Indeed, as he began to test the limits of this miraculous power he had stumbled upon, it soon became apparent to him that, for all practical purposes, there were no limits. Over the course of our conversation, he shared one story after another that seemed so far beyond the reach of reason to explain that I soon felt like I was starting to occupy the world Yogananda had written about so many years before. Like the time when he was walking with a group around Mt. Kailash and a giant boulder came careening down the hill toward them and he deflected it by merely holding up his arm. Or the time when he walked on water, all the way to the center of a large lake. Or the time when a storm threatened to rain out one of his samadhi demonstrations and he used his will powers to “throw water at the ominous clouds” and send them away. Or the time he walked barefoot to the summit of one of the Himalayas' most treacherous peaks-in six hours-in order to assist a climbing party that had taken eighteen days to cover the same ground.
In all of Pilot Baba's miracle stories, it was clear that these powers are not something he takes lightly or uses frivolously. To the contrary, it seemed to almost go without saying that they should only be employed to help others or when a greater good requires it. In light of this, the fact that he has taken to publicly demonstrating samadhi seemed on the surface to be a bit of a paradox. How had these public demonstrations become so central to his work? I asked. And how had he gotten the idea to do them in the first place? As it turns out, this too had come about in response to a need, albeit a different sort of need than he had previously faced.
The year was 1978, and in a rare departure from the Himalayas, Pilot Baba had traveled to Delhi to attend a large science and yoga conference convened by the great kundalini master Gopi Krishna and attended by a handful of political leaders, a group of scientists, and many of the brightest lights in the Indian yoga world. At some point in the conference, the question of bodily control was raised. Could any of the esteemed yogis assembled demonstrate the mastery of vital function needed to survive in an airtight glass case? And when no one in the illustrious gathering volunteered, Pilot Baba, who claims he had never before attempted the feat, raised his hand. “For how many days would you like me to do it?” he asked. Wired up with vital-signs monitors, he crawled into the case, brought his heart to a stop, and for the next three days, an eager assembly looked on. Then, thirty minutes before his scheduled return, a faint heartbeat began to register on the monitor. His emergence from the case-hailed by many as a return from death-was announced in newspapers across India, and as offers to donate land, buildings, and money began to pour in, he disappeared late one night and returned to the peace of the mountains.
But he didn't stay there. In the years since that dramatic event, Pilot Baba-and more recently, his disciples-have been regularly performing public samadhis at events as well attended as India's largest spiritual festival, the Maha Kumbha Mela. This has earned him such notoriety and respect among the Hindu faithful that he was recently elected to the lofty position of Mahamandaleshwar, spiritual head of India's largest and most prominent order of renunciates, the million-strong sect of naked, ash-smeared,
trident-wielding “warrior-ascetics” known as Naga Babas.
The purpose of the samadhi demonstrations, according to his organization's literature, is to promote world peace. And if you find you have to stretch to make the link between returning from the grave and creating peace on Earth, remember that it was a similar demonstration by the “Prince of Peace” two thousand years ago that kick-started one of humanity's most enduring, if not altogether peaceful, religious movements. For Pilot Baba, the connection is unambiguous. When an individual goes into samadhi, he told me, a tremendous power is released which can uplift, inspire, heal, and transform all who come into contact with it. Moreover, through the exertion of will by the yogi before entering the samadhi, that power can be directed toward a stated goal. And for Pilot Baba and all of the disciples who have dared to join him, that goal is always to generate harmony and peace between human beings.
Now, there are miracles and then there are miracles. And for most of us, the ability to shut down and restart one's vital systems, however mind-bending and miraculous, does not fall under quite the same category as flying unaided through the air or controlling the elements. If Pilot Baba really can defy all physical laws, one might ask, why doesn't he do something more dramatic just to put the skeptics to rest once and for all? In response to such questions, Pilot Baba has always insisted that the samadhi demonstrations are not about proving anything to anyone. But if the unexpected turn of events at his most recent samadhi is any indication, it does seem that of late, he has decided it might be worth sending a slightly stronger message.
It was the middle of last April in the central Indian town of Dewas, and Pilot Baba had again entered into an airtight glass case where he was to remain motionless for four days. In order to prevent the 110-degree desert heat from causing the case to explode, it had been surrounded by curtains which would be drawn back for brief darshan [viewing] periods several times each morning and evening. On the third evening, everything seemed to be proceeding as usual. But at 8pm, when the curtains were drawn open for the third time that night, “a quick hush went over the crowd.” As filmmaker Andre Vaillancourt, who was there to document the event, describes it, “I squinted . . . in order to catch a glimpse of Baba. As the words [of the crowd] came to my ears, the picture came into focus: Baba is gone! Vanished! Dematerialized! Only his orange dhoti [robe] lay on the spot where he sat.” Most of the journalists had gone home for the evening, so Vaillancourt was the only one to catch the event on film. But the next evening, the camera crews were all there, along with an unusually large crowd, when Pilot Baba again vanished for the 8 and 9pm darshans.
If not to prove anything, then why had he done it? “I wanted to surprise people-particularly the intellectuals,” he explained to me as our conversation was drawing to a close.
The Indian Rationalist Association, of course, is unimpressed and says it won't be satisfied until Pilot Baba, or any other yogi, performs this demonstration under its supervision. And although Pilot Baba has made it clear that he is certainly not about to stoop to trying to prove God's existence to the rationalists (“Atheists have their religion, too,” he states), it may well take just that for his feats to begin making headlines in the West. Whether even a “supervised” demonstration would begin to make inroads against the rationalistic leanings of contemporary spiritual America, however, is anybody's guess. And if Pilot Baba has his way, we'll all be kept guessing for a bit longer.