Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 21-26, 2019

University of Arizona – Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Partnership

I have learned more about the event that took place in the ashram auditorium early in my stay. At that time, a Letter of Intent was signed by University of Arizona and Amrita University (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham) representatives. The agreement marked the beginning of dual degree programs at both the baccalaureate and master’s levels.

Two hundred students will participate in the study abroad program for at least one semester each year. An 11-member delegation came from the University of Arizona for the signing. To learn more about the partnership go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76232/19arizona.aum

A group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera

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Other groups

One of the first times I went to Amma for darshan, a group of about 60 young Indian men and women were brought to the stage. They looked like they might be college students, but were not in the uniforms that students at her colleges usually wear. When they first came on the stage, most sat and watched Amma give darshan (hugs). After some of the group had received their hugs, other members joined the darshan line. Amma talked to several of them for a long time. I never found out who they were but wondered if they had been working in one of her humanitarian projects.

One day last week, about 20 members of an Israeli group were led to the stage during darshan. Later, I learned they were from Tel Aviv University and had been doing something with Ammachi Labs. I found this description of Ammachi Labs on amritapuri.org.

AMMACHI Labs is an academic and research center at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham that brings an interdisciplinary approach to addressing societal challenges. We create innovative educational tools and skill development solutions to help uplift entire communities. In our commitment to rural villages of India – the very communities that stand to benefit the most from skill development – we are as excited about our continuing development of community outreach solutions as we are about our focused R&D for CHI, robotics and automation, haptic technologies and applied robotics.

To read more about Ammachi Labs go to: https://www.amrita.edu/center/ammachi

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya is the brahmachari (male monk) who is responsible for Amma’s North American satsangs. He has been with Amma for about 35 years. He and I have been in Amritapuri at the same time before but it generally has only been for a day or two. This time our visits overlapped for much longer.

On December 23, Dayamrita held a question and answer session for residents and visitors. The program was held in a building called Shanti Mandiram. I had never heard of that building. I was astounded to find out it is a huge building next to the place where the brahmacharinis (female monks) live. The building had apparently been under construction for years and has been in use for about three years. All of the silent retreats are being held there.

How could a building have been built so close to the main ashram and I had never seen it? I’m still having trouble believing it.

On the 23rd, I found the building and walked up to the third floor. The room was big; but so was the attendance. There were Amma devotees from many different countries as well as both Indian and Western ashram residents.

Br. Dayamrita answered many questions. He also told many stories. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was so glad that I attended the session.

Christmas Eve program

In Amritapuri, the big Christmas celebrations are held on Christmas Eve. They consist of cultural performances, Amma’s Christmas message, singing and distribution of Christmas cake. They usually start late and aren’t over until around 2 a.m. Since I work in the cafe at 7:30 a.m. I knew I couldn’t stay the whole time. I had decided to leave after the first three cultural performances.

The program starts when Amma comes. She led the evening bhajan (singing) program from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. and we had dinner after that. Amma was expected to arrive for the Christmas program around 10 p.m. but came just before 9:30!

I was very happy about her early arrival because it meant I would be able to watch more of the performances. I ended up staying for all of them; they were wonderful. There was a shadow puppet show, a choir, a salsa dance, Indian traditional and non-traditional dances, a flamenco dancer, a dance called Mother’s Prayer and more. There was also a beautiful performance centered around Hanukkah. One of my favorite parts of the program was the finale. The singing and dancing that occurs when all of the groups come on stage together is always so joyous.

I went back to my room after the performances but wasn’t able to get to sleep. I could hear the sounds of fun coming from the hall. It was all I could do to keep myself from getting dressed and going back to the auditorium. I feel sad about what I missed but know I made the correct decision for me.

I don’t have Christmas program photos to share with you but you can read more about the evening and see photos at: https://www.amritapuri.org/76453/19xmas.aum

Eclipse

On Thursday morning there was an eclipse of the sun between 8 and 11 a.m. When an eclipse happens here, everyone stays inside. The café was closed for the morning, but the canteen was open from 7-8. I had some breakfast and then went to the temple to participate in the Vedic chanting that was taking place throughout the 3-hour period.

The hall was packed. I didn’t know the chants and didn’t have the books, so just listened. The woman seated next to me was looking at the chants on her phone. About halfway through I noticed that she was looking at one that had a font that was big enough for me to read it. When she noticed I was doing that she held her phone between us. She shared her phone with me for the rest of the session.

Throughout the experience, I kept expecting it to get dark. Every time I looked outside, though, it was sunny. I was puzzled. Had the eclipse not happened? I was even more puzzled when I later looked at an online newspaper and saw photos taken in Kerala of the full eclipse. I talked to someone who had stayed in her room throughout the morning and she told me it HAD gotten dark. How could I have missed it? During the first half of the chanting I had often closed my eyes. Had I also fallen asleep?

The chants were beautiful. Maybe someday I will put in the time and effort needed to learn some of them.

Monkey

The monkey I mentioned in an earlier post is still visiting frequently. It probably has learned that if it comes to the café kitchen area it might be able to steal some food. I saw it once last week and it was there again on Thursday afternoon.

New additions to café menu

Over the years, the café and canteen have certainly changed. I was at the ashram on the day in 1990 when the Western food service began. At that point, Western food was only available for dinner. I remember it as consisting of a bowl of soup but the photo below shows bread and possibly something else.

On most nights, the dinner was served on a balcony in the temple. On Devi Bhava nights, it was served on a staircase on a higher floor. We felt so excited to have something other than the kanji (watery rice) with a small serving of vegetables that was served in the Indian lines for breakfast and dinner in those days. (Lunch was regular rice and some vegetables.)

A group of people in a room

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In 1990, we never would we have imagined the time would come when the ashram would offer a wide variety of Western foods at every meal and there would even be gluten free options available…. and a bakery.

A few years ago, the café staff started making almond milk. Earlier this month, they added sides of quinoa, hummus, and broccoli (when they can get it) to their already abundant menu options. Three days ago, they started offering a new drink. Some of the ingredients are spirulina, wheat grass, aloe vera, and lemon!

To read previous posts in this series click here.

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