by Joan Dobbie*


December 31, 1978. Tomorrow Swami Vishnu would be 50 years old, a huge dinner planned, much celebration. And today he was giving out mantras, investing them, and I was to get mine. We were standing in a long shivering line, knee deep in snow. We'd been fasting since yesterday. I was hungry, cold, grouchy. Most people had fruits in their hands, gifts for Swamiji, but I had a small plastic bag of pale lumpy cookies my children had made. I wanted to give him a meaningful gift, a gift from my heart. And I was missing my children.

Phil, my boyfriend and Yoga teacher, stood with me in line. He was telling me how wonderful it would be when I got my mantra, how something magical would happen. How high I'd be, how happy. I've always been half cynic and half believer. Half of me thought this whole mantra business was ridiculous. And half of me was excited, and hopeful, and a little afraid. Phil was showing me the list of mantras in the Yoga pamphlet. There was one particular mantra that drew me, but Phil thought I should take a different one. I couldn't decide which mantra to choose. The line was rapidly getting shorter and shorter. And I just couldn't decide.

And then I was alone with Swami Vishnu. He asked me which mantra I'd chosen. I said it. He signalled for me to kneel. He repeated the mantra, passing his hand over my head. And the mantra came alive, settled into my heart, and began speaking itself. And the sound of it in me made me feel sick. I stuck the bag of cookies into his hand, staggered out of that room, nauseous, gagging. "How was it?" asked Phil, smiling his wide, expectant smile. I couldn't even answer.

That night I couldn't eat supper. I couldn't sleep with Phil. All night I huddled alone in the dry bathtub of our cabin, sobbing, vomiting. The mantra was like a sickness, like an unwanted pregnancy. It had lodged itself inside my chest, a fat black slug stuck to my heart, and it wouldn't stop speaking itself.

Morning came, New Year's day, and then lunchtime, time for Swamiji's
birthday feast. The dining hall was packed with people from all over the world, smiling in all sorts of languages, everyone smiling. We kneeled or sat on pillows at the long, long dining table. Swami Vishnu was seated at the head of the table, all smiles. Only I wasn't smiling. I was so sick I hardly could breath. I couldn't even try to taste my food.

And then it was like I was watching myself, standing up, stumbling along the edge of the table, over peoples arms, over their heads, over their babies. "Excuse me... Excuse me... Excuse me..." Until I was there at the head of the table beside Swami Vishnu. "Please," I begged, "I have to see you." So he told me to come by his cabin at two.

At two I was there at his cabin. He had guests, a family from India, mother, father, son. What I remember is this: As I came in the door, Swamiji was telling the boy that his name was a Sanskrit word meaning "discrimination" and that this was a very significant name. He should consider its meaning. As he was speaking Swami Vishnu was walking around the room serving from a small tray the cookies my children had made, that I'd given him. The guests were eating the cookies, saying how good they were.

Then the guests left and I was alone with him. "Well?" he asked me.

"It's the mantra," I stammered. "I picked the wrong mantra. Please, I need a new mantra."

Swamiji kind of chuckled. "You don't need a new mantra," he said. "The mantra doesn't have a problem. You have a problem. Come over here." So I came close and he had me kneel down in front of him. Then he murmured some words in Sanskrit, passing his hand over my head. And as he did that I felt powerful waves surging through me, through my whole being. And when I stood up I was dizzy with happiness.

In a way nothing had changed. The mantra was still there, stronger than ever, repeating and repeating itself in my heart. But instead of feeling like a parasite, it felt warm, like love, pulsing inside me.

When later I met Phil on the path by the Krishna temple the smile that I gave him was huge. "You see?" he told me.

And that mantra never did stop, never ran down, so that now, 15 years later, almost a decade since I've seen Phil, five years since my own father has died, one year since my youngest child left home, six months since Swami Vishnu has died, it remains the one thing I can count on. And I remember the way you remember mountains you've climbed, how desperately I fought it at first. And think back thankfully, to that moment when Swami Vishnu gave me the strength to carry it.

*Published in The Yogi, Yes International Publishers, edited by Gopala Krishna, Copyright 1995