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ABOUT FORTY MILES north of Bombay, a small road branches from the highway into a parched valley. The road has been washed away so often by the monsoon that it is all patches and potholes. Barely wide enough for one car, it winds past villages made of straw and bamboo, kilns of reddish clay smoking in the fields, dried rice paddies. The land sprawls in the dry heat as if it had been punched by a fist. Ten miles up this road is the ashram of Swami Muktananda. Although I don’t like to think of myself as a spiritual tourist, I suppose that’s what I am. Yet even these few minutes driving from the airport have served to complicate my scenario.
For miles after leaving Bombay, it seemed that all the debris in creation had been clapped into a vast shantytown disappearing into haze. Wherever I looked, small coppery people squatted around breakfast fires, or scrubbed themselves in bamboo enclosures, or swarmed over the road. Smoke from hundreds of small factories mingled with truck exhaust and burning buffalo dung. The impression was not so much one of misery, as of a life matter so condensed it might have come from a collapsed star.
All of India seemed to pass by me on the road that morning: an elephant ambling through the crowd with an itinerant monk on its back; hundreds of barefoot pilgrims on their way to a shrine somewhere in the north; a gas station called the Shree Sadguru (roughly, “true guru”) Garage.
When I first met Swami Muktananda in New York, two-and-a-half years before, I wasn’t exactly looking for a guru, nor had I much interest in Eastern philosophy. Indeed, I don’t think I will ever understand why, after sitting with him for a few minutes, I experienced a surge of emotions so powerful and so profound that it left me exhausted. I wept uncontrollably, although, at the same time, I found that I was unaccountably happy, for I had a sense of having seen myself for the first time. A guru, I learned, wasn’t someone you went to for advice about how to live. He didn’t whisper in your ear the secret that life is a bowl of cherries, or any other secret, for that matter. A guru, in the truest meaning of the word, was someone who could “infect” you with the experience of ecstasy, and who could then help you to control it, and to integrate it into your life.
I had come to India to get “reinfected” at the source, so to speak. I wasn’t expecting to be initiated into a mysterious Eastern cult. Nor was I looking forward to a retreat — some holy peace and quiet — as one might find in a monastery. Because the “source” was not really India, nor even Muktananda, but myself, one could say that this was no journey at all, and that I had come halfway round the world to discover what had been closest to me all along. I was aware of this paradox during my entire stay. Superimposed on the shock of a strange culture, and the special intensity of discipleship, was a sense of having gone nowhere, of being home in the ordinary, which, in this case, happened to be an ashram in western India.
THE SANSKRIT WORD ashram means literally a place of refuge. It is invariably used in a spiritual connection, and can apply, for example, to a retreat for widows, or even, I was told, for “sacred” cows.
India is, of course, famous for a kind of religious anarchy. All degrees of superstition, idol worship, and high mystical aim coexist in a relatively happy chaos. To the streamlined Western mind, it is a religion of too much: too many gods, too many arms and legs, too many doctrines, and, disconcertingly, little discomfort at any contradictions whatever. At a second glance, however, the anarchy seems more one of method, for there is a remarkable agreement among virtually all sects and cults as to the highest aim of spiritual work: it is to obtain a direct experience of that inner plenitude which the Hindus call God, or the soul, or the Self, and finally, if one is stubborn or lucky enough, to become one with it. Someone who has succeeded in this endeavor is said to be a saint, according to the Hindu opinion that one who loves God is God. Among saints, one who has permanently wedded his psychological to his spiritual being, and therefore lives without lapse in the ecstasy of the Self, is a rare and very great saint, a paramahamsa. Wherever a saint lives and meets disciples is called an ashram, whether it be in a cave, under a tree, or in a palace.
When Muktananda founded his ashram in 1962, it consisted of three primitive rooms beside a dirt road that became a stream of mud during the monsoon. Across the road was a huddle of straw-and-bamboo huts, the village of Gavdevi. Muktananda was living more or less on Gavdevi’s cremation grounds. Now the ashram spreads over fifty acres and houses almost 600 disciples, more than half of them Westerners. Each day people come from all over western India — in fact, from all over the world — to spend a few minutes or hours there. On festival days the visitors number in the thousands, and are housed in gaily colored tents. Gavdevi is still there, swimming in dust or mud depending on the season. But a few hundred yards away stands a double row of small brick houses which Muktananda has built for the villagers. Indeed, long before reaching the ashram I saw clusters of brick houses on the outskirts of almost every hamlet, and a sign: “Muktanand Swami: Avinasi Colony.” Avinasi is the Hindi word for aborigine. It means that the population of this valley — small, incredibly thin people with black skins — belongs to one of the ancient pre-Hindu tribes left more or less unmolested for thousands of years to inhabit the worst jungles and poorest lands of India.
Muktananda’s valley is really a frontier. Its modern history is the history of two saints, Muktananda and his guru, before him, Nityananda, who came here on foot around 1930, and started living far from any road in a patch of snake-infested jungle near a sulfur spring. By the time Muktananda came to meet him, almost twenty years later, the jungle had been cleared by followers, and a town named Ganeshpuri had sprung up around the open-air shelter where Nityananda lived, almost naked. During the last years of his life, crippled by arthritis, he agreed to move into a large building which his followers had erected for him, and the building became a kind of ashram. By then, Nityananda had caused roads, schools, and dispensaries to be built with the large sums of money disciples insisted on laying at his feet.
By all accounts, Nityananda was an enigmatic and powerful individual. He rarely spoke more than a few words at a time, flew into terrifying rages, and sometimes refused to see anyone for days, though crowds gathered in the hope merely of glimpsing him, for it is considered lucky in India to see — better yet, touch — a saint. Nityananda wasn’t, strictly speaking, a teacher, at least not explicitly, yet among the thousands who came to see him out of reverence or superstition a few gained formal initiation, and Nityananda became their guru. Muktananda was one of them.
By the mid 1950s, he too had achieved “liberation,” after a series of hallucinatory experiences which he describes as a sort of death in life. Following Nityananda’s instructions, Muktananda settled in the three-room compound, living mostly on bread and Nescafé. During those years, Muktananda spent his time gardening and welcoming anyone his guru sent to see him. On weekends when visitors multiplied and brought food, he indulged in his passion — his last “addiction,” he called it — for cooking. The people Nityananda sent him tended to be intellectuals and better-educated followers who couldn’t deal with Nityananda’s silences and his sometimes eccentric behavior.
After Nityananda died, in 1961, Muktananda began to let a few disciples live with him. “There were no special activities in those days,” one of them told me. “We spent hours sitting with Baba, or helping him in the garden. In the afternoons he let us chant a little and we meditated on a porch outside his room. He seemed to be in an ecstatic state all the time, even when he was cooking or reading the newspaper.”
Within a year there were so many followers, that Muktananda was obliged to create a legal trust, and Shree Gurudev Ashram was formally established.
AFTER THE spindly villages and the tattered landscape of the valley, the ashram buildings seemed alive with color. I thought of a medieval monastery in the midst of the wilderness. A jumble of unfinished construction spilled into the valley across the road from the main gate. The ashram was expanding, as it had virtually without stop, I was told, for fifteen years. Already there were stores, a post office, and a bank; soon a hospital. Avinasi workers swarmed over several unfinished structures, chanting and shouting as they passed basins of cement from hand to hand.
Muktananda was just starting out on his morning walk when I came into the courtyard. He chuckled when he saw me, and took my hand. The courtyard felt like an aquarium, with flecks of sunlight cascading between the trees. It was so intensely quiet that for a moment I felt a pressure at my ears, as if I were indeed underwater. The casualness of our meeting was like a meeting between old friends. Yet I couldn’t help remembering that first time, two-and-a-half years before, when my mind had opened into a shower of warm fiery pieces. That feeling of inner spaciousness had never entirely left me. It became palpable now in the brightness and calm of the courtyard.
At first there was no one to translate, so I couldn’t understand what Muktananda was saying. But his whimsical, throaty voice seemed full of communication, and I was reminded how little of what passed between us was conveyed by words. It turned out that he was inviting me to walk with him, and we started off.
Muktananda moved briskly through the ashram garden, striking off sparks of instruction to the manager, seemingly at every step, about irrigation channnels, new tree plantings, what to feed the peacocks and deer he kept as reminders of the story of Krishna. We stopped under a sprawling banyan tree. “The villagers used to execute criminals under this tree. Now an old cobra lives inside there,” he said, pointing to the partly rotted trunk. We lingered in one of the barns where his favorite cow, gleaming and black, had just calved. He rubbed the side of her head for a while, and then bent over and whispered something in her ear. As we left, he instructed the cowherd to play a record of sitar music for her, and to rub her down with a bottle of heena perfume which he had brought along with him for the purpose.
Scattered among the mango, eucalyptus, and cashew trees, were a gleaming white Shiva temple, a huge open-sided hall for ceremonial occasions, a meditation building with marble floors and an altar dedicated to Nityananda. Here and there were painted statues portraying scenes from the Ramayana. The statues had the cheerful naiveté of popular art, and Muktananda chuckled proudly as he pointed them out to me.
Despite his slight build, Muktananda, like many saints, has a large stomach, called a kumbach, which is the result of breath retention. As he walked, his stomach preceded him, almost playfully, so that, with his short curly beard and his dark glasses, he resembled an exotic Santa Claus. Again I remembered what had especially moved me about him whenever I came to see him in the United States. He was so unlike a “holy man,” so free of stylized piety and portentousness. During much of the walk, he might have been a factory owner keeping a sharp eye on the nuts and bolts of his business.
After his walk, Muktananda sat on a small carpeted porch in a corner of the courtyard, chatting with a couple of itinerant monks, or sadhus, who were staying at the ashram for a few days. Suddenly, the courtyard was full. Dozens of people formed into a line, or sat down cross-legged on the marble pavement around Muktananda’s porch. It was time for darshan, a saint’s audience with his followers. Three or four times each day Muktananda gave darshan. This was when disciples could approach him with questions, or simply sit in his presence in a sort of open-eyed meditation. It was also when visitors, who had often come hundreds of miles, could greet him and receive his touch.
As days passed, it became clear that darshan was the hub of ashram life. The ashram itself was a form of attenuated darshan which became focused and explicit during the hours of the day when Muktananda sat, kingly and remote, on his courtyard seat, his head bobbing casually as if he were sitting on water. It occurred to me that the darshan of a saint offered a curious relief from the fragmentation of Indian life into castes and classes. Darshan might, in fact, be India’s most intense democracy. Silk-clad businessmen from Bombay stood deferentially in the line, along with the driver of the local bus, village women wearing heavy gold ornaments in their nostrils, peasants in soiled white robes who had walked for hours or days to lay some vegetables or a few rupees at Muktananda’s feet. Occasionally someone fell to the ground, his arms and legs bending stiffly into ritual postures. When this happened, the line moved forward as usual, and Muktananda ignored the trancelike behavior, called a kriya, unless it became loud and appeared to disturb others. Then he would bark a few words in a piercing tone of voice. Almost always the trance stopped immediately, and the person, looking bewildered, stumbled to his feet and went to sit somewhere in the back of the courtyard.
One morning some wandering Jain nuns came for Muktananda’s darshan. They wore shields over their mouths and carried small mops to sweep the ground before they walked on it. The idea was to avoid harming even the smallest creature by accidentally crushing or swallowing it. Jainism is said to be India’s oldest religion, and it is extremely austere. These nuns, for example, went barefoot, and slept only on the ground or on a floor. The Jains believe that, by keeping apart from the world, the soul will eventually grow lighter, more buoyant, until, after thousands of lifetimes, it will float to the top of creation like a balloon clinging to the roof of a circus tent. Muktananda talked affably with them about the need to dissolve traditional barriers of caste and religion. They nodded happily, and after a while they got up and mopped their way out of the courtyard. What could they make, I wondered, of Muktananda’s sumptuous gardens and his delicately veined marble courtyard; of his peacocks and deer, and his silk clothing? A saint didn’t have to be a world-hater. Muktananda was evidence for that. He was always saying that true renunciation was more demanding, and more subtle, than physical austerities. On the other hand, I never saw him argue with anyone. He seemed willing to accept any form of devotion, even the most bizarre, as a perfectly good language for the love of God.
I was struck by the multiplicity of Muktananda’s roles. He seemed as willing to discuss the need for a new pump to increase the local water supply, as he was to let his foot be rubbed by a woman who wanted her next child to be a son, or to interpret a difficult aphorism in the Shiva Sutras for an inquiring scholar. In a single movement of the darshan line he was an imperious master, a rabbit’s foot, and the local mayor. A saint, it seemed, was a kind of public property. Everyone took away what he had come for, and Muktananda, lounging on his porch in gleaming orange silks, gave it casually without seeming to notice.
WITHIN HOURS of my arrival the ashram routine had swallowed me, and I was navigating in a suite of days which no amount of activity seemed able to fill. There was a feeling of intense, almost transfixing, aimlessness and a sort of pleasurable boredom. Not that activities were lacking. On the contrary, between work periods, chanting, and darshan, most of each day was accounted for.
At home I could rarely sit still to meditate for more than forty minutes. Here, hours passed in the early morning. My head filled with milky light, and my legs fell asleep. During the day, I had only to close my eyes and a pressure gripped my head. If I went to one of the meditation halls, especially one called the cave, in a basement room under Muktananda’s apartment, my breath became faint and regular, and I felt almost paralyzed with concentration. Sometimes I thought of an embryo floating between the stars, or of a well with an image shimmering far, far down on the surface of the water.
The day began at 3:30 A.M. with gongs and conch shells announcing a period of early meditation. Shortly before five, a chant called arati was held in the main hall, followed by a few minutes for the disciples to have tea in the dining room or a glass of Nescafé and boiled buffalo milk just outside the gate, at a dingy tea shop which Westerners called the Sydney Greenstreet Café. From 6:00 to 7:30 the principal chant of the morning was held. This consisted of a series of prayers and rhythmic chants, accompanied by a drum, and ending with a long philosophical poem entitled the “Guru Gita.” Every once in a while Muktananda would sweep into the hall during the “Guru Gita,” usually to scold us for not chanting sweetly enough. His angers were electrifying, and the people seemed almost to look forward to them. When he shouted, he didn’t need a translator. He would lean forward in his chair, and take his glasses off, and the room would fill with a feeling of excitement verging on panic. One had a sense that Muktananda’s angers were theatrical, even when his voice became piercing and genuinely frightening, yet everyone collaborated in the play which became a sort of family drama.
The rest of the day was divided among work assignments, darshan, and several periods of chanting, the most beautiful of which was held in the courtyard at the end of the evening. This was a melodic love song to Shiva, and lasted for an hour. All the energy and fatigue of the day resolved themselves in this chant, which was followed, a few minutes later, by lights out.
Although Muktananda insisted that the purpose of living in an ashram was to cultivate meditation, virtually no time was formally set aside for it, except during the early morning hours. Meditation rooms were open during much of the day, and disciples could use them when they wanted to. But the enforced discipline of the ashram routine made it hard to find more than a few minutes at a time. It was as if Muktananda wanted his followers to be a little hungry for meditation, as if he wanted a feeling of pent-up meditation to spill over into their daily activities. It seemed that one purpose of ashram life was to break down the antagonism between activity and meditation.
AS THE DAYS PASSED, the sleepy intensity of the ashram settled over me, and I found myself reluctant even to go for walks in the countryside, as if I might miss something in the interim, although, of course, there was nothing to miss. I strolled in the penance grove, or sat in one of the temples and read a book from the ashram library. After my arrival, Muktananda seemed to forget I was there, until one day, about a week later, he turned to me during darshan and asked if I wanted to visit Ganeshpuri that afternoon. There was going to be a procession honoring Nityananda, as there was every Thursday, which is Guru Day in India.
The procession began shortly before dusk at a temple on the edge of town dedicated to Nityananda. Some villagers led by a priest formed into a double line, and started chanting and dancing to the accompaniment of a loud drum. Behind them, a silver palanquin was shouldered by four men, and a flame lighted inside it. Two beadles in rich velvet uniforms led the way holding banners, followed by a second drummer beating a completely different rhythm, and a man with a long reed horn playing a solo which bore an eerie resemblance to a free-jazz improvisation.
The procession emerged from the front door of the temple, and started up the only street, singing “Om Namo Gurudev Nityanandaya” over and over. Every few yards the palanquin, which was a portable altar, stopped, and people brought offerings of flowers and coconuts, and threw popped rice as at a wedding. It was very casual and carefree. Many townspeople fell in with the procession, brushing cows out of the way and chanting along, wildly but happily off key. The procession ended at a small temple on the other side of town, and there the din became truly amazing: the chanting, the two drummers, the jazz, and now a dozen loud bells ringing the evening prayer at the temple. God couldn’t help hearing.
A while later, in a shed next to Nityananda’s temple, the villagers held a supta, or ceremonial dance and chant. The dancing was high-spirited but dignified, and the chant leader sang with wonderful fervor: “Hooray for Nityananda, we love Nityananda, Praise for the great Siddha Nityananda.” It was a sort of holy square dance, with more and more people joining in, until a young boy raced into the room and started to beat a huge kettledrum. The sound alone was enough to drive everyone out of the shed and into the temple where a last chant, sounding more like a schoolyard rope-jumping song, was sung by a group of children with high, reedy voices.
The evening stirred me deeply. I don’t think I had ever quite grasped how much of Muktananda’s personality emanated from this archaic countryside with its miseries and its drowsy instinct for survival. In America he seemed to have come from nowhere. Yet here, in Ganeshpuri, one saw his origins, so to speak: the folk piety, the good-natured spirituality, which served as a nutrient, and a background, for the great saints. At the same time, I found the evening puzzlingly familiar, for I had seen it before in small French or Italian towns on days of religious festival: a little more starched, a little more solemn, but ragged and good-natured and communal nonetheless, bridging all the differences of doctrine between continents and religions. Here, on a level of popular celebration, was the same universality which moved me in Muktananda’s teaching. “Religion is like a car,” I remember him saying once. “It will take you some distance, but in order to actually arrive you have to get out and go the rest of the way on foot. In an ashram, you don’t learn about religion, you learn how to walk.”
It occurred to me that I had never been in a less mysterious place, and that my journey had come full circle. The hot bright days, the simple, almost stodgy, decor of the meditation halls, the immaculate gardens with their temples and statues and their groves of fruit trees, were the setting for an exercise in self-knowledge which was not alien or occult, but simply human. If there was a mystery here, it was in myself; if there was a “secret,” I was it. As for Muktananda, his power lay precisely in his lack of mystery. If he was a wizard, he was a wizard of the ordinary, and that was the mystery.
The feeling of inner spaciousness which settled over me when I sat to meditate; the moments of absorption when the inner and outer spaces no longer seemed quite so separate, as if a membrane of self-definition had suddenly become porous, and the currents of life were mingling freely through it: these were not Indian or Eastern experiences; they were simply ways of being human. In a certain sense I was not in India at all, certainly not in some exotic ritual setting. I was in myself, or, alternatively, I was in the world.
“What I like about Baba,” an Indian disciple told me one day, “is that he’s such a rationalist.”
I found this to be true. Everything about him seemed to insist that there was no spiritual life separate from a worldly life, no “supernatural” dispensation to relieve one from the need to be oneself: there was only life, and the question was whether to have less of it, or more of it, or even all of it.
Text copyright © 1977 Paul Zweig. This article originally appeared in Harpers Magazine, May 1977.
Photo of Muktananda with Lenore G. Tawney courtesy Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.
Paul Zweig (1935‒1984) was a celebrated poet, critic, and memoirist, widely admired in literary circles, who died at age 49. He was a devotee of Swami Muktananda and contributed to several of Muktananda’s books.
By Paul Zweig
This book includes Zweig’s long account of his relationship with Swami Muktananda, which is reprinted on this website as The Bright Yellow Circus. Lee Siegel, an editor at a major literary magazine, wrote about Zweig:
“Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Though the poet, critic and memoirist Paul Zweig was admired in literary circles during his lifetime, he slipped through fame's embrace. That may have been his misfortune, but you can read the books of this "fierce little man" — as his friend, the poet Robert Bly, called Zweig at a tribute held last month at Poets House in Manhattan — unclouded by commentary and judgment, fresh, as if they had just appeared. And Zweig, who died of lymphatic cancer in 1984 at the age of 49, is well worth revisiting. At a time when writers often write with calculated eccentricity rather than out of a fateful obsession, and compose memoirs that seem devoid of self-understanding, his raw, original studies of culture and his masterly autobiographies provide a rich diet for famished readers. Zweig may have spent much of his life in the academy, but he wished to throw himself into the world and test his ideas against experience, and then measure himself against the results. He wanted a destiny, not a career.”
By Swami Muktananda
“In this Classic spiritual autobiography for all times SWAMI MUKTANANDA not only POURS OUT HIS VAST ARRAY OF DIVINE KNOWLEDGE, BUT at the same time holds the attuned reader SPELLBOUND WITH THE GURU'S ALWAY’S LIVE CURRENT OF PURE AND DIVINE GRACE. THIS BOOK CONTAINS THE LIVING SPIRITUAL FIRE OF GOD!”
—Harold Kalustian (an Amazon reviewer)
This page was published on January 3, 2018 and last revised on May 11, 2019.