“Hari Om,” said the woman on the other end of the telephone, from the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY). I was in the Bihar town of Munger, writing about gun smugglers in what has become the hub of illegal firearms and researching for this piece on yoga in the land of guns. I was hoping that they’d be helpful and eager to talk about their centre’s role in promoting the ancient Indian practice, and I’d get to meet some teachers and young folks practising it. It’s been only a few times I have been proven this wrong about something.
The alarm in the voice of the woman from the BSY’s reception was apparent even over our telephonic conversation. “I need to check with the authorities if someone can talk to you,” she said in fluent English. “Meanwhile, if you are in the city, you can visit our ashram for a spiritual event on New Year’s Day. Hundreds will assemble there to chant 108 rounds of Hanuman Chalisa (a Hindu devotional hymn),” she added. With nothing great to do on my birthday (January 1), I agreed.
After she took down my name and details, I asked her for her name so I could follow up on my conversation. “We aren’t allowed to give our names to outsiders. But don’t worry. When you call next, someone will have an answer,” she said, ending the conversation with another “Hari Om”. In hindsight, this should have been the first sign of the sort of day I was going to have while dealing with this highly secretive ashram. Binge-watching Wild Wild Country should have prepared me for this. But I wasn’t in Oregon. Munger is a quiet town—once an arsenal hub under the British and now known for its desi kattas (illegal homemade guns), cheap prototypes of pistols and AK-47s—from where guns are smuggled to several parts of South Asia.
Simultaneously, the colonial town has also gained fame for something totally antithetical to its ‘violent’ image: a centre of yoga. Set up by Swami Satyanand Saraswati in 1963 to impart 'yogic training to householders and sannyasins (religious ascetics who has renounced the world)' from all over the world, the Bihar School of Yoga has had its share of controversies—from charges of child abuse in Australia by its former spiritual leader Swami Akhandananda to allegations of not prioritising the welfare of survivors. Lately, though the centre has earned fame for being an abode of peace and for the mass following of its gurus: Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati and Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati. In 2004, India’s former president APJ Abul Kamal named Munger as the City of Yoga.
I hailed an autorickshaw, which took me through the lanes of the town and the historic Munger Fort near which the ashram is located. Ten minutes from the destination, the rickshaw driver pointed to an enormous 5-star hotel-like complex situated on the highest point in the town. “It’s for rich people. I have heard they don’t allow local residents inside regularly, because white men and women roam naked,” he said, laughing. I had gone there expecting a small yoga school. On getting closer, there was almost a kilometre-long queue to get to the ashram on the a day it throws open its door to everyone. Ignoring the blocked traffic, men and women, both young and old, waited patiently to take part in mantra (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation) recitation and to see their beloved spiritual gurus.
“Swami Niranjanananda is more than a god for me. If I can just get a glimpse of him, my day will be made,” said Surjeet Yadav, a shopkeeper in Munger. He began coming to the ashram after his son was diagnosed with blood cancer six years ago. “He is admitted (to a hospital) in Lucknow, but due to Guruji’s blessings, is recovering much better than before,” he told me. According to him, the spiritualism he had found here was better than the picnics most local residents go on on new year’s day. “Guruji ne humein to zero se hero bana diya (The teacher/guide has made me a hero from zero).”
Behind me in the queue were a father-son duo from Patna. The father, a retired English professor by the name of Vijay Bahadur Rai, believed every person goes through a spiritual transformation once in their life. “You get tired running after material gains and work on your mann ki shakti (the power of the mind),” he added. His son, Anand Rai, said the yoga ashram has achieved success in changing Munger’s image as just an illegal firearms hub. “Presidents like APJ Abul Kalam, industrialists like Ness Wadia and Bollywood stars like Salman Khan have been guests of the ashram,” he said.
After passing the stringent security checks at the gate, I entered and was immediately mesmerised by the lush green, well-planned structure, and the luxurious and vast area that the centre occupied. As people walked along the long sandstone pavement, a sannyasin asked them to take off their shoes, and handed out pouches to carry them into the complex. At a counter, books on yoga and a three-in-one holographic image of the school's popular spiritual gurus were being distributed free of cost. Rotating the photo at an angle, the image of the guru transformed from a young Niranjanananda Saraswati to a bearded Satyananda Saraswati. Apart from devotees, sannyasins in saffron and yellow and students in red uniforms of the ashram kept an eye on the mass of outsiders at different places in the palatial ashram.
In a tastefully decorated community area where the smell of agarbattis wafted through, devotees chanted Hanuman Chalisa and other mantras under the watch of sannyasins. Everything looked controlled and carefully coordinated.
I found a slightly less busy sannyasin, introduced myself and asked him if I could find a guru or teacher to talk about yoga. “We can’t talk with outsiders. Maybe she can help you,” he told me, directing me towards a Caucasian woman distributing books on yoga. She listened to me patiently with a smile, but refused to give me her name (by now, I was expecting this). “All of us have to take permission before interacting with outsiders. But let me try to help you,” she said and gestured me to follow her.
With hopes of an interview and meeting a yoga guru of the ashram, I went past the community centre to another building. In the lobby, a fair, tall, spectacled and bald Indian man was sitting with some sannyasins, oozing authority and arrogance.
To my surprise, he was hostile from the beginning of the conversation. “What do you want from me?” he asked in fluent English. Sensing a chance, I repeated my request. “What’s the name of the organisation you work for. Spell it.” V-I-C-E, I said. “Do you even know what that word even means?” I nodded, trying my best to defuse the tension in the air. I told him about my conversation with an ashram representative on the phone. “I don’t know whom you talked to, but nobody from the ashram will talk to you today.”
Clutching at the last straw, I asked if I could interview someone at a later date, over telephone or email. “Don’t you know we don’t allow telephones, internet or emails here?” I didn’t. The official website does mention it though it also has some phone numbers listed. I asked if there was any way I could talk to an ashram representative about general queries on yoga and Munger. “The best you can do is send us your questions through mail. We would respond if we agree with the questions. I can’t talk to you anymore,” he said.
Disheartened with the snub, I listened to Hanuman Chalisa chants by devotees outside, taking some photos of the people attending. Pretty soon, a sanyasi came and asked me to leave the ashram. “We don’t want you here any more.” I walked towards the gate of the ashram, where hundreds were still waiting to get in. I walked past the long queue of devotees and yoga enthusiasts hoping to catch a glimpse of their spiritual gurus.
I spent the rest of the day at a small fair near the ashram, eating Bihari jhalmuri and shooting at colourful balloons. As I looked at the residents of Munger celebrating their New Year, I realised that this was probably my worst birthday ever.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.