Magic happens anywhere worlds meet,” writes Rampuri, author of Baba, Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Yogi (which Deepak Chopra says “explores the true intersections of Eastern and Western thought”). “This includes airports, crossroads, the seashore, graveyards, hospitals and temples, but the places where the Ordinary World meets the Extraordinary World require pilgrimage, either internal or external.” A Paramahansa Yogananda story in reverse, Rampuri (he doesn’t think it “serves anything” to disclose his given American name), one of three sons of a Beverly Hills surgeon, left America at eighteen with a plane ticket to Luxembourg and next to nothing in his pocket. Like many of his peers, he had experimented with 60s sex, drugs, rock-n-roll and political activism. Like them, he was looking for more and sought it in India. Unlike most of them, he stayed 36 years. As the first foreign initiate of Juna Akhara, the most ancient order of the Renunciates of the Ten Names (the naked monks with dreadlocks and ash covering their bodies, known as “Naga Sannyasi Yogis”), Rampuri brings a unique perspective to just what a pilgrimage really means.
In his case, it has meant a life-long journey to discover Truth, a decision to dedicate his life to God, a search for knowledge and wisdom, and the renunciation of his former life, including his name and possessions. The physical journey began by traveling to the Indian sub-continent by land and studying with several teachers in extremely remote areas. “Back then I was really cut off from the West,” he says. “Remember, we didn’t have e-mail and cell phones—my family was pretty freaked out.” Rampuri has only recently learned how to use call waiting on his cell phone, a necessity today, as he travels internationally, lecturing and conducting retreats on consciousness and inner exploration. A large part of his audience in the U.S. is comprised of those already practicing yoga. “They’re getting a somewhat rude awakening,” he says. “In my tradition, a yogi is someone who gives blessings to others, not someone who can bend and twist the body into all kinds of postures.”
A thoughtful, full-bearded man with an aquiline nose and a receding hairline, Rampuri’s intense training under the now deceased Hari Puri Baba included teachings in Sanskrit and Hindi, mantra and tantra yoga, medicinal herbs, logic and ritual. Tantra, associated with sex in the West, has a completely different connotation in India. There, he says, it’s considered a “black art” by the general population, but among spiritual seekers of certain sects (his own included), it concerns the use of sacred sound.
Since Juna Akhara is an oral tradition, Rampuri memorized texts in both Hindi and Sanskrit, some of which he wanted to write down and study. But he was admonished that this wasn’t something to study, or even to have faith in. Instead, he was told: “You go to the right place in your body, control your breath and your touch, and you are there. It unfolds itself, it’s not a system.”
Eventually, he realized that a certain osmosis was indeed taking place. “By dint of my simply being there and witnessing, knowledge was slowly accumulating on my shelf. And once it was there, it was not only a permanent fixture but it radiated authority.” Still, Rampuri would periodically sneak a note or two into his journal, creating a diary of mystical secrets that swelled to a thousand pages. Unfortunately (he would no doubt disagree with such a word), the record of his discipleship was destroyed when someone ransacked the ashram he established next to the Ganges in 1984, throwing virtually everything it held into the river.
Further revelations included cosmic connections between the Divine and the human body and voice. “Just as we assume bodily postures, we make asanas in our mouth, using breath and tongue,” relates Rampuri. “The resulting sounds are mantras.” He also learned that nadis, the subtle counterparts to physical nerves that conduct vital energy, or ‘Prana,’ vibrate at different speeds. “Since sound is perceived from vibration, each nadi has its own sound,” he writes, elaborating: “Each sound has a relationship with all other sounds, and the sound of each of the nadis (7,272,311 of them!) has a relationship with all of the others.” This, he says, is a grammar that describes how sounds combine to form the world. “Our mundane world comprises many languages, but there is also a great language, and I’m not speaking of what they call Sanskrit, but a great grammar that reflects the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe.”
The American (called “Angrezi,” or “Englishman” by some of the Indian initiates) had to overcome both prejudice from some among the community he strove to fit into and his distinctly Western perceptions. “I tried desperately to blend in…but my movements, my voice and my logic continually betrayed me. I worried about how my ashes looked, whether my sindhur tikka (a reddish orange “dot”) was exactly on my third eye, and if my dhoti hung properly.” Appearances aside, he carried out his monastic duties with impeccability, could meditate for extended periods, take cold baths in the winter, fast, sit for hours, days or weeks doing nothing, and live on no money. “I had learned the basic social rules, manners and etiquette of that society. Except for my white skin, I looked like a baba, and devotees and common people would touch my feet.”
His own dedication and devotion paid off: Rampuri is now a respected Baba (Guru), and a mediator between the West and rapidly vanishing traditional societies. He’s hoping to preserve, in particular, the ancient oral tradition for which he is now a spokesman. Noting that most of the revered masters he’s lived among have passed on, and that those replacing them “don’t have the same juice,” he’s deeply concerned for the future. “When I find myself a spokesman for this tradition, I think the world is in trouble,” he states. He may be selling himself short. Born on Bastille Day (July 14), which launched the French Revolution, Rampuri finds it interesting that he “arrived in the middle of the day, the month, the year and the century, as well as in Chicago, the middle of the American continent.” Perhaps he, like the Buddha, is here to help us find the middle way. The crux of his message is that the Eastern way of knowing should be on a par with that of the West, not relegated to being “brought up to speed” in order to be of equal value to the world.
Rampuri says he “still hasn’t figured out why the secular/rational revolution of 300-odd years ago is called The Enlightenment.” To his mind, the shift that took place then wasn’t in tune with the enlightenment he was experiencing. The heart of the issue has to do with language, with what he calls “categorizing and mapping the world and everything in it.” His understanding is that language “marks” the world, directly correlating subject with object, and that Nature is alive and animated with a soul and a spirit that can’t be adequately described or experienced by “representational” words.
He clarifies: “Man had been the subject of knowledge for thousands of years and suddenly became the object of that knowledge. This is very confusing intellectually for modern man. Now language doesn’t mark the world, but acts as flags and signs that attract our attention and reflect something of the world. Language is losing its personality. It represents ideas rather than correlating to the being of something.” He also comments that the refinements of language and sound are “probably the most difficult subjects we could possibly discuss.”
Describing himself as “subversive,” Rampuri is still something of a political activist. He thinks world leaders use language as a machine, transporting ideas without necessarily conveying Truth. “In modern representational language, truth is no longer relevant. All that matters is that the context, syntax and grammar is proper and in order. As long as we’re making a logical argument and are staying within the context of a statement, that’s all that’s important. We’ve lost what I call ‘commentary’ and have entered into criticism,” he says, pointing out that “the connection to the world is more matriarchal, whereas the connection to ideas and the media is patriarchal.”
He explains that the concept of the alphabet and letters are foreign to the Indian tradition, which is built instead upon syllables. In the Tradition, “we connect syllables, not the alphabet, with the Goddess.” The Feminine principle, the world as mother, is completely central to most of India. We identify the various personalities of Nature in order to offer respect to them.” A good example is the “dhuni” or sacred fire that is the center of life among the almost completely male followers of Juna Akhara. The fire is considered a living thing, much more than its chemical components and properties.
Rampuri jokes that when Western friends would come to visit him, his dhuni would act up “just like someone’s pet dog,” he says. “The smoke would always blow right into their faces, no matter where they would position themselves.” Likewise, the sun, moon and planets, like all aspects of Nature, are revered and considered to be beings with distinct personalities. “Connecting with and respecting all of nature…this is our practice,” says the Naga Yogi. “The whole idea of a yogi is that he must balance things, must keep things in harmony. By balancing himself and therefore the world, he provides blessings.”
A practical man, Rampuri is keenly aware that much of the world is inhabited by poor, simple people who lack the material prosperity and choices enjoyed in the West. “We see the world and time as being a line,” he says, adding that most Euro-Americans feel their societies have reached the highest point ever achieved and that other cultures and times are less sophisticated and so haven’t ‘arrived’.” Claiming he’s not a “Universalist,” Rampuri believes in local traditions. “There isn’t a connection between cultures—not a linear connection, anyway,” he states. “We’ve not marching in an orderly fashion to language that marks the world to language that represents ideas. The collection of cultural perceptions is different; they operate in different ways. You can’t compare and contrast them.”
Still an American citizen, Rampuri says the West has constructed an India that didn’t exist before. “In the past 150 years, we’ve created a Hinduism based on the model of Christianity. Since modern society has had its eroding effect on the (Juna Akhara) order, as it has on all traditional societies, I am driven to show the world one of the last glorious manifestations of an age long past, a tradition spawned from a very ancient gene—a mythology quickly being replaced by Disney,” he states.
Over the years, he’s made very few trips back to the United States, and has given most of his public speaking and teaching in Hindi. When in America or Europe, Rampuri tries to find a happy medium as far as dress and customs. “I don’t wear robes here, but I don’t feel comfortable wearing something from the Gap, either.” He finds that people in the West are looking for a way to feel good and work out their relationships, whereas, in India, people are concerned about the birth of a son, the amount of milk their cow is giving, the basics. “I’ve seen people struggling for survival, yet they seem to be much happier than those who are struggling emotionally,” he says.
A great venue (literally) for his teaching is the Kumbha Mela, a gathering held once every 12 years (though there are smaller celebrations held between the major events) for at least 30 days. It is, in fact, the largest gathering on the face of the earth, where millions of people converge to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges. Four cities mark the places where divine “amrit” or nectar is said to have dropped from the heavens, making them Mela sites: Hardwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik. According to Rampuri, the single greatest attraction at the Kumbha Mela is the sight of the Naga Sannyasis in procession towards their formal initiations.
“The masses are mesmerized, awed, and even frightened by the august sight of tens of thousands of majestic renunciates who see themselves as the ultimate protectors of the Sanatana Dharma—what we call the Hindu religion, but what they call the natural order of the universe.” ‘Mela’ means “fair,” and you can find anything and everything there, including the Hari Puri Ashram in the Himalayan foothill town of Hardwar. Rampuri thinks it auspicious that the word “dwar” means “door,” since he sees the place as a transition between the ordinary and the extraordinary. One of those places where worlds meet and magic happens.
You can find America’s “Naga Baba” online at: http://www.Rampuri.com.