Monday, July 18, 2011

Return to India - Final Chapter - Calcutta

Gita and I only had two full days in Calcutta and we sought to make the best use of them we could. I am eager to complete this blog series and so will do my best to keep this brief.

Calcutta and the state of Bengal occupy a unique place in the awakening of modern India. I will not say more than that except to say that not only did there occur an extraordinary spiritual revolution but other revolutions from Bengal as well. More can be found from the history books than from me on this fascinating subject.

On our first day, Saturday, July 9, we first visited the home of Yogananda's boyhood companion, Tuli Bose. The home is now occupied by Hassi: the widow of Tulsi's son, Debi Mukherjee. Debi was a young boy or man when Paramhansa Yogananda returned to India in 1935-6 and has written of that visit in his own collection of stories. Hassi was in the womb of her mother at that time and was blessed by Yogananda. She spoke to him years later by phone after Yogananda had returned to his headquarters in Los Angeles.

Hassi is a devotee and very wise soul. She has greeted and hosted innumerable Ananda and other visitors to her home. Ananda members have assisted her in repairing and improving her simple home which no street map, no Google map will ever reveal but which is right around the corner from Yogananda's boyhood home at 4 Gurpar Road in an older section of Calcutta.

I can't vouch entirely for my notes or my memory or the language translation of our meeting but I will do my best to convey what I learned and experienced there. Yogananda, before leaving for America in 1920, and for some period of time (unknown but presumably before leaving Calcutta to start the school for boys that he founded in the state of Bihar), conducted weekly satsangs (spiritual gatherings) in this tiny home. I believe those satsangs were held on Thursday nights.

Among the spiritual stars who visited the home (and sometimes together, though which ones at the same time, I am not clear and their generations don't all exactly coincide) include: Sharda Devi, widow of Sri Ramakrishna, who conducted Durga puja there; Swami Vivekananda, most famous disciple of Ramakrishna (who visited America twice in the 1890's); Lahiri Mahasaya; Swami Sri Yukteswar, Paramhansa Yogananda, Ananda Moyi Ma, and Swami Atmananda (disciple of Yogananda), along with of course, Tuli Bose.

Just to be present there in the midst of such a place was indescribable. The home is as simple and unseen as a certain manger in Palestine. How many avatars can you fit in a 10' by 10' room? Can anyone imagine such an extraordinary "satsang" or a more blessed temple - yet one that will never impress the worldly man for its grand size and beauty?

Among a tiny sampling of the relics gathered there are an iron trident once possessed by Babaji, given to Lahiri, given to Sri Yukteswar, given to Yogananda, who left it there with Tulsi! The deerskin "asan" (meditation seat) of Sri Yukteswar; the tiger skin asan of Yogananda's; and a clay statute of goddess Kali that materialized in Yogananda's palm while meditating at the nearby Dakshineswar Temple (home to Ramakrishna in the prior century). Gita and I meditated there for a little and had the opportunity to visit with Hassi for some time. She's getting up in years and asked for prayers for an upcoming cataract surgery on July 30 and again later in the Fall 2011.

Around the corner we visited with Sarita Ghosh whose husband Sonat, is the living descendant of Yogananda's artist-brother, Sananda. When we arrived, two other pilgrims were visiting. (There's a steady stream of pilgrims coming to Gurpar Road). She toured us showing us the room in which Babaji appeared to Yogananda after a long night of intense prayer asking for tangible blessings upon his journey to America (in 1920). She showed us the room which had once been Yogananda's father's bedroom and where Yogananda as boy, after his mother's passing, had slept also. It was filled with wonderful photos including the original photo, touched up with color (as was the custom then) by Sananda of Rabindranath Tagore. This "painting" is now famous and hangs there in the room as does what might be (I'm not really sure) the original painting by Sananda of Babaji, among other things I failed to catalogue. (Tagore once visited there, perhaps to approve the painting.)

Upstairs we meditated in Yogananda's "attic room" - the scene of many meditations and experiences, including the window from which he dropped his bundle of items on his failed attempt to escape to the Himalayas (as recounted in his autobiography). Sigh, what can one say about such a visit except that I shall treasure it always.

The following day we visited Serampore, where Swami Sri Yukteswar (Yogananda's guru) lived and had his ashram. Ishan, son of Durlov Ghosh (living descendant of Yogananda's eldest brother, Ananta), hosted us. We went first to Rai Ghat where Sri Yukteswar (and Yogananda) would bathe daily in the mornings and where Sri Yukteswar encountered Babaji under the still living banyan tree when Babaji came to bless Yukteswar upon completion of the book Babaji commissioned Yutkeswar to write ("The Holy Science").

It was a very hot and sticky day and the ghat was filled with teenagers but Gita and I sat briefly in meditation, hoping to draw the blessings that should surely remain in the ether with gathering of three avatars (egads!), including the incomparable Babaji.

Wending our way through the narrow lanes of Serampore we then visited Sri Yukteswar's ashram. It is inhabited by two or three families: descendants of Sri Yukteswar (he had a daughter, though no one seems to know anything about her and her offspring). Recently, we were told, it was decided not to allow visitors into the home and into Sri Yukteswar's rooms for visits and meditation. Gita, and many others I know, have done so in past years but it was not to be so for me.

Instead we were allowed into an adjacent YSS shrine and offered meditation seats. Notwithstanding my disappointment, I had a very deep meditation in the shrine. It's built in what had been an extension of the original courtyard and from its steps one could see the courtyard balcony where the door to Sri Yukteswar's room was.

I hope someday YSS, at least, can obtain the ownership and can repair and restore the aging and now decrepit building for a shrine for generations to come. While they tend to be as much gatekeepers as preservers, someone, at least needs to do this. I don't know the relationship between the families and YSS. It's probably somewhat tentative and uneasy, I'm guessing.

We then had lunch with the Ghosh family in the home nearby that Ananda members helped the family acquire when their grandmother, Mira, was in desperate need some years ago. The family is very grateful and very sweet.

On our way back to our hotel we visited Dakshineswar Temple. The grand and beautiful temple (though now aging but relatively new, only 150 or so years old, built by a devotee-disciple of Sri Ramakrishna) was home to the lila (life) of Ramakrishna. Yogananda too had many deep experiences at the temple as he relates in "Autobiography of a Yogi." We got in line to pay our respects and view the famous Kali statue (the lines allow for a brief two-second glance) and then meditated in the adjacent portico where Yogananda had an experience in cosmic consciousness.

Then we meditated in the bedroom (now a museum and shrine) of Ramakrishna after touring the temple grounds. The visit was far more uplifting than I would have thought, given the Sunday-afternoon crowds of families and sightseers. The Temple is along the river (Ganges, though it's called the Hoogley or something like that), and adjacent to one of the bridges that cross the river from which we came from Serampore (which is on the opposite side of the river from downtown Calcutta and upstream).

That's as much as I feel to share on this part. The description I’ve given belies the blessings I feel, however, and leave it to my readers to allow me that inner beatitude as a sacred trust in my heart. As some of my readers are my close friends and fellow disciples, it remains a question "How has this changed your life?" "What personal insights might you have had."

That's as much as I feel to share on this part. The description I’ve given belies the blessings I feel, however, and leave it to my readers to allow me that inner beatitude as a sacred trust in my heart. As some of my readers are my close friends and fellow disciples, it remains a question "How has this changed your life?" "What personal insights might you have had."

I don't feel this blog is the place for such personal reflections except to say “Yes!”

Blessings, and thus ends our journey and pilgrimage,


Return to India - Babaji Safari

I am pressing to finish this series so life can go on. So today, while I have some time I can pretend to call me "own," I continue….

On our trip to India I had brought a camping vest that can only be described as a fly-fisherman's special. I don't fish and I'm not sure why Padma purchased this for me some years ago, but I've only worn it perhaps once but something inspired me to bring it to India. However it was many days into our trip that I had the nerve to wear it. Turns out it was perfect for all the many small items I needed to carry with me as we entered temples, hiked, or otherwise travelled about the Himalaya.

Gita, seeing this absurdly out of place item of clothing but admitting it worked perfectly for the needs of the trip, was inspired by it to call our trip the "Babaji Safari."

So I turn now to the spiritual highlight of our Himalayan adventure: the search for Babaji. Virtually anyone who reads this knows that Mahavatar Babaji is the deathless avatar featured so prominently in Paramhansa Yogananda's now famous story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." Said to be Krishna in a former incarnation, no one knows the date of Babaji's birth in the current incarnation and he is said to have promised to retain his physical form for the current cycle of the ages (not sure what this entails). He is in communion with Jesus Christ and together they send vibrations of the Divine Will to other saints working more visibly in the world for the salvation and upliftment of humanity. It was Babaji who resurrected the path of kriya yoga when he initiated Lahiri Mahasay in 1861 on Dronagiri Mountain near the town of Ranikhet. In India the existence of such an avatar has been affirmed and treasured for centuries. Many sadhus are called or call themselves Baba-ji (revered father) so it is far from clear who is who and one cannot help but ask "would the real Babaji please stand up." [[[1] Babaji often appears as a handsome, clean-shaven, fair-skinned youth and is said to have the ability to prevent others from guessing his identity.]]

Our Himalayan guide, Mahavir Singh Rawat had a life changing experience when he describes how “our” Babaji came to him over twenty years ago and asked him to be the Himalayan guide to Ananda devotees.

That's another story, of course. So back to my own.

We visited Dronagiri Mountain after completing the Char Dham previously described. The town of Rawahat sits at the base of the mountain. We stayed in a newish hotel there that was very nice and adequate for our needs. After unpacking our things one afternoon, we drove up the mountain. There was something very special about this mountain. Perhaps it was the effect of the monsoon season, but it is unlike any other mountain (and we drove up and down an untold number of mountains on the trip). The mountain was mostly thinly populated with pine trees which were separated by what would looked like carefully manicured or mowed lawn and small, neat and attractive walking paths winding through it. The mid to upper part contained a collection of handsome and brightly painted (think "blue") homes. The few small farms were attractively cultivated. The mountainside combined therefore a domestic simplicity with a mysterious aura of an unseen hand.

Where the road crests the mountain there is, as there is on every other mountain, a tea stall and a house or two. Here we stopped, for there was a well-maintained entrance to the mountain top shrine above. Some society or trust evidently held the property and was sufficiently endowed and energized to keep the property very attractive. An unheard-of covered walkway guided the pilgrim at least 360 steps up the mountain to the grounds of a temple dedicated to Divine Mother.

At this height a silent, drifting, and dripping fog shrouded the trees and grounds in mystery. The silence was deep and profound. Few people were about the place. With our bag of prasad (offerings) in hand, we ascended to the temple for the pujari's blessing. Mahavir had a few words with him and it was indicated that we should descend a few steps to an ancient fern-encrusted tree where a simple outdoor altar to Babaji would be found. Somewhere here on these grounds it was said that Lahiri met Babaji in 1861.

Gita and I sat in meditation upon the concrete platform in front of the tree and the very simple elements at its base that indicated that devotees and other worshippers had been there. It seemed a bit unkempt and ignored but it did not matter to us. We each had a deep meditation. Occasionally fog would drip onto us. At one point Gita offered to me her raincoat because all I had on (from our long day's travel and not knowing we were headed for a meditation at the top of a mountain) was a T-shirt. (It was here that I caught my cold.)

As we meditated we heard the gentle cooing of a dove in the tree above. I think we each felt an inward blessing. I felt an inner smile at the time. I thought immediately that Babaji was blessing us in this way. Of course I had only my imagination and desire to blame for this but I did feel great peace and upliftment. We meditated perhaps 40 minutes or longer.

After some photos, we descended in silence. All along the handrails hung temple bells: it seemed if not thousand or more, at least many hundreds of bells, at least 4 to 5 inches in diameter at the bell opening.

Near the temple entrance at the street below, Mahavir suddenly invited us into the otherwise unnoticed hut (perhaps 6' x 6') of what turned out to be a resident sadhu! Wonder of wonders he was watching television using old-fashion "bunny ears" antenna. It was the news and it looked like the 5 o'clock news anywhere in America or Europe (except in Hindi). All the smartly dressed news anchormen (and women), flashing headlines and so on.

Inside this simple hut was the normal firepit in the center but this one had a range hood, just as you'd see at home. Most huts impose upon their occupants endless smoke-in-the eyes and lungs but this one was very different. Shelves of provisions lined the simple hut as the sadhu sat there in traditional cross-legged style on the floor. (You couldn't possibly stand up straight in this thing). He'd been there for sixteen years, he said (presumably with permission from the temple stewards). What he did there I couldn't say but one never knows what sadhus do with their time, anyway.

He made us a cup of instant coffee with milk and sugar and we talked away (or I should say Mahavir and he spoke). The story of Babaji and Lahiri is well known here and is not considered unusual or extraordinary. I may have asked a few questions through Mahavir but at present I don't actually recall. Our visit was pleasant enough and unusual in its own way. The television remained on the entire time. I asked the sadhu if I could take some ash from the fire (in front of me) as holy or sacred ash (vibhutti) from Dronagiri Mountain. He happily complied wrapping a few tablespoons of ash in newsprint for each of the three of us!

The next morning after chai we checked out and once again drove to the crest of Dronagiri Mountain. There we had breakfast (noodles and paratha, I think, and more chai along with fresh fruit) before embarking on our trek up to Babaji's cave down the flank of the mountain, crossing the Gogash River and then climbing up the other side (don't know if that mountain has a name) to the cave. During breakfast the proprietor (a lively friendly gent) handed us a thick sheaf of internet printouts about the nearby Babaji cave. Gita and I were moved to inner joy when we read that it is said that Babaji sometimes comes to pilgrims in form of a cooing dove!

The morning was bright with sunshine. A young man from the south of India (Hyderabad, he said) arrived (he may have been staying right there at the cafe/lodge as a pilgrim) and explained in good English that he'd been meditating daily for a month at the Babaji cave. I asked him if he practiced kriya yoga but he said he did not. I found that puzzling for some reason but he seemed bright and calmly eager. After we left, we didn't see him again. (Was HE the elusive but young appearing Babaji?)

The light that morning through the forest was tinged with color and a softness born of what a westerner would say was lingering morning moisture in the air. To say that it was “ethereal” would be more accurate however. I flashed upon the memory of a scene from the movie "Jesus of Nazareth" when Mary Magdalene goes to the gravesite of Jesus. In the morning air it is still and the light is cloud or vapor-like. The colors in the forest were intensely green. Ferns and baby-tears (?) grew everywhere. And yet the grounds had that same consciously manicured feeling and appearance. The Gogash River had, Mahavir explained, become more of a stream than a river in recent decades. He didn't explain why. But it was clear and cool, and very inviting to see and cross. There was that same deep stillness in the air.

The hike finally turned from gentle to more steeply uphill until we reached an odd building with no windows and locked up with a grate. The property belongs to Y.S.S. (Yogoda Satsang Society - the Indian branch of Self-Realization Fellowship). The entire property is well maintained but well controlled. A little further on we came to the place called "Babaji's cave." YSS has not only locked it but blocked up all but the first 8 to 10' of the cave with bricks. Who knows what or who remains deep inside the cave. Mahavir explained that it was ill used (by local peasants) previously and that YSS cleaned it up and secured it. Well, be that as it may, we meditated nonetheless and had a very deep meditation there.

Up the hill further, Mahavir explained, is a cave once inhabited (for about a year) by the Pandavas long ago. For some reason further climb did not seem in order and neither Gita nor I expressed a desire to ascend higher. Instead, Mahavir took us to visit a nearby family farm where we were welcomed with (more) chai and cookies.

I was asked by a friend, "Well, did you MEET Babaji?" We felt his divine presence and blessings and treasure that wordless experience which defies description and which remains locked in our hearts.

Fresh from the Babaji Safari,

Return to India - Devbhoomi - Abode of the gods

Is there anyone who, when seeing distant snow capped peaks, doesn't pause and quietly gasp with longing and inspiration? Imagine, then, if you can, the timeless power of the world's greatest mountain range, the Himalaya, upon the consciousness of generations of Indians living in the hot, crowded, dusty plains of the Indian subcontinent. Did not Paramhansa Yogananda attempt to escape to the Himalaya several times in his early life? Did he not say that in his next life he would live there for a time?

More than this, this astonishing range of mountains which includes jungles, raging rivers, and forests of pine and rhododendron trees along with the world's highest and most majestic peaks has given shelter and birth to saints, sages, and avatars since time immemorial. Here Spirit and Mother Nature unite in a profound dance of life both mundane and mystical not found anywhere else on earth.

The Garhwal District of the Indian state of Uttaranchal is home to the Char Dham of which I spoke in the previous blog. It is especially blessed with the spiritual vibrations of God consciousness as manifested through divine beings and through the masters. Like a carefully nurtured garden, this sanctity is loving tendered with the devotion of millions of pilgrims.

When a pilgrim speaks of Shiva, the goddess Ganga, Shiva's consort Parvati, the monkey-god Hanuman, or the elephant-god Ganesha, as participating in the creation and in the play of human life there in the Himalayas there is no sense of "long-ago" or mere "allegory." The sense of the presence of divine beings, manifestations of various aspects of God's Infinite consciousness (just as you and I, are unique, if not yet perfected, sparks of divinity) is a present-tense reality to the devout Hindu. As a (western) teacher of raja yoga, Vedanta, and Shankhya (India's three main branches of wisdom), I am accustomed to viewing Indian sacred mythology in allegorical or philosophical terms.

But I was unprepared for the strikingly present-tense and devotional expression given to these stories and places by the pilgrims and the degree to which no burden of philosophical extraction weighs upon the Indian heart and mind. Not that abstractions are foreign to Indian culture for as Yogananda smilingly comments in his famous "Autobiography of a Yogi," the Indian is sometimes accused by westerners of "living on abstractions!" Rather, these divine beings, stories, and manifestations of divinity in various natural formations (of caves, mountains, rocks etc.) are very real and treasured by the devout seeker.

And, as I commented in an earlier, blog: why not? Our western, scientific minds are biased by the worldview that this earth and its natural phenomenon are the "mere" product of natural (geologic, e.g.) forces. And who would argue with that? But just as the instinct for survival is obvious but tells us nothing about why it exists or how it came into being, so too the existence of extraordinary natural formations and phenomenon is no more intelligently or satisfactorily explained by "natural forces" than is our own existence and consciousness. I asked earlier whether it is not perhaps more reasonable to assume that something extraordinary is the product of a conscious creativity rather than a blind force? What computer would randomly produce a play of Shakespeare or the Sermon on the Mount?

Is the majesty we feel when we see a great mountain (like Mt. Rainier as we do here in Seattle) merely a projection of our own subconscious imaginings? Or, did the consciousness of majesty itself produce such an awe-inspiring sight? Does the peace we feel hiking in a forest come only from us or is the forest itself a manifestation of the consciousness of peace?

Whether the personified deities or their elaborate and sometimes all-too-human stories are the precise explanation is no more the point than our ability to precisely know how or why geologic forces shaped Half Dome in Yosemite Valley! But to look beyond the material and natural manifestations revealed by the senses to sense the interplay of higher, conscious and divine forces is to seek the truth behind all seeming.

In a brief email report I sent from the Himalaya I asked my friends to imagine the mountains of America peopled by "sadhus" (spiritual seekers) meditating in caves and forests seeking God-realization? Imagine such sadhus coming down from time to time into towns and cities of America and being welcomed, supported, and honored as living examples of renunciation and as spiritual teachers.

We have mountains but do we have the Devibhoomi? (The "holy" mountains-the abode of divinity incarnate). I believe the time will come for this, too. Shrines and places of pilgrimage are needed everywhere in the world, but especially in America where the knowledge of such places (formerly) has, presumably, been lost in the mists of time.

At the same time, I was not prepared for the incredible variety and natural beauty of the Himalaya. I don't know what defines a "jungle" for although the latitude of the lower Himalaya doesn't qualify for a tropical jungle, the only word that springs to mind seeing some of these areas is a jungle. All the beauty of such an experience, even if technically sub-tropical, is to be found in areas of the lower Himalaya. We saw so many waterfalls everywhere (it was early monsoon season) that in time we stopped trying to photograph them. Some would descend from thousands of feet up and all the way down to the rivers far below.

In an hour, or even less, we would drive from a river level, surrounded by rice terraces and jungle up a mountain into the cool dripping fog and pine forests! One time I saw a home which contained the likes of mango, papaya and banana trees with geraniums, begonias, roses, and bougainvillea. Even pine trees would mingle with the sub-tropical species along the rivers. Though we did not actually see most of the wildlife (we saw two or three foxes, and many monkeys), there are tiger, leopard, elephant, bears, cobras and much more throughout this region. I was relieved and inspired to see endless natural forests still yet preserved. Wildfires occur in the Himalaya just as they do in forests everywhere in the world and we saw evidence of past forest fires (in the dry seasons). In a trek I did in Nepal thirty five years ago (in the month of May), I was blessed to experience an entire forest of rhododendron trees alive with color!

The gigantic rock walls of some of the steep canyons would rise thousands of feet high and in the monsoon season we experienced richly carpeted shades of deep green. I wondered if my "home" country of Ireland would now seem pale and dry by comparison. This rich and green lushness was one of the specific bonuses we were blessed with for having come in the monsoon. (The sacrifice was the awe-inspiring panoramas of the snow-clad peaks of the Himalaya which we could only glimpse at grace-filled moments through the monsoon cloud cover.) The other advantage was relative cool (if sometimes humid). At the tops of mountains it was like being in Seattle: 61 degrees and light drizzle!

It was remarkable how the temperature and humidity would change predictably with altitude. Since we were constantly ascending and descending mountains (going east from one river valley to the next), we could experience warm/sticky to cool/wet in a matter of less than an hour. (Hence I caught a mild head cold.)

Since this is a blog article with words and since I admit our photos could not and did not do these attempts of descriptions justice, I suggest that it would easy enough with today's internet and YouTube to see for yourself the beauty of the Himalaya.

The next blog: "we are unique, like everyone else!"

Blessings, Hriman