The most important principle of divine philosophy is the oneness of the world of humanity, the unity of mankind, the bond conjoining East and West, the tie of love which blends human hearts. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 49.
“Veg or non-veg?” the Air India flight attendant asked me. “Veg,” I said, trying to seem nonplussed about being asked whether or not I was vegetarian, a common question in a country with 500 million non-meat eating Hindus, but one I had never been asked before by someone serving food in a public space.
My mission in India–to deliver lectures as a Shastri scholar, and to generate discussion among Indian intellectuals about how western academics might help India to develop its social and economic resources.
My plane landed in Mumbai and I made my way to Lucknow, where friends had planned an elaborate Indian feast in my honor. I was in their dining room reaching for a spoonful of aloo gobi when Mammaji walked in.
Rajiv, my host, rose to his feet and clasped his hands together. Luanne, his Canadian wife, followed suit.
“Namaste, Mammaji,” Rajiv said, using a generic form of address meaning “uncle.” Mammaji, I gathered, was not exactly a relative but a close friend of the family.
“I have come to say goodbye,” said Mammaji. “Tonight, I go to the holy Ganges for the Kumbh Mela.”
I turned to Rajiv. “What is the Kumbh Mela?”
“The holy dip,” he said. “At the sangam — where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet.”
“I will take you,” said Mammaji, bowing.
“When will we leave?” I asked.
“Now,” said Mammaji.
The Ganges – the river wasn’t even on my itinerary, but how could I turn down the chance to celebrate the Kumba Mela? I hastily ate what remained of the aloo gobi while Luanne packed me a bag of supplies – a bottle of water, a blanket, a scarf to cover my head, and a few samosas.
The bus station crawled with pilgrims. On the standing room only bus, Mammaji somehow managed to get me a seat for the overnight trip to the AllahAbad. With a sideways nod of his head, he took my small bag and placed it on the seat. Everyone around me also nodded their heads sideways. They all seemed to agree: I was a foreigner and not used to India. I could not manage to stand up all night on a bus bound for the holy Ganges.
The bus rattled through the night. Hours later, as the darkness began to lift, I looked out the window and saw men, women, and whole families, accompanied in many cases by cows, walking in the direction of the Ganges. Others had pitched makeshift tents in the fields and were cooking breakfast over fires.
The bus stopped. We got out and began to walk. “How much further?” I asked Mammaji, who just nodded his head sideways and pointed to his scarf, indicating that I should grab on to it so we would not lose each other in the great crowd of pilgrims that flowed toward the river. Calm and somehow rested, he strode on as I trailed behind, sleep-deprived and a little dazed.
As the first streaks of dawn reddened the sky, the crowd surged towards the river, singing and dancing joyfully in anticipation of what for many would be a once in a lifetime chance to purify their souls in the holy waters. But Mammaji just shook his head and led me to a less crowded spot on the shore a few hundred feet downstream. Clearly, he felt I might be overwhelmed by the rushing crowds.
I touched the water gingerly with a toe. Though not bitterly cold, the temperature registered that it was, after all, February in this northern part of India.
Still in recovery from a dreadful bout of bronchitis, I dared not dive into the cool waters. As if reading my mind, Mammaji, who had already immersed himself swam toward me and reached for the chain of marigolds I had bought from a roadside vendor. He then swam far out into the river to release my offering of flowers into the current.
On that trip I stayed in India for about five weeks, visiting many states, north and south, lecturing on literature and, afterwards, listening to the thoughts of the intellectuals and artists who had come to talk to me about how we could together effect an “interchange of gifts” between East and West–spirituality for scientific knowledge–in the interest of creating a balanced global civilization.
I learned much about India from these discussions. But during my brief pilgrimage to the Holy Ganges I came to understand the truth of Abdul-Baha’s words. As Mammaji had reached to take my offering of marigolds, he had, just for a moment, touched my hand, and, just for a moment, I had looked into his eyes and seen reflected there the luminous soul of India.