Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pune to Kolkata

Dear Friends:

I am almost in the exact middle of my time in India. I left California January 13 and arrive back March 12.

Tonight my talk (I am in Kolkata) is on Spiritualizing Relationships. Apparently it was a happy accident that it is scheduled for Valentine’s Day. This is a new holiday for India, coming in, like so many other aspects of modern India, through international corporations: in this case, Hallmark Cards. Or at least that is what an Indian friend told me, describing how, out of nowhere, her mother suddenly expected her father to remember the day with flowers, when he didn’t even know Valentine’s Day existed!

A characteristic feature of Dwapara Yuga is one-world culture. Maybe not all aspects of that one-culture are equally desirable in this transition from Kali into Dwapara, but the global channels are opening and as the consciousness improves, the conduit for a global culture is in place. That’s how I make good news out of what otherwise could be seen as a depressing spread of the worst of the West into the East...!

Last letter was written from Pune. Now I’ve been a week in Calcutta. Let me backtrack a little first.

After a very successful gathering of all Ananda leaders in India, Jyotish, Devi, and a little later Tushti and Surendra all came to Pune. (Their visas worked out easily. Apparently there is a new system, much more workable. Good news!)

The work in India is suddenly expanding in all directions, with a new center in Bangalore, led by Haridas and Roma, and soon Dharmaraj and Dharmini will come to start a center in Chennai. Jyotish and Devi will be spending more time in India, Jaya will be dividing his time between California and India, Tushti and Surendra are leading the Pune Community -- time to get organized on a bigger scale, to set priorities, manage expansion, work appropriately with personnel. Which was all the subject of very creative meetings in Gurgaon.

When Swamiji came to India in 2003 he quietly stated that the Indians would embrace Master’s teachings with such enthusiasm that eventually Ananda’s work here would “dwarf,” by comparison, everything else we are doing. You can see the seeds are planted and the green shoots are sprouting everywhere.

Swamiji decided to carry on this multi-city tour, and even though he may visit one or two cities when he is here next fall and winter, his body simply isn’t up to this kind of traveling for much longer. With his divine consciousness he has “registered his words in the ether,” now it is up to others to cultivate what he has planted. And the team here is working beautifully to do just that.

The ideal way from now forward for Swamiji to serve is through television. Programs that are already recorded, or perhaps new ones that he can make more easily than he can travel from city to city, will soon be appearing on national stations. When he first came to India that is what largely put his name and Ananda’s work into the public consciousness. Eventually, though, the expense of the television program was more than Ananda could cover, given the cost of starting the community in Pune.

Now it seems, that the television shows can be started up again. Without leaving “home,” wherever home happens to be at the time, Swamiji can broadcast Master’s message everywhere in India, every day. Definitely the way to proceed.

As all of you know, Ananda is developing also now another way of sharing Master’s teachings: movies. Finding Happiness will be finished in another month or two and have its formal public release next September. Before that, there will be an Ananda release in various places, including the big event in July at the Village.

The second movie, The Answer, based on The New Path, has been getting underway even as Finding Happiness was getting finished.

Vivek and Cecilia Sharma, who live now in Gurgaon, and Nandini in Italy, have been spearheading the project, working on every aspect of the movie with great dedication for many, many months now.

Kaveeta Kaul is the producer and the director is Pavan Kaul. They are both devotees of Master and have been in the movie business here in India for many decades and bring all their experience, talent, and devotion to this project.

The plot is as follows: a young Indian man is searching for truth. He has read the Autobiography of a Yogi in his teens and felt great love and devotion for Master and for many years kept that book with him as a constant source of inspiration. But his Westernized education, through the college years especially, gradually drew him into another vibration, and the Autobiography was placed on a shelf and rarely opened.

That way of living and thinking, however, became increasingly unsatisfying, and one day in Kolkata the man -- called “Gopal” in the movie -- sees a poster for a talk by Swami Kriyananda. As it happens, the very program Swamiji gave a few days ago.

Suddenly remembering his early devotion to Master, Gopal has a resurgence of hope that there is, in fact, an answer to his seeking. In the film, he goes to Master’s house at 4 Garpar Road to renew his devotion to Yogananda then comes to hear Swamiji speak.

Filming for this movie began a week ago. Because I thought it would be great fun to see how things are done in India, I got myself invited to come along for the first days of filming.

Gopal is played by Shurjo Jha, a longtime resident of Ananda Pune, now married to Narayani. His own story doesn’t quite parallel that of Gopal, but it is close enough for Shurjo to be a natural in the role.

Bryan McSweeney is doing the behind the scenes filming, the way Dave Bingham did for Finding Happiness, so the three of us took an early flight from Pune to Kolkata last Thursday. Cecilia, Vivek, Kaveeta, and Pavan also came to Kolkata and all of us met that evening at 4 Garpar Road to talk to Sarita and Somnath Ghosh, to look at the house and to make plans for the filming the next day. Nandini had hoped also to come to India, but her schedule wouldn’t allow it.

It has been many years since I have been to that house. As always, the vibrations of Master permeate every inch, and go right into your heart and soul. Very moving to be there, and especially so under these circumstances -- working on something that will bring Master’s message in such a creative and dynamic way to the whole world.

The next day at noon, as per our arrangement with the Ghosh family, we met again at the house. First Pavan filmed Shurjo arriving at the outside of the house, looking at the building, the address, the plaque on the doorway saying that this is the house where Paramhansa Yogananda lived.

Shurjo conveyed the spirit of a seeker perfectly, even without words. His face, his body language, even his walk, were just what it should be to give the viewer a sense of what was going on inside him.

Pavan has a very sophisticated video camera that looks more like a large still camera, but has a special lens, and a great capacity to draw in ambient light, so he filmed without any special set-up, but just as Shurjo walked down the street, Pavan and his colleague, each with their own small camera, took the footage. Because of the nature of the scenes, this was the ideal way to do it. They were filming life as it happened with Shurjo in the middle. Any kind of complicated set-up, or even a larger camera would have been impossible in the situation.

For later scenes, larger cameras and more deliberate lighting will be appropriate. This film, like Finding Happiness, is being done with state of the art equipment in the way any fine film would be.

Actually, Bryan was the one explaining to me about the camera Pavan was using, telling me what an innovation it has been for filmmakers to be able to make top quality films with something that you can hold so easily in your hand. Envy is not a spiritual quality, so let us say simply that Bryan deeply admired Pavan’s camera.

I watched both the viewfinder and the small video screen wired into the camera and the scenes were beautifully framed and naturally lit and very touching. You could feel from the first shot the presence of Master in the whole project.

Quite amazing.

Inside, Shurjo was filmed going up the two flights of steep stairs, the very same stairs Master and his siblings undoubtedly ran up and down countless times a day. Just climbing those stairs for anyone sensitive to Master’s vibration is a devotional experience. Shurjo/Gopal carried it off beautifully, and the shifting light from the various windows made great footage.

In front of the small attic room where Master found God, as he describes in Autobiography of a Yogi, again Shurjo/Gopal expressed (all of this part of the film is without words) the intensity of feeling of Master’s vibration there.

Before the indoor filming started, we had a ceremony in the small attic room. All of us crowded in together, including Bryan who, with his camera was filming the filming, and we took the official “first frame” of the movie at the auspicious moment.

Swamiji had written a beautiful prayer for the occasion, asking God and Gurus to bless the project, and to make all those involved instruments of his light and joy. We had the “clicker,” the board on which the scene is written marked with the Hindi word (which, alas, I have forgotten!) which means the auspicious beginning. We chanted a few songs, clicked that board, then took the appropriate film to officially launch The Answer.

Then we went downstairs into the courtyard and broke a coconut. This is always done at the start of a project. The hard brown shell of a coconut is not that easy to crack. Breaking it open symbolizes the ability to overcome all obstacles. Shujo did the honors and since it is best to break it cleanly and well on the first try, he threw it to the ground with sufficient force, to splatter himself with coconut milk, and shatter it into lots of pieces. Obstacles beware! No chance to derail this project.

Then we ate coconut and sweets and The Answer was officially launched. A much nicer tradition than breaking a bottle of champagne, for example, on the bow of a ship!

Filming at 4 Garpar Road only took a couple of hours. The rest of the day the crew, with me as a tag-a-long, went to various iconic locations within Kolkata just to give some local color and a sense of Gopal’s search.

He and the two cameramen, for example, stood under a large statue in the center island of a five street convergence somewhere in the heart of bustling Kolkata. Over and over Shurjo/Gopal crossed and re-crossed the street, stood near tram-tracks and watched the cars go by.

Bryan and I stood on the sidewalk, he filming, me just taking in the unique reality of Kolkata. There is nothing else like it for sheer variety! Later, after dark, similar scenes were filmed in another part of town. These will only be briefly shown, but will add a great deal to the feeling of the movie.

The next day, Shurjo/Gopal was filmed on a boat going under a bridge, and shots were taken from the top of a high building, and they also filmed in a district where statues of Divine Mother are carved and painted.

On the day of Swamiji’s talk (more about that later), they hired two other cameramen and also a sound recorder to film the event. In the movie, Gopal goes to see Swamiji and that is the pivotal moment in his life. Shurjo/Gopal was sitting in the audience and his reactions to Swamiji’s talk were filmed, plus the talk itself both recorded and filmed.

Swamiji always leaves quickly after a talk. Otherwise the devotees present surround him, as I explained in my last letter, and it is impossible for him to leave for a very long time. On this occasion, too, as soon as he finished speaking he left the hall, and someone stood up to make announcements, including me, to hold the audience in the hall for a few moments longer while Swamiji left.

On this occasion, it was also important because Shurjo and the whole film crew had slipped out quickly into the lobby to film an important scene for the movie.

After the talk, Shurjo/Gopal chases after Swamiji and calls out to him, “I must talk to you!” Swamiji answers, it is not possible now, perhaps later.” Or words to that effect.

I didn’t witness the filming because I was part of the inside the hall announcements, but Jyotish and Devi were there and said it was very convincing. For a moment everyone forgot it was a film and Swamiji was just responding to a devotee obviously in great need of his counsel.

The next stage of filming was that meeting between Gopal and Swamiji, which takes place inside the hotel where Swamiji is staying. It wasn’t possible to shoot it in Kolkata for logistical reasons, so arrangements were made to do it in a hotel in Mumbai.

In those scenes, Gopal expresses to Swamiji his longing for God, his experience with Master through the Autobiography of a Yogi, the unsettling effect of his Western education and all that he feels he has lost in recent years of devotion and happiness.

As the answer (in The Answer), Swamiji tells the story of his own search and its fulfillment in meeting Master. The film follows The New Path.

So it is all flashback about Swamiji’s early years, meeting Master, and then many, many stories about Master himself. Every so often in the story line, it comes back to the hotel room and Gopal receiving from Swamiji the answer he is seeking.

In Mumbai, the day they were supposed to start filming, Swamiji woke up feeling quite unwell. A call for prayers went out around the world, and within a few hours he was suddenly quite well enough to film and apparently the scenes went very well.

I have to offer this only as a “so I have been told,” because my program of classes here in Kolkata prevented my going to Mumbai.

I am sure, given when I have seen of Pavan and Shurjo, and, of course, what we know of Swamiji’s extraordinary ability to convey the spirit of Master, that these scenes will be wonderful.

Two other extraordinarily important things happened for the success of The Answer on the Friday and Saturday before Swamiji’s Sunday talk.

Much of this movie, unlike Finding Happiness, is going to be done by actors. Shurjo is Gopal the seeker, Swamiji plays himself, and so does Narayani, but the flashbacks are of Swamiji at several different ages before he met Master, plus his years with Master. And Master himself has to be played by an actor. So much of the success of this movie depends on who plays those roles.

We have actors within Ananda who may well take the part of Swamiji. But for Master, we need an Indian actor.

Kaveeta decided to offer the role of Master to a well known Bengal actor named Victor Banerjee. He was born in 1946 (making him just a few years older than Master was at the time depicted in this movie) and has had a long and illustrious career internationally. In America, he is best known for the lead role he played, Dr. Aziz, in Passage to India. He is known for the depth and sensitivity of his acting. It was aiming high, but Kaveeta felt inwardly guided and her intuition proved true.

Victor responded immediately to her e-mail. The first meeting went very well and the next day he came to meet Swamiji. Victor travels a great deal -- in the previous 15 days he had been in five cities, but exactly the days that Swamiji was in Kolkata, so was Victor. Swamiji liked him immediately and the decision was made.

Having an actor as well known as he is, of his professional stature, is a huge plus for the film. It suddenly moves it from an unknown production, into one everyone will be interested in.

Plus, Victor Banerjee has the proven ability to enter into a character and simply become the one he is portraying. Swamiji spoke of needing to guide him in how Master was. Victor, respectfully, but with the confidence of a true artist, said to Swamiji that he didn’t think guidance would be needed, if Victor does his job as he has always done it in the past. At a certain point, Victor explained, the character is alive within him, and everything that comes out is manifested from that living character and is naturally just as it should be.

In this case, of course, Master is truly a living character, and his consciousness can and will inhabit Victor for the filming. As well as being a fine actor, Victor is a very nice man, humble, kind. It looks like a match made in heaven.

The only remaining obstacle has been the financing of the film. Even “low budget,” as we know from Finding Happiness, is a substantial sum. And various creative, energetic people have, for many months, been putting their minds to the question of financing the movie.

That question, too, was put to rest on Saturday, when a financial angel agreed to pay for the whole production! It was quite a weekend for The Answer! First, a well-known, highly respected actor to play Master. Then all the funds needed to make the movie.

In the Agastya reading that Swamiji had within the last year or so, that sage said that, whereas in the past, there were many obstacles to be overcome before Swamiji could achieve his goals, now those obstacles have been dissolved and everything will flow with great ease. Certainly this film has suddenly been launched with a power and speed that is not usual for Ananda, but perhaps will be the new norm. Let us pray with all our hearts that this is true. There is so much creative work for Ananda to do for Master all over the world. May all doors be opened everywhere.

Perhaps Shurjo should come to each of our communities and break coconuts!

So that is all the news that I know about The Answer. Perhaps others who have been eyewitnesses to the parts I’ve missed can fill in more details. What joy.

As for Swamiji’s weekend programs, on Saturday afternoon he gave an invitation-only satsang for about 100 people. It was for those who are part of the center here. It is a small group, but very devotional. Many people came from the Pune community, Dhyana came from Gurgaon, so it was a full room.

It is such an extraordinary moment for the devotees to meet Swamiji, especially in such an intimate setting, where they can touch his feet, receive his blessings, and make their offerings of sweets, and food, and flowers. For about 15 minutes, that is all that happened, one after another, devotees were introduced to Swamiji by Jemal, who has been the one setting up Swamiji’s program here, with help from Katyayani and others, and also Jemal has been teaching in Kolkata from time to time over the years, with help from the other monks.

One by one those who have been supporting Ananda’s work, and themselves growing deeper in it, were able to meet Swamiji in person. All of Master’s family was there also, both from 4 Garpar Road and also from Serampore. Hassi Mukerjee also came. Her health is not up to par, so it was a great effort, very touching to see her there.

Then Swamiji answered questions for a time. It was a deep, and heartfelt sharing among Master’s children.

The next day, Swamiji went in the morning to 4 Garpar Road. He took just a few people with him, so I heard about the visit from those who were there. Access to the house is up two flights of steep concrete stairs and it was hard to imagine how Swamiji could make it up those stairs. In fact, he had to be supported by Shurjo and Jyotish even to reach the main floor of the house.

All the family was there again, and they served Swamiji lunch and honored him as Master’s representative. The disciple has become the Guru incarnate.

Later that afternoon was the large public program. The idea of coming to Calcutta was a late addition to Swamiji’s program, so the largest hall they could find only seated 300. As it happens, it was just the right size. Virtually every seat was filled, but no one was turned away.

Swamiji began the program by singing a Bengali song, “Will that Day O Come to Me Ma,” which he used to sing often when he lived in India so many years ago. His eyes were closed and a lifetime of devotion was in his voice. It was moment in eternity.

Later, many of the Bengalis said his pronunciation was perfect. They, and all of us, were deeply moved. It was the ideal beginning for what was one of the deepest, most devotional talks about Master I’ve ever heard Swamiji give.

Swamiji has often spoken of his love for the Bengali language, calling it the “sweetest language in the world,” and seeing it as a reflection of the deeply devotional nature of the Bengali people. And, of course, this is the place where Master lived. It all came to a focus in Swamiji’s sharing with us.

The subject of the talk was Master himself, what he was like, his greatness as a spiritual being, his personality, the way he presented himself to the world, his consciousness, his mission. Through Swamiji we were there with Master, seeing him through Swamiji’s eyes, loving him with the lifetime of devotion Swamiji has given to his Guru.

Victor Banerjee was there with his wife, right in the front row, directly in front of Swamiji. The entire talk was a description of how to bring the character alive within himself, when the time comes to be Master for The Answer.

The audience seemed deeply moved, and if Swamiji had not taken a quick route out of the auditorium, perhaps he would be standing there still!

Again I was invited to speak for a few moments and told people about the upcoming classes -- a program every afternoon at 5:30 pm, based on the subjects of the Wisdom of Yogananda series, plus a longer program on Saturday and a question and answer session Sunday afternoon.

It turns out to be a very nice way to do, each program is only an hour and a half but as the days have gone by we have built understanding and magnetism that will make it, by the end, a somewhat in-depth teaching of many aspects of the path.

The group is wonderful -- ranging from 25-40 people. Very fine souls. Some are just starting, others already Kriyabans. What beautiful children Master has all through the world.

To make the week more fun for everyone, it was also arranged for people to visit various of the holy places in and near Kolkata, coming back in the afternoon for the classes. I thought I might go around with them, but it proved impractical for me to be in a bus or taxi all day and then try to have focused energy at the end of that.

But that inspiration for everyone else has certainly added depth and richness to it all.

I am right in the middle of these programs, 4th class is tonight. So perhaps in my next letter I can say more about being here.

Blessings and love in Master,


  1. Dearest Ashaji, as usual, I am moved to tears as I read this incapsulation of what is taking place there! My heart is filled with love and great joy for you and all that you continue to do for Swamiji and Masters Work! Bless you dear one! Love, Brindey

  2. Incredibly inspirational! Divine energy is clearly manifest through these words, describing these many actions, these many endeavors, small and large. Thank you. Many Blessings. In Master's Love,


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