MY FRIEND ISABELLE once told me of the time she asked her over-rehearsed question about consciousness to her teacher, the late Nisargadatta of Bombay. He ordered her out of his upper room with the flick of his stern finger. Banished for three long days from his ferocity and bidi smoke, she suffered terribly.
It made me wonder about the ways of spiritual teachers. It made me think of Sujata Ma, a teacher I had in Benares. She was round as a dumpling, but very solid. She was a teacher of non-duality, a teaching Western seekers are drawn to like flies to honey. In many cases, distracted, half-baked flies, careening from shrines to rivers to caves to her ample lap in search of truth. Or something.
She found us very funny. We were the comic spiritual movies she watched every day. We were her Ganges Cinemaplex. She tried her best to muffle her giggles in the folds of her sari, for she tended to be somewhat reserved actually. But when she locked eyes with your eyes, you knew you were in for it.
“You go to the Ramana Maharshi ashram, then you get on a train and go to Bombay to hear what Ramesh has to say,” she would justly reprimand me. “Then you think, ah, it would be nice to travel up to Benares to see the dead bodies burning.”
“What about seeing you in Benares?”
“Also a waste of time.”
There she was wrong. Joy was always climbing out of her short black hair into our pockets. And joy is never a waste. She’d see my friend, Frances, happily ungainly, approaching the verandah from the walkway, and immediately we’d hear Sujata Ma’s stifled giggle. Frances was into sadhus, siddis, all kinds of massages.
She could be hopelessly opinionated about people’s auras. “Vijay has a purplish aura. He is carrying around his father’s pain.” Frances’s underlying problem was boredom. Our teacher did not know what to do with her. One day she came back all upset from her walk among the reforested trees.
“I saw a hawk dying on the path,” she said. “I picked him up.”
“Did you give him a foot massage?” Sujata Ma asked.
That giggle again. It was not as if our teacher lacked compassion. I just think she saw certain Westerners as spiritual performance artists who had come to India to do their acting out on the big stage. “Once,” she told me, “Poonjaji invited me to his ashram in Lucknow. We were talking together when out of nowhere two devotees threw themselves face down at his feet. ‘Save me, Poonjaji!’ they cried. ‘Save me!’”
Gazing out at the hot empty river, she remembered what a holy man said to her in her youth: “Spiritual attainment is not something everyone can achieve. It takes talent like everything else.” She shot me a piercing look that made me forget even what her giggle sounded like.