Thursday, 20 June 2013

Bhaav (devotion) to Bhaya (fear): Living in the Shelter and at the Mercy of Mother Ganga

The rains began as we sang the Hanuman Chalisa. Typically if it’s raining prior to the aarti, we set up under the overhead awning. However, on the 16th June, the skies were clear in the afternoon after morning showers, and the rain resumed only once we had all gathered on Ganga’s banks to sing Her glories and meditate next to Her waters.  “Jai Jai Jai Hanuman gosahin…kripa karaho gurudeva ki nyahin”…The rain came down in sheets as we clapped and sang euphorically. Pujya Swamiji’s eyes were closed and He led the chanting in ecstasy. It was as though we were being bathed from all sides by Mother Ganga.  She flowed below us and next to us, in Her riverbed, and rained upon us as Akaash Ganga from Heaven. “Gange Ma, Gange Ma, Gange ma,” we clapped and sang, moving in an out of a rapturous trance.

Post Aarti we returned to the ashram, soaked from the inside out with gratitude, love and devotion. The monsoons had started, slightly early even, bringing the nectar of rain to parched soil, parched mouths and parched spirits.
All evening the water rose and rose, and Akaash Ganga bestowed Her copious blessings upon us.

The next morning, we awoke to the unique and precious smell of Indian soil saturated by rain. I remember from my first days in India, noticing that the rain smelled here. There is an intoxicating fragrance of cool Himalayan showers upon hot Himalayan earth, that is so rich it inevitably pulls me out of my chair or off the floor to the nearest doorway where I can inhale its scent. I have found myself, year after year, fixed in doorways, half in and half out of the rain, filling my airways with this ambrosial nectar.

On the morning of the 17th June, the delicious fragrance filled the ashram; yet upon catching a glimpse of Mother Ganga I realized this was not just any rain storm. Within 24 hours the water level had risen more than fifteen feet and showed no signs of ceasing. Excitement, exuberance and awe filled my heart as I went out to offer my morning prayers to Ganga. Kneeling on wet marble as the rain bathed me from above, I lay my forehead upon the ghat and offered my usual prayer: “Oh Ma Ganga, wash through me, flow through me, cleanse me of anything and everything that is impure, that is not conducive to a life lived on Your banks, in Your seva. Wash over me, under me, around me and through me. Hold me in your waters forever.

Raising my head from the wet marble, I turned and walked up the ashram steps and into my office, as I’ve done every morning for nearly 2 decades.

Ganga is rising, Ganga is rising” was the ubiquitous chant all day in the ashram, but it was still filled with joy, reverence and awe.  “Mother Ganga is filling and filling.” Our hearts pounded with excitement and devotion.  Her glories, Her grandeur, Her divinity were filling more and more of the river bed, and more of and more of our hearts, our minds and our beings.

Evening aarti had to take place, for the first time ever, in the street next to the ghat. Ganga’s waters had risen up onto the top of the ghat, and we’d locked the gates to ensure no one wandered dangerously close. Hands folded in prayer, we performed aarti to Her now raging glory as She paid no heed to anything that thwarted Her flow -- trees, cars, buildings – the animate, the inanimate, the large, the small.   She carried it all in Her waters, seizing the “aviral” flow  environmentalists had been demanding.  

No conference, no meeting, no agreement, no anshan, contract or commission could now deprive Her of Her right to flow, and overflow, through Her natural river bed, tearing by the root and the foundation anything that stood in Her way.  All the signs and symbols of our “progress,” of man’s triumph over nature – the highways, the cars, the trucks, the buildings precariously defiant on mountain top ledges – with one wave of Her hand, the illusion was shattered, and the Truth of Nature’s power was laid bare, undeniable, non-negotiable,  for all to behold and mourn.

As the sun set beyond Mother Ganga’s turbulent waters, Her waves crashing now like a storm at sea, a moment arose in which the surge of bhaav (devotion) -- rising, rising, rising, bhaav -- reached its peak and was transformed, almost imperceptibly, into a swell of bhaya (fear).   

“Oh Ma Ganga,” hearts now beating rapidly in apprehension rather than awe, voices trembling with more fear than faith, we prayed:  “Please calm Your tumultuous flow. Please return to your normal level and normal path. Please allow us to hold on, for a brief time more, to our illusion of living in control of nature. Permit us please, oh Mother Ganga, to hold onto our delusion of invincibility, our megalomania, our blind race for development. Please Mother Ganga, allow the curtain of illusion to once again drop over our eyes so that we may not be forced to see, to realize and recognize Your True nature as a river with rights, as a Goddess who will -- as a last resort -- wrest those rights from the hands Her captors.”

“Mother Ganga, the giver of life, the giver of liberation, whom we have abused, used, disregarded, neglected and turned into a commodity in the name of progress and development, please have mercy upon us, your children who have promised time and again to protect you and preserve you, and yet who time and again have neglected to do so.” 

But, our chances had been used up. Year after year in different ways, Ganga had tried to warn us – first Uttarakashi, then Rudra Prayag, year after year breaking bridges, overflowing banks, demolishing buildings, roads and lives.  Voiceless, She had used every means in Her hands to warn us, to make us understand.  Yet, blinded by our own agenda, foolish in our  wisdom-less knowledge, reckless and deluded, we ignored Her message.   We have deforested Her hillsides, blasted Her fragile, young, soft mountains with dynamite, encroached further and further upon Her banks, dammed and diverted Her flow, dragged Her helpless tributaries out of their natural beds into steel tunnels, built non-porous structures in the riverbed, impeding the natural flow of water, polluted the air, causing excess heat and carbon dioxide to melt Her glaciers.  We have pushed Her, pulled her, taunted Her and tried to tame Her. We have used her, abused Her and then, as though redemption were so simple, taken our token dupkis (baths/dips) in Her water during auspicious positions of the planets and moon.  “Jai Gange” we chant as we bob in and out of Her waters, feeling redeemed of our sins against She to whom we turn for liberation, redemption, and purity.

Unfortunately the laws of the Shristi (creation) are not so simple. Yes, Ganga is a Goddess. Yes, Ganga is the Mother. But the divine Creator has laid down laws of nature for the Creation – divine, mortal, tangible, intangible, organic and inorganic – to follow. One may chant “He Bhagawan” or “Jai Hanuman” or pray to “Vayu devta” as one jumps off the top of a tall building, but one’s body will still plummet to the ground, for the law of gravity is non-negotiable.  

Whatever name we use for the Divine, He/She is, of course, omnipotent and infinite. Yet, God has created laws of nature which do not bend.   These laws were not meant to punish us. Rather, in His infinite compassion and love, God created these laws to nurture and nourish us.  The falling leaves of autumn, packed under the snow of winter create the fertile soil for spring’s blossoms. Each aspect of nature has its purpose, its life-giving properties. There is a reason we say “Mother Nature.” Nature provides for us, creates us and sustains us as a divine mother….but, in accordance with her own laws. If we, defiantly and with blatant disregard, disobey these laws, we will reap the consequences. A good man, a well-intentioned man, a pious man, will plummet to earth as fast as a villain if they jump together off the Empire State building. The laws of nature apply equally to all –the pious and the profane.  Singing Ganga’s glories or taking dupkis in Her waters on auspicious occasions does not render us immune to the laws of Mother Nature.  That which we sow, so shall we reap. If we sow unchecked and illegal construction, vision-less development, deceptive politics and pockets lined with commissions….if we sow consumerism as the highest good, we shall reap the fruits of destruction and devastation.

Fortunately, Mother Ganga and Mother Nature are forgiving. Eventually, over the next several months, the rains will dissipate, the flood waters will recede, the final rites will be performed for those who have perished, the soaked soil which has rushed hundreds or thousands of meters downstream will dry and some semblance of normalcy will return to the Char Dham valleys. That is our chance. Perhaps our last chance. When we make plans for the reconstruction, restoration and rehabilitation of the Uttarakahand mountain villages, what vision of development will we use? What natural laws will we obey? Which will we defy? What seeds for the future will we sow?  Today we are eating the very bitter fruit of the seeds we’ve planted for the last few decades.  What seeds will we plant today for the fruit of tomorrow?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Call of the Sacred Snan – Kumbha Mela

Kumbha Mela is, according to spiritual history and culture, the celebration of the nectar of immortality.   Tens of millions of pilgrims flock from every corner of Earth to come spend days or weeks or even nearly two months living in the sacred riverbed of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.  Satsang, darshan and discourses with revered saints, naked naga babas, renowned gurus of every sampradhaya are bonuses.  That which reaches inside their hearts, grabs hold of them across the globe and pulls them hundreds or thousands of miles from their home to this makeshift tent city is the call of the snan, a bath in the holy Sangam of the sacred triveni, a bath in the nectar of immortality.

Spiritual history and literature tell us that if one is to have a bath at the auspicious time of perfect planetary alignment, if the planets, sun and moon are aligned as they were when drops of sacred amrit spilled upon the Earth, then one may attain the boon of immortality.   It was this boon for which the forces of good and the forces of evil churned the ocean, and the resulting amrit is what spilled upon the Earth in the four Kumbha locations – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.  However, no one simply believes that a bath in the confluence of rivers will keep the cells of their body from dying and sloughing or will maintain their physical beings eternally and exempt them from the laws of nature.

Rather, that sacred gift, that boon of immortality for which we long, seek and flock, is to connect – even momentarily – with the true nature of the Self, to catch even a glimpse of the real, divine and eternal nature of one’s own being.  In the holy land of the Kumbha, in the presence of enlightened masters and devoted pilgrims, having walked away from our lives of comfort and convenience, at the appointed hour, under a moon which is full or new or somewhere in between, if we immerse not only our bodies but our very selves in that rushing water, we receive a priceless gift.  We are given an experience, an awareness and a knowing of the truth of who we are.  We experience our own immortality.  Our scriptures, commentaries and inspirational literature tell us that we are not our bodies; our gurus remind us; we may know on some level.  However, to believe something and to experience it are two different phenomena.  The Kumbha provides the true experience and deep awareness that stay with us forever, changing the very nature of who we think we are, how we live and how we relate in the world.

This experience is what so many foreigners come to India in search of, and which many find, even at times and places other than the Kumbha.  In many ways, the Kumbha is the distillation and crystallization of India.   That which you experience in India, you experience in a concentrated form at the Kumbha! It is, in my opinion, simultaneously, the worst and the best of India. Kumbha embodies and epitomizes the pervasive sense of the sacred which one finds while traveling through traditional, spiritual India and which has touched and transformed countless Indians and foreigners alike.  And, the Kumbha is also the quintessence of that which makes India difficult for so many foreigners.  It is loud, incredibly so, with nearly twenty-four-hour-a-day cacophony. Bhajans, kirtan, spiritual lectures and public service announcements vie for airtime on the speakers hung every thirty or forty feet.  It is dirty and dusty, because the entire Mela is erected on sand which is the sacred river bed of Ganga and Yamuna throughout much of the year.  It is crowded. Estimates range from 80 million to 100 million pilgrims flocking from every corner of the country and the world.  To me as a foreigner having been blessed to live the past sixteen years in India, that is the worst of India -- its noise, its dirt and dust and its ubiquitous crowds. 

However, these pale in comparison to the best of India, which is also the best of Kumbha.  Imagine -- wave after wave of humanity, every color, every size, speaking every language, pouring into the Mela out of every possible vehicle ranging from a bullock cart to a private jet. And for what? There is no sporting event here where one can root enthusiastically for one's home team and then pop champagne bottles at the victory.  There is no rock concert where one might be able to touch the shirttails of pop stars and sing along to one's favorite tunes.  There is no lottery with a million-dollar (or several crore) jackpot.  There is no theme park with slides and rides to make our hair stand on end and our children shout with glee. 

No, it is not the normal attractions that draw more people than any other event in the history of the world.  It is, quite simply, the faith, the beautiful, sacred, uniquely Indian faith that to have a bath in the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati at this auspicious time might bring one closer to that ultimate goal of deep spiritual union, awareness and bliss.  It is the belief, the unassailable, ardent belief that one will be free of sins from lifetimes past, that one will come closer to the Divine, awaken spiritually and perhaps even attain enlightenment. No, it is not sports stars or rock stars or dollars or rupees that lure people to the Kumbha.  It is not glamour or prestige or the chance to rub elbows with celebrities.  It is the call of the holy waters promising divine union and liberation. It is the presence of the holy saints, the possibility of their darshan, their blessings and their satsang. It is the astrological significance of bathing, praying and meditating on certain days in this sacred riverbed.  It is the readiness, nay the eagerness, with which -- by the tens of millions -- Indians abandon the comfort, convenience and luxury of their own lives and lifestyles to come and sleep in tents built on the dirt, their eyes brimming with tears of devotion and gratitude. 

India is a land that feeds first and eats second, and the Kumbha is the crystallization of this cultural tenet. Wherever you go, from one end of the Kumbha to the other, regardless of sampradaya or parampara, there is always food for all. Camp after camp feeds thousands each day, their own devotees, pilgrims and sevaks frying batch after batch of puris before sunrise. 

For us, this Kumbha was a special opportunity to launch a Green Kumbha Initiative. Pujya Swamiji (Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, President of Parmarth Niketan Rishikesh and Founder of Ganga Action Parivar) has been planning for a “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag” for many years, and therefore the focus of the Kumbha was not only cleansing of our past sins and purification of our minds, but a true cleansing of the banks and waters of the Ganga and Yamuna.  Whoever came through our Ganga Action Parivar camp – including Bollywood celebrities, state and central government politicians, billionaire industrialists, foreign professionals, Harvard students and faculty, Western yoga students and more – took part not only in yajna, aarti, satsang and meditation. They also took part in trash cleanups.  Led by Pujya Swamiji and devotees costumed as trees, mountains and holy rivers, we picked up trash, shoveled dirt over open defecation, installed water filtration systems, put up trash cans and led huge parades in the name of “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag, Green India, Green Century.”  The initiative was not just about cleaning the grounds of the Sangam. It was about initiating thought and action toward a truly clean and green India.  (see for more details).

However, Green Kumbha did not mean facility-less Kumbha.  In fact, we had some news channels come through our camp requesting to video the rooms we built with eco-friendly bamboo and jute, the attached bathrooms, the flush toilets, the running water and electricity.  "Kumbha mein kya vyavastha hai," was their theme and they were effusively impressed with the arrangements at our camp. However, despite the impressiveness of bringing running water and electricity to dry riverbeds, ultimately Kumbha is not about vyavastha.  Kumbha is about aastha.  It is not the flush toilets or the running water or the carpeted floors that draw people from every corner of the globe.   It is  not the smoothly running traffic or the miracle of infrastructure that the state and local governments were miraculously able to implement. These arrangements were merely a  bonus, an extra added bit of unexpected comfort.  

Yes, as people said, Kumbha was a miracle of vyavastha.  To erect a city the size of New York, Paris and London combined in under sixty days is, of course, a miracle and one whose credit goes to the government machinery.  However, the true miracle is one not of vyavastha but of aastha. You can set up makeshift roads, bring water and run electrical lines anywhere in the world and that does not mean people will come.  The miracle in Kumbh is the aastha, the faith, that reaches deep within people's beings, grabs hold of their hearts and pulls them -- sometimes thousands of miles -- from the material comfort of their home to the spiritual comfort of the Mela. It is the miracle of aastha that fills every tent, every plywood-room, every dirt or aluminum road with people, people who have come to find the true meaning of their lives on Earth.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh
Ganga Action Parivar

Swami Vivekananda - A Full Resurgence – The Value of Values

Swami Vivekananda cast India’s cultural heritage into international spotlight when he began his speech at the Parliament of World Religions with the phrase, “My sisters and brothers of America.”  As commonplace as it seems to Indians to begin a talk with “bhaio aur beno,” the idea of referring to an auditorium full of strangers as family was, for many Americans, surprising and their first glimpse of traditional Indian culture.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is one of the most basic tenets of Indian spiritual and cultural heritage.  The world is a family.  This message is one that is needed as critically today, perhaps even more critically, as when he spoke in Chicago 120 years ago.  Today, like never before, we are faced with a critical divide between those who have and those who have-not, those who are growing plumper each year and those who are helplessly watching their children succumb to the perils of malnutrition, those with summer homes, winter homes and weekend homes, and those who cower in doorways to escape the beating rain and sleet.   We produce enough food to feed 10 billion people a day, yet tens of thousands of children die each day of starvation while others feast themselves to diabetes and heart disease.  Now, as never before, the world needs this message that we are all family.  No one in a family would even conceive of grabbing all the chapatis laid out for dinner. Instinctively we understand that every family member is entitled to his/her fair share.  Sacrifice for each other’s wellbeing comes naturally.  

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam
            Swami Vivekananda’s reference to the people of America as his “sisters and brothers” was not merely profound at the time; rather it is a call that we must hear today.  But, of course, not only are the Americans our sisters and brothers.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has no discrimination, does not play favorites and has no hierarchy.  Can we extend the feeling of family to the impoverished and malnourished of India, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world? Can we extend the arms of our family to the suicidal farmers killing themselves over desiccated fields and yieldless harvests? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those of different religions, different countries, different castes and different colors?
            Swami Vivekananda emphasized that the reason for India’s downfall (as he saw it) lay in India’s neglect of the masses.  No family can be truly successful on all levels if its members are hungry, or cold, or homeless or ailing without means for treatment.  If India is going to achieve a full resurgence of greatness and prosperity on all fronts, it cannot do so while a huge percentage of its own population lives without toilets, running water, basic education and primary health care.
Resurgent India is not only about a financial resurgence; it not only refers to a renewal of India’s place as a leader of the developing and developed world.  Rather, if India is going to be reborn into Her true state of glory, it requires a rekindling of Her fundamental and essential values and tenets.  Resurgent India requires not just that we connect on facebook and twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of "friends" or "followers" we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart.   Can their pain be our pain? Can their hunger be our hunger? Can their anguish be our anguish? Can we truly, selflessly, lovingly make choices and sacrifices for them as we would for our own family members? Only when the values, ethics and sanskaras of Bharitya sanskriti are re-infused with their cultural significance can India truly see a resurgence.

Women as Divine

Additionally, it is important to note that Swami Vivekananda did not say “My brothers and sisters of America.” Rather he said, “My sisters and brothers of America.” The distinction is minor and yet profound, particularly as India faces a time of singular darkness and despair regarding women’s rights and protection.  This emphasis, actually, on the feminine is an inherent part of traditional Indian culture.  Our mantras chant, “Twameva Mata, Cha Pita Twameva….” First mother, then father.  Manu declared and our scriptures remind us that “Where women are adored, there the Gods are pleased.”       So neither is this tenet of women’s empowerment, women’s rights and women’s significance new today, nor was it new when Swami Vivekananda based his remarks according to this cultural niyam. So, women’s rights are not something that need to be instituted in India, but rather something that has to be re-instituted. That respect, reverence and love for women not as objects of desire but as manifestations of the Divine Feminine is part and parcel of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage.  Without it, as we are seeing in the streets of India today, no resurgence will be successful.

India as Tirth
A story is told of Swami Vivekananda’s trip to America and UK, spanning approximately four years from 1893 – 1897. As he was readying to depart from London for India, one of his British friends asked him, Swamiji how do you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?” Swamiji replied: “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; India is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!”  Today, there is a clamouring among most Indians to go abroad – to travel, to study, to work and to live.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone -- having acquired immeasurable punya over lifetimes leading to a birth on the banks of Ganga -- asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, meri naukri lagwa dijiye. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwa do bus.”  The request always brings tears to my eyes and yet is indicative of much of what needs to “resurge” in India.
There has been, over the last several decades, a shift of focus and a shift in our values. To Swami Vivekananda, sure the roads, the infrastructure and other aspects of comfort, convenience, efficiency and even luxury were better and more available in the West, just as they are today. However, to him, those were not the important aspects of life, nor were they what determined his choice of country in which to live.  Hence he longed to return to Mother India where he could bathe in Her culture, Her people, Her very soil, in the wind that blows across Her land.  There is a magic here in India, a divine magic that makes even squalor sacred. That does not, of course, condone squalor but it is simply to say that the feeling of sacredness is pervasive – in the huts and in the mandirs. 
There are many reasons for this of course, with the most important being India’s inherent holiness. However, I believe that the divinity of Her very soil is enhanced by a culture in which spirituality, sanskaras and connection to God are the most important aspects of life.  That is the Bharatiya Sanskriti we speak about. However, today the focus seems to be much more on acquiring and attaining wealth, prestige, status and possessions.
When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In the nearly two decades I’ve lived here, much has changed. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the values and focus in India seem to have shifted.  The "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.
How many Indians today are just as eager to return home to India after a few years abroad? If India is going to be resurgent we have to cultivate that same level of discrimination that Swamiji had – sure he was able to recognize the comfort and convenience of the West, and yet he was able to recognize that there is something much more valuable than that.  Hence he longed to return home to the “Tirth” of India.
A Resurgent India needs a return to the values espoused by Swami Vivekananda.  His call for greatness is a greatness deeper than the distance our missiles can travel or the value of our GNP.  It is a greatness that penetrates the core of each Indian, that makes him/her grounded, anchored, centered and rooted in an unbreakable, unshakeable connection to the Divine, to the country, to Her soil and to each other.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh