This week, on the streets of Pondicherry, I was blessed by an elephant.
And she raised her trunk to deliver, upon my forehead, a sacred thump, a story that I always felt compelled to compose, but never found the time to type, came back to mind. So please pardon the travel, and we go back in time, to…
Rishikesh, North India Spring of 2004
After turning the last page of my book, Living With The Himalayan Masters, I take a walk with one of my students along the Ganga to visit the part of the ashram where we make our morning mediations. As we stroll along the banks of the most sacred river in India, I share with my student some of my comments and thoughts left open on the book that I have just closed, “…he tells a story of when the elephants ate the roof right off the hut they were meditating in. Can you imagine? In this same exact place, only fifty years ago, wild elephants strolling the streets and taking meals of roofs where they please?!” Neither of us can imagine these dusty and motor-rickshaw-ridden streets being graced with anything more wild and savage than the Kashmiri merchants, and so we sigh and fancy the vision only.
We arrive at the ashram, spend an hour in guided mediation, and share breakfast with the community of teachers and students. After cleaning our dishes, my student says she’ll go to the bathroom and be right back. I wander out towards the gardens to wait for her.
As I’m taking a picture of the lotus pond, I notice an Indian man, and by his appearance (clean and modern) evidently a guest, look out the door of the kitchen and scan the area in search of someone. Settling on me, he approaches and finishes a conversation we’ve never started, “You wanted to see the wild elephants, yes? You sit on the Ganga, directly outside of this ashram, and at sunset they sometimes come to bathe.”
I put my hands out to steady the world as it spins around me for a second, and by the time I’ve found my balance, the man has said goodbye and is gone, and my student is back.
Sensing something off, she inquires, “Hey, are you okay?”
I look around and wonder the same, and then, thinking for one second that I still might be in reach of my reason ask, “I think so, but, hey… did you just tell someone about how we were talking about elephants this morning?” Her head cocks and her brow furrows, and on the slope of these doubting angles the rest of my sanity slips through my fingers like sand.
“What are you talking about?” she says with a squinted and suspicious eye.
My eyes dodge around as I scramble to string the pieces, and at the same time, a coherent sentence, together. But I’ve never been good at doing two things at once, and what comes out is a jumble of pauses and over-punctuation. “This man. He just came up. And said the elephants. The elephants! He said. Yes, wild elephants.Here? At sunset. Wait. You really didn’t? How’d he know? Do you think?Wild elephants?”
As the instructor, I really shouldn’t let my students see me in such a state. She gives me a look I remember giving my mother; one of those, “I’m gonna let this one slide” looks, and I, still unbelieving myself of what has just transpired, am all too happy to take her up on the subliminal offer.
When we meet up with my co-leader and the rest of the group, disregarding how I came upon the knowledge, I put out the proposal for a riverfront rendezvous at sunset. One of the less faithful students blurts out, “Wild elephants? Yeah right. Who told you this? I don’t believe it for a second.” Even my super trusting co-leader gives me a little side nudge and lowers his voice to say, “I’ve never seen any wild elephants here. Are you sure someone wasn’t playing a little joke on you?” Actually, I do feel like someone is playing a big joke on me, but I don’t think it was the man who told me about the wild elephant, and neither am I ready to laugh quite yet. So I tell the students I can make no promises, but the invite remains open.
I’ve never seen the Indian sun weak, but today in particular you can actually see the heat shimmering and sweating off the skin of the river. At a prime napping hour, and with a heavy yawn, I glance at my watch and easily understand why neither my students nor my co-leader have walked up the Ganga’s riverbank to join me. But that’s okay. Anyone who has ever witnessed a sunset over the Ganga knows that it’s always worth the watch and like no other sunset; it’s thicker, deeper, longer and lingering. It’s like the sun is loitering on the Ganga, and why not? If you were being worshiped by the earth’s largest congregation of followers who were all throwing arms and alms up into the air with offerings of carnations and candles and prayers, while chanting, singing and requesting of your sacred blessing, wouldn’t you also lollygag around just a little longer than usual before retiring?
At this spot in the river, there are not many revelers. But lit candles in banana leaf boats and orange, yellow and white wreathes of flowers float gracefully downstream in belated evidence of the presence of worshipers upriver. I pull out my journal and scribble some setting thoughts, but as the sun goes down and the light softens, I begin to scan the other side of the now backlit shore.
Suddenly, and to my jaw-dropping astonishment, I see a huge dark mass push its way through the trees on the far bank. Since everything is backlit, it’s only the outline of a shape that I see, but the mass shifts its weight, from one foot to another, in the telltale shuffle of the largest land-walking beast that still roams our planet. I can’t believe it. I rub my eyes. But I still can’t believe it. And as if it senses my doubt, the elephant slowly turns exactly ninety degrees, and with certain, clear and curving lines, presents one of the most identifiable shapes in kindergarten classes worldwide. Its trunk swings. Its ears flap. It shifts back and forth. And then it turns ninety degrees more, and disappears into the same shadows from which it emerged.
I want to cry. I want to cry because of the man who answered a question I didn’t ask him. And I want to cry because of the existence of an unnamed mover that used him to deliver the message. I want to cry because the elephant existed. And I want to cry because it was wild and free. I want to cry, because I’m all alone. And only by witnessing alone, could my faith have solely been owned. I want to cry because if it’s possible for such a sequence of events to pass, then any other sequence of pure magic can too. I want to cry because I don’t understand, but don’t need, or even want, to. I want to cry, because Life just paused, and bothered to take a single second of its time, to turn around and wink back at me.
My eyes well up as I raise my own silent song and alms in praise and appreciation for the sacred blessing not asked for, but so gracefully received.