Justin Sparrow (Swami Shanmukhananda)
London in the early 70’s found me and a couple of friends driving down the Earls Court road when a car shot out from a side road with a man with a very long ponytail at the wheel. One of my friends (Ian I think) shouted that it was that Guru figure he’d been telling us about a few days earlier and we should follow him. So we gave chase but no way could we keep up.
Luckily Ian knew where he lived and when we’d parked I spotted Guru’s car parked right up against a wall which I thought rather strange. We rang the bell and a well dressed oriental gentleman opened the door. He seemed delighted to see us and invited us in.
We were shown into an elegant front room with a grand piano and a large bay window looking into Earls Court Square. He then apologised for not having much time, as he had only nipped home to let the dogs out for their midday pee and had to get back to the flower shop. Nevertheless, we were offered a seat and asked if we had any questions.
I simply had to know why he had parked his car so close to the wall? He laughed and explained that he couldn’t lock the passenger door so he always had to park against something to prevent the car from being stolen.
He then went on to talk about the highest truths in the most simple down to earth language with this large Irish Terrier sitting on his lap, and from time to time he would ask the dog if she agreed with him.
She would answer with a lick on the cheek, and I just remember finding the whole situation so strange (coming from a family where dogs lived in kennels outside) and so beautiful, as the truth Guru (or Subra as he was then) spoke was so beguiling and somehow so familiar….he just seemed to be leading us back to what we already knew but had momentarily forgotten.
Then it was all over as he had to go back and open the shop, but he was quite insistent that we should come back any evening for a service in the temple followed by tea and discussions, which of course we did and the rest, as they say, is history.
This year is the 50th anniversary of my meeting Guru. I met him sometime between his birthday and Christmas because I remember spending Christmas with him.
Earlier in the year, around about my 21st birthday, I’d met an American couple who had come over from Amsterdam to meet up with a Japanese Zen Master. Meeting them changed my life because through conversations with them I was introduced, for the first time, to ideas about reincarnation, karma and various other aspects of spirituality that Hindus and Buddhists take for granted.
We rented a flat together and spent an amazing three months visiting the Zen Master every day at the Buddhist Society in Ecclestone Square, London. Eventually, the couple went back to America and the Roshi went back to Japan leaving me on my own.
I was left with a feeling that I was not making much progress with my spiritual practice. Then one day the thought came into my head that I really had to find myself a Guru.
At this time I was sharing a flat with another couple who were not particularly spiritual people but I felt that I could share with them my desire to find a Guru. They said ‘Oh, our friend Michael knows a Guru; his name is Subra and he lives in Earl’s Court’.
I arranged to meet Michael, who agreed to take me to see this Guru. I imagined the Guru as a little wizened old man with long hair and a beard (I only knew about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in those days). A few days later we knocked on the Guru’s door.
It was opened, not by a wizened old man with long hair and a beard but by an astoundingly beautiful Asian gentleman with a beautiful welcoming smile and blazing eyes full of love who warmly welcomed me into his flat. At that moment the thought came into my head ‘I’m home’.
Two weeks later, returning to my own flat after shopping, I found my belongings out on the street – we had been thrown out from the flat without any prior notice. The only place I could find to live was a bedsit in Earl’s Court; two hundred metres from Guru’s front door. I thought ‘Right, okay somebody’s trying to tell me something here!’
I spent the next fourteen months visiting Guru every day. An amazing sequence of events had led me to him.
I was a 23-year-old postgrad when I met Guruji. He had relocated from Earl’s Court in London to Skanda Vale. Quite a few students from Royal Holloway College had known Guruji in London and knowing my interest in meditation, one of them, Graham Lock (shortly to be a brother for a year), invited me to join him in a train journey to Skanda Vale for a weekend. I think it was late 1973.
I was really excited about seeing him, having never met a ‘mind-reading’ Guru before. I’d probably been pumped up with too much information about him from my friends. Graham introduced me and I held my hand out in such a nervous fashion, Guruji just smiled and made a noise (phew) implying that I should just relax.
Later, when we went for a walk, amongst other things he said ‘Look, everything is evolving… you’re evolving’. In the evening we went into the small temple where Guruji chanted and did Aarthi and we all sat trying to meditate. There were no Bhajans at that time.
In those days in my efforts to ‘control my mind’ I thought I could still my mind by force… oh dear! I sat in the temple and I was literally lifted away from the mind. I had a wonderful experience of freedom and some idea of where I should be centred.
I left the temple and Guruji was seated in the lounge and I asked him a question about the temple and he replied: “A rigid mind is not the way to approach the infinite.” I knew what he was talking about.
Later we talked about wine (I was an ardent home wine-maker) and he said “It’s so much fun to hear it fizzing and popping. It’s wonderful to have a glass of wine with friends, but a whole bottle is another matter.” Guru dropped us off in Carmarthen on Sunday and told me I could come any time. It was a great feeling.
When I reached home in Windsor, my girlfriend Elaine was waiting for me, and there on the open staircase were 3 demijohns of fermenting wine. As I saw them I was suddenly inside one of them, feeling every bubble fizzing and popping. I looked at another one (elderberry as I remember) and the bubbles were slower and bigger, but just as exhilarating. All my senses were enhanced. Ecstatic fun.
Later, somehow I went to sleep and awoke in the morning feeling rather happy, but somewhat back to normal regarding sensory experiences. Elaine went to work, and I sat in our little shrine room, the altar of which consisted of a table with a large white board and a picture of Krishna in the middle. Around that time, I was chanting the Hare Krishna, Hare Rama chant, although it felt a bit empty.
However, on this day I said: “Hare Krishna” and a spurt of beautiful energy shot up my spine. It was incredibly fine but so powerful and strangely ecstatic. It seemed to make momentary ports of call on its way to my head. When it reached my head there was an explosion of bliss, pure bliss.
I said “Hare Rama” and had the same experience. For an hour I was drunk with the ecstatic effects of what I know now to be the Kundalini. Needless to say, the whole experience settled down, except my meditation and chanting which had a new joy and purpose.
Shortly after, I went back to Skanda Vale and just said to Guruji “Who’s put out the lights?” He said, “This is someone who’s had a lovely experience, but you’re going to have to work for the next one, my friend!” Twenty years later…
I was at the same University as Rich (Fairall). There was a great deal of interest in those days, amongst the students, about spirituality. One of these students was called Noel (he later became a Brother for a short period).
Noel was the nephew of Sister Annabel – one of the first Sisters whose photo can be seen at the front of the Murugan Temple raking hay on what was to become the Vishnu field. Noel had spread the word about a Guru who was just moving from London to a farm in Wales.
Rich decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. When I walked into his kitchen, on his return, he was sitting staring into space. Staring into space was quite fashionable in those days! But this was different, it was clear that his visit to Wales had affected him greatly; he talked of a Full Moon, going down to a river at night, someone playing drums, chanting… I just had to go.
In those days, there was no M4 motorway and we drove cars that were barely roadworthy so the journey to Wales was always something of an adventure. It took me a while to find the farm; there were no signposts, the name Skanda Vale had yet to be used, we referred to the ashram in those days as The Farm; not very useful when asking for directions in rural Wales.
Eventually, I found myself standing in front of a small Welsh cottage. I knew what to expect;, I had seen photos of the Beatles’ Guru with long white hair and beard, white flowing robes.
Suddenly from around the corner of the cottage, the Guru appeared dressed, not in white robes, but in a raincoat, wellingtons and a woolly hat. He walked right up to me: the most alive person I had ever seen. He resembled a beautiful exotic jungle cat and it was clear that he had found his prey.
I was totally transfixed as he stared into my eyes and proceeded to tell me a rude joke. I was so blown away that I can barely recall the details, something about a vet and a nail above a bed to hang his trousers.
What I do remember are those eyes. For the duration of my extremely eventful stay, whenever I closed my eyes they were still there – observing me with great amusement, love and understanding. I had found my Guru.
It was August 1994, smack bang in the middle of the Subramanium festival. I had started going to the Alan Perry meditation group on a Tuesday evening after work, it was a breath of fresh air to suddenly find people I could, at last, connect with.
I hadn’t been going for very long when there was a mention that Alan was organising a weekend away to this place in South Wales. Fantastic, I thought, a weekend away from London, so I signed up to go.
I had no idea what I was heading for! We were a group of 10 people all coming from different walks of life going in a four-car convoy to the land of the valleys. After many dramas with cars breaking down and various personality clashes, we eventually arrived at this strange place in the middle of nowhere. Unbeknown to us, we were quite the talk of the town.
I have forgotten a little bit of the sequence of events due to the fact that I spent a lot of time crying whenever I met Guru.
We ran up the mud track road to Mothers Temple. Up to that point I had never been in a Temple of any kind so it was a bit of an eye-opener when we arrived at this small temple with all this noise; bells ringing, conches blowing, chanting, singing… Oh my God! I did not know which way was up.
I remember feeling quite terrified, nervous and unsure of what I was meant to do. But Guru greeted us with such love and I was totally overwhelmed by his presence and I burst into tears. Which was a shock to me as I usually was able to keep my emotions in check, but not this weekend.
Guru wined and dined us – we went to breakfast with him, supper and at lunchtimes we were able to spend time with him, even though we went during the most powerful festival of the year and there was so much going on, he totally indulged us with his love.
I remember at one point feeling so overwhelmed that I went to sit at the top of the Vishnu field, (which is where the temple now is) to try to assimilate what was going on. But I just ended up crying. Guru gave us all a big blessing at Mothers puja and presented us with a Mala.
On the morning we were leaving I suddenly remembered that I had left my umbrella at the top, and as I ran to the top I knew I would meet Guru, and yes, there he was standing as if he was waiting for me. “I knew I would meet you,” I said, and ran into his arms where he gave me a beautiful hug, which again set me off in tears.
I remember saying “Why is it I always end in tears when I meet you?” He just smiled. When I arrived home, I shut my door and for several days I didn’t go out. I needed to take the time to understand what had gone on. That was the beginning of my love for Guru and Skanda Vale.
I first met Guru in the Autumn of 2005. I think it was the first time I ever came to Skanda Vale. I came to visit my older brother who had just moved here. I wanted to see for myself what ‘weirdness’ he had got into!
During the lunchtime puja, Guru gave a discourse, which I later learned would have been one of the last he would have given. I wish I could say I remembered what he spoke about but I really don’t.
I only remember that at some point he was laughing about how funny it was when people would approach him, to talk to him, but then they were unable to say a word. I presumed this was because they were in awe of his greatness and I immediately took the comment to be a challenge I was ready to accept!
I was incredibly sceptical about the whole concept of Gurus, and thought to myself ‘what a load of rubbish, I am just going to go and talk to him like a normal person.’
After the puja, as I was queuing for lunchtime Prasad, I saw him mingling with all the other devotees. I remember I was standing next to the water feature when he turned around and came towards me. I thought ‘here’s my chance to prove him wrong!’
Well, obviously things didn’t quite happen like that. As I stood looking at him, ready to introduce myself, I suddenly found I couldn’t say a word. My mind went totally blank! He just beamed at me. If he said anything to me then, I don’t remember. I think I was in quite a state of shock and bewilderment! I remember crying a lot as I left Skanda Vale that day and being totally confused about why I was crying, but that was me hooked!