Continued from ‘Postcard from Uttarakhand – 2’…
Geography steeped in history
The Mayavati Advaita Ashrama has a long history.
When Swami Vivekananda was in London on his way back to India from the US, some of his devotees planned a holiday for him in Switzerland and the Alps. Among his devotees were Captain & Mrs. Sevier. The sight of the Alps and the people of the hill area in Switzerland strongly reinforced a desire in Swamiji’s mind to start a monastery in the heart of the Himalayas. After several developments, Mr. Sevier and Swami Swarupananda made a thorough search and came upon the beautiful estate of Mayavati with its thickly wooded hills spread over an area ranging from 6000 to 7000 feet in elevation with a magnificent view of the towering snow-capped Himalayas. It was purchased on March 2, 1899. Swami Vivekananda arrived at this Ashrama on Jan 3, 1901.
The Advaita Ashrama is in the middle of a forest and takes pride in the wealth of its flora and fauna. The majestic view of the Himalayas extends to over 370 km. Among other peaks, we could spot Nanda Devi. The Ashrama runs a charitable hospital catering to about 1400 nearby villages. It runs its own dairy that supplies milk and milk products to the Ashrama staff, guests and the patients of the Mayavati Hospital run by the Ashrama. The Ashrama depends on a regular supply of water from perennial natural sources coming from the hills.
The Advaita Ashrama is not on the regular tourist map which allows it to retain its pristine beauty. However, devotees of the Ramakrishna Order are aware of this place and do make it a point to visit.
The background sound is that of a breeze that blows through the Ashrama mimicking the sound of a flowing river. In addition, birds of different varieties keep chirping in the morning. It is perfect for spiritual pursuit or for that matter, writing.
Here’s a very short video of the blissful morning sights and sounds (please turn up the volume of your device):
The Retreat was from March 30th to April 2nd. We could stay an extra day on April 3rd if we wished. I opted for the extra day.
We were about 45 participants. Almost all the participants had come from the Middle East and they were originally from West Bengal. The Ramakrishna Mission is headquartered in Belur Math, West Bengal, which explains the participant demographics. This Retreat had been arranged on the request of the Mission’s ardent followers in the Middle East.
I could see two heritage buildings at the Ashrama. One was from where Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly English magazine, was being published. The Prabhuddha Bharata building at the Ashrama was commissioned in 1914.
The other heritage building was a wooden chalet where Swami Vivekananda meditated during his visit to the Ashrama. This is being restored with great care while leveraging the local traditional building technologies. We went on a guided tour led by Swami Madhurananda, a Swamiji hailing from Argentina. The extensive care that was being taken to blend modern science (by employing IIT-Roorkee engineers) with our ancient traditions while restoring the building is an inspiration to us. I wished, as Indians, we could show such respect to our heritage buildings all across our country.
The area in front of the Administration Block is a nice compact garden being nurtured by a Japanese Swamiji, Akira Maharaj who has made Mayavati his home for several years now. A man of few words, he takes care of the garden, manages the bookstall and walks the dogs in the evening.
The Retreat was run very professionally. I am used to the Ramakrishna Mission organization standards since my son studied at the Sri Ramakrishna Vidyashala in Mysore. Everything works with clockwork precision. Right from the pre-read materials sent to all participants with a clear time table to the room and meal arrangements to the precise start and end time of the classes, I could experience the same standards. These were life lessons for us.
Most of the classes were held in a room that overlooked a deep valley. We were located at such an altitude that we could see only the top of the tall trees rising from the valley. Even as a monk was taking the class, through the sliding glass windows, we could see mischievous langurs climbing those tall trees. A couple of classes was held in the open in a steppe-like area (Swarupananda Point) complete with chairs and a microphone. As the class was going on, the trees over us decided to shed their leaves. We received nature’s blessings in the form of dry leaves. Magical!
The classes had been arranged in a way that a lot of time could be spent in contemplation and meditation. Several monks took our classes. We experienced a variety in terms of style and approach. The monks wanted us to make the best use of the location, given that Swami Vivekananda had a hand in choosing this location and had also meditated here. Also, several hundred monks and saints had visited this place and meditated here adding to the spiritual richness of the location. We also had some guided meditation sessions late in the evening.
There was a special session, Himalaya Darshan by the young Swamiji, Swami Divyakripananda, to educate us about the Himalayas, their spiritual significance and their mention in the ancient texts like the Skanda Purana. We were shown the different peaks using a picture. On one of the nights, it rained and we could get a crystal-clear view of the peaks on the following morning.
The topics included Vedanta & Vivekananda, Vivekachudamani, Meditation, Panchakosa – Taittriya Upanishad, The Goal of Life according to Sri Ramakrishna, Synthesis of Four Yogas, Rishi Ideal and the essence of Bhagavad Gita.
I was aware of many of the topics but when it comes to spirituality, theoretical awareness is of little use.
As an analogy, it is like being theoretically aware of all the swimming techniques and then jumping into an ocean. Such theoretical knowledge will not save us from drowning.
There is a need for regular practice. Although, as a family, we have our own practices, it is important to keep at it on a daily basis. The practices recommended at the Retreat were pure and simple. From what I could gather, I seem to be on the right path. I need to move forward in a focused manner if I wish to walk this path.
We experienced the hospitality of utopian standards. The twin-sharing room arrangements had been made with a lot of care. We had running hot water in the modern bathrooms. The food arrangements were out of this world. Contrary to the popular perception of having to live a spartan existence in ashramas, we were actually treated like royalty when it came to food. I got to taste vegetarian Bengali and other specialties. You will get the drift from this indicative list: aloo-tikki with chole, dahi-bhalla, pancake with honey, fruit cake, jam made from rhododendron flowers, gajar halwa & fresh kalakand. We had to eat responsibly since we had our classes following the meals. I wondered if there was a life lesson for us on ‘moderation’ here.
The monks took turns to inquire about our comfort. There was some light-hearted banter in the air. I felt very comfortable in the midst of such learned and holy men.
All through the day, as a result of the breeze, the trees keep shedding their leaves and it was up to people like Dev who can be seen sweeping the streets and then doubling up at the dining hall serving the guests. The staff mainly comprising Munna, Dev and Naveen were highly dedicated and hard working. I wondered if they really expected any rest at all.
On the Ekadasi evening, there was a bhajan session in which some villagers from the adjoining area also participated. We went visiting a lake nearby that was Swami Vivekananda’s favorite spot. We also went trekking to Dharamgarh where Swamiji had meditated. I bought a couple of books. I made new friends. I also got to enjoy my Haldiram ‘All in One’ snack in style with my new friends, Mohan & Jayesh in our room. Jayesh, from Rajkot, shared his theplaa and his khakhra with us.
The book project
I had had a discussion with Swami Muktidananda regarding the book even before I had left Bangalore for Mayavati. It was time to catch up with him. Swami Muktidananda happens to be the Chief Administrator of the Advaita Ashrama. He is of the view that, as a society, we need to build a ‘curriculum’ that will familiarize our traditions in our families, particularly in children. The book, rather a series of books, needs to be created and compiled and graded as per a child’s growth. From what I could gather, it is a super exciting project and I have already agreed to take it up. Some of the Retreat participants have also pledged support to this project. This is going to be serious business and also a lot of learning for me. I hope to work with several Retreat participants in this process.
A group picture was organized and on the last day, we bade our goodbyes. While packing my bags, I realized that I needed more space – I was carrying many fond memories with me.
As I was returning, I was thinking: I had come to Mayavati in search of the book. Mayavati had kindled my search into the Self.
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