21 March 2005 -- First there was Swami Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946. Widely recognized as a spiritual classic, the book gave an account of the first Indian swami to settle in America and establish a spiritual lineage. And exactly thirty years later Yogananda's American disciple, J.Donald Walters, would celebrate his transformation to Swami Kriyananda in The Autobiography of a Western Yogi.
That was in 1969. And 19-year-old William Gans had no idea what he’d find in India. More importantly, he didn’t know what would find him.
Thirty-six years later he emerged with a new name, Rampuri; a new home, India; and a new occupation, guru. Rampuri is a Baba of Juna Akhara, an ancient order of Naga Sannyasi or naked sadhus. High up in the Hari Puri Ashram in the Himalayan foothill town of Hardwar, these are the same sadhus who unfailingly partake in the Kumbh Mela rituals. In their nakedness they do not emanate sexuality; on the contrary, they control, inhibit the sexual 'vibrations', retaining its energy so it can be mystically transformed into psychic and spiritual power.
The author says: “As a member of the Naga Sannyasis for the last 35 years, I am the first foreigner ever to be an initiate and member of Juna Akhara, the oldest and largest grouping of the order. As such, I have taken my initiations at the Kumbha Mela, and have participated in 14 Melas. As the approach of the 21st century has had it's eroding effects on the order, as it has on all traditional societies around the world, I am driven to show the world one of the last glorious manifestations of an age long passed, of a mythology quickly being replaced by Disney, and a tradition spawned from a very ancient gene."
So this is essentially a deeply personal account of how a 19-year-old American went to India during the heyday of the hippie movement and his subsequent spiritual discovery. In the process he goes on to reveal unprecedented adventures among holy men and many secrets of the yogi tradition. It treats readers to a rare insider's perspective and a unique insight into the ancient path of yoga and India's sacred traditions.
Rampuri begins by recounting how and why he had dropped out of high school. “I had questions my teachers wouldn't or couldn't answer. I had other ideas, perhaps immature and incomplete, but compelling. I had lost my faith in them, but not lost faith. I thought of Manifest Destiny as a pack of lies. I wanted to go join up with the American Indians. But they were all dead.”
When asked by a fellow traveller why he was opting for India, the young American replied: "I'm not sure. Maybe Goa . . . but I'm looking for something-I'm not sure what yet, but it's something that we've lost in the West. Yeah, I guess I'm also going to India to have my mind blown!"
Explains Rampuri: “For many young people, the lines that existed between politics, spirituality, and lifestyle were faint, if they existed at all. We were wildly idealistic and naive. .. I wanted to find a treasure in India that would somehow make the world a better place.”
Remember too that 1969 was not only the year that America sent the first man to the moon, it was the year of Woodstock and it was the year that Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" with its strange alchemy of anthropology, allegory, parapsychology, ethnography, and Buddhism caught young Americans’ imagination, striking just the right note at the peak of the psychedelic 1960s. San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury had become a microcosm of what was happening across America and even in Canada, where American draft dodgers found a haven.
Rampuri recalls: "For as long as I could remember, I had been fascinated by what, in those days, we called the "occult." I wanted to meet real shamans and wizards. I believed they existed, but I needed proof. I wanted to find ancient manuscripts containing secret knowledge, mantras, and spells. But that was all surface stuff. I desperately needed some answers. There were the basic questions concerning the meaning of life, death, life after death, and Truth, and there were other less formulated questions that had arisen after I had taken mind-altering substances. In America I had been unable to find a Don Juan to guide me, but my omnivorous reading of the Upanishads, Vedanta, and books on Theosophy led me to believe that I could indeed find these answers in India."
A friend he met in Amsterdam, then the world hippie capital, advised: "Don't waste your time going to Goa, hanging out with hippies. In India there are real masters who can teach the Path and help us understand who we are. The first thing you have to know before you begin your search is that there is no search; you are already there at that place where you hope to arrive, but it takes time to discover that. So, with that in mind, go and search."
Thus, Rampuri unwittingly sets out on the "journey of the hero" when he dedicates himself to self-knowledge and learning the Truth. But after he meets his mentor, Hari Puri Baba, he soon discovers that The Path isn't how he imagined it, and it takes him in very unexpected directions. He ultimately must discard all his cultural baggage, for both his outer and inner journey, in order to confront himself and the Truth.
During Rampuri's discipleship, he gets an in-depth view of many of the common elements of Yoga and Indian spirituality, religion, and culture, as well as an immersion in those areas normally hidden from Western eyes. The author, with thirty five years of experience in India, refrains from cliche, often explodes them, and provides unique point of view and story that distinguishes Baba from other related books.
In his autobiography, Rampuri gives us an in-depth view of many of the common elements of Yoga and Indian spirituality, religion and culture, as well as an immersion in those areas normally hidden from Western eyes. In questioning his own pre-conceived perceptions, he contradicts the Western view of India and Yoga and reveals cultural constructions that hide deeper and more compelling knowledge.
“I'm a spiritual subversive," Rampuri said in a recent talk to a curious audience, "these days it seems like the closer you get to the truth of things, the more subversive you become." In his book, Baba, Autobiography Of A Blue Eyed Yogi, Rampuri narrates the last thirty five years he has spent as an initiate of one of India's most ancient and exclusive orders of mystics, the Naga Babas, or Naked Yogis, into a compelling adventure story.
Rampuri, who says he feels like Rip Van Winkle when he visits the United States, salutes the "New Age" with its alternative experiments in spirituality, health, diet, fitness, and human development, but feels that those elements which reference India only scratch the surface, at best. "Somehow, I entered a doorway into the "Ancient Age," where the rules, language, and the way of seeing were different from what I grew up with," he explains. "So, for example," he says, "I tend to see a Yogi as one who bestows blessings, who makes common peoples' lives better, or even charmed, rather than one whose focus is his own perfect body."
More than Memoir Rampuri’s book is more than just a memoir. It’s a story about a life of spiritual devotion; a story about cultures clashing. It is a book that any spiritual seeker, or anyone even vaguely curious about India or the yogic tradition that emerged there, will find fascinating. It will challenge your assumptions about Hinduism, about yogis, about a country that enjoyed thousands of years of rich tradition before being colonized by a Western power.
If nothing else, Baba is a great introduction to a grand old tradition. Of course, Rampuri is not the first to point out that some of the best learning comes from the experience outside of books. “We don’t sit down and learn these things - this isn’t studying; you don’t read,” said Rampuri, speaking of the yogic tradition. “When you reach critical mass in absorbing something, there is a presence in you, a presence that you can tap. And that is the guru.”
Rampuri has clearly gone places, done things, and arrived at certain knowledge that few, if any Westerners have ever experienced. This is an incredible journey that one can’t begin describing in a review. The book offers compelling reading of one man’s journey into the heart of an esoteric India that few Indians know or appreciate.
If you ask Rampuri whether he is enlightened, he might counter it this way: “I hate that word: enlightenment. It’s a word like democracy. What the hell does it mean? What meaning is the speaker populating that word with? Words like democracy and freedom, do they mean the same thing that they did five years ago? How do we escape from superimposing on the world what is enlightenment? We assume that our point of view is the universal point of view and should be superimposed on the rest of the world to remove their ignorance.” A big problem, according to Rampuri, is that people in the West tend to think of enlightenment as some universal state. “That universal state doesn’t exist,” he said. “People don’t think in universal ways, they think in local ways.”
Perhaps East and West do collide, even if it is elusive. And serendipitous, as in the case of William Gans of Beverly Hills. That's why he was told more than three decades ago by his guru, Hari Puri Baba, “I have been waiting for you; I knew you would come today.”
Here is an extract about Kumbh Mela by Rampuri:
"Before time was counted, long before the appearance of man, the gods and the demons put aside their eternal battles for a moment, and collaborated in churning the ocean of milk for the nectar of immortality. When this nectar was finally produced, and before any of the demons save one could taste it, the son of the chief of the gods stole the vessel or kumbh, containing the nectar and took off in the sky chased by just about everyone. During his flight four drops fell to earth. Those places where the drops fell are still today considered among the holiest of all pilgrimage spots in India. They are Hardwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Ujjain and Trambak (Nasik). At those times of Jupiter's return in the heavens to its position when each drop was spilled in each locality, a Kumbh Mela is held for at least 30 days. During this period, there are several auspicious times, based on the sky, for religious bathing, ritual, and most important, initiation. This is by far the largest gathering of human beings on earth. On the most auspicious bathing day in Prayag, 1995, sixteen and a half million people gathered at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers for a holy bath, and over 45 million people visited the place over a 30-day period. In Haridwar, 1998, over 8 million pilgrims bathed in a single day.
But the single greatest attraction at the Kumbha Mela, what draws the millions of Indians is not even their holy Ganga, but the sight of the Naga Sannyasis, the ancient order of naked yogis maintaining a tradition so old, that it is lost in the mist of another age. The masses are mesmerized, awed, and even frightened by the august sight of tens of thousands of majestic renunciates, yogis, and shamans wearing ashes for clothes, wrapping marigolds in their long tresses of matted hair piled on top of their heads like crowns, marching in the Royal Procession to the Bath, escorting their spiritual preceptor, the three headed god, Dattatreya.
They are the Nagas, "the naked ones", belonging to an order founded by Dattatreya (a naked philosopher not totally unlike the Greek Diogenes) in the Treta Age (a long long time ago), and finally organized into a sect by Adi Shankara in the 5th century BC. They see themselves (as many Indians do), as the ultimate protectors of the Sanatana Dharma, or what we call the Hindu religion, but in fact, what they call the natural order of the universe. They are charged with ultimately maintaining the law of nature.
Going through the door of initiation into Sannyas or the state of renunciation, an ordinary person, a householder, becomes a denizen of another world, a mythic world, where different laws are in effect, and becomes transformed into a different kind of being, an almost mythological being with mythological powers, sometimes performing miracles, certainly mythological capable of such things consistent with the laws of his extraordinary world.
He joins the world of gods and demons, and is a member of a family not determined by blood and genes, but by esoteric tradition, the mystical genes coming from Dattatreya. The "mating", the "procreation", and the "empowerment" of these "families" exclusively take place at a Kumbha Mela.”