The Pilgrimage to Pune

More than a year ago, if someone had told me that I would go on a pilgrimage, the very notion of it would have been alien to me. Why would I go on a pilgrimage? My relationship with God always alternated between love and hate with me being very religious at one point, and then an atheist, an agnostic, a theist again…. and then there was this confusing period when I was a theist, but sided with my atheist grandfather whenever the atheism vs theism argument arose. Why did I do that? Let’s just say that my relationship status with God was complicated. But that was all in the past. We still have our differences, but we’re both working on it.

Fast forward, I am now writing this post after my first ever pilgrimage, with another one planned at the end of this year. How times change. Even this Pune trip was finalized at the very last-minute. I did not want to spend more money in addition to the large amount that I have spent on the trip planned at the year-end. But I am so glad that I went on this trip (thanks Sharmila, for helping me make my mind). I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I definitely feel that I am a more spiritual person than ever before. The chants and songs from the ashram still reverberate in my ears. I’ve been listening to the songs Dark Eyes, Life is a Dream, and others continuously  for the past few days. I’ve been sleeping and waking up to Swami Kriyananda’s “Aum”. I’ve even changed the wallpaper of my smartphone; the magnetic face of my Guru has replaced the wallpaper of Sachin Tendulkar (mostly my smartphone wallpapers alternate between Sachin Tendulkar and Superman). One certainly needs to go on pilgrimages at least twice in a year to keep the fire burning. Now I understand why people go on pilgrimages and what it means.

Day 1

On the 12th of September, Friday, I reached the Chennai International airport at about 9 AM. I waited for the rest of my friends from Ananda Sangha to join me. As I stood in front of the gates of the Domestic terminal, I scanned my thoughts. They were as dark as the clouds that hung high above me. Why? I asked myself. But I couldn’t come up with a reason. I am supposed to be happy, I am always extra happy when I go on tours. I received a call from my friend, Dr.Sharmila, and I came to know that she had to cancel her trip as her son was unwell. I did not know what to think. For a minute I even thought if I should turn back and head home.

“I did not sleep well. “

“What?”

“I did not sleep well the previous night, that is why I am not feeling good.”

My mind answered my question after a bit of a delay. “Yes, that is the reason why I am not feeling good, there is no other reason.” I tried to think happy thoughts. Shortly, Rajesh and Prasanna, followed by Manjula, Sathya Sai, Vani and her son Dr.Srinivasan joined us. Sharmila too came to send us off. Soon the others joined us and I was happy when I saw Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am getting down from a car. Sundararajan was the last to come and we went through the boarding process. I always enjoy talking to Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am and my spirits slowly rose as I talked to them. By the time I got into the plane I was excited. It was actually my first flight. Previously I’ve been to the airport only to send people off. I keenly observed each and everything and checked things off mentally to see if they matched with what I had read at first-time-flyers.com was correct. I loved it when Dharmini ma’am remarked if this could be the start of many firsts for me. The flight took off and I took umpteen number of snaps sitting next to the window. It just takes 1.5 hours to travel to Pune from Chennai and when I reached Pune it didn’t feel like I was so far away from home. I guess it was a big surprise to my time-taken-distance-covered sense or whatever they call it. I thought it would take some time to sink in, but it still hasn’t. And Pune resembling Chennai (or so it seemed to me) didn’t help either.  We waited for a few minutes and two cars arrived to pick us up. From there we went to the Ananda Sangha Center, located in an area called Bhosale Nagar. Another one of our Chennai friend, Thulasi, had already reached Pune by train and was waiting for us at the Center. The Pune Ananda Sangha Center was very different from the one that we have in Chennai. It was larger, and it looked very beautiful. Our kind host Blezy Philip took good care of us and made us some delicious sandwiches for lunch. Dharmarajan sir then told us the story of how the Ananda Pune community had come into existence.

 Sometime after 3 PM, we left the Pune Center and started towards the ashram which is located in a village called Watunde en route to Lavasa. The ashram is located at the foot hills of the Sahyadri hills, and is spread across an area of 33 acres. It was mildly drizzling as we made through beautiful hills and meadows. We were only a few minutes away from the ashram when Rajesh pointed me to a beautiful rainbow over a hill. It is said that a rainbow symbolizes a divine promise. At about 05:15 PM or so we reached  the ashram after travelling through scenic views of green hills and meadows.  We were greeted by a dynamic girl called Shamini who helped us settle down in our rooms. We were all given a print-out of our schedule that weekend. Thulasi, Rajesh, Prasanna, Dr.Srinivasan, and myself were allocated a beautiful three bedroom flat. Sundararajan and Sathya Sai were allocated another flat near us. The rest of the Chennai members stayed in another set of houses that were close to the office building, while ours was a bit out-of-the-way.  We were to join a group meditation at Swamiji’s house that began at 5:45 PM., and so we hurried to our flats in a car that was driven by the ever-helpful Bara, the monk from Uruguay. By the time the seven of us reached Swamiji’s house, it was almost 6 and most people had already settled down. Nayaswamis Jaya and Sadhana Devi were at the helm of things and there were others from the Pune and Mumbai centers as well. I meditated for about 45 minutes which was a first for me. The maximum time that I could hold myself was 30 minutes prior to this. As the meditation session ended, I took a good look around the room as everyone slowly departed. It was beautiful, to say the least. The altar was directly below a window which provided us with a lovely view of scenic hills and greenery. This view was flanked by a large portrait of Swamiji, his chair and his other belongings on one side and on the other side was a glass almirah with things that were used by Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Yukteshwar, and Swami Vivekananda. What a place to meditate!

7 PM was dinner time and we all eagerly hurried to the dining area. I shared my table with Nayaswamis Dharmarajan, Dharmini, Surendra, and Tushti, and with my brother disciples Prasanna, Rajesh, and Manoj. We all had a lovely time together. The food was delicious too. In fact, in all the six times that I ate there, I made sure that I ate as much as I could.

At about 8 PM, Nayaswami Surendra announced that we were to assemble at the office building to watch the movie Finding Happiness. I happily watched the movie for a second time and later retired to our flat for the night.

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:30 AM the next day, in my lovely room after sleeping for five hours. On one side of my head-stead was the picture of Swami Kriyananda and Swami Yukteshwar, and on the other side was a small statue of Jesus Christ. The only thing missing was a photo of our Master Paramahansa Yogananda. Curiously, there were about four to five paintings of Egyptian Gods and hieroglyphics around the room.

Prasanna, Rajesh, Thulasi, Dr.Srinivasan, and I, got ready as fast as we could, and hurried to Swamiji’s house for a long meditation session. Outside the house, I joined the others and performed Energization exercises before moving inside for meditation.

8:30 AM was time for breakfast in silence. I shared my table with Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am, and I wanted to talk. After breakfast, Jemal, the monk who lives there, took us on a tour around the ashram. He showed us a large man-made pond that supplies the ashram with water it harvests from rain; he told us how they are planning to connect the river, that was flowing a few miles away, to the pond. He then took us to the little garden where they grow rice and other vegetables. After a few other spots, we climbed uphill to get a glimpse of the monastery. It was a men’s monastery and women weren’t allowed after a certain point. Since our little party consisted of women, we stopped and peered through trees and shrubs and got a glimpse of the monastery. Jemal said that there was a man-made cave at the top for the monks and that it hasn’t been in use for the past one year. I requested him to take me up to the monastery and the cave afterwards and he said, “We’ll see.” And we did see the place after lunch.

At 11:30 AM, we all assembled at the office building for a talk on the topic “The role of the Guru in your spiritual practices.” I was all ears when Nayaswamis Sadhana Devi and Jaya spoke and I particularly liked one of Sadhana Devi ji’s story of how a photo of Paramahansa Yogananda, hanging on the inside of the front door of a women’s house, saved her life when she decided to commit suicide. The women wasn’t part of Ananda Sangha, nor did she consider Yogananda ji as her Guru. She had only bought his photo as she thought that she liked something about it. When she tried to open the door to go out with the thoughts of driving off a cliff, the photo expanded and expanded blocking the whole door. It’s a small story. But there’s something about it that I like very much.

After lunch, Jemal took a few of us to the monastery and the cave. The small group consisting of Prasanna, Thulasi, Anup, Suvir, and a couple of others and I, climbed uphill happily once again, following the lead of Jemal.  The monastery consisted of small, individual cabins, all painted in blue. There was a common bathroom and a small temple apart from the cabins. Jemal also took us to his cabin and there we were greeted by a large telescope sitting on a tripod. He said a few nights ago he was observing the moons of Jupiter. Oh, how I would love to do that! He then took us to a small cabin which served as a temple. There, we chanted for sometime with Thulasi at the Harmonium. It felt so good to be there, surrounded by such nice people, and a wonderful view of the hills around us. The climate was cool and cloudy, just to my liking. We then proceeded to the cave, which was rather small and very damp. I had thoughts of sitting in the cave and meditating for a few minutes, but those thoughts vanished as soon as I stepped in. What did I expect, the Ritz? I have no idea. The Ritz in a cave, the Ritz in a series of caves. Sounds interesting.

“What it means to be a disciple?” At 03:30 PM, we again assembled  at the office building and Nayaswamis Sadhana Devi, Jaya, Dharmini and Dharmarajan gave us a wonderful speech on this topic. Afterwards, as scheduled, Dharmarajan sir, and Dharmini ma’am started for Chennai. I very much wanted them to stay back with us.

At 5:45 PM, we were supposed to have a Yoga session with Tushti ji at the office building. But I had scheduled an appointment with Suvir, the Energy Healer, for a Raiki session at 6 PM. As I loitered around the Office, when everyone else was inside practicing yoga, I came across Bara.

“Aren’t you going for the yoga session?” he asked me.

“No, I am not,” I said.

“And why is that?” he asked me with a raised eye-brow.

“I am actually going to Suvir’s room for a Raiki session,” I said.

“Oh, for that,” said Bara and waved his hands like a magician.

 It started to drizzle and I took shelter near the Office and peeked in through the window and saw my fellow yogis doing yoga. Suvir came, and I went along with him to his room which was actually very close to where the Office was. He said that unlike a body massage, Raiki massages the soul. It did feel so relaxing and good.

At dinner I had the opportunity to chat with Dharana ji and he told me his experiences with Swami ji, how he had worked on the Index of the book The Essence of Bhagavat Gita and so on. Prior to coming on this path, he had worked on developing Satellite simulation software, and afterwards at a book shop called East West Book Shop.  After dinner, it was time for some chanting at the Office. The chanting was led by Bara and Narayani.

“You have two powerful instruments,” said Narayani in her sweet voice. “One is your voice and the other, your hands. Use them!”

We all did. But I had trouble clapping rhythmically and chanting at the same time. I tried to clap and chant, and chant and clap, gave up clapping and settled for chanting alone towards the end.

Day 3:

The next day started with Energization exercises and meditation at Swamiji’s house, just like the previous day. But this time, we also had the Discipleship ceremony, wherein people took a vow to be a disciple of our Master Paramahansa Yogananda. Some of us from the Pune and Mumbai Ananda Centers took the vow, and after that a small a photo-shoot took place.  The new disciples posed for a group photo and then there was a flurry of snaps as people scrambled (including me) to get hold of all the Nayaswamis present in the room. At one corner, I saw Anup taking a selfie with a cheerful Jaya ji and wondered if Jaya ji was the first Nayaswami to be part of a selfie! Anup, where is that selfie? I am not seeing it in the photos that you posted 🙂

After breakfast, Jaya ji took a class on “the Aum technique” of meditation. I had completely forgotten to take my Aum board on the trip and Narayani ji kindly lent me hers.

Later, Sadhana ji, Narayani ji, and Jaya ji spoke on the topic, “Swami Kriyananda: His role and mission as a Disciple.” As always, it was very nice to hear Jaya ji’s deep, warm voice. After lunch, it was time to leave. I so badly wanted to stay there with the others for a longer time. But my bail time had almost ended and I had to go back to jail.  A car had been arranged to drop us. But Thulasi alone was made to go on a different car, as there wasn’t enough space for him in ours and also because he had to catch his 6 O’ clock train. So the two cars departed, but in the middle of the way, we stopped. Thulasi and I were asked to swap cars as Thulasi’s car driver, for some reason, wasn’t going to go to the railway station. I reluctantly got down, went to the Tata Indica, and occupied the front seat. At the back were three people from Ananda Pune — Sheetal, Prathamesh, and another interesting lady called Maitreyi. We had a very interesting conversation and I was glad that the swap happened.

On the way, we stopped at the Pune Center once again to attend the evening satsang with Jaya ji and Sadhana ji and At 8 PM, it was time to leave.

And so the Chennai contingent left Pune with lots and lots of sweet memories, kindness, love, and a bit of reluctance. I would like to Thank each and everyone for making this pilgrimage such a memorable and joyful one. I felt so much love and kindness. Thank you, Dharmarajan sir, and Dharmini ma’am for giving me this opportunity!

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We Came, We  Saw, We fell in Love!

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In this file photo, Sundararajan could be seen in a state of samadhi at an altitude of about 20,000 feet.

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The sign on the wing says “Do not walk outside this area” — Superman, take note.

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 On the way to the Pune Center from the airport.

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At the Pune Center.

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“Can we not hand them each a cookie and send them back?” asks Bara, as we stand in front of the office building upon arrival.

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Thulasi!

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The Beautiful altar at Swamiji’s house.

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(From left to right) Vicky, Manjula, Aditi, Nayaswami Surendra, and an unidentifiable guy.

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The Cave

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Chanting at night

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The Discipleship ceremony

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The final satsang at the Pune Center

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World War 1: 100 years of Madras Bombardment

A hundred years ago, on September 22, 1914, a German light cruiser, SMS Emden, launched an attack on the city of Madras (Chennai). Emden silently crept into the Madras harbour area and at 9:30 PM opened fire. About 130 shells were fired at the city. The ship managed to destroy four oil storage tanks containing 350,000 gallons of oil, sunk a merchant ship, and started to fire at will over the city. In the process, Emden managed to cause some damage to the Madras High Court, buildings of Boat House of the Madras Sailing Club, Port Trust, and the new National Bank of India. The shells reached as far as Poonamallee High Road, Choolai, Casa Major Road and Nungambakkam. Thousands of people evacuated the city in fear, as rumours of another German attack spread thick and fast. Five people were killed and 26 were injured in all. By the time the British Navy responded, SMS Emden was nowhere to be found. Incidentally, Madras was the only Indian city to be attacked during WWI.

Today, walk in to the Chennai Egmore museum, and you can find one of the unexploded shells. Take a walk along the eastern wall of the Madras High Court, and you can still see the memorial tablet that was installed at the exact same spot of the shelling.

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My Top 10 Ten Favourite Books

There are so many books out there and so little time to read. I say this so often, and I am pretty sure that I’ll say this for many, many more years. Listing my top ten books is a bit tricky. I am yet to read, what many call, “must-read books.”  How does one choose his/her favourite books? One chooses, I think, based on the feelings or emotions or just the general feel that one gets whilst reading a book.  How about the criteria, the quality of the work or how well the book is written? Quality is important, but it is not the only criteria as I have discovered over many years of reading. For lack of better words, I am going to put it this way — I am a heart person rather than a brain person. So if something has to become my favourite, then that thing should touch my heart in someway. Let me explain. Who is a better writer, Dan Brown or Enid Blyton? Seems to be an unfair comparison. I’ve read about three of the seven or eight books that Dan Brown has written and I have read more than 60 Enid Blyton books. Now Dan Brown’s books are mind-blowing. I have no words to explain how awesome his books are and yet I do not love his books. Why? Because it is my brain that enjoyed his books, not my heart. But when I read EB’s books(yes, of course, she’s a children’s writer), my heart just enjoys them so much! So to me, Enid Blyton is more lovable than Dan Brown.

Enough said. Without further ado, let me present my list (in no particular order).

* The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

* The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

* Kidnapped by RL Stevenson

* Odyssey by Homer

* Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

* The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton

* The Mystery series by Enid Blyton

* The Adventure series by Enid Blyton (and many other EB books)

* The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

* The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (I am holding off from reading LOTR as I think it’s a very precious work to be read now and forgotten later. I am planning to devise a note-taking method to note down stuff as I read through these books).

I have to admit that I did a little cheating in this list. Some of the items in this list include entire series instead of a single book and I’ve also listed some of my “brain books” rather than the “heart books” that I talked about. I wonder what those books are 😉

Apart from these, there are other notable ones that I’ve immensely enjoyed like the Red Wall series by Brian Jacques, The Three Investigators series by Alfred Hitchcock, Leo Tolstoy’s short stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and many others.

Of course, over the coming years this list is going to be updated. But I just don’t see some books getting off this list.

Related Post: I Love King Arthur!