We arrived at Rikhia on 26th November after three days of planes, trains and trekkers. The opening of the program is blurred through the fog of jetlag and exhaustion. I remember Swami Niranjan walking majestically down through the, at that time, smallish gathering of people with something important on his head. It was only later, however, that I realized who was in attendance. On the second or third day Paramahamsaji explained the purpose of the program and the name ceased to be a collection of exotic sounding syllables and became 'Ram Naam Aradhana'.
From that moment on, people started keeping their eyes peeled for a glimpse of Shiva, either within or without, coming to be with those who chanted Rama's name. I guess I had an image of Odin, the world wanderer of Norse myth, in my mind; a ragged old man with a patch and staff, a mysterious stranger who can appear at any time to bless or prophecy, to involve himself in the human drama. Unlike the year before at the Chandi Yajna where I saw a huge giantess chop the sun in half to rain down sweets on all gathered, the deity didn't show in dramatic form. I did see Father Christmas, however, in the flesh and so did several other people (witnesses!); an ancient Indian man all in red, with a long white beard and a red bandana bound around his snowy locks.
A few days later, my spirit having finally caught up with my body, I ran into Swami Niranjan on my way to organizing a joy ride into Deoghar. Not today, he responded to my inadvertent red flag, let me show you where we make bundles for the villagers. Thus started my apprenticeship in Prasad Kutir.
The bundles included a set of clothes for each family member, wrapped in a blanket and tied with string. The string was an important part of the bundle, so was the plastic bag the new blanket came in; nothing goes to waste as the villagers use everything. When I arrived they were packing for a large but particularly poor village. To my initial horror we had been given strict instructions to pack only very average quality clothes for these villagers. It turned out that they are so poor they have been known to fight over good second hand clothes and so it was necessary to provide them with a quality they are familiar with. I spent hours rummaging around for thick (it was winter), marked or well-worn but still strong clothing. Another thing I immediately learnt is that Indian village women and older girls won't wear western style skirts and dresses. Most of these were given as nighties and petticoats to the older ladies. Also, jumpers tended to be worn by men, cardigans by women we were always short of cardigans. All the villagers were tiny. T-shirts we thought we were handing out to 12-14 year old boys I saw being worn by adult male labourers in the fields. We gave out plastic baby knickers and very cute underwear for toddlers and then discovered, when we actually saw the villagers, that the babies wander around with no underwear. This solution is infinitely more practical for people who live outside and who can't afford nappies, baby powder and other anti-nappy rash equipment.
Emerging from Prasad Kutir into the more rarefied world of the Ram Naam program, I pondered my presence in Rikhia. What was it all about, this name chanting festival? What was Paramahamsaji up to this time? As always, any involvement with this extraordinary man is intensely personal. At the Alakh Bara there is a silent psychic hum of energy constantly heralding his presence as the angels herald the presence of God. It seems that God is where Paramahamsaji is, with or without Ram Naam Aradhana, a proximity which is frequently too close for comfort! Consequently, for many this was a time for unprecedented head-tripping and an opportunity to come down with the infamous 'guru flu'.
This was a time to stop our single-minded involvement with work, whether ashram oriented or not, and to touch base with the inspiration behind that work; to see our daily lives for what they are, and to measure the weight of our obsessions against our declared sankalpas. Having done that, it was time to drop it all and enjoy the program.
The Ramayana, perhaps more than the Mahabharata, is alien to western culture and thinking. Analogies between the spiritual journey and the everyday concerns of right living inherent in this classic story emerged, however, clearly and powerfully from the two English discourses we were given. Perhaps even more inspirational was the combination of humour and reverence employed by the speakers. Christianity never makes jokes about God. 'Do not take the Lord's name in vain' is a commandment that has been interminably intoned down the ages. In fear of hell and heavenly plague, no one has dared find situations involving even Christ, the most human face of God, at all amusing. Together with original sin and certain Protestant attitudes against dancing, this has made Christianity, as practised in the West, perhaps one of the dourest religions in the world. The Indian approach is very refreshing and reminds me that the spiritual path really is for human beings after all. Hearing these speakers I felt I was being presented with a profound gift.
Another day and I'm sitting on the floor in a Deoghar toy shop, surrounded by squeaking dolls, footballs, toy cars and aeroplanes, cricket bats and balls, brightly coloured musical instruments and other delights. So much for being an adult. The biggest fun of all was saying, Okay, I'll take the lot, (I've always wanted to say that!). I watched as they packed toys for one and a half villages into a huge sack and a cardboard crate. A little western cash goes SO FAR in India, and it's also a lot lighter if you're travelling on an economy baggage allowance.
After my Prasad Kutir experience I know next time to bring some solid, clean, second hand clothes from the West, preferably slightly stained, and then spend the rest of my allotted Bholenath money in consultation with Swami Satsangi (overseeing distributions) in Deoghar or Jasidih. This year we constantly ran out of sarees and toys, and were forever on the lookout for people wondering what to donate.
The villagers themselves were delightful. We would arrive in our blue truck, a motley crew of people from all over the world, frequently raucously singing kirtan. Unperturbed, the villagers would gather around, the women usually separate, the children in the front smiling brightly, often wearing Alakh Bara jumpers from last year. I have a mental photograph of a father sitting amongst the children with his very little daughter sitting on his shoulder, hugging his head. We first sang a kirtan together and then the head of each family came up to collect a bundle, a cooking pot, some bangles and a toy for the children. Sometimes an ancient widow or grandfather would come for a large and heavy bundle, and one of the larger kids would automatically come up and carry it for them. It was most impressive seeing these families in action.
Watching the children with the toys was very moving. The younger ones were often quite perplexed by them, sometimes to the point of bursting into tears. Others couldn't believe their good fortune and their jaws literally dropped with astonishment as the toy was placed into their hands. Driving out of one village I saw the children running through the bundle bearing adults jumping up to catch balls, waving dolls in the air, and scooting off at angles to chase after errant toy cars. Along with goats and oxen it was a perfect rural scene and I thought of Vivaldi and Pachabel's Canon.
The linchpin of all the experiences I had during Ram Naam Aradhana was Paramahamsaji. Without ever leaving the Alakh Bara, he was intimately involved with the work being done in the villages. Paramahamsaji's approach to 'helping his neighbours' is so impressive and once again we have been presented with every reason to respect and admire him.