Remembering Guru Maharaj

In honor of the new year, obeisance to a revered elder: Jatala Sadhu Sri Rama Viswambharadas.

I met Jatala Sadhu in early 1982, introduced to him by his disciple Vimalananda (Jatala Sadhu appears in the Aghora books as “Junior Guru Maharaj”). Thereafter I visited him at his ashram at Simhachalam (near Vishakhapatnam) once (occasionally twice) each year until he left this earth eleven years later. Each visit lasted for three days, which was his limit for guests from the outside world, and I felt extraordinarily fortunate to have been allowed that long. Guru Maharaj (which is how I always addressed him) was intensely intolerant of almost everyone, and at least once daily during my stay I would be treated to the spectacle of some pilgrim coming to his door hoping for permission to come into his presence only to be loudly told “Po re!” (Telegu for “Go on!” or “Git!”). Should such would-be devotees attempt to insist, importune or beg, Guru Maharaj would shout at them with greater volume, and if they still refused to move on he would pick up whatever was handy (a banana, a coconut, a rock) and throw it vigorously in the miscreant’s direction. That would do the trick.

Back in the ’70s Vimalananda bitterly but unsuccessfully opposed the plan hatched by a rich Bombayite to build an ashram for him, an ashram which thereafter became (as Vimalananda had predicted) a millstone around Jatala Sadhu’s neck. Yes, Guru Maharaj lived there, and yes, selected visitors (including yours truly) were permitted to stay a night or two there; but the end of construction brought the beginning of headaches: how to pay the bills and the taxes, who would clean and keep the place up, and all the rest of the nagging obligations that pester any property owner, obligations that should not (in Vimalananda’s opinion) have been permitted to pester a sadhu.

Guru Maharaj’s keen determination to remain obscure did not survive him. After his departure from life it did not take long for his followers to start to disagree among themselves as to how best to maintain his memory. Though for some time after the transition attention remained focused on his ashram and its caretakers, the epicenter of activity eventually shifted to the capacious shrine built atop his samadhi, and the group from Hyderabad that built it. Mirabile dictu, there is now even a website dedicated to Jatala Sadhu, a title which literally translates, “The Ascetic Sporting Dreadlocks”.

Whatever may be the veracity behind the claims on that site for his longevity (and I can personally testify to the fact that he was indeed very, VERY old), what strikes me most about this site is its focus on the life-size stone image of Guru Maharaj and the ritual worship performed upon it. Few were permitted even to touch his feet while he lived (I was one of the lucky ones actually allowed to periodically massage his legs); now his entire body has become (symbolically) available to those who wish to venerate him ritually. O tempora! O mores!