One day I decided to go for a swim in the Ganges, in Ganga Ma, the mother river.
It was sunset, and I was down by the river with one other friend, wearing the closest thing I had to a sack over my bikini, holding flip-flops and a towel, in the almost-cold winter air of the Himalayan foothills of Rishikesh. I was in full view of the rest of the city, whose crumbling concrete buildings loomed precariously over the riverbank several stories above.
Only a few days prior, if you had asked me about this dip, I would have told you it was a terrible idea. As a sometime germophobe and former debutante, this was not an activity I ever dreamed I would do.
But neither the recurring mantra in my head of: pollution bugs diseases poop trash animals dirty laundry A BILLION PEOPLE; nor the fact that earlier that very day two other female friends had also gone down to the river, at midday, to swim, only to be harassed by a man who started masturbating in front of them, could deter me.
In Rishikesh, with the mountainous backdrop and stunning blue river spanned by two suspension foot bridges, the air was electric. There was nary a bar or bottle of alcohol in sight (the city is in a dry zone); instead, it was full of music, yoga, and gurus. We had our morning meditation, chanting, and vinyasa practice in a room overlooking Ganga Ma, and then our days were free. I wandered around alone for the first time in India, bumping into cattle and hopping down cobblestone stairs; getting comfortable enough to eat salad (in India!) at the Beatles’ cafe. In the streets, there seemed to be a moratorium on harassment, and Western seekers of all stripes roamed freely. White-clad spiritual devotees mingled with outdoor sports enthusiasts, traditional musicians, and bearded, bedraggled sadhus.
I felt completely at home. Even more, I was drunk on the vibrant aliveness of it all. Partly it was all the Shiva energy – Shiva, in destroying what no longer served us, was constantly renewing us. Partly it was simply India, where everything that is possible is always happening. Similar to how I feel in San Francisco, I knew that in that chaotic diversity I could do whatever I wanted, be whomever I wanted; the tapestry would weave me in like any other thread. So I tied bells on my ankles and went dancing at (where else?) a music ashram.
Another day, before I really realized what I was in for, I found myself as one of maybe a couple hundred people seated cross-legged on the floor, crammed knee-to-knee and knee-to-back, looking expectantly at an empty chair on a stage. Our whole group had come to a satsang at yet another ashram; men and women wearing white stood all around holding signs admonishing us to stay silent. For perhaps an hour, we waited. More and more people entered. I worried about how I was going to stretch my legs out to soothe my aching knees. I felt like I was in a movie, one of those about Westerners who join cults. Actually, I was in a movie: we were being filmed.
When the guru entered, he stopped and blinked and looked around as if speechless at the numbers who had come to hear him. He seemed humble. When he opened his mouth to speak, I heard a beautiful lilt and realized he wasn’t Indian.
It was Sri Mooji, from Jamaica and London. He grew up Christian in the Caribbean and now has an ashram in Portugal. I had never even heard of him, but before long, I was crying. We were all crying. A devotee stood to ask a question, but instead of speaking into the microphone, he stood silently with his hands over his heart, eyes full and fixed on Mooji. All he said was “thank you.” After each comment or question, Mooji was silent, thoughtful. Then, a moving soliloquy would gush forth. I had forgotten my notebook but managed to furtively type some phrases into my phone to remember.
“Whatever path you are on go fully to the fullness of it and you’ll find the other paths are there, too. When I see divisions and sectarians then I see a lesser understanding. Rather than putting attention on getting rid of what is not true, put attention on what is true.”
It was my first experience at the house of a “guru”, and the message resonated strongly with me. I hadn’t come to Rishikesh looking for a spiritual leader, but I could see why people would want to stay and live a while near this man. However, as much as it seemed that Mooji was special, a guru among gurus, I wanted to check out what others might have to say, too. I was especially excited because I had heard there was a female guru holding satsang.
The next day, walking around in search of some ashram or another, I found myself in front of white gates bearing a poster announcing satsang with Shanti Ma, the female guru, starting in 15 minutes. There, too, the adherents all wore white and carried signs admonishing silence. This time, though, there was an extra instruction not to drink water during the talk. “Shanti Ma doesn’t like the distracting noise and sight of people drinking from bottles,” one of the people in white announced from the stage. Already this seemed like a bad sign, and the crowd was much smaller.
When Shanti Ma entered, she scurried with her head down like she was afraid. To begin the session, we chanted to Shiva accompanied by violin, and although I was moved to tears, the spell broke when Shanti said, first thing after the song, “so, is Mooji not holding satsang today?” She was defensive and self-absorbed. She complained about the guards playing cards but otherwise seemed to have nothing to say, and definitely nothing I had not heard before or said before myself. I was starting to realize what my guru standards were. When she left us all sitting there after she was distracted by a small child whom she took offstage, I quickly took my leave.
Breathing the clean(ish) mountain air outside, I watched my reactions and emotions come and go, struggling to detach from the jumble of love, aversion, fears, and hopes inspired by the two different talks. I had not been prepared for the intensity of waves rushing through me like the river rushing below.
Then I remembered why I had been excited to come to Rishikesh: the cleansing power of the Ganges and the destructive power of Shiva. There were some pieces of my past that I wanted to offer up to the river, to Shiva, to whatever was out there. Swaha. Whatever my beliefs or habits were back in the US, on this journey, I was ready for my full immersion.
I remembered seeing Astrud emerge, glowing, from a triple dunk in Ganga Ma one morning. It was time to meet the Mother.