The sadhu from Texas

Anne Cushman describes a series of memorable encounters with a sadhu from Texas by way of Varanasi.

Published April 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I first met Charan Das in 1985, in Santa Fe, N.M., when he knocked on the door of my adobe cabin one cold November night. The churned mud of my driveway was frozen into icy ruts, but he was barefoot; he wore only a swath of brown cotton around his waist and a brown wool shawl. A sharp wind fluttered his matted dreadlocks.

"We just met your roommate at Jemez Hot Springs," he said. "She said we could stay at your house for a few days."

I was 22 years old and believed in opening the door to mystery. "Of course." I peered past him into the dark. "How many of you are there?"

He gave me a radiant, gap-toothed smile. "Just this one," he said.

Over almond tea in front of the wood stove, Charan Das explained that he was a sadhu, one of India's millions of wandering yogis, who live on alms as they travel from village to village in pursuit of God-realization. In a previous incarnation, though, he had been a Texas college student who had gone to India to research Indian spiritual sects. Now he had come back to the States for the first time in 10 years, to visit his somewhat alarmed family and make a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of the Southwest.

He referred to himself in the plural, he explained, as an ego-deflating spiritual practice. "Our we," he said, "includes you, too."

"Should I refer to you as 'they'?" I asked.

"They is fine with us," he said, and began to giggle.

Over the next few days, Charan Das told me stories about sadhus. They live without possessions, he told me, entirely dependent on the generosity of strangers. They never stay anywhere longer than a few days to avoid becoming attached to places and people, and to spread spiritual teachings as widely as possible. To remind themselves of life's impermanence, they meditate in cremation grounds and smear themselves with the ashes from the funeral pyres. To break their attachment to the physical body, they often vow themselves to seven-year cycles of extreme ascetic practices -- such as holding one arm up in the air until it atrophies to a withered twig, or dangling upright in a sling from a tree branch instead of lying down to sleep.

"Would you like to hang a sling from our rafters?" I asked him.

"No, we'll be happy on the couch," he said.

He covered my kitchen table with snapshots of throngs of naked babas plunging into the Ganges to wash away their karma in the sacred river. "Come to India," he told me. "We'll be your guide."

"But how can I find you, if you're always wandering?"

"Oh, we only wander half the year," he said, cheerfully. "The other half, we have a lady friend in the holy city of Benares."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ten years later, I finally made it to Benares (better known in the West as Varanasi). I had become an editor at Yoga Journal; I was researching a guidebook to ashrams, meditation centers and pilgrimage sites in India. Synchronicity seems to be the only law that is enforced in India; so I wasn't altogether surprised, my second day in Varanasi, when I spotted Charan Das sipping chai in the rooftop cafe of the Hotel Ganges View. His dreadlocks had turned gray, and a new pair of wire-framed spectacles perched unsteadily on his nose.

"We knew you would get here!" he said, as if resuming a conversation that had been interrupted a few hours ago. "Would you like some chai?"

From our hotel roof we had a sweeping view of the city -- already ancient at the time of the Buddha -- stretching downstream around an elbow-shaped bend in the silky gray Ganges. Varanasi is the hometown of Shiva, the god of destruction, and a city sacred to death. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi ensures liberation for the soul -- on your deathbed there, Shiva himself will whisper a mantra in your ear that ensures your safe passage to the other side. The banks of the Ganges are lined with hostels where people come from all over India to die. The funeral fires have not stopped burning for several thousand years.

On the dirt road below meandered an intermittent stream of traffic: a herd of water buffalo lumbering to the river to drink; a band of pilgrims with six-foot staffs on their shoulders, weighted at both ends with bundles of cooking supplies and offerings for the temples; mangy, purposefully trotting dogs; a sadhu with orange robes and a pitchfork-sized trident, his forehead striped with the three horizontal bars that mark a follower of Shiva.

I told Charan Das that I was in India researching a spiritual guidebook and would appreciate his insights.

"We were working on a spiritual guidebook, too!" he said in delight. "That's why we originally came to India 20 years ago."

Somewhat alarmed, I asked him what had happened to his project.

"Our notes were all locked up in a friend's house in Benares," he said. "A whole trunkful of them, on hundreds of ashrams all over India. But the friend died many years ago. The trunk was moved, and we're not sure where."

He began to laugh -- a zany, low-pitched chortle that went on long after my own laughter had stopped -- and I knew that for him, a spiritual guidebook had long since lost all relevance. My publisher would have been alarmed, I'm sure, at how uplifted that perspective made me feel.

Charan Das invited me to meet him that evening at the Hanuman Temple, where he and his guru, Kathia Baba, were staying. Hanuman is the monkey god; the temple courtyard was strewn with peanut shells and swarming with bold-eyed, leering monkeys, covetously eyeing my day pack. I found Charan Das and Kathia Baba seated cross-legged on a caved-in sofa in a back room, sharing a fat, cigar-shaped chilam (a pipe containing a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, a plant considered by sadhus to be sacred to Shiva) with a handful of Indian and Western devotees.

"This is Anne," Charan Das told Kathia Baba. "We stayed with her in New Mexico 10 years ago."

"For this evening, you are not Anne," Kathia Baba told me, clasping my hands and beaming. He was a stocky Indian man with a short-cropped beard, dressed in a white kurta and mala beads, with an expression of almost shockingly innocent pleasure, as if perpetually unpacking a Christmas stocking. "For this evening you will be called Annapurna, the goddess of plenty."

"And this," said Charan Das, gesturing toward a muscular blond woman in a green sari, "is Maya. She is from the Pleiades."

"You're a long way from home," I said.

"Earth will never seem familiar to a soul from another star system," she said in a strong German accent. "But Benares is more like home than Germany." She reached out and took the chilam from Kathia Baba.

"She is telling me so many things I have never heard of," said Kathia Baba reverently.

The chilam went round and round. Charan Das told me who really killed JFK. Maya told me that she was a "walk-in," a soul from the Pleiades who had stepped into an earthling's body in midlife to help save the planet from destruction. Kathia Baba told me about meditating in a cave in the Himalayas, where he went into a trance and lived without food or water for six months.

Charan Das told me that the FBI had genetically engineered the AIDS virus as a plot against homosexuals. Maya told me that it was possible that I was from the Pleiades, also. Kathia Baba told me that Charan Das intended to bring him to America and drive him across the country in a VW van. "He is telling me about the Rainbow Family," Kathia Baba said. "It is truly a wonderful thing."

Finally, unsteadily, I stood up to go. From a cotton pouch slung around his bare shoulder, Charan Das produced an address book, tattered as an ancient Sanskrit manuscript.

"If we ever come to California," he said, "we will give you a call."

A year and a half later, the phone rang in my room in the house I shared with three other roommates on a hilltop on the edge of a redwood forest in Marin County. I was going over my notes on yoga history, preparing to go on the radio the next morning on a live call-in talk show about the Yoga Journal conference on "Body, Mind, and Spirit" that was being held that weekend at the Sheraton Palace Hotel.

I really shouldn't have answered the phone, but I was expecting a call from a man I had just started dating. I hovered my hand over the phone for three rings, so as not to appear too eager; then answered in my most professional voice.

"We're in Portland," said a voice that was not the one I had been hoping for. "We heard there was a yoga conference happening, so we're flying to Oakland tonight. Our plane gets in at 5:30. We were hoping we could stay at your house."

Frankly, I wasn't thrilled to hear from Charan Das. I was nervous about the radio show and fretting about my love life, and the last thing I wanted was a visit from a matted-haired, barefoot Texan sadhu in a shawl and lungi. But it's not good karma to turn away a wandering renunciate. So I picked him up that evening at the cafe in A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, across from the Airporter bus stop.

He was standing near the magazine racks, his bare, bony feet sticking out from under his lungi, surrounded by tables of bored professional couples drinking lattes and reading the San Francisco Chronicle. His smile was huge under a fluff of gray dreadlocks; he looked like a dandelion on acid. Slung around his shoulder were a spare lungi and a cotton sack of books. "We bought these at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles," he told me. "They're full of information for the revolution we're planning."

I drove Charan Das home to meet my roommates, whom I had tried to prepare for the occasion with a convoluted explanation of the ancient history of Indian asceticism. "So he's a sort of a monk?" asked John. John works at the vitamin counter at Wild Oats health food store and believes that world peace would come sooner if we all switched to the lunar calendar favored by the ancient Maya.

"Not exactly," I said. I explained about the chilams, and the lady friend in Varanasi, and how Charan Das wandered through the country sleeping in temples and train stations and living off the proceeds of a small trust fund set up by his parents in Dallas. "Ah," said John, in comprehension. "An advanced Deadhead."

I made Charan Das a meal of baked potatoes with nutritional yeast, while he told me about how extraterrestrials were harvesting human embryos and raising them in huge factory farms in outer space, and how the CIA knew all about it. He offered to read the manuscript for my guidebook to spiritual India, and check it for accuracy. "We have met so many of the holy men in India," he said. "We know all of their girlfriends."

I went to bed nervous about going on the radio the next day and talking about yoga, which I had been told was a big step up the ladder of my spiritual career. I lay awake for hours, picturing myself saying, "Yoga is about inner peace," in a quaking voice. Early the next morning I tiptoed out of the house past Charan Das snoring on my sofa, wrapped in his brown wool shawl. My manuscript lay on the floor next to him, untouched.

When I got home Charan Das was waiting for me on my redwood deck, sunning his bony legs. "We heard you on the radio," he said with a big grin. "You sounded great. Would you like to be on the TV show we're going to start on public access TV? It's going to be a spiritual show, and we're going to be the anchorman."

Later, I took Charan Das with me to Whole Foods market to get lunch at the deli counter. Whole Foods always reminds me of Buddhist depictions of the Pure Land, the sort of place you'd pray to get reborn, with lotus flowers, jewels and rainbows everywhere -- a land flowing with organic BGH-free milk and raw unfiltered wildflower honey. Charan Das and I made our way past the stacks of strawberries and kiwi flown in from New Zealand, the Hawaiian pineapples and the Mexican papaya, the aromatherapy bath salts and the cruelty-free lipstick and the herbal diet pills and the books with titles like "Stop Aging Now."

We came to the deli counter and selected our lunch: quinoa-orange salad, jerked seitan skewers, yam millet patties. I was pointing out the vegan rum balls for dessert when we were approached by a teenager in a Whole Foods apron.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to put on your shoes," he said to Charan Das. "It's the store regulations."

"Oh, but we don't have any shoes." Charan Das seemed slightly bewildered. "We haven't worn shoes since 1969."
"It's an insurance thing," the Whole Foods official explained. "If you were to step on glass and cut yourself, Whole Foods would be liable."

"We often walk on glass. We walk on rocks, snow, hot coals -- we never hurt ourselves!"

After some debate, it was concluded that if Charan Das hadn't worn shoes for almost 30 years, the bottom of his feet probably legally qualified as shoes. Charan Das and I picked up our plates full of food -- I paid for both of them -- and we sat at the tables by the window and ate. "Whole Foods is the only place anyone ever asks us to wear shoes," Charan Das said. "Whole Foods and when we're getting onto an airplane. We always have to put paper slippers on our feet when we walk down the ramp. Then we take them off as soon as we reach our seat."

"The funny thing is," he added as we walked out to my car, "we were one of the original founders of the Whole Foods coop. In Austin, Texas, back in the 1960s."

"Really? Did you keep any stock?" I asked.

He shook his furry head. "No. We don't believe in money."

That night I took Charan Das to the Yoga Journal conference to hear the keynote speech by Stephen Levine, the author of "Who Dies?" and "A Year to Live." Strolling into the chandeliered lobby of the Sheraton Palace Hotel, Charan Das looked like some sort of exhibit -- like he'd accidentally stepped out of a diorama on ancient yogis. A bellhop in a red jacket with gold buttons held the door for him, expressionless.

None of the other yogis looked anything like Charan Das. Clad in form-fitting work-out clothes -- setting off buttocks and pectorals sculpted by Sun Salutations -- they milled past the booths full of silk-screened T-shirts and buckwheat-hull meditation cushions and ginseng tonics, eager as pilgrims crowding to the Ganges to bathe.

"What would Indian yogis think of this scene?" I asked Charan Das.

"You never know," he said. "Maybe everyone here is a reincarnated yogi. Every guru wants to be reborn in America."

In the Grand Ballroom, Stephen Levine gave a keynote speech on death. He led a very long meditation on softening your belly, and Charan Das fell asleep in the chair next to me, snoring gently.

The next morning, I tried to hustle Charan Das out of the house in time to hear Lilias Folan, a teacher made famous by her yoga classes on PBS, give a talk called "The Joy Is in the Journey." Charan Das -- whose sadhu's sense of time was measured in lifetimes -- was standing by my kitchen sink, filling a Knudsen's strawberry apple juice jar with water.

"We'll never get used to toilet paper," he said. "It makes no sense to us. Water is so much better, you can clean your whole lower intestine that way."

"Mmm," I commented noncommitally, and walked out onto the deck, looking meaningfully at my car. Charan Das followed me, brandishing his jar.

"America seems crazy to us. None of it makes any sense to us. Toilet paper, shoes, driver's license, having a job, insurance, money, the capitalist system -- it's all so inhumane."

"Throw it all out," I said. "Start with the toilet paper, end with capitalism. Let's start now."

He looked at me with delight, as if I were a deaf-mute who had just spoken for the first time. "Start now! With a good shit!"

"But let my roommates keep a little toilet paper," I said.

"Oh, we don't believe in controlling people. We believe in freedom," he said. "We would never legislate no toilet paper."

"It would be difficult to get it through both the House and the Senate," I said.

He set down the juice jar on the railing and stared across the valley toward Berkeley. "People should love each other," he said. "Toilet paper just gets in the way."

Two days later, Charan Das left, heading for the Rainbow Family Gathering in Scotland. He took a copy of my guidebook manuscript with me, promising to make comments in the margins and send it back; I haven't heard from him since.

Before he left, he enveloped me in a huge hug. His shawl smelled faintly of India -- a musty blend of cow dung and diesel fumes.

"We'll see you again," he said. "Expect us."

By Anne Cushman

Anne Cushman is a writer who lives in Northern California. She previously wrote for Wanderlust about a wandering sadhu from Texas named Charan Das.

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