“Notes of a Pilgrim”
New York City, March 31, 1971, written to family members. Words in italics were written later.
It is a full month since I returned from India, and I am just now finding time to write!
Whenever I think about my trip—which is quite often – in fact, a great deal of my “memory content” since then has been about my experiences in India—I am really amazed at how well everything went. Just before I got to India, a pilots’ strike on Indian Airlines (the government-run domestic carrier) was settled, and just after I left, another strike, perhaps by different employees, began. I kept wondering how long my luck would hold out, but also feeling that even if what followed were less beautiful and inspiring than what I had already experienced, I was still fortunate to have received so much grace already.
The first part of the journey was not without adventure. I had chosen to fly New York—London—Moscow—Delhi, as that route involved the least flying time. But it was unseasonably warm in Moscow—above freezing in late January—and this resulted in heavy fog. So the flight from London to Delhi was delayed by 16 hours. We were put up at a hotel at the London airport.
The stop at Moscow was surreal. We were allowed to disembark and walk to a gift shop in the terminal. Lining the route on both sides were long rows of unsmiling, unmoving soldiers. In the gift shop one woman was bossing over the other employees, all women. They all seemed on edge. I took the opportunity to buy a recording of Russian choral music.
The delay of the flight gave me only a few hours in Delhi before continuing to Madras. I arrived at the Ramakrishna Mission in New Delhi after midnight, and was sorry to wake up Swami Vandanananda, the head of the ashram. He had returned to India a little over a year earlier after 15 years as assistant to Swami Prabhavananda at the Hollywood Vedanta Society, and we were already friends. I felt a special bond with him as he had lived the first part of his monastic life at an ashram in the Himalayan foothills under the direction my teacher, Swami Pavitrananda, before both swamis came to America. Swami V. and I had already planned to take a trip together back to that ashram, and we had to discuss our plans in the middle of the night just after I arrived. It would be his first trip back after returning to India.
I was given an early breakfast, and made my first faux-pas (literally) in India. The kitchen of the monastery was directly off an outdoor covered walkway. Without thinking, I walked into the kitchen with my shoes on. The brahmachari (novice) managing the kitchen pointedly said, “I’m looking at your shoes.”
An early morning flight brought me to Madras by mid-morning. Emerging into the bright sunshine, I felt that I had really reached India. Delhi had been cool, and arriving in the middle of the night and getting only a token amount of sleep had been somewhat disorienting.
The Ramakrishna Math (monastery) in Madras (now Chennai) is a very special place. It was started and built up with difficulty and sacrifice by Swami Ramakrishnananda at the direction of Swami Vivekananda. I’m not usually sensitive to spiritual “vibrations,” but I felt something very special in the shrine at the Madras Math. Afterward I found out that many people had similar experiences there. For me, the reaction was probably intensified by the joy and relief I felt in finally arriving after the obstacles and uncertainty of the journey.
One thing that really surprised me was how much I felt at home in India. It didn’t seem like a foreign country. You may find that hard to believe, but it is actually true. I went with a somewhat reserved feeling about the country as a whole—expecting to like some things and dislike others. I had heard of American Vedanta devotees experiencing severe culture shock in India, and so was not sure how I would react. Of course I was going for a specific purpose—a religious pilgrimage—and was not really concerned very much about other aspects of Indian life. But my reaction was certainly more positive than I would have expected. I mean subjectively. Objectively, of course, India faces tremendous problems. And I don’t mean to say that I reacted favorably to everything I saw. But I did feel a spontaneous affection for the Indian people, which rather took me by surprise. I found them a very loving and lovable people. . . There is also a gentleness about the people, which many, including Pope Paul VI, have remarked upon. One notices this even in soldiers and policemen.
With my tight scheduling, it is easy to see how things could have gone wrong, and I might have had to leave out things. But somehow I was able to visit all the places I had planned to on this trip. And my health remained fine, except for a slight cold the week before the last week. Actually, it turned out to be an advantage to be on an allergy diet. I had to ask for special diet everywhere, and everywhere it was given ungrudgingly and unquestioningly. What I asked for, and was given, was: plain boiled vegetables, with extra potatoes; no rice or wheat; apples and bananas; milk boiled for one hour; and, where available, very hard-boiled eggs, and fish. I carried oatmeal with me—I could buy this in large cities. For emergencies I had Ry-Krisp and dried apricots, but I really could have managed without these. The other thing I was careful about was water. I had Halazone pills with me, and carried a canteen round my neck. At night before retiring I would fill the canteen with water, add four pills, and that would be my drinking water for the next day. When people saw me coming with canteen around my neck, they knew I was serious about safe water! But nobody seemed to mind or resent it, or even be amused by it, from what I could see.
In fact, many did notice it. According to Parvati Ma, an American friend living in India, I was known “all over India” for my canteen.