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!