I may have seen God in first class. The first class section of an Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Palm Springs, to be exact. Or, maybe I didn’t.
In the early ‘90s I was traveling from Portland to attend a “bhandara," or spiritual gathering, of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) devotees in Palm Springs. After changing planes in San Francisco I found myself in a right side aisle seat in the coach row directly behind first class, idly watching other passengers board.
A middle-aged Indian gentleman caught my eye. Bearded, he was wearing a white turban and blue jeans. His first class seat was across the aisle and one row up from mine. Before sitting down he glanced around the rear of the plane and our eyes briefly met. Then he took his seat and I returned to perusing a magazine. Nothing special seemed to have happened.
But it had, to quite a few other people sitting near me. For they were Bay Area RSSB members who also were heading to Palm Springs for the bhandara where the satguru (true guru) was to speak. And that Indian gentleman sitting a few feet away from me was the satguru—Master Gurinder Singh.
I began to hear whispers. “That’s him.” “The master is sitting in first class.” “I don’t believe it.” I hadn’t recognized Gurinder Singh, even though I’d seen him before at a bhandara in Vancouver, B.C. Fervent RSSB devotees consider the satguru to be God in human form, much as Jesus is regarded by devout Christians.
The difference being, Jesus is dead and Gurinder Singh was sitting alive and well in an Alaska Airlines first class seat. Imagine that a Christian gets on a plane and sees Jesus seated a few rows ahead of him and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the atmosphere on the flight to Palm Springs—among the RSSB disciples, at least.
I got mildly caught up in the excitement. However, even back then, when I was much more involved—psychologically and otherwise—with RSSB than I am now, I didn’t consider that seeing the satguru was a big deal. And until I made the connection between “Indian man wearing a turban” and “Master Gurinder Singh,” seeing him wasn’t even a small deal.
For I didn’t feel a hint of anything special until the disciples around me started up the “It’s him!” whispering campaign. Wouldn’t you think that if a person truly is God in human form, such would be obvious? Not just to those who already believe in the person’s divinity, but to everyone—believer and unbeliever alike. Jesus, of course, suffered the same lack of recognition. If his purported godliness had been transparently apparent, impossible to deny, by the time he died Jesus would have had a lot more than a handful of followers.
Psychedelic researchers speak of the importance of set and setting in determining the nature of a LSD (or similar drug) experience. “Set” includes the personality of the individual; “setting” includes cultural views about what is real. If someone with a devotional frame of mind joins a group like RSSB that affirms the divinity of a guru, then this person may very well see God sitting in first class. I, on the other hand, just saw an Indian man.
My wife, Laurel, joined me in Palm Springs a few days later. She was more interested in shopping and sunshine than attending the bhandara, but I did talk her into going to two RSSB meetings. At one of them she got to sit in the front row, just a few feet away from the stage where Gurinder Singh spoke and answered questions—a highly favored spot to devotionally-minded disciples.
Afterwards Laurel said to me, “He just seemed like a regular person.” I couldn’t argue with her. I believed then, and still do, that Master Gurinder Singh is uncommonly intelligent, insightful, well-spoken, charismatic, and inspiring. But I had no reason then, nor any now, to assert that he is God in human form. I’ve stopped being concerned with the level of divinity someone else possesses, and now am almost exclusively focused on getting in touch with my own hypothesized higher self.
I understand the allure of what Hindus call bhakti marg, salvation through love and devotion. Though much more inclined to the spiritual path of jnana (knowledge through meditation), I’ve got my bhakti tendencies and have been known to shed a tear at the thought or sight of a guru. But that was then. I believe that I’m wiser now.
Wiser, because I’ve concluded that if I have to think or emote my way to reality, this isn’t a reality worth having. When I let loose of an object, gravity takes it to the ground regardless of whether I’m thinking “Gravity is great” or feeling “I love gravity so much!” Gravity, like all the other laws of nature, just does what it does—automatically.
If there is a spiritual dimension to reality, it makes sense to me that higher laws of the cosmos also will operate naturally and spontaneously. When my inner vision is clear, I’ll experience them without effort, just as I open my eyes in the morning and effortlessly see a world guided by physical laws.
As I quoted Philip K. Dick in the course of describing the Church of the Churchless symbol, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This probably is my favorite spiritual one-liner. In my opinion that single sentence, when properly understood, contains the entire essence of volumes of profound mystical literature that fills my bookcases.
If I have to believe in God in order to experience God, then that experience is of my own belief, not of God.
I’d be overjoyed to see God in human form. Heck, in any form. A formless form would be fine also. But I want this seeing to be unmistakable, crystal clear, impossible to be doubted. I don’t want to substitute imagination for the real thing.
Maybe I saw God in first class. Maybe. Maybe isn’t good enough. I want to be sure that God is more than, as the song goes, “just a slob like one of us.” Show me. Then I’ll believe, not before.