Cookies, Tea, and the Nature of Bhakti
Bhakti Yoga brings us into the world of mystery, a realm where the dissecting, discerning qualities of the intellect are powerless next to the vast ocean of feelings. For most practitioners, the goal of Yoga is union, oneness with the Supreme. But in Bhakti Yoga we don’t think about the goal, we only weep, laugh, cry, sing and dance with our Beloved. Bhakti is about relationship; our stormy love affair with God. And Bhakti is about surrender; surrendering our personal heart into the Great Heart, offering our self will and all our efforts and actions to that vast Consciousness, to God. “Not my will but Thy will be done.”
In the holy places of India, towns and villages permeated with devotion, magic is a daily occurrence. Perception shifts like clouds moving across the sun. When the aroma of God’s name wafts down a village street we can suddenly find ourselves walking in the ancient footsteps of Ram and Sita, or Hanuman, or Radha and Krishna… Throughout the day, we hear bells ringing, mantras being uttered from every doorway, kirtans bursting from the primitive loudspeakers. We smell incense and flower offerings. We catch glimpses of Gods and Goddesses around every corner. Doing pilgrimage to the sacred shrines is an invitation to the mystical breath of Bhakti.
The ancient village of Vrindavan, the town that was home to the young Lord Krishna and His beloved Radha, is one of these great sanctuaries, imbued with worship. The lines between the past and the present, the astral and the concrete, are very thin, and pilgrims come from all over India to partake of the nectar of Rasa, or divine emotion, that colors the town. When I first visited Vrindavan in 1971, I was absolutely stunned by the sheer quantity of living temples. It seemed that literally every other building was a holy shrine, and the sound of God’s names reverberated from wall to wall, street to street, crumbling alley to archaic temple.
One day I was walking along Parikrama Road, a path that circumambulates the village. Devotees walk this dusty path (approx. 5 miles) as an act of worship, feeling that they are Radha, circling the body of Her lover, Krishna. Walking around Parikrama you see ancient India, priests chanting the Vedas, pilgrims weeping, sadhus gathered around their “dhunis” swaying to the driving rhythms of a kirtan chant, peacocks, cows, on and on… I used to take this walk every morning before dawn, timing it so I could have my first chai of the day watching the blood red sun rise over the Yamuna river. As the sun climbed into the sky my heart never failed to melt at the passionate cries of “Radhe” or “Hare Krishna” that echoed through the misty morning air.
On this particular day, as I was walking away from the river I heard a horrific racket. A young sadhu, covered with white paste, and wearing a simple cloth around his waist was sitting on a small stone wall, banging cymbals together and screaming “Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam” at the top of his lungs. Instantly my “shanti” was shattered. The cymbals seemed louder than the rock concerts I’d left back home in the States. And his raspy voice was like sandpaper to the inside of my brain. Where was the blissful India that I loved?
I hurried my steps and tried to get past him without being noticed. But just then, an old old man in orange robes, bent with age, sporting long dreadlocks, stepped out of the little hut adjacent to the path. The young sadhu became stunningly silent as his ancient guru offered me tea and cookies. We sat and sipped the steaming chai, watching the brilliant emerald parrots fly from tree to tree, sinking into a deep, heavenly meditation, listening to the distant strains of kirtan floating on the gentle wind. What peace…
But, as all things must pass, the chai was finished, the cookies were gone, and the old man dismissed me with a soft smile. I pranamed, touched his ancient, cracked feet and continued my walk. At that moment the racket began anew. CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG!!! The horrible cymbals!!! The hoarse, screaming voice!!!
Oh God, how quickly my inner peace disappeared…
But as I turned around for a last pained look, the magic descended. This old man, who seemed barely able to walk, was dancing in the doorway of his hut. Suddenly his crooked body was filled with the grace and beauty of a young maiden. His delicate swaying hips, his beatific smile, his long flowing hair; the old sadhu had transformed into Radha, the Goddess of Love! And to complete the mysterious change in awareness, the young sadhu’s kirtan was now the sound of angels singing. His terrible cymbals had transformed into a divine orchestra of tinkling bells and chimes. My heart stopped beating, tears sprung from my eyes. Here was Radha Rani, dancing her love for Krishna, amidst the gardens of Vrindavan….
When it seemed the world would end in an ecstasy of love, the old man simply stepped inside, leaving me to the heat and dust, and the sadhu’s cacophonous song. But my mind was quiet and my heart was full as I continued down the path. I had been given yet another reminder to see beyond the surface reality into what is hidden; to trust the perceptions of the heart before those of the judging mind. I had been given a few drops of grace from the vast ocean of Bhakti.
Jai Uttal is a Grammy-nominated sacred music composer, a recording artist, multi-instrumentalist and ecstatic vocalist. He blends Indian influences with American rock and jazz to create a stimulating and exotic fusion known as world spirit music. For Jai, music and spiritual practice are inextricably linked; earlier in his life he learnt the power of kirtan from the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, and he now practices, performs and teaches kirtan and sacred music around the world. Find out more at www.jaiuttal.com
This article first appeared on JaiUttal.com and is reposted with permission from the author.