We waited. And waited. It was a sweltering summer day in the Florida panhandle. The morning sun glared through the expansive windows of an airport departure gate. There, a young blond haired lady, neatly uniformed with a blue vest over a pressed white shirt and matching blue pants, stepped up to the counter, timidly surveyed the room, then announced a one hour delay. Passengers sighed, edgy to escape from the heat and travel north. With cellular phones pressed to their ears, they persistently glanced at their wristwatches.
Among them stood a middle-aged woman. She had nicely coiffed reddish-brown hair. Her dress and demeanor hinted that she was a lady of wealth and taste. Suddenly, she flushed red, flung her boarding pass and screamed, “No! You can’t do this to me.” Her outrage jolted the assembly. Everyone stared as she stomped to the counter, stuck her finger in the face of the receptionist and shouted, “I warn you, do not anger me. Put me on that plane, at once!”
The airline hostess cowered. “But ma’am, there’s nothing I can do. The air conditioning system of the plane has broken down.”
The woman’s lips quivered. Her eyes burned and she screeched louder, “Don’t you fight with me, you stupid child. You don’t know who I am. Damn it, do something. Now! I can’t take it.” She ranted on and on.
After finishing her verbal lashing, she fumed and scanned the lounge. Her eyes landed on me sitting alone in a corner of the room in my saffron colored swami robes. She stormed toward me while everyone looked on. Now, standing almost on top of me, her face distorted with anger, she yelled, “Are you a monk?”
Oh God, I thought, why me. I really didn’t need this. After an arduous week of lectures and meetings, I just wanted to be left alone.
“Answer me,” she persisted. “Are you a monk?”
“Something like that,” I whispered. The whole room watched, no doubt delighted that I got to be the lightning rod and not them.
“Then I demand an answer,” she challenged. “Why is my flight late? Why is God doing this to me?”
“Please ma’am,” I said. “Sit down and let us talk about it.” She sat beside me. “My name is Radhanath Swami,” I said. “You can call me Swami. Please tell me what is in your heart?” I have asked this question thousands of times and never know what to expect.
She said her name was Dorothy, that she was a housewife, fifty-seven years old, and lived on the east coast. She had been living happily with her family until…then she started to weep. She pulled tissue after tissue from her purse, blew her nose, and wept some more.
“It was tragic,” she said. “All at once I lost my husband of thirty years and my three children. Now I’m alone. I can’t bear the pain.” She gripped the handle of her chair. “Then I was cheated. The bank put my house into foreclosure and kicked me out on the street. You see this handbag? That’s all that’s left.”
Looking more closely at her face, I noted that beneath the well coiffed exterior her complexion was pale, her eyebrows tense, and her lips slanted down in sadness. Dorothy went on to explain that, if all that sadness were not enough, she had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had one month left to live. In a desperate effort to save her life, she had discovered a cancer clinic in Mexico which claimed they might possibly have a cure. But she had to be admitted today. If she missed her connecting flight in Washington, D.C., her chances of survival were finished.
One of my duties is to oversee spiritual services in a hospital in India. I have ministered to victims of terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, rape, trauma, disease, poverty and heartbreak of all sorts, but I cannot remember more anguish written on a human face than Dorothy’s. “And now this flight is late,” she said, “and there goes my last chance to live. I tried to be a good wife and mother, I go to church, I give in charity, and I never willfully hurt anyone. But now there is no one in the world who cares if I live or die. Why is God doing this to me?”
Minutes before, I had been cringing at her obnoxious behavior. How easy it is to judge people by external appearances. Understanding what was below the surface flooded my heart with sympathy. When she saw tears welling in my eyes her voice softened.
“It seems maybe you care,” she said.
What could I do? I felt too weak to do anything. Closing my eyes, I prayed to be an instrument to help her. “Dorothy, I do feel for you. You’re a special soul.”
“Special.” she huffed. “I’ve been thrown out like a worthless piece of trash and I’m going to die. But I believe you think I’m special, and I thank you for that.”
“There may not be anything you can do about what has happened,” I said, “but you can choose how you will respond to what has happened. How you react can affect the future.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can lament how cruelly the world has cheated you and spend your days cursing life, making others uncomfortable, and dying a meaningless death. Or you can go deeper inside those experiences and grow spiritually.” I remembered her comment about going to church.
“Doesn’t it say in the Bible, ‘Seek and ye shall find’ and also ‘Knock and the door will open’? Would you rather die in depression or in gratitude? You have that choice.” Her hand trembled and she grasped my forearm.
“I’m so afraid, Swami. I’m so afraid of dying. Please tell me what death is.” Her face had all but wilted. What could I do? I felt so incompetent. If only I had the power to heal her disease. But I didn’t. Still, my years of training in Bhakti had taught me that we all have the power to soothe another person’s heart by accessing the love that is within ourselves. I felt like a surgeon in an operating theater and silently offered a prayer before speaking again.
“In order to understand death,” I said, “we must first understand life. Consider this question: Who are you?”
“My name is Dorothy, I’m American…”
“Dorothy, when you were a baby, before you had been given a name, were you not already a person? If you were to show me a baby picture today, you would say, ‘That’s me.’ But your body has changed. Your mind and intellect and desires have changed. When was the last time you craved your mother’s milk? Everything about you has changed, but yet here you are. You can change your name, your nationality, your religion, and with today’s technology you can even change your sex. So what part of you does not change? Who is the witness of all these changes? That witness is you, the real you.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you are saying,” Dorothy said. “What is the real me?”
“You are the conscious person, the life force, the soul within the body, who is having the experiences of this lifetime. You see through your eyes, you taste with your tongue, smell through your nose, you think with your brain—but who are you, the person receiving all those impressions? That is the soul. The body is like a car and the soul is the driver. We should not neglect the needs of the soul. We eagerly nourish the needs of the body and mind, but if we neglect the needs of the soul we miss out on the real beauty of human life.”
“Go on,” Dorothy said.
“Animals and other non-human species react to situations according to their instincts. Lions don’t decide to become vegetarian on ethical grounds, and cows don’t become carnivores. Essentially, beings other than humans are driven to satisfy their needs of eating, sleeping, mating and defending according to the instincts of their species. A human being is entrusted with a priceless gift, which can be utilized for creating the most profound benefits or the worst disasters. That gift is free will.
“But with the blessing of free will comes a price, namely responsibility. We can choose to be a saint or a criminal or anything in between, and we are responsible for the consequences of those choices.”
“You’re talking about karma,” Dorothy said. I was surprised by her knowledge of the word. “I’ve never really understood that idea,” she said.
I explained that karma is a natural law, like gravity, which acts irrespective of whether we believe in it or not. As ye sow, says the Bible, so shall ye reap. Or as they say back in Chicago where I come from, what goes around comes around. If I cause pain to others, a corresponding pain will come back to me in due course. If I show compassion to others, good fortune will come my way. Dorothy didn’t seem encouraged, and I began to feel like I had taken the conversation in the wrong direction.
“That sounds like a justification for becoming callous and judgmental about suffering,” she said. And she was making a good point. Sadly, I had witnessed within myself as well as in others a tendency to do just that.
“Dorothy,” I said, “the devotional tradition in India teaches that karma and other mysteries are not intended to discourage us into thinking we are helpless victims of a cold and cruel universe. Rather, we should feel encouraged to take responsibility for the choices we make knowing that how we live can make a difference. For myself, I have discovered that spiritual truths lead me to the joys of compassion and devotion, starting first of all with myself. Charity begins at home. Once I can forgive myself for not being perfect, then I can begin to look upon others with similar compassion. Bhakti has taught me that we are all related, in our happiness and our distress.”
“So just what am I supposed to take away from that?” Dorothy asked. “If everything that has happened to me is my fault, my karma, I don’t see how I can avoid drowning myself in guilt.”
Dorothy was emotionally starved and I felt that meeting her was a test of my own spiritual realization. “Instead of drowning yourself in guilt, you have a precious opportunity to bathe in grace. The philosophy of karma is meant to lift us up and encourage us to make the right choices in both joy and suffering. Depression impedes our progress. In whatever situation we find ourselves we have the opportunity to transform how we see that situation. Devotional life doesn’t make every crisis disappear, but it can help us to see crises with new eyes, and often that deeper vision leads to a more content frame of mind. I’ve been practicing that for many years, and I know it has helped me to see the hand of God in all things…”
“Swami, don’t give me any religious dogma. I had enough of that as a kid. In church they taught us that the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. The last thing I need is more of that. Tell me what is really in your heart.”
She was doing a good job getting me to explain things that can’t be physically seen such as the soul, the law of karma, and reincarnation.
“Tragedies in this life can sometimes be attributed to things done in previous lives. Because the soul is eternal, we carry those consequences from this life to the next.” That really got Dorothy angry.
“It shouldn’t matter what we did in some other life. Why should we believe that God is merciful when we see in this life that good people suffer and wicked people prosper?”
“Years ago,” I said, “an old recluse in the Himalayas shared with me an interesting analogy. It is quite simple but it sheds some light on the subject.” Mentioning that I had spent time in the Himalayas must have captured her fancy because for the first time I noted the trace of a smile on Dorothy’s lips.
“The yogi gave the analogy of a farmer who puts excellent grains into his silo but then adds rotten grains on top. The silo empties out from the bottom, so when the farmer goes to sell his grains the healthy grains come out first and for a while he wallows in prosperity. But with time his prosperity will end and poverty awaits him.
“Then the yogi gave the analogy of another farmer who fills his silo with rotten grains. Eventually he learns to do better and begins pouring only fresh wholesome grains into the silo. He may be presently suffering from his past deposits, but a glorious future awaits him.
“We humans create our own destiny. We are free to make choices. But once we act, we are bound to the karmic consequences of what we have done. You may choose to get on an airplane to Washington, D.C., but once the plane takes off you have no choice about where you’re going to arrive…”
Suddenly, the voice of the airline hostess came through the speakers announcing a further delay of another hour. Dorothy whimpered. I gave her a sympathetic smile.
“Here is that choice again, either to focus on the miseries of our fate or transform how we see our fate. Most of us have a huge mixture of karmic seeds of fate waiting to sprout. But the most important teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is that we are eternal souls, transcendental to all karmic reactions. That’s a very reassuring thing to know. Even in the midst of great distress, people who live with awareness of their eternal nature can be happy. The Bible tells us that the kingdom of God is within. True happiness is an experience of the heart. What is it the heart longs for?”
Dorothy’s sad eyes searched mine. “My heart aches for love,” she said.
“We all do,” I said. “Our need to love and be loved originates in our innate love for God.” I quoted words that Mother Theresa from Calcutta had spoken to me years before. “The greatest problem in this world is not the hunger of the stomach but the hunger of the heart. All over the world both rich and poor suffer. They are lonely, starving for love. Only God’s love can satisfy the hunger of the heart.”
“You’re a Hindu and I’m a Christian,” Dorothy said. “Which God are you talking about?”
I looked out the window at a blazing summer sun. “In America it is called the sun, in Mexico, sol and in India, surya. But is it an American sun or a Mexican sun? The essence of all religions is one, to love God—whatever name we may have for God—and live as an instrument of that love. To transform arrogance into humility, greed into benevolence, envy into gratitude, vengeance into forgiveness, selfishness into servitude, complacency into compassion, doubt into faith, and lust into love. The character of love is universal to all spiritual paths.”
Dorothy really didn’t look like any of this was reaching her.
“Someone told me,” she blurted, “that the reason I’m suffering is that God wants to experience the world’s suffering through me. What kind of a God is that?”
“People have been inventing ideas about God for a long time,” I replied. “In the Bhakti tradition we have three checks and balances for true knowledge of God: guru, sadhu, and shastra. Guru means spiritual teacher. Sadhu means holy people. And shastra means scriptures, wisdom revealed by God. Throughout history different scriptures have been given according to time, place and the nature of the people for whom the teachings were intended. The ritual parts may differ, but the essence of true scriptures is always the same. However, because people tend to invent meanings, followers of Bhakti receive their understanding of scripture from a guru or teacher coming in an authorized succession of teachers. The Bhakti lineage traces its origin back before recorded history, a succession of realized souls who have preserved the original spirit of the teachings throughout the generations. The company of sadhus is important because with people who are also on the path to God we can share our understanding and realizations…”
Dorothy was not convinced. “What do your Bhakti teachers tell you about why God gave us free will when it makes so many people suffer?”
“In order for there to be love,” I said, “there must be free will. You can force people to obey but not to love. Without that freedom there would be little meaning to love. When we choose to turn away from God, we enter the material world and forget our original loving nature. We become covered by a cloud that camouflages the real nature of things.”
“Like a veil?” she asked.
“Yes, like a veil.”
“Well, I think I’m wearing many veils.”
“We all are. The veil is called maya, illusion, in which we forget our true identity and wander birth after birth chasing superficial pleasures. The real substance of happiness is within our own hearts. Please understand, your situation is an opportunity…”
Dorothy moaned. “How is suffering an opportunity?”
“May I tell you the story of a famous lady saint?”
“Her name was Queen Kunti a most pious and devoted lady. She underwent unbearable miseries. Her husband died when she was very young. As a widow she raised five small children. The eldest was meant to inherit the throne when he came of age. Because her children were so popular for their virtue and skills, a rival burned with envy. That wicked man seized the crown and ruled. All of Kunti’s property was usurped and her children were banished. They faced repeated assassination attempts and constant persecution. In the end, her persecutors were brought to justice and her eldest son was enthroned. At that time she prayed to Lord Krishna, ‘In those calamities I had no one to turn to but You. In that condition I had no other shelter but to call your name, and calling out to You meant I was remembering You at every moment. Thank you, my Lord, for my suffering was also the source of my greatest happiness.’
I mentioned the work of a famous doctor, who said that sometimes patients come to him to say that having a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened. How is that? Because it took a crisis to get them to rethink their appreciation for life, their habits, their priorities, and see the blessings that they had always undervalued. That seemed to register with Dorothy.
“Bhakti doesn’t necessarily make our material situation go away,” I said, “but at the very least it gives us something more than our bitterness to focus on. And more important, when we open up to the possibility of some explanation other than cruel fate, we just may find that there is a loving Supreme Being looking out for us. In your present condition, Dorothy, you can turn to God like practically no one else can do.”
She closed her eyes she asked, “In your tradition, do you have a meditation to help us turn to God?”
“There are many forms of meditation,” I told her. “I have been given one that has, since ancient times, been practiced for awakening the dormant love of the soul. May I teach you?”
“This is a mantra. In the Sanskrit language, man means the mind and tra means to liberate. The mind is compared to a mirror. For more births than we can count, we have allowed dust to cover the mirror of the mind—dust in the form endless misconceptions, desires and fears. In that state all we see is the dust, and so that is what we identify with. The chanting of this mantra is a process for cleaning the mirror of the mind and bringing it back to its natural clarity where we can see who we really are, a pure soul, a part of God, eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. As the mind becomes cleaner the divine qualities of the self emerge while ignorance and all of its cohorts fade away. As we approach that state, we can experience the inherent love of God within us. As love of God awakens, unconditional love for every living being manifests spontaneously. We realize that everyone is our sister or brother and a part of our beloved Lord.”
The speaker system crackled and everyone in the room perked up, staring at the airline hostess almost like prisoners would look at a parole board, yearning to be released.
“I’m sorry,” she announced, “but they haven’t yet fixed the air conditioner, and there will be another hour delay.”
Dorothy slapped her forehead, “Swami, teach me the mantra.”
“Please repeat each word after me,” I requested. “Hare… Krishna… Hare… Krishna… Krishna… Krishna… Hare… Hare… Hare… Rama… Hare… Rama… Rama… Rama… Hare… Hare…”
Dorothy shook her head and shooed me with her hand, “I’ll never remember that.”
“Would you like me to write it down for you?”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. “Yes, but it doesn’t interest me unless I know what it means.”
After writing it, I explained that these were names of the one God. Krishna means the all-attractive, Rama means the reservoir of all pleasure, and Hare is the name of the female, compassionate aspect of God. Dorothy took the paper and immersed herself in chanting the mantra over and over. I borrowed her cellular phone and walked away to call a friend with news of the indefinite delay.
When I returned and sat beside her, Dorothy had closed her eyes. She was leaning back and taking deep breaths. She looked at me and asked, “Where do you live?”
“I travel a lot, but much of my time is spent in Mumbai, India.”
“How many people attend your lectures in Mumbai?”
“On Sundays, maybe two thousand. During pilgrimages it’s closer to four thousand.”
“Where are you going now?”
“To a temple in Hartford, Connecticut. But like you I missed my connecting flight, so I’ll probably miss giving the lecture.”
“Do you go there regularly?”
“I’ve been invited for several years, but this is my first opportunity to visit them.”
“How many people are waiting for you?”
“I think about a hundred.”
Again she took a deep breath. Then, as if purging anguish through her breathing she released the words, “Now I understand.” To my surprise, her lips stretched out across her face into a blissful smile and her eyes twinkled like a child.
“The flight delay was my good fortune,” she said. “I bet thousands of people would give anything to sit with you for even a few minutes. I have you all to myself—and for hours!”
I have to admit, I teared up. “The delay is my good fortune,” I said. “There is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than here with you, right now. You are a special soul.”
Dorothy wiped a tear from her cheek. “Yes, now I understand. This is a blessing of the Lord.” I moved to another seat to give her some private space. Of course, I really needed it, too.
Finally, after six hours of delays, came the announcement everyone was waiting for. The same young lady in the blue uniform announced, “The flight is now ready to board. Anyone who wants is now invited to board.”
“We’ve been waiting six hours,” a passenger yelled out. “Why would anyone not want to get on?”
The flight attendant looked at us sheepishly and said, “In the process of fixing the air conditioner, the toilets stopped working. There will be no toilet facility on this flight. You are requested to use the airport restroom before boarding. Especially please take your children as this is the last chance until we arrive at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. But the good news is that the air conditioner is working.”
The passengers jumped up and rushed to the restrooms. A mother pulled the hand of her four-year old boy. “Come on Timmy, let’s go to the potty.”
“But mommy, I don’t have to go.”
“You have to go,” the mother corrected. “Come on.” She grabbed the boy’s hand and dragged him to the toilet.
“I don’t have to pee-pee.”
“You’re going anyway….”
It was a fifty-seat commuter jet. The good news was that the plane flew. The bad news was that the toilets were boarded shut, the lighting did not work, and the air conditioner, after all that time, still didn’t work. It was a ninety-five degree day. The plane was hot, muggy, dark, and Timmy decided he really did need to pee-pee and cried the whole trip. By the time we landed, every passenger was miserable.
As we trudged down the steps of the plane and onto the tarmac, there was Dorothy sitting in a wheel chair that she had requested, smiling and waving as everyone rushed by. The passengers were stunned to see one among them who could be so happy. I stopped to say farewell.
“Swami,” she said, “I chanted the mantra nonstop throughout the flight. I can’t remember being that happy in a long time.” She handed me the slip of paper with the mantra. “Will you write a message for me to remember you?” Taking her pen, I wrote of my appreciation for her and a little prayer. She pressed the note to her heart and smiled while tears streamed down her cheeks. Then she said something that I will never forget.
“Now, living or dying,” she said, “is only a detail. I know that God is with me. Thank you.”
I hurried into the terminal and looked up at a monitor. My airlines had one last flight to Hartford. It left in ten minutes from another terminal. There was still a chance. Have you ever seen a swami galloping across the corridors of an airport? One man yelled at me, “Why don’t you use your magic carpet?”
As I was running, it struck me that I had forgotten to take Dorothy’s cell phone number. How would I ever find out what happened to her? To this day I regret my foolishness. I made it just as they were closing the gate. Five seconds more and I would have been too late.
At the cultural center in Hartford, my hosts had adjusted the schedule to accommodate a late start time. I asked if there was a particular topic I should speak on.
“Anything you like,” was the reply.
“Tonight’s lecture,” I announced, “is called ‘Why I am so late for the lecture.’”