Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi
  AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, Special Issue July 2015 

The Jal Samadhi

by Veronica M.T. Benjamin

An Account of the Jal-samādhi of Mahāmaṇḍaleśhvara Swami Veda Bharati, July 17th, 2015

Initially preparing to sit in the small yajñaśhālā and meditate a little bit before the final darśhan, as I approached the small building the sound of Vedic chanting lured me towards the meditation hall. The saṁnyāsis from Nirañjana akhara were bathing and preparing the body of Swami ji, serenaded by the eternal word and rhythm. No ladies allowed, so I stood around the corner, faced the distant hills in the east, and listened. An energetic “Haara Haara Mahaadev!” announced the completion of the rites. Seated on a palanquin, supported by more men than memory can recall, and completely covered in orange garb and flowers so that only his face was visible, Swami ji’s remains made their way around the corner and into public view. A chorus of “Kashi Vishwanatha Gange”, a popular pilgrimage song, was taken up for the short procession to the courtyard in front of the meditation hall, where Swami ji’s body would be installed for final darśhan.

Perhaps it was due to the bathing, or movement, or being taken out of the refrigerated case, or simply the fact that this was a body which had not breathed in three days, but finally Swami ji body really looked like a corpse. Beforehand, everyone was commenting on how it appeared as if he were sleeping and some even speculated about him just being in Samadhi. Now the true and final departure of Swami ji from his spent body was undeniable.  At first there were remarkably few on-lookers, let’s say two dozen or so. As time progressed, the loved ones and devotees increased, as did the energy. The air was humid and thick, thus every fluctuation was palpable. Three or four Brahmins again began the Vedic chanting with “swasti naḥ indro...” and other Shanti mantras, then the sequence of mantras each ending in “tan me manaḥ śhiva saṁkalpamastu”. One pandit kept on prodding them and rearranging them, urging them to chant louder and louder as if he was Savitṛ the impeller himself. Situated directly behind them, the power of their chanting mixed with the presence of Swami ji’s exquisite corpse overwhelmed me. Bliss and effervescence took my hands. Due to the arriving of important devotees and the shuffling of shawls to be offered and what-not, total stillness was impossible, although it was predominant. The immortality of the Word, reflected in its first progeny of the chandas (Vedas), brought to light the immortality of the Guru in the face of our Swami ji’s earthly remains. Atop those remains was a vibrant heap of roses which, due to the diffuse lighting conditions, seemed to be emitting their own deep-pink light. Behind Swami ji’s body were his closest disciples and other swamis, with resolute faces, a wall of orange, set against the verdant backdrop of the ashram’s grounds.  The scene in its entirety could not have demanded more presence. Waves of emotions, from the swells of sorrow to the crests of laughter, also added their own hues. Friends and disciples recognized each other, consoled each other, and rejoiced together in all Swami ji had given them.  In a final gesture of giving back, an amorphous crowd began to funnel into a line, so that all could offer rose petals at the Swami ji’s feet.  This was also the last opportunity for sākṣāt darśhan of the mūrti of swami ji. The signs of death being more pronounced now, this mūrti was a less familiar one, less bright and grandfatherly. Whether we liked it or not, we were being weaned off this vyakti, this individual manifestation of the universal Guru. From the heap of decaying human remains before us we were sent within to take refuge with the True Guru. 

Upon the walls of the Initiation Room of the ashram is a beautifully illuminated manuscript of the Iṣā Upaniṣad, which all fits on one leaf. Remembering this, I pulled out a pocket edition of Mantrapuṣpa while I stood in the back of the line. Surrounded by so much grief, a crutch was needed to center, and I found exactly such a crutch in a very simple verse, “Tatra ko mohaḥ kaḥ śhoka ekatvamanupaśhyataḥ?” (Of that person beholding Unity [abiding in the universal Self] what delusion, what grief [may arise]?) Even if we personally don’t merge with that Unity so often, just the thought of Swami ji’s complete merger with it was enough to bring joy. People like to say this about great spiritual personalities, but metaphysically it must be true of everyone: what was beloved and dear in them never departs from this world, because it is the very foundation of this world. This is, of course, one of the great teachings of the Kaṭhopaniṣad. The Self is that which is most beloved in the husband, mother, teacher, child, etc. Keeping such universal teachings in mind, teachings pronounced again and again by Swami ji, I bided my time in the line. Eventually it came and I gathered rose petals from the platter, cupping them in my hands. In my head I recited “akhaṇḍamaṇḍalākāram…” once then switched my focus to pure aesthetic absorption. I tried to observe his face in as much detail as I could in the brief time I was allotted. His skin was greying, his puffy cheeks drooping and eyelids sunken far back into the eye sockets. I wondered what his eyes looked like beneath those flaps of skin. In the weeks before his passing, several times I had noticed this look of being totally trapped, in those otherwise beautiful, expressive, and sparkly eyes. His nose and lips betrayed the most signs of decay, but it was still quite minimal. While undeniably transformed, this was still the face that had shown me so many wise and kind glances, and removed so much doubt from my troubled mind. Conscious of this period of grace, I sprinkled the rose petals on top of the large mound of them in his lap, got on my knees, and bowed my head to the ground releasing a flood of gratitude. 

Rejoining the nebulous crowd, about 20 more minutes went by of offerings, then a few brief speeches were made before the procession would resume. Short and bittersweet, the words of the Ashram’s new pramukh, Swami Ritavan ji, well captured the spirit of Swami ji, “We are all beings of light . . .stars in the sky of consciousness . . . [and remember] tat tvam asi.” As Swami ji’s body was lifted, it moved again with the rhythm of the Vedas. Flowers and rice were thrown and that colorful mass of sacred remains slowly moved above the sea of heads, along the jasmine vines which cover the main building.  We followed it off the ashram grounds, along a narrow passage next to a mango grove. Air humid and rich with tropical fragrances marked another transition in the events of the day. Being forced to go through a narrow and somewhat enclosed passage before emerging with Swami ji’s remains for the outside world to behold, mirrored the process of birth. Swami ji himself said, “Death is not a process apart from being born and living; it is included in birth and life.”(Introduction, Meditation and the Art of Dying).  Shortly after the sylvan canal, Swami ji’s body was loaded onto a very utilitarian truck which was temporarily bedecked with marigolds and mango leaves to hide its prosaic character. With a great heave the body was lifted up way above the crowd. It was as if Swami ji was looking out over us one last time.  For a brief moment I was genuinely convinced that his eyes were open, that he was really watching us. Settled in the truck, he was increasingly obscured from view by the select few who were to ride with him to Haridwar.  The remainder of us loaded on to some busses and private vehicles to make the three-quarters of an hour’s journey to his final resting place, in the Holy Ganga, the river of knowledge and the Sun.

The bus ride was rather meditative, very few people spoke at all. Once we arrived in a dirt lot along a high embankment, we quickly disembarked and our eyes sought out our departed guide. The mass of rose and orange in front of that otherwise pedestrian truck was not hard to miss. Now Swami ji was being serenaded by a very different tune, that of a brass band which I usually associate with wedding processions, and we all made our way up the embankment behind him. After reaching the top of this dyke, amid an otherwise flat floodplains, the Ganges and some nearby hills came into view. We walked for about one-fourth of a kilometer, before descending along a precarious concrete slope to an even more disjointed collection of concrete blocks descending into the waters. It was still a serene and clean spot along the Ganges. Hundreds of family members, devotees, local babas, and the elites of the Nirañjana Akhara gathered atop these asymmetrical blocks. Some stayed on the concrete slope behind, which in all likelihood offered the best view of the last rites. On the other side of the river, some cows and cow herders, in their respective clusters, looked on from afar. A bird of prey with broad wings soared above. I made my way down to the banks of the Ganga, as far down as I could. Perched precariously between two concrete blocks, I watched with some of the ashram staff anxiously awaiting the submergence. Relying on live commentary from those with a view, it seems an abhishek with milk, curds, and the like took place on Swami ji’s body before it was put in a wooden box. Some of the excess malas and ornaments were discarded and they flowed past us. The current was quite strong with many eddies and the sounds of churning waters were the main accompaniment now. Several rounds of loud prayers followed by “Haara Haara Maaha Dev!” took place, but none yet was announcing the main event. The live coverage continued, ‘now they’ve put him in the box’, ‘now they’re putting stones in’, ‘now they’re closing it’. Finally the familiar sound of hammering nails became audible above the drone of the river. The box was tied with twine-like string. A bamboo stick was dipped into the rushing river, perhaps to check the depths. Red powder was poured into the restless stream, creating a temporary crimson highlight in the murky waters. All the mounting anticipation was on the verge of release. A final cry “Namaḥ Pārvatī pataye, hāra hāra Mahā Deeeev!” and the crate containing the mortal remains of an immortal master was launched into the Ganga with two bamboo poles. Making a modest splash, water filled the slits through which the outline of his form could be clearly seen. After being carried a few meters by the strong current, Swami ji’s body was permanently re-united with the depths.

And then what? Some flocked to the Ganga for the dual purpose of purification and cool relief from the burdensome heat. Some stood around in awe and disbelief that this was it. All the ritual and grandeur helped fill the void, but could not do so entirely. His body was gone, released to the elements from which it came. Never again would we behold it, nor he us through those eyes. While the latter fact had been the case for several days, now that he was completely gone it was even more undeniable. The wisest among us quickly turned their backs and headed back up the embankment. In time all followed suit.

 About halfway through the ride back to the ashram, a light rain began. As we approached the ashram it grew stronger and stronger, sheets of water were crashing down. By the time we pulled in the ashram gate, an umbrella would have been a useless defense against such torrents. Temporary waterfalls formed along terraces and between the temples. A group of young girls, four or five of them, were rejoicing in the rain. Some spinning with their hands in the air, another sitting as if a monk in deep meditation under a waterfall, all engrossed in laughter.  Their happiness was infectious. If the bliss of Samadhi was not enough to dispel grief, certainly this embodiment of līlā, the magical aspect of pravṛtti (manifestation), was. Even a man extremely affected by Swami ji’s passing, smiled from ear to ear as he passed these young kumaris. Swami ji himself would have done the same.

It’s a custom after Hindu funerals that one bathe upon returning home from the cremation ground (or in this case, the river). A Sāhdaka at the ashram, commenting on the rain, said that arrangements had been made for everyone to follow this practice, whether they were aware of it or not. Instead of going directly back to my room, I went instead to the rooftop, where several inches of rainwater had already gathered. Letting my hair down for the first time in months, it was soon saturated and the soothing waters rolled down my scalp. Surveying the ashram, which is but a small portion of Swami ji’s life’s work, there was nothing but hope that work, the dharma, will continue. Through such loss and regeneration, new bodies are added to the common effort, as oil is added to an unceasing flame.  Through this perfectly timed torrential rain, unlike any other of the season, arose also the faith that the new effort would not be without guidance. From within and without, the Guru is always present.



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