I went on a pilgrimage with a group of young boys and Swami Paramasukhananda (Anand Maharaj) from Ramakrishna Math, Ulsoor, Bangalore. We were at Kashi during Shivaratri and at Belur Math, Kolkata during the birthday of Sri Ramakrishna. I cut short my trip and returned back to Bangalore from Kolkata. The others proceeded to Kamarpukur (birth place of Sri Ramakrishna), Jayrambati (birth place of Sri Sarada Devi), Bhubaneshwar and Puri. Photography was prohibited in most of the temples. So I could take only some photos.
From Bangalore, we went to Lucknow by flight (on 18th February 2012) and from there took a train to Prayag (also called Allahabad). The train got delayed because of engine problem. Because of that, we had a lot of time to spend in the train with Anand Maharaj. We stayed at Ramakrishna Math at Prayag.
At Prayag (on 19th morning), we did tarpana (thanksgiving ritual) to various deities, to the forces of nature and to ancestors. Boat journey from the shore to the place of confluence (Triveni Sangam) of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati was nice. Two of the people in our group wanted to tonsure their heads. A barber came to the boat and did the job by the time we reached the Sangam. There were hundreds of birds on the way. Wind was blowing strong. The birds were just floating against the wind. There were some vendors selling snacks for the birds. People were buying them and throwing in the air and water. The birds were competing for them created loud noises.
The calm and blue Yamuna could be seen in contrast with the turbulent and milky Ganga. Initially the boat was going in the calm water. The moment we entered into the turbulent waters, the boat was rocking nicely. There are platforms built at the Sangam to do rituals. We had a nice bath there and performed the rituals. The Ramakrishna Math at Prayag had arranged for a priest, who did the rituals elaborately. Most of the mantras were clearly understandable. At the places where the Bengali accent of the priest made the mantra not very clear, Anand Maharaj told loudly to us in clear accent.
Ganga is the deity of the physical river Ganga. Yamuna is the deity of the physical river Yamuna. Saraswati is not visible in physical form here. The physical river Saraswati is visible in Mana near Badrinath. The concept of deities in Hinduism is very interesting. I am the deity represented by and occupying this physical body. The physical body is not me. I am currently represented in the physical world by this body. I manifest myself, experience the physical world, express myself in the physical world through this body. Similarly, Ganga is the deity of the physical river. Surya is the deity of the sun. When some one offers food to me, though it is the physical body that will eat the physical food, the food is actually offered to me, the deity manifesting through this body. Similarly, all prayers offered and objects like flowers, etc. offered during the various rituals are offered not to the physical river, but to the deity manifesting through the physical river. I, having a close identification with the physical body, would find it easier to express my gratitude to the deity of Ganga through the physical medium of a flower, etc. It is like a person giving a bouquet to another person to express his love. If my body becomes sick or gets dirty in mud or even were lose an arm, nothing happens to me, the deity manifesting through the body. Similarly, Ganga does not lose her sanctity by physical defects. However, out of our gratitude and love towards the deity, we should not pollute the physical river. Prayag, which is the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, is itself a deity. Prayag does not have a definite physical form. The place and the concept of confluence is the deity. The concept of Prayag is much more subtle even than the concept of Ganga. Similarly, Kashi itself is a deity. Recently, the High Court at Prayag acknowledged this concept in the Ayodhya judgement by pointing out that the Rama Janma Bhumi itself is a deity. This way, Hinduism grooms the person from the kindergarten of worship of God through a form like that of Rama, Krishna, Shiva, etc (called pratima puja) to the school level of worship of God through formless aspect like that of Shiva linga, Ganga, Surya, Prayag, Kashi, etc (called pratika puja) to the graduate level of worship of God as the entire world itself (called viswarupa puja) to the doctorate level of realization of God as the formless and attributeless Absolute Infinite (called nirguna brahma jnaanam).
Anand Maharaj gave a long talk on truthfulness. He explained how truthfulness is the core of all virtues and how it is the bedrock of spiritual development. He got us all make a vow of lifelong truthfulness at the Sangam. He explained that any major pilgrimage should accompanied by a noble vow. That gives more meaning to the pilgrimage.
We visited the Hanuman temple near the river. We visited the three tier temple by Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. We had a very good view of the Kumbhamela site from the uppermost level of this temple. We visited a couple of other temples. We saw Ananda Bhavan, the house of Motilal Nehru, which houses a museum of Indian Freedom Struggle. We did not have time to visit the museum. We just saw the building from outside. We visited Azad Park, the place where the great freedom fighter Shahid Chandrasekhar Azad shot himself just before being captured by the Colonial government forces.
You can find some photos here.
From Prayag we went to Kashi by van. We reached Kashi on 19th evening. We stayed at the guest house of Ramakrishna Sevashram at Kashi. The Sevashram, which was established in 1900, runs a huge hospital where hundreds of poor people avail medical relief everyday.
There is a belief that death in Kashi will ensure that the person does not come back to the earth as another living being. Sri Ramakrishna had a vision that Shiva chants the taraka mantra into the ears of the people being cremated here.
It is a tradition that people come to Kashi in their old age and live here till they die. This is an amazing concept. Most of the problems of man, especially in old age, is because of our non-preparation to face death. Many of us find it very uncomfortable to even think that we have to face death one day. The problem becomes more and more acute as the person becomes old. This results in a lot of psychological problems like insecurity, etc. When a person decides to go to Kashi and never to return back, he has accepted death as a reality. This removes the fear of death. This helps the old person to face death with peaceful dignity and with a sense of indifference. This is very visible in the environs of Kashi. At Harischandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat we could see people watching burning corpses without any discomfort. Cows roam around eating garlands removed from dead bodies. A queue of corpses covered in white sheet and decorated with colorful flowers await cremation. Corpses burn in open fires of logs of wood. Children were playing happily flying kites near burning corpses. No one seemed to be uncomfortable with death. Seeing the whole sight, we also start accepting death as a reality and start becoming comfortable with the concept of death. This is the magic of Kashi.
We walked from Dasashwamedha Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat one day. We walked from Dasashwamedha Ghat to Ramanandaji (Kabir’s Guru) Ashram on another day. We visited a number of Shiva temples. We visited a dilapidated house (near Kedar Gauri temple) where Sri Ramakrishna stayed for three months when he visited Kashi. Sri Ramakrishna’s sandals are preserved here. We visited the Vireshwar Shiva temple near Scindia Ghat where Swami Vivekananda’s mother prayed for a son. She believed that she got Swami Vivekananda as her son by the blessing of the Shiva in that temple. We visited the ancient Bindu Madhav temple. We spent some time at Ramanandaji Ashram. They are running a wonderful gurukula.
On the day of Shivratri (20th Feb) we fasted. Some of us ate only fruits. Some of us did not eat anything. On the night of Shivratri we went to Vishwanath temple. We had a nice time in the temple. Due to the crowd, we could not go into the central shrine. There was a CCTV installed in which we could see the deity. We spent more than one hour in the temple. Under Anand Maharaj’s leadership, we chanted from Vedas in the temple premises. He chanted the entire Rudram. Then we visited Vishalakshi temple and Annapurna temple. We again went to the Vishwanath temple the next day. It was crowded but we could get a glimpse of the deity.
We visited Saranath and other temples in Kashi like Kalabhairav temple, Tulsi Manas Mandir and Durga temple. We visited the Hanuman temple called Sankata Mochana, where when Swami Vivekananda visited, he was chased by a group of monkeys. He ran away from them and they chased him. A sadhu who saw this shouted to Swami Vivekananda to face the brutes. He immediately stopped and turned back. The monkeys ran away in fear. Swami Vivekananda recounted this incident and advised people not to get frightened by problems in life. If we face the problems courageously, they can be solved. We took part in the Rama bhajans by a small group of local musicians in the temple. Tulsi Manas Mandir has nice exhibits of moving toys depicting various scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata and other Puranas.
Saranath is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Several countries like China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc which have a significant presence of Buddhism have built temples here. There is a small museum by the Archaeological Society of India. Here is kept the original piece of the Lion Capital, which is the emblem of India. The original of the Ashoka Chakra which adorns the Indian flag is also in this museum. We visited the temple built by Thailand, which has a replica of the Bamiyan Buddha, which were destroyed a few years back in Afghanistan. We also saw the excavation site with the foundation of a big Buddhist monastery.
From Kashi we went to Kolkata by train. We reached Kolkata on 22nd. We stayed in a guest house near Belur Math. We visited various places in Belur Math and a few places in Kolkata related to Sri Ramakrishna tradition – Dakshineswar Kali temple, Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral home, Balram Mandir (house of Balram Bose, a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna), Cossipore garden house (place where Sri Ramakrishna passed away), Cossipore cremation ground (place where Sri Ramakrishna was cremated), Baranagore Math (place where the monastic disciples lived after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away), Yogodhyan at Kankurgachi (where Sri Ramakrishna’s ashes were first enshrined), Udbodhan house (place where Holy Mother lived) and M’s house (place where the Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita was written). At every place, Anand Maharaj told some incidents that happened in that place and explained the significance of the place. We also visited the Kali Ghat temple.
You can find some photos here.
The tradition of Ramakrishna Math is to have the sannyasa ceremony on the night of the Jayanthi of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna Jayanthi come three days after Shivaratri. On Shivaratri, the would-be monks perform the shraadha rituals for their parents, grand-parents and great-grand-parents and then to themselves. On the night of Sri Ramakrishna Jayanthi, there is a Kali puja. Then the rituals to take the monastic vow happens. Then they are ordained into Vedic monasticism as dandi sannyasins. Then the next part of ceremonies start. At the end of it, they are ordained as paramahamsa sannyasins. They belong to the Puri order of Dasanami sampradaaya. All the rituals are held privately in the presence of only other sannyasins. At the end of all the rituals, at around 5:30am, they are given the sannyasi name. Then they go out for their first bhiksha. It is a really grand sight to see the young newly ordained monks going in procession after the ceremonies. Blessed are the people who get to reach the final phase of human life as proposed by the Vedas. A hundred times blessed are the people who get to reach the final phase without passing through the life of a householder. A thousand times blessed are the parents of these young monks.
A soldier serves the cause of his country by offering his life and the comforts of hearth and home. A monk serves the cause of the entire humanity by offering his life and the comforts of hearth and home. When a soldier gives up his family and relationships temporarily, the monk gives up permanently. When a soldier is paid a salary for his job, the monk lives on alms. The life of a soldier is glorious; the life of a monk is a million times more glorious.
Normally people in world are so carried away by the idea that happiness and security comes from relationships and objects. All sorrow in life is because of this misconception. The monk, adorning his ochre robe, is a bold declaration of the truth that happiness and security do not depend on relationships and objects. His name has the words Swami (sign of non-dependance on anything for security) and Ananda (sign of non-dependance on anything for happiness). The very presence of monks in the society is an elixir to the suffering humanity. The monk is the epitome of human evolution and development. The monk is the sign of man’s complete mastery over nature. The monk is the living declaration of the victory of the human being over all the remnants of his animal ancestry.
Overall, I had a wonderful time in the company of wonderful people visiting wonderful places.