Often, while staying on the second floor of a two-family house in Baroda, India, I noticed numerous monkeys watching me intently outside the window of my room. I asked my host Kaushik why this was so.
“They are waiting for you to leave your window open when you leave your room,” he replied. “Then they will be able to steal your red umbrella and black hat.”
I was astonished. “What could they do with my hat and umbrella?” I inquired, somewhat skeptically.
Kaushik grinned. “Exactly what they’ve seen you do,” he explained. “One monkey will put your hat on his head, and the other will open the umbrella and hold it over him. They are just like men, I tell you.”
This habit of imitation by the monkeys is well known in India, where Indians relate an amusing story to illustrate it. A hat salesman was traveling through the countryside, going from one town to another. He was carrying many hats, and since it was a warm day, he became quite drowsy. Putting his burden down, he rested his back against a tree and was soon fast asleep, shaded from the noonday sun.
When he awoke some time later, he was dismayed to find most of his hats gone. Looking up, he saw a whole host of monkeys sitting on branches in the nearby trees, watching him. Each was wearing one of his hats on its head.
He was overcome by despair, “I am ruined,” he thought, but then, knowing of the monkey’s propensity for imitation, he conceived of a brilliant idea. Putting one of the few remaining hats on his head, he feigned anger, ripped it off, and cast it to the ground with considerable force. Three times he repeated this action, placing the hat on his head and then, in a fit of rage, slamming it to the ground.
The astonished monkeys, naturally took the hats from their own heads and, pretending anger, dashed them to the ground, as they had seen him do. The salesman was saved. In a few minutes he had recovered his entire precious stock and was on his way again.
It was Kaushik who told me that when a monkey grins and bares his teeth at you, he is angry. This bit of information came in handy at a later date. By then I was at an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. One day, walking up from a stony beach on the Ganges, I noticed a convention of monkeys meeting on the hillside. One fellow sat up front, as though addressing the others, and all seemed quite intent on their meeting. I was fascinated and walked closer to get a better view. The monkeys, noticing the intruder, turned toward me and seemed to grin amiably. Then I suddenly remember Kaushik’s warning. Not wanting to be set upon by 75 or 100 simians, I beat a hasty retreat. Obviously it was no time to be curious and break in on their meeting.
I remember an interesting encounter between several small monkeys and a pack of wild dogs that took place under the suspension bridge of Laksman Jhula, near Rishikesh, which is a great place for holy men in the foothills of the Himalayas. I had been walking with a yellow-robed sannyasin and trying not to notice his occasional excursions to various vendors, from whom he bought one cigarette at a time. He was neither supposed to smoke nor handle money, but this was not my concern.
Hearing some unusual sounds near the entrance to the bridge and noticing a crowd gathering there, I took advantage of my companion’s brief absence to see what was happening. Apparently a pack of wild dogs, seeing a mother monkey and her tiny offspring far from any trees, had forced them onto the guardrail of the imposing suspension bridge. The mother and baby rested there and would have been all right if a larger male monkey (perhaps hermate) had not come along to berate the poor mother. She had enough problems taking care of her offspring and evading the wicked-looking dogs without having to fight off another intrusion. When the larger monkey began cuffing her angrily, she let go of the baby and pushed him up the cable. The tiny tot climbed laboriously, sometimes swinging 360 degrees around, but not letting go. Down below, the pack of dogs waited eagerly for the young one to fall, as seemed inevitable. The holy men, in loincloths or saffron robes, watched with amusement and interest. None would interfere in the drama however.
Somehow the mother pacified the male and he went away. Then she climbed the cable to reach her baby, who had miraculously disappointed the waiting dogs below. Reaching the little one, she tucked him to her breast and began her descent. Now she had one problem left: how to evade the dogs and make her way to a tree, or some other safe shelter. It was obvious this would not be easy, particularly with the burden on her chest.
Coming as close as she could to the dogs without allowing them to reach her, she began a series of feints. Each pretended movement brought a howl from the dogs, who immediately dashed in the intended direction. It seemed obvious the monkey mother had the superior intelligence. We all waited for her to make her move.
Finally, she felt the dogs were diverted enough to give her a chance. She quickly dropped to the ground and dashed in the opposite direction toward a nearby building. The tricked pack of canines came roaring after her. It was touch-and-go, but she made it to the building and quickly scampered to the roof, just a few feet ahead of her pursuers. Showing a remarkable coolness and arrogant confidence, she then leaned over the side of the building, holding herself just out of the dog’s reach. I have often seen monkeys tantalizing wild dogs in this manner, not escaping to a real safety ledge but teasing the wild animals by just barely eluding their grasp. A pursued monkey on a tree will occasion- ally and casually pick some fruit, or tear off a small branch, and throw it at the tormentors.
We were all happy to see the mother monkey and her off- spring make it to safety. As the group of observers began to disperse, I turned slowly back to the clock tower in the town where I had left the sannyasin. As I did so, I noted one holy man who paid absolutely no attention to the excitement, as he was sitting the whole time in the opposite direction facing the sun. It was my friend Maharaj in a white cotton dhoti.
I crossed to where he was sunbathing face up to the sky. “What have you been doing Maharaj?” I inquired suspiciously.
He smiled. “I am just sitting here enjoying the sunshine,” was his answer, and I believed him. He had not even noticed the commotion. Maharaj was a great meditator and one who wandered where he wanted. “He is ‘free geese,’” explained another sadhu enviously. The latter was attached to a master and could only go where his guru told him.
At our ashram there was only one meal a day at about noon. I had noticed that Maharaj was absent at some meals. When I asked him about it, he shrugged. “If I am deep in meditation at the time, I just wait for another day,” he explained, as though a day without food was an ordinary occurrence.
Maharaj usually meditated for four or five hours at a time. He seemed relaxed and happy, and I admired him. Years later, I heard he had gone to Canada, where his warm personality attracted quite a following. He taught meditation to many and was known to have initiated hundreds. Then suddenly, he was asked to leave Canada within 24 hours. The government had heard that one of his initiates had become pregnant. It was even rumored that he initiated in the nude.
I do not know why the Canadians were so uptight about the pregnancy. Many Indian rishis (sages) had had wives, and the Indian Mythology is full of meaningful sexual encounters. Does not the great Ramayana revolve around such a matter? At any rate, it may have been Canada’s loss when Maharaj left so abruptly. I do not know where he is these days, but he is probably “just sitting and enjoying the sunshine” somewhere, oblivious to monkey fights and monkey flights and smiling in the serenity of a peaceful mind.
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Early summer evenings in small towns hold great charm for me. Dinner is finished and dishes are put away; there is still an hour or so of daylight in which young ones ride their bikes and older people, basking in the warmth of a comfortable dinner, swing on the porch or rock back and forth in ancient rocking chairs. Fathers play on the lawns with their tiny daughters. The cool breeze of evening greets the departing day for all.
This is almost my favorite time. I like even better the very early morning just as the sun rises. The few who have to be up and out so early greet each other almost as conspirators, feeling the freshness of a new day and well repaid for the early chill they felt as they protestingly left warm beds. At this hour all things seem possible.
I sometimes think we forfeit these moments when we live in a large city.