Christmas is in winter where I live in Bulgaria. Everywhere is covered with snow, everything is white trees, houses, valleys, mountains. Last December it just so happened that I was in India and I celebrated Christmas in an unexpected way. I had come to BYB to do the Certificate Course. A few days before Christmas the students were invited by Paramahamsaji to celebrate Christmas in Rikhia.
On the 23rd of December we arrived in Rikhia and were warmly welcomed. The place looked so different to how it had been during the celebration of Sita Kalyanam in November. It was quiet and peaceful. The sun was low over the horizon and shone with a soft, warm light, giving everything a golden-red nuance.
After setting our luggage down in our rooms, we started putting up the Christmas decorations inside and outside Christ Kutir. The small white temple sparkled with garlands and a diversity of ornaments. At 5 p.m. we were invited to have a special dinner. Every meal was special. We all worked in the kitchen and felt very inspired with the result.
Before dawn, on the morning of the 24th, we began chanting and singing. In the dark we formed a circle. Seated with our eyes closed, we were led by the swamis through the Ramayana, the same verses from the holy book that have been chanted for thousands of years. The enchanting melody resounded in each of us, giving a sensation of truth and eternity. It was difficult to suppress the tears.
After breakfast we had satsang with Paramahamsaji. It was the first time I had sat near him. I could see his eyes and the expression on his face. He spoke about Jesus and his life in India, world history and many other things. What impressed me mostly was the combination of great strength, simplicity and inner joy. He moved so naturally from pure cheerful laughter to the deepest thoughts and wisdom. This progression was breathtaking. To be quite honest I was hypnotized. It bought to mind the words: The greatness of water is in its softness, it breaks through rock. How true this is for such people who have reached great heights of thought and spirit they are so simple and natural, there is no need to prove anything.
In the afternoon we were granted special permission to see the Alakh Bara. I have always wanted to see the place where Paramahamsaji had done panchagni sadhana, and to see where he lives. This is a very sacred place and usually remains out of bounds to visitors. We surrounded the location and became very silent. Some did pranam and touched their foreheads to the wall surrounding the four fireplaces. Only a few people throughout the ages have performed panchagni sadhana. What an honour to know one of them and to be one of his disciples!
That afternoon we participated in the distribution of prasad to the village people. I had always known that Sivananda Math was doing great work supporting the poor, but during Sita Kalyanam I didn't have the opportunity to go out on the trucks to visit the villages. On this day, however, it just so happened that the roads were closed and the truck couldn't go out. Instead, the people come to Rikhia to receive their prasad. All the items were prepared beforehand according the needs of each family.
We sang kirtan and later a group of women performed a dance, holding hands and keeping each other close so that that they formed a living wall, moving to the rhythm of the drum. Through music, dance and the repetition of God's name, receiving of prasad became a small feast for the soul. It was not merely 'taking', it was receiving something spiritual, something special which could not be measured.
That evening we gathered outside the Christ Kutir. We all sat around a fire and sang Christmas carols and kirtans. The names of God alternated in the different songs. Christ, Rama or Shiva, we sang for Him who is omnipresent with many forms. Three English girls sang carols in three parts. The same songs, which we listen to on the radio, richly orchestrated and arranged, were recognizable only from the original melody and the natural voices of the girls without any pretensions. I wondered what people had sung in early Christian times. Maybe there was a similarity in the simplicity and purity.
From where I was sitting I could see a palm tree in the distance with a few stars above it. It was like pictures depicting Christmas. The southern night, tropical vegetation, starry sky and the holy family all in harmony and peace. Harmony and peace reigned also in Rikhia and I felt the birth of Christ more strongly than in any of the big churches I have been in.
Later, through the doorway of the new building, emerged a figure with a long white beard and big bushy eyebrows, dressed in red clothes. As he came closer, we could see him laughing at our wonder. Swami Nityabodh really got into the role of Santa Claus. One by one our names were called and we received presents prasad from Paramahamsaji. I heard lively exclamations. The presents were beautiful and well chosen. We were all surprised. I also received a nice shawl and a small strange brass vessel, labelled a vessel for carrying Ganga water. Then I understood. It was a vessel for pooja and, most importantly, was once used by Paramahamsaji in his pooja.
Midnight came silently. We improvized a Christmas mass, starting with a prayer. Where this beautiful prayer came from, I didn't know, but it sounded like a call to God from all of us:
Let us behold Thee in all Thy names and forms,
Let us serve Thee in all Thy names and forms,
Let us ever sing Thy glories,
Let Thy name be ever on our lips,
Let us abide in Thee for ever and ever.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
Later I understood that this was the Swami Sivananda's Universal Prayer.
The zenith was the taking of communion. A small piece of bread was distributed by Swami Agnihotri, while he repeated the words: This is the body of Christ. Bread, fruits of the earth, stars, visible and invisible things at that moment I realized that all of creation is the body of God. We ate the bread silently, feeling a little bit closer to Him.
Next day, after a wonderful satsang, we unwillingly climbed on the bus. The swamis came out to see us off. We were very impressed by the words of Swami Satsangi: Thank you for coming here. We couldn't believe that we were being thanked, we who only received, we who didn't even personally thank Paramahamsaji for all we experienced. May he feel our gratitude for the wonderful Christmas we had in Rikhia.