Varanasi: The City of Liberation

Varanasi: The City of Liberation

After much wandering I have come back home
Where the wheel of time and change turns not
Where the natives are rich in the wealth of the heart
Where all live ever free in the City of God.
Ravi  Das

Leaving Ganeshpuri is always hard. Where can you go when you have been to the heart of God? But I had a desire to visit Varanasi, the city of Liberation and so Anjali and I headed off, which was a step into the unknown for me. Anjali, an intrepid trekker in her youth, had been there 35 years ago. Little did I know that step would take on unique meaning.

varanasi map

The city is known as Benares to the Muslims, Kashi to the Hindus and Varanasi to the British. It has many faces, many temples, many Samadhi shrines and many Gods and Goddesses. There is a Shiva lingam almost every step, and Hanuman, the monkey God, and servant of Lord Ram, is also present, as are families of monkeys who live on the rooftops. But, it is evident that the Goddess Ganga reigns supreme.

Hindu religious texts use many epithets to refer to Varanasi, such as Kashika, the shining one; Avimukta, never forsaken by Shiva; Anandavana, the forest of bliss; and Rudravasa, the place where Shiva resides. Kashi is mentioned in the Rig Veda that dates from 1700 to 1100 BCE. Hence archaeologists think it is the oldest city in the world.

According to one legend Kashi was established when there was a fight between Brahma and Shiva. It resulted in one of Brahma’s five heads being cut off by Shiva. It was customary that the victor held the slain adversary’s head in his hand and let it hang down as an act of disgrace and a sign of bravery. Folklore also says that Shiva settled here after his marriage to Parvati.

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Pilgrims seeking Mother Ganges blessings.

Varanasi’s history is fascinating. The Buddha gave his first teaching, ‘The setting in motion of the wheel of Dharma’ at nearby Sarnath. In the 8th century, the great Adi Shankara established Shiva as the official deity. Three poet saints that Baba used to talk about were also born there. Tulsidas, who wrote his epic poem the retelling of Lord Ram’s life, the Ramayana in the local vernacular. And, the poet saints Kabir and Ravidas were also born there.

Swami Nirmalananda of Svaroopa Yoga, to whom Guruji had given sannyas, had invited us to stay at her beautiful and modern Guest House which sits just back from the Ganges on the Narmada Ghat. Her home here is a brightly painted yellow building run by her adopted Indian son, Narayan, who was on duty for us 24 hours a day. He guided us, toured us, supplied us with food and generally watched out for us like a brother (see below).

The river has nearly a hundred Ghats, steps leading to its bathing sites, washing sites, and praying sites. To walk along the river means to walk up and down what seemed like hundreds of steps. Anjali called it ‘the city of steps’.

Buddhists, Jains and Hindus regularly pray and bathe at the banks of the river. Mother Ganges is a sacred deity, from whom everything is granted. Devotees say that She blesses everyone who comes to her. No matter what we give her, She remains pure.

There are four different morning and evening Aratis at the river, which is best seen from one of the many boats anchored near the Ghats–Assim,  Manikarnika, Maanmandir and Lalita, to name a few. They are mostly the same except for one, where the chanting is done by women. Brahmins face the Ganges waving lights, incense and other materials to the river. It is a kind nature worship. The Arati is reminiscent of a sacred dance done in perfect unison. It is utterly beautiful.

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It is said that if you visit Varanasi in the right spirit, you are instantly free from rebirth. And so for Centuries thousands of Hindus have come here to die. All day long the cremation fires burn. The bodies are washed in the Ganges, mantras are chanted and the fires are lit. Even though electric crematoriums have been built nearby many families still prefer the old tradition. But next year families will no longer be able to cremate outdoors. Wood is a scarcity, and besides, the smoke is a pollutant that Varanasi can do without.

Many Hindu pilgrims are either ill, dying or dead. The energy seemed heavier than what I am used to. It is as though Varanasi is a battleground between spirit and matter. The soul departing the body leaves behind despair. Prayers are ongoing as seekers and mourners take consolation from Shiva and Mother Ganga. Candles on small leaf plates flow continually in the river as the feeling of loss is sacrificed into the river. It is impossible not to think of God.

There is so much that is difficult to see. Mangy dogs fight for survival and territory. There were human bones laying on the path where dogs have left them. Beggars and sadhus are so much alike it is hard to tell them apart, except for the worn orange cloth. In the middle of the grieving families vendors ply their wares.

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A cremation ground.

Hundreds of Western sightseers soak up the atmosphere. I was surprised by the number of elderly fascinated by the mystery of death.  Some seek spiritual nourishment but most are tourists. Hatha yoga, meditation, vendors, worship, death come together in the maelstrom of life.

This is the land where Shiva rules, and has for centuries. The power of change is apparent. The beauty of the Ganges is both awe-inspiring and horrific as effluence from the sewers meets the purifying moving water as devotees bathe. Their devotion is so one-pointed that no one seems to notice the dark matter floating close to them. They are intoxicated by the moment of union with Shiva and nothing distracts them from their prayers. Anjali and I, on the other hand, feel brave as we scarcely dip our toes.

We were invited to meet Uma’s friend, Gopal, who runs the Kedareshwar B & B right on the river. He is a generous and charming host and his place is beautiful. He also offers beautiful Western breakfasts. A devotee of the Guru he is adamant that he will build Guruji an ashram in a village across the river.

There are so many temples it would be impossible to see them all in the time we had. And also, as a disciple I am more interested in Samadhi shrines, and the sages and saints of India. I am always on the lookout for their teachings and any available books in English. I found out too late that there are many samadhi shrines in Varanasi. Guruji mentioned in a phone call that he knew there was a samadhi shrine of  a great Siddha, an avadhut like Bhagavan Nityananda, close by. His name is Trailanga Swami and apparently he was over 300 years old when he died. We decided to go and I was looking forward to the peace that can be found with the Saints.

 

Narayan led us through the back narrow footpaths near the Manakarnika Ghat where a main Arati takes place. It was a relief to walk through the doors of the pristine atmosphere. A young priest was feeding Trailanga’s murti breakfast. I asked if I could photograph him and he said after breakfast. He gave Narayan a key to the underground cave where his body lay just behind a wall with his photograph on it. We meditated in the beautiful space of his Shakti.

Varanasi has a Shakti that I have not experienced before. Shiva seems more his destructive and transforming power. It is as though He is in concealment, hiding the light of Consciousness and only showing His moody painful side.

As I embraced this energy I understood that the light and the dark meet in a true joining of Shiva in His fullness. I kept thinking about the story of Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Faced with the destruction of his family Arjuna pleads with Krishna to see His true form. Krishna opens his mouth and all of creation pours out. The power of Krishna’s love gushes forth but so does all of the inherent darkness of manifestation. Horrified Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his human form.

And so here in Varanasi the constant churning of destruction is ongoing and sometimes disturbing to observe. But God’s grace prevailed and I was left with a fuller knowing of Shiva’s true nature. Just as we must come to peace with the dark and light within us, it is impossible to truly know God if we cannot find acceptance and understanding of His dark side. And so, I will always remember Him as the power of both life, and death.

I began to think of Varanasi as, ‘the city of renunciation’. The stillness of the atmosphere leaves no room for desire. Worldly matters become insignificant in the face of death. An intangible burden left me and I am lighter of heart.

I think that everyone should visit Varanasi. It left a deep impression on my soul and I wish that it will do so for you also.

And, when you do decide to take a step into the heart of Shiva try these Guest Houses. It is imperative that you book in at both.  Swami Nirmalananda’s booking can be found by clicking on her name, and Gopal’s Guest House Kedareshwar B&B is to be found by clicking on the link or on Trip Advisor.

May your journey be fruitful, uplifting and full of wonder.

Below is a video of my favorite temple, sadly it is falling into the river and a view of Varanasi as we motorboat north.

 

 

Jay Nityanand!

Jay Nityanand!

Just as camphor is consumed by the flames of fire,
so also, the mind must be consumed by soul-fire.
Bhagavan Nityananda

It’s after 10:00pm before Anjali and I are on our way to Ganeshpuri. Moti, Yusuf and Vinayak, Rosy’s husband, (they own a B&B on the main street) met us at the airport after an easy flight and too much to eat.

Vinayak drives to Ganeshpuri at a speeding pace, with high beams blaring, a new night signal, ‘move over, I want to pass’. There is less horn and more blinking. Oncoming traffic also signals with high beams. We are blinded by the flashing as a river of cars, four lanes across, head into Mumbai.

We make great time and after an hour we turn onto the road to Ganeshpuri. Worst road in the valley, constantly needing repair. What was repaired a while ago has now been washed away in the monsoon. The road is in constant dispute between SYDA and the villagers, so the villagers say. Vinayak slows to a tortoise pace. (But good news! The road is now under a partial repair.)

I feel a sigh of relief as we near Bhagavan’s Samadhi shrine. Bright colourful lights are decorating every corner of Kailas and the temple. Green, orange, blue shimmer together in a kaleidoscope of vibrancy. Ganeshpuri is alive with Shakti.

We are staying at Kothavala. The atmosphere is beautiful, the food delicious and it is close to the temple. The natural hot spring baths are a luxury. Rarely does the clamour of village life reach here. It is meditative and restorative. The gardens are a haven for Satsang when the big group comes. But now, even though it is 12.30am, Anu, our host, greets us with a hug and a garland. This is our Ganeshpuri home.

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Anjali and I at the Ganesh temple on the hill above the village.

I woke up early on my first morning and went to the temple. The new blond curtains were still closed. Apparently Bhagavan needed some repair and is being lovingly restored. Some say that the fertilizer from the garlands has caused a little erosion and tiny holes on his body. Others say it was from the milk, honey and sugar used for the pujas. Nonetheless, restoration was necessary. The priests tell me that Bhagavan will be revealed in a few hours.

Later Anjali and I are walking down the main road when we see Maharaj, Swami Nityananda coming toward us. He greets us with a lot of love and humour. We briefly chat and go with him as he heads for the temple. We walk up the back steps. Maharaj walks through the silver gate into the Samadhi. We sit down just behind.

A yagna, a fire ceremony with many priests, a dancing saptah, and other festivities have been going on all week. The unveiling of Bhagavan includes a pranapratishta, an enlivening ceremony. The Brahmins chant mantras that breathe life into Bhagavan, just in case he has lost some during the restoration. To me the Shakti in the temple is as strong as it always has been.

We chant for a while and then Bhagavan is revealed. It is a surprise. His body is now dark brown, perhaps it is more like he was when he was in his body.  But under the orange lights he glows with a beautiful reddish hue. The gold has been relegated to the past. I imagine Bhagavan is happier without the metal covering him. I like this new image. More the avadhut, and less the sultan. He seems more intimate, warmer, friendlier and approachable.

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Bhagavan in all his new glory (with Prasadji in the background).

An exquisite happiness descends in me. It is not the happiness of a desire being fulfilled or a task accomplished or for some other mundane reason. In this moment I am fulfilled, joyful, content, peaceful and happy. I wish the whole world could share in the experience of Bhagavan’s Shakti. What a blessing to have found this yoga! What a blessing to have the Guru! What a blessing to be sitting here now in his presence communing with God’s grace!

I wish that his power to awaken spreads around the world. I wish everyone could do his divine work. I wish that his blessings find all who are grieving and uplift them. I wish that he turns everyone to God and all suffering ends.

The chanting continued for about an hour and ended with Sri Kanth (a temple priest) and Swami Nityananda, waving lights to the Nityananda Arati. Then we were ushered into the Samadhi and allowed to take darshan. We are not allowed to touch Bhagavan, but we can see his smiling radiance as we pass and do a standing pranam.

 

Anjali and I were not supposed to be here for the enlivening. We were meant to be in Varanasi for a few days before coming to Ganeshpuri. Oddly, the dates for our accommodation did not work out, so here we are. We found ourselves in the middle of this amazing ceremony with a front row view, while hundreds are outside waiting for a mere glimpse. I am grateful for the blessings moving within me.

Guruji is not with us on this trip. Next year we will be coming back sometime in January with a big group. The villagers ask about him, send him love and acknowledge the impact he has had on the village since we first began making these trips. They miss him and are eager to have his Darshan. Anjali and I make sure to give him daily telephone reports of village life, people’s greetings and events. These conversations add a lot of joy to our visit.

Guruji has an intuitive sensitivity to the pulse of the village and its people. He is a genius at making relationship with everyone and sustaining relationship. These relationships are genuine, spiritual and loving. Although some began in the act of commerce, over the years they have deepened. Ganeshpuri has become our second ashram and the villagers our spiritual family.

Gurudev Siddha Peeth, Baba’s ashram, is abuzz with activity. Not only is there a retreat going on, but I have heard that there is painting, cleaning and a general upgrade. When we get to Guru Gita on Sunday morning I see that Baba’s perch is now a beautiful polished white marble. The courtyard is peaceful and I remember that this was my favourite place to sit with Baba.

As I walk through the village bits of gossip reach my ears. A rumour is whispered that Gurumayi will visit in March (the gossip says this every year) and that she may open the doors of the ashram for longer periods. I notice that her devotees are in the shops, smiling and making contact. This is new. Usually they keep to themselves and are unlikely to say hello. But the next day I find three on my doorstep waiting to meet me.

After introductions, two are from Switzerland, and one from Germany, they ask how I met Baba. I tell my story. They tell how they met Gurumayi. Their devotion is contagious and I feel affection toward her. In Baba’s day, I felt close to her, admired her and loved her. Her devotion to Baba was inspirational. Some painful things happened and those feelings faded into the background as a subtle distrust overshadowed them. Love was not lost, just put on the back burner. Now it glimmers as a flickering flame of possibility.

One of my guests mentions that Gurumayi’s New Year’s message for 2018 was “Satsang”. They tell me that she has asked her devotees to be in Satsang wherever they find themselves. It seems that meeting me is part of their mission to fulfil her wish. I am pleased. We have loving Satsang as we speak about the Guru and at the end of our shares they leave. I am left with a feeling of hope that somehow reconciliation between all of the Siddha families could happen.

After they leave I go to the temple to meditate. As I become familiar with the new Bhagavan it feels as though this could be the beginning of a new era. Bhagavan is dressed simply with only a few flowers and decorative puja items. Gone is the pomp of his glory as emperor. Now he is more the simple sadhu. The great yogi who arrived in Ganeshpuri with nothing but a loin cloth has re-emerged.

The Shakti pours out of him as usual, and he smiles at me as I sit with him. Of course, if anyone can dissolve separation and restore oneness, Bhagavan can. Maybe this era will include a coming together of all of Baba’s devotees and disciples. For everyone to meet under the umbrella of Baba’s grace would be a miracle of love.

Why I Came Back to Australia

An associate professor in Industrial and Systems engineering at Wayne State University in Michigan, Rajendra has also dedicated his life to yoga. However, recently he has come full circle as a yogi and disciple. He describes the deepening of his understanding of the path with intelligence and humor.

The Beginning

I first met Swamiji in the Spring of 1974 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was in my Senior year at the University of Michigan. I would walk across the “Diag” to get to my classes. One morning as I was approaching the Engineering “Arch” at the start of the Diag, I saw this skinny guy sitting by himself at a folding table. He was sitting there, quiet, smiling, alert, while the students walked passed him. I didn’t see anyone stop. When I got close, I saw he had some flyers about a Guru, Swami Muktananda, coming to town. So I stopped to chat for a bit. His eyes were dark, almost black and sparkled. I had heard through the grapevine that Swami Muktananda was coming, but I had not met any of his people.

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University of Michigan ‘Diag’.

But what really struck me was that he looked happy. Not just contented, but happy, just sitting there. I thought, “How can he be happy doing this? He must be bored out of his mind. What a thankless job!”

The next day I ran into him again, this time he was set up in front of the Bagel Factory a couple of blocks away. We talked some more. He said they were setting up an Ashram in Ann Arbor. He invited me to come by, help get the place ready, and maybe do some chanting. I said maybe I would, and I did.

But that is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about how 45 years later I came to understand why he was happy, its place in my Yoga journey, and what it means to me now.

Back to the beginning. I had practiced Hatha yoga for a few years. I had a sense that there was something more, having read accounts of odd adventures with yogis in India, but didn’t know how to touch it. Then I had the great good fortune to meet a true Satguru.

I experienced grace, touched through the eyes in sustained Darshan. I took Yoga initiation. I thought “I am only 18. If it starts out like this, what is the rest of my life going to be like?” The thought came to me that I would have sadhana for some years, then live an ordinary life, then in a later stage of life, would have the opportunity for sadhana again.

I was with him for two days. Then I did something that made me angry and ashamed. The next time we met, he looked at me, and I turned my head away. Like that, snap, the feeling of connection was gone, and I did not have his darshan again. A year or so later, he took Mahasamadhi (passed away). That was over 45 years ago.

Meeting Kirpal Singh Maharaj is one of the great memories of my life. Turning my head away is the most painful. I refused to accept that the connection was lost. I did ferocious meditation practice, but the sense of intimate connection was gone.

The Ann Arbor Ashram

A year or two after that, I heard that Swami Muktananda was going to come to Ann Arbor as part of his world tour. I had heard crazy stories about him from other yogi-wanna-bees. Some of them had been with Rudi (Swami Rudrananda, a disciple of Baba’s) in New York. I had no doubt that this might be another Great Being.

A few weeks later, I met Swamiji, on the Diag. And met him again the next day in front of the Bagel Factory. It turned out Baba had told him to start an ashram in Ann Arbor, and have it ready for his visit in September. This was to be Baba’s first ashram in America. And, lo and behold, the ashram was going to be just a couple of blocks from the place I was renting.

I started going over to help get the place ready, along with a bunch of other people. We chanted in the evenings. We all felt a bow-wave of something coming.

Finally the big day came. Baba was going to arrive. The meditation hall was packed. Swamiji was drumming and we were chanting with great enthusiasm. Hours went by (apparently the plane was delayed – what a grace). Swamiji kept picking up the energy. Everyone found their deepest reserves of joy, and then found more. I don’t have the words to describe it.

Finally Baba arrived. He stayed at the Ann Arbor ashram for about two weeks, then left for New York. To say that people were having supreme meditation experiences would be an understatement. I certainly was.

But I was very conflicted. How could I have had the connection I had with Kirpal Singh Maharaj, and dedicated myself to his practice, but also experience such consistent and intense Shakti with Baba? Kirpal Singh was gone and my feeling of connection was gone. Baba was here. And Baba was Baba. Who was my Guru? How could I accept one without denying the other? I had rejected Kirpal Singh once, and wasn’t going to do it again. But how could anyone deny Baba?

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Siddha Yoga Dham Ashram, Ann Arbor 1975

In the Fall after the Arcadia month-long retreat, I moved to Minnesota and began graduate school. One day in meditation, I saw Baba in front of me. I blurted out, “Babaji, let me live in your ashram!” – meaning the Ann Arbor ashram. When I realized what I had done, I thought, “Oh no! I better do this before it gets done to me.”

At the end of the semester, I came back to Ann Arbor to the ashram. Swamiji asked, “How long will you be staying?” I said, “As long as I am welcome.” And that was that – ashram life punctuated by running across the country and across the ocean to be with Baba.

Life as a Householder

If this were an old-fashioned movie, the hands on the clock would start spinning really fast, and the pages would blow off the calendar right about now.

I finished graduate school in 1978, moved out of the ashram, got a job, got divorced, had a career, got married again, changed jobs, had two kids, founded and ran a company, raised kids, retired, became a university professor, finished raising kids. I stayed in touch with Swamiji. My enthusiasm for Yoga was like the moon: sometimes here, sometimes not.

It has been almost 40 years since I moved out of the Ann Arbor ashram. After forty years in the desert, I’m still welcome. How about that?

Return To Yoga

When I turned 60 – that was four years ago – a great renewed interest in Yoga woke up in me. I practiced techniques to become sensitive to the movements of Kundalini. I bent my mind to subtleties of Jnana Yoga. I brought my background in neuropsychology and evolutionary biology bear on Self-Inquiry. It all worked, just like the instruction manual said it would.

But it was as dry as dust. It was ashes in my mouth. I thought, “ever since I was a child, I have held the vision of Yoga as the crown of life, and is this all there is?”

I had been emailing Swamiji as this sadhana unfolded. I asked, “where is the joy? Where is the heartbeat of Ananda (bliss)? Why were you so damn happy on that corner of the Diag doing that shitty boring job?”

He wrote me back saying simply, “For me, I found bliss in devotion to Baba.”

I had to wrestle with this. It was a very difficult meditation.

I realized I had no joy because I had no devotion. Because I had no devotion, I had no Guru, and because I had no Guru, I had no devotion. I had been rejecting the Guru. I had turned away from Kirpal Singh, much as I wanted to embrace him. I was unable to embrace Baba because I was conflicted around Kirpal Singh. I did not accept Shankarananda because he was a friend. I thought I was a pretty damn good yogi even before I met him. And, how could anyone other than Baba be a Guru in his presence?

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Rajendra in the land down under.

I came back to the old questions, “how do you recognize your Guru?” and “what is the Guru, anyway?” I applied myself to these questions. I immersed myself in this meditation. And I emerged with, for me, an answer.

For me, the Guru is the connection to Baba and the Siddha Lineage, a personal connection to the living Guru Lineage. I saw that Swami Shankarananda was, has been, and is, my connection to Baba and the Siddha Lineage. I saw that even when Baba was alive, Shankarananda was my connection to Baba. Swamiji remains my connection to Baba and the Siddha Lineage.

This was not an easy meditation. It took a lot more than intellectual consideration. I had to embrace it all the way, or else be back to rejecting. No other choices. No halfway measures. At length, I dove in. I embraced it. I asked Swamiji to let me put his feet on my head. This took a lot of surrender. It was not easy for me.

I felt I needed to follow through in person, not just in mind. The ‘ask’ was not about grace. That had already been freely given. The ‘ask’ was something I had to do to ‘seal the deal’ within myself.

When I opened to the Guru realization, my heart opened. Not just a crack. It opened a whole lot. Baba spoke to me. He said “What you get from Shankarananda, you get from me. What you give to Shankarananda, you give to me.”

Baba said, “This is ‘right understanding’. Practice this Yoga.”

This is why I came to the opposite side of the earth, to a land down under.

 

Vajreshwari: the Mother of Tansa Valley

Vajreshwari Temple, the oldest in the Tansa Valley, honours the Goddess Parvati. It sits on a steep hill about one and a half kilometres from the village of Ganeshpuri near Mandagni Mountain. Images of the three goddesses, Renuka Devi,  Kalika Devi and Vajreshwari Devi, the main deity, are worshipped.

Legend says that Vajreshwari is a holy village. The Goddess Parvati slew a demon near there and the great warrior, Parashurama performed a fire ceremony at Mandagni Mountain when it was an alive volcano. It is also said that Lord Ram stayed near there when he was in exile. This is easy to believe when you have tasted the nectar and shakti of Ganeshpuri and Vajreshwari. When Baba Muktananda was doing his sadhana with Bhagavan he stayed in a hut behind the temple for many years. 

I remember on my first visit to Ganeshpuri I could feel the ancient history. India is a country with thousands of years of civilisation that has penetrated the atmosphere. It feels ancient. Gurus, sages and saints have been born, lived and died in their devotion and wisdom for centuries. I don’t know of another country like India. And strangely enough She either embraces a visitor or spits them out. I was fortunate to have been embraced by Her and have received many blessings and teachings.

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Swami Chitinanda

What follows is a share from Swami Chitinanda, a great devotee of the divine Mother, who visited the temple last year for the first time. From Tasmania, she runs meditation courses and she has published two books–one on her spiritual journey called Many Blessings and the other on meditation called Sacred Space. You can find her and her books at swamichitinanda.com

I arrived by car at the back of the Vajreshwari temple. On the way I was seated in the front. I was feeling an unusual vibration of energy. I looked across at the driver and did a double-take. His face had become Bhagavan Nityananda’s who was now at the wheel of the car.

We walked into the temple and I began to tremble. I said to the person next to me, ‘Could you get behind me and give me a push please? I am too nervous to enter.’

She pushed me forward into the temple hall. When we all sat down and began to chant I felt vibrations of energy coming through the floor. As they increased I began to rock quite forcibly. I started to weep and could not control my sobbing, so I hid under my silk scarf with my head bowed. My partner asked if I was okay, but I couldn’t stop the shaking, nor control whatever was happening. The inner heat was like a sauna.

The mother energy felt like a primal force both comforting and incredibly powerful. It was all consuming. I prayed to the Goddess to hold me and accept me.

We got up to enter the inner temple where the deities stand. I was surrounded by Indian women. The priest gave me a bindi, a red dot at my third eye. It must have somehow smeared because as we came out Guruji subtly remarked on my red face.

What an extraordinary energy the temple has–power, Shakti, and primal Goddess life force. Did Ganeshpuri change me? Yes, it rearranged my DNA, I think.

A Tribute to Swami Girijananda

A Tribute to Swami Girijananda

Swami Girijananda, (Girija Moran) passed away in her home in Arcata, California in the early morning of October 31.. She was an extraordinary spiritual teacher and yogini. She taught me a lot when I was studying with her and Swamiji during the 70s in the Ann Arbor ashram. She was beautiful, compassionate and wise. She could do everything. She is much loved and will be sorely missed. Swamiji wrote this the day of her samadhi.

My beloved Girija took samadhi early this morning.

Girija and I met on a blind date in July 1968. We got married in December of that year. I got a job teaching at Indiana University and we moved to Chicago. Soon our lives took a spiritual turn.

We met Ram Dass in February 1970 and decided to go to India to find a Guru. We went overland and met great beings and yogis. We studied with Hari Dass Baba and Sri Goenka.

Ram Dass introduced us to Swami Muktananda, Baba. Baba was the real deal and more. We lived in his ashram in India for three years. Baba remarried us and called us Girija and Shankar.

We went on his Second World Tour and after awhile he sent us out to start the first Siddha Yoga Ashram in the West in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He invited us to take sannyas. Now we were Girijananda and Shankarananda.We were together in Ann Arbor for four years.

In 1978 our ways parted when Baba sent me to Los Angeles and then Australia. I missed her terribly but Baba told me to let her go, and told her that it was the right thing.Girija went on to run ashrams in several places.

After Baba’s death she studied Tibetan Buddhism for a number of years. Later she spent two years in our Mount Eliza (Australia) ashram and then went to Northern California to begin her teaching work. She was a great teacher.Soon she gathered a community of beautiful people around her. I feel for them. I know the grief of losing one’s spiritual teacher.

Girija is irreplaceable.She was a great soul, totally focused on her spiritual path. She was genuine, loving and very smart. Her teachings reflected her journey—Tonglen and compassion from Buddhism; Shakti and devotion from Baba.

She was strong minded and fearless. She faced death without flinching. In 1973 I thought I saw some bad aspects coming in my astrological chart. I thought they meant that Girija would die. I had a breakdown and had to be saved by Baba telling me to do the mantra. On the feared day no one died.

Now forty-five years later it has happened. I feel my own sadness but I know that Girija is joyful. She is with Baba and Bhagavan Nityananda in some higher realm.What a great soul! What a strong mind! What a true human being! She was a fierce, uncompromising Goddess.

I will always love her.

 

I am neither a beggar nor a king.

I am neither a beggar nor a king.

Every Saturday evening in Satsang Swamiji gives teachings from his favourite great beings.  These great beings have much in common even though their paths vary. Some focus on the wisdom aspect of yoga, some on devotion, some on meditation, some on service and some on intense practice. But, they all have one thing in common. They emphasise knowing the Self and loving and accepting ourselves.

During these programs the devotees come up to greet both of us. Traditionally this is called darshan. I think of it as saying hello and if blessings or shakti is transmitted it is by the miracle of Guru’s grace. I receive something too–lots of love and joy. No small thing in a world beset by desires that cannot be assuaged by love.

Often I meet people who haven’t come to Satsang in a while and I ask, ‘where have you been’. Very often they answer ‘I have been in a bad space. I have been hating myself. I have felt unworthy.’

Surprising answers and ones that give me pause and tear at my heart. I encourage them to come when they feel that way knowing that Satsang will put them in touch with the Shakti which will ease their suffering.

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Darshan is always uplifting.

Self-hatred is a poison, it is our worst enemy spiritually and personally. It is the most debilitating thinking the mind creates.

The other day an ashramite came to see me and said, ‘I hate myself, I never feel good enough.’ I immediately thought of Swamiji’s story about an answer to a question he asked Baba during his time in Ganeshpuri in the seventies. His ego was troubling him. He was having thoughts that depleted his shakti and hurt him. Baba said, ‘Do not think you are a king or a beggar. Think, “I am Shiva; I am the Self.”

Swamiji’s demand is that we hold to the space of the Self. As he says, ‘the clear space of good feeling.’ Or, as Bhagavan says, bhavano rakho, maintain the good feeling. Swamiji encourages us to forgive every slight, every hurt, every pain, in every moment. Inwardly we let go of the temptation to blame and attack others for what they didn’t say to us, or give us, didn’t treat us well enough or honour us enough. When we cannot let go of this thinking love turns to poison within. And, in this state the mind creates good reasons to escalate enmity.

To watch someone in the grip of hatred, whether of themselves or another is painful, hurtful and frustrating. When people turn away from the Guru, from the Self, from Satsang it is as painful for the ones who are left as it is for the one leaving.

The heartbreak is especially poignant when that person has been a loving and close companion for many years. How is it that a mind can turn negative so quickly and without warning? How is it that someone who said they love you suddenly becomes an enemy? How is it that love suddenly turns to judgment? This is a great mystery.

To maintain good feeling sounds simple, but after all these years of sadhana I see that it is always possible to fall prey to a sense of unworthiness. Just because we have been meditating and doing practices for years we can still be vulnerable to destructive behaviour and negative thinking.

Bhagavan Nityananda once said, ‘it’s all dust!’ In time the material world, including our bodies become dust. I think he is reminding us that nothing is worth fighting about. To focus on that which is peaceful and loving and not on dissatisfaction requires a commitment to our own loving heart. Instead of venting anger we hold to a higher value like compassion and wisdom. I have always held the Guru as a beacon of love that never fades, never withdraws, and never wavers.

We will confront events that seem unforgivable, or that do not bring peace. These events  destabilise our life and relationships. If we succumb to the pain and do not dissolve it into Consciousness then we get stuck in the moment the pain happened, forever frozen in a memory of suffering.

The great beings forgive the unforgivable. It is their power of unconditional love that attracts weary and broken hearted seekers. They hold to that which is eternal, loving and wise. Their interests are not of this world but the world of Consciousness. They are not concerned whether a person is high born or not, whether a person is rich or poor, whether a person is sick or well, whether a person is the ‘right type.’ They are only interested in the spiritual well-being of each individual that comes before them. To see, hear and watch how the great beings love, teaches us to love the same way.

Swami Muktananda writes poetically on love:

Just as the earth remains the same no matter who comes and goes on it, so true love remains unchanging and independent. Love penetrates your entire being. Love is Consciousness.

 

Think from the work; not from life.

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GI Gurdjieff

Western sages are few and far between. One of Guruji’s favourites from the last century, is the mystic master GI Gurdjieff. His teachings dovetail beautifully with meditation and yoga. Gurdjieff has many yogic practices but one unique articulation is, ‘think from the work, and not from life‘. To keep your spiritual values alive means to keep a ‘truthful focus.’ When we think from life then we live in fear of loss–our possessions, our relationships, our security. We are anxious all the time.

Gurdjieff encourages us to avoid letting the mind become absorbed in mundane matters that bring up ego–likes and dislikes, jealousy, tearing thoughts, anger, self-preservation, pride, and other emotions. Most sages agree that it is our negative reactions to outer events that create our experience of life. Our painful reactions are ego, manifesting as negative emotion. Ego separates us from the heart, from love and from the Self. The first step in shifting the mind from the mundane to the mystical is to look within.

Gurdjieff called on his students to ‘work’ on themselves. He encourages them to evaluate all choices and decisions against the highest choice, Self-remembering. If we can hold to the highest we make choices for love, for peace, for kindness and wisdom. When we work against ego we are less likely to be led astray into painful encounters and situations. Gurdjieff has said:

“I will tell you one thing that will make you rich for life. There are two struggles: an Inner-world struggle and an Outer-world struggle…you must make an intentional contact between these two worlds; then you can create a new world.

Epictetus

The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, born a slave, had a uniquely surrendered attitude to the outer world. Epictetus gave teachings similar to Patanjali in that he encourages his students to avoid negative thinking and habits. He said that there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

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Perhaps this is why so many great sages and saints guide us toward compassion. We all, at times, ignore, disregard and reject the most wise counsel when we shouldn’t. Epictetus said that every difficult event has two handles. For example, say your brother betrays you. If you hold onto one handle you walk down the path of betrayal, anger and vengeance. If you choose the other handle you walk toward peace, forgiveness and love. Which one are you going to hold?

Satsang

Guruji places great importance on Satsang and has often said, ‘if you can hold a Satsang then create one, if you cannot create one, then join one’. In Satsang seekers unite in a common goal to know the Self, to contemplate the Self, to meditate on the Self. The energy created by a united spiritual purpose is a dynamic power that is loving and wise.

The other night in Satsang Guruji drew on the aphorisms and teaching of Epictetus. Epictetus also talked about the value of keeping good company, or keeping the company of the highest truth. Guruji has often said, ‘the great beings are humanity’s greatest treasure’. Epictetus agrees when he says:

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.

The teachings of Epictetus are pure jnan, a breath of fresh air. I felt my mind enter a wide space of mental clarity. I was surprised to discover that I preferred them to Patanjali, who often seems like hard work. Epictetus sweeps away useless thoughts and leaves behind a sweet peace.

Guruji summarised his teaching by saying ‘Think in such a way as to promote your own happiness’. To live fearlessly is to live in the Shakti. No matter where we live or what we do, creativity, inspiration and dynamism arise from a state of remembering the Self not forgetting it, not sacrificing it for the sake of the material world. To remember our highest values is to live in the state of oneness and peace. This is what sages both East and West want for us.

The wise counsel of Epictetus

  • The universe is but one great city, full of beloved ones, divine and human by nature, endeared to each other.
  • In our power: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Not in our power: bodies, possessions glory, and power.
  • Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of an impression, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Leet me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.’
  • It is not death or pain that is to be feared, but it is the fear of death and the fear of pain.
  • When you close  your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?

I Love God

I Love God

The heart of Mira is entangled in the beauty of her Guru’s feet; 
Nothing else causes her delight! 
He made her happy in the drama of the world; 
His knowledge dried up the Ocean of being and becoming. 
Mira says: My whole world is Shri Krishna; 
Now that my gaze is turned inward, I see it clearly.

Mirabai

When I was around eight a friend that I often played with on the weekends asked me if I believed in God, and I told her that I didn’t know because I wasn’t sure what God was. She told me that God was love and that He loved everyone. Her conviction awoke a curiosity in me.

I asked her where He lived and she said that He was in heaven and pointed to the above sky. I looked up trying to imagine where exactly in the sky God lived and what he looked like. As young as I was it seemed unlikely that he lived up there, but on the other hand it was likely there was a place where he did live. She said that God was also in her church and that if I wanted to meet Him I could come to church with her and her family but that I had to ask my parents.

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Is God in the sky I wondered?

One Sunday morning I crept into my parents’ bedroom and woke my mother. I asked her if I could go to church with my friend and she groggily mumbled yes.

There was a subtle current of anticipation as I thought about meeting God. When we arrived at the church all the children were ushered into a classroom very much like a school room. My friend told me that children were not allowed to hear the sermon by the minister.

We sat at children’s desks while a young woman talked to us about Jesus, sinners, evil and saving lost souls. I could not grasp how children could be sinful or evil. I felt myself recoil as my mind drifted away from her voice. I fantasised a God that was different from her version, different from the ordinary. When I thought about how God might be for me, I imagined Him to be bright and loving, but mostly magical.

When I got home I asked my mother what religion we were and she told me that we were Presbyterian. I asked her why we did not go to church. She said that she did not go to church when she was a child either.

‘Your grandmother was an Orange woman and hated Catholics’.

I was not sure what this meant, but I realised I was not going to get an understanding about God from my parents. I thought they knew less about God than my young friend and so I put aside my questions. When I went to play with my friend the next time her mother came to the door and told me she could not play with me again. I only saw her from a distance and I felt sad for her.

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Everything is Consciousness according to Kashmir Shaivism. This too is God.

From then on I would occasionally wonder about God’s existence. I asked my girlfriends if they went to church but none of them did, nor did their parents. I wondered why some families believed in God and some did not. And then one of them told me that people who did not believe in God were called ‘atheists’ and people who did not know whether God existed or not were called ‘agnostics’. I put myself in the category of agnostic because I was aware that some part of me wanted to believe that God existed.

The first time I felt God was the first time I met Baba Muktananda. In his company I had my first meditation experience, a profound and deep knowing of the Self. In hindsight I realised that I had had a God experience. As I meditated over the years, love for God grew in me, as did love of mankind, love for the Guru and love of Self.

The other night in the Mother’s day Satsang Guruji was teaching from Anandamayi Ma. As he was speaking I felt myself sinking into meditation. Then I vaguely heard him say my name. He was calling on me because I was supposed to lead the meditation by reading from Mirabai’s poems.

‘Oh my God,’ I said as I returned to consciousness, ‘I was so deep’. I was aware all eyes were on me but was unselfconscious because I was still in meditation. If the person sitting behind me hadn’t poked me I would not have come out of it. Forty-five minutes had passed and I had missed Guruji’s whole talk.

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Meditation is a gift from God.

It is difficult to describe the state I had been in. Yes, it was nirvikalpa samadhi, but deeper than I had ever felt. Yes, it was like deep sleep, but somehow deeper and darker and more peaceful. I didn’t know that was even possible. Yes, it was like a death experience, but comforting and warm, safe and indescribably delicious. It was the deepest state of samadhi I had ever experienced. It was total absorption in the depth of my being.

God had embraced me, held me, rocked me, loved me, healed me, and He then threw me back to the world with a deeper connection to myself. I knew that it was nirvikalpa samadhi but it was extraordinary samadhi.

I was wondering where my consciousness had gone. I found a Wikipedia article on nirvikalpa samadhi as described in Raja Yoga:

Nirvikalpa samadhi, on the other hand, absorption without self-consciousness, is a mergence of the mental activity in the Self, to such a degree, or in such a way, that the distinction of knower, act of knowing, and object known becomes dissolved — as waves vanish in water, and as foam vanishes into the sea.

This probably comes closest to what I experienced. Then another definition by Swami Shivananda:

All the seeds or impressions are burnt by the fire of knowledge. All thought forms which bring on rebirth are totally freed up.

All mental modifications that arise from the mind-lake come under restraint. The five afflictions: ignorance, egoism, love, hatred and clinging to life are destroyed and the bonds of Karma are annihilated.

It gives deliverance from the wheel of births and deaths.

I was free from all thoughts and afflictions but I am not sure about ‘deliverance from rebirth’. Nor is that an issue for me; I am not averse to rebirth. An astrologer told me some years ago that my chart indicated that I had made a vow to come back.

I would not know how to achieve that deep state again. It was not by any effort I made in the moment that caused it. It was God’s grace. As the experience fades the memory lingers in my mind as a possibility, a potential that is within me. A part of me is still connected to that space, like an anchor that holds a ship steady in the rocky ocean. I am left in awe of that small miracle that brought me the magic of such deep meditation and peace.

God Madness Is A Good Madness

A share from a devotee’s letter on his first visit to Ganeshpuri and Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram.

Ganeshpuri.

I lost my mind and found God. There was that day I spent reflecting that unhappiness was a memory and that happiness was the natural state of being.

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Banyan tree that Bhagawan Nityananda used to sit under.

The tree out the front is a portal like Ganeshpuri is a portal. But unlike Ganeshpuri where the Shakti is like a constant earthquake. And the spirit world is immediate.

What Bhagavan Nityananda gave me I can’t describe except in a child’s terms. It is like he gave me a Willy Wonka lolly, like the endless tasting chewing gum of Shakti. It is like he put a lingam in my head and said ‘off you go.’ It is nuts but I have the rest of the trip to bring this into a meaningful context and apply it in the real world. 

From the Goddesses of the temple with eyes that emitted blue light, to seeing a blue light like a mist coming from me and in my mala beads. And some being telling me I have not left Siddha Loka yet. Then saying a week later ‘you have left Siddha Loka.’ Well what reference does even a spiritual nut like myself have to measure such experiences?

I knew my mental state had become more normal.

But other than to say Bhagavan gave me all the Shakti I needed then and more for the road. 

I know I have the Shakti at home in my meditation. I feel Bhagavan has given me a great gift and I have reformed a personal relationship with a place and perhaps even a guru from a previous existence.

I can only say that Ganeshpuri felt like the most natural place on earth. There was only what was real and no unreal, no pretending. And I lost my mind. God madness is good madness.

See if you can make sense of that. I’m only just getting my head around it.

I know now why Bhagavan Nityananda did not speak or convey teachings. How can you sustain a normal conversation for longer than a few minutes in that place? It is too easy to slip away.

This week I found that my spiritual name is a name of Lord Krishna, I like it, thanks Guruji.

Steadily I’m coming down to earth and the more unreal it seems that all of this happens. But I’m not worried. I have a deep faith in God.

I am not concerned with the fluctuations of my waking mind.

It’s said that we lose the feeling of Ganeshpuri when we return to Australia.  I say to that, ‘so what–why should I care?’ If it is that natural then it’s the way it is supposed to be.

Funny! I had this idea that I once lived in or close to Ganeshpuri as a Muslim. The place felt as comfortable as a childhood place I left and then returned to later in life. There was a strong sense of familiarity about the place.

Inshallah!

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Arunachala, the mountain Ramana Maharshi worshipped.

Arunachala.

Sri Ramana is the gentlest of souls. Truly the love and peace of this place is at first too much. Juxtaposed is the power of the mountain [Arunachala] which exudes Shakti.

But unlike Ganeshpuri where the Shakti is like a constant earthquake. And the spirit world is immediate. Ramana Ashram is the perfect cure for this power and turmoil and madness.

But as time went by the turmoil settles like dirt in a jar of agitated water. And the peace of the place becomes apparent in oneself.

Enough for now. God bless. With love.