We have seen idols elephantine-snouted,
And thrones with living gems bestarred and pearled,
And palaces whose riches would have routed
The dreams of all the bankers in the world.
We have seen wonder-striking robes and dresses,
Women whose nails and teeth the betel stains
And jugglers whom the rearing snake caresses.
What then? What then?
The Indian subcontinent was my generation’s favorite expatriate destination, just as Paris had been for the writers and seekers of the 1920s and ’30s. In India and Nepal we found a hippie paradise, a place where we could live cheap and let our hair grow long and act crazy like the hookah-smoking sadhus who were, after all, the original hippies, and who for centuries had been wandering across the Indian subcontinent seeking ecstasy in the here and now.
The jazz age and literary expatriates of the first half of the century took their journeys to Europe and North Africa in order to feed artistic ambitions or to experiment with socialist ideas. But we were seeking to evolve. Hemingway went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, but we went to Asia to do battle with the fascist powers of conditioned response and the domination of ego. Orwell was down and out in London and Paris, but we were off to find ultimate liberation on the streets of Calcutta and Katmandu.
We came to the Indian subcontinent in Volkswagen vans, on local buses, hitchhiking, a few flying, some even walking. Some had left the Peace Corps, some were on sabbatical from endless university studies, others were doing meaningless esoteric research abroad on such topics as the significance of camel dung to the early Dravidian Empire. Some were just travelers on their youthful road adventure, while others were seekers of one kind or another, trying to find or lose themselves or to discover something that was missing in their lives. Many of us, of course, were after the Eastern Cosmic truths, either on our way to some specific ashram or monastery, or else off to do the full circle tour from the Himalayan caves to the South Indian Theosophical Society. We were either looking for a guru (mother, father) we could call our own, or for a spiritual path that fit the curve of our souls.
The preferred way to get to India from the Western world in the 1960s was overland like Marco Polo on a route which the hippies soon dubbed the “hashish road.” This trail of bumpy highways started anywhere in Europe and wound overland across Turkey, where many were detained for hassles of one kind or another, and then continued on through the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan, still easily passable in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with many travelers stopping off for some hashish-dream days wandering the narrow streets of Kabul in search of a trippy looking mosque.
There are many stories from that time, each one revealing through its own unique twists and surprises the whole saga of the hippie migration East. Take the tale of a young man named Michael Riggs, a San Diego surfer who headed off to Europe in 1966 and eventually found himself in Greece hanging out with Zena, a Russian princess. They traveled overland together to India where eventually Zena went her own way after deciding that she was the reincarnation of the nineteenth-century spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society. Michael Riggs, meanwhile, became an Indian sadhu through and through. He put a single cloth (lungi) around his body, matted his long curly hair with ashes, and began wandering barefoot around India from holy place to holy place, singing Hindu devotional songs with his one-stringed instrument, the ektar. Michael Riggs, the surfer from San Diego, was eventually given the name Bhagavan Das by his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and later became famous for leading Richard Alpert to this very same Hindu teacher. Soon thereafter, Richard Alpert became Baba Ram Dass and then went back to America to write Be Here Now which was published in 1971 and launched another, even bigger wave of Western seekers onto the shores of cosmic India.
I was given my first Eastern spiritual practice by a hashish-smoking Shiva baba down by the Ganges River in Varanasi. It was one of my first days in India, and I had been sitting down by the cremation grounds watching the bodies go up in smoke . . . ashes to ashes . .. when this crazy looking old man with matted hair, naked except for a loincloth, his face streaked with ash marks and painted with red designs, ambled up to me and said, “Hari nam, my friend, what do you want?” At first I thought he wanted to sell me something, so I shook my head and turned away. But then he said, “Are you looking for something here in India?” I turned and appraised him, and finally decided to answer.
“Liberation. Freedom. That is what I am seeking in India.”
“Then follow me,” he said. And without a look back he turned and walked down toward the river.
After a few minutes I got up and followed him, and by the time I had reached the spot where he was sitting he had already laid out a piece of cloth on the sand, placed a chillum pipe on it, and was busy rubbing a piece of hashish with tobacco to prepare us a smoke.
As I smoked a pipe of hashish with this holy fool, I began to wonder what he wanted from me in the end. Did he expect me to become his disciple, or to pay for the hashish, or was he eventually going to try to sell me his loincloth or trident? Finally, after a long period of silence, I asked him if he could give me any advice on how to become enlightened. As he spoke, I realized that he didn’t care whether I became his disciple or not, and that he wanted nothing from me but my company over a bowl or two of hashish. I will never forget his simple and profound answer to my question.
“I will give you one important piece of advice. No matter what prayers or meditations you are doing, be sure to awaken before the sun comes up. Then you will have a chance to calm and focus your mind after sleeping, before the light of the sun comes to reveal all the world to you and distract you from yourself.”
Most often we go from sleeping-dream-state to waking-dream-state, without too much of a reality check in between. This was a powerful piece of advice. Remembering who we are in the morning is a good way to start the day. Hari Nam, to my Shiva baba. May he have many a nice day.
India taught us a number of things, not least of which was the lesson in history. Strewn across the Indian landscape are the bones of old empires, a constant reminder of the impermanence of worldly wealth and power, something we don’t see so much in America. In India the crumbling palaces and forts speak of former conquerors, proud and imperious, holding the feeble mother country as a prize in their colonial collections. The Mogol and British rulers left their stone monuments behind, many now standing in a state of disrepair, crawling with squatters and littered with garbage, or else turned into museums or national historical sites attended only by a surly Indian guide whose chief desire is to get your rupees and be left alone. These old ruins are testaments to the shifting fate of all nations.
Once when I was stuck in New Delhi waiting for a plane back to the States, I went out for a few holes of golf with Tukaram, an old Maharaji disciple from Canada who had come back to India as a businessman and was trying to arrange a deal exporting Indian coal to Canada. On one hole at the Delhi Golf Club my ball landed on what I thought was a bunch of old bricks and rocks. When I asked my caddy if I could move the ball back onto the grass he said, “Yes, of course. These Mogul ruins are not a natural hazard.” I suddenly realized that my ball was lying in the middle of a four-hundred-year-old archeological sandtrap!
Those of us who stayed in India for any length of time began to adopt the Indian style of dress. We stopped wearing shirts and pants and replaced them with various pieces of cloth. In India and Southeast Asia the traditional clothing does not have buttons or zippers, snaps or belts. When you get up in the morning, instead of getting dressed, you get wrapped! During sojourns in Asia I accumulated many different pieces of fabric of all shapes and sizes—dhotis, lungis, ulfies, sarangs, shawls, scarves, etc. Each piece of cloth had a specific function, but often I would see Westerners wearing something around their head that was meant for their waist, or vice versa. It was all just cloth, anyway. Wind it around your neck and midriff and you were wrapped up for the day.
All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end.
Many of us had come to the Indian subcontinent to find a guru. Our biggest problem was that there were so many of them to choose from. Of course, some Westerners had already heard about this or that teacher and were headed toward a particular ashram, usually one run by a hot shot Indian lineage holder whose fame had spread to the West, such as the Beatle’s guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or Ram Dass’s guru Neem Karoli Baba, or the ashrams of famous old masters like Yogananda, Ramakrishna, or the maha of maha gurus, Satya Sai Baba, who was said to be able to materialize objects out of thin air.
As we traveled around the Hindustani spiritual circuit we kept hearing about this or that teacher who had a shortcut to enlightenment or who specialized in teaching Westerners or who had miraculous powers. It seemed that on every Himalayan peak and in every ashram on the Deccan plain there was another guru, offering a better bliss and an emptier emptiness. It was in those caves and ashrams and monasteries that we found the priceless treasure of Eastern civilizations, which we eventually smuggled home inside our psyches, a contraband that would do more to transform the hearts and minds of the West than all the drugs that Asia could ever produce.