AHBO - When God Walks Among Us

Kelly threw himself into the business of running his small Kanzeon Zen Yoga Center. He worked from 6 a.m. till 11 a.m., rode his bicycle home, and then ran classes again from 6 p.m. till 9 p.m., six days a week. The pain of Brenda’s leaving was fresh in his mind, as was his confusion at his violent reaction to her.

Traveling to India had once changed his life, so Kelly thought it was time for him to make another trip. Perhaps this would provide the clarity he sought. His plan was to spend several months studying under Pattabhi Jois, the master yogi in Ashtanga who had few equals. Life in India was cheap by American standards. He would be able to stretch his modest savings a long way there. He rented a spacious apartment near Pattabhi’s house where the master lived and trained. Pattabhi was a real character in his own right, a yogi of almost unparalleled realization and skill, and not above the occasional demonstration of his humanness.

Kelly flew to India and then journeyed to Mysore, located in the southwest of the country. Pattabhi Jois taught out of his modest home, not out of some huge ashram like Kelly had envisioned. The orientation talk was held in the small basement studio of Jois’ home, where a dozen or so Western students, including Kelly, had gathered. Pattabhi explained a little about how they would train and what they could expect, and afterward pulled Kelly aside. “One of my nieces will be cleaning your apartment for you, and cooking your meals. You will pay her one dollar a week.”

Kelly scoffed at this. “I can afford to pay her more than one dollar a week.”

Pattabhi shook his head sternly, wagging his finger in Kelly’s face. “This is a radiant, beautiful Hindu goddess who is doing this service for you, and for me. Do not take this happy creature and convert her, with your morality, into a capitalist pig by giving her a single extra dollar.” Kelly’s mouth popped open. He was, after all, a man who had given a near stranger $8,000 on a whim — a kingly sum in the early 1970s. “Our culture,” Pattabhi continued, wagging his finger more aggressively, “is not your culture. Our culture has been in place for thousands of years, and it has worked for a reason. We do not need or want your values here. We will come to your country when we want to learn your ways. But you are here, to learn from us. So learn.” He waited until Kelly’s eyes registered the profound truth of what he had just said, then turned and left.

Kelly’s days were beautifully simple. Rise at five a.m., meditate for an hour, then have a very light breakfast, three hours of yoga training under Pattabhi, a break for lunch, then more yoga training in the afternoons. It was a glorious program designed to deepen ones exposure to and training in yoga. Kelly fully expected that he was going to walk away from his time at Mysore with many stories about Pattabhi Jois, and how this master teacher pushed, prodded, and opened him — another kind of Swami Gauribala.

There was a beautiful gray-haired man who came into their morning meditations every day, but who would excuse himself ten minutes into the hour practice. Kelly would see him afterward, sitting quietly in the sun, sitting, sipping coffee, his eyes incredibly alert and aware. His hair and his energy were that of an older man — certainly someone in his sixties — but his face was free of worry or of any wrinkles, and had he dyed his hair he could have easily passed for someone in his thirties. After the fourth day of seeing him sitting and drinking his coffee, large and alert eyes taking in everything, Kelly approached the man.

“Hi,” he said, sitting down, holding his own cup of coffee in his hands.

“Hello,” the man said. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“What’s that?” Kelly asked.

“Sit for so long. You are much better at it than I am.” The man smiled. There was something lyrical in the man’s tone, something calming about his presence. Kelly looked at him a little harder. His eyes were still and tranquil, yet vigilant. They possessed a kind of fierce softness that reached right into Kelly, and while it was strange to realize, Kelly fell in love with him almost immediately. It was as effortless as looking at a great painting and feeling something in yourself soar. Kelly’s focus had wandered for a moment as all of this information moved through his mind, and when he looked back the man was watching him closely.

Hundreds of colorful parrots passed overhead, calling to each other and landing in nearby trees.

“There’s a sight,” Kelly said, breaking free of the trance. He looked back at the Indian man. “I’m Denis. Denis Kelly.”

“You are training?” Kelly asked.

“No, not really. I am writing a book on Pattabhi Jois, and so am here as a kind of journalist, I guess.” He laughed.

“Are you a journalist?”

“No sir. I am a retired professor. I used to be the Dean of Students at the University of Mysore.” He extended his hand. “My name is Su Bara Char.”

Another week passed, and the professor followed a similar routine. He would join the students in the morning meditation, and then depart early, finding a comfortable spot in the sun where he would drink his coffee and take notes in a notebook, looking as rooted and tranquil as the ancient trees under which he sat. He never attended the yoga classes, but waited in the garden outside, writing and sipping his coffee or tea.

Su Bara Char and Kelly spent most of their early morning breakfasts together, getting to know one another.

One morning, Kelly asked him about his family.

“No, Mr. Kelly, I do not have a family,” he replied, but something in his eyes made Kelly press for more information.

“No one?” Kelly asked. “You don’t have a wife or a consort of some kind?”

Bara Char laughed. “You are very perceptive, Mr. Kelly. I have a great love, yes, it is true.” Bara Char’s eyes twinkled.

Kelly smiled. “So you do have a partner?”

“Yes, Mr. Kelly. She is a goddess.” Bara Char’s face looked illuminated from within. “She is my great love and I am blessed and humbled by her company.”

“So you two are married?”

“Married? No, sir. We fell in love many many years ago, but she was married to a close friend of mine, and so we never consummated our love. It is not necessary, anyway.” He smiled.

“She is still married to your friend?”

“She is a Brahman, Mr. Kelly. As such, marriage is always for life. Her husband — my friend — died many years ago, but she must remain faithful to him.”

“But,” Kelly asked, confused, “you’re celibate, in other words?”

“Yes, Mr. Kelly. It is their way, you see. ”

“How long have the two of you been in love?”

“Almost thirty years.”

“But you — you’ve had other lovers, other loves?”

“No, Mr. Kelly. She is all that I need, all that I ever wanted.”

Kelly could only stare back. “So what do you do with her,” he asked at last.

“Many, many things, Mr. Kelly. My love for her, and for God, is all that I need in this life. I am a very, very lucky man.” Bara Char sat back and smiled radiantly.

“No kidding,” Kelly managed. In time, he shared his own story of heartbreak and LSD and prison and spiritual discipline.

At the beginning of the third week, Professor Bara Char pulled Kelly aside. “Mr. Kelly,” he said, being more forceful than Kelly had yet seen, “you need to leave this place and come with me. Together we will explore the temples here in southern India. There is something you need to see.”

“Temples?” Kelly’s tone dismissed the notion. “Professor, I’ve seen plenty of India, and plenty of temples. I’m here to study under one of the greatest living yoga masters — the same man you’re writing a book about!”

“That is not why you are here, Mr. Kelly.”

Kelly just raised his eyebrows, laughed, and walked away.

As the days passed, the professor became increasingly adamant that Kelly go with him and visit Hindu temples.

“Listen, professor,” Kelly said, irritated, after a week of saying he was not interested. “I am not going to go to look at the temples. I’ve already seen enough of India, as I told you. I’m here to train with Pattabhi, and nothing else. This is all I need and want right now.”

Bara Char smiled, revealing his white, evenly spaced teeth. “There is something you need to see, Mr. Kelly. You need to visit the Hindu temples in the south, where there are still uncorrupted and unlooted treasures to behold.”

Kelly shook his head, putting his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Thank you, professor. But I’m here for Pattabhi Jois. To train with him is an honor, and I’m not going to leave his side to sightsee.”

Another two weeks passed, and while Kelly and the professor talked about a great many things, Bara Char never stopped insisting that Kelly leave his training to travel.

“Okay,” Kelly said one morning after their meditation. “I’ll go. But only on one condition: You come with me, as my guide, as you first offered.”

Bara Char clapped his hands together, his eyes shining. “Oh Mr. Kelly! I would be honored! And my cousin is a driver. He will take us wherever we wish to go. Now, a few things.” Bara Char rattled off directions without a pause. “The first thing is that many of the temples that take government money must be open to tourists. We will avoid those, and only go to temples for Hindus — much more sacred and special. They do not allow heathens in, Mr. Kelly, like you.” He smiled. “So, you will shave your head and put on robes and paint your face and body, and I will tell people that you are a prominent and famous American Hare Krishna, who is spreading Hinduism to the West. In this way, they may allow a Westerner to enter the sacred grounds.”

“I’m a Zen guy,” Kelly noted, “but I can pass for a Hindu I suppose. How long do you want to travel? I really don’t want to be away from Pattabhi for too long.”

“We will travel, Mr. Kelly, until you get what you need.” Bara Char smiled broadly. “But if it eases your mind, I don’t think we will need more than two weeks.”

Kelly sighed, and with a nod surrendered.

Two days later the men were in the backseat of a large sedan and were being whisked across southern India by a very quiet driver. The professor knew a great many people, and the three of them stayed as guests in the homes of half a dozen people. For those who have never experienced what it is like to be the guest of a Hindu Brahman family, it is an opulent, beautiful thing. Fresh flowers, perfumed sheets, the finest foods and drinks the family can afford, and a level of respect and kindness worthy of a head of state. Over the first four days together, they visited no less than twenty temples, and got into about a third of them.

Professor Bara Char would explain who Kelly was to the priests guarding the temple entrances, and nod toward Kelly, who stood regally with his freshly shaved head, naked except for a loincloth around his genitals. The professor would cajole, bribe, and otherwise insist as forcefully as he could that Kelly had to be granted access. Sometimes the priests relented, and sometimes they would simply laugh at Kelly, shaking their heads and shooing them away. Because some of the temples possessed ancient statues made entirely of gold and encrusted with jewels, many had armed guards from the Indian army standing watch in the corners, machine guns at the ready.

In the temples where they did get access, Bara Char would never enter with Kelly, but would instead wait in the car. Kelly would go into the rectangular-shaped temple grounds and make his way to the temple located at the rear of the compound. There he would stand with another fifty people, and eventually be granted access to the temple itself. The inside of the temples were large, full of hand-carved stone and wood, and at the far end stood the closed doors of a shrine.

With incense heavy in the air, the temple priests, chanting intoxicatingly, would eventually open up the doors of the shrine to reveal gold or bronze statues of Indian gods and goddesses, always bejeweled and dazzling. The doors would stay open for five or so minutes before the priests would shut them. Kelly would see many of the Hindus around him go into an ecstatic state, sometimes collapsing, sobbing, or being so disoriented that they would have to be led outside. The group of fifty people would then be ushered out of the temple and back to the temple grounds. Kelly would go back to the car and to Bara Char, who would study Kelly intently for a moment or two before telling him the location of the next temple they were to visit.

Days passed, and Kelly grew weary of seeing the same thing again and again.

“I get it,” he said to Bara Char one day, “I understand how the mythical-poetic structure of the Hindus is not that different from Roman Catholics praying to Mary and the Saints. I feel the Hindu’s energy shift, I see the ecstatic states they enter. My appreciation of the depth and the beauty of Hinduism is greatly deepened. What is it you want me to see beyond that?”

But Bara Char only shook his head and smiled kindly.

Kelly entered a temple on his fifth day, so much like the others, after walking across the meticulously maintained temple grounds. He was ushered in with about fifty other people, the only Caucasian on the entire temple grounds, as had been the case at every temple. They stepped into the darkened temple, and as Kelly had seen before, there were temple priests, burning thick camphor incense and chatting. Twenty feet away stood the closed shrine, and the chanting and the music intensified. Kelly was a head taller than the next tallest man, and so had a clear and easy view of the shrine doors. He knew the drill well by now: The chanting would go on for two or three minutes, then the doors would open to reveal the statues of the deities, people would swoon, then the doors would close and priests would escort all of them back outside. Kelly watched with a wandering attention as the shrine doors slowly opened, revealing two solid gold statues encrusted with jewels, Shiva and Shakti. They stood maybe three-and-a-half feet high and were dazzling to behold, cast forever in a frozen dance, each deeply engaged with the other. The gold was clearly pure, and the statues very obviously ancient. Rubies were embedded as eyes with painted and sculpted features that were remarkable in their artistry.

The chanting intensified, causing Kelly’s heart to open to the beauty of the voices. The smoke was heavy in his nostrils with the crowd adding to the intensity of the southern Indian heat. Shiva’s golden head turned and his ruby eyes looked out over the crowd, causing many people to gasp or begin chanting, and a few to faint. Kelly stared, wide-eyed, and blinked. He had just shared a group hallucination. How interesting! But then Shiva’s golden leg came down to the ground, and Shakti too turned and faced outward. Both deities smiled, going through some kind of mudras together, moving gracefully from one position to the next, their faces full of joyous love. They moved fluidly for many long minutes, until their bodies began to once again grow rigid. Shiva first came to his original position, the animation slowly leaving his body. There was only a beautiful gold statue standing, lifeless, as it had been when Kelly entered. Shakti too slowed and took up her original position. Before her head turned she looked out across the crowd and met Kelly’s eyes with her own ruby ones. Kelly felt an opening in him beyond anything he had ever experienced before, a movement of energy through this body that blew his consciousness into the corners of the universe. He was suddenly not sure if he still had a physical body, for he was all energy, all movement, and felt the most pure and divine feminine love erupt in his heart. The shrine doors came to a close, and the priests harshly pushed the worshippers out, many of whom, like Kelly, were barely able to walk.

Kelly stepped out into the midday sun, feeling its warmth across his skin, a more sensual touch and more intimate connection than he had ever experienced in the embrace of a woman. Tears ran down his cheeks without effort or awareness, and the earth felt as if he were walking across a pregnant belly, and so it was with reverential feet he trod the grounds. He got lost twice in the simple rectangle, and smiling soldiers gently guided him toward the front gates. Kelly wandered out into the street where he saw the car with the professor inside. He got in and sat down. Bara Char clapped his hands together, touching Kelly’s heart. “That is what you needed to see, Mr. Kelly,” he said gently. Kelly stared at him, struggling to understand the words, yet unable to forget them. “You have received the divine feminine into your own heart. You will never again be the same. That was what you needed to see. Thank you for the deep honor to have shared this experience with you.”

Kelly was incapable of speech, and would not be able to utter a single sound for three days. His saintly companion guided him into the homes where they slept, helped to feed him at times, and simply let Kelly swim in the sea of acceptance and healing that had overcome him. Kelly was no longer like an anthropologist looking at Hindu culture from the outside, but rather was living it from the inside. He was Hindu; his mind and Krishna’s were one; he was loved and beloved, eros and agape, evolution and involution, the source and the end, utterly and completely wrapped in perfection.

Kelly went on to continue his training with one of the greatest yoga masters of the twentieth century, and yet his teacher had been a retired dean of students, a humble and modest man who loved a woman with the whole of his being, yet who was forbidden to consummate that love. So he served her, and Kelly, and everyone else he came across, the fire of his sacred heart burning into anyone who was able to feel it. Kelly realized this man was a true saint, a man who lived on devotion to God and to his fellow human beings alone, expecting nothing in return. His kindness, insight, and fiercely open heart showed Kelly what it meant to truly be the change one wanted to see in the world.

As Denis Kelly prepared to return to the United States, he realized that sometimes God does indeed walk among us.

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