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)

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