Asha Praver

Letters from Asha

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

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