Divine Experience

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So my daughter says “Enough of all this sybaritic India let’s go to an ashram.”

I’ve only ever visited an ashram for an overnight in Mysore a few years ago and have memories of a small place that was a calm and peaceful oasis with a few elephants. It’s a long way to Mysore so we book into the much bigger and well known Art of Living Ashram in the Panchagiri hills just outside Bangalore.

The ashram was started in 1986, by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and now has an international reputation for the range of its charitable and service activities. These include hospitals, schools, rural development and education, support for women, organic farming initiatives and Ayurvedic medicine.

In Bangalore there are various residential programmes but as we only have three days we decide to experience the Ayurvedic medicine, explore the ashram and join in the Satsangs.

‘Satsangs are gatherings where scattered minds unite through music, meditation, and wisdom to experience a higher state of consciousness. People from all over the world who know different languages participate in the singing of bhajans, or the repetitive chanting of a word or a verse.’

We decide against Seva (voluntary service) which is an integral part of the activities if you are staying longer in the ashram. Maybe we’ll come back another time because the way it is described it feels a really worthwhile thing to do.

‘One can experience the humble satisfaction that comes from doing selfless work here, from serving food in the kitchen to keeping the premises clean. The Ashram offers an ideal place for people from all backgrounds, religions, and cultural traditions to come together in knowledge, celebration and service.’

Arriving at the international centre we are warmly welcomed and then, the Indian, time consuming business of registering begins. Passports and visas are checked and photocopied. Two more identity photos of each of us are taken. We wait patiently (all part of the ashram experience we tell ourselves) whilst our details are painstakingly transcribed onto the computer. Finally a three page print-out is handed to each of us for checking and signing. My daughter and I seem to have changed homes and identities. We give each other one of those looks – ‘too time-consuming to tell them’ and sign up, agreeing not to behave badly, take drugs or consume alcohol during our stay. We are given our identity tags for the stay.

We have opted for the ‘upmarket’ ashram experience and are transported in a new golf-style buggy to our accommodation just outside the main ashram complex. We pass a farmer slowly ploughing a field, his buffalo plodding placidly backwards and forwards. The buffalo’s ‘companion egret’ stays close.(Apparently cattle and egrets set up a lifelong relationship and it’s rather heartwarming to see them in the fields, the egret standing on the back of its buffalo friend)

We reach the newly built guest residence with a courtyard and cool running water feature. There are three floors of galleries surrounding the inner courtyard giving access to the guests’ rooms. The cool marble floors, the smell of polished wood and incense and the distant sounds of chanting us make us instantly feel in ‘ashram mood’.

Our room is subtly decorated with simple Indian fabrics. There’s an en-suite shower room (phew no sign of a communal ashram bathroom) and air conditioning. This grandma bounces on the well sprung bed – (yippee no penance at the ashram).

It’s time to find out where we are. On a hill top dominating the whole ashram complex is the impressive marble domed meeting hall. We walk up the psteps and enter a vast incredibly cool marble auditorium, open to the elements all the way round. Fluted columns painted sugary pink and lemon (rather like a Disney film decor) support the roof and upper floors and the dome itself.

This central hall lies at the heart of the ashram. Daily meditation for devotees begins at 4.0 am. followed at 7.00 am by pujas, meditation and chanting and finally at the the end of the day everyone gathers for the evening Satsangs.

Today huge screens are enabling devotees to watch a live web cast of the guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who is in Mumbai. We join the throng and a helpful Indian translates the Hindi for us. Amongst his spiritual exhortations there is an admonition and a directive to his devotees to gather up their plastic rubbish. This gets a huge laugh from everyone but having experienced the tons and tons of plastic detritus covering India, I like this man !!

Thousands of people congregate here to watch live web casts of the guru when he’s travelling. But when he’s in residence literally hundreds of thousands are accommodated for worship and meditation in the overspill temples beautifully positioned within the landscaped ashram grounds. Alongside this the infrastructure swings into action with huge kitchens preparing food, areas designated for sleeping, toilets and washing and general living and good buggy transport for the elderly and infirm. It is all quite a remarkable feat.

The next morning we are up in our white trousers (optional ashram style but we liked the idea) and off for the 7.00 am puja. ThIs turns out to be a service with a chief priest and retinue. A procession of robed men and young boys walk through the hall, up the marble stairs and sit at the feet of the head priest. It’s not dissimilar from certain Christian rituals and yet completely different. There are bells, candles, incense and chants. A cross legged group of young boys from the AOL school play a big part in the puja and I can sense a young boy’s pride and note his little smile as he lights one lof the special candles. We sit quietly and reflectively. This grandma’s knees don’t bend completely so I choose a chair. I have been told I can buy a portable lightweight supported yoga mat which I intend to investigate. After an hour a music group with sitar take up their instruments and accompany an older Indian woman whose voice radiates around the marble hall. She has a shock of white hair and is of grandma age. Her voice is full of joy and affirmation. It is quite moving.

We head off for breakfast and I ask about the yoga mat. “Oh yes you’ll get it at the wine shop” says the man serving our breakfast. The wine shop ? I am bemused. As we walk around the ashram shops later I ask one of the information helpers “Where is the wine shop?” He looks at me with astonishment and shock. “We don’t drink here ” he replies. ” I know I want to buy a yoga mat” I reply. He looks even more unsure of me. I continue “I was told I could get a yoga mat at the wine shop” He bursts out laughing. “I think you mean the Divine Shop” !

They have a sense of humour at the ashram too.

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