Young G meets a real philosophe


I should not tell this story--it is long and digressive--but I never can read "Phaedo" without recalling 1968, the first time that I tried to read it. I was an uncomprehending student then. My mind was not awake. Dr. G was not around to teach.

Today, it is hard to believe that such a year really happened. Riots set ablaze the poorest, blackest neighborhoods in the inner cities. Our imperialist leaders were at war over a place of no strategic importance on the far side of the world, and they claimed that they could win with only a few hundred thousand more draftees. My friends were being flown back from the front in body bags. Dr. King was killed, then there was a second Kennedy assassination, and visitors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were beaten by police. The Prague Spring demonstrators, led by students, were gunned down by the Soviets.

If you were a student who wanted peace, you were no patriot, and your mother and father probably detested you. They saw no difference between the Vietnam War and the good war that saved the planet in their generation. The most popular bumper sticker in those days read: "America, Love It or Leave It," which was code meaning "If You Don't Support Our War, You Must Support the Viet Cong!"

It was also the year, my sophomore year, that I transferred into a very small college in downstate Illinois, far from home, to make a new start. I felt lost and friendless. Yet even there, in the middle of the vast cornfields and repulsive-smelling pig farms, there were friendly urban easterners, disoriented as I was, who mostly grinned, took any drugs they could find, and listened to Jimi Hendrix records. They were the only people who understood me, I thought, but really nobody did. Certainly not me.

Like song birds, young Americans in those days were recognized primarily by the music that you heard whenever you came anywhere remotely near them. Personally, I was inclined toward the Beatles, who in that year were experimenting with Hindu mysticism and transcendental meditation, which seemed to be promising alternatives to drugs but were harder to get. The boys were studying in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, so I was turned on one day when the college announced a faculty exchange program in which we would receive, for a whole semester, Dr. V. Madhusudhan Ready, chairman of the philosophy department of the University of Hyderabad, India. Ready was going to teach a survey course in Oriental Philosophy, and my hippie roommate George and I were first in line to register.

The only Indians we knew were North American, so to us Ready was an odd-looking man: tall and portly with a brown, pock-marked face, dark eyes, and tufts of black hairs sprouting from his ears. His south Asian English was strange to us, too. I remember that it took half of the semester before I knew what he meant when he said "devil-epped," with stress on the "ep." I thought that he was talking about something spiritual until finally one day he said "devil-epp-ment." He taught us the generalities of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern beliefs, as expected, but he also told stories of his ashram, where the soul of a departed sage named Sri Aurobindo periodically returned from the greater cosmos like a brilliant comet to enlighten the spirits of all who meditated there on his perfected consciousness. A holy woman named the Mother ran the place, communicated regularly with the dead master, and performed a variety of stunning miracles.

After the first meeting, I no longer noticed Ready's foreignness because my heart filled with joy whenever I was in his presence. I could not understand it then, and I do not understand it now, but decades later I still feel traces of the happy energy that radiated from him, as if he were a great soul who had learned the way to paradise and yet was kind enough to bring some back for me. I have often wondered whether this sensation was caused by something in him or, in reality, something in me? All I know for certain is that I never felt a bliss at all similar to it in meeting anyone before or since. It wasn't on and off, or irregular with highs and lows of emotion such as we feel in a strong friendship or romantic love, but a continuous contentment that all was as it should be. Continuous, that is, as long as he was present.

Ready spent that semester living alone in a fleabag hotel downtown and, from all that we could see, he never was asked to socialize with "colleagues" or townies. Probably he was the wrong color to wear.

George and I decided that we should throw a dinner party for him at the end of the semester. It would show his students' appreciation and also provide us with an opportunity to learn more about him. We made elaborate plans. On break from school out in Boulder, we found an Indian shop and bought supplies--not only the spices unknown in downstate Illinois, but incense, bells, posters and other decorations--an extravagant outlay for us, as we were always broke.

On the night of the party, when Ready knocked, I answered the door. He seemed to be in a kind of daze, standing a little unsteady outside the doorway and unresponsive to me when I blurted out "hi." I wondered if he was having a heart attack after climbing the long flights of stairs to our apartment.

I almost called George for help, when Ready suddenly returned to himself. "Ah, I was admiring Hanuman!" he smiled.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"You must admire Hanuman also," he replied.

"Oh, you mean the poster!" It took a moment and longer, but finally I got it. Out in the hallway, he had been staring at our Indian poster of a monkey, sitting in yoga posture, dreamy eyed among flowers, beads and radiant light. "That's just something that we picked up during break week at a terrific Indian headshop out in Colorado. The storekeeper there told us that you might like it, especially if we put it near our entrance door."

On further questioning, I had to admit that actually I knew nothing about Hanuman. Ready explained that, in the Hindu pantheon, Hanuman is the god of hospitality because he welcomed and helped Rama and his wife Sita in the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramaayana. The rest of that evening was bittersweet, as Ready was to depart for the airport early in the morning--taking, as it seemed to us, our happiness with him forever. After dinner, he told stories of Rama for an hour or two, and then he went back to his hotel.

It wasn't until the next day that I thought about Ready's rapture, or seizure, or whatever it was, at the top of our staircase. I went out into the hallway and stood where he had stood, and I looked up at the poster to try to sense what could have happened to him. To my complete confusion, Hanuman had changed! He had worn several strands of beads around his neck, but now all of the strands were broken, and the beads lay scattered around on the carpet where he sat, still dreamy eyed in the identical yogic trance as before. I could not believe what I was seeing.

George could not believe it, either. The broken beads were much too obvious to have been overlooked when the poster was new, when we hung it by the door, or even when we passed it on entering or existing the apartment several times per day for more than a month, up to the day of the party. We talked about this mystery almost every day for weeks, but we found no way to account for what had happened. . .

The next semester, on break from school, we took the poster back to the shop in Boulder where we found the same Indian woman who had sold it to us. At first it appeared that she remembered us, and she greeted us with a warm smile. "Look at this," George said excitedly as he unrolled Hanuman. "This isn't the way it looked when you sold it to us." We were sure that she would be stunned by Ready's miracle, as we had been.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Can't you see," George said. "The beads, the strings are broken. They weren't broken before, when we bought them from you last year."

Perhaps the old woman thought, from the excited way that George spoke, we were going to make some kind of warranty claim against her for selling us a defective poster. I don't know what she thought, but for some reason, she claimed not to know anything at all about the condition of the beads at the time of sale. As we pressed our questioning, she became more defensive until at last she denied that she ever had seen us before. We must have purchased this particular poster somewhere else, she explained.

Her English was not the best, or else she pretended not to understand us. I tried to make clear to her that nobody actually was angry, and we simply wanted answers about the beads, in order to show that a miracle had happened. Yet the more I said about it, the more frightened she became, as if she thought of us as two loonies or drug addicts. We were running out of time to chat with her when I made a final attempt: "Look, you must have sold other prints of this same poster. What do they look like? Are the beads broken or not?"

She knew nothing about such a poster at any time, either before or now or in the future.

I asked to see her catalogues of posters--because her store had dozens of posters.

She denied having catalogues.

We had been getting nowhere for a long time, when the door opened, and another customer entered the shop. The shop lady of course leapt at the chance to wait on him. While she was away, and probably asking him to defend her from us, George and I looked through all of the posters in the shop and talked over what to do. I came up with an incredibly stupid plan. The woman might be more open with us, I said, if we left the poster with her in her shop, and if we told her to write to us, or call us collect, if she ever came across another Hanuman print that would answer our question about the beads. It seemed to me that there was no use in taking the poster back to school. Without this distressed lady's help, we would never have any real proof of anything.

So that morning we left Hanuman in the shop where we had found him. We left our address and phone number, too, but of course we never heard again from the old woman. When I called a few weeks after the visit, the phone number of the shop had been disconnected, and I later heard from a friend in Boulder that the store had closed.

George was a senior that year. After graduation, he went to Hyderabad to study with Ready, and he visited the ashram, but after a few weeks he returned to the States to go to film school. In later years, our paths crossed only once, briefly, and I could not help myself. I asked him whether in India he had questioned Ready about Hanuman. Of course he had asked, but Ready had simply smiled and changed the subject, he said.

What an answer! As long as I live, I will believe in the miracle of the beads, but whenever I tell the story I'll be seen as a quack. The proof of the miracle lies only in my heart. Indian mystics use magic tricks and illusions to hook gullible believers, I know, but I can't imagine how Ready possibly could have deceived us. I never made the trip to Hyderabad, but at least a couple of times per year I find myself searching the internet for images of Hanuman.

Image right: on a contemporary poster (year 2004), Hanuman reveals that he wears Rama and Sita in his heart. In this traditional Indian image of devotion, usually, broken beads are part of the scene.

Rama is an incarnation of the Creator, and his story has been recited from memory through the generations since at least the 4th century BCE, when the earliest known written version (24,000 stanzas in Sanskrit) appeared. A recital can last for up to forty days, up to three hours per day. To start the story, the bard traditionally acknowledges the presence in the recital hall of the unseen Hanuman, whose mind is filled only with Rama. Indeed, it is said that the story cannot begin unless Hanuman is present.