If Jesus returned to earth and you were part of the multitudes listening to him preach in person, what would you do if you had to go to the bathroom? This is the sort of deep theological question that we love to consider here at the Church of the Churchless. It also was a deep experiential quandary for me back in December of 1977 when I made my first visit to India.
I went to see the guru, Charan Singh, who had initiated me by proxy six and a half years earlier. I had never seen Charan Singh in person, just heard him on audiotapes, seen him on film, and read his books.
So even though I was in between jobs at the time and it was the Christmas season (two facts that my ex-wife never failed to remind me of before, during, and after my Indian pilgrimage), I had decided that spending two weeks in the Punjab at the spiritual colony of Dera Baba Jaimal Singh was good for my soul—though not for my depleted savings account nor my marriage (I wasn’t home on December 25 to put together my daughter’s first bicycle, another fact I was reminded of regularly by my wife until our divorce twelve years later).
The community where the guru of the spiritual path known as Radha Soami Satsang Beas lives is known as the Dera. In 1977, as now, disciples like me came from all over the world to absorb the Dera atmosphere and commune with the guru (or master). We Westerners were able to attend intimate evening meetings with Charan Singh where interesting questions were asked about all sorts of subjects, and even more interesting answers were given by the master.
Indians rarely could get so close to the guru. In large part this was because there were many more Indian initiates than non-Indian initiates. Several times every year huge gatherings, or bhandaras, would be held at the Dera. Hundreds of thousands of Indians would journey by train, bus, truck, foot, or however to the Dera (modes of transportation in India are wondrously diverse and often wondrously terrifying, as I wrote in a Christmas letter about my New Delhi cab ride).
These pilgrims would assemble in a vast open space to hear the guru speak in Punjabi or Hindi (I’m not sure which). This photo doesn’t begin to capture the throngs who extended far back and to the sides from where I was standing near the dais where the master soon would be sitting. The Indians would arrive hours early in order to get a seat (on the ground) fairly close to the dais. We Westerners got preferred seating right in front, and had the luxury of mats to put our posteriors on instead of just bare earth.
This day the talk (or satsang) was in late morning. I had eaten breakfast about an hour earlier and drunk my habitual cup of coffee, not a good idea. But this was my first bhandara, and I didn’t know the drill. Which was…being courteously seated by Indian volunteers (sevadars) in the close-to-the-dais area, waiting a half hour or so for the guru to arrive, and then sitting through a nearly two hour talk in a language I couldn’t comprehend, so I had no way of knowing how close the master was to finishing up his topic.
For an hour or so, everything was cool. This photo shows the view I had of the guru and of the pathi who would chant excerpts from the Sikh Adi Granth, which Charan Singh then would explicate. The best way to imagine the atmosphere is how I began this post: How would Christians feel if they were in the presence of Jesus?
For virtually all Indian disciples of the guru, as well as most Western disciples, considered that Charan Singh was god in human form. I wasn’t sure back then, and I’m less sure now, but there was no doubting the amazingly powerful force of several hundred thousand people sitting in pindrop silence before a highly revered mystic and spiritual master.
I too appeared reverential. On the outside at least. On the inside I came to have a single overwhelming thought: “Oh my God, I’ve got to pee so bad!” I tried to distract myself from bladder consciousness. No go. I considered all the possibilities open to me to pee while sitting on the ground, covered by the wool shawl that I was wearing. My camera case seemed like an option, but I couldn’t see how I could pull off peeing in the case without drawing a lot of unwanted attention from the seemingly blissed-out disciples sitting near me.
Pretty soon a loud voice in my brain was screaming at the guru, “Shut up! Stop speaking! Go home!” A smaller voice was simultaneously saying, “You should be ashamed of yourself! God in human form is sitting right above you, and all you can think about is taking a piss.”
Eventually I noticed a few Indian women standing up who must have been suffering from the same affliction I was. The reaction they got from the imposing turbaned male sevadars wasn’t encouraging. As soon as a woman would rise, a sevadar would vigorously motion with his hands for her to sit down. To leave before God has finished speaking simply isn’t done, no matter what your bladder says.
Somehow I made it through the end of the talk and raced at light speed back to my room, where I enjoyed a near-orgasmic release of bodily fluid. I passed quite a few women raising their saris in ditches by buildings near the bhandara grounds, proving that I wasn’t the only one who suffered a serious split between the needs of the body and of the spirit.
Which I guess is the theological point I’m finally getting to, and will end with. Why do spiritual people so often consider that the body is unnaturally opposed to soul? It was natural for me to want to go to the bathroom after drinking coffee and sitting for hours listening to the guru talk. Why couldn’t I feel comfortable standing up, walking off to a toilet, and then coming back to hear the rest of his satsang with a calm mind and empty bladder?
And why is it necessary to elevate “gurus” such as Charan Singh, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, whoever so far above the rest of us? Aren’t they considered to be the most humble of the humble? If I, who am not at all humble, was giving a talk, it wouldn’t bother me at all to see someone rise and go off to the bathroom. So why was this considered a serious sacrilege at that 1977 Indian bhandara, just as I strongly suspect it would be if somehow Jesus made a second coming and preached longer than the bladders of his listeners could tolerate?
“God’s here, but I’ve got to go.” For skeptical believers like me there is a deeper significance to these words than bathroom humor, I’m quite sure of that.