The Mongoose and the Snake
As the story goes, when Shri Hans Ji Maharaj was searching for a plot of land to start his Ashram, he noticed at one particular site a mongoose and a snake coexisting peacefully at the edge of a pond. The presence of these two natural enemies living in harmony was enough to convince this widely known guru to start what is now known as the Prem Nagar Ashram in Haridwar. It's at this site that I spent two weeks living, learning, struggling, and eventually rejecting.
The Prem Nagar Ashram is a place truly devoted to the realization of truth. It is just one of supposedly 3000 Ashrams and centers throughout the world all under the organization known as Manav Utthan Sewa Samiti. This organization is led by Shri Satpal Ji Maharaj, inherited from his father, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj. Pictures of key members of the family tile the walls of the Ashram. They are worshiped as true and complete manifestations of god - in the same way that a Christian might worship Jesus or a Muslim might worship Muhammad. In many traditions a fully realized master is considered to be completely united with God or Synonymous with God. The true and complete devotion to this figure is one way for the aspirants to find their own peace within. These guys have the devotion thing down.
This devotion to a Guru was not new to me, it pretty much goes hand in hand with the whole concept of a Guru. As I understand it, you can't really have a Guru unless you have complete faith and devotion towards that individual. Its only after those prerequisites have been met that knowledge can freely flow to the disciple. Its no different in a traditional school. A student constantly skeptical of their teacher will be preoccupied with questioning and doubting and thus unable to absorb the teachings. Ideally a good teacher establishes their credibility early on through some rational discourse, and the student can have confidence with the information they receive. So, in my view, the initial skepticism is important, even mandatory, but eventually that could be transcended in favor of total faith.
I entered the Ashram with a healthy shield of skepticism - but at the same time a very strong desire to learn. A full cup can't gain water, and I work hard to find a balance between maintaining rational judgment, but being willing to accept new ideas and expand my notion of "possible". So, from the moment I entered the Ashram and began hearing about their Satguru (enlightened saint), Satpal Ji Maharaj, I tried to keep an open mind. I began reading his book, "The Living Master", and looking through the English language monthly magazine that the organization publishes. I also spent much time speaking with the few English speaking members of the 200+ all volunteer staff that lives on the premises. Most importantly, I attended a morning and evening Satsang (spiritual discourse) with the infinitely kind and patient Mahatma Shree Fakiranand.
I met Fakiranandji a few days into my stay at the Ashram and the warmth of his smile and depth of his eyes were enough to convince me that this was a man I had much to learn from. I remember our first meeting. I arrived at the small waiting area adjacent to his quaint living quarters just after dinner. Also waiting was Manu, a 25 year old Italian girl who would become my good friend and traveling partner for the next few weeks. We both entered to see Fakiranandji sitting on his bed, shrouded in an orange blanket, topped with an orange ski cap, and finished with a smile. As is customary we kneeled down and first bowed toward the shrine for his Guru, Satpal ji Maharaj, and then towards the feet of our teacher. Then, after quickly making sure we were well fed, he jumped right into it.
There was no question about Fakiranandji's intentions: he wanted us to realize the true self, and he wanted us to do it quickly. It was amazing. Manu and I were receiving the full concentrated attention of a man whose only goal during our time together was to guide us towards the highest truth and peace. For almost two weeks we attended these meetings - once in the morning after breakfast, and once in the evening after dinner. Their form was always the same. In the beginning we would be prompted for any questions. Usually either Manu or I would have been mulling something, which we would deliver for examination.
The answers took a pretty standard form. Fakiranandji would usually say in his nicest tone that he had already explained that (which was probably true) and that we are still confused (which was definitely true) and then begin a long discourse which didn't always clearly relate to the question, but always directly led to the highest understanding of God and Truth. He told many stories. They would often repeat, growing or shrinking in length. Sometimes multiple stories would be strangely combined into longer versions. It was like he had some huge stockpile of characters and lessons, that could be woven together to make a point as needed.
Time passed in this way at the Ashram. Prayer and meditation at 5:30am. Stretching and Yoga at 7am. Breakfast at 8am in the small kitchen reserved for office staff and guest. Morning Satsang with Mahatma Fakirianand at 8:30. Afternoons consisted of reading, relaxing in the quite beautiful garden area, and of course lunch. Evening held a second prayer and meditation followed by dinner and then our evening Satsang or spiritual discourse. The food was simple but satisfying. Rice and Chappati (simple flat bread similar Naan in American Indian Restaurants), a main vegetable dish, a soupy bean dish, and maybe some pickled mango. In traditional Indian style all was eaten by hand by mixing everything into a rice mush and scooping into the mouth with the finger tips. Chai was served multiple times a day. I had been avoiding caffeine which totally blew their mind. Instead I was trying to make an herbal tea I had purchased from their Ayuverdic pharmacy. Eventually I managed to work this into the daily schedule.
After some time, Fakiranandji and others began talking about "receiving knowledge." At first I took this to be a general concept of accepting the knowledge already being given during Satsang, but later understood it to be something very specific. During our meetings, Fakiranandji began talking more and more about the necessity of receiving knowledge. He would speak about it in abstract terms, being very careful not to reveal any specifics about what exactly it meant to "receive knowledge." He did so in a way that didn't feel pushy or aggressive, but rather stemmed from a general concern and desire for our well being. But at the same time it was clear that their was a growing desire, even expectation for us to have this experience.
From Fakiranandji's perspective, and rightly so, Manu and I held too many doubts to be able to receive this knowledge. It would fall on deaf ears unless we were able to open up completely and have total faith and devotion. I think he was waiting for us to formally approach him and ask to receive this knowledge - that way he could be sure we had the appropriate commitment. This of course would require that we accept Satpal Ji Maharaj as a truly enlightened master, or Satguru. But this presented a problem. We knew very little about this man, and had no reason to accept him as our divine spiritual guide. Some solutions presented revolved around the idea that once we received the knowledge then we would "understand" - which of course created a bit of a conundrum. Our only option was to continue our rational assessment of Satpal Ji Maharaj.
One evening we walked into our evening Satsang to find Fakiranandji with an unusually big smile. He told us with the eagerness and excitement of a school boy that the Guru would be making a secret surprise visit the next day. He even went so far as to speculate that it was no coincidence that the master was coming just as our doubts were needing some resolution. Maybe this visit was for us!?
The Master's visit was like an explosion - short and intense. He stayed for no more than 30 minutes but in that time there was more excitement on the premises than the entire two weeks combined. There was a total frenzy. Imagine the old black and white video of the Beatles concerts with adolescent girls weeping and grasping the air in the direction of the stage. He arrived in an SUV with a guard and entourage. Sunglasses, polished leather shoes, and sharp well assembled outfit. In a few minutes the population of the Ashram would be fighting like dogs to touch those shoes as if the slightest contact meant eternal salvation. This is called Darsham and in one form or another is quite common. I wrote about Amma, the hugging saint whose Darsham consisted of hugging. Here, it consisted of touching the master's feet. The purpose of his visit seemed to be to check on the status of a construction project, so with the efficiency of a guru on-the-move he positioned himself in a vantage point to view the half-built structure and raised his hand for the Darshan to begin.
His devotees rushed to those polished black shoes in a moving and shifting swarm. Fakiranandji motioned urgently for Manu and I to come close so we could also get our turn. At an opportune time I was pushed into the mass, and there I was on my knees at the shiny feet of the master. I stood up and first met the delighted eyes of Mahatma Fakiranand who seemed to be silently saying "And now you've seen God", and then I turned to directly greet the Master himself. He looked at me and nodded and then looked at our guide and asked in Hindi where we were from and how long we would be staying. Both he and the organization were clearly happy to have foreigners there, it was later that I would learn that there were high hopes for us.
After the excitement died down I decided to head to the Internet cafe to see what information I could dig up. Relying on the members of the organization itself for a rational judgement of the Guru and organization was impossible. What turned up began to lead me down my path of doubt and eventually rejection. Though English information about Satpal was difficult to come by (maybe its all in Hindi), he comes from a family with a colorful history. He was not the original Satguru after the death of his father, but rather took that title later in his life from his brother. There seem to have been a number of legal disputes in the family, not quite fitting of a group supposed to be the true manifestation of god. Much information was available for his brother, Prem Rawat's organization which is centered in the United States. Many aspects of the critical description of the brother's group seemed to ring true for what I was observing. Especially the highly secretive nature of the "knowledge" which I later learned to be a set of meditation techniques in common use in various forms.
Returning to the Ashram I began to look more critically at the organization. In a conversation with one of the residents of Ashram I began discussing some of the most highly regarded saints in contemporary Indian history such as Sivananda and Ramana Maharshi. The surprising response was these men were not true enlightened masters. When I pressed further it became clear that the view of this individual was their Guru was the one and only living enlightened master, and that before that his father. Assuming this strange view to be an anomaly I approached the kind Saint with whom we had been meeting twice a day. After a some difficult questioning (a straight answer was hard to come by) I was surprised to hear that this view was shared by our teacher. It was clearly stated that only through this living guru could the truth be found. All other religions, all other spiritual pursuits, all other Gurus were nothing but false paths to the truth. There were not many paths and one central truth - rather there was one path and one truth and Satpal Ji Maharaj was that.
The revelation of this belief, along with the strangely secretive and hyped nature of their initiation ritual was too much. Though 95% of the knowledge I received while at the Ashram I believe to be true, and will stay with me through time, I couldn't remain in a place that held such divisive beliefs. For them to truly believe that the billions of people, and countless religions populating this vast world could only find truth through their master and their organization, was to fall deeply into the darkest depths of what makes religion harmful. This reasoning was and is the cause of countless deaths, irrational prejudice, and incessant disharmony. Its this belief that behind a veil of "we are all one", fosters the socially destructive notion of "us and them."
Not wanting to jump to any conclusions I allowed a few more meetings where Manu and I expressed our objections. I searched hard for the place where my judgment had become flawed, but their view as I've written it only strengthened. Eventually it was time to go. With considerable sorrow, and even disappointment we were told that there was high hopes for us. We were seen as messengers from which the knowledge could spread around the world. Of course, this is the only way that the concept of a single living master makes sense - his power/kingdom must spread to the corners of the earth so that all can be saved. Eventually the time came, and we walked down the long driveway that lead to the street. I learned a huge amount from my stay at the Prem Nagar Ashram - most things intended, but some they never meant to teach.
The next chapter in my story takes me directly from the Prem Nagar Ashram to perhaps the most culturally different spiritual group imaginable - the Sadhus. I lived in a tent with two Sadhus for some time, learning a great deal, and having countless fantastic experiences.
The younger blissed-out Mahatma Fakiranand