LOTUS OUT OF THE MUD

MA PREM PANKAJA (Love And Lotus)
Born in 1936 in Scunthorpe, England. Pankaja took sannyas in 1975 and presently lives in London, England.

40 Ma Prem Pankaja

In the early ’70s, I was living in a tall, Victorian house in Regent’s Park, London, with my American husband and our twins, Felix and Emily. I had been writing novels for several years and already had a couple published. In the middle of one based on my dad’s life, I found myself so full of rage that I thought I was going to explode. Somehow I had heard about Quaesitor, a growth centre started by Paul Lowe (later Teertha), and signed up for the most immediately available group, which turned out to be a marathon with Denny Yuson, later Veeresh.

I had no idea at all what it was about, and when we were all introducing ourselves, i said that my life was going great, my career was taking off, I had a gorgeous husband (though we were fighting a lot), and two wild and beautiful kids. I was cool, and I was just touching success.

One of the first exercises was walking around the room, looking into each other’s eyes. I looked into the eyes of a young guy with short, reddish hair and very blue eyes  and started to cry. I howled without stopping, barely drawing breath, for the rest of the 48 hours. All the pain of my childhood stories came pouring out. Abandonment, a mother with TB who spent most of my childhood in sanatoria having horrible operations, unable to hug or kiss me for fear of passing on germs; a nanny who tortured me – hung me out of an upstairs window and threatened to drop me when I wouldn’t eat my lunch; the privations and terrors of wartime England – where one egg per person per week was the height of luxury, and most nights were spent huddled in air raid shelters, listening to the howl of air raid sirens and the whine of doodlebugs and trying on our smelly gasmasks; moving from one horrible digs to another before my parents divorced – following my air force father; this father who eventually went mad and spent decades in a Dickensian lunatic asylum, with me as his legal guardian; 12 different schools and 17 different houses before I ended up in boarding school at the age of 6… I had a lot to cry about. It was a tremendous relief, and I came home after those two days high as a kite.

So then I became a group junkie, plunging into a seemingly bottomless pit of misery, rage, and fear, plus assorted British defence mechanisms. As one did in those innocent days, I had an affair with a group leader; Ed Elkin was booked to run a weekend in a month-long group somewhere near Ipswich with Poonam (now Claire, then the wife of Teertha), and he took me down with him. Both Teertha and Poonam had just come back from India with these new names and completely dressed in orange clothes. Ed left after the weekend, but I stayed on for the rest of the month.

One day I saw Poonam, her cloud of red hair like a halo, walking round the room holding her mala in both hands and looking so beautiful and blissed out that some of that flame passed to me, and I knew that Bhagwan was my master.

Poonam was quite a shock – she had two daughters, a few years younger than my kids, and was always to be seen in bed with one or other of the handsome young men from the group.

My husband and I were in the process of separating by mutual consent, but I still found it very difficult to even imagine sex with another man – unless, of course, they were a group leader and had hence given me permission (boarding school conditioning dies hard!).

Back in London, Poonam, who had nowhere to live but didn’t seem to be bothered by it, moved into our house, and we started having parties, at one of which she met another gorgeous young man with whom she stayed together for a couple of years. She started a nine-month therapy-training course and persuaded me and several other people from the group in Ipswich to join.

It was called a Therapy Training, but was basically just an introduction to the weird and wonderful world of groups. At the beginning, I was so revolted by the idea of touching another person’s naked body that massage was definitely not on the agenda (um, sex was different).

Howling and sobbing and feeling extremely sorry for myself were fine, as were spitting out all my horrible judgements about people, but being direct (what?) and expressing my anger were a different kettle of fish. My energy was very high; I went to the group two or three evenings a week and one weekend a month; I had two seven-year-olds to look after; I was deep into writing my fourth novel, and I had a new boyfriend – a history professor and art historian called Stewart Edwards, who later became Devopama. Not content with two careers – in one of which he had earned a Book Club choice for his history of the Paris Commune – Stewart was now studying to be an acupuncturist and learning Tai Chi. He was also a vegan.

My son Felix had become a vegetarian when he was 5, but that meant mashed potatoes or cauliflower cheese and scrambled eggs, whereas Stewart needed brown rice and stir-fried vegetables.

At the time, I wasn’t in the least interested in either Tai Chi or acupuncture and thought his friends, who once had Fritjof Capra to tea and ate tahini instead of butter, were extremely weird, but tried my best to fit in.

I had finished the novel about my father but knew that there was another one to write before I could be free to go to Bhagwan. It felt like a mountain I had to climb – something that needed to be completed. This one required a trip to Vietnam; it was 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on, and I had been very involved in the Anti-War Movement as well as the Women’s Liberation Movement.

I took a three-week trip to South East Asia: three days in Singapore with an English businessman I was having an affair with (can’t remember how on earth all this fitted in), a couple of days in Penang, a train trip up the coast of Malaysia to Bangkok, a two-day bus journey to Vientiane through a Thailand full of GI’s, hamburger joints, and massage parlours, a couple of days in beautiful, idyllic Luang Prabang, then on to Cambodia hanging out with a displaced Argentinean photographer who took me to the battlefield, where we chatted with elegant French-speaking officers and a nine-year-old soldier who proudly pointed out the crater where his friend had been killed by a bomb the previous day.

Avoiding a minefield, we were pointed towards a carved wooden boat with a dragon’s head where a lady was serving palm wine to some members of the Khmer Rouge; we also drank some palm wine and talked for a while. They seemed to be radical academics, just like the friends with whom I had been studying Das Kapital the previous month.

The guy who was teaching us was shocked that I spent £500 on this trip, though he had just spent the same amount on a new car. He is now a member of the House of Lords in England! And this was the time when the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia was apparently just beginning, though I didn’t see any sign of it.

At about half past two, everyone started looking at their watches, saying, “Better get back now; the B52’s always start bombing at 3 in the afternoon.” So we jumped on one of the few open rickshaws and hurried back to Pnom Penh, about half an hour away.

Back in England, preparing to go on to the last part of Poonam’s training, which was a week in darkness, silence, and isolation on a diet of grapes in a farmhouse in Devon, I realized I was far more afraid of being alone with my mind than I had been of the bombs in Cambodia. This was one Easter holiday when my dear mum had the kids to stay with her in the country.

I realize that it is much easier to write about what was happening on the outside than on the inside. And as for Bhagwan, never could find words. There aren’t any.

It then took me two years to write the book about the Vietnam War. Finally, having been paid an advance on the previous book, I went to Poona in the spring of 1975.

English Devesh had booked me a room in the flat of an Indian lady named Ma Shraddha Bharti. This was a very Indian situation. The flat had a few large bedrooms with high ceilings and huge four-poster beds draped with mosquito nets, one of which was occupied by Ma Shraddha, a middle-aged, unmarried lady, and her male cousin,  which struck me as odd.

Two of the other guests were Chaitanya Hari (Georg Deuter, already a famous German musician) and ‘Proper Sagar’ who, in spite of having lived in England for many years (hence his nickname), was German and would indulge in witty German badinage with Chaitanya Hari over the chai and cornflakes in the morning, calling him ‘Kapellmeister’. There was also a kitchen full of rats and a small, cheery woman who cooked and pushed a broom about.

The room that had been booked for me was still occupied by English Vedant, who had fallen down a mountain in McLeod Ganj, was covered in bandages, and couldn’t move. So I slept on a mattress under a mosquito net in the corner, and he blew my mind with hippy-type stories. Glamorous actress Vandana was there too, as was ‘Proper Sagar’s’ girlfriend, blonde ex-model Swedish Gandha.

I hated the ashram and everyone in it, thought they were loud and angry, and the place was like a jungle, red in tooth and claw. Went to Hindi discourses, which were still taking place in a big upstairs room in Lao Tzu, the house where Bhagwan lived. This was already getting too crowded, which added an extra hazard to rushing out with the shits: one had to climb over the hordes of people sitting on the stairs.

None of the auditoria like Buddha Hall or Chuang Tzu had been built then; meditations took place on the lawn – well, dusty patch of ground, in front of Krishna House, a suburban villa in leafy Koregaon Park on the outskirts of Poona, a hill station about 100 km up the line of mountains running down the West coast of India, known as the Western Ghats.

It was so cold for Dynamic on winter mornings that there was a concerted rush down M.G. Road to the Indo Foreign Stores to buy cosy long johns. This was the main shopping street in this part of Poona, known as Camp because it was where the British Army had been based and where the local shopkeepers were proud to have served the military households and been able to raise their prices accordingly. These thick cotton long johns, apparently made only for gentlemen because of the useful buttoned opening in front, were the only warm clothes to be had.

The cafeteria consisted of a couple of friendly ladies squatting over a kerosene stove on the floor, as did most Indian kitchens at that time. Tucked into a little room by the gate of the house where Bhagwan lived, known as Lao Tzu House, they cooked chapattis and vegetable curry to order.

There was a point when I heard Bhagwan speak in English, and he said something about how religions were perfectly adapted to racial character. For instance, Eastern religions all share the doctrine of reincarnation – suitable for laid-back people living in hot climates. Whereas the Judeo-Christian religions, with their doctrines of one life only, were more suitable for go-getting types who have to move to keep themselves warm. This completely blew my mind; it was the first time I had really taken in the idea that there is no absolute external truth.

I think that it was then, in spite of my profound distrust of all the people who surrounded him, that the decision to take sannyas snuck up on me.

I remember that Divya, the esoteric Puerto Rican empress (Bhagwan often used to say how he loved to see her sitting in the front row in discourse, like an empress), was there as well, and she had a son nearly the same age as my kids, so we planned to come back soon with our children. Anyhow, in spite of internal shrieks of horror, I actually asked for sannyas.

Darshan was in the car porch; Bhagwan sat in a chair at the top of the semicircle of steps, and maybe half a dozen people gathered below him. He asked me about meditation – I knew nothing about it whatsoever. He turned to Maneesha and told her to raise her hands and let the energy flow through her. Swaying with her arms in the air, she trembled and shook like a wild thing.

I thought she was completely mad and became more rigid than before. He gave me the name Pankaja and spoke for a long time about mud, saying that the mud is essential nourishment and must be explored and used because the lotus grows from the mud. At least this is what I remember; at that time, darshans were not recorded, so there is no record of what He said.

Then He put a mala round my neck, and I actually felt it burn. I said, “It’s burning me,” and Bhagwan pointed to Maneesha and some of the others and chuckled and said something like, see all my orange people burning like flames. I was totally in shock the whole time!

It seems to be impossible for me to write directly about Bhagwan. It was almost too much for me to look at him directly; I can feel him more easily by looking into the blissed-out, ecstatic faces of his lovers gazing at him. He is Lord of the Full Moon; His radiance is too much to be borne face-to-face.

I remember afterwards walking back past the Blue Diamond Hotel with Vandana through the dark, dusty, scented Indian night, wondering when she had got her name and if she liked it.

I hated mine, of course, thought it was ugly and clangy, but she said it sounded majestic. Vandana had taken sannyas in London by mail order. She sent her photo to Bhagwan and received the name ‘Anand Vandana’, meaning blissful prayer. The words for prayer and gratitude were the same in Hindi, and Bhagwan many times said prayer was not begging something from God but a state of overflowing gratitude.

Then I returned to London, and life seemed to move in two completely opposite directions at the same time. My career was doing well; I went on an Arts Council tour of England, where writers read from their own works to wildly enthusiastic audiences of maybe half a dozen people in dingy public libraries in towns like Grimsby. In a less than half-hearted attempt to wear orange clothes, I compromised on a, well, vaguely reddish brown Peruvian poncho worn as a skirt.

But at the same time, I took my kids out of school, arranged to let the whole house, and booked tickets for us all to come to Poona. I remember having a session with Somendra because I was so terrified, and he said, to my astonishment, that it is perfectly natural to be afraid when you are completely changing your life.

We arrived on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day – always celebrated in England with bonfires and fireworks, and it happened to be Diwali – so Felix and Emily found the constant explosions quite reassuring. We rented number 35, Koregaon Park, a beautiful old house next door to Bhagwan’s, with Devesh and Paras, hired an ayah called Clara, and tried to find a way to live that satisfied our profoundly conflicting needs and desires.

The galley proofs of my last book were sent to me to correct, but the post office situation was a bit chaotic at that time, and I never found them, so the book was published only a year later.

My mother came to visit, expecting a peaceful, loving atmosphere where people did yoga and were nice to each other. She went into the ashram once and was horrified (as I had been) by these rude, angry people elbowing each other out of the way in the food line. But the final straw was the orgasmic screams of Paras and her boyfriend in the next-door bedroom.

I read Lord of the Rings to Emily and Felix under the mosquito net at night and tried to find a school for them during the day. Emily came into the ashram with me and wrote a beautiful poem about the blissed-out crowd of people garlanded with flowers, singing and dancing as they queued up to touch Bhagwan’s feet.

Felix refused to come into the ashram, and spent long hours sitting on the sofa in his pyjamas with Devesh. Devesh was a qualified pilot with his own small plane and would nobly pretend to be flying planes with ten-year-old Felix as his co-pilot, taking off and landing and looping the loop with suitable accompanying engine noises.

Indian schools were much too rigid; I couldn’t see my kids lasting a day there, so we hired a tutor – an English expat who had lived in India for most of his life, and collected match boxes. He took us all bird-watching, which was fun, and on trips around the city, where my mother, who was an artist, would try to draw people. But each time she started, there would be several hundred people looking over her shoulder after five minutes, so she gave that up. The kids wanted to go back to their friends and their old school. I thought it would be better for them to stay in a freer environment, and tortured myself and Bhagwan with my confusion. In the end, He told me in darshan that children are much clearer and more honest than adults and told me to send them back to England with my mother. He said that if I wanted, I could stay with them, or to leave them with their father and come back.

After agonising weeks of mind fuck, Felix went back with my mother, Emily stayed on for another couple of months with me, and we both returned to England together. Luckily, the tenant decided to move out of our house, so the children could move back in with their father. When we separated a couple of years previously, they had actually said that they would prefer to live with him – but I had refused to listen.

After a few weeks, having sorted things out so that Frank could stay in the house with the kids, I came back to Poona. In a rather cowardly way, I waved them off on holiday with their cousins rather than having to see their little faces as mum disappeared. Then I booked an amazing overland trip through Russia, an Intourist package tour taking in the fabled cities of Bokhara and Samarkand with the lurking presence of KGB agents everywhere, and occasional treats like, wait for it, a small piece of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate in a Bokhara nightclub! This was because I had had a strong past life experience of being in Uzbekistan during Kundalini one day, and because I wanted to see Gurdjieff’s birthplace, Balk. This I only managed from a distance when I hopped off the tour in Tashkent (given a whole bus to myself, plus a few KGB guards when I changed planes for Kabul). I wanted to stay longer in Afghanistan, but Laxmi had told me to arrive in time for Enlightenment Day, so I only spent a couple of days there and then took a bus down the Khyber Pass. And I’ve been in Poona (now Pune) on and off ever since.

“The word for lotus that Buddha uses is Pankaj; it is one of the most beautiful words. Pankaj means that which is born out of the mud, out of dirty mud. The lotus is one of the most miraculous phenomena in existence; hence in the East it has become the symbol of spiritual transformation. Buddha is seated on a lotus, Vishnu is standing on a lotus. Why a lotus? – Because the lotus has one very symbolic significance: it grows out of dirty mud. It is a transformation symbol, it is a metamorphosis. The mud is dirty, maybe stinking; the lotus is fragrant, and it has come out of the stinking mud.

Buddha is saying: Exactly in the same way, life ordinarily is just stinking mud – but the possibility of becoming a lotus is hidden there. The mud can be transformed, you can become a lotus. Sex can be transformed and it can become samadhi. Anger can be transformed and it can become compassion. Hate can be transformed and it can become love. Everything that you have that looks negative right now, mud like, can be transformed. Your noisy mind can be emptied and transformed, and it becomes celestial music.”

Osho, The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha, Vol 2, Ch 5

From the book, Past the Point of No Return by Ma Anand Bhagawati

Book Cover Past the Point

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