Thursday, September 21, 2006

Happy Diwali

Dear Friends,

I'm writing this on the morning of Diwali, India's annual "Festival of Lights," the biggest holiday of the year. Think of it as a combination of Fourth of July and Christmas-fireworks, exchange of gifts, decorative lights on homes, and joyous "Happy Diwali" greetings to friends and strangers. Tonight's sky will be alight with fireworks and it will sound like a war zone. For those who like this sort of thing, you can buy sky rockets, bursting shells of all kinds and firecrackers sized like small grenades at the stalls all about town. You'd never see this in "safe and sane" America with its tame sparklers and overly protective culture of safety at all costs. Of course, everything here is made of concrete and unburnable, but I suspect the emergency ward will do a brisk business tonight.

Diwali celebrates Rama and Sita's return to Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile, Sita's abduction by Ravana and Rama's triumph over the demon king. By decree, the roads of the kingdom were strewn with "rows of lights" ("Deepavali" in Sanskrit) to welcome them home. Diwali symbolizes the conquest of evil by good, the ascendance of light in the midst of darkness and, on a deeper level, the return of the soul to its true kingdom in God from its "exile" in the land of the senses." It is one of the half-dozen times during the year we do the Ananda "Festival of Light" because it is absolutely perfect for the occasion. This afternoon's service was so sweet and powerful.

Diwali too is the time to worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity and abundance. I asked Wayne Palmer, the manager of Ananda's "Wishing Tree" boutique, if stores are open today. He said, "Yes, but no one expects to do any business. Everyone goes home early." I mentioned this to Sangeeta, an Indian devotee living in the ashram who used to own a shop and she said, "Nonsense. Today, all the shopkeepers do Lakshmi Puja and try for maximum business to honor her." I think it is somewhere in between. Now that I think about it, maybe our shop would do better if I told this to Wayne.

Festivals ("melas") are a regular feature of the Hindu calendar but autumn is their "high season." Perhaps it's because October marks the end of summer and the onset of cooler weather. With the monsoon ended, the months of October and November usher in some of the nicest weather in Delhi. Grass is actually green and many trees are in flower. People too are ready to burst into celebration. At the ashram we have to know the festival dates when scheduling but it would be hard not to sense something is afoot because of all the decorations, posters, and activity, not to mention the overflow of shops' wares onto the sidewalks. Like Christmas in America, this is the season for exchanging gifts and shopping.

Holiday dates vary from year to year according to the lunar calendar, but this year's festivities began in early October with Navratri (literally, "Nine-nights"). As the name says, it lasts for nine nights and is a celebration of the Divine Mother. Each night is given to worship of a certain aspect of Divine Mother. Which form receives primary attention depends on the region of India where Navratri is being held. Pujas are offered to Lakshmi, Saraswait, Mumbai Devi, Parvati and in Bengal, Kali is given a special night, but by far the largest focus throughout India is Durga Puja.

Here in DLF colony, the local Bengali community hosts a nine-night celebration at the community center to which everyone is invited. Sadhana Devi, Gyandevi and I went on the last night of Navratri to join hundreds of Indians from the neighborhood. The highlight of the evening was the Durga Puja. Three drummers established a loud, steady rhythm, accompanied by miscellaneous gongs, bells and clanging instruments. It was deafening and the incense was thick. The audience kept rapt attention and surged forward to receive the light when the pujari offered it from his multiple lamps of camphor oil. The consciousness of the ceremony was more rajasic and fun-filled than devotional, but I was much impressed by the concentration and inward focus of the pujari. He was a young man with a clear aura and very devoted to his duties. The puja lasted for about an hour, meaning that a pujari has to be young and fit to do it. My arm sometimes gets tired simply doing the Festival arati at Sunday Service and that only lasts but a few minutes.

During the nine nights of Navratri, performances of the Ramayana are staged as a prelude to the coming of Diwali, and ends with Dusharra on the tenth day. This is when large effigies of Ravana, the demon king, are erected and set afire, symbolizing the conquest of evil by good.

Do you know the story of Ravana? I have always liked it because, although evil in that lifetime, he was supposed to be a reincarnation of a celestial doorkeeper named "Jaya." Jaya and Vijaya guarded the doorway of Lord Vishnu in Vaikunta, his abode. They were cursed by holy sages because they would not let the sages enter. Vishnu had instructed Jaya and Vijaya that he did not wish to be disturbed. He said that he could not revoke the curse but he would give them a choice of being born as either great lovers of Vishnu for many incarnations or as great enemies of Vishnu for only a few. They chose the latter curse because they wanted to get back as quickly as possible to Vishnu's presence. Consequently, they took form as the evil King Ravana and his brother Kumbakarna and were killed (a great blessing) by Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu himself.

In the midst of this year's Navratri, also came the birthday of Mahatma Ghandi. As you can guess, this is a national holiday to honor that heroic leader. To have such a great soul as a national icon, rather than a generalissimo astride a horse, is a mark of the greatness of India. All the newspapers featured articles about the Mahatma and explored his message of non violence, self-reliance, and "satyagraha." Swamiji was invited to a remembrance ceremony at the Ghandhi Smritti (site of his assassination) in downtown Delhi.

On the fourth day of the waning moon in the fall, this year coming right after Dusharra, Karwa Chauth was celebrated. I rather like this observance. It is for married women to fast and pray for the welfare and long life of their husbands. As always, there is a legendary tale but the idea is for ladies to prepare food before sunrise, fast during the day and gather later for a telling of the story, puja (often to Parvati) and to participate in a special ceremony when the moon rises. I'm not sure how much of this is still observed in the traditional fashion because it seems that Karwa Chauth has evolved into something of a Hindu Valentine's Day. Younger men are now encouraged (by the shopkeepers, advertisers and the ladies?) to show appreciation to their wives by the giving of gifts. One common tradition I find eye-catching is the practice of young women to decorate their hands and wrists with designs of henna, sometimes extending way up the arms. Indian women do this on other occasions too and the patterns can be really intricate. One woman I saw coming out of the beauty parlor had her hands in the air to dry with sequins or some other sparkly pieces of glass stuck into the henna. Local salons cater to this trade and seem to do a brisk business. It's really quite fashionable and much better than tattoos because the henna fades away in time.

October has also been a month for pilgrims from the West to pass through Gurgaon and have darshan with Swamiji. Groups from Italy and America have visited and it's been fun to reconnect with friends from Ananda colonies and listen to their impressions. I'm sure many of you will be hearing much more of their adventures when they return. The American group was here a few days ago telling us of their time in Badrinath (in the Himalayas, close to Tibet) where they visited a kriya yogi who lives in an isolated hut outside of town. A man of few possessions, he has a box into which he can latch himself during his winter months of meditation when the snow is heavy and deep. In this way, he can leave his physical body behind, safe from disturbance by animals, and "astrally travel" for months at a time, being with Babaji and doing whatever it is that one does in such states. Try explaining that one to your skeptical relatives. It is also in Badrinath that puja is offered to a large stone with the image of a meditating yogi upon it (with a striking resemblance to Babaji) that Adi ("the First") Shankara pulled from the local river many centuries ago. It is this area of the Himalayas that is said to be special to Babaji.

Swamiji is working daily on his new book of Bible interpretations. Unlike his experience with the Gita when inspiration flowed in a seemly effortless fashion, this work is proving more difficult for him to write. Perhaps because of this or maybe for other reasons, he has been very tired these last many weeks. Yet, he keeps to his regular schedule of writing, appointments and periodic speaking engagements. We try to record these latter events and many of his talks can be heard on the web at

Sadhana Devi and I are doing well since returning to India in September. She has become the ashram bookkeeper, paying the bills and local workmen while trying to keep us out of financial chaos and on the right side of the Indian tax code. She is happy to say that we have finally furnished our room. Up until a week ago it maintained a close resemblance to a concrete bunker but now, with some paint, furniture and rugs from the local shops, it is looking quite homey. A feature of buying furniture in India is that you first visit the shop, see what you like or show the man a photograph of you would like while explaining your wishes, and the fellows make it for you from scratch. Delivery time is a bit iffy, but eventually it shows up in a week or two, smelling of fresh lacquer, and accompanied by a carpenter who assembles it and fixes any defects caused by the rickshaw that transported it. When happy, you pay the shopkeeper and tip the deliveryman.

My duties here are mainly three. I am organizing a "Sangha Office" to serve our growing database of disciples and inquiries, setting up our outreach tours away from Delhi and Gurgaon in 2007, and pitching in where I'm able in response to the physical maintenance challenges of the ashram. You'll be hearing more of the first two duties in future letters, but for now I'll just mention that we plan to do major introductory programs in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune in 2007, culminating in a kriya initiation in November or December next year. We did something similar in 2006 and are now about to do initiations in Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata. If you'd like our schedule for future tours, I'll send it to you, especially if you want to help. While still months away, now is the time to book venues and arrange logistical details.

All of us serving in India send our love and blessings to you. Please know that we think of you often and hope you do the same for us. It is a joy to share Master's work with all of you. The fireworks should start soon and we'll be up on the roof with a 360 degree view wishing you all a Happy Diwali.

Much joy,