Monthly Archives: August 2015

Belur Math Pilgrimage – 2015, Day – 1 Afternoon and Evening

August 3, 2015

Bus-ride to The Institute of Culture at Golpark:

After having a wonderful time, scrumptious meal, and feeling fully satisfied with the first part of our pilgrimage at the Belur Math, we all got into our assigned buses and headed to the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.  The bus ride was about an hour and half to the Institute.  It was not the distance, but the traffic and narrow roads, which added to the time.  However, our pilgrims made the most of it and there was nothing to worry about.  The air-conditioning in the buses was at full blast and the reclining cushioned chairs were very comfortable.  Some caught up with their sleep while others sang bhajans and dhuns.  The “Bhajans and Dhuns Book,” which was specially made for the pilgrimage, was very handy.  It helped all to join in on the singing.

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The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture:

The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture is a branch of Ramakrishna Mission which started its activities in 1938.  It was established to promote the study of culture in general, encompassing all cultures developed in the world.  The Institute has a number of departments including a school of languages, a Center for Indological Studies and Research, and a publication department.  The Institute invites scholars from all over India and abroad, and supports their boarding and lodging. It maintains a large library which provides useful material to the scholars for their studies and research.

The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture also has a wonderful Museum and an Art Gallery, which includes a number of valuable artifacts.  Furthermore, it conducts a P. G. Diploma Course for the Appreciation of Indian Art, runs the Sarada Devi School of Fine Arts and Crafts for children, and organizes an Annual Exhibition of Art and other conferences and cultural programs throughout the year.

At the Institute of Culture:

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All 100 of us (91 Vidyapith pilgrims + guides + Club 7 members) soon arrived at the main entrance of the Institute.  We entered and eagerly awaited Revered Tapan Maharaj who shortly came running in to greet us.  It was an air-conditioned building.  All were feeling very comfortable.

With his loving smile he welcomed us and asked us to go to the museum.  Some took elevators, but most decided to walk on the staircase as we all needed some exercise.

We entered a beautiful museum, which housed a collection of rare and valuable pieces from renowned artists.  This collection included sketches by the famous painter Nandalal Basu. Sri Ramakrishna had visited Nanadalal Basu’s house to see his paintings. As we walked through the exhibit, we delved into the rich Bengali art culture. We looked at some beautiful art pieces of deities, different types of textiles, and Bengali saris.

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After the museum, we visited the large library to get a feeling of the Institute’s research activities.  The library was filled with scholars and students. Lined against the walls were classic novels, encyclopedias, and non-fiction writings from around the world.

Rev. Swami Suparnandaji’s lecture:

After browsing the library at the Institute, we were lead to a lecture hall (which was big enough to fit us all!). As we waited for Rev. Swami Suparnandaji, Trupti Aunty and others started singing “Rama bhajo bhai Rama bhajo, Rama bhajo bhai Rama, Rama bhajo bhai Rama Sita Rama bhajo bhai Rama.”

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Two chairs and a table were set on the stage.  Finally, the hall started cooling down and Rev. Swami Suparnanandaji, the Head of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, arrived.  He asked Uncle to sit on the second chair next to him on the stage.

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Uncle introduced Rev. Swami Suparnanandaji and thanked him for giving his valuable time to share his thoughts with us. Rev. Swami Suparnanandaji talked about the importance of having a spiritual guru as well as practicing meditation and pranayama to help us manifest that divinity within. He further discussed how we think we are seeing with our eyes but actually we are seeing with our minds. That is why in the dream state we are not looking at the dream with our eyes but with our minds. Hence, if we have a pure mind we can see things in their true nature.  Rev. Swami Suparnanandaji asked if Dr. Vandana Jani (Aunty) was in the audience.  Finding that she had not accompanied the group to come to India, the Swami jokingly said that is the reason why Dr. Mahendra Jani (Uncle) is very quiet 🙂

After Rev Swami Suparnanandaji spoke, Rev. Tapan Maharaj quickly took us to a room where tea and some refreshments including a pound-cake were ready for us.  We all enjoyed the snack and came outside the building where the buses were waiting for us.  Rev. Tapan Maharaj personally came in the bus to tell us come again! We were moved by his infinite love for us.  He waited until all the buses left.

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We were supposed to go to Hyatt for a small break.  But, it was getting late and we decided to go straight to Yogodyan.  We were worried that it was going to be a long day without a break.  But, to our surprise, all including young children were in good spirit and were ready for Yogodyan.

Yogodyan:

The bus ride to Yogodyan was not long.

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Yogodyan was originally a garden house (like a retreat home) of Ramachandra Dutta, a great householder devotee of Sri Ramakrishna.  He was the instrument to introduce many youngsters and devotees to Sri Ramakrishna.  On Wednesday, December 26, 1883 Sri Ramakrishna visited this house.  He liked the place and said that “It is a fine place.  You can easily meditate on God here.”  Sri Ramakrishna sat in one room of the house and had taken refreshments.  At this spot, some of Sri Ramakrishna’s relics were kept in the ground and the present temple was built here.  Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda and other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna had visited this place several times.

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On our way from the bus to Yogodyan, we saw the Charitable Dispensary run by Ramakrishna Math, Yogodyan.  Two Revered Swamis of Yogodyan, Swami Shivapremanandaji (Shiv Sankar Maharaj) and Swami Sarvasukhanandaji (Tilok maharaj), welcomed us lovingly and took us to a recently new building of Yogodyan where underprivileged students had opportunities to learn computer programming.

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Swami Vivekananda’s chariot:

Then, as we walked towards Yogodyan’s temple, we saw a motor-running chariot with very majestic statue of Swami Vivekananda sitting in a throne-like chair.

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During Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth-anniversary celebration, this chariot had traveled all over West Bengal.  All of us were attracted by grandeur of this chariot and thought that it is a great idea to take a group picture in front of it to capture this moment in our life-long memory.

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After our picture, the Swamis took us to a reception hall where refreshment including freshly made “Khamans,”  “Sandesh,” soft drinks, water, and tea were ready for us.  Rev. Swami Pradhanananda (Suhas Maharaj) had taken care of our refreshments. Many enthusiastic volunteers lovingly served us.  The Swamis made sure that we all were served to our full satisfaction.  Here again, the Swamis had gone out of their way to welcome us and with so much love and care kept all the refreshments ready for us.  We felt nothing but the grace of Thakur, Maa, and Swamiji.

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Arati:

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Now it was time for evening arati at Yogodyan. As we sat in the prayer hall, we found several students with white uniforms (dhoti, kurta, and a wrapper) nicely sitting in front of the altar.  It was like Vivekananda Vidyapith’s prayer hall.  A few of the students were taking care of the sound system and the instruments going to be used in the arati.  One little boy (most likely a 3rd or 4th grader) came with a stick and a small gong that he was going to play.  He carefully put the gong in the exact place which was designated for it and sat in a prayerful posture.  We soon realized that all of the students were sitting in prayerful posture.  We learned that these are the students of Vivekananda Balak Sangha (Vivekananda Group of Young Boys).

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Arati began.  The singing of arati was mainly conducted by the students.  There was a professional mridangam player accompanying the singing.  The singing of arati was similar to the Belur Math arati singing.  The slow paced singing of “Khandan Bhava Bandhan…” was followed by a fast pace of the whole “Khandan Bhava Bandhan…”   and “Namo Namo Prabhu…”  Those who were observing the students found that the young boy with the gong never missed a beat! They then sang “Om Hri Ritam…” and “Sarva Mangal Mangalye…” All of the Vivekananda Vidyapith pilgrims enjoyed the arati as they knew the words.

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After the arati, Rev. Shiv Sankar Maharaj asked us to sing something.   As an offering of our own, with Uncle leading us, the Vidyapithers sang “Jaya Vireshwara…” accompanied by the skilled mridangist from the Mission.

After saluting Thakur, Maa, and Swamiji, we all gathered again in the hall to take a leave of the Swamis.  To our surprise, we found that they had gift ready for each individual of Vivekananda Vidyapith.  Uncle had requested Swaami Nityamuktananda (Ganesh Maharaj), Spiritual Head of Ramakrishna Math, Yogodyan, to bless us all.  He was kind enough to come to the hall. He gave gifts to the remaining people and blessed us all.  Their love for all of us and joy of giving the gifts were visible on their faces.

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Going to Hyatt:

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As we came to the end of a spiritual day, we headed back to the Hyatt. The bus ride was short.  Given the long day, we thought that most of the people will not come for dinner, but almost all came and enjoyed the dinner and each other’s company.  We were physically tired, but mentally elated remembering so many uplifting moments of the day and the love of all Ramakrishna Mission Swamis.

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After dinner, we all quickly went to our rooms for a good night’s sleep as we had to get up early the next day for breakfast and our trip to Dakshineshwar.

(The original report was prepared by Priya Parikh and Bindi Parikh.)

Belur Math Pilgrimage – 2015, Day -1 Morning

At the Belur Math

August 3, 2015

Miracle:

Most of the pilgrims woke up in the morning and kept looking at the sky.  Rain was in the forecast and it had been pouring for several days. There was one question lingering in the minds of all:  Is it going to rain today?  We were wondering if it would be a washout after all of the logistical trouble, all of the expenses, and all of the arrangements made. However, to our surprise there was not a single cloud in the sky.  Sunrise filled the sky with light. We all felt that this must be a miracle.  God’s blessings were on us.

Breakfast:

Our first full day of the pilgrimage started at an early 5:45 am. All 91 pilgrims made their way down to the Hyatt’s “Guchhi” restaurant, our breakfast location for the week. The room was a sea of white and blue Vidyapith uniforms. Our pilgrims were walking here and there excited to see each other and excited to taste the variety of items we had for breakfast. Many were still fighting off jetlag, but the aromas of dosas, parathas, muffins, and fresh fruit kept everyone energized.

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On the buses:

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At 6:45, all of us gathered in the lobby of the hotel and divided into our 7 groups. Group by group, we left the hotel lobby at 7:00 and entered the luxury buses we were going to ride all week. The buses were excellent and we even discovered that seats were recliners!

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The group for each bus was arranged beforehand, making it was very easy for all of us to board.  As soon as the buses started, each bus gave a loud joyful cheer:  “Jai Shree Maha Mayi ki Jai!” “Jai Shree Guru Maharajji ki jai!” “Jai Shree Swamiji Maharajji ki jai!” “Jai Ganga Mayiki Jai!” “Jai Saba Santana ki jai!” Meaning: “Victory to Great Mother Sri Sarada Devi, to Sri Ramakrishna, to Swami Vivekananda, to Mother Ganga and to all the Saints!”  These cheers came from the hearts of all. We were eager to start our trip and moreover there was not a single cloud in the sky or a trace of rain. All thanked God for this beautiful weather.  Three buses now set foot for Belur Math.

The bus rides began with our Pranam Mantras, Sri Ramakrishna Suprabhatam, and our morning Vidyapith prayer.  This prepared all of our minds for this special pilgrimage.  The ride to Belur Math was about one hour long. The bus weaved through the highways and local streets of Kolkata.  Each bus had three club7 representatives:  an assistant for the driver, a tour guide, and an individual who would be in constant communication with the other buses, the main office and the destination. During the rides, we would listen to the guide’s notes on each destination and in between we would sing various dhoons, bhajans, and hymns.

At the Belur Math:

The buses arrived at Belur Math after an hour. We had received special permission by the Belur Math office to allow our buses go inside the heart of the Belur Math Campus, by the shoekeeping room and the bookstore.  As we walked out of the bus and into the Belur Math campus, we were welcomed by the revered Tapas Maharaj, a swamiji who is in charge of the Belur Math Office.

Tapas Maharaj had such a glow on his face – pleased to see the Vivekananda Vidyapith group he had heard much about. Swami Girishananda, the Manager Maharaj of Belur Math, having been to our Vidyapith himself, had taken a special interest in our pilgrimage group and had arranged everything to make our trip to Belur Math smooth, welcoming, and spiritually fruitful.  Mr. Prakash Chakraborty from Queens, New York, USA also had contacted several Swamis to inform them about the Vidyapith activities and had requested them to do whatever they can to make our pilgrimage most memorable.

We walked from the buses to a special place near Belur Math’s main office to leave our shoes.  While walking on the Belur Math campus, everyone was greatly impressed by the serenity and cleanliness of the place.  Mother Ganga was flowing on one side.  Three small temples stood on the bank of the Ganga.  Green grass and trees added the serenity in the environment.  The centrally located main temple was calling all to go inside.  Many had goose bumps as they remembered that Holy Mother Sri Saradadevi, Swami Vivekananda and several direct disciples had walked on this ground and had done great austerities here.

Our Honorable Guide:

Revered Tapas Maharaj introduced us to the revered Swami Sarvapriyananda, who to our great surprise was going to be our guide for the day. Swami Sarvapriyananda is a renowned swami who is famous for his lectures (especially those recorded on the Internet).

Main Temple

Our first stop at Belur Math was the main temple of the complex.  Revered Swami Sarvapriyananda led us to the temple.

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The main temple of the Belur Math was a beautiful site. In fact, the architecture of the temple was designed by Swami Vivekananda himself. The design included concepts from various religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Placed on the front entrance of the Math was the Ramakrishna Mission symbol, also designed by Swami Vivekananda. The symbol displays a swan sitting on the waves of water, lotus, the sun and a cobra. The swan represents our true spiritual Self, the water represents karma yoga, the lotus represents bhakti yoga, the sun represents Jnana yoga and the cobra represents raja yoga. Thus showing that there are four main paths to which one can manifest his/her divinity.

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As we entered the main entrance of the main temple, we saw a white marble statue of Sri Ramakrishna beautifully adorned with a cloth and a garland. The atmosphere was very serene as we can hear the worship-mantras chanted by a Swami who was doing worship of Sri Ramakrishna. We felt that Sri Ramakrishna was present in person and was very happy to see us all.  A few devotees also remembered Sri Ramakrishna’s words that “Loren! I will go wherever you take me.” When establishing Belur Math, Swami Vivekananda had brought Sri Ramakrishna’s relics to Belur Math with great reverence and had done worship as if he was present in person. We could feel the importance of this place as we saluted Sri Ramakrishna.

After saluting, we sat down to do japa and meditation.  When we closed our eyes, we could feel Sri Ramakrishna’s presence throughout the hall.  Half an hour passed unnoticed.

After the japa and meditation, we walked out through the main entrance of the temple. Tapas Maharaj and Swami Sarvapriyanandaji told us that we can take a picture in front of the Belur Math Temple.  Swami Sarvapriyananda told us to stand on the steps on either side of the entrance, keeping the entry way unblocked so Sri Ramakrishna could also join us.  Tapas Maharaj and Swami Sarva Priyananda knew that this will be a life-long memory for all of us.

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The Old Temple and Swamiji’s room:

After the picture, Tapas Maharaj and Swami Sarvapriyananda led us to the Belur Math office courtyard. Here, there were two buildings. One included the old shrine, the prayer room where Sri Ramakrishna was worshipped before the main temple was built. It was here that Swami Vivekananda and Holy Mother worshipped Sri Ramakrishna after his passing away.

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In the nearby building was Swamiji’s room, which gave a wonderful view of the Ganga nearby. In that room laid many belongings of Swami Vivekananda, including the tanpura and mrudungam Swamiji used to play! Can you just imagine the melodious bhajans and dhoons sung by Swamiji? This was also the same room where Swamiji went into Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

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Visit to Water Treatment Plant:

When both groups finished visiting the old temple and Swamij’s room, Swami Girishananda told us that he had arranged our visit to the Ramakrishna Mission Water Treatment plant, which is located within Belur Math premises. On the way there, some of the students and parents took “totos” (long golf carts) to the water plant location while others walked. The Ramakrishna Water Treatment plant was a service effort started by the Swamis that provides clean water to all of Belur Math as well as the local community surrounding it. The process, which is very detailed and intricate, essentially pumps Ganga water into a filtration system to be purified. The water is distilled through the use of chlorine gas and sand. The purified water eventually serves people in the area. This plant was the vision of the Manager Maharaj Swami Girishanandaji. It was so wonderful to gain the opportunity to see swamis practicing karma yoga and service firsthand.

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Totapuri Ramakrishna Monastery:

Following the plant visit, Swami Sarvapriyananda took us to the sadhu’s quarters, also called “Totapuri Ramakrishna Monastery.”

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Students enjoying conversations with Swami Sarvapriyananda

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Uncle With Swami who takes care of the Water Treatment Plant

This was Swami Girishanandaji’s project and he lovingly told us that many of you had contributed towards this building.

We were also shown the construction site of a 3-story dining facility to serve devotees who visit Belur Math. For many years, Belur Math would serve Prasad to thousands of devotees during celebrations. This would finally give them a proper facility to serve as Mother would have wished!.

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Construction of the dining facility is all the way on the left corner of the first picture and on the slight right of the Belur Math Temple.

Delicious Snack:

At the Totapuri Sadhus quarters, we were served delicious samosas and caramel candy to add some sweetness! When we finished our snack, Swami Sarvepriyananda took us to the three temples and memorial place of all several direct disciples located on the bank of Ganga.

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Three Temples:

In addition to the main temple, there are other temples on the Belur Math campus: Swami Brahmananda’s temple, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s temple and Swami Vivekananda’s temple.

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We visited each temple. Holy Mother’s in particular was beautiful. It is actually the only temple on the campus that is facing the Ganga.  We offered our salutations at each temple.  Divine fervor was in the air and Mother Ganga only was added to it, her spirituality and waters traveling all the way to Gangotri.  After visiing the three temples, we saw the tree under which Swami Vivekananda used to sit.

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Nearby is a memorial of direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.  Through this entire visit, many of us remembered life incidents and teachings of the direct disciples.  Devotees who were visiting first time felt that everything they had read and studied about Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna was becoming even more real and tangible.

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On left is Swamiji’s temple, Middle is Holy Mother’s temple and on right is Swami Brahmananda’s temple

Offering salutations to Senior Swamis:

Next, we were told that Swami Suhitanandaji, General Secretary of Belur Math would receive our Vidyapith group.

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One by one, we all saluted Swami Suhitanandaji and Swami Girishanandaji. They received us so lovingly and even talked to us all.

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We were then informed that Swami Smarananandaji, Vice President of Belur Math would receive us as well! We were so lucky for this opportunity. Just couple of days ago on a rainy Gurupurnima, hundreds of devotees had to wait for hours to offer lotuses to Swami Smarananandaji. We considered ourselves fortunate to get this opportunity without waiting for long time in a line. Swami Smarananandaji talked to us about his pleasant experiences of guiding youth groups.

Going to Old Math:

After saluting to Swami Smarananda, we all were led to the Nilambar Babu’s house. This was the “Old Math.”  Before Belur Math, the “Atmarama” (the relics of Sri Ramakrishna) was worshipped here.

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Holy Mother lived at the Old Math for some time and also conducted the “Panchatapa” austerity here.  This was also where she a had vision of Sri Ramakrishna standing in the Ganga and Swami Vivekananda pouring the water of Ganga to all over the world.  Another importance of this place is that here Swami Vivekananda composed arati “Khandan Bhava Bandhan” and the hymn “Om Hri Ritam.”  Unfortunately, Holy Mother’s room was closed.  We decided to come later on our trip.  Swami Sarvapriyananda also talked about the Veda Vidyalalya which was next to this place.

Formal Welcome Program:

To our great surprise, we found that Revered Swami Girishanandaji had arranged a special “Welcome Program” for us in a cultural hall. When we reached the cultural hall, we saw that a stage had been prepared with a few chairs, a table and microphones.  There was a harmonium and a pair of table on the front of the stage.  In the background, there were large size pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Saraada Devi and Swami Vivekananda.

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DSCN6633 DSCN6632In the auditorium, over 100 chairs were arranged nicely for our group.  The auditorium was filled by Vidyapith students, teachers and parents.  On the stage were Tapas Maharaj, Swami Devpriyananda, Swami Girishananda, Uncle, and Swami Sarvapriyananda.

Tapas Maharaj was emcee of the program.  He heartily welcomed our Vidyapith family to Belur Math and then conducted the whole program.  To begin the program, one Swami of the Ramakrishna Mission sang a bhajan. Then, revered Swami Girishanandaji welcomed us all. He told about his positive experiences and impressions about Vivekananda Vidyapith when he visited the institution during his recent USA tour.

Then, on behalf of all Vidyapith students, teachers and parents who were present, Uncle sincerely thanked all Swamis for extending their hearty welcome to all of us and going out of their way to shower their love. Uncle continued and said, “Today we see the significance of the saying that if we go one step towards God, then God comes 10 steps towards us.  What we have done is to try to follow lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda. And in return we received lots of love and encouragements from all these revered Swamis.”

Following Uncle, Pr. Shuddhatmaprana spoke. She said how she was thrilled to see familiar faces since she had accompanied us on our Gujarat Tour in 2013.  She was excited to meet many new faces as well. Pr. Shuddhatmaprana talked about the great time she had being with our Vivekananda Vidyapith group during the Gujarat Tour.

Following Pr. Shuddhatmaprana, alumni Meera Rajani and Nilesh Shukla spoke about their experiences at Vidyapith and their appreciation for our warm welcome to Belur Math.  Then, Swami Devapriyananda gave his talk and showed his happiness to see Vidyapith’s students, teachers, and parents.

Next, Swami Sarvapriyananda spoke. He said, “You look all very happy because here in Belur Math you are at home.” He said, “Consider Belur math as your home and come and visit it whenever you can.”   He continued, “It is great that in the US you are learning the essence of Indian Culture and practicing them.  We even see that Indian Culture [and philosophy] is manifesting in many American literature and films.”  He referred to the Star Wars and few other resources.  He emphasized the two main essential teachings of Vedanta: the potential divinity of each soul and Oneness of all beings.

Swami Sarvapriyananda expressed his admiration for Vivekananda Vidyapith as well by stating, “Vivekananda Vidyapith is a successful model for a youth program preparing our next generation.”

Dr. Shuvendu Majumdar, a professor at the Vivekananda University expressed his thoughts and joy to see all of Vidyapith’s students.

The students and alumni of Vidyapith were then given the opportunity to offer their prayers. We melodically sang Durgati Nashini for the swamis as Sneha Shah played harmonium and Apurva Shah accompanied on the tabla.

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Prasad at Belur Math:

Following the cultural hall, we sat down for lunch.

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Swamis reciting “Om Brahmarpanam…..”

Revered Sukumar Maharaj (Bhandari Maharaj) was lovingly taking care of our Prasad.  Revered Tapas Maharaj and Uttam Maharaj were joyfully helping.  We were served a variety of delicious dishes, with several Bengali sabzis, some warm rotis, and daal which was then topped off with ice cream and sweet mangos! We came to know later that sweet mangoes and ice cream were a special treat to all of us and Mr. Prakash Chakraborty had made arrangement for this. With so much love of Swamis the Prasad became more delicious.

(The original report was prepared by Priya Parikh and Bindi Parikh.)

Belur Math Pilgrimage 2015 – Day 0

August 2, 2015

Two years ago, a few students, teachers, and parents attended the International Youth Conference organized by the RKM Vadodara and went on a pilgrimage to the places in Gujarat that were visited by Swami Vivekananda. It was then that a thought crossed our minds about the possibility of organizing a pilgrimage to Belur Math and to the places associated with Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, and Swamiji.

In December of 2014, Uncle, Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, Mihir Uncle, Shilpa Aunty and Nisha Parikh began exploring this possibility. The initial discussions and research for the Belur Math Pilgrimage had begun and they were in full swing by the time Youth Day celebrations came to an end in January. The organizers met every Sunday to discuss the itinerary along with the hotel and transportation arrangements. There was also a constant flow of emails and phone calls to the different parties in India to coordinate the trip. Yet, during all of this planning, many questions arose – Would people want to travel to India during the hot monsoon season? Would they be comfortable knowing the challenges we may face while traveling at this time? Would students sign up? Much to people’s surprise, these fears were quickly dispelled. As word of the pilgrimage spread, devotees and their families eagerly signed up. The list of pilgrims grew to 91 people:

1 Uncle, 2 Rasendra Adhvaryu, 3 Jyoti Champanerkar, 4 Kabir Champanerkar, 5 Kartik Champanerkar, 6 Priya Dhar, 7 Sunil Dhar, 8 Sunita Dhar, 9 Naiya Gosai, 10 Chandrashekhar Jani, 11 Harsha Jani, 12 Nalin Johri, 13 Anandi Johri, 14 Arundhati Johri, 15 Krishnan Raghavan, 16 Lalitha Raghavan, 17 Rajan Krishnamurthy, 18 Usha Krishnamurthy, 19 Hina Mehta, 20 Sonali Mehta, 21 Arvind Mistry, 22 Rashmita Mistry, 23 Sridhar Nambi, 24 Sumathi Nambi, 25 Veda Nambi, 26 Veena Nambi, 27 Gopesh Pandya, 28 Anupa Pandya, 29 Stotra Pandya, 30 Shashin Parikh, 31 Nayana Parikh, 32 Nisha Parikh, 33 Ronak Parikh, 34 Vrunjal Parikh, 35 Trupti Parikh, 36 Priya Parikh, 37 Bindi Parikh, 38 Fenil Patel, 39 Linsy Patel, 40 Dhir Patel, 41 Keya Patel, 42 Manoj Patel, 43 Khushbu Patel, 44 Khush Patel, 45 Vironika Patel, 46 Ekalavya Patel, 47 Laxmi Pichappan, 48 Kanna Pichappan, 49 Siva Pichappan, 50 Lakshmi Pusuloori, 51 Shailee Pusuloori, 52 Brinda Pusuloori, 53 Sudhir Railkar, 54 Aruna Railkar, 55 Kanchan Railkar, 56 Jyoti Rajani, 57 Meera Rajani, 58 Kirit Rokad, 59 Hina Rokad, 60 Deba Saha, 61 Amita Saha, 62 Debamita Saha, 63 Ghanshyam Senjalia, 64 Varsha Senjalia, 65 Abhishek Senjalia, 66 Avni Senjalia, 67 Apurva Shah, 68 Jyoti Shah, 69 Chintal Shah, 70 Mihir Shah, 71 Shilpa Shah, 72 Nilesh Shukla, 73 Apexa Shukla, 74 Radhika Shukla, 75 Raghav Shukla, 76 Rajan Shukla, 77 Advait Suvarnakar, 78 Aastha Suvarnakar, 79 Aashka Suvarnakar, 80 Latha Tatapudy, 81 Bhavin Trivedi, 82 Kanan Trivedi, 83 Ishani Trivedi, 84 Priya Trivedi, 85 Jaymeen Trivedi, 86 Nixita Trivedi, 87 Neer Trivedi, 88 Anish Trivedi, 89 Kunal Trivedi, 90 Kiran Yagnamurthy, 91 Divya Yagnamurthy

Two meetings with all pilgrims were held at Vidyapith to discuss logistics and further preparations. Spring passed, summer began, and the excitement continued to build. Everyone started to purchase their airline tickets and finalize travel preparations.

Before we knew it, the much-awaited day arrived. On August 2nd, families began arriving in Kolkata from the United States and from different cities in India. Families arriving at the airport were received by Club 7 personnel holding signs that read “Vivekananda Vidyapith.” Throughout the day, Club 7 vehicles shuffled back and forth between the airport and hotel to pick up more pilgrims. As each of us approached the Hyatt Regency, we were amazed by the grand sight and its beautiful property. When we stepped out of our taxis, we saw many familiar faces and could not hold our joy in seeing one another!

HYATT

Those of us who arrived early started the day with a delicious breakfast, which included a variety of dishes from upma, dosa, and pongul to waffles and croissants. For the rest of the day, many of us relaxed at the hotel in attempts to overcome jetlag, while others explored the city. Some families went shopping at the nearby mall and sari markets, while others ventured out for some fresh coconut water and fruits. All throughout, we would run into our fellow Vidyapithers both at the hotel and in the city. We were so far from Wayne, but we still felt the warmth of our Vidyapith family in Kolkata.

At 7 PM, we gathered in the “Topaz and Sapphire” banquet hall for our Welcome Meeting. The space had been specially reserved for our group. The room was buzzing with excitement. Uncle spoke at the podium and welcomed everyone.

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Uncle began by reading an email he had received from Swami Sarvadevananda, the Spiritual Head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, LA, who had graciously sent his humble prayers and blessings for our trip:

“… I was overwhelmed to note that you have organized a pilgrimage trip for 90 Vidyapith associates and shall visit Belur Math, Jayrambati, Kamarpukur and other places connected with Thakur, Ma and Swamiji. It is probably for the first time that such a big number of devotees will be going in a group, from the West, for pilgrimage. May Mother keep everyone in good health and joy–is my prayer…”

-Swami Sarvadevananda

Uncle then moved onto a topic that was on all of our minds. As he had warned earlier in the year, the weather can be quite unpredictable in Kolkata, especially during the monsoon season. In fact, in the days prior to our arrival, a cyclone passed through the region. Many areas were hit with heavy rains and flooding. Many of us had seen a few flooded streets on our way to the hotel. Naturally, some of us were nervous and we were all praying for better weather for the week ahead. Uncle said that we have to surrender to God’s wish and do what we have to do.  He also shared with us Aunty’s thought on this. She said to think of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, and Swamiji. They had lived in this weather but nevertheless kept their minds on God. We would perhaps experience firsthand what they had faced. What a great thought! In the same way they didn’t let the spontaneous showers trouble them, we all resolved to keep a positive attitude and were ready to face the rain armed with our ponchos and umbrellas! The rains would not stop our Vidyapith pilgrims from making the most out of their trip!

Uncle moved on to introduce the staff of Club 7, the travel agency that has been assisting us with our tour, and asked the CEO, Aparna Didi, to address the group.

Club7Members

Aparna Didi heartedly welcomed the pilgrims and assured us that Club 7 would do everything to make our pilgrimage a memorable experience. She surprised us with a wonderful booklet they had made which outlined our itinerary and included important contact information.

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Club 7 gave each one of us a gift bag that consisted of umbrellas and cross-bags. To top it all off, we were given a large bag full of snacks for the week.

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Following this, Uncle explained that in order to make our transportation orderly, seven groups were formed. He announced the names of the group leaders, their responsibilities, and the members of the group. The group leaders were Krishnan Uncle & Lalitha Aunty, Rasendra Uncle & Ronak, Nalin Uncle & Anandhi Aunty, Sudhir Uncle and Aruna Aunty, Rajan Uncle & Usha Aunty, and Ghanshyam Uncle & Varsha Aunty.

Next, Uncle introduced the medical team of doctors: Dr. Anandhi Johri, Dr. Sridhar Nambi, Dr. Apexa Shukla, Dr. Nilesh Shukla. On behalf of the medical team, Dr. Nambi Uncle reviewed guidelines for our health and well being on the trip. We were so lucky to have four doctors on our trip!

Already carrying their large professional cameras around their necks, our enthusiastic photography volunteers, Mihir Uncle, Nalin Uncle, and Rasendra Uncle, waived to everyone. They were going to help us capture candid moments and record most of our trip.

Uncle then went over the agenda for the next day. We were going to visit Belur Math, the RKM Institute of Culture at Golpark, and Yogodhyan. We planned to wear our Vidyapith uniform so that we could take a group picture.

Soon it was time for dinner! There were so many different items. After dinner, all gathered according to their groups and exchanged contact information. We shared our thoughts about the places we were going to visit and reflected on what we were going to see the next day. We were also handed booklets about the Belur Math Pilgrimage Trip. A team of teachers (Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, Deba Uncle, Rasendra Uncle, Sunil Uncle, Sunita Aunty, Krishnan Uncle, and Lalitha Aunty) prepared researched summaries on each of the places of pilgrimage. Nalin Uncle compiled and organized the information by the day of visit. Nalin Uncle, Anandhi Aunty, and Arundhati printed and bound copies for each family on the trip!

Uncle also showed the Bhajan-Dhoon-Hymns booklet prepared by Trupti Aunty, Jyoti Shah Aunty, Priya Parikh, Bindi Parikh and Chintal Shah.  These booklets would help us with our morning and evening prayers and when we sing during our travel in buses.

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At the end of the meeting, Uncle let us know that we were asked to sing a couple of dhoon-bhajans at the Belur Math Cultural Hall. Deba Uncle brought out his harmonium and tabla, and some of our Vidyapith students and alumni practiced the Shanti Mantras and a few bhajans.

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Energized about the week ahead, we headed to our rooms for full night of rest. We were going to have an early start the next day as breakfast would begin at 5:45 AM and our buses would leave at 6:45 AM.

(The original report was prepared by alumnus Vrunjal Parikh.)

Laugh and Learn – 4

Justice in Heaven

I heard the following story from Swami Adiswarananda, the Spiritual Head (1973 – 2007) of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York.  I have added material needed to set up the background of the story.

Taxi drivers make their living by transporting as many passengers as they can each day.  For them, time is money. While this mindset helps the driver earn money, sometimes it also results in risky driving.

When I saw how taxis run on the streets of New York City, I remembered a description I had read in the Ramayana.  The famous villain Ravana had a plane that was directed through his thoughts alone.  The taxis in New York City are similar. If you are driving behind a taxi in New York, you may not know where the taxi will go.  It always seems to me that the taxi will only go according to the thoughts of the taxi driver.  The taxi driver may go to the right lane or the left, take a right turn or a left, and sometimes even take a complete U-turn.

One such taxi driver died and went to heaven.  St. Peter looked at the driver’s life record and gave him a big mansion to live in while in heaven.

After some time, a religious preacher died and also went to heaven.  St. Peter looked up his record of good deeds and gave him a simple hut to live in.  After moving into his place, the preacher started walking around to see the different parts of heaven.  He soon found that his next-door neighbor had a big mansion.  He thought that whoever lives in this mansion must be a great religious preacher.  However, to his surprise, he found that the mansion was occupied by a taxi driver.

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The preacher was furious and went directly to St. Peter. He told St. Peter that he was really upset.  He was expecting full justice in heaven. Instead, he found total injustice.  St. Peter asked him to explain why he felt mistreated.  The religious preacher said that he had taught the name of God to people for every day of his life.  For this, he had come to heaven.  However, despite this work, the preacher was just given a dingy little place while the taxi driver… a taxi driver… (The preacher’s voice choked out of anger).  After controlling himself, the preacher finally finished his thought and complained that his neighbor was given a big mansion despite only driving taxis in New York City.

St. Peter seemed undisturbed.  He told the preacher that there cannot be any injustice in heaven.  He asked the preacher to calm down and listen to the reason for these rewards.  St. Peter said that he had great respect for the preacher’s work of preaching God to people for his entire life.  However, when he was preaching, people used to sleep.  On the other hand, when this taxi driver was driving his taxi in New York City, the passengers were constantly praying to God! J

Lesson Learned:

Preaching is a difficult job.  Sri Ramakrishna once said that only those who have received God’s command could inspire people to truly love God.  It is not the oratory skill or the knowledge of scriptures that can inspire people to love God.

Many preachers are great orators or well-versed in scriptures but they do not have God’s command. People who witness these preachers often say, “Wow!  This preacher is such a great orator or how this preacher is so knowledgeable!”  But, they forget everything the preacher had said shortly after meeting him/her.  In these cases, the people unfortunately do not develop a true love for God through listening the lectures.

A sincere devotee loves God and lives a God-oriented life.  He/she has no craving to teach people.  If God makes a devotee an instrument to inspire people to love God, then the devotee will accept it as God’s wish. Yet, the devotee always remembers that it is God who is inspiring people.  The devotee never develops an ego or a sense of doer-ship.

Almost all people need a human example to develop love for God.  When we see someone who truly loves God and someone whose thoughts, speech, and actions have Godly-touch, we become inspired to love God.  Through this person, we realize that God is not an abstract idea but rather as real as the core of our existence.

Heaven:  People wish to extend their worldly pleasures after death and want worldly rewards for their good work.  Thus, we find the idea of heaven that has been entertained in most of the religions.  Swami Vivekananda says that the idea of heaven differs by the people.  If people have been living in deserts and like to enjoy having lots of water, they imagine their heaven with rivers, lakes and lots of green land.  People who lived in tropical countries where it rains most of the time imagine heaven as a dry place with occasional rain.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, heaven is like a resort where people go on vacation.  People enjoy their money’s worth of pleasures in a resort and when the money runs out, they have to go back to their work place.  They cannot earn money at the resort.  In this metaphor, the “money” in the heaven is an individual’s good deeds.  People want worldly pleasures for their good deeds after their death.  For this reason, they have enjoyment in heaven and when they run out of the merits of their good deeds, then come back to earth and start all over again.  Heaven and hell go together.  There cannot be heaven without hell.

As I had mentioned in my earlier post, living a life for only body-mind enjoyments is a hellish life filled with lots of suffering. Living a God-fearing moral life and doing some good work is a life lived in heaven. Living a Spirit-oriented or Self-oriented life with no craving for worldly desires is a life lived in divine bliss – a life that is beyond heaven and hell.

(Thanks to Madhavi Jani for the illustration and Ronak Parikh for editing this post.)