By Kajal Basu
Mahayogi. Science enthusiast. Guinea pig. Iconoclast. Heretic. Devil’s advocate. Hibernator. Thermostat. Which one was the real Swami Rama?
Mahayogi Swami Rama, founder-president of the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust and Medical College, Dehradun, northern India, and of the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, USA, left his body on November 13, 1996, dot on 11.08 PM, as he had said be would.
He was the most unlikely of yogis: a clear-headed apostate who mixed-and-matched his immaculate tuxedos with near-immaculate knowledge of most of the world’s existing religions. Acolytes were torn between Swami Rama’s exhortation to respect his demise by eliminating mourning rituals and commemorative dirges, and to control the natural human tendency towards weak, weepy insecurity. The same iconoclasm made him serene when he allowed himself to be strapped to machines that spilt the electric secrets of his corporeal body on to charts with squiggle, jumpy lines: EKG. ECG. EEG…
People of god wince at the grossness of the anatomical examination he subjected himself to. So many weeks after his mahasamadhi, what disturbs their devotion is why Swami Rama virtually ‘donated his body to science even before he was dead’. It took his acolytes—many of them young and rebellious—years to understand his role of spiritual troubleshooter, and why during his darshans he played the role of the Devil’s advocate against himself. He often interrupted his discourses and employed his scalpel of skepticism to dissect what he had said minutes before. Where, Mrignayani Chaturvedi, a taxation lawyer, wondered, is the transcendental spiritualism in this self-denigration?
Only, the Swami would probably have told her bluntly, he wasn’t denigrating himself at all. She was. Primary among Swami Rama’s precepts were: ‘Question everyone and everything’, and ‘The truth is in here.’
THE ETERNAL DOUBTER
Asheem, a migrant from Pilibhit, north India, became master mason of the heterogeneous labor force constructing the gigantic medical utopia – the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust, India’s only hospital and college of ‘integrated medicine'(where all systems are available under one roof)- at Jolly Grant, midway between Rishikesh and Dehradun.
His memories are those of things seen and heard from distant construction trellises. Swami Rama, he said, demanded from his disciples not so much traditional faith as knowledge for its own sake—a Byzantine, obsessive pursuit. ‘Faith,’ he had overheard the swami as saying, ‘can be misleading because there is nothing stopping it from becoming blind. But knowledge illuminates not only itself but also faith.’ These, Mrignayani tells me with doctrinaire confidence, are the words of a man whose philosophy was steeped in the ancient tradition but who was as contemporary and open minded as the Internet, and who believed that his powers and their application were at the cutting edge of modernity.
In this sense, Swami Rama’s rendezvous in 1971 with the husband-wife psychologist team of Drs Elmer and Alyce Green of the USA-based Menninger Foundation was, so to speak, a godsend and a rationalist’s dream come true. The foundation is known for its grit, not afraid of putting itself out on a limb, both critically and financially, for any things it is convinced about.
The three became the gatekeepers of one of the most far-reaching but underwritten events of this century: yoga‘s enslavement of the West. Their work became part of trend of taking a microscopic and empirical look at unexplained phenomena, a part of Eastern philosophy—including yoga—with tenuous links with the West’s age of reason. Just when patenting and copyright were fast becoming a judicial jamboree, he threw open the sluice gates of the New Age to everyone.
The rest is history.
The spiritual Pandora’s box was unlocked. Today, it is evident that what Swami Rama started was the spiritual and extrasensory colonization of the West. What has placed Swami Rama in the scientists’ Hall of Fame is the conclusion that the Menninger Foundation reached after examining his feats, which included stopping is heart for 17 seconds and inducing a 10°C difference of temperature between his left and his right arms. The damage that these mild yogic feats did was lasting: he damaged the egos of boffins whose careers were built affirming the idea that the body’s involuntary organs functioned independent of the will: that they answered to a higher authority.
When the dust settled, a new discipline poked out of the tough terrain: biofeedback . The ‘bio’ bit in the word is self-explanatory; ‘feedback’ comes from the screech that emanates from a public address system amplifier due to an electric backlash. The underpinnings of biofeedback, and thus to self-healing, are considered the Swami’s finest contribution to the science of living.
Biofeedback is now routinely used to teach patients how to control, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and epileptic fits. It has been used to partially rehabilitate stroke victims, to teach asthmatics how to breathe effortlessly, and to stop slow readers from subvocalizing, the silent shaping of words that prevents many children from reading faster than they can talk.
‘These are not insignificant developments,’ says Dr Varun Ellias of the National Physical Laboratory. ‘In time, biofeedback could be the most generic of all therapies. People could learn not only how to hibernate through long journeys or dangerous weather, but to slow down the aging process.’ It is humanity’s first tentative step towards a rough approximation of immortality .
‘All of the body,’ Swami Rama would say, ‘is in the mind. But not all of mind is in the body.’ He came up with his patented ‘field of energy’ yogic theory, which says that the mind is an individual’s perception of autonomic electrochemical processes in the body. The body was only the most coherent evidence of a ‘field of energy’ that comprised body and mind. And nature itself was a ‘field of mind': magnetic, electrostatic, electromagnetic, gravitational and a host of other amorphous ‘fields’ surround earth and are pieces of a universal—perhaps even multi-universal—field of energy in constant flux.
The Foundation is a long way from where the boy sadhu started out—the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttar Pradesh, India. A peripatetic yogi had told his pious family five years before the event, that the son to be born to them in 1925 would be an extraordinary piece of god’s work. The adult Swami Rama traveled around the country before briefly settling down as Shankaracharya of a somnolent mutt in Karviripitham in what was then the Deccan. He returned to Rishikesh to set up an ashram.
But restlessness got the better of him; a pattern of spiritual metastasis that dogged him for life. So he went to the USA in 1969 and served as a consultant to the Voluntary Controls Project of the research department of the Menninger Foundation at Topeka, Kansas.
What his growing popularity abroad led to was an inhumanly long time detoxifying jetlag. So he restricted his wanderings between his headquarters in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania and his ashram in Jolly Grant. The first was what he called the ‘coordination center’ of the institute’s diverse research into the paranormal, or what one of his professional acquaintances called the ‘paraconscious’. The Swami, says Jyoti Chandrachud at the Indian institute, could get profoundly irritated with the prefix ‘para’. He changed the phraseological structure of the saying, ‘nothing is impossible’ to ‘it is not nothing that is impossible, everything isn’t’.
It could well be the answer to a Zen koan that is waiting to be asked. He knew that ‘nothingness’ and nihilism were for the afraid. There was one arena left for him to include in his giant footprint: politics. Three national elections ago, he pushed in his candidature. He lost. ‘Losing was his one big failure,’ says Chandrachud. It chastened him and he turned the mirror upon himself, spending the next few years doing penance for that brief flash of vanity. And the fruit of penance is the pioneering institute of integrated medicine.
Swami Rama didn’t go in a blaze of glory: he left both the blaze and the glory behind in his institutes.
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