As I crawled out from the icy Himalayan water of the Bagmati River, I gazed at two heaps of ashes, one from a cremation pit and the other from a sacrificial fire. I was dressed in only a loincloth, and a cold wind chilled me to the bone. An intense longing gripped me.
What was I doing hereâ€”shivering, alone, nearly starving, and so far from home? Was all my searching to be in vain? I stared up at stars that were shimmering through the branches of an ancient banyan tree. Birds of the night warbled a melancholy song. Sacred fires burned brightly along the riverbank, where holy men, their hair matted like ropes hanging down below their knees, threw offerings of pungent herbs into the flames. From the smoldering remains, they scooped out handfuls of ashes and smeared them over their flesh. Completing the ritual, they marched toward the sacred shrine that I yearned to enter.
It was the spring of 1971 in Pashupatinath, Nepal, where a flood of pilgrims had converged that night. Just out of my teens, I felt half a planet away from my home in suburban Chicago, and I ached for the solace of a holy place, a place where I might pray for direction. An hour earlier, I had approached an ancient temple, its towering gateway carved with mythical lions, serpents, gods, and goddesses. As I climbed the stone steps, thrilled with anticipation, a gatekeeper whipped his club into my chest. I sunk to my knees, gasping for breath. Flanked on both sides by police, the gatekeeper blocked my path and shouted, â€śYou are foreigner! Get out!â€ť Their chief, dressed in a turban and military attire, burst forward with burning eyes and smacked his rod across a sign that read: No Foreigners Allowed.
"Out from here!â€ť he roared. â€śIf you try again, youâ€™ll be severely beaten and thrown in prison. And I cannot say what the angry mobs will do.â€ť He ordered his charges to be vigilant. I had wandered to the bank of the river, crestfallen. My arduous quest for spiritual meaning had led me this far. I couldnâ€™t turn back. Now, watching the holy men, an idea sprang into my mind.
I kneeled down at one smoldering pit where a sacrificial fire had burned and sunk both my hands deep into the warm, powdery ashes, sifting out the lumps of glowing coals. Shuddering, I plastered the ashes across my skinny body from my matted hair to my calloused bare feet. The musty powder burned into my nostrils, choking my throat and parching my mouth. I wrapped two river-stained cotton sheets over my upper and lower body for robes and crept again toward the gate, my heart beating heavily in my chest.
The same sentinels stood guard with clubs in hand, but they did not recognize me and let me pass. As I entered a vast open courtyard surrounding the ancient altar I thought, if Iâ€™m caught in here, I could be killed. Several thousand people gathered in an unruly line and were waiting to see the altar. Only one person was allowed at a time. Patiently taking my place in the rear of the line, I inched forward. Suddenly, the same police chief who had stopped me earlier passed by. I gasped and turned my face away, my adrenaline surging. He stepped right in front of me, stared into my ash-covered face then barked a question in the local Hindi language.
I didnâ€™t understand a word. If I spoke a single word of English here, I knew I would be finished. Receiving no reply, he stared at me and launched into a barrage of questions, this time much louder. My mind reeled with thoughts of years wasted in a filthy Nepali prison or worse. With a blank expression, I stood motionless, knowing he was trained to detect anything suspicious. Did he recognize me? I could only guess.
Another idea rose in my mind. Placing one palm over my mouth, I waved my other hand side to side. Those who vow never to speak, mauni babas, often expressed their vow in this way.
The chief gripped my arm and dragged me away. Where was he taking me? Was I under arrest? He yelled. Instantly, two police guards came running. Surrounded, I was yanked through the line of pilgrims until we reached the place of maximum congestion. Raising their clubs, my captors roared like thunder. Was this to be a public lashing? Would the mob tear me apart for defiling their sacred shrine? They shouted louder and louder as people scattered. I waited, terrified. The men dragged me through the bustling crowd until I found myself standing directly in front of the altar, a colorful pagoda with swirls of sandalwood incense pouring out. In front stood a massive stone bull. On the altar stood a stone figure of the deity Shiva, adorned with embroidered silks and glittering with gold and precious jewels. The chief lifted his stick and squeezed my arm. Would he pummel me right before the holy image?
Surrounded by his lieutenants, rod raised above his head, he shouted orders at a priest, who rushed back into the altar. I waited, trembling. From the inner sanctuary the high priest appeared dressed in robes of red silk. A striking red circle of powder marked his forehead and he wore a gold necklace and strand of dried rudraksa seeds around his neck. In a deep, hypnotic tone, he recited the mantra, â€śOm Namah Shivaya.â€ť
My captor, his stout body sweating profusely despite the chilly wind, yelled something to the priest that I again could not understand. The high priest listened intently. He nodded his head, closed his eyes and paused. Moments passed as the mass of pilgrims clamored impatiently. Then, straightening his posture, the high priest took a deep breath and began to recite incantations from ancient Sanskrit texts. He stunned me by wrapping a silk turban around my head. Then he draped a shawl over my shoulders, placed several jasmine and night queen garlands around my neck, anointed my forehead with sandalwood paste and offered me saffron-flavored water to drink. Standing in a daze, I realized that the police were holding the massive crowd back in order to grant me an exclusive opportunity to worship the Lord and be honored by the temple. Bowing low with humility, the police chief then begged with joined palms for my blessings and departed.
Did he not recognize me in my disguise or was he aware who I was and simply honoring my determination? This I will never know. Whatever the reason, I was deeply humbled. I had defied human law and deserved to be beaten, but God is merciful. Standing before the altar, my limbs covered with ashes, my drab ascetic robes, and tangled, matted hair awkwardly covered with silks and flowers, I squeezed my tearing eyes shut, joined my palms and prayed that I would be shown my true path as I continued my journey. I returned to the riverbank and sat on the cold earth. It was a moonless night. Stars glittered in the dark sky, a breeze filled the forest with the scent of blooming jasmine, and the cooing of an owl emerged out of the silence. Gazing downstream, I wondered where the river of destiny would lead me next.
How did I land into a life so foreign to my upbringing, but so familiar to my soul?