• Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi
      AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, ISSUE - September 2017 

    The River of Crocodiles

    by Dev Kar

    Faith, fear, and freedom in the face of mortality

    Throughout my life, I hankered to meet true mystics—those very few who neither laid claim to nor profited from miracles. Yet, miracles seemed to abound around them like wildflowers along country roads. Having relinquished all possessions, they were paupers, but nevertheless walked like kings who owned the place! We had the good fortune of having one of them stay with us for a few days. All he ate his entire life was boiled rice and vegetables meshed together without salt. For a lover of food like me, the absolute control over one’s palate was no less a miracle. I asked him whether he ever missed having meat. He said his stomach was not a graveyard to bury dead animals! Past seventy, he did not look a day over forty!

    India has many saints who have spiritually evolved far beyond mystics. This is my story of how I met the mysterious One from the Himalayas, the King of Kings.I read his memoire of life among saints and sages in Living with the Himalayan Masters (Swami Rama, Himalayan Institute Press, 1978). Reflecting on the events he described, I realized that what we call miracles often arise from our ignorance. Let me illustrate.

    Swami Rama was among a group of young spiritual aspirants following their Master when they came across the flooded Tungbhadra River in South India. Many crocodiles and logs were bobbing in its dangerous currents. The Master said that anyone who could swim across that river was his disciple. Only Swami Rama accepted that challenge and won the rite of passage to discipleship. It was a miracle considering the odds that he survived. But if he knew that his Master had the power to protect him, it wasn’t a miracle to him at all. When good comes out of an event we cannot explain, we call that a miracle.

    A test of faith

    The health crisis I faced earlier this year pushed me into one of life’s own river of crocodiles. Several miracles were about to unfold. The descent into crisis actually began in the Spring of 1982 when I was struck down by psoriatic arthritis. In severe pain, I started treatment with mainstream medicine but serious side effects forced me to turn to alternative practitioners. With the exception of one homeopath, all of them made tall promises but fell woefully short on delivery. Initially however, when the “remedies” prescribed by this homeopath failed to provide any relief, I began to lose all faith in homeopathy. One day, at the end of my ropes, he said that he will be out of the office for two weeks to attend a series of conferences. During the time he was absent, my condition deteriorated to a point where I seriously considered filing for disability.

    When I finally saw him after his return, he tapped two small white pills into my mouth from a vial. Curious, I wanted to know the name of the prescription. He said it is simply known as “S.L.”, which, according to several leading homeopaths at the conference, was a potent remedy for my condition. He said I could take two more pills if I ever needed to.

    A miracle happened on my way home. Limping in severe pain and barely able to walk when I went to see him, the pain started to disappear as I was walking. I felt that I could easily run a marathon. Over the next two weeks, all psoriasis patches from my head to toe, started to disappear. What’s more, S.L. had no side effects. The euphoria lasted for about two years. One day, while on a trip to Kolkata, India, I felt the pain coming back in my wrists. I immediately fixed an appointment with a renowned local homeopath. When I recounted that the American doctor had prescribed “S.L.”, he laughed out loud. Perplexed, I asked him why he was laughing. “S.L. stands for sugar lac—a placebo. But your mind convinced your body that you had just received a potent cure. The relief you obtained was a classic example of the power of the mind over the body.” He then prescribed a number of homeopathic remedies none of which made any difference in treating my condition. Of course, true to the nature of a placebo, S.L. never worked again either. So, what seemed a miracle was simply the power of my mind convincing my body that it had just received a cure.

    The Guru appears

    To relieve the pain, I reverted to mainstream medicine and started to read books on yoga and the Himalayan Tradition. When I came to know that Swami Rama, the renowned adept of the tradition, visited the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania every summer, I decided to try and see him. When I first met him in the spring of 1988, I was praying that initiation would invoke his Grace and protection. I was a bit taken aback when he wanted to know why I wanted to see him—did I want a promotion at my job? The enlightened ones say most pray for such tinkle and trash. I blurted out saying “What I want they cannot give me……” but got tongue-tied saying “what they can give me, I do not want”. He simply nodded his head. It was just as well that I could not speak a half-truth in his presence. Although I realized the triviality of a promotion in the midst of a health crisis, I nevertheless hankered for more money. A few weeks after I returned home, I received his letter asking me to come to Honesdale.

    That was how I became an initiate of the Himalayan Tradition. Each year, the green trees and blooming flowers of Honesdale seemed to welcome me to the Institute. Each visit felt like sweet homecoming. Guruji’s (the suffix “ji” is an honorific that extends respect) boundless love and compassion touched all those who were fortunate enough to meet him. On some evenings, he would lead a small gathering of disciples in singing devotional songs. These were so intensely emotional that tears of joy would flow down my cheeks.

    The other highlight of my visits were the private sessions he granted me to discuss spiritual practices. During one of these sessions, as I sat on the floor near his feet, I felt his laser-like gaze pierce my soul. No one had ever looked at me like that before. It was as if he speed-read my entire life, from the first page to the last. He finally snapped out of it and said “There is nothing. Not to worry. You worry uselessly. Leave all your worries to the Divine Mother and to me.” I asked him whether I would ever be cured of psoriatic arthritis. He said “No, but it can be pacified”. In deep gratitude, a spontaneous mantra arose within me “Om Guravay Namaha!” (homage and obeisance to the Guru). Instantly, I saw my innermost thought ricochet across his face. Since then, whenever difficulties arise, I recall his assurance that all will turn out well if I continue my practice with faith and devotion.

    Once, he told a group of people gathered to hear him speak “Go to a room and ask yourself, what have I done for someone where my self-interest is not involved? Have you done something? If you have not done any good for anyone selflessly, who is going to guide you when you drop this body and are looking for another one?” That to me represents the essence of religion. I do not need to read or memorize any scriptures.

    When I visited the Institute in the summer of 1995, little did I know that I was seeing him for the last time. Just before I took leave of him, he touched the crown of my head (Sahasrara Chakra) but I did not recognize the preciousness of this gift at that time. On November 13, 1996, he dropped his body with full awareness and control, true to the Himalayan tradition and its long lineage of adepts.

    Swimming among crocodiles

    Towards the middle of 2000, blood tests showed elevated liver enzymes caused by methotrexate, a powerful anti-inflammatory given to cancer patients. I was running out of options. Fortunately, a new line of treatment opened up with the advent of “biologics”. These synthetic medicines were made using living cell cultures (such as hamster ovary cells) rather than in a chemical lab. Faced with progressive joint deterioration, I started self-injecting with the biologic Stelara in the spring of 2004. This medicine better targeted the errant cells involved in psoriatic arthritis. Within six months, both arthritis and the psoriasis reduced noticeably. Unfortunately, the efficacy of Stelara wore off in little more than a year and the disease returned in full force. My rheumatologist then prescribed Humira, a tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blocker that dialed down the body’s immune system. I obtained total relief from psoriatic arthritis for the first time since the placebo-induced remission of 1984. The respite barely lasted two years when my weight started falling from 168 lb. in March 2016 to just 136 lb. by the end of the year.

    I consulted a good internist but tests failed to pinpoint the cause of my weight loss and persistent throat infections. Then, in October 2016, I developed a dry hacking cough that continued for four months, accompanied by occasional night sweats, chills, and fatigue. When increasingly potent medicines failed to control the cough, a chest X-ray was ordered even though the one taken in September 2016 was normal. The X-ray and CT-scan of the lungs revealed many small and large nodules. The radiologists opined that the extensive nodules suggested metastatic cancer and not an infection. The internist was at a loss to explain the source of the cancer and immediately referred me to Dr. Halabi, a pulmonologist. I went to see him with a copy of the CT-scan.

    After a pensive reflection of the images of my lung nodules for what seemed an eternity, he said: “I know what your radiologists said, but I don’t think this is cancer”. Then, out of an abundance of caution, he stressed that only a biopsy can provide the basis for a firm diagnosis. Nevertheless, Dr. Halabi threw me a lifeline that day quite unaware of the enormity of the moment. His words shall always remain etched in my mind. As I stepped out of his office, I realized that it took immense courage and all of his experience to provide that assurance.

    Over the next several weeks, based on tissue cultures gathered through two biopsies of the lung nodules, it was determined that I had TB. I began a standard TB regimen involving a number of antibiotics taken over six months. After completion of the initial phase of TB treatment, a noted dermatologist in Washington DC prescribed Taltz, which has a better safety profile than Humira.

    Practicing the Presence

    The radiologists’ report of metastatic lung cancer brought me face to face with mortality. The first reaction was the fear of the unknown and having to cut asunder attachments to those near and dear. Death itself is not painful but the fear of death is. Fear arises from what the Buddhists call “grasping” of things and relationships that are quintessentially “empty”. While I understood these concepts intellectually, that did nothing to quell fear and doubt. What if Guruji was wrong, could he really see that far into the future, did I lose his protection? The tussle was always between faith in my Guru and fears brought on by doubt. Yet, in all the darkness, his words rang in my ears. An inner voice reverberated as I found myself struggling in the river of crocodiles— “If you have no faith in your Guru, then such a life is not worth living.”

    Simply practicing the presence helped me to face fear and doubt in life’s river of crocodiles. All the world’s major traditions stress its importance. The Bible says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Thus, did I transcend fear by constantly remembering the mantra Guruji imparted to me at initiation. They were his rod and staff which helped me to cross the river of crocodiles. The scriptures say “Yasya deve para bhaktih yatha deve tatha Gurau” (Svetasvatara Upanisad, 6:23) ¾ one must have the same devotion towards the Guru as one has towards God. Yet, the mark of a true Guru is that he never asks or expects his disciples to worship him. As I practiced the presence and faith gained the upper hand, fear and doubt gradually evaporated like drops of dew before the rising sun.

    Dev Kar

    Oakton, Virginia



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