Certain memories are like touchstones. I come back to them again and again, in the same way I once would run my fingers over a lucky stone I used to keep in my pocket. This particular memory is a reminder that I am blessed.
It was a statement I heard, but heard in my own mind, from a deceased holy man I had never met in person. He told me, “Now, you’re mine.” It was like an initiation.
This took place on my first visit to my guru’s ashram in India, after I’d been there for some months. I had arrived there from my guru’s international teaching tour, he being identified in the memoir I published only as the Swami. I had met the Swami on that tour, interviewing him as a newspaper reporter, and I had then spent the next two years as part of his staff, a traveling party that went with him on that tour around America. When we got to his ashram in India, I was deeply happy to be there. On tour, we had lived in student’s homes and in short-term rentals… in a repurposed flop house… in a former Borsch Belt hotel. The Swami’s ashram in India had only ever been an ashram, built next to the site of an old but still-functioning temple to Gavdevi—the goddess of cows—with a stone idol so primitive that it seemed to have taken form spontaneously from raw rock.
The first three rooms of the Swami’s ashram in India had been built for him on the instructions of his own guru, a village holy man of such stature in that part of India that the Swami had never, after that, had his authenticity questioned in his own country. This is how deeply revered his guru was.
When I first arrived in the ashram, I spent some time visiting the samadhi shrine of this grandfather guru in a nearby village, meditating in the ashram where he had lived, visiting a local sanatorium where he’d spent his final days. In the Swami’s ashram, I meditated before a huge photograph of this grandfather guru in the meditation room—called the Cave— and I also meditated in another room in the upper garden, where there was a life-size, full-body oil painting of this grandfather guru that was so chaitanya, so full of life, that it seemed to breathe. My meditations in India were sweet and quiet and wholly satisfying.
One day after I had been in India for a while, I received a letter from my former husband, who wrote that, rather than sending our property settlement in installments, as we’d arranged, he had decided to give me the remainder now, in one large payment. He didn’t send the money to India, of course, but he’d made a deposit to my bank account. With this payment, I realized that my ties with my husband were now effectively ended.
The next morning, Thursday, I was awakened early. I say “I was awakened” because that’s the way it felt. I had been getting up at three o’clock, but on this day, I was suddenly wide awake a bit before two. I got up and walked to the bathhouse for a bucket bath. This is a lovely way of bathing. You get half a bucket of warm water, take it to a stone enclosure in the women’s bathhouse, and there you kneel and, dipping a cup into the bucket, you sluice your body, bit by bit. It’s as if you yourself are a murti, an enlivened idol, and you’re giving yourself abhishekh, a ritual bath. I’ve never felt that way in a shower or a bathtub; I always did with a bucket bath.
I then dried myself, put on a cotton sari, and walked back to the main courtyard, where I noticed that the temple at the front of the ashram, the temple honoring my grandfather guru, was fully lit. That surprised me. It wasn’t yet two-fifteen.
I entered the temple then and realized it was the day when the murti of this holy man would be given a ritual bath by the temple priests. These particular priests were all young Indian men who were swamis, monks.
One of them smiled at me, and nodded, and so I knew it was fine for me to be there. I walked to the geographic center of the temple and performed what is known as a full pranam—a full body bow—with my hands and arms stretched out above my head while I lay flat on the floor, belly-down. It is an enormously satisfying posture, one where your head and heart are at the same level. As my head touched the floor, I heard in my inner ear a man’s voice saying, “Now, you’re mine.”
That’s the touchstone, those words: “Now, you’re mine.” I knew it was my grandfather guru. It was his murti to whom I had been bowing. It seemed as if because the material connection to my husband had been severed, I now truly belonged to God—and the form of God speaking to me in my mind was this grandfather guru, this holy man from an ancient and primitive tradition.
What did I know about this grandfather guru? He had left his body in 1961, when I was sixteen. He was known to be an avadhut, which means that he was completely indifferent to the world, both its riches and its rules. He would have been a naked fakir, but his disciples put a diaper on him every morning. When it was chilly, he would also wear a shawl. The Swami, who traveled in the West wearing lungis with shirts and sweaters and even tailored jackets called himself “a gentleman yogi” in comparison with his own guru.
My favorite photograph of my grandfather guru shows him lying on his side in his diaper and nothing else. He had a rotund belly. In America, a man with a belly like that would be said to have a beer belly, but this holy man’s belly was khumbhak, which comes from breath being held inside the body. When a person becomes an advanced meditator, which I myself have not yet done, they can retain their breath either inside or outside their body. If the prana, the breath, is held inside, then the person’s belly becomes round and full. Either way, such a meditator can sit for a long, long time without breathing. Think of it. You would be taking nothing from the world around you—not even air! You would be one with the consciousness that is the foundation of everything.
So, what does it mean to me, this “Now, you’re mine”? It means that I, too, am one with consciousness. This is true even though I have never given myself to God the way that this holy man did—and did from the very beginning of his life. He was one of those holy beings whom no one could ever remember seeing in any state other than total identification with the Divine.
I am so far from that! When I first heard about the meaning of this holy man’s belly, I thought that if I had a choice, I would cultivate outer khumbhak—where the breath is held outside the body—because such a yogi remains slender. I couldn’t bear the thought of having what people would see as a beer belly.
Even with my silliness, my vanity—my ego!—the statement that I heard in my heart from this holy man means to me that I am cherished, that I’m OK. Just as I am.