Thursday, January 12, 2012

India Book Launch and Vivekananda's Rock

Dear Everyone:

We landed at the Mumbai airport just before the book launch event was scheduled to begin. We thought we might make it in time at least for the end of the program, but nearly 45 minutes later, still waiting for our bags, it was obvious there was no chance.

So we were sitting in the lobby of the Oberoi hotel, just checking into our rooms, when the door of the elevator opened just a few feet away from us, and out came Swamiji, with Jyotish on one side, Narayani on the other, and Lila, Devi, and Miriam following behind.

They were just returning from what turned out to be a hugely successful launch of the new biography of Master, just published in India. The hall was filled to capacity -- 1200 people -- with another 400 watching from the foyer on video screens.

When they entered the hotel lobby we didn’t know any of these facts. All we saw was Swamiji’s blue eyes radiating so much bliss that it was impossible to focus on any other reality. At the event, Swamiji spoke for more than an hour, responding, it seems, to the warmth and receptivity of the audience.

The program is posted online so you can see it there for yourselves.

Soon after we were able to sit at dinner with Swamiji, Jyotish, Devi, Narayani, and Sri Karthikeyan, our long-time friend in India who introduced Swamiji at the program. Many of you know Karthikeyan from his visits to Ananda during Spiritual Renewal Week. He is a national figure in India, the former head of the equivalent of their FBI. Now he devotes himself to working for religious unity and political peace. He is a kind and noble man, an ideal expression of the finest characteristic of the Indian people.

It was a joy to see the sweet and respectful friendship between Swamiji and Mr. Karthikeyan as they discussed Ananda, its work in India, the excellence of the program just completed, and generally the future of India and the world.

When we arrived in Mumbai our plan was to see Swamiji that evening, then leave for Goa the next day at noon. Swamiji, with three others, was going first to a place called Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India, then coming to Goa afterwards.

His journey was a pilgrimage to a place just off shore, a granite island, really a huge, steep sided rock about the size of a football field, known as “Vivekananda’s Rock.” On that small island there was an ancient temple to the goddess Parvati and a more recently constructed temple (1970), dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda, who died in 1904 (or thereabouts) at the age of 39, was the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a spiritual master who lived in the Kali Temple near Calcutta in Dakineshwar in the mid-1800s.

There is a close connection between Master and Sri Ramakrishna. Master Mahasaya, described with such reverence by Master in his own Autobiography, was a disciple of Ramakrishna. He is also known as “M,” the author of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, a compilation of the extensive and detailed notes he took of every meeting with his master. The chapter in the Autobiography, called “The Heart of a Stone Image,” is about the statue of Mother Kali at the temple at Dakineshwar where Ramakrishna lived.

Vivekenanda fulfilled for his guru the same role Swamiji has played for Master: the one who carried the teachings of the guru to the world.

Vivekananda was a young man when Ramakrishna died. Soon after, he set out alone to walk the length of India as a wandering sadhu. When he reached the southern tip, Kanyakumari, he saw, just a few meters beyond, the granite rock that now bears his name.

Here three oceans collide: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. The waters are turbulent and apparently no boatman was willing to take Vivekananda across, so he swam to the rock. For three days he meditated there until he received what became the guiding vision of his life, to revitalize India and carry his master’s teachings to the world.

This was at the end of 1892, they believe Christmas Day. The next year, which also happens to be the year of Master’s birth, 1893, Vivekananda came as a delegate to a Congress of All Religions in Chicago, bearing his master’s message of the unity of all religions.

Because Vivekananda’s writings were my introduction to Self-realization teachings, I have long known this story and have wanted to see this rock for myself since the age of 19. But in all our trips to India we never came close to this point.

In April 2010, Swamiji received a reading from the ancient sage Agastya, through the modern day pundits who are the custodians of Agastya’s writings. It is believe that these writings are from Treta Yuga, a higher age when the obstacle of time is dissolved. Agastya readings are similar to the Brighu readings, another sage probably from that time, being about the past, present, and future of many individuals living now, including details that made it unmistakable that the sages were able to accurately see future events.

The Agastya reading for Swamiji was exceedingly positive, promising success of every kind -- spiritual as well as with his work in the world. The reading drew a close parallel between Vivekananda and Swamiji, and the pundits urged Swamiji to make a pilgrimage to Vivekananda’s Rock, saying it would bring great benefit to his life and work.

Gradually Swamiji came to feel that he should heed this advice from Agastya, and thus planned this trip to Kanyakumari, planning to take just Narayani, Miriam, and Dharmadas with him, thinking a smaller group would be more convenient and less distracting to the inward purpose of the journey.

However, on the way to the breakfast table on Monday morning, just an hour or so before he was to leave for his flight, Swamiji suggested that Jyotish, Devi, Nirmala, David and I should come along. So over breakfast, fights were cancelled, new flights booked, hotels reserved, and other reservations changed.

Soon we were all set for a flight leaving just a few hours after Swamiji.

Kanyakumari is too small to have an airport, so we had to fly in and stay the night at a place three hours away and then drive the next day to the hotel where we would stay the night, not far from the ferry that would take us to Vivekananda’s Rock.

All the plans were made so quickly that when the taxi driver taking David and me to the airport said, “What airline?” we had to stop the car and ask others, “What city are we going to?” We didn’t even know. Trivundrem it turned out to be.

The next morning we drove the 80 kilometers -- three hours of driving -- to Kanyakumari, had lunch at our hotel, then immediately drove to the ferry. It was “high season” for pilgrimage to that spot and we had been told the line just for tickets was an hour wait. To our surprise, we were able to go right to the window.

Getting that far, however, was not an easy journey for Swamiji. Compared to the crisis he recently endured, his health is much better. But at the age of nearly 86, travel of any kind, especially in India, is not easy for him.

The weather was hot, the day sunny, with the light reflecting off the waters around us. The breeze was strong, and the way quite crowded with other pilgrims, many talking noisily and quite outward in their enthusiasm. In any crowd, our group would have stood out. Narayani, as a brahmacharini, was dressed in bright yellow, all the rest of us in blue.

Swamiji chose to walk as much as he could, but when the way was too steep, we had brought a wheelchair from the hotel for him. He cannot walk without assistance, so with a friend on either side, and one nearby pushing the empty wheelchair, our whole group, as you can well imagine, was a circling field of energy with him at the center.

All of us being old friends, we intuitively worked together to move ourselves and him safely from the car, down the long hill to the ferry dock, through the crowds onto the boat, then off onto the stone pathways of Vivekananda’s Rock.

Not surprisingly, the Indians were respectful of Swamiji, for many reasons including the fact that, although not strong physically, he was determined to visit this holy place. So no one objected when, as necessary we ignored or removed “Do not enter” signs when we needed to take a shorter, ramp route to our goal.

On the rock there is also a small ancient temple to Parvati where we stopped first, meditating for just a few moments, then circumambulating the inner shrine where a mark in the stone is said to be Parvati’s footprint.

We had been told that on the lower level of the temple to Vivekananda there was a meditation room. So we scouted it out ahead of time then took Swamiji there. For about 10 minutes we meditated together. I think most of us spent our meditation praying for Swamiji, that Master bless him, that whatever promise Agastya saw for him in this pilgrimage be fulfilled.

Swamiji has given so much to us and to so many in his lifetime. It was an honor and a joy to be able to help him in any way, even something so small as doing what we could to ease the physical challenge of visiting this rather rugged and remote spot.

Fortunately, much of the rock and some of the temple was accessible by ramp. But to reach the main room at the top of the rock, the only way was up a long flight of steep stairs. Swamiji was determined to do all that could be done at this place, so, with assistance from others, and several stops to recover his breath and strength, he went up the stairs and into the temple proper.

It was made of rock and marble, no chairs, but if it had been set up it probably would have held about 100 people. There were two smaller shrines in the back of the room -- to Ramakrishna and his wife Sarada Devi -- and a larger than life-sized statue of Vivekananda in the front. Black marble pillars supported a very high ceiling.

The guard gave Swamiji the use of his wooden stool, and for a few minutes he sat leaning against a pillar.

Then we were done. Going down the stairs was difficult, but not nearly so hard as coming up. No one in the long line of pilgrims waiting to join the ferry objected when we took Swamiji to the front of the line and boarded the ferry. Then it was back up the long steep hill to the cars. Swamiji made no attempt to walk this part, but allowed us to move him in the wheelchair, several working together because it was so steep.

We drove a short distance then stopped for tea. There had been little conversation since we started. Our concentration had been on helping Swamiji complete this pilgrimage. It wasn’t only the physical challenges. There had also been a feeling that we needed to focus our energy to cut through a kind of swirling chaos all around us. It would be obvious to say the chaos was generated by the many rajasic people making the same journey we were on but it also seemed to emanate also from a more subtle level.

It was as if we were, for a time, passing through some slightly altered dimension.

Tapasya is often a part of pilgrimage. Tapasya is austerity willingly undertaken to achieve some divine goal, and certainly for Swamiji this was a great effort. Now he and we were all spent and gratefully collapsed around the restaurant table, glad to be in the air-conditioned room out of the wind and hot sun.

Swamiji spoke two words, “Masala chai.” There was some discussion about whether these two words might be the last words spoken by this great soul. Fortunately, the universe responded quickly. Tea and “nimbu pani” (water with lime juice) soon revived Swamiji and us all.

That night and the next morning a sense of blessing grew, which Swamiji also referred to at breakfast the next morning.

It is not often one can go on pilgrimage with Swamiji, so we counted ourselves deeply fortunate to have come with him. And, as it turned out, it would have been exceedingly difficult for the small group original planned to have managed alone.

Swamiji had no interest in repeating the bumpy car ride, so he got a first-class train ticket back to Trivendrum, the only such ticket available we were told . Three others bought tickets in other classes but as it turned, regardless of their tickets, all four traveled in first class seats -- actually full-length bunks -- while others of us went by car.

One night again in Trivendrum , and now we are on the plane for Mumbai to make a connection to Goa. Unfortunately you can’t fly directly from Trivendrum to Goa so this will be ¾ of a day spent in traveling.

David and I had imagined that we would have three quiet days in Goa on our own before Swamiji arrived, but that plan was scrapped for this wonderful adventure.

Blessings to all...



  1. What a fabulous journey! Blessings to all.

  2. Sri Ashaji, thank you for sharing your blessed pilgrimage with us! You make it possible for our hearts to have traveled there as well! Blessings, Brindey

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