Lunch with a Roman Swami

Spiritual sage Bhakti Madhurya Ban Maharaj assessed my meatballs: bad karma.

By Steve Burgess 3 Jun 2011 |

Steve Burgess has found his way to Europe and will be writing this and that from there.

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Settled in Italy, just back from Montreal, Swami Bhakti was born in Surinam. Photo: Steve Burgess.

For a Catholic, Rome is a company town. The streets are lousy with priests and nuns and various clerics. But a swami? You don't meet those every Roman day. They're around though. If it is your destiny you will pick the right park bench. One day this week my bench contained Swami Bhakti Madhurya Ban Maharaj, president of the Shri Chaitanya Sridhara Sangha. Must have been some bench, you're thinking. In fact it was no Throne of St. Peter -- missing a bottom board, and rather uncomfortable. But such was our karma. And it seemed I did have things to answer for.

I had wandered into the little Giardini Piazza Vittorio, a patch of greenery in a somewhat down-at-the-heels neighbourhood close to Termini Station, returning from what I considered a very successful culinary excursion. A friend had urged me to seek out two places in this unprepossessing area -- Pietro Roscioli on Via Buonarotti, and around the corner on Via Merulana a deli called Cecchini. She told me I would know Roscioli by all the happy people. Since I had forgotten the name, following the crowds was just the ticket. The place (not to be confused with Marco Roscioli, a fancier place near Campo di Fiore, run by Pietro's brother) was jammed with locals ordering slices of pizza, sandwiches, breaded fish, lasagna, and numerous other treats to eat in or take out. I threw myself on the mercy of the deli counter attendant who whipped up a simple sandwich of prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and dried tomatoes on focaccia, for nine euros. Magnificent.

As for Cecchini, it's a straight take-away deli and I took away a bagful -- pork meatballs, clumps of Pugliese mozzarella, flat, crispy pizza bread, baked artichokes, risotto -- too much really, but all for about 14 euros. I was swinging this bag of happy treasures when I plunked myself down on that shabby bench. The other end was occupied by an elderly, slender, dark-skinned gentleman in a pink cotton dhoti and a sleeveless yellow jacket. He wore oval wire-framed glasses and hung his cane on the bench beside him as he finished his lunch from a plastic container. "I have trained myself to eat only once a day," he told me. "How are you? Good? Your belly is full? This is good. This is when people are happy."

'You cannot force them to understand'

Originally from Surinam, he had lived in Italy for decades. Fresh from the deli, I asked if he had enthusiastically taken to the typical Italian diet. He shook his head emphatically. "Meat," he said. "They don't want to hear about anything else. They have so many beautiful fruits and vegetables here -- but they want only meat. Well, you cannot force them to understand. They must come to the right knowledge by themselves."

Half-full of prosciutto and accompanied by at least two pork meatballs, I nodded.

We introduced ourselves and thus I came to understand I was in the presence of a swami -- one who had just returned from Montreal where he had been days too late to see an ailing disciple. "He died with his eyes open," the swami said sadly. "Not auspicious."

"It is fear that opens the eyes," he explained. "When the eyes open at the moment of death it means that the person can see he is about to be dragged to Yama for judgment. And he remembers at this moment that he has died before. When one has been living the correct way his eyes will be closed and peaceful as he is taken directly to Vishnu."

Although I was not there at that terrible moment, I had been told by my siblings that my mother's eyes popped open just before her final breath. It is true that she often cooked meatloaf, which would conform with the swami's theory. But I thought it best not to bring this up. Mom's meatloaf may not exactly have been a gourmet treat but I am grateful for the secular outlook that allows me to maintain she will never be punished for it in a life to come.

'You cannot escape destiny'

Swami Bhakti is busy building an ashram in the Italian region of Sabina. He expressed himself pleased about the project but shook his head about the difficulties of getting things done here. "You cannot stay above it all," he said frankly. "You must deal with the system. It is the same in India where there is so much corruption. You must deal with it in order to do anything. In Italy you can't avoid the system."

Occasionally he would sip from an old plastic juice bottle now refilled with a brownish, foamy liquid. "Medicine," he said.

His foundation is building a retreat near Delhi that will be a sort of retirement community for holy men. It is there that Swami Bhakti hopes to end his days. But not yet. "I am 77," he said. "Three different astrologers have told me I will live to be 100. So I hope to have time to prepare for the one who will come after me. But you must never forget that your life could end tomorrow. Now is the time to do what you must. You cannot escape destiny."

I'm never likely to buy the whole damned-for-meatloaf thing, but the swami was on to something there. I imagine even the Pope might tell me something similar, although he'd probably want a cozier seat for the proclamation. Also, I would probably have needed an appointment. With Swami Bhakti it was just a matter of finding the right bench. And holding off on the meatball snacks.  [Tyee]

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