Monkey Business

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One day several years ago, I found myself in a small North Indian village, sitting in the courtyard of my guru’s ashram, a beautiful temple to the monkey god Hanuman. As I sat enjoying the sun and drinking chai, I watched a family of monkeys dance around a few bags of rice. I smiled at the futile efforts of the ashram manager, shaking his stick at the persistent creatures. They had a determination like that of Hanuman himself, who never stopped searching for Sita, the kidnapped wife of Ram (an incarnation of God), even when Ram had lost hope.

This ashram had always evoked a deep emotion in me; it’s where I first met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and where the course of my life changed radically. Whenever I had visited here, I found myself in tears—sometimes crying at the love I felt, but more often crying out of loneliness and longing. But on this
sunny day, listening to the old women endlessly chanting Hare Krishna, I drifted off in a cloud of contentment.

Sitting next to me was my chai partner, a very old and perpetually smiling devotee known simply as Papa, who had been with Maharajji (as devotees called Baba) since the 1940s. Papa’s leathery, toothless face always seemed to shine, even in declining health, and his eyes had the gleam of someone fixed on the Divine, someone who frequently received visions and visitations from his long-deceased guru. Suddenly, Papa turned toward me, his face uncharacteristically severe, and told me in his tremulous voice to go into what used to be Maharajji’s bedroom and sing 11 Hanuman Chaleesas. In its 40 verses, this 16th-century ode to the monkey god, who was much loved by Maharajji, extols Hanuman’s magical powers and his bottomless devotion to Ram and recalls Hanuman’s heroic exploits—such as leaping across the ocean to find Sita—as told in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana.

Reluctant to disturb my peaceful reverie, I hesitated. Was I ready, just now, for effortful sadhana (spiritual practice)? Papa convinced me that I was, declaring, “It’s the very least we can do! He who has given us everything—what can we give back to him? Just our songs and our gratitude.” There were tears in Papa’s eyes as he spoke, so I reached for my harmonium and went into Maharajji’s room to sing.

When I entered the room, a change came over me. Perhaps it was the elaborate display of flowers on what used to be Maharajji’s bed or the huge photo of Baba gazing deep into my soul. But as I began to sing, my voice bouncing off the whitewashed clay walls, I imagined my beloved Baba lying there, enjoying my chant. I had been used to doing spiritual practices for myself—my own salvation, my enlightenment, sometimes even my sanity. But now I found myself singing as an offering of thanks, as an expression of the deepest gratitude for a love and grace given totally without condition—singing just to bring joy to the one who is, for me, the source of all joy. “Forever make my heart your home,” I chanted.

Through chanting, I had a glimmer of the devotion that Hanuman had for Ram and Sita—a devotion so great it became enshrined in his heart. In a famous folktale, he tears open his chest to reveal a glowing image of the godly pair. My chanting allowed me a glimpse into the divine essence of my true identity. I discovered a boundless love, an eternal presence, both within and enveloping me. And I remember each day to give thanks for that loving presence—to Baba, to Hanuman, to God…and to Papa, whose fervor bestowed a gift that is still growing inside me.


Jai Uttal (www.jaiuttal.com) is a popular world-traveling kirtan (devotional chant) master and recording artist.