Embark on a Spiritual Journey

Embark on a Spiritual Journey

At an ashram in the ancient Indian city of Benares, Gini Alhadeff finds that her rich new surroundings give rise to some disquieting meditations

A friend called, one distant New Year's Day. She was in Rajghat, at the Krishnamurti Foundation and Study Centre in Benares, India, at the very last ghat, or pier, on the Ganges. "You cannot imagine the beauty of this place," she said. "The light, the view of the river. I have a very simple bungalow—one day, you will come here, perhaps." She planted in me the desire to go, or rather, laid the trap. Little did I know that at the heart of the ashram experience is the hope that it will be soothing, though often it isn't, when demons come uninvited to picnic on the front lawn of one's brain.

I arrived in Rajghat in 2001, for the first of two visits, to find several small cement houses with porches, scattered along a looping path around the main building, a two-story Lutyens-style bungalow that looked like a private villa. I asked for the key to the room where the charismatic Indian guru—or "speaker," as J. Krishnamurti liked to call himself—had lived on his frequent visits to Benares. It was a very simple room, except that two windows looked out onto the river. I sat in a chair by the bed and wondered why it was so still and soothing in there—10 minutes went by as I tried to decide. Later I returned to try to recapture that sensation, and it was still there. Only long afterward, watching a video of a talk by Krishnamurti in the Study Centre next door—another simple room, with straw matting on the floor, where the images on the screen competed with the sky and the sunset outside the window—did anxiety rise up in me like black smoke. How silly to think I could be transported into a universe where all might become clear or easy.

I had first seen Mr. Krishnamurti speaking on a cable-television channel—it was a videotape of an informal talk he'd given—probably in the late 1970's—in Ojai, California. The public sat around him on the grass. There was a breeze, and a very long strand of his hair flew off his head like a plume of white smoke. He said in his measured, stately English, with the faintest Indian accent, "How can the mind be still when all the time it is…" He paused, then continued deliberately, "chattering… chattering… chattering."

Krishnamurti had been greatly sustained by Annie Besant, a leading member of the Theosophical Society—an organization begun in the late 19th century, dedicated to the study of the esoteric and common roots of world religions—and it was she who, in 1928, discovered the 300-acre site in Benares and decided to raise enough money to acquire it for the Krishnamurti schools and centers. This was a very prescient thing to have done, because it is now the only remaining undeveloped piece of land on the western bank of the Ganges, the one considered to be sacred (the eastern bank is often flooded and remains largely rural). Not far away are Bodhgaya, where the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and reached enlightenment, and Sarnath, where he first spoke of his experience.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was a scrawny young man strolling along the beach in Madras with his younger brother in 1909 when he was discovered by a British theosophist by the name of Charles Leadbeater, who decided just by looking at him and seeing his "aura" (Leadbeater was known for this ability), which he described as being practically egoless, that he had found the perfect candidate for the Theosophical Society's long-awaited World Teacher, a new messiah of sorts. J. Krishnamurti was taken in by the Theosophists, schooled in India and England in Eastern and Western disciplines, and initiated into the society's more secret doctrines. But after years of adhering diligently to the strict program of training mapped out for him by Besant and Leadbeater, he began to have serious doubts about the society's hierarchical fixations, especially when his younger brother died of tuberculosis, in 1925, after the Masters had predicted he would survive. Just as he was about to be anointed, in the course of a very public gathering, he withdrew, saying he would have nothing to do with leading any faith or group. So this is the amusing contradiction with Krishnamurti: he was a man whom thousands in America, Europe, and, of course, India flocked to hear. Study centers under his name sprouted up in various places and attracted a large following. For a non-guru, he was very much a guru, though he always told his public they were there to talk, together, about how to think about anger, love, dissatisfaction, desire, and fear.

My first trip to Rajghat was placid enough. I made friends with Hema, who was then running the Study Centre, sipping endless cups of chai with her on the landing outside her office. I admired, and later copied, the way she wore her unadorned shawl in a single layer, like a cocoon enveloping her from neck to knee. I had a large bungalow with a screened-in porch, and the weather was mild. A litter of puppies played on a thick carpet of fallen leaves outside my windows. On the day of the Makar Sankranti festival, celebrating the sun moving into the northern hemisphere, with the air suddenly warmer, I took a trip down the Ganges. Thousands of hexagonal colored-paper kites floated in the air like flocks of birds. Many fell into the river, and the boatman, Kuman Chaudhuri, whose name was written in red capital letters around the inside of his boat, stopped to lift them out of the water and deposit them at the bottom of the boat. Having been jostled by a galloping bull in the narrow covered alley of shops in town, I found it strange to see nothing on the opposite bank but narrow paths, ripples in sand, and a few docked boats—a soothing emptiness. When I left, Hema said to me, "I know you will come back, because you are so relaxed."

As I write now, I can almost smell Benares—the light breeze that always carries with it the faint, acrid scent of ash and smoke. Much farther down from Rajghat, bodies are burned on pyres right by the edge of the water. I saw corpses wrapped in orange-and-gold cloth and strapped to wooden stretchers, burning at Manikarnika Ghat. Seven or so were already in flames, sandwiched between bunches of wood. A dog chewed on something caught in the rocks in shallow waters. It seemed like a spinal column with a skull still attached to it, some cartilage or flesh holding the two together. I'd read that very large turtles had been slipped into the river to consume organic remains. A twinge of anxiety had come from this knowledge on my first trip.

When I returned to Rajghat two years later, a much greater anxiety came from the fear that America would go to war. Hema was gone and the weather was uncharacteristically cold. I was assigned to a smaller, more hidden bungalow. At night I shivered, and the shivering was from cold and dread, and I couldn't tell them apart. The anxiety robbed me of the deeper sleep I'd longed for, of the sweet contemplations I'd dreamed about, of the inspiration I'd hoped would come. All this had nothing to do with the place, of course. Rajghat was still perfectly beautiful, perfectly calm.

When I set out for the first few hundred times to "meditate," what I had in mind, and later what I had at the back of my mind, was a pleasant trance-like state I'd heard one Tibetan lama call lizard meditation. Once, up in the mountains of Tibet, by his own private cave, where he meditated every day for hours on end, the lama's teacher had pointed to a lizard lying on a hot rock in the sun, its mouth open. "Look," the teacher said, "Lizard meditating." A flesh-colored translucent gecko with tender baby hands guarded the ceiling of my bungalow against intruding insects.

I was researching a book on the subject of gurus, and on the nature of the associations between gurus and a number of students or friends that I'd had the opportunity to observe. Sitting at my desk overlooking the garden, I would write and read for an hour, then get up and, to warm myself, walk at a great pace all around the compound—down the path through the garden, up some steps, along the river and across the wooded school campus nearby, past dormitories and faculty housing, then back through the main gate to my spartan bungalow. Absorption, warmth, quiet, clarity, goodness, ease: I got 10 minutes of those, 30 perhaps, and they ushered in the fear beneath my thin layer of self-possession.

At breakfast one morning, Saraswati, a teacher from a Krishnamurti school in the Himalayas, described to me how to bathe using a bucket in our unheated bathrooms. I was to throw on the floor a towel or an item of clothing that was going to the wash, and stand on it so my bare feet were protected from the cold. The steam from filling the large bucket with hot water should warm up the bathroom, she told me. Then she recommended singing very loudly, because the vibrations warmed the body. I did not try it. Instead, I went to the nearby town to buy a small electric heater and stopped to use a computer at the local Internet café. A young man turned on the overhead fan and the light when I arrived, then came to sit in a chair next to mine, and watched as I typed. The space bar stuck, and every few words the cursor would skip gaily down the length of the screen, so that the message appeared to have been written by someone falling off a tall cliff.

That afternoon I went through the gate at Rajghat and turned right, down an unpaved road, to find a boy with an ox that didn't want to engage with a wooden bridge. The boy broke two sticks on the back of the recalcitrant beast. A man came along, and he was at least able to push the ox onto the bridge, but from there it refused to budge. A little crowd of people formed, waiting to cross the bridge—men on bicycles and women with large baskets on their heads. The animal's haunches were quivering—its nostrils, too. Suddenly, another much younger boy, all dressed in white, picked up the animal's lead and together they darted across the bridge and up the hill. The boy tied the ox to a tree and it was all over. I realized at that very moment that no trace remained of the panic I'd felt only a few hours before.

The friend who had lured me to Rajghat told me that one morning while she was gardening in front of her house in Tiruvannamalai, much farther south, a man passing by had asked, "Is this an ashram?" She'd replied, "For me, it is that," and the man said, "Is this body not an ashram, too?" Krishnamurti said that truth is a pathless land and one definition of ashram is "household of learning." People were to listen to themselves, he said, to find out for themselves what they needed to know.

Rajghat Krishnamurti Study Centre
The Rajghat Study Centre is available only to meditation students, by invitation. The other three centers listed have more structured programs and can be booked through a travel agent or through the centers themselves.
Rajghat Fort Benares, Uttar Pradesh; 91-44/2493-7803; www.j-krishnamurti.org; $15 per person, per night, including meals.

This eco-friendly health center on a 30-acre organic farm offers ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy and has welcomed everyone from Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, to Sting.
Soukya Rd., Whitefield, Bangalore, Karnataka; 91-80/794-5001; www.soukya.com; doubles from $175, including meals.

The Art of Living International Center
The headquarters of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's popular foundation teaches the Sahaj Samadhi meditation technique, which emphasizes "mindful" living.
Km 21, Kanakapura Rd., Bangalore, Karnataka; 91-80/2843-2274; www.artofliving.org; three-night program from $150 per person, double.

A posh meditation (and destination) spa in the Himalayas, with minimalist guest rooms overlooking the city of Rishikesh. The program combines ancient yoga techniques and ayurvedic practices with international spa therapies.
Palace Estate, Narendra Nagar, Uttaranchal; 91-1378/227-500; www.anandaspa.com; doubles from $430.

—Elizabeth Woodson

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