing that Swamiji was a great master. In most cases it is because of the miracles he performed. He took someone’s chickenpox on himself, for example, or brought down a fever simply by sprinkling water on the patient. Or it was through his blessings that a businessman that prospered or someone’s father survived what should have been a fatal accident. Or through his simple touch or gaze he would sometimes transmit such incredible spiritual energy that a student would go into a trance, remaining in that state for hours. Or he would create a tumor in his own thigh, later dissolving it at will, or make a blister on someone’s hand disappear at a flash.
To me such events are not valid grounds for considering someone a ‘master’. Before meeting Swamiji I had known yogis who could walk on water, play two flutes at once (one through each nostril), materialize a crystal Shiva lingam from thin air, or predict future events well in advance. But I had also found that many such “accomplished” people had little or no interest in spirituality and were as miserable as those who were totally immersed in worldly affairs.
In Swamiji I saw the perfect sage, brimming with love and compassion as well as a disciplinarian who tolerated no nonsense. He was a person of unmatched generosity. When involved in an act of charity, he saw no limit — but as the head of a charitable organization, he negotiated down to the last penny. More than once I saw him set in motion the wild dance of the forces of construction and destruction, and then simply witness it from a distance. Institutions grew around him — and fell apart. Followers flocked to him with gifts and garlands and abandoned him in disappointment and anger. In all situations I saw him cheerfully embracing gain and loss, honour and insult, with perfect equanimity. Every aspect of his life was full of extremes and contrasts, and yet to those who knew him intimately he was a simple man.
To me, Swamiji is a master not because he had lots of students and followers but because he was master of himself and his surroundings. During the last forty years of his life he did not sleep for more than two hours a day, and yet he was so energetic that no one could keep up with him for long. The people who worked with him worked in shifts. A peaceful yet forceful energy filled the space around him; sloth and inertia could not withstand it. Fully grounded within, he could attend to ten tasks at a time with perfect precision and mastery. While he was dictating a book, he could shout at a contractor on the phone and sip his tea with no sign of disturbance on his face. He was a master because he lived in the world and yet remained above it. He was always in charge of himself and the world around him. He was at once cool like the moon and hot like fire. He was exceedingly kind to those who studied with him and practised under his supervision but kept their distance, but very hard on those who wished to be close to him and carry on his mission. He was a cyclone making everything swirl around him as he sat quietly in the eye of the storm, watching to see who had the strength and insight to face the tempest.
Yet when he lived in the Himalayas and secluded places in other parts of India, hardly anyone saw him. He was a hermit who spent his nights meditating in the Himalayan caves; villagers came to him with milk and food, seeking nothing other than the unspoken name of God that naturally filled the space around him. Swamiji had a masterly way of hiding himself. As soon as he began his work in the world he drew such a thick veil around his true identity that only a few could see who he was. He lived in the bustling cities of New Delhi, Tokyo, and Chicago, surrounded by politicians and businessmen. Villagers could no longer reach him. People came with garlands, fruit baskets, and bundles of money. Some sought his blessings to win elections, others to ensure their prosperity and progeny. Spiritual seekers who had heard of him but did not know where to find him could now ring him in the hotel and schedule an audience. Yet even while playing the role of a five-star-hotel swami he always attended the Lord of Life Within. At midnight he took off his worldly mask and assumed his true identity: the sleepless Himalayan master. When he lived in the West he kept an extremely busy schedule, but deep down he remained the sleepless envoy of the Himalayan sages.
There have been many great masters who shine brilliantly. Swami Rama stands out among them not because he had more knowledge or spiritual power than others but because the saga of his life is similar to our own. He was a lively and curious child — he made mischief and got into trouble, just as all youngsters do. As a spiritual seeker he fought with his master, ignored his instructions, and thought of running away. There were times when he was so entangled in the world that no one but his master could rescue him. And like all of us, he had rough periods in his life. He became an orphan while still a young child, for example, and was discarded by his own brother and looked after by a saint who owned nothing. Still he managed to go to school, find time for spiritual practices, cultivate self-respect, conquer adverse conditions, and prove that through persistent practice one can become perfect. Swamiji’s life tells us that once you offer yourself to the Almighty Lord, the world naturally prostrates at your feet. Once you conquer your mind, you have conquered the world. Once you have found joy and beauty within, the whole world becomes infused with joy and beauty. Once you are successful inside, external success is yours. Once you surrender your desires to the Almighty, you are free of your personal whims and ambitions. Then the Divine Will itself becomes your desire. Swamiji’s life story shows us how to discover the connection between ourselves and the Divine; how to surrender our personal desire to Divine Will; how to unfold our potential to its fullest; how to be successful in the world without losing sight of the higher purpose and meaning of life.
Swamiji‘s life was his message: “You are a child of the Divine and you have infinite potential to become and to be anything you wish.” He knew — as all sages know — that for those who understand this message, there is no fear left on the Earth.
Extracts from ‘The official biography of Swami Rama of the Himalayas’ by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait PhD, spiritual head of the Himalayan International Institute
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