Chapter 46: The Woman Yogi Who Never Eats
“Sir, whither are we bound this morning?” Mr. Wright was driving the Ford; he took his eyes off the road long enough to gaze at me with a questioning twinkle. From day to day he seldom knew what part of Bengal he would be discovering next.
“God willing,” I replied devoutly, “we are on our way to see an eighth wonder of the world—a woman saint whose diet is thin air!”
“Repetition of wonders—after Therese Neumann.” But Mr. Wright laughed eagerly just the same; he even accelerated the speed of the car. More extraordinary grist for his travel diary! Not one of an average tourist, that!
The Ranchi school had just been left behind us; we had risen before the sun. Besides my secretary and myself, three Bengali friends were in the party. We drank in the exhilarating air, the natural wine of the morning. Our driver guided the car warily among the early peasants and the two-wheeled carts, slowly drawn by yoked, hump-shouldered bullocks, inclined to dispute the road with a honking interloper.
“Sir, we would like to know more of the fasting saint.”
“‘I know Giri Bala well,’ Sthiti Babu told me. ‘She employs a certain yoga technique which enables her to live without eating. I was her close neighbor in Nawabganj near Ichapur.1 I made it a point to watch her closely; never did I find evidence that she was taking either food or drink. My interest finally mounted so high that I approached the Maharaja of Burdwan2 and asked him to conduct an investigation. Astounded at the story, he invited her to his palace. She agreed to a test and lived for two months locked up in a small section of his home. Later she returned for a palace visit of twenty days; and then for a third test of fifteen days. The Maharaja himself told me that these three rigorous scrutinies had convinced him beyond doubt of her non-eating state.’
“This story of Sthiti Babu’s has remained in my mind for over twenty-five years,” I concluded. “Sometimes in America I wondered if the river of time would not swallow the yogini3 before I could meet her. She must be quite aged now. I do not even know where, or if, she lives. But in a few hours we shall reach Purulia; her brother has a home there.”
By ten-thirty our little group was conversing with the brother, Lambadar Dey, a lawyer of Purulia.
“Yes, my sister is living. She sometimes stays with me here, but at present she is at our family home in Biur.” Lambadar Babu glanced doubtfully at the Ford. “I hardly think, Swamiji, that any automobile has ever penetrated into the interior as far as Biur. It might be best if you all resign yourselves to the ancient jolt of the bullock cart!”
“The Ford comes from America,” I told the lawyer. “It would be a shame to deprive it of an opportunity to get acquainted with the heart of Bengal!”
“May Ganesh4 go with you!” Lambadar Babu said, laughing. He added courteously, “If you ever get there, I am sure Giri Bala will be glad to see you. She is approaching her seventies, but continues in excellent health.”
“Please tell me, sir, if it is absolutely true that she eats nothing?” I looked directly into his eyes, those telltale windows of the mind.
“It is true.” His gaze was open and honorable. “In more than five decades I have never seen her eat a morsel. If the world suddenly came to an end, I could not be more astonished than by the sight of my sister’s taking food!”
We chuckled together over the improbability of these two cosmic events.
“Giri Bala has never sought an inaccessible solitude for her yoga practices,” Lambadar Babu went on. “She has lived her entire life surrounded by her family and friends. They are all well accustomed now to her strange state. Not one of them who would not be stupefied if Giri Bala suddenly decided to eat anything! Sister is naturally retiring, as befits a Hindu widow, but our little circle in Purulia and in Biur all know that she is literally an ‘exceptional’ woman.”
The brother’s sincerity was manifest. Our little party thanked him warmly and set out toward Biur. We stopped at a street shop for curry and luchis, attracting a swarm of urchins who gathered round to watch Mr. Wright eating with his fingers in the simple Hindu manner.5 Hearty appetites caused us to fortify ourselves against an afternoon which, unknown at the moment, was to prove fairly laborious.
Our way now led east through sun-baked rice fields into the Burdwan section of Bengal. On through roads lined with dense vegetation; the songs of the maynas and the stripe-throated bulbuls streamed out from trees with huge, umbrellalike branches. A bullock cart now and then, the rini, rini, manju, manju squeak of its axle and iron-shod wooden wheels contrasting sharply in mind with the swish, swish of auto tires over the aristocratic asphalt of the cities.
“Dick, halt!” My sudden request brought a jolting protest from the Ford. “That overburdened mango tree is fairly shouting an invitation!”
The five of us dashed like children to the mango-strewn earth; the tree had benevolently shed its fruits as they had ripened.
“Full many a mango is born to lie unseen,” I paraphrased, “and waste its sweetness on the stony ground.”
“Nothing like this in America, Swamiji, eh?” laughed Sailesh Mazumdar, one of my Bengali students.
“No,” I admitted, covered with mango juice and contentment. “How I have missed this fruit in the West! A Hindu’s heaven without mangoes is inconceivable!”
I picked up a rock and downed a proud beauty hidden on the highest limb.
“Dick,” I asked between bites of ambrosia, warm with the tropical sun, “are all the cameras in the car?”
“Yes, sir; in the baggage compartment.”
“If Giri Bala proves to be a true saint, I want to write about her in the West. A Hindu yogini with such inspiring powers should not live and die unknown—like most of these mangoes.”
Half an hour later I was still strolling in the sylvan peace.
“Sir,” Mr. Wright remarked, “we should reach Giri Bala before the sun sets, to have enough light for photographs.” He added with a grin, “The Westerners are a skeptical lot; we can’t expect them to believe in the lady without any pictures!”
This bit of wisdom was indisputable; I turned my back on temptation and reentered the car.
“You are right, Dick,” I sighed as we sped along, “I sacrifice the mango paradise on the altar of Western realism. Photographs we must have!”
The road became more and more sickly: wrinkles of ruts, boils of hardened clay, the sad infirmities of old age! Our group dismounted occasionally to allow Mr. Wright to more easily maneuver the Ford, which the four of us pushed from behind.
“Lambadar Babu spoke truly,” Sailesh acknowledged. “The car is not carrying us; we are carrying the car!”
Our climb-in, climb-out auto tedium was beguiled ever and anon by the appearance of a village, each one a scene of quaint simplicity.
“Our way twisted and turned through groves of palms among ancient, unspoiled villages nestling in the forest shade,” Mr. Wright has recorded in his travel diary, under date of May 5, 1936. “Very fascinating are these clusters of thatched mud huts, decorated with one of the names of God on the door; many small, naked children innocently playing about, pausing to stare or run wildly from this big, black, bullockless carriage tearing madly through their village. The women merely peep from the shadows, while the men lazily loll beneath the trees along the roadside, curious beneath their nonchalance. In one place, all the villagers were gaily bathing in the large tank (in their garments, changing by draping dry cloths around their bodies, dropping the wet ones). Women bearing water to their homes, in huge brass jars.
“The road led us a merry chase over mount and ridge; we bounced and tossed, dipped into small streams, detoured around an unfinished causeway, slithered across dry, sandy river beds and finally, about 5:00 P.M., we were close to our destination, Biur. This minute village in the interior of Bankura District, hidden in the protection of dense foliage, is unapproachable by travelers during the rainy season, when the streams are raging torrents and the roads serpentlike spit the mud-venom.
“Asking for a guide among a group of worshipers on their way home from a temple prayer (out in the lonely field), we were besieged by a dozen scantily clad lads who clambered on the sides of the car, eager to conduct us to Giri Bala.
“The road led toward a grove of date palms sheltering a group of mud huts, but before we had reached it, the Ford was momentarily tipped at a dangerous angle, tossed up and dropped down. The narrow trail led around trees and tank, over ridges, into holes and deep ruts. The car became anchored on a clump of bushes, then grounded on a hillock, requiring a lift of earth clods; on we proceeded, slowly and carefully; suddenly the way was stopped by a mass of brush in the middle of the cart track, necessitating a detour down a precipitous ledge into a dry tank, rescue from which demanded some scraping, adzing, and shoveling. Again and again the road seemed impassable, but the pilgrimage must go on; obliging lads fetched spades and demolished the obstacles (shades of Ganesh!) while hundreds of children and parents stared.
“Soon we were threading our way along the two ruts of antiquity, women gazing wide-eyed from their hut doors, men trailing alongside and behind us, children scampering to swell the procession. Ours was perhaps the first auto to traverse these roads; the ‘bullock cart union’ must be omnipotent here! What a sensation we created—a group piloted by an American and pioneering in a snorting car right into their hamlet fastness, invading the ancient privacy and sanctity!
“Halting by a narrow lane we found ourselves within a hundred feet of Giri Bala’s ancestral home. We felt the thrill of fulfillment after the long road struggle crowned by a rough finish. We approached a large, two-storied building of brick and plaster, dominating the surrounding adobe huts; the house was under the process of repair, for around it was the characteristically tropical framework of bamboos.
“With feverish anticipation and suppressed rejoicing we stood before the open doors of the one blessed by the Lord’s ‘hungerless’ touch. Constantly agape were the villagers, young and old, bare and dressed, women aloof somewhat but inquisitive too, men and boys unabashedly at our heels as they gazed on this unprecedented spectacle.
“Soon a short figure came into view in the doorway—Giri Bala! She was swathed in a cloth of dull, goldish silk; in typically Indian fashion, she drew forward modestly and hesitatingly, peering slightly from beneath the upper fold of her swadeshi cloth. Her eyes glistened like smouldering embers in the shadow of her head piece; we were enamored by a most benevolent and kindly face, a face of realization and understanding, free from the taint of earthly attachment.
“Meekly she approached and silently assented to our snapping a number of pictures with our ‘still’ and ‘movie’ cameras.6 Patiently and shyly she endured our photo techniques of posture adjustment and light arrangement. Finally we had recorded for posterity many photographs of the only woman in the world who is known to have lived without food or drink for over fifty years. (Therese Neumann, of course, has fasted since 1923.) Most motherly was Giri Bala’s expression as she stood before us, completely covered in the loose-flowing cloth, nothing of her body visible but her face with its downcast eyes, her hands, and her tiny feet. A face of rare peace and innocent poise—a wide, childlike, quivering lip, a feminine nose, narrow, sparkling eyes, and a wistful smile.”
Mr. Wright’s impression of Giri Bala was shared by myself; spirituality enfolded her like her gently shining veil. She pronamed before me in the customary gesture of greeting from a householder to a monk. Her simple charm and quiet smile gave us a welcome beyond that of honeyed oratory; forgotten was our difficult, dusty trip.
The little saint seated herself cross-legged on the verandah. Though bearing the scars of age, she was not emaciated; her olive-colored skin had remained clear and healthy in tone.
“Mother,” I said in Bengali, “for over twenty-five years I have thought eagerly of this very pilgrimage! I heard about your sacred life from Sthiti Lal Nundy Babu.”
She nodded in acknowledgment. “Yes, my good neighbor in Nawabganj.”
“During those years I have crossed the oceans, but I never forgot my early plan to someday see you. The sublime drama that you are here playing so inconspicuously should be blazoned before a world that has long forgotten the inner food divine.”
The saint lifted her eyes for a minute, smiling with serene interest.
“Baba (honored father) knows best,” she answered meekly.
I was happy that she had taken no offense; one never knows how great yogis or yoginis will react to the thought of publicity. They shun it, as a rule, wishing to pursue in silence the profound soul research. An inner sanction comes to them when the proper time arrives to display their lives openly for the benefit of seeking minds.
“Mother,” I went on, “please forgive me, then, for burdening you with many questions. Kindly answer only those that please you; I shall understand your silence, also.”
She spread her hands in a gracious gesture. “I am glad to reply, insofar as an insignificant person like myself can give satisfactory answers.”
“Oh, no, not insignificant!” I protested sincerely. “You are a great soul.”
“I am the humble servant of all.” She added quaintly, “I love to cook and feed people.”
A strange pastime, I thought, for a non-eating saint!
“Tell me, Mother, from your own lips—do you live without food?”
“That is true.” She was silent for a few moments; her next remark showed that she had been struggling with mental arithmetic. “From the age of twelve years four months down to my present age of sixty-eight—a period of over fifty-six years—I have not eaten food or taken liquids.”
“Are you never tempted to eat?”
“If I felt a craving for food, I would have to eat.” Simply yet regally she stated this axiomatic truth, one known too well by a world revolving around three meals a day!
“Of course!” She smiled in swift understanding.
“Your nourishment derives from the finer energies of the air and sunlight,7 and from the cosmic power which recharges your body through the medulla oblongata.”
“Baba knows.” Again she acquiesced, her manner soothing and unemphatic.
“Mother, please tell me about your early life. It holds a deep interest for all of India, and even for our brothers and sisters beyond the seas.”
Giri Bala put aside her habitual reserve, relaxing into a conversational mood.
“So be it.” Her voice was low and firm. “I was born in these forest regions. My childhood was unremarkable save that I was possessed by an insatiable appetite. I had been betrothed in early years.
“‘Child,’ my mother often warned me, ‘try to control your greed. When the time comes for you to live among strangers in your husband’s family, what will they think of you if your days are spent in nothing but eating?’
“The calamity she had foreseen came to pass. I was only twelve when I joined my husband’s people in Nawabganj. My mother-in-law shamed me morning, noon, and night about my gluttonous habits. Her scoldings were a blessing in disguise, however; they roused my dormant spiritual tendencies. One morning her ridicule was merciless.
“‘I shall soon prove to you,’ I said, stung to the quick, ‘that I shall never touch food again as long as I live.’
“My mother-in-law laughed in derision. ‘So!’ she said, ‘how can you live without eating, when you cannot live without overeating?’
“This remark was unanswerable! Yet an iron resolution scaffolded my spirit. In a secluded spot I sought my Heavenly Father.
“‘Lord,’ I prayed incessantly, ‘please send me a guru, one who can teach me to live by Thy light and not by food.’
“A divine ecstasy fell over me. Led by a beatific spell, I set out for the Nawabganj ghat on the Ganges. On the way I encountered the priest of my husband’s family.
“‘Venerable sir,’ I said trustingly, ‘kindly tell me how to live without eating.’
“He stared at me without reply. Finally he spoke in a consoling manner. ‘Child,’ he said, ‘come to the temple this evening; I will conduct a special Vedic ceremony for you.’
“This vague answer was not the one I was seeking; I continued toward the ghat. The morning sun pierced the waters; I purified myself in the Ganges, as though for a sacred initiation. As I left the river bank, my wet cloth around me, in the broad glare of day my master materialized himself before me!
“‘Dear little one,’ he said in a voice of loving compassion, ‘I am the guru sent here by God to fulfill your urgent prayer. He was deeply touched by its very unusual nature! From today you shall live by the astral light, your bodily atoms fed from the infinite current.'”
Giri Bala fell into silence. I took Mr. Wright’s pencil and pad and translated into English a few items for his information.
The saint resumed the tale, her gentle voice barely audible. “The ghat was deserted, but my guru cast round us an aura of guarding light, that no stray bathers later disturb us. He initiated me into a kria technique which frees the body from dependence on the gross food of mortals. The technique includes the use of a certain mantra8 and a breathing exercise more difficult than the average person could perform. No medicine or magic is involved; nothing beyond the kria.“
In the manner of the American newspaper reporter, who had unknowingly taught me his procedure, I questioned Giri Bala on many matters which I thought would be of interest to the world. She gave me, bit by bit, the following information:
“I have never had any children; many years ago I became a widow. I sleep very little, as sleep and waking are the same to me. I meditate at night, attending to my domestic duties in the daytime. I slightly feel the change in climate from season to season. I have never been sick or experienced any disease. I feel only slight pain when accidentally injured. I have no bodily excretions. I can control my heart and breathing. I often see my guru as well as other great souls, in vision.”
“Mother,” I asked, “why don’t you teach others the method of living without food?”
My ambitious hopes for the world’s starving millions were nipped in the bud.
“No.” She shook her head. “I was strictly commanded by my guru not to divulge the secret. It is not his wish to tamper with God’s drama of creation. The farmers would not thank me if I taught many people to live without eating! The luscious fruits would lie uselessly on the ground. It appears that misery, starvation, and disease are whips of our karma which ultimately drive us to seek the true meaning of life.”
“Mother,” I said slowly, “what is the use of your having been singled out to live without eating?”
“To prove that man is Spirit.” Her face lit with wisdom. “To demonstrate that by divine advancement he can gradually learn to live by the Eternal Light and not by food.”
The saint sank into a deep meditative state. Her gaze was directed inward; the gentle depths of her eyes became expressionless. She gave a certain sigh, the prelude to the ecstatic breathless trance. For a time she had fled to the questionless realm, the heaven of inner joy.
The tropical darkness had fallen. The light of a small kerosene lamp flickered fitfully over the faces of a score of villagers squatting silently in the shadows. The darting glowworms and distant oil lanterns of the huts wove bright eerie patterns into the velvet night. It was the painful hour of parting; a slow, tedious journey lay before our little party.
“Giri Bala,” I said as the saint opened her eyes, “please give me a keepsake—a strip of one of your saris.“
She soon returned with a piece of Benares silk, extending it in her hand as she suddenly prostrated herself on the ground.
“Mother,” I said reverently, “rather let me touch your own blessed feet!”
1 In northern Bengal.
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2 H. H. Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab, now dead. His family doubtless possesses some record of the Maharaja’s three investigations of Giri Bala.
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3 Woman yogi.
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4 “Remover of Obstacles,” the god of good fortune.
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5 Sri Yukteswar used to say: “The Lord has given us the fruits of the good earth. We like to see our food, to smell it, to taste it-the Hindu likes also to touch it!” One does not mind hearing it, either, if no one else is present at the meal!
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6 Mr. Wright also took moving pictures of Sri Yukteswar during his last Winter Solstice Festival in Serampore.
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7 “What we eat is radiation; our food is so much quanta of energy,” Dr. George W. Crile of Cleveland told a gathering of medical men on May 17, 1933 in Memphis. “This all-important radiation, which releases electrical currents for the body’s electrical circuit, the nervous system, is given to food by the sun’s rays. Atoms, Dr. Crile says, are solar systems. Atoms are the vehicles that are filled with solar radiance as so many coiled springs. These countless atomfuls of energy are taken in as food. Once in the human body, these tense vehicles, the atoms, are discharged in the body’s protoplasm, the radiance furnishing new chemical energy, new electrical currents. ‘Your body is made up of such atoms,’ Dr. Crile said. ‘They are your muscles, brains, and sensory organs, such as the eyes and ears.'”
Someday scientists will discover how man can live directly on solar energy. “Chlorophyll is the only substance known in nature that somehow possesses the power to act as a ‘sunlight trap,'” William L. Laurence writes in the New York Times. “It ‘catches’ the energy of sunlight and stores it in the plant. Without this no life could exist. We obtain the energy we need for living from the solar energy stored in the plant-food we eat or in the flesh of the animals that eat the plants. The energy we obtain from coal or oil is solar energy trapped by the chlorophyll in plant life millions of years ago. We live by the sun through the agency of chlorophyll.”
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8 Potent vibratory chant. The literal translation of Sanskrit mantra is “instrument of thought,” signifying the ideal, inaudible sounds which represent one aspect of creation; when vocalized as syllables, a mantra constitutes a universal terminology. The infinite powers of sound derive from AUM, the “Word” or creative hum of the Cosmic Motor.
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