Musings by Caroline: post

13 days of grief. The Death of BKS Iyengar

I arrived in India on the 9th day of the 13 days of grief prescribed by the Hindu religion. Social Media had been extraordinary in showing us what was happening: his illness, sitting in a wheelchair talking to the students as they come into the hall and then his being moved into hospital. Then I received the call telling me of his death.


Many expressed their wonder, ‘How can this life end, when, for so many years what he expressed was extraordinary vitality?' and yet the kidneys and heart were stopping. Now we hear how he had stopped eating months before. It is not possible to know another's life, and the mystery of what happens as they prepare to leave. We hear that he was taken to the hospital with the expectation that he would return home, that he did not mind, wanting whatever would keep the family happy. Just hours after his passing he was at home being prepared for cremation, we see the body with its white mouth, and body garlanded, mourners streaming into the house, and then within hours there are the flames as his body is burned. At each definitive step we are taken, shocked, into the way this grieving proceeds, seemingly to me, as outsider, very quickly, and before I am ready.


When I arrived at the institute I felt my tears well, and it was the same for so many others. Walking in the gates, beside the Institute, I walked into a deep stillness. People sat around outside the house, coffee and tea were there, and I am invited to go into the hall. The stillness was deeper in there, just a few people sitting, there was a shrine on the platform garlanded, a photo of him with sunlight shining from behind. His feet will never walk the hall again, we will not see the doti and his bare feet, timer in hand as he comes to start his practice.


The hall feels this absence, and it now looks smaller.


Meals were offered to whomever is there on this day, in the hall, and it felt healing to eat together, not much to say, but gathered there together. The family sat around downstairs, not much was said, something is going on, and it happens in this place, sitting, eating, become collected, becoming uncollected.


The following day I found myself there again, just wanting to be around, drink the coffee, sit in the hall, as some rawness gets smoothed. Slowly getting used to his absence. More people arrived who have flown across the world for this time, to be with each other, the family and to pass through this final time in their relationship with him.


On the Saturday evening we are asked to gather, and there are stories and history, and we were told of his last days as a father and a teacher. We concluded the evening with 2 mins of silence. There are tears and again the stillness, people were quiet, they wanted to stay but no one talked much.

We came again on the Monday, the last day, the priests were there, Prashant as the son and heir dressed with a big bright coloured turban on his head, carrying a jar perhaps of ashes, the men held bamboo to make a step ladder for Guriji to climb up on to so that he could move on. We were told not to cry, though people did, saying that ‘tears hold him back, and anyway why cry, his life was nothing to grieve over, his life was well lived. You should grieve for those who have not had such a life’ we were told.


Much chanting was done, and then we were sprinkled with holy water. We ate in the hall again from a banana leaf. There must have been four sittings, so much food, so much warmth, and then the afternoon is over and we were called back for the evening of final chanting.


The chanting was call and response, there were priests, as they chanted some checked their mobile phones. Life goes on. Now it feels different in the hall again, like he has gone. He is here in our minds but this is not the same as being here anymore.


It has been a great blessing to come, to come for the family, for me, for my community and to honour a life which in time will be seen as a great life, a changer of things, like Freud, Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama.


When I look at his life now since he has gone I see something I could not see before. I see the pearl, the lustre of his life, the rubbing he has done to express this pearl, and that is what I see, not only my relationship, the cords of relationship, but the pearl for what it is. The rubbing a student experiences with a teacher is maybe the nub of things for the student. We learn at the teacher’s feet, table. There seems an extraordinary amount of time that students can put into evaluation of the teacher, themselves the other students. It is what gets disturbed within us that shapes us on the transformation path, and then what we do with this. This is the beauty of Eastern spirituality, the self will be transformed, our intolerances are invited and challenged. This is when we begin our spiritual journey. Then we need to work out the next layer. Of course, any abuse is something other and this must be worked with too.


Yet how much work and grace was in His life, and now with his death this is what I see clearly.


BKS Iyengar certainly challenged many, and he awakened me.