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.)

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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.

“His Story” by Sreejit Poole

Amritapuri House Band

This fall, Sreejit wrote a musical inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Drum Major Instinct sermon. Chaitanya decided to use one act of it during the 2018 Amritapuri Christmas Eve cultural events. Sreejit played the role of a preacher in the performance. The words of the song that they used for the event was adapted from a portion of Dr. King’s sermon.

Sreejit as preacher

Here is the soundtrack:

The lyrics:

I know of a man about whom 
I’d like to discuss 
and maybe you’ll find that 
he walks among us 

this man, you might know him, 
he was great indeed 
he needed not a PhD 
to help those in need. 

Born in a small village 
his parents were poor 
his means were quite meager 
yet his intellect soared 

and though his mind 
did roar 
the poor he still loved because 
there was no one he felt he was above. 

there was no one he felt 
he was greater than 
because all were brothers and sisters guided 
by the Lord’s own hand 

This is his story, 
he came to fight 
for the whole world 
‘cause God was their birthright 

This is his story 
he came to win 
he came to forgive 
the world of its sin. 

This is his story. 

He learned his father’s trade 
to build houses 
while knowing his Father’s plan 
to move mountains 

at thirty 
he couldn’t stop talking – adamant – 
that all who could hear 
heard the new commandments 

about a father who loved all 
his children 
and would cradle them 
independent of their wisdom 

He never wrote a book, he never held office 
he never had a family, he never went to college 
he never owned a home, he never traveled more 
than 200 miles from the place he was born 

with his words he rocked many boats – 
fearless – their egos he refused to stroke 
He did none of the things that the world would raise 
above all else and heap upon praise 

but his greatness, 
was accepted 
‘cause the Lord’s light 
within it was reflected 

His greatness was protected 
‘cause the Lord’s light 
within it was reflected 

His greatness was protected 
because the Lord’s light 
within it was reflected 

His greatness was protected 
because the Lord’s light 
within it was reflected 

And when he looked at you 
he didn’t see social status 
When he looked at you 
he didn’t see black or white 
He didn’t see man or woman 
good or bad 
all he saw was his family 
in God’s holy light. 
When he looked at you… 
When he looked at you… 

there was no one he felt 
he was greater than 
because all were brothers and sisters guided 
by the Lord’s own hand 

This is his story 
he came to fight 
for the whole world 
‘cause God was their birthright. 

This is his story 
he came to win 
he came to forgive 
the world of its sin. 

This is his story.

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Amritapuri Christmas Play: The Loving Father

The Amritapuri Christmas play this year was based on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son; with the main focus being on the love of the father. No  names are used in the parable, so for the play the father was called Jonas, and his sons were Jeremiah and Matthew. Matthew was the son who left home.

Here are a selection of photos from the production. (If you click on the gallery the photos will be enlarged.)

There were so  many beautiful songs. I’m going to share the audio from my two favorites. This first one, “I Search My Soul,” was written by my son Sreejit. In it, Jonas, Jeremiah and Matthew are singing simultaneously as they look within themselves.

Most of the songs in the play are original. There was one song though, that is commonly used by churches in plays about the prodigal son. Some of the words were changed to fit the script for this production, but it is basically the same as When God Ran written by Phillips, Craig and Dean.  The song is so moving. I still cry every time I listen to it.

I feel full of gratitude for everyone that worked together to create The Loving Father.

Thanks to Chaitanya who wrote the script and co-directed the play.

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Thanks to Devapriya who choreographed the dances.

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Thanks to Devika who co-directed the play with Chaitanya and played the role of Jesus.

Thanks to Jani who spends countless hours designing and sewing the costumes.

In most plays in India, the actors are not actually talking or singing. There is a group of musicians and singers who sit to the side of the stage who provide the instrumentation and the voices. So a special thanks to all of the musicians and singers who worked night and day to create and learn the dialogue and songs for this production.

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And of course endless thanks to all the actors and dancers as well as those who sewed costumes, translated, created props, prepared power point slides, and set up and ran the lighting… and to anyone I forgot to mention.

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 23-25, 2016

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Be Like a Bird Perched on a Dry Twig

I’ve mentioned before that Amma teaches us to be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at any moment. That lesson has been front and center for the play cast during the last three years.

Five or six years ago, when the play was on a darshan day, Amma said to hold it on the auditorium floor since she would be using the main stage for darshan. The participants built a small stage for the performance.

In December of 2014, Christmas Eve was again on a darshan day. Since the cast believed the play would be on the auditorium floor again, they were very creative in how they built the stage. It had three levels so that three scenes could take place at once.

Amma is asked where she wants to hold the play 3-5 days before the event. In 2014, they were shocked when she said that she wanted them to perform it on the main stage. She would finish darshan early, and watch it with us. While everyone was delighted that Amma wanted to watch, they only had 72 hours to adjust all the backdrops and choreography to fit on the smaller stage.

In 2015, the play was once again on a darshan day. While they knew they couldn’t count on it, they planned for the play to be on the main stage since Amma had wanted it that way the previous year. Days before the performance, she told them they would need to use the auditorium floor since she would be giving darshan on the stage. Everyone flew into action, building a stage for the auditorium floor and adjusting everything that needed to be adjusted. That year they just took it in stride, seeing it as the opportunity for growth that it was meant to be.

The December 2016 play would normally have been on a non-darshan day but,  since it was a Leap Year, it ended up being on a Saturday, another darshan day. This time the play was planned so it would fit on either the stage or the auditorium floor. The leaders kept in mind that Amma could come up with an unexpected third alternative and that is exactly what she did. When asked where the play should be held, Amma informed them she would let them know on the day of the program.

While they were jolted by this response, they went on preparing the play, envisioning it in both places. The day before the event, thinking Amma, because of the size of the crowd, would most likely choose to hold the play on the auditorium floor, they installed the lighting and the backdrop. The gigantic backdrop was rolled and hoisted 30-40 feet above the auditorium floor.

On Christmas Eve morning, Amma was asked once again where she wanted the performance. She said she would decide later in the day. They still didn’t have a definitive answer at 6:00 p.m.

It soon became obvious that Amma wanted to see the play with us, so the backdrop and the lights were taken down around 7 p.m. I heard that it took 30 people to remove the huge structure of lights and carry it to the main stage. Both items were then reinstalled on the stage, while Amma was giving darshan.

Soon the cast were in their make up and  costumes. All the props were ready to be put on the stage. Nothing else could be done until Amma finished darshan and the stage was cleared.

Darshan was over at 10:30 p.m. It usually takes hours to do the play set-up but they accomplished it all in an hour; the play started at 11:30 p.m. and proceeded without a hitch. The music was wonderful, the acting was wonderful and the dancing was wonderful. Never has one of their plays gone so smoothly.

The cast had handled all of the challenges with such grace, knowing that everything they experienced had purpose. What a lesson it had been in flexibility, persistence, patience, non-attachment, equanimity, and being like the bird perched on a dry twig.

I will write more about the play in a future post, but for now I will share some pictures I found on Amma’s Facebook page today. They will give you an idea of the quality of the costumes and backdrops and even glimpses of the acting.

The story was about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, with the emphasis being on the loving father. The first photo is of the father, the second Jesus, the third of one of the piggies, the fourth is a village scene and the fifth is of the prodigal son in despair.

After the play, Amma sang some songs and led a meditation. The photo below was taking after we sang a very rousing bhajan. She often ends those kind of songs by saying “Mata Rani Ki Jai” (Victory to the Goddess/Divine Mother) over and over and we respond “Jai” (Victory) each time with arms up. That is what you are seeing in this photo.

If you look closely you can see Amma. (The picture also shows you what the auditorium looks like and gives you a sense of how many people were present.)

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Amma ended the evening by passing out Christmas cake to the thousands of people who were present. What a day it had been.

Prasad Giving

When I arrived at the head of the prasad giving line on Christmas Eve, Amma started hugging people faster. Our “shift” for handing Amma the candy and ash she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug lasts either two or three minutes. Usually the prasad giver only has the opportunity to hand her a few packets. Because she was going fast at that moment, I was able to give her many packets. I had a lot of fun.

I handed Amma prasad again on Christmas day. This time when I reached her, the person who was being hugged asked Amma a question. Amma had lots to say so I was able watch. I didn’t get an opportunity to hand her packets during my time, but I didn’t care. It was nice to be so close to her and after all, I had handed Amma so many packets the day before.

Karunalaye Devi

When I left the stage where Amma was sitting, one of the brahmacharis (male monks) started singing Karunalaye Devi, a song I mentioned in a previous post. Hearing it again felt like a gift.

When I returned to my room, I looked to see if the song was available on YouTube. I was surprised to discover that Amma has a YouTube channel that contains videos of many of her songs.

A version of Karunalaye Devi had recently been uploaded. The singing takes place in the Amritapuri auditorium, but there are also darshan scenes from  her Indian tours. The man in the photo below is Swami Amritasvarupananda, one of Amma’s senior swamis.

Christmas Surprise

The afternoon of Christmas Day, I participated in the play cast celebration. It is always so much fun, and, considering all the challenges, they had even more than normal to celebrate about. At the end of the party, we heard that Amma had said any ashram visitor who hadn’t had darshan during the previous week could come for darshan that night. Since the crowds are so large at this time of year, we hadn’t even considered going until January.

It made for another late night, but it was so worth it. What a wonderful Christmas season it has been.

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without…..

One of the reasons I go to Amritapuri at this time of year is because I love to be involved in the Christmas musical that is performed on Christmas Eve. During the first three weeks in December, the final touches are made to the script; actors are chosen and learn their lines; musicians and singers learn their songs; costumes, back drops and props are made; sound and lighting are planned for, etc. The list could go on and on. Simultaneously, there are rehearsals occurring all over the ashram.

Here are some photos, taken by various photographers, from last year’s Christmas play. I think they will give you a sense of why I love being part of the process so much. (Click on the gallery to enlarge the photos.)

Weekly Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without….

Living and Learning in Amritapuri (December 22-26, 2015)

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Be like a bird

Amma says we should be a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice. She is really good at giving us opportunities to work on that lesson. Last year, since the play was on public darshan day, we expected to present it on the floor of the auditorium instead of on the stage where Amma is hugging people.  The play was prepared with that plan in mind.

Then on December 20, Amma told us that she would stop darshan early so she could watch the play with us.  That meant that the play would be on the stage.  The backdrops were WAY too long for the stage and would all have to be altered. The stage was smaller than what had been designed for the auditorium so both the acting and dances had to be reworked to fit in the smaller space. It was amazing how well the cast worked together to make the changes.

The same thing happened this year, but in the opposite direction. We had prepared to present the play on the stage and three days before the event Amma said since the crowds were large, she would be giving darshan on the stage. Therefore, the play would  be performed on the auditorium floor in front of her.  That way she could watch it while she was hugging those who came to receive her blessing.  Again many aspects of the play had to be reconfigured. The cast was used to this type of challenge by now, so they laughed and cheered and began to make the necessary alterations.

Costumes

Once the costumes were made, they all had to be ironed. It took four for five people many hours over a three day period to accomplish that task. One day, I was irritated because the only iron available to me was so heavy. It reminded me of the heavy irons from centuries past, the ones that were placed on a stove to get hot. I learned to tip the iron onto the fabric rather than pick it up each time I moved it.  Once I got my technique down, I discovered that it was actually the best iron of all of them. It was so heavy it seemed like it flattened many of the wrinkles through its weight! It was a good lesson in remembering that there is a lot I don’t know and my judgments may be wrong.

Christmas Eve

The day of the play finally arrived. The last rehearsals had gone well and everyone was ready.

There is only one story in the Bible about Jesus as a child. This play was about what Jesus might have been like when he was growing up, as well as what it might have been like to be his parents, siblings or friends. It also contained scenes about John the Baptist and about the 40 days and nights Jesus was tempted by Satan. While Jesus is known as a peacemaker, he also challenged the traditional religious teachings, so that area was addressed as well.

At one point in the play, Joseph told the children the story of David and Goliath. Our Goliath was a 12 foot high puppet! A man was inside of the puppet carrying him on his shoulders. As I’m sure you can imagine, Goliath was a major attraction!

The play was absolutely wonderful. The singing, dancing and acting were remarkable. (You can click on any picture in the gallery to enlarge them all.)

After the play was over, Amma gave her Christmas message and then we all received Christmas cake. If you are interested, you can read Amma’s speech at: http://www.amritapuri.org/50818/15-christmas.aum

Crowds

Very late on Christmas Eve, big groups of Indians started arriving and on Christmas day the crowd was huge.   That evening we went to the beach to meditate with Amma and the whole time we were there people continued to come. I have never seen that many people on the beach at one time.

At 6:15 or so we returned to the auditorium for bhajans (devotional singing). There were so many people that everyone couldn’t fit in the auditorium. It has been quite a while since I’ve seen the auditorium that full!

Play cast celebration

On Christmas day the play cast had a party. Devapriya and Chaitanya had prepared a funny skit. Goliath was part of it as well. Sreejit was Goliath’s voice. I took some pictures so you could see Goliath close up.

Morning prayers (archana)

I had started staying in my room during the morning prayers and reading one of the chants in Devanagari (Sanskrit) script during that time.  At first I did that was because I had lost my archana book, and then because I wasn’t waking up in time to get to the temple before the prayers started. It was also a way for me to practice my Sanskrit. One day this week though I was awakened at 3:30 in morning, by the computer! I hadn’t logged out, but I had closed the cover and everything had turned off.  I had left the internet stick inserted but it was off too. At 3:30, the computer started making noise.  When I looked to see what was going on, there were lights flashing several feet around it. That had never happened before and I was mystified. It was as if the computer had turned itself on. I couldn’t go back to sleep so decided I was “supposed” to go to archana in the temple, and did.

Challenges

December 26 was a challenging day for me. I was very triggered by several things that happened in the early morning. Soon thereafter, someone approached me and asked if I would like to take a picture of an insect. I went with them and was very intrigued by what I saw.

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I chose to believe that being given the opportunity to see this creature, which I think was a very young praying mantis, was either a reward for weathering the challenges, or something to lift my spirits. Since that day ended with more triggering events, I was very glad when it was over.

Tai Chi

A positive thing about the 26th was that we had two Tai Chi classes! I am so in love with that process. We’ve had two teachers working with us. Dave returned to Canada a few days ago and Stephanie will leave on January 2. I will miss learning from them but look forward to practicing what I have learned on my own, and hopefully will find another teacher when I get back to Seattle.

I can already feel changes in my body from doing it. It seems to me that my body is more relaxed, that my posture has improved and that I am looking straight in front of me instead of down. I look forward to seeing if it has any effect on my scoliosis.  Most important though is that it brings me into a meditative state.

Time with Amma

I have been so busy since I’ve been here that I haven’t spent much time with Amma.  She leaves January 5 on her South Kerala tour  and I will be gone when she comes back to Amritapuri.  I am going to make sure that I go to the beach meditations on Mondays and Fridays and will hand her prasad (the candy and ash she gives everyone she hugs) every darshan day!

I can’t believe that there are less than two weeks left in this trip.  I wonder what other lessons and experiences will come my way before I leave.

She Fed Santa!

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia

 

This year a lot of devotees from Washington State came to Amritapuri for Christmas, one of them being my Seattle friend Marmot.  She related a funny story to me last night and I told her if she would write it down, I would post it!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Continue reading “She Fed Santa!”

Living and Learning in Amritapuri- Dec 24 -25, 2014

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December 24

The play was as wonderful as I knew it would be.  The audience was spellbound and tears flowed freely.  Several days before, Amma told us that she would end darshan early so she could watch it with us.  That was such a gift.  It also meant that the play was on the main stage so everyone could see it well. Continue reading “Living and Learning in Amritapuri- Dec 24 -25, 2014”