American Baba

American Baba

Eddie J. Girdner

Baba Rampiri. Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystical India. Destiny Books, 2010. (232 pages, glossary, color pictures)

In the l960s, many young Americans were getting disgusted with their society. They saw the older generation as “square.” Following a traditional career path was considered to be boring and square. This was more of a phenomenon of middle class youth who had grown up in relative affluence and had no worries about their future. Nevertheless, there was a broader cultural crisis that the older generation had trouble understanding.

The two great issues of the sixties generation in America were civil rights for Blacks and, of course, the Vietnam War. The baby boomers were starting to grow up. After World War II, the soldiers came home, made babies, and raised them in the l950s. Having made the “world safe for democracy,” once again, Americans settled down and enjoyed their jobs and prosperity. They drove their big cars and wolfed down hamburgers and French fries at drive-in restaurants. They listened to Elvis Presley and danced Rock and Roll. They bought new houses in the suburbs and spent the weekends mowing the lawn and making barbeques. Most people did not want to be bothered about the problems of the rest of the world. They watched mindless sit-coms on TV. The government had to “scare the hell out of them” that the communists were coming just to fund the military and run the Empire.

But a new generation was about to come on the scene in the l960s when John F. Kennedy was elected President. The number of youths studying at universities mushroomed and so did the political consciousness. For the new generation of youth, racism had to abolished and the Vietnam War was wrong. Sexual repression was breaking down as Americans became more affluent, more mobile and more urban.  

In California, it became a sort of fad to study Eastern religions. Youth wanted to find the “truth” and “wisdom.” They turned away from the capitalist materialism of the American middle class. “Plastic.” American values were plastic, phony, fake. They thought that maybe they could find truth in India. While young Indians began to go to America to get rich, young Americans began to go to India to seek the “truth.” That was the trade-off. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.   

This is a beautifully written small book that nicely captures many scenes in India and takes one into the inner circle of a religious sect. It is a pleasant and enjoyable read and entertains the reader. Baba Rampuri is an American who left the US at the young age of eighteen for India. He does not tell us his American name, but it was actually William A. Gans. In India, he joins the Naga Babas. He becomes the disciple of a sadhu from Rajasthan. He claims to be the first foreigner to become a member of the Juna Akhara, a group of naked yogis. They call themselves the “Renumciates of the Ten Names” or sunnyasis.

William Gans grew up in affluent Beverly Hills California. His father was a dentist. But the son had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. Rather his early inspiration came from Superman, who inspired him to jump off the TV. He didn’t fly as well as his hero, however, and when he came down and hit his head, he claims to have not only seen stars but also heard clanging bells. He claims that his grandfather from Russia was really the famous pirate, Long John Silver. Somehow, I am inclined to doubt it, but it is not important.

In America, Gans never made it to the university before going to India. Later, he will return to attend classes at the University of California, Berkeley. He says that he was disillusioned with the bourgeoisie that he grew up among. America seemed to be going off track in many ways. President John Kennedy was assassinated in l963. Then the Vietnam War sent youth off to die in rice paddies trying to kill communists. There were race riots and Vietnam War protests. In l968, Martin Luther King was assassinated after criticizing the War and this was followed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the late President’s brother. After all this, there was a tendency of the youth to just say “fuck it,” and give up on America. Of course, most youth did not have the luxury to be able to leave, like Gans.

In California, William was diving into a lot of literature on Eastern religions. This led him to decide that “he was not who he thought he was.” He then began his quest for “something bigger,” namely “the truth.”

He leaves the US in 1968 and travels overland to Mumbai. On the steamship from Karachi to Mumbai, he meets a group of hippies also on the way to India. Most of them will end up in one of the popular hippie camps down in Goa that were popular in those days. They found a little haven where they could avoid the Vietnam War and hang out,  shack up with a girl, and smoke pot.

William gets the names of some temples in India from a French traveler on the ship. He hopes that through ancient manuscripts and mantras he will obtain secret knowledge. He wants to learn the meaning of life, death, and truth. He gets the name of Hari Puri Baba who is a gyani or knower. He likes the sound of the name “baba.”

In Mumbai, it is mass confusion on the streets with hawkers of all kinds. It does not take him long to exchange his western clothes for more comfortable ones. He says he felt free and did some wandering around India. He met Satya Sai Baba at Puttaparti. He naturally feels like an outsider when he visits ashrams. There is talk of “knowing one’s self” and “the truth.” But he needs a teacher and a mantra to start practicing.

In the ashrams he gets into smoking marijuana and hashish. The sadhus and sannyasis are also drop-outs from society like him. They have given up everything. He wants to understand, but the sadhus he meets do not know English and it will be a long process learning Hindi.

At a railway station, he meets a Naga Baba. They can barely communicate with each other, but William goes with him to Ujjain in Rajasthan. At a large temple, he is caught up in the ceremony and feels transformed as if he had left his body.

He travels further on. The women in Rajasthan are colorful in their multicolor dresses. The men are thin and sun-dried. The villages are surrounded by chili peppers drying in the sun. He makes it to the remote village of Amloda, where there is not even electricity. Here, sure enough, he finds Hari Puri Baba, who will become his Guru.

A huge mela is underway in the village. Vedic mantras are being chanted and oblations offered to the sacred fire, ghee, sesame seeds, dried coconuts, fragrant resinous wood, and sticks. Hari Puri Baba is said to live in the private parts of a great rock woman on the hillside above the village. Indeed, that is the way the hillside appears to William, who is soon to become Baba Rampuri. What appears to be her pubic hair, in fact, is a grove of mango trees.

Baba Hari Puri is seated on a platform surrounded by several sadhus. He is known to know several languages and it was said that he communicated with the crows in their language. Some babas have long dreadlocks. One of the sadhus has a silver ring on his penis. Baba Hari Puri is willing to show young William “the true path” and then he can enter the Juna Akhara, the “old order.” He eventually becomes Baba Rampuri, the chela of Baba Hari Puri.       

Baba Rampuri begins going through the initiation ceremonies after becoming a devotee. His hair and beard are shaved, leaving only one tuft of hair on the back of his head. Next he has to drink the five products of the cow, milk, curd, ghee, urine and manure. He is surprised that it does not taste so bad. He also is made to stand naked in front of the five gurus while they enjoy themselves by poking fun at him.

It is not going to be a very easy life, however. His day will start at half past three in the morning with his nature call and cold bath before dawn. He must wash his hands with ash and water, as soap is not considered to be pure. He gathers wild flowers from the fields for Shiva’s phallus and for Hanuman. There is more ceremony. There is the endless memorization of yoga sutras and other bits of knowledge. None of it is written down but comes from tradition. He is discouraged from taking notes in his notebook, as it is just to be memorized. That is the tradition.

He is also not idle as his labor is required in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, washing clothes, and washing dishes.

Learning all the rules is long and tedious, especially for a Westerner. Not many, but some will reject him simply because he is not an Indian. He is constantly being reminded not to let his feet point toward the sacred fire, the dhuni. He has to get used to wearing the sacred ash, vibhuti, on his skin. He cannot take a shower. He is to worship Hanuman, “The Redeemer of Hopeless Causes.” He begins the long task of learning Hindi and Sanskrit.

Rampuri then goes to Varanasi. He bathes at Barha Hanuman Ghat. Juna Akhara is the headquarters for the order of Naga Babas. They are said to be “digambar.” Wearing no clothes, they are “clothed in the four directions.” However, they do generally have something wrapped around them, especially in the cold.

He then arrives at the Kumbh Mela which is held every twelve years at Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At Allahabad, he watches bodies burn on the Mani Karan Ghat. He finally decides to give away his last money, which is 92 Rupees, about seven dollars at the time. He just hands it out in ten rupee notes. There are about a million people at the Mela who believe that bathing in the river will give them supreme knowledge and liberation. It was believed that many of the Babas travel outside of their bodies at night.

It is a magnificent scene with the mass confusion that is, perhaps, the soul of India. There are loud speakers blasting out religious songs and popular Hindi songs, sacred mantras, chanting devotees, those engaged in religious discourses, and so on. There are dozens of sects. Hundreds of sadhus, both real and fake. There are yogis, saints, shamans, healers, tricksters, tantrics, bhaktas, magicians, criminals and more.

Some of the well-known holy men have set up military-style camps of 25,000 holy men. There are thousands of fires. Some come prepared to stay up to a month.

Rampuri meets up at the camp of his Guru, Hari Puri Baba. Getting up at half past three in the January cold is not pleasant. There is a pea-soup fog at this time of year. After a frigid bath, they sit around the fire smoking chillams, little pipes filled with hashish.

Rampuri is to be officially initiated into the order of Naga Babas at the Mela. However, some controversy and conflict emerges when one of the older babas argues that there is no place for a Westerner in the order. In general, there is a resistance among the babas to the Western influence that has crept into Indian society since Independence. For example, Nehru saw the sadhus as “rascals” and got a law passed requiring them to carry an ID card. The sadhus felt that the British had left their ways behind when they left. Some felt that if they let foreigners into their ranks, this would damage their image in the country. And there was the wrong image that all Westerners are rich.

The initiation ceremony goes ahead in any event. However, the conflict results in Guru Hari Puri Baba having a stroke. He ends up in a hospital in Jaipur where Rampuri takes over his medical care for three months. Hari Puri Baba is a difficult patient. One of the babas, Amar Puri, believes that the “Angrezi medicines” are useless. He sees the nurses as “shameless.” He has no faith in the British doctors. He spends most of his time smoking ganga with the chowkidar.

To cure Hari Puri Baba, the other babas build a dhunni fire and perform puja and magic rituals. It is at a TB hospital, but the constant visit of so many holy men starts to turn the medical facility into an ashram. The doctor begins to get upset at all of this. Eventually Hari Puri Baba regains consciousness. However, now he knows that he is going to die. He asks Baba Rampuri to leave him and go on his way. The service has been performed and Hari Puri Baba says he no longer needs his body.

Rampuri Baba lives in a cave in the Himalayas for two months. The book relates many stories from Hindu mythology. There are also some wild notions about medicine. For example, the Ayurveda of Gangotri Baba includes instructions about how to cure the wife of a man who comes to him. First, he tells the man to stand on the north side of his house. Then he should walk forward till he comes to the first mango tree. It might be ten meters or ten kilometers. When he finds the mango tree, he will climb to the top and pick three of the top-most leaves. After returning home, he will place the leaves in a pipe and smoke them. The wife will then be cured.

Rampuri’s going-native continues for years as he gradually learns to communicate in Hindi and learns Sanskrit. He wants to go all the way and totally shed the West, but somehow the occident is always there to haunt him in his movements, his voice and his logic. He comes to believe that the spirit of Hari Puri Baba has entered him.

The book does not tell us the rest of the story. Rampuri returned to California spending some time at the university in Berkeley. But he soon returned to India to make it his permanent residence. He realized that the western rational approach to understanding India is tied up with colonialism and very different from the understanding that one gets from the ancient tradition. The concepts “India” and “Hindu” are both Western constructs manufactured to help the West rule the continent. Orientalism has largely determined how this part of the world is perceived and studied outside of the tradition.

While the book is a “true” story, he refers to it as “fiction.” What is seen as fact is also fictional, constructed for some particular purpose. This is also true of orientalism, the understanding that one still generally finds in Western scholarship.    

Baba Rampuri became a teacher of yoga and opened up the Hari Puri Ashram in Hardwar in 1984. In 2010, he was given a seat in the Juna Akhara Council. Along the way, he managed to have two children, a daughter in l979 and a son in 1990. The pictures of the Baba and his children can be found on the internet, but somehow their mother is missing. Several videos of Baba Rampuri’s teaching can be seen on Youtube. In January 2013, he opened the Baba Rampuri Cultural Foundation in Brooklyn, New York.

This book tells an interesting story. In a roundabout way, Baba Rampuri found his place in American society, after all, by dropping out in the sixties.

December 21, 2014.

Eddie J. Girdner is author of Confessions of a Renegade: Peace Corps Years. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2014.