Alan first pointed out the Anandamayi ashram to me one day when we were walking down the Binsar road from Kasar Devi Mandir. I saw a group of orange-red buildings tucked into the hillside below Chota Bazaar (or NTD, as it’s more properly known), with a very old stone temple just below the ashram complex. It looked intriguing, so we decided to visit in the next day or two.
It took us close to an hour to reach the ashram on our first visit, though we’ve since found an easier way. We stopped to read the lettering on the ashram gate. (Right now, every signboard is an opportunity to practice reading Hindi, even though we can’t understand everything we read.)
As we entered the ashram, we admired the clear view to the Kosi mountains beyond. Almost immediately, we spotted a sign requesting silence: “Someone is meditating.” So, careful to move quietly, we made our way down several sets of stairs and paths to the upper level of the ashram, where there’s a large hall with many pictures of Ma Anandamayi around the walls, and a central shrine.
I didn’t know very much about Ma Anandamayi before we visited the ashram. I had seen photos of her, a sweet-faced woman with long dark hair, clad in a simple white sari. Alan had long ago told me the story of going to see her at her ashram in Haridwar during the 1974 Kumbh Mela. Alan found a seat to one side of the dais that Ma would sit on to give a public darshan. It offered a poor view, but it was all he could find in the huge crowd of devotees.
But when Ma arrived, she unexpectedly seated herself directly facing the place where Alan was sitting. “It turned out I had a front-row seat,” he told me.
Alan was close enough to touch Ma, but she looked directly at him and said, “No touching, no touching,” just in case he’d had any intention of touching her feet with reverence, the way people do in India when they meet a teacher or someone else who deserves respect.
After seeing the meditation hall, we made our way down more stairs to the main level of the ashram, where most of the orange-painted buildings visible from the Binsar road are located. The buildings surround a large stone-paved area on three sides, facing west to the Kosi valley and the mountains beyond. To the left, you can see the old Patal Devi temple, built about 250 years ago. It’s a beautiful and serene view, especially if you ignore the roadwork that’s being done below the ashram.
It was absolutely quiet. Though I’m sure there were cars and motorcycles on the road above us – and certainly there must have been sounds coming from the road-construction equipment below – all distractions seemed held at arm’s length by the atmosphere of the ashram. It was as if we were surrounded by a transparent energy field protecting everything inside the boundary walls of Ma’s abode.
We admired the view for a while and wandered quietly about, looking at the little temples here and there, the well-tended pots of flowers and the pictures of Anandamayi on the walls of the building where she stayed when resident at this ashram. I remembered another thing Alan had told me: that Ma used to move frequently from one ashram to another, never stopping in any single place for too long. I suppose she traveled when she became aware that people at one of her ashrams needed her.
A young man emerged from one of the buildings and approached us. I smiled at him, and he asked where we were from. I was surprised, remembering the signs asking visitors to keep silent in the ashram campus. But we answered him politely in quiet voices, and had a short conversation.
We went back up the stairs to the upper level of the ashram. As we began to head up to the gate, I found myself slowing down, almost literally dragging my feet. We reached another set of stairs and I asked Alan if he’d like to sit for a moment. As we sat quietly on a stairstep, I could feel something summoning me, and a sweetness emanating from the large hall with the shrine. I pulled a notebook from my bag, and wrote a note to Alan: “I’d like to sit in Ma’s hall for a few minutes.” He nodded, and silently we went back down the stairs, let ourselves into the hall, and settled down to sit for a while.
It’s difficult to describe how the process of sitting works, how meditation happens. I have practiced sporadically over the past four decades or so, and like most people (I think), I struggle with my busy mind. While we were in Thiruvannamalai last fall, we went to the meditation hall at the Ramana ashram every morning. Sitting there, I found that at times my mind seemed slow down and let go of its obsessions, at least for short periods. Thoughts of ordinary things would creep back in, but at least I was able to watch that happen, and to accept it as something not to fight, but just to observe.
Sitting in the hall in Ma’s ashram that first visit felt very different. I breathed in the sweetest scents, faint but clear. I can’t describe these scents, just that first I was breathing in one scent, and then the note would change – a bit like trying different test vials at an essential-oils shop. I could feel something like a gentle electrical current at the back of my head and in my spine; it was similar to the sensations I had when I took acupuncture treatments years ago, but subtler.
It’s not that no thoughts came to me. I know some did, though I can’t remember what they were. It was easy to just keep breathing, to keep sitting, to let the current run, let the scents be there, let the quiet watching happen.
Alan was sitting too, some distance from me. I heard the door to the meditation room open, and I glanced up. A man wearing an orange dhoti, shawl and woollen hat leant into the doorway.
“Shall I prepare coffee?” he said.
I was too startled to respond, but Alan said gently, “Thank you, no. We are fine.” They exchanged a few more words, and then the man closed the door and left.
I smiled at the comedy of it – a devotee of a spiritual teacher (for that’s what I took him for) interrupting a meditation session to invite the meditators for coffee. It was funny, and at the same time, it was a kind, hospitable gesture.
We finished up our time in the hall, went out and slowly put our shoes on again. The man who’d spoken to us was sitting on a blue chair below the hall. He greeted us with his hands together, and we responded, “Namaste.” “Please come any time,” he said. “You may come and sit in Ma’s room.”
We slowly climbed the stairs to leave the ashram, and walked more slowly than usual up the road. We both felt very good, and I asked Alan to tell me again the story of how he met Anandamayi, the same story I’ve already related here.
Back at the guesthouse that afternoon, I looked up Anandamayi on the internet. Her biography on Wikipedia is brief and interesting, and I also read about her on Anandamayi.org. The name Anandamayi, by the way, means “the joy-permeated one.”
In my reading, I was especially struck by an excerpt from Paramahansa Yogananda’s autobiography, quoted on Wikipedia:
“Father, there is little to tell.” She spread her graceful hands in a deprecatory gesture. “My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth, Father, I was the same. As a little girl, I was the same. I grew into womanhood, but still I was the same. When the family in which I had been born made arrangements to have this body married, I was the same… And, Father, in front of you now, I am the same. Ever afterward, though the dance of creation change around me in the hall of eternity, I shall be the same.”
I would never give myself any equivalence with Anandamayi, or with any other spiritual teacher. Nevertheless, I recognized this. All my life I have been aware of the same person in me, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, the same presence. Watching, listening, always the same person. There have been so many instances I can remember over the decades of having the same feeling: as a young child, as a teenager, as a college student, through the years of traveling, and then raising children and working. Looking back over six decades, it is clear to me that it has always been the same person doing the watching.
I’m sure Anandamayi meant something much more elevated than this, something more akin to knowing that she was, at core, the One. The One that actually everyone is, if only we are able to remove the obscurations that keep us from realizing what we are.
Nevertheless, Ma’s words have stayed with me – her words, and the sweetness of sitting in her ashram, the sweetness that beckoned me into the hall to sit for a while. That sweetness has made me want to go back again and again, and fortunately, Alan likes going to the ashram as much as I do.
The second time we visited, the man in the orange robes stopped us as we were about to leave, and asked if we would sit in Ma’s room. We thanked him and went downstairs. One of the ashram staff opened the room for us, and so we sat for some time, facing the simple white bed where Ma slept.
When it was time to leave, the swamiji spoke to us again. “Thank you for coming here,” he said. “It is good for these boys to see that you have come from so far to sit with Ma.”
Each time we have come back to the ashram has been a bit different. Each time it feels valuable to be there.
Then it started raining. For the past week, we’ve been reluctant to take our usual walks on the steep village paths down the valley, fearing we’ll slip on the muddy surfaces. We decided to take advantage of the rain, and just walk to the ashram or Kesar Devi Mandir, because both can be easily reached on asphalt roads. We visited for several days in a row, and sat in the meditation hall for about half an hour each time. Always as we leave, the swamiji is unfailingly kind to us. He’ll offer a chair, thinking we may be more comfortable, or remind us that we are welcome to come and stay at the ashram for a few days.
On the rainiest day, despite using rain jackets and umbrellas, my shoes were wet through before we were halfway to the ashram. (Thank goodness for wool socks!) It was Guru Poornima – a full-moon day, when one honors one’s guru – and the swamiji had asked us the day before to please come the next day.
There were a few other visitors downstairs chatting with the swami when we arrived, all speaking Bengali. They were still there when we emerged from the meditation hall after our sit. The swami hastened up the stairs as we put on our shoes, and said, “Please wait.” There was an urgency in his voice I hadn’t heard before.
“Of course we will wait,” we said, and stayed in the shelter of the wide porch in front of the meditation hall, watching the rain.
After a few minutes, he came back up the stairs with a plastic bag in his hand. It was full of prasad – food that is offered to the guru or the gods, and then distributed to worshippers. There was fresh fruit, some dates and nuts, and a couple of small Indian sweets. “Please share and enjoy,” he said with a sweet smile, and headed back downstairs to join the other visitors.
We sat on the steps and did exactly that as we waited for the heavy rain to abate. We shared the sweets, the nuts and the dates, and kept the fresh mangoes for later, when we could wash them. It was such an unexpected treat, and a pleasant way to pass the time. Plus, I had actually been feeling quite hungry.
As we sat sharing the prasad, the Bengali visitors came up the stairs from the lower level of the ashram. They were all in our general age range, all dressed in simple white clothing. Visiting for Guru Poornima, I thought. They all stopped and looked at us. I felt rather conspicuous and a bit self-conscious, sitting there in a holy place and eating.
One man came up to the stairs where we sat, and shuffled off his shoes as one does before entering a temple. I felt I was in his way, so I shifted to one side and said, “Namaste,” putting my hands together. He said “Namaste” to each of us in turn, and bowed from the waist. I expected him to go into the meditation hall, but he slipped his feet back into his sandals and stood back.
Then the woman in the white sari came up to where we sat. She kept her shoes on, but did the same thing the man had done: greeted each of us with folded hands and “Namaste,” and a bow. Then the third man greeted us in the same way, and the lady asked where we were from. “Very good,” she said after we answered. Then all three turned and headed up the stairs towards the ashram gate.
I sat in a state of surprise. I am not sure what people see when they look at us. Perhaps they see very devoted people, people who have come from far away to visit Ma’s place and receive her darshan. I find myself thinking on these occasions, though without words: “I’m not who you think I am, not nearly that worthy.”
But who am I to say what we are, or what we are not? Perhaps for these devotees of Ma Anandamayi, we are exactly what they think we are: people drawn by Ma’s power and presence to travel a long distance and take her darshan. Let it be, then. If being as we are makes people happy, if it gives them another validation of Ma’s holiness and power, that’s fine with me.
And actually, they are right.