Saturday, March 30, 2013

The City of Kashi: City of the New Dawn!

I take something of an Easter break by reflections related to both Easter and Kashi (Varanasi). In my next blog, I will return to our trip to India.

We visited Kashi  (Varanasi) recently; an ancient city, hallowed by saints and sages, and uplifted by millions of pilgrims seeking moksha, liberation from endless rounds of birth, life and death. Quite nearby, just outside of town, Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment. In our line of gurus, there lived or came to Kashi Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Sri Yukteswar, and Paramhansa Yogananda. Legend has it that Jesus Christ, too, travelled to India, including Kashi. Few of India’s great sages for the last many thousands of years failed to at least visit Kashi at one time or another. The list of saints and sages who have walked its lanes, bathed at its ghats along the Ganges, and soared in superconsciousness is impossibly long.

We found there in our visit, therefore, a deep sense of continuity and timelessness. Indeed, my reflections this Easter Day, are that from the ancient city of Kashi has been resurrected in our times, through the instrument of Lahiri Mahasaya (at the behest of the peerless Babaji), a wisdom that is timeless, timely, universal and nonsectarian. This wisdom, and the practices which offers to each of us its revelation, has been resurrected in answer to the prayers of millions of sincere souls. Humanity, torn by greed, racism, nationalism and sectarianism, yearns for an antidote, a way out to save ourselves, our planet and our souls.

The city of Kashi (Varanasi) is so ancient that we could have just as easily walked the narrow and crowded lanes of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ. Here we found hawkers selling religious articles, blessings, rituals, indeed, everything but animals for sacrifice! The hubbub is like a page right out of the New Testament.

This Easter, which has jumped up so suddenly upon us (having been in India nearly a month), I am easily transported to the days and life of Christ. At that time, two thousand years ago, the Pax Romana held sway, feeling, for those under its iron feet, like a heavy coat on a hot and sultry day.

Palestine was, like Kashi is still, a hot, dusty place. For the Romans, it was a difficult land to govern, inhabited by a querulous people with odd customs and a cultish religion. A small time preacher appeared in the rule of Caesar Augustus and made a temporary sensation in that land but fell out of favor with religious leaders who prevailed upon their Roman procurator to have this preacher condemned to death by crucifixion. So far as we know there are no records of his mock trial.

Yet, in only three hundred years, followers of this uneducated rabbi conquered the very empire that had once sought to cruelly exterminate them. Into their harsh world of “might makes right,” where human life had little value and the general populace were like slaves and serfs, came the call of God’s love, incarnated into human form, sharing their suffering and brutal life, teaching that each of them is a child of God bound for eternal life! What a revolution! The old pagan gods of Rome and Greek were already dead: made lifeless by their aloofness and capriciousness. There was little hope in that so-called Pax Romana. Only slavery and nonstop political intrigue and war.

But this descent of divine love, in the person of Jesus, carried forward into the Roman world by self-sacrificing disciples was later to merge with that particular form of Roman genius — the rule of law — to produce what was in later centuries was to become the inalienable rights of man and the freedom each person to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  Imagine! All from a guy who trod the dusty roads of Palestine and taught on the steps of the Temple of Jerusalem, who was derided and criticized, and finally condemned to an ignoble death.

This respect for the individual has its source in the simple truth that we are a soul, not a body, and, as a soul, we are a reflection, a child, of God. This truth has the been the teaching of the disciples of Christ and, rightly employed by men and women of truth and devotion, it has lit the flame of freedom around the globe.

Oppressed and exploited people in every land have found consolation and hope in a rising tide of consciousness which, today, is considered more political than spiritual but which has power only because of its source in God.

A byproduct of this dawning sense of individuality was made manifest during the European Renaissance period. This further expanded into the age of exploration and then later into the explosion of scientific inquiry, with its fruits later becoming the industrial age, then the age of commerce, the age of energy, and now the age of information.

We have extracted from Mother Nature much of her power and energy, sufficient, unfortunately, to destroy her very gifts, and, ultimately, our lives and that of many creatures and living things.

The time has come and is now for a new dispensation of divine grace and wisdom. A new ray of divine inspiration has come to earth through Paramhansa Yogananda and those who sent him to the West that our powers be harnessed for the good of all, and for the good of our own spiritual freedom.

Paramhansa Yogananda was sent to the West as we entered the twentieth century (a century of unprecedented human slaughter). In this century in earnest saw the dawn of globalization. The era of colonialism was fast outliving its purpose and was, in any case, only a transitional era which set the stage for bringing humanity together.

Now, as we see more and more nations acquiring knowledge, technology, and harnessing their natural resources, brother nations will either face mutual destruction or opt for cooperation and integration.

Interest in and practice of meditation is exploding throughout the world as high-minded souls instinctively go within to find meaning and peace. In the crush of our fast paced planet, where no one creed, philosophy, or lifestyle holds sway over disparate population groups and nations , we know intuitively that truth is within us.
The practice of meditation, and especially the liberating technique of kriya yoga, is encircling the globe in an aureole of in-lighten-ment to offer individuals a direct perception of their divinity.

Like Jesus, Paramhansa Yogananda has begun a quiet and not yet noticeable revolution: Self-realization. Now, to divinity incarnate we can add divinity within. In this way we see all nations, all peoples, races, gender, cultures, creatures and all life as our very own: united by the indwelling presence of God which alone is the only reality behind all seeming.

This teaching has been resurrected for a new age and just in time it is sweeping the globe. Those who draw upon its ray, whether conscious of Yogananda and this line, whether directly practicing the technique of Kriya Yoga which he brought, will find upliftment and some measure of freedom and inner harmony.

Cooperation, simplicity, sustainability, and moderation, united to devotion to God through personal meditation, will be the salvation of humanity and the planet.  There is much work to be done and there will be reverses and setbacks and, indeed, great suffering, as the forces of existing power and greed retaliate against the movement that empowers and enlightens individuals throughout the world.

Never miss your daily appointment “with God” in meditation. Some day all of our appointments will have to be cancelled. We don’t know the troubles which lie ahead of us as the world turns ever faster and all sense of security and prosperity hangs upon a slender thread of karma. “The time for knowing God has come!” Yogananda proclaimed.

From the ancient city of Kashi, a new dispensation, a new ray of light has appeared.

Nayaswami Hriman

Ananda Community, Pune, INDIA!

Part 3 - Pilgrimage to India - In the Footsteps of the Masters

On Friday, March 8 this year, Padma's birthday, we flew from Kolkata to Pune, stopping briefly in Allahabad.

It was long and windy drive in the bus from the Pune airport to the Ananda Community to the west of Pune city. At the very end we left the main, paved road and proceeded over a gentle river and then a stream to wind our way up a small dusty (red) dirt track along the side of a low range of hills and arrived at the Ananda Community being welcomed and enveloped with smiles and helping hands.

This small and struggling Community has eked out an existence in the hills there against great obstacles, not least of which is an uncertain water supply. A complex of retreat bungalows have been built and at a distance the beginnings of a development of "flats" to be sold to members and friends who might live or visit there.

The temple is an outdoor one, covered in netting but quite serviceable and lovely for meditating. Halfway up the hill is a flat for Swami Kriyananda, staff, and others. The terrain, though challenging, supports a semi-tropical array of trees and plants, yielding bananas, papayas, mangoes, trees, gardens and flowers. Though we arrived in dry season, it was still lush and I understand it turns very green during and after the summer monsoon.

Near the top of the hill, the monks have their "kutirs" (simple huts) and a cave. In the central area nearest the entrance is a small store, reception, offices, and kitchen. Nearby is another office and a delightful cafe and patio where coffee, expresso, ice cream, milk shakes and sandwiches are served for the enjoyment of staff and visitors alike. There one can find wi-fi and chat with virtual friends, or sit and chat with many new and old friends in person. Quite the place!

The highlight of our visit to Ananda Pune was an afternoon satsang, out of doors in a lovely amphitheatre, with Swami Kriyananda. He is the founder of the worldwide network of Ananda communities and is a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda. Not only is he one of the few direct disciples living on earth today, but in fact he has been for decades the most accessible, most creative, and most visible of the disciples serving Yogananda's work.

The land of the Community is terraced in places and especially well developed just below Swami Kriyananda's house (flat). The landscaped terraces form this natural amphitheatre in the hill just below his home. He gave a heartfelt talk and everyone basked in his joy and in the intimacy of his "conversation" with Master and Divine Mother. Here we at last had our living shrine, and not just some stone or artifact worn by or used by a saint--but the real thing. This is the real India: a place where true renunciation and living for God is honored and respected, rather than despised or questioned. Here, too, is where the transmission of spiritual power and grace through living instruments (from guru to disciple) is understood, accepted and honored. Here, then, more than anywhere else in the world, Swami Kriyananda can speak "as no other man has spoken" (to quote the Bible in respect to the observation of listeners of Jesus' sermons). Swamiji, not unlike his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, wears the timeless wisdom of Sanaatan Dharma like a familiar, old coat and speaks of it like an old friend!

In the evening, he joined us in the amphitheatre under the stars to enjoy a concert of music from around the world! Both events were just magical and transported the devotees to a timeless space, to another dimension where saints and devotees commingled with ease and with joy. It was like entering a different world: it was safe, happy, beautiful, and filled with radiant joy and inner peace. This was India: guru to the planet: bestowing its ray of light outward to all truth-seekers, giving comfort and wisdom to all in need.

Our time there was peaceful in other respects too, for there are no honking cars, no near-fatal encounters with moving vehicles, no choking fumes, and no need to be on the traveller's constant guard. The home cooked food was a blend of Indian and western and was simple and tasty. Accommodations were rustic and, with some exceptions, adequate (there were so many of us that about ten had to be lodged down the road at a nearby "camp"). Water was in serious short supply, however. It has to be trucked, several times a day, from a nearby stream and pumped into water tanks on the land. There was never enough for showers and so on. This was challenging for the fact that the daily high temperature was mid to upper 90's and dust was everywhere, or, at least all over one's feet and pants. Though it was hot in the midday sun, it was delightful at dusk and in the evenings, and by daybreak, it could even still have a little nip of cold.

One night, however, was the annual India-wide celebration of Shiva (known as Shivaratri) and local villagers used the opportunity to party all night raucously. If there was any devotion in their noise, I missed it. Sigh. Some of our pilgrims had little sleep that night, unfortunately.

What Ananda members, both Indian and American (and European) have accomplished in manifesting a community and retreat out of "pure" red dirt is a testimony to will power, dedication, creativity and divine grace! Yet, they have yet a long way to go. At minimum is needed a long-term secure source of water. Movement is afoot to bring a pipeline in but it's not there yet and land disputes and theft (yes, including water theft) are rampant and endemic. Most visitors, at least from America, make the obvious and appropriate comparisons to the state of Ananda's original community, Ananda Village, in the Sierra Nevada foothills some thirty years ago. Who could imagined how beautiful that community was to become from its state during the '70's and '80's!

At last, our few days there in the peace and quiet of the Pune hills was over. At the break of dawn on Monday, March 11, the serviceful monks hefted our luggage onto the bus as we, after a quick breakfast, began our journey by bus and air back to Delhi.

Now we are on to India's holiest city, Varanasi, known by its spiritual name, Kashi. This city was to prove our greatest challenge and yet one of our most inspired visits. It was to prove to be action-packed and a revelation of timeless intensity.

See you in Kashi!

Nayaswami Hriman

Friday, March 29, 2013

Kolkata: Home of Saints, Avatars, Poets, Scientists & Revolutionaries

Part 2 in Pilgrimage to India series:

In the pre-dawn darkness we boarded the train from Puri to Kolkata: the same train and tracks that Paramhansa Yogananda and his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, would have taken together from about 1910 to 1920. (Sri Yukteswar would have gone there from 1903 to 1936 by train.)

Yes, indeed, the train looked like it was the same one, too. You couldn't open the windows or even really see out of the train windows and the bathroom was simply a hole in the floor: need I say more? It was, however, air conditioned, but even that was mostly an affirmation. For nearly eight hours we rode north along the coast and inland before arriving at Howrah Railway Station, Calcutta: perhaps India's greatest and largest and most famous railway station. Here Lahiri Mahasaya, Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Sri Yukteswar, innumerable devotees and perhaps even Ramakrishna and most certain his great disciple, Vivekananda, and also Ananda Moyi Ma would have boarded and exited trains! 

But Howrah was surprisingly tidy and quiet: not at all what I expected. There's an old building, where we de-trained, and a newer one. The rail yards are quite large and extensive. We boarded our tour bus but instead of crossing the Hoogli River into Calcutta by the Howrah Bridge, we circled around and entered the city across a brand new, modern suspension bridge to soon arrive at our hotel, the lovely and welcoming Kenilworth. (The Hoogli River is a branch of the Ganges as she splits apart to become the "mouths" of the Ganges flowing into the sea. For our purposes and that of most Indians, she is the Ganges!)

Fresh from the train ("a euphemism, merely, we were covered with soot" -- Autobiography of a Yogi), we soon got back on the bus (after depositing ourselves in the lovely and refreshing Kenilworth Hotel) to visit Yogananda's increasingly famous boyhood home at 4 Garpar Road, Calcutta. Somnath, the husband of Sarita (they have two grown daughers), is descended from Yogananda's younger brother, a well known artist in his own right, Sananda Lal Ghosh. The family, with assistance from devotees, have restored and now maintain the home for the purposes of serving devotees from all over the world. Treasures in photos and paintings (including colorized photos), personal belongings and of course a place of pilgrimage await all who come with devotion. Yogananda's bedroom; his attic meditation room; the spot where Babaji stood to bless his journey to the West....this and much more bring the great guru to life in his youthful vitality. 

We had two visits there; the second one came three days later, on March 7, the day that commemorates Yogananda's "mahasamadhi" (conscious exit from his physical body). (On that day in 1952 in a crowded banquet room of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Yogananda left this world speaking of his India and his America!)

So we chanted and meditated, taking turns meditating in Yogananda's bedroom and in his attic meditation room while having our central spot in the upstairs living room. On March 7, we had a discipleship renewal ceremony. All told, I think I can speak for most of us in saying this home was one of the trip's many highlights. The family served a catered lunch to us on that Thursday, March 7 and shared some time-honored stories of Yogananda's upbringing. 

On March 5, the day after our arrival and after our first visit to Garpar Road, we visited the home of Yogananda's boyhood friend: Tulsi Bose. It is down the block and around the corner. You could never imagine it being what it really is: one of India's most precious shrines, but unknown to all of India and the world. For reasons of destiny, Yogananda's own home contained too large a family and was too busy a place for his youthful spiritual search. Divine Mother caused him to seek and meet young Tulsi Bose, whose home was quieter and better suited for satsang (spiritual gatherings), although considerably smaller. Master (Yogananda) spent much time there both as a high school and college student but also upon his only return visit to India, spanning 1935-1936. Stories from family and friends abound, for Yogananda's return to India was a big sensation throughout India but most certainly in Bengal: local boy does good! He was as much a spiritual sensation and sought-after speaker in India as he had been during his barnstorming days in America in the Twenties and Thirties.

There is what is now an old somewhat fragile guest chair in the tiny (12' x 15' ?) downstairs living room where the likes of Yogananda, Sri Yukteswar, perhaps Lahiri Mahasaya, plus one or more of Lahiri's most advanced disciples, Swami Vivekananda, anyone?, and who knows how many other saints (and I think that includes Ananda Moyi Ma, and maybe even Ramakrishna's widow, Sharda Devi?), had sat and where chanting, meditation, and high spiritual experiences, too numerous to attempt to catalogue here, had taken place. Just try sitting in that chair: a kind of "electric" chair! But be careful: it is very fragile!

Upstairs is the tiger skin that Sri Yukteswar meditated upon; plus the deerskin of Yogananda and the bed where they had slept at various visits. We took turns sitting on these to meditate! In an tiny upstairs meditation room are relics so numerous they've yet to be classified. One that stands out for most of us is an iron trident said to be given by Babaji to Lahiri, Lahiri to Sri Yukteswar, S.Y. to Master, and Master, having left it with Tulsi! The trident is the symbol of Shiva! Talk about "power."

I doubt anyone left there empty-hearted: awe-struck, at minimum, inwardly quiet and blissful, probably. And over all this tiny domain their reigns a queen of hearts, a custodian-saint worthy of the privilege: Tulsi's now elderly daughter, Hassi Mukherjee. Hassi was blessed by Master in 1936 when Hassi's mother, Tulsi's wife (chosen for him by Master), was pregnant. Years later Hassi, as a young girl, spoke to Master in Los Angeles by telephone when he would ring up to see how the family was doing. Master always watched over his extended, human family, even from afar, in America.

After a catered lunch in this tiny home, we motored to the nearby Dakshineswar Temple, home of Ramakrishna's life-long lila (life drama) -- as resident "avatar!" We chanted on the very spot in the portico opposite the statue of Divine Mother (Goddess Kali), where Master had an experience of Divine Mother as he describes in his autobiography. We watched the sunset across the Hoogli and meditated in the bedroom where Ramakrishna lived for 30 years.

What a day that was!

Calcutta has an interesting role in the history of modern India: from the mid to late 19th century until about the 1930's (as I understand it), West Bengal spawned a rise in nationalism and national and cultural pride through the genius and courage of such great souls as Rabindranath Tagore (poet laureate), J.C. Bose (scientist), reformers of Hinduism, revolutionaries, and, of course, an entire line of avatars! For those interested in historical matters, and who find synchronicity fascinating, it is well worth researching.

Wednesday, March 6, we crossed the Hoogli and went upriver to the town of Serampore: actually, Sri Ram Pur (city): site of Swami Sri Yukteswar's home. The home is mostly gone and now off limits to visitors, being occupied by what we assume are his descendants. Instead, there is a small shrine next door where we meditated for a while.

Then we walked through the ancient and quaint lanes to the riverside to the Rai Ghat, where Babaji once appeared to Sri Yukteswar to congratulate him on the completion of his book, The Holy Science. (Babaji had asked and commissioned S.Y. to write this tome which was intended to announce the basic message of these avatars: that the underlying message of Christ and Krishna, of Christianity and Hinduism, is the same.)

At this bathing ghat, too, did S.Y. and his disciple, Paramhansa Yogananda, would come in the early morning to bathe in the Ganges. Here we sat around the aged banyan (where Babaji and his band had stood to greet S.Y.), and chanted joyfully as throngs of locals pressed forward in curiosity. The experience was exhilarating. What a contrast between our hearts and minds and the mundane scene and thoughts of those around us. Presumably they did not understand our joy, though I would guess they have become somewhat accustomed to these groups of Westerners (and Indians) coming throughout the year to sit under the banyan tree and meditate.

These simple shrines and places specific to Yogananda and his line are yet to be particularly of note to modern Indian culture. Thus their seeming invisibility to the culture contrasts sharply with the intensity of feeling and magnetic draw they have for certain souls from around India and the world.

Then we crossed town to visit with the descendants of Master's elder brother, Ananta. Durlov, his wife, and his son greeted us and feed us a delightful lunch and regaled us to with family stories. Ananda members had, some years ago, intervened to help the family (in the spirit of Yogananda, himself, who always assisted his large, biological family, when in need) find a suitable place to live.

Next stop: Swami Kriyananda at Ananda Community, Pune! Pack your bags, we are off again!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Return to Babaji's Cave - Pilgrimage to India

This is a first in a series of articles about the 3 weeks a group of pilgrims from Ananda spent in India. For the sake of brevity, I won't make a special effort to describe the saints whose "lives" (vibration) we were seeking, but I will name them: Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952); Swami Sri Yukteswar (died 1936); Lahiri Mahasaya (died 1895); and the peerless Babaji (stats unknown). Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, is the now-famous classic spiritual account of the lives of these great souls.

I suppose none of my readers would seriously question the spiritual value of pilgrimage. After all, seekers have gone on pilgrimage since time immemorial. In former times a pilgrim might walk for months, perhaps never to return home, in order to reach a sacred shrine or place.

Just as some people are more intelligent than others, and some places on earth exceedingly beautiful, so there are places on earth that hold spiritual "vibrations." Just as, to a degree, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," so also no specific pilgrimage site is going to inspire every seeker, even those of the same faith. It takes a certain sensitivity of consciousness and intention to tune into the "feeling" of a place, more so for spiritual vibrations. (The "feeling" or atmosphere of a nightclub, for example, although obvious, tangible and very specific in its allure and magnetism, takes little refinement of consciousness to experience.)

As there are people with spiritual power so there are places where their vibrations linger, sometimes having been bestowed purposely by them for the benefit of others. Paramhansa Yogananda said of his English language chants (a new form of chanting), "I spiritualized these chants by chanting each until I received a divine response." He did this so that devotees could extract from these chants spiritual blessings when chanted with a pure and open heart.

A saintly person may shop in the market and bump into you but without the consciousness of sanctity you will probably only be annoyed. It is, therefore, not merely a matter of expectations and desires on the part of the pilgrim, but a matter of sensitive awareness, also called "attunement."

Yes, it is true, that someone of a more emotional or imaginative nature may imagine he or she has felt some great spiritual power or had some deeply moving inner experience at a given shrine or in the presence of a saintly person. We can't help that. But the spiritual blessings of pilgrimage, real or imagined, has survived even the great age of skepticism in which we live. The other extreme is that sometimes a pilgrim is  disappointed and even disillusioned when his (probably false) expectations of healing or upliftment are not met. This fact might not indicate a dearth of available blessings so much as a relative lack of purity of intention. A true pilgrim is not a thrill seeker nor yet a merchant who bargains and offers to exchange his effort in time and money and discomfort for spiritual highs.

A pilgrim receives blessings in proportion to the purity of his search and the intensity of his effort. These are tested by obstacles both before his journey as well as during. The pilgrim is expected to endure hardship and perhaps commit his life savings (well, ok, a chunk of dough!) and to do so with a humble faith in divine Providence. The journey will expose one to dangers, threats, thrills, insights, laughter, tears, and the entire panoply of birth, life, death and every type of person. Blessings must not be sought in consolation or experiences but in purification. If some spiritual grace is received, then it is treasured, usually silently. Transformation may come after one's return, or in the years that follow. One must have no expectations; one must set aside fear; and walk the dusty path to the mountain of Light that calls us. It is both a symbol and a journey of faith.

Let us, now, then, return to our pilgrimage. We called it, "In the footsteps of the Masters." It was perhaps a year ago that we announced our intention and began taking sign-ups. We were happily surprised to have most of the available positions accounted for by mid or late summer (about 33 seats) of 2012.

Tour leaders Keshava and Daya Taylor, based in Delhi at the Ananda Ashram there, have led many groups to these places which are held dear to devotees of Paramhansa Yogananda. In turn they work with a local Indian tour company for the logistics of travel, meals, transportation, and lodging. At a distance and using the SKYPE video phone service and countless emails, Padma and I honed the itinerary to accomplish our goals.

We arrived in Delhi, India in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, February 28 and departed in the early hours of March 22. So we were in India some twenty-two days, call it three weeks plus two days of travel.

Delhi, as other major cities in India, has a brand new airport which provides some measure of familiarity for the first time visitor from the West. Gone is the stifling hot, not very clean, extremely crowded terminal which stood in positive contrast to the scene one had to enter upon exiting the airport: a mob of eager porters and taxi cab drivers.

Instead we went efficiently through customs and baggage claim and were met calmly by our tour leader, Keshava, who then guided us serenely to an awaiting, very modern, air conditioned bus which took us immediately to the Southgate Hotel (in south Delhi). We were of course tired, but energized as well. With a minimum of fuss in the pre-dawn darkness we got our room keys and quickly scrambled to our rooms to sleep before bursting forth into Delhi upon our first day!

We were given the morning to rest (one could go downstairs to breakfast) and gathered together mid-day to bus a short distance to the Ananda Center and Ashram. Our hotel is in the Green Park district of south Delhi and is a thriving middle-class neighborhood comfortable to walk and shop. Now, when I say "comfortable" one has to understand that the traffic moves on the left side, not right side and there are sometimes no sidewalks. The streets are shared by pedestrians, cows, auto-rickshaws (3-wheeled taxi's fueled by natural gas), cars and trucks. But in this neighborhood the level of street intensity is positively calm compared to bigger city streets and most cities and highways in India.

The Ananda Center was recently acquired (rented) and is quite lovely: an oasis, in fact, with a vegetable garden, postage stamp lawn, and a lovely home and out building used for an office, small shop, and kitchen. There we were served lunch and had our first official "sharing" and gathering. Then off to a nearby craft market called Dilli Haat for our first adventure in bargaining and shopping for clothes, scarfs and fabrics. Daytime sun was hot but not too bad for Seattle-ites fresh from winter weather.

That evening we gathered at a nearby south Indian restaurant in Green Park and enjoyed a lovely and lively meal together. By meal's end, we were ready for bed! And here's another reason why...........

We were up by 3 a.m. to leave at 4:15 a.m. for the Delhi airport. There we boarded a plane heading southeast to Bhubaneswar: gateway to the seaside city of Puri, our destination. (Our time change was such that India was 13.5 hours earlier than Seattle. Our crazy schedule and the intense and new environment we entered masked the affects of jet lag to some degree.)

En route to Puri from the Bhubaneswar airport we encountered a more tropical landscape: lush, green, ponds with water buffalo, banana trees, plantations and lots of cheerful colors. We stopped in a small village to shop for local crafts, and then continued on to the Coco Palms Resort on the beach in Puri. This was an eye popper for many of us, who, at home, would never go to such a luxurious beach resort (well, some wouldn't, anyway). But, all things considered, I heard no complaints!

Hotel staff greeted us as we mounted the steps with marigold garlands and young coconuts with a straw to drink their delicious, natural refreshment from! From the registration lobby and patio, we were visually greeted by a beautiful, pure, clean, see-through and bluish large swimming pool in the center of the courtyard. The sound and sight of the crashing ocean surf came to us in the near distance past an expanse of friendly, welcoming beach. Palm trees ring the pool.

After getting settled and having lunch, we strolled up the beach toward the center of town. As you approach the center of town the beach becomes very crowded. Gaily decked camels patrol the beach looking for tourists brave enough to take a ride. Puri is a "temple city" for its claim to fame is the ancient Jagannath Temple. The Temple and grounds are quite large and throughout the city are numerous ashrams, monasteries, and other religious institutions. It is the seat of the one of the few authority figures central to orthodox Hinduism and is one of the seven holy cities of India (of which the first is Kashi, or Varanasi). But it is also simply a beach resort town, even for Indians!

For us, then, also it served both purposes: pleasure and piety! Its spiritual significance lay not in the grounds of the Jagannath Temple, but in the fact that Swami Sri Yukteswar established in 1903 what he called the Kararashram (Karar was his last name). Here Sri Yukteswar would take his young disciples, including of course Paramhansa Yogananda, for the summer. Yogananda told several stories in his famous "Autobiography of a Yogi" which took place there. Sri Yukteswar left his body, March 9, 1936, at his ashram. Yogananda rushed there (his only return visit to India after he left in 1920), arriving a day late, and then buried his guru (seated in lotus pose) in the Puri sands on the ashram grounds. Years later, American disciples funded the construction of a "samadhi mandir" (a shrine) over the top of Yukteswar's grave. I believe Yogananda's artist-brother, Sananda, designed the small building and it is quite lovely.

Unfortunately decades of lawsuits have clouded its ownership but fortunately devotees are still welcomed and so it was that after lunch we walked there to meditate. The hermitage is off limits to us and over the decades the growing seaside resort has completely eclipsed the ashram's former view of the sea and hemmed it in with apartments and other buildings. But despite the noises of the neighbors and their multifarious activities which pressed upon us, we chanted and meditated in the tiny shrine, on the covered portico around it, and in the surrounding gardens. As this was our first real spiritual experience, I think many of us were deeply touched. It was, however, also exceedingly hot at mid-day. One would meditate with perspiration silently pouring off one's body. At one point I choose a meditation seat in the shade under a tree in a dry water basin only to encounter seriously disturbed flies and mosquitoes. I surrendered back to them my seat. Still, I enjoyed the experience very much. I felt a deep stillness.

Later at the resort, a buffet dinner was served on the lawn after sunset. It was delightful and very relaxing.

The next day, Saturday, March 2, we energized and meditated on the beach at sunrise. It was wonderful. We were, however, surrounded by local spectators, even at that early hour. One simply had to ignore them. (I figured that we come with cameras and take photos of them; why can't they take photos of us?)

After breakfast we once again walked up the beach into town and back to the Kararashram for more meditation. We then walked further through the crowded and narrow lanes to an ashram established by a direct disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya (Sri Yukteswar's guru): that disciple's name was Bhupendra Nath Sanyal ("Sanyal Mahasaya"). There in a tiny shrine are contained some of Lahiri's ashes. We meditated before the shrine and also upstairs in the saint's bedroom. This, too, was very uplifting.

Those who were up for it then walked into the center of town and opposite the great Jagannath Temple where we had a delicious midday meal. (Non-Hindus are not allowed in the Temple: one of the few such restricted temples in India). After lunch, our Indian guide, Bijaya, gave a talk on the history of the temple. The temple grounds are enormous and contain many buildings. They have an huge kitchen that feeds thousands upon thousands everyday. Pilgrims enter and pay for the meals (for others). We were told that this temple, though holy, is managed with a somewhat commercial air.

I want to take a pause to explain that our own Ananda Seattle yoga teacher, Murali Venkatrao, who is from Bangalore, came and served in the capacity of what we teasingly called our "cultural attache." In this role he shined for he could explain things in our terms and yet with a true and accurate knowledge of the orthodox Hinduism in which he was raised. Speaking Hindi, inter alia, he helped us innumerable times with bargaining or understanding customs and behavior. He therefore visited the temple precincts and inner sanctum (where the "deities," statues, reside) and brought to us blessed food (small candies). The deities are Jagannath (in the form Krishna, Krishna's brother, and their sister). They are famous because their faces look like something out of Southpark cartoon (large eyes, pastel colors), though of course impossibly ancient. To westeners they look very strange but yet charming, too, as in innocent and archetypal. They are made from the wood of the neem tree and replaced at certain intervals.

As a beach town, I didn't notice any high rise buildings, whether commercial or residential. It is an ancient city. Its lanes are quite narrow, usually unpaved (and thus sandy). Like much of India it is a row after row of tiny shops facing the street and selling everything imaginable. Buildings are concrete or something like adobe and generally only one, or perhaps two, stories. Hotels and similar establishments might rise higher to get a beach view. But the city has a very authentic and genuine, which is to say, not too modern, feel to it. Several times a year, the biggest in July, it is crushed by pilgrims. Fortunately when we visited it was relatively quiet.

In groups of three or four, we motored by auto-rickshaw back to Coco Palms. It was an afternoon to relax on our own. I body-surfed but got creamed by a wave, face down in the sand. For four or five days I had a bright red nose and cuts on my elbows. I looked beat up but felt nothing at all! ? ! Badri lost a valuable arm bracelet with precious stones in it when a wave literally tore it off his arm! Others had a sunset yoga session on the beach!

Sunday, March 3 was even more laid-back. Morning yoga and meditation once again on the beach! Mid-morning meditation at the Kararashram again but the rest of the day free until sunset when we had a chanting (kirtan) session and meditation once again on the beach. Buffet dinner under the stars welcomed us silently into the night.

These relatively restful days were to prepare us for the more intense schedules to come. By now jet lag was past. Puri combines relaxation, fresh ocean air and surf, and sacredness in such a natural way that one feels easily at peace. Though in most respects the city is as bustling as any other Indian city, it also feels free and more relaxed: perhaps part of the divine blessings which one receives. It was easy to feel at home there and to day-dream of Ananda ashram in Puri to inspire and refresh pilgrims the world over! It was here that our personal connections began to build. Along the beach we shopped at stalls and in one we found pure, home-spun ready-made garments (ala Gandhi spinning wheel).

So, let's pause here before our early morning boarding of our train north to Kolkata, where the word "relax" doesn't exist.

"All aboard! Next stop, the famous Howrah Railway Station, Calcutta!"