In each of several small rooms within The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, which is equally accessible to all people, the 11th Guru projects out. From the Sikh standpoint, this is the center of the world, the soul of our existence; it gives reason and meaning to what we do with our time on Earth. If why is the question, then The Guru is the answer. Through invisible fiber optic lines not made by the hands of man, the energy of the Guru within the Golden Temple projects across and covers the entire world.
Our journey to India started in New York City. There is a restaurant there called The Hampton Chutney Company, which serves delicious Dosas and the best Chai Tea in the United States. As a matter of fact, Kia and I always have at least one meal there when we visit the city. The owners of the restaurant are Americans who spent time in India and came back to put together this amazingly simple and subtly transformative restaurant, of which they now have three or four. They have adorned the walls with a variety of photographs of teachers and saints. Indian mantras play continuously at low volume. There is, for me, a great sense of wellbeing in this space. We truly gravitate to it.
Just before we left for India, we found ourselves headed to the Hampton Chutney Company on the Upper West Side. We hopped a cab, and wouldn't you know it, our cab driver was a Sikh man from Amritsar, India, named Bhupinder Singh. He was friendly and welcoming and we told him that we were heading to the Golden Temple. His face lit up. His tone and whole demeanor toward us shifted from cab driver to spiritual family member. His excitement was palpable, contagious. When we arrived at the restaurant, he asked us when our plane was leaving to India. We told him we'd leave from where we were staying on the East Side in about two and a half hours. He absolutely insisted on taking us himself to the airport. So, he took down our address and promised he would be there at the designated time.
We went inside to eat our Dosas and drink our chai. It was the perfect prelude to our India trip. After finishing, we came outside and amazingly, there was Bhupinder signaling us to get back into his cab. He said he had tried to leave, but just couldn't. He drove us across the park to where we were staying and waited there for 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave for JFK airport, for India, and for the Golden Temple.
On the way to the airport, we discussed the meaning of his name. Names are significant to varying degrees to Sikhs. In our tradition of Kundalini Yoga, as taught by Yogi Bhajan, names are considered a person's mantra, something one aspires to live up to throughout their life. Bhupinder did not know the meaning of his name so we consulted another Guru popularly known as Google and learned that Bhupinder means the King of Kings. At the airport, I shook his hand and looked in his eyes, which projected heartfelt gratitude for us. I projected back the same, and then we left.
We got to New Delhi after a remarkably painless 14-hour flight in coach on Air India. We had braced ourselves for a difficult passage, but we were blessed with an open seat between us and the 14 hours went by more quickly than 14 hours should.
We got to our hotel and rested the best we could despite some profound jetlag, which I won't expand upon here. When the dust settled the next day, we got a cab to check out an amazing area called Haus Khaz Village. The cab driver's name? Bhupinder. Kia's comment was "Well, it would seem we are being guided around by the king of kings."
Our early mornings here in Amritsar have been spent at the Golden Temple. We have a driver (not another Bhupinder) who picks us up at 2:30 a.m. at the home we are staying in and drives us through the abandoned streets of the city toward the brilliant light of devotion at The Golden Temple. The streets are generally filled with hardship and clutter. Many of the human beings and animals (dogs, cats, donkeys and horses) that inhabit these streets are beat up pretty good, way beyond what we see in the United States. The garbage is so intense that I am given to fantasies wherein the entire nation rises up to clean up its streets and build the infrastructure necessary to handle the waste of a billion people. In the daytime, the noise and intensity of traffic is overwhelming, but during the Amrit Vela, the "ambrosial hours" between 3 and 6 a.m., the noise and pollution are shrouded by the night and by the promise of our destination.
At the very intersection of the profane streets of Amritsar and the sacred space of the Golden Temple, one must prepare. You remove and leave your shoes at a huge stall with small lockers built for that very purpose. Along with everyone else you are barefoot and as you approach one of several entrances to the inner sanctum, you step through shallow makeshift footbaths of clean water that runs through it constantly. Thusly cleansed, you enter.
The Golden Temple is what it sounds like, and even if you relocated it in the midst of the cleanest city in the world, the extent of its beauty and saint-like resplendence would stand out. It is hard to describe the feeling that accompanies one's first steps and gaping glances around this sacred space.
Tall white walls and a white marble sidewalk known as the pakarma surround the entire perimeter. The Golden Temple sits in the middle of a reservoir-like body of water so that the only way to access it is by crossing a processional walkway, which extends out across the water to the temple from one side. The Sikhs refer to the water reservoir as the sarovar, or nectar tank, and part of the ritual of coming to the Golden Temple is to dip oneself into this nectar. It is believed that the accumulated karma of lifetimes can be stripped away through a single dip. So, as you walk around the pakarma of the space you will see people in designated areas taking their sacred dip.
The Golden Temple. Photo: Tommy Rosen
Every single morning at 1 a.m. the interior floors of the Golden Temple are cleaned extensively. Getting the opportunity to perform this seva or "selfless service" is a great honor that is not come by too easily, but many other opportunities for service abound here. From about 2:45 a.m. for an hour or so, devotees clean the entire pakarma with water, hand-made brooms and squeegees. We performed this ritual yesterday morning. It is an extraordinary thing to experience hundreds of people -- some standing shoulder to shoulder with their feet in the reservoir filling pails of water, others taking those pails and emptying them en masse onto the pakarma. Behind this deluge comes a phalanx of people with brooms pushing along any detritus that the water carries and then the squeegees behind them. The procession of sevadars, those performing selfless service, makes its way diligently and purposefully around the perimeter until the entire enormous space is utterly spotless one hour later.
Then, at 3:30 a.m., sadhana begins. Here at the Golden Temple, sadhana, which means daily spiritual practice, consists of a two-and-a-half-hour morning devotional concert performed live within the innermost sanctum of the Golden Temple by different groups of musicians.
Various chants, known as banis, are performed everyday. In the actual room where the music and chanting is done, there are as many people as can squeeze in there. Some are sitting and reading along out of their prayer books, others are moving through the space reverently, others still are meditating. At the base of almost every doorway there is a white marble slab which most everyone touches and/or bows down upon to show their deep love and respect for the Guru.
In the outer hallways and upstairs on the second floor, the scene is more or less the same -- some sitting, some walking, some praying and some meditating. One more floor up is the roof, and there is a Guru up there as well. These days have been a bit chilly, but the vantage point and vibe on the roof are worth it.
Wherever you might find yourself within the sacred space of the temple area, you hear the music and chants over loudspeakers. Even beyond these sacred walls on TV sets all over the area and even accessible throughout the world, the actual performance of sadhana in the Golden Temple is broadcast. Kia and I visited a small chai stall just outside the temple area for some tea one morning. We sat as the owner of the stall brought us a small glass filled with very sweet, delicious chai tea. There on the TV set is the sadhana, which was at that moment taking place inside. So we sat and enjoyed our chai tea quietly watching and listening to the beautiful, devotional music on TV along with several others who had come for some tea here at 4 a.m. Mind-blowing!
So who is the 11th Guru? Beginning with Guru Nanak in the 15th century there were 10 Sikh Gurus who lived over the next 250 years. They were all extraordinary men who created and developed the Sikh religion, protected its way of life, held space for people to learn and follow the teachings and passed them on down through time. The text, which consists of poems and writings of the Gurus and other Saints, was gathered together throughout the lives of the 10 Sikhs and then codified into the Sikh holy book known as the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. The 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, affirmed the text and upon his death on Oct. 7, 1708, the "word" itself contained within this book gained it's "Guruship." This exceptional, sacred tome, universal in its accessibility, open to any and all to read, is referred to as The 11th Guru. With very few exceptions, the Sikhs consider this book to be their eternal living guru.
In all Sikh temples, known as Gurdwaras, which literally translates as "the mouth of the Guru," there is a copy of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, which someone is reading aloud from beginning to end nearly continuously. By continuously, I mean ALL THE TIME!
Therefore, the energy of the words of the 11th Guru flows continuously from gurdwaras all over the world. And the center of it all is here within the sacred walls of the Golden Temple.
I am not a religious man, but I must admit there is something that touches me deeply about the Sikh faith. There is inclusiveness to it. All are welcome regardless of gender, caste, class, religion or creed. Many Hindus, for example, come to the Golden Temple just because it is an incredibly holy place. It belongs to no one and everyone all at once.
Thinking back to New York and our beloved cab driver, Bhupinder, I now realize how impossible it would be to fully describe what he was feeling.
Whatever that was, I feel it very deeply here at The Golden Temple.
P.S. Please make comments so we can connect more deeply around this kind of amazing stuff.