Last Day in India — 2011

Today is my 3oth, and last, day in India.

I’m sitting at my desk at a Hilton Hotel in Mumbai.  I decided to get a nice room for my last day — my window overlooks a small green field and trees (everything has greened up with the monsoon!), before a construction site and other hotels and buildings around the city.  Scaffolding, even on large buildings-in-the-makings is made of wooden sticks and poles!   It’s rainy this morning, gray beaded curtains pulled across the landscape.    After the last 3o days of eating only Indian food, last night I had room service bring a Pizza Margherita.   I can’t believe I’m leaving India!

I remember on my first blog posting, I said that I already felt sad at the thought of leaving India—when the trip had not even started.   Now, it’s just about over.  Last night, both Jennifer and my mother asked if I felt the time had gone by quickly or slowly. I said, “I really have no idea.”  It’s seemed that time has had a completely different meaning here, a different clock measuring different things.  Scientists tell us that time is just a measurement of movement, and so I guess when all the movement around you is new—the flowing of saris, the dashing of rickshaws, slow, big-wheeled bicycles, people squatting or sitting for long periods in complete stillness beside the road, a man following behind a plow and cow, my own long periods of sitting meditation, the rhythms of an ashram—among these new and different kinds of movement, time feels different as well.

But one thing I know is that I will be SO GLAD  to see my family again!   I’ve talked with them everyday and seen them on video with Skype, but tomorrow afternoon I get to SQUEEZE them!   I can’t wait.  I can’t wait.  I can’t wait!

Yesterday morning I had such a beautiful send-off from some of the devotees of Ma Indira Devi’s ashram.   Some came just to see me off.    It was beautiful.

The morning before that, I had been invited to breakfast by one of the older very elegant women (all the women are very elegant, many from very wealthy families) and about six of us had breakfast, everyone telling stories of their experiences, stories about Ma and her guru Dadaji.    That afternoon, five of us gathered at Rajkumar’s and listened to a talk that Ma gave, actually a talk she gave when she was in an ecstatic state of consciousness, called “Bhav.”

Ma Indira Devi is thought to have been an incarnation of the sixteenth-century Indian poet-saint, Mirabai.  After Ma started meditating, within a few years, she said that Mira came to her in her meditations and began dictating songs and poems to her.  Over a thousand of these Dada took down and published in four volumes.   Whether you can believe that Mira in fact came to Ma or that Ma composed these poems and songs herself in an altered state of consciousness, the poems are there to be read, and written in Hindi, which was not Ma’s native langauge  (who was from the Punjab), and Hindi was a language that Ma didn’t know well.  But miraculous things happen all the time in India!

Here’s a personal example.  I had been worried about two very specific personal things about coming home, the substance of which I’ll not mention on the air.  I was sitting before Ma’s samadhi tomb, fretting and talking to Ma about them.  When I opened my eyes, Manjula, one of my favorite women at the ashram came up beside and gave me a little pamphlet that had been written by Aurobindo.  She said she’d been wanting to give it to me but had not been able to find it.  But that morning, there it was on the shelf.  I thanked her, and sat there and read it, and it turned out that the pamphlet addressed exactly the two issues I’d been worrying about and gave the advice I needed to completely put my mind at rest.

If these are coincidences, I want to report to everyone that wonderful, helpful, life-changing, coincidences happen every day in India!

From the beginning, I was welcomed to the ashram like a member of the family, like a long-lost son returning home, a friend, a brother.   So many told me that I felt familiar to them; Rajkumar said he saw my face in
meditation before he met me; yesterday Krishna-aunty, who’s 92 or 93, said she
felt like she knew me already when she met me.  I felt the same towards them.
I received so much kindness, so much love, from all of these people I barely know.

Without blinking an eye, they accepted my outlandish story of my discovery that Ma Indira Devi was my spiritual teacher and guru.  Everyone said she brought me there.  Everyone had their own amazing story of how they got there.  The love is so clear, so bright, so tremendous, powerful.

I remember a couple of days before leaving home, Jennifer asked me what I felt most anxious about in going to India—getting sick, getting injured, lost, losing my luggage?  I looked inside myself and said, “What I most fear is getting to Indira Devi’s ashram and not feeling anything, having a sinking realization that I’d made the whole thing up about  discovering her to be my teacher.”   I smile at that now.   I remember what I felt when I first sat down in the ashram temple hall.  “Well, here, I am at the center of the universe.”

I received so much love and witnessed so many daily, life-changing miracles in my spiritual life, that I can’t imagine such a worry now.   I also can’t imagine living in that energy all the time!   No wonder these people have such saintly, powerful presences!

Ma’s guru, Dadaji wrote a book called, Among the Great, a record of his time with famous intellectuals and spiritual teachers, like Sri Aurobindo, Romain Rolland, Bertrand Russel, and others.  I told Bharati, one of the women of the ashram, that I wanted to come back and record everyone’s personal stories and compile them together in a book, and she said, “Yes, yes.  You can call it, Among the Small.”  The devotees of the ashram, living in this spiritual-energy generator, have become accustomed to it (though not taking it for granted) and don’t realize how they themselves radiate that powerful energy.

They all said that it was not easy living with Ma.  That she pushed you to your limit.  It was not all rose petals and bliss.  Your ego got pounded everyday.

But the love that shines there, I feel enveloping me now.  I love Ramakrishna’s saying, to the effect, in his theistic world-view, that “God Himself is everywhere, in all places, but His favorite abode is the heart of the devotee.”  I will carry with me all the love I  found at Ma’s Indira Devi’s home.

And I hope to return soon!

Thanks for reading.

I will add a few more posts to this blog, to fill in a few fun days I had to skip and maybe continue to talk about the ongoing effects of the journey.

Now, I get to go home and see Jennifer and my little boys!

Much love and blessing to all of you.  Namaste.   Jai Guru.



The Climb Up Arunachala

Deepam Festival, note fire on top of Arunachala

On my last full day at Ramanashram, I had arranged for a guide to take us up to the top of the mountain, but it wasn’t easy getting one.

“We don’t encourage it,” S. told me, when I first arrived.  S. is one of the main ashramitesand runs the front office.  He checks you in on arrival.   A great calm surrounds this man.  He has a very powerful presence, deliberate, unhurried, with a penetrating gaze and a beautiful deep voice, like Harry Belafonte’s.

Harry Belafonte, as S wanted me to keep his photo just in my memory

He would later tell me that he left a medical practice to come to the ashram and live and work.  This was in 1994, long after Maharishi passed away in 1950—another  testimony to the reality of the energy that’s still here.  It’s amazing how many professionals the spiritual life of India attracts.

But S.’s calm, powerful, no-nonsense bearing, rather than having a calming effect on me, made me nervous.  Whenever I talked to him, I felt like jumping about like one of ashram monkeys.

“Why is that? “I asked tentatively.

“Thieves.  Heat.  We don’t’ encourage it.”

So, we talked about my room and meals and water and other details.  All the while I was thinking, “Well, whose mountain is it?  Does the ashram own it?”  Irreverent thoughts like that.  I rememberd a scene in the film, Il Postino.  After Mario, the fisherman’s son,

has stolen one of Pablo Neruda’s poems and given it to his girlfriend, and Neruda has found out and is displeased, Mario says:  “Poetry belongs not to those who write it, but to those who need it.”   So, I thought, well, Arunachala must be owned by the  aspirants who need it.   Me.

After we handled other details, I tried again.  “I’d really like to climb the mountain.  I live in a burning-hot mountainous place.  I climb a lot of mountains.  I’ll start early in the morning.”   He shook or wagged his head in the Indian way that can mean, “Okay,” or “yes, or “no,” or  “maybe,” or about a hundred other things.  When he handed me my key to my room, he said kindly, “Let me know a day ahead and I will arrange a guide.”

So the day before the hike, S. gave me the name and number of a guide to take us up.  Our friend Caroline chose not to go, as she had climbed the mountain nine years before– in the winter, a more sensible season.  Another fellow we made friends with, J from Scotland, said the heat had dissuaded him, as well, and he’d climbed it before, too.  So, M and I would make the climb.

Next morning, the two of us met in front of the office, but the guide never showed.    We went to my room and I phoned , but he didn’t answer.

“Let’s just go,” M said.

I knew from the day before that M was a strong hiker.  She’s tall and walked up to the caves the day before with hardly a rest.  So we headed through the back gate of the  ashram.  We knew there was another guide who hangs out at the first fork of the trail.  Caroline had used this guy nine years before.  When we got there, he wasn’t’ there.  Another fellow tried to persuade us that he should be our guide, but we decided to climb on our own.

The first part of the hike was steep but well-marked and paved with large block-like red stones.  M and I climbed, talking about our children and other hikes and adventures and travels we’d made.  We both love to travel.   We got along very well.  As I felt with an uncanny number of people on this trip, such as Udo, I felt like I’d known M a long time, perhaps in a past life, or maybe in the place the Mormons call the pre-existence, or somewhere like that.

Before long we came to a little family of monkeys, the father of which was grunting and blowing at us to give a wide berth, which we did.  Eventually the trail ran out, and we ended up scampering over boulders and up steep slopes grabbing handfuls of grass as we went.   After two hours we were almost at the top.

Right before reaching summit, we passed a little grass shack with a gate.  I would later read that a sadhu has lived here for two decades.  He keeps a cloth over his eyes so their intense light doesn’t hurt people visiting him.   (You think I’m making this, up, right?)  You can sit with him in silence for a little while, until he motions for you to move on.   The day we got there, unfortunately he wasn’t in attendance.

We reached the summit, and the summit was all black rock, not naturally, but from the ghee (clarified butter), that is burned there in a cauldron of fire, lit atop the mountain for the festival of Deepam,

Shiva returns to Arunachala for Deepam Festival!

in November or December (depending on the phase of the moon.)  We had fantastic views of the distant mountains,

the temple and town far below.   We had a snack and water and took pictures and headed back down.  M found another way down the other side of the mountain, which was steep but a clearly marked trail all the way down, which took you to Skandashram and home territory.

We’d started at 8:00 and made it down just in time for lunch, though being scolded for being late, but getting to eat with the locals after the ashram guests had finished.  Another one of the best meals of my life!

A Climb to the Caves

Second to last day at Ramanashram

I made two friends at the Ramanashram, M and Caroline (using initials until I receive permission to mention names) and we hiked part way up the mountain together to the two caves where Ramana Maharishi lived and meditated for 22 years.   M is an architect from Germany and works for an architectural firm there.  During the last several years she’s made several trips to India each year, for three to seven weeks at a time.  Caroline’s Sanskrit name is Upasana,

Caroline at Virupaksha Cave

which means “sitting near.”   Originally from Chattanooga, she lived in New York for ten years.  She previously spent two years in India and two in Nepal.  Now, she’s back in India.  She’s financed her trips with savings, a small inheritance, and writing for travel websites while on the road.

At age 17, RM had a first spontaneous awakening experience,  and was drawn to leave his home and family and come to the mountain to meditate.   He meditated in silence and ate almost nothing.  Villagers, it is said, would come and put food in his mouth so he wouldn’t starve.   People began to hear about his powerful presence and started coming from all over India to sit near him. For years he taught only in silence.  People would sit near him and have enlightenment experiences.

Later, when he began to give teachings orally,

 he still said that silent teaching was the most powerful.   The more advanced seekers could receive the teachings silently, but he began to give teachings orally for the rest of us. 🙂








The silent energy is still here, the whole mountain and ashram suffused, saturated, pulsating with this clear, bright light, a subtle, powerful energy.

We had a cool windy day for the hike up.   The air was fragrant with flowering trees, and the hike in the natural world refreshing.  I was surprised at how many trees were on the trail—large and mid-sized trees, making it like a hike in northern Utah.   Half way up we had a magnificent view of the town and the main temple of Tiruvannamalai.








Along the way, we passed two stone carvers who were carving sacred objects that you could buy.   (We bought some on the way down.) 

We reached the caves and got to meditate inside each of them.  Both have been carved into a couple of rooms, surfaced with cement and painted white.  A few people can fit  inside for meditation.   Both have an antechamber or portal and an inner chamber that is dark, with shrines and sacred objects and little oil lamps for  light.





On the day we visited both were very hot inside, no breeze.  Skandashram has a window in the inner chamber.   The outer chamber is like a little porch where people sit and meditate, or write or read, or just look out.


Virupaksha was completely still inside.

When we meditated inside, I sat and the sweat was just pouring down my body.  When person came in or went out, it made a little breeze!  You just relax and the mind becomes completely still.



Each cave has a resident monk who takes
care of the place.











Lots of people come up and spend the day at the caves.  After meditation,  we sat at an overlook, wrote in our journals, and took some photos.


Second and Third Day at Ramanashram

June 4.

(This typed yesterday).

Seven more days in India!  One more day at Ramana Maharishi’s ashram!

Right now is the rest period between noon and tea at 4:00.

boys swimming in bathing ghats at ashram

I’m in my little room right now.

After tea will be chanting, meditation, and puja — offering rituals.

place settings

It’s amazing how well you’re taken care of here,

in this beautiful place,

with monkeys —

all for whatever donation you would like to make.  A lot of ashrams have you do “seva,” selfless service, or work, but here they feed you three hot meals a day, usually five or six south Indian dishes, and also do the clean up.

Local sadhus and poor people served free lunch everyday

All the spiritual experience is free, of course, or, rather, all it costs is your head—or, I guess, I mean, your ego. 

(Shiva’s trident left at the top of Mount Arunachala).

I’ve canceled two destinations I had originally planned.  One was a three-day visit to Shantivanam, the monastery/ashram founded by the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths, who practiced a blend of Christian and Hindu contemplative religions.

If you’ll forgive the philosophical digression — or perhaps I should say uni-gression — Griffith’s believed that what happened to the early Christian Church when it encountered Greek and Roman philosophy and culture ought to happen in its encounter with Hinduism.

When Christianity came west from Jerusalem, spread by Paul, it incorporated many Greek, and then Roman, ideas into its theology and ritual.  The New Testament was, of course, written in Greek, and the Gospel of John is suffused with Greek philosophical ideas. The Greek philosophy of stoicism, for example, posited that the universe is governed by a divine principle of reason, called the “Logos.”  So the Gospel of John begins in Greek, “In the beginning was the Logos,” which is usually translated as “the Word,” a completely Greek idea made central to the Gospel.

Griffiths felt that as the Church incorporated Greek ideas, then, it could incorporate enlightened ideas from other religions and philosophical systems, such as Hinduism, now.  So, his monastery/ashram, Shantivanam, stands as a blending of Christian mystical and Hindu contemplative philosophies.

I thought it would be an important place to visit, since my memoir is going to explore the commonalities among Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist contemplative practices.

But, once I walked through the gates of Ramanashram, I knew I was going to stay here as long as I could.

I also canceled my trip to see the Ellora and Ajanta caves at the end of my journey, so I could spend more time at Ma Indira Devi’s ashram in Pune.

That ashram is my spiritual home.  It’s become clear to me as the days and events have transpired how much this is an interior journey. 

The caves for me would be more of a cultural destination than a spiritual one, at least, on this pilgrimage.

Tomorrow, I’ll write more about the hike up Shiva’s mountain and the visit to the temple town, Tiruvannamalai.    Then, so long to Ramanashram!

Some photos from the ashram and hike up to cave of mountain.

Dear Friends,

These posts are a little haphazard, as I wanted to get some photos posted (especially for my boys), and these keyboards at this internet cafe are impossible to type on.  So, these three posts are not very narrative, not well-organized, or even explained all that well.   But I hope you’ll enjoy the photos.   I have a narrative that covers a couple of days ago that I’m going to post next!

Thanks for reading!

Here’s the downtown temple complex from half way up the mountain where the caves are where RM meditated in solitude for some 22 years.

Monkey in the trees outside my room!

Here’s the temple complex from the top of the mountain!   I’ll include soon a story of the day of the climb and the day visiting the temple and town.

Monkey outside my room.

more photos from today’s visit to town and temple

This is cool!   Michael gets blessed by holy temple elephant.  You hold out a coin, the elephant gives you his trunk, you put the coin in his trunk, he pats you on the head with his trunk.  Hari Ganesha!  Then, the elephant gives the coin to the seated man.  It’s usually wet!

Oops. Time to go to mid morning rest in temple palm groves.Front gate of the Temple

Front gate of the Temple

Here are some kinds down a little alley that wanted their picture taken!

More cute kids

Here comes a bull pulling a cart full of bananas. I love how they paint the cow's horns!

Just one small part of temple complex


Outside the ashram, I get photographed with one of the begging-sadus (holy men) that hang out in front of the ashram gates.  Note auto advertisement above the wall — with photo of Ramana Maharishi!   Worlds collide.

The big temple is downtown, the ashram on the edge of town.


Some photos, some especially for my boys!

temple monkey steals baby's bottle!

temple monkey contemplating the universell         happy family