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Calendar 2009

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Letters from Kolkata

(See details about our next trip to Kolkata.)

Letters include:

   Asha Praver on Kolkata
   Asha Praver on Serampore
   Asha Praver on Dakshineswar

Asha Praver on Kolkata

Calcutta is so rich with pilgrimage sites that we spend six nights here.

The high point, of course, is Master's family home at 4 Garpar Road. It was here, in a small attic room, that Master said, "I found God."

We arrived in Calcutta late at night, and early the next morning, clad in pristine white clothes (the garb of a pilgrim in India) we made our way to the place almost everyone has been eagerly anticipating since the journey began.

It was a blissful meeting...deep, silent. Many eyes overflowed with tears just crossing the doorstep.

Every part of the house is filled with Master's vibration.

All but one member of the older generation that actually met Master, have passed away, so for those of us who associate the house with Harekrishna Ghosh (who was 15 in 1936 when Master came back to India for his only return visit) we found it a little odd at first not to have his gentle presence there.

But his son Somnath, and his wife Sarita, and their two daughters, Sudarshana and Shulagna, have embraced the dharma of living at 4 Garpar Road with admirable grace. Somnath sat with us in the living room and recounted in such a sweet and loving way, many of the stories "my father and my grandfather told me" about Master growing up, and the year he spent in India.

It was deeply touching, and we all felt Master's living presence speaking through Somnath as he shared the stories of that house so we could share in that part of his life.

We took turns meditating in the "small attic room where I found God"—as Master describes it.

Another room in the house has also been set aside as a shrine of particular significance to Western devotees. Master was a young man in his twenties, fully engaged in building a school for boys at Ranchi, when he had the vision he describes in Autobiography of a Yogi of all these Western faces calling to him for spiritual help.

In that moment he made the decision to leave India and carry the message of Kriya Yoga to the West.

Still, as Master describes in Autobiography, he wanted inward confirmation from God that he was following the divine will. He describes how he sat in his room, meditating and praying with such intensity that, he said, he felt his brain would burst. Finally, after many hours, he heard a knock at the door. When he opened it, Babaji was standing there.

The room where Master meditated (it was downstairs, not the attic room), the door where Babaji knocked, the place where Babaji stood, are now a shrine in the house at 4 Garpar Road. You can well imagine how eagerly we filled that room with our own meditation and intense prayers to God and Gurus.

Not far from 4 Garpar Road is another place of great spiritual significance in the life of Master. It is the boyhood home of his friend and spiritual companion, Tulsi Bose.

Tulsi's daughter Hassi, and her husband, Devi Mukherjee, live in the house and maintain it, also, as a place where devotees may come any time of the day or night to meditate and be inspired by the wealth of spiritual relics within the house.

Not only did Master often visit the house when he and Tulsi were young boys, he also stayed there for many months in 1936 during his return visit to India.

The meditation room has many objects that Master used during that time—a spoon, a plate, a pocket knife—among other things. There are also many relics from other of our gurus—a conch shell that belonged to Sri Yukteswar, an iron trident that belonged to Lahiri Mahasaya, flowers from a garland that Sri Yukteswar wore, to name just a few.

All of these objects are completely accessible. You can hold them in your hand while you meditate.

The Bose family has been spiritual seekers for generations, and the meditation room also has relics from Anandamayi Ma and other saints.

You can also stretch out on the bed where Master slept, sit at the table where he ate, go up and down the stairs where he walked as a boy, and later as a swami returning from his mission in America.

One reason we stay so many days in Calcutta is so that we can make repeated visits to these two houses. Naturally, at first, there is so much to take in, and, often, the pilgrims are so moved to finally be in a place so sacred, that it is difficult to take it all in. By the second, and then the third visit, the homes have become our own, and familiarity and relaxation make us even more receptive.

Once during our visit, in each home, the family serves us lunch. Yesterday, we had lunch at 4 Garpar Road. Feeding 34 of us is beyond the capacity of the kitchen there, so the lunch was catered. To our immense satisfaction, the caterer was a little late, and in the hour or so while we waited, many of us were, literally, stretched out on the carpet in the living room of the house. This is the room where Master's father slept, and Master himself, and other of the children also slept with him. Indians are more casual than Americans about sleeping arrangements, often just stretching out on the floor, as we were doing.

"Chela" is a word for "disciple." The origin of that word is "child," and we did, indeed, feel like Master's chelas, resting in "his" room as we waited for our meal to come.

It has been a joyous pilgrimage. It is our prayer, that through these letters, and our on-going prayers for all of you, those blessings are also coming to you.
 

Asha Praver on Serampore

The time in Calcutta included a trip out to Serampore, to the place where Sri Yukteswar had his ashram. Self-Realization Fellowship has built a small temple on a piece of the land where the ashram once stood. An old building is there next to it, which is either the original, or something rebuilt in a similar manner on the same site.

In Autobiography, Master describes the experience of cosmic consciousness that his guru Sri Yukteswar bestowed on him at that ashram. Master talks about the narrow road, called Rai Ghat lane in front of the ashram and how his vision expanded to be able to see great distances up and down that lane when he was in that state.

Then, afterwards, his guru invited him to walk with him down Rai Ghat lane to the Ganges.

So we took that same walk to the ghat (steps) leading down to the river. This place is sanctified also as the spot where Babaji came to Sri Yukteswar after Yukteswar finished writing the Holy Science.

In an article about pilgrimage, Master said that the vibrations of a great master linger forever in the places where he was in his physical body.

During Sri Yukteswar's time, the population of Serampore was a fraction of what it is today. Rai Ghat was a place of tranquility. Master refers to the "sparkling water" of the river there.

None of these conditions are still in place, but the banyan tree is still there, and we sat under the shade of its branches, where Babaji and his band of followers also sat. Even though our presence attracted a noisy crowd of children and adults, it wasn't difficult to go beyond that distraction into the inward silence. As we chanted, and then meditated briefly, we felt transported back to the time when Babaji visited Sri Yukteswar on that very spot.

In one of Master's poems in Whispers from Eternity, he uses the image of incarnations strung like pearls on the string of the divine presence within.

A pilgrimage is also like a string of pearls. Between each bead there may be many challenging knots of difficult travel through India, sometimes less than ideal accommodations, physical fatigue, minor illnesses, and all the other things that make India very different from America. Once we have traversed the space and time represented by these various knots, however, we come to pearl after pearl—moments in eternity, when all the conflicting conditions of travel and our lives disappear and all we are conscious of is the presence of God and Gurus. The banyan tree, Rai Ghat lane, the temple at Serampore—all pearls on the string of pilgrimage.
 

Asha Praver on Dakshineswar

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master makes reference in several chapters to the divine life of a great spiritual figure of the 1800s, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.

"The Blissful Devotee," Master Mahasaya, to whom Master was particularly devoted, was a direct disciple of Ramakrishna. In fact, it is because of Master Mahasaya, that so much of what Ramakrishna taught is available to us today. Whenever Master Mahasaya visited Ramakrishna (which was often) he took extremely detailed notes of everything that transpired, every event, every word that Ramakrishna spoke.

This was later published in several volumes as "The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna." As author, Master Mahasaya called himself simply "M".

Sri Ramakrishna's life is notable for countless reasons, but what is notable in this context, was his devotion to showing the oneness of all religions. Nowadays, an ecumenical spirit is growing throughout the world, but when Sri Ramakrishna proclaimed it in the 1800s, it was novel.

His way of supporting this assertion was unique: in his own sadhana he systematically adopted the practices of many different religions and spiritual attitudes within Hinduism itself. He would devote himself whole-heartedly to that practice until, through it, he had a vision of God. His statement then that all paths lead to the same goal was more than just intellectual. He had proved it in his own life.

He was not a man of half-measures. When he followed the path of devotion to Krishna, for example, he became Radha, the foremost woman disciple of Krishna. He wore the clothes of a woman, adopted the mannerisms, attitudes, and work of a woman. He was so completely immersed in that "bhav" (spiritual attitude) that the women accepted him as one of them, and he went in and out of the women's quarters and no one even thought it odd.

He continued in this way until he experienced the divine union with God in the form of Krishna that Radha had known.

When he became devoted to Rama, Sri Ramakrishna adopted the attitude of Hanuman, Rama's most devoted follower. Hanuman, however, happens to be a monkey, so in this case, Sri Ramakrishna twisted his dhoti into the form of a tail, subsisted on nothing but fruits, and for days at a time lived outside under the trees.

There is a beautiful picture of Hanuman illustrating a famous incident in that devotee's life in which he magically opens up his physical chest to reveal his heart. Imprinted on his heart is the image of Rama. Of course, it is a beautifully symbolic way to show that nothing dwells in the heart of a devotee except God.

Once Sri Ramakrishna's heart had become wholly occupied with Rama, he returned to his usual mode of living. Among other religious practices, for a time Sri Ramakrishna also devoted himself to the worship of Christ, until he attained the vision of God through devotion to Jesus.

The place where Sri Ramakrishna spent most of his adult life is a temple devoted to Divine Mother as Kali, located in Dakshineswar, just a few miles from Calcutta, where Master lived.

Master was born just a few years after Sri Ramakrishna passed away. As a young man, Master often visited the temple at Dakshineswar. Because, Master, too, was devoted to Divine Mother in that form, and also because the temple had been sanctified by the presence of Sri Ramakrishna.

The chapter in Autobiography called "The Heart of a Stone Image," takes place at this temple in Dakshineswar.

All of this long introduction is to say that the other inspiring theme of our time in Calcutta was the presence of Sri Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna died of throat cancer, and when his condition became quite advanced, some of his disciples insisted on moving him from the temple where he had lived to the home of one of his householder disciples so that he could receive better care.

That house is even closer to Calcutta and our "Ramakrishna Day" began by visiting the site where he spent his last months and finally entered Mahasamadhi (a great yogi's final conscious exit from the body). It is a house set in a garden in the suburb of Calcutta called Cossipore.

The house itself is a lovely, airy, spacious home, well-preserved now as a shrine. The downstairs rooms include a beautiful statue of "The Holy Mother," as Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna's wife is known. He was not a monk, but a householder, although his marriage was not in anyway conventional—The Holy Mother was also a great soul and came only to serve her husband and then, after his passing, to take care of the disciples.

She always cooked his food and served him in a personal way, so when he moved to Cossipore, she also moved with him. Her vibrations—deeply loving and compassionate—permeate the small room where she lived during those last months.

Sri Ramakrishna's room is upstairs. There is almost nothing in it but the simple bed where he lay. Usually the room is closed and one looks only through a grate. The swami in charge, however, was kind enough to open the room for us, and for a long time we were able to sit and meditate where Sri Ramakrishna spent his last days.

In India, where extended families are often raised together, the relationship between cousins is closer than the way we think of it. So people will refer to my "cousin-brother" or "cousin-sister," indicating that, in effect, they are siblings, although they don't have the same mother and father.

Sri Ramakrishna is like a "cousin-brother" to us—he is not actually in our line of gurus, but his spirit and his presence is so much like our line of masters that we felt as if we were one family in God with his spirit.

From Cossipore, we went on to Dakshineswar. Whereas Cossipore was silent, and sparsely populated, the temple at Dakshineswar was bustling with devotees. It happened to be Tuesday, which apparently is a day sacred to Divine Mother, and many Indian devotees were there, many carrying red hibiscus flowers, which are considered to be Mother Kali's favorite.

The line to receive "darshan" (a divine glimpse) of the statue of Kali was quite long. But our Indian guide managed to take us in through the exit gate and no one protested against the crowd of Westerners going right to the front of the line.

Still, there was a certain assembly line quality about it, as we handed our flowers over to the priest in charge of the shrine, received a touch on the forehead in return and then were hustled back out the exit gate. If you happened to be looking in the wrong direction you missed seeing Kali at all.

Fortunately, in the same way that the statue of Kali came alive for Master in the chapter of Autobiography, Kali took pity on us and when we sat next to the place where Master had meditated all those hours, all those years ago, for many of us She came alive in our hearts.

We had a blissful kirtan and then some time of silence before dispersing as we chose around the temple grounds. Stepping from the open air portico where Master sat, onto the sun soaked stones of the courtyard (shoes are not permitted inside the temple grounds, so we were all barefoot), one could appreciate first hand—or perhaps first-foot is a more accurate way to say it—why in that divine experience, Mother Kali also blessed Master with something Master described as a wave of coolness that descended over his head and under his feet, sheltering him from the heat of the stones.

Most of us went from the portico to the room where Sri Ramakrishna lived for so many years, vividly described by "M."

Fortunately, the crowds there were not extreme, and all of us who wanted were able to take a seat and meditate in that room for as long as we pleased. The living presence of God was extraordinary. Our "cousin-brother" showered us with divine grace.