I wanted to wait for sunrise before heading into town. This meant waiting with my pack on a bench with about 20 other people at the Rishikesh bus station. For those few hours I wrote in my journal, made out some postcards and of course observed the surrounding animals and humans in this new mountain town. Finally, I hailed the one of five eager auto-rickshaw drivers that had been doing laps around parking lot to the bench where I sat, checking to see when the tourist was going to make her move. As the daylight came, I could start to make out the silhouettes of the lower Himalayas. It was nice to be here.
Around 7am I arrived at Swami Danananda Ashram with no clue whether or not this would be the place where I would stay. I had sent an email to the ashram manager only the day before, mentioning my friend Rahul and his wife, but lamenting that the contact information he gave me on the plane was incorrect, so introductions by his wife to the ashram and myself had not been done. At such late notice, I would understand if they did not have room for me.
I walk into the ashram compound. The grounds are clean, manicured, and seem peaceful… which is a nice change from the unfortunately very loud and dirty streets virtually everywhere else. A few people are walking about the grounds dressed in mostly white clothing. There is a gentle breeze coming down through the grounds that lead to the turquoise Ganges river. The ashram has a large chunk of riverfront property. Its temple sits on the edge of the property facing the holy river with a staircase leading out to a long cement slab walkway that extends out, this is used daily by people bathing, an nightly for arti, the fire and flower offering prayer ceremony. (Interesting side note: The Ganges is regarded as the holiest river in India. Each day millions of people draw water, bathe, wash their laundry, and throw millions of flower offerings into the river. Miraculously, the water remains a light blue-green color, and cases of illness due to bacteria-born illness are rarely found or attributed to Ganges water. Of course, this is one of the reasons this water is believed to be holy and blessed by the gods. The scientific explanation for this miraculous water is known as well, I later learned. There is a bacteria-killing virus known as a bacteriophage which is present in Ganges River water. According to the micro-biologist who told me this fact, these bacteriophage are not found in such great numbers in any other river on Earth. They believe they originate from somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains, where the Ganges pulls most of its source water. Amazing, right? I love it when science and spirituality exist harmoniously.)
Someone walking towards me asks if I have checked-in yet. He is smiling, very friendly and leads me to a seat outside the main office where he instructs me to leave my things until it opens at 8 pm. “Breakfast?” he asks. I decline. I plop down to wait. I wasn’t there for long before a man, perhaps in his 60s, who walking by with a white blanket draped over his shoulders and white ash smeared across his forehead notices me and introduces himself. His name is Pantabi and is staying here for a month, as he does every year. He also offers me breakfast, which I again decline. I agree to some tea, as that does sound nice. And it is. He disappears for 2 minutes and returns with a cup of Indian masala chai tea, a drink which always has milk and plenty of sugar. The tea warms my soul.
The manager checks me in, I’m welcome to stay shorter or longer than the two weeks I had proposed if I like. This ashram prefers guests that are interested in Guru Dayananda’s teachings, and their methods of discovering Truth, which includes communicating to God through Sanskrit chanting at least twice daily morning and evening. I of course do not know all this at the time, but become quite interested and inspired to learn much about Hindu religion and this ashram’s particular ways especially after attending my first puja (worship ceremony). They do not charge any money for lodging of for food, but instead ask for a reasonable donation.
Throughout my stay at the ashram and Rishikesh I receive a rather crash course on Hindu spirituality. In this ancient religion there are many, many gods and goddesses, stories and worship rituals that to go along with each one. Many idols are actually not a separate god, but a different incarnation of a higher god, which can have twelve or more incarnations or forms. This is all fascinating to me, but as I sit in the temple for puja (worship ceremony) and try to observe all the different rituals which incorporate at least eight different idols and two priests. Each priest is doing different things, including offerings of food, flowers, water, fire, washing theidols, smudging with fire and incense, clanging bells, gongs, horns, and drums, (as well as a protion that invloves pulling of a curtain to adorn the idols in private) as well as try to participate with everyone else in the fast Sanskrit chants, I have to admit, I was a bit overwhelmed. It was hard for me to feel connected to Spirit when I was also wondering if I was totally screwing up their ancient ceremony.
Luckily, my new friend Swami Subash was very willing and helpful in breaking it down for me. He shared with me this quote by Swami Sivananda (who has an ashram in his name also in Rishikesh, just up the street), “While performing idol worship, see God as the idol, then see God within the idol, and after, forget the idol and see God as formless consciousness.” Phew. What a relief. Formless consciousness is my present understanding and relationship with God.
I’m just going to pause a moment before I start to explain a little bit about my spiritual beliefs. This blog is not about telling anyone what I think they should believe. I believe everyone should come to their own conclusions about faith and spirituality. I also think this is important stuff to share openly and respectfully with one another. I’ve reached that point where I feel comfortable sharing… So for me, I feel most connected to God (or Creator of All the Is, the presence of intelligent design, or whatever you want to call it) when I am awestruck by the beauty and majesty, as well as order amidst the chaos, of nature on planet Earth as well as in the wider Universe. I also believe that all this beauty, majesty and intelligence which we see in the world is a projection of what is inside each of us. I believe that humans, with the gift of consciousness, are One in the same as what we call God, but that we just struggle very hard to remember and recognize our true nature of pure Love and Light. I also believe in the immeasurable power of human consciousness, each which co-creates our world and the Universe each moment we are alive. As such, I believe that ‘impossible’ is only an opinion. I believe as more people begin to open themselves to recognize that they are a being of pure Love and Light, and that the have the power to create a blissful life for themselves and those that surround them by changing their thoughts the higher the vibration of the planet becomes, and thus, an even more beautiful existence. Again, this is my basic relationship to Spirit that has evolved over my life, and I do not intend here to prescribe it to anyone. I respect everyone else’s personal relationships and beliefs.
Rishikesh is the self-proclaimed world capital of yoga. After all my flights and craziness, I was more than ready to experience this for myself. This ashram, unfortunately, does not practice yoga within it’s daily routine. My friend Swami Subash recommended going to visit his friend and yoga teacher who teaches daily classes on the other side of the river in the busier and more tourist-orientated section of town called Ram Jhula. Subash recommended him as the best yoga teacher ever, and that he doesn’t charge for his classes. Donations only. His name is Surrender (chills). I met with his Surrender two days later in the afternoon. “How can I help you?” Subash had recommended that I meet with Surrender before taking class. I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. I started explaining the type of yoga that I had practiced in the past, and that I was still a little off-kilter from traveling and was looking to restore calm and peace in my body and mind. This strong-looking Indian man donning a black turban with a thick, full beard, thoughtfully paused and said that I was telling him lots of things that had happened in the past. He asked me to be present in the Now. “I want you to bring your own discipline to this practice. The discipline should also be exercised in your daily life, whenever possible. When leave here, walking down the street, notice your movements, think about your legs and how grateful you are that they they move you around with ease. Think about the sunshine warming your face. Feel how wonderful it is to breathe. People come to the class with different goals, therefore there is lots of different yoga going on. If you bring your discipline to your breath and your pose, you will get the most benefit.” Surrender’s 7am class the next morning was an amazing combination of spirit, breath and asana (yoga poses). The small room was filled with foreigners. We fit just about as much could fit in that room. At the beginning, end and also in the middle of class he would sing simple Sanskrit, which the class would repeat in a beautiful harmonious chorus. I never felt rushed through poses, and thus got a chance to feel each one completely. I’ve never felt so complete after a yoga class. It was wonderful.
In all, I spent twelve days in Dayananda Ashram as well as in Rishikesh. I met many wonderful and interesting people (pretty much all of whom invited me to stay at their respective homes throughout India) meditated and practiced some yoga.
One day a monkey stole my Clif bar. Well actually, I gave it to him, but I was afraid he was going to maul me if I didn’t.
Another day I sent intentions and prayers from friends and family floating down the Ganges River at dusk (arti).
A sweet woman I met at the ashram named Kapila (a name which she told be is the name of a fabled sacred cow that grants all of one’s wishes) told me about the cultural significance of the bindi (little red dot between the brows and slightly above the brow-line) of the that many Indian women and men wear. There are many traditions and reasons, she explained, but my favorite is that it is to mark the third-eye chakara, and to remind yourself that you contain the capacity to receive all spiritual knowledge and power. (What a powerful and beautiful daily reminder!) I was surprised to learn that this was a tradition for men as well, but several folks remarked to me that as India became “Westernized” many Hindi men and unmarried women stopped wearing the bindi. Hindi women after marriage, however, almost always wear a bindi.
Hand over heart.
The common Indian greeting of “Namaste”, (a word which means that one recognizes the divine being inside another), with palms pressed and fingers pointing skyward with a slight nod, is a widely used greeting in India, which I already thought was an extremely powerful greeting for any society to have. Only when I came to Rishikesh did I start noticing a greeting that both friends and complete strangers would give to one another as they pass. The passerby would place their hand over their heart and nod their head slightly, as an acknowledgment of love and respect. Sometimes they say “om” as they do this as well. I am so touched by this way of relating to one another, I think I shall keep it with me forever. Someone in the ashram loaned me their notebook with selected writings from their pranic healing guru, and one of the scribbled notes said: “The brain responds to frequencies, the moment you place your hand on your heart, the brain frequency changes.” What a simple and beautiful way to stay centered in heart, remind yourself of your humanity, and the humanity of others…