Travels with Swamiji
Assisi and Rome, Italy
It may seem a little odd to be getting a letter from me about a trip that has been over for more than a week. (I came home on June 16; David returned a day earlier.) But at the end of the time in Italy, Swamiji started working on a manuscript and I helped him by typing in his handwritten changes. He can edit faster than I can type, so it took all my time to stay up with him.
So, as a result, there were many very interesting events that I never chronicled for you. I started writing these letters just to the community here at home, as a way of staying in touch. It started out as a way to ease the “pangs of separation,” but in fact, as I began to make a habit of writing these letters every time I traveled with Swamiji, I noticed that people liked my letters perhaps better than they liked my company! In any case, it has been a happy tradition and I feel the need to finish the trip for all of you.
I was amazed on this trip to learn how people from so many different parts of the world are now receiving these letters. They go out to one e-mail list and that leads to another and another, and so it goes.
This is the age in which space is annihilated by the technology of communication. It is profoundly gratifying for me to see how the energy we put out to share with others these great blessings from Master and Swamiji just keeps on multiplying via the simple expedient of electronic communication.
People from Russia, Finland, Germany, Sovenia, various parts of India, to name just some of the countries, have all commented on these letters! We are one all Master’s children.
I have felt from the beginning of my time with Swamiji that the experiences I have with him have never been my own. As I wrote in the introduction to the book about him, Swami Kriyananda As We Have Known Him, writing down these experiences to pass along to others has been part of my sadhana for a long time. With the internet, something can happen in the morning, and be shared in the afternoon.
Or, in this case, it can happen a couple of weeks ago and be shared even after we return home.
So......let us go back to earlier this month in Assisi.
Finally, some two weeks after we left India, Swamiji’s health took a dramatic turn for the better. It was, for all of us (except perhaps Swamiji himself), a long and very poignant experience to see him at such a low ebb physically for so many days in a row.
Usually, his illnesses, though they often have an identifiable medical component, also seem to follow a pattern ordained by God and merely acted out by the doctors. This is true, of course, for everything in life; the veil is thinner, though, with Swamiji.
As I wrote earlier, he often faces great physical challenges just before an important transition or event in which a great deal of light will be expressed through him into the world.
I remember that when he wrote the Oratorio, some twenty years ago, he worked on it day and night. As he has often told us, “When inspiration comes, you have to respond. If you ignore that inner voice, it will stop speaking to you.”
So he was sleeping very little, writing music and the lyrics for the songs all hours of the day and night. His heart began to give him trouble. The actual word for the medical condition is “congestive heart failure,” which sounds, and in fact can be, dire. There are, of course, progressive stages of this. What it means, simply, is that the heart is not working up to snuff. It manifests as swelling of the extremities, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
Swamiji felt all those symptoms coming on when he was writing that music, but declared that he would rather die than give up the effort to complete the Oratorio.
Following the usual pattern of his physical tests, once the music was done, the medical crises also ended. He calls such moments what they are: “Satan’s effort to prevent the light from coming forth.”
Swamiji’s difficulties this time began around his birthday. The morning of the day he was set to fly from India to Europe, he was very unwell. Miriam considered whether to postpone the flight, but felt, given his history, that going forward would bring better health than giving in. Plus, neither she nor Dr. Peter could find a definite medical reason not to fly.
As it happened, however, when we got to Milan and then on to Lugano, Swamiji did not experience the kind of sudden improvement that we hoped for. In fact, all the five days we were in Switzerland, his health was very poor. It was a kind of tapasya that he had to go through and we had to support him.
He was very weak, and needed to be aided in many simple tasks, like getting up from a chair, or walking across the room.
At all times, Swamiji maintained a joyous and giving attitude. It was so touching to see how eagerly all of us tried to help. After all he has done so much to uplift our lives, it was a joy to be able to do anything for him, however small, even to hand him a bowl of cherries, and help him by pulling the stems out. Every little expenditure of energy for Swamiji was enormous and so we smoothed the way as much as we could.
I didn’t write at all during that period of time, because I didn’t know what to say.
Even though his spiritual force was enormous, his physical vitality was not. Miriam said later that he could have slipped out of his body for any number of medical reasons. And one could feel that he was right on the cusp.
The question of Swamiji dying is one that all of us who are close to him have to consider. Nothing lasts forever. He has never claimed physical immortality (!), in fact, in the last few years, has often talked about leaving his body. His parents’ lives ended about the age he is now (83) and in a very matter-of-fact way he has referred for years to this being a natural time for his incarnation to end.
At the same time, there are many things still to be done, not the least of which is to more firmly establish the work in India, so we hold onto the thought that he will be with us at least a few more years.
I have tried to be detached; it is self-evidently the right spiritual attitude to have. But the feelings of the heart cannot always be controlled. I was astonished a decade or so ago when Swamiji had a very dangerous moment in Italy. He collapsed in a public place and had to be rushed to the hospital. His blood pressure fell to almost nothing and inwardly he felt he was right on the edge of leaving this world.
I was visiting at Ananda Village when the call came of what was happening to him. Moments after hearing the news, I found myself bent over sobbing. It was nothing I decided to do, it was almost an involuntary response.
I was not proud of myself; I don’t think it was helpful to Swamiji for me to feel that way. As his friends, we have to respond as he does with calm acceptance to whatever Master brings him. At the same time it was an entirely honest response to that news from my heart. The idea of being on this planet without him reduced me to tears.
That was very sobering, for me, and since then I have tried to attune myself more deeply, for the simple reason that we need to support his life mission. He has surrendered his life to God and Guru. It is of no personal consequence to him what happens to his body; it is just to serve Master’s work. And yes, human attachment, emotion, the joy of his company is something we have enjoyed and will miss. But I know that I want to respond to all events of his life from the deepest level I can reach.
Going back to Lugano for a moment, the one thing that did comfort me there was that it seemed an unlikely setting for Swamiji to leave his body—a hotel in Switzerland! It seemed that an illustrious life such as his would find a more appropriate way to exit!
We returned to Assisi and Swamiji remained unwell for almost another week.
His blood had become too thin, and his forearms from the biceps to the wrists were entirely bruised—a dark, blotchy purple. There was almost no glimpse of normal skin. Quite dramatic and rather awful looking.
Miriam was concerned that if he fell with his blood so thin he could bleed internally, so someone stayed with him all the time. Anand slept in the living room, and Miriam and others of us were there all day. We left him pretty much to do whatever he felt like doing, but every time he stood up—or tried to stand up—someone would come immediately to his side.
All this care prevented all but one fall, which, fortunately, did not prove serious.
As they worked medically to get his blood adjusted properly, and to help with the anemia that had set in, he gradually began to get better. And then one day, Swamiji felt profoundly inspired to bring to the world a new concept of what it means to be a swami. A “swami” is one who has renounced ego for the sake of realizing God.
Too much of the emphasis, Swamiji explained, is on what one is giving up, whereas the true joy of renunciation is in the infinity one embraces.
From that point, Swamiji started to get well.
Swamiji himself, however, throughout the whole experience, never expressed the slightest personal inclination one way or another. To live or die, to be ill or to be well, was not his concern. “I have given this body to Divine Mother. My life is only to serve Master.” He refused on any level to take back what he had given.
You may remember in the Oratorio, in the song The Temptation of Christ, Satan—offering his argument in a very reasonable and logical tone—promises Jesus dominion over the whole world. It is quite simple, Satan assures Jesus, that dominion will be yours, “If you but reclaim what you’ve given.”
I’ve contemplated that line many times, but didn’t fully understand it until these days with Swamiji. Understanding came crystal clear from one exchange I had with him.
The bruises on his arms were fading—very slowly, but you could begin to see tiny spots of normal-colored skin. When most everything else about his health was still not going very well, he held up his arms to show us that the bruises were beginning to fade.
In what turned out to be a profoundly misguided attempt at humor, I said, thinking of all that was still wrong with him, “I put that [the little bit of fading of the bruises] in the category of ‘Thank the Lord for little favors.’”
Swamiji responded with a stern silence. (There was no one else present at the time.) I thought, “Well, it wasn’t a very good joke, but was it thatbad?”
Finally, Swamiji said very seriously, “I don’t consider it a favor at all.”
The meaning was clear to me. “I have given this body to Divine Mother. She may do with it whatever She wishes.”
Not even for a moment, not even for a “joke” would Swamiji “reclaim what he had given.”
The great joy of Swamiji, in his writing, speaking and company, is that you never know when a profound life lesson will just slip in unexpectedly and redirect the course of your incarnation!
Some days later Swamiji explained to us that for sometime he has felt that May this year would be a critical time for him; that in some karmic way it was a moment when his incarnation might end. And because it didn’t, he feels now that he will go on, as he put it, “to live a long life”! At least go on for some years more.
His recovery since then has been almost miraculous. Whereas in Lugano he had to be supported even to walk, by the time we left him in Rome, about two weeks later, he was striding along on his own without even a cane. And friends tell us that he has continued to get stronger and stronger.
This past weekend (I heard from a friend in Assisi) there was a dedication ceremony for land they have recently acquired adjacent to their Temple, where they will build a community. Swamiji walked at the head a long column of devotees, again without a cane and without any support. Most impressive.
When he was speaking earlier in Rome to a group about the fact of making it through this karmic period and now having more time to serve Master, one of the devotees naturally expressed personal delight at the idea of Swamiji being with us longer.
Swamiji was kindly, but also stern, “I know extending my life will benefit others, but I am not doing it for others, I am doing it for Master.”
Once Swamiji was asked, “Do you serve God or do you serve people?” Swamiji said, ‘I serve God in people.’”
It is not personal. That is what he wants us to understand. It isn’t about helping others, it is about service to God and being disciples doing whatever Guru asks.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta made this same distinction with the same force. When reporters asked her about her social service, she said, “I am not serving the poor. I am serving Jesus.” She did what Jesus asked her to do. That was the only thing that mattered to her in life.
Same with Swamiji. “I am a disciple.” That is his entire self-definition and the guiding principle of his life.
So, it seems that Master has decided there is more for Swamiji to do in this world. Several people in India—from various levels of inspiration—have already declared that Swamiji’s life has been “extended” by Master for the sake of the work he can do here on this plane. Given the events of the last few weeks, this certainly seems to be the case.
That is the overall context of the end of our journey; now let me share with you some of the specifics.
The last week in Assisi, Swamiji unexpectedly started editing a small book of aphorisms. A very large distributor of books in Italy has taken on our account, even though we are much smaller than the companies they usual represent. It has been a great boon to our sales in that country. As part of the arrangement, they asked if we could give them a collection of “aphorisms” from Swamiji to be published as part of a series of small books they have, including a book of aphorisms by Master. Naturally we were happy to do it.
Jayadev, one of the devotees in Assisi, had the idea that a book of metaphors and similes would be interesting to read. He searched the electronic archive of Swami’s writings and transcribed talks (in English) for the word “like.” He came up with a delightful collection, from which he and Sahaja, his wife, selected a group to translate into Italian for the book of aphorisms.
In Italy they seem to like to create surprises, so they decided to present the published book to Swamiji as a “surprise” rather than involve him earlier. So by the time I heard about it, it was already translated and designed, and just about to be handed over for publication.
I was a little uneasy, but when Sahaja translated (verbally) a number of the sayings, they were charming and I didn’t want to interfere with their fun.
As it happened, however, God had other plans. Just an hour or so later, I was at Swamiji’s and he had just been shown a small book that was part of the “Secrets” series—a secret for everyday of the month. There are about a dozen of these and this one was about marriage.
However, Swamiji never wrote a “Secrets” book about marriage, yet somehow something had arrived in Italy years ago and had been translated into Italian and had been on sale for a while. The reason Swamiji heard about it was because it wasn’t selling well and they were letting it lapse.
Swamiji was not pleased that something had been published as his writing without him ever seeing it. It seemed like a good time for me to spoil the other “surprise” as well! Virtually at the same moment, Jayadev and Sahaja had come to the same conclusion and were e-mailing to Swamiji the English version of the sayings they had found.
Swamiji found the collection delightful, and for a few hours, that is where the question stayed.
“As long as I am alive,” Swamiji said unequivocally, “nothing should be published in my name without my seeing it first.”
Swamiji decided to spend the evening at home alone—he was finally well enough to do that and relished the idea. A few of us went off to Assisi to enjoy Italian pizza. About 10pm, the cell phone rang. It was Swamiji asking if I would like to stop by when I got home.
“It will be late,” I said. “No problem,” Swamiji replied.
When I came into his house somewhere close to 11pm, he was sitting in his comfortable armchair, with a small writing board on his lap and the manuscript of aphorisms in front of him. He was editing by hand, and he wanted me to enter his changes into the electronic version. This is something I did for him last summer when he was editing Whispers from Eternity, also by hand.
So I started that night, and from that Sunday night until late afternoon on Friday, when Swamiji wasn’t driving to Rome for the book launch ofReligion in the New Age, or doing media interviews related to that event, he was editing..... and I was typing. As I said, I had to get up early and work late. He edits faster than I can type!
Starting Sunday night, he worked for about 24 hours, hardly moving from that chair, sleeping only a few hours, to complete the first run-through of the book. He felt he needed to do it all at once, otherwise he might forget what he had said and repeat himself; also, he felt if he stopped it would be much more difficult to get into it again.
It took a great deal of work, but it flowed with tremendous inspiration. Swamiji said, “I put down a word without even knowing what the next word will be, but when it is needed it is there. I never had to stop and think or reason; it just came from inspiration.”
It was difficult to edit, though, because each one was a completely different thought, and flow of energy. You couldn’t get into a rhythm, he said, the way you can when writing a book, or even an essay. Each one is just a few sentences at most, and then you have to go into an entirely other vibration and concept. So it was very demanding.
But, thank God, his energy and health had returned and he just sailed through it.
We left for Rome on Tuesday morning, and by then I had completed and printed out for him a completely clean version of the book as it had been edited up to that point. Naively, I thought we were done!
I even gave it to Sahaja to start translating again.
As soon as he got to Rome, however, he began to go through the book again. I hastily called Sahaja and told her not to start yet. She assured me that she had been working for Swamiji a long time and had no intention of starting until at least a few more days had passed!
It took until late Friday afternoon. Swamiji thought it would be nice to have about 100 copies of what he thought would be a manuscript to share with people. There are 254 aphorisms and because they are all similes or metaphors they are extremely colorful, vivid, clear, and fun to read.
It turned out that our printer, who is in Rome, could turn it into a book as inexpensively as we could copy it as a manuscript. The cover was already designed because of the earlier Italian version, so at 5:15pm we e-mailed the text to Tejindra (our designer in Italy); he got it to the printer before their 6:00pm closing time; and at lunch the next day, friends brought into the restaurant where we were sitting with Swamiji a dozen copies of a finished book! Record time from completion to publication for sure! We just did 100, and Swamiji happily passed them out that weekend and for the week after back at Assisi.
Eventually it will come out again in a more extensive printing. Swamiji has made a few more changes (!) “When you see it as a book,” he said, “you always notice things that are not obvious when it is still a manuscript.”
It is for Swamiji book number 102. So we can say now he has written “over one hundred books.” Amazing, especially considering that he didn’t start writing at the age of one!
As for the rest of what happened in Rome, it was for Swamiji a time of meeting various friends and well-wishers in that city, and also having a few media interviews, plus the public events.
He stayed in a hotel a little outside of town. Rome hotels are extremely expensive and this is a nice one that comes in more reasonably. It is set in a neighborhood area, on a high hill with a view over the city. From many of the rooms you can see the dome of St. Peter’s.
Swamiji had a small suite—an area for his bed, and then a sitting area and desk with a few comfortable chairs where he could greet visitors. He settled himself near the window with his wooden lap desk on his knee, and worked on the aphorisms whenever he had a spare moment.
There was an adjoining room with glass-topped desk which Lila turned into a dining table. Having too many meals in restaurants was not a good idea for Swamiji, given his medical condition, so Lila (with Kirtani’s help) set up a small kitchen in one of their rooms with hot plate and some pans and a toaster. Then they went to the home of a devotee in Rome and cooked lunch and brought it in.
The computer and printer were also in the room where the meals were served. Swamiji also did interviews there, or in his sitting room next to the bedroom.
We were laughing about running from those hotel rooms a publicity center, publishing house, restaurant, and ashram. Fortunately, Swamiji was feeling much better, so we weren’t also running an infirmary.
His room was at the end of the hall. Most of us were staying right along the same corridor. We turned the deadbolts so that the doors remained unlocked and propped slightly open so we could easily go in and out of each other’s rooms. At times as we popped in and out of the various doors along that corridor it felt as if we were part of some movie we could vaguely remember but not quite name.
With Swamiji’s returning health and sense of beginning a new chapter in his life, as he called it, it was a very happy time to be together.
Swamiji went out to a major TV station the first day to make a short segment. There is a program called “Two Minutes about Books.” These are, well, two-minute segments that appear, I think, every day. It is a great accomplishment to be accepted for this program. It is well respected and national, and mostly only big publishing companies can get their authors onto it.
Nandini is the publicist for the Italian work. Her name has become a verb—“to nandini” means to accomplish something seemingly impossible in the realm of promotion or publicity. And, “a nandini,” as a noun, is anyone who has a remarkable talent for promotion. Admittedly, references to “a nandini” are usually wishful thinking: for example, it has often been said, by every colony leader and all the publishing companies, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had ‘a nandini’ in [fill in the blank] India, Palo Alto, Living Wisdom School, etc.”
So Swamiji had his two minutes in which he made it clear that Religion in the New Age, the book he spoke about, does not mean the Catholic Church—or any church for that matter—but is about the individual and God.
Just like last year, when he launched Revelations of Christ, Swamiji is not mincing words. The days of institutional definitions of religion are over. He is hoping, as I mentioned last year, to create a controversy in which the ideas in Revelations and also in Religion in the New Age will define the debate.
The essential core is: individual inspiration, guided by those of true spiritual realization. Not dogmas, not institutions, not priestly supervision, but Self-realization.
A TV crew came to Swamiji’s room, he had one or two phone interviews, plus visiting friends.
I was mostly in my room typing, but I heard from others that all went very well. Swamiji likes to see the pages completely free of changes, so each time he went through it—about three times in all, I believe—we printed it all out again so he could see clean pages and know then if any more work was needed. Fortunately, it isn’t a long book. Only, as I said 254 aphorisms, a total of just over 100 manuscript pages, with lots of white space around each one.
Friday it was done; we went out for a nice dinner to celebrate.
Then Saturday began the reason he came to Rome. Saturday night was the launch of Religion in the New Age, and on Sunday evening there was a performance—in Italian—of his play, The Peace Treaty.
Both events were held in the heart of old Rome at the Teatro Valle. This is one of the oldest theaters in Rome. It was build and began hosting performances in the mid-1700s, even before America was founded.
It was created before any kind of electronic microphones existed, so was designed to maximize the natural acoustics.
Swamiji was there the year before to launch Revelations, so many of you have seen pictures. [One from last year is shown here.]
It is small and tall, rather than broad, so that sound doesn’t have to carry far. It is oval shaped, with rising tiers of small rooms where the audience can sit and still have an excellent view of the stage. Each tier has lights along the edge, so there is a beautiful effect of intermittent lights rising in a circular pattern toward the ceiling.
Swamiji wanted some of his piano pieces played. Karen Gamow and David came to Italy for a couple of weeks so she was on hand to play. He was eager to have a real piano, not an electronic keyboard, so a baby grand was rented, and Karen had the joy of playing it for the event. It is very rare these days to hear (or to play) a “real” piano. Everything is electronic. Karen assures me there is no comparison in terms of how sensitively you can play.
There was about 30 minutes of choir music and instrumentals at the beginning of the program. Swamiji wanted it to start with devotion, since that is religion in the new age, he said. He asked for selections from the Oratorio, mostly, since they are among the deepest of his songs.
They were beautifully performed by the Assisi choir, directed by Kirtani. Swamiji sat on the stage, listening with the most blissful smile on his face. His face illustrated the music perfectly.
I have to say I can report very little of what Swamiji said in his talk afterwards. I don’t speak Italian at all, but I have heard enough over the years that I can understand him when he gives a public lecture, because I tend to know what he would say and can piece it together from the Italian that I do recognize. But I have to concentrate in order to do that.
I think because of all the work on the book, and who knows what other reasons, I kept forgetting to concentrate on the words.
Many times Swamiji has told us that when you teach, above all you should give people your vibrations. Sitting in the theater on Saturday was an interesting experience of the difference between words and vibrations.
I was totally engaged in his talk. I wasn’t at all bored or restless. I was listening to every word and receiving from him a great sense of communication and even of meaning, although it was nonverbal meaning, for every so often it occurred to me that I hadn’t understood any of the words. They were sound vibrations that came in to me on that level. This really helped me to understand how secondary the intellectual, verbal part of communicating can be, especially when what Swamiji conveys, above all, is a state of consciousness.
He was very energetic and actually stood for the entire talk! There was a chair right behind him, and most of the time in the last months or even years, after a few minutes on his feet he will gratefully accept the chair. This time he never did. He stood the whole near-hour while he talked, an mazing resurrection from the physical challenges he has faced since his birthday. AUM GURU.
Afterwards, we all went to a well-known restaurant not too far away. We had intended to move Swamiji in a taxi, but there was something else going on nearby and it was impossible to get a taxi. It was still out of the question for Swamiji to walk the distance—about 10-15 minutes—so we brought over a wheel chair. About a dozen of us happily walked while Swamiji rode in the chair. It was a very lively, warm Saturday night in Rome. We went through one of the most popular piazzas, right in front of the Pantheon. There was such an amazing, crowded mix of humanity. Tourists, locals, people in costumes, children—quite a divine show.
The dinner was long and crowded and noisy and yummy. Swamiji sat at a large circular table with many of the notable guests who had come for the event.
The next day was a performance of The Peace Treaty. It has been translated into Italian, and twice before, parts of it were performed at Ananda Assisi. This is an interesting joint venture between Ananda and four other communities in Italy.
There is a group called Damanhur with whom we have become friends. They have about 800 people involved in their community, living not all together, but in small group houses or group settings in various areas in Italy. They have a large community, which includes an extraordinary temple which is carved inside a stone mountain! Swamiji and a few others from Ananda were invited in for one of their ceremonies, even though they usually do not include anyone but their own community in such events.
This group focuses also on the arts, and includes a drama troupe. Many of the key people in that troupe had roles in the play—including Crystar and all of the other Lords.
A couple, members of Ananda who are professional actors, directed the play; the man also played the part of Sardoc. There were actors or actresses from the Sai Baba group, and also, I believe, from a Reiki community. Very interesting cooperative effort in itself, especially since the whole story of the play is about five clans on an island learning to work together.
The play, of course, is extremely timely, because it is also about the people rising up against wrong leadership and taking responsibility into their own hands. It is a fantasy, but the story is true and the lesson is obvious and much needed. It is Swamiji’s way of contributing to the general upliftment of the age.
Because so many of the people in the play were highly-experienced, even professional performers, it was a really good show.
The role of the young dancer was played by a professional ballerina. Because of her skill, the dance scenes were expanded and added immensely to the depth and beauty of the performance. In the plays, she is with the Emerald Clan and was, of course, all dressed in green. She seemed to have a particular gift for moving her hands and arms, and a way of bending her upper body like a willow tree moving in the wind. Exquisite.
They performed almost the whole play, cutting out about half an hour.
Because we have seen it performed quite a few times, even without knowing any Italian we were easily able to follow the story, and even laugh at the right places. Italian is a great language for performance. It is beautiful to listen to, and comes from the heart, so everyone did their parts with lots of feeling.
It was the first time the play has been performed outside of Ananda, and therefore the first time in a public theater. The “world premiere,” we were calling it. Teatro Valle is a very prestigious venue. Many people try to book that theater for their performances, but only a few are allowed to present there. So it was a great honor.
Swamiji was very pleased with the performance, and with the concept of a world premiere. A great night.
Dinner afterwards was in a restaurant just a block away. By this time, Swamiji was walking strongly on his own without a cane, and made his way right to the restaurant.
We had learned a bit from the night before, and Swamiji’s meal was served more quickly. All the actors and actresses were there and there was a great deal of thanking everyone and applauding the wonderful performances.
A very happy evening.
And..... David and I said good-bye to Swamiji. And early the next morning left Rome for London. David was able to make a direct connection home that Monday; I had 24 hours in London. I used it to meet with the devotees that evening for a satsang, then came home on my own the next day. And.... here we are.
blessings and joy, asha
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