"The two most important things you can give a person," Swamiji told me, "are food and information.” I was on my first trip to India in 2004, sitting in his cave temple, a few stone steps down from the top of Chamundi hill, after hiking close to 1000 steps to his door amid a jumble of grey stone painted in white and red stripes. Several grey monkeys were milling about outside when I arrived.
The hike up the hill was steep, the air was hot and I was sweating when I finally stepped onto a road where the tour buses delivered their passengers. A tall skinny man was selling coconuts from the back of a truck. He looked at me and nodded to the rocky outcrop across the road where a large, black Nandi bull sculpture sat impassive. Beyond this, I could see a shorter, unevenly shaped boulder painted with stripes and the words: “Cave Temple.”
For years, my yoga teacher at home had played a tape of Swamiji chanting his prayers during practice, which the Sadhu did every morning in India while scrubbing the altar of his temple. So I made a point of visiting his hallowed cave on this first and three subsequent trips to India.
“Don’t bump your head,” a man's voice said in accented English when I poked my head inside. A low, red-tiled altar took up its far wall, and there, Swamiji, a small man dressed in an orange-red cloth jacket and a white dhoti was sitting on his heels.
He nodded and gestured to the floor, then resumed singing his half-chant, half-sung devotional prayers. His hair, beard and mustache were long and brown with grey streaks, and he had lines around his eyes, but his skin was otherwise smooth. His voice; however, was at once ancient and young, clear in pitch but slightly crackly, as if coming from a radio on a distant planet.
I think because my friend had become a devotee, Swamiji allowed me to sit quietly in the back of the cave as he cleaned and chanted. He picked up each object one-by-one — a gold serpent and a silver chalice, a framed photo of two ancient looking, long-haired Indian men whose names you didn’t know — then dipped a cloth into a small bucket of soapy water. After he finished lathering the statues, he went back to each one again with a dry cloth and polished them again. After an hour of singing and soaping, drying and rearranging, the statuettes and pictures gleamed.
When he finished, he turned again to me and poured milky black tea out of a thermos in two small tin cups. He nodded again, took a few sips from one, then opened the small wood door to anyone else who wanted in.
For the next couple hours, a steady stream of Indian families and rickshaw drivers, business owners and several other students from the yoga school entered. Everyone bowed to the altar and then sat, some in silence while staring at the shrine, some full of questions. One man came in and talked about a cricket match; a woman in a red floral sari talked about an unmarried son. It wasn’t a big space. Maybe 15 people would fit comfortably inside at any one time.
All the while, Swamiji sat to the side of the altar, half cross-legged, his bare feet tucked in. When it was time to go, the visitors put a few coins on a plate and held out their hands to receive prasad, a small heap of rock sugar which the sadhu doled out with a small spoon.
My friend had told me Swamiji could read minds, and I felt, as I sat quietly on the cold stone, as if my brain had been reorganized. On the hike up the hill, my heart had been heavy and my head full of worry, but after sitting in the cave, I found I had nothing to say.
“Time for lunch,” Swamiji said at noon, and closed the door. While he’d greeted visitors, someone had left a set of stacked tins and another thermos of tea at his door. With the cave quiet again, he divvied up two plates of homemade chapati, dal, and some unrecognizable cooked vegetables. The statues gleamed in the half light. The air in the room felt thick.
“Pickle?” he asked, raising a thick eyebrow, and offering me a jar full of fiery mango pickle, more like relish or kimchee and infinitely hotter and spicier than American dill pickles.
His eyes shone and he laughed when I winced at the heat. Then he put another piece of flatbread on my plate.
I hadn’t expected something so practical that day. But I’ve thought of his guidance about food and information many times since. Swamiji gave food and information unsparingly, to me, and to anyone else who showed up. It was simple. It was also compassion in action. Food and information are all anybody really needs. It's also why misinformation is so damaging and food insecurity so destabilizing. — DC
Thank you for Jamana Giri Swamiji for your life of devotion and service. It was an honor to meet you.