I want to tell the story of someone who has been very important in my life. His name was Baba Hari Dass. We called him Babaji. He was also known as Haridas, servant of Lord Hari. He was a silent Yogi from Almora in the Uttarakhand state. As a young child, he often viewed the world as being a box, with the bottom made of earth and the top being sky. The feeling of being trapped made him weep and he asked his mother to release him from the confinement. She told him she could not, and at that moment he said “I’m going”. His mother knew of his attraction to the life of monks, so his mom did not argue. Babaji was quite headstrong, and she knew He was going to do what He wanted. So to keep Him close, she encouraged His desire to join a local Brahmacharya school, which He did at the age of 8 in 1931. While there, He learned martial arts from a teacher who ended up leaving to join the army, abandoning the children in his jungle school. Instead of leaving the school, the boys kept their same disciplined schedule and austere lifestyle. Babaji met Swami Nityanandji Maharaj and Anandamayi Ma along the way, making his desire for yoga practices even stronger.
At the age of 19 years, in the year 1942, Babaji was visiting the Ramkot Hanuman temple in Almora. A contingent of 50-60 other monks were there at the same time. One monk in particular caught his attention, as he was meditating in the yajnashala covered from head to toe in a sheet, sitting like a rock for hours, not changing his position even once.
Everyone went outside to sing Kirtan, and the monk under the sheets followed. When one of the songs finished Babaji looked up. At that moment, that monk looked right into Babaji’s eyes. Babaji got goosebumps and his body began to sweat. His mind became thoughtless, his eyelids dropped down uncontrollably, and he lost outer awareness and went in and out of consciousness all night long. Later he learned that this was his initiation into the Vaishnava vairagi sect. That monk was Raghubar Dassji Maharaj, and he had accepted Babaji as a disciple.
At 26 years of age, Babaji met a bhakti Yogi by the name of Neem Karoli Baba, who came to know that Babaji was a skilled sculptor. He grew close to Neem Karoli Baba and viewed him like a father. Babaji would do anything he asked. Neem Karoli Baba encouraged Babaji to make a small shrine and install one of the Hanuman deities that Babaji had made. This became the Hanuman Garh Ashram. Babaji went on to supervise the construction of the Kenchi Ashram and maintained both ashrams as well.
While building both ashrams, Babaji realized that by some unknown power he was connected to Hariakhan Baba. Babaji lived for 15 years near the Hanuman Garh temple, and once while he was clearing bushes, he found a small shrine with a Shiv Lingham made of rock inside it. Later, some elderly people from the village of Manora told Babaji that the Shiv Lingam was installed by Hariakhan Baba himself. Another link between the two monks was while building the Kenchi Ashram, Babaji was told by the villagers that Hariakhan Baba used to live in a cave very near there. Babaji preserved that cave, which is behind Hanuman temple at Kenchi.
Hariakhan Baba is one of India’s most advanced and little-known saints who has appeared over thousands of years throughout the Himalayan districts. He is also known as Mahamunindra, Sri Sadguru, Sri Sadashiva, Mahavatar, Trayambak Baba and Babaji Maharaj as he has appeared in different locations over many years taking different names. When he first appeared in the Hariakhan jungle, He was seen like a star from twelve miles away because His aura (Vyana prana) was so powerful.
In 1953 Babaji lived in a cave at a burial place known as Ghati. He kept a fire burning for 24 hours because it was so cold. Around midnight one night, a huge storm created clashing of clouds with lightening and the roaring of the wind. Babaji was so captivated by the intense weather that He kept his door open. Suddenly, lightening hit an oak tree ten feet away from the door to His cave. He heard the noise and saw the streak of light. The force knocked Him down and he fell unconscious. He could not move as his body had no energy, but He was able to see the ceiling and fire. He then saw Hariakhan Baba come into the cave, bend over Him and move His hand which had fallen too close to the fire pit. He saw Hariakhan Baba leaving His cave and stood up to catch Him and bow at His feet, but He had disappeared.
Babaji himself wrote a book about this saint titled Hariakhan Baba Known, Unknown. In that book there is a fascinating picture of Hariakhan Baba. these two were taken at the same time, but when developed, He was naked in one and clothed in the other. Also Babaji noted a unique aspect in any pic of Hariakhan Baba his eyes follow you if you move side to side.
In the 60’s and 70’s many Westerners, mainly from Britain and America, came in search of spirituality in the East. Richard Alpert was one such seeker. “He was associated with Timothy Leary at Harvard university where they conducted research on the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs. His best known book and seminal work Be Here Now helped popularize eastern spirituality and Yoga with the baby boomer generation in the West” (Ram Dass Wikipedia page).
Neem Karoli Baba accepted him as his disciple and Richard Alpert became known as Ram Dass. Neem Karoli Baba directed Babaji to start teaching Ram Dass, so Babaji taught him pranayama and answered his questions about Yoga. In this way, Ram Dass’s yogic life developed. After Ram Dass returned to the US, he sent some other Americans to learn Yoga from Babaji. At the time, there were often restrictions on having Westerners in the ashrams. This led to a challenging situation in that they could not find a suitable place to teach the 7 or 8 Americans in Hardiwar. Consequently, they disbanded, and the remaining students asked Babaji to come to the US to teach for three months.
Babaji arrived in the US in 1971. He ended up staying here for the rest of his life until his death in 2018. He and his teachings inspired the creation of several yoga centers and retreat programs in California, including Mount Madonna Center in the mountains of Santa Cruz. In 1977, when I was less than 1 year old, my own family moved from New York to Santa Cruz, California, to follow Babaji. I was fortunate enough to attend Mount Madonna Center school from the age of 9 until 13. Growing up near Babaji put me on my spiritual path, and has shaped my whole life. It is one of my greatest blessings to have known him all these years. Below is a picture of me with Babaji as young child (approximately 3 years old)
One interesting aspect about Babaji is that he never spoke. He maintained a continuous vow of silence for the last 66 years of his life. He wrote on a small chalkboard to communicate, and so mastered the art of saying a lot with the fewest possible words. He always told us that it was not just about not speaking, that the real tapas was silencing the mind. The profound peace and stillness that emanated from Babaji was other-worldly. Even as a small child, I was deeply impacted by his presence. In fact, I saw Him as not different than God. To me, they were one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there is a singular word which encapsulated my feelings towards Babaji: surrender.
I attended the Mount Madonna Center school from 4th to 7th grade. The school has a wonderful theatrical department which has performed their version of the Ramayana for over 40 years, the longest running version of the play in the Western Hemisphere. The whole school participates in the production every year. Babaji himself designed and built many of the elaborate set pieces. In fact, when I was 1 year old, the house that I lived in was used as storage for many of the masks used in the play. Pictured here are two original pieces made by Babaji and others: Ravana and his cousin Kumbhakarna, which is a 25 foot mechanized set piece!
There was one experience in particular that will be etched in my mind forever. It occurred close to 20 years ago, but I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. We were a group of about 100 devotees gathered around Babaji. He was sitting facing us and answering questions on his chalkboard. I had decided I was going to rest my gaze on Babaji’s form during this gathering, so I sat somewhat near the back, about 7 rows away from Babaji so that I would not bother him by staring. I had never done that before, but for some reason on that day the thought entered my head to do so. As I settled by gaze on Babaji, my mind became thoughtless. Soon after that my consciousness began to float outside of my body, rising upwards. The expression “expansion of consciousness” was not something I could really understand prior to that. At that moment, I was literally feeling my consciousness lift out of my body, and it continued lifting up higher and higher. I was seeing the world from 10 feet above my body as that’s where my consciousness was centered. I lost awareness of my physical body, but was perfectly aware of what was happening. As my consciousness continued to rise, Babaji suddenly looked right into my eyes, locking his gaze on me. I was trying to hide 7 rows deep, and he found me! I thought I was hiding quite well, yet when my consciousness separated from my body, Babaji saw it clearly and immediately. When his gaze locked on mine, I panicked and thought “what am I supposed to do now!?” As soon as I had that thought, the experience burst and I was back in my body. Then Babaji unfixed his gaze off me and continued interacting with others. The whole event lasted 30 seconds or less, but it had a profound impact on me. I had so many questions about the experience. Why did it happen? How did it happen? And could I recreate the experience? It was an experience that was full of peace and stillness. My mind was hooked. I had not done any Sadhana at that point in my life, but that experience planted the seed of spiritual desire in me. This is a picture of Babaji around the time this happened:
I owe so much to Babaji. He had much to give. I hope you found the article interesting. If you wish to know more about Babaji, these are the resources I used to write this article:
Baba Hari Dass books:
- Path Unfolds, The Autobiography of Baba Hari Dass
- Hariakhan Baba Known, Unknown
- Silence Speaks, from the chalkboard of Baba Hari Dass