3 March 2024
I’m just outside of Rishikesh now at Sadhana Mandir Ashram which is, unbeknownst to me when I booked it, right on the north bank of the Ganga. Like the last two nights, in Delhi and Haridwar, there is tremendous thunder and lightning and intermittent heavy rains going on outside. I immediately have felt like this is the most pleasant place I’ve stayed here in India this time and after four nights in four different places to sleep, I’m happy that I can settle into this fifth place for a week.
Yesterday I got a ride to Haridwar, arranged by faithful Devin. That is Sri Ram Ashram, which is an orphanage founded by Baba Hari Das and the good people of Mount Madonna, that also has a school for about 1000 students. I had been there several times in early 2000s, the first time with John Pennington in 2005. He returned several times after that with students from Augustana College when he was teaching there. (Actually, a woman on the staff asked me, “Didn’t you come with John and the students from Augustana?”) Back in the day there would have been lots of folks from Mount Madonna here at this time of year, but things have changed a bit since Babaji died. Two old friends, Dayanand and SN were the only ones there from California, deeply engaged in laying out a new field hockey and football (soccer) field and building an addition onto the school. Very impressed especially with SN at 77 years old out there with a shovel showing the young guys how it’s done.
Dayanand gave me a tour of all the work going on and was explaining some of the new restrictions imposed in them by the government of India. For one thing, for all the amazing good work they have done there, the local government has always been a little suspicious of the Mount Madonna folks as foreigners. It was somewhat easier when Babaji was alive. Secondly, the government has forced them to be an adoption agency now, not just an orphanage, which somewhat diminishes Babaji’s dream of the place being a long-term family as it has been for at least two generations of children now. That being said, it is normally the youngest of the children who get adopted so there are still a good percentage of the older ones that stay through college age. The third challenge, which Shantivanam is also facing, is that institutions can only accept 25% of their income in foreign donations. Up until recently Babaji’s faithful disciples were donating a considerable amount more than that. Dayanand thinks that this is actually mainly in response to Saudi money that is pouring into India to support madrasas. Nothing wrong with madrasas per se, except that, according to Dayanand, they are not teaching much more than the Qur’an, and poor education and lack of adequate labor are a bad combination. At any rate, he and SN hope that the expanded school will now generate enough income through tuition to help pour back into the ashram itself. One last change is that there are considerably less children there than there used to be, especially boys, only between 6 and 9 of them (I heard different numbers and only counted five), and maybe twenty girls
So it was a whole different atmosphere. Besides the fact that it was raining, there was no outside play time, of course no gathering in Babaji’s room at night for games and candy, and no real adult community to hang out with. On the other hand, the kids were great. Almost every one of them came right up to me––they must be trained for this––and said, “What is your name?” I remembered from before that I have to distinguish for them between Supriya (“But, uncle, that is a girl’s name!”) and Cyprian––and did. I sat in with them for their hysterical evening aarathi in the shrine room, the 10 minutes or so of the chants being led by a screaming 6 or 7-year-old girl with a young guy proudly offering the deafening blast of the conch shell at random intervals. One of the boys kept turning back and making sure I was on the right page of the songbook, asking me if I read Hindi. I also ate with the kids, sitting next to an enterprising 14-year-old named Rohit who was very keen to practice his English.
Then a good night’s sleep amid the thunderstorms. And, in a much-appreciated improvement, there is now a “geezer” in each bathroom. (That’s the generic term for a water heater, kind of like “kleenix,” a mispronunciation of the brand name “Geyser.”) Back in the day I would stay wrapped up in my blankets until 7 AM when the chai was ready, crawl back under my blankets and do my prayers, readings and meditation until 9 when you could go downstairs and get a bucket of hot water for your pour-over “bath,” and then still wait until 10:45 for brunch. I ate breakfast with the staff and then waited and waited and waited for my taxi to Rishikesh, which was an hour late due to the literally thousands of people on the road walking to a special spot on the banks of the Ganges to get water to carry back to their villages for the feast of Shivaratri which is officially this Friday. (I posted phots on Facebook of the many of the colorful yokes that are carried, all by men, it seems.) And then we snaked out about five miles up the road back into Haridwar and onto the main road that leads to Rishikesh.
Rishikesh was a bit of a letdown. I am far more attached to “back in the day” than I thought I was. So much has changed in all the spots in India that I knew so well. The main spots in Rishikesh, by the Ram Jhula bridge and the Lakshma Jhula bridge, were very crowded with tourists, a lot of them Indians, but more like for an amusement park than a spiritual destination. There were a lot more young guys there for sport, river rafting, and rowdy groups yelling up cheers and chants from the Ganga below. Of course, there are still dozens of yoga schools and ayurvedic clinics, and shops catering to spiritual tourism, etc. etc. I was hoping to see Ranjeet at his South Indian food stall “hotel,” and Ram Ram, who I studied yoga with, at his CD kiosk (as if anyone buys CDs anymore), and the place where I got the amazing ayurvedic hot oil massage. But I didn’t see any of them. I ran out of time and never made it to walk along the north bank, just the south bank between the two bridges, so I never got to the village of Tapovan and Jeevan Dhara Ashram (I’m not sure anyone is there anymore!) either, where I wrote a good deal of Prayer in the Cave of the Heart. It was pleasant enough in the end, and I ducked into a nice little food stall for a tali when it started raining hard, hoping against hope that it would be Ranjeet’s having just moved to a new location.
And now I am settled in at Sadhana Mandir Ashram of the Himalayan School of Yoga founded by the late Swami Rama. My German brother Camaldolese and friend Axel has a long history with this lineage and the two ashrams here in Rishikesh. As a matter of fact, he is at the other facility 2 km away. I will see him on Wednesday since they are on retreat over there right now. I was greeted by a gaggle of young guys all trying to help me fill out the ubiquitous forms one fills out here as a foreign visitor, the main guy, Vipin, who insists on being called Vippi, especially wanting to engage about the guitar and America. He was familiar with San Francisco, where my passport was issued––“the place where the Boston Tea Party took place.” Every time I have seen him, he has reminded me that he wants guitar lessons. Two of the other young guys, who I took to be in their early twenties, are indeed recent graduates from the college the Swami Rama started and have got their BS in Yoga Studies and are on their internship. One of them, I found out, is leading the classes this week. He very officiously explained all the sessions to me. I had originally asked to just make a private retreat here and maybe sit in on a yoga class or two but was told according to their rules that, since it is my first time, I need to follow the ashram schedule for three days first and then I can be on my own. It’s okay. I think I will benefit from a new perspective and have got a good beginner’s mind going. I was just hoping for a little more time to myself. I was worried that I would not be allowed to play the guitar, but instead there seems to be not only no issue with that, but even a little encouragement to play a little for others, as well as give lessons to Vippi, both of which I am going to try to duck out of.
One other nice thing is that there is a beautiful paved promenade of sorts right outside the back gate that goes for a few miles along the Ganga, that is perfect for walks and even jogging, so I might get some cardio in for the first time in a month. There are only a handful of other guests here this week (I counted seven). There is a sign on every table in the eating hall that says “silence,” but at teatime (during which delicious samosas were served) and at dinner time (kitcharee!), there was no silence, so we shall see…