“Go home and read the Bible”

I’ve never taken a poll or anything, but it’s a fair guess the last thing most of us who travel to India looking for spiritual advice want to hear from a guru is, “Go home and read the Bible,” but that’s exactly what Neem Karoli Baba told us to do on the Thursday before Good Friday, 1971. As usual, I took his words as gospel and did as I was told, even though it meant a trip to nearby Nainital and some time spent chasing down a New Testament.

kainchi ashram of neem karoli babaAt the time, Maharaji was staying at his Kainchi ashram in the Kumoan Hills. Instead of staying on the ashram grounds, I found a magical little woodcutter’s hut about half a mile up a narrow path away from the ashram. It was made of stone, had a nicely packed earthen floor and a covered veranda overlooking an apple orchard and out to the distant mountains. I shared the hut with Naima, a Western devotee and Ravi Kana, a young Indian devotee (I think he was about 15 at the time).

In my usual serious fashion, I vowed to remain at my hut from Good Friday through Easter Sunday and read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even though it was above and beyond the call of duty, since Maharaji didn’t specify how much of the Bible to read or for how long, that’s how I interpreted his words. As far as I can remember, Naima kindly brought me rice and dal once or twice a day. Had I fasted (not outside the realm of possibility: I was big on things like that at the time), I would remember. At any rate, I’m sure I didn’t go down to the village or to the ashram until Monday, when Maharaji returned.

Like any middle class white American who grew up in the 50s, I was familiar with the New Testament, had heard random passages and had even attended Sunday school as a child, but I had never actually read it from cover to cover. As I ploughed through the gospels, some passages seemed to shine like gold. I found myself thinking, “He said that!” when I read the Beatitudes and “He did that!” when I read about Jesus going on a rampage, turning over the money changers’ tables at the temple. Other passages confused me and just didn’t ring true and as I worked my way through the texts, some of their contradictions became evident. For the most part, though, I was inspired.

Kumaon hillsI finally finished reading some time on Easter Sunday and went for an afternoon walk higher up into the hills. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the setting was and at that time of the year, the weather was still perfect. As I walked, one particular passage kept coming back to me. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” What did he mean by that? It was really bugging me.

It was still bugging me when I got back to my hut and sat outside to watch the sun set over the distance hills. It was like a Zen koan; an enigmatic question or statement with no logical explanation, whose meaning would reveal itself in a flash of illumination. And that’s exactly what happened.

As I sat there watching the sun begin to set over a distant peak, the words, “Take, eat; this is my body” came to me again, but this time, it felt as if they were being spoken to me, rather than being recalled from memory. No sooner were they said than the energy of the entire universe seemed to rush into my body. It’s impossible to describe what it felt like, but although the essence of the “energy” was pure Love, I became absolutely terrified.

When I remember that moment, I also remember these words in the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One.” Even the fact that Robert Oppenheimer perversely quoted these words after viewing the first atomic explosion (which was really like a candle flame in comparison) can’t spoil it for me. I’m not going to try to elaborate further: suffice it to say that my fear created a barrier between me and an experience that was literally “ineffable.” Fortunately, the barrier is more like a stained glass window than a solid door and, when I let myself, I am inspired by its glow to this day.

So that’s what happened when Neem Karoli Baba told me to “go home and read the Bible.