When I came to stay at Rikhia for the month leading up to the program in 2004, I was new to India and new to the whole experience of Maha Chandi. There were many things that were easy to appreciate. For example, there were hundreds of people from all over the world transcending language and cultural difficulties and all working smoothly. There was the scale of distribution of bhet to many thousands of people and the days and days of giving, chanting and kirtan. There was the celebration of the kanyas on the last day. There were many highlights, but in themselves these were not the reasons I returned in 2005. I returned because there was much that happened inside me that I did not understand and which took me the whole twelve months between visits to comprehend. I returned because I wanted to understand how a month of seva in such an environment had brought to the surface so many positive and negative things about myself. I wanted to see if I could manage myself better, and to measure myself against where I had been the year before.
In my first experience of Rikhia, meeting with Swami Satyananda seemed like having a glimpse of a movie star, a celebrity whose image I knew well after all, I have seen most of his videos and read most of his books, but somehow he felt remote. For others this was not the experience, but although I felt respect, and a great interest, nothing in particular went click. This year was different. Although I was only there for ten days, with a return visit for Christmas from Munger, every word he spoke in English and even impressions of what he said in Hindi started to sink in, and as he did I began to gather an understanding of what was happening in this event, to the local community, to the visitors from around the world, and to myself.
When Paramahamsaji talked about the themes for each day of the yajna and how each day represented a stage in the evolution of consciousness, it clicked that the increased well-being and education of the local people through the consistent development being carried out so systematically over so many years was a direct reflection of this growth. The proof was there in the children who each year are growing and developing, learning and evolving. It was also in the visitors who came from around the world. And in 2005, working in the preparation of prasad, I gained a sense of the continuous opening up, on all levels, as I passed bag after bag in a long human chain for hours each day. I also gained a sense of the precision of the operation; a sense of every individuals actions and attitude as part of a huge yantra to Devi being constructed throughout Rikhia and its surroundings. As time went on and the experience deepened, thinking like this became a continuous loop of giving and gift.
Other comments by Paramahamsaji also hang suspended in my mind. When he said we have nothing if we dont have our stories, another dimension to the experience began to unfold for me. In the stories of Devi, and in the chanting of the Ramayana and even in the whole range of ceremony, ritual and tradition being celebrated, there was a sense of a living culture; a culture being restored and returned to the people from which it had come. This sense of respect for the richness of these stories came home to me more and more as my trip to India went on.
At Christmas, Paramahamsaji talked of the importance of mythologizing stories of saints and avatars. He said that fictionalising them, taking them out of the realm of politics, for example, was an important part of the process. And I was left thinking how important the knowledge contained in the rich Indian tradition of spiritual stories was. This culminated in the week-long Bhagavata program held in Munger in January, where, as Devi had been invited to Rikhia, Krishna was now invited to come to Munger through a week of continuous storytelling, bhet and kirtan. Most of the story telling was in Hindi, but this didnt matter; to see the passion in the story telling, and in the faces of the twenty thousand or more people who came to watch day after day, made something very clear. Divinity lives in these stories. They provide models for us to live by, images for us to aspire to and the heart for us to live by. All over the world, it has traditionally been in these types of stories that we have held and carried our self-respect, culturally, socially and individually.
And there are one or two more realisations that I am left with as a result of attending these programs. After Christmas there was darshan with Paramahamsaji and I had a curious feeling which was a recurrence of an experience I had been having all the trip, which was being selected by the ushers to sit in unusual positions, including behind buildings, etc. This was despite some vague expectation of being placed with my brothers and sisters in geru. As we waited for more and more people to come in, I felt I was sitting somehow in the very centre of the crowd and then I had a very clear and full sense that as a sannyasin it didnt matter where I sat, even where I was in the world. I could be anywhere. The experience of these programs has contributed to this feeling and I hope it is something that will always stay with me. Whether it is Devi Ma, or Krishna, or Rama, or any of the gallery of beings called as part of these celebrations, these experiences have brought their stories to life for me. They have inspired me, made me a part of them and I am a fuller and richer human being because of it.
And after this moment of understanding, Paramahamsaji began to talk about the life of Jesus and I found myself coming to a better understanding of both the fragility and enduring nature of these stories. I found myself considering how, in Western countries, the stories had fractured and broken into the vestiges of religious ritual and the comparatively shallow epics of popular films. I also found hope in renewing our myths as Paramahamsaji was doing as he spoke about Jesus. I felt challenged to learn as much as I could about the inspirational stories that still exist in the world, in whatever tradition. I realised how important it was to become a storyteller; to cradle these stories and pass them on, as an important part of maintaining the richness of the worlds spiritual vitality.
Upon reflection, it is easy to see that my attendance and participation in these events goes beyond geography, a few photos and memories. The yantra created by these events goes with us as we travel across continents and oceans back into our own cultures and societies. Wherever we are, the presence of the stories and experiences that have come to life within us continues to inspire and uplift in subtle waves that flow throughout the fabric of our communities and all those we come into contact with.