I was sitting in the open air at a jungle ashram in Chitrakoot, India, alongside twenty or thirty others who had come to have darshan of the infamous “Jungle Baba,” Shyam Sundar Das Baba. We were sprawled out in an ameobic half-circle around the tucket, taking turns on the harmonium, chanting together, and enjoying the warm Indian midday heat under the shade of two robust trees. Monkeys were abound, causing a slight ruckus as they jumped from limb to limb to distract us, as another would sneak from the other side in attempt to steal our fruit offerings off of the tucket. It was a completely joyous, blissed out occasion, but for some reason, I was feeling a layer away from it all that day. Certain things were getting to me and I was beginning to burrow and nestle into my own melodrama, so I decided to get up from our little bhav’d out group of bhaktas, and take a walk out of the ashram and into the adjacent jungle scenery that encapsulated us.
Strolling through an Indian jungle is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I instantly harkened back to my childhood, feeling like I was Mowgli from the classic tale The Jungle Book. Hopping the rocks across a couple streams, I ventured my way a little deeper, remembering this area from the walk that Shyam Sundar Das Baba took us on the day prior to bathe in the Mandakini River, a holy river that runs through Chitrakoot. Diving under and around some brush, I came to a clearing in the lush jungle foliage that housed a strong sturdy rock which stood directly under the shade of a tall, striking tree. Hearing the slight trickle of the surrounding streams, seeing the sun beaming in through the leaves, and sizing up the comfortable rock that sat in the clearing, I decided this would be my meditation spot. I sat down, faced the running water, let the sun warm my face, and closed my eyes.
Still feeling some sort of way, despite the joyous celebration of union that was going on back at the ashram, I felt it best to start with a Hanuman Chalisa, sang inwardly and silently through the heart. The holy city of Chitrakoot, just on the other side of this jungle, is said to be where Tulsidas brought the Hanuman Chalisa into being and wrote the Ramayana, so the mantra felt especially potent in this area. After the Chalisa brought me to a more manageable space, not totally quelling my thoughts and melodramas, but creating a buffering layer between them and my awareness, I sat silently, following my breath and doing some internal inquiry as to my mood, my thoughts, and the patterns that rippled through my life.
Looking deeply into my current state, I found I was able to trace back my despondent mood and irreverent thoughts to a certain scenario in my life. I couldn’t get past it; though, as deeply as I tried to inquire. I knew there was an unfolding waiting to happen, but there was some sort of mental roadblock I couldn’t get past. This was one of my biggest hangups in life. This was the first time this mood state hit me in India, but it was a pretty common modality of suffering for me back in the States. What I did next may seem a little out there to some, a little overly esoteric, and maybe even a little “woo,” but knowing Shyam Sundar Das Baba was not far away, just on the other side of a sprawl of jungle, I asked him internally, “Baba, I am stuck here. Can you show me what I need to see?” To my astonishment, I was shown.
I was shown where that hang-up came from and where today’s problem was rooted, but that led me to another roadblock that I just couldn’t get past. So I asked again, “Baba, will you show me a little more?” And the curtain was lifted, as I dove a little further into my past, into memories I had pushed down and forgotten. “Just a little more, please, Baba.” And it went on like this for some time, just slowly lifting the veil as much as I could handle, as I processed events of suffering, my reactions, sufferings I had caused, and knots that created blockages in the flow of my being. This unfolding brought me all the way back to my birth. At that point, I probably could have asked to go a little further, but a lightness and a steadfast joy had entered my being. A pervading calm had washed over the the scene, as I felt like all of my biggest knots had just been untwisted, and the heaviness of my past floated away like a helium balloon in the open air. “Thank you, Baba.”
Shyam Sundar Das Baba Ji
Sitting there in this peace, I intuitively felt that the Guru is internal. It’s not something out there. Shyam Sundar Das Baba was hundreds of yards away, yet my silent calls were answered by something, and that something was not separate from myself. Feeling as much calm as I have ever felt in my life, I probably could have stayed sitting on that rock all day, but suddenly I heard a yell accompanied by a thunderous pitter-patter in front of me, as the brush vigorously shook and the jungle came alive. I opened my eyes in bewildered astonishment and slight horror as I saw a large group of thirty to forty monkeys stampeding directly towards the clearing I was sitting in. The yell had been from one of the Babas at the ashram, who got so fed up with monkeys trying to steal the food offerings, that he grabbed a big stick to look ferocious and chased them into the jungle, unknowingly right to where I was sitting. Through the foliage I saw him turn around and walk away, leaving me alone, literally surrounded on all sides by monkeys.
I hike pretty regularly and I feel relatively comfortable in the woods, but this was something I had never experienced before. I was alone in a foreign jungle, surrounded by these creatures which critically outnumbered me. I still felt the calming presence from my meditation, but I also felt a trickle of uncertainty crawl up my back, “What if I move and startle them?” or, “What if they can feel my fear and think I’m a threat?” or, “What if they think I have food?” This flurry of questions was answered by a story a friend had told me about a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba being surrounded by two tigers in the woods one night. Maharaj-ji appeared to him laughing and told him to, “Sing the Hanuman Chalisa,” so once again, internally, I sang the Chalisa and followed my breath. The risings of fear soon subsided and I was now in awe of these majestic little creatures. Less than a few feet to my right there was a baby monkey gripping on to it’s mom’s underside, breastfeeding as they were walking. Overhead I could see young monkeys on the branches above me chasing each other and wrestling. I just sat there, surrounded, but not one of them paid any attention to me.
In awe, but still worried of startling them, and knowing I had to get up to join the satsang at some point, I wondered how long this would go on. My question was soon answered as I heard a large clomping behind me, accompanied by the brush shaking intermittently and vigorously once again. This noise unanimously alerted the monkey’s who turned around, took one look, and then quickly and intensely darted off together through the trees and thick foliage towards safety. The commotion of the monkeys ended up alarming awake two of the biggest deer I had ever seen in my life, who had been hiding unnoticed in a bush just a few feet to my left. Alone, with fear rising once again, I turned around to see what had startled these monkeys and the hidden deer. To my surprise I turned around to see a massive bull clomping his way through the jungle towards my clearing. It was at this point when it really sunk in, “Holy crap, I’m in the jungle. I’m alone in the jungle, surrounded by all of these creatures. What else is hiding out here?” Feeling this as a sign to make my way back to our beautiful satsang, I delicately scampered my way through the forest back up to the ashram, as to not startle whatever else could have been hiding out there.
As I walked up to everyone sitting around the tucket, singing with Shyam Sundar Das Baba, I felt something different this time. After my experience in the woods, looking inward and having many of my knots untied, I was now noticing a layer to this all that was much deeper than the interpersonal, interrelational play that I had been so tuned into earlier in the day. When I described my experience back at the hotel later, the only terminology I could think to use about coming back to the ashram was, “puppet show.” Yes, the interpersonal interactions were heartfelt, relating with all of these other beings was phenomenal, and being able to see everybody’s smile when they hugged Shyam Sundar Das Baba, or to see his goofy faces when he played drums was one of the most engaging things I have ever taken part in, but I learned off in the jungle that this was just the small tip of a very deep iceberg. I saw him here now, in form. I saw him sitting in front of me, smiling brightly, loving each of us. I knew though, without a shadow of a doubt, as Krishna Das once pointed out to devotees watching old videos of Maharaj-ji, that this was his puppet. A puppet of form over a vast, formless, ocean of love and oneness. What a beautiful puppet it was. What a poignant being, selflessly and gracefully showing us the Way in this physical three dimensional form, but where the Guru truly is, and where the real work is being done, is inside. It is inside the Self. That is where we met that day in the jungle, and that is where we continue to meet.