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My first trip to India I was always in walking distance of at least one saint. And sometimes I was living with them.
Late one morning Rani Bhan said to me: “I am taking you to meet a saint today,” and we set off. O my India! It was a long walk, but worth it. Our destination was an especially beautiful ashram on Ring Road in north Delhi. “This is the ashram of Sri Maitri Devi,” Rani told me. Then she led me inside into a large satsang hall and over to some closed double doors that proved to be locked. “It must be after noon,” she exclaimed. (Rani had no watch. She lived in natural simplicity.) “Then we no doubt can’t see Maitri Devi. Let’s go home.”
But as we recrossed the satsang hall, a brahmacharini came from a hallway carrying a gigantic bunch of keys on a huge ring. “Ma wants me to open the temple so he can have darshan,” she told Rani. Rani objected, saying that it could not be so, since Maitri Devi was very strict and everywhere in India temples were closed at noon so the deity could take a siesta, as did the humans. Waving the keys, the nun countered: “If she did not tell me to open the temple, how to I have her keys?” Her logic stilled Rani somewhat, but she was still wondering under her breath as the doors were unlocked and we entered a small but exquisite temple.
The doors of the inner shrine were closed. “There, you see?” announced Rani, but the nun just went up to them, knocked and called out “Jai Ho!” to warn the deity of our intended intrusion and opened them. There on the altar was the most beautiful image I ever saw in India. It was an image of Vishnu less than two feet tall, but exquisite. Later I learned that it had been made by a very famous image-maker of Calcutta. It was so beautiful–more beautiful than any image he had previously made–that his family begged him not to send it to Maitri Devi but keep it and make another for her. “No. This is my last image. I will never make another,” he told them. Although he seemed in good health, within a month he left this world.
Meeting Maitri Devi
Rani and I went home without meeting Maitri Devi, but I certainly wanted to see her, so the next morning I went by myself to her ashram. Meeting her was no disappointment. Her purity and exalted spiritual state radiated around her. We spoke together through a translator; she was very interested in how I came to visit India and questioned me about the reaction of my family to my interest in yoga and Indian philosophy.
Apple trees and apples
I would like to pause here and tell those of you who will be traveling to India in the future some interesting facets of your contact there with serious spiritual people. In India the biography of a saint begins with at least the saint’s grandparents and parents, and quite a few have a saint from centuries back on their family tree. If someone comes from an unspiritual family, inquirers will not take their interest in spiritual life as being of much value. Apples only grow on apple trees, and it is (I think rightly) assumed that a virtuous person will be born in a virtuous family. So in a very diplomatic and casual way, your interrogators will ask questions whose answers will reveal to them the spiritual character of your family–and therefore your spiritual character.
The first time this happened to me I was very aware of what was going on, both from my own India-based samskaras and from having read quite a few lives of saints back in America. Fortunately for me, I came from a family devoted to religion and could claim saints in every generation of my ancestry back to my great great grandmother who was renowned throughout the countryside for her holiness. I had grown up with miracles in a living spiritual environment. So I was taken seriously by those who questioned me. In India they are very protective of their saints, so expect to be taken to meet professors of religion in universities instead. Be aware that every word spoken in those encounters will determine whether or not you will be taken to the saints.
On the other hand you will be taken to a lot of temples, and believe me the way you act and react there will really go on your permanent record. If you are in Bengal or with Bengalis in other parts of India you will almost certainly be taken to a Kali temple where the deity image is particularly terrifying. If you like it and feel at home with a naked black woman coming toward you with her tongue extended as she fixes you with her wild, insane eyes as she brandishes a bloody sword with which she has just cut off a head (which will be held by her lower hand on the sword side), then they will know you are a good person. But if you are afraid or put off then you are not good. For sure you will be taken to a Shiva temple to find out if you think a Shiva linga is a phallic symbol. (It is not. If you are being taken by someone who will tell you that it is, then you are associating with the wrong kind of person.)
Anyway, Maitri Devi was apparently satisfied with our conversation, for at noon time she took me into the ashram kitchen and had me sit next to her and eat with all the nuns–something completely against tradition. It was though she considered me one of the all-female community even though I was a man.
From then on whenever I was in Delhi I would go to Matri Devi’s ashram (named Satyanaran Kutir) for the evening arati, kirtan and spiritual discourse by Matri Devi. The singing there was among the most beautiful I have ever heard. Since she spoke only Hindi, every evening she would ask me if I had any questions. Actually I never did, but once I asked her to tell me whatever she felt I ought to know. I am glad I did, because she told me that yoga has two aspects: theory and practice. That no matter how fine the philosophy may be, it is the results from practice that determine if the yogi is on the right path, and doing the right thing. Then she questioned me about my practice and experience and expressed her approval.
Maitri Devi’s spiritual history
Once when Raniji went with me to the ashram, she asked Maitri Devi to tell me something of her spiritual history. She readily agreed and told me the following.
Mataji had been born in the wealthiest and most influential family in the area. Her grandfather was the guru of an entire spiritual community in Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). Since it is advised that gurus not initiate their relatives, when she was only nine years of age he took her to very famous guru in the Punjab and asked that he give his granddaughter initiation, which he did.
Swami Purnananda and surgery without anesthesia
A few years later, her father who was a military surgeon came home at the end of one day and told his wife and children that he faced a worrying dilemma. That day a wandering sannyasini (nun) had come to his clinic and asked him to examine her. He found that she desperately needed a very serious operation immediately, and offered to perform the surgery the very next morning. The nun agreed, but only if he would do the surgery without giving her an anesthetic! “You need only tell me how long it will take, and I will go into samadhi and you can operate. But be sure you tell me the right amount of time, because if I come to while you are still operating, the shock will kill me.” Dr. Dayal was afraid that without anesthetic the woman would die; but she would refuse the operation otherwise and would definitely die.
The next morning as he left for the clinic he had not found a solution. His wife and children awaited his return at midday. He came in smiling and told them that he had done as the sannyasini wanted and that not only had everything gone well, she did not heed any time to recuperate, but got off the operating table and went her way, promising to return over the new few days so he could feel assured. Of course the whole family wanted to meet such an an unusual person and and Swami Purnananda came to the Dayal home.
Questioning the yogini, they learned that she had never wanted to be married, but her parents had forced her to marry the man of their choice. (This is the Indian way and usually works very well.) When the two were finally alone together, Purnanandaji began to speak of the ideals of total renunciation and the search for God alone. She spoke all night long, and around dawn the two of them crept away and never returned home again. For a woman to travel alone in India was unheard us and dangerous, so they began the wandering life together. So obvious was their purity and resolve that they were given sannyas and accepted as ideal sadhus wherever they went. Papa Ramdas of Anandashram knew them well and sometimes spent time traveling with them.
Purnananda was a brilliant lecturer on Vedanta, as was her husband. As a consequence when she went to Varanasi she eclipsed the professional pandits who were not just jealous but murderous. They poisoned her, but by her yoga power she neutralized the poison. That frightened them and from then on they left her alone.
Maitri Devi becomes a nun
She frequently visited the Dayal family and especially spoke to Maitri Devi who from their first meeting had decided to become a nun. Purnananda told her that she should indeed become a nun and build a beautiful ashram in Delhi. “Many women will desire to live there, but you must only accept girls from the best and most devout families. If their families are not dharmic, refuse their request to live with you.” Purnananda emphasized this again and again. “I will not live to see your ashram, but when you dedicate it I will give it my shakti [spiritual power].”
When the ashram was built a large satsang hall was the central area. High up near the ceiling there was a special shrine in which a large photograph of Purnananda was placed. While the temple consecration was going on, someone came and urged Maitri Devi to go into the satsang hall which was next to the temple. When she did so, she saw that lightning was running all through the ceiling and gathering around Purnananda’s photo. Everyone saw it and was in awe, but Maitri Devi knew that this was the fulfillment of her guru’s promise.
Maitri Devi in ecstacy
Whenever I went to India I would always go to the Satyanarayan Kutir the first day. There is a festival of Krishna in which a kind of mountain of food is made and his image put on the top and worshipped. One year Mother Anandamayi was in Delhi, so I went to see her first and then to Maitri Devi who was sitting in the satsang hall by the food mountain. Only the resident nuns and I were there sitting in silence near her. She was in an ecstatic state with barely opened eyes, and every so often she would intone the name of Ram, sounding as though it was forcing itself upward and out from her very being. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the perfected yogi living in peaceful joy and clear peace. That was exactly how the atmosphere around her felt. I spent many immortal moments with her, but this was the most memorable.
The last time I visited her one of the nuns told me that Maitri Devi had not been well and had been unable to sleep the entire night. When I told her I would return the next day she said, “Let me tell Ma you are here.” In a few moments she came back and told me: “Ma wants to see you. She is getting up and after taking a bath will be with you.” And so it was. There is no doubt she knew we would not meet again in this world. I pray that I will meet her in her world one day.
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