By Maria Wirth December 2010 The author remembers her first encounter with the venerable Devraha Baba at the Ardha Kumbh in Haridwar in 1980. Devraha BabaDevraha Baba hailed from Deoria District in UP and was called, ‘The ageless yogi.’ Nobody knows for sure how long he lived – at least 200 years, but probably much longer. The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, stated that his father had sat at the feet of Devraha Baba as a child in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Devraha Baba was already old at that time. An Allahabad high court barrister had stated that seven generations of his family had sat at the feet of Baba. Onelegend has it that Devraha blessed Tulsidas (1532 – 1623). Devraha Babahimself claimed that he had lived for over 700 years. Baba was observed staying under water unaided for half an hour. He also reportedly could be in two places simultaneously and understand the language of animals, could control wild animals, heal people by a look or word, and forecast the future. Devraha Baba had supposedly predicted the time of his death five years in advance. His samadhi is located across the Yamuna from the pilgrim city of Vrindavan. I had landed in Haridwar, on the advice of a photographer in Delhi, without knowing what lay in front of me. He had mentioned that a festival was being celebrated there, but I had no idea what type of festival it was, and what amazing crowds it would attract. He sent me into spiritual India, and I am eternally grateful for it. A few days after reaching Haridwar, I met an impressive yogi. I sat on the banks of the Ganges behind the tourist bungalow (now Alaknanda hotel), and saw on the other side of the broad riverbed, a wooden hut on poles, which was constructed on the sandy beach. An American, whom I knew from the tourist bungalow, waded through the Ganges straight towards me, “Would you like to see an extraordinary man? If yes, I will help you cross the Ganges,” he offered. “Over there, in that hut, stays Devraha Baba. He is supposed to be enlightened and more than 300 years old. He is one of those who knows what life is all about. It is always worthwhile to meet such people.” Of course, I was interested and we crossed the Ganges together. The river had appeared peaceful and calm from the bank, yet the current was amazingly strong and the stones on the ground were slippery. I was glad that my companion was over two metres tall, looked like an archangel incarnate with his long blonde hair and gave the impression that there was nothing to fear. Devraha Baba had watched us coming because he scolded us when we reached him. It was far too dangerous to cross the river. We should take the bridge, which was two kilometres upstream, he said. A sadhu with matted hair piled high up on his head translated this for us. The darshan Baba waved us closer and asked me where I came from. He benignly nodded his head a few times. Then he murmured a Sanskrit mantra and asked us to repeat it line by line. Except for ‘Krishna’, I did not understand a word. Then he instructed the sadhu to give us sugar candies, so many that we just managed to hold with both our hands. With difficulty, we wrapped them into a shawl, including those which had landed in the sand. Then Baba gave us his blessing and sent us away. He turned to others, who had come by car with a basket full of fruits for him. We ignored Baba’s advice and bravely crossed the river again. Back in my room in the tourist bungalow, I noticed that I liked Baba. In fact, I liked him very much. My heart jumped with joy at the thought that I would see him again the next day – almost as if I was in love, which seemed inexplicable. From then on, I went every morning to see him. Sometimes I walked over the bridge, sometimes I waded through the river with the tall American and sometimes I got a lift by a car. On one of those occasions, an elderly man told me that his grandfather took him to Devraha Baba from the time he was a small boy. In addition, his grandfather had assured him that, when he himself was a small boy, Baba looked already like a very old man. Baba sat usually on the narrow wooden balcony supported by poles. One could only see his head with the unkempt, long hair and the aged bluish eyes. His arms were hanging down from the balustrade and he often raised his hand to generously give his blessings. Occasionally, he was not there. Then either he was in the small room behind the balcony or bathing in the Ganges, and all of us, who had come for his darshan, would sit on the burning sand, occasionally dipping a handkerchief into the river and placing it on our heads to cool down. Sometimes,we waited for half an hour in the hot sun without a single tree nearby to give shade. The Indians quietly chanted “Siya Ram, Siya Ram”. They could chant those names repeatedly probably even a million times without feeling tired. Why did we wait so meekly? I could not find an explanation. Yet I also did not want to leave, even though my mind played up and resisted the waiting at times, when the discomfort became too evident. I asked myself why I took upon myself the heat, the waiting, the hot sand, just to see an old man, who, if I was lucky, granted me his attention for maximum five minutes? I wondered whether the others also faced such rebellious thoughts. Nobody left. Then, when all of a sudden the door opened and Baba appeared on the veranda, a whisper went through the crowd and it surged towards him. The atmosphere was suddenly charged. The heat and the waiting were forgotten. He radiated strength, confidence, and above all, kindness and love. Like a father figure, he compassionately enquired about the problems of his devotees or brushed them aside, whatever he felt was more appropriate. True freedom It was a study in contrasts. On one side there were cultured, often wealthy people, the women dressed in silk and laden with jewellery, with their chauffeur-driven cars parked close by. And yet here they were supplicants with folded hands, hopping barefoot from one foot to the other to avoid burning their delicate soles in the hot sand. As they looked imploringly at Baba, one could discern their hope that his blessing would ease their problems, and that he would not disappoint them. On the other side, up on the balcony, there was the ancient Baba, naked, with unkempt hair, but free – free from fear, free from desires, free from the world and full of confidence and radiance. No matter what problems his devotees had mentioned, his advice was always the same. “Trust fully in God, think of him, chant his name, hand over your worries to him, and don’t be attached to the world, to family and money. Make God the centre in your life. Develop love for him and do not be afraid, because everything is in his hands. Understand that the world has nothing worthwhile to offer to you. Find out who you really are. Realise that God and you cannot be separated. ‘Always tell the truth. Be righteous. Contribute to the welfare of society. Don’t harm anyone and help wherever you can. If you honour dharma, dharma will protect you.” And so on. His devotees probably had heard this umpteen times. Yet they rushed to him whenever they got a chance to hear it again. Baba was not the only one who gave this advice. During the festival, I heard it being broadcast via loudspeakers to the crowd from many platforms. Often, those sermons sounded like obtrusive advertisements in a fair. I realised that it all depended on who gave the sermon. Was it someone who wanted to show off or who wanted to be helpful? Did he know what he talked about when he spoke about truth, trust in God, and having no fear and desires, or was he himself still full of desires and fear, did not quite trust God, and knew about truth only by hearsay Regarding Devraha Baba, I felt he was genuine. I could sense that he wished us well and that he could not quite understand why we took our problems so seriously, and why we could not just shake them off and laugh about them. One day, Baba disappeared. I saw the signs from my window in the tourist bungalow before breakfast, but did not want to believe it. The few sadhus who stayed around him had dismantled the hut before dawn and had moved with him to Varanasi. The sandy beach on the other side of the Ganges looked forlorn and deserted. Six years later, during the Maha Kumbh in 1986, I met him again at the same place. A steady stream of visitors went to his hut on the other side of the Ganges throughout the day. One evening he gave an interview to All India Radio. The reporter had hoisted a microphone up to him on his verandah. Baba thundered into the microphone, his frail body full of strength and confidence. It was his usual advice – “Trust in God completely and be a good human being. Then he will definitely look after you.” Some years later in 1989, I stood in the queue in the dining hall, at the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. A friend joined the young man in front of me and they started talking in English. Suddenly my ears perked up. “Really? Devraha Baba has died?” I interrupted. They nodded their head. “Yes. Devraha Baba has left his body.” A film passed before my inner eye. I saw him sitting on his balcony in bright sunlight with long, unkempt hair, murmuring mantras and his hand raised for blessings. I was grateful that he had been here with us. Personally, I was especially grateful for a small episode. It was in 1980 shortly before he had disappeared. It was the first and only time I had gathered the courage to speak to him. I told Baba through his translator sadhu that I would like to stay longer in India, longer than the tourist visa allows. “Baba gives you his blessings,” the sadhu translated. Yet Baba didn’t seem to agree with the t
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