My Memory of Venu by Astika


Venu missed being an inaugural member of the San Francisco Centre by a few years. Satyajit, who now lives in New York, is the sole survivor of that ancient tribe. In November of 1971, when Guru opened the Centre, Venu was just 18 year’s old. His time had not yet come, so he was not present in those early days when we were meeting every night at the Sanchez Street Centre, not from any requirement, but for the sheer joy of each other’s company. He didn’t participate in our Saturday co-ed softball games, or in the 6am meditations that began a full day of activity every Sunday. He wasn’t present during that auspicious month when, believing we could secure the Nobel Prize in Literature for Guru, by nothing more than the devoted force of our blazing aspiration, we met at 3am every morning at The Centre to meditate. Venu wasn’t there for that but he should have been, because that is the kind of disciple he was. He so belonged to the spirit of that early centre it is difficult for me to remember those days without seeing him present there, one of our little band of believers. It seems unfair that he wasn’t there to share those wonderful sunlit days, because throughout his spiritual journey he remained, far better than I, that kind of disciple.   

Venu fought his killing cancer for more than a year, for more than two years really, because that disease was inflicting its pain and destruction on his body long before any of us were aware of it. He fought his slayer with a fierce refusal, the kind of fanatical fight only a true believer can mount. His refusal to submit to his disease was the iron wall he erected against the non-reality of death. Such was his determination not to let death control him or his affairs. I don’t say Venu didn’t believe he would die, only that he refused to give death an iota of his attention. I suppose we all fear death on some level, but as far as I could see, Venu had no concern at all about when or how he might die. His sole concern was for life, how to live, not tomorrow or the next day, but in the present moment. Apart from Guru, Venu was the most “present” person I’ve ever met.

We all know Venu loved the San Diego Swim Run; he did it 24 straight years. His refusal to accept defeat at the hands of his disease was so adamant he trained for the event right to the end. While suffering the ravishes of lymphoma, he swam 750, 933, 666, 533 twice and 400 yards between May 2nd and May 17th of this year. His last swim was just fifty-four days before his death. He trained, not for trophies, for accolades or for any form of recognition. He never felt he deserved it, and when he got it, he always looked upon it as something of a joke. For Venu, it was always just the thrill of the chase. Still, he had many, many medals and awards from Guru and lots of memorabilia from all the races he participated in. He ran an enormous number of marathons, many of them unknown to anyone but himself. He would often run in the middle of the night, around and around the city block where he lived. A water bottle set next to his front door would be his only aid station and God his only witness. He participated in many biathlons and triathlons and he was proud of them all, regardless of his performance. He kept every T-Shirt from every race, every ribbon and medal he received. He hung them on the walls of his room until those walls were papered from floor to ceiling with them, then he packed them into drawers and boxes. He had lots of pictures of himself accepting awards, but in every one of them there’s this grin – you all know it – mischievously confessing to the world that it was only by the grace of God he made it to the finish line. That was Venu as I knew him and I believe it is Venu today, in this very moment. Wherever the Spirit of bright child-like enthusiasm is running, swimming or cycling for the Supreme God of Self-Transcendence, Venu will be there, and probably hours before the race begins. Perhaps in his new and flawless body, he will be able to swim, cycle and run all at once, thus experiencing the triple thrill of knowing he’s pleasing his Guru in his Guru’s own way.

In thirty years of trying, Venu won very few races. His was not a career filled with trophies or accolades. He was able to find satisfaction in the effort expended rather than the result. He could do this because he had already received the greatest trophy of all, the affirmation of his guru. This he displayed in the midst of the many T-shirts he hung on the walls of his room, an enlarged Xerox copy of a note given to him by Guru early in his career – “Venu, you are MY champion.” 

That’s all I know about Venu’s career as an athlete but, of course, he had other careers as well. One was that of singer and singing group leader. It seems The Flute of Lord Krishna was a real Jack-of-All-Trades. He was the constant inner gardener of our Aspiration Tree – or trees, as fate would have it. Hiyamallar is fond of pointing out, with considerable exaggeration, the small role I had in acquiring our first Aspiration Tree. I had something to do with it, but that was many years ago and that particular tree was swept away by a flood – probably because of spiritual neglect. Venu is the reason we have a tree in San Francisco now. For decades he has gone to our Aspiration Tree faithfully every morning, rain or shine. He did this even when he was quite ill. He knew all the gardeners who worked that area of the park and they knew of the tree because of him. When the tree was vandalized, they watched over it because of him. The special attention he gave to our tree made it special to them. When it finally needed to be replaced, he hardly had to ask – they already had a new one picked out. One of the last phone calls Venu made was to a park gardener – at 6am. Venu thanked him most sincerely for all he and the other gardeners had done in caring for our tree. Apparently, the man mentioned not seeing him lately, because I heard Venu explain that he’d been too sick to come to the tree. He told the man he’d be back when he felt better. That was the day before he died.

So, maybe I should say something about Venu the Manifester. When you put on a suit and tie and sally forth to present proposals and persuade other men in suits and ties, that’s not really the Divine Manifestation Guru spoke of – that’s just mundane work. It’s a physical effort that gets a physical result. What Guru meant by “God Manifestation” was something far more wonderful. The work is necessary, but the God Manifestation Guru wanted from us is a sharing of the spirit, the passing of His Light from the interior of our hearts to the hearts of others. It’s being seen early every morning through a damp fog on a cold day with your hands folded before a dying tree. That’s how to open the hearts and warm the souls of others. That’s how to transfer The Light from your heart to other hearts, without handshakes or words.

For a few years I lived in the front room of the apartment I shared with Venu and Pujari out on 39th Avenue. A Chinese family lived next door. Every weekday morning the man would stand out on the sidewalk below my window his young daughter waiting for the school bus. Venu would often come home from his morning workouts about that time. He’d always say a word or two to the man and child as he entered our building. I’d hear this while I was meditating. These exchanges never rose to the level of an actual conversation. The man didn’t speak English very well and we all know Venu was no conversationalist, so it was rarely more than a sentence or two. I know for a fact that Venu never knew the man’s name or that of his daughter. How they knew his name, one can only guess; but they did know it because they sought him out when he was sick and appeared unannounced one day in his hospital room to wish him well. One has to think that something more precious than words passed between them during those brief greetings. 

Venu went through several grueling months of aggressive chemotherapy. He had a spinal tap, that’s where they drill into the base of your spine while you’re still conscious. He also underwent a bone marrow transplant, but the most painful thing for him was when they’d extract fluid from around his lungs with a needle about a foot long. During these treatments, his body would go through some dramatic changes. He would loose weight even as his legs swelled up to about twice their normal girth. His mouth developed sores such that sometimes he couldn’t swallow. Twice he had to share a room with an indigent stranger and endure the noise of those terrible daytime TV shows which, for some reason, sick people seem to enjoy. That was real torture for Venu, but I never heard him make a fuss about it. He let his roommates do what they wanted. 

Nurses and orderlies were always coming in to poke a pill down his throat or stick a needle into him – something he truly hated – but I never heard him utter a harsh word to anyone. It was always “thank you, thank you, thank you” to everyone who tried to help him. From the head of oncology down to the janitor that emptied the trash, he was equally humble, always courteous and grateful to anyone who did anything for him. No matter how bad he felt, or how weak he got, he never failed to lift his head, or to roll over on his side, to thank this or that person for their help. Needless to say, he was a prize patient. When he was transferred from San Francisco General to UCSF, nurses and technicians from General would actually drive across town and visit him on their days off, just to see how he was doing. Divine Manifestation is the transference of God’s Light from the interior of one heart to the interior of other hearts.

I think that in one lifetime, provided there is the kind of concentrated effort that Venu gave to everything he did, one might become a champion athlete, possibly an Olympic athlete, even perhaps, a world famous athlete. But to transfer God’s Light from one heart to another the way Venu did it during his illness – that is the best argument I can think of for reincarnation. I doubt such capacity can be achieved in one lifetime.

We live in an animal body, think inside a human mind and wander in a concrete world. Even God is hard pressed to make Himself felt in that environment. Under such conditions, human beings get very distorted notions as to what’s important and about who is superior or inferior. For thirty-some years, I held the notion that Venu was my younger brother. He was younger than me in years and he came to Guru after I did. I got my spiritual name before he did. He had less formal education, knew less about the world and seemed to have less interest in it than I did; so for decades I saw him, spiritually, as my younger brother. That went on until the final year of his life when I discovered that it was I who was the younger brother. As his arms grew thinner and his face more drawn, I began to see the man that had been invisible to me before – a sage walking ahead of me on the same path my own soul will take. The proof that Venu really was a sage, is that when subjected to conditions that would have aged and defeated any ordinary person, he remained youthfully enthusiastic about every aspect of his life. He sang The Long Song until he could barely breathe. In this way, his example mirrored Guru’s. Together they demonstrated how an aspiring soul can maintain an energetic, enthusiastic and child-like innocence even while dying. 

Human beings love celebrity. We admire those who win. We are in awe of the successful. If you build cathedrals, create for yourself a public legacy, win battles or elections, or expand the capacity of civic institutions, we will call you a great soul when you are gone. The rest are forgotten. But from Venu I have learned the smile of the loser can eclipse the glory of the winner. I have learned that an impoverished and misunderstood man sitting alone in a tiny room can possess a wealth that out shines the lords of mansions. From Venu, I have relearned the singular fact, the startling truth, that life truly is an eternal mystery, a force no one can ever comprehend or possess. The real truth about life is that it’s just a passing thrill, the Supreme Delight of being truly present in a moment of love.  

Venu had a memento from Guru, I’d like to mention – a small greeting card placed next to a picture of his mother. I noticed it for the first time about an hour after he died. It was just a card, but I would call it a trophy, a testament to what was perhaps his most endearing attribute. The card was from Guru and it was addressed to Venu’s parents, probably before Venu had his spiritual name. What Guru wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Riggio was set in the form of a poem. Though it didn’t rhyme, it poetically understated and underscored the unique glory that was Venu’s soul. The note read,

My dear Friends, My dear Brother and Sister,
I am extremely proud of your son Chris.
I am extremely grateful to you for bringing
                              up such a NICE soul from God the Creator,
to God the Creation, Sri Chinmoy.

            – Affectionately, Sri Chinmoy.