Highlights of the 2014 Yatra
It was an unusually quiet morning, as if everyone’s heart was dampened with the realization that the time had come to say goodbye to Mother India, and to embrace our long journey home.
Srini and Ramya’s altar glowed with the color of sindur this morning, and Shree Maa looked like a beautiful Goddess as She performed her final puja.
After breakfast, we began to pack.
There was so much to do, so much to organize prior to getting on the plane, but I cleverly managed to steal a few minutes of Swamiji’s time.
During these precious moments with Swamiji, I asked him to share, from his perspective, what he thought were the major highlights and overall accomplishments of the 2014 Tour of India.
We invite you to relive these treasured moments with us, and hope you enjoy them as much as we did:
Though we accomplished a lot during our two month journey through India, there was part of the tour that actually got diverted. We failed to reach Uttarkashi, where we had hoped to perform worship in a familiar environment. Instead we visited Vrindavan, which was equally spectacular. Uttarkashi will be added to our next itinerary, along with the several other invitations that we received along the way.
The 2014 Tour allowed Shree Maa and Swamiji to teach, to inspire, to worship, and to move devotees closer to God. They touched the hearts and minds of devotees from all over India, making their investment of time and energy a huge success.
Our special thanks to everyone who empowered us to share along the way, and to all of our divine hosts who so graciously extended their time, their homes, and their resources to make this yatra possible.
We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Travelogue: Bengaluru & Mysore
The ride from Nilgiri Hills to Bangalore was about seven hours in length, but we passed through both an elephant sanctuary and a tiger sanctuary, which held our attention.
These sanctuaries are actually large tracks of preserved wilderness, so seeing an elephant or a tiger isn’t all that likely, but that didn’t stop us from scouting out the landscape for any sign of movement.
I was actually quite keen on having the experience of witnessing an elephant or a tiger in the open wilderness, so I repeated Ganesha’s Mantra over and over again, holding out hope.
As we drove merrily down the road, we spotted a vehicle that had pulled over to the side of the road. We quickly followed suit and pulled over as well. We assumed they had spotted wildlife and we too wanted to see what had caught their fancy.
I scrambled out of the car as quickly as I could and looked up to catch a glimpse of an enormous gray elephant just a short distance from the road!
Oh my goodness! Jai Ganesha! I was so thrilled I could feel my heart pounding as if it was going to leap out of my chest! Ganapathi Ki Jai!
We all took a few enjoyable moments to watch this amazing beast. He seemed so content, so majestic, just standing there in the hazy sunlight. As we took the time to gaze, we also noticed deer and other animals roaming peacefully in the preserve.
It is always so sacred to receive God’s darshan in the form of untainted countryside and natural wildlife. What a blessing Lord Ganesh bestowed on us today!
It didn’t take long for us to hop back into the car and continue our expedition. We were still hours from Bangalore, and we were planning to take our lunch at a devotee’s ashram in Mysore.
Upon arrival, Shree Maa and Swamiji first enjoyed a mouthwatering lunch, then we walked around the lovely landscaped property and worshiped in the Shiva Temple, the Devi Temple, and a newly installed Hanuman Temple.
This beautiful ashram is located in a rural area, where the atmosphere is calm and quiet. There are several temples here, a river flowing nearby, and a divine feeling all around.
Unfortunately we were not able to stay long at this lovely ashram, but Shree Maa and Swamiji surely filled the space with their divine presence. We quickly took our leave and a few hours later we arrived in Bangalore.
Srini and Ramya are both professors at the Indian Institute of Management (IIMB University) and they conveniently live in a beautiful house in a large garden right on campus. IIMB is one of the most prestigious business schools in Asia with over 400,000 potential students competing for the 450 or so seats available in the program. Graduates from IIMB often go to work for large multinational companies.
We were greeted joyfully by Srini and Ramya when we arrived. They certainly are lovely hosts! The first thing they did was to perform a pada puja to Shree Maa and Swamiji with such love and devotion that we all smiled, laughed, and even participated.
Shree Maa and Swamiji were smiling with delight as Srini and Ramya repeated the mantras and led everyone in shouts of “Shree Maa Ki Jai!” and “Swamiji Ki Jai!” Ramya playfully echoed our stay at Vaishnav Devi, where she led us in continuous shouts of “Jai Mata Di!” while we carried Shree Maa in Her palki through the city.
While at the University, Shree Maa and Swamiji also took a tour of the classrooms and of the offices of Professor Srini and Professor Ramya. They both looked like college students ready for study as they sat at the desk checking out the computer systems!
Srini also invited Swamiji to give a satsangha for a group of students. Much to our surprise though, rather than students showing up, a group of professors came! Several of them had read Swamiji’s biography, Sahib Sadhu, and others had heard about Shree Maa and Swamiji from fellow professors who had met them on previous visits.
He stated that, rather than just teaching book knowledge, a teacher’s job is to inspire the students to want to learn, to want that knowledge.
With this inspiration, a student’s cultivated mind will seek a lifetime of continuous exploration, of continuous learning, which will foster individual growth and great contributions to society.
A teacher’s dharma is to inspire, and this is a much better method than to force a student to memorize by rote, which will eventually lead to forgetfulness.
Swamiji then opened the floor for questions, and the teachers asked questions primarily related to spiritual life. All were very pleased with Swamiji’s wisdom and inspired to hear his answers.
Some of the professors requested for us to make this video available to them so that they could share Swamiji’s wisdom with their students:
By evening time, news had spread all around the university that Shree Maa and Swamiji were staying on campus.
Shree Maa led the bhajans that evening, and by the look on everyone’s face, it was clear they were deeply touched by her breathtaking voice and the devotional songs that She sang.
One professor even danced to Shree Maa’s beautiful song to Lord Shiva, Matanga Vadana. Afterwards, Shree Maa told the dancer that Lord Shiva was very happy with her dancing.
And now, as the last of the devotees trickled out of the house, this glorious evening was coming to an end. I found myself compelled to walk over to Srini and Ramya’s altar and just spend a few moments there.
Gratitude not just for the beauty that blossomed during this evening’s kirtan, but also for the divine love shared during the entire yatra of India.
For, this was our last satsangha of the 2014 tour. Tomorrow morning we were destined to awaken bright and early, perform our puja, and get ready for the airport.
I bow in gratitude!
Travelogue: Nilgiri Mountains
Our journey took us south to the beautiful Nilgiri Hills (also called Nilgiri Mountains) in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiris are home to majestic mountain ranges that touch the clouds, colorful flowers, amazing wildlife, and expansive tea gardens.
We planned a short, few day visit to the Nilgiri Hills this year, but remembering what a wonderful time we had here last year, I was sure it was going to be a great experience.
On our way we visited a devotee’s home for a quick meal. Upon arrival these precious devotees gently washed Shree Maa and Swamiji’s feet, and then fed us a hearty authentic Indian meal served on banana leaves! We were very satisfied and so grateful for their hospitality.
Proceeding forward, we soon arrived at Nandu’s ashram, which is located deep in the forested Nilgiri Hills. Nandu, a longtime devotee of Shree Maa and Swamiji, built a temple and ashram in a beautiful natural area just outside of a small town by the name of Yedapalli.
The ashram has one main temple with a large statue of Shirdhi Sai Baba, a well-known and loved Indian saint, and a Shiva Lingam. In addition, there are many smaller outdoor mandirs scattered all about the ashram property.
When we arrived many devotees were waiting to welcome us to the temple. As is the custom in India when the guru arrives, they welcomed Shree Maa and Swamiji with a short puja consisting of waving of lights and offering flowers.
We then entered the main temple to perform a Shiva Puja and to recite the Chandi Path. Shree Maa was very pleased that all of the articles of the panchamrit: milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and sugar, were readily available for her worship of the Shiva Lingam.
As it is a rare opportunity to witness Shree Maa and Swamiji perform puja, all of us watched with utmost attention as Shree Maa made the offerings while Swamiji eloquently chanted the mantras. At one time during the puja, Swamiji led everyone in reciting the “Om Namah Shivaya” mantra.
Before beginning the Chandi Path, Swamiji asked someone who spoke Tamil, the local language, to make an announcement that the chanting would take around one and a half hours and that anyone who liked could leave. If they wanted to stay, they were asked to please maintain silence. To our surprise, hardly anyone left! They all stayed and listened to the recitation, soaking in the vibration of the sacred mantras.
We then walked around the grounds of the ashram and came upon a new outdoor murti of the Goddess Chandi. This murti was newly installed this year, and so it was perfect timing for Shree Maa and Swamiji to breathe life into it with a puja. When Swamiji came to the Prana Pratistha part of the puja, Shree Maa simultaneously chanted the Devyarthashirsham, thus invoking the deity.
When the program was complete, we went to the home of a devotee who grows tea plants in the Nilgiri Hills. It was a completely serene location. The only sound one could hear was the chirping of birds.
Upon arrival, Shree Maa and Swamiji’s feet were washed yet again! (Shree Maa and Swamiji must have the cleanest feet in town — two washings in one day :)!)
We ate a hearty meal and took rest prior to returning to Nandu’s ashram for an evening program of singing and arati.
We were thrilled that several devotees showed up to join the kirtan that evening. It reminded me of our kirtan here last year, where nearly everyone present stood up and danced in joy around the havan kund. I was hoping for this to happen again, but this year we held kirtan on a newly constructed stage, making it a little more difficult to dance.
Then, arati began and everyone waved the arati lights in front of Shree Maa and Swamiji.
During arati, Shree Maa and Swamiji sat on the stage, performing the double roll of singers and recipients of everyone’s devotion.
As arati proceeded, everyone’s devotion amplified and their bhavana grew and grew — but still nobody danced.
The program was coming to an end and it was now time for final blessings.
Shree Maa offered everyone wonderful prasad, directly from her hands. This inspired everyone to no end.
Having received Shree Maa’s blessing, their devotional battery got a “jump-start!”
Finally, a few devotees began to dance!
I too joined in the fun!
Soon we had a group of dancers!
Suddenly, almost everyone was dancing, including Pranavananda!
Then, when Shree Maa was finished giving out prasad, She too was inspired to join us!
It didn’t take long for this group of devotionally “charged” devotees to form a circle around Shree Maa. We danced and danced from the bottom of our hearts around our Mother in complete joy! What a fantastic evening it turned out to be.
Shree Maa’s bhavana is contagious! Watch this video and soon you too will be dancing:
Jai Maa! Jai Swamiji!
As we traveled by car from the farmhouse to Nashik, we shared stories and pleasant memories of our time spent in the sacred land of Tryambak last year, during the 2013 tour of India.
We were all so much looking forward to our visit again as we loved the countless temples, beautiful natural areas, and sacred pilgrimages sites.
This temple offers an excellent atmosphere for performing sadhana in the main temple area, and upon entering we are always eager to claim our space for worship, lay out our asanas, and begin.
The home we stayed in was in close proximity to Tryambakeshwar, so it availed us the opportunity to visit this sacred temple several times during our stay.
On one of those visits we were allowed to enter into the inner sanctum, where the jyotir lingam resides.
Afterwards, we found a location in the main temple to worship. We were situated directly in front of the darshan line, giving the devotees in the queue the chance to, unknowingly, receive darshan of the Divine Mother as well.
We performed puja here, and it was especially beautiful, as we offered 108 pink lotus flowers to Lord Shiva.
After completing the puja, accompanied by the birds who were also chirping their glory to God that fine morning, Shree Maa and Swamiji led the group in the recitation of the Rudrastadhayayi.
The home we stayed in was large enough to hold satsangha, both inside the house and in the outdoor gazebo.
During the story of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Shree Maa was overcome with devotional bhavana.
Unexpectedly, She stood up and started to dance.
Her elegant hand movements resembled the graceful Saraswati Devi as She glided across the gazebo as if floating on a cloud.
The next morning, in honor of the telling of the story of Sri Rama, Shree Maa and Swamiji decided to lead all of the devotees present in singing the Sundar Kanda. This time, we set up shop in a spacious room inside the home in which we were staying.
We pulled out the drums, keyboards, and other musical instruments and sang from our hearts while celebrating God’s love.
Singing the Sundar Kanda with Shree Maa and Swamiji is always quite an intense spiritual experience.
New devotees, without a doubt, always become deeply inspired.
On this occasion, some of devotees told me afterwards that they normally don’t chant, and some even said they typically don’t enjoy chanting at all, but after singing the Sundar Kanda with Shree Maa and Swamiji, they are forever changed.
After feeling and experiencing the great joy of worship, they want to learn more. They want to practice. This is how worship is supposed to be!
Having spent four days in Tryambak, it was now time for our departure. We loaded up the car and enjoyed our four to five hour journey back to the city of Mumbai.
As we approached the city, I couldn’t help but recall that gorgeous penthouse Beverly Hills style suite, and my mind quickly grew excited in anticipation to stay there again. I soon realized, however, that we were actually staying at the home of another devotee. My initial disappointment was short-lived when, once again, I was pleasantly amazed with modern day Mumbai.
The section of town we were staying in hardly looked like an Indian city at all! My jaw dropped in utter surprise as I stared wide-eyed at the architectural design, which looked like a blend of a European city with an American city, that had been dropped into the middle of India!
As we drove through the area, we enjoyed the view of well maintained high-rise apartments, supermarkets, beautiful public parks, all sorts of restaurants, and many other modern businesses. This part of Mumbai was constructed about 15 years ago as a planned community with a distinct zoning organization, separating the residential areas from the business areas. It was really an impressive and unique concept for India.
We arrived at the high-rise and took the elevator to the 25th floor where we comfortably resided. Shree Maa quickly set up Her altar and Swamiji set up his electronics. Even here, on the 25th floor of a modern upscale high-rise, we conducted beautiful worship and held some wonderful satsanghas with the local devotees.
One such memorable celebration occurred with a father and son, who happened to have birthdays one day apart, and which happened to take place during our visit to Mumbai.
For their birthday celebration, all they wanted was to offer puja to Shree Maa and Swamiji. They got their birthday boon as they performed a heart-felt puja and offered lotus flowers, cake, malas, and more!
It was refreshing to be with devotees who would rather remember the Guru on their birthday than focus on themselves. What a blessing for this father-son team, who on their birthday were able to worship two true gurus, who show us the path to a spiritual life.
During our visit to Tryambak and Mumbai, Shree Maa and Swamiji demonstrated intense devotion, impeccable deeds, and true wisdom. Through their example, they inspired so many devotees to lead a life of worshiping the Divine.
Whether they were in the simple rural places of India or residing amongst the busiest Indian cities, whether they be in a farmhouse or in an upscale high-rise, they demonstrated how to live in peace as they gently inspired others, step by step, to move closer to God.
This is their mission — to inspire each of us to worship the Divine. Clearly, on their visit to Mumbai and Tryambak, they successfully accomplished this objective!
Jai Maa! Jai Swamiji!
From Digboi we traveled southwest to the populous city of Mumbai, located in the state of Maharashtra.
I have to admit that I wasn’t very excited to visit Mumbai. It is a big noisy city with lots of traffic and walls of people in constant motion.
However, I got a fresh perspective of modern Mumbai on this trip. Even though our Mumbai hosts had been cyber devotees for some years, they had physically met Shree Maa and Swamiji for the first time last year in Varanasi. We all quickly fell in love, and they invited us to stay with them this year for a few days when we came to Mumbai.
When we arrived at their home, we were amazed that it actually looked something like a Beverly Hills style penthouse suite, that afforded a stunning view overlooking the entire city of Mumbai! Wow!
The city of Mumbai that seemed so noisy and chaotic when we were fully immersed in it, now appeared very different. From this higher perspective, the city appeared peaceful and orderly, in sharp contrast to just a few minutes before.
Spiritual lessons sometimes come when least expected, and I could not help but peg this simple lesson of perspective in my memory. I wondered how different my life, and all of our lives, would be if we had the discrimination to apply a higher perspective to our challenging life situations, ultimately shifting our thoughts to peace and order.
In addition to a stunning home, the family hosting us had taken the utmost care, in every detail imaginable, to plan for us to feel welcome and invited into their home. The first thing they did — they fed us!
They prepared a gala dinner of epic proportions, with so many dishes of such great quality, that not even a 10 star restaurant could have matched it.
Then, the family felt so fortunate to have Shree Maa and Swamiji stay with them that they performed a beautiful pada puja (puja to the feet) to Shree Maa with one hundred and eight fully blossomed pink lotuses!
With unimaginable devotion, they read each of the 108 names of Durga, and with every “Namah” they offered one beautiful lotus flower to Shree Maa.
After Shree Maa’s puja was complete, now it was Swamiji’s turn! They washed his feet and worshiped him with the greatest of love.
Fortunately the camera was rolling and we captured these awesome videos to share:
After the pujas, both Shree Maa and Swamiji looked like radiant deities blessing everyone present. The family sponsoring the puja asked for one special blessing — the blessing of true devotion. Who could imagine a better prayer than that!
The post-puja celebrations erupted in a great flow of devotion as Shree Maa led everyone in singing bhajans and chanting the Hanuman Chalisa.
The next day we departed for Tryambakeshwar, but along the way, this devoted family had one more surprise for us all.
The next morning, as is custom in our rhythm of life in India, we woke up and performed sadhana.
Shree Maa worshiped at an adorable Ramakrishna altar, while Swamiji chanted various stotrams and sahasranams.
Later that morning, together we walked the grounds of the property. The family was quick to point out a special grove of Panchavati trees that it had seeded and nurtured. Sri Ramakrishna had done sadhana in a Panchavati grove in Kolkata long ago, and these trees were planted in honor of the sacred place where Ramakrishna performed his sadhana.
Upon seeing this, Shree Maa became elated, and with full intent of worshiping that tree, she collected various items of worship. With the help of all the ladies present, She decorated the tree with a Sari, flowers, sindur, turmeric and other offerings.
She also established an altar for Ramakrishna, Chandi, and Ganesh at the base of the tree, and a place for us all to comfortably sit.
Under this special tree, Swamiji led us in a group puja followed by the Chandi Path. It felt as if we were at a Rishi’s ashram from ancient times, sitting together under a tree, worshiping with the Gurus.
Unfortunately, our short visit to Mumbai, and to the farmhouse, was quickly drawing to a close. We found ourselves, once again, packing up our belongings to continue our journey to Tryambakeshwar.
Though the time spent here was short in duration, it lacked nothing in terms of the richness of experience. The quality of devotion which permeated that entire visit, indeed gave it a special feeling.
Devotion permeated everything, from the family’s commitment and careful attention to every last detail, to their prayer request for even more devotion, and finally to Shree Maa’s demonstration of devotion in worshiping a tree.
There is nothing we lack when we have pure devotion. With devotion, we truly have everything! Our short stay in Mumbai made me certain of this.
Jai Maa! Jai Swamiji!
Travelogue: Shree Maa’s Childhood Home in Digboi
Assam is a state in the north-eastern region of India, connected to India mainland through West Bengal.
This beautiful land is located south of the eastern Himalayas and is well-known for its tea plantations and the conservation of wildlife, such as the rare one-horned Indian rhinoceros, Asian elephant, Bengali tiger, and a variety of bird species.
Though Digboi was a two hour drive away from the airport, no one seemed to mind as the luscious green panorama was a real treat for our eyes.
As I looked out the window, I noticed the landscape here was in far contrast to the busy city of New Delhi, as if the short plane trip had transported us into a whole new world. This world was serene, quite, and contained one of the most majestic landscapes I have ever seen.
The rolling green tea plantations upon the rural landscape went on for as far as the eye could see. God’s love surely is expressed in the beauty of nature. This breath-taking view served as a reminder to me to stay aware of the hidden grace which becomes manifest through unadulterated nature.
The beauty was magnified by the arduous field workers who, in peaceful acceptance of their dharma, tended to the fields with great attention and love as they picked tea leaves under the sun.
As is typical in India, there were free-roaming cows and goats who meandered on the side of the road, often searching for food. Sometimes, these sacred animals of India would walk into the road, but the occasional “beep-beep” from the car horn would alert them to slowly move to the side.
Another diversion from the two hour car journey came in the form of an attempted Sanskrit conversation with Sushil.
We took advantage of our time in the car with Sushil to try to practice and learn.
In the most joyful and playful way, Sushil would correct us when we were wrong and applauded us when we had spoken it correctly.
He was like a proud parent teaching his children how to talk, and it made our sanskrit learning very entertaining, especially when we broke out into hysterical laughter!
As we approached Shree Maa’s birthplace, not only did our anticipation grow, but Shree Maa herself was touched by the excitement of seeing Her childhood home.
She had not been to Digboi since She left the state in Her younger days, and She was so much looking forward to visiting Her family, childhood friends, classmates, and devotees.
The hotel owner was very sweet and became deeply inspired by Shree Maa’s devotion. Despite the fact that throughout the hotel we could be heard chanting and singing, our hotel owner did not mind in the least.
One time Swamiji inquired to the owner to see if our chanting was disturbing his hotel and he responded, “Who cares, makes this place your ashram while you stay here!”
This could only happen in India – for sure a Hilton, Marriott, or any other hotel located in the United States would have demanded our silence.
There was much joy in the hearts of Shree Maa’s family when we arrived at Her childhood home.
They graciously took us on a tour through this rustic home with several inter-connected rooms. As they did, they began sharing special family events and funny stories that a family holds in their memory banks as precious. They even showed us the room in which Shree Maa spent Her time as a child.
As the family bonding continued, the stories grew rich in humor and Shree Maa could even be seen sitting on a bed with Her family just laughing and giggling like a school girl.
Our home tour continued to the outside where we walked over to a cute small pond adorned with lovely flowers all around it.
Shree Maa’s heart blossomed as She relived the days of how, as a child, She would walk to this pond every day, look at all of the flowers, pick the choicest ones in full bloom, and offer them to God in Her puja.
When the home tour was done, Shree Maa and Swamiji worshiped the various images of divinity in the house and led everyone in singing the Hanuman Chalisa and other songs.
We then took a tour of other sites that were instrumental in shaping Shree Maa as a child. We visited her grade school, a Kali Temple where she used to practice meditation, and a Ramakrishna Ashram.
When we arrived at Shree Maa’s grade school, we were unsure if we would be allowed to go into the school as the teachers were in the middle of teaching and the students were engaged in learning.
The Headmistress (Principal) of the school invited us in and was happy to talk with Shree Maa.
Little girls in their school uniforms could be seen staring out from all of the classroom doors and windows. As they peered through the windows, their inquiring minds were wondering who had come to their school that was so important that all of the teachers had left their classrooms!
Finally, some of them must have recognized who Shree Maa was because as Shree Maa walked around the school, the children were staring at Her and became overwhelmed with excitement. Also, when Shree Maa passed by a classroom, many students would come out and touch her feet.
Swamiji stopped in one classroom to talk to the students. He told them that Shree Maa had studied in this same school and She is now a world renowned spiritual teacher.
The students stared with complete attention as Swamiji spoke. Not only were they amazed to hear about Shree Maa, but here was a white sannyasi from America in their classroom speaking Bengali!
What a memorable school day this was for those sweet children!
As we were about to leave, the school administrators called us back into the office. One of the men said to Shree Maa, “I think this is the first time you have come back here, and I am afraid it might be the only time you visit us. Please, let us pay you some respect to you before you go.”
Because we were now outside, the teachers decided to let all of the students out and suddenly a flood of students came running from their classrooms eager to watch.
Prior to our leaving, Swamiji chanted a blessing for all the students and then explained the meaning to them in Bengali. After a large round of applause, the Headmistress bowed down and touched Shree Maa’s feet.
I am sure it was the most exciting and inspiring school day those students, and even teachers, had enjoyed in a long time.
Our next stop was the Kali Temple where Shree Maa often worshiped as a child. We offered a puja to Kali, and Shree Maa brought a huge bright shining necklace as part of the offering. We then sat down to recite the Kali Sahasranam.
Exciting news travels quickly in small towns, and it seemed that the news was out that the beloved Shree Maa was worshiping at the temple.
By the time we finished the Kali Sahasranam and began singing some songs, a large group had gathered.
Shree Maa lovingly spoke with them, blessed them, and compassionately listened to their troubles.
Our last visit of the day was to the ashram of the local Ramakrishna order.
Sadly, this ashram was virtually vacant, as if very few people were living here. Even the arati was done by a recording.
Our large group added some bhavana to the arati by singing along with the recording. Shree Maa then led the group in songs for Ramakrishna. We could see residents peering into the temple with a look of shock, as if new life had returned to the ashram.
And so, though our chapter in the town of Digboi has come to a close, the spirit and bhavana that Shree Maa left behind will endure in the hearts and minds of all She touched.
Her love, Her compassion, and Her devotion enveloped Her childhood town and breathed new life and invigorating energy into it. Such is the grace of the Universal Mother. Such is the grace of Shree Maa!
While in New Delhi, we took rest and renewed our energy in preparation for our next divine adventure, which was the famous city of Vrindavan (also spelled Vrindaban).
Vrindavan is the location where Sri Krishna spent his childhood and this city is dedicated to the worship of both Sri Krishna and Radha Maa. The town is a pilgrimage center and is bustling with devotees flocking to numerous temples dedicated to Lord Krishna.
The city of Vrindavan holds very special memories for Swamiji. He lived here several years back as a young sadhu, and it was here that he studied and learned the language of Sanskrit from his Guru.
When we arrived in the city, Swamiji recounted many of the ways in which the city had changed over the years. There are now many more buildings, hotels, and large temples compared to those days. Though it seems more commercialized now, Swamiji was quick to point out the old architecture and construction, such as the uncured reddish brick walls, which still remains intact today.
We were in Vrindavan for just a few short days, but that gave us time to visit some special temples. The first temple we visited was Katyayani Peeth, a Shakti Peetham dedicated to the sixth form of Durga, who blesses Her children with ultimate purity. I was pleasantly surprised to find a temple for the Goddess in the famous abode of Lord Krishna.
Swamiji explained that many of the temples in Vrindavan open their doors for darshan only during specific times of the day and for Arati.
Swamiji realized we were 10 minutes away from the start of Arati and, wasting no time, he quickly laid his asana, opened his iPad, and recited the Aparajita Stotram. Just as we were finishing the stotram the doors opened and the Arati began!
The temple pujari was both graceful and meticulous in the performance of Arati, so much so, that it seemed as though Shree Maa’s eyes were glued to him. Filled with devotion, after Arati we paced behind Shree Maa and Swamiji as we circumambulated the temple three times.
The temple priests, upon realizing that they were in the presence of Shree Maa, payed their respects and offered Her the opportunity to bless all of us with a tilak from the sindur that had been offered to the Goddess. The priests then gave us all prasad and offered flower malas to both Shree Maa and Swamiji.
As we approached the section of town near to the temple, the streets became flooded with swarms of devotees who came to offer their love and devotion to Lord Krishna.
We came to a point on our journey where driving any closer to the temple would not be possible. With the utmost dedication to completing our journey, we eagerly climbed out of the car and joined the maddened crowd of devotees toward the temple.
A pedal rickshaw is a bike combined with a carriage on it that is small enough to navigate the heavy populated pedestrian area.
The crazed streets became more and more congested as we drew closer to the temple. Much like the streets of Varanasi, the buildings seem to converge together, making the streets very narrow with only sufficient room to walk. It now became impossible for even the pedal rickshaws to go further!
Once again, with supreme dedication to our sankalpa, we climbed out of the rickshaws and took to the streets by foot.
As we made our way along the cracked and cobbled road, our beloved Mother was protected on both sides by her dedicated daughters, who held Her hands and arms to ensure She did not stumble or accidentally step into cow dung. She was protected from the back by Swamiji, Amitabh, and me, who provided a much needed buffer from the pushy crowd.
Though our worldly senses were entertained by the numerous shops selling pictures of Gods and Goddesses, beautiful malas, intricate murtis, and sweet and savory snacks, we all kept our minds focused on our objective, which was to get to the temple.
Finally we reached!
We immediately went to the back of the temple, to the exit door, where they allowed Shree Maa and our assisting pandit to enter.
The guards at the exit were very firm that only one person could accompany Shree Maa through the exit, as it was for VIPs only. I was a bit annoyed that apparently they were not told, or did not understand, that Swamiji too was a VIP. But, our humble Swamiji was not at all bothered.
As Swamiji left Shree Maa with the pandit and began walking with us around the building, the guards relented and told Swamiji that it was fine for him to accompany Shree Maa. The rest of us quickly made our way back to the main entrance of the temple.
The scene at this temple was different from other temples we have visited.
This was not a temple where devotees could sit and worship. Rather, there was a constant stream of devotees entering the temple, making their way to the front for Darshan, hoping to get some prasad, and then exiting quickly.
The objectives of the guards and the police officers were to keep the wall of humanity moving through the temple with minimum chaos.
Though no sadhana or chanting was being done, it did not limit the expression of pure devotion coming from those who stood the long hours to get a 10 second darshan.
Many of them would throw up their hands saying, “Banke Bihari Ki Jai!” upon seeing the murti of Lord Krishna. There was such a great air of joy, celebration, and devotion all about the place!
As we entered the temple, we squeezed and squirmed our way through the crowd to try to get to the exit area where Shree Maa and Swamiji had found a small place to sit. Since the crowd was lining up to see the deity, it took us only a few moments to reach Shree Maa and Swamiji, who were already engaged in chanting the Vishnu Sahasranam. They hadn’t gotten too far along before we joined them.
Read now as Swamiji shares with you his experience inside the temple:
As we left the temple, it was beginning to get dark, but we wanted to visit one more important site in Vrindavan before ending the day.
We found a most handy pedal rickshaw to take us to the Kunjavan forest.
Swamiji explained to us that it is believed that the trees of this forest are actually Gopis, the great devotees of Lord Krishna.
While during the day, the trees meditate like great Rishis, at nighttime they turn into Gopis and dance in celebration of Radha and Krishna.
I have to admit, my skeptical mind found this story a little hard to believe, but I left it for what it was.
As the sun was quickly setting, we enthusiastically made our way through the forest, opening our hearts to the bhavana of love and devotion that Krishna and Radha represent. After passing through several small temples and offering our prayers, we reached near the exit of the forest where there was a small outdoor shrine.
Upon seeing this quaint shrine, Shree Maa was suddenly struck with a great joy and began to sing and dance for Lord Krishna. Swamiji quickly joined in and the two of them magically turned into twenty-first century Gopis dancing under the moonlight. Suddenly, the rest of us followed suit and it felt as if the whole forest was dancing along with us!
In the bhavana of dancing with Shree Maa and Swamiji in the forest of Vrindavan, we felt for a moment that the trees really did turn into Gopis. They really were dancing along with us!
My skeptical mind was put to rest as this was the proof that, yes indeed, with the power of pure devotion, trees certainly can turn into Gopis!
Swamiji mentioned that most people are seeking physical proof of the metaphysical. They want some phenomena in the world, whether trees becoming Gopis or anything else, that will provide physical proof of what they believe. But this is in itself an oxymoron, for the metaphysical is, by definition, not physical.
All of these spiritual wonders are perceived within the heart of the person filled with love for God. Without which, even the forest of Vrindavan would only appear to be just a grove of small trees.
We all said a prayer of thanks in our hearts to Radha and Krishna for the blessing of being able to accompany such great saints, who could make the real spirit of Vrindavan manifest.
Travelogue: Kali Bari Temple, New Delhi
From Rishikesh we returned to the home of Sanjay Baba in New Delhi. This home acts as our hub where we gather as we travel to and from the various locations in the northern part of India.
This Kali temple was built in New Delhi to inspire the local Bengali community.
In many ways it resembles Dakshineshwar, the temple where Ramakrishna lived, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Even the Kali murti in this temple is modeled after the Kali in Dakshineshwar.
Shree Maa says that the Kali murti here is very much alive and indeed, upon looking into Her animated eyes, we could feel Her gazing right back at us.
In many temples the priests are happy to see Shree Maa and Swamiji, but at the Kali Bari Mandir they were exceptionally excited.
Through the years Shree Maa and Swamiji have developed a special bond with them, and it is so charming to watch the priests’ excitement as they are taken by surprise when they realize a living form of the Goddess is in their temple to share Her love.
When the main priest, who was an aged and humble man, saw Shree Maa, his face lit-up with a radiant smile and he quickly darted over to Shree Maa, bowed down, and touched her feet.
Shree Maa lovingly hugged him like an affectionate mother would embrace her child.
As Shree Maa and Swamiji chatted briefly with the priest, Ramya Maa quickly assembled all of the puja items.
Shree Maa and Swamiji then led the group in a beautiful Kali puja, offering cloth, a flower garland, and other items.
Upon completion, the temple priest took the offerings and beautifully adorned Divine Mother Kali with them.
Afterwards we sat down to recite the Kali Sahasranam.
We had this dome-shaped temple to ourselves so we weren’t shy about choosing a location right in the middle of the temple, directly in front of Kali Maa.
This recitation was especially powerful as the temple bhava was already so full of love and respect; it was as if our chanting magnified the divine vibrations even further.
When the 1,000 names of Kali Maa were complete, Shree Maa led the group in singing Jaya Kali Bhavani Maa. As Her divine voice filled the temple walls, several priests gathered around in reverence.
Our worship for Kali was successfully completed and, as we stood up and packed our belongings, the main priest once again came and bowed down to both Shree Maa and Swamiji and hugged them.
In fact, he was so delighted by the recitation that he hugged me too! (Sorry no picture — my arms were occupied!)
Shree Maa and Swamiji smiled as they watched my facial expression, as this must have been my turn to display that “look of excitement as if taken by surprise,” because I certainly was!
Happy to receive his love, I was a bit humbled, but knew that this was the mutual love which binds together the hearts of God’s devotees.
This grand temple also has a beautiful Shiva Lingam, and Shree Maa wasted no time in directing Her attention over to the Shiva Mandir.
As she walked toward the Shiva Lingam and entered the inner chamber, one of the temple priests followed Her in and stood directly behind Shree Maa and Swamiji as they performed a short puja.
After the puja, Shree Maa walked over to Nandi and sweetly whispered a prayer into His ear. Nandi is Lord Shiva’s vahana, or carrier, who will take our prayers to Lord Shiva.
While She was whispering Her prayer in Nandi’s ear, a bilva leaf sitting atop Nandi’s head fell off and gently landed near to Her. When She noticed this holy prasad, with the joy and delight of an innocent child, She picked it up, touched it to Her heart, and put it on Her own head!
Here, Shree Maa requested the priest to give to her a flower from Kali’s feet as prasad. After searching diligently, the pujari gave Shree Maa a bilva leaf, which is significant to Lord Shiva, and a red hibiscus flower, which is a favorite of Kali Maa.
Shree Maa floated out of the temple that day with a bilva leaf on Her head and a red hibiscus in Her hand. This served as a reminder to us all of Her true nature – that of the Universal Mother and partner of Lord Shiva.