Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Koh-i-noor

Agra is a large city of several million, a five hour drive south of Delhi. Mentioned in the Mahabharata, Agra has a rich history, but the modern version is a polluted industrial town of little charm. It reached its peak a few centuries ago when it served as the capital of the Mughal Empire. Babar captured it; Akbar invested it with forts and palaces; and Shah Jahan created Agra’s claim to fame, the marvelous Taj Mahal, justly honored as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Perhaps we should thank Mumtaz Mahal for its creation, as it was she who inspired Shah Jahan to undertake the project. Mumtaz, the beloved wife and faithful companion of the emperor, died in 1631 while giving birth to her fourteenth child. It was for her that the Taj was created to serve as a tomb and memorial. Legend has it that on her deathbed she extracted three promises from the grief-stricken emperor: never marry again, take care of their children, and build a monument of magnificence in memory of her. That is exactly what he did along the banks of the Yamuna River, downstream from his palace at the Red Fort in Agra.

The Taj was completed in 1648 and immediately recognized for its beauty. Red sandstone is characteristic of Mughal architecture. That’s why there are “Red” Forts in both Agra and Delhi, but the Taj is made of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. Twenty thousand workers and multitudes of skilled craftsmen from throughout Asia labored non-stop to complete the project in less time than it would take modern India to do the same. Fortunately for Shah Jahan, the early 17th century was a time of the great imperial wealth, but sadly, Shah Jahan had little chance to freely enjoy his creation. He was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It is said that he spent his days gazing upon his beloved Taj Mahal from his window in the Red Fort. (left: view from Red Fort) There is a legend, probably apocryphal, that Shah Jahan was planning to build an identical Taj for himself on the opposite side of the Yamuna, only this time out of black marble.

Except for historians, locals and industrialists, Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Why else would you go there? It’s not an attractive town and it seems to be one of those places that people say they are “from,” emphasizing the past tense. The Taj Mahal demands a visit but there are other things to see in Agra other than Mughal architecture (Akbar's tomb at left), one being the Koh-i-noor jewelry shop which I’d like to tell you about. It will only take you an hour or two to see and is well worth fitting into your plans when you go.

Koh-i-noor
The Koh-i-noor sells beautiful gems and its owners are descendents of the jewelers who personally served the Mughal emperors. If you’re lucky, they might show you a necklace of emeralds originally belonging to Mumtaz Mahal, or perhaps you’ll see some of the other startlingly beautiful items that trace their history back to those days of opulence. Did you know that prior to the 1700’s, emeralds and other stones now commonly seen cut with smooth facets were then left uncut. The technology hadn't yet been developed. At least that was so in India. Gems were rolled, tumbled and polished until they became smooth and shiny although I’m not sure if this was true for diamonds. One ring had an emerald about the size of a walnut and Mumtaz’s necklace was composed of a couple dozen emeralds, each about the size of a big almond in its shell. The owners were kind enough to let the Sadhana Devi and Shyama try them on to see how they looked.

Another thing I learned is that almost every type of gem, especially rubies, emeralds and sapphires, is found in India with the exception of opals. This was one reason why India was once considered by invaders and “civilized” Englishmen to be a land of riches and a prize worth conquering. It was the only known source of diamonds until the Portuguese discovered more in Brazil. In fact, the Koh-i-noor (Mountain of Light) is the name of what was once the largest diamond in the world, extracted from the famous Golconda mines in Andhra Pradesh, source of some of the brightest and clearest stones in the world.

By the way, the Koh-i-noor diamond has an interesting history. It was found long ago and it is said to have once been given to Krishna as dowry when he married Satyabhama, daughter of Satrajit. Krishna gave it back to Surya, God of the Sun, from whom it had originally come. Over the years it passed through many hands until it came into the possession of Babar and then Humayun, his son and second of the Mughal Emperors. Humayun was overthrown but managed to escape to Persia, carrying with him only a few possessions, one being the precious diamond. This he exchanged for a Persian army with which he recaptured his throne. The stone eventually made its way back to India to become part of the Peacock Throne before falling into British hands to become part of the Crown Jewels of England. Victoria had it mounted in a tiara you can now see at the Tower of London.

Shams-Ud-Din
Though the gems are beautiful, it is not for the jewelry I recommend you visit the Koh-i-noor store. Go for the embroidery and you’ll see something unique. They have constructed a special showroom to display seven or eight masterpieces by Shams-Ud-Din, along with dozens of lesser works by his students. Shams was an artist of the highest order who died in 1999, working most of his life in Agra, sometimes for years on one piece alone. His pieces are typically two or three meters on a side and incorporate wildlife scenes and geometrical patterns. The animal scenes you see here are about twelve inches wide and are but four of twenty that border a particularly beautiful piece of embroidery. He refined and expanded upon an old technique of using thread to build up layers, creating texture and depth to give his work a third dimension. Interwoven into the fabric are precious and semi-precious stones with threads of gold and silver. One piece incorporates 27,000 carats, all the jewels and gold supplied by the Koh-i-noor family, which is how they came into possession of many of the pieces that remain outside of private collections.

I asked if any of the works are for sale and was politely told me, “No,” but our host did say that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia asked the same question in 1983 when he visited, hoping to buy one particularly attractive piece. On the spot, he offered $2,300,000 but was denied. Some of the pieces by Shams’ students are fantastic in their own right and can be purchased, but I didn’t bother asking their price. You know the old saying, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”

If you come to India and have not been to see the Taj Mahal, I recommend you go. It really is beautiful. If you have time, see the Red Fort too and some of the other places you can read about in the guidebooks. They are interesting if you like that sort of thing, which I do, but if you want to see something unique, go see Shams’ embroidery. You’ll like it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pune Progress and Wedding

Wedding Season

According to the stars, it’s wedding season in India and yesterday (India time) we celebrated our first ashram marriage when Cecilia and Vivek exchanged vows, Dharmadas and Nirmala conducting the ceremony. (Editorial note: Actually, it is the second wedding. Tarun and Megha wed in 2005) Guests came from all over to bless the couple: Devi Mukerjee and members of Hari Krishna Ghosh’s family from Calcutta; long-time friends of Swami and the ashram; neighbors and relatives from India and Italy. It was beautiful, both physically and spiritually. Flowers, so abundantly available and inexpensive in India, were everywhere. Of course Cecilia was beautiful and Vivek played the part of the dashingly handsome groom. Sadhana Devi and Sangeeta were the “best women” and Lakshman and Dharmaraj the “best men.” A magical pandal (tent) materialized overnight for the reception and Swamiji stopped by for a few minutes to give the newlyweds his blessings.

Dharmadas and Nirmala performed the ceremony used by all the Ananda communities with a few modifications. Instead of the kiss at the end, the couple placed garlands upon one another. As Vivek wisely noted, “In the West, kissing is a tradition. In India, it causes a scandal.” I rather like the Indian way. The other little addition was that at the very end, Vivek used special cosmetic pencil to place upon Cecilia head the red mark seen in the part of a woman’s hair above the forehead. When you see that on an Indian lady, it means she is married. Maybe you can see in the picture at right Cecilia's hands decorated with henna.

Master’s Relatives
Today Master’s relatives participated in a satsang (See photo, left. Somnath remained in Calcutta)), told stories from their lives and recounted stories told to them by their father-in-law and grandfather, Hari Krishna Ghosh, Master’s nephew. Sarita Ghosh, wife of Hari Krishna’s son Somnath, lives in the home at 4 Gurpar Road and told this story.

She had a young maid-servant who was suffering from a severe ulcer and stomach disorder. Sarita and Somnath had recommended she be hospitalized. Unfortunately, her condition deteriorated and when Sarita went to see her a few days later, she had lost consciousness. The doctors said that she was unlikely to live. Sarita immediately went home to Master’s attic room and began to pray. She told Master that he must do something, “She has gone to the hospital because of us. How will we be able to show our face if she should die? The poor girl is suffering. You must help her!” The next day, she visited again and the girl was now conscious and able to get out of her bed. Sarita told her of her prayers and the girl replied, “Yes, I know all about it.” “How is that?” asked Sarita and the servant girl explained, “I was unconscious and knew my time had come. Six people had died that day in the hospital and as a group, their souls came for me to tell me to leave with them. ‘Come,’ they said, ‘It is time to go.’ I felt myself leave the body and go up, but then I saw the Master and he asked me where I was going. He was seated with Shiva on one side and Kali on the other. I told him that I had died and that it was time to go, but he said, ‘No, it is not your time yet’ and he sent me back. I saw you praying for me.”

Swami News
Swamiji returned from the hospital last Saturday after a week’s recuperation from colon surgery. I’m sure most of you know the details of his medical adventure and many of you participated in prayer vigils. All went extremely well. What is most remarkable, now that he is back, is the evidence of a deep spiritual blessings flowing through him. I have always felt an undercurrent of joy in Swami, even in the midst of the most trying circumstances, but since this operation, something special is happening. He is in a state of constant bliss and truly, it’s a blessing to witness. He is literally sparkling with something wonderful happening within and I think even he is amazed by it. As he said, “I’m swimming in bliss.” The tiny bubble of laughter is becoming “the sea of mirth itself.”

Last week Sadhana Devi and I paid a visit to an Indian family who where hosting a yogi passing through Delhi. They were all eager to meet Swami Kriyananda but were unable to do so because of his hospitalization. Daya, Keshava, SD and I had paid this visit because someone was needed to make the social call on behalf of the ashram and we were on hand to do it. After the initial courtesies, our hosts and their guest were most eager to tell us what had happened that very morning. They related to us how Swami Kriyananda (!) had entered their flat and proceeded to seat himself in a chair, telling the astonished mother to continue with whatever she was doing. The family had never met Swamiji before but recognized him from his nightly, 6:30 program on the Aastha channel. “He looked younger,” they said, “and in better health.” Because they knew Swamiji was really in the hospital, they recognized immediately that something unusual was happening. After all, strange, hospitalized swamis don’t normally saunter into one’s home in the early morning, unannounced. The mother, following Swamiji direction, proceeded to do her morning worship, but in this instance she conducted the arati before the seated and blissful Swami, waving the light in front of him. Shortly after, he rose and exited without a word. What does one make of this?

Pune Community
We’ve taken another step toward creation of a community near Pune. We’ve asked an architectural firm from Bangalore to submit a design proposal. They viewed the property and flew to Gurgaon to give us a presentation of their portfolio while listening to our ideas. I was impressed with the architect’s prior work, his design philosophy, and with him as an individual. He’s a devotee of the late Ramana Maharshi whose ashram he visits regularly in South India. He conducts sadhana each morning for members of his firm and seems to have an artistic sensibility attuned to what we are trying to do. Of course, it is still too early to say whether we will actually engage his firm, but I felt a good beginning was made because our thoughts are crystallizing and taking form. I was reassured to note that the architect’s previous work included at least ten or twelve retreat facilities, some corporate and others spiritual. Of course, these always look beautiful when viewed on slides, but one of them happened to be of a place where Dhyana would like to conduct a kriya retreat in January. She has been singing its praises since first visiting last year, so it must be pretty nice.

The initial piece of property is only 30 acres, not enough to accommodate all our plans, but additional land may be available adjacent to this first purchase which we hope to secure before our plans become too public. Our fear is that once we announce our intentions, the price will go up and judging by what has happened everywhere else Ananda has located around the world, it is inevitable. To avoid an increase too soon, we’ve been discouraged from visiting the property, especially us Westerners. Pale faces are a severe disadvantage when bargaining in India.

We are focusing our initial planning on a “spiritual retreat,” making this the string by which we pick up our project. How does one go about starting a community? What comes first? Where are we going to live? What will we do? All those questions and more come up and it's easy to get lost in details and nonessentials. To get the ball rolling, we’ve formed a committee (Sigh! We can’t escape.) to move the project along, with Wayne being the fellow who keeps the notes and organizes the proceedings. Out of these discussions has come a consensus to begin our community with a retreat, temple and possibly a home for Swamiji. Some of you remember how we started the original Meditation Retreat in Nevada County in ’68. These were the very same elements that were first built there. Other community features such as housing, business, social, and educational needs will flow from these beginning elements.

Our hope is to create a fully functioning retreat and have it built for us by local workmen. We probably don’t have the personnel or local experience to do it all ourselves as we might in the USA and l have to admit that some of us Americans really don’t look forward to picking up our tool belts again at this stage of life, even if we did know what we were doing. The final temple may have to wait, as will most everything else beyond the retreat, but we can site and reserve space now, perhaps even building something temporary to be replaced later. (Oh, oh. I’ve heard that before. You know how “temporary” tends to become permanent.) One thought is to design guest facilities that can be used for our initial housing needs and as we grow, construct real homes later, thus freeing space in the retreat buildings. Of course, all this may change. We’ll have a better handle on the order of construction once plans are drawn and funds counted.

There are many practical reasons for beginning with a retreat. It provides simple housing, immediate employment, a venue for programs, and a practical way to attract new members who wish to live with us. All this makes sense, but perhaps the more important reason is spiritual. We want to begin with something that tangibly shares Master’s teachings and serves others. A retreat can help us set a pattern of simple living, shared dining and temple space, and an ethic of community service. We want to avoid having the community become the destination for those whose primary motivation is a search for a pleasant personal life. Private homes will be necessary, but these can come second, after the spiritual and community functions are attended to. If all goes well, government permits are granted in a timely way, and money comes available, we will begin construction in 2008.

Kriya Sangha Tours
On Sunday we conclude our fall schedule of Kriya Yoga initiations with a ceremony in Gurgaon. Some of us have been traveling extensively since summer to conduct initiations and introductory programs in those cities where we have already established a presence. When all are counted, will have initiated about one hundred new kriyabans this season. The 2007 Mumbai kriyabans are shown to the right. In 2006 we focused on attracting big crowds to our introductory programs but we lacked proper follow-up. We visited each city once every three months, which was not enough to keep most students engaged. This year we changed our approach and have assigned specific teachers to each city to give greater personal attention. Vijay Girard will go regularly to Hyderabad, Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer to Bangalore and Dhyana and I to Mumbai and Pune. In the Delhi region, Haridas and Roma, with Durga and Vidura assisting, are coordinating the Delhi center; Wayne and Elizabeth Palmer with Dharmadas and Nirmala are handling teaching duties in Gurgaon; and Claudio, Deborah, Sadhana Devi and I travel to Noida most Sundays to present programs there. For the Christmas season, we take a break from our tour schedule, but when we start again in January, perhaps I can tell you more in detail about how our outreach programs are progressing.

Last weekend I visited a family in Hyderabad who had a big, decorated Christmas tree. Under the tree was a 30” high, battery operated Santa that actually walked about the room singing, “Santa Claus is coming to Town.” They had a second Santa that played the saxophone but I was careful to contain my admiration lest I be offered Santa as a gift and have to escort him back to Gurgaon. It all made me nostalgic for Christmas in America—the feelings of spiritual friendship, the festivities, brisk nights, Christmas lights on the houses, even the jingles. I think too of the many all-day Christmas meditations I’ve attended and I hope everyone has a chance to participate in some fashion this year, wherever you are. If you can’t attend a group near you this season, tune in at home with your spiritual family to the spirit of Christ. Annual traditions such as these are spiritual “glue,” keeping us connected as a community to one another and to Spirit. Sadhana Devi and I will be thinking of you and sending Christmas blessing this holiday season and especially on the 23rd. Keep us in your prayers.

Christmas joy to everyone,
Jaya and Sadhana Devi

Friday, November 9, 2007

The N-Deal

When I served in the Sangha Office at Ananda Village, I would often travel to distant cities as part of my duties, giving classes or conducting kriya initiation. “On the road,” I’d usually buy a newspaper in whatever city I visited because it gave me a feeling for the area and a sense of what issues were important to locals. In Boston, I could say, “How about those Red Sox,” or “I see ‘Othello’ is playing this season” when starting a conversation in Ashland. I found people appreciate others taking an interest in whatever they, themselves, find interesting. I noticed too that once a bond of mutual interest has been established, even for mundane topics, conversation proceeds more easily to deeper levels.

Here in India, each morning three English language newspapers are delivered to the ashram—The Hindustan Times, The Times of India and The Hindu—giving us a window onto the political/social climate of India. At the Village I used to enjoy reading the Sacramento Bee over a cup of coffee in the morning—sports page, front page, comics—but I fell out of the routine when I moved to Rhode Island. In India I’ve started reading the newspapers again, and have found them to be a fascinating window onto the forces shaping modern India. As a foreigner, I have an emotional distance from the news, more so than when in America. It’s like distantly watching an extremely interesting play, all the while realizing that it is just a show of light and shade.

There is one particular issue that has been in the news every day for the last eighteen months that I’d like to tell you about. This is the nuclear treaty that was negotiated between America and India last year but has yet to be fully ratified by either country. If you find politics and current affairs boring, you might want to stop reading now. For the typical American, this is an issue that warrants next to no attention, but for India it is of major importance, dominating the headlines and editorial pages month after month. For me, the debate has been fascinating, but the most interesting and educational part has been watching the machinations, twists and turns of the political parties maneuvering for advantage. It’s been really educational. Whereas before, the acronyms of the various parties (INC, NCP, CPI, BSP, BJP) and coalitions were all a confused jumble, they’ve started to sort themselves out and give me a greater understanding of the complex array of opinion here. On the one hand I feel despair over the many intense differences fracturing the country, but on the other hand, I’m amazed at what has been accomplished against such tremendous odds. Somehow the country endures and keeps going.

To understand the N-Deal, as it is called here, you need to know a little history. In 1974, India conducted an underground test of an atomic bomb, followed in 1998 by five more tests of advanced nuclear weapons. People in India danced in the streets upon hearing the news. They were so proud. Pakistan soon followed suit with its own tests, thus setting the stage for a possible atomic confrontation between the two intense rivals. Both countries take tremendous pride in their status as nuclear powers. Unfortunately for them, the rest of world doesn’t share this view and has branded them as states that must be kept outside the “club” of countries (USA, Russia, China, UK, France) that can “legitimately” possess atomic weapons. In the atomic realm, they have become pariahs, with international sanctions placed upon both countries to block imports of nuclear material and any technology that can have a possible application in atomic weaponry.

For India, the sanctions were a price worth paying to achieve stature and strategic position vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. As a post-colonial country, India is very nationalistic and touchy about any outside power imposing its will upon it, it rebels against whatever appears to be outside interferance, and prides itself on its ability to indigenously develop industry and technologies. This was a strength displayed by the Swadeshi (self sufficiency) movement in its struggle for independence from the British, and it still carries great moral force. Because it has large deposits of uranium and thorium and world class scientists, it began development of its own program of civilian and military nuclear reactors, thumbing its nose to those who would constrain it. They see little contradiction between this policy and its sometimes self-righteous positioning of itself on the moral high ground in most matters of international affairs.

In the ten years since those tests in 1998, the political climate in both India and the outside world has evolved. India has become a global economic power and its international isolation has begun to pinch. It aspires to be recognized and treated as an equal by the “great powers” and seeks a seat on the UN Security Council. The US wants India to assume more of a leadership role in Asia and as a counterbalance to China. Its economy is booming and sees its inability to acquire high-end technology as a growing hindrance to local development of high-tech industry. Energy shortages are rampant and projected to get worse. The demand and cost of fossil fuel is skyrocketing and pollution levels are already some of the worst in the world. The country’s energy sector can’t keep pace with growth and both India and China are coming under pressure to control carbon emissions.

To meet the challenge of energy demand, India has plans for a major expansion of nuclear power, but without importation of nuclear fuel, there is no chance for it to meet its target. For many reasons and to end its political isolation, India and the United States entered into a round of negotiations that would allow the two countries to redefine India’s relationship with America and, by extension, the rest of the global community. The US promised to intercede on India’s behalf with the international community. Negotiations proceeded in 2005 and 2006, culminating in a state visit to India by President Bush last year and return visits to America by Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India.

Many neutral observers felt that India had won major concessions from America, but nevertheless, after multiple rounds of hard international negotiation, a treaty was initialed by both countries and sent to the US Senate for approval. There, certain significant conditions were added but after intense lobbying by the Indian-American community in the United States, it passed with a large majority. The treaty then passed to India for approval where, after so much early enthusiasm, hoopla, celebration and seeming support, it came to a grinding halt amidst huge acrimony and cynical political opportunism. There is now a parliamentary standoff and the treaty looks like it will be shelved. Dr. Singh’s political future and legacy is on the line and some say India’s reputation for being able to conduct its affairs with purpose and unified vision is tarnished. It is all so typically Indian.

The basics of the treaty are:

1. India would strictly separate its military and civilian nuclear programs and put its civilian reactors under international inspection. The military side would remain outside of this control.

2. India would be recognized as a nuclear state but not in the same category as the “Big 5.”

3. India would be granted the right to import nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors and civilian technology from the USA and countries belonging to The Nuclear Suppliers Group.

4. Both sides have a right to withdraw from the treaty with one year’s notice.

While wending its way through the US Senate, a couple of significant conditions were placed upon the original treaty.

  1. Should India conduct further nuclear tests, the US would potentially withdraw from the treaty and ask for the return of all US nuclear material returned.
  2. The Senate asked the State Department to periodically certify that India was not acting against US international interests. (I’m a bit unclear on this point.)

These last two points have caused the most trouble, although I seriously wonder if they are merely being used as reasons to bolster opposition that would have been there in any case. Neither of the two conditions is cut in stone but are a “sense of the Senate.” Should India conduct atomic tests, the US may very well withdraw, but not necessarily, depending upon the situation. You could say that it is putting India on notice that it might. As for the State Department certification, this is non-binding and inserted mostly to pacify US domestic interests. That said, certain elements in India take it as an insult and use it as evidence that should India sign the treaty, it will lose its independent voice and become America’s “poodle” in international affairs.

The result of all this is that it is looking like India will not sign the treaty and instead maintain the status quo. To understand this, you need to know that India is a parliamentary democracy and that no political party has a majority in Parliament. Coalitions must be formed and currently the ruling coalition is composed of the Congress Party with help from the Communist Party and small regional parties. The opposition is composed mainly of the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party. Dr. Singh is from the Congress Party and if he goes forward to implement the treaty, the Communist Party has threatened to dissolve the ruling coalition and new elections would be required. Nobody wants that. The Communists are ideologically opposed to anything that brings India and America closer. They feel this is but one more step in the creation of a strategic alliance between the two countries. Others say the main reason the Communists oppose the treaty is because they are funded, and strongly influenced (some say controlled), by the Communist Party of China which sees India as a rival and does not want to see the deal succeed.

The opposition of the other parties is also highly politicized. The BJP would probably be happy with the treaty if they were the ones to have negotiated it, but because they are not in control, they favor whatever will bring discredit to their rivals, the Congress Party. The small, regional parties have parochial interests. Many have Muslim constituencies who distrust the USA because of its policies in the Middle East. Others simply see no profit in giving support. The up-shot of all this is that the Congress Party is not willing to risk new elections and seems to be backing away from the treaty, leaving Dr. Singh hanging out to dry. Of course, everyone is asking why they didn’t know the political landscape two years ago before all this effort was expended. Read the newspapers and see what happens.

What I find fascinating about the whole affair is the shifting political alliances and maneuvers between the principle players. Each of the parties has supporters and opponents of the deal. I like Manmohan Singh and see him as a man of principle and integrity, as does most everyone in India. Unfortunately, he isn’t a politician by nature (he’s an economist) and doesn’t control his party. That role belongs to Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic heir to Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Indira’s sons. In a few years, her son Rahul will take the reins, dynastically taking his place in the line of ascent in the same manner as the Mughals. The difference being that now power to extract fantastic wealth from one’s subjects comes through the ballot box rather than by the sword.

Personally, I neither support nor oppose the deal. If I were India, I’d sign the deal and then buy all my fuel and sensitive technology from Europe so that if America ever withdrew from the treaty because of a test or something they didn’t like about my foreign policy, nothing would need to be returned. The deal opens the door to the world, not just America.

I like Dr. Singh and am sorry to see him lose face. I tend to view favorably anything that brings India and America closer because of Master’s predictions for the future, so rejection of the treaty is a setback, but it seems to me that India needs to get its house in order before assuming that place on the world stage to which it aspires. It definitely needs to pursue an energy policy that relies less on carbon fuels. I have become more sympathetic to atomic energy since being here but I think atomic power is only a transitional option. In the long run, greener alternatives are needed and if the deal is rejected, maybe those avenues will be pursued more vigorously. Contrary to what boosters assert, India is much too politically fractured still to assume a leadership role on the world stage. That will take time. An economic force it will be, but not a military or strategic power and maybe that’s good.

People often compare India unfavorably with China’s demonstrated ability to get things done and to steer a course consistently and purposefully. That usually leads to a discussion of each country’s respective political systems, democracy versus autocracy. I find it hard to call China a truly communist country anymore. Exactly what it is, I don’t know. Modern India operates on broad consensus and that precludes a capacity for bold action and long range planning. Things rarely get done here in a timely manner, if they happen at all. Regionalism is stronger than national interest and historically, India has been an inward facing nation.

Someone from Hong Kong and I were driving to the airport in typically chaotic traffic.

“Have you seen any policemen on the roadway?”

“No, I don’t think I have,” I replied.

“When’s the last time you saw any?” he asked.

“I can’t remember.”

“Exactly! But if you were in China, you’d see a policeman on every corner. Tell me, in which country would you rather live?”

With all its faults, India is still a great democracy and that’s sometimes messy, corrupt (that topic is worth an essay all by itself) and inefficient. But look at Pakistan, or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. India may be chaotic, but no one ever says its oppressive. There is a saying in India that the country progresses only at night when the government sleeps. There is no doubt the people are dynamic and it’s sad their government doesn’t seem to serve them well, but this is a time of transition. Give India another fifty years and I’m sure the landscape will be very different.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Pilgrimage to Badrinath, Part 2

Badrinath is quiet at 4:00 am, the rushing waters of the Alaknanda the only sound to break the silence. Neelam, Sangeeta, Shishir and I rose early to take a traditional morning bath at the temple hot spring. There to the right of the bridge and from a lighted pavillion by the river’s edge, steam rose in the morning chill. That must be the place, the Tapta Kund, where hot water gushes from a natural spring to fill bathing tanks for both men and women.

The Tapta Kund Hot Spring
The men’s tan
k is about 4 x 5 meters and about 1.5 meters deep. Shishir and I found a spot for our clothes and dipped our feet into the water. Yeow! It was burning hot! I tried again but couldn’t keep my foot in for more than five seconds. A dozen others were at the kund, all at the edge with cups for dipping and pouring water over themselves. I regretted my lack of a cup and squatted at water’s edge to use my hands instead. Off to my left came a splash as a sadhu jumped into the pool, rubbing himself happily in the steaming water, seemingly oblivious to the heat. “Well,” I thought, “that’s what sadhus do.” A few moments later, taking his queue perhaps from the sadhu, Shishir jumped in too. Dang! Now what was I to do? I had come this far, so turning back was out of the question. I took the plunge. Wow, it was hot! Hotter than any bath I’ve ever taken. I dunked myself three times and quickly hauled myself out without delay, but then jumped in again for good measure. It was hot enough to be painful, but not so hot as to cause injury. In other words, it just right for tapasya and the temperature had the side benefit of preventing the tank from becoming overly crowded. I felt a wonderful, tingling glow afterward and a deep sense of contentment. Truly, the bath was purifying and a blessing. Thank you Shishir for leading the way.

Morning Puja at Badrinath Temple
By the time we had dressed and made our way to the temple, Sadhana Devi and the others had arrived. We left our shoes with a friendly vendor and went in for the morning worship of Lord Badrinarayan. It’s only in the morning that the image can be seen uncovered. During the ceremony, the Nawal (chief priest) washes the image, spreads sandlewood paste onto it, performs an arati and “dresses” it in garlands and fabric, leaving only the face visible. The paste is said to cool Lord Badrinarayan from the heat generated by his yoga meditation. Offerings from the audience are collected and placed before him, later to be redistributed back as prasad. Everyone receives something, whether a sweet or a piece of the flower garlands offered to the image, a representation of Lord Vishnu.

The morning worship was a treat, but as a Westerner brought up outside the Hindu tradition, I tended to approach the ceremony as a detached observer more than as a participant. I couldn’t help but remark mentally upon the attentive faces in the crowd, the colorful temple decorations, the head priest’s costume, the sounds of the bells, the hard floor and the drone of the chants. All these wonderfully new impressions were mentally stored, sifted and sorted during the ceremony, with the unfortunate result that I felt little divine presence. The Nawal, who I later found to be a sweet, joyful man, was so stern and lacking in devotion during the ceremony that I wasn’t drawn in. I could sense that those who could attune themselves inwardly, received much more. I resolved to return at a time when I could meditate and be alone with the image, but sadly our schedule didn’t allow it.

The Village of Mana
The remainder of our first day was spent in the village of Mana, two kilometers north of Badrinath. T
here is located Vyasa’s and Ganesha’s caves, the trail known as the Stairway to Heaven, the Sarawati River, and other spots associated with Indian lore. Sadhana Devi and I could feel the effects of elevation on our breath as we trekked up the pathways. I was reminded of backpacking in my youth at high elevations in the Sierras. Go at a pace you can sustain and don’t stop—just like the spiritual path.

From Mana, each in the group explored on our own. Some walked the trails to higher elevations, others spent time in the caves and some returned to Badrinath. I chose to meditate at the spot where the Saraswati and Alaknanda met and then crossed over the river to make my way to Badrinath, following a trail on the opposite side of the Alaknanda. It was a beautiful walk through fields cultivated by Tibetan women weeding, hoeing and carrying their great loads of grass. The air was warm and clear, and all around, mountains framed the valley floor. Badrinath and Mana are nestled in a Himalayan valley, one-half kilometer wide with steep slopes on either side. Nilkanth, a high Himalayan peak, snow capped and well over 20,000 feet can be seen from time to time. Since I had the trail mostly to myself, with only an occasional villager passing to and from the fields, I stopped frequently to meditate on the rock walls bordering the terraced fields. Walk, meditate, walk, meditate, until I found myself once again at the temple.

Baksavale Baba
Our second day was reserved for
visits to Brahmarishi Swami Rishidev Ji Maharaj Hathyogi, also known as Baksawale Baba, and to other babas in the vicinity. Baksawale Baba lives in a small kutir up a side valley from town, far enough away to dissuade casual visitors. Mahavir came to know of him and guided a group of Ananda pilgrims for a visit last fall. He is a disciple of Babaji and is known for having a metal box into which he reportedly sequesters himself in a state of samadhi during the snowy winter months, astrally traveling with his guru while his body remains protected from the insects, mice and other small animals that might disturb it. Such a thing, if true, is extraordinary and sparks a good measure of curiosity. Mahavir had made prior arrangements to make sure our visit was welcomed and so we headed up the mountainside to see him.

We had planned to hike up in two groups—fast walkers and slow walkers—with the latter leaving early so we would all arrive at the same time. Daya, Keshava and I designated ourselves as fast walkers and caught the others at the base of the mountain before they had even started on the steep part of the climb. The result was that Daya, Mahavir and I made it to the kutir a half hour before most of the others. Courtesy demanded we wait for the group, but since we were there and the door was open, we went in. Two young women from Germany were outside affixing a new tarp to the roof of the kutir and two others were within cutting vegetables for Baba’s lunch. We pronamed and introduced ourselves, telling of our trip to Badrinath and of Ananda. His kutir was very small and had space only for half a dozen to sit comfortably. There, against one wall was his metal box, about four feet high. It looked to be made of stainless steel or aluminum, guessing the latter because someone had to carry it all the way up the mountainside.

I asked permission to sit and Baba invited me inside, communicating through gestures and a small chalkboard because he observes silence. He proceeded to show Daya and me his collection of photographs and letters received from previous visitors and seemed much pleased when we recognized faces from Ananda communities and related to him a few details about this person or that. When other pilgrims began to arrive, we moved to a pandal (tent) that had been set up adjacent to the kutir. At Baba’s request, we began chanting, which he enjoyed. He then instructed us to chant Aum eleven times, and followed that with a brief period of meditation. All this time, he communicated through short messages on his chalkboard in Hindi and English, but after meditation he began to use his voice, saying he was commanded to do so by Babaji. The German women were surprised and said it was the most he had spoken to anyone in many years.

Baba's Life and Stories
He told us of
his life, the spiritual path, his respect for Swami Kriyananda and of many other things, most of which I cannot remember clearly. He was once a professor at a university in Delhi for eighteen years, married and had two children. At the age of twenty-eight, his wife died and he was plunged into a period of deep grief, ultimately leading him to renounce his worldly life and take vows of sannyas. Thus began a period of seclusion, meditation and tapasya until 2003 when he was in a tent during a snowstorm on the Gangotri glacier, high above Gomukh. There, he said, he “died.” It was unclear to me whether he meant “physically dead” or whether he meant he was in a superconscious state. Whatever the case, he awoke to find his head in the lap of a radiant being, a person seven feet tall with golden skin and golden hair. This, he said, was Babaji who had come to rescue his disciple. Baksawale spoke little of what happened next other than to say he was directed to go to Badrinath to continue his meditation until November of this year, after which he will go, as directed by Babaji, to Tibet to continue his austerities in complete isolation for three more years. After that, he will return and travel to Germany, as instructed by Babaji.

Here are a few things I remember him saying. He can remember clearly his last three lives. Three lifetimes ago, he was a very poor man but very generous. I assumed that lifetime was spent as an Indian but I am unsure. Two lifetimes ago, he was born as an Englishman and it was because of this past association with the West that he is being drawn back to Europe in this lifetime. There, he said, disciples await him. The conversation veered in other directions at that point and he said nothing of his immediate past life. Babaji, he said, is 2500 years old, yet also omnipresent. In Tibet, Babaji has two disciples, each over 200 years old. When he travels to Tibet later this year, he doesn’t know exactly where he is to go, but trusts he will be guided by Babaji. He emphasized more than once that we are the Atman, not this body. He had great respect for Swami Kriyananda and commended his service to his guru and Babaji. I asked him if he would like to send a message back to Swamiji with our group and he said that he wanted Swamiji to know that he would look after the other students of Swamiji planning to visit him in October from Italy.

People ask me, “What did you think of him? Is it all true?” To that I can only say, “I’m not qualified to judge.” We understand life through the filter of our own intuition and experience and Baksawale’s life is outside my realm. Some, out of habitual skepticism, will reject anything hinting at the supernatural while others tend to accept all claims unquestioningly. My tendency is to neither accept nor reject, but to allow for all possibilities. As the Bible says, “The tree is known by the fruit it bears.” By that measure, I liked Baksawale Baba and felt an attraction to him because of the calm stillness in his eyes, the way he held his body, his smile, and because of the devotion he expressed when speaking of Babaji. He seemed sincere.

When visiting those with spiritual power, there is a tendency to look for personal gain in the form of blessings, uplift, or personal benefit. We want to receive to ourselves rather than give, limiting our capacity to have blessings flow through us. While listening to Baksawale Baba, I felt a strong impulse to give him whatever good wishes I could in response to an intuitive perception I felt quite clearly. When he told of his plans to go to Germany in 2011, my thought was, “Yes! He’ll be very popular with the Europeans. They will be attracted and drawn to him, perhaps more so than Americans.” There is something about Europeans that resonates. I could feel it in the four women who were serving him. Following close on the heels of that thought was a remembrance of how Master prayed to Babaji before embarking to America for assurance that he would not become lost in the materialism of the West. That was my sincere prayer for Baksawale Baba. Because of my warm feelings for him, I hope he uses the next three years to inure himself against the tendency of Indian swamis who go to the West and become celebrities. As they say about India, “There are lots of gurus, very few disciples.”

The Badrinath Temple Priest
In the early afternoon, most made their way down the mountainside to visit Hanuman Baba and Muni Baba, both living in the same general vicinity. I gave my pronams to Hanuman Baba and went down the mountain to be by myself and meditate without visiting Muni Baba, meeting the group later in the afternoon for an appointment with the head priest of the temple, the man I described earlier as being very cold during the morning puja. What a surpris
e to find him warm and joyful in the afternoon. It was like night and day. He shared stories, told of his life, the history of the temple and, toward the end, brought out a picture drawn many years ago by a prior temple priest of Babaji (I think). No one was exactly sure of the picture’s provenance.

The next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Badrinath. We loaded up the cars and made the reverse trip down the mountain to Rishikesh, stopping overnight at Rudraprayag and then at Vashista Guha the next day to meditate in the cave where Swami Purushottamananda lived for forty years. I had my best meditation of the whole trip there, sitting in the silence on the hard rock floor for well over an hour, absorbing the experiences of the days before. Close by is the cave Swami Kriyananda inhabited for a month when still with SRF. We stopped at Swami Shankarananda’s Kriya Yoga temple, the Shivananda ashram, and had time to wander about Rishikesh the next day and visit Ananda Moyi Ma’s ashram in Hardwar before catching the evening train back to Delhi, arriving home after midnight.

Our pilgrimage to Badrinath was a wonderful experience that I’m still integrating. I mentally return, again and again, to things that happened on the journey, finding new inspiration and lessons as the days pass. Spending time on a spiritual adventure with other devotees builds lifetime bonds and I certainly felt that to be the case for me and Sadhana Devi with our fellow pilgrims. The dedication and commitment I saw in them, in the other pilgrims along the road, and in the sadhus we met in Badrinath all inspired me to meditate deeper and longer. Ultimately, outward pilgrimage is but a symbol of the journey each of us takes within, strengthening our resolve to tread the long and winding road to Self-realization.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Road to Badrinath

Dear Friends,

The pilgrimage road to Badrinath is long and winding, symbolic of our own spiritual quest. Pilgrims in the old days, before the road, would walk the 300 kilometers from Rishikesh but few do so now, with the exception of an occasional sadhu with water pot, blanket and staff (or its modern equivalent, an umbrella). You still can see the old pilgrimage trail visible on the opposite hillsides, snaking from village to village, carrying the traffic of the local Garhwali people to terraced fields, the river far below. My imagination couldn't stop thinking, "What would it be like to walk that trail, all the way, once again?"

We left Delhi on the morning train and by noon reached Hardwar, the starting point of the pilgrims' journey. There were thirty two of us, sixteen Indians, eight American residents from our ashram, seven from Ananda communities in the USA and one Canadian, a nice mix of devotees from East and West who would together make the journey to Badrinath. Traveling with Indian companions would prove to be particularly enjoyable because all were a reservoir of knowledge about customs most foreigners know little about. When in doubt about what to do, just look to the Indians and do the same. At the train station, we were met by our guide Mahavir, who loaded us into eight SUV's with drivers. We embarked immediately for our first day's destination of Devprayag, a couple of hours beyond Rishikesh, itself one hour away.

You may be wondering, "Badrinath? Why go there?" Answering this can be a bit difficult because people make pilgrimages for many reasons, some spiritual and others mundane. Badrinath is an ancient pilgrimage site, located at about 10,300 ft in the Himalayas at the headwaters of the Alaknanda River. It was through Badrinath that the Pandava brothers passed, as recounted in the Mahabharata, on their final journey to heaven. All along the route from Rishikesh are temples, shrines and sacred spots associated with stories from the Indian epics, each with a tale to tell. Above Badrinath is the village of Mana where Saint Vyasa is said to have lived while reciting the Mahabharata to Ganesha. In need, Ganesha broke off one of his tusks to use as a pen, so devoted was he to his task. His cave too is there.

Close to Vyasa's cave flows the mystical river Saraswati, bursting in full flow from a mountainside crevice. It's quite amazing to see because no one knows from where the river comes before appearing in full force, only slightly smaller than the Yuba River in Nevada County. After flowing but a few hundred yards it merges with the Alaknanda. There, it is said to mystically go underground to reappear at the sangam (confluence) of the Yamuna and Ganga in Allahabad, site of the kumba mela. Yogis say the Saraswati is a symbol of the sushumna, the mystical channel in the astral spine, the Ganga and Yamuna being the ida and pingala nerve channels on either side.

During and after the reign of Ashok, Buddhism became the dominant religion in northern India, supplanting the ancient Hindu practices in Badrinath until Adi (the first) Shankara came, probably sometime during the first millennium AD. You can see the Buddhist influence in the architecture of the Badrinath temple. Shankara's birth date is hotly debated, but all agree his life and influence profoundly affected the religious practices and philosophy of India. He is said to have attained enlightenment in Joshimath, a little ways downstream from Badrinath, and it was Sankara who revived and reorganized the ancient Order of Swamis into its present form. He established four maths (centers of spiritualworship/pilgrimage), one in each corner of India, to spiritually unify the country. To Badrinath he sent priests from his native Kerala to oversee the worship of Lord Badrinarayan in the temple and this tradition continues to this day. Shankara was a proponent of absolute advaita (non-dualism) as is expressed in the philosophy of Vedanta. Some say he was a former incarnation of Swami Sri Yukteswar or of Paramhansa Yogananda, and indeed, there are many similarities between their lives. Yogananda said that Shankara was initiated into Kriya Yoga by Babaji in Varanasi.

Local lore says that upon the arrival of Buddhism, local devotees of Lord Badrinarayan (a form of Vishnu), hid the stone image of his form in the Alaknanda River, or in the hot-spring pool next to the temple, to preserve it from destruction by the Buddhist priests. Other versions of the story say the Buddhists threw the image into the river when they cleansed the temple. Shankara is said to have divined, in vision, the location of the stone image and to have plunged into the rapids to recover it, a Herculean feat if true. One version of the story says he promised to restore the image if the local people would worship it appropriately. Upon the villagers' assent, he "raised" the stone from the river. In any case, the stone was installed in the temple and has been worshipped daily ever since. The smooth, black stone stands about 30 inches high and has upon it, in relief, an image of a yogi sitting in meditation pose. The image looks strikingly similar to the drawing of Mahavatar Babaji, an incarnation of Lord Krishna in our Kriya tradition, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism. It is said that the stone is not carved and that the image on it is naturally occurring. Many, if not most, locals consider Babaji of the Kriya tradition and Lord Badrinarayan (Sometimes called Badri Vishel or Lord Badrinath. "Badri" is a name for Lakshmi, Vishnu's consort. "Nath" means husband.) to be one and the same.

For all these reasons, Badrinath is considered to be a place to which devout Hindus should make pilgrimage if possible. Many of the Indians who participated in our pilgrimage spoke of having wanted to visit Badrinath since before they came to know of Yogananda. Once they read the Autobiography, their desire increased because Badrinath is said to be in the region where Mahavatar Babaji lives, and many stories associated with personal encounters with him are centered there. Because of this tradition, pictures of Babaji from the Autobiography of a Yogi are commonly seen and it is not unusual to meet people who say they have met the great mahavatar or who claim to be one of his direct disciples. In fact, one man complained that a bad consequence of Yogananda's Autobiography has been the creation of so many Babaji's, each claiming authenticity.

All along the route to Badrinath are small temples and spots of spiritual significance. Merging with the Alaknanda on its journey downstream are other rivers descending from holy sites and a bath at each confluence (sangam) is said to wash away past sins and purify one for a visit to the temple in Badrinath. It was at the first such major sangam at Devprayag that we stopped for our first night's rest. Here is found an old temple where Rama did fourteen years of meditation and austerity in penance for killing Ravenna. Here too the rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi join and become the Ganga. Traditionally, it is the Bhagirathi that one follows upstream to reach the origin of the Ganga at Gomukh, but our journey would follow the larger Alaknanda. Tradition demanded, of course, that we stop and bathe and so we all filed down to the river, crossed the footbridge and walked to the waters' edge. An iron railing is there to prevent one from being swept away and pujaris (priests) guide devotees through the appropriate mantras if desired.

I, along with the rest of our group, made my way to the water and found myself being blessed by a friendly pujari. He prompted me in the appropriate Sanskrit slokas which I did my best to repeat correctly, word for word. The concluding phrase, "yada, yada, yada, two hundred rupees" had me stumped and I was forced to repeat it a few times. It didn't sound Sanskrit, especially the last couple of words, but I matched the pujari, word for word, until it dawned on me that I owed the fellow two hundred rupees. An unholy thought of whether I should bargain crossed my mind. I didn't. I just took my dip, dunking myself three times in the cold water, and felt amazingly refreshed and clean.

The road into the Himalayas is so very, very beautiful that it's hard to do it justice. Steep mountain flanks border each side of the river, ascending thousands of feet. At the lower elevations they rise at a 45 degree angle and support forest and terraced fields of rice, millet and vegetables but by the time we reached Badrinath, the slopes were often sheer with trees and villagers were few and far between. Landslides across the road were a constant sight but because Badrinath is close to the Chinese border, this is an area of strategic importance to the Indian army. They are quick to clear the road when necessary, although it was not uncommon for us to be halted while bulldozers worked. Locals said this year's monsoon was the heaviest in fifty years and the damage done to the road was evidence of its power. All along the roadside are seen men and women with hammers, breaking rock into gravel for the road. What a job! I asked Vijay, our other guide, if these were local workers, but he said, "No, they are mostly from Bihar. They come for a one year contract to work on the roads."

This area of India is known as Garhwal, and like most hill regions, the locals are mostly poor and engage in subsistence agriculture. The terraced fields climb many hundreds, and sometime more than a thousand, feet up and down the sides of mountains, wherever there is enough soil to support crops. A common sight is that of women carrying enormous loads of grass to be stored as winter feed for their cows and goats. Never do you see men working in the fields and its said that almost all work on the land is done by the women. I asked about this and was told that young men often leave the village to seek work in cities, sending cash back to support their families while the older Garhwali hillmen are mostly idle, spending their days drinking tea and gossiping, leaving most everything else to the women. It certainly seemed that way. I mention this unflattering characterization of the local, older hillmen only because it was repeated to me, with distinct disdain, at least six times by our guides and the young drivers. In any case, seeing how hard the women work reinforced my great respect for them as the foundation of the country.

The road to Badrinath passed through Rudraprayag where Jim Corbett shot the famous man-eating leopard that killed 125 people. I remember reading that story in one of Corbett's books years ago and it was fun to actually see where it actually took place. A little further we stopped at a small shrine to Garuda, the "vehicle" of Vishnu, and there took a stone from the nearby stream. It is said that anyone who keeps such a stone in their house need never worry about snakes coming there. Mahavir told us a story of how he brought many such stones to his village home, there keeping the snakes away.

As an aside, let me tell you another story that Mahavir recounted. Besides being a guide, he also does regional social work and has been elected the sarpanch (headman) of his village. Not too long ago, a woman in his village was bitten on her finger by a cobra and came immediately to him for help. The headman must deal with everything. She could feel the venom moving up her arm and it was apparent that should it reach the core of her body, she would die. Because the village is remote, carrying her to a clinic for modern medical treatment was not an option, so he called upon the village "mantra man" to come immediately. He repeated the appropriate mantras to counteract the bite, all the while making a clawing motion on her arm from her shoulder to hand. Amazingly, the pain and venom retreated and left her. She was told to avoid certain foods and to do certain rituals to complete the healing process. One of the things she was told not to do was to comb her hair, but after some time had passed, she couldn't resist temptation and used a comb. Immediately, the pain returned to her finger and the venom started its movement once again up her arm. In a panic, she called upon Mahavir who again summoned the mantra man. Naturally, he was very angry but he cured her nevertheless. Mahavir explained that the mantra man follows an ancient tradition that prevents him from ever accepting money for his services and he must respond to every plea for help. If he refuses to respond or if he takes payment, the power of the mantras will leave him for someone else.

At Joshimath is the cave where Adi Shankara lived and received enlightenment. It is under the canopy of a large mulberry tree said to be 2500 years old. We stopped for an hour to meditate in the cave and visit the Shiva temple under the tree. I walked the traditional three times around and tried to feel Shankara's presence but I wasn't successful. Some in our group were very touched by this spot but I couldn't get past the noise drifting up the hillside from below and all the hustle and bustle of modern India. I wonder what it was like in Shankara's time--probably just jungle and river.

Eventually, after a long, long day of driving, we reached Badrinath in the evening, tired but satisfied with all the wonderful experiences and sights encountered along the way. We checked into our hotel and prepared for our early morning visit to the temple of Lord Badrinarayana.

......to be continued.

I'll finish the story of Badrinath, the babas we met there, and our return to Rishikesh in my next letter, maybe in a week or two. I'm writing this on Saturday and Sunday. Midweek, a team of us go to Pune and Mumbai where we've booked Swamiji to give discourses in two large halls. Dhyana and I will follow Swami's Thursday night talk in Pune with introductory workshops on Friday night and Saturday before going to Mumbai to hear him speak there on Sunday night. The following weekend, we'll conduct workshops in Mumbai to take advantage of the publicity generated. While in Pune, Swamiji wants to take a look at land for a possible Indian community and to see what kind of response we get. I'll let you know what happens.

Joy to all,
Jaya

Friday, August 17, 2007

Return to India

Dear Friends,
Just to let you know, Sadhana Devi and I arrived in Delhi last Tuesday after finally receiving permission to return to India from the Deputy Secretary of the Home Ministry, using our still active tourist visas This allows us to be in Gurgaon while the details for properly registering Ananda Sangha with the Home Ministry are worked out. Once that is done, Indian Consulates around the world can, if they choose, issue Entry (X) visas to qualified volunteers doing service for Ananda Sangha in India. Technically, I'm not supposed to teach public programs while using my tourist visa, so I must be discreet, but once the OK for the new visas is given, Sadhana Devi, I and others can apply, making all the service activities of us foreigners proper and legal. Still to be determined is whether we'll need to return to the USA to make the visa switch. I hope not.

Swamiji and many from the ashram are in Rishikesh to participate in the dedication of a Kriya Temple at the ashram of Swami Shankarananda. Representatives from numerous kriya lines are expected to be there and this is an opportunity to bring together the many branches of the kriya tree. I would have like to be there but everyone had left by the time we arrived back in India. and I was too pooped anyway. Since I was one of the few acharyas at the ashram while everyone was away, I was asked to represent Ananda last night at a discourse presented by Brahmarishi Prithriji from South India, hosted by DR Karthikeyan, on the topic of The Science of Meditation. Sadhana Devi and I went and gave our greetings. Prithriji claims to be "enlightened" and gave an entertaining talk on his version of meditation practice, which is basically watching the breath. I liked him but our traditions are rather different. I kind of had my doubts about his claim to be a reincarnation of Benjamin Franklin and of the Buddha's favorite disciple Anand.

The fun part was that it turned out Brahmarishi is the founder of the Pyramid Society in India. They are the ones who use the "pyramid hats" that I and others have made fun of for so many years. You put a styrofoam pyramid on your head while meditating for "3 times the depth." He has a big, glass pyramid temple in Bangalore and invited me to visit sometime when we are down there. I tried to keep an open mind and my opinions to myself, and I bought a hat, but haven't yet had time to try it out. It will take courage to wear the thing at morning sadhana in the ashram. Not wanting to pass on such a great opportunity, I bought one for Swamiji too.

Although we were gone for only two months, I've noticed lots of little changes. Most noticeable is the advance of the Delhi Metro system into Gurgaon, with tracks and a station being constructed about a half mile from the ashram in Shikanderpur (for those of you who know the geography). The roads have been temporarily rerouted in the vicinity of the new station while massive construction is underway, causing me to direct the taxi driver in a couple of circles when coming back from the airport Tuesday. Once the Metro is completed, probably in a year or two, we'll be able to hop on for a trip to downtown Delhi, much quicker than by car and cheaper too. At least that is what they say. Eventually, a line is planned to even go from here directly to the airport.

When I first came to India I couldn't help but notice all the construction and wrote about this in a previous letter. As time has passed, I've actually begun to see many of these projects coming to completion. Because so much hand labor is used, things progress more slowly than in America but things actually do move along steadily. This is especially so when it concerns the Metro which is run by an independent agency less subject to political pressures and bureaucracy. The Metro gets things done on time and on budget, if you can believe the newspapers. I think its true. One day there is nothing and the next, miles of roadway are walled off from view with Metro barricades while construction proceeds behind. A month or so later, steel and concrete appear above the fence.

One of the reasons for so much construction is that Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games in 2010. This a big, big sporting event and a matter of national pride for the country. India wants to show what it can do and is pulling out all the stops to clean up and modernize Delhi. I've noticed the changes, even beyond the construction. I believe the city is actually a lot cleaner now than it was when I came. The government seems to be making a serious effort to remove the previously ubiquitous rubble, debris and trash along the roadways, making the whole city much more attractive. Last year Delhi became one of the few cities in the world to ban plastic shopping bags (San Francisco is another) and the difference is apparent. My theory is that the cows can eat the paper bags, thus helping the effort. I've heard it said that the police are also driving out the homeless and tearing down some of the shanty-towns, but whether this is true or not, I don't know. If Delhi can put on the 2010 Games successfully, I expect India to make a bid for hosting the Olympics within 20 years, just like China is doing in 2008. Now, if they only had some athletes to win a medal in something. Cricket isn't an Olympic sport yet.

Keshava and Daya are due back in a day or two and will be getting things ready for our group pilgrimage to Badrinath in September. Many Indian devotees are going and I'll write next about this Himalayan adventure.

Joy to everyone,
Jaya

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cecilia, Ahimsa Silk and AUM

Dear Friends,
I mentioned in my last letter that I would tell you something of the businesses we are establishing in India. This letter is dedicated to an interview with Cecilia Patitucci, an Ananda Sangha member of many years from our ashram in Assisi, Italy. She came to India as part of the first wave of Westerners with Swami Kriyananda in 2003/04 and has been part of theAnanda India community ever since.

Cecilia is aperson of great warmth, with a sophisticated sense of fashion, and a marvelous Italian charm, difficult to convey in print. Her story is fascinating and I think you will enjoy it.

Jaya: You’ve started a clothing business in India. How did this come about?

On the 6th of February 2004, Swami asked me if I would start a business with “khadi,” a fabric handwoven with the “charkha,” the spinning wheel. When you see a flag of India, in the center you see the charkha, a great symbol of Indian independence and one of the tools of revolution used by Gandhi. It was through the silent revolution of the charkha that Gandhi was able to call the people of India back to their historic roots of hand-weaving fabrics rather than having them imported from England.

Khadi has a big symbolism in the hearts of Indians, but it is something that has been forgotten because khadi is now considered a poor fabric, reminding people of past times of poverty. Swamiji had the idea of using khadi because he has good friends involved in the khadi movement.

I met these people and through them, I began to study. The word “khadi” has the same roots as “kare” whichmeans “making.” Khadi is about making—“handmade.” I started studying these fabrics, especially cottons, but also silks, and was inspired to create a line of clothing called the “Ananda India Yoga Line.” These would be very simple clothes inspired by the Indian dress you see on the street: a simple kurta,which is a shirt with very few buttons and simple trousers, westernized to be more easily worn. I created a line for men and for women, both in cotton and insilk, and started to promote these in Italy through our cooperative at Ananda Assisi where it was well received. Soon after, I began to learn about organic cotton.

When you enter into the khadi world, you not only meet people interested in helping weavers and spinners in the villages but also people interested in the environment. Organic cottons are those that are grown without the use of pesticides and without the use ofchemical fertilizers. I started to know these kinds ofpeople and a new world opened up for me. I wanted to work with organic cottons in order to create a yoga collection that would be extremely contemporary.

After studying, I started “Lotus Bio.” Bio because“biologico” in Italian means “organic” and Lotus because I wanted this line to have a lotus flower tosymbolize consciousness opening to help True Nature, which is God. Organic cotton is grown and dyed without chemicals. The white fabrics are the result of soaking in water,soaps and other natural elements and then exposing them to the sun. The cotton is grown in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, and the fabric is dyed in Gujarat, the land of Gandhi.

I wanted to use vegetable dyes and learned how to use these in the organic cottons but found that not every dye is good. Some colors burn the organic cotton, so I am still in the process of learning about this. We have presented these fabrics in Italy and they have been very well received.

Then another world popped up into my life. This was the world of “ahimsa” silk. Ahimsa silk is obtained without killing the worms inside the cocoons so that they can become butterflies. It is a silk traditionally grown for yogis because yogis use silk for its vibration,and ahimsa silk, meaning “non-violence,” is a pure vibration fabric.

Many Jains, followers of Mahavir, cultivate ahimsa silk in India and I met a Jain man who produces this ahimsa silk in a very poor region of India called Jarkhand, a place in Bihar. It is called Jarkhand because 60% of their land is covered with forest and “jarkhand” means “land of the forest.” This land ofJarkhand has many, many trees where this friend of mine started a social work 15 years ago to gather poor women together to harvest silk cocoons.

If you help the village women, you help the trees because the trees are needed by these women to make their living out of the silk cocoons. They are not boiled, these cocoons, or suffocated by a heating process. They allow the worm to develop naturally into a butterfly. This means you cannot reel a thread out of the cocoon as is normally done in silk production to produce a perfect, unbroken thread. You have to keep the cocoon intact so the thread will be a little thicker, not perfect, but it will have the vibrations of ahimsa.

This story or helping women, helping the trees, and helping the environment, inspired me to make a new product—ahimsa silk-covered cushions for meditation and ahimsa silk-covered cushions for the neck. These two products were marketed successfully in Italy.

I developed a fabric without color, using the color of the silk as it comes out of the cocoon, and for another product I used the blue color of indigo, discovered in India thousands of years ago. Indigo is called this in the West because it was coming from India and it became the first widely used blue dye in the world.

In yoga, blue is symbolic because it is the color of the sky and the color of Krishna, making it perfect for the meditation and yoga. Ananda Sangha now has a business called “Anjali Khadi Clothing.” I gave the company the name“Anjali” because in Sanskrit anjali is the act of offering something to the altar and this company is anoffering to God. “Anjali Khadi Clothing of Ananda Sangha India” develops the different lines of products.

Ananda India Yoga Line is the khadi clothing made ofsilk and cotton. Lotus Bio is the product line madefrom organic cotton. The products for meditation using ahimsa silk are called Ahimsa.

Each of these products comes with a beautifully designed tag showing an open lotus and the symbol of Ananda Sangha. We include the story of the product, a history of the fabric and where it is from. Customers see thatthere are people from several religions working together—Jain people, Muslim people, Hindus all working together.

I also include with each product quotations from Gandhi and Master because Gandhi saw khadi as asymbol of simplicity, purity, sincerity, calmness, and of love. He wanted to create a symbol of these qualities for everybody through khadi. This is a fabric bridge of love and peace between East and West. A bridge of qualities, the essence of India, passes through the fabric and comes to the West.

Jaya: “It sounds like a great adventure. What have been your obstacles?

It has been an adventure begun with enormous obstacles, continued with enormous obstacles, and still faces obstacles every hour. The big thing has been the transformation of a person into the symbolism of these fabrics. The obstacles were many but they showed me how to expand my heart to face them.

I’ve had to do business with people who have a very different way of dealing with other people, a different way of dealing with work, a different way of dealing with loyalty, sincerity, commitment, punctuality, and honesty. All these things made my journey extremely difficult, but I discovered there was only one thing which could be transformed, and that was myself. I realized that just as it was so immensely difficult to have this fabric cleaned, cut the way I wanted, stitched as I wanted, or altered when it had been cut wrong, I understood that it was all just a symbol of what God is doing with each one of us.

I wanted my clothes to fit perfectly, so God wants us to perfectly fit our true nature. He has to cut us many times because we are never perfect the first time. Then He has to stitch us to make the perfect dress out of us. And the stitching is painful and it has to be done many times before becoming a perfect cloth. Then He has to lean us one, two, three times because this perfect fabric, cut and stitched, is full of spots. Then He has to iron us, but in ironing you can burn the fabric.

The process of making clothes out of fabric is simply a symbol of how we have to become something beautiful for God. Clean but simple, sincere, peaceful, andessential.

Jaya: What have you learned that you didn’tanticipate?

First of all, you learn about your own mind. You learn how you thought you were in peace and how you were not. I thought I had reached a point of joy and inner peace because I was coming to India every year for two months, going to all the spots of pilgrimage with a big inner joy, doing my sadhana and meditation, and loving India to the tips of my fingers. And then one day I began to see how my mind was agitated, how calmness was not there at all, how upset I could become with other people.

Before I had thought I was the biggest lover of people in the world. I had always been able to get through any experience just with love. Now I began to see how peace was not in my heart, how I was identified with events happening in a certain way, and how I was completely dependent on external situations in order to be happy, to be peaceful, to be joyful.

I was completely dependent on how other people behaved in order for me to love them.

I came to see that there was a big work to do in expanding my heart and calming my mind.

Jaya: So, what did you do?

I went deeper into meditation, especially becoming regular in the Aum Technique in order to hear the true sound of everything. I had to go back to Aum to get beyond the noise I was hearing every day in those noisy, burning factories with 47C, 50C degrees temperature, no fans working, all kinds of people coming, going, shouting.

I deepened my meditations because I realized that I was many times on the edge of madness, both from the craziness of the situation, of everyday fighting to have things done, and because ofthe incredible environment of heat. The heat was impossible. The first time I came was in summer and it was 47 C (117 F) degrees. The external environment was extremely difficult and the internal environment began to burn my mind and my heart. I realized through this experience that I had a big job to do inside.

Jaya: You mention the Aum technique. What else did you do?

Meditation, Kriya, the Aum technique, prayer andnever giving up. At the beginning, when I came toIndia, around Swamiji there was an enormous flow of energy poring out of him. Enormous! There was a wave of Master coming through him needed to break the ice, or maybe I should say “fire” in such a country as this.

Being with him meant having all this karma coming up for each of us and we couldn’t be indulgent. We could not take care of only ourselves because we had a job to do every day. I could not say “No.” Without affirmations and prayers I couldn’t make it. Everyday was a fight.

It was difficult just getting out ofthe door. Taxis were constantly late, one hour to an hour and a half, or not coming at all, with drivers not understanding English, we not speaking their language and getting lost. So many tears and feelings of desperation! You can only make it if it occurs to youthat there is only one thing worth it, to liberate yourself. There is only one purpose for which we are here—to get free.

I have given my life to the Kriya Yoga path and I have been able to contribute with money, so this path has been my only purpose and I never gave up. Through the money that has come through this business, we have been able to publish Swamiji’s Essence of theBhagavad Gita. We were able to do this entirely from India without other money from elsewhere. We paid for all the printing. But it has not been easy. I’ve hade verything stolen three times and I have been cheated many times.

This happened again and again but I never gave up and I learned a big lesson. It was not me that worked. That was a lesson that Swamiji helped me to understand. “Cecilia, here there is a big lesson for you. Ego! You have to learn that it is not you who is doing all this. Master will take it all from you until you understand that it is not you who is doing. God is the doer.”

My second lesson was when I felt there was no love left in my heart. I was extremely, intensely challenged by the people I was meeting every day. It was a world of men, naturally. Not only were they thinking that women are inferior, but a blond, young, single foreigner woman is something completely strange to them. I was constantly alone. I learned that if I wanted to survive, I could not try to transform anyone. The only thing I could do was to transform myself.
But how?

By expanding my heart so that I could love more.That doesn’t mean being stupid or naive, but loving more with wisdom so I would not be affected by beingc heated in such a wild way, by so many arrogant men,so very proud.

Jaya: Do you feel that you had these troubles because you are a woman. Would it have been the same if you were a man?

It is the same with foreign men but being a woman is worse. There is a different way in India of dealing with precision, commitment, client service, and time, these crucial things when you produce something. But the challenge is for you to realize that your mind is notpeaceful and your heart is not loving enough. I found myself with a mind extremely agitated and a heart not loving anymore, a heart becoming dryer and dryer.

Jaya: How did you deal with that?

I have been praying. I have a very strong faith and I am a very stubborn person. You can put me in any situation and I will continue until I do it. It doesn’toccur to me to stop. Never. If Guru gave me something through Swamiji, I have to do it. Indeed, this has been my biggest sadhana and my biggest blessing. Even up until now, it is a big fight. Every day. No question.I’ve also been learning to be detached in the good and in the bad. Before, when I would find good people, I would give them so much love but then I would be betrayed. So, learning from that has been a big thing for me. When you find bad people, you feel so much upset, but with all that very bad feeling, I was poisoning myself. Is that what I want? No, it is not!

So, I’m working on detachment, but it is a daily process only kriya can make happen. In India, everything is extreme. As there are people who are low in consciousness, there are the big yogis too. People who are foreigners come with a mind that is western and rational, a mind of details used to punctuality, and with a fractionated organization of time.

Here you must learn to be detached. In the end, you understand that it is not those outward things that are important but rather how your mind reacts to them.It is not important, the things that come or do not come, because when Master throws to you, every day for three years, fifteen examples of non-punctuality or non-precision, maybe there is a lesson in that. It is my daily work to not identify with what I do. It is a high challenge and I am still praying everyday that my life can become sweeter and softer, but I know it will become like that only when I become more peaceful in my mind and more loving in my heart.

Jaya: What do you see as the future of the business?

It is expanding. I see there are more people interested and I want to reach more markets. Now I have one employee whereas before I was alone. I want to invest in having even more people. I think it is worth it because I see that the organic world is waiting, especially in America where there is a huge, enormous market. I want to explore the production of more organic things. I want to make more clients for organic products in Italy and for khadi.

In India, I have a very good connection for the introduction of cotton products for the home. I would like to start a line of organic cotton bed sheets, cotton bathrobes and towels. I see a beautiful future for the business, but with a team.

Jaya: How would you sum up your experience?

My experience has been about making a connection with the deep reality of India. It is a reality of 750 million people living in 750 thousand villages, a reality where 75% of the population lives in an environment opposite of the big cities where we live. It is a reality of doing something connected with the soil of India, a soil being destroyed by pesticides and fertilizers, and areality of farmers forced to take out loans they cannot repay and committing suicide. We have put our finger into the villages with khadi, organic cotton and silk. We are helping poor women have something sustainable by allowing them to harvest cocoons.

Ananda Sangha has a connection with the country of India through working with the fabrics produced bythese three different realities: khadi from villages ,organics without pesticides and fertilizers, and ahimsasilk, helping both the environment and the poor women of Jarkand.

Final Notes:The above interview is condensed. If you would likethe full version, write and I’ll send it upon editing.This will be my last letter until after we return to Indiain August. Sadhana Devi and I will be in America forthe months of June and July, visiting Portland andAnanda Village and doing programs in New England.We’ll visit Lorne and Judy Dekun at Ananda Michiganand conduct a program at the Ananda Center in Maine .Sadhana Devi will spend extra time at the Village to do research for the next installment of her project about the history of Ananda, while I will help Larry andKaren Rider in beautifully green Rhode Island. By the way, Sadhana’s first book of Ananda’s history from1969-76 has been reformatted and printed in India witha beautiful new cover and real binding. If you wouldlike a copy, email her and she can bring you one.(SD: sadhanadevi@anandaindia.org) We hope to see you soon.Jaya and Sadhana Devi