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My Guruji - Mahesh Giri Nagababa

            With over forty years of being involved in yoga in one form or another, I had long decided that visiting India was never going to figure on my travel itinerery.  Also the yogic idea that `when the time is right, the guru will appear`, seemed to bear little relevance to my situation.  After all I`m just an ordinary guy, who teaches three or four yoga classes a week.  So finding myself making arrangements to travel to the source of the holy Ganges, alone apart from an Indian guide, seemed totally unreal.  I went with an open mind, and an open heart.  I tried to leave my English preconceptions behind.  The result was a series of amazing experiences, the most important of which was meeting the naga baba who was to become my guru.

I had almost a year in which to plot and plan.  In that time I devoured every book I could lay hands on which might be helpful.  I could be found skulking in book shops all over the country, reading and rereading the snippets of information in The Rough Guide, Nelles Guide and others, about the places I was to visit: Delhi, Agra, and most important, the Ganges valley from Hardwar to Gaumukh.  I was told where to eat, what to see, how to survive. I even became familiar with the ancient history of India and its many empires.  In other words all the info. every tourist needs, or thinks they need, before leaving Heathrow.

However I had little interest in making this journey as a tourist.  After waiting for so long this was to be my journey to Canterbury, Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca all rolled into one - my pilgrimage.  To learn something about Indian culture and the place of the spiritual in everyday life, I read, and absorbed, the beautiful photographs from `Meeting God` by Stephen P. Huyler, and `Sacred India` with a foreword by William Dalrymple (Pub: Lonely Planet).   `Sacred Roads` by Nicholas Shrady, includes a chapter `Meeting Mother Ganges`, which even alone would have persuaded me to buy the book.  By impeccable timing almost every newspaper and magazine I saw in that year seemed to have an article about India.  Was it just that I had never seen them before?  And only a few weeks before my final departure, BBC TV showed the Indian series by William Dalrymple, starting with `Shiva`s Locks`, his tracing of the pilgrim route to Gaumukh.

One other book, `Sadhus: Holy Men of India` by Dolf Hartsuiker, and the video `Silent Tongues`by Pannii Bharti, inspired and gave me detailed knowledge of the lives of the sadhus and yogis I just hoped I might glimpse in passing.  It was these two works that perhaps atuned most closely to my own attitude to yoga - the  path of the solitary ascetic.

By happy coincidence I had also been brought into contact with Suresh Rajpura (now Krshna Dass).  Suresh had recently become the Regional Marketing Officer for the West Midlands Region of the British Wheel of Yoga, and he was described to me as a charismatic figure, a man who radiated love, energy and enthusiasm for life.  He also runs the Aum School of Hindu Studies, in Birmingham.

I have always been careful to stress to my pupils at yoga classes, that yoga is a philosophy and a way of life, rather than a religion.  We can see the devlopment of Hinduism alongside, and emanating from the basic concepts of yoga.  As a person brought up in the traditions of western Christianity, I could also see the many similarities at heart between the two, and other, religions.  Essentially it brings to the fore the spiritual aspect of yoga, something which is sadly missing from some teaching in this country.

Even though I would be going to India as a `Britisher`as we are called there, I wanted to avoid giving offence wherever possible.  As I half jokingly said to Suresh, `I don`t want to arrive as though the Raj has reappeared`.  Suresh agreed to meet me at a Hindu temple in Birmingham.  The evening was an eye opener for me.  Although it was Tuesday, a time when most Christian churches are locked, the temple was filled with all ages for the evening puja, or ceremony.  I was shown the many altars, and joined in, to my limited ability, with the ceremony taking place, followed by a supper for all in the adjacent room.  The warmth of hospitality contrasted so strongly with the sometimes cool and reserved reception in Anglican churches.  This was something which I was to experience so often in India.  The visit gave me a basic understanding of Hindu practice.  My mind remained quite confused by the many names and relationships of the godly characters.

A few weeks before my departure I again asked Suresh if he could escort me to the temple.  This time I wanted to revise what I had learned, but I also felt it would be right to make my own small puja. Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, in some ways is seen rather like Saint Christopher in Christianity, the patron saint of travellers - those who experience obstacles.  I wanted to honour him before I started my pilgrimage.  With my reading I had also been drawn more and more strongly towards Shiva, He is regarded as the static, masculine aspect of God, who at the same time contains in equal balance the masculine and feminine elements.  He is often shown as half man/half woman  He is also seen as the destroyer, but destruction so that new growth can begin.  Shiva is regarded by many as the God of yogins, the first yogi.  In Hinduism individuals are drawn to different aspects of the Ultimate, by their nature and their needs.  Shiva was the God for me.(perhaps my Ishta Devata - the individual God we have chosen, or who has chosen us). 

The visit was arranged for Monday, the day of Shiva in the HIndu calendar.  Again I was overwhelmed by the experience.  Far from my making my own small gesture, it had been arranged that the priest would meet me before the main puja of the evening, and conduct a special puja just for me.  Fortunately Suresh standing by my side, was able to quietly direct me as I made my oblations to the two Gods.  In the aarti puja which followed I was again honoured by being asked to help in the distribution of prasad.  Talking to the Gita Study Group later I promised to come back and tell them about my journey.

From Suresh I had obtained an orange flag with the Aum symbol.  This was to be my `pilgrim`s flag.  I tied it to my rucksack before I left home, and now it hangs, soiled, but well travelled, in my special yoga room at home.  Even as the train pulled away from our local station the words of John Bunyan`s hymn `He who would valiant be, let him come hither - - - to be a pilgrim`, came to mind.  I sang it right up in to the Himalaya.

Arriving in Delhi my guide decided that first I must visit the creamation site of Mahatma Ghandi.  This was unexpected for me, but proved absolutely the right place to begin my pilgrimage on Indian soil.  Even in such a modern urban setting I became aware of the spiritual reverence which surrounded the place.  An atmosphere created by the endless stream of pilgrims coming to pay homage to their `father of the nation`.

The next day I travelled by train to Haridwar, one of the most holy cities in Hinduism, and one of the sites of the kumbh mela.   From there it was a short onward drive to Rishikesh.  On my train journey I had been aware of the increasing numbers of sadhus at each station along the way.  Once in Rishikesh the whole place was imbued with an atmosphere of spirituality.  Evening aarti on the banks of Ma Ganga, the holy river, was perhaps my first real experience of the HIndu concept of darshan - a direct experience of God.  Two or three thousand pilgrims, devout Hindus, chanted and prayed with an openness which was infectious.

The next day a series of coincidences led me to be walking alone through Rishikesh, on the day before I set off to complete my pilgrimage to Gaumukh, (the source of the Ganges).  My feet were sore and starting to blister.  I was hot.  I was thirsty and hungry.  Just before I entered the  main ashram area of Rishikesh, I decided to take some steps down to the river.

On my left I saw a baba with two other men.  Knowing their dislike of being regarded as a curious peepshow, I glanced but didn`t stop and stare.  Instead it was the baba who lifted his head and stared at me.  He held my gaze and began talking.  Within minutes I was sitting on the wall talking to him.  We covered every aspect of yoga, including my own history, and my attraction to the concept of Shiva.  We shared lassi, fetched by his shishya, or disciple .  At some point I asked how he had become a baba.  He never answered my question, but looked me in the eye and asked, `Would you like to become a baba?`

My rational Western mind immediately went on guard.  What is he after?  How much will he want?  Why me?  We talked for much longer.  In my eyes he had seen an affinity with himself.  On my brow  what I saw as furrows, he saw as the three horizontal lines of a follower of Shiva, and the mark of Shiva`s trishul (trident) between my eyebrows.  Our discussions had convinced him that I was brought to him.  He repeated the question.  This time I agreed.

My initiation took place on the river bank in Rishikesh.  Symbolically initiates are shaved, to become as children.  My close cropped hair was short enough.  Ritual cleansing by three total immersions in Ma Ganga, washed away my old life (and perhaps some of my sins!).  My new guru wrapped a faded red (red the colour of Shiva) lungi around my waist.  In the river he washed the mala of Rudraksha seeds, the stone no-return mala, and the single Rudraksha seed attached to the string genoi (the special gift of the guru), all of which he placed over my head. 

`And now as it is your birthday, the start of a new life, you shall have a new name.  In England you honoured Shiva.  You are in the Himalaya, the home of Shiva, and today is Monday (Shiva`s day).  You are strong like Shiva (Indian men are typically quite slight), and you have the marks of Shiva.  You shall be called Shiv Giri - a son of Shiva, and be known as Swami Shiv Giri`.  My satguru then gave me my Guru mantra - but that is for me alone.

The Giri (mountain) are one of the ancient sects founded by Shankara c.AD800, perhaps reflecting the peace and stability of the mountains in which they lived.  The next day I left Rishikesh on the final stage of my pilgrimage to Gaumukh.  Travelling in my robe of the sannyasi I felt embraced by the object of my journey.  No longer was I just a Western traveller.  On the way I was greeted by sadhus, homouring me in a way I had never thought possible.  As we moved further and further into the mountains the spiritual presence of the Gods seemed more and more palpable.  Trekking the final stage I found myself walking with tears running down my cheeks.  Two days after leaving Rishikesh I was experiencing darshan again, as I bathed in the icy water as it flowed from the glacier.

Has initiation made a difference?  Yes.  As a symbol it focuses my thoughts and now my life, not within a religion, but within a spiritual context.  My guru has helped me along the way of life.  My guru mantram is a daily reminder of him, and through him of the Divine.  Through correspondence we have kept in touch.  Now I hope one day to return to India, and perhaps to meet him again:  this pilgrim has completed one part of his journey; there is still further to go.

Swami Shiv Giri     (Derek Osborn)