Baba, The Black Sheep
No parent names his son Baba. It is suffix to a given name in India, particularly in the South, when a person attains some position, spiritually speaking, and generally given to older people. This is in total contrast to the word Bubba in the United States that refers to men with gaudy, ungentlemanly, or coarse behavior, particularly from southern states.
Practically, anybody can call himself Baba, since the suffix Baba is a self-proclamation to Babaship. Among Hindus, Brahmins known to have good knowledge on scriptures could be good candidates for the title. But anybody can scale the invincible barrier that surrounds and protect the Brahmins to claim Babaship with self-proclamation. A Baba could be from any caste among Hindus, or even a Muslim can be a Baba, as long as he cultivates appropriate attire and learns some tricks to convince people that it is to their own benefit to become followers or believers. Self-proclamation to Babaship is almost an equal opportunity (self) employment in India. Followers of a Baba can change their allegiance from one to another, if they were for some reason disappointed in their Baba. For example, if their Baba were to be exposed as a fake. Few Baba stood the test of time and retained their followers, so that they even trained and left their heir apparent to run the show.
Nobody is against people calling themselves Baba. Satyanarayana was a school dropout, one day he gave himself the suffix Baba, and became Satyanarayana Baba. Then dropped Satyanarayana altogether from his name and started calling himself Baba and the others started to call him Baba to his satisfaction. This was a clear-cut case of self-proclamation to Babaship, since no body bestowed him with the title. People just don’t change their names for nothing. He spent years in reading scriptures and practiced how to present the material eloquently in public. He attracted small gatherings at his home and then at the nearby temple where he became a resident speaker on various religious topics. Like copper metal which transmits heat or electric energy as fast as it absorbs it, a Baba has to learn quickly and retain the subject matter to present eloquently.
To enhance the legitimacy of a Baba, the physical appearance plays an important role. One should sport a beard (uncut preferred), and long hair; also wear appropriate loose-fitting garb or loin cloth in shades of yellow, orange, or red, representing the color of purity of the sun at dawn or dusk to absorb and destroy sin and sustain morality. Application of ash or pure limestone powder to shoulders and forehead would symbolize purity and disinterest in worldly comforts.
When Juggernaut was thirteen years old, after school he took private math lessons from his schoolteacher at his home. In that area, he first encountered a man wandering around butt naked. People called him Digambaram Baba (naked Baba). He was always naked, except once in a while when he wrapped a rag around his waist. He was always talking to himself in sign language while walking. On a few occasions, Juggernaut found Dhigambaram Baba far away from the street where his teacher lived. He walked slowly, non-stop for hours, covering many streets. Some people, mostly women, walk a few feet behind him, asking for solutions to their personal problems. They followed the wandering Baba, for his response. To walk behind a naked man in public is something that needs courage, particularly for women. Perhaps, if someone were that desperate, they would attempt anything.
Nobody knows Digambaram Baba’s religion or caste. Many believe that he was a Muslim; his followers were mostly old people and Hindus. His body from head to toe never seemed to receive an intentional wash, though his slow walks in the rain did some unintentional cleansing. People believed that Baba could foretell the future or answer any troubling question, if he was in a mood to do so. Otherwise, he might wander miles without responding to the queries. The followers carried some ‘prasad’ (sacred gift) such as a fruit for him. Juggernaut wished to confront him one day when nobody was around and ask about his own future. But this seemed impossible he could never walk behind a naked man in public for miles, and also he had so many questions in my mind, he was not sure with which one to begin with. Juggernaut once mentioned about Dhigamram Baba to his father. He said the Baba was just a beggar playing silent games with people to get free food.
In the early seventies, a Baba from North India came to the town on an invitation from a local wealthy businessman. The Baba set up his office in a small upstairs office in the downtown area. Rich people consulted the Baba before venturing into any new business or investments. This Baba, a kind of present-day financial advisor or analyst, but used stars in the sky or read the palm of the investor, and then expressed his opinion. Juggernaut’s father once sent him along with his rich cousin to Analyst Baba since his cousin’s investment in tractor business was sinking. The Baba took a hard look at his cousin’s blank face and rubbed his both palms together to signal that his cousin’s business would end up in ashes and warned him to never venture into any new business. Since then, the cousin failed in every business venture and ended up as a full-time drunk. Now, this is the kind of inexpensive Analyst Baba we need on Wall Street in place of high-priced financial planners.
The words Yogi and Baba are interchangeable, except Baba is generally an older person whereas Yogi can be of any age. If the person were a woman, the term would be Yogini. An older Yogini could be referred to as Amma (Mother). A Bala Yogi (a kind of spiritual protégé) was well known for living in self-imposed confinement without any food for several years in a concrete bunker- like structure on the banks of sacred River Godavari in the town of Rajamundry in South India. . Once every year, on an auspicious day according to Hindu calendar, Bala Yogi came out of his confinement to give a rare appearance to hundreds of thousands of his devotees. People who saw him from a distance described him as a small delicate man (he was not a child anymore) with long flowing gray hair almost touching his buttocks, he struggled and threw fits as men carried him from the confinement. His rare annual appearance was a big event in the region and nobody ever tried to rationalize how anybody could live without food. His devotees carried Prasad (gifts of food) to him on the day of public appearance for inexplicable reasons since the Bala Yogi don’t care for food. When Juggernaut was a kid, his grandmother visited one or two of the annual events of Bala Yogi’s public appearances. On her return, when Juggernaut made some childish remarks of disbelief in him, she touched her cheeks with both hands crossed, a sign language for forgiveness from god.
One of Juggernaut’s cousins never passed in his first attempt any of the tests from high school to law school. He repeated every final examination sometimes three or four times to pass. He was good with his hands though, always fixing his motor cycle, a British make. Once he shifted the entire steering wheel of his father’s car (a Ford ‘Prefect’) from right to left-hand side (as in the United States). When the police demanded that he should display boldly “Left Hand Driven Vehicle” on the back of the car, he stenciled the words in metallic paint neatly.
Once, a Baba stopped by Juggernaut’s cousin house. He was wearing traditional orange-color loose Baba garb; he made a conical shaped knot with the tip dangling from his long flowing hair at the top of his head, and his long beard was well groomed. His orange colored loincloth, wooden sandals, and large bead necklace dangling around his neck gave him dignified appearance. Vibudhi (finely ground limestone powder) was applied amply on his forehead and shoulders, a sign of disregard to worldly things. He seemed well fed. He spoke in Hindi; a Northern Indian language indicating that he was visiting South India. After some chat about his powers as a Baba, he predicted that the cousin would pass the test he took at Law School recently. The cousin, notorious for failing each subject several times, took Baba’s words lightly. This infuriated the Baba so much so, he started chanting few verses in ‘Sanskrit’ (an ancient Indian language) while dancing in a circular motion. He claimed that he took a life-long celibacy to concentrate his thoughts (which otherwise could be distracted easily) to obtain the powers in predicting future events. Then, to our total bewilderment, he pushed his hand into his under clothing and pulled out a four inch diameter copper ring that was pierced through the foreskin of his penis, a kind of self-castration to make his penis unusable. He said he was not an ordinary Baba but a true lifelong Brahmachari (a person who commits lifelong-true celibacy in pursuit of spirituality).
This spectacle shocked everybody. The Baba collected a handsome ‘dakshen’ (monetary gift) and walked away in dignity, chanting some more verses in Sanskrit. The test results came after few days and the cousin failed as usual in all the subjects including criminal psychology. What made Juggernaut sad was the unnecessary hope the Baba created in cousin’s mind. The whole episode was a hoax. Perhaps the Baba repeated his trick again and again for his livelihood and created false hope in the minds of vulnerable people.
Subramanian never attended school on a regular basis. He earned money scalping tickets at movies for money. His accountant brother financed his education to some extent and then eventually let his brother choose his way of living. Though Subramanyam did not like school, he knew he needed some skills to make living. So, he learned how to fix sewing machines and things of that nature. Eventually, he landed a good job in the sewing-machine manufacturing company. He married a girl who sang Bajans (Hindu religious songs) like nobody else could. People praised her voice and compared it to ‘Kokila’ a bird known for its extraordinary singing voice. Subramanyam was always learning new skills. This time, he learned how to play pillumgori or Indian flute made from local hollow bamboo. He played flute while his wife sang Bhajans at Puja (Hindu prayer) and other religious gatherings. Subramanyam could not hold a job for any length of time. His absenteeism from work due to drinking caused him to lose his job several times. He drank Kallu, a local cheap alcoholic drink brewed from Toddy Palm tree sap and got addicted to it. Eventually, Subramanyam became permanently unemployed. From singing Bhajans full time, his wife earned money to support her family.
People paid very little for listening to Bhajans. So Subramanyam came out with the idea of a total makeover for his wife to change her to yogini or spiritual woman. She wore the Indian garb ‘Sari’, in shades of color yellow, orange, or red. She applied turmeric paste (made from yellow-colored ground turmeric plant-roots) to her face and feet to look yellow- a color of holiness for Hindus. A large round red colored dot or tiluk, she placed at dead center of her forehead enhanced her spiritual looks. She decorated her neck with a few wooden bead necklaces and rubbed ashes abundantly on her arms. This entire makeover gave Subramanyam’s wife a true look of yogini. She called herself yogini and so did her husband. The entire community called her yogini from there onwards.
Subramanayam made up the gigs and his yogini wife performed them wonderfully. For example, at their home, they placed a brass container called Hundi to collect money at the end of the puja , and encouraged visitors to drop money in it with a promise that it would be carried personally to a large temple a few hundred miles away to give to god as dakshen. Since many people could not afford to travel that far away, they chose to drop money in the Hundi at yogini’s house. When the collections in the Houndi at their home started running dry, they started a town-wide collection campaign, street by street. Yogini while walking sang the Bhajans with the brass container in her hand. Subramanyam held an umbrella over her head to protect her from the sun or rain. They picked auspicious days and an appropriate tiny-sized Hindu deity (made from clay, copper, or brass) to carry with them on their road march. He promised that money dropped in the brass container would go to the intended deity.
Jatharas or religious annual processions carrying an idol of a village goddess were common in many villages in South India. In the procession, a few women, invariably threw fits as if possessed and danced in frenzy from drinking local brew and to music of heavy drumbeats. People interpreted this as not a regular fit (medical seizure) but a kind of religious fit or Punakam and the goddess was trying to convey a message through the woman. While going through fits or Punakam, the person spoke out loud of what would happen if her demands such as a bag of rice, new clothes, or other goods were not met. People splash cold water on the women in fits to calm her down and then presented her with whatever they had.
Subramanyam certainly might have gotten some cue from village jatharas and trained his wife how to start throwing fits or punakam in more a mild and respectable manner. For example, at the end of puja, his wife yogini threw fits as if she were in communication with God. While singing and dancing, she made demands for groceries or clothes for her family, but nothing fancy. She claimed that until her demands were met, the Puja they had performed was unworthy. People calmed her down by sprinkling water on her and gave some gifts. Some people stopped inviting them to puja from fear of yogini throwing fits and demanding gifts.
Somehow, Subramanyam and his yogini wife managed their lives with two kids performing these gigs. In each town, they lived not more than one or two years until they ran out of believers. Only the relatives knew how the Subramanyams made their living. Many relatives warned yogini about their way of living, but yogini had no choice; she had to support her two children and an unemployed husband addicted to toddy liquor.
After several years, yogini along with her children left her husband to live with her parents, at least temporarily. During that time, Subramanayam died silently in his sleep with his flute resting on his chest. It was sad to hear of his death. He was always remembered for his flashing smile after playing a few Indian tunes on his flute for the devotees of his wife.
Unlike poor relatives of Juggernaut, Mr. Ragahavan was a highly paid certified accountant for an American fertilizer company. He had no need to earn extra cash by playing Baba. He did performed weekly puja at his home and invited friends and acquaintances. What was unusual with Mr. Raghavan was that while performing puja, he sometimes got stiff and motionless; not even his eyes blink for several minutes as if he was possessed, then he became suddenly normal with a broad smile as if he just returned from an unknown trip, spiritual in nature. Some of his invitees carried pumpkins to his house as gifts on puja day, since he used pumpkin as a means through which he received messages from god. Though he didn’t want to be called Baba, people called him Pumpkin Baba. At the end of puja, some attendees would ask questions about their future and Pumpkin Baba, using a sword, would try to touch the pumpkin but for some mysterious reasons, the pumpkin wouldn’t stay put and slowly moved away from the sword. This he interpreted as difficult times ahead for the person in distress who asked the question. After a few years, Mr. Raghavan left town overnight. Apparently, the Fertilizer Company dismissed Mr. Raghavan for fraudulent accounting practices. Just like his accounting trickery that took years for the company to catch up, someone may come up with explanation for Mr. Raghavan’s pumpkin trick.
Mr. Pandey lost his father and moved into his parents’ large house with spacious airy bedrooms. After a few months, the troubles started. His children got seriously sick and he was overwhelmed with financial problems. Everything was dandy for so long while his father was alive and suddenly things went downhill for him. He called a Baba to find out the reasons for their misfortune. The Baba, after thorough inspection of the house just like a building inspector, made calculations of his own according to vaastu (ancient Hindu science based on orientation of rooms, location of doors and windows, and other fixtures in relation to the sun, the moon, and other celestial bodies), and then declared that the house was not built according vaastu. He advised Mr. Pandey to immediately vacate the section of the house he was occupying and move to the other section (used as storage rooms). The Baba cautioned Pandeys never to live in that first section since it brought all the misfortunes to them.
The section of the house Mr. Pandey moved into, a storage area did not get natural breezes at all. Since the house was not air-conditioned, like the houses in most towns, it was hot like hell, particularly in summer at temperatures well above 115˚F. And during the rainy season the humidity was well over 110 percent. It was a disaster for Pandey’s family. In addition to financial and health problems, now they were living in a hellhole. What was worse, the large bed rooms with natural breezes his parents occupied in the past were now used as storage rooms collecting dust. During a visit to Pandey’s home, sitting in a room like an oven, Juggernaut asked him for more details for moving in to the stuffy storage rooms. He said that vaastu was bad on the other side according to the Baba, so they moved out. “How about your parents who lived in that section of the house for almost forty years without any problems?” asked Juggernaut.
“It was the accumulated bad luck of forty years, I am paying for it now,” said Pandey, clearing his eyebrows from pouring sweat. Juggernaut was dumbfounded and left Pandey to sweat it out.
The real problems they faced were the sudden loss of income from death of Pandey’s father and nothing to do with vaastu or anything to do with celestial influence on the inhabitants of the house as reasoned by the vaastu Baba. The younger Pandey, throughout his entire adult life, had no job and lived off his parents’ wealth. When the income dried up after his father’s death, the realities kicked in and the Vaastu became a scapegoat for his own shortcomings.
Implementing vaastu became a cottage industry in India since scores of houses were built every year. A Baba that advises people based on vaastu was then in great demand. Baba made calculations and worked with the contractor or the architect to design the house according to vaastu before the house was built, like a City or County Zoning Regulations except vaastu code cannot be challenged in court. People were willing to pay a hefty fee for Baba rather than suffer later the unforeseen happenings. A slogan on a Vastu Baba storefront read: “Consult Vaastu Now and Save Money Later.” And another read: “Build your home according to Vaastu to avoid expensive remodeling costs later.” When Juggernaut saw sign boards like that during his recent visit to our town, it reminded him of the Global Positioning System using Satellites (GPS) that scientists back in the United States use in locating objects on earth. The vaastu Baba in India used a kind of GPS without the aid of satellites to design homes for the safety of its inhabitants - safety from bad luck with no consequence to physical comfort or safety.
The resale value of existing homes depended upon if the homes were built according to vaastu. A prospective home buyer would hire a vaastu Baba prior to building inspector to walk through the house to make sure whether the house was built according to the vaastu or not. Compliance to vaastu rules was more important than the quality and safety of the house construction. If the house failed to meet vaastu, a Baba recommends cosmetic changes such as installing a window or door with no practical use or real purpose but just to comply with vaastu, to give peace of mind to the occupants, and keep up the resale value of existing-homes.
Years ago, while working as an instructor in chemistry in a small town in Southern India, Juggernaut lived in what was originally a single house but converted to a duplex by a thin brick wall built right through the center of the house. The house, on the outskirts of the town, was surrounded by tall palm trees, scores of them, and the under brush served as a public latrine for the people in the surrounding area who did not have in-house plumbing, a luxury in those days. The house in which Juggernaut lived did not have in-house plumbing either, but an outhouse served the tenants. Juggernaut enjoyed living in one of the duplexes until a retired District Superintendent of Police (DSP) moved with his family into the vacant duplex.
After several days the DSP moved in, during the middle of the night, a sudden shriek like laughter of a girl woke Juggernaut up. It was a frightening long drawn-out laugh, he felt like sitting in a horror movie with his eyes closed. She could be the new neighbor’s daughter laughing, perhaps she was mentally ill. Juggernaut heard voices to calm her down.
To use the outdoor latrine, Juggernaut had to walk past the deep- water well that supplied water to the tenants. The water well was not a bore-well, but a typical circular (at least six feet diameter) well with a concrete or brick wall rising above ground (four-feet) for safety. This kind of well was very common in South India, used for centuries for water supply to individual homes or communities. Using a small steel bucket attached to a rope, water is drawn from the well since the water table is shallow (around ten feet) in the area.
Late at night, Juggernaut avoided the use of the latrine, particularly during rain. Darkness, shadows and the sounds from the movement of the palm trees scared him easily. If he couldn’t hold it until the morning, he did go to the latrine late at nights. One night, Juggernaut opened the back door and walked toward the latrine with flashlight in hand. A girl was trying a balancing act of walking on six-inch thick wall of the water well. Juggernaut heart stopped ticking and froze. The inclination to relieve himself stopped abruptly from the sudden fear factor. He ran to the front of the house and knocked on the DSP’s door and told him that his daughter was in danger of falling into the well in the backyard. The next day, the DSP did not say anything, not a word, about the incident. It was like a secret they want to kept to themselves about their daughter’s mental illness, if that were the reason for her behavior.
A few months passed and Juggernaut got used to the occasional shriek-like laughs. One day while sitting on his verandah correcting some of his students’ papers, a constable visiting his old boss (DSP) came by, asking for a cigarette. And while smoking in a matter-of- fact way, he said that DSP’s eldest daughter suffered from schizophrenia and her doctor husband lived in Ireland. It was sad to hear the retired DSP’s family story from his loyal constable.
One night, Juggernaut heard a commotion in DSP’s house at almost mid night. The DSP knocked at Juggernaut’s front door and asked if he could visit his duplex to participate in a Puja (Hindu religious prayer). In a sleepy mood, Juggernaut swaggered into his house and in total surprise recognized (from pictures) Amma, or spiritual woman, in person sitting on a chair surrounded by few devotees. Amma was famous in that region for her spiritual healing of people with all kinds of aliments. She has thousands of devotees; her place of living and prayer (Asram) was a few hundred miles from the town. What was astonishing was for her to visit her devotee in the middle of the night, unannounced. The DSP and his family were flabbergasted by her visit and were topsy- turvy to serve her and her entourage that came in several cars. That was the first time, Juggernaut was invited into DSP’s house. The girl who stood on the deep water well some days ago looked pale, very thin, and almost expressionless. The DSP’s family conducted prayers along with Amma’s entourage. At the end of puja every devotee prostrated in front of Amma’s feet in humility as a symbol of respect to her. Juggernaut was little bit hesitant at the beginning. Realizing this, Amma in a motherly tone made him do it anyway. The DSP was a dedicated devotee of Amma and the reason he came to this town after his retirement was to live in this area close by Amma’s ashram for blessings and more importantly for spiritual treatment for his schizophrenic daughter. During the midnight hours, in a glittering pure silk sari, and pure gold, diamond, ruby, and emerald jewelry, Amma really looked like a million-dollar woman. Her entourage was more like her security detail than her devotees. As quickly as she appeared, she left after the Puja, like the visit of a high-ranking politician to her home constituency.
After six or eight months, the DSP and family packed up and left. The constable, who helped them pack, told me that they decided to go to their native town hundreds of miles away. Apparently, the DSP was disappointed with Amma’s spiritual treatment of his daughter, or lack of it.
After several years, Juggernaut came to know that Amma suffered a heart attack and later died. In fact one of Juggernaut’s uncles, a cardiologist, had treated her. Amma, while providing spiritual healing to her believers received handsome dakhen (money rewards) and used it in part to pay for her own high-tech heart treatment. It is a kind of spiritual recycling of money and services that benefited nobody in the end, neither the provider nor the receiver. Her ashram was in deep debts even before she died, since she spent a lot of money on expensive jewelry and pure silk saris. The ashram was shut down after her death and the debtors confiscated the ashram and all her belongings, including a fleet of her cars.
Juggernaut’s father-in-law, a retired Chief Engineer a high-ranking civil servant was a fine gentleman and highly hospitable. One day while Juggernaut visiting his father-in-law, a Baba with five of his disciples passing in front of the house, stopped, and entered hesitantly the front yard. The father-in-law got up from his chair and walked into the yard and respectably made a namaskar or salutation to the Baba. Baba in return raised his right hand up, palm stretching out towards the sky, and then lowered it slowly and let it stay in a horizontal position for a few seconds. The father-in-law with his two sons invited the Baba and his five disciples into the home with great humility. Juggernaut being the only non-believer kept his feelings to himself.
After a brief chat, Baba and his gang sang few Hindu prayer songs to the delight of all the family members. Juggernaut’s brother-in-law rushed to a nearby market to fetch banana leaves and fruits, betel leaves and nuts, and other knick-knacks as a donation to Baba. The mother-in-law, a gracious woman, quickly prepared steamed rice, dahl (mashed-up boiled peas), and vegetable curry. On large banana leaves placed on the tiled floor in the family room, food was served to Baba and his disciples, who all squatted on the floor. Using steamed rice, like civil engineers they built small dikes around each dish to prevent food from running of the Banana leaf. Using their fingers, they mixed the steamed rice with dahl, curry, and yogurt, in that proper order to make slurry and pushed it into their mouths with suckling noises. They ate as if they were all in some kind of eating competition, under the graceful and watchful eyes of the father-in-law. After completing the meal, they made a little silent ritual, perhaps praying for a re-visit. They had a tough time getting up from their squatting position on the floor, so each person had to help each other get on their feet.
On the front verandah, all the family members received some kind of blessings from every disciple of Baba. In return, the graceful father-in-law gave them traditional dakhen, consisting of a few coins, fruits, and betel leaves and nuts. The Baba appeared disappointed, perhaps expected brand new pure silk clothes as dakhen as well, but that was not in the mind of the father-in-law. For the most part, Juggernaut was a silent observer during that event. He saw the satisfaction in the eyes of his in-laws as they considered it noble cause by feeding six people and perhaps in return obtained some moksha or salvation. For Juggernaut, who tries to rationalize every event, it was hard to see his mother-in-law feverishly at work making a meal for these people, whose background was unknown except for their Baba outfits and talent in chanting a few religious prayers. Living away from India for so long may be one of the reasons; Juggernaut may look at events of this kind from a totally different angle.
Juggernaut’s younger brother-in-law, an engineer by profession, gave him a ride on his motorbike the next day to a nearby shopping mall. There he saw the gang of six walking briskly in their orange-colored garb, perhaps searching for the next sumptuous free meal. Where had they slept last night? Perhaps in some temple yard or even at a private home where some kind people were gracious enough to provide sleeping facilities. Juggernaut brought the attention of his brother-in-law riding the bike to the gang of six as they passed them. He smiled at Juggernaut, knowing his mind and what he was going to say.
Corporate Baba of the United States was equivalent to Indian Baba in many ways, except he wears a jacket and tie instead of orange-colored Baba garb. According to Hindu mythology, Hindu gods reincarnate once every 1000 years. In contrast, to attain corporate Babaship in the United States, one had to implement the sixty/forty and six-year reincarnation strategy. The sixty/forty rule means, sixty percent of time on the job was spent on company projects and forty percent on networking to broaden future contacts and job opportunities. A six-year cycle of reincarnation meant jumping from one employer to another at least once every six years. The first three years on the new job was to find faults with the predecessors’s work and the remaining three years to spend lot of company money on outside consultant buddies. At the end of six years, a new cycle of reincarnation began at a new place of employment. A total of four to five reincarnations would complete anybody’s corporate career with fat 401-K and other retirement benefits, and with lucrative stock options. Unless an employee rigorously implemented the corporate Babaship, the title of corporate V.P would not be bestowed.
The title Baba is comparable to Vice President, President, or any other titles at a corporation. There is no legitimacy to these titles such as doctor, professor, or judge. The corporate Baba in a jacket and tie, and the traditional Baba in the typical garb are spin-doctors. They twist and turn the information constantly to make it appealing.