On November 9th we arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama. Here Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted in harmony for centuries. Some people worship in both religions.
We saw attractive women with red Tika marks on their foreheads and dressed in colorful saris: red, bright blue, purple, black with bright colored flowered, and one woman wore a black sari with white pokadots. They were standing in line to pay their respects to a deity of their choosing. They held in their hands a puja plate containing fruits, flowers, sweets, and delicacies, which are offered to the deities. Like India, religion is part of their everyday life, a way of life that I would love to live without being thought of as “strange” as a landlord once called me when he saw my religious memorabilia on my altar.
The air was clean and deeply welcomed. Most of us were having trouble with our respiratory systems because of all the smog we ingested in India.
On the way to the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, we walked past a young boy holding a large basket of bananas on his head and a woman sitting on the ground making garlands from pink flower petals. The Buddhist temple of Swayambhunathi is also called the "Temple of the Monkeys," because monkeys co-habit the place. Like we did at the Durga temple in Benares, we held our belongings tightly to our bodies.
The striking stupa is located high on top of a hill. This religious sight is believed to be twenty-five hundred years old, even before the birth of Siddhartha. We climbed the three hundred steep flagstone steps. Out of breath, my eyes locked into the penetrating eyes painted on the stupa, which are symbolic of the Buddha's eyes. The stupa forms a pinnacle, and on the very top there is a form that resembles an umbrella, a symbol of the state of enlightenment--Nirvana. Prayer flags were blowing in the light wind as we approached the temple. There, we were invited to join the monks in meditation. In silence, we walked to the side of the temple and sat on round pillows. We closed our eyes and listened to the monks chanting in exquisite devotion.
Looking intently at a window on the third-story of a building, we waiting patiently for the living goddess, the Kumari Devi to make her appearance. She was seven years old and had been chosen from a caste of Newar goldsmiths when she was just five years old. It was imperative that her body be flawless and never to have shed blood.
To be chosen as a goddess, the Kumari's horoscope must be harmonious with the king’s, and she must show absolutely no fear. She is put through some grueling tests to demonstrate her fearlessness. For example, she was locked in a dark room where frightening masks, slaughtered animal heads, and frightening noises tested her will. When she passed her tests and was selected to be the living goddess, there was a ceremony in which the spirit of the goddess entered her body.
The Kumair Devi remains a goddess until she menstruates or any blood sheds at all. She is only allowed to leave the guarded structure at religious festivals. At that time she is carried on to a lavish chariot, because her feet must never touch the ground.
When she finally came to the window, I could see that her eyes were adorned with thick black eyeliner that extended to her temples. Her jet-black hair was piled high on top of her head. In just two minutes she disappeared.
We then walked along Kathmandu's Durbar Square. The streets were lined with vendors selling prayer wheels and red, green, purple, white, and gold strings of beads. A woman with a ring in her nose sat with her child, trying to sell the oranges that were in her large rattan basket.
It was 5:00 a.m. and foggy when we began our trek to Dhulikhel. We sat on a stone ridge overlooking the Himalayas waiting for the sun to rise. After a few yawns, we chanted wholeheartedly expressing our love for God and yearning for him to come into our hearts.
At dawn we could see the regal Himalayas covered with pure white snow and below an oasis of fertile green land. We could see chickens and goats eating their breakfast at a farm below. Farmers were beginning to work in the rice paddies.
We attempted to meditate, but children seemed to have sprouted from the wildflowers all around us. In a sweet and enthusiastic voice, a pretty Nepalese girl of eleven asked, "Carry your bag, Ma'am?" At the same time I could hear the same question being asked by the other children to my companions. The young girl had long dark hair that curled down the sides of her face. She wore a long green skirt with a brown tree printed on the front. Over her skirt she wore a long sleeved blue shirt, partially covered by two shawls, one blue and pink striped, the other green and orange striped. She was adorable and spoke fluent English. She said, "I live at the farm down below. I feed the goats in the morning, and now I go to school." Before school begins they make a habit of helping tourists on the trek to earn money. The children walked for miles with us carrying our knapsacks through nature's sanctuary.
On November 12th we arrived in Calcutta. The city overwhelmed me a bit, because it’s the largest city in India, and by far the most densely populated. I was told there are 11 million people living in Calcutta. There is a European flavor to this city with the large Victorian buildings, but the way of life is not European. The streets look like they do in all parts of India: overcrowded with lepers, people sleeping on the streets, children begging, cows, cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, and rickshaws dodging each other, as they all try to get to their destinations.
I was back in my thick white neck brace. The phobia was so intense, I wondered how I could go on. It was odd to me that there were a number of people on the trip that said they felt such a centeredness coming from me. Amongst all the shaking, twitching, and disorientation I was feeling as a result of the phobia, there is once again, always the opposite, that is there as well. This thorn in my side certainly was not going to keep me in my hotel room. I wanted to drink every aspect of the Divine into my being, especially here in Calcutta. We were on our way to our guru, Yogananda's childhood home. This was a dream for all us. Paradoxically, I was a bit numb, as my excitement was so intense.
It was raining lightly on this warm day as we approached 4 Ghopar Road. It was a tall three-story beige building with a wood facade, wrought iron rails, and green shutters hanging from the windows.
The door opened and Yogananda's nephew, Hare Krishna Ghosh greeted us with a quiet smile of welcome. He was sixty-seven years old with fine features and a face that radiated warmth. He introduced us to his wife, a woman short in stature, dressed in a red and white sari. Her black hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wore brown-framed glasses. She smiled broadly and welcomed us into their home. The home was spacious and modern. In a circular alcove over a decorative window was a photograph of Yogananda's father in a round black frame. On the opposite wall there was a large picture of Lord Krishna playing his flute, and below him was a large oval framed photograph of our guru dressed in an orange robe. Other photos, including a painting of Christ painted by Yogananda's brother, were hanging on the adjacent wall.
We were all in a state of awe and very deep emotions flowed within us. We just couldn't believe we were in the home of Yogananda. We sat on the floor while Durga, a tall stunning woman with wavy brown hair, led us into chanting and meditation. In groups of three, we went in the attic where Yogananda had a vision of Divine Mother and became enlightened.
I tried holding back my tears as I entered his room. On his altar there was a large photograph of him as a young man sitting in the lotus posture. He was only wearing a white dhoti and a white bangle on his upper right arm. His hair was long and parted down the middle, and he had a mustache and short beard. A white flowered garland hung over his neck. Resting in front of the photograph was another framed photograph of him in his later years. Two large brass vases were on either side filled with white orchids. Over the altar there were photographs of Babaji, Lahiri Mahahsaya, Sri Yukteswar, and Swami Kebalananda who was Parmahansa’s Sanskrit tutor when he was a young boy. There were also two photographs of saints, who I was not familiar with. A large window was open, and an orange curtain moved slightly from the breeze.
The energy in the room was so powerful and profoundly moving that I couldn't even attempt to explain what I experienced. I believe everyone felt the same way. We were truly blessed. I remember thinking, “Why can’t we love and show such reference to each other? Why can’t we see the Divine in each other?”
We took a bus to Dakshineswar to visit the Kali temple. Kali is an aspect of the Divine Mother in her beneficent and destructive sides. After Yogananda prayed fervently for five hours to Kali, her statue came alive to him. In the late 1800’s the Kali temple was home to the reputed Avatar Parmahansa Ramakrishna, who became intoxicated with the Divine Mother.
In Ramakrishna's youth he had such a yearning for divine realization that he would cry in utter pain for a vision of her. After his first vision of Kali, his yearning only magnified. He wanted to be with her continuously and totally disassociated himself from the world.
When Ramakrishna followed a cat into the temple, because he saw the cat as Divine Mother, many thought he was losing his sanity. Another bazaar incident was when he acted out Hanuman, the monkey-disciple of Lord Rama, who represented unconditional loyalty. Ramakrishna made his dhoti into a tail and resided in the trees like a monkey.
His family thought if he married maybe this could resolve this bazaar conduct. Although, he married and remained with his wife throughout his lifetime, he saw her as the Divine Mother as well. And this did not change his intoxication with the Divine. He then began worshiping Lord Krishna, but as a woman like Krishna's consort, Radha. He did this because he wanted to overcome sexual differences. Through this experience, he achieved union with God.
We paid our respects to the Goddess Kali, and then walked to Ramakrishna's somewhat barren room. There were only two cots side by side and a few of his personal affects. This is where disciples would assemble for his teachings and blessings.
Late in the afternoon, we headed to Serempore, where we walked in the same footprints as Yogananda and his guru Sri Yukteswar. We sat under the banyan tree where Babaji appeared to Sri Yukteswar. We started to chant, and within minutes, a crowd of children gathered around us in curiosity.
Back in Calcutta, I attended my first Catholic Mass at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Home. We, as well as many other foreign visitors, sat behind approximately two hundred Sisters of Charity. Some of the sisters were dressed in all-white saris, but most of them wore white saris with a blue border signifying their lifetime vows to Christ. It was beautiful to listen to their devoted voices as they prayed amongst all the traffic noise and commotion that we could hear emanating from the streets. One by one we lined up as a priest blessed us with holy water and placed a thin wafer in our mouths.
Covering the altar was white linen with lace trim and embroidered in the fabric were the words "holy + holy + holy +." On the wall behind it was a large crucifix. Next to it in wooden letters, it said, "I thirst." A few yards away there was a statue of the Virgin Mary with a gold crown on her head, and a gold cross around her neck. Three small pots of red roses were placed in front of her.
We were so excited to find out that Mother Teresa was there, and we were able to meet with her. After service we walked downstairs, and on a chalk board written in English was:
A clean heart always forgives and is able to see God
in others and so love them. –Mother
Mother Teresa, like a ball of white light, walked over to us. She was very short in stature, maybe four feet tall, and her body hunched over, but the power and light that emanated from her was so overwhelming, it led me to tears (once again!). She spoke to us about love and healing humankind. She said, "I will pray for you that when you leave this place you will be able to do something beautiful for God. Love not put into action halts its flow. We need to not only receive love but to put it out. Please help us to find a place for our work in San Francisco. I will pray for you; pray for us."
That afternoon I left the group and took a very wild cab ride to 78 Lower Circular Road to see Sister Mary Camillus at Mother Teresa's orphanage. One of the attendants at Hotel Oberoi, where we were staying, gave me her name. I had received so many blessings on this trip that I was overflowing and felt compelled to give. Sister Mary Camillus was a European woman in her late fifties dressed in a white sari with the blue border. She was happy that I could help her that afternoon and walked me to the children's hospital. Most of the children were severely handicapped, but there was no sense of doom--quite the contrary. Sister Mary gave me a job massaging the tiny, twisted limbs of these innocent children, who were so dearly loved by the nuns. A young Indian nun asked me if I was Christian as she massaged another baby. I watched her intently as I did the others. They gave such tender love to these children with absolutely no pity whatsoever. Sister Mary was a strict disciplinarian, which I felt gave the children a sense of security. I had given some of the children candy not realizing they could not have sweets before supper. Sister Mary took it all back without one child resisting. I was so impressed with the way all the nuns treated the children, like one would treat any normal child. I am certain that is why some of the children with distorted arms and limbs and necks that hung over to one side had an aura of peace to them. The whole place did. I prayed inside that somehow I could resonate with it and engulf it into my own being. I was in a lot of pain. My neck collar was on tighter, as I was trying to alleviate the painful spasms in my neck. These children seemed more at peace than I did, as the phobia seemed to be strangling me. I fed a deformed little boy in his crib cut up chicken and rice before I left.
Dressed in white, we returned to 4 Ghopar Road for a discipleship initiation. It was a blessing to be back in our guru's home and to renew our vows to him. We chanted and meditated for an hour. When we felt united with Spirit, we said our vows in unison. We were immersed in emotion, as we partook in this sacred communion.
Before leaving, Hari Krishna and his wife graciously invited us into their spacious kitchen for prasad and tea. We took pictures of each other, and then sadly said our good-byes. With tears and joy, we sang the song, "Go With Love" from the sidewalk. The rain drizzled lightly upon us, while they listened and waved from their balcony above.