Greeting the guru

Everyone wore white: the women on the escalator in loose-fitting pants and shawls, the men behind me in pressed shirts, and the volunteers holding signs requesting silence. Oblivious to the dress code for meeting a guru, I’d opted for a bright-orange blouse and jeans. I stood out like an escaped convict at a meeting of the Emily Dickinson Fan Club, but no matter. Her Holiness Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi, being a living embodiment of divine love, would forgive my fashion faux pas—if she even noticed me in the crowded Sacramento Convention Center auditorium.

I found a spot in back and was relieved to observe other newbies wearing colors. I craned my neck to see the stage, where white lights festooned a white backdrop behind a white chair covered with white pillows. Nothing was happening, so I had time to wonder why I’d come.

I knew nothing about Sai Maa (though I later learned she’s an Indian spiritual master who embraces all religions and hopes to inspire humanity to divine love in action). I’d simply seen her picture on a poster and was surprised by her happy expression. All the photos of gurus I’d ever seen, on book covers or in yoga studios, showed humorless men whose eyes seemed to challenge: “How’s that monkey mind of yours? When was the last time you fed a poor person or did a sun salutation, huh?” Sai Maa wore a bright dress and grinned broadly. She looked like someone I wanted to meet.

Unwilling to pony up $177 for an intensive workshop, I took a chance on the $20 Evening with Sai Maa. It began with the announcement that we would all receive diksha, a “transmission of divine energy to initiate the process of enlightenment.” Before I knew it, a white-clad woman whose name tag read “Ann” stood before me with her hands on my head. As I relaxed under her touch, I felt a startlingly palpable pressure, like someone kneading dough inside my skull. The sensation continued after Ann moved on and throughout a guided meditation in which we imagined light illuminating our brains, healing outmoded habit patterns.

We sat in silence. A habitually fidgety meditator, I marveled at my uncharacteristic calm. Then someone said, “You may turn and greet Sai Maa.”

She stood at the door, a small woman in a white robe and a large white sun hat trimmed in marabou, looking like a grandmother headed to church. She beheld us with love in her eyes, as if we were her children at a long-awaited family reunion.

The second I saw Sai Maa, I smiled and burst into a torrent of tears. I desperately wanted her to look at me, and this shocked me. How could I be so happy to see a stranger? Why was I crying? Was this enlightenment, or was this how cult leaders convince people to drink toxic Kool-Aid?

Sai Maa sat on the white chair and spoke for some time. She answered questions from the crowd, and she laughed a lot. None of the ideas she communicated—we are all one, it’s time to remember our divine nature—were new, but my uncontrollable crying left me especially receptive. It suddenly seemed possible to release my grudges and fears, and step into a lighter life. We chanted together and, lastly, Sai Maa sang: “How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle / how deeply you’re connected to my soul?”

Walking home, I felt energized and beautiful. And confused. What had moved me to ecstatic hysterics? I tossed fitfully throughout the night, debating whether to attend Sai Maa’s workshop the next day. I didn’t want to shy away from universal love, but wasn’t I a bit, well, American for a guru?

I fell asleep after dawn and woke to discover I’d missed the workshop. Equally relieved and disappointed, I wondered if I’d ever reach enlightenment, and if I even wanted to. Then I recalled the words one master teacher said the night before: “Once you meet Maa, it’s already too late.” Perhaps I’ll buy some white clothes.