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One afternoon in India in a conversation my friend Rani Bhan told me about Raihana Tyabji, a Moslem saint, an associate of Gandhi, who lived in Delhi.
She told me that when the saint became of marriageable age her parents already had decided what rich and powerful man she would marry. So she fervently prayed to God that something would happen to her–even death if necessary–so that she would never have to marry. Immediately the pigment began leaving her skin making her all blotchy and diseased looking. Fearing leprosy (it was really only vitiligo), the family she was to marry into declared that their son would not marry her, and all other families felt the same way. Once she was freed from the threat of marriage, her entire skin turned white and she appeared quite normal except for two brown splotches underneath her eyes (perhaps as a guarantee that no one would want to marry her in the future).
I had to meet that saint! At least she and I would have aversion to marriage in common. Rani called the house where she was living and made an appointment to see her in a few days.
Rani further told me that Raihana had refused all inheritance from her family and lived in a small room in the house of one of Gandhi’s secretaries, Sri Kaka Sahib Kallelkar. The house was down the street from Raj Ghat where Gandhi’s ashes were enshrined.
Raihana’s understanding of the West
Raihana’s room was at the back of the house away from street noise. (By the way, her bathroom was nearly as big as her room.) Raihana was very welcoming to me, speaking perfect English and looking perfectly English as well since the pigment had left her skin. She could have just come off the streets of London. She also had a complete understanding of Western ways. As a result she was often visited by Western visitors to India and very frequently by members of the European embassies in Delhi. She not only spoke English she could communicate totally because she knew how Westerners thought. Yet she herself was one hundred percent Indian in all personal traits and once even said to me: “I would rather be a cockroach in India than a saint in the West,” referring to the advantageous spiritual atmosphere of India.
One time Raihanaji said to me: “You know, foreigners are often born in India for some reason, and they don’t like it at all. They are furious and disgusted that Delhi is not like Paris or New York. They are a real nuisance to us, and the moment they get the chance they are off to the West, and we are so glad to get rid of them. Then there are people like you, old Bharati’s who somehow ended up in the West. You can’t stand it there, those around you don’t understand you, and when you get here you find yourself right at home; which you are.” Many years later Swami Ishtananda of the San Diego Vedanta Society told me. “I have given a lot of thought to your situation and have decided that just as in baseball if something is not right in the batting, the ball goes sideways in a completely wrong direction, so when you were to be born you we tossed toward India, but something when awry and you ended up here.”
A Devotee of Krishna
Although Raihana was from a prominent Moslem family and every Friday had a man come to her room and recite a chapter from the Koran, which she then kissed in reverence, she was a fervent devotee of Krishna, whose picture she kept on an altar where she could always see it. She had also written a remarkable book in 1924, The Heart of a Gopi, about the early life of Krishna based on her recall of a past life. Sri Aurobindo read the book and told the members of his ashram: “The author of this book was there in Brindaban with Krishna.” One afternoon at the Delhi ashram when people were sleeping after the noon meal, Mother Anandamayi came walking through the main hall where some of the women who travelled with her were sleeping. One of them had a copy of The Heart of a Gopi by her head. Ma stopped and asked: “What is the book?” When she was told the title, Ma said: “I can see tiny figures dancing the Maharasa on the cover.” (The Maharasa was the time when each gopi found herself dancing with Krishna–a Krishna for each one.)
In her younger days she had been a renowned classical singer, giving concerts of devotional songs–especially to Krishna–for up to twenty thousand people without needing a microphone. A woman who had attended many assured me that every person attending could hear and understand every word and note. One time some religious leaders from Mecca came to visit Raihana and noticed her altar with Krishna’s picture. Naturally they asked about it. “‘O Lord, help me!’ I prayed,” Raihana told me, laughing at the memory. “Somehow I convinced them that there was no conflict between Islam and the teachings of Krishna. I don’t think I could do it again!” She also considered Jesus a saint of India, believing that he lived in India both before and after his mission in Israel.
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