Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita Launch

Last weekend was intense for all of us living at the Ananda Ashram. The long anticipated "book launch" of Swami Kriyananda's "The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita" finally happened at Siri Fort, one of the largest auditoriums in Delhi. Many dignitaries attended and it was well received, though I saw little of it from backstage where I was taking care of the details of stage management.

On Saturday morning Hari Om taxi service delivered two trucks and a Qualis (that's an SUV) into which went a ton of books, handout material, set decorations and stage furnishings. A Sangha member loaned us a school bus to transport the entire ashram staff on our one hour trip into Delhi. We had rented the hall for the evening with the stipulation that we could enter at 3:00pm. At exactly 2:58, the gates opened and we drove in to begin transformation of a rather stark building into something beautiful. Material was draped, flowers and scrubs positioned, 50 tables arranged, audio/visual equipment tested and put into position, and a stage transformed with furniture, altar, chairs, rugs and two large 10'x16' posters of Master and the Gita book cover. We finished setup at 5:55 and Swami took his seat on stage at 6:00 as Dharmadas, Nirmala and JT began a kirtan.

Of course, almost everyone else was late. The Master of Ceremonies was Shri D.R. Kaarthikayan, the former head of India's version of the FBI. True to his disciplined past, he was punctual and directed us to extend the kirtan until the honored guest, the Chief Minister of Delhi, arrived. At about 6:30 she did, pulling up at the back entrance with an entourage, car lights blazing. Out jumped the security team with submachine guns to guard the doors as Sheila Dikshit took her place on stage to participate in the ceremonial lighting of a ghee lamp.

Something we Westerners learned while organizing this event is that India has perfected the art of "Book Launch." Here it is a ceremony that follows a distinct pattern and protocol. Books are presented in a certain order, speakers are chosen carefully, and protocol is very, very important. In America, Swami Kriyananda's speech would be the centerpiece of the evening. Here, not so. The evening was about honoring Swami and while others spoke. And speak they did, much too long. It was soon clear that we were far behind schedule so Mr. Kaarhikayan made impromptu adjustments to allow the Chief Minister to speak early (I couldn't hear a word but you can at the website), after which she promptly left, security team in tow. After her came a parade of speakers, each speaking longer than they should, leaving Swamiji (by far the most magnetic speaker of all, but by protocol relegated to last) with scant time. Nevertheless, what he lacked in time, he made up for with power, bringing a highly successful evening to a close with a blessing and a prayer.

With the program over, the dismantling of the sets and lobby displays began. We reloaded our trucks, hopped on the bus and headed home to again unload, meditate and collapse into bed. For me, the next day was one of rest but for others, it was off to the local mall to host a book-signing event with Swamiji. I was too tired to go and skipped it.

With the official launch, the Gita will be in most major bookstores in India, we hope leading to a positive response through inquiries and program attendance. We have two major weekend events later this month and in May I travel to Calcutta and Bombey and expect those to be well received, although it is still too early for those cities to be much affected by the events here.

Later this week Swami and many others will leave India for the United States and our hectic pace will soon slow with the onset of the summer hot season. The temperature is rising and this is the time of year when the British used to head for the hills. You have probably heard that old saying about how being in the sun here is only "for mad dogs and Englishmen." While Swami is away, Sadhana Devi and I have been asked to housesit for him, gratefully doing so while enjoying the air conditioners.

Jaya and Sadhana Devi's Activities
As the weeks have passed, Sadhana Devi's and my role has started to come into focus. I'm officially referred to as the Director of Outreach for Ananda Sangha India. Last fall Dharmadas was inspired to begin lecture campaigns in four major Indian cities-Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Before then, most of our efforts had been confined to the Delhi region, getting established and helping Swami reach India through television and the media. In each of the cities Dharmadas visited he received a very enthusiastic response from hundreds of eager students, but because we have been short handed with staff and resources, we couldn't follow-up properly. In addition, although these programs were well received, they were not financially self supporting.

My assignment has been to design programs with Dhyana, Director of the Kriya Sangha, to build upon what was started by Dharmadas, expand upon it, develop follow-up programs to train students for Kriya Initiation and to support them afterwards. In a nutshell, you might say we are recreating the Village Ananda Sangha Office in India. For travel purposes, I have taken responsibility for Calcutta and Mumbai while Dhyana has Chennai and Bangalore. For each of these cities we have scheduled quarterly visits and additional programs. The beginners' weekends draw the largest crowds and need the most staff support; the advanced programs less. For example, I will travel alone to Calcutta in May for a weekend of classes. The following weekend, I will do the same in Mumbai with Sadhana Devi accompanying me. In the fall we will do a major beginners' weekend and will need to take a team of four to six. Then in November and December, we will have Kriya Initiations for all who are ready.

My challenge is to reach out to people in other parts of India in a way that is financially self-supporting. In practical terms, this means we must attract supporters in the local cities to help us with venues, lodging, transportation, advertising and all the many things needed to build a spiritual work. With their help we can keep the costs down. In time, these outreach programs should pay for themselves but in the development phase, Dhyana and I make up the deficit from the support funds many of you are sending to us in India.

Sadhana Devi's task is more complex than mine. She is supposed to make sense of the bookkeeping world for the multiple ventures happening here-publishing, tours, Material Success department, ashram income/expense, outreach, major events, etc. It is all a mystery to me how things are kept straight, and from what I hear, it is a mystery to everyone else too. She has set up shop on the upper floor of the ashram and has plunged in. She is the type who would much rather have too much to do than too little and her wishes are being fulfilled.

Up to now, my impression is that there has been a general lack of clarity by those in charge of our financial status from day to day. We operate on a system of "how much is left in the checkbook." One reason for this is that it takes 3-6 months to receive a financial report from our Indian accountants. That's not so good. With Sadhana Devi's help, the hope is for each project manager to have a clear idea of where they financially stand, and for Dharmadas and Nirmala to have a clear overview of all the finances. Little by little, she is bringing order to our financial world.

Random Thoughts
Now that I've lived here for a couple of months, I've begun to have a better understanding of India and the obstacles it faces and the obstacles faced by Westerners adapting to its culture. I'd like to share a few observations in this and future letters. I'll start with some physical realities.

I was speaking with Dana Anderson, the artist who painted the cover design of The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita about her impressions of India. She is visiting and may move here in the fall. She commented that living here is far different than coming on a pilgrimage. One must deal with the hard realities of life in India. I agreed whole-heartedly. One of those realities is the constant presence of sickness and the need to be careful about what one eats and drinks. This becomes real bothersome after awhile. Is the glass clean? How was that cooked? Is the tea boiled? I suppose sooner or later one's stomach gets accustomed to the local bacteria but in the short time I've been here, four people in the ashram have been in the hospital and many others have been laid up for a day or two, mostly with intestinal problems that lead to dehydration. But besides these common cases of "Delhi-belly" there is also the threat of less common, but very real, diseases such as typhoid (our cook came down with this not too long ago), dengue fever (one of Master's descendants had this when I visited Calcutta last month), malaria (more prevalent south of Delhi), and hepatitis. Needless to say, we have all been vaccinated for more things than I can count.

As a traveler, I find myself as a dinner guest in Indian homes or being taken to local restaurants (hot, hot food-wow). I don't want to insulate myself from the local culture and would rather tempt illness than remain a constant outsider. My philosophy has been to use common sense, take Darolac (positive intestinal bacteria), drink lots of electrolytes with filtered water and pray for the best. That said, it is still a big bother and has made me appreciate how we don't have to think of these things so much in America.

India is frequently, and I think accurately, criticized for its lack of modern infrastructure. It isn't hard to make this observation. Perhaps the most important lack in my mind is the deficiency of a steady, dependable supply of clean, potable water. Without this basic need fulfilled, sanitation is severely compromised and disease flourishes. The Ananda Ashram is located in Gurgaon, a rather modern suburb/satellite city of Delhi. Our neighborhood is, by Indian standards, upper-middle class and quite nice. Yet, even in a nice section of town, city water is available only 1.5 hours each day, one hour in the morning and a half hour in the late afternoon. To deal with this, each home will typically have an underground, concrete cistern that fills when the water is flowing and from which water is pumped to tanks on the roof to supply the house during the rest of the day. It is said that the water coming from the city is treated but if you let it sit in a bucket for one day, it smells really bad. The city pipes leak and "articles" come down the line into our tanks. Once in the cistern and on the roof, the water is compromised further and ultimately undrinkable. Even rinsing dishes with it is a risk. If this is so in Gurgaon, you can imagine the situation in the rest of Delhi.

Why is there not more water? For one reason, the supply is limited. My understanding is that most of the local water supply comes from the Yamuna River, highly polluted and over taxed by the needs of regions further up-stream. The second reason is that India as a whole, and Delhi in particular, is short of electrical power at a time when its economy and population is growing rapidly. I've heard shortfall figures of 10%-15%. Consequently, there are daily, rolling blackouts that affect homes and, more importantly, the pumps and substations of the water distribution network, especially in the summer hot season when people turn on the air conditioning and water is more needed. The third reason is that the water distribution system is old, undersized, and in need of major repair at a time when the country has many, many other pressing needs. Indeed, the country is growing so fast and furiously that all around the outskirts of Delhi, it looks like a construction zone with high-rises, homes, malls, highways, sewage lines, and God knows what else going up and under non-stop. I think it not an exaggeration to say that at least one million people are employed in construction in Delhi and the surrounding suburbs. The same is happening in the other major cities too and the country can't keep up. Think of this when you read stories in the newspapers about how India is trying to find ways to increase its supply of electricity through nuclear power, dams or other means. It is easy to say India should find alternate solutions but I sympathize with the countries plight and find it hard to criticize too much.

I have more to share on other topics but I'll leave those for the future. In the meantime, we are blessed to be here serving Master's work in his homeland. Sadhana Devi and I keep you all in our hearts and hope to see many of you this summer when we are in America. I arrive back in late May and will accompany our East Coast pilgrims to the Village for the Festival of the Arts in June. Sadhana Devi will remain in India care-taking our work here until people begin to return in late June. She'll then join me in Rhode Island.

Many blessing to all of you.