Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Memoriam, In Celebration

As I recently read an article in Yoga International about satsang, directly following a poignant conversation with a friend and fellow bhakta about the loss of one of our community’s great souls, I began to ponder the depth and significance of this concept.  Satsang is usually translated as “good company” or “company of the wise”, its root stemming from the Sanskrit words sanga (a union or meeting) and sat (truth). Funny how you can intellectually understand the definition of a word for so long, but it isn’t until the Universe provides you with direct experience that your heart truly comes to know its meaning.

I just returned from my maiden voyage to Mother India. Yoga has been in my life loosely for around fifteen years, shifting to a major focus over the last six or seven. It started with just asana, seeing the practice as nothing more than exercise, until the time came when I was ready for a spiritual awakening and so the Universe provided it. We say life works in mysterious ways, which it often does, but sometimes it isn’t so hard to see how things unfold precisely when and how we need them to.

My path shifted from gross to subtle as I began to tune into the enchanting mantras that certain teachers would play during a pumping vinyasa class, and before long I was studying mantra and chanting myself. I started regularly attending what we call “satsang”, a weekly gathering for meditation and kirtan at the yoga studio I’ve now called my home and taught at for five years. Then came the yoga conferences and eventually the festivals and retreats.

It was during an indescribably beautiful Omega Institute retreat at Blue Spirit in Nosara, Costa Rica that I first met Shyamdas. Admittedly, the thought of a week with Sharon Gannon and David Life leading the asana practice, and Deva Premal and Miten chanting was what had attracted me to this incredible gathering. It was my 30th birthday present to myself. I was going to paradise, and I was ecstatic.

Ecstatic is another word that took on a whole new meaning for me that week when I came to know Shyamdas. This unassuming man wasn’t just some guy filling in the agenda between the Jivamukti and kirtan superstars. He was the glue holding everything and everyone together, as I’d learn in later experiences is pretty much the role he played everywhere he went. Shyamdas was many things to many people: teacher, mentor, friend, guide, brother, father, son. He was, and is, beloved by so very many, I believe because he has the rare and powerful gift to share his ecstatic energy through his sheer presence and bring all those around him into a space of satsang, a state of grace. Never had I met someone who radiated such humility, enthusiasm and pure, true light.

During that week at Blue Spirit I made many friends and many memories. In the time since, the one I held closest was sitting at breakfast with Shyam just talking. You could pose any question or introduce any subject, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride he’d take you on discussing it.  The depth of his passion was rivaled only by his depth of knowledge. And when he began with the lilas and led us in chanting of mantras, we all joined him in the bhav, transported to another space and time. To know him was to love him, truly.

It was because of this experience, and subsequent ones at bhakti gatherings back in the U.S., that I knew I absolutely had to see Shyam in India. I didn’t know him best, I didn’t know him longest, yet I had always felt this powerful bond with him, and if I was going to make the journey to India, then there was no way I was doing it without seeing my beloved teacher. He called me tenacious after learning of my itinerary: I’d take an overnight bus from Dharamsala to Delhi, connect with a car and driver who’d drive me roughly four hours to Vrindavan, continue a little further to meet Shyam in Gokul and, after our brief visit, spend another five and a half hours returning to Delhi to catch a flight to Bangalore first thing the following morning.  I might also mention this was done during a time of record low temperatures and persistent fog. I was a woman on a mission, though at the time, I couldn’t know how important that mission was.

My car stopped in a little square in Gokul. Through the haze, both mental from the rigors of travel and literal from the fog, a splendid face appeared by my window to lead me to Shyam. The face belonged to another captivated devotee of Shyam’s, Govind, and he took me down narrow alleys, through doorways and up stairs until we emerged on a rooftop. There he was, book in hand, with Ally by his side, laptop perched for translating, both of them serene and content. Another friend was there as well whose name unfortunately escapes me. The sun was finally peeking through the mist.

For those who have only known Shyam in a public environment, to see him in his home, in his space, is to see him on retreat. Just as we might go to Blue Spirit for a week or make a pilgrimage to India to “escape”, it seemed to me Shyamdas was enjoying that same sensation by being somewhere quiet, simple and uncrowded. He was at home in the land of his beloved Krishna. There was no performance to introduce, no kirtan to lead, no unending flow of people wanting to talk to him or bring him on stage. While he always handled those situations with total grace and came to them so naturally, being with him in this private setting showed a different kind of light emanating from his beautiful being.

We sat and talked. There was laughter and levity. It was decided we should take a walk down to the Yamuna. More stories were told. Monkeys were fed in the street. A particularly tenacious one, not unlike myself, surprised us all by running into a tiny temple and snatching a banana right off the altar, Shyam and Ally laughing and bewildered at the sight. Shyam said he’d never seen anything like that in all the years his spent making India his home.

Spontaneously Shyam suggested we hire a small boat and take a quick sail on the sacred Yamuna River, topped with foam from the pollution, glowing in the light of the soon-to-be-setting sun. Despite the cold and late hour, there was a boat right there and we set off. The sky began to turn shades of orange and pink before giving way to night. We were all peaceful and content. Never would I have imagined I’d be sitting with Shyam and Ally in such an incredible moment of satsang. Never would I have imagined it would be the last time I’d see Shyam.

They walked me back to my car, Shyam stopping along the way to buy a necklace of thin, tiny tulsi for me to wear. I put it around my neck, grateful and honored, and said goodbye with my hands in Anjali mudra, prayer, reverence, as it would have been inappropriate to hug him in public there. He told me to email him, and I said I would.

I never had a chance to send that email. Two weeks later I would return to my home in Kannur, Kerala after a weekend at a nearby ashram to learn via a mutual friend on Facebook that Shyamdas had left his body.  I was stunned and it took a couple hours of trying to gather details, find someone in India I could talk to about Ally, praying and chanting to Krishna with all my might before an overwhelming flood of tears overtook me. As the tears came, I understood that the love I felt for Shyam, more than anything, was that of a daughter toward her father. He was my spiritual father in many ways, guiding and inspiring me through his example and presence. I lost my own father a few years back, and I cried from the depths of my soul for them both in those moments.

Fast-forward a couple more weeks, and my time in India is drawing to a close. I’ve experienced grief and sadness, but also the comfort and strength fostered by the satsang of our incredible kirtan community who came together to not just mourn the loss of Shyam’s life, but honor his lasting legacy and celebrate his union with Krishna. As I made the drive back to Bangalore to catch my flight to the U.S., I stopped along the way at a few temples by the roadside. I’d been practicing japa mala in the car, the tulsi necklace along with a treasured necklace of my father’s traveling with me in the same pouch as my mala beads. At some point, mala in hand, when I got out of the car to pray at one of those temples, the pouch must have fallen out.

At first I was devastated at the loss of the sacred tokens of these two men I loved so dearly. Backtracking through the night to find the pouch proved fruitless. In the light of the following day, I felt a wave of peace wash over me, as I understood nothing had been lost. They wanted to stay in India. The physical piece of Shyamdas and my father I had carried with me was meant to be at home in this magical land, the land of Krishna, the land of love. There they shall remain, just as their memory and all the gifts they gave shall remain in my heart.

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