A SADHU'S CHRISTMAS IN INDIA
--excerpt from my autobiographical performance piece
--with kudos and gratitude to Dylan Thomas for inspiring this format
One day was so much like another, in those years around that holy ground now and out of all sound except the distant ringing of temple bells I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether I walked for two years when I was 26 or whether I was 26 and walked for three months. I do know that I was there for two years in total and all those days roll down toward the cleansing waters of the Ganga -- a Himalayan stream dashing and roiling down the rock-laden land -- and I plunge my hand into that crystal clear pool resting in the heart of my soul. In goes my hand and out comes this....
Years and years ago, when I was a young girl, my 7th grade English teacher, Miss Evans, draped herself langorously on her stool in front of the class. "Take out a sheet of paper, and pick up your pencils. I am going to pose two questions:
First: If you could be anyone, anywhere, at any time, who would you be?
Second: If you could be anywhere, at any time, where would you be?
To the first question, this 7th generation Unitarian child--raised with a strong social conscience but an as-yet under-developed feminist awareness--wrote: "The wife of someone like Albert Schweitzer or Mahatma Gandhi."
To the second question, this 7th generation Unitarian child--product of a congregation which though strongly compassionate in its teachings was also decidedly atheist--wrote: "Bethlehem. At the time of the birth of Jesus." The reason I gave was that I wanted to know if that really happened -- if God really did take the form of a human being -- if He really could... I mean, if there IS a God, then seeing Him as a human baby would prove it to me. And if it did happen, then I wanted to be in on the celebration.
But here a small child asks, "Then why did you go to India if you said that you wanted to go to Bethlehem?"
Because, you see, I heard that there were God-men there.
"And did you see any God-men--in India I mean?"
Oh indeed I did. And God-women, too. And it was like Christmas every day, with all the lights, and the singing and the sharing of simple gifts. I recall walking along the narrow, winding cobbled streets of Vrindaban--oh sacred town holy to the childhood days of Krishna. Any night of any time of year, you could walk down those streets and hear the sounds of bells, and drums, and harmoniums, and voices raised in songs of praise. Walk a few steps further and you would hear a different song, and a few steps more and in the next dwelling, the people are singing yet another song to a different rhythm and with a different mood. I used to dance in the streets, spin in circles with my hands raised, laughing and singing along. I was by no means alone in feeling such joy, in dancing spontaneously like that, for many people were filled in this way. But all that was in the days before the loudspeaker. I don't suppose you can experience it that way now.
"But what about the Nativity," a small child interjects. "You said you wanted to see the Nativity. Did you get to see it?"
Ah, yes. That's how this narrative began, isn't it. Thank you so much for asking that question. Yes, yes, I did. I did get to see the Nativity. What a sweet way to end my story. There WAS a Nativity scene.
One full moon day--always a holy day in India--I had found out where my friend Uma had moved to. Uma was a sadhu, a wandering Hindu nun under a strict vow of renunciation, and a friend of mine. She never stayed long in any one place, so now that I knew where she was, I decided that I'd take her a home-cooked meal.
I happened to have some rice and mung beans, and some flour for chapatis. No spices, but hey, she's a sadhu, too, like me. She lives in acceptance. Cooking this meal took most of the day so that it was close to sunset when I approached the little kutir where she was staying. The kutir stood alone in a field far from any other dwellings. It was really just a shed, with three walls and a roof and one side open.
As I approached I saw that I was hardly alone in my desire to bring her a gift. Many had come before me, and were standing quietly in line, softly singing holy songs. The line stretched a long way back. I took my place at the end and soon, more people lined up behind me, all bearing gifts.
In my heart's memory, the full moon was glowing just above the horizon behind her kutir, illuminating it from behind. How my memory wants that vision to be true... But what I do know to be true is that as I inched my way closer to the little shed among all these devotees, I recognized where I was, what I was seeing.
This was the Nativity. Here were devout peasants bearing gifts to lay before a being they viewed as holy. The shed with its open side was so very much like depictions of the manger we've all seen, and inside there sat a gentle and holy woman. True, there was no Christ-child, no Joseph nor Wise Men. But here was the devotion and the aura of holiness.
When it was my turn to bow down and place my gift before her, Uma laughed softly. Quietly calling my name, she gestured for me to come in and sit beside her.
So there I was, my childhood dream coming true. And now, I was invited to watch the Nativity scene from within, looking out.
I watched as each devotee quietly approached and lay down an offering. They looked only at her. I was free simply to observe the sweetness of love in their eyes. With each offering, Uma reached out and touched it. Having thus blessed it, she pushed it back towards the giver. Each smiled shyly, palms pressed together in a gesture of respect, and with bowed head slowly backed away.
This must be what Mary and Joseph saw. With their own hearts bursting with love, they watched a seemingly endless line of loving beings coming forward for a glimpse of Love Incarnate. All in sweet silence, and the moon glowing softly over all.
Uma never accepted any of those gifts--which, oddly enough were, every one of them, a thali of home-cooked food. The only plate of food she kept was mine. That would serve as her one meal for the day. I felt so badly for her. Mine was the only one cooked utterly without spices, utterly without skill, and with only the most basic of ingredients. She had turned away the very finest of meals each devotee could offer, in order to eat cardboard-hard chapatis and undercooked mung beans with saltless rice.
The hour grew late, and all the others had gone home. I bid Uma goodnight and headed back down the path towards my own little kutir.... letting the moonlight guide me home.
Later, Uma told me how that evening ended, and with this, let me end this telling.
After everyone had gone, after she had eaten my humble meal, and the land had gone silent, she realized that of all the plates of food offered her that day, not ONE of them contained any sweets!
"Hey Ram!" she called out to the emptiness beyond, "where's my sweet prasad?"
In that moment, a sparrow fluttered in under the roof, and dropped one small puffed kernal of pure sugar--it looked like a small piece of popcorn--and fluttered back out into the night sky.
Om Shanti Shant Shanti.