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Rishikesh, India

I went to an ashram down the road from where I’m staying to see if they had any rooms. The room I’m in has no window and is a bit expensive. 200 Rupees a night. 300 for a room with a window. They said come back in the evening. Walking out of the place I passed a couple of women. One of them said I know you. It was Maya, one of the two American women I met on the flight from Bangkok to Calcutta. She was going to a lecture so I tagged along. We went to a room which was room of people kneeling with hands in prayer gesture, chanting. The was no room to enter so we stood outside, but later, when the chanting had stopped Maya went in and the rest of us followed. People made room.

The lecture was given by a guru type guy with a long beard. He looked like you’d imagine an Indian guru to look. It seems this class has been running for about three weeks now. He knew the names of some of the students, and asked them how long they were planning on staying in Rishikesh. Then he gave out some notices, a bit like school assembly. The police have said that it’s not safe to bathe where some foreigners have been seen bathing, so please don’t bathe there. There ashram takes no responsibility for what might happen. Also, when bathing in the Ganga it shouldn’t become a picnic. You shouldn’t bathe in large groups. Please don’t let this place become like Goa. Some monks have been upset by the behaviour of certain tourists and this place for thousands of years has been a place of spirituality and if there’s just one monk here and he is upset by the behaviour of tourists then that monk’s concerns must be respected.

He went on like this for a while, and though it wasn’t part of the lecture proper it was quite interesting. He criticized yogis at other ashrams for not being strict enough with their students, not having the guts to criticize them when they associate with chillum smoking babas, because all they want is the tourists’ money. I’m not like that, he said. The chillum smoking babas are not bad people, but what they are doing to themselves is self-destructive and you shouldn’t associate with them, and if I catch one person smoking or drinking in this ashram they won’t last two hours. Not even an hour.

I think I’m better off staying in a hotel rather than here, just in case I have some self-destructive urges.

He then went onto the lecture proper, using headings written on a board. This apparently is the third week of the course, but they way he was talking he seemed to be riffing, going from one subject to another, telling various stories and anecdotes:

The one about the very good looking former guru who when he was 18 a very beautiful and rich English woman, probably a daughter of one of the raj officers, knocked on his door and he rather than speaking to her as a young man to a young woman he addressed her as he would a lady of his mother’s generation:n Yes, madam. What can I do for you? With that she went away, but he was still conscious of the fact that he had felt certain unspiritual things going on below his waist so he prepared some hot coals and sat on them. After that he felt pain every time he went to the toilet, but this helped him overcome his desire for women.

The thing about this class is that there are many attractive women in it, and just a few men. I have heard that such places can function a bit like dating agencies. During the day people are lectured to about the spiritual benefits of celibacy, then in the evening they go and test out their resolve, like Gandhi did. At the age of 37 he told his wife he was now going to be celibate, that they would from now on live as brother and sister, but then at the age of 66 he decided to test himself and he slept with two young ladies. He then had to admit that he had not conquered his sexual desires, which is why Gandhi will never be considered divine, why he won’t have temples erected in his name. Brothels maybe, but not temples.

And then there was the story of the baba who lived in a cave up in the mountains and was visited by an English woman. She came out of his cave having had a good talk with him, and she says to him: I notice there is no one for miles around. Don’t you ever get lonely? To which he replies: Now that you’re here, madam, I feel lonely, but when you go I won’t feel lonely any more. I’m not sure how she responds to this, but she then tells him that if he ever comes to England he should get in touch with her and she’ll show him around London, to which he says: I am London. You can’t show me London, madam, because London is me. Probably if someone speaking like this ever did come to London they would be locked up in some institution, but in India they’re gurus.

Things are different here. He talks about chakras and prana energy, things that I’ve heard new agey types talking about before and it’s always made me cringe, but hearing it from this guy it doesn’t sound so cringeable, there seems to be more sense to it. Perhaps I’m just being taken in by the long greying beard and orange dress.

Though many people were sitting there taking notes to me it didn’t seem like that kind of course where there’d be an exam at the end of it.

Swami Darminanda is the teacher’s name. He’s written a book of poetry, which he suggested we read. On the wall around the classroom on the classroom were pictures of various gurus. The only ones I recognized were Jesus and Gandhi. And Buddha. On the table next to him was a photograph of a woman. This was his wife. I don’t know if she still is. He spoke about her a bit. When he left her she told him that he’d come back to her, she’d make sure that he did. And he did. The god Shiva sent him back to her. I’m not quite sure how that happened.

In the afternoon I tried to get on the internet but failed so went for a shave in a barbers. On the wall in front of me was a poster with pictures showing all the services offered, captions under each: head massage, hair cut, body massage, face massage, face mask, bear trimming – this one was below a picture of a very hairy man. I started to laugh, which is not good while you’re being shaven or shaved. The barber started to laugh as well.