We are off to visit two temples just outside of Ganeshpuri, 60 kilometres north of Mumbai. Since there are more than 50 of us, a range of vehicles including a flotilla of tuk tuks, the small, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, are commandeered from the local taxi rank. Vani, our friend Paramananda and I are assigned to travel together in one.
I take an immediate liking to our driver, a big guy with a deep, raspy voice and a confident swagger. He wears a 70s-style printed polyester shirt and seems to know everyone, singing out greetings and beeping his horn to whomever we pass on the road. He drives efficiently, you could even say gracefully, always taking the smartest route. His large body does not seem out of place in such a small vehicle.
As we get out at our first stop, the Sai Baba temple, someone yells: “Stay in the same group that you came with and remember the number of your tuk tuk because you have to come back to it.”
I look up. I have never noticed before that these things have numbers. Above the windscreen, ours is inscribed: “1 2 3 4”.
Is that really our number? It seems too perfect. I look at the other tuk tuks. They all have different, random numbers in the same place above the windscreen.
“Excellent number,” I say. “Yes, that’s Hemanth” says Moti. “He’s the boss of the tuk tuk drivers.”
A five-metre Shiva statue made of fibreglass stands at the temple entrance and there are petting animals for the kids. The building is brand new, sitting in the middle of nowhere and, apart from us, completely empty. Whoever built this obviously had a lot of money.
“Apparently, it’s an exact scale model of the temple in Shirdi,” (the town where Sai Baba lived) someone says as our footsteps reverberate around the enormous marble entrance hall. The comment seems accurate. Here is the small inner temple housing the murti (statue) of Sai Baba with a much larger hall attached, just like in Shirdi.
The original building is shaped as it is because it has been added to continuously for 80 years to accommodate the ever-growing hordes. Why would you set out to copy such an odd building, and why would anyone build such a thing here in Ganeshpuri, world famous for its own great saint, Bhagwan Nityananda?
In the 1880s, Sai Baba himself wandered into the sleepy hamlet of Shirdi, 200km north of Mumbai, and never left. Dressed in the ragged clothes of a Muslim holy man or fakir, he declined to reveal any aspect about his prior life. His birthplace, family, guru, religion and even original name remain a mystery to this day. “Sai” means “holy man” in Urdu and “Baba” the same in Hindi, the languages of Islam and Hinduism.
Sai Baba lived in the run-down local mosque and begged for food every day. He would then distribute the food to other beggars and even to the attendant street dogs before eating himself. People in the area became aware of a special feeling that arose when they were around him. When he spoke, they found he could expound upon the holy scriptures of all religions with an unusual power and clarity. Miracles were attributed to him and his fame spread throughout the region, the state and eventually the whole nation.
On his death, his followers built a samadhi shrine. (In India, the saints are said to take maha samadhi – that is, to go into the “great meditation” rather than die. Hence the name given to the shrines where they are buried.) A beautiful white-marble statue was placed on top of his grave.
I visited the town of Shirdi with a small group including Swamiji and Devi-Ma for the first time in 2004. At that time I had not heard of Sai Baba and had no idea what to expect. It must have been a quiet day because I can remember walking for what seemed like ages through rows of empty queue lines. When we finally entered the inner sanctum of the samadhi shrine, there was a movement in my heart as if someone had started playing a celestial church organ. Tears welled and I felt as though I was being physically lifted. We queued and were blessed by the brahmin priests on duty in front of Sai Baba’s statue.
A few hours later, we were eating lunch at the hotel when I became aware of some kind of “presence”. It was to my left, at head height and around the size of a basketball. I couldn’t see this presence but sensed it in a way I had not known was possible until that moment.
Throughout that trip to India I had been in a particularly depressed and anxious state. Directly after the tour to India I was to visit my teenage daughter, living in Italy with her mother, and the prospect was bringing up intense grief about my separation from her.
The “presence” that day at the hotel seemed to be trying to communicate with me. If I were to put it into words, it was saying something like: “Pssst!” Trying to get my attention.
I turned to face it and the lunch chatter faded. I felt as if I was in a little bubble that held just me and the presence. I was overcome with a feeling of love and peace. Obviously, and incredibly, this seemed in some way to be Sai Baba himself. His soul, or energy had come to visit me. I caught a sense of his personality: amused, friendly and loving, a little cheeky, even rascally. The kind of person who would love a joke, with whom you could have a great time.
The energy was communicating something. In a virtual sense, it was nudging me in the ribs and with great love and enthusiasm saying: “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK” It’ll all be OK”.
Like a friend, good-naturedly trying to buck me up.
I’m not a “psychic” person, yet I understood immediately that this energy was Sai Baba and I understood its communication clearly. I remember thinking: “Fuck me, whatever Sai Baba was, he’s one million per cent the real deal”.
Clearly, other people also have experiences from visiting Shirdi because despite the fact that he left behind no “gospel” or set of teachings, Sai Baba’s fame has continued to grow exponentially. When I visited again in 2016, the town was unrecognisable. In just 12 years it had turned into something that reminded me of Las Vegas, with a strip of multi-storey luxury hotels running down the main drag and endless tour buses disgorging pilgrims from all over India. We queued for three hours to visit the samadhi shrine. I wondered if all this activity might have vitiated the energy but once again I felt him, or at least felt an echo of the previous experience.
Over the years, Sai Baba temples have proliferated all over the world, and now here we are, visiting one in our own spiritual backyard, Ganeshpuri.
“What do you think?” I ask Prasad, one of the priests from the Ganeshpuri temple who had accompanied us. He turned his mouth down in displeasure.
“You know, on our first night in Ganeshpuri, Vani had a vision,” I say. “She saw the face of Bhagwan’s statue change into Sai Baba’s face and then back and forth. So Sai and Bhagwan are really the same, no?”
Prasad’s eyes widen with interest at the story, then his face darkens again. “Maybe, but this is the land of Bhagwan Nityananda,” he says.
It is hard to disagree. There is something presumptuous about this place, provocative even. We all walk into the “samadhi” shrine. The original space in Shirdi is Moghul style, made of old bluestone blocks. Here there are pre-formed concrete slabs and modern bricks spray painted gold. A large printed banner of a colourised black and white photo hangs on the wall depicting Sai Baba warmly greeting a middle-aged Indian couple. There are only five authenticated photographs of Sai Baba in existence and this does not look like one of them.
I nudge Vani: “Do you think that poster is Mr-and-Mrs-Big-Cheese-whoever-built-this-place?” She nods: “Photoshop job for sure”.
We all sit down in front of the statue, made of white marble, just like in Shirdi. The statue looks almost exactly the same as the original, but somehow it is not beautiful. Later that day, after we return home, Devi-Ma says emphatically: “That statue has glowing red eyes – there’s something wrong with it, I know! There is something corrupt about that temple. It’s going to take years to purify”.
Out of interest, the next day I prod Iqbal and Moti, our tour managers. We are sitting around on plastic armchairs in the dining tent in the middle of the afternoon heat:
“So what’s the story with that Sai Baba temple?”
“What do you mean?” they reply.
“I dunno, it just seems weird to build such a huge thing here in Ganeshpuri of all places. Who would pay for it?”
The brothers smirk. “It’s all built with black money” Iqbal says.
“It’s built by this rich guy from Vajeshwari. Because of Modi’s laws (the Indian PM’s crackdown on the cash economy) there is nowhere to put black money anymore, so you build a temple”.
Moti laughs. “You put the money in, and then it comes out completely clean!”
“No-one thinks to argue with a temple” says Iqbal.
“But it would never get full” I say. “It’s a complete white elephant”.
“No, it gets full. They have big bandaras (feasts) and everyone comes”.
Free food. You can always get Indians to come to things with free food. This I know from my time organising events with the Hindu Society in Melbourne.
Sitting in front of the statue, we decide to perform a bhajan or chant. A harmonium and drum are produced and we start to sing:
“Om Sai Namo Namah
Shree Sai Namo Nama”
The temple brahmin and functionaries are agog. Into their completely empty building, 50 westerners have appeared out of nowhere. On top of that, they are sweetly chanting hymns to Sai Baba. Onlookers appear, filming this marvel on their phones.
“We’re like performing apes” I think, and look around for Swamiji, assuming he will be hating this. But he is grinning from ear to ear. In his typical way, he is relishing everything about the experience.
As we sing, I have to admit I can feel the shakti or spiritual energy. Afterwards, we queue to be blessed by the brahmin priest. In spite of my ingrained scepticism, I am enjoying myself. As we exit, I realise that I feel high.
Next we go to Vajeshwari, home (as I later learn) of the builder of the new Sai Baba temple but, more importantly for us, the site of a famous goddess temple.
Our ride is waiting for us where we left him. “1 2 3 4!” I sing out.
We zip along the moonscape of the local roads, dodging the worst potholes by millimetres. I am in an ebullient mood and lean forward to pat Hemanth affectionately on the shoulder. “You’re a very good driver Mr 1 2 3 4.” He nods with pride.
As we approach our next destination, I sing out, cheerleader style:
“1 2 3 4 – who’s the driver we adore.
5 6 7 8 – with this guy we’re never late!”
Vani and Paramananda laugh with delight. We are all a bit giddy. I’m not sure what Hemant makes of the attention though. Does he think I was taking the piss? Or maybe he likes it? I can’t tell.
The Vajeshwari temple sits halfway up a steep hill. Large bluestone stairs run from the entrance down to the busy main street. Hemanth lets us out at the base of the stairs where vendors sell floral garlands and religious knick knacks.
As with most temples in India, the garland sellers perform a dual service: as well as offerings for the deities they allow you to leave your shoes at their stall – a kind of protection racket, I suppose, but a useful one. I always feel like I’m getting a win-win when I buy a garland. The deity will be happy, and my shoes will be safe from thieves.
We walk barefoot up the stairs, now hot from the late-morning sun, and enter the courtyard that surrounds the temple.
Earlier that day, Swamiji’s assistant, Gargi, begs off coming on this part of our little tour. “Swamiji, can I please not go to the Vajeshwari temple, you know what it does to me.” He replies: “Yes, that’s OK, you don’t have to go.”
I am curious. “What’s the problem with that temple?” Gargi looks at me, red faced and close to tears: “I just can’t hack it, I don’t know why”.
I push a little: “I would have thought that as a gay woman, a goddess temple would be something you would really appreciate?”
“I don’t know, the energy there just slaughters me!” she says emphatically.
I have never got much of a kick one way or another from this temple. However, it is beautiful. On a rare clear day, the courtyard has a spectacular view across the town and valley. Today is not clear and the nearby mountains and Tamsa river are grey outlines. The sight brings up my usual worrying thoughts about the pace of development in India and its horrifying effects on the environment.
The Vajeshwari temple is made from massive bluestone blocks. A pillared assembly hall with galleries on each side leads to a small domed inner sanctum housing the deities. The temple is unusual in that it hosts manifestations of all three of the major goddesses of Hinduism: Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
We wait for a while in the assembly hall. The harmonium comes out once again, and this time we sing bhajans to the goddess. Unlike our last stop, the temple is busy. Most people passing through pay us little attention.
As we chant, I look around. Above the entrance to the sanctum hangs a large oil painting depicting what I assume is the foundation story of the temple.
From left to right, we see three scenes. On the left, a heavily moustached hero, presumably Shivaji, the 17th-century revolutionary who fought successful battles against the British and Muslim overlords, is shown meditating in a forest. A vision of the Goddess has appeared to him. In the centre, we see a battlefield with cannon and horse and Shivaji leading a charge. On the right, we see him gesturing with open palm to the Vajeshwari hill and temple.
I guess we have to assume the narrative goes something like this: Shivaji is meditating before a major battle when he has a vision of the Goddess. Taking this as an auspicious sign, he pledges to build a great temple to her if he wins. When he succeeds, he duly builds the Vajeshwari temple. Alternatively, Shivaji calls on the Goddess for help, promising her a temple if he wins. Or something along these lines.
I have been intrigued by this picture every time I visit the temple, but I seem to be the only one who has ever noticed it. The locals give me blank looks whenever I bring it up.
There are differing stories about the temple’s foundation. Our hotelier, Percy Khotawalla, tells me the building was originally a Portuguese fort. If that is true, then apart from its elevated position, it is the weirdest fort design I’ve ever seen.
One of the old ladies in Ganeshpuri, Indu, tells me: “The goddess used to be in the country side near Akloli but then she wanted to be in a new temple so they moved her to Vajeshwari.”
I am reminded again of just how ancient a civilisation India is. As an Australian, you forget. There have been temples in the Tamsa valley for thousands of years. But the climate is so harsh: dusty, baking hot summers followed by months of monsoonal downpour. You can literally see things age before your eyes. Freshly sealed roads are washed away. Brand-new houses become mildewed and seedy within a few years. Without constant vigilance, every building appears to subside and collapse in on itself, becoming a source of building materials to loot or the foundations for the next things to be built on top.
Folk history says there was a vast Ganesh temple in the valley thousands of years ago, and I can believe it. Even though there is no obvious evidence, the ruins would be lying somewhere under layer upon layer of history and sediments.
For the moment, however, the Vajeshwari temple is going nowhere. Our group piles into the tiny sanctum and Swamiji is garlanded and honoured by the Brahmin priests. I pay my respects to the deities then we all assemble on the steps outside for a group photo.
At the bottom of the stairs, Hemanth is waiting for us once more, 100 metres down the street. This time the three of us sing out in unison: “1 2 3 4!”
The tuk tuk pulls onto the busy street, executes a U turn and zooms around to collect us. Hemanth grins and we jump in for the bone-jarring ride back to Khotawalla. We say goodbye like old friends and I tip him 100 rupees even though Moti has said not too.
A few days later Vani and I are walking to the Gurudev Siddha Peeth (GSP) ashram about a kilometre out of town to meet the rest of the tour group. As we pass the tuk tuk stand, I say: “It’s hot, let’s take one”.
We walk to the head of the queue. “It would be cool if we could ride with Hemanth.”
But inside the vehicle at the head of the queue is a different driver. We both look around, but can’t see him anywhere. “Ah well, guess he’s not around,” I say.
We jump in, engaged in the usual haggling over price, then just as we start to leave, we hear a booming, disembodied voice from the inside of the tin shed where the drivers hang out: “1 2 3 4!” We shout back joyfully: “1 2 3 4!”
In the past two years, the GSP ashram has come up with a way to be even weirder than before. There is now a security kiosk 100 metres or so further up the road from the main entrance. Visitors are required to leave their belongings there, walk through a metal detector, fill in a visitor book noting their passport number (which is not cross-checked so you can write anything) then walk through a long corridor that terminates back at the main entrance. The corridor is carpeted, painted white and filled with framed quotes and large pictures of Gurumayi, the current leader of the organisation. Tinkling new-age music gives the overall effect of an airport walkway. Or a passageway to the afterlife, if it were designed by someone from LA.
None of which would be a worry if the rest of the ashram wasn’t already so weird. Unlike almost any other place of spiritual pilgrimage I have visited in India, the staff are rude and officious. Visitors must remain silent, line up in precise queues and sit exactly where told. The sour-faced lady in charge will point and make a loud hissing noise at anyone who steps out of line. The general feeling is that they would rather none of us were here at all.
This is the place where Swamiji did his sadhana (spiritual apprenticeship) under his guru Baba Muktananda. In its heyday, the ashram teemed with people and was open to all comers. It was established in the late 1950s when Bhagwan Nityananda had land set aside and sent his disciple Swami Muktananda to live here. Originally there were just a few rooms built beside a pre-existing goddess shrine but over the next 20 years, particularly after the influx of westerners and their money in the 1970s, the ashram grew to a vast scale, capable of sleeping thousands, with extensive gardens spread over many acres.
It’s remarkable to think that if you had visited Ganeshpuri in the late 1950s it would have been possible to have had the darshan (company) of two great living saints in one day. Many people would come to see Nityananda then on the way home visit Muktananda as well.
On Muktananda’s death, the organisation he built passed to two successors, a brother and sister who promptly had a catastrophic falling out. The ashrams, previously places of love and bliss, divided into factions then fell into outright civil war. The sister, Gurumayi, was the victor, ejecting her brother and taking over all the properties.
Today GSP is open to the public for only a few hours a week: for darshan of Muktananda’s samadhi shrine for eight hours on weekends, and for a chant session early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Visitors can visit only select areas of the ashram: the samadhi shrine and the hall where the chants occur.
Otherwise, the rest of the huge property is open only to those wearing security cards. Outsiders are rapidly ushered in and out of the few areas we can visit, with modesty screens hiding any glimpse of the buildings and lush gardens beyond. High fences topped with razor wire ring the ashram and every entrance is patrolled by armed security guards.
For years, I’ve been desperately curious to see the rest of the ashram, but a security card to enter is granted only from a person’s home country and only to those who are long-term members of the community. I’ve heard that the ashram is largely empty. Gurumayi, who resides in the United States and in recent years has become reclusive, has not stayed here in more than a decade.
Many people wonder why the ashram has become so closed and restrictive. I have my own theory. Gurumayi’s brother – who was given the spiritual name of Swami Nityananda by Muktananda, a spectacular endorsement – has gradually built his own parallel organisation after losing the civil war. In recent years, he has aligned himself with right-wing Hindu nationalist groups currently ascendant in India.
Nowhere is it more true than in India to say: possession is nine-tenths of the law. If the brother’s followers were to storm the GSP ashram, claiming it as his rightful property, he could be difficult to dislodge. With political muscle behind him, the police might choose not to act and a civil case would be tied up in court for decades. Of course, he would then have to put up with being in the same position as his sister is now – living perpetually in paranoia about being overrun.
So much better to visit Ganeshpuri as we do: independent, free to stay wherever we want, having our own programs in the Khotawalla gardens under the stars. Such are my thoughts (which always arise when I am in this building) as we are ushered into the samadhi shrine.
Muktananda’s grave lies in the centre of a relatively small room that was once his bedroom. It is covered with a white-marble plinth and is surrounded by a low chain-link fence made from pure silver. The floor is also white marble. The room is perfectly clean and a pin-drop silence is enforced. Pilgrims enter the room, walk three times clockwise around the grave then sit with their backs to the wall to meditate. After doing my three laps I see Swamiji sitting and take a fortuitous empty spot right next to him.
It must be hard for Swamiji, visiting this place that holds so many joyous memories but which is now virtually out of bounds for him. His face is impassive but I sense he is emotional. I have seen him tear-up many times when talking about his relationship with Muktananda. I close my eyes and try to tune in. It’s the same experience every time for me. I can feel an underlying pulse of shakti, but there are layers of unpleasant history lying over the top. Eventually, Swamiji gets up, makes a pranam to Baba then exits. The rest of the group follows his lead and we all make our own way back to Khotawalla for lunch.
On our last day in Ganeshpuri, I make a final tour of the town, starting with Nityananda’s samadhi shrine. I buy a garland and sit directly in front of the murti built over Bhagwan’s grave.
Some years ago, in this same spot, I had an experience that helped me understand why the energy in this town is so special. I had come to pay my respects one last time before getting on the bus to go home. I was sitting for meditation when I became aware of a disturbance in my third eye. I tried for several minutes to ignore it, then tried to let it go, assuming it to be one of the many intrusions that occur when trying to meditate. When neither of those strategies worked I decided to take the opposite tack: to delve into it. So I brought my consciousness up to the third eye and peered into the disturbance.
Now it started to take shape. It was as though I was looking at a computer graphic of a cyclone or tornado. But instead of having a swirling motion, it was more like a geyser or an eruption. I looked closer. There was a single point, a singularity from which an outpouring of energy was coming. This point seemed to be in front of me and below, deep underground beneath the statue. I realised with a start: this would be the place where Bhagwan’s body lies. An endless hurricane of spiritual energy was spiralling up out of the ground from that spot.
Heaven and earth are close together in Ganeshpuri. After a few days here, the mind slows. Negative emotions and thoughts lose their power and meditation comes easily. It is as if there is an open portal to a higher realm. Now I understood why: the town is continuously bombarded by a nuclear reactor of shakti, a benevolent Chernobyl. A villager told me that Bhagwan had said he would take the kind of samadhi where his energy would remain with his body. It was true. I had now had a direct perception of it.
Nityananda arrived in Ganeshpuri from the south of India in the 1930s. At the time there was only a small shiva temple and dilapidated kund (hot springs) surrounded by jungle. Over the years the township built up around him. Little is known of his past and family origins. He was considered an avadhut: a person with no awareness of social standards. It was only with considerable difficulty that his devotees persuaded him to wear a loincloth rather than walk around butt naked. He would spend hours a day resting on a concrete slab while pilgrims poured in to see him.
Often he would sit in silence, occasionally making short cryptic statements, meaningful to only one single person in the throng. He was friendly to the local tribespeople and their children but ambivalent to other visitors, especially the pompous. Sometimes a person would enrage him and he would throw a rock at them.
I have heard many miracles attributed to him. Most are generic, such as the old one about the train: “Bhagwan was travelling on a train to X. The conductor found that he did not have a ticket so told him to get off at the next station. After that the train became stuck and would not move from the station no matter what the engineer tried. Eventually one of the travellers told the conductor that the person he kicked off was a great saint, so the conductor apologised and invited Bhagwan back on. Immediately, the train was able to resume its journey.”
This story may have a basis in truth somewhere but it has been spun many times about different saints.
However, I once met an old man who told me something that I found utterly convincing. In 2009, Swamiji asked me to record peoples’ recollections about Nityananda from whoever we could before these passed out of living memory (an excellent project, alas never completed). Word of this got around and an elderly gentleman arrived from Mumbai to be interviewed. He told me that in his late teens he had been running across a railway track when he fell and seriously cut the palm of his right hand. At the hospital he was stitched up but badly. As the wound healed, his hand curled into a paralysed claw. This happened just a few weeks before he was to sit his final high-school exams, the results of which, in those days, would determine his whole future. What to do? He was unable to write, there was no time to get the hand reset and no possibility of a dispensation from the school.
His parents were devotees of Bhagwan so as a last resort he decided to visit him. He told me: “When I arrived in Ganeshpuri, Bhagwan immediately looked me in the eyes and said, ‘First go to the kund’. This was not normal, many times when I visited him he never said anything to me or looked at me. So I went to the baths. When I got in the water, I felt something happen. I took my hand out and it was completely healed. It was like there had never been an injury”.
He held up his hand, beaming. “Look, not even a scar! Then I went running back in great excitement to see Bhagwan. But as soon as I came into the room he looked at me sternly and I understood he was giving me a message. He knew what had happened and he was telling me, ’Don’t say anything’.”
Then the old man began to weep. “You can’t describe what it was like to be around Nityananda. It’s impossible to put into words”.
All the interviews ended this same way. The subject would weep and say it was impossible to describe what it was like to be around Bhagwan. But I think that I do understand: the people who came to see him had an experience of God.
Today I am not having any “spooky” experiences. I sit for a while in the temple then give the priest my offering and continue on my farewell tour. I stop in at the small room at Bangalorewalla where Bhagwan died and walk up to the hill to the Ganesh temple one last time. From up top, Mandakini mountain is just an outline and I can barely make out anything in the valley, so thick is the smog.
Walking home I review the trip in my mind. I have made a conscious effort to be more sociable and open hearted to the other people on the tour this time rather than my usual stingy self. I decide that I can probably give myself a “B” for this. Also, I have gotten along well with Vani and not been (too) jealous about the time and energy she has spent running the tour. At least a “B” for that one too, I think.
So overall it has probably been one of our best visits. But now it is definitely time to go home. We have been well looked after, as always, by Iqbal and his family but living in India with its endless hassles wears you down after a while. Besides, there is my business to return to along with all its headaches: sales and cash flow and no doubt a month’s worth of pent-up issues.
Thinking of this makes my belly clench then I remind myself of the new resolution I have made here. As time passed on this trip, and as I settled into a more relaxed space, the realisation struck me that I should make more of an effort in daily life to live with the belief that things are going to be OK rather than my usual clenched posture of fearing that a disaster is always around the next corner. So I tell myself sternly that whatever dramas are waiting back in Melbourne, I will be capable of dealing with them.
On the last stretch of the walk home, the entry road to Khotawalla turns a corner. On either side of the dirt road a colourful fabric modesty screen has been erected by Iqbal’s crew to protect the delicate sensibilities of us westerners from having to view the open sewage channel with attendant rubbish that crosses under the track here.
Because of the screen and curve in the road I cannot see any traffic but I hear the unmistakable buzzing sound of a tuk tuk bumping along the road. It rounds the corner, drives past then stops about five metres behind me. The motor is turned off and now there is silence except for the ticking of the cooling engine.
I turn to look. A beefy arm with a clenched fist is thrust out of the drivers’ window, and a familiar raspy voice calls out: “1 2 3 4!”
I laugh and shout back: “1 2 3 4!”
The arm withdraws. The tuk tuk starts up again and drives off towards the village.