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AMITABHA BAGCHI

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 11/15/2016 |



In December 2003, I went to Baidyanath dham for the second time in my life. My first trip, taken some fifty years earlier, was one of my most memorable. I was but a child then, and as I peered from my berth in a Sleeper coach, the brightly-lit platforms of Howrah Station looked magical. I found the intense jockeying for our patronage by competitive religious middlemen (known as pandas) in the early morning hours at the Jasidih station positively bewildering. In Deoghar, I enjoyed the deep-fried puris for dinner, snacked on too-sweet pedas, took in the gorgeous view of Trikut Pahar at a distance, and marveled at the nicely kept homes laid out in tidy rows on clean streets in the aptly named Bilasi Town enclave. The biggest excitement for me and my brother on the return trip was to watch the latest acquisition of the Indian Railways, the so-called Canadian Engine, haul Toofan Express into the station. The two of us spent hours standing at the door of our compartment, looking out at the passing scenery, ignoring the burning sensation in our eyes caused by hot smoke and coal dust belched by the engine.

It ought to be clear by now that the religious significance of Deoghar and Baidyanath dham was not uppermost in my consciousness at that time. I learned of course the legend of how the Jyotirlinga came to be located in that small town. King Ravana, after propitiating Lord Shiva, was carrying a potent Siva linga to Lanka with the understanding that he could not set it down anywhere without affixing it permanently there. The gods, alarmed at the prospect of Ravana’s invincibility in his island kingdom, schemed to fill his bladder with so much water that he had to (indirectly) set down the Jyotirlinga on Deoghar to relieve himself. (That act allegedly created a large pond.) When Ravana could not lift up Shiva, he angrily flailed and hit it so hard a good part of it was driven into the ground. That is the configuration in which the linga (i.e., Lord Shiva) is worshipped in Baidyanath dham.

My family went to Deoghar because my grandmother had apparently made a mental promise (known as manat in Bengali) sometime earlier to do a puja to the deity there. I recall going to the temple but could not see the object of veneration with any clarity. A large crowd surrounded what looked like a circular depression in the ground. Shiva’s phallic symbol, which normally points so proudly upward at the sky, seemed here to be barely peeking out of the center of that depression. Nevertheless, in all the confusion and with a sudden gush of piety, I also did a manat to perform a puja someday at the same place. What was worse, I told my mother about my mental promise.

Years passed, going into decades, and nothing was mentioned about my childhood promise to the Lord. But things changed some forty years later. Now, whenever I came to India to visit my parents, my mother would pointedly remind me of my manat. For the first couple of times I paid no heed, until I realized that she was dead serious and even fixated on the matter. I began to worry that she might pass on before I could fulfil her wish, leaving a large hole in her heart. So finally I relented and approached my mom.

“You really want me to go to Baidyanath dham to perform a puja there?” I asked. Her answer in the affirmative was not a surprise.

“All right,” I said, “but your interest in this matter far outstrips mine. Let me take you with me.” She gently but firmly declined my offer. Her knees had gone so bad, she could barely fold one leg and had difficulty getting into a cab. Riding a train would have been sheer torture. I gave up and, in late 2003, boarded a train with two friends for Deoghar.

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On my second trip, with adult eyes, I saw Deoghar in a less idyllic light. The natural beauty of an undulating landscape was still there, but it was despoiled by haphazard urban growth and a pervasive sense of decay. Admittedly, I did not re-visit Bilasi Town, which proclaims the following on a webpage (and I quote verbatim here): “Bilasi town in deoghar is the most beautiful place in deoghar which has two cinema halls and it is very neat and clean place of deoghar.” But what caught my eye the most were one-time beautiful mansions in various states of dilapidation and decay. What was even more interesting was that most of those once proud houses had Bengali names on marble nameplates – Bhattacharya, Chatterjee, and the like. Clearly the decline of Deoghar was partly attributable to the decline in fortune of the Bengali zamindar and bhadralok class which greatly contributed to its prosperity in British times.

The Bengali influence in Deoghar can be seen in other ways too – most notably, in the large number of ashrams or religious monasteries that have been founded by Bengali monks. The best known among them are the ashrams founded by Anukul Thakur and Mohanananda Brahmachari. There is also a fine school run by the Ramakrishna Mission.

We stayed as guests of the Dev Sangha Ashram and Math school -- thanks to the kindness of its leader, Saumyendranath Brahmachari. The day after our arrival, I took care of the manat puja early in the morning. The priest took me into garbha griha, but the partially interred jyotirlinga within the central indentation was – to use an inelegant Bengali slang – surrounded by Dehati women in brightly colored saris and so largely invisible.  Lord Shiva must have chosen to be hidden from sinners like me! From the temple, we came back to the school where I taught two math classes at the request of our hosts. Then we ate lunch and set off to explore the countryside.

While driving around the rocky and barren surroundings of Deoghar, which were occasionally punctuated by tala (or toddy) and date palm trees, we chanced upon a small village. What we found there confounded us all. We saw two relatively new and modern structures across each other on a wide, clean and well-maintained country road. One building had the appearance of a temple; the other looked rather like a hostel. Young Caucasian men and women in ochre robes and saris were flitting back and forth between the two buildings. The very incongruity of the scene – a slice of the West in the heart of Jharkhand – was breath-taking! We absolutely had to find out the story behind it all.

We knocked on the front door of the temple for admittance and were told that it was a private place and not open to visitors. Undeterred, my friends persisted by pointing out that our group included a visitor from America. That did the trick and, after waiting for a while, we were ushered into the courtyard.

It was quite a spectacle. We saw two stupa-like structures -- not domed but stepped-pyramidal in appearance – that looked like small temples. There was also a large raised dais or patio of white marble. Young Caucasian women in saffron saris were on their hands and knees, with buckets of water and rags, cleaning and polishing the stone surface. Their devotion to the task was palpable. We followed our guide to a small office. Pretty soon, a white woman in her forties, most likely the person-in-charge of the place and a kind of Mother Superior to the younger “nuns,” came in to greet us and explain the background and purpose of the place.

The background itself was unexceptionable. The set-up we saw was the Jharkhand chapter or branch of an active yoga movement from a place further up north – Kanpur or Rishikesh, I forget which. The devotees underwent some rigorous and systematic training in yoga and spirituality. The lady gave us several books describing the organization and its goals. But then she said something really odd. She said that the Jharkhand “ministry” was under the leadership of a Guru who had gone into Samadhi for some three months in one of the stupas. All the devotees were waiting for his emergence from the Samadhi state in six months, per his assurance, and keeping the place in tip-top shape for his return to the mortal world.

*** *** ***

The idea of a six-month Samadhi is patently absurd. But it will be nevertheless believed by many Hindus as the manifestation of supernatural yogic power. Any contrarian scientific opinion will be brushed off with the old saw “Biswase Milay Krishno Tarke Bohudoor” (The Lord reveals Himself to one of faith, not to a debater.) So was this Guru of Jharkhand essentially immortal? What is the Hindu attitude to the immortality of (at least some) holy men?

This question has intrigued me for some time, so I did a quick research using two unreliable sources: Google and Wikipedia. The first person I looked up was my favorite sadhu of the 19th century, Trailanga Swami. The Wikipedia entry on him is truly fascinating. It says (accurately enough) that he is regarded as a “legendary figure in Bengal” – no wonder I am a fan! – and that Ramakrishna called him “The Walking Shiva of Varanasi.” And then it gives his age (at death) as either 280 years or 358 years. Apparently, people knew exactly when he died, but they could believe whatever they wanted about when he was born. I can only sigh about the near-total absence of content-control by the Wikipedia management. (Or am I showing my debating spirit and not evincing much of a sign of faith?)

I turned next to Lahiri Mahasaya – the home-bound yogi who revived the practice of Kriya Yoga – or more accurately to his guru, Mahavatar Babaji. According to Wikipedia, Mahavatar Babaji appeared to Lahiri Mahasaya and also to disciples in his lineage, such as Yukteshwar Giri and Paramahansa Yogananda between 1861 and 1935, i.e., over a span of 74 years. Nobody knows when he was born, but one anecdote in Wikepedia puts his date of birth as 30 November 203 AD, while Yogananda in one of his books claims that Babaji conferred with Jesus Christ when the latter traveled to India. These stories would make Babaji close to 2000 years old and essentially immortal, because nobody knows if and when he died either.

Musing on these seemingly immortal gurus, I recalled one fact I learned from my grandfather. Hindu mythology names several people or characters as immortal: for example, Hanumana, Veda Vyas and Ashwathama, to name three. My grandfather used to throw in the mix a rather modern name, namely that of Bijoy Krishna Goswami, so I googled him as well. Per Wikipedia, he lived a mere 58 years (1841-1899), except that he was apparently poisoned to death in Puri by some opponents, and made some cryptic comments like “We shall again meet on a mountain.” So in spite of his having a samadhi in Puri which attracts pilgrims, the end of his life is shrouded in mystery.

All this brings me to the apparent immortality of the sage-like political “guru” of modern India, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His legion admirers refuse to accept the mundane explanation of his death in a plane crash in Formosa (now Taiwan). So they inventively place him in odd locales: Stalin’s gulag in Siberia, Tashkent in 1966 for a meeting with Lal Bahadur Shastri before the latter’s sudden death, and the ashram of the sadhu at Shaulmari in the 1960s. For many Hindu Bengalis, “Netaji amar hain” seems to have a real rather than a metaphoric ring -- aided no doubt by the religion’s occasional acceptance of quasi-immortal gurus as a fact -- contrary to scientific evidence and our everyday experience.

-- September 2016


[AMITABHA BAGCHI]

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