22 Dec 2014

South India Pilgrimage: Day 3 - On a Golden Island.

Once upon a time, on a journey away from the hustle and bustle of daily Indian life, away from the clamour and musky smell of burning coal that reaches out of a tiny one bed, kitchen and living room dwelling - we were transported away.

Our chariots were the "Tuk Tuks" - small motorbikes with a back seated area for two people. We seated three people which was below the unofficial Indian option of five ( two seats are for hanging off each side).

Tuk-tuk by eyesore9, on Flickr
Tuk Tuk

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  eyesore9 

These bikes and their drivers dare to be reincarnated as cars, so they whizz and hoot as best they can and around as many hairpin bends as possible.
Out of the town we went, we drove through the roads as if we were in a jungle. We passed alongside a river where people on one side of the road had scraped out of existence, while on the other side of the road were spacious suburban homes with their elegant Indian styles.

Our disembarking point was created by someone who had blocked the road with a pile of sand; our vehicles could go no further. You've got to love India! A short walk transported us to where the small wooden boats awaited to take us over the lake to the Golden Island. Around us was pure greenery, like a Thailand island or some serene mangrove forest setting. Nature can bring an instant peace that is sublime in its serenity.

The usual drama of, "Do we wait for Swami? Or is it better he waits for us?" ensued for a while. It had its entertainment, as it created the atmosphere but the better option, which takes some discipline, is to withdraw into the mood of the tranquil surroundings. We needed three boats with a standing oarsmen to take us the 100 meters to the small island.

The island would take about thirty minutes to walk around, it's very flat and wondrously green. In the middle lives the temple. The journey across was like a purification process so that the mind could arrive in a clearer frame and could let the heart emerge.

I think we all had the feeling that this was truly a temple for God. Its holiness and austerity was secured by the island itself. The temple was a place of dedication, a place for people to come quietly. A temple that you could honor, rather than to ask. It was a place to pray, rather than to plead, it was a place to love, rather than to beg.

The low-level wall around it was a 50 x 50 meters square-shaped grounds, and had only three small separate standing temples that would fit only two people. The prayers are offered outside the abodes.

Swami explained how in Kerala, even the Shiva temples have a smaller temple for Vishnu. The sand around the temple was soft. Each of the temple entrances had doorkeepers of aged dark rock Shiva statues with a torch holder on the side.

The temple felt as much Indian as it did Egyptian  or as it did Greek. A temple of all ages and times. A temple for the Gods, one in honour and praise but also for in its simplicity and size, a genuine humbleness .
After the ceremonial prayers and walking around, Swami gave a discourse. We all sat around where the yagna fire had been.  It was one of those poetic moments in life, where tears of joy can just take over. It's moments like these that bring ageless love and devotion.

Swami spoke about the historical split  in regards to the concept of God being both with form and formless as represented by Vaishnavas, but only as formless by the Saivites. Along with this division between beliefs, the desecration of various temples occurred in the twelfth century and political and economic aspects related there to.

Swami also went on to say that Brahma would wait until all beings become Realised before ending the world. He then paused to consider the impact of the manifestation and self-destruction that this would mean.

On the subject of enlightenment, he asked us to consider what we even understand by this relative to any expectation of such experience. He also gave time for questions. I always think I should have a book of questions ready!

One of the Russian ladies asked about the guilt she felt from her Christian Orthodox path, which made sense as to why she loved the Hindu deities so much. Swami talked with her for a long time to help her understand this better, such was her sincerity and the depth of the moment.

This may have been the longest time I have spent on such a discussion that included all the myriad aspects of culture, upbringing, and religious differences. Swami commented to someone that the questions can be everlasting, I felt like asking one more just to keep him talking due to the beauty of the temple and discourse.

It was time to leave. We crossed back over the river, and one of the boats was full of people who sang  joyfully with devotion. It felt as if the trip back across the water with Swami had drifted us back to the daily world.

The Katha Kali traditional dance of Kerala which 
depicts the test that Lord Shiva gave to Arjuna.

21 Dec 2014

South India Pilgrimage: Personal Accounts of Day 1 and Day 2 in Kerala

Many of the devotees in the pilgrimage with Swami have been generous with the little free time that they have on the pilgrimage, to put together written accounts of their adventures in India for us to read. For the next few days, we'd like to share those accounts, each one coming from a different person participating in the trip.

As you have read yesterday about the events of day one, here is a first-hand account of those events from Dimitri (USA) . We'll follow that with another account from Kadambari (Germany), and lots of pictures from the group's adventures.

Here we go:...

Day 1 south India pilgrimage with Swami - Dimitri

Varkala by Aleksandr Zykov, on Flickr
Beaches in Varkala                              Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Aleksandr Zykov

I awoke to the sound of wind blowing through palm trees, when I stepped out onto the balcony and was met with amazing views of the Indian ocean. After a relaxing morning getting settled into our hotel, as a group we met in the yoga room of the hotel to see Swamiji for the first time.

Although the weather was hot we were graced with some sporadic rain showers that made for a few refreshing moments intertwined nicely between the dosas, and chai we had for breakfast. So we all found ourselves in the open air of the top floor of the hotel, receiving our briefing from Yamuna of the do’s and don’ts about how to conduct ourselves in India and more importantly with Swami.

 Anticipation filled the air and soon there after we found ourselves singing bhajans waiting for the grand entrance of Guruji. Expectation grew and before we knew it we were on our feet as his orange robe graced our eyes. With a candid smile and those soft eyes he welcomed us all to the land of Ayurveda and began to speak of a story about the land of Kerela and how it came to be.

Right about this point my mind started to focus more on drinking water out of a coconut than what Swamiji was talking about, but I'll try to paraphrase as best I can. “You see” he said, Parasuram [the 6th of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu] threw His axe, and where it landed was Kerala. For more on that story click here.

Lord Parasurama

The story then shifted to the mountains that lay near us and how they came to be. “You know,” he began, “Hanuman was carrying the mountain to Sri Lanka and a piece of the mountain fell in Kerala leaving a wide variety of herbs and fruits.” He then went of to talk about how the traditions are different in the south, especially in the temples.

Fast forward a few hours and we set out for the temple on foot with a full stomach and a desire to see the first temple of our trip. The rains had calmed down to a light sprinkle and in the 2 km walk we managed to turn quite a few heads. 40 westerners walking down the street in dotis and saris all sporting tilaks, some clapping and singing bhajans - we had gone and stolen the local style right out from under them, and the look on their faces showed they didn’t know what to think!

As we arrived at the temple, we took off our sandals and started making our way up the stairs to the main entrance, Swami having already arrived stood at the top of the stairs beckoning us forth towards the Vishnu temple.

Instantly the differences in tradition became apparent. When we entered the temple, all of the men were required to remove their shirts. Another difference was that the Shiva and Lakshmi Narayana murtis were all on the premises and they didn’t each have their own separate temples.

As we went inside the coordinators were asking about possibilities of pujas or abishekems. I walked around the murti and felt the wet stone against my feet, trying to take it all in, still not fully believing where I was or what I was doing.

Just as the puja was starting up a few men with drums and flutes drew near. Their off-beat drumming combined with the sound of the bells in the temple, prayers from Swami, and the Mahamantra being sung by the local woman standing next to me, all made for a very powerful and intense first temple experience.

The smell of curry in the air, the feel of kum kum on our forheads, we had arrived and our pilgrimage with Sri Swami Vishwananda had begun.

Sri Swami Vishwananda with the head of the Jagatguru Sree Narayana Guru Ashram

DAY 2 -  Thursday in Varkala (Kerala region) - Kadambari

Ashram & pilgrimage "Sree Narayana Gurudev Jagathguru"

The second day greeted us with overcast skies and light rain. This did not stop some devotees from starting the day at 7:00h with OM Healing in the yoga room in "Oceano Cliff".

After the invigorating Ayurvedic breakfast we went straight up with ten "Tuc-Tucs" in the convoy to the "Sivagiri Hill" where the widely known ashram & pilgrimage of Sree Narayana Gurudev Jagathguru (1856 - 1928) is located.

White still, as light settles in by akhilsasidharan, on Flickr
Sivagiri Hill

For our visit to the ashram there was this time a "color-dress-code" in addition to the traditional temple clothing. Bright yellow flags adorned our motorized rickshaws. For the last two kilometers we made a pilgrimage on foot with the flags in hand, to the foot of the "Sivagiri Hills". "Om Namo Narayanaya" was chanted by all the devotees of many nationalities, as we merged more and more into a single unit.

One of the leading swamis received us warmly and gave us an informative insight into the philosophy of his guru, whose motto was: "One Caste - One Religion - One God".

Un temple dédié à Srinarayana Gurudev (K by dalbera, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  dalbera 

This was followed by an invitation to a wholesome Ayurvedic lunch, traditionally served on a banana leaf. Many chutneys in all kinds of flavors you eat with the fingers of the right hand together with rice and cakes. The left hand is considered unclean in India and remains under the table.

Finally, we all got a lesson of respectful behaviour towards our Guruji. We were able to visit the spiritual head of the ashram in private rooms and receive Prasad. Gurudev stood near the elderly Swami, before whom we stood before. I was a little nervous and unsure how I should behave. A Mataji in front of me bowed low before Guruji, which I almost did not think of. So I was glad about that memory and bowed low before Guruji and afterwards towards before the spiritual head of the ashram.

Back outside I stood next to the Mataji which was queued before me and heard Gurudev beside her saying strict say lovingly, that they never bow before other masters, gurus, saints etc - only before their Guru. It is like offending him, unless it is the Guru who orders us explicitly to do so. This message was shared very quickly around the travelers, with me, and many others. We were all happy with this important lesson, which was followed by a wonderful Satsang with Swamini Mohini and Swamini Kishori on the beach in the afternoon.

Much Love & Sunshine,

19 Dec 2014

Sri Swami Vishwananda visits South India on pilgrimage

For the last couple of weeks, Sri Swami Vishwananda has been on pilgrimage in southern India.

On the first day, December 11, many guests arrived from their homes around the world in Trivandrum, and drove to Varkala to gather together and begin the pilgrimage. Varkala is famous for the 2,000 year-old Janardana Swamy Temple, which is an important Vaishnava shrine in India, and is often called the Dakshini Kashi - Varanasi of the south.

The presiding deity of Janardana Swamy temple is Vishnu, to whom four pujas are performed daily. It is widely believed that worship at this shrine cures many ills. Devotees - Hindus and non-Hindus alike - are attracted from all over India and beyond to visit the temples, beaches, and ayurvedic centers here. The Janardana Swamy temple is located close to the Papanasam beach, which is considered to have holy waters which wash away sins.

A local newspaper's coverage of Sri Swami Vishwananda's visit to the Samadhi of Sree Narayana Guru

Sree Narayana Guru

The pilgrimage group gathered together with Guruji in Varkala to visit the samadhi place of Sree Narayana Gurudevan (1856 or 1030 AD - 1928 AD).

Sree Narayana Guru's mission in life focused much on reforming social customs and removing caste prejudices in Indian society, especially in Kerala. He spent much time as a sannyasin living among poor low-caste people, sharing in their food, and at night, sitting on the seashore, gazing out on the sea, lost in meditation.  The people came to be familiar with him, and called him "Nanoo Swami". Soon they came to believe that Narayana Guru was a great yogi who performed miracles.

Unaffected by praise or criticism, he slept in inns, wayside rest-houses, and on open grounds. He traveled to Aruvippuram, and to the Maruthvamalla Hills in Tamil Nadu, and became enlightened in a cave there. He began living there, and sustained himself with wild berries and tubers, and drank from the mountain brooks. While Narayana Guru sat for hours in meditation, a cobra and a tiger would guard him.

Throughout his life, Narayana Guru would go on to install many deities, initiate many temples, and start schools. He met famous Indian contemporaries such as Rabindranath Tagore (pictured left, in 1922) and Mahatma Gandhi (pictured right, in 1925):

Sree Narayana Guru's Samadhi place is located on the Sivagiri hill, near Varkala. The Sivagiri Mutt, built in 1904, is a campus spread over 200 acres, and is the headquarters of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham - an organization of Narayana Guru's disciples. It also is the site of the Sarada temple, dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati.

Nearby, Narayana Guru had an elementary school established, which would also serve as a night school for people from the untouchable caste.

Below are pictures from Sri Swami Vishwananda's visit to the samadhi of Sree Narayana Guru, in Sivagiri hill.

Tomorrow we will cover more of Guruji's pilgrimage in South India, including the trip to the "Golden Island".

17 Dec 2014

The Tests of the Guru, a Master of Maya

This article is the fifth one in the series of five posts, previously introduced in the article “The Amazing Grace of meeting Sri Swami Vishwananda – Aspects of a living Guru”. It is based on a testimony shared by Tapesh from Zurich during last Darshan of Sri Swami Vishwananda held at Shree Peetha Nilaya on the 29th of November.

Sri Swami Vishwananda explained to us during His commentary on the Guru Gita about the importance of the Guru's tests and about the nature of the Guru as a Master of Maya. He said:

“The Guru tests His disciple, so that one realises the eternity of oneself. Because without tests one will not be ready. If the gold doesn't go through fire, how would it be purified? It would still be gold, but it would not be pure. It attains its purity only when it goes through tests...and the aim of the Guru, the aim of testing the disciple is not for His personal gain but it is always to save the disciple from falling.”

“The Guru has mastered darkness, He has mastered Light, yet He is residing above the darkness and above the Light. So that's how the Guru dispels the darkness of ignorance in the one who surrenders to Him.”

“This first syllable ‘Gu’ stands for Maya Prakriti, Devi, the Shakti that binds and holds one to this reality. And the second syllable ‘Ru’ stands for Purusha, stands for the Supreme Absolute which frees one from illusion. So, in the same word, ‘Guru’, you have Maya and you have the One who frees you from Maya. So having both aspects inside, this shows that the Guru is the Master of Maya, Master of this reality. He knows how to free one from that reality and He knows also how to put one in that reality – both... He knows when to cast a shadow over somebody and He knows when to remove that shadow.”

“To the one who is surrendered to the Guru's Feet, the Guru reveals that one is beyond that; you are not in the game of the outside; you are not in the game of the mind, but you are beyond that reality. You are in the True Self! And in your True Self, in your true aspect, you have control over the cause and effect.”

"It happened some years back. Suddenly I had this feeling of coming this way with Swami and staying with Him in the future. But I was not too sure about it – it was even before I did my studies and I was thinking, 'Do I follow the worldly path or the path with Swami? Or is there any combination of the two?' So I was not too sure about it and then on a Sunday I actually asked Him – it was very easy to approach Him and to talk to Him. So, I asked Him, 'How is it? Is it predestined that my way is together with You or shall I just do my studies and go back into worldly life?' Swami said something like, 'It depends if you are strong enough – maybe I can test you a little bit and see how it is.' And I thought, 'Okay, yeah, easy.' But after one day, it started to be very, very difficult – you can imagine that whatever you do in your daily routine is wrong. So I was there, living together with other people and whatever I did was somehow wrong; I stepped on people's feet and whatever I did – it was just horrible and it went even worse and worse. And after two days, it was like, 'I can't stand it anymore! I am probably the most stupid person in here and what am I doing here?' I was thinking, 'I should leave.' And then I tried to approach Swami but He was very reserved saying, 'No, no, no!' And I couldn't approach Him.

So, I decided to stay another day. And you can imagine, it was like hell; it was an inward hell, not outside. Swami had just made things happen as they should have been, and then after three days I really couldn't stand it anymore. I went up to His room and I knocked on His door. He said, ‘Yes!’ I opened the door and just wanted to get in and fall at His feet. But He said, 'No, stay there! I don't like people waiting in my room.' And I was so shocked! It was like being pushed away from Him. It was so horrible. I was standing there trembling and He said, 'Just wait. I will come later.' Then, He finished something in the altar, He just took His time and afterwards we went to the office. Paartha was in there and Swami said, 'Paartha, can I talk to him quickly? Please go out for a minute.' Then Swami asked me, 'What? What's wrong? What do you want?' I said, 'I can't stand it!' He just looked at me smiling and saying, 'You know what? It was me putting you in this dilemma.'

It was like as if I had built a house made of playing cards, a big tower, and then in one go it was gone! And I realised that it was just Him joking with me. And all the things which had happened there, during these three days, were just nothing. I felt so stupid to have been in such a mood. Then He said, 'Yeah! But you know what? Just stay for a few days and I will test you again.' I said, 'It was horrible! It was a hell for me.' Then, He said, 'In three days we will see, and we will talk.' I said to myself inwardly, 'Okay. Three days - everyone can survive whatever happens.' So, I decided to be very firm and asked, 'What if it rises again?' And Swami said, 'Yes. It will rise again. I will make it rise again.' And I was like, 'Oh God, no, no!' And that's what He did, He really did it. He made it rise again and it was really horrible. Inwardly it was like hell again and I was going left, right, crazy again. One or two days later, I was sitting next to the fireplace and there was one of these Hindu comics, the story of the crocodile and the elephant. Some of you might know, it is from the Srimad Bhagavatam [Mahavishnu riding on Garuda saves His devotee Gajendra, the king of the elephants, from the crocodile's attack]. Then, I just decided, 'I look at this comic, maybe it will change my mind a little bit.' I took this story, went through it quickly and thought, 'Nice story, blah, blah, blah.' It just helped me to be somewhere else a little bit. After three days, I thought, 'Okay, three days. Finally I did it.' All day long, I was looking at Swami and He was not looking at me at all, nothing! Not even a slight approach. So I though, 'Okay, maybe in the evening.' But the evening arrived and nothing happened. Another night arrived and I then thought, ‘Maybe it is another test. I will just wait until tomorrow morning.’ But the fourth day, nothing happened again; the fifth day nothing again; so it was the same story, I was almost going crazy. Then maybe on the sixth day, Swami came down and said, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it's okay?’ And then He said, ‘Ah, by the way, do you know this story of the crocodile and the elephant?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I didn't know about all these Hindu stories but somehow, by some funny circumstances I had read exactly this story as it was only this comic lying there. Then He said, ‘Did you read it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, yes!’ Then He said, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes!’ And Swami looked at me, stared at me and said, ‘But you didn't understand it.’

And I felt so stupid again! I had to agree that I just went through the story and didn't get anything at all. Then He said, ‘Do you know what the crocodile represents?’ Some days back I had asked Him, ‘What is Maya?’ And then He said, ‘It can't be explained. It can only be experienced.’ And I thought, ‘Oh man, this is the same story, which all the Masters never answer at all.’ And then He said, ‘This crocodile is Maya. And this is what you went through.’ And then I realised, ‘That's it!’ - Tapesh, Zurich

The Sri Swami Vishwananda's Sri Guru Gita – Commentary on the great mysteries of the Guru Disciple Relationship will be launched during Christmas Celebrations at Shree Peetha Nilaya (Bhakti Marga shop)
In the book Blossoming of the Heart, which is available in the Bhakti Marga shop, relatives, friends, devotees and disciples from different countries and different cultural backgrounds share their very personal experiences with Sri Swami Vishwananda. The original English version (right)  is already translated in German (left), Polish and Portuguese.