Thursday, November 13, 2008

HIHT Annual Festival

On November 13, a busload of students and residents went from SRSG to Jolly Grand (I am sure that this has a different spelling and meaning, but that is the way I hear it) about halfway between Rishikesh and Dehradun. This is where Swami Rama established a teaching hospital, Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust, a few years before his death. Indeed, his samadhi is still on the grounds. The annual festival is called the Mahasamadhi Anniversary, commemorating Swami Rama's disappearance day. This was the 12th such annual festival.

HIHT began with only an outpatient clinic, but the present status of the institution is pretty impressive. In the past year, it was granted "Deemed University" status, as HIHT University, and has numerous departments, mostly related to the health sciences. Swami Veda is the chancellor of the university.

The director is the very dynamic Vijaya Dasmana, who was with Swami Rama from childhood, and says Swami Veda, was brought up by him specifically for the task to which he has now dedicated his life. Judging from the results, he is extremely capable.

You can see from this picture how nicely designed and maintained the campus is.

The current plan is to have the SRSG Gurukula become a part of the HIHT University and offer degrees in Yoga and related matters. Most of the staff here is currently devising a curriculum toward that end.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ashok Bhagat of Vikas Bharti Bishunpur in Jharkhand. The HIHT offers an annual prize, the Swami Rama Humanitarian Award, and Sri Bhagatji was the recipient this year for his work with the aboriginal or tribal people of the Jharkhand area. Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar a few years ago, primarily to further the development of a much neglected group of people. Bhagatji has dedicated himself to that work and has rather impressive achievements in a wide range of areas--health, education, agriculture, etc.

You can see from his picture that he is shirtless. This comes from his conviction that one has to place oneself amongst the people one claims to be helping, rather than placing oneself in a condescending position. His main inspirations are Vivekananda and Gandhi.

Swami Veda Bharati gave the keynote address. He is not only chancellor but "spiritual director." In that capacity, he did something which was rather unusual for what, to all appearances, is a quite secular institution. He led a silent meditation for three minutes. What was striking about it was that in a restless audience of several hundred people (liberally stocked with SRSG folk), the auditorium became totally silent and for the entire five minutes, there was neither whispered conversation nor ringing cellphone. Believe me, that is a first for me in India.

Later I was talking with Swamiji and I told him how I once went to Bangladesh where a godbrother was holding a kirtan and festival at his house. I remembered how disciplined the Muslims I had seen in the mosque were and how undisciplined and disrespectful the ordinary Hindus had been at the Vaishnava event.

Swamiji said that he had not asked nor received any mystic powers from his guru, but he could claim this one. And he said that he had been able to bring crowds far larger than this one--even tens of thousands--into a state of silence.

Now, that is something worth learning.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Swami Krishnananda Visit

We had a visit from a Keralan sadhu, Swami Krishnananda, who came in a tourist bus loaded with his disciples for a tour of north Indian pilgrimage sites. He has come to SRSG before, but this is the first time I had the occasion to see him.

He is an enthusiastic kirtaniya with a powerful voice. I was not there when he started his session, but Swami Veda was. Swamiji sent for me, saying that I would not want to miss this. Krishnananda was doing Krishna bhajans at the time. He often sings a Sanskrit stotra solo and then breaks into a Malayalam, Sanskrit or Hindi bhajan to which his disciples are an equally enthusiastic chorus.

Afterwards, Swami Veda gave, as he often does for visiting performers and sadhus, a token of appreciation. You can get a glimpse of Swami Krishnananda's personality from this picture.

Someone snapped this picture of me during the kirtan. I look pretty meditative. Likely it is because soon after I arrived, the Swami started doing kirtan for Rama, Shiva and other demigods--even the Navagrahas. So I was appreciating his voice, but not so much the content.

After the performance, we went up to Swami's dining room to eat. Krishnananda Swami and I were introduced. He took one look at me and said, "After eating, we will go back downstairs and do 15 minutes of Hare Krishna. And you must dance." He spent about five minutes eating and then was madly off in all directions.

Surprisingly, Swami Veda also came downstairs into the meditation hall and contrary to habit, did not sit in his vyasasan type chair, but on the floor. He said of K.S. that, "Most people start kirtan slow and work up into high gear, but you start at top speed." In Mayapur, the kids used to call me "Rail Gari" because I led kirtans as though I was driving a train. Anyway, that is the way Krishnanandaji led the Hare Krishna kirtan.

There was no getting out of it. I had to dance. And soon everyone was whirling around like a bunch of dervishes. Men and women. As a matter of fact, the rather grave looking woman to the far left of the Swami in the second picture above was a rather impressive figure with a lot of elegant moves. Swami gave of himself energetically.

It went on for half an hour and then we all calmed down with three minutes of silent meditation...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Photo of Sannyasis with Swami Veda Bharati

Photo taken yesterday on the occasion of Swami Rama's disappearance tithi. Front row, left to right: Swami Ma Seva Bharati (Dhanurdara Swami's cousin), Swami Turiya, Swami Veda Bharati, Swami Jnaneswari, Swami Radha Bharati (in charge of the Gurukula). Back row: Ramcharit Swami, Tattvananda Bharati, Panchashila Swami from Nepal, Swami Nityamuktananda, Sukhmeet Swami, Niranjana Swami, Chidananda Swami, Vachanananda Swami.

Monday, October 13, 2008

New School Year in Gurukula

We have been pretty busy lately. The new school year is finally underway here. Unfortunately, the Gurukula is not quite as organized as most schools, though things are looking somewhat optimistic here at the beginning of the semester. We have taken on six new students, two from Holland, two from Uttar Khand, one from Manipur and one from Karnatak. Several of the deadwood students have been trimmed away.

But the faculty staff problem is still acute. We are expecting a retired ESL teacher from Cornwall to come in two weeks time, but until then I am going to be taking both English and Sanskrit classes. This really works out to more than two classes, because there are different subgroups in both. It is a bit like the old one-room schoolhouses that they had out on the frontier, with everyone from the small kids to the high school students in one room. That makes organization difficult. Luckily we have Chandramaniji to teach advanced Sanskrit, so that rounds out one aspect of the syllabus nicely.

Last night I also gave a lecture on "the philosophy of Hatha Yoga." There was a good audience, since there is a group doing teacher's training from Holland, U.S. and China. There was also a sizable group from the western U.S.A., brought here by Sherri Baptiste Freeman and India Supera. When there are many international students like that, the ashram is pretty lively. There must have been at least 75 people in the meditation hall this morning.

Swami Veda came back a few days ago. He was very tired, so I did not go to see him, but he invited me upstairs for dinner the day before yesterday, and I invited myself up yesterday after the Philosophy of Hatha Yoga lecture, which is based on one of his books. He was looking much better. He's doing pretty well for a man of 75, with all his traveling around the world and lecturing.

I am still giving other classes as well at Madhuban and Vrindavan Ashram. And besides that I am trying to work on this Bhagavat-sandarbha project. The big time loser is reading Internet sites related to the current American presidential election. It is something of an indulgence. It seems that there are always anarthas around to be trimmed.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Swami Vachanananda

Swami Vachanananda returned from Karnataka a day or two ago and yesterday appeared in my English class for the first time in more than a month. Swami Veda is back in India and will be here in Rishikesh sometime this week, so gradually everyone is returning to the ashram, including new teaching staff, new students, etc.

Vachanananda was full of stories, so rather than have a regular English class, I made it a mock press conference and had the students pose as reporters and ask him questions. Since they won't actually write anything (I gave them another assignment), I am summarizing a little, plus giving some background.

Swami Vachanandanaji is only 25 but has been a sannyasi in the Lingayat or Virashaiva tradition that is mainly based in the Karnataka region.

Before he was born, his parents had three girls. They went to see a Lingayat guru who told them they would have a son, but that he would be a sadhu and would renounce home life. When the mother was pregnant, the guru gave "garbha-diksha" to the infant and told the mother that throughout the pregnancy she was to chant this mantra. He also gave a ishtalinga, which is the sect's symbol and worn by everyone. When the child was born, she was to repeat the mantra to the child before giving him her breastmilk. Then a few days later, the guru came and performed the Lingadharana ceremony. But he stipulated that the child was to belong to the guru.

This was a very serious commitment, especially in that family, since Vachananda's grandparents had made a similar deal with this guru's guru, and had reneged on it. Actually the deal had been made by the father without telling his wife, and when she had twins she could not bear to part with them. The two boys were extremely talented, brilliant, musical, etc. But not long after this refusal, they both died. The parents were devastated, but they did not lose faith in their spiritual master and dedicated themselves to serving in his ashram for the rest of their lives.

Anyway, Vachananda was educated in various Lingayat schools and ashrams and finally given sannyasa after he finished college. He is a charismatic fellow and though his English is still imperfect, he has a vast knowledge of the literature of his own tradition and is a very good speaker in Kannada.

This summer he was invited by some sponsors to lead a series of yoga camps in Karnataka. Over a six week period he lectured to thousands of people and gave yoga and meditation classes to about 600 people, mostly college students. As a matter of fact, his success was noticed by various Lingayat leaders, and according to V., at least three of them have asked him to succeed them in their ashrams or missions.

Anyway, all that was to introduce you to the man. The event that was particularly notable over the summer, however, was his intervention in a Christian-Hindu riot in the Mangalore area. This is an unfortunate thing that has been going on in India this summer, with Orissa being the beginning, but the anxiety of Hindus about Christian conversions growing and spreading.

When a militant Hindu sannyasi in Orissa was killed, things flared up in the Mangalore area as well. The Christians in Mangalore have been successful in evangelizing the poorer outcaste and tribal people of southern Karnataka, to the point that they represent a considerable percentage of the population. The state government is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party, and they seem to have decided that it is in their interest to have such turmoil going on under their watch. Whatever the case, they have been either unwilling or unable to put a stop to it, much to their shame.

Vachananda was introduced to some of the perpetrators of the violence, militant youths from the Bajrang Dal or RSS, and managed to persuade the that their approach was misguided. He said, "Look, the Hindu gurus and sadhus sit in their ashrams and try to attract wealthy patrons. None of them are interested in doing outreach programs to help the poor and uneducated. The Christians are doing that kind of work. So how can you blame them if these people turn to Christianity. They can see who is helping them and who is not. So if you really want to do something, then you should try to compete on this level."

These youth were convinced and organized a meeting with the Hindu sadhus of the area, which was reported in the media. Christian leaders heard of the initiative and came to see Vachanananda to thank him for his efforts. This led to a meeting between Hindu and Christian leaders and a truce of some kind being agreed upon. This in turn led to a lull in the violence in that area, but it appears that things have flared up again since he returned here.

Anyway, I was glad to hear that he had the good sense to attempt to make peace rather than follow this unfortunate and extremely shortsighted path of narrowmindedness and violence that so many Hindus -- indeed, fundamentalists of all stripes -- seem to be taking these days. It looks like Vachanananda Swami has a good future ahead of him, and I hope that he continues to make peacemaking and setting Hindus straight on their priorities a part of his agenda wherever he goes.

See Shashi Tharoor's comments on Huffington Post


Another short anecdote from Gangesh Chaitanya. He was in Vrindavan for a while and stayed at the Kunja Bihari ashram on the Parikrama Marg near Purana Kalidaha. Amongst the various kinds of seva he did there, one thing was to go and collect cow urine at the Iskcon Goshalla. This would then be used for various kinds of purification rituals in the ashram, sprinkling here and there, etc.

Since the object was purity, the person collecting the urine had to be ritually pure himself. So Gangesh would bathe before he went, etc. His being a young brahmachari was part of his qualification for the job. He was told, however, that if he had a nocturnal emission, he had to tell the people in the ashram and that would disqualify him from going on that day. Someone else would be sent and this replacement would have to bring back not only cow urine, but a steaming fresh cow patty as well.

Gangesh would then be made to sit down near the well and the cowdung would be placed on his head and flattened. Then someone from the ashram would pour buckets of water over his head in such a way that his entire body was covered with the dung. After the purification bath, he was again eligible to go and collect the cow urine.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Other Student Stories

The other night Gangesh Chaitanya came to "consult" with me. He told me more of his personal story.

In 2007, his travels brought him to Benares for Shiva Ratri. He arrived with no money, etc., but the first thing he did was go to the famous Vishwanath temple for darshan. Even though there was a line several kilometers long of people waiting to get in, he stood patiently for four hours before getting a brief moment before the Lingam. He said his prayers and made his obeisance in a very emotional state of mind.

He said to Shiva Vishwanath, "Tomorrow is Shiva Ratri, but it does not look like it will be easy to get darshan of you. But anyway I have seen you today, if you are merciful, then tomorrow I will be able to see you again."

After offering obeisances a second time, he went down to the Ganges and sat on the ghat, fully intending to spend the night there, as it was about 10.30. But sitting nearby was a sannyasi, so he decided to ask him if there was anywhere, any ashram, where he could go to render some service. The sannyasi was very welcoming and took him to a room somewhere nearby, where, on entering, there was a meeting of about 15 sannyasis in progress.

These monks immediately welcomed him and started a heated discussion, which led to the leader of the group, Madhava Giri, to say, "You must take sannyas right now." Someone produced a piece of saffron cloth and tore it to make a bahirvas and kaupin. Someone else took Gangesh to a barbershop and had his head shaved. Then he was taken to the Ganga and bathed, and then by midnight, he was a sannyasi, Sri Parvat Giri.

[A rather odd name, by the way. Parvat is also one of the 10 sannyas titles, as is Giri. Furthermore, both words mean "mountain." Anyway...]

Gangesh went to sleep with a deep, sound sleep like he had never known. So he tells. But at 3.00 some of his new companions stirred him from his slumber and said, "Come on, Baba, it is Shiva Ratri. It is time to bathe."

The entire group of fifteen went down to the Ganga where they joined a throng of other vairagis of various types who were bathing fully naked in the holy river. Gangesh was also stripped down, but he says that as everyone was equally naked, he felt no embarrassment. After bathing, they all covered themselves with ashes (vibhuti).

Then one sannyasi said, "Nagas over here, Mahapurushas over there." Gangesh did not know what he was talking about, but all the sannyasis divided into two groups. Someone ushered him into the Mahapurush group. The other batch remained entirely naked, while his group put on lengutis (kaupins) and the saffron cloth. Then they formed two lines and started walking towards the Vishwanath temple.

Gangesh tells that someone pushed him to the very front of the line and so, there he was, on his way to the Vishwanath temple just as it opened on Shiva Ratri, the holiest day of the year in Varanasi, at the very head of a procession of naked sadhus, to be the very first to have darshan of the Lingam.

So, whereas on the previous day it had been doubtful that he would even manage to get into the temple on account of the crowds of pilgrims, it ended up that he was the very first to enter!

Afterwards, though, things took a bit of a different turn. These were Nagas, and they are a bit fanatical in some of their practices. One of the things these sadhus do is whack their penises to deaden the nerves and make them permanently flaccid, inoperative and insensitive. When he realized that they were going to initiate him in this practice in the near future, Gangesh though, "This is not for me!"

Unfortunately, the group must have realized that their customs were not everyone's cup of tea, for they suddenly became very watchful. Gangesh was "put under surveillance." Two or three of the others followed him wherever he went.

Finally he made his escape. Again penniless (He says that during the time in Benares, he attended several feasts where many sannyasis were fed and given dakshina of 500 rupees, but he turned everything over to his Naga guru.), he boarded the first train that pulled into the Kashi station after being told that as a sannyasi, he had the right to free travel anywhere in India.

He ended up in Indore in Maharashtra, where he found an ashram there and was serving the cows. In this ashram he met another sannyasi, Padmapada Dandi Swami, who took one look at him, laughed and said, "You're not supposed to be a sannyasi!"

So he told him to become a brahmachari student and gave him the name Gangesh. He also told him that this would be his last birth in the material world.

Another of my students is another effulgent brahmachari with perfect teeth. This may be purely coincidental, but all our South-Indians seem to have this characteristic. Vachanananda Swami is another. One day in English class I was asking each of the students what their special talent was, and he said, "My smile." He was probably right... Of course, he has other talents. But this story is a short one about Ratheesh (Ratisha). It was told to me by Greg, an American who is also living in the Gurukula.

Apparently Ratheesh is a bit of a clairvoyant. When he was still very young, he would say things to people, quite spontaneously, that would come true. Word of this first spread in the family, and then through the village. Some business-minded relative or villager saw financial possibilities, and started charging money for him to exercise his gifts, rather successfully it would seem.

This went on for some time until Ratheesh went to the ashram of his guru. When his guru found out what he was doing, he immediately told him to put a stop to it. He said, "Whatever spiritual gifts you possess, whatever pious attainments you have from a previous life, are meant for you to perfect your spiritual life. You are going to ruin everything by using it for profit like this."

So Ratheesh left home and went to live in the ashram. I don't know how he got from there to here, but this is where his spiritual quest has taken him.

Greg told me that the two of them went to see a famous astrologer here in Rishikesh. The two of them were sitting together at the consultation and Greg went first.

Greg says, "You know, it was pretty positive and all that, but when he started talking about Ratheesh, the astrologer began to gush. 'You have the same chart as Adi Shankara!' he said. And on and on he went about the great spiritual attainments and future he was to have.

"To really put things in perspective, when it came time to pay, I gave my money. But when Ratheesh was pulling his wallet out, the astrologer categorically refused. 'It was an honor to do your chart...'"

I don't suppose that will happen to many of us in this lifetime.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Korean Group comes to SRSG

The ashram where I am staying received an interesting visit from a group of about 25 Korean students from the department of Yoga Studies and Meditation, Wonkwang Digital University. They were accompanied by department head, Jongsoon Seo, Ph.D., Prof. Kamalakar Mishra, now retired professor at the Benares Hindu University, and by Raghavendra Adiga, their yoga asana teacher.

Kwak Seung Hyun (Hamsa), another teacher at Wonkwang, is a disciple of Swami Veda and a frequent resident here. He is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis on “The Evolution of Pranayama in Yogic and Tantric Texts” at Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar.

Prof. Jongsoon Seo is a student of Kamalakar Mishra and spent ten years in Benares, where she completed her doctorate on “The Theory of Sakti in Kashmir Saivism.” She speaks fluent Hindi, much to the delight of the Hindi-speaking residents of SRSG. Under her leadership, the Wonkwang Digital University yoga and meditation department now has an amazing 400 students.

Such trips to India are a part of the university department's regular agenda. Since it is an on-line university, the students get little opportunity to interact personally with the teachers and other students. (It is interesting how such things as yoga and meditation can be taught on-line. I will have to ask.) This group had just spent a two week retreat at the Kalyana Baba ashram in Almora, and were passing through here on the way back to have a certificate bestowal ceremony, etc., since those things are coming through the Association of Himalayan Yoga and Meditation Societies International (AHYMSIN), which is here.

Kamalakar Mishra, teacher of Kashmiri Shaivism at BHU, who calls himself an Indo-Korean professor due to his relationship with the Korean university, where he has been in residence, is a well-known scholar of the Kashmiri Saiva tradition, with numerous publications to his name, such as The Significance of The Tantric Tradition, Varanasi (1981) and Kashmir Saivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism. I don't know whether Kashmiri Shaivism is having a renaissance thanks to Muktananda Swami, but there is certainly quite a bit of interest in it these days, specially around here.

Prof. Mishra recounted some of his experiences with Swami Rama, whom he met for the first time 35 years ago in Rishikesh at the Sadhana Mandir. He spoke with vigor and ease, despite his 75 years. I present some of the things he said, for information purposes only.

He began his talk by saying that faith or sraddha is the essential ingredient in sadhana, and that such faith is only possible because there are highly evolved saints in the world who exemplify and personify the teachings and experiences of the Divine. “Swami Rama,” he said, “Was one such person.”

The chance to associate more extensively with Swami Rama came in 1985 when he was invited to Honesdale to the Himalayan Insitute to speak on Kashmiri Shaivism. Prof. Mishra said of Swami Rama that he possessed the two outstanding qualities that are found in all spiritual teachers: egolessness and love, or maitri bhavana. In fact, these qualities are related to one another.

Ego or selfishness, is like an obstruction. The Divine wants to flow through us all, but the ego blocks it. When one is beset by ego, then he things the individual me is the only me, and not that he is present in all others. The more the ego melts, the more the love naturally and spontaneously flows thrugh our hearts. With that, the sadhaka feels that all creatures are his own. This is what you call love, maitri-bhavana.

And the other way around, the more one practices maitri-bhavana, the more the ego melts away. For us, since it does not come naturally, we have to practice. When it is realized, then it flows naturally and spontaneously. This love is the very nature of the universe, and one who has come to this sense of identity with the divine, he gives this love freely; it is not given to a chosen few, but extended to all.

In this Prof. Mishra saw the qualities of Sahaja samadhi, in which there are no activities of consciousness. In Sahaja samadhi, one is seated in the Self, doing nothing, at the same time all activities overflow naturally from the seat of the Self. To use the term “relaxation,” a favoured term in the modern context, it is “totally relaxed activity.” One is resting in the sense of doing nothing. In this state, all activity is joyful. It is lila, sportive activity. Life becomes a play. Dr. Mishra said, “I saw Swami Rama in this kind of playful, joyful, spontaneous activity. All was joyful, lila.”

The evening then went on with the distribution of certificates and the singing of songs in Korean and Hindi, and concluded with the chanting of the evening prayers in Sanskrit.

Intrepid reporter Jagat taking notes. Photos by Choun Sun Hee

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Radhika Priya

As I may have mentioned already, one of the features of staying in an ashram, really any ashram I guess, is that many interesting people tend to pass through. Even though this is now the slow season, as it is too hot for comfortable travel, it is still true. Another interesting feature here has been, I may add, meeting devotees who have somehow washed up on the shore of yoga and meditation, for whatever reason that may be.

Radhika Priya, in this picture with me and Vachanananda Swamiji, has been here for several weeks now, conducting her painting meditation workshops, about which I will say something below. She is from Budapest, Hungary, but escaped Communism in 1980, when she saw that any spiritual aspirations she might have would only be stifled in the "dialectically materialistic" world of Communist Hungary. Since she knew French, she went to Paris where she encountered Iskcon devotees on the day of her arrival and soon became a devotee herself.

Although she was already an artist, she was naturally coopted into book distribution and served in that respect until 1987. Her Iskcon name was Rasa-graha Dasi. When Bhagavan's star supernova'd, she left Iskcon and came to India and spent some time in Nabadwip with Sridhar Maharaj, where she received the Radhika Priya name. Her son Tibor also got initiated as Tirtheshwar Das. Somewhere in there she also did some work with Yogeshwar for his Iskcon children's publishing concern, Bala Books.

After this, Radhika went to pursue her artistic interests in Udaipur, which is the current center of Indian sacred or mystic art. She lived there for 10 years, taking initiation in the Vallabha sampradaya as a devotee of the nearby Nathdwar temple, where she studied traditional techniques as practiced there. Her art is in permanent exhibition in West Zone Cultural Center in Udaipur and some of her paintings are with the Indira Gandhi National Art Center collection in Delhi and the Maharaj of Kankroli in Baroda.

She has published several books of her art, of which possibly the most important is the Madhurashtakam, a meditation on each word of Vallabhacharya's famous poem. She also did a series of paintings on the Ramayana, based on the seven chapters of Tulsi Das's Ram Charit Manas, which has been published in Hungary.

A recent book of Hungarian folk legends has been illuminated by her paintings, and it is really this newer work, which is a mixture of Indian and European sentiments into a more nuanced and yet still fairy-like other-worldly quality, that I like best. Unfortunately, the book cover shown here gives only a bare hint of what is inside.

Over the past several years, Radhika has been having a great deal of success holding workshops in a kind of "Vedic Art," in which people come and color and decorate pre-prepared yantra designs of the seven chakras. This is accompanied by lessons on the Sanskrit alphabet, particularly the matrikas, which are generally used in tantrika meditation. This appears to be quite a popular activity--the students are encouraged to repeat the particular bija mantra associated with the chakra as they paint the yantra with the appropriate colors. It is called "guided meditative creativity." A check on the Internet shows that this has become a relatively popular yoga-related activity around Europe and America with several people conducting workshops of this type. She will giving workshops in Firenze (Italy), Lausanne (Switzerland), Paris (France) and Glastonbury (U.K.), over the coming months. [If anyone is interested, contact her at this address.]

Radhika's website is currently down, but I give the URL anyway and maybe it will be up soon and many of these paintings will be visible there. We are thinking of collaborating on some projects in the future, as I have a number of translations that are looking for illustrations. So, the Lord willing, this will move ahead in the coming year.

She is good friends with Baijnath Aryan, curator of the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art in Gurgaon whom I met through her. She also visited Thailand, Singapore and Bali to learn other aspects of Asian art.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ma Chetana Jyoti

While I was posting the rest of Nikunja-rahasya-stava, a concert was going on in the meditation hall in honor of Swami Ma Chetan Jyoti. She passed away last Sunday in her ashram here in Rishikesh. She had been suffering from cancer for some time.

I believe I may have mentioned her name before. She was a great kirtan afficionado and had dedicated her latter life to serving Indian classical music. In particular, she was a lover of dhrupada music and regularly attended the annual Dhrupada festival at Jai Singh Ghera. Her ashram is called Sri Krishna Kripa Ashram and its outside wall is decorated with a huge picture of Krishna and Arjuna.

I told Shrivatsa Goswami about her passing on and he wrote me: "Grateful for informing about the passage Ma CJ. Hope it was peaceful and she is the service of the Divine Couple. I do remember her from Dhrupada melas. My prayers are with her."

Well, kirtan is Radha Krishna. The concert tonight was full of Mira Bhai--ankhiyan shyam milan ke pyaasi. You cannot get away from it, because the truth is, that without Radha and Shyamasundar, there just is no madhura rasa. And madhura rasa is the taste for which we have been hankering since time immemorial. On Christmas, Ma Chetana Jyoti did some kirtan here, chanting Hare Krishna despite being already very ill. So I certainly thank her for having brought, more than once, a ray of Radha Krishna into this ashram.

So I echo Shrivatsa's words and I chanted the Nikunja-rahasya-stava during the intermission in her honor.

Jai Sri Radhe!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Swami Veda Leaves for the Summer

Swamiji left this morning. His departure coincided with the usual meditation time. There was no organized rousting of the ashram members to come and see him off. The contrast between the celebratory greetings of Srila Prabhupada we used to experience was stark.

The first time I saw Srila Prabhupada was in 1972 at the Detroit airport, and it was at that moment that I became directly aware of transcendence in the world of matter. The effulgent brilliance of the Detroit airport in the midst of the tear-soaked kirtan when Prabhupada appeared in our midst--and every time after that--is deeply imprinted on my memory. Iskcon knew the importance of greeting and saying goodbye to the Guru.

My relationship with Swamiji is not the same as that, of course. It has morphed into something rather sweet and affectionate, and he even said to me as he left, while holding my hand, that as I would be the only staff member here for much of the summer, would I please take care of his Gurukula students.

For beginners I found myself quite angry that so many of my own students were absent, even though most were in the meditation hall. I was fulminating, "Don't they know that their meditation depends on Guru kripa? That the blessings they get from the guru on a special occasion like this one is worth thousands of hours of meditation?"

That is the samskara you get from a bhakti tradition. The people who were present were mostly Westerners, who have a spontaneous feeling of affection for Swamiji. One Korean woman, a longtime disciple, was crying in a way that reminded me of the feelings that manifest at such times when Prabhupada would come or leave. No doubt everyone there was motivated by love for him. But what is intolerable, really, is that so many do not recognize the maryada of such moments. At the very least, you do it because it is common courtesy!

Anyway, you can bet I will give these fellows a piece of my mind during Sanskrit class today. I think I will make them write 50 times--

आयान्तमग्रतो गच्छेद् गच्छन्तं तमनुव्रजेत् ।
शिष्यस्तदनुकम्पेच्छुः प्रीत्या मर्यादया तु वा ॥

Whether one does it out love or out of good manners, the disciple who desires the guru's merciful glance should greet him when he arrives and say goodbye to him when he leaves.

That's a loose translation of an embellished verse (see HBV 1.97).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shiva Ratri

It is starting to get warm in the days. It is downright hot further south, in Delhi, but we will catch up soon I dare say.

The ashram here is about 500 meters from the Birbhadra temple, which is where Shiva's expansion who messed up Daksha's sacrifice went and rested after his rampage. There is a steady stream of pilgrims going there today and of course, the mikes have been blaring since well before dawn this morning.

There is a mela with ferris wheels and other rides, and the street is lined with vendors of jilebis and pakkoras. The specialty here seems to be some kind of kazoo horn that everyone is tooting on. People are in their temple-going best. Numbers of people are wearing silver foil and colored tissue party hats. But the lineup for darshan at the temple was too long so I turned back to go to Swami Ram's Sadhan Mandir.


There are two Swami Ram ashrams here, about two kilometers apart. The original one is closer to the city. The Sadhaka Gram is where I am. It is newer and larger and was built by Swami Veda. There was an elaborate Shiva puja and abhisheka first at the older ashram and the other one is going on here now as I write. There are three or four brahmins living here in the ashram (someone told me there are about 70 paid workers on the staff here, many of whom are living on site).

These brahmins come into their own on special occasions like today and they seem to be quite good at what they do. They were accompanied by half-a-dozen others today. The chanting of mantras and hymns went on vigorously for almost three hours non-stop, with accompanying gestures and appropriate priestly roles played by different individuals. I was quite impressed overall.

I shall not stay up all night. Bhom Mahadeva.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ganga-snana in Svarga Ashram

Making the walk through the park and Ganga snana a regular Sunday event. There was more traffic today as large number of pilgrims were making the trek from Rishikesh to Nilakanth, bringing a bottle of Ganga water to pour on the Bhola linga there. 25 km. there and back.

It was a bit like watching a Govardhan parikrama (at least in the old days), as the greater percentage of the participants appeared to be country folk, farmers, village people.

There is an International Yoga Conference going on at Paramarth Niketan, which is the biggest institution in Rishikesh, with the Swami Chidananda Saraswatiji Maharaj's picture on posters all around town. After my Ganga snana I went to have a bit of a quick look and listened to a Japanese "Shinto Yoga" teacher speak. He said, "Nowadays mostly young women are interested in yoga. 200 years ago, it was the Samurai."

True, there are lots of Western women in Rishikesh, today. Also lots of Yogi Bhajan types, wearing long flowing Sufi-type blue kurtas. The occasional expansive ochre-robed swami followed by a troop of disciples, like a flower surrounded by butterflies.

The Paramarth section of Rishikesh had a good atmosphere today, especially with that unusual combination of kheti kisans and svelte European yogis.

BTW, I notice that Swami Veda Bharati was supposed to attend this conference. He is not, he is tending to his own flock in some foreign land.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

David Frawley: Sacred Fire, Sacred Elements

One of the features of staying here in this ashram has been meeting the numerous guests who pass through, many of whom are talented and accomplished individuals in their own right. The other day, we had the pleasure of hearing an accomplished classical Indian vehala player named Ashish Chatterjee, who gave a concert for the benefit of the ashram residents. Last night, it was an honor to greet David Frawley, whom I had not previously met. He is in Rishikesh for a conference on Yoga and Ayurveda. Since Frawley is also known as Vamadeva Shastri, I will use the title "Shastriji" to refer to him through this article.

The subject Shastriji spoke on was based on his latest book, called Yoga and the Sacred Fire. I must admit that I have never read anything by Shastriji and may even have been a little biased against him because of his controversial stand on the Aryan Invasion Theory, which he opposes along with the likes of Subhash Kak. The academic establishment holds on to the AIT as something of an axiomatic truth and to oppose it you run the risk of being branded as a Hindu nationalist or extremist, etc.

Nevertheless, Swamiji asked me to introduce Shastriji and so I perused a couple of his books in the library and found the ones I looked at to be good insightful popularizations of Ayurveda and so on. At any rate, it is always a pleasure to see and hear successful and reputed individuals for whatever insights one may derive from them. I will summarize in a most subjective way my impressions.

Frawley’s lecture was a meditation on Agni, or fire, which is where the Veda begins. Starting from the first hymn of the Rig Veda and tracing the various ways in which the element of fire has been understood in yoga and tantra, as well as in non-Indian traditions, especially the Zoroastrian, etc., he gave a steady, heady list of associations, real and metaphorical, including digestion, asceticism, purification, light, insight, realization, wisdom, life itself, transcendence. There were even forays into scientific thinking, with the caveat that he is not a scientist.

Since coming here I have noticed that speculations on the material elements (pancha maha-bhuta) are a central part of thinking here and in the yogic community in general. Part of this naturally has to do with Ayurveda, but more to do with Yoga’s traditional association with Sankhya. Recently we had staying here a woman sannyasi, Nityamuktananda Swami, who has also recently written a book on all five elements (The Big Five )
and lectured on it for three days in impressive fashion. When I recently went through Sarva-siddhanta-sangraha I was again mystified by the preoccupation with categorizing the elements that features in nearly all Indian philosophical systems. It does seem a bit beside the point for those of us who are conditioned by bhakti traditions.

At one point I started to wonder what the point of the exercise was, but Shastriji did not disappoint. As he started talking about the sense of the sacred that is missing in modern society and the insight of the Vedic seers into the presence of the divine in these elements, he succeeded in communicating that this kind of pantheistic awareness is in fact very profound. Shastriji also spoke about ritual, no doubt inspired by the Vedic fire sacrifice, and the need to be drawn back into a consciousness of the very basics of the universe and their sacred character.

He here mentioned the problem with “religion,” which is sectarianism, and I could appreciate his point. Fire is something that everyone has a visceral relationship with. A fire burns wild in California or even in the northern forests of Alberta and it becomes a threatening, dangerous thing, like storms and floods, a part of Nature that is still outside man's vain grasping for omnipotence. And yet, in its transformations, like electricity, it is an all-pervading necessity of modern life.

We can all relate to fire, or the other powers of material nature, whereas Jesus or Krishna or other historical personalities are often a matter of personal taste, or even controversy, at least when it comes to expressing devotion. That is the nature of personality: it is far more complex than the material elements. It seems easier to worship the latter, or at least, it would seem, in Shastriji’s thinking, that it is a more universal common denominator than the personality-based religions.

It was here, however, that my own little fire of prajna sparked into a slightly bigger flame. How much greater a phenomenon, divisive as it is, is personality. This is really the reason that the material elements were personified from the very beginnings of humanity, and this is the reason that the personal religions ultimately usurped the animistic or pantheistic ones. The miracle of human personality, with its ideal possibilities as divined in the persons of the saints and of the Gods, transcends even the miracles of material nature.

Since Shastriji had spoken of ritual, which is something I have been thinking about a great deal lately, I was curious as to whether he had any concrete ideas. Although his answer was meaningful on the platform of theory, the idea of reviving the Vedic sacrifice as a common human ritual (the closest he came to the concrete) did not ring plausible. Swamiji afterwards laughed and called him a “true Arya Samaji,” and said, “I could hear myself giving almost the same lecture 50 years ago, in my Arya Samaj days.”

Anyway, the idea of the sacred and the need for ritual is also an essential part of the Sahaja path. Only here, our sacred and essential, univerals element—I suppose we could also say the fire—is the Kamagni. When we metaphorize Radha and Krishna by saying that they represent Desire and Love and the conquest of the latter over the former, or any other variations of the metaphor, we are in effect universalizing the concepts and abstracting them away from the troublesome personal or mythological elements.

Nevertheless, as I keep saying, the mythological elements have their own separate sticking power. They stick to our psyches, and these speculations stick to them. Just as multiple associations have accumulated around the powerful image of fire, so too multiple associations have accumulated around sex, and in turn multiple associations have accumulated around Radha and Krishna. Some of these are compatible, some coincide, some do not. Sex is a powerful material force, Love is its transformation; it is the addition of the personal at the most profound level of being.

When sexuality and love are used metaphorically in relation to God, then here again we have the same duality: desire is the raw, powerful force that pushes us to seek Life, in whatever form. Love is the discovery of God as a Person.

The yogic, etc., preoccupation with the elements is of course not unique to it. Swamiji even mentioned afterwards how much he liked the Bhagavata’s account of Kapiladeva’s Sankhya in the third canto. And the avadhuta in the Eleventh Canto was specifically quoted by Nityamuktananda in the conclusion to her lectures on the elements, for the Avadhuta names each of them as the first five of his 24 gurus. Nevertheless, in the hierarchy of sacred manifestations, for all its ambivalence, the pinnacle is human personality: consciousness and its possibilities. And the element in human personality that burns strongest is the desire for absolute love. Although the need to sacralize our existence and our place within material nature includes the elements, our need to sacralize sexuality is the greatest necessity of all.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gangesh Chaitanya

One of my students is a 25-year-old brahmachari named Gangesh. He is from a well-to-do family in Bangalore, but has taken a vow of naishthika brahmacharya from Swami Veda since joining the Gurukula in September last year.

Gangesh is dark-skinned with his head shaven, leaving a large, South Indian sikha. He is a bit stocky, strong looking, and his face, with bright and even teeth, exudes an effulgent good humor. Yesterday he came into my room to show me his latest enthusiasm, a copy of Tirumantiram, the Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta work, which according to Gangesh “contains everything.”

I leafed through it and it does indeed look interesting. It is a famous work which I have unfortunately never read, so I put it on my mental filing cabinet for things that I must one day and hopefully will do.

Then Gangesh, with the force of the Ganges as it passes under Lakshman Jhula, began to tell me of his adventures over the past few years. To repeat everything would take more time than I have, but I thought I would at least share with you a couple of his yarns.

When the desire for spiritual life was aroused in him, he went to stay at an ashram in South India, where his talkative nature got him into trouble with the other residents of the ashram. Someone had told him that Shiva was a devotee of Rama and Rama a devotee of Shiva. So whenever he came to a Shiva linga he would chant Rama’s name, and whenever in front of an image of Rama, he would chant "Om namah Shivaya." Indeed, his guru had given him the mantra,

rAma rAmeti rAmeti rame rAme manorame
sahasra-nAmabhis tulyam rAma-nAma varAnane

(Narada-pancharatra 4.3.223)

And so he chanted it for the pleasure of Lord Shiva. One day, after doing this, he had a dream in which Lord Shiva appeared to him and talked constantly throughout the dream, but when he woke up he could not remember anything that the Lord said. Even so, he considered this dream appearance the blessed result of his method of chanting and so he shared his experience with other members of the ashram. But rather than share his wonder and excitement, one of them told him he was crazy and should go on “bhramana,” meaning wandering through India from one sacred place to another, depending on the mercy of the Lord.

Realizing that the ashram was no longer conducive to his spiritual life, he went and asked his guru for permission to go on bhramana. So for the next two years, he walked from Bangalore north to Uttar Kashi and also as far as Ayodhya in the East, staying mostly at different ashrams where he would remain for varying periods of time (including two months at Madhuban, the Hare Krishna temple here in Rishikesh).

Though he had many adventures, one story he told was rather fun, so I will just tell it as he did.

Gangesh was staying at an ashram in Maharashtra, which was undergoing a dry spell. It was a particular tithi and the mahanta was taking him to the Godavari in a car when for some reason he began to either tease or torment Gangesh by telling him that he did not believe he was really a brahmachari. Finally, in frustration, Gangesh blurted out that if he was truly a brahmachari, then the next day at nine o’clock in the evening rain would fall from the heavens.

He immediately regretted having said it. To quote, “Swamiji, I was saying myself, what for you say this thing?” But the mahanta, who sounds like a bit of schemer, decided to spread word around, telling all the villagers that the visiting sadhu had promised rain. A steady procession of poor village people came to the dumbfounded Gangesh who was at a loss for what to tell them to solve their problems. He just told them to do Go-seva. A woman trying to get pregnant was told to say a few prayers and feed and circumambulate a cow. He was telling everyone to circumambulate the cows.

By nightfall he was in deep anxiety. He went to bed hoping that by morning everyone would have forgotten, but that was too much to expect. Still, being nervous about what would happen, Gangesh decided to follow his own advice and circumambulate a cow or two.

The day went by and no one said anything. Finally, that evening, while the mahanta was serving Gangesh a fine meal, he said, “Half an hour to go.” Gangesh was near panic, but for no reason. The gods smiled on him and gave recognition to his brahmacharya by raining at the appointed moment.

The next day, all the villagers came with money and gifts for the sadhu. According to Gangesh, he said the gifts should be given to the poor, and since you are poor yourselves, keep them. They naturally wanted him to stay in the village, but Gangesh, fearful of labha, puja and pratishtha, pushed on north towards Uttara Kashi on his wandering adventure.

True or not, it was true to genre. And it was told with utmost sincerity and panache.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Walk Through Rajaji Park

Today I am observing Ekadasi, so I decided to do nothing. As a part of doing nothing, I am writing on my blog.

It has been damp and overcast over the past few days, so a normal winter day was welcome. I went for a long walk in the warm sunshine after morning class and doing some asanas. This time I crossed the hydroelectric barrage that interrupts the Ganges’ flow and entered the Rajaji National Park. I don’t know why I had not done it before. It is a far more agreeable walk than going through the built up parts of Rishikesh, even better than the promenade alongside the Ganges behind the dam itself.

Just outside the park’s entrance was a huge colorful billboard welcoming Krishnalal Advani, who came here a couple of days ago to celebrate some political accomplishment or another. The billboard shows a group of about 25 boys dressed in saffron, with the Shaivaite tripundra on their foreheads and the smiling face of their bearded youthful-looking guru.

Svarga Ashram looked like a good destination at eight kilometers, so I started with the intention of covering that distance. The entrance to the park is marked by a sign, “Elephant zone.” I was rather hoping to spot an elephant or two, but I saw no wildlife except for a mere two monkeys, looking for remnants in a potato chip wrapper by the side of the road. They would have had better pickings in town, as the road through the park, though not pristine, was not the eyesore one gets accustomed to townside. And, of course, there were a few colorful birds, of which there are so many.

I finally cut back on my ambition, only going four kilometers, as weakness from fasting, lack of water, and the need to be back for my Sanskrit class made me reconsider. But overall the walk was quite spectacular. The road, though not deserted, is not overly travelled. The gullies and ravines which the road follows are deep and the drops steep. It was pleasant to see so much unviolated greenery, so rare in India, even though the basic dryness of the climate is evident everywhere. There are many magnificent banyans and other species of trees that are not familiar to me by name. The occasional clearings gave beautiful views of the Ganges below and the temples and ashrams on its banks. I kind of wish I had a camera today.

Got back with a bit of a headache, probably the result of dehydration and walking in the sun so soon after sirshasan and sarvangasan, but if the weather is good next Sunday, I will definitely try it again.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

India Republic Day, 2008

Today is Republic Day in India. Jan. 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution was officially accepted and the national flag unfurled. There is a strong contingent of Gurukula students here who have an RSS background. RSS is the Rashtriya Svayam Sevaka Sangha, sometimes called a paramilitary organization, but really a kind of glorified nationalist boy scouts.

Nilakanth told me that when these students, nearly all (if not all) of whom are from Orissa, first came, they kept up their marching in formation and saluting flags and stuff for a while until it was washed out of them with dhyana and yoga exercises. Today they got a chance to do it all again, and one or two of them showed me how they used to strut. They led the flag unfurling ceremony and a rousing rendition of the national anthem, written by Rabindranath Tagore.

India’s anthem is in Bengali, but only one or two verbs betray the linguistic origins, for one aspect of its genius is that it can be understood by practically any speaker of any Indian language.

Unlike most other national anthems, the Indian is a prayer to God, “the arbiter of India’s fortune,” as if the author recognized the near impossibility of forging so many diverse peoples into a single nation. For the most part it is a listing of names of the land’s principal geographical features (Vindhya, Himachala, Yamuna, Ganga) and member states—and I imagine there is some grousing about who got left out, especially since the still recent division of several of the original states into tribally dominated areas.

“We beg for your blessings of prosperity, and we sing songs of your victory, O bestower of auspiciousness on our people, O arbiter of India’s fortune.” And then followed by a series of jaya heys. No militaristic calls for conquering other nations. It is about recreating that common cultural and geographical identity that had been there for millennia and had been made politically possible by the British, but one that could not be accepted, unfortunately, by Muslims—despite the absence of anything overtly Hindu or even faintly anti-Muslim in the entire text.

Yesterday I was talking about Arjuna’s anti-war arguments in my Gita class (I am still in the first chapter). It has been hard not to talk about Iraq in them, and one person even complained to me afterwards that there was too much. But I had to discuss the idea of just war and all that, and I had to put the Gita in the context the events of the past 20 years, especially the idea of propaganda. Because, for some people, the Gita is nothing but a piece of exemplary propaganda. After all, although the Gita does not devalue life per se, by saying that the soul does not die, does it not reduce the momentousness and absolute finality of the act of killing? Does it not fly in the face of Kant’s statement that every life should be treated as “an end in itself,” one of the cornerstones of modern ethics?

But we who were treated to a masterly piece of deceptive propaganda only a few years ago, to promote a war in Iraq that some incredibly high percentage of Americans subscribed to, need to recognize our susceptibility to calls for revenge and appeals to our desire to “do good for others” by killing selected representatives of Evil.

But I observed, having only observed it recently myself, that although Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight, he never makes it about demonizing the enemy. Duryodhan is never mentioned in Krishna’s hundreds of verses, except in the vishva-rupa darshan. Nowhere is he talking about saving the world or oppressed peoples, though it is assumed that Arjuna is on the side of righteousness. If anyone, Arjuna is more concerned about these things than Krishna. Krishna’s responses belong to an entirely different realm.

Anyway, this morning, I talked to Sudhir Das, one of the former RSS Orissans, with whom I have become rather good friends. We often converse in Sanskrit, at which I am getting rather good. He is tall and thin, with long hair and a beard, darkskinned but effulgent, with bright eyes and a quick and pleasant smile. Altogether quite a charismatic fellow. He has been trying to persuade Swamiji to give him sannyas for the last year, and Swamiji has him doing a purascharan of Gayatri mantra.

Sudhir was telling me about his RSS activities, which he conducted for more than five years in Sambalpur district in northwestern Orissa. They had to be jacks-of-all-trades: they would come into villages, sing nationalistic songs, teach Indian martial arts like stickfighting, teach yoga and Sanskrit. Even now, the “RSS boys” have kirtan on Saturday nights, and several amongst them play harmonium or tabla, including Sudhir. Some of them also specialized in speaking on Hindu texts like Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Their main purpose in all this is to expand the organization and create new branches for their brand of disciplined and selfless Indian nationalism. It is an old model, with a that old Victorian fragrance about it—nowadays, the “way forward” is through hedonistically motivated economic activity.

Sudhir told me that when he got promoted to work in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he decided to change directions and get a deeper knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. Basically, as many young idealists, he was (and still is) disturbed by all the phoneys he sees in the Hindu religious leadership. Now he wants to take sannyas and do some kind of socially involved religious work in his home state. When I asked him whether he intended to work with anyone else or independently, he vehemently responded, “independent!” I would like to press him a little further for details of what exactly he wants to do.

No Gita class today, by the way. A national holiday.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fr. Thomas Thakadipuram and Swami Veda

A couple of days ago, a priest from Kerala, Father Thomas Thakadipuram, came to visit the ashram and these photos were taken of Swami Veda, him and myself. Swami Veda has a soft spot for Christians.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Evening with Swami Veda Bharati

Last night, Swami called up the entire ashram to come up and listen while he gave a radio interview to Janet Bray Attwood, the author of The Passion Test, one of those self-help publishing phenoms that spring into the forefront every now and then. She is apparently doing a series of interviews with spiritual leaders and gurus.

Funnily enough, just the other day, a priest from Kerala, Father Thomas, who is doing his PhD in Minneapolis, also came with a similar mission. He has been tracking down various spiritual leaders to ask them questions on particular subjects related to their spiritual experience.

Swamiji's radio interview was very good. He led a five minute meditation session in his inimitable manner, but it was immediately clear why he had the entire ashram present. As soon as he began, everyone went into trance (may as well call it that) and it made his presentation of the meditation very powerful. It is a simple procedure really, simply concentrating on the breath and chanting the mantra, but his voice and manner make a huge effect. His answers to her questions, which we did not hear, were also simple and clear.

Afterwards, Swamiji insisted that I eat with him. There were only three of us, included Swami Ritavan, an American who is currently in charge of the Minneapolis center. After I made some observations about Swamiji's interview, Pyare (Pierre, also from Montreal), joked that every public lecture Swamiji gave was always the same. He said, "You always start by asking to be reminded of the topic you are supposed to be speaking on, and then you lead a meditation."

This led somehow into Swamiji talking about his early life. His purvashram name was Usharbudh Arya. The last name is indicative of his Arya Samaj upbringing. Actually, his father was a bit of an Arya Samaj fanatic and when he saw the potential his son had for study, gave up all his worldly commitments and cut himself from his entire family in order to dedicate himself exclusively to his son's education. Usharbudh was only four at the time. Within a short time, though, he was showing that he was indeed a child prodigy. He gave his first public lecture on the Yoga Sutras at the age of nine. But his speciality was the Vedas.

He told us the story last night of what he considers to be the real anniversary of his "teaching" career. By the time he was 13, he had already been conducting fire sacrifices, a prominent part of the Arya Samaj ritual, for some time. He had learned the four Vedas so well that he practically knew them by heart. That year, 1947, he was actually invited to conduct an Agnihotra sacrifice in Rishikesh, for which he was placed on the seat of Brahma, as chief priest. When the brahman and sannyasi elders saw that a young boy of 13 was given the place of honor, they challenged him. "To sit on this seat, you must know the four Vedas. Do you?" "Yes," he answered. "Along with the meanings?" "Yes."

Swamiji then offered to open the volume before him on any page and explain any verse, according to its adhibhautika, adhidaivika or adhyatmika interpretation. And with that started two days of intense examination. Finally, after he had explained the root of the word shishna (male organ) as coming from the root sna (to bathe), he was challenged by a pandit who had himself published a translation and commentary on Yaska's Nirukti, the Vedic dictionary. The pandit said that such a derivation was impossible (with some justification), but the young prodigy came back with the answer, "But Panditji, in your own book, on such and such a page, you have given this very derivation yourself! How can you challenge me?" And with that, his examination was over.

After that he began to get invitations to lecture all over northern India. Nevertheless, Swamiji said, his father did not trust him and before every public speaking engagement, insisted that he study, and he himself would give him copious notes to examine. But when the time came to sit on the asan, he said with a laugh, he would just open the book and say whatever came to his mind. There was no disappointment in his audiences, but his father was not pleased.

I asked how it came about that he left his father. Though I did not get any details, Swamiji says that hïs father was too controlling and he finally ran away when he was sixteen. This was, he said, recognized as appropriate by those who knew the two of them well. Nevertheless, in order to make the space between him and his father sufficient, he accepted an offer to serve as an Arya Samaj missionary in Guyana, South America, where there is a sizable Indian diaspora. He was only 18.

From there the conversation led into a discussion of child saints in India, starting with Shukadeva. Apparently the place where Shukadeva first spoke the Bhagavatam is not too far from here, on the way to Delhi.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Photos of Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama

This gives a fairly good idea of what the ashram's main portion looks like. Of course this is only a small part of the whole complex. Swami Veda's quarters, offices, library are upstairs to the left. The meditation hall is in the lower part of the same edifice, to the right. My office, which is in the manuscript room, is in the lower part of the building to the left. The structure on the right of this picture is the yajna shala. You can see the hills in the background.

This is the view outside my office, looking out over the cottages, where paying guests stay. The large buildings in the back are a dental college.

This picture is of me in my office, standing in front of the cabinets which house the manuscripts. I have a better picture of my office but I will have to add it later.