“Swami not Sleeping, Swami Burning!”

When Swamiji first came to my home it was springtime and the weather was a pleasant 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius).   He stayed in my bedroom, which had a futon mattress on the floor as a bed.  Behind the futon was a very long, metal electric heater, which supplied ample heat to the room even in the coldest winter months.  In fact it was easy to overheat the room. Since it was so warm outside, the heater was unnecessary and had been turned off.  

Soon after he arrived, Swamiji retired to the bedroom for the evening.   About twenty minutes after he retired, his interpreter Mr. Singh came out and announced that Swamiji was requesting the heat to be turned on.   I was surprised because the house seemed warm enough to us locals.   I assumed that he was use to higher temperatures in India and went and turn the heater on to the low setting.   I knew from experience that would warm the room quite well and left assured that would be enough heat.    

Another twenty minutes passed and Mr. Singh emerged from the bedroom and again said Swamiji wanted “more heat”.  Once again I went into the bedroom and this time I turned the heat up to medium thinking that would definitely be enough and left the bedroom.  Sometime later the request for “more heat” was again made.   When I entered the bedroom this time it was uncomfortably warm, but as requested, I turned up the heat – this time to the very highest setting.   I left the room absolutely sure it would be enough heat because the highest setting kept the well insulated bedroom warm even when the outside temperature reached the coldest: -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius).    However, I was wrong again.

Soon I was  summons to the bedroom once more because Swamiji wanted “more heat”.   When I entered the bedroom this time, it felt like I had entered a sauna.  To me the heat was oppressive.  I began to wonder if Swamiji was playing a joke on me.   I verified the heat was set to the highest level and explained to Mr. Singh that was the maximum heat that the heater could provide.  This message was translated to Swamiji which seemed to satisfy him and I heard no more about it.

The next morning the interpreter and another devotee who was traveling with them went into the bedroom to give Swamiji a massage as was the custom.   Before too long, the devotee emerged from the bedroom approached me with intent and announce that: “Swamiji had been badly burned on your heater resulting in large blisters, which burst open during his massage”.   I was devastated by this news and felt horribly responsible.   Being an American, I really had no idea of the cultural protocols involved in being a host for Swamiji – this was, after all, my first experience of hosting an Indian yogi and now it was starting to look like it would also be my last experience at hosting a yogi.   Whatever the culturally correct way to host a yogi was, clearly allowing him to get burned in your home on his first visit was not part of it.

I rushed to the bedroom to find Swamiji sitting up showing the burns on his forearm.  There were three sizable blistered areas where the outer layers of skin had peeled away revealing red, raw flesh underneath.   I looked at Swamiji then at the heater and bed, then back at Swamiji who announced in English: “Swami not Sleeping, Swami Burning!”  I had been sleeping next to that heater for many years and on the highest setting it is somewhat hot to the touch but would never burn your skin only by touching it. The official building codes in the America require that these heaters never get hot enough to ignite fabric or even paper.  So for the heater to have caused these burns, Swamiji would have had to sleep with his arm over the top of his head and the arm would have had to remain on the heater for a very long time.   Still I was guilt-ridden by the fact that Swamiji had been hurt in my home.

From then on, when we gathered in a group with Swamiji, he would tell the story through his interpreter of him being burned on my heater and end the story by showing his burns and saying in English: “Swami not Sleeping, Swami Burning!”  After the programs at my home in the Midwest, we traveled with him to programs in Boston, New York City and Woodstock.   And when he sat with a group informally before or after a program he would likely tell the swami burning story.    However for me, it was a painfully embarrassing story.   And when Swamiji would recount the story to a group and finish with the predicable punch line: “Swami not Sleeping, Swami Burning!”,  his audience would just as predictably all turn and give me the “look”.  And the “look” consistently had the same range of expression, from a kind of indignant anger that I had burned their guru, to a rather pathetic type of compassion that one might show to an incompetent fool.  After a couple of these experiences I began to sit further and further toward the back of the audience to avoid the “look” as much as possible.

Now, considering Swamiji often engaged in his devotees in Lelas, and considering how many times he had me turn the heat up; I began to wonder if this was a Lela (divine play), a needed lesson for me, a misfortunate accident, or maybe he consciously used this event as a means of lifting some of my karma.  I eventually came to the conclusion that it was all of the above.  And yet for me, the most remarkable part this experience was that each and every time he told the story he did it with great love, which was unmistakable.  And each time he told the story with love I found my guilt reduced; until at last the last telling of the story I was free of that guilt completely.  ~ D