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!"