India

Conversations with the Swami

When I first arrived at Aurovalley ashram, it was late in the evening after a blurry-eyed train ride and a cab through crowded towns of rioting men. I arrived at the ashram gate and was greeted by silence. A bearded Indian man came carrying a torch. Long white locks crowned his head and he was dressed in a white cotton gown. He didn’t say much, no talk of registering for my stay, who he was or who I was for that matter, he simply motioned me to sit down where we quizzically sat in silence. I eventually guessed correctly that he was Swami Brahmdev, master of the ashram. He gave me a nod and brought me a plate of chapatti with lentils and tea. The swami is a man of few words when it comes to pleasantries, but as I learned, a man with passionate insights on life and living conscientiously.

image
Swami Brahmdev

The next day I wandered about the ashram, discovering the marble meditation hall, pathways, nooks and crannies. I meandered into a large circular shaped building that looked brand new. It was known as the world temple, two floors of guest rooms meant to receive families, travelers, pilgrims, lost souls, and vagabonds from around the world. Here, all wayward walks of life would meet at a crossroads, in the middle of the Indian jungle.

From a doorway, Swami Brahmdev appeared, stepping lightly toward the world temple’s courtyard. He gave me a quick glance and motioned me to follow him.

image
What do you see?

The courtyard was a large circular lawn of grass with a singular tree planted in the center, reaching for the sky. The swami stopped at the foot of the tree and asked, “What do you see here?”

I paused for a moment. Was this a trick question?

“A tree,” I said.

“It is nothing.”

I sized the tree up and down. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tree. I can see it, feel it. It’s there.”

“Ah, but what was it a hundred years ago? What were you 50 years ago?”

Umm. A seedling? A cell in the abyss?

“Nothing,” I offered.

“Exactly. When you come to understand that, this place will become yours.” Swami Brahmdev motioned all around him. “You will be at home.”

He left and I stood there blankly staring at the tree, entertaining his words.

What if I was nothing? All my worries, ego… meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps I could abandon a life of frivolity, accept peace and find solace here. Nah, that’s not going to happen. Though what if I did, what would I do then?

According to Bramdev, the soul has one purpose, to manifest the light, to heed the divine within us. Conscientiousness leads to light, ignorance leads to darkness. There are 360 degrees of paths around us leading in different directions, by being mindful of our soul, the divine within us will light the path we are meant to take. Many people are taught how to survive life, but many lose sight on how to live. From mindfulness, you acknowledge the divine within you, your soul, and develop clarity to grow and live. Love and hate are manifestations of you, Bramdev would say, so choose your path and relationships wisely.

Being conscientious is practiced through meditation, yoga, prasad, satsang, and other activities: a daily exercise of the mind, body and soul. I certainly became more aware of myself, who I am and what makes me happy throughout my stay at the ashram.

It’s calming to know that somewhere in the mind or physical world, a tree stands tall that beckons us to follow the light.

Finding Inner Peace at Aurovalley Ashram

If you’re looking for a quiet piece of heaven on earth, you’ve come to the right place. Five hours north of Delhi, India between the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh, Aurovalley ashram is the perfect place along the Ganges River for the soul to find rest and inner peace. Because the ashram is in the jungle away from it all, it’s more conducive to meditation and mindfulness. There’s a beautiful new building called the world temple full of guest rooms outfitted with marble floors, queen size beds and rooms for families of four. I was placed in the old building where the water didn’t work and I took showers out of a bucket. I loved it…

image
Twilight. Jungle, yonder!

5am: Wake Up

A waterfall of birdsong awakens me every dawn. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before: Hundreds of birds singing out to the rising sun. It makes my heart smile. It’s a serene way to start the day.

image
Too fancy for me
image
Running water? Way too fancy for me.

6am: Meditation

Group meditation begins in the marble halls of the ashram’s temple. Orange pillows are laid out for everyone to sit in silence. The goal is to focus on your breath, allow your mind to repeat mantras and be mindful of the present. A cool breeze flows in and out of the temple that allows me to feel at ease while listening to the heartbeat of nature. It’s monsoon season so it’s especially beautiful when it rains. You can see the jungle shiver, turn a deeper shade of green. Showers fall all around me, creating a vibrant music that is at once breathtaking and disarming.

image
Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! Om

7am: Yoga

Yoga begins in a beautiful white marble hall where everyone is led into a practice of body awakening stretches and asanas (postures). Yoga itself means union, and whereas in America there is a demand and focus on asanas, the actual practice of yoga is more holistic. Everything from your diet to your breath to your movements are part of the practice. No one wears tight gym clothes, sports bras or lululemon, loose fitting modest Indian dress is the daily uniform. We end every session with a mantra, “Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! Om.” Shanti means peace. Om is a mystical word in sanskrit that is said to be the first word spoken by the universe.

image
Self portrait

8am: Breakfast

Prasad is the gift of food that is offered to the gods and with their blessing, distributed to us common folk. Prasad is taken in silence in the dining hall. For breakfast that usually consists of a plain lassi, banana or other seasonal fruit, and maybe an Indian-style porridge like daliya made of dry cracked wheat. Silence is encouraged to be mindful that when you eat, you are offering food to your body which houses and nourishes the divine within you. The idea is to honor your body like a temple and hunger will pass.

image
Shhhhhhhh!!!

9am: Karma Yoga / Study Period

Karma yoga means helping out around the ashram. You’re expected to wash and dry your dishes after all meals. You can also do some chores, sweep the leaves or even help out with the ashram’s school that offers free education to children and vocational training to young women from neighboring villages. I enjoyed grabbing a book from the well-stocked library and reading up on the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the inspirations behind Aurovalley and the origin of the ashram’s namesake. Oh, and did I mention there is free wifi everywhere?

image
Educating local village children

11:30am: Satsang; Q & A with Swami Brahmdev

This is considered the highlight of the ashram. The daily discussion with Swami Brahmdev happens in a white marble library filled with books by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Colorful pillows dot the floor and windows flood the circular hall with light. It’s amusing to postulate on the meaning of life, purpose of love, the soul and death with Swami Brahmdev; he’ll answer any question you have. Though his answers may sometimes leave you puzzled, they have a few common themes: live life conscientiously, know yourself and heed the divine light within you.

image
Swami Brahmdev, what is the meaning of life?

1pm: Lunch

Two kinds of Indian vegetarian dishes are usually served with chipati, rice and seasonal fruit. If you don’t want to eat in silence, you can go out into the courtyard. I enjoyed socializing with the different people at the ashram. Many are young women “searching for themselves.” Yeah, ok, I fall into this category. This ashram is also popular among Russians and Columbians. Russians view it as a farm stay of sorts, a quiet, inexpensive and peaceful place to bring the family when it gets cold in Russia. Aurovalley has a sister ashram in Columbia and there are Columbians here at the ashram whom have never left.

image
Where’s my lunch?

3:30pm: Tea

A bell sounds for tea time by the dining hall. Indian chai is delicious. But since there’s a gap in the day’s activities, if you ever want to leave the ashram to visit Rishikesh or swim in the Ganges River, which is just down the road from the ashram, people usually do so around this time.

image
Swimming in the Ganges River. If you’re a woman beware of creepy staring & stalking.

4pm: Individual study or practice / karma yoga

Some people live at the ashram and pay their way through service by managing the guest rooms. Others practice karma yoga by volunteering in the kitchen and serving food. I take this time to read up on the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This twosome founded Auroville, an altruistic UNESCO-endorsed experimental town in South India. They passed away decades ago, but their inspirational quotes and portraits live forever in the ashram. Swami Brahmdev is a follower of their teachings. He was a lawyer by training, but discovered his spiritual calling to serve the divine by building the Aurovalley ashram, providing free education to local communities and spreading the wisdom of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

image

5pm: Yoga asanas

Usually there’s a second yoga session in the day, but because I’m here during monsoon season, there is no teacher to teach a second class. In fact, the ashram is pretty empty. Perhaps only a dozen people in total. While it’s great to have fewer social distractions when you’re trying to do some soul searching, it would be helpful to have a more active yoga schedule.

6pm: Meditation / Kirtan

Swami Brahmdev is not big on kirtan/chanting, so really this is just another opportunity to meditate. I find my mind wanders. A lot. On a bad day I’ll have multiple thoughts screaming in my head and I’ll need to repeatedly clear my mind with difficulty. On other days I regress and sometimes I come to remember beautiful memories from my past. Somewhere in that calm, I find inner peace. It’s a joyful feeling. For a few glorious moments my insecurities, jealousies, negativity, concerns and burdens melt away. Something about being in the middle of nowhere, living in a room with no running water, being free from materialism, judgement, and other distractions – wearing no make up, hair dishevelled, clothes unkempt, and no one to impress – Somewhere in that simplicity, disruptive thoughts in my head disappear and I feel incredibly free and happy to be alive and well.

image

7pm: Dinner

Another serving of two kinds of vegetables, usually lentils, chickpeas, maybe eggplant or okra, rice, chipati and whatever wasn’t finished at lunch. I love Indian food so even though some people may find the food to be lacking, I find it satisfying and nourishing.

8pm: Cultural Programmes; reading, videos, talks, singing, dancing

The teachers who usually lead dance and music classes are gone because it’s slow season. Our yoga teacher fills in with art activities, readings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, and videos of the ashram. This is another time when I feel that while it’s great to have fewer people around, it would be nice to have some of the cooler activities available. I’m also told that Swami Brahmdev usually travels abroad during monsoon season, so we’re lucky to at least have satsang with him this year.

Upon researching ashrams, I initially wanted to go to Phool Chatti, but it was closed during monsoon season. My next choices were Aurovalley and Anand Prakash. I couldn’t decide between the two so I went to both, four nights at Aurovalley and three nights at Anand Prakash. I’m glad I split it up this way so as to get a sense of their differences. If I had to choose one ashram though, I would choose Aurovalley. It’s just way more spacious, quiet and beautiful and the perfect place for the spirit to awaken.

Fear and Loathing in Varanasi

A thin layer of smoke and ash cover my skin as the infernos of Varanasi relentlessly burn on throughout the day and night. For Hindus, there can be no holier place to die than in this ancient and dusty town where the Ganges River flows. The sacred waters are believed to cut the cycle of reincarnation and lead to a direct route to heaven. Cremation sites called ghats line the Ganges.  Only men of the family are allowed to participate in the cremation, entering the afterlife is considered a happy time and it’s believed women are more likely to cry and ruin the mood so to speak. I took advantage of the fact that foreigners are exempted from this custom so long as they do not snap photos.

image
Old town Varanasi

A procession of male family members sing and chant, carrying a body prepared for cremation. They place the body over a pyre according to which caste they belong to. Poor people are burned away from the river, the merchant and warrior castes are burned on steps close to the Ganges and Brahmins, the priest caste, are burned on a platform above everyone else. The chief mourner sprinkles water from the Ganges over the body, which is wrapped in a shroud. The men circle the body three times and ignite the pyre. The strength of the flames correspond to the wealth of the family as it requires more money to buy sandalwood, ghee and other flammable fare.

image
Ghats of Varanasi

One pyre in front of me is away from the river and burns low. I see the dead man’s face, he appears young and an acute sense of shock fills me as he’s consumed by the flames. Yet I cannot look away. The fire burns for three hours and members of his family take turns handling a long bamboo stick to rearrange his bones over the pyre.

image
Cows roaming the streets

Another man is burned closer to the river, I see the skin on his arm scorch and fray, ribboning in the fire. Family members watch to make sure his body is undisturbed. They shoe away cows, goats and other large animals that come too close, including questionably shady human folk.

image
Bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges

Eyes on the ghat lock eyes on a dark man with wild hair dressed in a black loin cloth. Worshippers of the dark side of Shiva, the destroyer god, are said to consume human flesh and seek human skull bowls. Families crush skulls that do not burn to make sure they do not end up being used for black magic. The dark man enters the ghat, followed by a dozen dogs. He carries a mysterious black sack and sits quietly on the steps, watching half a dozen bodies burn. Families give him dirty looks but in the end he seems harmless. Another oddly dressed man goes to a steaming pyre and cooks a plate of vegetables and bread. Stray dogs mate and howl in the corner. This place is just weird.

image
Ganga aarti ceremony at dusk

Further down the river a large ghat catches my attention.  A man approaches me and beckons me to follow. He explains how the ash-covered Manikarnika ghat is lined by dusty hospice homes, filled with the terminally ill whose dying wish is to be cremated in Varanasi. He leads me up a flight of stairs toward a glowing pile of coals. He points to a man lying on the ground who he says is responsible for making sure the embers never die. My guide takes ash from the fire and places it on my forehead as he makes motions to bless me. He explains that this ash comes from the eternal flame. Every pyre in Varanasi must be ignited by this fire. Legend has it that the coals lie on the spot where Parvati, goddess of war, dropped an earring. He asks for money and I hand him some rupees. There is a lot of begging in Varanasi.

image
Aarti ceremony along the Ganges

Further down the river, washed up on the shore, some fellow travelers discover a dead baby, all purple, black and blue. A guide explains that people with pure souls are not cremated, including pregnant women, holy men and children under two years old. Instead they’re wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the river. We leave the baby alone.

image
Marigolds, ghee candle offerings

With all this talk of death there is great tribute to life. The Ganges gives life giving water throughout India and every sunset an elaborate Ganga aarti ceremony is performed to honor Mother Ganga. Loud clanging bells fill the air on Dashashwamedh ghat, which is flooded with light and crowds of people. A row of men perform a showy choreographed offering to the goddess. The best seats are on the river where several boats gather on the calm waters. I carry an offering of marigolds and candles made of ghee. I set my offering into the river and whisper a couple of words. A trail of candle light floats on top of the water, perhaps lighting the way for those souls awaiting the afterlife. The sun slips beneath the clouds and the serenity of dusk illuminates the sky. The unique beauty of it all leaves no doubt in my mind that Varanasi is a magical wonder.

image
Marigold and ghee candle offerings floating on the Ganges