Asha Praver

Letters from Asha

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pune, Bangalore, and Thiruvannamalai

Dear Friends:

My last letter ended when I had to dash off for the first of three classes of a weekend retreat at the Pune Community: Finding Happiness. Aptly titled to ride on the wave of the movie, which we had recently screened in nearby Mumbai, as well as a number of other Indian cities.

All those screenings, by the way, have gone splendidly, with stellar reviews from a wide variety of people -- business, filmmaking, education, social work, politics, law. Everyone seems to like the movie.

Theater release has been arranged for mid-April in 12 cities.

As you know, Elisabeth Rohm is enjoying a great boon in her career because of her part in the award-winning movie American Hustle. Many opportunities are coming to her and as a result it is not good timing for her to come to India for a “premier,” which was an option Shivani had been exploring.

In India, a premier is primarily a media event, with lots of opportunities for interviews and publicity. Since the movie star in our film is unable to come to India, we’ve hit upon a spectacular life-imitates-art solution, and are bringing two Indian journalists to America to visit Ananda Village, to recreate -- to a certain extent -- the plot of the movie itself. Elisabeth wasn’t able to come all the way to India, but is able to take the weekend at the Village. The resulting publicity for the movie opening in India, and perhaps even in the U.S., we hope will be notable.

The journalists will also be passing through Palo Alto (for about 24 hours) to get an impression of an urban center as well. Great fun.

The weekend at the Pune community went extremely well. We had about 30 visitors, including quite a few from Mumbai, including our Public Relations agent and two representatives of the media, all working to line up publicity to break in early April in time for the theater opening. As you can imagine, a great deal of energy is going into that event, and it looks extremely promising. The movie will play in theaters for at least a week, more if attendance warrants it.

Our Pune community is still “coming up” as they say in India, but even with some of the buildings still under construction, and the construction barely begun for the temple, there is a profound and beautiful spiritual atmosphere that all our visitors felt immediately. Especially when you contrast that rural setting with the hectic life in the cities where most of the visitors come from!

There were about the same number of residents and long-term guests (who have become members of the family) as there were weekend visitors. The spirit of Ananda shines through the eyes and hearts of Master’s children and touches all who come into that magic aura.

The temple we are using until the final one is constructed has net walls, a tin roof, and a strong tree branch holding up the center point of the ceiling. In these simple surroundings, the altar shines as always, with big pictures of the masters, and beautiful garlands. It is heaven on earth.

The Pune community at its present stage of development is so like the early years of Ananda Village it is a special joy for me to stay there.

I had been a little concerned about coming to the place where I last saw Swamiji in the body. When I went to Assisi after his passing, I was relatively calm until I went to his house. As some of you may remember, I wrote at the time that his house is where I always saw Swamiji in Assisi and I think some part of me expected to see him there. When I finally did go and found only a shrine in his bedroom, marking the place where he breathed his last, it was the moment when my emotions overtook my philosophical calm and for a time nothing could stop my tears.

I saw Swamiji as he was driving out of the Pune community last March (I believe it was the 11th) and my last personal interaction was taking leave of him in the living room of his house. He always sat in one particular chair and I can see him smiling his good-bye as I walked out the door, not knowing what was soon to come.

So it was with some small trepidation that I returned to this community.

Fortunately, my concern was unfounded. His presence is so strong there was no sense of loss.

Swamiji gave the house to Narayani and Shurjo. His dining table is in one corner of the large living room, and she keeps his place set. Most days he would have coffee after lunch in one of a brightly colored set of espresso cups that he particularly liked. Narayani says each day he would select from the several choices the color he wanted to drink from. Now she has one of those cups at his place and every day or two tunes into what color he would prefer.

In the chair where he always sat, some of his things are laid out. Devotees coming to visit Pune can come to the living room, sit at the dining table, meditate and feel his presence. Often on his chair one finds flowers or cards placed there by visitors.

Off the living room, is the bedroom, and after the bedroom, a small office. That room has an outside entrance, which opens onto a patio where Swamiji usually had tea. Compared to the other rooms, the office is rather small. Just a desk, chair, and armchair where Swamiji could sit and read over what he had just written.

I felt Swamiji’s spirit everywhere in the house, but most particularly in that office. In fact, it was so strong it startled me every time I came in or out. So much brilliant, divinely inspired creative work happened there. The vibrations remain.

Whenever I was with Swamiji, his presence would entirely dominate my consciousness. Those of you who live in Palo Alto may remember my asking all of you to bear with me during his visits because I would be unable to respond even to the simplest requests. It wasn’t just a matter of looking after him and his staff. I found myself unable to put my mind on anything else. I was always grateful for your understanding and support.

When we would visit Swamiji in other communities it was the same. I had no responsibilities for his care, but still my thoughts were absorbed in him. Even if I had hours free every day, it was difficult to give my energy to anything or anyone else.

I remember when we flew to Rome immediately after Swamiji’s passing. People were coming from America on many different flights and converging on that city over a period of 3-4 hours.

Our custom when going to Assisi was to leave the airport as quickly as possible to reach Swamiji with a minimum of delay. It was poignant last April to realize there was no need to rush. As I wrote at the time, we sat for several hours at a coffee shop in the airport as flights landed and our table expanded to include the new arrivals.

In Pune community this time, I suddenly found myself free to relate to the people there. I ended up giving quite a few satsangs. The weekend, of course, several programs for the community, two at our Pune city center, and two workshops at a company in town where one of our devotees works.

When I wasn’t sharing with a group, I was spending time with individuals. All my time, in fact, was with people. By the end of the 10 days we spent there, I was so much a part of the community it was hard to leave. Such is the power of our divine connection with one another.

From the Pune community we flew to Bangalore. Shivani’s husband Arjuna has been in India for the last month, bringing a pilgrimage group from Europe and then staying on to spend time with Shivani.

The four of us -- Shivani, Arjuna, Asha, and Bryan -- shared a 3-bedroom apartment a guest unit in the complex of apartments where one of our devotees lives.

The showing of Finding Happiness on Saturday night had been long-planned. At the last minute, another showing was arranged for Sunday morning at a University some distance from the city. This is a “yoga university,” based on the teachings of Vivekananda. It turned out to be the largest showing yet -- some 300 students and faculty. This is an innovative university, with a huge medical facility, teaching and offering treatments in many natural methods of health care, all based on the principles of yoga.

I wasn’t able to go since our Finding Happiness workshop was scheduled already at the center for the same time. Shivani, Haridas, and one of the local devotees went and had a stellar time. The equipment at the university includes machinery with the ability to measure subtle energy in the body and they greatly enjoyed testing some of it.

Shivani is hoping to set up with them some scientific way of measuring the effect of the Energization Exercises. Haridas and Roma -- the Bangalore Center leaders -- are going to follow through and be the guinea pigs. Shivani said she has been hoping for the last 20 years that equipment would become available subtle enough to measure this energy. Seems like the time is now.

The Bangalore Ananda Center is the living room of a two bedroom flat where Haridas and Roma live. The altar is particularly beautiful. Whenever there is an event in any of our India centers, fresh flower garlands are lovingly placed on every picture of every Master. In India, the providing of garlands for home and temple decoration is a huge, daily business.

For the Finding Happiness seminar, the garlands were of red roses and red carnations. I’ve seen many beautiful altars, but there was something uniquely entrancing about those red flowers. Certainly set the mood for a most enjoyable program.

Because people work long hours, and traffic in all Indian cities can be horrendous, weekday programs are uncertain at best. So my efforts are mostly concentrated on the weekends.

Since the next stop is Calcutta (Kolkata as it is now called, but I have trouble remembering that!), we found ourselves with a few days free.

Bryan went down to Puri, to the Mahasamadhi Mandir of Sri Yukteswar. In all his time in India he had never visited that particular shrine. Since it is my favorite, I was delighted that he would have the chance to experience it. The ocean there is considered holy. It washes away our karma. Always a good idea!

Shivani had arranged for the three of us to come to Thiruvannamalai. This is a place between Bangalore and Chennai. The reason to come is because of a holy mountain, said to be the physical manifestation of Lord Shiva. It is called Arunachala. You find temples here where the murti -- the image of God -- is the three hillocks of Arunachala.

The mountain itself has been especially blessed in recent times by the presence of a great yogi, Ramana Maharshi. From the late 1800s, until the mid-50s (I am not certain of the exact dates) he made this mountain his home.

He was a very austere yogi, who spent much of his time in silent meditation. Before I met Swamiji, I read a great deal about him and felt deeply inspired by his one-pointed devotion. Up until the age of 16, he lived as an ordinary person. Then he had a revelation that there was no purpose to life except to realize the Infinite within. He walked away from his home and never returned, although later, his mother came and lived with him and became very spiritually advanced.

He went first to a temple at the base of the mountain where he meditated for some years in a small underground room. Then he moved up the mountain, found a cave under a huge rock, and for some 16 years lived there. People in the area, even when he was in the temple, discovered him, felt his spiritual greatness, and began to come for darshan and provide the little he needed to live there. Eventually they built for him around another cave higher on the mountain, a small ashram where he stayed for another 7 years.

Then one day he came down the mountain, and an ashram was constructed at the base of Arunachala, where he lived until the end of his life.

Early this morning, we went to the ashram and to the caves, meditating in each for some time.

Since we stopped leading pilgrimages, almost 10 years ago now, the holy spot I have visited in India has been wherever Swamiji was staying. So it has been many years since I have had a morning like today. It was blissful. Pilgrimage is a great spiritual boon.

I visited this ashram once before. I think it was 15 years ago after one of our India pilgrimage. Durga, Vidura, Lila and David Hoogendyke, David and I came here for three days. Our thought was perhaps to add it on to the itinerary we usually followed. We stayed in the ashram that time. We were inspired, but felt it wasn’t right for our tour.

Accommodations at the ashram were simple, and I think we were a little spoiled by the 5-star hotels we were used to, and also a little tired from our long pilgrimage. For whatever reasons, I didn’t tune into the place as I did today.

This ashram is more notably dedicated to silent meditation that many we have visited -- quite appropriate given the nature of Ramana Maharshi himself. There are large shrines to him and also to his mother, where daily ceremonies are carried out, but even the ceremonies are more melodious than in some places we have visited.

And the most important shrines -- the caves where he lived and the room where he gave darshan -- are silence only, reserved for meditation. Even when the sounds of ceremony and song drift in from the nearby halls, they add, rather than take away from the meditative experience.

Many people come here, including quite a lot of devotees from Europe. The Europeans seem to enter easily into the spirit of India. There were lots of dreadlocks and shaved heads among the light-skinned devotees. And many rock still, silent meditators. A joy.

During the meditation, especially in the caves, I tried to tune in to what it would be like to feel, as Ramana Maharshi did, that the only duty in life is to meditate. He served through his meditation, and the darshan he gave freely to all who came, but in no other way. No classes, lectures, writing, or building of communities. A very different mission from ours.

I wondered what his years of meditation were like. When he was living under the temple it is said he was plagued by mosquitoes and other animal pests, but remained completely oblivious. What would it be like to be so absorbed in the Infinite?

I remembered a passage in Swamiji’s commentary on the Gita in which he instructed highly advanced yogis how to work out their remaining karma through meditation and visions. Was that what Ramana Maharshi was doing?

Somewhat jokingly, when I read that passage in the Gita commentary, I said to Swamiji, “This part doesn’t apply to very many people.”

With complete seriousness Swamiji replied, “But for those to whom it does apply, it will be very useful.”

Thinking about Ramana Maharshi walking out of his home at the age of sixteen, finding an underground room in the temple and sitting there to meditate without a thought about how he would eat, shelter himself, or survive in the years ahead, I am awestruck by his indifference to the human condition, and his complete faith in God.

Then I thought of the life I have led. In my early 20s I came to live at Ananda. In the course of this tour, I spoke of that choice. Someone asked me, “Weren’t you afraid? Weren’t you worried about what might happen to you?”

“It never crossed my mind,” I said. “I never gave it a single thought.” All my “batchmates” at Ananda did the same thing with the same faith.

My moving to Ananda hardly compares to Ramana Maharshi leaving home at 16 and settling into a room under the temple where he did nothing but meditate. Or perhaps it does. Not in realization, but in the direction of development that each represents.

I walked away from a university education. Ramana Maharshi walked away from the whole world. My “renunciation” doesn’t compare to his. I am an infant; he is a King. But both of us were motivated by the same impulse: What is day to the worldly man is night to the yogi. What is night to the worldly man is day to the yogi.

Whatever stage of realization we have, we have faith to match it, and take action in accordance with that faith. I easily left behind my university life (brief and unsatisfactory) and any thought of money or career. Far below the faith of Ramana Maharshi certainly, but still, more faith than some would have -- the woman who asked me about it, for example. Especially in India, education is everything. The idea of doing what I did made her about as nervous as I feel contemplating the life of Ramana Maharshi. What we haven’t experienced we don’t understand.

There was a yogi living in Badrinath -- a holy place in India -- that we met on one of our pilgrimages. Later Swamiji asked me my impressions of him. The yogi had told us that during the winter season he leaves his physical body and goes in his astral body to be with Babaji high in the Himalayas.

I said to Swamiji, “He spoke about it in such a matter of fact way. I didn’t know what to think. I would have expected a more reverential tone.”

“Well,” Swamiji replied, “at a certain point, it is matter of fact to do such a thing.”

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master explains the “law” of miracles. In other words, miracles are as matter of fact for those who perform them as they are, well, miraculous to us who don’t have the power to operate the law.

It is very important for all of us to embrace the naturalness of spiritual advancement. Yes, we should have reverence for those who have attained states high above our own, but at the same time, appreciate that they have merely advanced farther down the same road we ourselves are walking.

Remember when Swamiji played the part of Jesus in a pageant for a local group? He had a beard, which was rare at that time, and the group had asked him if he would play the part. When Master asked about it afterwards, Swamiji said, “I would rather be like Jesus instead of merely looking like him.”

Master replied in a matter of fact way, “That will come. That will come.”

So it is for all of us.

When Master came to India in 1935 he came to this ashram to visit Ramana Maharshi. There is a brief film clip of Master’s visit here, at least one moment of it when a group gathered around Ramana Maharshi to have their pictures taken. It was a movie but, notably, the yogi was not moving. Master moves and gestures around him, but Ramana Maharshi remains utterly still in the middle, seemingly absorbed, as he often was, in the Infinite.

We are not staying in the ashram. We are not quite 5-star, either, but are resident for a few days in a beautiful little resort. Simple, peaceful, harmonious. Stone buildings with tile floors in a garden setting. Couldn’t be nicer.

I have been healthy and energetic through this entire tour, grateful to be sharing almost every day with groups and individuals. Especially now that he has gone into the Infinite, I feel a deep joy in passing on to others as much as I can of the grace, love, and wisdom Swamiji showered on us.

I haven’t felt the need for a break from that service, but, nonetheless, I am basking in the silence and inspiration of being here.

Day after tomorrow we drive to Chennai, Arjuna goes back to Italy, and Shivani and I go on to Calcutta to meet up with Bryan, Shurjo, Narayani, and Jemal, for a long weekend of programs, and one more showing of Finding Happiness.

Blessings and joy,
asha

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