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The below excerpt is from Hollywood to the Himalayas, by Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, a new enlightening memoir of a reluctant spiritual seeker who finds much more than she bargained for when she travels to India. Official publication date August 3. Available now for preorder.
A few weeks after I arrived at the ashram, a group of Americans came to visit. These were the first native English speakers I’d met since my arrival in Rishikesh.
When the group arrived my world shifted from the internal to the external. I was drawn into socializing, which had been absent during my first weeks in the ashram. Other than occasional words with Swamiji, which now focused on work and projects, and basic discussions with the kitchen staff for an apple or a clean towel, I barely spoke. There were no cellphones, Zoom, or FaceTime. There wasn’t even a landline phone at the ashram I could use. I could only make calls from the phone booth in the marketplace, inconvenient and expensive.
These twenty-five American spiritual seekers were middle-aged, mostly interested in energy healing, opening their chakras, and indigenous rituals. While there wasn’t much connection between us in age, background, or interest, we were all spiritually inclined Americans who spoke American English. That was enough for me, and I spent most of my time with them. We ate together, walked together on the banks of Ganga, and laughed at people farting and picking their noses in public.
One evening, they invited me to join them for a Reiki workshop. Upon their request Swamiji had brought in a Reiki master to teach them. I knew nothing about Reiki but at that point I was excited about everything. My life was an adventure, and I had no idea what the next moment would bring. I was in God’s hands now. Walk on the Ganga? Sure. Tea? Sure. Reiki? Of course.
When I entered the room the Reiki master was explaining the Level One initiation he’d be giving that evening. I missed the introduction, and as I entered he was saying, “So, my assistants and I will be initiating each of you. As I mentioned, you will not feel our physical touch on your bodies, as Reiki works on the energetic body.”
Chairs were assembled and one of the members of the group reached her hand out to me and said, “You should go in the first batch because you must have work to get back to.”
I sat in the chair in front of the Reiki master. “You missed the introduction,” he said. “But don’t worry. Just close your eyes and allow whatever is meant to happen to happen.”
After a few minutes, he spoke again. “Your chakras are so open, much more open than I expected to see in anyone. We are only giving level one initiation, but your chakras are so open I think you’re ready for level two initiation too. If you’d like, I can give it to you now.”
My vocabulary was formed by SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and GRE (Graduate Record Exam) preparation books, AP (Advanced Placement) English classes, and the Word-a-Day game my parents initiated when I was in junior high. None of my vocabulary preparation included words like chakra or reiki or even the word initiation the way the Reiki master was using it. I had no idea what he was talking about, but sure, why not?
“Okay,” I said. The level one seemed to have only taken a few minutes. He didn’t even touch me; I just had to close my eyes. How much more could level two be? I smiled to myself in amazement at this incredible and unimaginable adventure on which God was taking me.
At some point later, a voice seemed to travel from somewhere into my ears. “Okay,” I could hear it say, barely audible. “You can get up now.” The voice was a physical sensation, traveling from somewhere outside me, into my ears, through my ears, and into my arms which reached to my sides to grasp the sides of my chair. It traveled through my ears into my legs and I leaned forward to rise. I had no idea how much time had passed since I sat down or what had happened.
“How do you feel?” the Reiki master asked. The words traveled through my ears and I could feel them in my body, but could not conjure a response. I think I smiled at him, before I walked out of the room and went to find Swamiji.
It was evening time in early autumn, and Swamiji was in his garden. The air was fragrant with jasmine, and I could feel the beginning of the cool fall breeze as I walked into the garden, the dewy grass wet between my toes. Swamiji sat, as always, in a corner of the garden, this time on a thin mat of woven jute rather than a chair. The small group gathered in front of him also sat on a thin woven mat, and they hung on every word he spoke. I bowed as I approached and sat cross-legged behind the group.
I closed my eyes and immediately felt a surge of heat and energy rise, it seemed, from the cool grass beneath me straight up into my body, as though I had sat on a geyser at Yellowstone National Park, except it wasn’t water. It was a geyser of heat and energy. It felt like body surfing on the California coast, except the wave moved through my body rather than taking me to shore. After the wave hit what seemed to be the inside of my skull, it receded down out below my navel and back into the cool grass.
I opened my eyes and Swamiji’s eyes caught mine. He was in the midst of a passionate discourse in Hindi which played like divine music across the background of my consciousness, the musical score to my internal drama. His eyes fixed upon mine for a moment.
A few minutes later, the group bowed and rose. I, too, bowed and rose, and I followed them toward the door. Suddenly I heard Swamiji say, “Come here.” He had already started walking into the building of his residence and inner meeting rooms. He did not speak again or turn back toward me, but I knew I was supposed to follow. He turned a key in one of the smaller doors at the end of a hallway. Opening the door, he switched on the light in a room I hadn’t been in before, a small library-cum-storeroom with no windows, lined with shelves and cabinets. Books in both Hindi and English, gifts still in their boxes—many wrapped in colorful shiny paper—small pads on which he had made notes and plans for decades, and other miscellaneous items filled the shelves. On the floor was a beautiful Persian rug.
“Lie down,” he said. I did, thinking my Indian adventure was about to take a new, exciting turn. However, Swamiji just turned off the light and left. I heard the key turn in the lock from the outside. Alone in the storeroom, lying on my magic carpet, I felt my consciousness being pulled forcefully inward, as though a vacuum cleaner inside me was sucking “myself” inward. I didn’t feel called to fight it. I was free to let go of the glue that held myself together, the glue I had held so tenaciously to over the decades of my life.
I let go into the waves of energy that rose and crashed through my body. As the waves came in, my whole being expanded. Bones, skins, muscles, all borders and boundaries became a vestige of my former body. I was boundless, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world. There was no running commentary explaining my energetic expansion. The waves swept away everything, and the commentator in my head had drowned in the ocean.
According to the scriptural story of the Goddess who took the form of the River Ganga, when the rambunctious, intractable Ganga first came down from Heaven, She swept away the sages and priests performing their pujas (religious rites) on the riverbanks. The surge of Her uncontainable waters washed everything away. Ganga was now flowing into and through me, razing and annihilating everything made of matter, everywhere I ended and the universe began.
I was the universe. As I inhaled, my chest rose and rose above the shelves of books. I filled the room and I was still inhaling. These shelves and walls, too, crumbled into the waves of my breath.
My awareness rode the waves, existing not in the gray and white matter of the brain inside my skull, but in every molecule of the world inside me and outside me. There was no distinction. It all was me. The air around me, the room, everything pulsated with my breath, and grew and expanded. The walls and shelves obeyed, and they, too, made room for my ever-expanding being. It all was me.
After an indeterminate amount of time, a sound in the door reached through my ears, through my brain, and found me floating somewhere beyond it. The noise took hold of a part of my consciousness and carried it back into my body, into my skull, into my brain. By the time PujyaSwamiji had opened the door and turned on the light, I had processed: “Ah, a key in the lock.”
Standing in the doorway, hair, beard, and robes merging into one extraordinary formless being, PujyaSwamiji looked down at me. I could not make the borders of his body or clothes stay in one place. They kept dancing, merging into and out of the space between him and the door frame. But his eyes were sharp, clear, and in focus.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. I exhaled and my consciousness escaped on my breath into the dark brown of his eyes, into a world I’d never visited. A fragment of awareness left back in my brain registered that he had again turned off the light, closed the door, and once again turned the key in the lock from the outside. His form had left, but I was still in the world inside his eyes.
At some point, after another indeterminate amount of time, I felt my awareness draw itself back into my physical body. The room and walls and shelves no longer moved in rhythm with my breath. I was aware, for the first time, of the softness of the rug beneath my bare heels and on the back of my hands which, I noticed, lay to my sides. My eyes were closed, but when I opened them the room was so black I wasn’t exactly sure when they were open and when they were closed. I blinked a few times and finally realized the room was dark; I had not lost my sight.
I was again aware of the rise and fall of my own chest and belly as I breathed, and my own body was once again able to contain the breath. My skin tingled and I floated in my ocean of joy.
A short time later, I again heard the key in the lock. This time, the sound did not have to reach through my brain to find me. I heard it the first time and understood it would be Swamiji coming back. But it wasn’t him. It was the cook, the lovely cook who, as he turned on the light, looked at me as though it were perfectly natural to be lying, awake, on a rug on the floor in the storeroom with the lights turned off. “You must eat,” he said. “Swamiji say you must eat.”
He bent down and took my hand in his. I had no awareness of muscle or muscle tone. I giggled to myself as I realized that I could not figure out how to make my limbs move. I knew they should move, but how to make that happen was a non-concerning mystery. Eventually the cook was able to peel me off the ground, and as he helped me stand, my coordination returned.
Hand in hand I followed him into the kitchen where he sat me down on a woven mat and placed a tiny wooden table in front of me. He disappeared and then reappeared with a bowl of hot kichari—lentils and rice cooked together, the Indian version of chicken soup. Whatever ails you, kichari is the answer, according to traditional Indian medicine.
I discovered that night that kichari is also the perfect post-spiritual initiation “welcome back to the physical plane” meal.
Elephant Journal is an official partner of Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati’s event in Boulder on August 18—a celebration of the publication of Sadhviji’s book, including a special satsang, meditation, music, blessings, and spiritual question-answer session. Sadhviji and her guru, one of India’s most revered spiritual leaders, HH Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, will be giving this program together at the Nevei Kodesh congregation.
*Editor’s Note: Here at Elephant, we’re notorious bookworms—we love them, and want you to love them, too. But, recently, we found out books are evil—one of the worst things for the environment. Before you buy your next book, read this and this. Keep reading, but read responsibly.