“I can’t. I can’t – I can’t do it.”
My guru remained seated calmly in the lotus pose; my outburst had no effect on his composure. It was a Tuesday, and as we commonly did on Tuesdays, my guru and his disciples, who, seated alongside him, were now looking at me curiously. Only seldom did a disciple reject his guru’s teachings so openly and so extravagantly.
As we commonly did on Tuesdays, we had begun the morning with breathing exercises, and then the physical exercises within our yoga routine, and after a brief breakfast, my guru had sat us down to discuss this last month’s progress.
At the beginning of this past month, we had all renounced our familial ties, our expensive clothing, our worldly attachments, our previous romantic involvements, meat, cheeses, eggs, fish, sweet desserts that had previously brought so much pleasure undoubtedly to each and every one of us. We had renounced it all and taken on the yogi’s simple garb, a single piece of cloth that closed around our body and remained on it oh so gently, like the chill of the wind on wet skin. And with the garb we had taken on a commitment to the yogi’s life: non-attachment, non-violence, and dedication to God. In the beginning we were ten. Then 5 days into our new lives, Shailendra Prakash left, apparently unable to live even one more day without the comforting sight of his mother. Of course, each one of us felt the past calling to us, not unlike the Sirens who with their singsong singing trapped sailors – it was my guru who had shared that acute analogy with us. My guru was learned in yogic practices, which he had acquired from many different gurus of his own. Many of these were direct descendants of the ancestors who, alongside our dear god Krishna, walked the Earth when it had been shaken to its core by the Great War in Kurukshetra – which, of course, has been recounted in Vyasa’s great epic, the Mahabharata. My guru also had knowledge when it came to matters of the Bible; he knew Greek mythology, Roman history, and on many occasions through the cosmic telepathy of his meditation, he also professed to having met the bard himself, William Shakespeare, who, in the words of my great guru, “for someone who writes of such great themes, is himself a man of such small stature.”
Quite possibly, my outburst had been long coming. It had manifested in small ways: a little headache upon waking, a look of encumbrance on my face when I showered, the firing up of tiny taste buds and glands along my tongue, which took great disappointment at the bland and uninviting food of the ashram, a flickering thought of home, a comfortable bed, a warm glass of milk, and Father’s firm but loving pat-on-the-back, during meditation. In the week leading up to my outburst, the waters had been boiling. One evening during an afternoon class, in which my guru discussed the difficult but sure-fire ways of achieving oneness with the almighty force, the Godliness of the universe, I inadvertently sneezed, letting out as I did a shower of mucus, which inevitably landed on my Guru’s lap. My guru, without pausing, continued with his teachings – not even a look of reproach or even acknowledgement came my way. But I knew that my guru had been aware of my wavering focus, for if I had been dedicated to his sermon, I would certainly have suppressed my sneezing. Later that evening, I went to him and asked about his conduct towards me that afternoon.
“Why, dear guru, did you not reprimand me for having dirtied your clothes?” I asked my guru, as I swept the patio adjoining our ashram’s entrance.
He responded: “You understand, my dear chela, that no one physical object can make me feel dirtied but God’s admonishment… your mucus is an inner skin, a material fluid that makes up your body, just as your bones, your blood, your marrow constitute your physical person. I would never reprimand you for those reasons. But I am more disappointed for your drifting mind, which I have noticed has taken to the sea of your earthy thoughts. You must always remember that in dedicating oneself to God, we yogis dedicate not just our soul, but our mind and body, too.” Embarrassedly I lowered my head, unable to look at my guru as he glowed in the air of his profundity, and quietly said, “Dear guru, my actions have been nothing but smoke in the midst of air, which disappears once the fire has been put out. I am well on my way to putting out the fire of my desires, those desires that have again made me long for home, for family, and for worldly comfort. Tell me, guru, how can I convince you of my commitment to our cause? How can I placate that picture of me in your heart again?”
It was then that my guru made that strange and bizarre request of his, which had on this Tuesday morning left me so vehemently opposed, for the first time, to my guru’s wishes, and to the dismay of my fellow disciples. They did not understand my sudden proclamation, which had come in response to a look from my guru, to say, “This is the time.This is the time to do the deed.”
My guru sat calmly in the lotus posture; nothing could falter his concentration. After the initial shock of my words, during which the other disciples swung their heads around like ducks in a pond after the large sound of a gunshot, calm anew settled among our herd. That calm arose from the calm of my guru, who yet sat peacefully, as if nothing new had happened, nothing had changed. Then, after a brief period of uncomfortable silence, my guru spoke, “Shahid Babu, tell us the story of Eklavya,” his eyes glued to my own as he spoke to the disciple who sat next to him on his left.
Like a textbook willfully speaking its contents, Shahid Babu began the story of Eklavya. All of us disciples, who had since our early childhood studied the Hindu texts, knew these little religious stories, which were often like parables; they were repeated during such times of crisis, so as to strike in our minds the easily remembered but oft forgotten moral lessons from our great ancestors. Eklavya’s story was of this nature. It reminded us of a disciple’s commitment to his guru, and his willingness to carry out the guru’s wishes, no matter what the consequences – for the disciple must trust his guru’s good will and clairvoyance with regard to those consequences.
At a young age, Eklavya, born into a forest tribe, seeks the great archer and teacher, Drona, as his own guru. Drona was teacher to the five great Pandavas, the heroes, as it were, of the Mahabharata. But due to reasons inexplicable here, Drona turned away Eklavya, and the young man returned to his own home with such great resolution that he built a shrine of mud, in the middle of which stood clay-Drona, his great guru in soul and spirit. Eklavya thus trained himself for many years, in archery and meditation and all other great arts, by devoting himself to the idea of his great guru, Drona. Many years later, when he had become a great archer himself, Eklavya encountered Drona.
In Shahid Babu’s words:
“Upon meeting his great guru, Eklavya prostrated himself in front of Drona, and then displayed those great skills that he had developed in the forest on his own. Now Drona, who was accompanied by the Pandavas, saw that this young man, born to a forest tribe, was a more skilled archer than Arjuna, the Pandava prince who Drona had set to make the world’s greatest archer, rivalled in skill and prowess by no mortal. Thus Arjuna, overcome by envy, said to Drona, ‘Am I not the world’s greatest archer? How can I be so if Eklavya can shoot arrows at the speed of light? Am I not worthy of that title anymore?’ Drona, realizing that he could not renege on his word to Arjuna, that he would one day become the world’s greatest archer, then said to Eklavya, ‘Young man, you say I am your guru. Well, as your guru, you must pay me my fee.’ Prideful Eklavya, to the words of his guru responded, ‘Anything, dear Drona, my loved guru, anything,’ and Drona said, ‘Then give me your right thumb,’ and without a moment’s hesitation Eklavya’s thumb came hurtling down and landed at the feet of Drona.’”
“And what, Shahid Babu, is the lesson that we must all learn from this parable?”
“The guru’s command is the word of God. A disciple must fulfill such commands without hesitation or protest.”
That these words were coming out of the mouth of Shahid Babu must have been a deliberate ploy on my guru’s part. He knew that my closest friend at our ashram had been Shahid Babu. We had grown fond of each other since the very beginning of our journey together. Shahid Babu was greatly skilled in the physical aspects of yoga, and I in the scholarly. We were undoubtedly the two best students, and together we were, indeed, as skilled as our guru in yogic practices, bar our collective experience, which yet lacked in the face of our guru’s decades. To hear wisdom in the voice of a friend indubitably made that wisdom more potent, more convincing.
Shahid Babu’s elegance with the yoga postures had lovingly earned him the title of the ‘cat’, for the catlike ease with which he switched into the difficult and sometimes impossible yoga postures. We often joked that while in our previous incarnations we had all been other living beings, Shahid Babu must have been water or some other equally pliable liquid, but gifted so as to take shape, as water, in air. Once, due to the stupidity of another disciple, we had all been locked out of our ashram. That day, we had returned from a week-long pilgrimage, which had left us tired to the bones and longing for a good night’s sleep. Upon returning to find out that this disciple had locked the door but from the inside, and had forgotten to bring an extra key, our traveling circus troupe would have completely lost calm if not for the soothing and prophetic words of our guru, “Our savior is among us and will shine in just a few minutes.” And just as he had prophesied, in a mere few minutes, Shahid Babu suggested, “Maybe I can climb up to the roof and through the second-floor window of the ashram.” We discussed the possibility of that: Was the window open? It appeared to us that it was just half open. Was there a way to climb up the roof? Yes, perhaps for a monkey, but not very obviously for a man. Shahid Babu gently entertained our opinions before he stood up with such great resolution that his very being silenced us. Then, without a single word, he braved the ashram’s walls and in a few minutes and some quick movements, we were happily settled inside the ashram and ready to sleep. This was our dearest cat – lovingly called so, ‘birali’ in our native Nepali language – Shahid Babu, my good friend and brother.
Thus it was even stranger and more bizarre that my guru, having been aware of my relationship with this great soul, Shahid Babu, had asked what he had asked of me. “Why, dear guru, must I do this task? Can I not do something else to appease you?”
My guru took a water bottle near him and poured its contents to the ground, where the hot concrete immediately absorbed the water. As I had suspected, my guru shared the wisdom behind his sudden impulse to waste scarce drinking water: “Now that I have poured that water into the concrete, can you collect it again into this bottle? A guru’s words are like water: once they have been poured out of my mouth into the heated concrete of the universe, it becomes an indelible and irreversible part of that universe. Changing my words would change the course of the world, it would change the karma of a hundred people whose lives and souls are entwined with my own, whose words when spoken a thousand miles away are unknowingly in response to my own words, whose actions conducted perhaps across the ocean are consequences of my own actions. My command thus remains, and it is etched now in your will and perhaps your fate, too, should you choose to fulfill it.”
“But why, dear guru, have I been tasked with this? And why, if I may ask such a question with God’s blessings, must this happen at all?”
“Curiosity, my son, that’s all. Having visualized a situation exactly as the one I have instructed you to carry out during my deepest dream-state, I then became curious to see what would happen were it that this happened in front of our own eyes, if my dream were to materialize. That is all. Now I must ask you to avoid asking me another question about my command, for I may then doubt your very commitment and trust as a disciple to me and my teaching, and I may inadvertently imagine you to be not my dear disciple, but a skeptical weed growing in the flowery garden of my rationality, and then treat you thus.”
My guru’s attitude towards my doubt was clear. I knew now that there were no two ways about it: I could either carry out my guru’s command, as a good disciple would do, or I could risk challenging it, thus facing the reproach not just of my guru but of my fellow disciples and of God himself, who I very well knew tested his sons in times of such crisis.
On the eve of this crucial morning, I found that I could fall asleep only with great difficulty. Every time I told my mind to shut down, it only provided more fodder for thought, and I could feel the electricity of thought in my fingers and in the tips of my hair. I spent the night playing and replaying the movie of my life, of every moment leading up to this moment, and like a philosopher I attempted to dissect and understand these constitutive moments, one of which no doubt had been a pestilent one, intent on providing great discomfort, indecision, skepticism, and doubt to me. I thought about Shahid Babu, those events leading up to our meeting, how I had fallen in love with him and his wonderful body, how I had given him that loving name, ‘birali’, our dearest cat – the only one among us who could maintain each yoga posture for more than 20 minutes at a time without showing the tiniest discomfort, how during our lunch hours he and I exchanged my ladyfinger curry for his daal. I could not stop but think, and as I swam deeper and deeper into the ocean of my thoughts, I inevitably began to drown in those heavy thoughts that were tied around my legs. One after another image flew in and out of the darkness: my quiet home in Kathmandu, where I had lived with my parents and my little sister – it had been quiet, hadn’t it? – I remember meditating in my room: the windows would be wide open and if it was monsoon season, a light breeze and the sound of the rain, too, would enter my home, and in the evening’s darkness a swarm of mosquitoes looking for the fluorescent light they would call home for the night. Why had I left that home? Surely my parents had struggled with the decision to acquiesce to my strange and sudden announcement to leave. I had lived with them already for 19 years of my life, and each of those years had been packed with love, with great warmth and support – why, then, had I left home? My father, too, had wondered, even if he had not voiced his opinion – his opinion which would have come from the naïve love a father felt towards his son, against my announcement, which came from a universal and selfless love for God and humanity – I had seen that doubt in the corner of his eyes, in the gentle twitches of his mouth, in the cold and disbelieving exchange of goodbyes between us. Now at this moment, I wanted to convey all of these thoughts to my father by screaming. I wanted to write in air with the ink of my skepticism, by screaming, screaming, screaming – no, I had to do this, I had to do what my guru had asked me to do, for what if he sent me back home? Was I to return having halfway completed the soul’s pilgrimage to heaven? Was I to return again to the demonic hells of my doubts? The uncontrollable currents of my thoughts without my guru’s guidance? And my father would understand, and so would my mother, and so would God, and so would Shahid Babu, and so would I eventually understand, so would I understand the place of this event, of my one decision in the universal karmic cycle, samsara, god, the world, the universe, all of humanity, all of consciousness, the stars, the planets, all of this, and me.
And at this crucial moment, as my guru looked deep into my own two eyes, and my fellow disciples looked on in suspense, and I felt the warmth of Shahid Babu emanating from his body, and the fire of my guru’s stern glare, and the entire universe was suspended, waiting for my decision, for one movement to define the fate of the universe, the movie of my life played again and again in front of my eyes, and my guru’s words echoed in the vast chambers of my mind – You must renounce all, or all will renounce you – and my knees were weakened by the weight of these difficult thoughts. I broke communication with my guru’s eyes and turned to look one last time at the quiet and determined and, at this moment, scared Shahid Babu, my one true friend, light of my world, sun to my universe, and as time went by and I planted my confused eyes upon Shahid Babu, my eyes hungry for the spiritual juice of the heavens, my tears vacating those eyes to increase my appetite, that poor man was terrified, terrified. Slowly closing my eyes, I grabbed from the folds of my dhoti a sharp and sturdy steel knife, and repeating my guru’s wise words as narration to the movie of my life, now playing behind the closed curtains of my mind’s theater – You must renounce all, or all will renounce you… ALL will renounce you – those words which would have been sweet poison to a dying old man – with one last deep breath, I took that knife and drove it deep into Shahid Babu’s jugular. It went in, it went in. Realization dawned on his young and beautiful face; I withdrew the knife, releasing a shower of blood onto my basic yogi’s white garb, and under the weight of my wet costume and the day’s events, I fell to my knees to the sound of my guru’s laughter. It was the most horrifying sound I had ever heard – out of the corner of my eyes I saw that my guru had gotten up from his lotus pose and was now hunched over the dying figure of Shahid Babu, laughing, laughing, laughing, until with one last sigh he wiped his hands clean of Shahid Babu’s blood onto another disciple’s clothes, and sat down, closed his eyes, and slowly chuckled, “Curiosity has killed the cat…”
Artwork by Till Gerhard “Underworld”