Authors: Om Swami
If Truth Be Told
A Monk's Memoir
First published in India in 2014 by Harper Element
An Imprint of HarperCollins
© 2014 by Om Swami
Om Swami asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission.
Cover design: Alexander von Ness
Cover art: Monk with Bowl by Min Wae Aung
With eternal gratitude to my parents,
my brother, Rajan, and my sister, Upasana,
for always standing by me
May we hear only good with our ears and see only good with our eyes. O Divine, may we lead a life of contentment and health and sing thy glories during the life span granted to us.
(Rig Veda. 1.89.8)
We are a rather strange species, if you ask me. Strange because, almost always, we want something different from what we already have. Our capacity to be selfless is as immense as our potential to be selfish. I can vouch for this because I saw myself as a kind person, and didn't think I had it in me to cause pain to my loved ones. Yet, when propelled by my desire, I inflicted it upon them effortlessly.
One morning, I got up, got ready, went to work and did not go back home in the evening. Instead, I boarded a train to take me away from all my certainties, from the people I loved and the wealth I owned. Giving my family no warning, no indication even, I simply walked away although I knew full well it would be a point of no return.
It’s not that I didn't think about their feelings. I did, but chose to ignore how they might have felt because I couldn’t postpone my inner calling any further. I no longer wanted to get up every morning, work the entire day, come home in the evening, eat my dinner and go to sleep just because everyone else was doing it, because it was considered ‘normal’. Who decided what was normal anyway? If I had to live my life by the rules and conditions set by others, what was the goal of
life, what was my individual purpose—if there was any?
Before me lay the material wealth I had earned painstakingly over the last decade. But cars, properties and a bank balance were lifeless things at the end of the day. They had always had been. I wasn't born with these possessions and they certainly wouldn't go with me after I died. What was the struggle of life about then? And, whatever it was about, was it worth it?
Countless times, I had given myself the consolation that I would find the purpose of my life one day, but this consolation was wearing thin while my questions beat like muffled drums in my head. With each strike, the sound was getting louder, getting closer. It began to drown out all the music around me
the melodious songs of the birds, the pouring rain, th
compassionate words of my mother and the caring ones of my father; nothing was audible anymore, let alone joyous.
Leaving behind everything I had worked towards, razing all that I had built and abandoning everyone I had ever known, I felt indifferent towards my own past. An uninterested stranger. Just as the advancing dawn erases the existence of the night, my departure from the material world wiped away my life as I had known it.
From an Internet cafe, I sent emails to my family and close friends, saying I was going away and didn’t know if and when I would return. No emotions, no sentiments tugged at my heart when I deleted my email account, destroyed the SIM card, gave away my phone and broke up with my material life of three decades. Casting away the labels that defined me—son, brother, friend, CEO, MBA, colleague—I walked out of the store and into a new skin.
This new existence was utter nakedness; no, not in physical terms, but in being nothing, having nothing, not even an identity or a name—the life of a monk. It was only in this state of emptiness, as it were, that I could be filled by what I sought most desperately: a true inner life.
I checked out of my lodge and stepped out onto the crowded street. Spotting a cycle rickshaw, I waved it down.
'Where to?' said the rickshaw driver.
'Which ghat? There are so many here.'
I wasn’t prepared for this. How was I to know there were many ghats in Varanasi?
'Just take me to any ghat.'
'I can’t take you to just any ghat, sir. Then you will say this is not where you wanted to go.'
'Alright, name a ghat.'
'Fine, take me there.'
I hadn’t been on a rickshaw since 1995. Back then, fifteen years ago, I was a teenager attracted to, and working towards, materialism. Now, at thirty, I was doing exactly the opposite. The vehicle hadn’t changed but the direction had; the person hadn't changed but the priorities had.
I presumed I was headed to a quiet riverside but I couldn’t be more wrong. The ghat was crowded beyond description, like an agitated mind crowded with thoughts, like ants gathered on a dead insect.
India was hardly new to me; I had spent the first eighteen years of my life in this country. But, rather naively, I had expected a different India in Varanasi. An old image was locked in my head, an image I hadn’t seen but conjured up while reading medieval texts: Kashi by the Ganges, an ancient town full of scholars, saints, tantriks, yogis and other spiritually inclined people.
I roamed about for a while, not knowing where to go. A long time ago, I had heard about Telang Swami, a realized soul who had lived in Kashi more than a century ago. There was supposed to be a monastery at the site of his samadhi. I visualized a quiet monastery by the Ganges, where noble sadhaks sat under the shade of old banyan trees and focused on their sadhana under the guidance of a venerable guru. I enquired, but no one knew anything about the monastery.
I thought of visiting the only other place I'd heard of in this city—Manikarnika Ghat, a cremation ground by the river where dead bodies were burnt round the clock. I hoped to meet some tantrik, sitting there and performing esoteric rituals by the burning pyres. I marched back to the main road and stopped another cycle rickshaw. It was nearly noon and the heat was biting me. I tried to tell myself that it was only mid-March, but this intellectual balm failed to soothe my body.
‘Will you take me to Manikarnika Ghat?’
'Yes sir, but I can’t go all the way there. I can drop you at the nearest point.'
I hopped into the rickshaw, which moved slowly but steadily on the busy road. Several times, the rickshaw driver had to actually get down to manoeuvre it through the crowd. I noticed he was barefoot even though the sun was spewing fire and the road was like a field of burning coal—it just exuded heat.
'Why aren’t you wearing any slippers?'
'They got stolen at the temple the day I bought them.'
'I don’t know this area. Please stop by a footwear shop. I’d like to get slippers for you.'
‘I’ll manage, brother.'
‘What is your name?’
'Don’t worry, Mahesh, I’ll still give you the money for the ride.'
A little later, I spotted a small shoe shop. Mahesh wasn’t keen on stopping, so I practically had to order him to halt. Getting off the rickshaw, I gestured to him to follow me into the shop. He came in after me sheepishly.
'Hello, sir,' the shopkeeper said, and asked me to sit down. I beckoned to Mahesh, who was hovering near the entrance, to join me on the sofa. He did so extremely reluctantly.
A young worker at the shop offered me water.
'Please give it to Mahesh,' I said, 'he’s your customer today.'
'Do you want sandals instead of slippers? That may be better,' I said to Mahesh.
'Whatever you think is best.'
The sales assistant went to the back of the shop and returned a few minutes later with a pair of sandals. Beige in colour, with dark-brown straps and shining steel buckles, they looked very comfortable. He handed Mahesh the pair.
'Please put them on his feet like you would do for any other customer,' I said.
Mahesh looked at me nervously. I looked into his eyes and nodded. Immediately, his face broke into a smile and he stuck out his feet so that the assistant could put on the sandals. I looked at Mahesh’s beautiful, dark face, his yellow teeth, slightly deformed and stained, his big eyes full of contentment, and felt very warm inside. His smile simply made my day.
Mahesh pedalled with renewed enthusiasm now, while his dusty, worn feet seemed to come alive in the new sandals. As I watched his feet pushing the pedals up and down, everything else faded for a moment—the shops, the noise, the heat. All I could see were those feet, which seemed to be performing a cosmic dance. Now a pedal went up and now a pedal came down; every movement seemed effortless, in perfect synchronization.
Mahesh dropped me off at the point closest to Manikarnika Ghat.
'If you go to the temple again, don’t leave your shoes outside,’ I warned as I got off the rickshaw.
'I won’t,' he said.
I offered him a fifty-rupee note.
‘How can I take money from you, sir?'
'Please keep this. It will give me great joy if you do.’
He came around from his rickshaw and reached down to touch my feet. I caught his wrists and pulled him up. 'There are only three places you should bow your head,' I said. 'In front of God, in front of the elderly and in front of your guru.'
I thrust the money into his hands and walked away, thinking that Mahesh was not designed to be a rickshaw driver. He could have been a clerk, a watchman, an officer, an executive. For that matter, no one deserved to live a life that sought to break the body as well as the spirit. This man was living in a democratic country but did that make him a free man? The state did not provide for him and his fellow countrymen did not respect him. He did not have the freedom to own a roof over his head or break away from the harshness and drudgery of his daily routine. I don’t think Mahesh ever took a vacation or enjoyed any luxury in his life except perhaps the luxury of needs; he would never run out of needs. Come to think of it, there was no difference between him and me: we were both fettered by our needs. His were more tangible and essential for survival, while mine were more abstract and self-imposed.
I navigated my way to Manikarnika Ghat. I doubt if anywhere else in India there existed such tight streets as in Varanasi; at least, I’d never seen them. If you had a slightly bigger nose and turned your head, you were likely to hit something. Well, almost. I don’t know how I managed to reach Manikarnika Ghat, but I finally did.
A pyre was burning; another had been mostly reduced to ash, occasionally lit up by smouldering embers. Pieces of broken clay pots lay scattered around. Breaking a pot full of water at the time of cremation is a Hindu custom signifying that the soul of the deceased has severed all ties with the human world. The pot symbolizes the human body, and its breaking indicates the liberation of the soul that has trapped within.
There were no saints to be found here, no practitioners of the occult sciences, no evolved tantriks or yogis who beckoned to me to join them in a journey to self-realization. Instead, around the pyres, dealers sat selling wood; beside them sat paanwallahs and chaiwallahs. Milling around were countless people, cows, dogs and cats.
The ghat had turned out to be a disappointment, so I began asking about Telang Swami's monastery again. Of the many souls I asked, one seemed to know. He pointed in a certain direction. I walked down narrow streets with decrepit buildings ready to crumble and shops selling all manner of things. Dodging the maddening traffic, I found myself in winding alleyways, going past houses standing cheek-by-jowl and children playing beside parked two-wheelers, doing my best to avoid stepping into puddles of animal urine and dung.
After forty-five minutes, feeling tired and hopeless, I stopped. I couldn’t see the monastery and I couldn’t find anyone who had ever seen it. I sat down on the kerb and wiped the sweat off my forehead, wondering how to proceed. After a few minutes, I raised my head and there it was, on my right, a sign written in Hindi: 'Telang Swami Math’. It was a temple.
I went inside. A middle-aged man was sitting on the pujari's seat. Everything about him was round—head, face, torso, belly, hands, feet. A barber came in behind me, took his kit out of his bag and began shaving the priest. I watched quietly, enjoying the coolness of the temple after the searing heat outside. After a few minutes, the barber picked up his things and left; no money exchanged hands. Perhaps they had some kind of monthly arrangement.
I asked the priest about Telang Swami and his lineage, and about the monastery. He said there was no disciplic succession or ashram. This temple was all there was and there was no arrangement for anyone to stay even if they could pay.
I felt betrayed, although I was not sure by whom.
'Telang Swami is buried there.' He pointed to a corner of the temple compound. Walking across to Telang Swami's tombstone, I prayed, 'Please guide this lost soul, O Swami, so I may attain what I've set out to do.'
On my way out, the priest stopped to ask exactly what I was looking for. I told him I was in search of a guru and wanted to take sanyasa diksha, initiation into the life of a renunciant. He said there was no need to renounce the world or look for a guru, and that I should get married and lead a normal life.
Normal life? There’s nothing called a normal life. What is normal from one’s viewpoint may be most abnormal from another’s. A yogi thinks that the world is abnormal and people live like animals, mostly focused on feeding and fornicating. The world thinks the yogi is a fool who wastes his life sitting around doing nothing, enjoying none of the many pleasures life has to offer.
Naturally I didn’t say any of this to the priest. I had no interest in pursuing a conversation with someone who could understand neither my desperation nor my intention.
I went towards the ghats again. It was nearly 3 p.m. and the sun was even hotter now. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. In the morning, I hadn’t been able to find any place to eat where the food wasn’t deep-fried. In the afternoon, I was busy with my self-realization business. My water bottle had been empty for hours and the reality of hunger was tugging hard at my stomach.
Lacking a sense of direction, I didn’t know if I was heading towards the ghats or away from them. When I saw the number of people on the streets reduce significantly, I knew I was heading in the wrong direction. Coincidentally, I saw some lodges there and asked a few if they had any vacancy. I just wanted to lie down in a cool, quiet place. Oddly enough, at each place, they asked me where I was from, how many people needed the room and for how many days. Then they would tell me there was no room available. I was intrigued. Why would they put me through a whole heap of questions if they had no room available?
I walked on and eventually found myself by the river. The Hindu texts talked a great deal about the sacred significance of ‘Ganga Maiya’. Well, her ‘children’ had polluted her beyond imagination. Seeing the filthy state of the river flowing past me, I shook my head in as much disgust as disbelief. I had seen the Ganga till Haridwar, where it was clean, but what had happened here in this holiest of holy cities, the Kashi of my imagination? I decided I would not bathe in the river here. Inwardly though, I paid obeisance to the sacred Ganga. A ma remains a ma, no matter how she's dressed.
'Massage?' I looked up to see a man standing near me.
'No massage. I need a guide.'
'Sure, sir. I'll be your guide.'
'You do know this area well?'
'What will you charge? I need you with me for the rest of the day. And maybe tomorrow as well.'
'You can pay whatever you like.'
'Rs 250 per day?'
'I’ll take your bag,' he offered kindly.
It took me a few minutes to realize I was free of the load. That’s the thing with baggage—you get used to carrying it around. You know it's heavy but the weight has a way of becoming a part of your life. Only when you take it off your back and feel the lightness does the awareness of the load hit you.
Manish took me to a couple of guest houses and I got the same questions there too. Finally, my guide solved the mystery for me by explaining that when the employees at these lodges weren’t busy with work or occupied watching a cricket match on TV, they longed to chat with people as a way of passing their time. They didn’t have any rooms available but a conversation with a stranger was welcome.
Not getting very far in my search for a place to stay, I asked Manish to take me to a bigger hotel, but he said there weren't any. I realized that he didn’t really know the area; he had lied to me. Anyway, I was starving now. We managed to spot a vegetarian Jain dhaba that served meals without onion or garlic. I avoided eating onion and garlic, so the menu was fine with me but the food wasn't; it was tasteless. I was too tired to fuss and my head hurt. I swallowed whatever I was served, though my guide seemed to savour the meal. After we left the dhaba, I bought two chilled bottles of water from a small provision store. Opening the first one, I washed my face and poured the rest on my head. The second I guzzled right away.