While I thought I could probably infer the importance of Babaji, I couldn't say I totally understood it. But it did sound similar to Yogananda's own descriptions of Babaji's attainment, when he speaks in his autobiography of Babaji surrendering to the Divine all the way down to the physical cells of his body.
Ramaiah seemed to be telling me that the qualities of any given spiritual realization depended on what plane of existence that realization was manifesting on. Therefore, a spiritual realization that manifested on the physical plane would theoretically result in a transformation that would cause divine qualities to be expressed in the physical world. As Ramaiah put it:
"God, as you know, has no birth and no death. And when that divinity manifests itself in the physical, then the physical body does not die. You see how simple it is?"
Yes, in some respects, it did seem simple—that is, until I tried to really
understand it. But attempts at further clarification brought only adamant injunctions to "practice yoga," and to awaken the five bodies. Then everything would be clear.
Miraculously healed of bone tuberculosis at a young age by what he says was a divine intervention from Babaji, Ramaiah is nothing if not convinced that his life is not his own and is solely given over in service to his teacher. Calling himself "only dust on Babaji's lotus feet," he encourages others to practice Kriya yoga, but only in the context of a deep surrender to Babaji himself.
"When you receive the grace of a great Siddha like Kriya Babaji Nagaraj, then you really start flying like a jet plane. That's the goal. When you try to do it on your own, trying to follow your ego, it is like crossing the ocean with a boat. That's why I used to tell people all the time: ' Why do you worry? Just get into the jet plane of Babaji and leave the flying to him.' "
While Ramaiah made it absolutely clear that I could not understand Babaji or his yoga through "telephone talk," I was intrigued by his work, and by the Tamil Siddha tradition he passionately champions. And he is not the only one who sees, in this ancient tradition, crucial insights into spiritual evolution as well as into the life and times of Babaji. Indeed, one of his former students, American author Marshall Govindan, has been inspired to take up the cause of the Siddha sages as well.
If you already believe in the legend of Babaji, then it won't be a stretch to take a brief tour through South Indian history with Marshall Govindan. A dedicated Kriya yoga teacher and practitioner himself, Govindan is, without a doubt, keeper of the esoteric knowledge of all things Babaji-related. A serious scholar of yogic history who has earned the praise of noted yogic scholars such as Georg Feuerstein for his dedication to the field, Govindan tells a version of Indian history that is part scholarship, part speculation. It goes something like this: The Siddha yogis stem from an ancient tradition located on a lost continent below Sri Lanka that was once connected to Australia but was submerged in the ocean by a great cataclysm around ten thousand years ago. The tradition survived into modern times through the teachings of a long lineage of great saints, the names of whom are well known to Indian ears. And if you're wondering what all of this has to do with Babaji, here is the answer: According to Govindan, Babaji was actually a part of this tradition, trained by one of the great Siddha saints in the second century—which makes him not quite immortal, just eighteen hundred years young. Moreover, it is this tradition, Govindan tells us, that has performed the most radical experiments in evolutionary development so far, and in so doing, has brought to life a concept that seems to be capturing the attention of more and more in today's world: physical immortality through the attainment of what is usually referred to as the "light body." And if this doesn't sound like the Hindu Vedantic goal of moksha
, or liberation, that you learned about in Eastern Religion 101, fear not. It isn't. The goal of this path is different from what we normally think of as enlightenment, as Govindan pointed out when I spoke to him last November:
"Sri Yukteswar, Yogananda's teacher, said that Babaji's attainment was inconceivable. It didn't fit the paradigm of enlightenment as he knew it, which is moksha
, liberation. The goal of moksha
is very characteristic of North India, which is largely Vedantic. The Northern yogis look at the Siddhas of South India and scratch their heads. 'Why would anyone want to stay on this physical plane indefinitely? They must have some bad karma.'
"When I started going to India thirty years ago, that is the response I got from even great swamis in the North—people like Yogi Bhajan and Swami Muktananda. I met Swami Muktananda in 1973, in a private interview, and I asked him, ' What's the difference between your yoga and the yoga of the Siddhas and Babaji?' And he asked me about some of these Siddhas, and I mentioned that they were immortals. And he said, 'It's impossible for anyone to become immortal.'
"This is a very common difficulty that people who have been brought up in the Advaita Vedantic tradition have, because for them the world is something that is illusory or really not worth much—a big distraction. But the Siddhas saw that the world is divine, and that it's all in a process of evolution—whether it be inert matter, or animals, or whatever. We're all part of this process of evolution.
"So when I train people, I show them not only how to go up into spiritual enlightenment, but I show them how to transform themselves intellectually, mentally, vitally, and physically. It's a complete transformation. Now this is a very tall order, and I tell people right in the introductory lecture that if their goal is simply to go to heaven or to find some moksha,
there are lots of easier paths. This is not an easy path. It's a long process. It takes many, many births, but the rewards are much more complete. I mean, do you think that the cells of the physical body are interested in your enlightenment?"
I had to admit, it wasn't a question that had ever occurred to me. But since we can hardly walk further out on a limb, spiritually speaking, let's assume for a moment that my cells were interested. That would make me a prime candidate for what the Siddhas would see as perhaps the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution—the transfiguration of the physical body into light, i.e., the attainment of the light body. If the idea sounds somehow vaguely familiar, it might just be because it is reminiscent of another radical transfiguration that took place thousands of miles west of India a couple of hundred years before even Babaji was born: Jesus' resurrection. The connection is not as far-fetched as one might think. Even respected Christian authorities like Brother David Steindl-Rast have pursued similarities between Eastern conceptions of the "light body" and the Christian faith in the "resurrection body." And the interfaith similarities don't stop with Christianity. As author John White points out (see page Enlightenment and the Body of Light this issue), the light body is a concept talked about in some form or other in almost all of the world's great religious traditions. Of course, there is an obvious catch: there simply aren't a lot of individuals walking around showing off their light bodies and proving in real time the truth of these esoteric teachings and the destiny of human evolution. And therein lies the importance, for many, of Babaji. His legend has helped to stoke the fire of believers who are convinced that the impossible might actually be possible, and that our cells might be destined, through the evolutionary fast-track of Kriya yoga or some other equally effective method, to evolve into light. As Satyananda, the monk from SRF, put it in our talk:
"The process of Kriya yoga itself is a transmutation of physical energy into spiritual energy, spiritual energy into consciousness, consciousness into higher consciousness. And in that sense we are working within Kriya yoga as a scientific pranayam
[breath control]. We're working with refining the cells of the body into spirit so to speak. And the person in meditation, through this pranayam, has the experience of almost being dissolved in that light of God. And as we go into greater experiences through this, ultimately all of us want to have that liberating experience of dissolving our physical selves into the light of God."
"Do you think that we would actually physically dissolve?"
"It can happen on the physical plane, and that leads to some of the prophetic stories about saints dissolving their bodies or materializing themselves and dematerializing themselves. . . . In death, or even in life, an accomplished yogi can offer his cells, in this sense, to the cosmos, and literally dissolve his physical cells into light particles. It's pretty awesome. And, in fact, in Autobiography of a Yogi
, Yogananda talks scientifically, and he describes how meditating yogis can actually create a state of infinite mass within their physical body cells, and how, once this expansion into infinite mass occurs, we are no longer bound by the constant in the universe that is the speed of light. And then the pervading consciousness of the yogi has the power of complete control over the physical universe."
He was making cellular evolution sound like an idea whose time has definitely come. My only question was, What about Babaji? Our yoga scholar Marshall Govindan is convinced that Babaji and others have passed through some version of this process and come out on the other side enlightened, both literally and figuratively. But had he actually ever seen Babaji in person? Did Govindan have some actual experience of Babaji's living presence to confirm his theory, or was this all academic? The question turned out to be more complicated than it first appeared.
You see, Govindan actually claims to have had several meetings with Babaji, which he says were extraordinarily powerful and which left him profoundly and permanently changed, and I would not doubt his sincerity for a moment. Yet the question of actually seeing
Babaji was never quite resolved.
"I saw Babaji in the Himalayas two years ago," Govindan told me. "He appeared on the vital plane."
"On the vital plane? Not the physical?"
"It was the vital plane superimposed on the physical," Govindan replied.
Having absolutely no idea what that meant, I tried a more direct route. "Could you physically touch him?" I asked.
"No, I did not actually feel him physically, but there was like this parallel reality. In order to perceive things on the vital plane, there's a certain opening that has to take place in your third eye. It's a difficult thing to describe."
I was beginning to appreciate that fact.
Of all those to whom I spoke for this article, Marshall Govindan must be commended for his impressive efforts to bring some historical and intellectual rigor to the phenomenon that is Babaji, and for his conviction in the evolutionary benefits of serious Kriya yoga practice. Also, much to his credit, he cautioned against having a "goal-oriented," materialistic relationship to any of these exalted attainments, a danger that seems to go with the territory. Interest in these matters must always be balanced, he told me, with "the practice of surrender" to the Divine. Otherwise, as he put it, "it's just the ego talking."
So where did all of this leave me with Babaji himself? Although I was understanding more and more of what we might call the theory of this immortal sage, the facts remained elusive. And I still had not yet spoken with anyone who had actually physically seen him. Time was growing short, but I had a few more people left to talk to.
An American Swami
"Few in our culture realize that living Gurus walk among us" are the words written across the cover of Dr. Donald Schnell's recent book The Initiation
. Dr. Schnell is an American spiritual teacher who now goes by the name of Prema Baba Swamiji. He claims to have had his own recent encounter with Babaji in India—in the flesh
. And during their meeting he asked Babaji, among other things, the question that has become this magazine's trademark: What is enlightenment?
"It's like chocolate," Babaji told Schnell. "I can't tell you what it tastes like, but I can share it with you, and then you can share it with the whole world." Repeating these words over the phone to me last December, Schnell did his best Babaji impression, complete with an Indian accent, and he conveyed a tone that might most accurately be described as playful. Indeed, Schnell's book is much lighter fare than many of its counterparts, and his portrayal of Babaji more colorful.
"We have all these images of Babaji where he is kind of locked in lotus posture. But he's the opposite of that from my experience. He's like a kid at a rave."
"A kid at a rave?"
"He's youthful, he's dynamic, he's energetic, he's in motion, happy. He's more plantlike than human."
"First of all, he's got like these perfect Hawaiian teeth. And what I mean by 'plantlike' is that there are plant stalks that are full and verdant, filled with water, and they don't look as if they have any bumps in them, because they don't. And Babaji's limbs—his arms and his legs—were like plant stalks. And there was a quality from him, from his ahimsa
[nonviolence], which was more like plant than animal. When you go to a nursery and you're just surrounded by plants and you stop, connect, and breathe, there's a certain vibration—as opposed to when you're with animals. So, around Babaji, there's more of a plant vibration."
Dr. Schnell, by his own account, has had an unusual life. Spiritually passionate from a young age, he had always felt deeply connected to Babaji, and Autobiography of a Yogi
was the first spiritual book he read at the age of eight. A student of the famous yogi Swami Muktananda and later closely involved with several other Indian teachers, Schnell writes that in 1997 he was summoned telepathically to India where he underwent a series of initiations with Babaji that are easily on a par with the most miraculous elements of Yogananda's autobiography. And Schnell stood by the veracity of his story even when I pressed him on it, claiming that Babaji asked him to bring to the West an updated version of Kriya yoga, or what he calls Prema
yoga. While there are many aspects to Schnell's Prema
yoga—he lists the four main principles as Prema
[nonviolence] and Mukti
[liberation]—fasting and proper diet also seem to play a key role, perhaps due to the influence of his wife, Marilyn Diamond, author of the well-known nutrition book, Fit for Life
. And the goal of their yoga, as best I could tell, is a spiritual and physical evolution to an eventual state of such purity of body and soul that, like Babaji, we would no longer have to rely on food to sustain ourselves; our cells would be self-sustaining. As Schnell described the process:
"You give up meats and move into the vegetarian lifestyle, and maybe eventually beyond that you might even consider a raw food or live food diet, and then you move into breatharianism. As you move through that spectrum, your foods are getting purer and purer, creating less and less debris in the body, and your cells are becoming less toxic or more purified."
I suspected that this state of purity was somehow connected to the plantlike appearance of Babaji that Schnell had described.
According to Schnell, who says he is still closely in touch with Babaji at a psychic level, the great Master also has a lot to say about our post-September 11 world, much of which will be included in a forthcoming book. Asked for a hint about the new material, Schnell was tight-lipped about details, alluding only to important political commentary by Babaji on the current state of world affairs.