||Aum Sri Ramakrishna Sharanam||
||Aum Namo Narayanaya||
The last words playing in my head as I succumbed to the well turned down bed was from my guide saying: “Please arrive by 6am itself Sir, it will be good to see the sun rise over the river”. The words intercepted my brain in a disjointed garble as my priority after the 7 hour journey to Varanasi was sleep. The sudden annoyance of the telephone solicited much irritation because it seemed that no sooner than I put my head to rest, I had to awake. The voice on the other side was Vijay Kumar, the guide - coming across with a chiding tone, like a teacher who was reprimanding me for not following instructions. “Sir we must leave soon or else we will miss out”. I had to restraint the rebel in me in pursuant of a pleasurable day. It didn’t take long before I presented myself all togged up before the tour entourage. Vijay Kumar didn’t seem too pleased and started to innovatively navigate the driver through the unknown gulleys laden under a cloud of falling mist. It was in two ticks that the roaring diesel engine came to a halt near the Dasaswamedh Ghat - the place puranas depict as the stage where Gods and Saints performed many great austerities and rituals. History simultaneously tells us that Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
At the very point when I alighted from the vehicle I felt nothing… not even a sense of awe, as the stimulus being received was more audio than visual. The rattles, whistles, clanging and chattering announced the start of another day. I took a deep breath and opened my arms in a wide stretch gazing in the direction of the horizon. There I witnessed night and dawn wrestle for prominence. An audience of chillness revelled as the spectacle of day was about to reveal itself over a city worshipped and revered from time immemorial as the home of Kashi Vishwanatha: ‘the Liberator of Souls’. Without any effort from my part I was whisked onto an oar boat. Four of us were being rowed by one oarsman in competition of many others towards a vantage point from where the miracle of Kashi will be witnessed. The oar struggled against the current and the creaky boat which came across as ancient as the city itself bobbed about on the holy river. Slowly as night started to lose its grip on dawn, an ancient and mystical scene appeared to be painted on the sacrosanct canvas of the most venerated place on the globe.
The muddy waters strewn with garlands and remnants of banana leaves bathed the banks huddled with half naked men busy with their morning cleansing, side by side with woman doing the laundry. In the gaps, devout pilgrims and residents stood transfixed in great concentration toward the Sun holding a gathering of flowers, holy basil and lighted incense contained in a dried leaf bowl. As they slowly one-by-one lowered their offerings into the river as a thanksgiving for the day and life in general… a few feet ahead one- by-one cremated remains were released into the very same waters. Was this oxymoron the great miracle to be witnessed?
By now, day was gaining strength and life was starting to infuse into the city. There was steam from the chai-stalls and street food vendors dancing to the chime of the bells emanating from the poojas and morning aarthi in the many mandhirs and ashramas around which it seemed the city was developed. It is after this auspicious and important ritual that men and woman -adorned with white ash- make their way to begin their work. Sadhus, Swamis, ordinary men and women, animals, beggars and death all exist side-by-side without any form of dissent. It then dawned upon me that this place was not a miracle but a great teacher.
Hundreds of thousands make their way to Kashi to breathe their last breath in the hope that they will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death… and attain the heavens. There are also those who work hard against all odds to create a better life by applying their skills at weaving the finest Benares Sarees that will find its way to the world.
Paramahamsa Yogananda said:
Don’t depend on death to liberate you from your imperfections. You are exactly the same after death as you were before. Nothing changes; you only give up the body. If you are a thief or a liar or a cheater before death, you don’t become an angel merely by dying. If such were possible, then let us all go jump into the ocean now and become angels at once! Whatever you have made of yourself thus far, is what you will be hereafter. And when you reincarnate, you will bring that same nature with you. To change, you have to make the effort. The world is the place to do it.
Swami Sumanasananda, President of the Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa- Durban gave an inspiring and emotive Keynote Address at the 62nd Annual Children’s Cultural Festival over the past weekend. Maharaj unpacked the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda as the panacea of the malaise that is debilitating our youth and society in general.
In this very city of Varanasi, Swami Vivekananda who was being taunted by a group of monkeys and started to retract from them, was instructed by an illumined sage to “face the brutes!!!!” This pivotal point had an everlasting effect and chiselled the firebrand Vivekananda who shook the world of tamas. In His address, Maharaj highlighted that our lives are full of challenges and we must stand up and face them with great force and vigour. “Arise! Awake!” was the clarion call of Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Vivekananda eloquently drew a parallel between life and a Gymnasium. Swamiji said that the world is a great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves morally and spiritually strong. Swamiji further elaborated from the Upanishads that liberation is jivan mukthi or freedom while living in the body. It is not going to another realm or attaining something new, but realising our true nature. It is not freedom from anything, but being in the midst of everything.
The boatman was signalled by Vijay Kumar to start making his way back to the Ghat. It was quite evident from the expression on his face that he was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms from his morning dose of chai and some fresh puree. I glanced towards the river as we journeyed back. I realised that the water that passed under our boat shall never touch us again. Time that has passed is time we can never get back. As I reminisce on the illustrious and glorious life of Swami Vivekananda on His Maha Samadhi day (4 July), we can say that the essence of His life was to work, work and work!!! He will ceaselessly work until each one of us realises that we are one with God. He is truly a voice without form nudging us to awaken from our slumber and use this rare gift of human birth (as mentioned by Swami Tadbashananda in His concluding address at the Festival) to experience the joy of heaven right here in this life.
My earlier annoyance at Vijay Kumar slowly disappeared as I became more appreciative of the great lesson he taught me by dragging me out of bed at the ridiculous hour to experience this miracle and spectacle of Kashi. The Guide had become a Guru. In this month of July on the Purnima, we will offer our great respects and obeisance to our spiritual teachers who row our solitary boats bobbing about aimlessly on the ocean of life towards the safe shores of bliss, joy and fulfilment in life. In this holy month, I offer my sastanga pranaams to my revered Guru Srimat Swami Atmasthanandaji Maharaj and all the monks of the Ramakrishna order for their guidance and blessings on us always.
All Glories to Master, Mother and Swamiji. Jai Ma!!!!