It was 1974. Guruka Kaur and I had recently arrived in Columbus Ohio from Brooklyn, New York to serve as the ashram directors here. The ashram was a beautiful old Victorian house near the OSU campus. It had solid copper gutters and a slate roof. There were still gas lines in the walls from the original gas lighting fixtures and bits of coal dust residue still seeped out under the baseboards left there from years of heating the house with a coal furnace. The large living room on the first floor was our sadhana room and beautiful Gurdwara. Guruganesha Singh (now from Herndon) had visited recently and had taken it upon himself to paint the red brick facade of the house gold on the bottom half and white on the top half to resemble the Golden Temple.
The phone rang in the middle of the night. I looked at the clock and it was about 1 AM. I thought, “Who would call this late? It must be Yogi Ji.” I answered the phone, “Sat Nam!” It was Lehri Singh calling from Washington D.C. He said, “Bhai Sahib Dyal Singh was just killed in an automobile accident. It happened in Indiana. Gurubandha Singh was driving Bhai Sahib cross country from California to New York where he was scheduled to take a plane to India to go to the Golden Temple. The car went off the road. Bhai Sahib was lying down asleep in the back seat and he was ejected from the window, struck a tree and his neck was broken instantly. We need five ministers for the funeral ceremony, can you come?” “When?” I asked. “Right now.”
Guruka Kaur and I rose up, showered and started the drive west, chanting our morning sadhana together in the car as we drove. It took several hours to arrive in the small Indiana town where the ceremony was to take place. We met with Lehri and the others in a motel room. Bhai Sahib’s body was already at the funeral home. “Okay, what do we need to do?” I asked. “We need to wash Bhai Sahib’s body and clean it with yoghurt. Could you go get some yoghurt and bring it back here? Then we’ll go over to the funeral home for the ceremony.” I headed off in the early morning light to look for yoghurt. We were in a small town. I went from store to store only to discover that no one had even heard of “plain” yoghurt. The little cups of strawberry and blueberry yoghurt were just beginning to make their way into the stores. I found a pay phone and called the hotel telling Lehri the story. Although I could imagine seeing Bhai Sahib covered in blueberry yoghurt, this was clearly not what we were supposed to do. “Can you find any buttermilk?” Lehri asked. Sure enough I found that… the odd kind that had little yellow flecks of some unidentified substance all through it. But it was the best we could do under the circumstances and I headed back to the hotel with a quart carton in hand.
Lehri scrounged around in his car and found a quart glass juice bottle. He soaked it in hot water in the sink and painstakingly scraped off the label and then poured the buttermilk into the bottle and screwed the cap back on. Wrapping the bottle in a white hotel towel we headed off to the funeral home. “When we get there, let me do the talking” Lehri said.
At the funeral home, Lehri explained to the undertaker with great solemnity that we were ministers and that we were going to perform the Sikh funeral rites on Bhai Sahib’s body. Showing the bottle in the towel to the undertaker, he said, “as part of the ritual we need to wash the body with this special sacred lotion.” “Ah… looks like buttermilk to me” said the undertaker.
Bhai Sahib’s body was on a stainless steel gurney in a back room. We lovingly washed the body with a washcloth and then washed and rinsed his beautiful black hair. We dressed him in his five K’s and prepared to recite the banis.
At 29, I had never seen a dead body before. And looking at the body of my beloved brother, so young and beautiful, I had but a single thought. “Bhai Sahib’s not here. This is an empty shell… the house where he used to live. It’s not Bhai Sahib.”
We begin to read the banis together and as a panj, when one of us faltered in our reading, someone else’s voice filled in the gaps. As I read, slowly and haltingly, I was suddenly flooded with gratitude to this young boy whose body lay before us on the gurney. His spirit, his enthusiasm, his unswerving devotion and patience had brought all of us to recite the Guru’s words for the first time. It was he who had encouraged us, taught us and shown us by his own example the power of the Gurbani.
Then I heard Bhai Sahib chuckle. The sound came clearly and distinctly from the ceiling in the corner of the room. I looked up and there was Bhai Sahib Ji smiling. He said, “Your pronunciation is getting better. Keep up” and then, in a flash, he was gone. My heart smiled.
Later on I remember Yogi Bhajan saying, with tears rolling down his cheeks, that God had picked the most beautiful flower from his garden. He also said that when the car went off the road, Bhai Sahib was not in his body. He told us that he was already at the Golden Temple with all the Gurus and in complete bliss, and I realized that he had come back just to encourage us one last time.
12 Responses to “The Death of Bhai Sahib Dyal Singh”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.