India: Travels with My Son
by Lilia Perton (1995)
What a Journey! Travels with my Aunt?
I, for one, vote for travelling with my son. To India...the politician and the yogi; the sceptic and the teacher.
Do you believe in karma???
My son, Victor, rang me in July. He was in Darwin and I expected his usual evocative description of the tropical north - the mysteries of Kakadu.
Although he had been participating in a national conference on the parliamentary protection of human rights, I knew he was taking a weekend to show two colleagues and their families the wonders and mysteries of the ancient lands and traditions of Kakadu. Instead, he simply said, "I have an invitation to speak at a human rights conference in Bangalore, India, do you want to come?"
Come? Without hesitation I said "Yes!"
Karma? Well, all year I had been contemplating a trip to Bangalore. Why? Over the summer, I had read the book `Yoga for Common Ailments' produced by the doctors at the Vivekananda Ashram near Bangalore. The book made such sense I wanted to meet, learn from and talk to the authors.
This was the second trip I had made with my son inside a year after a lapse of ten years. A year ago, we had travelled through Kakadu together - experiencing our ancient Australian land, its extremes of temperature and beauty and being absorbed by the ancient works of people who had settled there for forty thousand years. I still remembered with fondness our 5am meditation in the rich silky morning air at the foot of the Arnhem Escarpment in the lightning man country of the aboriginal Dreamtime. The memories of the strong sun and our swim up the gorge to Jim Jim Falls. Crocodiles and Sea Eagles around the Yellow Waters. Sea Eagles take the souls of the Arnhem aboriginals to heaven. The sight of the beautiful Lotus Lily in the breathtaking waters.
The plan? Victor and I would fly to Bangalore. We would spend two days going to Mysore and I would spend a week at the Vivekananda Ashram while Victor attended his human rights conference in Bangalore itself and gave some classes at the National Law School of India. As the time got closer, we discovered more and more. While sceptical, we decided to visit and see the guru, Sai Baba. By fax and letter and phone we gradually developed an interesting program.
Programs? They are made to be changed if the mood takes us. We were due to fly out on Monday. On Sunday, I reread my Lonely Planet Guidebook. Pondicherry! On the west coast. It looked close to Bangalore on the map. The name rang a bell. Going back about 25 years, I had learned about this place from my own guru.
Pondicherry/Auroville - a global village where people of all colours, races and religions lived in harmony and peace. This was the place I had mentally journeyed many times. I had even contemplated living there in the late 1960s. Now at least a visit seemed a reality.
On the phone! Oh dear, a dose of reality. My son's map reading was a little better than mine - Pondicherry on the west coast was not my Pondicherry. Mine was on the east coast near Madras. Victor's view - "It's too far away - two days travel each way from Bangalore."
Ah... disappointed I was resigned...it was not to be. Not yet, perhaps...
Monday to the airport. Victor and I arrived at the airport to find a queue five 747s long. The check-in staff had gone on a snap strike at 12.30pm. Victor and I ensconced ourselves in the Qantas Club Lounge with no one able to tell us what was going on! There were many desperate, tense and exasperated people in the lounge, connecting with international business appointments - the emergency staff were friendly but not trained for reservations re-routing!
It was only at 5.30 pm that we learnt that all Qantas flights for the day were cancelled!!! What disappointment - there are only two direct connections a week to Bangalore.
Well, all the reservations staff at the airport were on strike too!!! So on to the phone went Victor. I was proud of his relaxed and friendly manner as he dealt with the stressed and overworked reservations people. His yoga training or indoctrination by me may have contributed a little.
Well, sometimes Karma works...
Victor and I had to return to the airport at 7am on Tuesday. Would you believe that we were now flying at 8.40 am on an Ansett Flight to Adelaide....arriving at 9.25. Then we are on a Qantas Flight to Singapore departing Adelaide at 1345 and arriving in Singapore around 1930.
Here the fun started! There was no flight to Bangalore until Thursday! So...when Qantas suggested Bombay or Delhi, Victor said, "Is there a flight via Madras??" Well yes there was! And would you believe it was a perfect direct connection via our Adelaide flight to Singapore! The very pleasant Qantas staff permitted a two day stop-over and...it was Pondicherry here I come!
Madras - the real India (as the guidebooks say) - the capital of Tamil Nadu. We arrived late at night, the airport grubby and crowded. The luggage conveyor worked in fits and starts - would our baggage ever appear? An hour later it appeared and we quickly worked our way out through customs. The taxi service worked like a dream and we were out in the hot, steamy, exotic smell of India. Our hotel, The Hotel Trident, booked by Qantas, was clean, air-conditioned and inside of half an hour I was fast asleep.
The next morning brought the first decision. Would we travel with the people on a bus or would we accept the rip-off price for car-hire offered by the hotel? The Indians hotel staff was little assistance in making this decision - they were helpful whatever decision we would have made. After meeting some Australians over breakfast our decision was made - with only two days we would take a car. A wise decision this one, after seeing the buses we knew it was a wise decision. Victor had mumbled something about flying there but was told the plane no longer goes. I didn't understand Victor's desire to fly until later. As we were about to leave I wandered into the little hotel bookshop and bought Victor a book on Meditating to Attain a Healthy Body Weight by an American doctor called Lawrence LeShan.
Our little car arrived with our pleasant young driver, Ravi, a trained engineer but making more money driving foreign tourists. Throughout the journey Ravi blessed Victor for doing his duty to his mother. Ravi's mother had severe diabetes and heart-disease and Ravi spent many hours a week tending to her needs. Ravi believed in an obscure Indian saint but felt his spiritual journey with us was part of his Karma. Ravi himself was going to become a saint in six years time! This would be achieved by not getting married as this would distract him from his spiritual path.
We started out in extraordinary heavy traffic. Madras is the fourth largest city in India and is crowded and hot. The population could be six million or more. The air reeks of the fumes emitted by the hundreds of thousands of small motor scooters belching out the emissions of the still leaded fuel. As we sat in our airconditioned car, we watched the people walking and cycling by - sweating in the hot steamy weather. Already it was apparent that the women were by far the more interesting people to watch - every sari seemingly a unique design.
In one of our sillier moments we decided to drive to Pondicherry via Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is world famous (so the guidebooks say) for its shore temples. It was established by the Tamil Dynasty - the Pallava Kings of Kanchipuram. Although the dynasty's origins are lost in the mist of time, their creative heights were reached around the seventh century AD. The road traffic quietened down as we headed for the coast. A curiosity in rural India is the number of properties which consist of nothing but a very large stone fence. This is to ensure that the adverse possession laws of India do not allow someone else to seize your land by building on it.
The shore temple at Mahabalipuram was indeed spectacular. The temple has world heritage listing and is in the course of restoration with the removal of caked-on sand. When you transport yourself to 7th century India and imagine the beauty of the temple by the sea and an empire at the height of its creative glory - it must have been entrancing.
Mahabalipuram is only a two street town but it has its share of guides. As usual they do not quote a price but say "You pay me if you are happy with me." At the end of the expedition you offer them a fair sum only to be told that that is the mere government -approved price. You have to wave them away - after two minutes it is as if they have not been offended and they are happy to point you in the right direction for the next guide to take over.
Mahabalipuram also has wonderful carved caves. One spectacular temple carved out of the cliff around 700 AD sets out the mythical story of the River Ganges issuing from the source in the Himalayas. Lots of lovely carved figures including Shiva, elephants, horses, dancers...
We stopped for our first coconut juice. As usual the vendor complained that he had no change for 10 rupees (50 cents) so we had to buy two coconuts. The liquid was lovely and cool in the very hot sun. The postcard vendors were only moderately pushy and offered us the best quality postcards in the whole on India for about 20 cents each.
As our postcards said, "We wish you could have been (t)here!"
We headed off on the road to Pondicherry. Ravi was a careful driver and still more careful after I told him he was a good driver. This was a mistake, it can take an awful long time to travel a hundred kilometres at 40 kilometres per hour. Eventually, we told him he could go a little faster. Later, we told him we'd sack him if he got overtaken by another bus! I understood Victor's early desire to fly. His experience in India ten years ago had prepared him for the Indian style of driving - the middle white line doesn't count and you spend a lot of time avoiding buses and trucks heading towards you in confidence and with aggression.
The road between Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry is a major goat -track but interesting for its villages and the people. The women in even the poorest villages dress in bright saris and carry themselves as elegantly as models on a catwalk.
Victor stopped to take a photo of a beautiful girl working on the roadside. He smiled and showed the camera and she consented by nodding and striking a beautiful pose. Imagine my concern as the villagers surrounded us. Had Victor offended some sensibilities? No, they all wanted a photograph and we have prepared the village portrait which we promised to and have posted back to them! One interesting interlude of many!
Pondicherry is not a small town. Its official population exceeds half a million. The first two thirds of the town look like any other Indian city. However, as you approached the waterfront, you find a surprise. A French Mediterranean sea-port! The houses and buildings on the streets near the waterfront include chic boutiques. Beautiful flowering trees and nicely restored buildings give a feeling of wellbeing.
We checked into the very pretty Park Guest House on the sea-front. The guest house belongs to the Aurobindo Ashram and has many sensible rules like lights out at 10.30pm.
Small signs around the grounds quote the guru.
"He who seeks perfection in his work is an artist"
After some light refreshments (much to Victor's frustration I had refused to have lunch in the dirty roadhouses along the way), we then set out to find the ashram. After being misguided by our driver, a lovely Indian owner of a children's boutique not only gave us directions but changed our large rupee notes and engaged a bicycle-rickshaw. The rickshaw operator was an enthusiastic but skinny man and the weight of two Europeans seemed beyond him. Over the ten blocks I often felt like getting out and taking over the peddling. When we arrived I ordered Victor to pay him double the going rate and this cheered up the little man no end.
We walked into a courtyard of immense tranquillity despite the large number of people wandering in and out. Most were distinguished looking older Indians, but there were several tidy westerners and some young Indians. The centre of the courtyard was dominated by the grave of the saint and his chief disciple, a French woman known as The Mother. The grave was covered in fresh flowers in patterns of exceptional beauty. Devotees placed their heads on the grave and prayed or meditated. Holy water from the grave was dabbed on the forehead, face and tongue. Incense sticks in their hundreds glowed and smoked in the heavy evening air. People sat around preparing for the 7.30pm meditation.
Sri Aurobindo - yogi, poet, philosopher, politician and writer. Born in 1872, he was educated in England and completed his studies at Cambridge. Returning to India he became an early leader of the movement to free India from British rule.
In 1910, he withdrew from the world to devote himself to yoga. He settled in the Ashram in Pondicherry which now bears his name. He devoted his last forty years to writing about and teaching Purna Yoga, the Yoga of Integral Perfection. This is the yoga method which I have been following and teaching for the last twenty years.
The object of the (integral) Yoga is to enter into and be possessed by our God...and in our will and works and life to be the instrument of our God...
The object of yoga is not to get power or to be more powerful than others or to have great siddhis or to do great and miraculous things.
The object of yoga is not to be a great yogi or a superman...
Peace is a necessary basis but peace is not sufficient...
Its aim is to rise out of the ordinary world consciousness...
Victor and I settled down in the courtyard. We hadn't brought pillows so we sat on the hard concrete floor. Next time we'll be aware, everyone else had brought a pillow!
At 7.30 precisely, a man walked through with a bell. The lights went out. The one hundred people in the courtyard commenced their quiet meditation.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on slowing down my breathing. The warm, humid air was filled with incense. The air filled and warmed my lungs. I slowed down my mind which had raced with exotic images all day. I was swallowed up in the atmosphere. The coughing of a lady on my right was an irritation which I heard, examined and put out of my mind. I drifted into mental and spiritual stillness...
It is not possible to make a foundation in yoga if the mind is restless. The first thing needed is quiet in the mind. Also to merge the personal consciousness is not the first aim of the yoga: the first aim is to open it to a spiritual consciousness and for this also a quiet mind is the first need.
After twenty minutes the bell rang again. The lights slowly came on and people drifted away or to the grave or talked quietly amongst themselves. An old man who had befriended Victor urged him to come back and study at the Ashram. Victor had asked how an ashram can survive without a guru, the old man had explained that the writings of Aurobindo and the Mother were to be studied and understood. The other students would talk and discuss and together understand the importance and relevance of the works.
Now hungry, Victor and I struck out for a recommended Indian restaurant. It was too late, the kitchen was closed. Resigned to eating warm bananas and mineral water, Victor and I walked back to the Guest House. What was that sign? `Le Cafe'? Well, with French nuclear testing, it is probably not fashionable to say that, no matter where they are, the French know how to live. Starched white table cloths, beautiful candle sticks, perfectly mannered waiters, a clean and modern kitchen with chefs in perfect white. It was a surprise and dare I say it - a real delight.
So much a delight, we returned for breakfast. At breakfast we were joined by Tine, a young Danish environmental engineer - a Greenpeace activist but who also wanted a good coffee in a pleasant environment. Her three month project to build pit-latrines and wells for villages is a complex sociological task. Traditionally ablutions are conducted in the river with the obvious health effects downstream. Women also traditionally obtain their water from the same stream. So the work involves engineers and sociologists trying to improve the lot of the village people. A dedicated young woman, she was delightful company.
Before breakfast we had risen early. The practice was for the guests to walk along the grass at the front of the Ashram (along the sea-wall). The slow mediation walk barefoot in the wet grass is an excellent mediation. Following the meditation walk, I took my place near the sea-wall and did my yoga limbering exercises - warming the joints and the limbs and drawing energy from the morning sun rising over the Bay of Bengal.
In the sixties I had contemplated moving to Auroville. At that time as a young widow working to support two children, I couldn't join the people who came together in 1968 to create this international city concept. The concept seemed so perfect when times seemed difficult.
We arrived in what appeared to be outback Australia. The hot sun beating down, the air heavy with humidity, and eucalypts planted everywhere giving off the rich scent of their oils. A cobra passed across the road as we reached the meditation centre.
What is Auroville? It was the vision of the Mother. It was conceived as an experiment in international living where men and women could live in peace and harmony with each other above all creeds, politics and nationalities. The opening ceremony in 1968 was attended by the President of India and representatives of 121 countries who poured the soils of their home countries into an urn to symbolise international oneness.
The city is designed on a circular basis centred on the Matri Mandir - the spherical meditation centre which is not yet complete but may be completed next year. It is spectacular with donations from all over the world to cover the dome with golden glass and fit out its centre as a place of near-perfect tranquillity. Nearby is the Banyan Tree under which I took my late morning meditation.
There are several settlements built some several hundred metres from the centre. In these settlements people work on high technology, modern agriculture techniques, alternative technologies, advancement of the local Tamil people.
I did not spend enough time in Auroville to make my own assessment of the success of the experiment. But the people I met were friendly and committed to living together for the advancement of mankind.
We left Auroville to travel back to Madras and thereby connect with our flight to Bangalore. Our adventures were not yet over. On the airbus great consternation was caused by the non-appearance of a man named Khan - a typical Muslim name. He had checked in with baggage but not appeared on the plane. The mostly Hindu Tamil passengers were very angry - how could the luggage have been loaded without the usual Indian security practice of identification of luggage on the tarmac before boarding? We spent an uncomfortable period contemplating our mortality and the angry grumbles of our fellow passengers before the luggage was found and removed from the plane's hold.
In my next newsletter, I will share the wonderful events of Bangalore. However, in Bangalore we had not escaped Sri Aurobindo. The Indian national newspaper, The Hindu, of 25 August carried a leader article entitled `Wisdom for all time'.
The article celebrated the 90th anniversary of a letter which on August 30, 1905 Sri Aurobindo wrote to his wife. He exhorted his countrymen not to expect the government to do everything. Sri Aurobindo wrote of a `mutual duty':
We are landed safely in Bangalore after a tense flight. Victor and I expected an official of the Conference for Human Rights and Democracy to meet us at the airport as Victor was one of two delegates from Australia. To my surprise we were greeted by a large welcoming committee, a bunch of flowers, great warmth and friendliness. The greeting party included a young Indian student, Shuba, who was later to share some of my adventures.
We moved through the late afternoon Bangalore traffic to the Atria Hotel, and were once more greeted with flowers and a red dot on the forehead as a sign of welcome. It had been a long day - travelling from Pondicherry and Auroville - and I was ready to fall into bed! But no ! Victor came into the room : " Mother, get ready, we are invited to Ram Jethmalani's house for dinner!" My protest that I was not part of the Conference did not help! I could not offend the host who is one of the best lawyers in India and the high priest of human rights in India.
I was glad I had taken a 'good dress' - all my other clothes were more suitable for the Ashram ! It turned out a most interesting and delightful evening with another 8 guests. They included the former State Premier, an Ambassador or two -all delegates to the Conference. The garden and the house were so exotic ! And there was I sitting at the head of the table in the garden. The nibbling food came on platters and was washed down with cold Indian beer. Imagine my surprise after eating well outside to be called by the housekeeper to an enormous South Indian banquet in the main dining room!
The conversation ebbed and flowed on everything from international politics to styles of Indian cooking. The former Taiwanese Ambassador was distinctly uncomfortable with the hot curries. As the conversation turned to the purpose of my visit to India, the former Premier, Ramakrishna Hegde, suggested we visit a health farm on the outskirts of Bangalore. I thought - hmmm, a health farm (Warburton-style) - sounds boring! Every year Hegde spends two weeks there to recharge his energy and maintain his health. I must say, for a 70 year old, he looked remarkably fit ! Anyway, he pressed me to go and said he would organise a car and an escort - so there I was - locked in!
Next day our visit to the `health farm' had been arranged. But first things first ! I had to find the Headquarters of the Vivekananda Yoga Therapy and Research Foundation to make final arrangements for my stay at the Ashram. After some difficulty finding directions (there is no Melway's in Bangalore), we found the office. Everyone there was most helpful. The principal of the Yoga centre gave us a letter of introduction and a map with directions as the ashram is quite 'hidden.'
This morning expedition was not a trip to look at temples and palaces, still we could not resist a stop at the Tipu Sultan's Palace. Not that interesting but next door was a Vishnu temple. Vishnu is regarded as the preserver of the universe. Two other major Hindu gods, Brahma or Brahman and Shiva, are regarded, respectively, as creator and destroyer of the universe. Vishnu (especially in his incarnations) is the second god of the Trimurti, or Hindu triad (Brahma is the first, Shiva the third).
Vishnu is depicted as dark blue or black and has four arms: One hand holds a lotus; a second holds a conch; a third holds a discus (which always returns by itself after being thrown); and the fourth carries a mace. The petals of the lotus are believed to symbolize the unfolding of creation; the conch is said to symbolize that from which all existence originates; and the discus and the mace were obtained by Vishnu as rewards for defeating the god Indra. His wife is Lakshmi (also known as Shri), goddess of beauty and fortune. He rides a huge creature, half bird and half man, called Gandara. His home is in a heaven called Vaikuntha (from which the Ganges river is believed to flow, its source at Vishnu's feet). The god has a thousand names, the repetition of which is an act of devotion.
We had Victor's colleague Bruce in tow but Bruce didn't want to take his shoes off to enter the Temple grounds so he sat down by the gate. As Victor and I approached a golden door, it opened and we saw three Hindu priests performing some rites. Noticing us, one of them stepped out with a candle and circled the light around us. Then he sprinkled us with holy water, placed a red dot on our foreheads and gave each of us a flower and a banana - the full blessing ! It was quite exhilarating ! Bruce regretted his lack of adventure. We dropped Bruce at the hotel , had lunch and were off to the `health farm'.
We were accompanied by a young man who was a youth official with the Janata Dal Party. His business was in film and video production. We got on very well and he suggested we had time to go to the very pleasant Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. These gardens were laid out in the 18th century with many very old trees, small lakes, rose gardens. Old men sitting together on benches, families walking, young girls gathered in groups... Bangalore is the garden city of India - there were many parks and gardens - but no time to explore !
Finally, after some heavy traffic (there's lots of heavy traffic and car fumes in Bangalore), we arrived at the health farm. What a health farm! We drove up to the gates of The Institute of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences. I could not believe my eyes, my mouth dropped open in surprise. The institute is a very impressive place.
Again, a full reception committee was there to meet us. It was at this point we started to understand the importance that our friend Hegde played in the State. The Administrator, three doctors and naturopath and a yoga instructor (also a doctor) met us. After inviting us for a talk, we were taken on a guided tour. Amazing ! I could not believe something like this existed !
Doctors, Naturopath, Yoga Therapists - all working together in healing and helping people to a healthy life-style. We were shown the countless rooms for different therapies - like aromatherapy, different steam and immersion baths, mud bath, massage, physio-therapy, acupuncture etc. And a beautiful big room for Yoga therapy. We were shown the comfortable cottages surrounded by lots of flowers and shrubs.
The fruit and vegetable garden was magnificent and only very minimal fertilisers used then organic. The kitchen was spotless and we were invited to a special drink of coconut milk - very nutritious and tasty. To a great extent the Institute is funded by a large corporation, Jindal Aluminium Limited, and runs as a charitable hospital. Many large corporations in India are required to run charitable institutions but I think our friend Hegde had used his considerable influence to help this association along.
The Institute's mottoes include ' Nature is the best healer ' and `Naturopathy heals, Yoga maintains'. Above the door a sign says ' Every day in every way I'm getting better and better' to encourage positive attitudes. Great emphasis was on teaching people to take responsibility for their physical , mental and emotional wellbeing - the same idea we have by practising Yoga.
How I wish to be able to start a place like this in Melbourne !
Next morning I awoke early in anticipation of the journey to the Vivekananda Ashram. Victor had organised a hotel taxi and insisted on coming along to see that I landed safely! The trip took us through narrow roads and tiny villages. The countryside was green and lush. Even in the poor villages, women were colourfully dressed. Some young women looked so poised and elegant they would have been at home on a fashion catwalk!
Despite our map and expert driver, we had to stop several times to find the way. At last we were there! The ashram lies in a beautiful and lush valley surrounded by green hills. On arrival we were greeted and after a short wait taken on a tour of the ashram. An administrator and a young Yoga teacher accompanied us. The whole area seemed permeated with an atmosphere of calm and serenity. People were very friendly.
We were led to a simple cottage where we were introduced to the founder of the Ashram, Dr. Nagendra. Dr. Nagarathna was present together with two other people. You will recall that when Victor invited me to come along to India I'd been reading and using the book, `Yoga for Common Ailments' by Drs Nagendra, Nagarathna and Monro.
The discussions were friendly and open. Dr. Nagendra told us that he was a Astro-physicist and had worked in NASA in the United States in space programs. He had chosen to return to India and establish the centre to devote his energies to helping people to better health and spiritual growth rather than the space race. "Better helping living souls than dealing with machines.", he said.
Dr. Nagendra established the Vivekananda Therapy and Research Foundation near Bangalore with the aim of bringing the benefits of yoga into daily life and to carry out critical research into the effectiveness of yoga therapy. Dr. Nagendra is helped in this task by Dr. R Nagarathna, who qualified in internal medicine and is a member of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. She and other colleagues in different specialities provide the medical know - how needed to develop the Vivekananda Yoga system.
My son Victor left to attend his meetings at the Human Rights Conference. I was taken to my cottage by Ira who was to introduce me to the routine of the day. Ira was a delightful young lady and in the Indian Yogic tradition called me 'auntie'. The room was sparse with a steel bed, a table and chair and wardrobe. There were bars on the windows and a great big lock on the door. The bed was clean but the kapok mattress thin and the pillow hard as a rock. This was not the Hyatt ! I said to myself ' This is character- building' ! Fortunately I got the key to the door and the sun shone through the window. I was looking forward to new experiences and new learning......
The sound of a bell called us to lunch. On entering the dining-room many friendly faces gave me a welcoming smile and I was invited to a table with two other people. Most people sat on the floor in Indian Yogic tradition. The food was all vegetarian and we got the choice of 'spicy' or 'not spicy'. I soon discovered that the spicy was too hot and the non-spicy too bland, so a mixture of both was best!
There was a roster to help with serving food. Mostly young people came with stainless steel bowls and asked each person to choose which of the dishes they wanted. As all foods looked very similar, so choosing one or the other - was like a lucky dip!
There would have been about 60 other people at a ratio of twice as many men as women. People had come for different reasons to the ashram - some for healing, others to learn Yoga, others to learn more about the healing aspects of Yoga. There was for instance an Austrian cancer - therapist and a Russian woman now resident in San Francisco with her son who had a mental disability caused by brain damage. There were others too varied to mention.
Near the dining - room was a board with a program for the day. And a board naming the ailments treated at the ashram :
The mottoes of the ashram were: ' Serve man, serve God' and `Every Soul is potentially Divine.'
Five very interesting and satisfying days followed. The day started with a 5am meditation and chanting. Afterwards we performed our traditional Yoga routines like stretching and limbering and Yoga asanas ( postures ) . It was a nice feeling to be part of the group and not have to lead it - much more relaxing !!!
There is a strict rule - men on one side and women on other side of room. The ancient yogis must have realized there is a ' chemical reaction and attraction between the two sexes', and so not to disturb concentration, just in case .......
Lo and behold, the yoga postures were the same as we practise in our sessions, some in different sequence and relaxation followed. We were encouraged to put on a happy face!
Now breakfast - I was quite hungry by then ! No fruit- juice, muesli, toast and coffee, - instead 'spicy or not spicy' and yoghurt.
After a short break, we could choose the different courses we wanted to attend: Teacher training, Arthritis, High blood pressure, stress management, diabetes and more. Many of these classes were conducted by medical doctors, who also worked in Hospitals and at University in Bangalore. The whole teaching is scientifically based and recognized.
Although I had experienced the healing effects of Yoga on myself and seen the benefits of Yoga on my students, it was still very satisfying to experience it all at this scientific level. I attended as many classes as I could fit in.
After lunch we had time for walking and resting .
In the few days I made many friends, taking walks with some and sharing knowledge with others and getting used to the 'spicy and not spicy'. The one thing I could not get used to was eating with the fingers! My young friend Ira told me that by eating this way we channel more energy ( prana ) into our food. It makes sense - still I preferred a spoon - much easier! Did you know that till the 16th century the European culture was to eat with fingers. The early church forbade the use of a fork, saying it was the tool of the devil!
One day on my way to make a phone call, I met Inga, the lady from San Francisco. She was very upset as her handicapped son did not improve and refused to go to the Yoga classes. We made arrangements for me to come to her cottage for a cup of tea - real tea!!! While Inga was in the kitchen preparing the tea, I got into conversation with her son Stan and he showed me a few karate movements he learned. I said to him " I will show you some Yoga " and as I sat on the floor he joined me and the next thing we were ' doing Yoga ' and smiles all over his face. The mother was in the doorway, tears running down her face, exclaiming ' You're the only one to get him to practise Yoga ! Can we come with You to Australia?' It was sad to part from her....
There were so many other incidents, like the impromptu concert on Sunday, the little girls from the orphanage visiting the ashram, the talks with the doctors - too many to mention.
Then the day came to leave. And the rains poured down. As I rushed to my taxi, a man asked me wether he could have a lift to Bangalore. He was a most fascinating travelling companion, a retired scientist who is travelling through India researching the sound vibrations in different ancient temples. He told about his findings. The vibrations of sound and devotional chanting remains in the temples forever. The sound of OM or AUM is especially powerful and creates a wonderful vibration!
My travelling companion promised to send me his book when it was finished. The trip to Bangalore seemed short, I enjoyed the chance meeting. And it was still raining....
It felt good to be back in Bangalore as I relaxed under a hot shower and lay down on a soft mattress and comfortable pillow. However, I felt at a bit of a loss having left the ordered life of the Vivekananda Ashram. The time there had given me time for reflection and had instilled in me still more enthusiasm for Yoga. That night Victor took me to a Chinese dinner with some of the delegates from the human rights conference and new plans emerged for the days to follow.......
Bangalore and the nearby city of Mysore are famous for their silk industry. Bangalore is aptly named the 'Garden City' with an amazing number of flowering trees, splendid pink cassias and golden acacias blooming, with jacarandas flowering in purple majesty. The city is quite clean and, setting aside the petrol fumes, pleasant to simply wander around in.
My intention next day was to use the morning for some shopping for family and friends. Walking down the steps I spotted many people in front of the Hotel. They were busy decorating a statue with masses of flowers and floral garlands. As I got closer I saw that the statue was the image of an elephant's head and a rotund human body. My ignorance was lifted when the hotel manager explained that it was the elephant god Ganesh and today was a great feast-day in honour of this deity.
To explain Hinduism is quite complicated and I do not intend to expand it at great length..
Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions and has about 336,000,000 followers, most of whom live in India. According to Hindu teaching Brahman is the Supreme World Soul, or Spirit. Hindus speak of Brahman as the one absolute, eternal, indescribable, neuter being. The religion teaches that Brahman forms the inmost essence of everything. Without it, nothing would exist. But Hinduism allows the worship of hundreds of gods as stepping stones to understand Brahman. It holds that all the gods are only different aspects of the Brahman.
The American author, Mark Twain described it thus, "India has 2,000,000 gods, and worships them all. In religion other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire."(1)
Hindus particularly honour three personifications of Brahman - the Creator Brahma; the destroyer Siva; and the Preserver or Renewer Vishnu. Most Hindus consider Brahma relatively unimportant, because he has finished his work of creating. They either worship Siva or Vishnu and as previously stated many hundreds of other minor gods.
Siva has more temples and worshippers than any other god. His followers believe that by destroying he makes way for the new. Followers of Vishnu think of him as the god of love. They believe that he has come into the world several times in different forms and they worship these avatars, or incarnations. They give special honour to Rama and Krishna, two of the greatest incarnations of Vishnu. Some believe that Sai Baba is an avatar - more about him later.
All this teaching may be a little confusing. One of our guides told us : 'You Christians also believe in one god in three persons - father, son and holy ghost!
All Hindus, so I was told, worship Ganesh - the god of wisdom. They especially direct their prayers to him at the commencement of all undertakings for he is the god who wards off all obstacles. And today was the feast day for Sri Ganesh who is much loved and it was a public holiday.
A very beautiful and exotic lady, who had been part of the human rights conference organisation, entered the hotel foyer. Her name is Prathibha and she came to take Victor to the temple in honour of Ganesh, who was her favourite god and she prayed to him.
Despite it being a holiday I still made my way into the shopping area of the city. Nearly all shops were closed, - only a few were open for the tourist trade. As I entered one of these tourist shops, I was offered a glass of champagne or fruit cocktail, escorted by a floor manager to the department for silks and surrounded by three shop assistants. They were laying out dozens of beautiful gowns, mostly for evening wear. It was quite tempting to buy one of these stunning and exquisite gowns! But where would I wear them unless I was invited by the Queen or the Hollywood set? I resisted the temptation especially when I looked at the price tag !!! This store was not for me. I do not like to be pressured and all this attention was too much for me, especially after being used to the poor service we sometimes get in our stores !
I wandered along the main streets in the throng of people - all in festive mood. It was interesting to watch them and absorb the sounds and sights of this fascinating city. I had been told about a jewellery store and looking for it I needed some help! I spotted a European - looking lady in Indian outfit and approached her to ask for direction. She offered to come with me. And as we walked we started talking. As it happened she had come from Auroville ( the global village which has held such fascination for me ) to do some shopping for her new home there. I had so many questions to ask her. We found a coffee- shop and over coffee she told me her story and her life in Auroville and before in Germany. She invited me to come and stay with her in Auroville on my next visit to India.
I looked at my watch ! The time had flown. I remembered the invitation for the evening and I had to be back in time... At last a taxi ! The invitation was by a couple Joye and John Pinnis. I had not met them, but I had contact with them by fax. Joye had helped to locate the Yoga Place in Bangalore. How did I find them?
Just briefly ! When I told the good news about my trip to India in one of my Yoga classes, one of my students - Lola - exclaimed " I have friends living in Bangalore. They are from Melbourne. John is a Computer Expert and works there in a Bank and he is of Latvian origin ."(2)
John picked us up from the hotel. He was not used to driving in the Bangalore traffic. It is really quite dangerous to do so. In case of accidents the foreigner always gets blamed and people get very excited.
The family has a full- time driver, a cook, maid, gardener and four guards each working a six hour shift. What a change of life - style for a regular Aussie couple !
John and Joye and their two daughters aged ten and thirteen live in the "Toorak" of Bangalore. Meeting them I had a feeling that I have known them a long time. We spend a wonderful evening , were served a delicious array of Indian style dishes by the cook. Joye had bake a rich chocolate cake. The children were telling stories about their life, school, and new friends from different countries. And then Prathibha arrived - the exotic classical dancer - and interesting news! She had been awarded a very prestigious award - the President's award for the greatest contribution for the performing arts in dance ! We shared her jubilation ! She said " Sri Ganesh has helped me - I pray to him." She had given us a July edition of a very popular magazine, which had published her story and a very interesting and unusual story it was!
Just to say that it was a great pleasure to meet this strong and determined lady who overcame great difficulties and discrimination to achieve her success. At one time she took a university professor to court. He failed her in the exams because she would not give in to his advances. She achieved her Master's degree in mass communication and is now completing a PhD. She now helps other artist in their quest. She continues performing as a dancer and was flying to Bombay to perform the next day! The Delhi Times recently wrote "Prathibha Prahlad is more than just a devotional performer. She is a goddess of art, music, culture and beauty".
We parted with the Pinnis family and Prathibha, hoping to meet them again some day......
I had heard the name Sai baba mentioned many times.. Some of my yoga friends saved the whole year to be able to spend a week or more in his presence. A few came back disappointed, others full of inspiration and worship for this man. Many believe him to be an avatar.
In one of my classes when I mentioned that I am going to India, one student exclaimed " So you are going to Sai Baba!" This had not been my intention but........
Here I was in Bangalore 150 km from Puttaparthi where Sai Baba had his ashram! Would I miss the opportunity to see this man who had at least 8 million followers?
He certainly must have some extraordinary power of attraction! Many people told of his power to heal. Others told me of his ability to produce ash from nothing and distribute it to his believers, some people told me of jewellery he manifested.
A few Indians I talked to did not believe in these powers and thought of him as a magician. Still they agreed that he had done a lot of good by establishing very modern hospitals, schools and a major university using the money donated by his followers. He has a substantial following amongst Indian industrialists.
I had met a few of the delegates of Victor's Human Rights conference who were also interested to meet Sai Baba. It was to be our last day in India and so a trip to Puttaparthi was arranged.
There was a great deal of enthusiasm for the trip to see Sai Baba. Ramakrishna Hegde had organised three cars and young Shubha who had met us at the airport would accompany us. Shubha had never seen Sai Baba and was just as curious as the rest of us.
So we piled into the cars. Alex and the Chinese professor, Victor's colleague Bruce and the two Fijian lawyers, and Victor, Shubha and I in the third car.
The trip out started in very heavy Bangalore traffic but as we drove further out of Bangalore the roads narrowed and the traffic became relatively light. The distance between Puttaparthi and Bangalore is a mere 150 kilometres but this is three and a half hours driving in India!
As we approached the ashram we passed by a massive hospital complex and later by an airport capable of handling large Boeing jets.
We drove into the township. Most people appeared European although dressed in white Indian style clothing.
Once a sparsely populated village, this shot into national and international fame as the abode of Satya Sai Baba. Domestic and foreign visitors seeking spiritual solace throng to Prashanti Nilayam at Puttaparthi throughout the year.
We drove into the ashram grounds through a large gate. The whole scene is hard to describe. People walking back and forth. Many building - some elaborate others plain. Some officials directing us to an office to arrange a meeting with Sai Baba. All filming and photographing is forbidden.
Hegde had made arrangements for us to have an audience with Sai Baba. However, Shubha and Victor were unable to find the Secretary to Sai Baba to arrange the meeting. We had arrived a little late due to the traffic and it appeared that the secretary had gone to lunch.
It was very hot and humid and we rested under a tree on some steps whilst Victor and Shubha went from apartment block to apartment block trying to find him. Eventually they came back with no success. A kindly assistant suggested we go to the visitors' dining room for lunch and wait for the secretary to come back.
The dining room served very pleasant vegetarian food served at a counter by European followers of Sai Baba. The dining room was segregated by sex so Shubha, my Fijian friend and I went to one side of the dining hall while the men went to the other side. A good meal cost the equivalent of 60 cents.
After we finished the meal it was still too early to go the Secretary's office. We wandered in the alleys that mark the ashram and observed the people. Now it was clear that most of Baba's followers were Indian but there was an enormous contingent of Europeans - Italian, Spanish and German was being chatted all around us.
Finally 2 pm. The Secretary explained that it was now too late for a private audience. Ah well - it was not our karma to see him privately today! He asked would we wait till tomorrow? Regrettably, we could not so he provided us with tickets for the front row of the meditation temple. Maybe this was a good thing - none of us could think of a question to ask. That is except Shubha, who wanted to know what hair conditioner he uses to get his Afro hairstyle!
In any event we were indeed honoured as many disciples have to wait weeks to graduate to the front row!
After filing through security doors, we sat on the marble floor of the temple. The temple is built with facets of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The people are segregated by sex.
As I looked across the floor who should I see but a fellow Australian, Ola, with whom I have studied esoteric yoga for almost ten years! She is a follower of Sai Baba and had brought her son to stay with her for five or six weeks. This could have been slightly embarrassing (and she was indeed surprised to see me) as I had recently told her that I though Sai Baba did not impress me and could not understand her devotion. Her hair-raising stories about accommodation (rain dripping on her head) made me feel better that I would again be sleeping in the hotel tonight!
While we waited cross-legged, acolytes hand washed the floor where Sai Baba was to walk. Eventually Sai Baba entered the meditation temple. He walked slowly with a smile on his face and there was a great surge of excitement from those around me.
As he walked, people reached out to hand him letters with their wishes. Occasionally he would shake his arm and present a small handful of ash to those who appeared in need.
He stopped right in front of me to take a letter from a follower behind me. He is a short man with (as Shubha would say) an extraordinary Afro-style hair. He wears a saffron robe.
As he walked away, the young woman beside me gently chided me for not touching him or kissing his feet. She said, "You missed a great opportunity."
It was a little disappointing that he did not preach that day. And, as he walked out, our little group reassembled in the late afternoon heat to start the long journey back to Bangalore.
Although I do not share the devotion of his followers who believe that he is a avatar, I believe he is a good man who has done good things. His teachings are very good. For instance, he has written: "Let the different faiths exist, let them flourish, and let the glory of god be sung in all languages and in all variety of tunes. That should be the ideal. Respect the differences between the faiths and recognise them as valid as long as they do not extinguish the flame of unity. If each person lives the ideals propounded by the founders of his religion, unaffected by greed or hate, then the world will be a happy and peaceful habitation for man."
After a pleasant dinner with the hotel manager, a very urbane Moslem, we packed up our goods for the 2 am flight from Bangalore to Singapore. NO adventures on the way home save for the seven hour delay at the hot and airless airport lounge and the pleasant company of an Indian couple emigrating to Box Hill!
I will have to go back, if for no other reason, I didn't get to the silk markets to buy gifts for my friends.
Let me conclude with Sai Baba's prescription for world peace:
"If there is righteousness in the heart,
There will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character,
There will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home,
There will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
There will be peace in the world."
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