A strange mission took me to Bihar last week. I went to have the darshan of a man who has been doing the Panchagni worship for the last five years. I did not even know what this particular ritual meant. I only knew who the man was. I had met him once years ago in Bombay with a friend who practises the yoga that he has perfected, a scientific way of inducing harmony between body and mind. It is a yoga that today draws thousands of people to a place called Munger, in Bihar, where now stands a splendid school on the banks of the Ganga, which I believe will be the nucleus of the first yoga university in the world.
The man who made this possible no longer lives in Munger, the place to which he brought a new life that thousands learnt to share. He left it one evening as effortlessly as he left his home in Almora years ago when he decided to take the less travelled road, that of a sannyasi. That man is Swami Satyananda Saraswati.
I was moved by his words when I heard them in Bombay. It was his last talk before he took to the road again, to travel across the country to the five "tirthas", the way Naga sadhus do, divesting themselves of their clothes, except a "lan got". No one knew where he was in the years that followed. "Somewhere in Bihar," they said. "But he meets no one, lives with a fierce dog in the middle of the wilderness," said my friend from Bombay.
And then, like a bolt from the blue, came an invitation from him asking all his disciples, students, well-wishers, admirers, those who vaguely knew him like me and those who did not know him at all but had heard of him to come to Bihar and meet him. "Come and spend a few moments with me during the glorious month of Marga Seersha, November 18 to December 17, at the culmination of my Panchagni worship," read the invitation that arrived in the form of a small pamphlet, written simply but lucidly, informing his devotees on what he had been doing and what he intended to do.
I did not receive the invitation but my friend in Bombay did. "I am on my way to Deoghar," she said on the phone, her voice animated. "Why don't you come along?" she suggested. "Give Swamiji my best regards," I said, spurning the offer that in my mind remained vague and somewhat mysterious. My friend returned ebullient and phoned me from the station to give, as she felt, an urgent message. Swamiji remembers you and wants you to come: and see him," she said. And so I went to Deoghar, little realising that I was going to discover a landscape that is truly an abode of the gods.
Even the district collector, whom one usually finds burdened by law and order problems elsewhere, seemed to carry his burden lightly. There was no danger of being lynched to death here, I reckoned. For Deoghar was not Gopalganj, not the constituency of the man who ruled but the place where the gods had decided to stay. There were no politicians, mafias nor criminals here, just simple, god-fearing people who found their bliss in the worship of their gods.
Like the people, so was the landscape, as l discovered early next morning. Nothing it seemed had changed here. The land seemed as primeval as it must have been the day it was created. There were fields of paddy just harvested but no machines or tractors. I did not see a single cement structure along the road - just habitations of mud, roofed tastefully with dry grass, walls plastered with cow dung, some painted with trees and birds, the kind that one saw all around.
I enter the ancient courtyard of Baidyanath and find myself in a crowd that is fervent but noiseless, each wrapped in his own bhakti, focussed on his own mission. The worshippers, the priests, the sellers of flowers - large pink lotuses, the favourite of Siva, 'and the dark young Santhal drummers beating the large round drum, its beat as steady as that of the heart, stirring and evoking the mystery and power of the universe that is contained right amidst them. That is why Deoghar, I tell myself. And am affirmed when Swamiji, seated in his ashram in Rikhia, some kilometres away, tells the gathering that he chose to come to Deoghar because it is the abode of the gods.
"I came here because it is the burial ground of Sati," he says. Of her 52 parts that fell in different parts of India, one fell here - her breast, that is her heart, Deogharis also the place where Shanker chose to rest, where during the month of Shravan, thousands arrive to pour the water of the Ganga on the ling which now peeps out of a hole in this sacred earth. Why did Shree Aurobindo choose not to stay here wonders Swamiji, a place to which he belonged? But then he was fighting the British for the freedom of his people. Hence he went away to French Chandranagore. "So Aurobindo's loss has been my gain," says Swamiji as he chats to the gathering, a conglomeration of people from everywhere. He entertains no questions for it is, as he laughingly describes, his gossip session. It turns out to be much more than that. Simply, effortlessly, he talks about life and the everydayness of it. Yet, as he says, "If life is a risk take it. If it is a gamble, play it."
It is strange to hear words of wisdom from a man who has gone through the severest exercises, looking at times as happy as a child. His body, I see, has aged, is redder with the exposure to the five fires he has lived with. But his face is radiant, his eyes lit. "Only he who has endured the five internal fires can endure the five external fires," believes Swamiji. The five internal fires he is referring to are lust, anger, greed, ego and attachment. I find all the five raging around this abode of gods. For not far away is Patna, the abode of the mighty who rule and those whom they rule, wandering in the wasteland without any sense of where the water is, the source that makes things green.