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.

My Onam Experience

In recent posts, I have shared the pookkallams, artwork made from flower petals, that were constructed in front of Amma’s house each day leading up to Onam. Here are the most recent ones.

This was the pookkallam on Onam morning, September 4.

I hadn’t seen it at the time it occurred, but when I looked for the pookkallam photos on the Amritapuri Facebook page, I  learned that on Sunday a display of organic produce from the ashram gardens (which would be used in cooking the Onam dinner) had been created so that Amma could see the harvest.

Onam is a harvest festival that is similar to our New Year’s Day combined with Thanksgiving Day. This year, it took place on the day after Ganesh’s birthday. I woke up that morning exhausted and grouchy. My high of the day before had crashed.

The Onam crowd was enormous and the auditorium was packed to capacity. Awnings had been set up on three sides of the auditorium so that people who couldn’t get in could stay out of the sun. Seats had been added to those areas and they were all filled with devotees.

When I arrived at the program, a swami was giving a talk in Malayalam. I found a seat and sat for awhile but realized I was too tired to be there. I went back to my room and lay down. I didn’t sleep but it still felt like the right thing to do. I couldn’t even make myself get up when Amma started her talk. Eventually, I decided to go downstairs for the last part of it. Just before I arrived at the auditorium, Amma started to sing a bhajan. Yay!

[I read Amma’s talk later. If you would like to read it too, you can find it here.]

I enjoyed that song, and hoped for more of them, but Amma started a meditation when it was over. I knew that even if I could find a place to sit, I would just nod off so I stayed standing. When the meditation was finished, I noticed people standing up and moving towards the front of the room.

I soon realized Amma was going to sing again and had asked the devotees to dance. That perked me up and I came closer to the front of the auditorium. I perked up even more when I realized she was going to sing Amrita Vahini, one of my favorite bhajans. In fact, that song is one that I can count on to transform my mood.

I still remember a time in the early 2000’s when I walked into the temple on a day that Amma was passing out lunch. I was feeling down and was wondering why I was in India. I wanted to go home. Amma started singing Amrita Vahini while she was serving us lunch. By the time we had finished the song, my bad mood was gone and I was wondering why I wasn’t making plans to live there permanently. I couldn’t even remember why I had been so down the hour before.

The song worked its magic this time too. By the end of it, my exhaustion and negativity were gone.

Next, Amma started giving darshan (i.e. hugs) to part of the crowd. I knew that the darshan segment was going to be quick that day but I was still surprised when I looked up at a nearby screen soon thereafter and saw that she had already started serving lunch. Since on Tuesday’s, Amma now serves lunch to each resident by passing the plates to everyone via a series of human chains, I had assumed that would be the procedure for Onam too. But I was wrong; Amma individually handed a plate of food to everyone in that huge crowd.

I’m hoping I will be able to show you a photo of Amma serving the food in a future post, but here is one of some children enjoying their lunch. The cups have a sweet pudding in them. [In Kerala people usually eat with their hands rather than utensils.]

Another difference between the weekly Tuesday lunch and this holiday meal was that people ate it when they received it rather than waiting until everyone was served. I was sitting with my friends Eswar, Vandya and Manaswini. Once we had our plates, we were directed to eat in the student dining hall. That was a very nice experience and further elevated my mood.

As soon as Amma fed those thousands of people, she walked down to the floor of the auditorium. Lakshmi, the ashram elephant, had already been brought into the auditorium. Amma fed her handful after handful of fruit and a lot of leftovers from the meal. She does that by putting everything directly into Lakshmi’s mouth. That was an easy task when Lakshmi was young. Now the elephant is so big, Amma has to stretch to get the food in.

One of the fun things that happens when Amma feeds Lakshmi is that she plays with her. Sometimes Amma hides bananas behind her back and before long you can see the elephant’s trunk start to search behind Amma. She eventually finds the bunch of bananas. Amma also directs Lakshmi to pick up all of the crumbs from the floor, i.e. clean up her mess. It is amazing to see her do a pretty good job of completing that chore.

Another fun thing that happened after Lakshmi finished her meal was that a tub of water was brought into the area. Lakshmi drank some of it and then started spraying people in the crowd. She did that over and over again. Once she finished spraying the water in one tub, another tub of water was brought to her. The amount of water Lakshmi can spray has certainly increased with her growth. The people she chose really got a shower.

After the time with Lakshmi was over, Amma returned to the stage. I wondered if she was going to start to give darshan again but soon discovered I was in store for another treat. Part of the room was cleared and a series of tug-of-wars started. I’d never seen that here before.

The first of many tug-of-wars were between groups of men. They kept trying to even up sides by sending part of the men over to the losing side and/or by adding more men. At least 50 men participated and probably more. It was fun and funny to watch. After some time, the brahmacharinis (women monks) did it. That was also fun and even more funny. During the entertainment program that happened later that night, slides were shown from the tug-of-wars. Everyone laughed again. I sure wish I could show you some of those photos but I doubt I will ever have that opportunity.

The morning/afternoon festivities were over about 4 and Amma went back to her room. I also returned to my room and laid down. The next thing I knew, it was 7:30 p.m. and Amma had already been singing evening bhajans for an hour. I couldn’t believe I had slept that long or that deeply.

I walked to the auditorium and participated in singing the last bhajans of the night. During the Arati that followed something happened that I had never seen before. [During Arati, a brahmachari or swami circles a camphor flame in front of Amma.] At one point, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw Amma circling her arm as if she was circling an Arati flame in front of us! She had a beautific smile on her face. Whenever Amma arrives at a program, she bows to us. I think she was doing the same thing when she was circling her arm as if she was performing the Arati to us.

Amma returned to her room after the program. She had given darshan until after midnight on Sunday night and then come to the Onam program around 10 on Monday morning. She had been with us all day, took less than a two hour break and then come back for two hours of devotional singing. You might think that she would call it a day, but not so. About an hour later, she came to watch the Onam entertainment with us and stayed until 11:15 p.m.

I went back to my room soon after Amma  left. What a full day it had been. And such a good example how emotions are transitory. A day that had started with me being tired and grouchy had been full of fun. I went to sleep happy and content.

 

Most of the photos in this post came from the Amritapuri Facebook page. Many photos were taken that day so I suspect there will be more available on amritapuri.org in the next few days. If that happens, I will provide links to them in future posts on my blog.

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 24-27, 2017

The Western Cafe Opens

A puja was held at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday to bless the new cafe space prior to its opening. It was SOOOOO nice. Many people crowded into the café and others stood outside. A pujari performed many rituals, including chanting the 108 names of Amma, and a brahmachari led the group in singing four bhajans. I don’t remember the name of the first song but the others were Kali Durge; Amba Bhavani Sharade and Durge, Durge. Swamini Krishnamrita, who you can see in the photo above, did the Arati.

Afterwards, we went to the section of the new building where the canteen food is cooked. One of the stoves in that area was lit by the puja flame and we sang Om Namah Shivaya until a pot of milk boiled over. It took quite a while for that to happen so we sang for a long time. I enjoyed it so much.

Then, we returned to the café portion of the building and each devotee was given a small bowl of prasad that contained a chocolate chip cookie, a banana and keshari, an Indian sweet. The bowls were made from banana leaves.

The prasad bowl reminded me of a pada puja that the café staff did for Amma many years ago. Normally, during a pada puja, Amma is offered a plate that holds a variety of Indian foods. The café staff had done the pada puja their way though and had brought Amma items from the cafe such as a veggie-burger, French fries, pasta and pizza! I wasn’t in India when it happened, but I still laugh when I think about it. Everyone, including Amma, had thoroughly enjoyed the unusual experience.

Ganesh’s Birthday Celebrations

One of the reasons I came to India in August this year was so that I could participate in three festivals. The first one, Ganesh’s birthday is an eleven day celebration.

Ganesh is son of Shiva and Parvati and is known for having the head of an elephant. He is the god that is worshipped as:

  • remover of obstacles
  • patron of arts and sciences
  • deva of intellect and wisdom
  • god of beginnings

The celebration began with a puja at 5 a.m. on Friday, August 25. The pujari performed many rituals and the brahmacharis chanted numerous chants. It was beautiful although I have to admit I was too tired to enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Also, I had expected there would be a lot of singing but I was wrong, singing wasn’t part of this particular puja.

It was during this program that the Ganesh statue that had been made for this year’s celebration was installed. You might remember from a previous post that the statue had been created on the ashram grounds this year. At the time I wrote that post it looked like this:

This is what it looked like on Friday morning when it was installed:

At 8 a.m. on that day, I went to the auditorium for another another Ganesh event. This turned out to be the one I had remembered from the past. It was also a puja but the ashram elephant, Lakshmi, came for this one. We sang lots of songs and Lakshmi danced to the music. Afterwards, she was offered many plates of food. She definitely enjoyed that!

People are gathering at the Kalari, the site where Ganesh was installed, between 9 and 10 every evening during the 11 day celebration. I attended the first two gatherings and will continue to do so. We sing rousing Ganesh bhajans for most of the time and then a beautiful Arati and closing prayers. After the program is over, each person is given a luscious and tasty treat.

On September 3, the last day of the celebration, the statue will be taken to the beach in a public procession, singing as we go. It will be immersed in the Arabian Sea where the clay will dissolve so Ganesh can go back to his home at Mt. Kailash where he lives with Shiva and Parvati.

Onam

The season of Onam also began on August 25. Onam  is a harvest festival and is considered to be the biggest and most important festival in Kerala. September 4 will be a full day of festivities at the ashram, but each morning until then a new pookkalam will be be made outside of Amma’s house. The pookkalams are constructed using flower petals of various colors. Here are photos of the ones that were made for the first three days of this Onam season.

August 25
August 26
August 27

Photo Credits: All photos are from the Amritapuri Facebook Page

To view the previous posts in this series click here.