“Ultimately spiritual awareness unfolds when you’re flexible, when you’re spontaneous, when you’re detached, when you’re easy on yourself and easy on others.” – Deepak Chopra.
“Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” – Voltaire,
I fell in love with Sufism, at an ashram on the banks of the most sacred Hindu river – Ganges, at Rishikesh. And I choose the blessed festival of colour Holi, today, to reveal this to you! As bizarre as it may seem, it is precisely what happened to me, over the span of just seven to ten days. This experience was almost like a calling from God and a test of my true spirituality – the ability to truly, ‘let go’ of what I believe in or identify with, as a Hindu by birth. Though I have grown up with Catholic values since a child of five, at a boarding school, then taking on Protestant values at a residential high school.
This was in the first week of March last year, at the yearly held International Yoga festival I attended in Rishikesh, with over 1000 participants from 101 countries. There I mentally and spiritually sailed the universe, focused on the universal values of love and service, deserting the illusions of the ego to reach God, while anchored to my core inner self. I have considered myself to be spiritually inclined – the realization dawning on me over the last decade since I crossed thirty-five. Thus I had gone to Rishikesh, with a mind and heart whose doors and windows were flung wide open, to the quest for greater spiritual awakening – but which was not remotely religious. Learning the intricacies of the physical aspects of the varied forms of Yoga was of course the initial driving force as is now fashionable.
The man who led me, literally by hand, to fall in love with Sufism – walked into the garden-lawn of the Parmarth Ashram, where on the evening before its commencement, I had just arrived for my registration for the festival I had paid and reserved a seat for, online. My first sight of Mert Guler, was of him striding just behind me — as I incidentally turned back – purposefully and with much élan. I did not know his name then, and would not for a couple of days yet. But one glance at his immense confidence, positive energy, and the aura he exuded – flashing the widest and most radiant smile I have ever seen in my forty-six years; and I knew he was someone who had a very assured place under the sun.
His longish, finely curled hair from his one-sided African descent, framing his chiselled handsome face like a halo; on his tall, lean, lithe frame Mert wore a white muslin kurta and linen pants. Close at his sandaled heels, strode in about eight strikingly attractive, and obviously very physically toned from yoga, Turkish women, like the luminosity following the sun, which was just setting over the Ganges that we were on the banks of, nearing 6 pm.
Mert Guler’s spontaneous Namaste to everyone, flashing his radiant smile at no one in particular, with a slight bow – across the rectangular garden enclosed by tables, manned by several male and female volunteers for the registration process, grabbed my attention. Almost everyone seemed to know him and beamed back. His smile was like the moon spreading its glow over the river of humanity. Mert Guler exuded so much positive energy that I kept looking at him in awe – wondering who he might be that he had a dedicated team of followers who walked literally at his feet and ensured their smiles matched his in exuberance.
I was handed, the additional key to my room, to be shared with two other women, who had already checked in that morning; along with a steel mug, a water bottle and a folder containing the festivals itinerary with detailed profiles of the long list of renowned yoga instructors from over the world. This was to be in various halls and makeshift auditoriums across the sprawling campus of the ashram, also under a tarpaulin overlooking the Ganges.
After settling into my room, with only the basic amenities expected as in an ashram, like a bed and a small cupboard for each inmate, attached to an inner porch with a pantry and a separate bathing and toilet area, we stepped out for dinner. It was on the way to an amazingly wide spread of awesome (almost wedding like) Satvik buffet dinner, much to my surprise and relief from having expected a meagre meal, served inside a tarpaulin enclosure with large round tables, to accommodate 1000 people, starting at 7.30 pm, that I again saw Mert Guler’s group breeze past us. His smile floated ahead of him as if the moon lighting the path of his followers. I drew my roommate’s attention, who was a Christian yoga instructor from Calcutta, to the group. She agreed there was a striking positive energy and aura about the man and his band of female followers who matched his steps in speed, energy, and the expanse of their smiles.
The next day I attended the first Yoga class from 5.30 – 6.30 am followed by a sumptuous buffet breakfast in the same place as dinner. That evening, after a delicious multi-course dinner, replete with dessert like malpua and jalebi, on the way back to our room, I once again saw Mert Guler and his followers. In the room, describing him to my third roommate who is a yoga instructor from Ahmedabad and runs her own studio, also a regular at this festival, unlike the other two of us first timers, I learned his name and that he was a celebrated yoga instructor and spiritual leader from Turkey, Istanbul. She finished her introductions of him, with: “He just makes you laugh all through his classes and does hoo-ha, hoo-ha only — for an hour or more. There’s no way I’m going to his class again this year…he’s just too funny!”
Her last statement piqued my curiosity and led the 3 of us into further discussion late into the night on Mert Guler and his team, also other internationally reputed instructors we had met and attended 3-4 classes each of, in the course of the day. I was the only one in our room of three to whom yoga was not a vocation, so I had also opted to attend the two hour spiritual discourse that was to be held daily by reputed leaders, by the Ganges, from 11am to 1pm when an elaborate buffet lunch was served at the designated meal place.
The Christian woman from Calcutta, the other two of us being Hindus, who had agreed last evening that he had a positive and dynamic aura, now said – “His eyes look like he’s in a trance always, don’t they? He must surely be on some addictive substance, to be high always. It’s not uncommon among yogis to take drugs and the like. Moreover it looks like his 8 women followers are in love with him and perhaps in a physical relationship with him and each other too. Don’t they all look like they are?
“But how does it matter – if it makes them all so happy?” I said and we both agreed. Then I added, “Moreover this angle makes it an interesting story to write about and makes me so curious. But much more, how all these women in a relationship with one man are so close-knit and always together, but then that’s how it is with the practice of having several wives. There must be a reason why I’m bumping into this group several times ever since I arrived.”
“No, no, the women are all in his team and Mert has a girlfriend among that group. She had come last year too.” The repeat participant intervened convincingly.
“But did you notice them around the fruit-seller at the Ganga aarti-ghat this evening, there was one feeding him coconut water right out of her hand.” The woman from Calcutta added. “She must be the girl friend then.”.
I concluded this discussion, recalling the best part of my day – the beautiful Ganga arati at 6 pm, that Swami Chidananda the presiding Yogi preferred to call the ‘Happy Hour’ I would ensure to attend every evening I was here, along with a firm resolve to attend Mert Guler’s class the next day to figure out the dynamics in that group myself.
At the class – that was full of bonhomie, positive energy, love and warmth for each of us participants – I found no vibes amongst this group to suggest they had anything more than a common love for life, humanity, and love between them – and not a relationship of the earthy kind. After the ice breaker rounds of immense laughter – we practiced the Sufi style of meditation — whirling around, one hand stretched skyward as if receiving, the other stretched downward in spreading what we receive, to humanity, with head tilted; as Rumi the poet did in a marketplace for 26 hours. It puts one in a relaxed, happy, and then into a trance like state.
At the end of the class, I decided, it was much more exhilarating than dancing and drinking for hours at a discotheque or taking drugs might be. The motion of your body blanks your mind completely and you are in that state of meditative trance with no mental effort to tie your mind — that’s like a monkey that tends to hop around and about the world even as you try to force it into a meditative state in the Buddhist style by concentrating on your breathing.
After the first class, I felt compelled to return to the second one on the next day. The first was called ‘Sufi Meditation’, and the second – ‘Rumi, Love, Meditation.’ In my view as I write this now, Sufi meditation, is the most effective form of meditation — there is for beginners.
At the festival, where we had yoga classes from 4 am to 9.30 pm interspersed with spiritual discourses by enlightening spiritual leaders like Sri Prem Baba, Mooji and many others – most of which I attended to enhance my thoughts on spirituality, I learned and practiced various forms of meditation. Yet it was Sufi meditation that I became all set to be practicing henceforth – even ordering a skirt to make my whirling more effective, this after recording a number of Sufi music albums from the shop outside the ashram.
My newfound love for all things Sufi, was substantially enhanced after I watched and joined Mert playing Holi with his team with as much happiness and love, as while in Sufi meditation class. Mert applied purple and pink colour on everyone in his line of vision when we played Holi. He and his team, love life in all its facets and teach you to love it too. At both his classes, the other enthusiastic participant like me was a 28 year old ‘Hare Krishna’ follower from Columbia, who is a civil engineer with a master’s degree, who quit a safe and successful corporate life for a life of spirituality at 25 years. My roommates and I thought we might see this young man whom we became rather fond of and referred to as Krishna or Radhe-Radhe, join Mert’s group or take up Sufism by the next festival or another. He was as inspired by Mert – as I learned from my conversations with him, as he was by ‘Hare Krishna.’
For all my spiritual bent of mind, I claim to have, my two roommates who did not attend any of Mert’s classes, had throughout the week been teasing me of falling and being in love with Mert Guler and not his teachings.
I said to them: “Well, and so be it…As he is the conveyor of a new love, life and positive energy. If an ardent, young male American, ‘Hare Krishna’ monk, with shaven head can become so besotted by him, why not me!”
But then for me love does not have religion or gender biases I was to discover. As there is another person who I have also mentally taken on as my Guru, just as I listen and read many others in my own spiritual search, attending her live Satsangs as soon as I receive the Facebook page notifications, over last year. This was after first attending her class at the yoga festival last year on ‘letting go’. She is Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Director of the IYF who also spearheads all activities and the running of Parmarth Niketan Ashram; along with the Founder of IYF Swami Chidanand Saraswati.
Sadhvi Bhagwati-ji is an American woman in her mid fourties, born and raised in Hollywood; by a successful criminal lawyer father and a school teacher mother. She left her doctoral course in Psychology (which she completed later), in America, denouncing the good life she had, to become a Sadhvi — wearing only saffron robes now, in the worship of Hindu Gods in the ritualistic way and serving people of a Hindu land. What I like best about her spiritual discourses is that I find her rationale very intelligent, justifiable, and easily relatable in main stream life, over and above being spiritually guiding and illuminating. I like to keep my mind open, so I listen to many Gurus so as never to follow anyone blindly, but retain my objectivity for my life as a writer. I became her follower inspite of all criticism on her motivation to give up everything, by my roommates, to the extent of suggesting her romantic love for someone at the ashram being the inspiration. These ‘serious’ yoga practitioners and teachers, changed their minds only after I insisted on the Christian woman attending her ‘letting go’ class and she followed Bhagwati-ji’s instructions on letting go off her decades long hurt by releasing it mentally in the Ganges.
While Mert Guler preaches love and wants everyone in life, to quote him: “to be more of each of the following – free, full of love, pleasant, joyful, compassionate; and to share more and be more understanding, above all smile much, much more.”
His purpose “is to create a deep awareness in the physical, emotional, intellectual and internal development of human beings, to render people’s smiles hearty, and to share smiles by duplicating in the way to opening the way to harmony and unity with the universe, inspiring to bring good surprises to the world”. He strongly believes “that this inspiration will create a more liveable world.”
What’s amazing is that as a spirited child, with a dream to be a dancer, after a debilitating accident, Mert was told by doctors, he would never walk in life. He rose from this setback to not only become a professional dancer, but used his talent and god gifted blazing smile – to create a spiritual practice that is so unique and has left a deep trail.
Mert Guler’s philosophy and teachings justify his beautiful smile, just as Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati’s does that like the moon have the power to light up life paths of all their followers.
“That is the real spiritual awakening, when something emerges from within you that is deeper than who you thought you were. So, the person is still there, but one could almost say that something more powerful shines through the person.” — Eckhart Tolle
This is me in the photos – with Mert and his translator Hannan, at the start of the second days class
The next three photos are after Mert Guler’s first days class
The Hare Krishna monk I mentioned…