Tuesday, December 25, 2007


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.

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.

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