- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

ALLAHABAD, India She was a straight-A Stanford University graduate, grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., and was a "totally content human being" until she visited India.
"When I arrived at the Ganges in 1996 for a holiday, I knew that I had come home. I was in pure ecstasy," said the fair-skinned, brunette 29-year-old Phoebe Garfield, who now goes by the name of Sadhavi Bhagwati.
Now she is a living Hindu saint and a leading figure of the Parmarth Niketan (Abode for the Welfare of All), one of the many Hindu religious organizations at the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival).
The 40-day festival, held every 12 years, draws millions of Hindus from the world over to the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers with a third mythical stream, the Saraswati. This year the festival is drawing an estimated 70 million people, making it the largest gathering anywhere in the world.
Sadhavi Bhagwati, whose name means the Saint Goddess, said she called home during her life-altering trip in 1996: "I remember phoning my mother from India and telling her that I wanted to stay on."
Her mother replied: "Just don't give them any money," she recalled.
She returned home to California to complete her studies and built a little Hindu shrine in her apartment with wood blocks from Home Depot. She made offerings to the San Francisco Bay, pretending it was the Ganges.
"I realized that I could have been fined $1,000 for littering that Bay with letters to God," she said.
Hindus believe that a life lived bathing in the Ganges, which they consider to be their mother, is a life of purity and leads to moksha, or freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
Miss Bhagwati got on a plane to come back to India the day she finished her final exams.
She spends her time in meditation in the Himalayas, helping the needy and listening to the words of her leader, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, whom she believes is the reincarnation of God on Earth.
After asking permission from the swami last year, Miss Bhagwati was allowed to take vows of celibacy, a prerequisite for becoming a saint.
"You have to be pure of heart and the swami will decide whether you are fit for sainthood," she said.
The particular vows she has taken fall short of a lifetime commitment and can be revoked.
Miss Bhagwati said her parents have been supportive, but have made sporadic attempts to bring their daughter back to her previous self.
"I remember one Christmas I went home and my mother asked me to wear a tight-fitting black dress. I just looked in the mirror and burst into tears," Miss Bhagwati said.
Now they content themselves by sending cartons of protein bars from time to time and buying her thermal underwear.
"I have renounced nothing. I still go to the synagogue when I am back home," said Miss Bhagwati, who was raised in the Jewish faith.
"I go home three times a year on trips paid for by my parents," she said. "I come back laden with things for the community. If I did not get it from my parents, I would get it from my trust fund."
Parmarth Niketan has an orphanage, health care and education programs. It thrives on substantial donations from different parts of the world.
The flexible nature of Hinduism, which has been often described as a way of life rather than a religion, has attracted Westerners since the 1960s hippie movement.
Some Westerners at this year's Kumbh Mela said they were there to be a part of the largest international religious experience ever, while others said they were there mostly for the hashish and opium that flows freely among many of the Indian holy men.
"Who could ask for more?" said a young man from Holland, who gave his name as D.J.

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