Retreat in the Ashram, 2009.
Our party of eight flew into Delhi from London for the long awaited retreat at the Ashram in Dehra Dun. For many it was their first visit. After a comfortable train journey we arrived at Dehra Dun Railway station and were greeted by the beaming smile of Rahul, one of Babaji's assistants accompanied by a devotee from Germany. Within minutes all of us and our luggage had been gathered up into cars and whisked away from the lively, bustling town and up the hill to the Ashram.
The Ashram is not far from the town but is cooler and much quieter. As we stepped out of the vehicles and gathered ourselves, we quickly noticed how much more peaceful it was compared to the town, not just quieter, it had an air of tranquillity and peace. A place to rest our souls.
The retreat was, of course, to feature meditation as a significant part of each day, but we hoped to be able to settle into the Ashram life and experience as many aspects as possible.
The first morning started at 5am with an early morning walk. What a wonderful way to start the day, walking in silence as Babaji set a steady pace past sleeping households. Walking peacefully as a group, we followed Babaji until He stopped and pointed with His stick towards a large, solitary tree. He told us that was the spot He had sometimes spent the day, when Ashram duties had allowed, sitting and meditating. That was during the twenty years service to His Guru, managing and running the Ashram and looking after whoever His Guru sent to Him to care for. This walk, usually under a sky filled with stars, became a regular feature treasured by all.
We would spend a bit of time in the mornings cleaning and tidying the Ashram. For me this was a pleasure, to be able to do some small service. We were not there as tourists, nor was this a hotel and so it helped make one feel at least part of the Ashram. We would then observe Babaji perform a simple worship each morning, as He had done since He arrived there as His Guru's disciple thirty years earlier.
In the late morning we had an hour of meditation, but later we agreed to make this session longer. Babaji would sit with us. If other Mission work called Him away then we would be brought back from the meditation either by the gentle footfall as He walked to the dais, or by His unique voice gently chanting the Guru Gita Sloka. We would then get a chance to ask Babaji some questions, eliciting some full length, detailed answers. It was an amazing experience. After a long, peaceful meditation to then be sitting with a Realized Master, hearing Him explain the finer points of meditation and the Spiritual path. Mainly drawing on His own experience, sometimes making reference to a scripture to illustrate a point and occasionally giving specific advice - gazing with His big, brown eyes right into the seeker. How rare and special such an opportunity was. On one occasion He gave a succinct explanation, but it left us all looking at Him, awe struck. I found myself saying, "I have not heard this before." Smiling, Babaji replied, "I have not said this before," and gently walked away. He had introduced a different way to explain a concept to us. Afterwards we gathered together to confirm that we had witnessed something very special, a golden moment. He had again left each of us with much to contemplate and consider.
If the retreat had provided me with this much each day, I would have considered myself very blessed. But often we would then have lunch with Babaji, sitting on the terrace outside His room overlooking the beautiful Shivalik mountains bathed in bright sunshine, while we sat eating and watching Babaji. Many of us have seen pictures of Swamiji and Babaji (Seenu as He was then called) sitting together on the same terrace, in front of the same view. After lunch there would often be some more questions. We made sure not to waste any chance to listen to Him, and observe Him.
Each afternoon we had a chance to learn some bhajans (devotional songs) and how to play various instruments - cymbals, drums and harmonium, depending on one's musical ability. Babaji encouraged us to learn and practice at least one bhajan each. This was then followed with another meditation.
Every evening a satsang was held. We would start with a meditation and gradually local people would come in and join us. Bhajans would then be sung and Babaji would again answer questions.
One other part of the Ashram life and retreat was the almost hidden lessons. All through the time we were there, Babaji's Assistants, Rekha Bua and Rahul, worked amazing hours, all day, every day, so much in the background that it would easily have passed unnoticed. From early morning to late at night, always working, always checking that everyone was comfortable, had what they needed. Nothing was too much trouble. If it added an extra burden to their over burdened day, they never showed it. I found their dedication to be an inspiration and example to aspire to. This was brought home to me most emphatically when I complained of not feeling well one evening. Rekha Bua broke away from the task she was on, felt my forehead and confirmed I had a temperature. Immediately she set about making up some wonderful herbal tea remedy, whilst insisting that I go and rest. It was only the next morning that I learnt from others that she had been far more ill that day than I was. On discovering this, I got up and got on with all activities, feeling fine.
We took the opportunity to visit The Ganges at Rishikesh not far from the Ashram by car. It was here in the Ganges that Swamiji initiated Babaji into the life of a monk. After taking a dip in the Ganges we then sat in meditation in a nearby cave set beside the small, sandy cove. It was in this cave, known as Vasishta's Guha (cave), that a disciple of Swami Brahmananda (a direct disciple of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa) had lived and performed sadhana (spiritual practice). Babaji had also visited this cave soon after finishing His Tapas. We each moved carefully into the cave as our eyes slowly adapted to the darkness and found a place to sit. Within seconds of settling I felt something soft hit me in the face. Wondering if it was a bat, I decided to open my eyes, and found that it was just the end of a shawl that my neighbour had wrapped around herself and thrown over her shoulder. The hour's meditation passed very quickly in the quiet, still space. Emerging from the cave I could understand why they are sometimes selected for seclusion and meditation.
The time in the Ashram was a joyful mixture of serious spiritual practice, devotion, service and fun. Babaji so often chuckles and laughs during His conversations and His perennial smile and the twinkle in His eyes supports His often said quote, "Laughter is the best medicine." Often humorous confusion can occur around a Yogi. One morning, as Babaji descended the stairs to lead us on the morning walk one of our party suddenly grabbed a pair of sandals and with great reverence placed them in front of Babaji's feet. A lovely touching moment until we all saw that Babaji was already wearing His sandals. Not only that, but the pair offered were about four sizes too small and in no way could have been Babaji's. The Ashram reverberated with shared laughter. To this day she has no idea what possessed her to do that.
The Mission often works with poorer sections of the community including a small school not far from the Ashram which we visited to see the children in their classrooms and watch them perform some songs, dances and readings they had kindly prepared for us. Sweets and stationery were distributed as prasadam to the children. After several group photographs it became noticeable that something was causing increased excitement amongst the previously well behaved, shy children. On enquiring, a child's exercise book appeared from amongst them. On the cover was a picture of Harry Potter, and they had quickly noticed the uncanny resemblance to one of our party. Soon a queue was formed as the children lined up to have an autograph of 'Harry Potter'. We can only speculate what stories the imaginative children told their parents when they got home.
Another funny incident occurred during our stay. One of our party told me how she had noticed how close I was to Babaji, perhaps some special relationship was suggested. Knowing that Babaji treats every devotee as special and equal I was puzzled as to what could have caused this impression. She recalled an incident the previous day. After Babaji had inaugurated the new meditation hut in the Ashram grounds, He had stood outside the hut, still bare footed. For some reason it seemed no-one offered Him His sandals, so I took the opportunity to do so. Babaji accepted - this time at least I had got the right ones - and placed His foot in one. Try as I might, I couldn't get it to fit properly. A gentle, gracious act of reverence deteriorated as I struggled to push the sandal on and over the back of His heel. As I used more force, Babaji began to slightly lose His balance and used the only available object, my head, to steady Himself. Turning around at that moment, she had seen me humbly kneeling at Babaji's Feet as Babaji reached out and placed His hand on my head. I wonder how many legends and reputations have been created over such incidents.
The end of our stay coincided with the Holi Festival. This is a mixture of religious festival and holiday fun, traditionally to do with the change in season from winter to spring, welcoming the new crops. The festival commenced with a bonfire under a full moon. We were joined by a group of devotees from Swamiji's village who had been travelling around India performing bhajans in honour of their beloved Guru. The following morning many local devotees began arriving in the Ashram to take Darshan of Babaji on this auspicious occasion. On this day people 'bless' each other with coloured paste (or even play with coloured water) and eventually some end up covered in a rainbow of colours. After the fun, we then settled down and enjoyed sitting with Babaji in the garden and listening to bhajans sung with great passion and energy.
The time with Babaji in the Ashram was over all too quickly, and it had been a mixture of events and experiences but for me it was the chance to be in the Ashram, to feel a part of it, part of Babaji's Mission, often doing the ordinary things in an extraordinary place. When Swamiji first visited the Ashram to see how His young devotee was getting on Babaji had replied, "I feel I am in heaven." For several days Babaji shared His time, His wisdom and His Heaven with us all.