Story by Jean-Philippe Soule 01/2003
Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city, is perpetually overflowing with Pilgrims. Varanasi was already thriving in 500 BC when Buddha came to Sarnath to give his first sermon making it sacred to Buddhists too. Indians believe that the Ganges, the sacred river that runs through Varanasi, has its source in the footprints of Shiva, and that bathing in the Ganges from one of its ghats Ėritual stairways leading to the riverĀEcleanses all the sins. Visiting Varanasi at least once in a lifetime is every Indianís goal, and dying there insures the greatest chance of moksha (release from the cycle of rebirth). Of all the cities devoted to Shiva, god of internal knowledge, Varanasi is nothing else than Kashi, the City of Divine Light.
Tourists and spiritual seekers flock from around the world to Varanasi to experience its strong and exotic energy. If Varanasi is a must-see destination in India, it can nevertheless be shocking to first time visitors. Cows in India represent mother earth and are considered sacred. They wander unrestrained all over town, blocking traffic and congregating in the indecipherable maze of narrow streets that make up Varanasi. Tinny, noisy motorcycles and creaky bicycles swirl around the cows and their holy manure piles, which sometimes are already sprouting necklaces of flowers. Tourists spend their first hours looking where to put their feet. Walking with their heads down, tourists become easy prey to the cons their presence has attracted. These ever-present hustlers try to sell them anything from Hashish to rickshaw rides, boat tours, massages, and souvenirs. Even many Sadhus- sages who have supposedly given up all possessions to devote themselves to a spiritual life- can be cons. Separating the real Sadhus from the multitude of imposters can be a daunting task. But genuine spiritual sages exist in the city, even though they might not be the ones posing along the picturesque Ganges wearing long hair and beards and dressed in nice orange robes. The way of the Sadhu is an internal path, and- unfortunately- their appearance will provide no clue as to whether a Sadhu is truly on his destined path.
My wife Yumi and I, tired of wandering around hauling our travel gear in the maze of filthy streets, sat at the first well-kept restaurant we saw. It started with the name Mona Lisa, a reassuring feeling of cultures that had crossed the oceans. The warm greetings from management and staff were as welcoming as the delicious food that came out of their kitchen. Before even securing a roof for the night, we had found what would become our headquarters in Varanasi. After checking in, we returned to the Mona Lisaís restaurant. We first met Rajesh, a young Indian man who surprised us by speaking flawless Japanese; he soon became our friend and guide. Sunil, the young owner and his ever-smiling father were equally friendly and made us feel right at home. A few hours later, Sunil and Rajesh introduced us to one of their close friends, a young man that filled the room with a remarkable energy. His posture was completely relaxed, quiet and reserved, he greeted us without all the standard empty questions of ďwhere are you fromĀEand ďwhere are you goingĀEthat we had become accustomed to. He is a yoga teacher, said his friends. Although I had never thought about taking a yoga class, I felt compelled to meet this man again. Yumi had wanted to learn meditation for some time and we thought that he might be the right person.
We originally came to Varanasi with the intent to stay three days. Three days became three weeks, and leaving wasnít easy. More than the yoga classes that followed, I was fascinated by the human being I found in Swami Shiva Nand Jee. Our daily yoga, and breathing and meditation practices were always followed by long hours of discussions during which we shared our philosophy on life and forged a deep friendship. Under Swamiís guidance, we dove into a cultural world we never knew existed.
We learned about yoga, and the philosophy behind it. Being vegetarian is an important part of the way of the Sadhu explains Swami. ďPeople should never take the lives of other living animals. When an animal gets killed, he is very upset and this anger flows in his blood. Then you eat this blood, it is terrible for your soul. In any case, it is much healthier to be vegetarian.ĀENot only are real yogis vegetarian, but they also periodically clean their body internally. We use various techniques to clean our sinuses and digestive systems.ĀEnbsp; Later, I witnessed these techniques. They were impressive, disgusting and looked painful, but Swami practices them two to four times a month, avowing their health benefit. ďIf you eat a vegetarian diet, practice internal body cleaning, yoga postures and pranayama breathing techniques, you will never be sick,ĀEsaid Swami. But yoga is not just a physical practice- it is the preparation of the body for the much higher state of consciousness found in meditation.
At age 28, Swami is the spiritual guru many pilgrims dream of meeting. He doesnít wear the dress of a Sadhu, but he lives every instant of it with all his heart and soul. Sunil told me in a private discussion that Swami is a ďSaintĀE It is certain that in fifteen years of travel I have met numerous spiritual leaders, but never one so young with such wisdom. His youth and vitality contradict his surprising maturity. His goal is simply to find the ďTruth.ĀEWhen I asked him how long it took him to master yoga, he simply replied, ďJust a few months, but that is long story.ĀEI listened and started to understand the way of the Sadhu.
Swami Shiva Nand Jee was born in Varanasi on March 14, 1974 under the name Shiva Nang Singh. I found it to be an amazing coincidence that a baby born in the holiest city honoring Shiva would bear the name of this god and follow a spiritual path. I asked how his parents chose his name, and with shyness, he replied: ďMy mother told me that during her pregnancy, it was the happiest moment of her life. She felt at peace and prayed to Shiva daily like she never had before. So when I was born she decided to name me ShivaĀE Shiva among all the Hindu gods represents power and energy. He is often personified in the lotus position, meditating and bearing the third eye, the symbol of inner vision and wisdom. He is the God venerated by all yogis and gurus in search of the truth.
Young Shiva got his first revelation at age six. Without understanding much about the complex multitude of gods that make up the Hindu religion, he was attracted to temples. There he often felt a strong feeling of peace flowing through his body. The feeling kept calling him so much that he often skipped school to read, study or just sit and relax in the various religious centers of the city. At age 14, he come to understand that in spite of being first of his class, his path wasnít to follow in his fatherís footsteps as a businessman, nor his elder brothersĀEstudy of computer science. He wanted to know the real meaning of life-- he wanted to learn meditation in search of personal power and internal knowledge.
Paradoxically, for young Shiva, the countryís holiest city wasnít the best place to start on this destiny path of wisdom and peace, since his family could never understand his quest. In the middle of a December night, he left without a note and without any intent to ever return. He chose the dress and the life of a Sadhu, a man who has renounced all family ties and material belongings to follow a spiritual journey.
The way of the Sadhu isnít an easy path, especially for a young boy in search for guidance. The following year for Shiva was the most difficult of his life. Looking for the right guru wasnít as easy as he had hoped. He realized that most gurus and sadhus werenít blessed with divine understandings. He recounted stories of the numerous sadhus who had adopted the robe just to be accepted freely at ashrams and receive gracious donations from naive pilgrims. Among them he even met a few who could not have found a better place to hide from the law. He also encountered nice people who truly aspired to a religious life, but none with the knowledge and wisdom he was seeking. His unbeaten desire led him from ashram to ashram throughout North India until he arrived to the municipality of Rishikesh. In this Uttar Pradesh town of the lower Himalayas he found refuge in the Nirranjani Akara Ashram, where all sadhus live entirely naked. Days went by and Shiva felt, like in many other places, that these sadhu minds and souls were as naked as their bodies. Yet he had faith he would meet the right teacher, and remained true to his heart. His calling was so strong that the thought to return home never crossed his mind. One night in Rishikesh he had a powerful dream. In the dream, a high spiritual man with a long beard and sitting in the lotus position was waving for him to come to him. In the morning he woke up shaken by the experience. Every night for a week the same dream filled his mind. Finally, he accepted this vision, and taking only his simple robe and one day worth of food, he walked toward the forest without the faintest idea of where he was going.
After a full days walk, Shiva sat by a tree to spend his first night ever in the forest. It was a frightening experience; every sound of a branch cracking brought to his mind the thoughts of dangerous animals such as mountain lions and wild elephants. After a sleepless night, he continued his way deeper in the forest. Although he had no food, he felt happy to be in the forest. The second night was much better, for he was able to relax and enjoy the stars and the pure air so absent from the cities of his journey. On his third day, he noticed a small fire. Walking to it, he saw a fork planted in the ground. He sat there and waited all day for someone to come by. After falling asleep that evening, he woke up on the fourth morning to find a sage meditating next to him. It was the man from his dreams. Before he could find the courage to say any words, the old man asked him what took him so long to come. Shiva replied that he didnít know where to look for the old man, but that he wanted to learn meditation from him. The two spent a week in the forest talking and questioning the real motivation of Shiva. Then the old man, named Shir Ram Lal Jee, accepted to become his guru.
Shivaís intensive training started the next day and would be a daily routine for weeks. Awaking at 4 AM, he first had to bath and clean his body entirely, a ritual that would later include internal body cleaning. As part of the cleansing, Shir Ram Lal Jee gave Shiva a single leaf of a medicinal plant to release his anger. From five to eight, Shiva learned difficult asanas or yogi postures that increase the bodyís flexibility, power, balance, and overall health, as well as support the power of meditation.
From eight to midday followed three to four hours of daily meditation practice. At the beginning, staying motionless in the lotus position was a most painful exercise, and young Shiva was unable to concentrate in the meditation. Although pain filled all his senses, he never dared to tell his guru for fear he might think that Shiva was unworthy to be his disciple. Shiva suffered silently through the rigorous postures. Shiva was taught how to identify, find and cook edible plants from the forest, even though Shir Ram Lal Jee never seemed to eat. After lunch, Shiva spent time relaxing and bathing in the river by a small waterfall. Around 3 P.M. his training began anew with lectures covering subjects from Hindu religion and mythology to life philosophy. The lectures were followed by an hour of prayers and mantras and another three hours of meditation. The master never ate dinner either, and often when Shiva woke up in the night, he saw his mater in a meditative state, never really sleeping.
Weeks passed and happiness and fulfillment quickly replaced the pain Shiva first experienced. In a matter of a few months, Shiva revealed himself as a great yogi master. To mark his advancement to a higher level of understanding, his guru gave him a new name. He would now be a priest yogi named Swami Shiva Nand Jee.
Swami was enchanted by his new lifestyle. Yoga and meditation became his dearest activities, and his guru offered him the spiritual guidance he always sought. He would have stayed in the forest forever, but Shir Ram Lal Jee guru had other plans for his future. After seven months Shir Ram Lal Jee guru asked Swami to leave. He had to return to the cities, teach people and learn from them. Swami wasnít pleased by the idea and refused. Even though Shir Ram Lal Jee reassured him that he would call Shiva back to him when the time came, young Swami wasnít willing to let go of his master. A few days of discussions didnít change Swamiís mind. He was determined to stay with his guru. One morning he woke up alone. The sage had gone. Swami spent his day looking around the forest and returned to camp at night. One day became ten, but the sage never returned. He had left no alternative to young Swami but to follow his directions. Sad and lonely, Swami started the two days walk back toward Rishikesh. After learning so much from his master about Hindu religion and philosophy, Swami decided to learn Sanskrit, the language of the old sacred texts. Without saying a word about his experience, he returned to the Nirranjani Akara Ashram. Although he started to learn Sanskrit, something was missing in his life and Swami knew he had to move on.
A famous guru named Tadadalbar Sadhu had his own ashram in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Swami arrived there to learn that the master had left his body three months ago and was buried in the center of his ashram. The energy there was good, but the disciples who carried on with the saintís mission were not illuminated. Disappointed, Swami left, following a visiting sadhu from Nepal. In Nepal he spent a few months, but again felt that the ashramís followers and gurus alike didnít understand the fundamental things about life on earth and beyond. After a full year in search for a place where he could learn something useful, he heard about the Mahasi Ashram, a place in Delhi that was famous for its Sanskrit curriculum. Swami moved to Delhi.
Although it had been more than a year since his guru departed, Swami kept his yoga and meditation practice as intensive as they were in the forest. His mastery of yoga attracted much interest from ashrams he visited and Swami was always asked to teach students and gurus alike. His asana postures were only a part of what Swami taught. People were impressed by Swamiís meditation and understanding of the true meaning of Hinduism behind all the mythology. In Delhi Swami shared his time between his own daily practice, his teaching, and his studies of Sanskrit.
In India, the notion of family is very strong, and boys are at the center of the family. It is understood that girls one day will move to their husbandís families, but boys will always remain close to their parents. When parents grow older, it is tradition that their sons will take care of them. For this reason, all of the familyís energy and financial resources are invested on the boys and their education. Swami was born in a fairly high caste known as the Kshatriya , and his family was from the middle class. His father, owner of his own business, gave up much of his work time searching for his lost son. Knowing that Swami liked temples, he naturally looked in ashrams around Uttar Pradesh. For three years he endured numerous fake sadhus selling him false hopes about the whereabouts of his son. Undeterred by these fruitless financial donations to cons in every ashram, he kept looking with faith he would one day find his son.
Although he had already looked Rishikesh some time before, he decided to go there again. There he met a sadhu who had spent time with the young Shiva. Unlike others before who were too happy to give a fake address for a few coins, this one was a friend of Swami and was willing to take them to the Mahasi Ashram in Delhi. The father learned that his son was not only a Sadhu, but also Yogi Priest known under the name of Swami. He feared that bringing his son home might not be easy, so he decided to enroll the help of family members and relatives. Accompanied with Swamiís older brother, one of his uncles, and two close friends, he followed their guide to Delhi.
Three years of searching for his young teenage boy didnít prepare Swamiís father for his encounter with his son. At the sight of Swami, the father attacked with the question: ďWhy did you leave the house like this?ĀE But young Swami was at peace with himself, sitting in the yogi resting position, the aura and energy emanating from him touching everybody around him. His father regained his composure, and with his family members and friends he tried to convince Swami to return home. His father promised to never interfere with his prayers, meditation and yoga practice. Swami could study Sanskrit in Varanasi. His father went on to tell that since his son had left, his motherís health had been deteriorating.
Swami had gone a long way on his spiritual journey, for he knew that the place, like the clothes people wore did not matter. The true Sadhu was inside him, in his heart and soul. Most people living in ashrams did not understand the fundamentals of life, and the true teachings of Hinduism. I remember Swami telling me: ďOn this earth, nothing is forever,ĀEnot even love. You can see people grieve for the death of their son, but years later; they live happily with their other family members. They havenít completely forgotten their son, but he isnít part of their daily lives anymore. A few generations later, their sonís existence has been forgotten forever. Life on earth is ephemeral. All that truly matters is the work we do to clean our soul. Beyond death, only our souls survive. Everybodyís soul is the same, only the work weíve done makes the difference. My goal is to achieve a higher level of meditation, and use yoga to teach peace around the world. I can do that while appeasing my parentís worries. They do not really know me, but like many of my friends, they think they know what is best for me. When my guru calls me back, I will return to the forest, but in the meantime I need to follow his will, learn more from others, and teach. The place doesnít really matter, it is the work that counts, so I can appease my parentsĀEworries. I do not need to live in an ashram.ĀE/p>
With these thoughts in mind, in 1992, Swami returned to Varanasi. He enrolled in night classes to follow his studies of Sanskrit and continues to fill his days with his practice of yoga, meditation and prayers. In 1995 he started teaching yoga at the local Bangali Tola School and was invited by his own school to compete in the district championship, which he easily won. He went on to win state and national competitions all over India. After four years of high school evening classes, he was accepted at the Shumburna Nand Sanskrit University of Varanasi. There he won the All-India Yoga National Championship.
Swamiís mastery of yoga had always impressed everybody, but Swami grew tired of the crowd and the trophies--for him yoga was a way of life, an art that benefited health and that led to a better meditation and concentration power. Too many people only saw the sport in yoga; they didnít understand all the philosophy behind it. Swami returned to his private practice at home away from the crowd. He quit competing and spent more time teaching. His classes focused more and more on the spiritual and therapeutic aspect of yoga. In 1999 he graduated with a bachelor degree majoring in Sanskrit; in 2000 Swami went on to study for his masterís degree.
In 1999 his best friend Sunil, owner of the popular Mona Lisa restaurant offered Swami to use his private Hindu temple behind the restaurant to teach yoga to foreigners. Swami didnít speak English then, but he was interested in teaching yoga, and spread his message of universal peace beyond India. After taking evening language classes for a couple of months, Swami started to teach visitors from all horizons. His mastery of yoga and energy compensated for his broken English.
In 2000 Swami visited Daramsala, a place not only known as a spiritual center, but also as a tourist destination. There he met a massage therapist offering him space to teach yoga classes to foreigners. The money from classes didnít interest Swami, but he wanted to meet more people from around the world. He has a message to spread through yoga and people are a better source of information than books. He loves to hear about the worldís cultures and lifestyles. His new friend sees the marketing potential of having a yoga teacher practice in his massage establishment. They work together for a few months until the hot temperature of summer shuts the town down. Then his new friend takes Swami to Goa where they practice during the hot months. Swami, who is still a Sadhu in his heart, is happy to leave Varanasi and see new places while teaching yoga and learning new things. Since 2000 Swami spent 8 to 10 months a year between Daramsala, Goa, and Ladakh and only returns to Varanasi for a couple of months.
Swami doesnít only teach the asana postures, he also teaches the controlled breathing techniques known as pranayama, meditation, and Indian Philosophy. He doesnít preach Hinduism. He says, ďIn India we have millions of gods, but really there is only one, it is the same for all religions. At the origin, all religions were based on the same principles, for centuries people have modified them to control the masses. Today there are so many versions, religions have evolved into myths but too many people follow them without understanding. I pray Shiva because it represents the mastery of the internal knowledge I am seeking, but all religions are good when people really understand what they follow.ĀE
His masterís degree in Sanskrit almost complete, I asked Swami what his goal was. He replied: ďI want to teach the world to live in Peace. No matter the religion, no matter the practice, we are all the same, God is inside us and we need to live in peace with ourselves and with the rest of the world. I want to travel, maybe go to other countries, meet more people and teach them to be at peace, to control their mind and desire. Yoga and Meditation are the vehicles. Their prayers do not need to be Hindu, but their soul needs to be free. I also want to continue to purify my soul and reach a higher level of meditation.ĀE/p>
When I asked him if one day he would start an ashram, he replied: ďAn ashram takes much money and I still have much to learn. Maybe one day I will, but now I donít need an ashram to send my message. Today you came to me, and God alone decides what the future will bring.ĀE/p>
But I asked. ďSwami you told me that when your Guruji will call you back you would leave everything to follow him. You also said that when your parents will have gone, you will return to the mountains. Why?ĀE/p>
ďYou see I am a Sadhu, I donít need all these things around me. I donít need a roof, I prefer to sleep under the stars or in a cave, I donít need clothes, but I wear them out of respect for people around me. I wouldnít need this motorcycle, if it wasnít for my teaching I would never have to come to town. I donít need a TV or a radio, for they just disturb my meditation. Every night when the city goes to sleep I meditate for hours, and I feel good and happy. Happiness doesnít come from things, it is inside you. With my guru I can still learn things nobody else can teach me. He is one with the universe. In the mountains, the sound of my flutes is amplified and I am never alone. Meditating in the forest is the closest I feel to God. It is my way.ĀE/p>
If his guru doesnít call him back, if he doesnít isolate himself in the mountains to meditate permanently, we will certainly meet again. But that isnít in our hands-- that is only for God to decide.
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