Unity in Diversity

Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati, England

In recent years Paramahamsa Satyananda has opened the gates of the Alakh Bara where he lives for about nine days during an auspicious time in November, so that his many disciples from all over India and the world can come and see him and participate in various celebrations.

In the neighbouring pilgrimage town of Deoghar every hotel is full and buzzing with excitement and the hum of dozens of different languages. The drivers of various forms of transport, from ancient buses to cycle rickshaws, ply the few miles between Deoghar and Rikhia many times a day.

Inside the akhara, the organization is incredible, and the largest vote of thanks must surely go to the kitchen staff, who prepared us excellent food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and copious cups of tea, all served up on easily disposable leaf plates and earthenware cups – an ecologically sound wonder. On enquiring from one of the kitchen swamis how many people were sitting down for food, he said 750 (on the first day) and this rose to over 2,000, with never a visible hitch and a lot of good humour.

On the other side of the road, mats were laid out daily, beneath huge canopies to protect us from the sun (and occasional rain) and there was a beautifully decorated stage where the various activities took place – music, lectures, dance, religious ceremonies – and a special raised structure for the havan (tantric fire ceremony). As well as the hundreds of visitors from India and abroad, there were also crowds of people from the surrounding villages, many of whom are being directly helped by Paramahamsaji, with gifts of clothing, tools, bicycles, wheelchairs, and the wherewithal to earn a living.

Sita Kalyanam was this year's celebration of the marriage of Sri Rama and Sitaji and this was reflected in the daily chanting from the Ramayana, kirtans and lectures.

This year I came to Rikhia solely to have darshan of my Beloved – the various 'entertainments' on offer did not tempt me in the least. So when it became apparent that Paramahamsaji was not going to give his usual wonderful and lengthy satsangs, I was, briefly, disappointed. However, guru's grace comes in many shapes and forms and I was quite happy practising trataka on the back of his head or on his profile during the endless lectures on Ramayana. There were, however, a couple of events which touched me deeply – events which could only have been thought up and organized by Paramahamsaji and Swami Niranjan. These significant events will have long-term repercussions in India and elsewhere.

Along with many people (especially women I daresay), I have been somewhat 'Islamophobic' for a number of years, in the sense that I do not approve of the expression of Islam by its followers, so I was most interested in the presence of the Imam of the Munger mosque, Abdullah Bukhari, and only regretted my poor understanding of Hindi as he expressed the pure and sublime teaching of Islam, together with chanting from the holy Koran. It was an extraordinary experience to practise namaz under his guidance, with half an eye on our two Swamijis, dressed in white and looking for all the world like two perfect Muslims, as they too followed his movements.

I was privileged to meet the Maulana after his talk and I asked him for a message for my Muslim yoga students in London, and the message is that namaz and yoga are one. I am sure that the Imam was both surprised and delighted at the respect and warm welcome accorded him by so many Hindus and other non-Muslims both at Rikhia and on his later visit to Ganga Darshan, and I hope that he and Swami Niranjanji will be able to continue working together to heal the divisions that still cause so much chaos and pain.

However, my Islamophobia was nothing compared with my deep dislike of almost everything Christian, thanks to being educated for a short time in an Anglican convent school before being expelled. The abuse I suffered there made me a devout atheist for many a long year; so I was prepared to have a few buttons pushed at the Mass being celebrated at Rikhia, although the fact that the priest was a woman was of some consolation and encouragement. So, imagine my horror when I was told that I was to be one of the swamis actually participating in the Mass, and not only participating, but also giving the consecrated bread to the people! Hmmm, I thought, both Paramahamsaji and the Reverend Antoinette Schoenmaker are taking the joke too far this time! But once again my doubts were gently smoothed during the rehearsal by Antoinette's warmth and understanding, and when the day dawned I was actually looking forward to the celebration.

And what a celebration it was! Being given the bread by my beloved guru was a wonderfully healing experience and once again I was almost overwhelmed by the power and love flowing through him. Words can never adequately describe this experience of shaktipat, and as I write this my heart is full of love and gratitude and my eyes are full of tears and I shall never forget it. What seemed like a lifetime later I moved along the rows of people with my little leaf dish of wafers, which they received in their hands or mouth, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to make the sign of the cross on each one and to wish that the presence of Christ be with them. And as the Lords of the Dance brought the Mass to a grand finale the swami priests danced and laughed and bathed in the light of their guru's eyes and marvelled at the wonder of it all.

As I prepare to return home now I must find a place in my bag for two large books, the Ramayana and the Koran, both received as prasad and neither of which I had ever intended to read other than very superficially. So thank you for the many gifts, the endless prasad, thank you for the lessons learned, the healing received, the opening heart, the experience of oneness. And although I don't hope to be a religious person, I am aware of new depths in my spiritual life and quest thanks to this Sita Kalyanam 1998.