What’s in a name?
My father was born Thomas Porter Smith. Sometime in his childhood Mr. and Mrs. O’Nan adopted him, and he, too, took on the name O’Nan. Later he married Rosemary Whalen and while they were both living in (then West) Germany I was born into the world as Charles O’Nan. I lived in Sweden most of my life and it turns out that O’Nan is not an easy name to have anywhere in Scandinavia. Consequently, I chose to change my name legally. Why I assumed the name Gambell mostly resides in the fact that it was hard to choose a name that the Swedish state would accept. Gambell was my second choice; I had taken Gambriel as my first choice but that was denied on the grounds that it “has a non-Swedish sound to it.” My first wife changed her name from Jacobson to Gambell at the same time and since our divorce she has kept the Gambell name.
How it came about that I received the name Baba Ananda Dass is mostly coincidence. Recalling those times makes me grateful to realize that I knew the India of old. I was there! Today half the population of India does not remember the India of old. I am only 60 years old and already I have outlived almost everyone I ever met on the subcontinent. I went there for the first time in 1972 on a charter flight from Stockholm. My point of departure on my many forays into the subcontinent and my place of arrival is where I first landed in the East; Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon).
It wasn’t long before my first trip into India. The poverty displayed in that region in the early 70’s is the starkest I had or have ever since seen. It was an intense poverty of the kind in which one actually observes people literally dying in the streets. Not only people but also cows, and dogs and birds and cats were dying. All were ignored to the same degree. One simply walked around them; one did not mention them nor their situation. This is how deathly poverty was dealt with some 40 plus years ago. India has, of course, advanced economically since that time and it is not likely these scenes are repeated today.
I home-based in the township of Ngombo Beach on Sri Lanka and made many long forays into the subcontinent including long stays in Jamnagar for work and study at the University. Southern India displayed the most severe poverty of all the areas I have visited in the world. I remember a day clearly when I saw a group of children playing in the street in a town in central Madras, Southern India – Land of the Tamil. One badly limping child had a bandaged leg. The problem was that the bandage was black with oil, filth and dirt from the streets. It appeared to me that she had been wearing the same bandage for weeks. I had no way of knowing; I had my trusty “first aid kit” in my backpack, and against the wishes of my Sri Lankan companions, I stopped to help that little girl. I signaled her to come over to me by showing her my fresh bandages and waving my hand. All the while my friends were pleading with me to continue to the train station so “we could leave this god-forsaken city”.
I removed her bandages, washed the wounds with water from my canteen and smothered her sores in antibiotics before rewrapping her leg. When I was done, I smiled at her and she leapt up and ran back to her friends without the slightest trace of the limp in her leg from earlier. I remarked about that to my companions, they had also noticed her improvement but we were leaving to the train station and gave it no more thought.
We thought that all was well, or would be if we could only get to the train station and to our next stop on the journey which was to visit Maharaj ji in the cool mountains just to the north. My companions, who were also my teachers, had already given me the “Ananda” suffix to my name and called me ChuckAnanda. This is the equivalent to the Japanese tradition of adding “San” as a suffix to the name of a dear one. In Japan I would be Chuck-San. This is a very common custom in Japan. The Ananda suffix is not as common in India as the San suffix is in Japan, but in some regions (like Sri Lanka) it is very common.
So there I was, heading to the train station, my friends calling to me “Hurry up, ChuckAnanda, we can’t miss the train,” they shouted to me. Then it happened. Two men and several women rushed forward to block the path in front of us and confronted us about the little girl’s leg. They seemed very angry and upset. I tried to apologize and my companions tried to calm them down. But, they would have none of it. Now we knew for sure we would not make our train. We would not get to see Maharaj ji and we might as well turn around and go back to Ngombo Beach. But, nothing is as it seems in India and in the next second the father of the little girl appeared before us carrying his daughter in his arms. He was asking through his tears, “Who did this to my daughter?” he said. “Show me to him. He will not leave until I have seen him, please,” he insisted. Now, my friends and I knew we were in trouble.
“I was only trying to help,” I said as my friends tried to explain the same in Hindustani. We were very worried and frightened as the crowd was getting bigger and bigger. Suddenly, the little girl literally flew out of her father’s arms and danced around him and my companions and myself. She sang and laughed and jumped up and down. Her father picked her up again and approached me. I was frozen in my bare feet. When he stood no more than a foot or two in front of me he placed his daughter on his knee as he squat down in front of me and signaled for me to do the same. My companions and I squat down and the four of us (adults) formed a circle around the little girl. Her father signaled to her to bare her leg. Incredulous as it may seem, her leg was healed; the sores were gone.
Getting to the train station no longer mattered to any of us. We were dumbfounded. The little girl had barely been out of our sight from the time I changed the bandages to the time the four of us huddled around her viewing what seemed impossible. Her leg appeared as if it had never been full of pestilent sores as it had been just minutes earlier. Her skin was wholly without damage or any signs of trauma. It was impossible to see that she ever had had any damage of any sort to her leg. None of us spoke. We knew it could not have been the antibiotics. The father could not stop speaking. The little girl danced and alternatively hung by her arms from my neck and jumped to her father in great leaps.
After very much time had passed but I can’t say how much, I found that myself, and my companions, were again heading by foot to the train station. Luckily there was another train only a couple hours away that would take us close to our destination. We passed the time over stringhoppers and curry in a nearby restaurant. Very few words were spoken during the meal. We were putting down copious amounts of water after our meal peppered with an extra exciting afternoon when my friends suddenly began to berate me one after the other. “As your teacher and instructor, ChuckAnanda, why did you not tell me about your gift of healing hands?” said Guru Anjiinar. My other teacher, Guru Mike, said, “I ask you the same, ChuckAnanda, why did you keep this a secret from us? We are your teachers.” That I had no idea what was going on was not easy to convenience them.
We spoke very little about our experience during the four-hour train ride. We arrived at our destination in the middle of the night. Huddled in the train station we finally began to speak of it again. “Ananda Handshealer” will be your new name, insisted my friends. I really liked that name and had a little bit of an intuition that I really did have healing hands because I could make myself sick or well with them every since childhood. I used to make myself sick with my hands when I was a child whenever I felt I was getting too little attention. It seemed to work every time that I could give myself a fever and presto! suddenly my mother would be paying attention to me. If she promised me that I could go somewhere (like to a movie) I would make my fever go away. I never told my mom about this. I didn’t want to ruin it. I felt I had discovered my reason for coming to India. I had come to India to discover healing hands, which is not considered terribly uncommon in India and many other parts of the world. Of course, in Europe and the United States the opposite is true.
When we arrived by carriage to the compound of Maharaj ji we were called to audience immediately. It is said that Maharaj ji knew everything. Absolutely everything. Many visitors have been astounded to hear him tell them everything about their life; every detail from childhood is iterated by Maharaj ji; and I, who has witnessed this dozens of times, am still amazed equally every time. “Were is the Handshealer?” he scoffed. My two companions slowly turned their eyes on me. Maharaj ji said, “Ha, Baba Ananda Dass, you are the handshealer and now you are a teacher, too. All of the other teachers here are handshealers, and they are most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
I didn’t understand most of this, as my Hindustani was then not that good. Later my friends explained that Maharaj ji had given me the name Baba Ananda Dass. He has appointed me to be a teacher. When I saw him again the next day he explained to me through a translator in English. “Many young teachers have come to me from the West. From Europe and USA. They, and you, Baba Ananda Dass, don’t even know you are teachers. But, some of the teachers, some of them I know who they are, and when they arrive here and come to see me I give them their name which is inside them; and then they know they are teachers; you are a teacher who is a handshealer. The more you teach, the stronger your hands become. The more you heal, the stronger your hands become.”
My friends and I spent several days returning to Ceylon with very few words exchanged. They continued to call me Chuck Ananda, but now added Handshealer. From that time forward I signed my name in Sri Lanka as Ananda Handshealer, and in India I signed as Baba Ananda Dass. When I got back to the west I was sorely compelled to sign as Charles Gambell.
I continue to ponder upon these (and other) events and how they have shaped my life. I ponder on how I have sometimes (if not often) deserted the knowledge of their teaching and what I have learned; I ponder on that I have often forsaken their wisdom time and time again only to retreat each time again home to their kingdom. A wisdom that I know is true. I know it is real. Like a hapless nicotine addict who, failing to break the habit, returns repeatedly to delirium until that one final day when change demands by all the powers that be (or so do remain within the frail skeleton called human), we finally give it up. Truly give it up. Change. Stop doing the same thing. Move on to something else without looking back. No regrets; no struggle. Most times I kept the secret of healing hands to myself as reactions in the West are at best mixed but usually hostile to anything that does not fit a simple “western” explanation.
Yet, when my son, Amethyst, was born to then 42 year old Dotti Smith the bleeding wouldn’t stop. We had the birth in a hospital because we knew the risks of giving birth at Dotti’s age. 32 units of blood and two major operations later the doctors were ready to give up. I said to them “let me try.” I put my hands over her womb and I entered the state of mind that I need to enter to make my hands “work”. Moments later the bleeding stopped. The blood had become so cold in that area of Dotti’s body that it flowed slowly enough for coagulation to take place before she would have died due to loss of blood. This all started at 3am in the morning; every unit of blood of her type in the entire county had been used by her already. Everyone was amazed; the doctors, the nurses and especially myself. For some reason, none of the hospital personal ever spoke to me about that day every again.
What is in a name?
All of my names before Ananda Handshealer and Baba Ananda Dass were simply “slave names.” The Smiths, the Goldsmiths, the Silversmiths and the Blacksmilths; the Bakers, and the Woodsmen, and the Dockers; and the O’nans and the O’reillys and the Jones are all slave names; names given to us by our masters many generations ago. Those names served to keep us in our places; to take from us our power as healers and rulers of the universe; to keep us in ignorance. That is why Maharaj ji gave his disciples new names … names that reflected the inner being residing in the eternal domain within. I urge each and everyone to search for your name. It is not likely Jones or Chou. Not likely Goldsmith or Baker. Not likely Rubenstein or Ying. Your name is more like Windfree or BreakingOcean. Your name is likely more of a Silent Cloud or a Spring Morning kind of name. Your true name is a name you chose to allow to be your name because it is who you are; and you are choosing to have who you are reflected in your name.
Every step an adventure,
Baba Ananda Dass Handshealer