Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Remembering Mahantji - Hero of the Ganga

It was January, 1969. I had hitch-hiked most of the way to India, across Canada, and from Europe to reach the Afghanistan border on New Year's Eve. A week or so later I was in India on a train to Varanasi, to search out the name and address given to me by Ustad Allah Rakha and Pt. Ravi Shankar in California a year earlier. 
I had been told to go to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple and ask for Mahant Amarnath Mishra, the head priest of this ancient temple founded by Goswami Tulsidas, author of the Hindi text of Ramayana (Ramcharitmanas). I entered the gates of the temple and approached an old baba with my inquiry. He said the Mahant had gone home and I should go to his house at Tulsi Ghat, about a mile away on the Ganga River. This is the house of descendants of Tulsidas, within which rests the original Ramcharitmanas wrapped in silk, as well as his 400-year-old wooden shoes. 
I found my way to the door of the imposing white 3-story house overlooking the banks of the Ganga and gave a knock. I heard voices from upstairs and waited a few minutes. Soon, a door opened and an incredibly shining Brahmin gentleman greeted me - Veer Bhadra Mishra. He welcomed me inside, sat me down and ordered tea, nasta, and sweets brought. I was a long-haired, bearded young hippie from America, and he inquired what brought me here. He then told me it was his uncle whom I was looking for, and that he would pass on my reference from Ravi Shankar and my request to learn pakhawaj drum from his uncle, and that I should come back tomorrow for the response. 

I did return the next morning, was introduced to the uncle, "Mahantji", sat with him as he coached his wrestling students in the adjacent 'akara', and answered his simple questions. Mahantji appeared as a Buddha-like, jolly, gentle mountain with a Sumo-wrestler body (100% vegetarian!). He told me to come later in the evening, and in the meantime Veer Bhadra arranged for a room nearby and a young vocal student to help me shop for supplies and learn to cook dahl and sabji. Within a few days a drum-maker brought me an instrument, had it approved by Mahantji, and the rest is history! 43 years of it. 

My guru, the Mahant, was soon to retire and Veer Bhadra was to take his place as mahant of the Hanuman Temple, but he was already a professor of Civil Engineering at the Benares Hindu University and was going to learn to balance those two occupations for next 40 years. My guru spoke very little English, but Veer Bhadra was fluent, so we began having evenings of intense conversation, both alone and with a room full of Brahmin cronies. They all wanted to know who the hell were we 'hippies' and why were we coming to India, why we were drawn to the music and the culture and the spirituality. Why were we running away from the West? What is it like in a materially abundant society, growing up? What is the nature of this 'revolution' going on over there? Who are we? I tried my best to answer, explaining that I was only following a personal decision to reject participation in the imperialistic Vietnam war and desired to experience what seemed like a true human civilization, with an intact spiritual foundation, before the insane psychopaths blew up the world. I wanted a taste of this music and dance and art, that resonated with my soul, though I knew not why. I know they all enjoyed these conversations as much as I did. I also begged them not to let their society go down the road that ours had. 

I have made five other subsequent trips to India, sometimes for 2 years at a stretch, often staying in Varanasi, sometimes even in the family house compound. I was told by Veer Bhadraji that I am considered part of the family and that I would always have a place for the rest of my life there. VB became the Mahant and we would often sit on the roof of the Hanuman temple and sing together or listen to the classical music programs through the night. He continued sponsorship of the annual Dhrupad Melas after my Guru's passing in late 70s. He became the strongest advocate of cleaning the Ganga in India, and met with many political and economic and scientific leaders. In this regard he founded the Sankat Mochan Foundation for research and development of clean technologies. He also hosted innumerable foreigners continually throughout the years, both scholars and artists, who came to his door and were greeted with the same generosity and hospitality I was shown. 

But the thing is, he was a real special, unique shining light to everyone who encountered him, a true human being. His demeanor and voice, his kindness, his intense love of Life and the Ganga, and all She represents, blew everyone away. I would return to Tulsi Ghat after many years' absence, and he would grin like a kid, and as if no time had passed, we would sit together in love. We marveled at all that had taken place in our lifetimes, the beauty we had seen, the beautiful people we had known, the struggles we engaged in, and the mystery of being incarnate here and now. 
Mahant Veer Bhadra Mishra passed from our world last Wednesday, just following Shivaratri 2013.

Fare well, my dear beloved friend. You are in my heart forever. My tears are not for you.....I can't help myself. I knew you, and what an incredible grace to fall on me it has been. I still wish, as I always did, to make you proud of me.....like an older brother, for encouraging and supporting my strange passion that led me to your door. May we once again sing together in praise of Hanuman and bathe in the purified waters of Ganga Ma.  
Om Tat Sat   


Anonymous said...

Bholanath prabhu, you are so fortunate in your life.

Thank you for sharing your good fortune with many others, big and small.

The Mahantji is surely blessed and happy.

"That water you have taken from the Ganges, but with devotion, if you say, "Mother Ganges, Gangaji, it is your thing. Please take my offering," then mother Ganges is pleased."

Anonymous said...

As the days go by, I keep remembering this great man ... and then I hear your drums.

neal said...

There are those who do not take the holy waters, just breathe, but that is just another nation. That is a gift, not majic, just instinct, there is a damn war going on down here, there are streams within streams. You know, the machinery is limited somewhat to sound, just original, does not tell lies under the surface. Just a gift, take it, not this department, machinery hunts that. You are living on the beach, where you are. If you remember, and are invited, aquatic monkeys, that would be some invitation, seldom seen, on these surfaces.

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