"Consideration, kindness and nurturing each and everything around you - that is yajna." Swami Niranjanananda
It has to be confessed that at 5.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning I am not generally up, much less cold-showered and awaiting a rickshaw on an Indian street corner. This morning, however, all of the above occurred. "Assume the position," muttered my companion, and gripping the frame of our autorickshaw we were off - bumping through the still, grey dawn to Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, the Rikhia residence of Paramahamsa Satyanandaji.
Today, Sat Chandi Maha Yajna began. This auspicious event involves the worship of Sri Devi, the Divine Mother. As Swami Niranjanji has emphasized over the preceding, preparatory days, this yajna is far from entertainment. It is the culmination of Paramahamsaji's sadhana. It also constitutes anushthana sadhana for all of us - sitting for long periods requires considerable discipline.
The word yajna is derived from the Sanskrit ya (production), ja (conjunction) and na (distribution), and thus means giving or offering. As such it is a fitting climax of the sadhana of a saint whose whole life is all about giving. "The tradition of Paramahamsa Alakh Bara is to give, give, give," said Swami Niranjan. Yesterday, all the visiting westerners attending the yajna received an outfit of new clothes to be worn today. This prasad was presented individually to hundreds of us by Swamiji. Thus today we women were all resplendent in red, yellow and white Rajasthani cotton while the men wore traditional kurta pyjama sets. So arranged, we aimed to fulfil Paramahamsaji's instruction to "look beautiful and auspicious, not just attractive."
The morning session began with kirtan: Jaya Ma, Jaya Ma. The crowd was on its feet, thrilled to see Paramahamsaji, Swamiji and other swamis dancing hand in hand with Father Vissarion, a visiting Greek Orthodox priest. As earlier in the week, when the mingled Eastern and Western gathering had united in the singing of 'Alleluia', this melding of different cultures was a delight. As Paramahamsaji mentioned a few days ago, "It is politics and not God that causes division between religions."
Another topic spoken about by Paramahamsaji this week was the historical context and social relevance of yajna. Apparently, yajna is an ancient tradition that was alive in the Western Stone and Bronze Ages. Particularly in South American archaeological digs, there is much evidence of its widespread use. Today, yajna is widely practised in India where the knowledge of its method of performance has been kept alive. Here, yajna has the effect of cleansing and healing the physical environment as well as the mental, emotional and psychic realms.
Our own Sat Chandi Maha Yajna formally began when kirtan concluded. The yajnashala where it was performed is a sixteen-pillared square shrine, richly decorated with flowers. The shala was surrounded on all sides by the thousands of participants, sitting in orderly enclosures under shade cloths. Swamiji has emphasized that this whole area was to be considered a temple. As such, we were all obliged to maintain its sanctity.
Within the yajnashala had been placed four corner altars and a larger altar upon which Devi would be invoked. Paramahamsaji's seat was also placed here, as well as mats for the pandits. These men, lifelong students of such ritual, would conduct the ceremonial invocation and worship of Devi.
The yajnashala was prepared for this invocation by the placement of numerous symbols. All of these were derived from nature - no pictures or statues. The planets were represented, as were the four Vedas, while the colours black, red and white symbolized the three gunas. Offerings were also made to Ganesha who today was represented only by nature objects. So prepared the yajnashala constitutes the microcosmos, its sixteen pillars representing the supports of the manifest universe, the Divine Will that animates creation.
Following the preparation, Sri Devi, Maha Shakti, the Divine Mother could be invoked. We had already paid homage to Her during a Greek Orthodox liturgy yesterday, when a beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary with Christ in Her heart space had been gradually unfurled. Her hands extended in a gesture of all-encompassing welcome and blessing, She exemplified "love, compassion and eternal forgiveness," Paramahamsaji's description of the Divine Mother.
Today, by a ritual of both Vedic mantra and proscribed tantric offerings, Sri Devi was invoked into our midst. This was followed by the invocation of sixty-four yoginis and of that deity which Paramahamsaji referred to as the "caretaker of the cosmos". Finally, all the Gods were invoked. "Once they are all present," said Paramahamsaji, "we shall worship Sri Devi in front of them." "Leave your intellect in your purse!" had been Swamiji's advice this morning - at this point what other option did we have?!
In the next session, prasad was distributed to Paramahamsaji's neighbours. The ritual worship of Sri Devi with mantras and offerings then commenced. Swamiji had already advised us to attend to the mantras and to try to feel the vibration thus created - "just as you do not see the warmth of a heated room, but rather feelit." During the chanting we all had the opportunity to circumambulate the yajnashala and offer pranams to Sri Devi. Such a beautiful feeling of joy, peace and power pervaded the area. I felt very grateful to be present. As the evening drew near we chanted prarthana of Sri Mahishasuramardini Stotram with Swamiji and his Casio keyboard - the ancient mantras and synthesized drum beat forming a striking juxtaposition.
Finally, we stood as the pandits chanted the concluding mantras and then Paramahamsaji emerged. "I am sure," he said, "that you are all pleased to be part of this very special and powerful spiritual session." How right he was! As we left the yajna area to receive sweets and flowers at the gate and then yet more prasad at dinner, the meaning of the phrase "my cup runneth over" became truly clear.
"Intellect was the helper.
Intellect is the hinderer.
We walked today, forsaking the luxurious comfort of the rickshaw. We made our way through little villages - "Namo Narayan!" called the children enthusiastically - and past wayside shrines. A beautiful shooting star streaked across the sky, which gradually lightened as the eastern horizon turned pink. Passing the stand of calm, lemon-scented gum trees we rounded the final corner and arrived at Paramahamsa Alakh Bara.
First kirtan, then a little talk from Paramahamsaji. He told us that Sita Kalyanam - the wedding of Sri Rama and Sita, which will be celebrated on December 1st - should not be understood as a religious ritual. Rather, it will be a representation of the union between the individual and supreme soul. A wedding, the union between man and woman, simply provides a form - a concept - to which our minds can relate. The union of the individual with the supreme soul is, said Paramahamsaji, the same experience as that between a man and a woman "only it is much deeper, more prolonged and abiding."
Ritual pooja to Sri Devi then continued. Before the pandits began this chanting, Paramahamsaji informed us that the session today would be "a little bit shorter than yesterday. Yesterday there were things to settle but nowShe has come." His words were uttered with a matter-of-fact finality. The reality that God was present cannot be grasped with the intellect.
Throughout the chanting, prasad was again gracefully distributed by Swamiji. We all received wrapped packages containing a picture of the wedding of Rama and Sita and a lovely book of Paramahamsaji's writings. Later in the day, we witnessed the offering of prasad to the people of neighbouring villages. This proved hilarious. Paramahamsaji has established an old age pension scheme under which his elderly neighbours receive a monthly sum of money as well as gifts to make their lives more comfortable. "These people are my fellow travellers," he said, laughing. "They are about to leave us for a very far off destination - in fact, some of them have already left! Well," he continued expansively, miming the smoking of a cigarette, "with this scheme they'll be able to have a little puff before they go!"
The prasad of work tools was given to the builders of the ashram who, as Swamiji said, "live in huts and slums, unable to provide themselves with the comforts they have built for us." Numerous rickshaws, thelas, tricycles for the disabled and sewing machines for women were distributed. Lastly, the two young captains of a local cricket team received a cricket set. They joyfully held the bats aloft - perhaps dreaming of one day doing the same as they captain India to World Cup victory.
Swamiji then made an important announcement which was greeted with enthusiastic applause. He told us that earlier this year the government of India had officially recognized Bihar Yoga Bharati as a university, making BYB the first Yoga University in the world. This fulfils the long-ago dream of our paramguru, Swami Sivanandaji, and stands as testament to the vision and inspiration of Paramahamsaji and to the willpower and creativity of Swamiji.
Mantra pooja to Sri Devi then continued, concluding with a short talk by Paramahamsaji. "This is not a feast for the intellect but a feast for the spirit," he said. "All you need to know is that the ceremony is creating a stir on the etheric plane, the plane beyond the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind. The tragedy of man is that we only know the tip of the iceberg about ourselves. It is that part of ourselves which we do not know that is being affected here. What has been invoked here," he continued, "is nameless, formless, nirguna - without attribute. We have given Her a name because we are used to it. We have given Her a sex because we are used to it. But the intellect cannot grasp the Nameless One - She is to be felt." He concluded with a little song: "To the left is Ram! To the right is Ram! Above is Ram! Below is Ram! In front is Ram! Behind is Ram!"
As we left, we received more prasad in the form of food. The Divine Mother has been invoked and so too is our guru playing the role of a mother - one who gives everything to her children, keeping nothing for herself and for whom the needs of her children are paramount.
"Surely the heartfelt smiles on the faces of these children are more satisfying than peace which is handed to you in a bucket."
Yajna has two components, esoteric and external. Both are equally necessary for the invocation and worship of the Divine Mother. The esoteric aspect of yajna is unfathomable. The external aspect, the offering of prasad, was a highlight today.
Before Paramahamsaji came to Rikhia the local people were completely ignored, their condition being - in Swamiji's words - "beyond poverty". They would eat only every three or four days. The children had never seen chocolate or a toy, they played with earth and wood. One cannot help but reflect on the luxuries of one's own life: hot baths, cosy pyjamas, crisp sheets. Imagine never having had second helpings, never having smelt brand new clothes, never having sunk into an armchair or opened a book.
Since Paramahamsaji's arrival, much has been done to improve the locals' condition. True giving, says Paramahamsaji, is not giving fish - it is giving a fishing line. Through Sivananda Math, Paramahamsaji's neighbours are being provided with opportunities for self-sufficiency as well as with relief of their urgent needs. Such distribution of prasad is not charity. Earlier this week, Parahamsaji spoke about an important spiritual law. Under this law, ten percent of what an individual earns does not belong to him. Rather, it is to be used to assist others. This concept has nothing to do with either socialism or charity, it is an inescapable cosmic law and as such applies equally to millionaires and beggars.
Today, I sat and watched the distribution of prasad to hundreds of local school children. Bundles were presented to more than nine hundred individuals by Swamiji. The children were escorted into the yajna area while mantra chanting was going on. A long line of uniformed, eager kids aged between about five and twelve. They all wore gleaming white shirts, with the girls in maroon tunics and the boys in similarly coloured shorts. The girls had their long black hair pulled back in neat ponytails, the boys' hair was slicked down with water. They waited silently in the long queue, occasionally jostling each other, craning their necks to see what their friends up ahead had received, doubtless a little nervous.
As each child's turn came, Swamiji presented him/her with a bundle of stationery, toys and clothes all wrapped up in a brand new blanket. From my vantage point I had a marvellous view of the faces of the children as they carried their prasad out of the yajna area.
The older girls walked with the poise of queens. No catwalk model ever displayed such dignified composure. Heads held high, eyelids cast down, they bore their bundles out of the place with a grace that was almost intimidating.
The boys were different. Most walked out carrying their bundles triumphantly, wearing huge beams of pure excitement and pleasure. Others struggled manfully to suppress their childlike joy: alas, enormous grins constantly escaped, shattering the faces of adult nonchalance. One young boy though - about eight years old - dutifully shouldered his bundle and trudged out with the practised, practical air of one long used to parcel bearing.
The littler children awaited their turn with notable patience. How delicious it was to see them stagger out, bearing bundles almost half as big as themselves! The little faces that peered out from behind the blanketed parcels beamed with unadulterated delight. One can imagine how very proud these children will feel as the totter home - each knowing his precious burden will make a real contribution to his family.
All this made me think of the stories about Swami Sivananda . His sannyasin disciples had to hide the ashram money from him so that he would not distribute it all to needy visitors. Apparently, this only caused him to give away directly any money placed at his feet! Paramahamsaji once said that "the disciple is the fulfilment of the guru's wisdom." His own life certainly exemplifies that comment.
"The universe is luminous. You are all a part of this luminosity."
Sri Swami Poonyanandaji Maharaj
This morning's session began with a dance by some students of BYB. They moved in graceful rhythm while other students chanted the thirty-two names of Durga. The display was reminiscent of an Australian aboriginal ceremony: it is interesting to note that Paramahamsaji's neighbours share many ancient cultural and linguistic links with the indigenous tribes of Australia.
Kirtan followed. I was singing away happily when a voice whispered in my ear, "Would you like to come and help in Prasad Kutir?" Of course, such karma yoga, the preparation of bundles of prasad for distribution, constitutes an intrinsic part of yajna. I stomped off, with mild trepidation.
Anyone unfamiliar with Prasad Kutir may imagine it to be a place of peace and harmony, where swamis smile sweetly at each other as they skip merrily about. Where beautiful clothes fairly jump off the orderly shelves into the outstretched hands of the bundle-makers, whose melodious voices are heard discussing the relative merits of saris. Alas, the reality is far from this agreeable picture, at least at times. As one senior swami recently put it: "The great thing about working in Prasad Kutir is when you get out. It feels just like moksha." "It's a nut-house," muttered another, matter-of-factly.
Of course, a very clear and beautiful method underlies all the goings on of Prasad Kutir. This year in the weeks just prior to the yajna, the intense activity, the crowdedness, the dust, all created a situation in which we had the opportunity to observe ourselves under stress. On my first day there I was saying superiorly to myself, "My God, these people bicker a lot!" By my fifth day I was in tears over the allocation of a shirt to the wrong pile. As Swami Satsangi said, "When people work together in these situations, fights are natural. The thing is to be able to just drop it afterwards."
Today, a pleasant atmosphere prevailed as numerous aspirants from all over the world joined as a team to prepare two hundred bundles to be given to a neighbouring village. From a nearby room came the chanting of Ramayana while from outside the main temple area we heard the voice of Sri Swami Poonyanandaji Maharaj, whose presence today blessed Sat Chandi Maha Yajna. Swami Poonyanandaji is the head of the Niranjani Akhara. Seated atop a richly cushioned seat, swathed in geru, he made a striking picture as he addressed the participants in passionate Hindi. Swami Niranjanji later translated the essence of his message.
The whole of creation, Swami Poonyanandaji said, is luminous. So too, as atma we are all luminous. At present we do not perceive this, due to the limitations of our sensory perception. Thus, we relate to God in a form defined by our own beliefs and mental conditioning. The realization and worship of the all-pervading, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God within ourselves and all of the universe is the aim of all spiritual effort.
Later on today, we were also blessed with the satsang of Swami Niranjanji who spoke briefly on love and devotion. With the tenderness of a mother, God gives her children fruits, flowers and watereverything in fact. When we offer such symbols to God, we are acknowledging this fact and expressing our devotion. In the same way, offerings we make to our guru - through material goods or seva - are acts of love. As Paramahamsaji once said, "I will inspire you, and that inspiration is love." Meanwhile, our guru showers Divine love on us in the form of physical prasad as well as infinite mental, emotional and spiritual upliftment. "Without this love and devotion," said Swamiji, "every spiritual effort is incomplete."
A tender vibration swept over the participants as mantra pooja to Sri Devi continued. Really, over the past few days it has felt as if the gentle rain of the Divine Mother's compassion and the sunshine of the love of our guru are bathing us all - in forms both tangible and intangible. Under these ideal conditions, an inner blossoming cannot fail to take place.
"With what velvet glove of every humility does He cover the iron hand of omnipotence."
The beautiful daily routine of Sat Chandi Maha Yajna is increasingly familiar: fervent kirtan, sometimes satsang, ritual pooja, an incessant flow of prasad - via human chains of volunteers - from Prasad Kutir to the hands of the recipients.
Satsang was given once more this morning by His Holiness Sri Swami Poonyanandaji Maharaj, whose discourse again focused on the omniscient reality that lies behind the maya of creation, it alone providing us with all goods and experiences. In the words of Paramahamsa Yogananda: "With what velvet glove of every humility does He cover the iron hand of omnipotence."
Prasad in the form of lunch followed Swami Poonyanandaji's inspiring words. How satisfying the food here has been. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are given to all of us as prasad each day. At lunch time, the hundreds of participants sit on long mats under shade cloths as the banana leaf plates in front of us are filled (and refilled!) with delicious foods by gentle volunteers. One is really in awe of the benevolence, clarity of mind and will power that has brought such a grand event to fruition.
The afternoon session saw further prasad distribution to Paramahamsaji's neighbours. More rickshaws - they are ridden out by the recipients with the donating devotee in the back, often sounding their horns uproariously. Bicycles - numerous girls have received these as prasad, allowing them to cycle to and from school in nearby Deoghar. Bundles - Swamiji distributed scores of these again today, while ritual pooja went on. Despite his onerous duties and enormous responsibilities he yet managed to make time for individuals; at one stage I glimpsed him gently assisting an elderly lady to balance her bundle upon her head, another time laughing with a man as he slapped him on the back.
Pooja to Sri Devi went on. During this session I found out that the reality of God's presence in all things - glorious and inglorious - had been wholeheartedly acknowledged by the lady directly in front of me. Prostrated devotionally in the pose of the child, she no doubt presented a noble picture when viewed from any angle except mine. The sound of a trumpeting, unusually explosive mantra emanating from this very tangible source caused a look of consternation to appear on my face. This was increased when my innocent nostrils were greeted with an odour which was most certainly not that of incense. But did our devotee display any compunction? Did she take pity on her unfortunate victim, captive in the firing line? No! Rather, the procedure was repeated!
The afternoon of worship concluded with arati. This daily ceremony of salutation to Sri Devi with sacred flames was today undertaken not only by the pandits but also by chosen representatives from the continents of the world. Swamiji also reminded us of a sankalpa which had been taken on behalf of all the participants on the first day of the yajna. Over the following days, this sankalpa, for peace, prosperity and auspiciousness had been extended to include Paramahamsaji's neighbours, then India and finally the world.
As dusk began to fall, the activities ended with the following blessing from Swamiji: "I am sure that you will all experience prosperity, well-being and auspiciousness."
"When the grace of God descends, avail yourself of this divine and sacred opportunity."
What a gleeful morning! At 4.30 a.m., dressed in the finery we had received as prasad, we were donning bangles and bindi. So bedecked, we arrived at Paramahamsa Alakh Bara for the final day of Sat Chandi Maha Yajna and Sita Kalyanam. The Alakh Bara itself was gloriously decorated with loops of flowers festooning the entranceway. We paused on the way into the temple area to receive an anointment of sacred ash on our foreheads. The atmosphere was one of joy.
A long day was in store for all the participants. This morning, the program was to commence at 6.30 a.m. and would continue right through until around 4 p.m. In talks given on the previous days, Swamiji had inspired us to try to sit attentively throughout this extended period. "Of course, you need to take care of the basic needs of the body," he had said, "but other than that, try to master yourself. Be swamis for this one day."
The festivities began with heart-warming kirtan and satsang from Paramahamsaji. He spoke about the role of the mother: both as an aspect of Divinity and within society. The worship of the Divine Mother is a practice that has been eroded over time. Tantra, the most ancient teaching, emphasized the worship of the feminine principle. However, as relatively new religions sprang up, the figure of the Divine Mother was replaced with that of an 'arrogant father'. Similarly, within society, the tender, nurturing qualities exemplified by mothers are undervalued while the intellectual, logical ones of the masculine aspect are held in high esteem. I understood Paramahamsaji to be encouraging all of us - men and women - to honour and to develop in ourselves the compassionate, empathetic qualities that mothers naturally feel for their children.
Ritual pooja to Sri Devi then commenced. Upon Her altar in the yajnashala, Sri Devi is outwardly seen as a vibrant profusion of flowers which the pandits have ceremoniously constructed. Red roses, golden marigolds - She really is a gorgeous sight.
Pooja to Sri Devi in Her infinite form was followed by Her worship in human form, with pooja to thirty-eight virginal girls - aged between eight and fourteen years - who had been chosen from around Rikhia and elsewhere to represent the Divine Mother. Over the last week, this group had often been sitting, walking and eating together under the supervision of certain swamis. Today, they filed onto the central stage gorgeously dressed in elaborate clothes of red, gold and purple silk with golden jewellery and ornaments in their hair. They were garlanded and ritual worship with mantras, incense and sacred flames took place. Next, they were given prasad in the form of specially prepared food and gifts.
Havan in the yajnashala was conducted next, concluding Sita Kalyanam and so that section of Paramahamsaji's sadhana. He emerged glowing, serene and jolly, and reminded us of the sankalpa which has been taken on our behalf for peace, prosperity and spiritual well-being. We then had the privilege of witnessing the distribution of 'good luck kits' to the newly wed girls of the surrounding villages. These cases of new clothes, cosmetics, jewellery, money and utensils will be taken by the bride to her new home with her husband's family. Here, they will serve to bring her greater status and respect. Paramahamsaji mentioned that in previous years the brides had been as young as ten or thirteen, but this year were mostly grown women. "This," he said, "is because I have been insisting - no marriage at such a young age."
While all this was going on, the central stage was being transformed with garlands and posies of flowers into the sacred place where Sita Kalyanam - the marriage of Sita - would occur. In this event, the sacred union between Sita and Rama is represented by the marriage of a chosen, earthly couple. The wedding began with a group of women - the 'companions of Sita' - dancing gracefully before the stage. Then, to the accompaniment of uproarious music, in came the bridal procession! The couple were surrounded by a throng of joyfully dancing attendants from around the world. The atmosphere was like that of a huge party as they wended their way to the front of the crowed temple.
We watched eagerly. I noticed that the crowd had swelled; there was not a square foot of empty space to be seen and a flock of young Indian boys were perched on the surrounding brick wall. The bride, a beautiful Kerali woman, was resplendent in an orange sari, and her groom, a Bengali man, took their place on the stage where they were flanked by Brahmin pandits and by the sponsors of their wedding. The senior pandit had apparently done this a thousand times before - he seemed to be bossing the gentle couple around in no uncertain terms.
The pandits chanted mantras as, with great ceremony, a white dhoti was placed over the groom's shoulders and then tied to the bride's garment. A havan was conducted, during which the bride made numerous offerings from a plate held by the groom. Several times the couple's hands were joined and they circled the fire. The groom glanced shyly at his bride as they held hands, but she kept her eyes turned demurely downward. Occasionally, though, a quick, beautiful smile would light up her face. At the conclusion of the ceremony the couple were greeted by Paramahamsaji, Swamiji and their families, to all of whom they bade pranam. Throughout, the companions of Sita sang with riotous joy. Finally, the newly weds stood centre stage with Swamiji. He had been a victim of the loving taunts that are traditionally sung to guests by the bride's companions and was now grinning like a proud father. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
And thus, the auspicious event drew to its close. It feels as if we have all been part of an epic, mysterious, blessed time that will change us all subtly - perhaps in ways of which we are unaware. As Swamiji said, we are all fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate and to receive such grace. In Paramahamsaji's words, spoken when he emerged from the yajnashala at the conclusion of his sadhana: "When the grace of God descends, avail yourself of this divine and sacred opportunity. This is my only comment."