This is a chapter from my German book about meeting with the venerable Devraha Baba.
I had landed in Haridwar in April 1980 at the Ardha Kumbh Mela on the advice of a photographer in Delhi without knowing what to expect. He had mentioned that a festival was being celebrated there, but I had no idea what type of festival it was and what amazing crowds it would attract. He had sent me into spiritual India and I am eternally grateful for that.
A few days after reaching Haridwar I met an impressive yogi.
I sat on the bank of the Ganges behind the Tourist Bungalow (now Alaknanda Hotel) and saw on the other side of the broad riverbed a wooden hut on poles, which was constructed on the sandy beach. An American, whom I knew from the Tourist Bungalow, waded through the Ganges straight towards me. “Would you like to see an extraordinary man? If yes, I help you cross the Ganges”, he offered. “Over there, in that hut, Devraha Baba is presently staying. He is supposed to be more than 300 years old and enlightened. He is one of those who know what life is all about. And it is always worthwhile to meet such people.”
Of course I was interested and we crossed the Ganges together. The river had appeared peaceful and calm from the bank, yet the current was amazingly strong and the stones on the ground were slippery. I was glad that my companion was over two meter tall, and gave the impression that there was nothing to fear.
Devraha Baba had watched us coming because he scolded us, when we reached him. It was far too dangerous to cross the river. We should take the bridge, which was two kilometres upstream. A sadhu with matted hair piled high up on his head, translated this for us.
Baba waved us closer and asked me where I came from. He benignly nodded his head a few times. Then he murmured a Sanskrit mantra and asked us to repeat it line by line. Except for ‘Krishna Vasudevaya’ I didn’t understand a word.
Then he instructed the sadhu to give us sugar candies, so many, as we just managed to hold with both our hands. With difficulty we wrapped them into a shawl, including those, which had landed in the sand. Then Baba gave us his blessing and sent us away. He turned to others, who had come by car and carried a basket full of fruits to him.
Back in my room in the Tourist Bungalow I noticed that I liked Baba. In fact, I liked him very much. My heart jumped with joy at the thought that I would see him again the next day – almost as if I was in love, which seemed inexplicable.
From then on I went every morning to him. Sometimes I walked over the bridge, sometimes I waded through the river with the tall American and sometimes I got a lift by a car. On one of those lifts an elderly gentleman told me that his grandfather took him to Devraha Baba ever since he was a small boy. And his grandfather had assured him that, when he himself was a small boy, Baba looked already like a very old man.
Baba sat usually on the narrow wooden balcony that was supported by poles. One could only see his head with the unkempt, long hair and the aged bluish eyes. His arms were hanging down from the balustrade and he often raised his hand to give generously his blessings.
Occasionally he was not there. Then he was either in the small room behind the balcony or took a bath in the Ganges, and all of us, who had come for his darshan, were sitting in the burning sand, occasionally dipping a handkerchief into the river and placing it on our heads to cool down. Sometimes we waited for half an hour and not a single tree nearby to give shade. Most people quietly chanted “Siya Ram, Jai Siya Ram”. They could chant those names hundred, thousand and probably even million times without feeling tired.
Why did we wait so meekly? I couldn’t find an explanation. Yet I also didn’t want to leave, even though my mind played up at times and resisted the waiting, when the discomfort became too evident. I asked myself, why I took upon myself the heat, the waiting, the hot sand, just to see an old man? I wondered whether the others also faced such rebellious thoughts. Nobody left.
Then, when all of a sudden the door opened and Baba appeared on the veranda, a whisper went through the crowd and it surged towards him. The atmosphere was suddenly charged. The heat and the waiting were forgotten. He radiated strength, confidence and above all kindness and love, when he, like a father figure, compassionately inquired about the problems of his devotees or brushed them aside, whatever he felt was more appropriate.
It was an odd picture:
On one side there were cultured, often wealthy people, the ladies in silk and with lots of jewellery, and the car parked nearby by the chauffeur. And yet they were the supplicants, who with folded hands and barefoot tripped from one foot to the other to avoid burning their delicate soles in the hot sand and imploringly looked up to Baba, hoping, that his blessing would make their difficulties vanish and fearing, that maybe they won’t get what they wanted or that he would give them a short shrift in front of others and not spare time for them.
And on the other side up on the balcony there was the ancient Baba, naked, with unkempt hair, but free – free from fear, free from desires, free from the world and full of confidence and radiance.
No matter which problems his devotees had mentioned, his advice was basically always the same:
‘Trust fully in god, think of him, repeat his name, hand over your worries to him, and don’t be attached to the world, to family and money. Make god the centre in you life. Develop love for him and don’t be afraid, because everything is in his hand. Understand that the world has nothing worthwhile to offer to you. Find out who you really are. Realise that god and you cannot be separated.’ And:
‘Always tell the truth. Be righteous. Contribute to the welfare of society. Don’t harm anyone and help, wherever you can. If you honour dharma, dharma will protect you.’ And so on.
His devotees probably had heard this umpteen times. And yet they rushed to him whenever they got a chance to hear it again. Baba was by far not the only one, who gave this advice. During the Kumbh Mela I heard it being broadcasted via loudspeakers to the crowd from many platforms.
Often those sermons sounded like obtrusive advertisement on a fair. I realised that all depended on who gave the sermon. Was it someone who wanted to show off or who wanted to be helpful? Did he know what he talked about when he spoke about truth, trust in god and having no fear and desires or did he not know it and he himself was still full of desires and fear, didn’t quite trust god and knew about truth only by hearsay?
Regarding Devraha Baba, I felt he was genuine. I could sense that he wished us well and that he couldn’t quite understand why we take our problems so seriously and why we don’t just shake them off and laugh about them.
One day, Baba had disappeared. I saw it from my window in the Tourist Bungalow already before breakfast and didn’t want to believe it. The few sadhus, who stayed around him, had dismantled the hut before dawn and had moved with him to Varanasi. The sandy beach on the other side of the Ganges looked now deserted – far more deserted than it had looked if there had never been a hut in the first place.
Six years later, during the Maha Kumbh in 1986, I met him again at the same place. A steady stream of visitors made it to his hut throughout the day. One evening he gave an interview to All India Radio. The reporter had hoisted a microphone up to him on his veranda. Baba thundered into the microphone, his frail body full of strength and confidence. It was his usual advice: Trust in god completely and be a good human being. Then He will definitely look after you.
Some years later, in 1990, I stood in the queue in the dining hall in the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. A friend joined the young man in front of me and they started talking in English. Suddenly I listened to them intently. “Really? Devraha Baba has died?” I butted in. They nodded their head. “Yes. Devraha Baba has left his body.”
A film passed before my inner eye. I saw him sitting on his balcony in bright sunlight with long, unkempt hair, murmuring mantras and his hand raised for blessings. I was grateful that he had been here with us. And personally, I was especially grateful for a small episode:
It was in 1980 shortly before he had disappeared. It was the first and only time I took courage and spoke to him. I told Baba through his translator sadhu that I would like to stay longer in India – longer than the tourist visa allows. “Baba gives you his blessing”, the sadhu translated what Baba had said. Yet Baba didn’t seem to agree with the translation. He again spoke with a lot of gestures to the sadhu who then again turned to me and said: “Baba gives you his special blessing.”
By Maria Wirth
Some info about Devraha Baba from the internet:
Devraha Baba was from Deoria District in UP and was called, “The Ageless Yogi.” Nobody knows for sure how long he lived – at least 200 years, but probably much longer. The first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad stated that his father had sat at the feet of Devraha Baba as a child in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Devraha Baba was already elderly at that time. An Allahabad High Court Barrister had stated that seven generations of his family had sat at the feet of Baba. One legend has it that Devraha had blessed Tulsidas (1532 – 1623). Devraha Baba himself allegedly claimed that he has lived for over 700 years.
Baba was observed staying under water unaided for half an hour. He also allegedly could be in two places simultaneously and understand the language of animals, control wild animals, heal people by his look or word, and tell the future.
Devraha Baba had supposedly predicted the time of his death five years in advance. His samadhi shrine is located across the Yamuna River from the pilgrimage city of Vrindavan.