On November 6th we arrived in Benares. This city is also known as Veranasi. Even earlier it was called Kasi, which means “illumined with the Divine Light." And that it is. Benares, to me, is what India is all about--bringing the Divine into one's everyday world. As does the poverty permeate this city, so does spirituality. They go hand in hand as does light and dark, birth and death, rich and poor. You see it all in this city of Divine Light.
Benares is believed to be the oldest city in India and the place where Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha became enlightened in the 7th century BC. The inhabitants of this ancient city primarily worship Shiva, who is the God of creation and destruction, and one of the Hindu Trinity. Our wonderful guide Ram, a man in his late fifties, with a sweet round face and thinning gray hair, explained to us: "Thirty-six deities can be found here who are all expressions of the Infinite God-head. The God-head is like a diamond and the deity are facets of this diamond."
Ram prepared us for our first encounter at an open-air temple, called the Durga Temple. It is also known as the Monkey Temple, because wild monkeys have the run of the place. They're on the rooftops, and inside the temple playing on the chains, which hold the bells that hang down from coral colored pillars. Some monkeys go as far as ringing them. Ram warned us to hold on to our belongings with our life, or the monkeys were sure to get a hold of them. The devotees who came to worship didn't seem to even notice them. They were just part of the ambiance.
Durga is an aspect of the deity Parvati who is Shiva's consort. In this form, she is the destroyer of evil. Ram gave us each a bright orange garland and placed some sandalwood paste between our eyebrows (our spiritual eye), before we entered the temple. We walked on the black and white checkered floor as we approached the Statue of Durga. We pranamed in respect. A pranam is a salutation.
Back in the bus, we departed for Ananda Moyi Ma's ashram. Ananda Moyi Ma is known as the Joy-Permeated Mother who is called plain "Ma" by her devotees. She died five years prior to our visit, but her presence was felt there, as if she were still embodied. It is said that from the day she was born she was conscious. She knew where she had come and knew where her life would lead her. Since childhood she never voiced a desire, and totally surrendered, unconditionally, to the will of God. She married at the age of 18 years, but her husband realized he was in the presence of the Divine, so he became one of her most devoted disciples and guardian. Because she would be in Divine ecstasy for days at a time, and since her consciousness did not identify with her body, it got to the point that her disciples would have to feed her in order for her body to remain alive.
She did not suggest the same path for everyone. That is why she understood the various religions--expressing the uniqueness of the individual. Her teachings were basically to live a God-centered life in all that one does.
Her ashram is on the banks of the Ganges. On a hot and humid day, we sat in a hall adjacent to a room where some of her personal affects were. Most of the women on the pilgrimage wore the saris they had purchased at different times during the trip. Although, I was very warm in my pretty lavender sari, I was also in a state of bliss, as we chanted for forty-five minutes and entered into a deep meditation. Then, in groups of four, we silently walked into her tiny bedroom. I knew very little about her when I entered the Ashram, but I can't begin to express how profoundly I felt her divine presence when I entered her room. Only my tears could begin to express how I felt. In her modest room stood a white canopied twin bed, and a pair of her shoes. Feeling her essence, we bowed our heads with deep reverence and love. On the floor was a large framed picture of her sitting on her bed in a lotus posture dressed in white, with two white bracelets around her wrists, smiling sweetly.
We were all joined together again in the Ashram's bookstore downstairs, where we purchased photographs of Ma and bought books about her life. She was a beautiful woman and very sensual in appearance.
Before leaving, two women disciples who resided at the ashram led us in a kirtan. One of the women had a voice like a butterfly in its grace and peaceful tranquility.
The next day on November 7th the forty of us boarded two buses that took us as far as they could through the busy streets of Benares. We were on our way to visit the home of Lahiri Mahasaya, the “householder yogi.”
Even though Lahiri Mahasaya was married and raised a family, he attained Mahasamadhi--enlightenment, at-one-ment with God. He is a model who shows that one doesn’t have to be a sadhu or ascetic to progress on the spiritual path. His mission was also to grant Kriya yoga to all faiths, not just Hindus. It has been reported that he even came to his disciples in their dreams and initiated them into Kriya yoga. This was the beginning of taking Kriya yoga out of the temple, so to speak, and out into the world.
The buses were not permitted to take us all the way to his home because of the crowded conditions, which consisted of pedestrians, cows, bulls, dogs, sheep, chickens, goats, bicycles, rickshaws, cars, and motorbikes. We all paired off and took rickshaws. It was amazing how these small-framed men could peddle the bicycles that were attached to the rickshaw so rapidly, and artfully dodge the myriad of events that came across their path.
After a few miles, we had them stop. We walked the rest of the way, through the narrow streets and towering cement walls, chanting Om Namo Shavai.
Lahiri's home was unadorned and rather dismal looking with cement floors and barred windows. We walked into a very small room that was maybe six-by-twelve feet where his disciples, countless number of saints, including Yogananda and his teacher Sri Yukteswar, came for teachings and blessings from this great master. I knew I was in a place of the sacred, when I experienced the calm and peaceful energy that permeated the room. Another clue was, as always, a stream of tears would gush from my eyes quite unexpectedly. Please understand, I normally don't cry at the drop of a hat, but when I am deeply moved, this is the only way my inner being can express the profundity in which I am experiencing. This happened throughout my journey in India. The feelings went way beyond the ego and intellect.
We were introduced to Lahiri's fourth-generation relatives, a middle-aged man and woman who escorted us to a small temple where Lahiri and his sons frequented, and where Lahiri's ashes were kept. Placed on an altar were small statues of Krishna and Radha, and on either side of them were life-size replicas of Lahiri and one of his sons, Tinkori. They were decorated with layers of orange garlands.
Lahiri's grandson spoke to us briefly, and then we all chanted and meditated together for one hour.
The following day on November 8th,we visited the temple of Benares' most famous saint, Trailanga Swami. He is believed to have lived for three hundred years before dying in 1886. He also weighed three hundred pounds, although, it is said he hardly ate anything. He was known to drink poisons, stay underneath the water of the Ganges for hours, and lie in the hot Indian sun for long periods of time with no ill effects. This was to teach humankind that one could overcome certain conditions.
With absolutely no self-consciousness, Trailanga Swami refrained from wearing any clothing. There is a story of him being arrested by the Benares police for nudity. He was locked up securely in a prison cell, only to be seen shortly, thereafter, on top of the roof!
Entering the temple, we immediately came to an enormous black Shiva lingam, probably weighing half a ton. Our Indian guide said, "Swamiji [Trailanga] carried it all the way from the Ganges to the temple by himself." We closed our eyes as we touched the stone to feel the vibrations that emanated from it.
It has been said that thousands of people have seen Swamiji sitting on top of the Ganges River in a meditative stance. When Swamiji realized he was soon to leave this world, he requested that his disciples construct a box made of sandalwood for his body. His last wish was to be carried into the Ganges River after his death. One can imagine how heavy it must have been, but as the disciples were ready to toss it into the waters, the heaviness vanished. Because this was indeed odd, they opened the box, and to their amazement, the body was gone. In its place was a single flower.
We were taken to a small room in the basement. There we huddled around a solid piece of marble where that same single flower is embedded. On top of the marble is a portrait of him naked, sitting in a lotus position with a huge protruding belly, head shaven, short beard, and the only adornment he wears is a necklace made of prayer beads. This room is also where he left his body and held darshan, blessing all those who came to him. There is also a private tunnel that Swamaji used to go through, so he could get to the Ganges for his daily bath.
As we were walking out of the temple, I couldn't help but feel the devotion coming from the locals, as they came into the temple to pray. I didn't feel the fervor at some of the other temples, as much as I felt it from the people here.
To come to the Ganges at sunrise is to cleanse your spirit. The moon was almost full on this brisk cool morning. We walked by two white cows, a cluster of clucking chickens, and a large number of people that were just awakening from their sleep by the ghat, the stone steps that lead down to the river. We boarded a boat at the Dasasamedh bathing ghat, where we prepared for a genuine adventure. Legend has it the Goddess Ganga came down from the sky to be the deity over the waters, and those who partake of the waters receive many blessing and miracles. We immediately filled our plastic bottles with water and dipped our Kriya beads into the water. Although, we wanted to believe this water was holy, I didn't see anyone drinking it.
As we glided along the still waters of the Ganges, it was like watching a movie, observing each clip of human life. We could see a sadhu dressed in a white loincloth doing a yoga posture, called "Salutation to the Sun." Two women dressed in colorful saris were bathing themselves ritually. Men and women were scrubbing their clothes along stone slabs. We watched men swimming and bathing in the waters, and as we continued to drift on the river, we could see a fire on the shore. We were approaching the burning ghats. The Hindu's believe it is a blessing to be cremated at death and to have their ashes thrown into the river. We were told not to take pictures, because they believe this may hold the soul in the body.
I felt a sense of peace watching the human drama unfold as the sun unfolded to give us light on this new day. I also had to laugh to myself when I heard the Hari Krishna's over a loud speaker promoting their movement, and a band of barking dogs interlacing this air of peace. Opposites always come into play, but they seem so much more apparent in India. The dark side of life (or what we perceive is dark) is not hidden but accepted and integrated in the Indian way of life.
Almost every aspect of life can be seen at the ghat, and everything is done in a sacred way. This is life: death mixed into the mundane, and all of it is sacred. It gives me a deep feeling of reverence, integration, and wholeness.