Have you visited the Devi Mandir and spent time in the presence of Shree Maa and Swamiji?
Perhaps you came for a Saturday evening kirtan session and melted upon hearing Shree Maa sing; or you came by on a Sunday morning and felt energized by Swamiji leading a Chandi Path! Maybe you visited on a Shivaratri, Guru Purnima or any of the festivals celebrated with devotion and reverence at the Mandir. Or just may be, you are one of the lucky ones that even got to stay at the Mandir for an extended length of time. In all these situations, you spent time in Shree Maa and Swamiji’s presence for longer and longer durations and came away feeling their love and grace flow through you.
Multiply this feeling times a thousand, and that is how it feels when traveling with Shree Maa and Swamiji. I know, because I have just returned from traveling a three week portion of their two month India yatra.
The chronological events of the yatra are being beautifully captured in the travelogue as of this writing. I hope to offer my personal glimpses on the following four aspects of the journey with Shree Maa and Swamiji
2) Sadhana and Seva
4) Personal Memorable Moments
The preparation and planning started many months ahead.
Swamiji, our efficient leader, had come up with a draft itinerary based on Shree Maa’s request at least three months prior to the planned travel dates. He had already conferred with devotees in the US and India, talked with spiritual leaders of some of the temples that we planned to visit, arranged for transportation, stay, and food – all with his remarkable efficiency. There was at least one devotee appointed the local “organizer” who worked quietly with Swamiji in the background, that wherever we stepped foot in a new place, we had a seamless transition.
It seemed that there were smiling, welcoming devotees at every airport/railway station with garlands and bouquets not just for Shree Maa and Swamiji, but for their entire retinue. Some went a step further and presented each of the weary travelers a care-pack with fruits/sweets/juice and water. They relieved us of our bags and made us sit in comfort while deftly arranging our luggage for transportation.
After a comfortable ride across town, we were invariably greeted by the hosts that had gone ahead of us so that they could perform a paada puja for Shree Maa and Swamiji. Those present were blessed to witness the Gurus’ love and grace, whether it was a simple washing of the feet followed by an offering of flowers, or a more elaborate ceremony.
Then there was the food! Shree Maa, our Goddess Annapurna, insisted that Her children be fed very well. She even went grocery shopping to ensure that we had our supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. When some of the travelers were affected with a stomach bug, She personally supervised the food served to them and kept tabs on each of Her children – had they eaten, was the food spiced correctly, were they tired, what was so-and-so up to etc. I was touched, and a little amused, when dear Shree Maa had packed food for our flight too; She gave each of us our own brown bags with sandwiches and snacks. We’ll never go hungry with Shree Maa to feed us!
All praise to our organizers for the excellent accommodations. Some of them had taken extra pains to decorate the house with much fanfare – fresh paint in the rooms, garlands festooning the doorways, flower wreaths on the living room walls, elaborate pandals (cloth trailing from the edge of the roof like an awning, both for decoration and for providing shade), and magnificent rangolis on the ground. Someone quipped, “They decorated the place as though it were their daughter’s wedding”. Our kind hosts not only took care that Shree Maa and Swamiji were comfortable, but tried to give each of us individual accommodations where possible within the vicinity of our Gurus. Although my personal favorite were the times when the girls roomed with Shree Maa, as we could perform more personal seva for Her, like massaging Her feet.
And when it was time to pack up and move on, our organizers had already booked our onward tickets and conveyed us to the next phase of our journey.
A big THANK YOU to all the organizers and hosts! You not only did a magnificent job, but you also showed us how it should be done. I hope we can live by the standards that you have set when we host some of Shree Maa’s children or even, for that matter, our own families. Atithi devo bhava!
Sadhana and Seva
Don’t let the description of our comfortable stay fool you into thinking that this was a pleasure jaunt!
Shree Maa set the right tone for journey by establishing an altar in the front room of every place that we stayed. She placed a large picture of Chandi Maa that She decorated with jewelry, cloth, flowers on an altar similarly festooned with decorative elements. There was a Shiva Lingam in front of Chandi, with a picture of Ganesh and an idol of Surya to the right and a picture of Ramakrishna to the left. Large candles flanked the sides, and the floor had all the puja paraphernalia – bells, candles, a box with sindoor, chandan, kumkum, arati items, different varieties of flowers etc. Beloved Shree Maa sat in front of the altar as early as 4 am, immediately after Her bath, and started Her puja. For some of Her lazy devotees (read “me”), the ringing of her bell was our wake up call. Swamiji set up his asan behind Maa and chanted various texts from his iPad, often with early visitors peeping over his shoulder and reading along. We often had local devotees show up on our doorstep in the wee hours, and they would bring flowers and offerings and join in the morning Prayer activities.
Regardless of where we stayed, whether near Shree Maa and Swamiji, or a little further away, we assembled as a group at the latest by 5 am. Sometimes we chanted along with Swamiji, if he so wished, and at other times we did so in smaller groups. The favorite text was, of course, the Chandi, and we had a couple of devotees chant the entire text with the “Hrim” samput every day. Some of us chanted the Seedha path, seated a little behind Shree Maa, and others sat out in the garden facing the morning sun. The entire place buzzed with mantras and bells every morning.
Some days during mid-morning, we would go out with Swamiji to chant at the local temple. It was an experience in itself to see the local priests curiously watch the blend of western and Indian devotees chant with their Guru. Swamiji would offer dakshina once we completed the chanting, and the temple pujaris would reciprocate with a garland and a shawl, along with a tilak as blessings. We also got to perform puja at the homes of some devotees.
Other days we visited the main temple that Shree Maa and Swamiji had planned to visit as part of the tour and as part of their sankalpa. Prior to visiting the main temple, Shree Maa and Swamiji usually invited the administrator to where we were staying and had congenial introductions and discussions. As a result, this administrator would spare no pains in ensuring that Shree Maa and Swamiji along with their devotees had a wonderful experience of worship at the temple. We watched as the priests did their puja, and then we went ahead and did ours with Swamiji at the helm. In this way, we chanted several texts and sahasranams during the course of our stay.
In the evenings, just as in the Mandir, we were joined by local devotees and performed arati in front of the altar that Shree Maa had set up in the living room. This was followed by kirtan, with Shree Maa leading the way, but at times she would ask us to lead in songs as well.
The crowning point of the sadhana (as of this writing) was the Kali homa organized at Tryambakeshwar. While it was well attended by local Sadhus and Brahmins, it was the preparation for the event that was most useful for those that traveled with the Gurus. Swamiji showed us how to set up a makeshift havan kund, with bricks, cow dung, sand and water.
We spent time “cementing” the havan kund and had quite an education on the use of cow dung. Swamiji drew the Chandi yantra upon the wet sand and we colored it using red, white and black color powder. The entire process took several hours and we came away muddied, splotched with color, smelling of dung and buzzed at by flying insects, but exhilarated at having had first-hand experience in the set-up of a havan kund before a homa. During the fire ceremony, we paid careful attention to the agni avahan (the invocation of the fire) and a devotee made notes that we could use for later when doing our own homas.
During the day time, we had ample opportunity for service to the Gurus. Some of us helped clean the kitchen and the altar for the next day, a few did laundry seva for the Gurus, others wrote travelogues, organized luggage and internet connections, but the rare devotee got to massage Shree Maa and Swamiji’s feet and perform personal seva.
It seems that our access to the Gurus had gone from the few hours at the Mandir, to 24/7 during travel and we spent as much time as we could near them and bask in their love and wisdom.
The best part of the trip, as already stated, was the (almost) unlimited access to Shree Maa and Swamiji. We grabbed every opportunity to learn from them, whether it was merely observing their worship or by asking questions to clarify our doubts.
Viewers to the online evening classes at the Mandir know that Swamiji is a stickler for time and ends the sessions within an hour. Luckily for us, we had no such time restrictions and brought up questions in almost every casual meeting we had with Swamiji during the day.
One of the memorable satsangs was on the train journey from Bengaluru to Coimbatore. Swamiji had negotiated with other passengers so that our group could sit together in facing seats in the middle of the compartment. Swamiji sat next to Sushil and they were quietly discussing the Sadhana Panchakam. Some of us craned across the aisle to listen to Swamiji, and slowly it became a satsang that expanded to our group and soon to the surrounding passengers as well. With Swamiji cornered (literally) and with another five hours of journey, we discussed the Sadhana Panchakam in its entirety and then some. Shree Maa was mostly silent, seated across from Swamiji, but would from time to time provide her input as well.
Another train journey, this time from Mumbai to Nasik, and Swamiji answered our questions around his three year sankalpa of not staying under a roof when he was much younger. He also explained why leaving it all and going to perform sadhana in the Himalayas was not the path for everyone.
They were the best train journeys of my life; the most productive and the most illuminating. Thank you Swamiji!
More than the answers to the questions, the interactions brought to the fore front Swamiji’s wisdom and humor; his concern and interest in our questions; his gentle negotiations with the other passengers so that we could sit together as a group and his inclusion of them wherever possible in our discussions. He never forgot to profusely thank many an irate passenger that was unhappy with being dislodged from their seats.
If you, dear reader, get a chance to travel with Shree Maa and Swamiji long distance on a train, I urge you to take the opportunity and make it a fruitful way to clarify all your spiritual questions.
Personal Memorable Moments
There were several poignant moments during the travel; some already mentioned earlier. Here are a few of personal significance…
While in Mumbai, we stayed with Shree Maa’s cousins and relatives. One of the cousins, Kali, came up to me and presented me with a beautiful pearl necklace. I was taken aback by the courtesy and the unexpectedness and asked her to offer it to Shree Maa instead. She told me that Shree Maa had asked her to present it to me as a way of welcoming me into her family. While I had met Shree Maa’s extended family members in a neutral setting before, this was the first time that I actually stayed at the home of one, and this was Shree Maa’s way of making me feel at home and one with Her birth family. I shall cherish the beautiful pearl necklace along with my new relatives as long as I shall live.
Shree Maa and Swamiji had a wonderful way of taking leave of each home. They would chant “Jayanti Mangala Kali” from the Chandi (Argala Stotram, verse 1) and also an old English prayer:
“God of Goodness, God of Grace,
Be pleased to bless this dwelling place.
May Peace and kindly deeds be found,
May Gratitude and Love abound.”
What a wonderful way to bless a home and its residents! What another beautiful tradition for Shree Maa’s devotees to emulate!
We were traveling through my home town of Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, and I had asked Shree Maa and Swamiji if they would like for me to say a few words in Tamil to reach more people. They were very happy with the request, and so I set about preparing a short speech – an introduction to Shree Maa and Swamiji, their path of Siddhantachara, and what to take away after meeting them. While “rehearsing” the speech with beloved Rami, I struggled with some of the finer points of the language, as there is a lot of difference between the spoken and formal language. I despaired of getting the speech right, when Rami pointed out that the message was more important than the language. That struck home, and I happily delivered the speech in the spoken Tamil mixed with commonly used words in English with no problems. My maiden discourse was well received and it was only because of Shree Maa and Swamiji’s blessings and grace. It seems they took over from me and let the words come out as they should. It was an unforgettable night!
Shree Maa and Swamiji not only took care of the material and spiritual needs of all that traveled with them, but also the emotional needs of some of their more frail children. I felt particularly supported and bolstered during a sensitive time, and felt very protected by “an army of people” around me. I remember the wonderment that I felt when Shree Maa helped me handle that difficult phase, and I voiced it aloud to her, “Shree Maa, you are sooooooo great!” It seems like I cannot use any other words to explain how I feel, and “Thank you” seems almost a cheap and crude way to drag the experience down to a normal level and file it away in the mind. All I know is that Shree Maa is so great!