Here is the third installment in my series of excerpts prior to the publication of my new book: Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus. This is Chapter 54. It appears in Part Three.
Charan Seva – My Initiation into a Secret Ritual
There was a shortage of women when Maharaji arrived five weeks early to Barsana Dham in 2007.
That’s how I ended up in his bedroom one afternoon doing the secretive “charan seva” for the first time. The euphemism means, “worshipping the guru’s lotus feet.” But in Maharaji’s case, the activity had very little to do with his feet.
I was leaving the prayer hall early in the morning the day after Maharaji arrived in Barsana Dham when Carla stopped me. It was 5:30 a.m. Most of the devotees were still in the prayer hall chanting. I was going back to bed to get some more sleep.
She approached me purposefully and asked, “Would you like to press Maharaji today?”
Of all the questions Carla could have asked me, this is the last one I would have imagined. I’d never been asked to press him before. I didn’t even know it was an option.
I was astonished. After all, spending time in Maharaji’s room was considered a great honor among the devotees. Up until then, I’d only spent time in his bedroom when I was spending money on seva. I felt a rush of happiness. I thought that maybe this time it would be my chance to actually feel his divinity.
“Yes, I would. I would love to. Thank you so much for asking me.”
I was gushing, partly because I could not believe my luck to be in the right place as the right time, and partly out of concern that she would take back the offer if I didn’t show the proper level of interest and appreciation.
Carla studied a small notebook she was carrying, using a pen as a pointer. “You can either press him at six this morning after his walk or at five this afternoon right after arti.”
Since I had planned to go back to sleep that morning, I told her I’d take the 5:00 p.m. slot. Then I instantly thought better of not taking the first opportunity available.
“Well, maybe this morning instead.” I was overly excited by the enormity of the event and probably couldn’t sleep anyway.
“I’ve got four women already, and have a couple more women to ask.” While she was looking down at her notebook, I could see the page she was studying. It contained lists with times and women’s names. There were five or six separate lists of names and times.
The last thing I wanted to do was create a problem for Carla, and possibly lose my chance. “Five this afternoon is fine then,” I said. She seemed satisfied with my decision.
“Meet me in the hallway outside of his bedroom 15 minutes early,” she stated. “Take a shower, cut your nails really short, don’t wear any jewelry, and don’t tell anyone.”
“Okay,” I said without hesitation.
She looked up to see if I comprehended her directions. Then her eyes squinted slightly. She seemed to suddenly second-guess her decision to invite me to do the precious charan seva. “Do you have a firm grip?”
“Yes,” I blurted out, nodding my head, not sure if I actually did and fearing that I didn’t.
She put her arm out. “Here. Press my arm.”
I gripped the muscle of her forearm and pressed as hard as I could.
“That’s good,” she declared. “Press him really hard. The harder the better. That’s how he likes it.” Then she pivoted and walked away.
In the bhakti tradition, pressing (or massaging) a guru is a sacred honor for a devotee. Typically, the part of the guru’s body that devotees press is the guru’s feet, called charan, which means “lotus feet” in Hindi. However, in reality, few devotees of gurus actually get to press their gurus’ feet, usually because the guru has such a large following that it’s impossible for the majority of his followers to get physically close to him or her. Often it’s because the guru is no longer living. As a result, the idea of pressing the lotus feet of the guru is more a concept than a reality for the average Hindu devotee.
My guru was very much alive and had a relatively modest congregation compared to other gurus. However, some devotees had much more access to Maharaji than others. I was not one of them. So after 15 years on this spiritual path, to be asked to “press my guru” felt to me like I’d reached the pinnacle of my spiritual journey. I thought that I must have finally reached a significantly high stage of devotion to be included in such an intimate activity. I thought that finally I was receiving a reward for years of dedicated service. In that moment, I felt that every hardship I had endured along the way was now paying off. I believed that this was to be one of the most devotional experiences of my life. I couldn’t wait until 5:00 p.m. to experience such an exquisite blessing.
All five of the women appointed to the 5:00 p.m. pressing session showed up fifteen minutes early. The other women in my group were Indian, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-50s. Carla directed us into a small hallway with two doors, one of which led into Maharaji’s bedroom via his bathroom. The space was about three feet wide by six feet long.
“Wait here for his assistant to open that door,” Carla instructed authoritatively. “Maharaji is still walking, but he’ll be in his room soon. Keep quiet. We don’t want anyone to know you are here, especially the men.” Then she disappeared.
As we waited silently for several minutes, I tried to savor the moment, but as the seconds ticked by I grew increasingly nervous about what was about to happen. The small hallway was stuffy, and with five bodies crowded together the space grew warmer and more uncomfortable by the minute. I started to sweat. Finally, I broke the silence to distract my mind from my nerves and physical discomfort.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked one of the women in a low tone.
“No,” she said softly shaking her head.
I looked at the other women.
“No,” said two others.
“I’ve done it many times,” said the fifth and the oldest. “I press him all the time. I travel with him a lot.”
I was relieved to have at least one experienced person among us. All four of us looked to her.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“We each need to take a position on his leg or foot, but only his right foot, because his left foot hurts from an old injury. You have to be very careful while massaging his other foot. It is very delicate. And use the palms of your hands, not your fingertips, so you don’t hurt him.”
“I don’t want his foot,” I said, fearful of causing him pain.
“I’ll do his foot,” she offered. “Who wants to do his thighs?” None of us answered. Then I said, “I will.”
Another woman said, “I will too.”
“Okay, you two take a thigh and you two take a calf. If you have on any jewelry, take it off.” Clearly, this woman knew the routine. Two women took off rings and put them in small bags they were carrying over their shoulders.
The door finally opened and Neelu, Maharaji’s main assistant, waved us in briskly, “Come on, come on. Maharaji is waiting.”
We hurried through his bathroom and into his bedroom. The air-conditioned coolness was a relief after the stifling hallway, but was laced with a strong smell of foreign perfume.
Maharaji was lying on his bed in his orange short-sleeve shirt and dhoti against a neatly positioned pile of pillows. His legs were spread open in a diamond shape. His arms were spread open also, resting on pillows positioned on both sides of his body.
Each of us hurried to our pre-determined spot, climbed onto his bed, and kneeled on the mattress. I placed my hands on his thigh and started to grab the muscle. It was difficult, because he was so thin and there was very little meat on his bones. Within a minute, Maharaji said something in Hindi, and Neelu barked at us, “Maharaji said to press harder.” Then she flipped the light switch dimming the lights, and left the room through another door. Maharaji continued to lie on his bed in the same position, saying nothing.
I was shaking, but concentrating mightily on massaging him as firmly as possible, without digging my nails or fingertips into his flesh. I moved my hands up and down his thigh, gripping whatever muscle I could find. The fabric of his thin dhoti kept bunching up under my fingers, threatening to spread open at his groin. I paused a few times to quickly straighten the fabric to preserve his modesty.
After I’d been massaging him for about five minutes, he touched my hand with his long, bony fingers and nudged it toward his groin. I assumed he was indicating for me to massage higher on his thigh. But I was already massaging as high as I possibly could. I moved my hands a few millimeters higher, taking great pains not to come into contact with his private parts. Then he touched my hand again, pushing it still closer to his crotch, but with a little more force. I couldn’t imagine what he was actually suggesting, and I kept my hands within millimeters of the top of his thigh. He didn’t try again, and, lost in the thrill of being so up close and personal with my guru, I immediately forgot about the strange incident.
We all massaged him in silence. After about ten minutes, my legs were shaking from squatting in a kneeling position. I was starting to sweat despite the room’s frigid temperature. Fearing that a drop of sweat would fall on him, I quickly wiped my face with the edge of my sari.
Finally, after almost fifteen minutes of massage, he abruptly indicated that the charan seva session was over with a curt, “Jao!,” which means “leave now” in Hindi. As we scrambled off his bed, he repositioned himself and reached for a buzzer on his night table. As we scurried out through the bathroom door, Neelu entered from another.
I walked around the ashram for the rest of the day in a daze, which I assumed was devotional euphoria. It was intoxicating to be in on this secret seva experience. Now, I understood why female devotees kept such things hush-hush. It was like some kind of initiation into a super-secret group—the kind where people say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
That’s how secretive charan seva was.