Saturday, August 23, 2014

Guruji's "Only his body has ended" - by Larissa McGoldrick ( NELIYI representative)

Guruji's passing

‘Only his body has ended’ 

A report from Pune, on the passing of our Guruji, Yogacharya BKS Iyengar
, by Larissa McGoldrick (NELIYI representative) 

In the early hours of the morning of 20th August 2014, BKS Iyengar died at the hospital where he had been for a week. He was in his 96thyear, and we all knew that his health had recently deteriorated and his heart and kidneys were failing. But it still came as a shock.  It seemed impossible that the inevitable had finally happened. That night I had several dreams, where Guruji was dying, and each time I awoke with a start, taking several seconds to remember where I was; other practitioners who were also visiting the Yoga Institute at that time had similar experiences.

When we arrived and started our classes at the beginning of August, for the first few days we could hear chanting coming from the house where the Iyengar family lives. It went on for hours.  The house is only a few paces from the Institute, so the chanting was quite clear and loud.  It had an urgency and emotional quality to it that left me feeling uneasy.  Along with the men’s voices I could hear a woman, who sounded like Geeta, Guruji's eldest daughter.  Later I found out that the family was chanting for Guruji's health, as he was already starting to fade.

During the wet monsoon weeks of early August he came out twice during a rare dry moment after we had finished class.  He sat in his wheelchair and looked at each of us and smiled as we one by one greeted him and paid our respects.  It has taken me years to feel comfortable with the traditional Indian way of greeting a guru, bowing to the ground and touching his feet.  It just isn't in my culture and somehow I always felt a bit insincere to do it, but this time I bowed to him naturally and immediately, without even thinking about it.  He smiled angelically at each of us, looking me right in the eyes, but he appeared frail and tired and I started to fear the worst.  The second time we saw Guruji, I met up with an old friend of his; she and her daughter had invited me for lunch after seeing him, and all the way home they cried.  The woman who makes tea for the household had told her that morning that Guruji told her that he doesn't want to suffer anymore, that he was ready to go.

In mid-August, we heard that he had been admitted to hospital.  At first everyone tried hard to play down the news and we were told that he was fine, just some routine tests etc. But the news in the papers was increasingly dire – heart failing to pump sufficiently, breathing difficulties, kidney failure, and then a couple of failed rounds of dialysis.  Guruji hated hospitals and resisted going, but in the end the family could not manage on their own.  It was to be his first and last hospital visit.

The day after Guruji went into the hospital Abhijata, his grand-daughter, taught the women's Wednesday morning class. It was a great class, so strong and confident and intelligent. We were all quite amazed at the power of her teaching. It seemed like she was coming into her own.  Later, we found out that Guruji had just told her that he had taught her everything, and she had to make it hers now. 
So, when we finally heard about his passing, it was not a surprise, though it was still a big blow.  We got ready and went to the Institute at about 8 a.m.  It was already filled with people, and the shoes left at the gate were starting to spill out onto the pavement.  We were told we could go into the house to view Guruji and pay our last respects.  As I entered the house, I became utterly overcome and started crying helplessly.  In the living room sat Geeta and all her sisters.  I turned to Geeta and told her how sorry I was, through an avalanche of tears.  She looked at me and said, "It's okay, it's going to be okay."  I was struck by how, in her moment of grief, she was taking care of me, a total stranger.  Such generosity and compassion.  We walked through the tiny living room and saw Guruji lying on the floor in the next room, wrapped in cloth, with white paint on his face.  It was so humble and simple.  There was the family priest performing last Hindu rites and Prashant, his son, kneeling at his feet, holding vigil.  He had probably been sitting for hours by then, and it was so touching to see the son sitting at his father’s feet.  He looked grief-stricken, like a bereft young son. We bowed and touched Guruji’s feet and walked out.

We were then told we could go upstairs to the big yoga hall to wait, as the body needed to be dressed for the afterlife, after which we could view it again, and then we would all go to the cremation.  I was continually struck by the difference in this funeral and funerals in the West.  It was so open and generous, everything happening in front of us, and the foreign students invited to everything.  After the body was dressed again, long-time student and teacher Raya came upstairs to tell us that we could now go in again (they were aware of, and helped, us foreign students every step of the way that day) and then there was a second wave of people who wanted to go in.  There was now a continuous flow of dignitary after dignitary, arriving in big cars amidst a police presence, to pay last respects. 

Guruji by this time was covered head to toe with flowers and the body had been turned 180 degrees in the room: toe to head.  There were now many more priests dressed in traditional clothes and chanting loudly in the room, and the atmosphere was tense and electric, the communal grief was overwhelming.  I felt so sad for Geeta and her sisters; the day was very hot and steamy, and we all stood and cried and chanted.  The body was then carried aloft amidst a swirling cloud of incense onto the street outside, where it was loaded onto an ambulance.  We were then invited to go to the cremation ceremony, some distance away.

When we arrived the ceremony had already begun.  The crowd was very large but for a man of Guruji's stature it was very small. This was due to the expedited nature of a Hindu cremation ceremony, where the body is cremated only hours after death.  There was no opportunity for anyone who was not local at that time to attend.  The ceremony took place in a very peaceful large park with tall trees, in a covered area with several other pits of ashes. The chanting kept going, non-stop, as everyone stood around the cremation pit.  Traditionally, only men are allowed into the cremation site but we were told that Geeta had requested a change in the rules, so we were all allowed in.

Many rituals took place that were hard to see, but at one time Prashant held a large container that was spilling out water through two holes, walked around the body three times and then broke the clay vessel on the ground.  The priests passed around large pieces of sandalwood and pressed cow dung patties for us all to touch and mark with our love and devotion, before they were laid on the pyre.  Guruji was then placed on the sandalwood logs and then covered with dung patties. The priests then lit the pyre and continually fed the flames with camphor and bags of ghee that were opened and poured onto the fire.  I was told that these four items – sandalwood, dung, camphor and ghee – are used only for the funeral of a saint. The flames were carefully controlled, and apparently the burning goes on for four hours.  The priests were alternatively solemn, stern, jovial and even joking at times during this process. The whole thing was very serious and ritualistic, yet somehow had also an almost casual feel. There wasn't the solemnity, privacy of the family and formality that I associate with western funerals.

The family left shortly after the cremation, and many of us stayed and talked afterwards.  Besides all the hundreds of students from many different countries (including Indonesia, Russia, Europe, China, Japan, USA, etc.) there were so many friends there, people I have seen in Pune for years.  It was moving to see, for instance, Raju the incense man and Mr Wagh the family jeweller, standing with tears in their eyes.  I felt privileged to speak with Father Joe, one of Guruji's long time students, founder of the Kripa Foundation, the legendary addiction and HIV clinic that finally brought great help to a stigmatized population (I did acupuncture volunteer work at Kripa in 2009 and 2011).

Today I am filled with wonder at being present for such a momentous occasion, and having had the opportunity to say a final goodbye to one of the most innovative and creative minds of our time – our Guruji, who brought the gift of yoga as we know it to the west.  Yesterday, Geeta Iyengar said, so poignantly:

"Only his body has ended.  One person's efforts, from inside out, changed the acceptance of yoga throughout the world.  Nothing was hidden, from the time he began to practise, to his illness and death.  Even last night he was telling Abhijata, 'I have shown you all these things, now realise them for yourself.'  What he has given cannot be encompassed by words.  If a disciple is more developed, then that person will understand.  What can be said in words, is that he was precious to us."

Gratitude &
Courtesy  to :
Larissa McGoldrick

Please do not copy or publish this piece in whole or part without express permission of NELIYI or the author, Larissa McGoldrick, who retains who retains the copyright for this text and accompanying images (c) 2014.