Monday, October 30, 2006

India #5, Mayfair Hotel, Puri

(This is a long letter. Relax. Enjoy.)

Dear Friends:

From the beginning, Swamiji has tried to expand our understanding of Master’s mission to encompass more than just Master’s personality and the particular life he lived. Master came to start a whole movement of Self-realization, to shift the whole planet from the materialistic ways of Kali Yuga into the more expansive ways of Dwapara Yuga.

Swamiji’s often refers to Master as a particular “ray” of the divine. In this way it is both particular and impersonal.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master makes reference in several chapters to the divine life of a great spiritual figure of the 1800s, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.

“The Blissful Devotee,” Master Mahasaya, to whom Master was particularly devoted, was a direct disciple of Ramakrishna. In fact, it is because of Master Mahasaya, that so much of what Ramakrishna taught is available to us today. Whenever Master Mahasaya visited Ramakrishna (which was often) he took extremely detailed notes of everything that transpired, every event, every word that Ramakrishna spoke.

This was later published in several volumes as “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.” As author, Master Mahasaya called himself simply “M”.

Sri Ramakrishna’s life is notable for countless reasons, but what is notable in this context, was his devotion to showing the oneness of all religions. Nowadays, an ecumenical spirit is growing throughout the world, but when Sri Ramakrishna proclaimed it in the 1800s, it was novel.

His way of supporting this assertion was unique: in his own sadhana he systematically adopted the practices of many different religions and spiritual attitudes within Hinduism itself. He would devote himself whole-heartedly to that practice until, through it, he had a vision of God. His statement then that all paths lead to the same goal was more than just intellectual. He had proved it in his own life.

He was not a man of half-measures. When he followed the path of devotion to Krishna, for example, he became Radha, the foremost woman disciple of Krishna. He wore the clothes of a woman, adopted the mannerisms, attitudes, and work of a woman. He was so completely immersed in that “bhav” (spiritual attitude) that the women accepted him as one of them, and he went in and out of the women’s quarters and no one even thought it odd.

He continued in this way until he experienced the divine union with God in the form of Krishna that Radha had known.

When he became devoted to Rama, Sri Ramakrishna adopted the attitude of Hanuman, Rama’s most devoted follower. Hanuman, however, happens to be a monkey, so in this case, Sri Ramakrishna twisted his dhoti into the form of a tail, subsisted on nothing but fruits, and for days at a time lived outside under the trees.

There is a beautiful picture of Hanuman illustrating a famous incident in that devotee’s life in which he magically opens up his physical chest to reveal his heart. Imprinted on his heart is the image of Rama. Of course, it is a beautifully symbolic way to show that nothing dwells in the heart of a devotee except God.

Once Sri Ramakrishna’s heart had become wholly occupied with Rama, he returned to his usual mode of living. Among other religious practices, for a time Sri Ramakrishna also devoted himself to the worship of Christ, until he attained the vision of God through devotion to Jesus.

The place where Sri Ramakrishna spent most of his adult life is a temple devoted to Divine Mother as Kali, located in Dakshineswar, just a few miles from Calcutta, where Master lived.

Master was born just a few years after Sri Ramakrishna passed away. As a young man, Master often visited the temple at Dakshineswar. Because, Master, too, was devoted to Divine Mother in that form, and also because the temple had been sanctified by the presence of Sri Ramakrishna.

The chapter in Autobiography called “The Heart of a Stone Image,” takes place at this temple in Dakineshwar.

All of this long introduction is to say that the other inspiring theme of our time in Calcutta was the presence of Sri Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna died of throat cancer, and when his condition became quite advanced, some of his disciples insisted on moving him from the temple where he had lived to the home of one of his householder disciples so that he could receive better care.

That house is even closer to Calcutta and our “Ramakrishna Day” began by visiting the site where he spent his last months and finally entered Mahasamadhi (a great yogi’s final conscious exit from the body). It is a house set in a garden in the suburb of Calcutta called Cossipore.

The house itself is a lovely, airy, spacious home, well-preserved now as a shrine. The downstairs rooms include a beautiful statue of “The Holy Mother,” as Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna’s wife is known. He was not a monk, but a householder, although his marriage was not in anyway conventional – The Holy Mother was also a great soul and came only to serve her husband and then, after his passing, to take care of the disciples.

She always cooked his food and served him in a personal way, so when he moved to Cossipore, she also moved with him. Her vibrations – deeply loving and compassionate – permeate the small room where she lived during those last months.

Sri Ramakrishna’s room is upstairs. There is almost nothing in it but the simple bed where he lay. Usually the room is closed and one looks only through a grate. The swami in charge, however, was kind enough to open the room for us, and for a long time we were able to sit and meditate where Sri Ramakrishna spent his last days.

In India, where extended families are often raised together, the relationship between cousins is closer than the way we think of it. So people will refer to my “cousin-brother” or “cousin-sister,” indicating that, in effect, they are siblings, although they don’t have the same mother and father.

Sri Ramakrishna is like a “cousin-brother” to us – he is not actually in our line of gurus, but his spirit and his presence is so much like our line of masters that we felt as if we were one family in God with his spirit.

From Cossipore, we went on to Dakineshwar. Whereas Cossipore was silent, and sparsely populated, the temple at Dakineshwar was bustling with devotees. It happened to be Tuesday, which apparently is a day sacred to Divine Mother, and many Indian devotees were there, many carrying red hibiscus flowers, which are considered to be Mother Kali’s favorite.

The line to receive “darshan” (a divine glimpse) of the statue of Kali was quite long. But our Indian guide managed to take us in through the exit gate and no one protested against the crowd of Westerners going right to the front of the line.

Still, there was a certain assembly line quality about it, as we handed our flowers over to the priest in charge of the shrine, received a touch on the forehead in return and then were hustled back out the exit gate. If you happened to be looking in the wrong direction you missed seeing Kali at all.

Fortunately, in the same way that the statue of Kali came alive for Master in the chapter of Autobiography, Kali took pity on us and when we sat next to the place where Master had meditated all those hours, all those years ago, for many of us She came alive in our hearts.

We had a blissful kirtan and then some time of silence before dispersing as we chose around the temple grounds. Stepping from the open air portico where Master sat, onto the sun soaked stones of the courtyard (shoes are not permitted inside the temple grounds, so we were all barefoot), one could appreciate first hand – or perhaps first-foot is a more accurate way to say it – why in that divine experience, Mother Kali also blessed Master with something Master described as a wave of coolness that descended over his head and under his feet, sheltering him from the heat of the stones.

Most of us went from the portico to the room where Sri Ramakrishna lived for so many years, vividly described in by “M.”

Fortunately, the crowds there were not extreme, and all of us who wanted were able to take a seat and meditate in that room for as long as we pleased. The living presence of God was extraordinary. Our “cousin-brother” showered us with divine grace.

The time in Calcutta included a trip out to Serampore, to the place where Sri Yukteswar had his ashram. Self-Realization Fellowship has built a small temple on a piece of the land where the ashram once stood. An old building is there next to it, which is either the original, or something rebuilt in a similar manner on the same site.

In Autobiography, Master describes the experience of cosmic consciousness that his guru Sri Yukteswar bestowed on him at that ashram. Master talks about the narrow road, called Rai Ghat lane in front of the ashram and how his vision expanded to be able to see great distances up and down that lane when he was in that state.

Then, afterwards, his guru invited him to walk with him down Rai Ghat lane to the Ganges.

So we took that same walk to the ghat (steps) leading down to the river. This place is sanctified also as the spot where Babaji came to Sri Yukteswar after Yukteswar finished writing the Holy Science.

In an article about pilgrimage, Master said that the vibrations of a great master linger forever in the places where he was in his physical body.

During Sri Yukteswar’s time, the population of Serampore was a fraction of what it is today. Rai Ghat was a place of tranqullity. Master refers to the “sparkling water” of the river there.

None of these conditions are still in place, but the banyan tree is still there, and we sat under the shade of its branches, where Babaji and his band of followers also sat. Even though our presence attracted a noisy crowd of children and adults, it wasn’t difficult to go beyond that distraction into the inward silence. As we chanted, and then meditated briefly, we felt transported back to the time when Babaji visited Sri Yukteswar on that very spot.

In one of Master’s poems in Whispers from Eternity, he uses the image of incarnations strung like pearls on the string of the divine presence within.

A pilgrimage is also like a string of pearls. Between each bead there may be many challenging knots of difficult travel through India, sometimes less than ideal accommodations, physical fatigue, minor illnesses, and all the other things that make India very different from America. Once we have traversed the space and time represented by these various knots, however, we come to pearl after pearl -- moments in eternity, when all the conflicting conditions of travel and our lives disappear and all we are conscious of is the presence of God and Gurus. The banyan tree, Rai Ghat lane, the temple at Serampore – all pearls on the string of pilgrimage.

In Calcutta, we also visited the headquarters of Mother Theresa’s work where her body is enshrined. We had visited that place in previous years when she was still alive, but this was the first time since her passing.

I was astonished by the feeling of divine power there. The whole ashram – actually, it is a convent, the “Mother House” for the order – is sparkling clean, very simple, very Indian in style, except that the worship is entirely Catholic and all the images are of Jesus. They have a simple, but very moving museum full of inspiring words and images of Mother Theresa.

And on the large square marble box, under which her body is enshrined, these words are written in marigold petals – obviously put there fresh every day, in the Indian style: “We do it for Jesus, to Jesus, and with Jesus.”

Mother Theresa captured the imagination of the West because of her dedication to social service, and the hearts of the East, because in her soul she was a mystic.

I vividly remember a moment in a film interview I saw of her in which the reporter asked her to evaluate her effectiveness in helping the poor compared, for example, to the work the government does.

Mother Theresa was very blunt-spoken. She said, “I am not helping the poor. I am doing what Jesus has asked me to do.”

The reporter, as I recall, didn’t quite know what to make of her answer, because she didn’t explain. But to a devotee, the meaning was obvious. Mother’s devotion was to doing God’s will – whatever that will might be. As long as it was helping the poor, she would help the poor, but she would never define her life by anything except her obedience to Jesus.

Elsewhere in that same film, there was a shot of Mother Theresa embracing a man who was covered with sores, left to die on the street. The interviewer was overcome by the horror of what he was looking at, and asked her, “How can you do this?”

Mother replied, “You see a dying person covered with sores. I see Jesus.”

Her spirit was very much alive in that house and we were all uplifted by it. When we visited Mother Theresa in the past we wanted to communicate quickly and profoundly our shared devotion to God, since outwardly, our paths are not at all the same.

The method we chose was to sing for her a few of Swamiji’s songs from the Oratorio and also Swamiji’s version of the St. Francis prayer. Immediately, we bonded with her on the level of the heart.

Twice more we came back to see her, and on one of those visits, when we began to sing, we heard Mother Theresa say to one of her nuns, “We should pray for these people. They are come every year and are very devoted.”

So as we sat by Mother’s tomb, we felt inspired once again to sing for her, and in the music felt a deep connection with her spirit.

It has been our tradition on our last night in Calcutta to invite all the members of Master extended family that we have come to know to share dinner with us at the Oberoi Grand Hotel where we stay.

This year we were also joined by members of Nalini’s family whom we met at Devi Mukherjee’s house, and then, later, they invited us to stop in at their home. In Autobiography Master describes his sister Nalini and her marriage to Dr. Bose and Nalini’s distress at her extreme thinness and Master’s miraculous response to make her quite suddenly plump. (In India, where so many people are thin, plumpness is considered quite attractive.)

Master performed another miraculous healing of Nalini in the very house we visited.

To make the evening dinner a little more festive, we decided to add some music and the reading of several poems from Whispers from Eternity. It was hardly comparable to the kind of gala “Evening of Enchantment” we have put on in our colonies, but nonetheless the music cast its enchanting spell and united all of us in Master’s ray.

Singing “Door of My Heart” in three-part harmony, “O Master,” and finally “Sri Gurudeva AUM,” brought a unity of heart to all present.

We started on a lighter note with “Big Frog, Little Frog,” the musical version of the story Master liked to tell about the two frogs getting caught in a bucket of milk, and the little one persevering, even after the big one gave up, until finally he churned the butter into milk, and using the block of butter as a launching pad was able to escape.

We had neither a piano nor a guitar, but we have Joe Begley and Rammurti on the pilgrimage with us. With Joe’s slender physique and tenor voice, and Rammurti’s stout body and baritone voice, they did a credible version, even without accompaniment.

We printed up the English words for our guests, since our accents are not always easy for them to understand. Some of the nuance may have been lost, but the essence clearly got through, because later, when one of our guests wanted to refer to Rammurti but couldn’t remember his name, she simply called him “the fatty little frog”!

Our visit to Calcutta ended with a renewal of our vows of discipleship at 4 Garpar Road, with the blessing taking place in the small attic room. It was a remarkable experience to be re-dedicating one’s life to Master in the very spot where he meditated, and, in his own words, “found God.”

Now we are in Puri, where Sri Yukteswar had his seaside hermitage. This is the scene of the “Cauliflower Robbery,” described so amusingly in Autobiography, and many other great moments in Master’s training as a disciple.

This is also the place where Sri Yukteswar left his body. That happened in 1936, when Master was in India, and in Autobiography he vividly describes arriving in this ashram just hours after his guru’s passing.

Cremation is the common form in India of disposing of a body after death. One reason for this is to make sure the soul breaks all ties with that incarnation. When the body is turned to ash there is no focal point for the ego to cling to.

Traditionally, though, sannyasis (those who have taken formal vows of renunciation) are not cremated. It is assumed that when they became renunciates, they renounced all attachments, including attachment to the body.

This is only true, of course, if one has attained a certain of Self-realization. For such great souls, the body, even after death, is still permeated with divine vibrations. Such souls are often buried, rather than cremated, even if they are householders and not monks, for the sake of the blessings the body will bring to all those who come later.

Sri Yukteswar died sitting up in the lotus posture, with full consciousness merging into the infinite. When Master arrived, a few hours later, the body, still in the lotus posture, was buried in the garden of the ashram in Puri.

First a temporary temple was built over the spot, then a few years later a small marble temple was erected by Master’s brother.

Since Sri Yukteswar’s time, additional buildings have been added to the ashram grounds, but the two-story structure pictured in Autobiography of a Yogi is still there pretty much as it was in Sri Yukteswar’s day. Plus there is the “Mahasamadhi Mandir,” as the temple erected over Sri Yukteswar’s gravesite is called.

A few devotees still live at the ashram and maintain the temple, but very little activity takes place, so we are able to go often and spend as much time as we wanted relatively undisturbed meditating and chanting in the little temple there.

It is a very inward atmosphere, quite powerful, as you would expect. The atmosphere is one of whole-hearted dedication, discipleship, and renunciation of all lesser concerns in the quest for God.

The town of Puri itself is a major pilgrimage spot for Indians. The Jagannath temple – a few miles from Sri Yukteswar’s ashram – is considered to be one of the holiest in India.

In fact, the name “Puri” comes from a word which means “completion.” When one undertakes to visit the major pilgrimage places in India, Puri is often the last place one visits as it is considered to be the “completion” of the pilgrimage journey.

So it is a fitting place for us, too, to spend these last few days.

Our hotel is right on the ocean. The ocean here is considered to be particularly holy and taking a dip in the water is part of any pilgrimage to Puri. For our three days here, every morning we go to meditate in the ashram, in the afternoon we go to the beach, and in the evenings, we spend the last hour of daylight sitting on the sand, facing the water, chanting as the light fades and darkness descends.

The weather has been a little overcast, with occasional light showers. In the late afternoon, the sky, the water, the very air itself, assumes a kind of silvery gray quality. As the day turns to dusk, and dusk into night, the waves break again and again with a roaring sound of AUM. We feel as if we are in some exquisite transition between the astral and material realms – a perfect encapsulation of this pilgrimage experience.

Joy and blessings,
Asha for David, Durga, Vidura and all the Ananda pilgrims

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

India #4, Oberoi Grand Hotel, Calcutta

Dear Friends:

For our overnight stop in New Delhi (actually in the suburb of Gurgaon, just outside of Delhi, where our ashram is located) we decided to spring for a really comfortable hotel. After being in the mountains for so many days, we felt we deserved a little luxury.

The Trident Hotel, where we spent the night, is, to our experience, one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. It is luxurious – certainly 5-star – but the wonder of it is really the basic architecture and the extraordinary attention to detail, so that everything – from teacups to shampoo bottles – all harmonize with the design of the hotel.

The design is unique – simple lines, with domes and arches, but all done on a grand scale. The ceilings are very high, and the doorways and doors are almost as tall as the ceilings, with huge curved handles.

Mostly the color scheme is variations on a soft desert beige, with touches of gold, and occasionally a magnificent splash of red – like the inside of the dome in the center of the main restaurant.

The other theme is water – and at night, fire. Where many hotels have garden courtyards, this hotel has water. Huge, shallow flat pools of black marble, where the water flows continuously across the surface and falls away at the edges.

When you enter the hotel through a series of wide steps and a magnificent archway, what you see is this great expanse of dark water. The guest rooms themselves also face on another dark marble pool. The rooms are set at a lower level than the pool, so when you look out your window, the pool is at the level of the window sill, as if you were in a boat out on the sea in a cabin just a little below the level of the ocean.

Spaced artistically within these black pools, are several fire pits. At night, the scene becomes intensely dramatic, as flames several feet high rise here and there from the black water. Quite extraordinary.

The service is impeccable, the food is delicious, the pillows are huge and soft. A much welcome change from the trip to the mountains.

It is the oldest cliché to say that India is a land of contrasts, but having been in the kutir of the Kriya Baba, and then a few days later in the Trident Hotel, “contrast” is the only word one can apply.

Swamiji and others from the ashram often come to the Trident. It is an oasis of calmness and beauty, and the food is delicious. Swamiji is well known and the staff always greets him with great joy.

Swamiji had agreed to come to dinner and we arranged to have the Indian restaurant all to ourselves. The atmosphere was magical in itself. The inspiration of Badrinath and the Ganges was still fresh within us, enhanced by the uplifting presence of Swamiji.

In the Autobiography, Master writes, “The deeper the Self-realization of a man, the more he influences the whole universe by his subtle spiritual vibrations.”

Even though only a few people were close enough to Swamiji to actually hear his conversation, his presence in the room created an upliftment that simply wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Naturally, after our days in Badrinath, and in the Ganges, we were greatly sensitized to his vibrations.

Often, the saints of India will give those who visit them something to eat, which they sometimes distribute with their own hands. The act of eating puts one in a receptive mood. In this way the holy person can more easily infuse his visitors with some of his own vibrations. Food received from a saint, or eaten in the presence of a saint, is called “prasad.” There is a tradition in India that prasad is different from ordinary food. Some say it isn’t even digested in the ordinary way.

All of that is way beyond our ability to evaluate. The restaurant has a good reputation, so no doubt that contributed to our enjoyment. But some deeper alchemy was at work, as well, for that meal stands out as one of the most delicious Indian meals we have ever eaten.

Greatly refreshed, and blessed by Swamiji’s presence, we left the next day to for Varanasi.

Varanasi is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. And it has always been considered holy.

The old part of the city is built right on the banks of the Ganges – rather, on one bank of the Ganges. The other side is entirely undeveloped – perhaps because it is a flood plain, or, as many people believe, that bank of the river was cursed by rishis ages ago and nothing can survive there.

The effect is quite dramatic – one side is crowded with people and ancient buildings, the other is open sand. The city is built on the West bank so Varanasi faces the rising sun.

The highlight of the trip to Varanasi is a dawn boatride on the Ganges. This year the sun cooperated and gave us its most beautiful Varanasi sunrise.

We left early enough to be out on the water while it was still dark. All 34 of us in one large rowboat were taken far out into the river, so that the crowded buildings, and the many other devotees bathing on the Western bank could be seen, but only dimly heard. We chanted quietly, then meditated in silence, waiting for the moment when the sun would appear.

Even though we were watching intently, the sun appeared suddenly. There was no interfering haze or mist, so we saw it first as just a bright red crescent, that quickly rose and revealed itself to be a huge red orb.

In accordance with tradition, we faced the rising sun and chanted the Gayatri mantra, one of the two mantras that we recite every Sunday morning as part of our fire ceremony. Because there are no buildings on the Eastern bank, it was possible to see the sun clearly as it emerged into the sky.

Gradually the color shifted from red, to orange, then finally to bright yellow. Rays of colored light flowed from the sun across the water of the Ganges, changing hue as the sun itself changed. From the first glimpse, to the full yellow sun shining above the river bank, took scarcely ten minutes.

We had purchased the usual leaf boats filled with flowers and a square of camphor which we released into the river as we finished the mantra. By this time, the boat was closer to the Western shore, and we were directly across from Manikarneka Ghat – the large cremation ground for the city of Varanasi.

This is the place where the body of Lahiri Mahasaya was consigned to the flames after his passing.

In the West, when someone dies, we invite professional undertakers in to take the body away and deal with whatever is necessary to dispose of it. In India, the family is completely involved in all those arrangements. Cremation takes place within 24 hours of death. Family members bring the body of the loved on a bier to the cremation grounds by the river (or whatever body of water is available). It is bathed one last time then placed on a funeral pyre that the attendants at the cremation grounds have prepared. Ghee is poured over the body, prayers are recited and certain other rituals carried out.

All this happens right out in the open.

The day we were on the river, several fires were burning, one in the early stages and therefore quite large and bright.

For a few moments we sat silently, the boat almost motionless, just drifting slowly down river. On one side, there was the brilliant orange sun. On the other side, the leaping flames of a funeral pyre, consuming the body of some unknown person whose life had so recently ended. And in front of us, on the river itself, our little leaf boats had been drawn together by the current into a tiny phalanx of individual flames, bravely riding the river to whatever fate might bring.

Lahiri Mahasaya lived in Varanasi, and on earlier pilgrimages we were able to go into the home where he lived. It is still in the Lahiri family and Banamali Lahiri, a great-grandson of the guru, used to allow devotees to come in.

Banamali has now passed away, and his offspring don’t feel the same sense of responsibility toward the devotees. The family no longer lives in the house; the shrines are maintained by a priest who comes in twice a day to carry out the appropriate rituals for the shrine that has been created in the room where Lahiri sat in meditation for so many years.

The best we are able to do is stand in the narrow lane outside the doorway.

Fortunately, however, another great-grandson – Shibindhu Lahiri – maintains a residence/ashram just a short distance away. He has embraced his role in the “dynastic tradition” (as he calls it) with full energy, and, in fact, has become a world-traveling teacher in his own right.

He is in Bombay for a few months, but his secretary opened his ashram to us completely. It is filled with relics of Lahiri, including a portion of his ashes, and a number of his personal possessions, including his sandals. Shibindhu has recently created a new shrine to Babaji as well, so “Satyalok,” as the ashram is called, proved to be a blissful meeting place for our pilgrimage and the spirit of Lahiri Mahasaya.

The next day, we left for Calcutta.

Our plane was delayed for an hour or more and we took the opportunity to have a kirtan in the airport. Even though it is not commonly done, the idea of pilgrimage is well known and respected in India so people, although surprised, were delighted to see such a large group of enthusiastic devotees – Westerners, no less.

In fact, some of the best kirtans of this pilgrimage so far have happened in airports. God is everywhere and one never knows when He will choose to make his presence felt.

Calcutta is so rich with pilgrimage sites that we spend six nights here.

The high point, of course, is Master’s family home at 4 Garpar Road. It was here, in a small attic room, that Master said, “I found God.”

We arrived in Calcutta late at night, and early the next morning, clad in pristine white clothes (the garb of a pilgrim in India) we made our way to the place almost everyone has been eagerly anticipating since the journey began.

It was a blissful meeting... deep, silent. Many eyes overflowed with tears just crossing the doorstep.

Every part of the house is filled with Master’s vibration.

All but one member of the older generation that actually met Master, have passed away, so for those of us who associate the house with Harekrishna Ghosh (who was 15 in 1936 when Master came back to India for his only return visit) we found it a little odd at first not to have his gentle presence there.

But his son Somnath, and his wife Sarita, and their two daughters, Sudarshana and Shulagna, have embraced the dharma of living at 4 Garpar Road with admirable grace. Somnath sat with us in the living room and recounted in such a sweet and loving way, many of the stories “my father and my grandfather told me” about Master growing up, and the year he spent in India.

It was deeply touching, and we all felt Master’s living presence speaking through Somnath as he shared the stories of that house so we could share in that part of his life.

We took turns meditating in the “small attic room where I found God” – as Master describes it.

Another room in the house has also been set aside as a shrine of particular significance to Western devotees. Master was a young man in his twenties, fully engaged in building a school for boys at Ranchi, when he had the vision he describes in Autobiography of a Yogi of all these Western faces calling to him for spiritual help.

In that moment he made the decision to leave India and carry the message of Kriya Yoga to the West.

Still, as Master describes in Autobiography, he wanted inward confirmation from God that he was following the divine will. He describes how he sat in his room, meditating and praying with such intensity that, he said, he felt his brain would burst. Finally, after many hours, he heard a knock at the door. When he opened it, Babaji was standing there.

The room where Master meditated (it was downstairs, not the attic room), the door where Babaji knocked, the place where Babaji stood, are now a shrine in the house at 4 Garpar Road. You can well imagine how eagerly we filled that room with our own meditation and intense prayers to God and Gurus.

Not far from 4 Garpar Road is another place of great spiritual significance in the life of Master. It is the boyhood home of his friend and spiritual companion, Tulsi Bose.

Tulsi’s daughter Hassi, and her husband, Devi Mukherjee, live in the house and maintain it, also, as a place where devotees may come any time of the day or night to meditate and be inspired by the wealth of spiritual relics within the house.

Not only did Master often visit the house when he and Tulsi were young boys, he also stayed there for many months in 1936 during his return visit to India.

The meditation room has many objects that Master used during that time – a spoon, a plate, a pocket knife – among other things. There are also many relics from other of our gurus – a conch shell that belonged to Sri Yukteswar, an iron trident that belonged to Lahiri Mahasaya, flowers from a garland that Sri Yukteswar wore, to name just a few.

All of these objects are completely accessible. You can hold them in your hand while you meditate.

The Bose family has been spiritual seekers for generations, and the meditation room also has relics from Anandamayi Ma and other saints.

You can also stretch out on the bed where Master slept, sit at the table where he ate, go up and down the stairs where he walked as a boy, and later as a swami returning from his mission in America.

One reason we stay so many days in Calcutta is so that we can make repeated visits to these two houses. Naturally, at first, there is so much to take in, and, often, the pilgrims are so moved to finally be in a place so sacred, that it is difficult to take it all in. By the second, and then the third visit, the homes have become our own, and familiarity and relaxation make us even more receptive.

Once during our visit, in each home, the family serves us lunch. Yesterday, we had lunch at 4 Garpar Road. Feeding 34 of us is beyond the capacity of the kitchen there, so the lunch was catered. To our immense satisfaction, the caterer was a little late, and in the hour or so while we waited, many of us were, literally, stretched out on the carpet in the living room of the house. This is the room where Master’s father slept, and Master himself, and other of the children also slept with him. Indians are more casual than Americans about sleeping arrangements, often just stretching out on the floor, as we were doing.

“Chela” is a word for “disciple.” The origin of that word is “child,” and we did, indeed, feel like Master’s chelas, resting in “his” room as we waited for our meal to come.

It has been a joyous pilgrimage. It is our prayer, that through these letters, and our on-going prayers for all of you, those blessings are also coming to you.

Love in Master,
asha (for david, durga, vidura, and all the pilgrims)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

India #3, Train from Hardwar to New Delhi

Dear Friends:

Two years ago, when we took the pilgrimage group to Badrinath for the first time, it was a physically demanding trip for all of us, mostly because of the cold. The hotels in both Josimath, where we stopped on the way, and Badrinath itself, were unheated. The temperatures went into the low thirties every night and it was hard to sleep because we were so cold.

There had been a late monsoon that year, and the road was very rough. In fact, a huge boulder fell across the road and we were stuck in Josimath for two extra days while the rock was dynamited and the fragments taken away. The trip up to Badrinath from Josimath – only a few dozen kilometers – took several hours – and, two years ago, was truly harrowing. It is a one-lane track hewn into the side of the mountain. That year, because of the late rains, it was very rough, often water was flowing across it.

This year we carefully warned the pilgrims – repeatedly – to prepare for the worst. Of course, this time everything was different.

Badrinath is just forty miles from the China (Tibet) border and the army has a great interest in having easy access to the area. In the past two years, many sections of the road have been well paved. And the weather was 15-20 degrees warmer than last time. And, most glorious of all, we stayed in a new hotel that was well heated and even had the best hot water showers we have encountered so far in India.

Traveling in these mountains is still not easy – there were long stretches of road that haven’t yet been repaired, and God made sure that there was a constant degree of discomfort in almost every situation. Still, there was no comparison to our previous visit.

Badrinath has a been a pilgrims’ destination for centuries – perhaps thousands of years – and the whole place feels like hallowed ground.

The image that is worshiped in the temple at Badrinath is a black stone that the first Shankaracharaya found in a riverbed. It is reputed to be “manifested” – rather than carved – and is a rough- hewn bas relief of a yogi sitting in meditation posture. It is roughly square in shape, about two feet across and two feet high.

The figure itself resembles the picture of Babaji that Master guided his brother Sananda to draw. The head of that picture is used on all the Ananda altars. The full picture is also often displayed at Ananda.

Badrinath is 10,000 feet in the Himalayas. The figure is widely considered to be a representation of the Babaji that Master describes in his Autobiography as a “deathless Himalayan master.”

So in addition to the traditional view of Badrinath as a holy destination, being there had special significance for all of us on this path.

There is an ancient temple at the center of village. The whole village really sprang up around the temple. Four times a day a head priest conducts a puja (a ritualized worship ceremony) of the statue of “Lord Badrinath” as the image is called.

Once an image is consecrated in a shrine, it becomes, for the devotees, a living person and must be cared for as if the image were alive. So the pujas four times a day are essentially the care and feeding of Lord Badrinath. In the early morning he is bathed and dressed and fed. Later, the puja is serving him “breakfast.” Midday he receives another meal, and is then given a time to rest. Late in the evening, he is prepared to sleep through the night.

It is easy for those outside the tradition of India to dismiss these ceremonies as mere superstition or outward ritual. But sitting in the temple at Badrinath at 6am, watching the priest carry out the first puja of the day – the most elaborate, in which the statue is carefully washed in Ganges water, then “dressed” in flowers and sandalwood paste – we all felt a powerful divine presence.

The priest who carried out the ritual is a fine and sincere man (we had a private audience with him later, and were well impressed), the ritual itself is exotic, beautiful, and interesting, but the power we felt was greater than the sum of these parts. Somehow, the stone itself, and that ancient temple, are a focal point for divine energy.

What Master brought to America is yoga, rather than Hinduism. That is to say, what he taught are the techniques of God realization – meditation, especially Kriya Yoga. Although he sometimes used mantras and fire ceremonies and a few other such things, he never taught in America the kind of ritual worship that is common in India.

But Master did teach devotion to God and respect for the sacred everywhere. In fact, that devotion is fundamental to the right practice of yoga.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, there is a whole chapter about the round black stone of Tarakeswar, and the difficulties Master encountered when he failed to suitably honor that stone as a manifestation of the divine. So it was with all this in mind that we received the inspiration of “Lord Badrinath.”

This year we were in Badrinath long enough to spend most of a day roaming around the mountains that surround the village.

The Himalayas here are a series of steep, narrow peaks, one after another. In some ways they look like a huge crowd of tall, thin beings all crowded in together. Every so often, one glimpses beyond the “crowd” a snow-covered peak in the distance, higher and more remote than those around Badrinath itself.

The village is small, and just a huddle at the base of these mountains. It is the mountains themselves that define the experience.

At the end of the epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, having completed their duty as kings in this world, renounce the world and set off for the Himalayas. The way the story is told, they resolved to walk to “heaven,” which is to say, to consciously leave their bodies.

The tradition is that they walked through Badrinath and up a trail which is now called “The Stairway to Heaven.”

Near the base of that trail is a cave that is reputed to be the place where Byasa wrote down the Mahabharata and other of the scriptures, such as the Srimad Bhagavatam, stories of the life of Krishna. We meditated for a short while in that cave then went up a little ways on the Stairway to Heaven.

It was extraordinary to be so high in the mountains. Even though we were only a short way from the village, there was still a remarkable feeling of remoteness and separateness from the usual concerns of the world.

Dotted throughout these hills are little kutirs (cottages) made of cement or stone where sadhus (wandering monks) live. Our guide, Mahavir, frequently visits this area, and had been asking the local people, “Who are the really spiritual ‘babas’ in this area?” (“Baba” means “father” and is how sadhus are commonly referred to, even the “Babaji” of Autobiography of a Yogi is known by this name.)

Everyone referred to a certain “Kriya Baba,” as being the most spiritually notable in Badrinath at that time. He is a follower of the Babaji written about in Autobiography of a Yogi and practices the same Kriya we know.

Several times Mahavir had climbed up to this Baba’s kutir, but each time there was a “Do not disturb” sign on the gate, so he was unable to meet the Kriya Baba.

Sadhus in this area live somewhat removed from the population as a whole, but close enough to be available to those who seek them out for spiritual inspiration, so this simple method of signaling by the presence (or absence) of a raised flag, or a sign on the gate, allows them to protect their privacy and still be available to meet sincere devotees.

Anyway, several attempts by Mahavir to meet him ended in failure. Then, just a few weeks ago, he was climbing that hill in the company of the pilgrimage group led by Shivani and Arjuna from Ananda in Assisi, Italy.

Mahavir was at the end of the column of several dozen devotees, and this time when he passed the Kriya Baba’s kutir, the sadhu emerged from his doorway and beckoned to Mahavir.

Mahavir, called the group back, and they all had a deeply inspiring satsang with the Baba.

Mahavir was noncommittal about our ability to see the Baba this time, so about a dozen of us climbed the steep mountain trail without any particular expectation of what would happen. When Mahavir reached the kutir, however, once again the Kriya Baba emerged from his doorway and beckoned to Mahavir to bring us in.

He lives in a tiny cement cottage, with barely enough room for the twelve of us to sit around a small platform where the Baba was sitting. He has been in silence now for almost a year and communicated by writing with a piece of chalk (mostly in Hindi, sometimes in English) on a small piece of slate.

One of the most sacred peaks in the area is a high Himalaya called Neel Kanth (I am not sure that is the right spelling, but that is what is sounds like). Anyway, the doorway of the cottage perfectly framed the view of this high peak. We felt as if we had entered a timeless zone, far removed from anything we had ever experienced before.

With his little slate and Mahavir’s translating, he told us a little of his spiritual life, the fact that he spends a great deal of time with Babaji in a “secret place.” That he often leaves his body in his kutir for months at a time while he travels in his subtle form to be with Babaji.

In fact, in his kutir, there is a huge tin box – about eight feet by four feet and five feet tall, in which the Baba sits to meditate and where he leaves his body when he goes to be with Babaji. Because of this, he is known in the area as “Baxa Bala Babu” – the “Box Baba”

Of course, it was impossible for us to verify the Baba’s claims, but Mahavir told us later that, in fact, when winter comes, and all the other sadhus have to come off the mountain and go to live at a lower altitude – the whole hillside, including the Kriya Baba’s kutir is covered with up to 17 feet of snow for months in the winter – the Kriya Baba remains on the hillside and only reappears in the spring after the snow has melted.

The Baba impressed us all with his calm dignity, his inner stillness, and the joyful expression in his eyes. He was also deeply humble. Even though it is common to touch the feet of a sadhu in respect, the Baba steadfastly refused to allow that honor to be bestowed on him. And he constantly referred with reverence and devotion to Babaji, rather than in any way drawing energy to himself, except to describe in simple terms, how he lives and his relationship to Babaji.

The Italian group had given him some of the material from Ananda Assisi, which included a beautiful photograph of Swamiji. The Kriya Baba spoke in glowing terms of Swamiji and described a vision he had of Swamiji a few days after the Italian group visited him.

It was a very uplifting visit and one of the most unusual experiences we have had in India.

The next day, we got up early and made a 13 hour drive down from the mountain to a lovely hotel right on the Ganges where we spent a day recuperating from the trip up to Badrinath. Even though it was much less difficult than two years ago, it is not an easy trek.

The hotel is situated right on the Ganges and we had a meditation, and then a Purification Ceremony on our own private beach there.

One of our pilgrims was recently widowed and she brought some of her husband’s ashes with her. So we read the astral ascension ceremony and then she waded a few feet into the water and gave the ashes to the Ganges. The river is wide and raging at that point, and once again, as at Devapriyag, we were all blissfully aware of God’s power and presence and how tiny our little ego selves are in relation to that.

Then we took a ceremonial dip in the (freezing cold) Ganges. David and Vidura had the foresight to bring a piece of rope, and the two of them held each end, while we took turns holding on to the middle while we dipped three times in the water.

Once again, the divine power of the river seemed to rise up to meet us.

Before the Purification Ceremony we spent some time reflecting on the simple words of that ritual: “The Master says, ‘Open your heart to me and I will enter and take charge of your life.’”

Many of us have done this ritual dozens, even hundreds of times by now. Yet, we asked ourselves, to what extent have we truly allowed the Guru to enter in? And what does it mean when Master says, he will “take charge” of our lives?

It was with these thoughts that we entered the Ganges, as a strong outward affirmation of our inward resolve to give our lives wholly to God.

Now our time in the mountains is done and we enter a completely different phase of the pilgrimage. We are on the train from Rishikesh to Delhi, arriving in just a few minutes.

Tonight Swamiji will come to our hotel for dinner. Tomorrow we fly to Varanasi.

Joy and blessings,
David & Asha for all the pilgrims

Saturday, October 14, 2006

India #2, Josimath

Dear Friends:

Even though the hot season was supposed to be over, ever since we arrived in India, it has been “unseasonably hot,” even in Rishikesh, which is usually more moderate and comfortable.

To make the pilgrimage to Badrinath should require some tapasya (austerity performed with devotion to God), so we have cursed global warming, but accepted the hot, sticky, conditions as an offering to the Divine.

Two years ago, when we came to Josimath and Badrinath for the first time, it was “unseasonably cold,” or so we were told. Sometimes in India people do their best to put a good face on things, especially to make guests feel comforted. Since we had never been to these mountains before, we had no way of judging whether this explanation was factual, or simply the effort of our hosts to make us feel better.

All we knew then was that it was cold – very cold. It was above freezing, but what made the experience notable was that the hotels were unheated, so there was no respite. Sleeping (or trying to) was an especially memorable experience.

We had brought jackets and long underwear, but none of us expected to don them the day we arrived and wear them virtually continuously (day and night) for the four days we were there.

So we had really built up for the pilgrims this year the need for them to prepare themselves to repeat the tapasya we had endured.

We should have remembered, what we learned long ago, that no two pilgrimage groups have the same karma. Each seems to draw something different according to its own spiritual need.

Anyway, today we are cheering global warming because Josimath has turned out to be merely cool and refreshing! And we are holding out great hope for Badrinath as well.
On the way from Rishikesh we stopped at a holy site called Devaprayag. This is where two rivers – the Alakananda and the Bhagirathi merge together to become the Ganges. This is the first point at which the name Ganges is applied.

To reach the point of confluence you have to walk about ten minutes down sloping paths and stairs from the top of the canyon, where the road is, to the floor of the valley where the river flows.

This has been a pilgrimage spot for generations so the walk down takes you through a small village and the path itself is lined with shops. Not only shops for pilgrims, but also shops that serve the everyday life of those who live there.

Finally one reaches a relatively small patio right at the level of the river.

Of course, since the level of the river rises and falls, there are a series of platforms as you descend and one simply stops at whatever point you meet the river. This day, the river was relatively low, and, among other marvelous sites, was a cave as big as a small room carved into the rock right at the site where the rivers converge.

A wandering mendicant of some sort had installed himself there, with a fire pit and various other accoutrements of the priestly life and was offering various rituals – for a price, of course.

We had no need to avail ourselves of his services, however, for our long time guide and dear friend, Mahavir, had made arrangements with other priests known to him to provide us some little ceremony.

The platform and the steps above it are in the V-shaped space created by the two rivers coming together. These are not small streams but wide raging currents of water several hundred feet across at the bottom of a deep canyon.

Just from the point of view of Mother Nature, it was thrilling to stand at the junction of so much power. We were there for about an hour and much of the time was spent simply staring at the water and the canyon walls through which it flowed. The sound alone was almost deafening – Nature’s AUM.

It was humbling to appreciate how insignificant in the great scheme of things one little life can be. If one had slipped – deliberately or accidentally – into that raging current, the life in this little body would have been snuffed out in a moment. And the river would have given that event no thought at all.

It would not have been right, of course, to deliberately cast away this body. A human incarnation, the scriptures say, is a great blessing, not to be squandered. The human form is capable of perceiving infinity, and one should do one’s utmost to refine the body through spiritual practice to the point where that realization comes.

Then the purpose of the incarnation is fulfilled. As Master put it, once you have eaten the “wisdom dinner from the plate of life” the plate (i.e., the body) no longer matters. But in that state, there is no reason to cast it away either. One simply surrenders to God’s will in the matter and lives or dies with calm acceptance.

But inasmuch as none of us on this pilgrimage have reached that point, we were careful not to let the river take us!

The river gave us perspective, though, on the ephemeral nature of the life the ego clings to so tenaciously compared to the vastness of infinity. It was not at all depressing or disturbing. Rather it was blissfully liberating.

The custom in India is to make an offering of flowers and light – in the form of burning camphor – into the moving water. Mahavir had brought for each of us a small bowl made from leaves, filled with flower blossoms and a tiny clay dish with three little squares of camphor.

We lit our bits of camphor, then held our illuminated bowls of flowers in our upraised hands, facing the confluence of the rivers. Together we recited a few mantras, chanted AUM together – adding our little voices to the roaring AUM in front of us – then placed our leaf-boats with a personal prayer into the starting point of the Ganges at our feet.

It was magnificent to see the way the water seized those boats and rushed them away to their destiny in the turbulent water.

Pilgrims also bathe in the waters there – very carefully, of course, given the power of the current. There is a system of stairs and railings arranged in an area where the current is somewhat less.

The water, of course, is very cold, but the air is warm, so it is not that difficult to do.

At first, only a few of us were inclined to join the Indian pilgrims already there and submerge themselves in the water. The water is shallow on the steps and you can kneel safely and dunk yourself that way. The tradition is to go under three times.

The first time, the cold is so intense it takes your breath away, but then it becomes easier.

After a time, the draw of the water became irresistible and almost all of us took a turn.

Joslyn Black is with us. She is a trained paramedic (not that we needed her specialized skill, thank God!), but she is strong and capable, and inspires confidence. She stationed herself right behind where we were taking our turns in the water and her presence, and reassuring hand on one’s shoulder, gave even the most timid among us the confidence to enter the river.

When I first came to India many years ago I had a certain skepticism about the concept of a river being “holy.” I had felt Divine Mother’s presence in Nature, but that was about as much as I was willing to concede.

However, when I took my first dip in the Ganges on a pilgrimage many years ago, I felt a living presence rise out of the water to meet me, effectively dissolving forever any Western skepticism I had brought with me.

Now, as I stood watching each of our pilgrims enter the water, submerge themselves three times, then step out on to the upper platform again, it was profoundly moving to see in their eyes (most are in the India for the first time) the same realization I had about “Holy Mother Ganga,” as the river is often called.

As I mentioned in my last letter, whereas in the past, the only way to reach Badrinath was to walk up the mountains, now one can drive, and everyday they are improving the road, so in time it won’t even be an arduous journey.

I was thinking how much this is a sign of dawning Dwapara Yuga. The consciousness of the planet is moving toward a higher vibration of spirituality. In the age just ended – Kali Yuga – the age of materialism, the subtle truths had to be hidden away, accessible only to the handful of people who had the subtlety to respect, and not misuse or defile them.

The most notable example, from the point of view of our path, is the dissemination of Kriya Yoga. As Master describes it in Autobiography of a Yogi, when Lahiri Mahasaya met Babaji in the Himalayas and received Kriya Initiation from him, Lahiri assumed (as Master tells the story) that he would simply turn his back on the life he had been living as a householder in Varanassi, and spend the rest of his incarnation in the Himalayas with Babaji.

His guru, Babaji, however, told him that his duty was to go back to Varanasi and teach others this Kriya Yoga.

At first, Babaji told Lahiri that Kriya should only be given to those who were willing to renounce everything and devote their lives to seeking God.

On behalf of all of us, Lahiri protested, saying that only a few have reached that level of spiritual advancement, whereas many souls are suffering and that suffering could be eased by the practice of Kriya.

In the Autobiography, it says Babaji recognized in Lahiri’s words the will of God, and relaxed the ancient prohibition and instructed Lahiri to give Kriya to all who sincerely seek.

This was a great and glorious moment for all of us who have been the recipients of this spiritual generosity on the part of this Himalayan master.

In fact, through this story, what Master is describing is the shifting of the Yugas. During Kali Yuga the teaching had to be protecting from the ignorance of mankind as a whole. Now that ignorance is lessening (it will never disappear completely, this will always be the material plane) and spiritual truth can be made more accessible.

When you look around, you see this happening everywhere. Even 50 years ago, words like karma, chakra, and guru were little known outside of India. Now they are common parlance all over both East and West.

The road to Badrinath is just one more example. And, inasmuch as we will set out on that road tomorrow, we are deeply grateful.

Joy, blessings, love,
David, Asha, Durga, Vidura and all the Ananda pilgrims

Thursday, October 12, 2006

India #1, 3:30 a.m. Rishikesh

(Please forgive any mistakes. I didn’t have time to proofread this.)

Dear Friends:

In less than an hour the wake-up call will go out to all the rooms. We’ll convene for a full breakfast at 5am, then out the door at 6am sharp to walk across the suspension bridge over the Ganges to meet the convoy of jeeps that will take us on the first leg of our trip to Badrinath.

Even though we have been doing these pilgrimages since 1986, two years ago was the first time we made the trek to Badrinath, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in India.

Whenever we tell any of our Indian friends or acquaintances that we are all going to Badrinath, they are overjoyed for us. Many Indians plan for their whole lives for the opportunity to go to Badrinath, and a handful of other places considered so full of divine blessings that to visit there will help uplift one’s whole incarnation.

Badrinath is 11,000 feet in the Himalayas, and until recently, the only way to reach it was on foot, on the back of a donkey, or, for the infirm, or the very wealthy, perhaps to be carried there on the back of a porter or on a palanquin.

Now, buses, taxis, cars, and jeeps regularly ascend up the still rather perilous road. Unpaved, in many places quite rough, usually barely more than one lane, snaking up the steep hills, clinging to the mountainside.

The focal point of this effort is a moderate temple, built around a small shrine in which resides Lord Badrinath in the form of a black stone.

Centuries ago, Adi Shankaracharya – an ancient sage described in Autobiography of a Yogi – rescued this stone from a river where it had been hidden in some even earlier time to protect it from being stolen or desecrated by those who did not understand the power within it.

On the stone, which is only a few feet across, there is a bas relief that is a relatively crude rendering of what is clearly, however, a meditating yogi.

In fact, the image looks as if it were modeled after the picture of Babaji in lotus posture that was painted (under Paramhansa Yogananda’s guidance) by his brother Sananda Ghosh and is the image of Babaji that graces all our temples. (On the altar, it is just the face, but the full body picture is displayed elsewhere within Ananda.)

It is widely believed that this image is a representation of Babaji, the deathless Himalayan yogi, who, as Master describes in Autobiography, is the divine force behind Master’s incarnation and his mission to the West.

So, quite apart from the spiritual significance given to this shrine by centuries of tradition in India, it has special meaning for those of us on this path.

Our pilgrimage began in Gurgaon, outside of New Delhi, where Swamij lives and Ananda’s work is centered. We arrived late on Friday night and on Saturday, Swamiji was holding his usual monthly satsang. So at 4:30 in the afternoon of our first day in India, we found ourselves crowded into the downstairs temple of our ashram, with many of the Ananda devotees in India, listening to Swamiji speak.

Later that evening, Swamiji invited us to his house to watch a movie! The second floor of his house includes a spacious mezzanine in which Swamiji has placed some comfortable furniture and a television screen and DVD player. We filled the couches, sat on the floor, and even on the stairs going up from there to his office, sitting in front, behind, and all around Swamiji.

His beautiful home – called Guru Kripa (Guru’s Grace) – is a far cry from the dirt floor of a village hut, or a simple gathering under a banyan tree. And watching the classic film, Captains Courageous, is not exactly a discourse on the Bhagavad Gita, still, the spirit of the evening was so joyful, and so deep, it was everything we came to India to experience, albeit, in a rather unexpected form.

Afterwards he commented, “It seems you have a very good group of pilgrims,” (which we do).

The next afternoon he invited us again to his house for a satsang just for our group and the ashram staff. This time, we were in the living room, on chairs, couches, and on the floor all around him. The format was simple: for and hour and a half he answered whatever questions we put to him. They ranged from details of doing Kriya, to why in the Ramayana one of the main characters is a monkey called Hanuman.

The first days after the long flight are a bit of a blur, because of jet lag, so one is left more with a deep impression of joy rather than a clear memory of the details of each experience. But being with Swamiji right away at the very beginning lifts the pilgrimage right from the start into a clear focus of devotion and attunement to Master.

Before we had our own work in India, coming here was almost like gathering “historical background” on our path. Now, with our teachers traveling all around the country, and many people now being initiated through Ananda into discipleship to Master, and Kriya Yoga, the whole feeling of being in India has shifted to a deeper level. We always felt like emissaries for Master and our line of gurus, but now that has become a much more practical, and active part of our travels.

Swamiji is on national television every day, and many people all over the country have been touched by what Swamiji and Ananda is doing.

We went from Gurgaon on the train to Rishikesh, where we are now (for a few more hours). Walking through the tiny village of Lakshman Jhula (right next to Rishikesh, where we are staying) a young woman called out as we walked by her small shop, “Jai Guru.” Naturally, we responded, “Jai Guru.” When she replied, “Paramhansa Yogananda,” it caught our attention.

Although Autobiography of a Yogi is popular in India, until Swamiji came, Master was still surprisingly unknown. Master’s work was primarily in America, not in India. So it has not been that common to have someone reply in that way.

We stopped and chatted with her, and her mother. She began to name several people from Ananda and asked if we knew them. It turns out she and her parents go every three months to Gurgaon to see Swamiji and are devotees of this path.

She recognized us by the three metal astrological bangles devotees of Master often wear.

Our visit to Rishikesh has been about the people we know here. On the first day we went to see Vanamali Devi, a lovely woman devotee of Krishna. She is the author of a beautiful book about Krishna called The Play of God.

She lives with her cousin in a charming little house right on the bank of the Ganges. She sat with us on a rooftop patio, overlooking the river, and as the sun set, and night descended she talked to us about spiritual matters, then we sang and meditated together.

When someone asked her how to develop devotion, as part of her answer she made this interesting statement. (I don’t remember exactly, so I’ll convey the sense of what she said in my own words.)

She said bhakti (devotion) depends on gyana (knowledge), because you have to know what you are devoted to or else your devotion will become fanatical.

She said this is the difficulty so many Moslems face. “They are the great bhaktis – everything they do is for Allah. But what is this ‘Allah” that they worship? They don’t understand the true nature of God and as a consequence their devotion leads them into directions no one else considers God-like.”

She didn’t speak of Christianity, but the same point applies. So many “fundamentalists” are utterly devoted to Jesus, but their understanding of Jesus is incomplete. They don’t understand Christ consciousness, and, as a result, their devotion, which should be admirable, often is not, except to those within their own small circle of believers.

She also spoke of Nishkam Karma – the central concept of the Bhagavad Gita – “action without desire for the fruits of action.” She made a simple clarification. It is not that the devotee is uninterested in getting results. Even if you are working for God – especially if you are working for God – you want to do the best possible job. To do otherwise, would be unconscientious. The detachment is from any personal benefit from the work we do.

We came to Rishikesh via the train. It stops at Hardwar and we have to take taxis for 45 minutes to reach Rishikesh. On the way, we stopped at an ashram devoted to Anandamayee Ma (the “Joy-Permeated Mother” described in a chapter of that name in Autobiography of a Yogi). “Ma” (as everyone calls her) was a great soul, recognized as such from early childhood. Tens of thousands throughout India revered her.

Swami Kriyananda spent many days with her during the years that he lived in India before – 1958-62. She was a source of deep inspiration and blessing to Swamiji, and she spoke in glowing terms of his devotion and deep spirituality.

The ashram we visited is where her body is buried. A beautiful marble temple has been built on the site and it is usually one of the high points of the pilgrimage to meditate and chant there.

This time, however, things did not work out as expected. The temple is now closed from noon to 4:00pm everyday and we arrived during the closed hours.

Instead of being able to go into the temple, the only open building is a large satsang hall. In fact, Ma was often there, and several huge pictures of her were hung along the walls.

Our group was quite small in the middle of a room that could have held many hundreds, but Ma seemed to take sympathy on our plight, and her enormous photograph image enlarged within our hearts and we all felt embraced in her Divine Mother love.

We assumed this was her compensation to us for missing the temple, but more was in store.

One of our friends in Rishikesh is a Swami Bodhichitananda. He is an American who has been in India since 1990 and is fully integrated into the life of an Indian swami.

He told us about a pilgrimage site we didn’t know about before. Not the place where Ma’s body is buried, but where she actually left her body in Mahasamadhi (an advanced yogi’s final conscious exit from the physical form).

It was an ashram of hers not far from Dehra Dun. The swami assured us that it was always open (several priests lived there, but there were few visitors) and we could easily walk in and meditate right in the room where Ma was during her final moments.

Every group has its own karma, and this group has the privilege of being the first among us to visit that holy place. Once again, Ma’s blissful spirit enveloped us.

We went on from there to visit Swami Gyanananda. He was born in Switzerland some 80 years. At the age of 23, his aunt gave him a copy of Autobiography of Yogi. As it happened, it was March 7, 1952 – the very day Master had his Mahasamadhi and passed away from this world.

Swami Gyanananda was completely taken by the book and the idea of living in India and decided to walk from Switzerland to India! It took him three months, but eventually he arrived.

The story, as he tells it, is that when he reached the border, a formidable looking Sikh guard asked him why he wanted to enter India. He said “To learn yoga.” The guard asked, “Do you have a guru?” He replied, “Yes, I have a guru.”

The guard then stood aside, opened his arms, pointing the way, and said, “Welcome to India.”

Swami Gyanananda has lived in India ever since. For a time he was a monk in the Indian equivalent of SRF (Called Yogoda Satsanga Society – YSS). Then he went out on his own. He has wandered all over India, and now lives with one of his devotees in a charming stone house near Dehra Dun. It was there that we saw him.

He is very lively, with a bubbling, joyous, sense of humor. He led us in a very spirited kirtan, with rather complicated chants mostly to Krishna. He did it in the call and response manner, so he would chant the line, then we would repeat it. We were sitting close together in a small stone room and our response echoed off the walls. It was quite marvelous!

Afterwards, Swami pronounced us ready to go on a world tour!

The next day, yesterday, we went to visit Swami Bodhichitananda at his kutir. (A kutir is a small hermitage or cottage.) It is built into a cliff right above the Ganges. The Swami built it himself over the last four years.

It is not an uncommon practice here in Rishikesh for a swami to built a simple dwelling for himself on the banks of the river.

Swami Bodhichitananda, however, many years ago (he is in his mid-forties now) attended a year of architecture school, and his kutir reflects his artistic and inventive spirit.

It was made of stone and brick and bamboo. Quite small, but beautifully proportioned and designed. You look out across the river at the town of Rishikesh, so it is not far from other people. But the river bank is quite steep, and the forest there is dense, so it still gives the feeling of the solitary hermit life.

You can access the kutir by coming down 136 steep steps that Swami has built into the hill, or, as we did, via a boat, which takes you right to the concrete steps which lead up to the house.

Swami Bodhichitananda has built several access points into relatively calm areas of the river, so as tea was being prepared some of us went and swam in the Ganges. The water was cold, and the current is strong, so one had to stay near the bank.

It has been very hot and the water was profoundly refreshing on both physically and spiritually. Swami served tea, then we went together to sit on a platform under a nearby banyan tree where we had satsang and kirtan.

By now it was getting dark and Swami had placed lit candles all around the platform. With the growing dusk and the river before us, the forest around us, and the banyan above it was a remarkable moment in time.

Then we boarded the boat and as we drifted away, the Swami stood on the small concrete dock, waving goodbye to us. In the evening light, his orange clad figure, against the dark of the forest, standing on the edge of a river was like a carefully composed painting.

India is a land of contrasts. A few minutes later, the boat landed, we climbed the up the ghat (concrete steps leading up from the river) to the street. There we were enveloped in the sheer bedlam of a busy taxi stand, with honking horns, and shouting cab drivers, and billows of exhaust fumes.

Our taxis, of course, were inexplicably delayed, and we stood for some ten minutes in the midst of this chaos. Somehow, though, the overwhelming contrast with the forest kutir seemed only to enhance the joy we were feeling. God is everywhere.

It is now 5am, and breakfast is being served, then off to Badrinath.

When someone asked Swamiji, “How should we prepare for the pilgrimage to Badrinath?” he replied simply, “Keep Babaji in your heart.”

We go to Josimath, at 7000 feet today, and spend two nights there, then on to Badrinath for two more nights before returning to the Ganges.

You are all with us, in spirit. At every meditation, and holy shrine, we pray for all of you.

Love from David and Asha, Durga and Vidura, and all the Ananda pilgrims.