Our minds are so conditioned, so hypnotized to view our responses to the world around as real and correct that we rarely stop to separate our response from our perception of the facts or the truth we think we see. If at dusk while walking we see ahead on our path what appears to be a snake that is only, upon closer inspection, a rope, then we can relax from our response of fright and say that this response was in error. Rarely, however, is life so simple or clear.
Our frightened response, however, is, in the moment, at least, true for us, regardless of the correctness of our perception. All too often the amount time between perception and reaction is so tiny that we get used to equating our reaction with the reality. It takes the habit of calmness and mindfulness, born of meditation and practiced throughout the day during activity, for us to remain sufficiently calm so as not to fall into the habit of confusing response with reality.
Paramhansa Yogananda counseled students: “Circumstances are always neutral. It is how you react to them that makes them seem either happy or sad.” If you dislike someone, you are much more likely to be critical of his every sentence or action without ever stopping to consider that the source of your criticism lies in your dislike, not necessarily in what he has said or done.
Indeed, someone who admires this person will either defend the person or not even notice anything worthy of comment, what to mention criticism. Further, he may even find something admirable rather than critical!
Although I don’t hear this expression much anymore, it used to be asked of someone who was having a bad day, “Did you get up on the wrong side of bed this morning?” By this we acknowledge the influence of our moods and attitudes on our response to life’s daily challenges and activities.
But my subject goes deeper than this obvious and simple fact of human psychology. Although still far from existential, it is also true that upon entering a room a carpenter notices the baseboard trim is not straight, the painter, that the paint is peeling, the interior decorator, that the furniture is out of date, the mother, that her child is far too quiet, and the father, that he’s late for work and can’t find his car keys!
Is it true, then, that we see only ourselves, then? That we see only what we are interested in? What we are capable of seeing? Most certainly it is: at least for most people on this planet. Observing simple facts like a crooked baseboard or peeling paint is not significantly meaningful to our lives. Think then how much reality we lose when it comes to gut reactions on the hot, emotional buttons of our lives?
I observed, more than once, that my spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, upon entering a room, rarely seemed to notice (even less to comment upon) the details of a room, unless he did so for instructive purposes. Once, when he was our guest in our home, he commented that hotels that were run by thoughtful people remembered to put hooks in the bathroom for clothes or one’s bathrobe. (We immediately went out and installed a hook on the inside of the bathroom door!) By contrast, most people entering another’s home for first time, literally “jump” on every detail, painting, furniture, wall colors–eager to pass judgement, either “ooohing” and “aaaahing” or turning up the proverbial nose (“Such Cretans!”). If we do this for such relatively trivial objects in our field of vision, how much more are we at sea for the important things?
Yogananda taught that the law of magnetism determined what circumstances and people were drawn to you. By magnetism, he meant the vibrational (attractive or repulsing) aspect of karma. By karma, he means the cumulative impact of past and current actions. Thus a person who, whether in past lives or the current life, has dedicated his energies to making money is, at least eventually (if he pursues his monied goal with intelligence, intensity, and sensitive awareness) going to attract financial success.
This law of vibrational resonance is what some “new agers” refer to as the Secret or what they mean by “creating your own reality.” Contrast staying in a five-star hotel with sauntering through a crowded, noisy slum on a hot, sultry day at high noon. We live in different worlds. Imagine paying $10,000 for a first class airline ticket for a flight of, perhaps, eight to sixteen hours! What is the life of a paraplegic in comparison to a wealthy heiress or globe-trotting financier? Different worlds, indeed.
Outwardly, at least! The more extreme our outer circumstances the more intensely we will tend to identify with them. For those on the path of mindfulness, however, we discover fairly quickly that the more we experience our core consciousness, stripped of name, body, ceaseless flux of thoughts and emotions, the closer we come to pure consciousness. We find, in time and with dedicated effort, that the reactive processes begin to fall away and we simply observe what is “ours” to observe without filtering it through the strainer of our fears and attractions.
There is no objective reality in the sense that the “pure mind” intends to visually observe every possible mundane fact in his immediate environment, from baseboards to dust to the art work on the wall! To one seeking higher consciousness (defined as God or in any other way, e.g., bliss, joy, and even emptiness), the most important reality is to first perceive, and then to become, that consciousness. Are we not all seeking happiness? And how could true happiness be anything else if not unalloyed, ever-new, and permanent?
Reality in other words cannot be separated from the consciousness that perceives it. The highest reality is when separation between the knower, the known and the knowing melts into Oneness!
All we really possess, then, is our consciousness. There isn’t anything else. That doesn’t mean we can eat junk food and escape the consequences; or steal someone else’s car; or lie or cheat. Those actions presuppose the very separateness that brings us dis-ease, discontentment, and ultimately pain.
Rather, this means that, even if it means at first just affirming it, positive, inclusive and expanded states of consciousness will bring us greater and greater happiness. We are happier loving than hating; giving rather than taking; sharing rather than hoarding.
Our evolutionary path upward from the rocks, plants and animals has endowed us with the necessary and highly refined instincts for survival and for sensory pleasure and, on the human level, ego self-aggrandizement. All this works rather nicely to get us to the human level and, at that level, to excel and expand our horizons. But these become a glass ceiling when it comes to transcending the wheel of birth and death, and the ceaseless flux of opposite states of pleasure and pain.
We cannot but define happiness as permanent but the happiness we know through the body and the ego is anything but permanent. We have a profound, existential dilemma, for knowing this fact dilutes the fleeting pleasure or success or human happiness that comes our way.
Thus spiritual consciousness and awareness (which, when formalized and organized, coalesces into religion) invites our dissatisfied ego to rise toward a transcended state of consciousness.
This, then, is what is meant by “reality is a state of consciousness.” Meditation is the surest form of experiencing transcendence. Transcendence, being consciousness itself, is most effectively known (experienced) by consciousness itself. Further, it is most readily contacted by association and attunement with one who embodies, contains, and holds that consciousness. Thus the long-standing acknowledgement of sanctity personified and embodied in saints and masters.
Transcendence, so far as we are concerned (and we are concerned!), can only exist in embodiment. Not because it is limited but because we are limited. When we look at a beautiful sunset, we can enjoy it but we cannot, for the enjoyment of it, become one with it. Same, too, with someone we love. We are forced by nature and duality to be prevented from merging with the object of our love by the very electro-magnetic field that surrounds our body and its attendant, ego, and keeps our Spirit imprisoned. On the level of I-am-loving-you we must forever be separate.
We must first discover transcendence in the field of our body and, being locked in, that requires a transfusion, a transmission of transcendence not from nowhere in space but from its embodiment in space. Thus the power of a true guru who transmits this “knowing” and awakens it so, like a seed, it can grow from within. While a true guru, being transcendent, is not limited by his or her physical vehicle, it is we who need the vehicle through which to “tune in.” Thus, even after the physical death of such a one, a true disciple can draw inspiration and magnetism through meditation, prayer, and service. Ultimately, this transmission is only an “inside” job but we have to start where we are.
Further, it is the creative and loving desire of the Creator that this transcendence be awakened and experienced in the creation and not separate from it. We don’t have to die to “go to heaven.” This too is another reason that the transmission occurs from embodiment to embodiment.
Well, time to go!
Blessings to you,
aka Swami Hrimananda
But why bother? A commitment to that level of daily meditation is huge, to say the least! With some life experience, usually tragic or at least challenging, we find that the simple things are the most important: friendship, health, peace of mind, clear conscience, loyalty, simplicity, and goodness. Some people are rich in wisdom in having discovered that happiness is a state of consciousness, not a fat bank account, or a promotion, or a second or third marriage.
You see meditation is proof positive of and the most direct route to the existential experience that happiness is within us. Happiness is a process of un-learning, of shedding all the accumulations of desire, hurt, fear, and hopes that clutter and color our mind.
As I stood on the banks of the Ganges in the world’s most ancient (and continuously inhabited) city — Varanasi, India — I scanned the ancient riverside ashrams and crematory grounds, the orange-clad or naked sadhus tending their ritual fires, and the devotees bathing in the Ganges to remove their sins. The thought that came to me is that all of this will be swept away by the rising tide of change. Change is happening at an accelerated pace, especially visible in up and coming countries like India, but de facto everywhere.
In Varanasi, as everywhere, developers will see profits and opportunities in this haven of tourism and pilgrimage. Civic boosters will want to clean it up and give visitors have more comfortable places to have lunch, shop, and spend their tourist rupees. A few showcase sadhus can be reassigned to a special section for posterity’s sake and authenticity. Mimic the old architecture but build anew and make it nicer for visitors. Whole blocks of the twisting and turning alleyway-streets will be razed for modern hotels, with pools and lawns (oh, and underground parking). Oh, yes………..can’t you see it?
On my last two trips to India I went up into the Himalayas. I could see that the hill stations nearest the plains will soon be developed into second homes, gated communities, resorts, and yoga retreat centers. Many of them were created by the British precisely for recreation and vacation, and, a relief from the heat, squalor, and intensity of the plains. Are middle class Indians wanting anything different? They’ll widen and straighten out some of the roads and voila! The rising middle class of India will escape to their beloved (and beautiful) Himalayan foothills. I can see it now. Ok, then, soon, or not too far off.
We can see this trend in America where nothing is very old. We can see it well established in Europe. They preserve and yet simultaneously upgrade and modernize a core area of some historical value and then let development proceed all around it. I think however looking far ahead — afterall things do deteriorate — these core areas will gradually shrink. More importantly, so will the interest of future generations in them. Do you see among today’s young a burning interest in antiquity? I don’t. They are more interested in their computer games, gadgets, and, of course, one another. I wouldn’t be surprised that future city planners will find it convenient to preserve these old monuments virtually in a kind of digital museum where you can “walk” through the old Roman fort or castle wearing a 3-D sitting in a comfortable chair.
You don’t need to be an avatar or rishi to see this kind of change everywhere. But in fact there are some avatars who have already predicted it. In the lineage of Paramhansa Yogananda, his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, announced a major correction to the Hindu calendar which, during several thousand years of the Kali Yuga — the low ebb of consciousness in the unending cycle of time — had gotten off, mathematically.
Sri Yukteswar, himself a great sage and astrologer, proclaimed that on or around the year 1900 the earth entered the second age (“Dwa” – Dwapara) and would begin its ascent into an age whose theme would be “energy.” Soon thereafter Einstein announced that energy is the underlying reality of matter. The twentieth century saw the dawning of nuclear energy and the head-over-heels extraction of oil for energy which fueled an unprecedented surge in human development in all fields (including warfare). We have energy medicine and energy healing. Energy is all the rage, in fact.
How many indigenous cultures and languages have already been destroyed. Those few who remain are dwindling in their commitment to traditional lifestyles. In the years and centuries to come they will all essentially vanish, leaving only remnants in the form of stylized, special-occasion cultural events or preserved places. Traditional religions, steeped in their vestments and robes and rituals, will steadily fade from relevancy, leaving also only traces of their past.
Nations, cultures, languages with their distinctive cuisine, clothing and uniqueness will surely retain vestiges of their past habits, attitudes, and history but they will be like the transplanted New Yorker living in Los Angeles who still has a detectable New York accent. It will be quaint and recognizable but like the Indian in the adjoining cubicle at Microsoft, his accent doesn’t get in the way of his enjoyment of going to the gym or hiking in the mountains with the guy from Peoria next to him.
Travel, education, communication, technology and consciousness cannot but erode the isolation and uniqueness of formerly far-flung and exotic cultures. I sincerely hope that doesn’t put Starbucks and MacDonalds on every corner from here to Timbuktu but, for a time, it might. It certainly is happening now, anyway.
Is the destruction of these traditional ways to be decried? Well, no doubt for many. But it would be like crying over spilled milk. Nothing can stop the rising tsunami of change and connectedness. The down side to the status quo is the status quo: warfare, terrorism, exploitation, prejudice, ignorance, distrust and hatred. Do we have a choice? I doubt it. We cannot have it both ways: on the one hand we want to see the world change for the better; on the other hand, we don’t want to lose distinctive differences in cultures. These distinctions, unless paraded out only for entertainment of visitors, are also what separate us.
Will Indians stop wearing saris and Peruvians abandon their colored cloth? Already in India, modern young women don’t wear traditional saris. They’ve taken some of the colors and fabrics and made them into more practical forms. Cultural characteristics and attitudes will survive just as blue eyes and blonde hair get passed from generation to generation. But they will survive only as remnants, reminders.
Already the world’s cultures live and work together. For now that’s mostly in the cities, but look again and travel again, the intermixture is seeping into every village, and even more so into remote corners because remote corners are strongly attractive to the adventurous! How many pop culture T-shirrts and baseball caps do you already see in the villages of India, Tibet, Nepal, Africa?
The ancient medieval church structures may be preserved here and there around the world. But with wars, famine, natural forces of deterioration, and economic depressions, one by one they will fall by the wayside because we are looking to the future now, not to the past, for guidance and unfolding wisdom. Our past history teaches us many lessons but it is the future that beckons us, for the past will be submerged in the rising tide of consciousness that is the ascending cycle into which this planet has just barely begun.
Every 80 to 100 years the entire planet’s inhabitants is refreshed with new human beings. How much do you about your grandfather’s life, character, problems and victories? Probably next to nothing apart from being your grandfather. Certainly this would be true of your great grandfather. For some it may be true of your father or mother!
In future centuries worshipers of each faith will honor their traditions and symbols and credos but will relegate these to a secondary status in favor of direct, inner communion with their “God” through meditation, acts of humanitarian and personal service, and fellowship with like-minded individuals.
The first Ananda movie, Finding Happiness, shows how small communities will flourish in coming times as a practical and natural balance to the crushing forces of modernization and globalization. We need practical ways to express our creative idealism even as we live in this new, global village.
So, feast not your eyes with too great sentiment upon the monuments and traditions of the past. Appreciate them for their universal impulse and ideals but look anew and look within for fresh expressions of the divine here and now! For as your body and mind will soon be buried in the sands of time, so too all this will vanish from our sight. Extract from the present, the past, and even the future the unchangeable NOW of God’s presence. Saints and devotees have come into this Dwapara Yuga to create new portals, new shrines, new sacred places of pilgrimage where God’s presence and grace, ever-new in flow and form, can be tapped. We can be a part of that effort to establish and affirm anew the sacredness of life, investing that grace into living forms and new sacred places.
Mostly, of course, it is within you. But as we are a part of a greater reality all around, it is also to be found all around! Rejoice and put your shoulder to the wheel of divine creative service and reflection.
reference: Religion in the New Age by Swami Kriyananda. http://www.crystalclarity.com/
This blog article is a follow up to the previous one about the life of Swami Kriyananda. I noted in a postscript to that one that it omitted any personal reflections and that I intended to do that subsequently. So, well, one could go on forever, but this is it for now.
I did share more personally in my Sunday Service talk (April 28; see Ustream.com search on AnandaSeattle). In that talk I also gave a report on my quick trip to Italy last week to attend the memorial service for Swami Kriyananda that was held at the Temple of Light at the Ananda Retreat Center and Community near Assisi, Italy.
You will hear from others who share their stories about Swami Kriyananda that their individual relationship was just that: individual. As I noted previously, a person such as Swamiji who lives from his own center relates appropriately and uniquely to each person and circumstance. So, too, therefore, must my own reflections admit to the limits of my own relationship with him.
My relationship with him began slowly. One could say that I was slow to warm up and cautious about accepting him as my spiritual teacher. When I arrived at Ananda Village in 1977 he was in India. Padma and I were forced to live in nearby Nevada City — a half hour away from the Ananda Village community because of the (now well known) forest fire in June 1976 that destroyed most of the homes. In addition, as there were fewer jobs, we started an accounting practice in the picturesque town and county seat of Nevada City. For these reasons I had fewer occasions in those first years to interact with Swamiji than I would have, perhaps, had I lived at the Village at that time. (We finally were able to move in the Village community in Fall of 1981 when a recently built house became available and we had sold my CPA practice in order to buy it.)
Despite my slowness, I would listen to cassette tapes of his voice (even before I ever met him) and, owing to the battery-operated inadequacies of on-site, outdoors recordings, his voice seemed very young, high pitched and way too fast, just short of Mickey Mouse and definitely not his real voice (which is rich, resonant, and deeply calm). The result was that I did not have the impression of a hoary, sage-like yogi. In short, he didn’t fit my image of a yogi at all. To make it worse, he was American! Pawshaw, I say (having just been in India nearly a year traveling its length and breadth). Who ever heard of an American yogi? (Do you recall Walters’ own response to the “Autobiography of a Yogi’s” dedication to Luther Burbank, an “American saint!” Well, that was mine as well.)
The feeling of standoffishness seemed mutual, though perhaps he didn’t wish to impose if I were not ready to engage. Besides, I wasn’t really all that sure about the viability of this nearly-destroyed community with a lot of former hippies who had more enthusiasm than skills and more optimism than money. Yes, I was, if not skeptical, then watchful. Yet, I was there and powerfully drawn to the path of Kriya Yoga and to the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda. Further, on a level that I could not consciously access at that time, I knew I was supposed to be there and that this off-beat collection of seeming misfits, which in a way included its Swami, held for me the promise of “immortality” (meaning spiritual fulfillment in this lifetime) that I sought! I also felt a calm and accepting presence and connection with Jyotish Novak, Swamiji’s successor and the first person I met at Ananda Village when we came for a visit in May of 1977.
During those years I absorbed every word I heard from Swami: recorded or live, and mostly live, for he taught often at Ananda Village. In addition, Padma and I would occasionally go to Sacramento or San Francisco where he lectured publicly. So while his personality, which was strong and confident, even while soft and sensitive, did not draw from me a more personally interested response, I was very much drinking in his wisdom and vibration. In fact, many years later when I began teaching I discovered that out of my mouth, “so to speak,” came words that surprised me but which I was able to trace to something he had written or said in a talk.
But it was the intensity and urgency with which he conducted his activities, his writings, music, travel, and projects that puzzled me. I didn’t understand, really, what the fuss was all about. You’d think the whole world hung on his every action and that it would end if he didn’t complete the next thing a day earlier. I still had many years of associating spirituality with a peaceful, laid-back image comfortably arranged so as to frequently chant, like Alfred E Neumann, my adolescent idol, “What? Me worry?”
Only gradually over the years did the intensity of energy needed for spiritual growth become a reality to me. Then, too, came the dawning of the awareness that Swamiji was the de facto successor to Paramhansa Yogananda’s worldwide spiritual work. Kriyananda’s intensity and creativity was a product of his divine attunement and in particular his attunement with Yogananda. This was his normal state of consciousness! Whew! This is what it is like to be around a saint?
His transparent self-honesty and self-questioning also struck me as self-absorbed until, as I matured, I realized that this was a gift to us of observing the process of spiritual introspection. It conveyed deeper spiritual teachings than mere abstract precepts with which I tended to remain content (and smug). It provided encouragement, too, because a devotee must confront self-doubt. It is part and parcel of the soul’s halting emergence into the sunlight of God’s presence which is both scorching and healing at the same time. His doubts were my doubts. His processes, my own. I just hadn’t yet become aware of it and initially thought, “Gee, what’s wrong with this guy. He doesn’t seem to be very sure of himself.”
As I took on more responsibilities in the financial and business realm of the tiny and struggling community, my contact with Swamiji increased. Still, I had yet to develop intuition as the normal frequency of consciousness on which to operate. Therefore, his responses, comments, and intentions remained hidden, for me, behind a veil of mystery. His close associates seemed to nod and bob and weave with his every utterance and that, too, was cause for holding back. The more those close to him seemed fawningly eager to do his bidding, the further back I would step. I was simply, at first, too insecure myself to distinguish blind following from intelligent and heartfelt enthusiasm. His closest were invariably highly intelligent, creative, and anything but “Yes men.” In my defense, my own temperament is deliberate and thoughtful. I tend to pull back from bursts of what might seem unthinking enthusiasm. Like some, what I commit to must be felt within myself before I give it my energy and enthusiasm.
When Swamiji would proclaim each and every book of his as the next “best seller” (when I knew perfectly well it would not be), it took me a long time to realize that he was no stranger to the facts. He simply preferred to remain open to Divine Mother’s grace and boundless resourcefulness. And, he wanted to encourage and inspire us to always be positive, even in the face of so-called “facts.” In fact, since a deliberating (“Hamlet complex”) temperament often dissolves into negativity, he once spontaneously offered me this personal counsel: “Don’t be negative!”
I will skip ahead for the simple fact that Kriyananda’s transparent self-honesty, wisdom, and devotion uplifted anyone who, on a deeper level, responded positively to him and who was basically in tune with all that he represents (viz., Yogananda’s teachings and spirit). And when I say “in tune,” I do not mean this in some narrow or sectarian way. Swamiji, like his guru before him, has friends all over the world and in every walk of life. Some have no outward affiliation with the work of Ananda or the teachings of Yogananda but feel Swamiji is their friend in whom they can trust. As so many others have attested, Swami Kriyananda was a citizen of the world and could relate appropriately to anyone. He made friends wherever he went.
Many a guest or family member (of an Ananda resident) found Swami’s humor disarming. His charm and humor rendered him accessible and human. Spiritual teachers are all too often pompous, self-righteous and aloof. Swamiji was never any of these things. However, the first joke I recall him telling was a turn off to me: it seemed to be what we would now call “politically incorrect.” I won’t repeat the joke but it was about two Brahmins in India stuffing themselves at a free banquet to the point of retching. It left me puzzled and bemused. Now I occasionally tell the same joke with great hilarity!
During the Eighties he began the habit of publicly castigating accountants, usually doing so by telling a story about a businessman who fired his accountants because they couldn’t really tell him anything useful for running his business. The story was that the businessman complained that the accountants were merely reporting the past.
Ananda was in a growth phase. We had started numerous small businesses and I was part of the management team. I was the Community’s chief accountant and I had to sit there in the audience time and again and listen to this. Sometimes friends would commiserate with me but it always a case for discomfort, for I, at least, trusted he had a point to make and it was likely one I needed to hear (there weren’t any other real accountants around for miles). I didn’t feel I was all that personally identified with my role, but perhaps I was and didn’t know it? There was, as I look back, a further point: he was helping me to become less reactive to the limiting perceptions of others and the limiting characteristics of any outward role in life. This would help prepare me for the leadership role I was to be given by him in later years.
I rarely sought his counsel for personal matters. I was not resistant to his counsel, but rather felt respectful of his time and did not want to presume upon his interest. I did, however, write to him for his approval for Padma and I to marry. After some twelve or more years doing the accounting at Ananda, I shared with him (on a trip to Italy; we were guests at a member’s home in Rome, at the time) my feeling that it was time for a change. He took it under consideration but seemed to agree.
In that conversation, nor at any other time, did I describe to Swamiji my childhood experiences and my early life quiet, inner conviction that I would someday be committed to divine service and sharing. But it was to this calling that he was later to guide me and when it came I was ready, though at first I hesitated, for now with some years on the spiritual path I had gained an appreciation for what seems at times like the receding horizon line of perfection and for what, some days at least, seems the growing unworthiness of the aspirant.
Other times he would comment to me, like the time he passed me in the hallway and quipped, “You’re very responsible.” (Even I understood that this was not a compliment. God is the Doer!) On a few occasions his comments (intended for me) were delivered via others, including once or twice via Padma. Such deliveries were a cause for annoyance, to be sure. I think he was trying to toughen me up from touchiness around what others think. There were a few occasions when I thought he misjudged me for not having the facts. Gradually I learned that “facts are not a truth” and that occasionally circumstances would be used to make a point and the point was more important than the circumstances!
Accepting correction with equanimity and openness is one of the surest forms of testing one’s spiritual progress and I can’t say that during those years I had graduated.
Still, I wonder of what value are these commentaries and how little they must reveal of the depth and breadth of Kriyananda’s wisdom and compassion? Among the lessons I learned are to be inwardly still in the presence of one’s teacher and indeed any saintly person. This came naturally. I would sometimes go to his office with work related complaints or problems and by the time he had shared his latest piece of music or writing, the problem seemed so unimportant, if it had ever existed at all.
I found from him validation for another important teaching which came to me more naturally. Any advice one receives should be taken inside and validated by its intuitive resonance with one’s own deeper nature. In the presence of a God-realized guru, this resonance may already be very deep and even instantaneous, not requiring contemplation or deliberation. But from any other source, counsel from without should be tempered by intuitional validation.
I once observed Swamiji offering to one of our resident members the management of one of our key businesses. I happened to be standing nearby and was aghast, for I considered the man incompetent for the task and, besides, I knew the business to be in serious trouble. But the man had informed Swamiji that he was considering leaving the Community. The fellow had tried to start his own business but was, truthfully, not cut from the merchant cloth. In fact, he was a bit goofy (in my view, at least!). The business in question, already marginal, would surely be laid to rest by this man. Yet, out of loyalty to the higher principle of this man’s spiritual welfare, Swamiji was willing to sacrifice the success of our struggling community business (a health food store and small cafe).
Well, I could go on endlessly. Books will be, and have been already, written attempting to chronicle the spiritual stature of this enigma of a man. His enigma is ours: we are both “human,” and “divine.” One more advanced in Self-realization exhibits a higher-than-logical spontaneity and wisdom not commonly encountered. Swami Kriyananda embodied the saying, quoted in Autobiography of a Yogi: “Softer than the flower where kindness is concerned, stronger than thunder where principles are at stake.”
On Sunday morning, April 21, near Assisi, Italy at his home, Swami Kriyananda breathed his last upon this earth. Born May 19, 1926 as James Donald Walters of American parents living in Romania, Swamiji was born and died in Europe. In his dignity and habits, he was a European. In his soul, he was, as it were, a rishi clothed in the garb of a yogi from India; and in his love of life, of people, his vitality and creativity, he was just as truly an American. He was of an older more dignified and noble time and yet he was younger, an Atlantean who delighted in the latest technologies of our advancing and ascending age.
The more one lives centered in the soul, in the Self, the more one’s life becomes a crystal, reflecting truth in an infinity of rays of color, shape and form. Personal and appropriate with those whom he conversed and served, and yet impersonal reflecting not his likes and dislikes but the truth that we are each children of the same Light.
I was privileged to represent members and friends of Ananda in the greater Seattle area at the memorial service for Swamiji held in the Temple of Light at the Ananda Center near Assisi, Italy (home of St. Francis of long ago). This Service took place on Wednesday, April 24. A video recording of that service can be found on YouTube at http://youtu.be/uIWskubxCt4
Because I had leave for Italy right away I could not attend our own Service held in our Meditation Temple in Bothell on Monday evening, April 22. You can a video recording of that Service at http://www.Ustream.com Search on AnandaSeattle.
Swami Kriyananda was a direct disciple of the now famous yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda, whose life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, has become a spiritual classic in our time. Swamiji spent the same amount of time with his guru as the disciples of Christ spent with Jesus (about three plus years). Yogananda, despite being in a relatively withdrawn phase of the last years of his life, nonetheless permitted young “Walters” to “hang out with him” and ply him with questions. Yogananda shared many stories from his “barnstorming” years travelling across America giving lectures and classes to thousands. Yogananda, like Vivekananda decades before, became quite a sensation and sought-after speaker in American intellectual and liberal social circles.
After Yogananda’s death in 1952, the young monk, who in 1955 took the spiritual name Kriyananda, rose rapidly in his guru’s organization (Self-Realization Fellowship, aka SRF) as its foremost public representative. He traveled widely in America, Europe and India. As his zeal for sharing his guru’s teachings grew and took on more expansive forms, the senior disciples of SRF became alarmed and, perhaps drawing on the example of male teachers groomed by Yogananda decades earlier who later betrayed Yogananda, finally decided in 1961 to dismiss Swami Kriyananda from SRF’s membership and nip in the bud what they could only imagined was an ambitious ego instead of a dedicated disciple bent on spreading his guru’s message of Self-realization.
As difficult emotionally as his dismissal was curt and unexpected, it did make possible the founding of Ananda in 1968. Only by separation from SRF (which he himself would never have sought) could Swamiji be free to establish intentional spiritual communities (“world brotherhood colonies” as Yogananda called them) and author some 150 books on a wide range of subjects inspired by Yogananda’s teachings and spirit.
Despite persecution from SRF long after his dismissal, Kriyananda always espoused, even to the extent of his will and last testament, that Ananda remain open to work cooperatively with and be respectful always of his guru’s own work.
Swami Kriyananda leaves behind a worldwide network of communities, retreat centers, meditation and yoga centers, meditation groups and a host of related activities and organizations, including schools for children, a new genre of music, and an entire liturgy of ceremonies inspired by the nonsectarian precepts of Sanaatan Dharma, the essence of Vedanta and India’s sacred revelation from ancient times.
Perhaps more importantly, Swamiji’s legacy is the bouquet of souls who, with his tender and wisdom-guided nurturing, have flowered in his care. Some have done so directly from his hand; many more have done so through his example, his writings, his music, and the fellowship of souls who are his spiritual children serving the work of a great guru, Paramhansa Yogananda.
Such disciples will nurture other souls making the real work of God through the Self-realization lineage (which culminated in Paramhansa Yogananda) impervious to the assaults of time and the inevitable rise and fall of the fortunes of organizations.
For some sixty-five years of discipleship, Swamiji has traveled this earth writing and lecturing and founding communities. He has done so despite opposition from other fellow gurubhais and despite the burden of a physical body that rebelled against his employment of that vehicle in intense and unceasing divine service. He had three hip operations (one had to be re-done), a pace-maker, suffered from diabetes, had a bout with colon cancer, became increasing hard of hearing (making public life very difficult ) and had a medical chart that left doctors across the globe in awe.
His will power, considerable though it was, was never directed against others. It served him only his discipleship sharing Yogananda’s work. In fact, and in retrospect, Swami Kriyananda became the one disciple more than any other direct disciple, who has publicly served Yogananda’s mission and thus has earned the self-evident role of Yogananda’s principle heir in public service.
For all of his prolific and concentrated effort, Swami Kriyananda maintained personal friendships with hundreds if not thousands. His correspondence (which in recent years morphed into email, and thus, as for everyone else, multiplied exponentially) would have, for most people, been a full-time job. His writings ebbed and flowed but never ceased. During especially creative periods, it took more time for those to whom he would send by email his manuscript drafts for review, than it did for him to write them. Or, so it seemed!
His last book was a re-write of one of his first books: Communities: How to Start Them and Why.
He no doubt overstayed the welcome that “Brother Donkey” (the physical body) offered and by guru’s grace remained to see the first of three movies finished. “Finding Happiness” is about the work of Ananda and will be released to theaters in the Fall of 2013. “The Answer” is a movie about Kriyananda’s life and a third movie will be about the life of Yogananda.
The work of Ananda has spread to include north, central and south America; Europe and India.
One of the questions young Walter asked his guru was “Will I find God in this lifetime?” The great guru responded, “Yes, but at the end of life, for death will be your final sacrifice.”
While the bodies of most swamis are cremated according to custom, a decision has been made to bury Swami Kriyananda’s body at his home, the Crystal Hermitage, located at Ananda World Brotherhood Village, near Nevada City, CA. On the grounds of the surpassingly lovely Crystal Hermitage overlooking the north fork of the Yuba River, will his body be buried and atop the grave will be a shrine which tentatively may be termed “Moksha Mandir” in honor of Yogananda’s promise of freedom (“moksha” refers to the soul’s freedom in God).
A formal memorial will take place in May at Ananda Village (May 18-19). Kriyananda’s body is being shipped from Italy back to the U.S. on Monday, April 29.
A great yogi in India was asked by Kriyananda why it was this yogi had no disciples or outer spiritual work. His reply was “God has done what He wanted with this body.” Thus it is that the degree of approval or disapproval of the world means little to the sincere lover of God. To do the will of God is the soul’s only interest. It matters not, therefore, what name or fame has come, or has been withheld, from the life of Swami Kriyananda, nor yet also, to Ananda, the work he founded in the name of his guru.
Though those close to him would no doubt easily imagine that Swami Kriyananda, free soul or otherwise, will return to help those in need in some future incarnation. But such matters are left to God. Swamiji will be greatly missed but has more than earned his freedom laurels and rest. Those who have known him personally and those many who will know him through others and through the legacy of his work and vibration in generations to come, are deeply grateful.
Adieu great soul, until we find our rest in God alone!
Nayaswami Hriman aka Swami Hrimananda!
P.S. If I have omitted personal reflections or stories of my life and relationship with Kriyananda it is because I deem it not the right time, place, or venue. Perhaps in some other way I might share such experiences.
It seems right to me now to skip ahead to the final adventure on our three week trip to India: Babaji’s cave (near the hill station town of Ranikhet). Yes, it’s true I skip the Taj Mahal and our visit to the lovely Ananda Center in Gurgaon (a few miles south of Delhi). But all good things must end and so, too, this travelogue.
After visiting the Ananda Center in Gurgaon on Sunday, March 17 (in the afternoon and evening), we bussed to the old train station in Delhi for an overnight train to the line’s end at the foot of the Himalayas–a town called Kathgodam. The Old Delhi station was a museum piece, a small version of the old Howrah Station in Calcutta, but much messier in what I saw, with lots of people sleeping on the floor everywhere and a narrow warren of steps and overhead passageways with descending stairs onto each train platform across a large and enclosed rail yard. Very old fashion, very NOT tidy, and very old. One felt claustrophobic and slightly ill at ease, safety wise. The response was to “puff up” as it were and look snappy and snippy like a seasoned traveller. I kept a close watch, as did my friend, Bimal, on those few pilgrims with wanderlust.
We scurried through these ancient corridors like rats, resembling a new form of rat (of Western origin) but otherwise pressing forward or against a sea of rats just like us: going to and from trains, or servicing trains (porters, e.g.). After some confusion about our track number, we found our train and hustled aboard a faded blue, decades old set of cars. Ten of us, out of the some thirty, were arbitrarily assigned by the railway online service to First Class cars: a euphemism, merely, they were hardly “first class.” Each compartment had 4 berths so I and one other pilgrim, Patricia, got the other eight seated and we took a compartment that had two others (men) in it. The bunks were positioned so the head or feet faced crossways to the direction of travel. The compartment door closed to the hallway but otherwise the bunks were open one to the other.
A man, attempting already to sleep, did not want us to turn the lights on. We had to position our belongings, make our beds, and prepare for sleep in very dim light. I was not feeling well, having a cold and sore throat. I meditated a while but, though lying down, slept not at all through the night. The train would stop for a few minutes and then move on.
Before dawn, we arrived at Kathgodam. The morning air was slightly chilly. We disembarked groggy and perhaps a little grumpy, all of us. We stumbled in the darkness toward the station and out into the parking lot. Fortunately, our guide, Mahavir, and the two buses were waiting. In a few minutes drive, by pre-arrangement, a local hotel welcomed us into their breakfast room where we could use the toilet, have some tea, and biscuits.
Then off we went into the dawn, quickly rising up the foothills on a twisting and turning two-lane (paved) road. Already the air here was clearer and cleaner. The refreshment of woods and mountains poured down from high above like a healing breeze. We dozed and then would gaze at the increasingly beautiful scenery that unfolded in the morning light as we went up and up and up…….at turns we could see a hint of the vast Indian subcontinent plains stretching south into an invisible distance hidden by a slightly brown layer of dust and smoke clouds as far as the eye could see.
After some time, perhaps an hour or more, we arrived at a delightfully scenic village on a pond (well, ok they called it a lake). Our buses negotiated the village lanes in a cumbersome, elephantine gait and deposited us a few steps from a hillside ashram belonging to the silent woman saint, Mauni Ma, a direct disciple of Neem Karoli Baba (guru to the famous Baba Haridas). It is a lovely place, clean and quite large, freshly painted. We were still befuddled with sleeplessness. Murali guided us in energization exercises and stretching exercises to help throw off the sleep and I did a guided meditation sadhana lest too much silence produce the sacred hong snore mantra.
Mauni Ma’s son addressed us afterwards in the sadhana room and then invited us down into the courtyard for tea and prasad. (We met her, in silence of course, on our way back to Kathgodam before boarding the night train back to Delhi. On that train ride, I slept like a newborn, thus redeeming my less than felicitous prior experience.)
We didn’t stay long as we then began a longish but most delightful hike around the village and its lake to a resort hotel on the far side where we had a wonderful breakfast inside and out on the patio. We enjoyed and prolonged our stay as much as we could as it was healing balm visually and in all ways from the intensity of the last many days in the crowded and polluted cities and the heat of the northern plains.
At last we had to board our buses for the long ride up and up the mountains toward Ranikhet. The scenery was stunning but most of us soon tired of the turns and twists and unending mountain roads in these buses which seemed out of place on the narrow and steep roads. We chanted and sang; rested and watched; chatted and read.
Half way up we stopped at an ashram of Neem Karoli Baba. It is extremely clean and beautiful, at the edge of a happy and flowing river in a wooded canyon of sorts. We meditated there for quite some time; had tea at the tea stalls and generally were refreshed and prepared for the next many hours. As we rose in the mountains the sun beat more directly upon the mountain sides and our buses. The last part was mentally and physically challenging for most of us.
At last we reached the hill station along a high ridge facing north. Between the trees I eager looked for glimpses of the Himalayan peaks, still some one hundred miles or so north of us. Soon I was rewarded, even in the fading light of the day. Soon all were pressed to the glass oohhing and aaaahing at every turn as new peaks appeared and brightened our faces and warmed our hearts. We were, though tired, thrilled, for few, if any had ever seen the majestic sacred Himalayan range except in photos.
The Woodsvilla Resort was several miles past Ranikhet, driving along the ridgeline going east. It seemed the bus drive would never end! But at last we arrived and were warmly welcomed by the hotel staff and assisted down the long flight of stone steps into the lobby and soon thereafter to our rooms and into the dining room for dinner. We all retired early to await the big day of going to Babaji’s cave on nearby Dronagiri Mountain.
The next day I arose long before sunrise. I could not wait to see the morning light streak across the face of the Himalayan magistrates. I laugh at myself because in my eagerness to watch the drama of light on such a panorama, I decided that surely my guru wouldn’t mind if, just this morning, I meditated with my eyes open!
So, I sat on the cushioned window seat facing the Himalayan range and waited as I meditated. Slowly light began to fill the sky. The faces of of the eternal-snow rishis went from darkened silhouette to a clear outline and then a full face. At last, streaks of light shot forth from the east (to my right) and hit the snow-clad mountains full on. Their faces burned with light and came to life before my eyes. The morning dawned cloudless and clear. The sky gradually but quickly turned from inky darkness and star-lit to brilliant blue. It was a thrilling experience; one I will never forget.
This day, then, we are to travel to Babaji’s cave. I won’t take the “real estate” to describe the wonderful story of Lahiri Mahasaya, age 33, in the year 1861, being transferred mysteriously to Ranikhet and, while out wandering the hills, being called to meet the peerless and deathless guru, Babaji, and being initiated into Kriya Yoga in a cave on Dronagiri Mountain. I refer you , instead, to Chapter 34 - Materializing a Palace in the Himalaya in Yogananda’s famous Autobiography of a Yogi. It is to this cave, reputed to be the very cave, where we are to go today.
It took several hours to get there by our bus. The windy road led down the other side of the mountain, traveling north from the hill station of Ranikhet and along a beautiful, green-carpeted and terraced river valley with quaint villages and picturesque scenes. Then, up the other side along the flanks of Drongiri, not far from the town of Dwarahat. Our drivers took a “short-cut” to avoid going through Dwarahat. I was looking forward to the town because my daughter Gita and I had stayed there two nights on our first visit here less than two years ago. Not knowing this I became confused because as our vehicles rose higher and higher, it seemed to me that I recognized my surroundings as being Drongiri Mountain, yet we hadn’t gone through the town! (Later the route we had taken was explained to me.) While very close to our destination, we stopped to take a group photo with the backdrop of several Himalayan Peaks cast against Drongiri Mountain. It was absolutely stunning. All we could do was joke and cajole but inside I think we all felt we had died and gone to heaven but, having just arrived, we weren’t sure quite how to behave!
Within minutes, then, we had reached the trailhead to Babaji’s cave. Increasingly throughout the world, this remote pilgrimage spot is becoming known. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunagiri ). There’s a tea stall and very rustic “hotel” there. We got our provisions readied, did a brief prayer, and began our walk. It starts along a jeep track that follows the curve of the mountain. The sun was hot because now midday, so many of us covered up. The altitude is about 8,000 feet and you feel it when you leave the jeep track and begin trekking more seriously up the side of the mountain.
For me in both visits there I experience the mountain as having a soft light, a mellow light “around the edges.” It feels mystical. If that is mere sentiment, then so-be-it. The large rhododendron trees had flaming red flowers on them and on the ground beneath them. The pine trees are dwarf-like, and somewhat spindly and miniature, adding to a fairy-like feeling that someone is watching or the landscape is alive and conscious. You can’t see the cave from below.
The trail, once leaving the jeep track, is steep but basically in excellent shape. Signs display the fact that Yogoda Satsangha Society (YSS) owns the property. One crosses what is supposed to be the Gogash River (see Chapter 34) but in March it was sadly dry. It is a shadow of its former self. Lahiri Mahasaya said that Babaji had him lie down at the river’s edge after taking some kind of cleansing herbs or drink. He spent the better part of the night there before being summoned back up to the cave.
Just below the cave, YSS has constructed a fence-enclosed outbuilding. I suppose it has supplies in it but it is locked. It makes for a good staging area and picnic area for the final ascent up the trail to the cave itself.
The cave is small. On the inside, it was walled off by YSS to protect the deeper reaches of the cave. I do not know why. The cave itself is locked with an iron gate. We were fortunate however to be allowed in and we took turns meditating there. Many also meditated just outside the cave and on the ledges and hillside surrounding the cave. For breaks one would descend the trail back to the staging area for a snack and a rest.
The hill is pocked with caves and legend has it that not far away there is (are) a cave(s) where centuries ago the Pandavas sought shelter. According to the internet link shown above, the region is spiritually charged.
In meditating there, one should not expect great inner experiences. Should this occur, well, of course that is wonderful. Safe it is, rather, to be still and pray to receive the blessings and grace of the Mahavatar Babaji and the other great rishis (starting with Lahiri Mahasay) upon one’s life.
I came away with a deeper appreciation for the truth that in this sore-pressed world come such great souls to show us the way out of delusion and into inner freedom. More than that I came away with a greater appreciation that without the grace of God incarnating in human form through the avatara (divine descent into the human forms by Self-realized souls), we can never find our way out of the labyrinth of suffering and unhappiness. All the great moments and trends of history, politics, religion, science and the arts pale by comparison with the significance of the avatara. Though human history largely ignores them and human beings are indifferent or worse, it remains, in my view and that of devotees and saints everywhere, the most significant fact of human history and our soul’s greatest blessing and opportunity.
The rest of our journey was essentially the journey back home to Seattle. Most of it warrants no special description. We were weary and many bore the marks of travel fatigue and illness, but our hearts and souls were cleansed and refreshed. I hope and pray to God that each of my fellow pilgrims retain some permanent beatitude, some light, that can guide the next steps of their spiritual journey towards soul freedom.
With gratitude and devotion, I bow at the lotus-feet of Babaji, of my guru Paramhansa Yogananda, their lineage and to all saints and sages in every time and clime who have walked the path to God-realization and, in so doing, have lit the path for others to follow.
Thank you, dear friends and readers, for coming on this journey with us.
May the light of the Masters shine upon you,
So, dear friends, we return now to this series describing our recent trip to India. (This blog is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, so be forewarned.)
We left off leaving the Ananda Community in Pune to return to Delhi where the Southgate Hotel (near the south Delhi Ananda Center) is our hub. The ashram would store our larger luggage piece as we went out on shorter trips to various places. So now we returned after a ten-day jaunt that included Puri, Kolkata and Pune to re-group, re-pack our travel cases, store any gifts we had purchased, have laundry done and so on. That was Monday, March 11.
Tuesday morning, March 12, we returned to the Delhi airport (domestic terminal) for our flight to Varanasi. The flight was on time and happily uneventful. Varanasi airport was modern and clean and offered nothing worth mentioning. Out in the parking lot in front we readily found our three small vans who were ready and waiting for us. (We need smaller transportation because the streets of Varanasi are generally very narrow. Now mind, you, I am referring to streets where cars move around. The real “streets” of “old” Varanasi are but narrow lanes where one or two persons can sometimes walk side-by-side, or where a pedestrian is pushed aside by a motorcycle noisily wending its way through, its sound threateningly amplified by the buildings which rise straight up.)
The day was hot and humid and deceptively quiet at first. Almost unnoticed, the road from airport blended into the city precincts and soon the streets began to twist and turn. With each block it got more jammed and crowded. Progress toward the riverbank slowed to a crawl. Our van’s air conditioner pooped out and we had to open windows to let in the intense noise (shouting, honking, braying, blaring, etc.) and a steady flow of dust, dirt, and Lord knows what else. I can’t speak for the other vans, but by the time our van, one of three, reached the Ganges Palace Hotel we, its occupants, were over-heated, drenched by perspiration in our own clothes, and exhausted just mentally fending off the sensory assaults (trying not to breathe deeply and hold the mind inward and steady) while bouncing and jerking in our seats as the van tumbled through the streets.
We literally fell out of our vans, snatched our luggage, fought our way through the local beggars (presumably assigned to our hotel entrance by the local union) only to trudge up a steep flight of stairs to the one desk, one person lobby. 35 people and luggage soon overfilled the adjacent hallway. Rooms weren’t ready yet (it was still early afternoon). People were tired and frazzled and the hallways were superheated.
Fortunately, arrangements had been made to serve us lunch upon our arrival, so after a spell of confusion which included sitting and waiting, we were ushered downstairs where it was even hotter and more stuffy. A solitary air conditioning unit in the wall offered half-hearted puffs of tepid air as if in lackluster devotion to some uncool, but relatively minor, Hindu god.
All told, it was not an auspicious beginning. Clearly Varanasi, as we were forewarned, was going to be a challenging adventure. (The spiritual name for Benares is Kashi–see prior blog post.) Whether your sins are forgiven by bathing in the Ganges or you receive other blessings, there’s always a price to pay, you see. In the case of bathing in the Ganges, the price may be your life, at least if you are a foreigner, for what you can’t see might kill you. Oh, did I mention: don’t drink from the Ganges?
The view of the Ganges from our room, was, however, quite lovely. In early March, when there’s not been substantial rainfall since the summer-fall monsoon season, the opposite bank turns into a gigantic sand bar. Still, the river is slow and wide at least this time of year. No buildings or city is visible on the opposite bank or even beyond. The river circles the city in such a manner that it is flowing northward as it flows through and past Varanasi. The symbolism is obvious to a yogi: the northward flowing current of energy in the spine flows toward the highest chakra(s) in its journey toward “moksha,” liberation (enlightenment). The Ganges, among other things, symbolizes the river of grace and energy that leads to salvation. Hence the symbolism of bathing in the Ganges to cleanse one’s “sins.”
Mid-afternoon, we assembled to walk along the bathing ghats northward toward the center of town (but a relatively short distance) to visit and meditate at an ashram built by devotees of the woman saint, Ananda Moyi Ma. Ma didn’t necessarily live anywhere specific for long periods of time but she certainly did stay there sometimes. It is a steep series of steps up from the river and into the ashram, but the ashram is clean and tidy, if austere. There, in front of a room filled with relics and artifacts of Ma’s life, and an altar, we meditated in the mid-afternoon heat. Challenging to settle in, certainly, but well worth it. I won’t attempt to recount Ma’s life: Yogananda has an entire chapter on her in his autobiography. She’s well known and was a remarkable person: a mixture of orthodox and unorthodox! Swami Kriyananda spent much time with her and was greatly touched by her kindness and spiritual power.
As the afternoon’s heat broke, we boarded a hired boat to go downstream. The Ganges boats are very large rowboats, equipped in the center with a small engine in order to go upstream (as well as downstream). Going downstream they are steered and rowed relatively easily by one person, even when filled with over thirty people. We floated and rowed gently along the ghats, enjoying the incredible sight of the Varanasi (Kashi) skyline at the riverbanks. The ghats are entirely covered in cement and stone down into the water–so ancient is this city (the world’s oldest continuously occupied city). The buildings along the shore rise vertically many stories high along the surrounding cliffs (no longer visible). Steep stairs, therefore, rise from the shore up to the land above, which, once climbed, is level as you enter the heart of the city beyond.
The visual effect is akin to seeing medieval castle walls lining the western bank for at least a mile or so. Some are very old and decrepit, others more up to date and maintained. Some colorful; others, drab. Antiquity and tradition stream outward from every rock and brick. Nonetheless, over centuries, the Ganges in flood has torn away many a riverside building or ghat, so the riverbank is forever re-inventing itself. No bridge exists here. One could be dimly seen a mile or two upstream. None of the buildings can be, themselves, all that old for the simple fact that man-made buildings of any kind, even stone, can only last so long before falling apart or otherwise becoming unfit for habitation. But even a merely medieval impact suggests an aura of timelessness and of fixed tradition.
The activities along the ghat, themselves, would seem to have been going on since time immemorial: bathing, worshipping, conducting rituals, plying one’s various trades. Swamis, sadhus (including the famous “naga” or naked (literally, “sky-clad” sadhus) encamp along certain of the ghats in tents surrounded by smoke-filled smouldering fires used for cooking, washing, and conducting various rites and rituals. The haze and smoke that infest the place add to the surreal timelessness as do the clothing, dress, and activities of those assembled there in a never-ending parade of humanity.
We floated downstream to the largest and most famous burning ghat (there are actually several) (“Manikarnika”) where it is said that a flame has been kept burning for five thousand years. You could see the flame inside a small building at the edge of the ghat. The flame is specifically used to light the wood-fueled funeral pyres that line the beach there, attended to by a special class (caste) of “morticians”. Sometimes you can see an actual body in flames, but just as often only the wood pyre. Pictures are discouraged as a sign of respect but it seems this injunction is honored in the breach. Large pieces of timber are piled up for the non-stop, year-round functions of an outdoor crematorium. We never saw any dead bodies floating downstream and although that is not the correct disposition of the dead, it does in fact sometimes happen, whether for lack of funds or lack of care.
Eventually, we turned around, fired up the engine (which seemed as ancient as the ghats), and putt-putt’ed our way back to the main ghat (“Dasaswamedha”) for the daily dusk “arati” ceremony. A hundred or more boats like ours filled the waterfront area just off the ghat, bobbing and butting one another, as tourists and pilgrims and their oarsmen jockeyed for position and assembled for the nightly “light show.” Yes, it certainly was an entertainment: I believe 7 pujaris (priests) stood on a row of raised circular platforms lining the bank and like chorus girls (sorry for the image) conducted, in synchronization, a lengthy and elaborate ritual to the sound and beat of loud mantras and chants performed by a live mini-orchestra. It was entrancing and beautiful. The mantras have been chanted here for untold centuries and the effect was not lost upon us.
Boats bumped each others; hawkers of postcards and plastic religious items jumped from boat to boat hawking their wares with the annoying persistence appropriate to their trade no doubt since the dawn of time.
The priests used all sorts of ritual objects in their choreography but the most spectacular of them are these mini-Christmas tree shaped candelabra that they swung up and down and in all directions to the tune and beat of the chants. Incense, drums, bells, WOW…..beautiful to be sure. One vacillates between imagining you are in Los Vegas at a floor show and being in Kashi, mesmerized by the power of these mantras and rituals and transported into a timeless region of high vibration. And, sometimes one just pauses to look around, watching the people in the various boats and making silent observations of a more mundane type–you know, people who write blogs about things like this!
Still, one can hardly be indifferent to the spectacular and intense sights and sounds. Smoke fills the air everywhere here–which means one’s eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Mosquitoes and moths have a feeding frenzy. One’s individuality threatens to lose its tentative grip upon the body and is invited to merge into the haze of smoke, flashing lights, dark shadows, silhouetted forms, and pounding beat of mantric vibrations that fill and overtake every lesser reality. Though this may sound like a description of a rock concert and although the comparison is inevitable because so superficially similar, all comparisons end because the arati has at least the potential to lift you towards a transcendent state while the typical rock concert invites you hypnotically toward a gyrating, snakelike orgy of tribal subconsciousness.
Finally, and before it was completely ended lest a boat-jam take place, we motored back to our ghat, near to the hotel, and then ascended to the hotel rooftop for a dining buffet experience under the hazy stars. The air now was at least cool if not clear and it was a gentle and fitting end to a long day.
The ancient motor in the giant rowboat is housed in a wooden box at the center of the boat. There’s no battery to start it. The “boy” opens a panel and inserts a heavy, steel crank; sets the spark and the mix; and cranks as hard as he can, jumping back lest it rip his arm off when it fires up! Though it sounds diesel-like, I think it uses petrol (gasoline). It might even be one cylinder and it sounds like it is wide diameter piston and long of neck cylinder: each oscillation is distinct and throaty. While going downriver with silent rowing, we could chant with our harmonium, there was no hope of chanting with the putt-putt thing happening. It was, if not deafening, anathema to any conversation except it the most intimate one-to-one shouting!
Early the next morning, about dawn, we walked back to Ma’s ashram for meditation. Just as a few of us sat cross-legged on the marble floor (or upon our portable three-legged stools), two rows of young women marched up and sat behind us and began full-throttle mantras and chants, unaccompanied. It was lovely if a little disconcerting. We didn’t know if it would go on for two hours; if we were supposed to move out of their way; whether we were intruding upon their ancient daily ritual, but finally they stopped and trooped away as soundlessly as they had appeared. We chanted a bit and then meditated.
The morning sun, rising across the eastern shore of the Ganges, was now beginning to heat the air. We stayed because invited one at a time to enter Ma’s tiny, austere bedroom. Her bed was not quite made of nails, but it was simply a wooden, low-slung platform. Her tiny shoes were placed at the foot. We took turns entering and touching the shoes, pronaming and being in silence for a brief meditation.
Back then we went for hotel breakfast. By mid-morning the sun was awake and ready and beating fiercely. Once again we boarded our open rowboat to head back downstream to the main ghat. There we exited the boat and climbed steps into the labyrinth of alleyways, Kashi’s heart, in order to find the shrine to Lahiri Mahasaya, created, I believe, by Shidendu Lahiri, great grandson of Lahiri (?). The boat ride was hot and therefore we were silent, most of us hiding from the blaze of the sun with whatever objects of cloth, sunglasses, hats we were perspicacious enough to have brought with us.
The walk into “town” and along the incredibly narrow (and filthy) lanes, being continually harassed by deep-throated motorcycles pushing their way through the narrow passageways, was an adventure to say the least. You could disappear into any number of alleys or doorways and never be heard from again. It’s that easy.
You’d have to be a Houdini to know “who dunnit: the butler or the cook.”
But find it we did. It was very clean and beautifully done. It included a side-shrine with a portion of Lahiri’s ashes and a museum that included some books and items for sale. We stayed a good bit, left some donations, and had a nice meditation there.
Then out into the narrow and dark lanes we went again looking from the wooden front door to Lahiri’s own house. Find it we did, but we could only gaze upon it or press our forehead against the door in prayerful obeisance to the guru who started it all in this tiny house in the heart of Kashi in 1861. The family who occupies the home doesn’t welcome devotees though we were told that once a year in late September, around the time of Lahiri’s mahasamadhi date, the door is open. But even in past years when Ananda devotees could go in, mostly all they could do was look. Even meditating was “forbidden.” Such is maya.
I believe the preceptors of this path want no particular interest expressed in them as individuals and the mundane details of their personal biographies. I think they would prefer we emulate and assimilate God-consciousness into our daily lives through kriya yoga and with their inner guidance. End of lecture.
The day, however, was far from over. Some of us were on the hunt for some special gifts (see wedding below) and most still had enough verve to want to venture out even more. By special arrangements by our tour guide, Bijaya, we were to be given the opportunity to get close to the otherwise forbidden Vishnu Temple at the center of Kashi (Vishwanath Temple). The walk there was very long through narrow lanes that seemed to get narrower and narrower as we approached what was presumably the temple but the lanes are so narrow you can barely see your feet what to mention anything around you. Throngs of pilgrims, hawkers and shoppers pressed on all sides and in both directions. Keeping an eye on the placement of your feet was essential to avoid landing in holy cow shit, or worse, perhaps. The tiny stalls often were fascinating but the pushing crowd gave little opportunity for window shopping and the merchants within would have grabbed and kidnapped you for a private “showing” even if you did. Still it was all very intriguing if harrowing at the same time. The perfect tourist and pilgrim’s “You wouldn’t believe what we did” story.
Bijaya guided us to a tiny shop and we all pressed in, removing our shoes and backpacks there in the store for pre-arranged safekeeping (with the promise of “rich” American pilgrims shopping afterward, of course). Then out into the lane, shoeless, we went a short distance and then entered an even darker and more narrow alley guarded by men and women in army uniforms with machine guns and an X-ray machine. Women are always “handled” separately but I certainly was searched and patted down (and up) and then cleared.
Evidently, the Temple is adjacent to a mosque and there’s been a centuries old festering wound around their relationship. A history not worth researching. But a year or so ago a bomb went off and hence security is rather tight. The tiny lane that we entered was one of several passageways into or at least toward the Temple. My understanding is that this entrance was especially for foreigners. We scooted along the alley, passing shops selling the various items that devotee Hindus typically bring as gifts to the deity. It was all very confusing but in the end all that happened to me was that I was told to walk up a few steps on a side alley so I could view the somewhat smallish but definitely beautiful and gold plated Temple dome. Yup: that was it.
Later I heard some people may have gotten a sneak peak into the temple inner sanctum through an ancient wooden door but in the hubbub I guess I missed an important cue or maybe I was suppose to miss it. Though it was all very dramatic and all very anti-climatic, I wouldn’t have missed for anything! (I got to write this story, right?)
Well, the tension was broken and it was announced we were off (by pre-scouting pre-arrangement) to a nearby restaurant appropriate for the likes of us. We followed the lanes back in reverse order and gradually they widened and we reached something of a main thoroughfare where vehicles actually went. We eventually and magically happened upon an upstairs restaurant, somewhat large, where all of us managed to find tables and actually enjoyed a delicious and relaxing meal together. We took our time as we were fairly wrung out on all levels.
But, finished we were not. That magic hunting expedition for that special gift for that special someone hung over us like a black cloud, like a hangover on a sunny morning. (Well, ok, for those of us who couldn’t find a gift if it were thrust at us, shopping in a strange, elusive, slightly forbidden place like Kashi is like searching for a “needle in a haystack of nettles.” In short, daunting.)
Somehow our cultural attache, Murali Venkatrao, was up for the hunt and began to lead us down the main street of town. Soon he had outpaced us as the traffic began to snarl and massive lockdown took place. Some of us stood around and began dialing our cell phones in frustration and confusion. Eventually we all met up and to escape the lockdown (all cars, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians had been frozen by a coagulation of objects so complete as to leave everyone in shock and in paralysis). We found a side alley that headed in the direction of the river and made our escape–not having the scantiest idea where the labyrinth would lead this time. Murali had never been to Kashi before, either.
As God and guru and their grace would have it, after dodging innumerable cow pies, their former owners, and alleys that threatened to leave us blinded with dead-ended numbness, we actually found ourselves walking past Lahiri’s front door! Ah! Revelation! We “knew” where we were. We would be safe!
In time, the shoppers found a cloth shop they announced was the real thing. Well, for me fatigue and confusion was the more real thing. I, and a bunch of others, were finished. We knew more or less the direction to the river and we could walk the ghat all the way to hotel. The afternoon sun would no longer be beating on the ghat and it could be pleasant enough. (Earlier, after lunch, my personal instinct had been to hire an auto rickshaw and hi-tail it back to our hotel, near the Assi Ghat. I was to kick myself later for not following my own travel instinct.)
Yes, the walk was pleasant enough but it was also rather long. As we walked (Gita, Badri and I, and many others, in a random, somewhat dazed, disorder), the smoke from small fires and the tent cities of the naga sadhus and others began increasingly to fill the still air. My eyes begun to water profusely. I couldn’t see well; uncontrollable sneezing and dripping would force me to stop every minute or two using up my rapidly dwindling supply of paper tissues. I thought I’d never make it. I could hardly breathe.
Well, as you might have guessed, I did make it. But from this point to the rest of the trip and after home, I was blessed with a sinus cold and sore throat. It was light-duty, but omnipresent and a constant, if dull, damper upon my vitality and state of mind.
For the entire time of our stay in Kashi, Padma was bedridden. Bronchitis, asthma, and barrage of heavy-duty meds prescribed a few days earlier by a doctor called to the Delhi hotel room, had taken their toll. Late into the night after this long day, she was on the verge of calling a doctor (which would have probably meant, imagine the great story, being admitted into a Varanasi hospital–probably adjacent to the burning ghat, I was guessing). Well that horror show abated, in part because I wasn’t going to permit it — for I did sincerely feel that despite her multiple agonies, that she was in no great danger. I’ve had my share of travel troubles and you always think you are certain to die any minute, but, usually, you don’t. There was enough drama going on amongst the pilgrims to want to shift the drama onto us on center stage. Not my usual schtick. “Boss say no.” After this, and upon returning to Delhi, Padma dropped out of the journey to rest in Delhi. She returned home in better health than many of us. The story had a happy ending.
So, you think this story is over! Finished we are not!
Thursday, March 14, we arose well before dawn and met at the nearby ghat: chanting and/or energizing in the pre-dawn twilight. We boarded our boat and made our way downstream edging ever closer to the opposite (sand bar) bank. We chanted the Gayatri and Mahamitryajaya mantras as the sun rose, large and reddish. We docked opposite the river-skyline of Kashi and set up the simple accoutrements to conduct a previously arranged but secret wedding ceremony for Kelly and Mona Williams. Because Padma could not attend, my daughter Gita was my assistant. We conducted the entire Ananda wedding (sans most of the music) right there at the shore end of the large rowboat. The couple and myself faced the city of Varanasi standing in mute testimony to this tiny drama of human life as it has witnessed the birth, life, and death of countless millions down through the ages! Wow…..is all I can say. This morning was definitely a highlight of our Kashi experience. At the same time, it was intimate and, let’s face it, personal! We had laughs; we had tears; it was joyful. A few feet away, locals, who seem to emerge from the invisible ether or from beneath the sands, gathered to watch the odd spectacle. (In India, you are never alone except, if you are lucky, in the squatter toilet, and then, only briefly, as it is likely that if you tarry, a persistent and impatient knocking sound commences.)
Then we motored downstream past the burning ghat and docked so we could walk up the steep stairs and find the ashram of a famous 19th century sadhu, contemporary of Lahiri Mahasaya, Trailanga Swami. (See Yogananda’s autobiography for the details of this unusual Swami.) We had a good meditation there. It contains an enormous Shiva lingam, many photographs and an underground room where Trailanga left his body in the great samadhi of death.
We returned to hotel in time for breakfast, motoring quietly upstream past the main Kashi ghats, now coming alive in the morning sun with bathers and worshippers. We were tired but happy. Tired and inspired.
Mid-afternoon, we boarded our convoy of vans to visit Sarnath a few miles away: a beautiful collection of properties and shrines located where Lord Buddha, incarnation of Vishnu, gave his first “sermon” after his enlightenment. What a beautiful place; its serenity is a contrast with most Hindu shrines and temples; so, too, is its cleanliness. Not a few pilgrims wondered, at this point, whether they perhaps ought to have been Buddhists, instead! So, wonderful and refreshing (even the air was clean) was the experience. We meditated on the spacious lawns for about an hour (no locals or hawkers disturbed us) and visited several elaborate and beautiful shrines, including a brand new one with a thirty or forty foot high statue of the great Lord himself. It was all free, by the way.
As dusk quickly turned to inky black, we stopped at the Clark Hotel (on our way back to the Assi Ghat and our hotel) for a sumptuous banquet held and given to us by the newly married couple. They had made all the arrangements from America beforehand. The food is beyond the limits of my observational and descriptive powers but suffice to say, “it was really good.” We had personal musicians who, it turned out, are part of the Benares School of Music and the Mishra family, some of whom have played at the Bothell Temple and are coming again this June to Seattle!
At the dinner, the happy couple displayed their newly made 9-stone wedding rings. The rings had been hand crafted the day before….at a shop just below our hotel by a man whose family for nine (?) generations have been jewelers in Kashi. One enormous mural behind the buffet tables showed an Indian couple where the groom has positioned the wedding ring ready to place onto his bride’s finger. The happy couple stood in front, in the exact same position, as we chanted and blessed them and their very special rings.
Hours later, when we exited the Clark Hotel to jump in the vans we realized that the cooling but dark, water-laden thunderheads we had observed at Sarnath, had emptied their contents in a furious downpour that would no doubt have cleansed Kashi of so much of its dirt and dust! Thus we returned cool and clean, so to speak, to our hotel.
Friday, March 15, back to Delhi. Whew! Kashi: what an intense experience. In the prior blog I alluded to the spiritual significance and power of Kashi. That I won’t repeat here but it was worth it, even though we returned to Delhi a bit travel weary and various degrees of unwellness. Overall, I think most of us are very glad we went, though, “Would you go again?” might have a mixed response.
Enough a-ready, finished we are. “Finnish” we are not. Fin-e.
I take something of an Easter break by reflections related to both Easter and Kashi (Varanasi). In my next blog, I will return to our trip to India.
We visited Kashi (Varanasi) recently; an ancient city, hallowed by saints and sages, and uplifted by millions of pilgrims seeking moksha, liberation from endless rounds of birth, life and death. Quite nearby, just outside of town, Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment. In our line of gurus, there lived or came to Kashi Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Sri Yukteswar, and Paramhansa Yogananda. Legend has it that Jesus Christ, too, travelled to India, including Kashi. Few of India’s great sages for the last many thousands of years failed to at least visit Kashi at one time or another. The list of saints and sages who have walked its lanes, bathed at its ghats along the Ganges, and soared in superconsciousness is impossibly long.
We found there in our visit, therefore, a deep sense of continuity and timelessness. Indeed, my reflections this Easter Day, are that from the ancient city of Kashi has been resurrected in our times, through the instrument of Lahiri Mahasaya (at the behest of the peerless Babaji), a wisdom that is timeless, timely, universal and nonsectarian. This wisdom, and the practices which offers to each of us its revelation, has been resurrected in answer to the prayers of millions of sincere souls. Humanity, torn by greed, racism, nationalism and sectarianism, yearns for an antidote, a way out to save ourselves, our planet and our souls.
The city of Kashi (Varanasi) is so ancient that we could have just as easily walked the narrow and crowded lanes of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ. Here we found hawkers selling religious articles, blessings, rituals, indeed, everything but animals for sacrifice! The hubbub is like a page right out of the New Testament.
This Easter, which has jumped up so suddenly upon us (having been in India nearly a month), I am easily transported to the days and life of Christ. At that time, two thousand years ago, the Pax Romana held sway, feeling, for those under its iron feet, like a heavy coat on a hot and sultry day.
Palestine was, like Kashi is still, a hot, dusty place. For the Romans, it was a difficult land to govern, inhabited by a querulous people with odd customs and a cultish religion. A small time preacher appeared in the rule of Caesar Augustus and made a temporary sensation in that land but fell out of favor with religious leaders who prevailed upon their Roman procurator to have this preacher condemned to death by crucifixion. So far as we know there are no records of his mock trial.
Yet, in only three hundred years, followers of this uneducated rabbi conquered the very empire that had once sought to cruelly exterminate them. Into their harsh world of “might makes right,” where human life had little value and the general populace were like slaves and serfs, came the call of God’s love, incarnated into human form, sharing their suffering and brutal life, teaching that each of them is a child of God bound for eternal life! What a revolution! The old pagan gods of Rome and Greek were already dead: made lifeless by their aloofness and capriciousness. There was little hope in that so-called Pax Romana. Only slavery and nonstop political intrigue and war.
But this descent of divine love, in the person of Jesus, carried forward into the Roman world by self-sacrificing disciples was later to merge with that particular form of Roman genius — the rule of law — to produce what was in later centuries was to become the inalienable rights of man and the freedom each person to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Imagine! All from a guy who trod the dusty roads of Palestine and taught on the steps of the Temple of Jerusalem, who was derided and criticized, and finally condemned to an ignoble death.
This respect for the individual has its source in the simple truth that we are a soul, not a body, and, as a soul, we are a reflection, a child, of God. This truth has the been the teaching of the disciples of Christ and, rightly employed by men and women of truth and devotion, it has lit the flame of freedom around the globe. Oppressed and exploited people in every land have found consolation and hope in a rising tide of consciousness which, today, is considered more political than spiritual but which has power only because of its source in God.
A byproduct of this dawning sense of individuality was made manifest during the European Renaissance period. This further expanded into the age of exploration and then later into the explosion of scientific inquiry, with its fruits later becoming the industrial age, then the age of commerce, the age of energy, and now the age of information.
We have extracted from Mother Nature much of her power and energy, sufficient, unfortunately, to destroy her very gifts, and, ultimately, our lives and that of many creatures and living things.
The time has come and is now for a new dispensation of divine grace and wisdom. A new ray of divine inspiration has come to earth through Paramhansa Yogananda and those who sent him to the West that our powers be harnessed for the good of all, and for the good of our own spiritual freedom.
Paramhansa Yogananda was sent to the West as we entered the twentieth century (a century of unprecedented human slaughter). In this century in earnest saw the dawn of globalization. The era of colonialism was fast outliving its purpose and was, in any case, only a transitional era which set the stage for bringing humanity together.
Now, as we see more and more nations acquiring knowledge, technology, and harnessing their natural resources, brother nations will either face mutual destruction or opt for cooperation and integration.
Interest in and practice of meditation is exploding throughout the world as high-minded souls instinctively go within to find meaning and peace. In the crush of our fast paced planet, where no one creed, philosophy, or lifestyle holds sway over disparate population groups and nations , we know intuitively that truth is within us.
The practice of meditation, and especially the liberating technique of kriya yoga, is encircling the globe in an aureole of in-lighten-ment to offer individuals a direct perception of their divinity.
Like Jesus, Paramhansa Yogananda has begun a quiet and not yet noticeable revolution: Self-realization. Now, to divinity incarnate we can add divinity within. In this way we see all nations, all peoples, races, gender, cultures, creatures and all life as our very own: united by the indwelling presence of God which alone is the only reality behind all seeming.
This teaching has been resurrected for a new age and just in time it is sweeping the globe. Those who draw upon its ray, whether conscious of Yogananda and this line, whether directly practicing the technique of Kriya Yoga which he brought, will find upliftment and some measure of freedom and inner harmony.
Cooperation, simplicity, sustainability, and moderation, united to devotion to God through personal meditation, will be the salvation of humanity and the planet. There is much work to be done and there will be reverses and setbacks and, indeed, great suffering, as the forces of existing power and greed retaliate against the movement that empowers and enlightens individuals throughout the world.
Never miss your daily appointment “with God” in meditation. Some day all of our appointments will have to be cancelled. We don’t know the troubles which lie ahead of us as the world turns ever faster and all sense of security and prosperity hangs upon a slender thread of karma. “The time for knowing God has come!” Yogananda proclaimed.
From the ancient city of Kashi, a new dispensation, a new ray of light has appeared.
Part 3 – Pilgrimage to India – In the Footsteps of the Masters
On Friday, March 8 this year, Padma’s birthday, we flew from Kolkata to Pune, stopping briefly in Allahabad.
It was long and windy drive in the bus from the Pune airport to the Ananda Community to the west of Pune city. At the very end we left the main, paved road and proceeded over a gentle river and then a stream to wind our way up a small dusty (red) dirt track along the side of a low range of hills and arrived at the Ananda Community being welcomed and enveloped with smiles and helping hands.
This small and struggling Community has eked out an existence in the hills there against great obstacles, not least of which is an uncertain water supply. A complex of retreat bungalows have been built and at a distance the beginnings of a development of “flats” to be sold to members and friends who might live or visit there.
The temple is an outdoor one, covered in netting but quite serviceable and lovely for meditating. Halfway up the hill is a flat for Swami Kriyananda, staff, and others. The terrain, though challenging, supports a semi-tropical array of trees and plants, yielding bananas, papayas, mangoes, trees, gardens and flowers. Though we arrived in dry season, it was still lush and I understand it turns very green during and after the summer monsoon.
Near the top of the hill, the monks have their “kutirs” (simple huts) and a cave. In the central area nearest the entrance is a small store, reception, offices, and kitchen. Nearby is another office and a delightful cafe and patio where coffee, expresso, ice cream, milk shakes and sandwiches are served for the enjoyment of staff and visitors alike. There one can find wi-fi and chat with virtual friends, or sit and chat with many new and old friends in person. Quite the place!
The highlight of our visit to Ananda Pune was an afternoon satsang, out of doors in a lovely amphitheatre, with Swami Kriyananda. He is the founder of the worldwide network of Ananda communities and is a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda. Not only is he one of the few direct disciples living on earth today, but in fact he has been for decades the most accessible, most creative, and most visible of the disciples serving Yogananda’s work.
The land of the Community is terraced in places and especially well developed just below Swami Kriyananda’s house (flat). The landscaped terraces form this natural amphitheatre in the hill just below his home. He gave a heartfelt talk and everyone basked in his joy and in the intimacy of his “conversation” with Master and Divine Mother. Here we at last had our living shrine, and not just some stone or artifact worn by or used by a saint–but the real thing. This is the real India: a place where true renunciation and living for God is honored and respected, rather than despised or questioned. Here, too, is where the transmission of spiritual power and grace through living instruments (from guru to disciple) is understood, accepted and honored. Here, then, more than anywhere else in the world, Swami Kriyananda can speak “as no other man has spoken” (to quote the Bible in respect to the observation of listeners of Jesus’ sermons). Swamiji, not unlike his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, wears the timeless wisdom of Sanaatan Dharma like a familiar, old coat and speaks of it like an old friend!
In the evening he joined us in the amphitheatre under the stars to enjoy a concert of music from around the world! Both events were just magical and transported the devotees to a timeless space, to another dimension where saints and devotees commingled with ease and with joy. It was like entering a different world: it was safe, happy, beautiful, and filled with radiant joy and inner peace. This was India: guru to the planet: bestowing its ray of light outward to all truth-seekers, giving comfort and wisdom to all in need.
Our time there was peaceful in other respects too, for there are no honking cars, no near-fatal encounters with moving vehicles, no choking fumes, and no need to be on the traveller’s constant guard. The home cooked food was a blend of Indian and western and was simple and tasty. Accommodations were rustic and, with some exceptions, adequate (there were so many of us that about ten had to be lodged down the road at a nearby “camp”). Water was in serious short supply, however. It has to be trucked, several times a day, from a nearby stream and pumped into water tanks on the land. There was never enough for showers and so on. This was challenging for the fact that the daily high temperature was mid to upper 90′s and dust was everywhere, or, at least all over one’s feet and pants. Though it was hot in the midday sun, it was delightful at dusk and in the evenings, and by daybreak, it could even still have a little nip of cold.
One night, however, was the annual India-wide celebration of Shiva (known as Shivaratri) and local villagers used the opportunity to party all night raucously. If there was any devotion in their noise, I missed it. Sigh. Some of our pilgrims had little sleep that night, unfortunately.
What Ananda members, both Indian and American (and European) have accomplished in manifesting a community and retreat out of “pure” red dirt is a testimony to will power, dedication, creativity and divine grace! Yet, they have yet a long way to go. At minimum is needed a long-term secure source of water. Movement is afoot to bring a pipeline in but it’s not there yet and land disputes and theft (yes, including water theft) are rampant and endemic. Most visitors, at least from America, make the obvious and appropriate comparisons to the state of Ananda’s original community, Ananda Village, in the Sierra Nevada foothills some thirty years ago. Who could imagined how beautiful that community was to become from its state during the ’70′s and ’80′s!
At last, our few days there in the peace and quiet of the Pune hills was over. At the break of dawn on Monday, March 11, the serviceful monks hefted our luggage onto the bus as we, after a quick breakfast, began our journey by bus and air back to Delhi.
Now we are on to India’s holiest city, Varanasi, known by its spiritual name, Kashi. This city was to prove our greatest challenge and yet one of our most inspired visits. It was to prove to be action-packed and a revelation of timeless intensity.
See you in Kashi!
Part 2 in Pilgrimage to India series:
In the pre-dawn darkness we boarded the train from Puri to Kolkata: the same train and tracks that Paramhansa Yogananda and his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, would have taken together from about 1910 to 1920. (Sri Yukteswar would have gone there from 1903 to 1936 by train.)
Yes, indeed, the train looked like it was the same one, too. You couldn’t open the windows or even really see out of the train windows and the bathroom was simply a hole in the floor: need I say more? It was, however, air conditioned, but even that was mostly an affirmation. For nearly eight hours we rode north along the coast and inland before arriving at Howrah Railway Station, Calcutta: perhaps India’s greatest and largest and most famous railway station. Here Lahiri Mahasaya, Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Sri Yukteswar, innumerable devotees and perhaps even Ramakrishna and most certain his great disciple, Vivekananda, and also Ananda Moyi Ma would have boarded and exited trains!
But Howrah was surprisingly tidy and quiet: not at all what I expected. There’s an old building, where we de-trained, and a newer one. The rail yards are quite large and extensive. We boarded our tour bus but instead of crossing the Hoogli River into Calcutta by the Howrah Bridge, we circled around and entered the city across a brand new, modern suspension bridge to soon arrive at our hotel, the lovely and welcoming Kenilworth. (The Hoogli River is a branch of the Ganges as she splits apart to become the “mouths” of the Ganges flowing into the sea. For our purposes and that of most Indians, she is the Ganges!)
Fresh from the train (“a euphemism, merely, we were covered with soot” – Autobiography of a Yogi), we soon got back on the bus (after depositing ourselves in the lovely and refreshing Kenilworth Hotel) to visit Yogananda’s increasingly famous boyhood home at 4 Garpar Road, Calcutta. Somnath, the husband of Sarita (they have two grown daughers), is descended from Yogananda’s younger brother, a well known artist in his own right, Sananda Lal Ghosh. The family, with assistance from devotees, have restored and now maintain the home for the purposes of serving devotees from all over the world. Treasures in photos and paintings (including colorized photos), personal belongings and of course a place of pilgrimage await all who come with devotion. Yogananda’s bedroom; his attic meditation room; the spot where Babaji stood to bless his journey to the West….this and much more bring the great guru to life in his youthful vitality.
We had two visits there; the second one came three days later, on March 7, the day that commemorates Yogananda’s “mahasamadhi” (conscious exit from his physical body). (On that day in 1952 in a crowded banquet room of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Yogananda left this world speaking of his India and his America!)
So we chanted and meditated, taking turns meditating in Yogananda’s bedroom and in his attic meditation room while having our central spot in the upstairs living room. On March 7, we had a discipleship renewal ceremony. All told, I think I can speak for most of us in saying this home was one of the trip’s many highlights. The family served a catered lunch to us on that Thursday, March 7 and shared some time-honored stories of Yogananda’s upbringing.
On March 5, the day after our arrival and after our first visit to Garpar Road, we visited the home of Yogananda’s boyhood friend: Tulsi Bose. It is down the block and around the corner. You could never imagine it being what it really is: one of India’s most precious shrines, but unknown to all of India and the world. For reasons of destiny, Yogananda’s own home contained too large a family and was too busy a place for his youthful spiritual search. Divine Mother caused him to seek and meet young Tulsi Bose, whose home was quieter and better suited for satsang (spiritual gatherings), although considerably smaller. Master (Yogananda) spent much time there both as a high school and college student but also upon his only return visit to India, spanning 1935-1936. Stories from family and friends abound, for Yogananda’s return to India was a big sensation throughout India but most certainly in Bengal: local boy does good! He was as much a spiritual sensation and sought-after speaker in India as he had been during his barnstorming days in America in the Twenties and Thirties.
There is what is now an old somewhat fragile guest chair in the tiny (12′ x 15′ ?) downstairs living room where the likes of Yogananda, Sri Yukteswar, perhaps Lahiri Mahasaya, plus one or more of Lahiri’s most advanced disciples, Swami Vivekananda, anyone?, and who knows how many other saints (and I think that includes Ananda Moyi Ma, and maybe even Ramakrishna’s widow, Sharda Devi?), had sat and where chanting, meditation, and high spiritual experiences, too numerous to attempt to catalogue here, had taken place. Just try sitting in that chair: a kind of “electric” chair! But be careful: it is very fragile!
Upstairs is the tiger skin that Sri Yukteswar meditated upon; plus the deerskin of Yogananda and the bed where they had slept at various visits. We took turns sitting on these to meditate! In an tiny upstairs meditation room are relics so numerous they’ve yet to be classified. One that stands out for most of us is an iron trident said to be given by Babaji to Lahiri, Lahiri to Sri Yukteswar, S.Y. to Master, and Master, having left it with Tulsi! The trident is the symbol of Shiva! Talk about “power.”
I doubt anyone left there empty-hearted: awe-struck, at minimum, inwardly quiet and blissful, probably. And over all this tiny domain their reigns a queen of hearts, a custodian-saint worthy of the privilege: Tulsi’s now elderly daughter, Hassi Mukherjee. Hassi was blessed by Master in 1936 when Hassi’s mother, Tulsi’s wife (chosen for him by Master), was pregnant. Years later Hassi, as a young girl, spoke to Master in Los Angeles by telephone when he would ring up to see how the family was doing. Master always watched over his extended, human family, even from afar, in America.
After a catered lunch in this tiny home, we motored to the nearby Dakshineswar Temple, home of Ramakrishna’s life-long lila (life drama) — as resident “avatar!” We chanted on the very spot in the portico opposite the statue of Divine Mother (Goddess Kali), where Master had an experience of Divine Mother as he describes in his autobiography. We watched the sunset across the Hoogli and meditated in the bedroom where Ramakrishna lived for 30 years.
What a day that was!
Calcutta has an interesting role in the history of modern India: from the mid to late 19th century until about the 1930′s (as I understand it), West Bengal spawned a rise in nationalism and national and cultural pride through the genius and courage of such great souls as Rabindranath Tagore (poet laureate), J.C. Bose (scientist), reformers of Hinduism, revolutionaries, and, of course, an entire line of avatars! For those interested in historical matters, and who find synchronicity fascinating, it is well worth researching.
Wednesday, March 6, we crossed the Hoogli and went upriver to the town of Serampore: actually, Sri Ram Pur (city): site of Swami Sri Yukteswar’s home. The home is mostly gone and now off limits to visitors, being occupied by what we assume are his descendants. Instead, there is a small shrine next door where we meditated for a while.
Then we walked through the ancient and quaint lanes to the riverside to the Rai Ghat, where Babaji once appeared to Sri Yukteswar to congratulate him on the completion of his book, The Holy Science. (Babaji had asked and commissioned S.Y. to write this tome which was intended to announce the basic message of these avatars: that the underlying message of Christ and Krishna, of Christianity and Hinduism, is the same.)
At this bathing ghat, too, did S.Y. and his disciple, Paramhansa Yogananda, would come in the early morning to bathe in the Ganges. Here we sat around the aged banyan (where Babaji and his band had stood to greet S.Y.), and chanted joyfully as throngs of locals pressed forward in curiosity. The experience was exhilarating. What a contrast between our hearts and minds and the mundane scene and thoughts of those around us. Presumably they did not understand our joy, though I would guess they have become somewhat accustomed to these groups of Westerners (and Indians) coming throughout the year to sit under the banyan tree and meditate.
These simple shrines and places specific to Yogananda and his line are yet to be particularly of note to modern Indian culture. Thus their seeming invisibility to the culture contrasts sharply with the intensity of feeling and magnetic draw they have for certain souls from around India and the world.
Then we crossed town to visit with the descendants of Master’s elder brother, Ananta. Durlov, his wife, and his son greeted us and feed us a delightful lunch and regaled us to with family stories. Ananda members had, some years ago, intervened to help the family (in the spirit of Yogananda, himself, who always assisted his large, biological family, when in need) find a suitable place to live.
Next stop: Swami Kriyananda at Ananda Community, Pune! Pack your bags, we are off again!