Spiritual Experiences of Calcutta
Article by Craig Hamilton-Parker. Next, our spiritual experiences of Calcutta: As our group lay on our pile of rucksacks on Varanasi station watching the throng of people and the herd of cows wandering aimlessly on the rail track the images of Varanasi Floated through my mind. Even though we’d been advised that the train to Calcutta may be up to eight hours late it didn’t seem to matter. One of the things you discover in India is that schedules, like life, are subject to change. For the first time in many years I was living fully in the present. This spiritual journey had become so enveloping that even a long wait on a station could become a positive experience. If the train didn’t come… so what? We probably were not going to sleep at all for the next three days but so what? It was so nice to be without emails, phone calls, itineraries, schedules and deadlines just being here now. The past has gone and tomorrow can wait.
If one book above all others has inspired me to look into yoga then it is Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I consider it to be one of the most important books I have read so it is not surprising that I was very excited when we were given a private invitation to visit what had been the home in Calcutta of this remarkable individual.
The family of Yogananda’s brother, Sananda, continues to inhabit the home, which they keep as a shrine. We were greeted by his wife who shared with us her stories about the house and shared with us a few sweet cakes afterwards. It was here she explained that Yogananda spent his early years of spiritual seeking and most importantly, the house also contains the attic meditation room where he attained full Self Realisation. This was the place where he merged with God and had visions of the Divine Mother and Lord Krishna. At this same sacred space we were allowed to sit in reverent meditation.
Yogananda’s own guru Sri Yukteswar also regularly came to this house to meditate with the family. In the room that had been Yogananda’s bedroom we were reminded of the story how while lying in this bed he had prayed to God to give him a sign as to whether he should go to the United States to share his teachings. Yogananda also had things to say about the spirit world:
“If you were to behold the multitude of astral beings in the ether around you at this moment, many of you would be afraid; and some of you would try to seek among them your departed loved ones. If you concentrate deeply at the spiritual eye you can view with inner vision that luminous world in which are living all the souls who have gone on to the astral plane. In human beings the heart acts as a receiving instrument and the spiritual eye as a broadcasting station. Even if you cannot see your lost beloved ones, if you can calmly concentrate your feeling on the heart, you can become aware of the reassuring presence of those dear to you who are now in astral form, enjoying their freedom from flesh thralldom.”
It was in this room at Yogananda’s home, that the avatar Babaji materialised to bless him at the doorway to his bedroom. (Avatar is a Sanskrit word that means “descent”; its roots are ava, “down,” and tri, “to pass.” In the Hindu scriptures, avatara signifies the descent of Divinity into flesh.
Mahavatar Babaji is a remarkable person who it is claimed is 1,800 years old, still alive today and maintains the form of a young man. He is only accessible to extremely devoted followers who are prepared to seek him out in a wild part of the Himalayan forests. He will occasionally materialise in the homes of his followers and is considered to be the guru of all gurus. Yogananda describes him also as the guru of Lahiri Mahasaya, whose home we visited in Varanasi. Yogananda writes of him:
“The Mahavatar is in constant communion with Christ; together they send out vibrations of redemption, and have planned the spiritual technique of salvation for this age. The work of these two fully-illumined masters–one with the body, and one without it–is to inspire the nations to forsake suicidal wars, race hatreds, religious sectarianism, and the boomerang-evils of materialism. Babaji is well aware of the trend of modern times, especially of the influence and complexities of Western civilization, and realizes the necessity of spreading the self-liberations of yoga equally in the West and in the East.”
He’s talking about the Brotherhood of Man. Again we spent some time in silent meditation tuning in to these remarkable people that had once graced this place.
In Varanasi we had also had the chance to make personal visits to two more of Yogananda’s gurus. We visited the home of Lahiri Mahasaya and meditated in the rooms where this guru had lived. The same small shrine housed a wonderful white statue of Babaji which I believe is the only one of its kind. It also housed the only photograph of Lahiri Mahasaya. Normally Lahiri Mahasaya would not allow anyone photograph him, but in response to please from his disciples he eventually agreed to pose. Before the photo was taken, he asked the photographer Gangadhar Dey how photos was made. A few moments later the photo was taken but to everyones astonishment the picture was blank. Lahiri Mahasaya chuckled and asked the photographer, “What does your science tell you?” Gangadhar prostrated himself before him and said, “My pride has been shattered.” He asked Lahiri Mahasaya to pose again and this time the photo came our perfectly. Strangely, when I tried to video the same picture the batteries packed up leaving me to puzzle about the strange story of Lahiri Mahasaya.
We also visited the Varanasi home of another of Yogananda’s teachers Trilinga Swami. We squeezed down some narrow steps into the cellar where this remarkable saint had spent his long periods in meditation. In this very cramped cellar we meditated in front of a picture of the saint placed at the place where he used to sit.
Trilinga Swami was a fascinating man who exhibited many super-normal powers including the ability to bi-locate – be in two places at the same time. His psychic powers enabled him to gain mastery over the elements, and he would meditate under the water of theGangesRiversometimes for more than six months at a time. It is claimed that he lived to the age of 208.
One place in Calcutta not to be missed was the Dakshineswar Temple complex that houses the living room and bed where the avatar Ramakrishna had given many of his discourses to his followers. His teachings emphasized that God-realization is the highest goal of life, love and devotion for God, the oneness of existence, and the harmony of religions. He also preached that money is an obstacle in the path of spiritual progress.
In this living room Sri Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda hid a coin under the bed to test if his guru really could not touch money. Throughout his later life Ramakrishna refused to handle money saying it was impossible for him to hold money or metal (which also symbolised coins) as he would feel pain and his hand would be forced aside. In the past while sat by the Ganges Ramakrishna used to take a rupee in one hand and a clump of clay in the other. He would throw both into the holy river reminding us that both are useless for realizing God.
When Sri Ramakrishna sat on the bed containing the hidden coin he shouted in pain and was thrown to the floor as if he had been hit by an electric shock. Sadly I noted that now there is a temple collection box right by the side of the bed! It is also the only temple where you have to pay for the prasad! (Holy food that contains the blessing of the temple’s deity or holy man) Nonetheless the devotional love of Ramakrishna, his spirit of simplicity and surrender still permeates this temple and it was an inspiring place to visit. I’m sure the residue of his spiritual influence touched my soul.
From the temple ghat we sat and watched the sun set casting brilliant colours over the Hooghly River and simultaneously transforming the Calcutta skyline into a highlighted silhouette of deep violets and grey blue tones. Once darkness fell we hired a small very dodgy looking boat to take us down river to Vivekananda’s impressive Belur Math Shrine on the other side of the river. (Incidentally Vivekananda’s books are a must-read for anyone wanting to understand Indian spirituality – wonderfully inspiring)
As we disembarked and headed towards the temple we could hear strange eerie mantras to Kali, the goddess who carries the severed heads (egos) of her devotees around her neck. Sometimes you can feel completely absorbed by India and at other times you feel like a stranger who has accidentally stumbled into a bizarre world of idols and unfamiliar ritual. Sat in the temple amongst the echoing tones and whiffed by the smell of amber incense under the tall pillars of in this large, shadowy building I had the feeling that I’d slipped into a scene from Indiana Jones. I reached for my whip.
I am not a lover of religion organised on a grand scale. I’m not a joiner. I feel I gained far more from the simple rooms of the gurus and the places they meditated and the people we met than I did from the grandiose temples and ashrams. And this feeling particularly applied to the next place we stayed: The Hare Krishna Ashram at Mayapur 130 km north of Calcutta.
When I was a teenager I visited the first Hare Krishna temple in7 Bury Placenear the British Museum,London. As part of their ritual before satsang (a meeting for discussion) they poured a little blessed milk into my palm and asked me to drink it. It was only afterwards that they said “This milk has been used to wash the feet of our beloved guru!” Not a good start but nonetheless the followers I’d met in the past were often intelligent, certainly very devoted and occasionally – it has to be said – a bit mixed up.
John Lennon certainly didn’t hold his punches when he met A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada the then leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement. He did not easily accept the authority and ‘say so’ of gurus and the transcripts of the meetings often show Lennon in what I read as a sarcastic tone of voice – particularly when he is advised that he should study the Gita in the original Sanskrit. “Study Sanskrit? ask Lennon. Oh, now you’re talking.”
Swami Prabhupada did however make a deep impression on George Harrison whose life and spiritual merits are a good example of the values he discovered through Krishna so I clearly do not want to appear disparaging of what to some is an important spiritual path but one I feel is not mine.
The Mayapur complex was certainly very impressive in its scale and architectural accomplishment but this was not a place that touched my soul. During the early morning Aarati the Hare Krishna devotees danced around waving their hands in the air and chanting the Hare Krishna mantras. I joined in – when in Rome and all that – but with not quite the same enthusiasm I enjoyed with the bhajans and mantras at other settings. Perhaps I was just too, too tired from so many days and nights of nail biting travel, perhaps devotional singing was not for me, but here I felt like an alien. At the climax of the chanting, plush red velvet curtains drew back to reveal a huge brightly coloured statue of Krishna surrounded by eight Gopi girls. It was all a bit ‘over the top’ and Disneyesque bad taste. I giggled manically to myself when it struck me that this was like worshiping super-dolls housed a giant, glitzy Barbie House.
It was definitely time to fly home.
India has reminded me that life is both an outer and an inner journey. Connecting with India’s energy and the spirit of its teachers past and present has helped me to understand what Patanjali says is the goal. Yoga he says is the movement into the absolute stillness of being. Here we can discover our true Self and find a wisdom, which transcends all worldly knowledge. I believe that India has shown me that the goal is near.