By the time I’d finished the last chapter of Swami Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, I’d completed my first semester of college—and I was finished with that also.
Yogananda’s stories of yogis who’d attained heightened states of consciousness and miraculous abilities filled me with wonder. And I kept hearing the same voice inside—“There’s something more incredible in this life that beckons you.”
Just 18-years-old, I was fiery, idealistic and spunky. It made perfect sense to me to drop out of college, travel to the Himalayas, and find a real yogi to teach me the secrets of the soul.
My mother, however, was mortified.
“Just where do you think you’re going, young lady, to find this so-called goo-roo?”
“Kathmandu, Nepal,” I quipped—as if every teenager in America was going there as the new hip hangout. It was 1988 and globalization was still in its infancy. Nepal may as well have been the moon to Mom.
We argued a lot about my crazy plan, but I refused to listen to any objection. Nothing could hold me back from what I wanted most in the world. And I was convinced that in Nepal—at the base of the holy Himalayas—was the place I’d find it.
As I boarded the plane to Kathmandu, I promised myself: I won’t return to the United States until I’ve achieved enlightenment!
Arriving in Nepal, the plane circled the city as barefoot peasants shooed some errant cows off the runway and finally came in to land. Out of the airport gates, I stepped toward my destiny.
I also happened to step in a pile of dung, slipping and falling to the ground. A crowd gathered and laughed unashamedly at my predicament.
Now I understand why. Here was a silly young girl, wielding an oversized backpack, so intent on getting somewhere that she couldn’t be bothered to look where she stepped. A kind-looking gentleman offered me his hand.
“Welcome to Nepal,” he said brightly. “Why are you here?”
When I told him my plan, he displayed the same incredulous look my family had worn. “What is there in enlightenment?” he questioned. “You’re an American. You have everything. There is nothing for you in Nepal!”
Then handing me a card, he concluded, “Call these people. They can help you.”
As soon as I arrived at my guesthouse—the Hotel Shiva—I read the card’s inscription: United States Peace Corps: Nepali Language Immersions.
The helpful stranger gave me a tip that I hadn’t even considered. If I were to meet an enlightened yogi, speaking the native language could prove indispensable. I promptly enrolled.
Following a week of Nepali classes and a barrage of personal questions, my teacher, Shankar Narayan, ordered me to gather my things.
It was very unusual—and quite improper—for Nepalis to see a young woman traveling by herself and staying alone in a hotel.
After surveying the Hotel Shiva’s clientele (consisting mostly of drug addicts and ex-patriots), Shankar Narayan registered his disapproval—“This is no place for a lady to stay.”
So he hailed a taxi, hauled my bags down the stairs and gestured for me to get in the back.
I had no idea where he was taking me.
As we bumped along the narrow streets of Kathmandu, I noted the usual sites—stray cattle roaming garbage bins, erratic bicyclists dodging speeding rickshaws, and kids playing crude games of cricket.
Then as the road opened out of the city toward the village Balaju, I found myself in heaven.
I drank in the beauty of purple morning glories set against emerald rice paddies. My eyes met the sweet glance of water buffaloes as they waded up to their floppy ears in irrigation canals. I admired the grace of women working in the paddies, swaying in their red saris like a dance. And I swooned at the scent of incense wafting from small roadside shrines.
For the first time in my life I felt I’d arrived home.
No sooner had that feeling entered my heart, then the taxi stopped at a three-storied cement building. As we approached the entrance, a newborn calf ran out the front door toward its mother in the courtyard. Shankar Narayan nodded to me remarking, “An auspicious sign for you.”
A man resembling an older, grayer version of Shankar, welcomed us with palms together, “Namaste.”
“Uncle, I’ve brought an American student to live with you,” Shankar announced plaintively.
“Good, good,” was all the man said. “Please come.”
Over a tin cup of steaming milk tea, I learned that Shankar Narayan’s uncle was the head priest of the Pashupati Nath Temple, the most important Hindu temple in Kathmandu. This meant he was a brahmin. And as I was soon to learn, Sanskrit is the very life-blood of brahmins.
Whole-heartedly invited to stay as long as I wanted, I was instantly treated like a long-lost daughter. Never in my life had I experienced so much love given by complete strangers to a complete stranger.
Offered a room to myself on the first floor of the home—a place of honor next to the family shrine room—I was woken up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to a loud cacophony of strange and rhythmic sounds.
These beautiful, hypnotic, and nonsensical melodies put my mind at rest. As I listened intently, my breathing became deep and full. I relaxed totally into the pleasant pulse of warm electricity coursing through my body. Letting go, I forgot the time. Not quite asleep and not quite awake, I entered a natural state of meditation.
My biorhythms quickly adjusted to this morning routine. I found it easy to awake much earlier than I was accustomed, eager to experience this “music” again and again.
As soon as Krishna Uncle and his little boy, Babu, had settled in the shrine room, I’d sneak over to the side of the doorway and seat myself in meditation. While their voices grew stronger, faster and yet precisely rhythmic, I’d dissolve my mind into the sweet sensations they caused in my body.
Mesmerized by their chanting, I experienced a wakeful awareness that contained no thought. I encountered bliss for the first time.
“You like our adhya¯yanam?” Krishna Uncle asked me one morning.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’ve never heard this before.”
“It is teacher-disciple method,” he explained. “I sit. You sit. I chant. You listen. You repeat.”
And that’s what I did for many mornings before I ever learned that I was chanting in Sanskrit. All I knew was these pure impulses of sound were what energized, enlivened and awakened meditation within me.
After chanting, I felt my body pulsing with pra¯n?a (life force). My mind and emotions became silent and still.
Once Krishna Uncle was in a very revealing mood. We were sitting together on the roof of his house on low jute stools. It was kite-flying season in Kathmandu and the sky was full of flourish.
For many months, I had asked him about enlightenment to no avail. He’d never answer a single one of my questions. He’d just shake his head slightly side to side with his eyes cast up, as if I’d asked something very good, as if the question alone was sufficient.
But that day on the roof, Krishna Uncle felt like talking.
“You know Sanskrit is not a language,” he explained. “It is the very mind of God. This world is the spoken breath of God. Our breath is the breath of God. When we direct it back to the divine source with our holy chants, we merge with Him.”
I nodded in agreement. Krishna Uncle’s words perfectly described what I experienced as I first heard and felt the sounds of Sanskrit. “Is Sanskrit the secret behind enlightenment?” I queried sincerely.
“Yes, correct.” Krishna Uncle responded. “You become very intelligent by intoning these sounds. Your mind becomes very clear and open. Your heart becomes happy. The family relations improve. And your life’s duty is easily fulfilled.”
I knew then I’d discovered in Sanskrit the secret behind yoga’s power to achieve higher states of consciousness and enlightenment. I decided then and there I would dedicate myself to perfecting the art of Vedic chanting in Sanskrit to open myself more to this sweet experience of awakening.
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