Diary entry 27/11/98 (two days after the finish of Sita Kalyanam): Feeling exhausted. Eyes still red, raw. Breathing bad. Toothache, depressed. Eating too much, too fast. Too many people at the ashram. I wish they'd all go home. Didn't receive mantra diksha today (No students allowed). Spent most of the day angry and tired.
Fortunately, no one asked me to write my impressions of Sita Kalyanam that day. After breezing through ten blissful days at Sita Kalyanam, during which I felt light, energized and very much alive, I arrived in Munger and hit my bed like a lead balloon. Both my mind and body were experiencing the full impact of exhaustion. Fatigue is something that doesn't come easily to me. So why this extreme feeling? Surely I was meant to be refreshed and revitalized? Yes, I'd worked fairly hard during my time there, but not excessively.
The best explanation I received was that after being well-fed and well-nourished by the refined energies of an evolved being, my mind and body (which by then, unbeknown to me had acquired quite a liking for Paramahamsaji's pure energies) were experiencing withdrawal symptoms. They were none too happy to return to the previous, more crude, energy of 'me'. As I resurfaced from my bed, I began to notice more red-eyed, weary students mooching around the ashram.
Now a month on and I'm quite content to recount my impressions of Sita Kalyanam, most of which stem from a five-by-seven metre room the unpacking/sorting room of the Prasad Kutir. Spinning with pots, pans, cooking ladles, people and piles upon piles of brand-new, semi-worn or well-worn clothes, the unpacking room appeared to be (for me) the epicentre of the whole week's proceedings. Situated at the centre of the morning and afternoon programs, I was able to follow, to sing and see much of the program on one side the morning reading of the Ramayana took place and on the other the afternoon kirtans, lectures, gift-giving and chanting. This was a real blessing. As someone who'd never even heard the name 'Satyananda' four months back, I realized how great an opportunity (and privilege) it was to not only witness, but to partake in such an extraordinary event.
As it turned out, I partook little in the actual ceremony sitting amidst the crowds listening to the speakers, joining in the kirtan and absorbing the front-line atmosphere. This was entirely by choice. You see, every time I took advantage of my 'student' status and joined the audience, it would only be a matter of about ten minutes before my head would be turning towards the Prasad Kutir with my mind fully there in that room unpacking prasad. Students were positively encouraged to attend each day of the proceedings. In fact, many were told it was their 'karma yoga' to attend. The swamis I worked with would often encourage me to attend despite the high workload.
It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the program, on the contrary, I felt it was a wonderful, beautiful event. I was touched on many occasions. I remember the first afternoon kirtan I attended. It was so beautiful. I was completely absorbed. The joy, spirit and simplicity of the Cosmic Mass, the afternoon lectures and the morning kirtans in the temple were other equally special moments. But when it came to the crunch, I felt more in my element inside than out.
The unpacking room was a hive of quick-decision making and team spirit. Upon receiving the prasad a team of sorters would divide the clothes into first, second or third quality before subdividing these piles into specific categories according to age and gender. Sound simple? You try explaining to a highly-experienced competent sorter the street-cred value contained in a well-worn pair of Red-Label Levis (that were heading for the 'rubbish' pile). Then try and understand why a stunningly beautiful sari, save for some slight wear and tear should also be rejected. There was an easy, happy understanding among the sorters, and as the excitement of Sita Kalyanam gained momentum, so a smooth system of sorting evolved. Cultural style differences of the first day were soon ironed out.
Everyone had their own role in the whole process, without having it designated, or spelled out. Ego was kept to a minimum. The Decision-Makers would know, almost intuitively, the end-destination of a piece of clothing with minimal quibbling involved (karma sannyasins with young children of different ages were invaluable at this stage of the process), the Organizers would keep the momentum rolling, while the Assembly Line would lovingly fold, dust and stack each item of clothing. Questions of the first few days: Teenage boys, first quality?, Men's kurtas, second quality?, Baby girls, first quality? became fewer and fewer. They were replaced by an unspoken understanding.
I learnt a few things in that room, the first being that I was by no means a highly committed worker (something that I'd previously taken for granted). On the contrary, the attitude of genuine devoted service which shone from most of the swamis, sannyasins and jignasus put my efforts to shame. There were countless times when I would be half-hanging out of the window, catching glimpses of Paramahamsaji, or singing along to some kirtan whilst the others would remain totally absorbed in a discussion, say, on the finer qualities of a baby's jump-suit. They knew that either Paramahamsaji or Swami Niranjanananda was there only a stone's throw away (because I would be giving a running commentary), but for them, the occasional glimpse would suffice. Being in the presence of, rather than eyeballing, was enough for them.
At first I found this behaviour a little odd. Didn't they want to see their every move? After all, they were their gurus? But by the end of the program I came to understand and my perception of swamis as 'kind, good, simple people' deepened enormously. As did my respect. Their attitude was pure and effortless. Whilst mine was far from pure and full of effort.
And even though the swamis and sannyasins didn't go out to play much, they definitely made sure I did. I remember Swami Satyadharma, head of my course (Diploma in Yogic Studies), upon finding me in the Prasad Kutir on the day of Sita and Rama's wedding, telling me firmly: Get dressed, put on some nice jewellery and make-up and look beautiful, now! (I must admit it was rather nice being ordered to go and make myself look beautiful, especially when, covered from head to foot in ten day's worth of dust and dirt, beauty was not my primary consideration). It was even more amusing that every time I snuck back into the room, I was called back out again. Thus I got to witness and imbibe the joy and happiness of the wedding ceremony in all its glory.
Not all of my experiences stem from the Prasad Kutir. In fact, for every stack of cooking pots that tumbled on top of me after painstakingly stacking them up high, for every sari that I couldn't fold properly and for every Britannia Bourbon biscuit that fuelled my work, there must have been as many special moments outside: watching three wide-eyed village boys take turns to touch, to hold and to fondle a pen that they'd just been given as part of their family's prasad parcel during a village distribution; being given a flower by an elderly man sitting next to me as I quietly sipped chai outside the Akhara gates; the misty dawn walks from the temple each morning; the heart-warming kirtans that flowed from the truck that ferried the students back to their hotels every evening; and watching the mauve-grey-gold sunset from the roof of the Prasad Kutir with a longing inside me to remain there and not return to Munger.
And behind everything, I felt connected to a really deep sense of peace which stayed with me from the moment of arrival when the students offloaded from the bus and were welcomed by Swami Niranjan, until the moment I fell onto my bed in Munger. Despite the increasing number of guests and visitors that came every day, I remained unperturbed and very, very happy. There were so many people, but so little stress. In fact, I can't remember worrying about anything whilst I was there (apart from meeting Bholenath the dog enroute to the dustbins each evening). I didn't have the inclination to bother with trivial, mundane concerns. Time and days were the first to go. I didn't care where I would sleep when the hotel manager said the hotel was fully booked, neither did I concern myself with how I would get back to Munger when the transport was overloaded. I felt that no intervention was required on my part to solve these matters because everything seemed to flow and fit together by itself. I also felt a tremendous sense of energy that kept me going throughout the program and fended off any fatigue.
And Paramahamsaji? What did I learn from him? I learnt more about him by seeing the look of devotion, contentment, peace and awe in the faces of his disciples when they were near to him. One of the most pure expressions of 'love' that I've ever seen. I can't say that I fully understand or relate to this notion of complete surrender and devotion (as much as I'd love to be able to), but on several occasions it touched me very deeply.
I also learnt that Paramahamsaji is a first-class leader in the art of giving, working, inspiring and putting his pure, idealistic words into real, hard action. Even I, (at that time) an uninitiated visitor, was given so much during my time there. So much so, that I felt very uncomfortable to receive. I felt unworthy. Surely there were far more needy people than me around? But by the end of my time not only did I come to understand the exceptional quality of prasad that Paramahamsaji gives to local families and newly-weds, but how to receive with a wide open and thankful heart. Although I've always had a firm understanding of the pleasure involved in giving, I've never been too comfortable being on the receiving end.
Whatever it is that's contained in that tiny body of his, whatever it is that can take my energy levels on a rollercoaster high and bring them slap back down to earth again, I like to think it's made of the same stuff that can inspire such strength and devotion in his disciples. I am keen to return.