Entering India: The Extraordinary World Part 3
Shri Maharaj jumped out of the van in front of ours, he was walking at a fast clip followed by Shri Mangalanand Puri Ji Maharaj, Druvinka, and Yogananda Puri Ji. The rest of us scrambled to get out and made our way through the large dusty parking lot filled with cars, bicycles, mopeds, motor cycles, rickshaws, cows, pigs, dogs, and a myriads of shop keepers and people all making their way to the Ghat (steps of the Ganges where people take their ritual bath) for the evening Arati (prayers waving lights to honor the Goddess Ganga Ma). I was a bit stunned by the sheer speed at which Shri Marahaj was walking, being quite a bit younger than him, I felt old and completely out of shape trying not to fall behind, I kept checking his feet to make sure he was indeed walking ON the ground.
At one point I was jogging just to keep up and then he suddenly stopped in the dusty lot and waited for all of us to catch up. When we were all there he explained that when he first came to India the ground we were standing on was where the Juna Akhara once lived-(52 lineages within the Order of Sannyasis formalized their age-old network into an elite brother and sisterhood, by Shankaracharya in 7 A.D. this society became known as Juna Akhara, or the ‘Ancient Circle’.) They also used to come and stay there during the Kumbha Melas (a mass hindu pilgrimage in which Hindus gather at the river Ganges for a sacred purifying dip into Ma, they say that during the Kumbha Mela the river goddess turns back into Amrit - the nectar of immortality* see part two of the story for more information)
He said, "You are standing on sacred ground," then he asked, "Does anyone here know the singer Joni Mitchel?", we all nodded yes.
He continued, "Well, like the songs goes, 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot'. " He then started to laugh. With that he spun around and continued to walk across a bridge where there were a line of men and women sitting on either side by the railings asking for money, or selling little trinkets.
As we hurriedly wove our way through the crowds, we again all stopped unexpectedly. I stood on my tippy toes trying to and see what was happening and I saw Shri Maharaj taking his shoes off and handing them to Druvinka who was collecting shoes and handing them to a man behind a wooden enclosure. Ahhhh yes of course, I thought, we are now coming close to Ma Ganga's abode, this is no place for shoes. Just like you take your shoes off before you enter someone's home, this was Ma Ganga's home.
Once the shoes were away safely, Shri Maharaj took off again. We were met by a Brahmin priest who had been waiting for us trying to save seats on the steps of the Ganga. We were a big group and the Ghat was already VERY crowded and people did not seem too pleased at the idea of making room for a bunch of westerners. I saw the tiny space we were allotted and the large group we had and thought, 'wow ok, this should be interesting'. We crammed into the crowd and eventually, with the Brahmins insistence, others made space here and there for us until we were all sitting down.
Amidst the sea of people on the great Rivers edge, there were raised platforms on which Brahmin priests had been paid by families for private pujas (worship and rituals) and had special seats where they were engaging in blessings for their families and loved ones. Shri Maharaj was sitting down the steps from me to my right on one such platform involved, in an elaborate play of mantras honoring the Goddess.
There was a cacophony of mantras, people singing, talking, laughing, babies crying,voices from loud speakers announcing lost and found items and music, along with some people shouting things in Hindi over bull horns in the crowd. There was an intense amount of excitement in the air. And here we were, sitting among thousands and thousands who had come to the Ghat for their evening prayers.
I had never experienced anything like this. The only thing of this kind of scale I could compare it to was the intense energy I felt sitting outside a huge stadium in Philadelphia, waiting for the Rolling Stones to take stage, only now we were all here waiting to sing and honor the Goddess who brought Sacred Speech and Culture to everyone in India. It was Ma Ganga herself that brought, and continues to bring, so much prosperity and gifts to her people and the world. And yet, there was no need for marketing, advertisements, or tickets to sell. Thousands and thousands were there every day and every day the atmosphere was filled with magic.
As the sun began to set, the beautiful Arati began and over the loud speakers you could hear the traditional prayer sung with everyone joining in with the repeating refrain:
"Om Jai Gange Mata." -Om Hail Mother Ganga!
We all stood as the fires were lit and hundreds of lamps holding wicks dipped in clarified butter (ghee) were being waved as far as you could see. You could see tiny little boats made of green leaves filled with fragrant flowers being placed into the water by myriads of people, offering gratitude and blessings to the Great Mother Ganga.
Now the great push began, everyone was making their way to the water's edge. Shri Maharaj gave the first of the flower boats to Eli, then everyone else got in line until we all had an offering to give. As I began to walk down the steps to the water, the surface of the steps became so slippery it was like trying to walk on a slick sheet of glass. The ghee had spilled onto the steps from all the waving of lamps, and there was an oil slick everywhere you walked. Mindfulness took on a whole new meaning as I attempted to avoid dropping the flower bowl with the tiny flame inside, and also avoid breaking my neck or knocking anyone else over either.
I finally reached the waters edge and there stood a little boy who was taking the flower bowls and pushing them out into the river. I put my flower offering down in the water and offered a prayer of deep gratitude to Ma, it was a beautiful moment and interrupted quite quickly by the boy demanding money for pushing the flower boat out into the water, I smiled and shrugged as I didn't have money to offer and he splashed me with water and waved me away.
We all found a higher step to stand on where the ghee was less of an issue and waited til everyone had had their turn. In the now deep velvet of night the flames from lamps shone so brilliantly and the entire atmosphere was intoxicating.
The crowds began to disperse, many had taken ritual baths in the Ganga and were wringing out their clothes. I was struck by a massive feeling of connection there and that made it hard to leave, but when Shri Maharaj began to lead us away from the Ghat, we all dreamily followed, everyone walking more slowly this time back to get our shoes and back through the dusty parking lot.
It was a short drive back to Hari Puri Ashram. We were all led to the outside dhuni and invited to sit down.
When I walked through the entrance, I was greeted with "Michelle! OM NAMO NARAYAN!!!" I looked up and sitting in front of me was Rajrajeshwar Giri Ji, ALL smiles and radiant. I responded back with my hands in prayer position saying "OM NAMO NARAYAN!!!" and started to giggle. I had never met Rajrajeshwar Giri Ji in person but knew of him from Face Book and from all the work he had been doing with Shri Maharaj and the Great World Circle. I was tickled that he recognized me and his immense enthusiasm and beautiful teachings soon became one of the highlights of our days at the ashram.
The dhuni was in the center of the enclosed bamboo and mosquito netting structure with a raised thatched roof. The floor had an array of oriental rugs around all sides of the dhuni. There was one support in the center on one side of the dhuni that had one light bulb hanging on it along with various pictures and an outlet where the Naga Babas would recharge their cell phones. Electricity would often randomly go out, then candles were lit and the conversations would continue. When the lights mysteriously would come back on , all the Nagas, would praise the Goddess- thanking her with some hindi phrase I could never quite catch in time. Directly opposite the entrance, you could see the Ganga behind the far wall and it was on that side of the dhuni on a slightly raised platform that Shri Maharaj and the Naga Babas sat. To their right in front of the wall was an elaborate multilevel altar where there were many pictures of their beloved deities. Among them were Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and also Guru Dattatreya, the primal embodied Guru. It was close to the altar where Shri Maharaj's chelas would sit, Yoganand Puri Ji and Savitri Puri Ji.
After we all sat down, we were served hot chai and chatted about the nights events. Shri Maharaj asked us all what we experienced and it was sweet hearing all the tales sitting around the dhuni. During our conversation more and more Naga Babas from the area including Brahmin priests and local men from the area began arriving and sitting around the dhuni. Each entering with warm salutations and offering respect to Shri Maharaj, Mangalanad Puri Ji Maharaj, and all the other Nagas by touching a knee or foot, and bowing. It was then that I saw the ritual of smoking chillum. There was a clay pipe which was filled with tobacco and marijuana and it was passed around to the Naga Babas who each had a piece of cheese cloth that they poured water on. They placed this wet cloth at the bottom of the clay pipe like some sort of a filter and took a puff and passed it among each other.
In the Indian creation story it was said that when the sea of milk was churned there were 13 gifts that arose to the surface, the 13th gift was marijuana of which the Naga Babas claimed.
At about 930pm, dinner was ready and we were invited into the building across the courtyard where the inside dhuni was. We all sat down on the floor and were served a delicious traditional Indian meal of Naan bread, lentil dhal, yogurt and a sweet grain. It was so much fun learning to eat with the right hand only, I even learned how to pull pieces of bread apart with one hand by the end of our stay, which is not easy. At the end of our meal, Savitri walked around and poured water over our right hand onto our plate. There were so many little things to learn and I was grateful for the patience and education about the ways the tradition does things.
We were then driven back to the dharmsala where we all bunked in for our first nights sleep in Haridwar. I was Sooooo tired but that didn't seem to matter, because sleep didn't seem to be on the menu for me for the first 3 nights. I was content to just rest my body for the 6 hours that followed until the first light of day at 5am when the bells downstairs began to ring and the mantras began for the morning Arati. Surprisingly I was not tired when I got out of bed, there was so much nourishing energy I was being fed by all the mantras and the Soul of Mother India Herself.