The man at the bottom of the photo, the one with the blanket wrapped around him, is Neem Karoli Baba. Neem Karoli Baba is not my guru. He’s not my guru because he told me he was not my guru. Frankly, he doesn’t feel like my guru, either. I’ve tried hanging pictures of him on my wall from time to time over the years, but it has never felt right. Nevertheless, at the time this photo was taken, I lived for my daily darshan of Maharaj-ji (Great King), as we called him. His every gesture seemed like magic. He was the most beautiful being I had ever laid eyes on. He wasn’t my guru, but when he told me to do something, I did it. Every time, something happened that changed my life. To this day, some 40 years later, the few words of wisdom he passed on to me have stuck. To this day, the experiences I had when I did as he told me to do remain the most spiritually profound of my life.
I first met Neem Karoli Baba in 1970, on my first trip to India. He happened to be at his ashram in Vrindaban at the same time I was visiting the city. Somebody told me that “Ram Dass’s guru was in town,” so out of curiosity, I went for a darshan. Be Here Now hadn’t been published yet, but I knew Ram Dass’s story through the grapevine. In a nutshell, in his previous incarnation as Richard Alpert, Ram Dass, along with Timothy Leary and a few others, was one of the people responsible for popularising LSD. But that’s another story.
So I went to see Neem Karoli Baba. By then, I’d had darshan of several “big names” in yoga. I had been working as a hatha yoga instructor at a yoga retreat in Northern California and they turned up from time to time. So far, none of them had struck a spiritual cord with me. Maharaj-ji didn’t either, really, but I felt an instant affection for him. Don’t ask me why. He just sat there chatting and joking with his disciples. There was nothing “spiritual” about him that I could detect. He seemed to agree. Often, when disciples asked him for spiritual advice, he said, “What do I know? I’m just an old man.”
But there was something compelling about him.
That first trip to India was cut short by a bad case of Hepatitis. I had to go back to the States to recuperate. I had made some friends amongst Maharaj-jis circle of devotees and received aerograms, the pre-internet version of email, from them from time to time. Then one day, I received a big parcel. It was a box. On the lid of the box was the now famous cover of Be Here Now. Inside, was a stack of square pieces of paper – each one a page of what became the book about a year later.
I did a lot of my recuperating at the yoga retreat, but had completely lost interest in yoga. I was only interested in getting back to India. Finally, after asking for permission to return from Maharaj-ji via Dadaji, one of Maharaj-ji’s Indian devotees (he’s the man in the vest), I was able to see him again.
Maharaj-ji greeted me with a kick in the head. It happened when I touched my forehead to his foot in the traditional gesture of devotion to a guru. He kicked me in the head and scowled. This defined our relationship for the next year. When he looked at me, he scowled. When he passed out fruit or sweets to his devotees, none came my way. While he doted on the other devotees, he ignored me. It didn’t matter. I lived for my daily darshan.
Occasionally, Maharaj-ji would send us all away. When he did that, he would do one of three things:
- Tell us all where to go.
- Tell us individually where to go.
- Tell us he was going and leave us to our our devices.
I took all of his “orders” as personal directives, but I’m not sure this was the case. At any rate, when I did as told, something extraordinary happened. This will be a very long entry if I don’t break it up into chapters, so to find out exactly what these extraordinary occurrences were, just click the links at the bottom of this page.
I don’t want to close this chapter without sharing the one piece of spiritual advice Neem Karoli Baba offered me. When I earnestly asked him, “What should my sadhana (spiritual practice) be?” he replied, “Love everybody and eat jalabis.” A jalabi is a delicious pretzel shaped Indian sweet. Since it was doubtful Maharaj-ji was being literal about that, I interpreted him to mean my sadhana was to love everybody and indulge in innocent pleasures. The first part of the equation was, if not easy, at least obvious. The second part was a little difficult for me to comprehend. I was of the “spirituality involves self-sacrifice and discipline” school of thought, so it took awhile for that part of it to sink in.
In hindsight, those simple instructions, “Love everybody and eat jalabis”, are the wisest words ever spoken to me. I haven’t even come close to adhering to either of them over the years, but I can say this with conviction: to the degree I have done so, I have lived a happy and fulfilled life.
No tale of spiritual discovery is complete without some stories about peak spiritual experiences. These never happened when I was in Maharaj-ji’s presence, except for a few “hallucinations” when he seemed to transform into Hanuman, the Monkey God. They did, however, occur as a direct result of following Maharaj-ji’s directives. If you’re interested in finding out exactly what happened, just click on the following links: