Tracing mystic Kabir from Kashi to Maghar
I had met Swami Ram Das at Kabir Math Varanasi. It was when I had visited the place researching about the Nirgun tradition conceived by mystic poet Kabir. He sang a few songs, so we could record them and study them. The songs were very interesting, referring to a physical body as a boat and the riverbank as the God, and other times, about the importance of realizing and becoming the formless God, within us all. These songs are an entertaining way to spread the spiritual message of Kabir in various communities. What is most interesting, however, is that it also reminds the community about the temporary nature of this physical body and how we can become one with the permanent, the key to which lies within your heart.
He invited us to visit his little ashram in a village called Khajuri, near Maghar in Gorakhpur. After 2 months of our meeting, I called on his mobile seeking permission to come visit him. There was no answer, “this number… out”. My intuition said, I should go anyway and so, I did. We reached Maghar and there was a huge Kabir Math there, a very beautiful ashram; white colored with a certain Mughal-Sikh-Hindu architecture. We entered in and found some people enjoying a conversation. We introduced ourselves and told them what we were researching about. They knew Swami Ram Das, but he lived 20 kms away in a village called Khajuri in Sant Niwas, Banhawa (Ban, बन – to be, Hawa, हवा – Air) Baba Ashram. They offered us some food and gave us a tour of the place. It is where Kabir took his last breath. There is a Kabir temple and a Mazar (Mausoleum) right next to each other. There is also a Gurudwara that celebrates Kabir, in the vicinity. We were told that until Kabir decided to leave Kashi and came to die in Maghar, people believed that death in Maghar means you will be a donkey in the next life. Kabir was on a quest of proving that it’s not the Kashi made of bricks and mortar where Liberation is attained, it’s the formless Kashi (the city of light), which is within him. Already in a union with it, he emphasized on the necessity to die (surrender, fall in love with) in this formless city, much before the physical death.
I tried calling Swami Ram Das once more. This time the bell rang and he picked up. I told him that we are on the way to his ashram and he told us that he is also on the way back to his ashram from Nepal, where he was performing last few days. We reached the Khajuri village and found the ashram, greeted everyone inside. We came to know that Swami Ram Das is the head guru here and will be back in sometime. The guru of the math, two permanent staff and four very old people autonomously live and share a life here. Most part of the money comes from the Bhandaras or spiritual gatherings, where the guru with some people would sing the Nirgun folk songs. We were surprised to know that everyone (humans) in the ashram is addressed as “Murti”, which means an idol. It talks of our temporary identities.
You would be wondering what this Bhandara is, lets just say, in this context, it’s a religious party, organized twice every year by each ashram (including some Vaishnava Maths) following the message of Kabir. Almost everyday, the guru and the other members of the band, are out performing in a Bhandara. A Bhandara usually starts at around 4pm and last until 2pm the next day.
When the Guru arrived, he told us that he will be visiting a Bhandara the same night, organized in a nearby village. We were invited to join the group. Earlier in the day, when I spent time relaxing looking out at the courtyard, I sensed an uncanny similarity between this place and Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan (a salvation home in Kashi), which is, the objective of its residents. I met one of the old saint-looking men, who told me that he is a Vaishanava Naga from Ayodhya and he usually comes to live at this ashram. He is the only one who dressed in orange one-piece cloth and put up the ‘tilak’ on his forehead. Rest all wore white. I am also told that it is so difficult these days, any one can become a sadhu; even a murderer can come to this ashram to live. The rule at the ashram is that you cannot ask about the worldly life led by the saint or people who visit the math or begin to participate and stay there. An old man of more than 90 years, of about 5 ft., and a long beard, wandered with his stick in the courtyard, he would stop, look up slowly and kept looking until he decides to repeat the process. He has even got a book published; it explains an easy way to connect your Dharma and Karma. I was told that his book isn’t so popular because he keeps repeating some words until the end. Some of the other men are regular staff or disciples and villagers who like to spend time here. I enjoyed this environment immensely.
We all left at around 11pm for the ‘Bhandara’, and were promised that the food is going to be extraordinary. No one spoke, until the car driver reminded everyone about the currency advantages in Nepal. When we reached, everyone was sleeping and the party had ended. We disturbed some who were peacefully sleeping. It looked like they had travelled to come here. We were served food, under the full moon and it was good.
Since, there was a Bhandara to be organized at our own ashram in the next 3 days, therefore the guru decided to leave in sometime, everyone agreed. We were dropped at the ashram to take rest at around 2 am and the team went back again to arrange for the wood that will be required for the Bhandara. The guru told us that, some of the trees on the side of the road, had dried up. The government planted them. Most of these trees were chopped off and used by the farm owners, who had the tree right in front of their farm. There was only one tree left that was still not cut down for wood. Therefore, the guru and the team must go and get the wood from it before someone else does. As much as I wanted to accompany them in this quest, I felt tired and preferred to be with the old residents of the ashram around the courtyard. I was the only one without the ‘macchar daani’ even the 100 year old man was enjoying a good sleep. There is hardly any electricity here. The moonlight made the white colored ashram shine at night and the various sounds that transform silence into music, contributed to its glory.
It was another great coincidence that the Bhandara was to be organized at the same time when we were there. Next morning, the permanent staff of the ashram was busy sorting out quintals of potatoes, flour and other vegetables. It was spread out in the courtyard. Women had arrived from the village to help the ashram in organizing the Bhandara, an event that is anticipated by not only this village but also many villages around Khajuri, as we were told. Some people say, it is because, the founder of the Ashram, Baba Banhawa was a great mystic, a Bhakt of kabir, and healed many people in his life. The present guru is the third successor to him. When he was little, the dying mother handed over her child to Baba Banhawa. This child is now the present guru and famous for being a Nirgun folk singer. He is no less respected by the villagers and during my walks around the village, everyone knew about the Bhandara. They told me all the Nirgun singers are going to be present at the Bhandara.
We decided to stay for the Bhandara. To be honest, it felt like home. The silence which we all shared for those days, when each one would be in their own ritual, walking around the well for hours, for example and be content with nothing. Just spirits, gathered together. The great energy in me, which inspires me to continue creating, had vanished, or it no longer cherished this process of giving a form, once again, to the formless. We were all formless, no one knew anyone, but we all knew our abode. The guru ji agreed that we made the right decision, to stay a little longer.
We took off for a walk in the village. Although, the Swami himself is a repository of Nirgun folk songs, I still wished to hear these folk songs from old folks of the village. I am starting to think that a Nirgun bhajan and a Nirgun folk song could be a wee bit different from each other. I enquired from the people who seemed interested in speaking to me. I was sent to someone called Umesh, who sings Nirgun folk songs. His mother sings as well. When I reached their house and told the old woman why I wanted to document these songs, she agreed that the younger generation in the village shows no interest in any folk culture. Her daughter-in-laws did not know such songs, but seeing their mother-in-law being filmed for her wisdom, was enough to make them start appreciating this art. The old woman sang many songs, but I could hardly understand them, since it was pure Bhojpuri. That is okay, there will be a time when I can study the songs. It was a great moment to be there, with my camera. Umesh, her son, too sang a few Nirgun folk songs, but it sounded so much like Swami Ram Das’s version of folk bhajans. He later told me that he is a disciple of Swami Ram Das.
The next morning, the day of the Bhandara, many new faces had arrived in the ashram, with their children, who were busy running around. The old saints of the ashram, however, were still on their beds. They seemed disinterested in the whole affair. They loved their silence. The 90 year old man, who told me that he has published a book, which only costs INR 80, was in his room. I peeped inside his room, there was a cupboard and a trunk beside the bed on which he was lying down. As the crowds gathered, and the weather became cooler, I noticed that this old man is sitting outside the ashram on the platform around the well. It was unusual because I had never seen him outside the Ashram, to me; his spirit existed only within this boundary. I went to see what he was up to, as people surrounded him. The old man was trying to sell books, all spiritual books about devotion and Bhakti, from Kabir to Mira Bai. The other people around him were teasing the old man for doing all this, but he seemed carefree and not bothered at all. A man told me, that if I ever get to see his cupboard and trunk, it is full of old books. “A load that he still carries with himself, God knows why”, I heard. I continued surfing through his book collection and chose three old books: life of Kabir part 1 and 2, a copy of Bhagvad Gita in Hindi (Bade Akshar Wali). It took him 10 minutes to calculate the price and he demanded INR 100 for all of them, I paid. When his shaky hands kept the 100 rupees note in his pocket, he had a smile on his face, which became visible to everyone when he slowly looked up at all the people who surrounded him. There was a smile on my face too; it was a good deal for those old books. Upon a closer look, I found that the books had a library stamp of Kabir Math Varanasi, I looked at the old man and said nothing.
The environment had changed so much in the last 3 days. From extreme silence to a crowded place, the ashram was everything and nothing at the same time. It showed us its different colors. I realized it is not just a spiritual place for the villagers but also the sole organizers of cultural (spiritual) events like the ‘Bhandaras’. The singers had begun to perform and the crowds were being seated. Most of the people, however, would eat food and join the audience later. The microphone and speaker system were too loud and had a weird echo in the sound. For this reason, I did not want to record the performances. I sat for a bit and then the guru invited me inside to introduce me to some of his friends who are scholars and singers of Nirgun songs. I enjoyed having a conversation with all of them, and noticed that a very old woman has been continuously looking at me. In the presence of the guru, we all discussed how death is the base of all fears and is being used by the banks, insurance companies and even hospitals to make more money. We discussed how our present cultures and attitudes are in denial towards death. Do we need to change the way we look at death? Why did Kabir and Sufis talk about two deaths of each individual? The old woman kept nodding to and agreed with everything. She loved my love for Kashi.
It was time for us to leave later at night. The guru asked us to stay 30 more minutes. In those 30 minutes, he had arranged for some sweets for us to take back. He thanked us for being patient and apologized that we couldn’t record him singing. We thanked him as well, for so much love, even though we spent most of the time sleeping, in the peaceful ashram. The old woman took out two tenners from her little purse and gave it to me. I asked her to give me blessings and nothing else. The guru asked me to take the money; it is a symbol of blessing. I told the guru, that this old mother like figure, has been continuously watching me, and her eyes have so much love for me, it seems to me that, we both would cry if we looked in each others eyes. By this time, the old woman started crying and my eyes too were filled with water. The guru, leaving a thousand people behind, walked us outside and told us that we are welcome in this ashram any day anytime. I touched his feet, which I have never done before, and he told me that we are friends, there is no need for this,'”aap devta log hain”, he said. In that melodious tune, we all said, “Sahib Bandagi”, and then we departed.
Friday 10th April 2015, By Rajat Nayyar
Photos by Abhishek Sengar