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.

Connecting Across the Rio Grand

When I woke up yesterday morning, there was an email from a blogging friend (Kathie chosenperspectives) in my inbox. She shared the link to an article about a Canadian artist who had created a light installation that opens a 2-way audio connection that allows people to talk across the Mexico-US border.

The article was SO moving. I wish I could copy the it all here but at least I can give you the links.

Article: The article includes an interview, a video and photos https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.5369737/a-canadian-artist-s-light-installation-lets-people-talk-across-the-mexico-u-s-border-1.5369748

Video of a woman and child talking: http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1647181891569/ . (It is a 2 minutes 20 second video. If it opens up to the end of the talk, just move the bar at the bottom back to the beginning. I imagine it is doing that on my laptop because I have listened to it before.)

What a great way it was to start my day.

This is What the Dream Looks Like

Sreejit is in the process of writing a new song called This is What the Dream Looks Like. It is about his experience of living and working on Amma’s most recent North India Tour. The video below was taken when he shared the lyrics with a group in Amritapuri.

Lyrics:

Straw mat and a concrete floor, food in the corner from two days before, laundry hanging from a rope through the center of the room – this is what the dream looks like.

Callus hands but they weren’t always rough, sharp words but we weren’t always tough, one thing this life teaches is that, together, we are enough.

This is what the dream looks like, more than a struggle it’s a fight to be kind when you’re hungry and tired, ‘cause you don’t have any right to be tired

when people are coming to forget their problems, and maybe a little of your time could help solve them, maybe a kind word from you would absolve them of the feeling that they’re all alone – though sometimes we all feel that we are all alone – yeah this is what the dream looks like.

Beaten down by the work no one sees, ‘cause it’s always full-on behind the scenes to magnify the glitz and the lights – yeah this is what the dream looks like.

Getting home to see family at most once a year, and never bringing home the glam and the cheer – just wanting to hide in your bed, to watch tv just to get out of your head – yeah this is what the dream looks like.

Feet full of cracks and can barely walk, always falling asleep and so can barely talk, all eyes on you confused why you can’t form a sentence, let alone a thought,

always irritated by the smallest things, ‘cause that’s just what happens when you forget to eat, and that’s just what happens when you’re consumed with the work that you love – yeah it truly is a gift from above.

Straw mat and a concrete floor, kind of looks like the city before, but that place had water and this one you have to go next door,

but next door they have a kitchen and some home cooked food, and a friendly ear to pry out the blues if you choose to forget for a moment that you are not alone in the struggle – yeah this is what the dream looks like.

Tour photos:

Sreejit’s Cooking

Someone recently took a video of Sreejit cooking during Amma’s South India tour. I thought you might find it interesting to have a glimpse of what it’s like to cook for such a large crowd. When he saw this post, he commented that the pot in the video is their smallest pot!

(To see the full screen version of the video, click on the icon that’s in the bottom right corner.)

“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.

So Many Memories

Every time I come to Amritapuri, I have so many memories of my first visit. I met Amma in June of 1989. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and 6 months after that I was at her ashram in India. I don’t remember when the ashram started to be called Amritapuri, but I think it was many years later. At that time, we just referred to it as being near Oachira or Vallikavu.

In those days, the beach road was not paved and was full of potholes. The taxi drivers were not willing to drive on it so they would take us to Vallikavu. From there, we took a canoe to the ashram. This was our first view of the ashram:

I arrived days after the temple was able to be used. The top floors had not been completed yet, and it would be years before the construction was done. I don’t have a photo of the temple from that time but the first photo below was taken within the last decade. The second two are from January 1990. You can click on the photo gallery to enlarge the pictures.

In those days, Amma would hold Devi Bhava programs three days a week. Those would be held in the temple. She gave darshan (hugs) in a small darshan hut.

The evening bhajan program was held in the temple. My memory is that there were so few people that we only filled the front third of the temple. I remember wondering why Amma had built a temple that was so big.

A photo from later in the 90’s shows the answer to that question.

When I came to the ashram in 1990, we never knew if Amma would attend the evening bhajans. My memory is that she would participate at least two times a week, and that when she came the program would last longer.

That first year, Amma sat with us on the floor of the temple, all of us facing the Kali murti. She would lead the singing without a microphone. A year or two later Amma, as well as the swamis and other back up singers, moved to the side of the room. At that point, everyone was still sitting on the floor of the temple. I remember Amma scolding us for facing her instead of the front of the temple.  Amma started using a microphone at that time.

I don’t remember what year Amma and the other singers started singing from elevated area at the front of the hall, near the Kali murti. I also don’t remember when the darshan programs moved to the temple.

During my first visit to the ashram, there were 30 western guests (now during the Christmas season there are close to 2000). The Western Canteen opened at that time. It offered only one meal a day, and that meal, as I remember it, consisted of a bowl of soup. (When I look at the photo below, it looks like the meal was bigger than that.) We were so grateful to have western food once a day.

Four days a week, the Canteen food was served on the fourth floor temple balcony. During the three Devi Bhavas, we gathered on the stairs going up to the sixth floor. Maybe those were the times we only had soup. There wouldn’t have been room on the stairs to serve much more than that.

Amma was 35 years old when I met her, and 36 years old when I visited the ashram for the first time. These are some photos of Amma from the early days.

I have been blessed to be able to consistently spend time with Amma in the United States and India during the last 29 years. I have so many memories of those experiences, and I am exceedingly grateful for that. Millions and millions of thanks to you Amma.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 24-28, 2016

Kerala Flood Update

A few days ago, I saw a newspaper lying on a table. When I glanced at it, the article that caught my eye was announcing that the Chief Minister of Kerala (the chief executive of the state) requested that all Keralites living in or out of the state, donate a month’s salary to the relief effort. It was suggested that they donate three days a week of their salary at first and then pay the rest over a 10-month period.

What a difference it would make in the recovery effort if people did this. I wonder how many Keralites will be this generous or have enough income to be able to participate. I would guess that he will have more response than if the same request was made, after a tragedy, by any U.S. president or governor.

In researching this event today, I read this statement by the Chief Minister:

As you are aware, this is the worst calamity in the history of Kerala. This calamity has affected the entire stretch of Kerala and 12 out of 14 districts severely. The devastation and destruction are extremely severe and beyond a description. The loss of life, livelihood, homes, roads, bridges, agriculture, power lines and public infrastructure will have far-reaching impact on socioeconomic fronts. Though it was unprecedented, the government swung into action immediately and concentrated fully on rescue and relief. I need to underline the fact that all sections of the people held their hands together along with government agencies to conduct rescue and relief operations. The selfless efforts of the fisherfolks have to be specially underlined. Read more

I also learned that on August 26, the death toll was 302 with more bodies being discovered. There were 1435 relief camps still in operation and the population in those camps was 462,000.

I then looked for an update on Amma’s relief work. I found this statement on amritapuri.org.

As the flood waters recede, and as the spotlight wanes, Amma and MAM remain fully committed to helping the survivors with their recovery for as long as it takes. Next steps for the Math include focusing on disease prevention, ongoing treatment of injury and disease, and finding ways to re-house those who have lost everything. Read more

To read Amma’s Kerala flood rescue and relief day-to-day updates – click here

Onam 2018

This year, Onam occurred on Saturday, August 26. Onam is a family holiday in Kerala, one that celebrates the agricultural harvest. Amma decided that the ashram event would not be celebratory in nature because of the devastation caused by the floods. The tug of wars and cultural entertainment that would normally be part of the festivities were pulled from the program.

Huge crowds usually come to the ashram for Onam. I wondered how many people would be able to attend this year. Even though there weren’t as many people as normal, it was still big. The program began with Amma’s satsang (spiritual talk). She spoke in Malayalam, but the English translation was put up on screens. I find I am much more attentive when the translation is done this way. There were so many parts of Amma’s talk that spoke to me. I haven’t found the text of the full satsang anywhere, but you can read some of it here.

(The photo below shows only half of the auditorium.)

After the satsang, Amma sang three songs and then gave darshan (hugs) for a short period of time. When darshan was over, it was time for lunch. Amma handed a plate to every person in the auditorium.

The Onam lunch was quite a feast. There were so many types of food on each plat. A lot of tables had been set up and brahmachinis and other helpers walked around aiding devotees in finding a place to sit, handing out hot water to drink and a buttermilk sauce to put on the rice, and cleaning up the tables in-between diners. The meal really felt like a family event to me. I realized, once again, that I have a VERY large family.

(Click on any of the galleries to enlarge the pictures.)

After the lunch, Amma fed Lakshmi, the ashram elephant, her lunch. This is always one of my favorite parts of Onam. After Lakshmi finished eating, Amma had her pick up, with her trunk, any food that had dropped on the floor. It always amazes me to see how well Lakshmi can clean up her mess.

Once the floor was clean, a bucket of water was brought to her. Lakshmi drunk quite a bit of it and then pulled up more water into her trunk. Next, she sprayed the water all over the children who were standing or sitting close to her. There were screams of delight and laughter from all over the auditorium, especially from everyone who was sprayed. That process occurred over and over. I think they even brought Lakshmi a second bucket of water.

When the water in the buckets was gone, the lunch program was over. Lakshmi was taken away and the devotees dispersed.

Amma came back to the hall at 6:30 p.m. for the evening bhajan (devotional singing) program. The songs were beautiful, as always.

Since there would be no entertainment that night, I expected bhajans to be the end of the Onam program. That was not Amma’s plan, however. Instead of going back to her room when she finished singing, Amma announced that she would be continuing to give darshan.

Amma gives and gives and then gives some more. I don’t know when she stopped for the night, but I know I went to bed before she did.

Photo Credits: Onam Photos are from Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org

Continuing to Explore

In my last post, I talked about making the decision to sit closer to the front of the room during programs instead sitting at the back or far sides of the hall. I have followed through on that commitment. Most often, I have been sitting on the floor in the section closest to Amma. I had forgotten what it is like to be surrounded by devotees who know the songs. The sound is so full and powerful.

I am still finding my limits though. I can sit cross-legged for an hour or even an hour-and-a-half. However, when I tried sitting in that way through Amma’s meditation and question and answer session, followed by the bhajan program, on Monday night, I found that my legs hurt a lot. Three-and-a-half hours was too much for me, even though there was a short break in the middle.

That night, Amma sang a lot of old bhajans, including one I hadn’t heard in many, many years. It was Shyam Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam… Aarati Kunjavihari Ki Sri Giridhara Krishna Murari Ki. I was in heaven.

Salad Day

Sreejit cooks for the Western Canteen. One day last week was salad day. He made potato salad (potatoes, pickles) , 3 bean salad (pinto beans, chickpeas and green beans), and beet salad. Someone took a picture of him surrounded by the ingredients. I think it gives a good sense of the amount of food Sreejit prepares for lunch, six days a week, and for every dinner. Needless to say, I am very proud of him.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Nimo Patel: We Shall Overcome

Any of you who have read my blog for a while will know that I love Nimo Patel’s music. This morning, I was notified that he had just released a new music video.

With so much that is negative and demoralizing going on in my country, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of hope. Watching and listening to Nimo’s new video was what I needed in this moment. I’m crying … and feeling gratitude… from the depth of my heart.

To learn more about Nimo Patel click here.

To watch Nimo’s other music videos click here.

To download the Empty Hands Music album for free click here.

New Book: Out of the Fog

My son Sreejit has published a new book of his poems. This one is called: Out of the Fog: 30 poetic musings on the world to which I cling. As always, Sreejit’s perspectives on life and living are thought provoking and well worth reading. Sreejit describes his newest publication in this way:

Perspective shapes our truth, our vision, and the way we move throughout this world. Our beliefs are filtered through the experiences that we’ve had and the weight that we allow these experiences to carry in the shaping of our truth. The world becomes illusion when we realize that every creature sees and understands it from different vantage points. Our world is all about perspective. The one written about here is mine.

He has also republished two of his intriguing and captivating novels.

A modern tale, an ancient mysticism, a universal love. Overcome by the weight of his failure to live up to the world’s standards of success, Ballard Davies decides that there is only one solution. He gets in his car and drives. He drives away from everything and everyone that he knows, in an effort to just start over. He doesn’t care where he’s headed; he just wants another chance to get it right. What he finds is beyond his imagination, as he befriends an eccentric cast of characters. From the divinely inspired to the rationalistic blowhards, everyone becomes a part of his journey to begin again. But there is still one problem – he cannot escape himself. What will it take for Ballard to overcome his own self-imposed limitations and live the adventure he feels he deserves? This is the journey he now travels, down a path where truth, love, desperation, honor, the forgiving and the righteous, the mystics and the scientists all battle for the chance to be given the foremost spot in the realm of his mind. Will the pain of loneliness and separation prevail, or will Ballard find something to live for?

 

Traversing a world based on perspective, with the force of our own illusions propping us up, what would you forsake to know the truth? Two families, separated by continents, are wrapped up in the same timeless struggle – to be more than the sum of their parts. Join them as they seek to solve a mystery that goes beyond the limits of our physical reality. With time never on our side, the question arises: what would you give up for freedom?

You can order these three publications and more on his Amazon.com author’s page.