Asha Praver

Letters from Asha

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.

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