There is something unique in the air of Varanasi. It has an almost palpable hum of something deeper than other places, a vibe, an emission; it actually feels holy and spiritual. That may sound corny, but I feel it very strongly, and I am drawn back to this glorious, chaotic, dilapidated city of light again and again. It is no wonder to me that Hindus aspire to be carried here after death, covered with a golden shroud, burned on a pile of wood, and their remains washed away into the holy mother Ganga.
Rowing down that sludgy, still, soothing waterway, the early morning haze enveloping the small wooden boat, oars lapping the water, bells langing along the shore, forlorn distant chants accompanied by distorted ancient Indian music… you can almost imagine that you will indeed reach nirvana by coming here at the end of this earthly life.
On a recent trip, a dear friend traveled with me. She was on a quest to meet with a guru, have a ‘reading’ done, and see if one of these holy men could truly sense things about her and tell her what her future held. To this end, one morning we headed for the tiny alleys behind the Varanasi ghats for a day of shopping and self-discovery, a mission in search of spirituality and good silks.
As we stepped on to the Assi Ghat, a young man approached, asking if we were looking for something in particular. Being the more guarded one, and very accustomed to avoiding the extremely aggressive touts throughout India, I quickly brushed past and ignored him. My friend Brigid however, replied to him straight out “I want to see a Guru!” “Madam, please follow me.” he replied, with that old school Indian hand flip and head shake, and turned to lead us into the labyrinth of alleys. We squeezed past ambling cows, avoided steaming piles, and peered into tiny dark workshops where the world famous Banaras silk was being woven on ancient looms.
As we walked, Brigid continued to engage the young man with questions. Earlier in the trip, I had told her about Bhang Lassi, and she now asked boldly “Do you know where we can get some Bhang Lassi? We would love to try it.” I swatted her arm in warning, I didn’t like to be so open and appear too green. “Yes, Madam. No problem. Follow me”, and we continued until we reached a small restaurant in a typically dingy unassuming alley. We stooped to enter the tiny door of the “Dinner with Music Restaurant” and had a seat at a rickety table. The young man (Vinay) spoke with what could loosely be called a waiter, and arranged our Lassi order. They brought out two glasses of the sweet milk with “spices” & crushed ice, which we sipped slowly. Brigid continued to grill Vinay about a guru, where to buy some silk scarves, etc.. while I silently surveyed the place with a watchful, suspicious eye.
The back room of the restaurant was a heavily curtained area with comfortable looking low couches and dim lighting. We could hear the murmuring and laughter of a few people, apparently enjoying something a bit stronger than our Lassi drink. An interesting establishment.
The Lassi didn’t taste that great, but we may have begun to feel the Bhang effects… ever so slightly… as we sipped. That night we were to attend a huge wedding reception for a business acquaintance of mine, so Brigid thought taking some ‘to go’ for the evening wouldn’t be a bad idea. The guys packed us up two little plastic baggies filled with Lassi and closed them with a twist tie. Exactly the slapdash Indian way. We would expect nothing more. Very funny.
Our next stop was the silk shop for some scarves and pashminas. Just down the alley from the restaurant, we were ushered into a “showroom” whose floor was covered with white sheets over soft padded futon-like cushions. We took off our shoes and sat while the silk vendor brought out hundreds of silks and snapped them open with an expert flip of his wrist, draped them over us, over themselves, over the floor. We were in soft gorgeous silk heaven, oohing and aahing, each was more beautiful than the last. At this point the Bhang is definitely kicking in. Brigid is giggling at everything, and luxuriating in the silks being draped around us. I clamp down and become even more guarded, worrying about being responsible, making sure nothing bad happens to us, getting more and more nervous as she gets looser and kookier by the minute. We finally narrow down our choices and pay way too much for the silk, because I’m anxious and not up to negotiating very strongly. Vinay receives a call on his cel phone and informs us, with exaggerated deference, “Guru Ji will see you now…”
Another long walk through the twistiest, turniest, dirtiest alleys I’ve ever seen. Its fascinating, but also a bit unnerving. I am REALLY paranoid and worried at this point, calling out, “Brig? Maybe we should just forget it, huh?” and she shrugs it off “Come on, this is great!” She follows Vinay closely and I shuffle along behind them reluctantly, actually snapping picture after picture to document where we’ve gone, so there will be a record if we happen to get lost or disappear! Paranoid or what? Why do I have this kind of response to Bhang, while Brigid has all the fun!?
We arrive at the Guruji Ashram, a claustrophobic little room with steep stairway leading to who knows what. Vinay disappears to fetch the guru and we are left alone. “Brig, this is too creepy, let’s just leave!” “Marni come on, just relax for godssake! This is so crazy!” Brigid laughs. But she is spacing out, deep into the haze and hilarity of the Lassi. I feel like she is not paying close enough attention to recognize that this is really weird. We are at the end of an empty, ominous alley with no one around, and we have no idea where we are after so many twists and turns inside the maze that is this neighborhood, and what the hell are we getting into here anyway?
We wait and wait for 45 minutes for the revered “Guru Ji” to arrive. Vinay fields a constant stream of phone calls, telling us after each one, “only 10 more minutes”. They are on typical Indian time. A young boy comes through the alley carrying a tall stack of small clay pots, for planting flowers. He offers us one as a cup, and a tiny accomplice holds out a dented metal teapot to us. “Some Tea, Madam?” Even Brigid, the freewheeling carefree one, turns it down with a shudder. “Noooo thank you.”
Vinay tells us, with obvious admiration, that Guru Ji is very famous around the world and has many followers including “Madam Goldie Hawn”. Many people seek him out and ask for his counsel. He is very powerful and his father and grandfather were also Guru Ji’s before him.
The master finally arrives. He is a plain, pot-bellied man, not particularly striking in any way, but very calm and quiet. We both join him up the tiny stairs in a little half-room with that same padded futon-like flooring, and a ceiling only 5 feet high. Extremely claustrophobic. He asks if we want our readings private, and we say no; it’s okay if she hears mine and vice versa. There was no way I was going to leave Brigid alone up there with a strange man! She begins by abruptly asking Guru Ji about Goldie Hawn, and he is only too happy to tell us that he is a very close friend of her and her family, and takes down a photo album to show us some evidence, I mean, pictures. The crumpled, faded photos showed someone that could have been Goldie Hawn, at some sort of picnic, and there was an indian man near her, but he looked nothing like Guru Ji. I shrug and dismiss it in my mind, thinking, this guy is *so* full of it!!
Guru Ji asks Brigid to write down her birthday in a log book, and he looks it up in another well-worn book filled with tables and charts. He takes her hand and studies her palm. He pauses, looks at me, and says calmly, “You will have to leave. Your energy is extremely negative and it is affecting my ability to connect with Brigid.” I am shocked but it’s so true! I am feeling entirely distrustful and I’m projecting my non-believer bullshit vibe quite strongly. Brigid assures me she is fine, and I retreat down the steep stairway to the waiting area. As I sit there, I slowly abandon the distrust and negativity, and work on feeling calm, positive and open. The Bhang Lassi is washing over me, and I relax and let it go.
After about 30 minutes, Brigid comes walking down. She simply looks at me, shaking her head, eyes wide, and says “Marni you HAVE to do it, you must have him do a reading, its so worth it, you’ll be glad you did, trust me!”
I had decided I was not going to see the guru, but looking at the expression on my friend’s face made me change my mind. I went up and sat across from Guru Ji, wrote down my birthday and time of birth, and he took my hand and gazed at it meaningfully. He asked me what I wanted to know, and I replied “Just tell me about where I am at this point in my life, tell me about myself.” Kind of a test to see if he was the real deal or not, you know?
As he studies my hand, he tells me things like this– I am a strong, hard working farm girl. My family is very close, but I do not live close to them. I have one brother and one sister. I had one chance to be married, (and I thought okay, here it comes, the predictable comments about not meeting the right guy, hoping for love like some pathetic middle aged sap, you will meet someone soon, etc….) but he says insightfully “but you did not want to be married.” I had to speak up when he said that– “Oh no, that’s not true, no one ever asked me to marry them, believe me.” and he calmly replied yes, there was one person, but you let him go. He moves his hand in circles in front of his stomach. “You have never had a child… and you don’t want any children. You could still have a baby, but you don’t want to.” The hairs on my neck are starting to stand up– he would definitely not say something as specific as this if he was faking in generalities to a woman of my age, as this is a pretty rare choice in life direction! “You are a very creative person, and you hold a high position at your job, you have three people that work with you closely, and you teach them your creative methods.”
He went on, “You are a very caring person, very kind, and you are always taking care of those around you, but you give too much, you don’t get back the love that you give out, there is no one that takes care of YOU…” when I hear this, I am surprised to feel my eyes well up and tears spill over and down my cheeks. (Now, this statement could probably be true about any typical woman, we are all the caretakers of our family and friends and feel like we give til it hurts, but he obviously hit an emotional button in me.) When he sees my tears, he pats my hand gently and gives it a little squeeze, smiling kindly at me.
There were other small observations, many seemingly generic statements. But they were all true for me. I knew he was real, and he was good. Everything he said was exactly right and so amazingly accurate– I am the head of my division at work and teach three girls that work for me how to artfully create jewelry programs the way I do, I grew up on a farm, my family all lives in Wisconsin and I live in California. One brother, one sister. I don’t like children and never wanted to have any, I never had any desire to marry, and never will.
Guru Ji went on to tell me that I needed to take better care of myself, attain better balance within, open up more to my creative nature. He told me I was being ruled by Pitta (the ‘heat’ Dosha–which was what an Ayurvedic doctor told me just three days earlier). He said I had too much fire inside me, more fire and heat than other people, and I needed to manage that by eating less red meat, and avoiding spicy foods and red wine. (I am constantly ‘too hot’ wherever I am, and sweating when others are complaining about the cold!) In addition to the dietary ecommendations, he prescribed that I obtain an image of Hanuman, and hang it where I would see it every morning. I should repeat positive statements about my life, about things I want to achieve, while concentrating on Hanuman’s image. (Hanuman is the monkey god– and I am completely obsessed with monkeys by the way) I should get a talisman of Tigereye stone, and wear it close to my heart.
As the reading ended, I felt transformed and amazed. I was completely relaxed, and knew for a fact that this man had a very special gift. He really could sense things about people, read them, and tell them incredible details that he had absolutely no way of knowing, outside of getting them directly from that person’s mind and body. Guru Ji’s demeanor had also changed– from a flat, distant regard, to an incredible kind of fondness and warmth toward me. He took both my hands, and squeezed them firmly, looking into my eyes, “You will come back to see me again. You are such a lovely, beautiful person!!” He reached into his bag of tricks and handed me a small gold plaque with Sanskrit symbols. He told me to hang it close to my Hanuman image, that it will also help me with balance in life. I should read the symbols in clockwise order each morning.
The cost for all this? 800 Rupees. About $18. Guru Ji told me he runs a school and most of the money goes to support it. It was probably an outrageous ‘tourist price’ to pay, but obviously its just not that much money so I didn’t mind.
When I rejoined Brigid downstairs, I must have had the same look on my face that she did after her reading. We looked at each other and nodded, turned and walked out into the alleys, heading for a main street where we could find a rickshaw back to our hotel. We said nothing. Both of us were so blown away and seemed to be in some sort of buzzy trance. We hopped into a bicycle rick, and she looked at me, holding up her palm to me– “I can’t talk about it right now. All I can say is– the dude is real.” and I replied solemnly, “Yes, he is real.” We rode on in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts, almost oblivious to the insanity, noise and chaos around us.
Was it the Bhang Lassi? Was it only an illusion that the experience was so incredible? No, it just couldn’t be. Later when we felt a bit of normalcy return, we reviewed the facts and points he related to each of us. Brigid’s reading was very different from mine and we compared notes to see if he had some formulaic comments that everyone got– we couldn’t find any. He told her very different things, (again, all of which were frighteningly accurate), and nothing overlapped. I said, “Yeah, but he probably said you’ll be back to see him again, right?” she shook her head, “No, he never said that.”
The reading did not give us anything as tangible as a “prediction” or direction in life, but there was something about being in his presence, about him seeing who you were, that was very affecting, calming– almost mesmerizing. If anything, I believe the Lassi made us relax, calm down, and open up– somehow made us more receptive to the whole process. Guru Ji was definitely a man with senses that were highly evolved, way beyond the average person’s perceptions. He emanated some sort of peace and kindness that seeped into your own spirit when he peered inside you. A wonderful warm glow of calm and happiness stayed with us throughout that evening–probably as much from the reading as from the extra baggies of Lassi…
I have never experienced anything like that meeting with Guru Ji. And yes, I will be back to visit him again someday.