Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the divine presence

16 feb, last day in India

There comes a moment when life becomes intolerable without the Divine Presence.
Give yourself, therefore, entirely to the Divine and you will rise up into the Light.
(the Mother)

As it turned out, when Prakash got home from his Valentine's Day trip he had to go on duty right away, which means we couldn't hang out today; and so I have had two almost full days to myself here at Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The silence of the place and the solitude it has afforded me have been luscious. There is a new meditation hall here now, with large images of Aurobindo and the Mother, who are of course revered as deities, a large wooden floor and even a mezzanine space. The latter is where I have been spending my time there, sitting near a window to do my readings. There are only a few other people who trickle in and out, spending some time before the images, especially in the early morning before 7 AM breakfast when I believe it is staff and workers who stop in and pay their respects. Though last night I wound up in the midst of a gathering. Besides the day school and health clinic that operate in association with the ashram, there is a boarding vocational school for young people from all over India who appear to be in the late teens and twenties. They are called "aspirants." They are on a very strict schedule which I'm told must absolutely be followed, and last night just before 7 slowly slowly they started coming into the large hall 'til there was nearly 100 of them seated on the floor in front of the images. Off to the left a stage had been set up with microphones, and an elderly woman, accompanied by a younger woman and a tabla player mounted the stage. She spoke and then read in Hindi. Later she explained in English that she was reading one of the Mother's prayers, and noted that they had been written in French, translated into English, and only then translated into Hindi. She then read the same prayer in English and spoke about it. And then slowly she worked up a beautiful kirtan, accompanying herself on the harmonium, then joined by the young woman and the tablist, and some voices from the crowd. It was a captivating melody. There seems to be a certain quality to North Indian kirtan singing that is different than the South. I like it very much.

The Mother is always referring to "the Divine" and "the Lord" in her writings and prayers, though every now and then she mentions Mahakali, the Great Mother. Last night I was reading a book that is in my room called "Growing Up With the Mother," which is a collection of the hundreds of notes and short letters that a young woman received from the Mother on a variety of issues. This woman would submit regular questions and/or her own notebook as part of a very long correspondence on topics ranging from sadhana and questions about Aurobindo's writing, to education and even personal hygiene. This young woman was also a teacher in the ashram school, and the answers that she received were also passed on to other teachers, with the Mother's blessing. I have heard more than one person comment that they find Aurobindo himself very difficult to read with his florid English style and flights of poetry. I have read a number of his short works, and have been picking away at Synthesis of Yoga for a few years, and have not paid much attention to the Mother. It was very clear to me reading last night, as I have found once or twice before when I've stumbled on something of her writing, that she does bring the great man's philosophy down to earth, make it accesible and very practical. It is she who was the mastermind behind the schools, the physical fitness programs, the vocational training, and Auroville in general. I liked that fact that she uses the word "contact" so often in relation to the divine, and one time she even used the phrase "conscious contact with the Divine," a phrase I use often too to explain the goal of meditation, though I borrowed it from the 12 Steps of AA. I heard this earlier somewhere on this trip in a slightly different form in regards Ramana Maharshi: "the inalienable bliss in which one dwells as soon as one is in conscious contact with the Divine." And again, "One moment of conscious communion with the Divine can shatter any resistance, however powerful it may be."

Back to the 'logue: I arrived a little later than I had hoped on the bus to Haridwar, so I hopped in a bicycle rickshaw and had the driver hurry me over to the train station. Gitanjali and Laura had also arrived a little late and were waiting patiently there. We called SN at Sri Ram to let him know we were that far, and he put Rashmi, the headmistress, on the phone to give us instructions one more time: we were to try for a prepaid taxi, but if they are not running, walk to Chandipul Bridge and try to get an autorickshaw from there, and if that didn't work, turn right at the bridge and walk for 9 kilometres. I was kind of psyched for the adventure, partly because it was a beautiful day and a walk after that bus ride would have felt good, and partly because we would walk right past the Kumbha Mela Camp. But as it turned out, my dreams of being Daniel Boone were soon dashed when the guy at the pre-paid taxi eagerly agreed to drive us out there for 300 rupees. That was too easy.

There were mobs of people for sure, Shiva Ratri and the opening of the Mela being the next day, and quite an fascinating array of both pilgrims and sadhus who seem to all be in competiton for the most colorful costume and water carrier for the former, and the most outrageous way of tying up their dreadlocks for the latter. With some cursing and swearing (at least that was what I assumed it was, in Hindi), our driver wend us through town and out to the ashram within a half an hour. A smaller group of Westerners are there this year, partly because for the first time Babaji did not come due to failing health and simple old age. We all fell right in with the kids, I of course knowing many of them already and happy to see that some of them remembered me, even by name, Laura and Gitanjali becoming an immediate hit with the girls. My main interest was to see Vijay and Krishna, the brothers I have kept contact with. To my dismay I was told Vijay was actually away at college in Chandipur, farther north, but as fortune would have it, he came home a few hours later for one of his frequent regular visits. I didn't recognize Krishna when I first saw him, quite a spurt of growth from 11 years old to 13, and he wasn't sure who I was either. But then I mentioned "birthday card" which I send every year and the photo I sent of he and I and Vijay, and his face lit up and he put his arms around me and stayed that way for a good long time. Another of the young guys that I had done some tutoring with before saw me and asked me to help him with his math. What I didn't know at first but found out soon on was that he has been dealt a pretty serious punishment for some very serious offense, and has been ostracized from the other children, living and working with the cooks, who have kindly taken him in. After I found that out, I made it a point to spend lots of time with him out behind the kitchen, even eating my meals with him sometimes. We did a lot more talking and laughing and taking pictures with my iPhone than any hard Math, but that was okay. He never did tell me what was wrong or admit to me that he was being punished, but he did draw me a picture and write me a letter before I left thanking me "for study and for coming."

They do great work there, I must say again. It is one thing to send money to a favorite charity; it is a whole other thing to set up something like this that actually forms and shapes children, and gives them skills and knowledge that can be used to make a life for themselves outside of the ashram. Whatever pain those kids may have in their memories, and undoutably they have it from the sometimes incredible hardships of their families of origin, they probably have a much better life present and future than they would have had with the families who were not able to care for them. But they are a family, this is their family, headed up by the amazing Rashmi. She has been there for 15 years now (with one year off for good behaviour), speaks very good Hindi and knows every in and out of these 40 or so childrens' lives. Her latest innovation with them these past few years has been Cross Fit training, something that came into her own life in a very powerful way a few years back that she has now passed on to the kids, and they have eaten it up, especially the older boys. She lists a program every day on a board and the kids put each other through the paces. For our friend Vijay it is as if he has found his niche in life. He's a monster--"a beast," Rashmi says--with his own program (no sooner had he recovered from his seven hour bus ride than he was at it doing the program of the day), but also has become quite a good coach for the others. The younger kids kind of idolize him, and he told me that he prefers to come home from school to Sri Ram as often as possible, especially, he told me, because he doesn't like the food there at college. And this also in spite of the fact that he fulfilled his dream of playing cricket by being the only freshman to get chosen to play on the varsity team there at school. But he's soured by the whole scene of it; he doesn't think the others on the team train hard enough and there is too much politics in the whole scene. It's a beautiful thing to watch, the whole of it, that a young guy would turn out so stellar in an environment like that, and want to come back and be with his sisters and brothers instead of being in the the big world outside with all that it has to offer.

There were two big activities for Shiva Ratri. The first is the bath in the Ganges, often accompanied by putting on new clothes. This was quite a big deal the first time I was here, and we had driven some distance in a bus to get to a spot along the bank. This time it was a little more low-keyed. We went to a spot that was just on the other side to the village of Shyampur, the young kids in a trolley pulled by a tractor and the rest of us walking the paths. I have a sweet memory of walking with Krishna at one side and a little Nepalese guy named Kesav sidling up to me and grabbing my hand on the other side. He was all of six or seven years old but clever and smart. His English, for instance, was very good, very clear already. When we got to the river, I followed the example of the older boys--Vijay, Uttam, Gautam, and Vijay Pal--and decided that the water was too cold and dirty (I actually didn't have shorts or anything into which to change, I had brought so little), but was a cheerful spectator as the others did their bath, or swam to the other shore, made their offering and, some anyway, changed into new clothes. Then at noon there was the puja. Two Brahmin priests from town came to lead it, but as I remember happening my first time here and, so I'm told, happens every year, one of the men from Sri Ram does the actual offerings. This time, as has happened often, it was Sreven Kumar. He is also from Santa Cruz (I run into him often working the cash register at Staff of Life) but an Indian national by birth. Now in his retirement years he can spend several months a year there at Sri Ram, and he is just beautiful with the kids. A gentle but forceful disciplinarian who knows just how things should go, he has come so often. The ritual was quite elaborate as usual for these kinds of things and took over an hour. The adults, mostly Westerners, were trying very hard to be attentive, every now and then shushing the kids or moving somewhere where they could see or hear better, but the kids' patience wore out quickly. I had sat near the back and was trying to look attentive and respectful, but was soon surrounded by kids, Kesav back and forth on my lap showing me things and wanting to see my phone to take pictures, and others around me talking, hitting each other and/or itching to play some music. It gave me a whole new perspective on 11 o'clock Mass, though the advantage with Mass is that there is actually something for the congregation to do besides watch the priest perform the ritual. We didn't have anything to do until the end when the water from the Ganga was offered and the prasad was passed out.

We had a little musical fun during the days there. We sang some at the beginning and especially at the end of the puja. I loved watching the next generation of drummers take over--Shubam and Krishna on tabla and dolak, respectively, while big brother Vijay looked on quietly, though he did fill in at the end. There was also a young American guy there who is a kirtan singer back home and is currently studying more kirtan singing with a Sikh teacher here in India. At the end, while the crowd was dispersing, he sat down at the harmonium and led us in a couple of choice ones. At Vijay's urging I led one as well, something I remembered from one of my Krishna Das or Jai Uttal CDs. I hadn't brought my guitar, prepared as I was for trekking, but there were a couple of other Westerners there who had had the same idea that I had had back in 2005: they had brought "baby"s with them, one had a baby Martin and the other a baby Alvarez. They both had asked my advice about them and offered for me to use them whenever I wanted, so there was always a guitar at hand. Gitanjali and I had half a plan to do some singing together at some point during the weekend (we've worked together, but never just sat down and sung for fun), so after tea following the puja I got one of the babys and we sat under Babji's tree for about two hours, I think, going through the Great American Songbook (or, as one radio station had it, "the best of the '70s, '80s, and whatever we want"). It was a LOT of fun! Sita played along a bit as well as did one other guy, and eventually Dayanand brought down one his slide guitars and that was even more fun. He could play solos, and then we started improvising a song, making up verses as we went along. Dayanand himself and some of the boys too had told me that there was going to be kirtan singing later that night as is traditional on the night of Shiva Ratri everywhere. (Quite often it is accompanied by drinking an intoxicating beverage known as bhang, which is made with marijuana, and then staying up all night in the temple singing. We didn't do that.) In my Westerner's penchant for schedule and clarity ("We have a plan, we have no schedule"), I stood outside the guesthouse after dinner waiting for us all to head over to the puja shrine for the music, but it wasn't happening. Dayanand was up practicing his mohan veena and the boys were watching a movie. But after sending around a couple of messages, Srevan Kumar gathered the troops, and soon we were sitting at the puja shrine with no light except for a couple of ghee lamps and a distant electric light bulb. I don't think any of the Sri Ram girls were there, but a good handful of the women and men guests were and, to my surprise, quite a few of the boys. Vijay was on tabla most of the time, with Shubam on dolak on the other side, and the brothers Uttam and my old buddy Gautam were on either side of me singing their hearts out. One of the other guests led a few and then passed me the guitar. I did one or two that I've done before, but then started mentally going through my Krishna Das and Jai Uttal CDs again and started leading some of those. No one knew that I had never done any of them before. I had a blast. Eventually Dayanand showed up with his mandolin in open tuning too and then we had a real quorum. Who needs bhang?

I had originally planned on five or six days up that way, and had really wanted to get to see more of the Mela and get over to Rishikesh, maybe even for a few nights. But we were only going to be there two days-three nights, so I feared not much of that was going to happen. I never did make it to any of the Kumbha Mela. To be honest by the time we got there I wasn't that interested, surprisingly. The crowds were huge on the roads because of the coincidence with Shiva Ratri and security was very tight, though there wasn't much actually going on yet. To be honest, I was also a little turned off by all the hype and publicity around it, the huge billboards of famous sadhus who were going to be appearing or speaking, and all the kind of "bliss junkie rush" associated with it for so many Westerners, but if I had had more time I would have eventually gone. (It lasts until April 15; the biggest days of it are still way ahead.) Some folks went on Shiva Ratri afternoon. Two got turned away, but two others managed to climb over a barrier and then over a security wall and sneak in for the arathi. On Saturday there were a couple of different carloads going to Rishikesh. I was tempted, but didn't want to spend a whole day out when we were leaving in the morning--there is only so much I want to cram into a day.

But after breakfast Rashmi told Gitanjali, Laura and I that she had to go to Rishikesh to bring two of the girls back to school, and if we wanted to go (again, this being their first time here, the women had never been) we could tag along and spend a few hours walking around. That was perfect for me, and so we went, Rashmi herself driving, braving incredible traffic, I might add. The sight of a woman driving, let alone a Western woman, is still something rather incredible for Indian males, I must tell you, but she was impressively fearless. There is a little disdain for Rishikesh among some of the long time Sri Ram ashramites who consider it like an amusement park with all kinds of international babas and teachers selling their wares to Western spiritual tourists, whereas Haridwar still retains its seriousness as a real Indian holy city. They are probably right and I say some of the same things myself, but I have wonderful memories of my times there, and there were three people I wanted to see. The women kindly let me lead the way, and I got to see all three. Just across the street from where we left the car is the restaurant of Ranjeet, the kind guy who took me to the arathi over the Ganges (and wouldn't let me pay for dessert) and with whom I took my lunch every day I was there in 2007. With all the tourists they see I was delighted that he and his brother both remembered me, and they happily told me that they had each gotten married that past year. Ranjeet then invited me to come to his house for dinner that night. What an honor. Unfortunately, obviously, I couldn't. Then down the street and around the corner going down toward the Laxma Jula Bridge, I stopped to see Ram Ram, the Yoga teacher and CD kiosk oracle. He got up, grabbed my hands and gave me a huge warm hug. I asked for recommendations on music again and we all bought one CD from him. Then I took them all over to meet Turiya at Jheevan Dhara, the Christian ashram where I stayed in 2007 while I was doing Yoga with Ram and, as a matter of fact, where I finished writing the book that was just published. I had told her I might be coming when I saw her at Shantivanam, and so as she opened the gate she semi-scolded me: "I thought maybe you had gotten lost in a cave on Arunachala." All three women really loved the place, especially the chapel. I told them that that place was like ground zero of my spirituality, the marvelous marriage of Christianity expressed through the genius of Indian spirituality.

The crowds were immense there in Rishikesh too--because of the five day holiday--mostly Indians, though, not with us Western bliss junkies this time. We crossed over the Laxma Jula Bridge so Laura and Gitanjali could see that side and do a little shopping, and not only was that tiny little road mobbed, but there was also two way traffic of Jeeps and tourist cars going back and forth. The river rafting has become a big business there. It really was off-putting and I couldn't wait to get out by then.

After that, not much else. As I wrote yesterday, we took a taxi back down, and I've had two wonderfully relaxing days at Aurobindo Ashram. I have taken a few walks for supplemental chai, some toiletries and in search of an internet place (no luck), but haven't wandered very far or spoken to almost anyone for two days. It's now 4:45 PM on Fat Tuesday, and I'm packed and ready to check out. If all goes well, a taxi will come and fetch me this evening and then I fly to Singapore at 11:30 PM. I told someone last week, I'm at the point where I always get with India: if I'm not gonna stay forever, it's time to come home. Well, two weeks work ahead of me first, but I'm heading that way.