Letter from Varanasi November 2015
Namaste, greetings from Varanasi, or as it is sometimes called, Kashi. It is a more sedate adventure than last time we were here. In 2013 it was Maha Kumbha Mele, when millions of people take a bath in the Ganga. This time it is just normal busy bustling Varanasi, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and we are staying at a lovely old hotel in the peaceful cantonment precinct. It is an upmarket Marigold hotel! Very friendly and beautiful food, and we all had a great time.
Our retreat started on Wednesday. We were lucky to have some of the folks arriving from Peedam with us because of the severe floods in Chennai. Parvati, Ganga and Bhadrakali drove through deep floodwater across highways, and their driver took them various back roads to get to the airport.
Another difference between now and our last visit is how clean the waterfront has become. Rubbish disposal is a major problem in most third world countries and the cities are sometimes groaning under a mountain of litter. India’s relatively new Prime Minister Modi has made cleaning up and preserving Varanasi a high priority, and has ensured that progress has been made. The locals love him. He is a yogi who champions spirituality and venerates Lord Shiva. Clearly something good is happening, although there is still more progress to be made.
On our second evening we went on a boat ride on the Ganga. We travelled up from the Assi Ghat by boat to the main ghat, and then a little further to view the famous burning ghats where bodies are cremated around the clock. Fires have burned there continually for millennia in what is essentially an outdoor temple. It is probably the only place in the world where one can view this spectacle and the energy was sparkling with radiant Kali. It was very moving and uplifting, the energy felt alive and like it was dancing, which is not what I expected.
We then moored raft-style alongside countless other small boats to watch the daily evening Aarti program, where the priests engaged in an elaborate ceremony in honour of the Mother Ganga. It was very beautiful and the energy was great. We then went out midstream to offer small coconut fibre baskets containing a little candle and flowers to the river. Watching them float off downstream was surprisingly poignant. Looking up and down the ghats one could feel the millennia stretching into antiquity, and one could almost see the Ancient sages, saints, rishis and even the gods walking along the ancient city, which is mentioned in the Ramayana as well as the Bhagavad-Gita. We even went to a temple, built around an ancient tree, underneath which sage Tulasi wrote the famous scriptural epic, the Ramayana!
Our program has been an inspiring one, with activations from Lord Shiva and lots of teachings about Saraswati. We learned that Saraswati, who is the Goddess of education, language, the arts, and wisdom is best approached not in an active way but through inner stillness. We received various blessings and activations which brought Saraswati alive in our beings, and we practiced the Medhe Suktam which is a Maha or great prayer in Her honour.
A few days after our first boat ride, we were again out on the Ganga after having watched the dawn aarti at the Ghat. We went right out into the river where Edo led a Narayani fire puja. At the conclusion of the beautiful puja some of Jo’s ashes were poured into the Ganga. It was so profound, we were all in tears but there was more joy and radiance than anything else. When the ashes hit the river it rippled with energy as though the Devi was consciously receiving the ashes and our love along with them.
Ganga can be viewed as an aspect of Mother Saraswati, as can Gayatri. Saraswati in some of the scriptures is referred to as the sister of lord Shiva. All of these Holy presences seemed to be with us during the retreat.
After the fire puja and spreading of Jo’s ashes, we went upriver by boat to a Vishnu Narayan temple where a saint called Ganapathi Saraswati (also known as Trailinga Swami) lived and eventually took Maha Samadhi. He was known as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and had a very colourful life filled with miracles and amazing stories. He left his body consciously by entering into meditation, having talked to his disciples and letting them know he was leaving. His departure was still a surprise, as he was 280 years old when he died. He had been born in 1607 and his Maha Samadhi took place in 1887! His remains were not in the temple because although they had been buried in accordance with his instructions in a box placed in the Ganga, they had disappeared. When his disciples pulled up the box to put the remains in the Samadhi temple, they found that the box was devoid of a body but was full of fresh flowers.
When we went to the shrine of the great saint, waves of energy flooded over us and Shakti Durga could hear him speaking and giving encouragement and instruction.
Trailinga Swami had healed many people of serious diseases and brought a number of people, particularly children, back from the dead. Interestingly, he did not wear clothing. The local police took exception to his nakedness and put him in jail. However he did not like being in jail and so he meditated and levitated out the top of the jail and sat meditating above it. They tried locking him in a few times until they realized it was a futile exercise! Ganapathi Saraswati Swami then took to meditating while levitating above the Ganga. He would also submerge himself in the Ganga and be gone for hours, before re-emerging apparently not having needed to breathe for all that time.
Another story was that on one occasion he was catching a train, but was asked to get off the train because he did not have a ticket. The saint did not appreciate being asked to leave the train, and sat there in meditation. Despite the need to leave the station, the train did not move. The driver and engine men could not find anything wrong with the train, but still it would not move. They sent for experts and more engineers, who looked over everything but still the train was stationary. Then, one of the other passengers said to the driver: I don’t think you should have asked the Swami to get off the train. I feel certain that if you ask him to board the train, it will go. In desperation, they humbly asked the Swami to re-board the train. Immediately it set itself in motion and continued on to the destination with no further difficulty.
The famous saint Ramakrishna, whose photo we saw in the Maha Samadhi shrine of Ganapathi Saraswati, referred to him as the ‘walking Shiva of Varanasi’.
After seeing the Swami, Ramakrishna said, “I saw that the universal Lord Himself was using his body as a vehicle for manifestation. He was in an exalted state of knowledge. There was no body-consciousness in him.”
He was a larger-than-life figure, reportedly weighing over 140 kg, though he seldom ate. He could read people’s minds like a book and could not be deceived in any way.
He had the yogic power referred to as Bhutajaya, or conquest over the five elements. Water would not drown him and nor would fire burn him. He could lie on burning sands or be submerged in water for hours with no ill effects. It was claimed by his followers that he could drink any kind of poison with no ill effects. A sceptic once fed him poison wanting to expose him as a fraud. After the Swami drank the entire vessel of poison with no ill effects the sceptic, who had not drunk the poison, fell to the ground writhing in agony. The Swami broke his usual silence to explain the law of karma to the man before forgiving him and healing the sceptic from the effects of the poison.
Ganapathi Saraswati Swami described our senses as the enemy and our controlled senses as our friend. His description of a poor person was – someone who is greedy. He regarded rich to mean – someone who always remains content. He said that the greatest place of pilgrimage is “Our own pure mind” and instructed pilgrims to follow the Vedic truth received from their Guru.
Not only did the Holy Swami appear to Shakti Durga at the shrine, he also entered into her subsequent meditations and gave teachings upon the nature of Mother Saraswati. The Swami was very clear that we are all in the right place being devotees of Sri Sakthi Amma.
The only problem with our retreat in Varanasi was that it was too short. Great weather, great spiritual experiences, great shopping, amazing sights and so much more to see and do than we had time for means that we will just have to go back. We will let you know when the next Varanasi adventure will be happening.
And now we are flying to Delhi, visiting our friends at the Times of India who publish Speaking Tree, the most widely read weekly spiritual magazine in the world. Then we will be spending a few days in Chennai before heading to Peedam to visit the Divine Mother Narayani incarnate, Sri Sakti Amma. What will happen next? The spiritual life is such an amazing adventure. See you on the Inner Plane