Dehradun Retreat - March 2011
A group of thirteen devotees from Shri Babaji's UK Mission met at Heathrow Airport in quiet anticipation of the spiritual adventure before them. Flying into Delhi shortly after midnight, they shared stories as they waited for the morning train to Dehradun. Those who had made the journey before offered advice, while those who were new to the experience shared their enthusiasm. It was the beginning of what turned out to be not just a spiritual retreat, but a deeply shared experience among friends.
Reaching the Dehradun Ashram around lunchtime, the group were warmly welcomed by Shri Babaji's monastic disciples, Maa Ambaji and Swami Tanmayananda, and led to the Ashram terrace to meet Shri Babaji. There they took in the magnificent panoramic view of the Shivalik mountains. The group felt at once elevated and at home. Those making the retreat for the first time were surprised and impressed by the level of comfort in the Ashram, from the rooms to the meals, including a continental breakfast that the hosts took trouble to provide. Every detail of their stay was attended to with great care by Maa Ambaji and Swami Tanmayananda, who provided a living example of service.
The daily schedule for the retreat was tailored to the needs of the group with the prime goal of deepening their sadhana (spiritual practice). A typical day began at 5.15am with Shri Babaji leading the group on a walk in the darkness and deep silence of the Himalayan foothills before dawn. Tea was followed by a one-hour meditation. Devotees then observed Babaji performing His daily puja (worship). Though He has gone beyond form and formlessness, Shri Babaji used this as an opportunity to illustrate, by example, the vital role of humility and devotion on the spiritual path. After this, the group would gather with Shri Babaji and the other members of the Ashram for breakfast on the Ashram terrace. Maa Ambaji had taken special care that the needs of all members of the group were met. The morning air was crisp and rejuvenating. The experience of sharing a meal with the Master was simply breathtaking. After a short break, the group would gather for a two-hour meditation, either in the Ashram's meditation hall or in one of the meditation huts at the bottom of the slope on which the main compound sits. Lunch would be followed by a break for rest and reading. The group would then gather for bhajan practice, often led by Swami Tanmayananda, where newcomers were able to practice singing a bhajan and/or playing an instrument. The evening programme would then commence, with local devotees joining the retreatants for a ninety-minute meditation followed by bhajans and Aarati to Shri Swamiji and Shri Babaji. Food would be blessed by Shri Babaji and handed out as prasadam. Shri Babaji would then proceed to answer the burning spiritual questions of all those in attendance, whether they be UK retreatants or local devotees. Finally, dinner was served and the group retreated to their rooms for a good night's sleep.
The retreat was also punctuated with several wonderful events which immersed the group in the broader cultural milieu of the Ashram. On Wednesday 17 March, Shri Chandra Swamiji, a great saint of the local area who had performed intense sadhana and maintained silence for over 30 years, visited Shri Babaji in the Dehradun Ashram. The UK group joined local devotees in following Shri Babaji and His sannyasin disciples Maa Ambaji and Swami Tanmayananda to greet Shri Chandra Swami at the Ashram entrance. Devotees watched in rapture as the two saints placed garlands on each other and the visiting party was showered with brightly hued flowers. After the hosts paid due respects to Chandra Swami and His party, around 200 people gathered on the Ashram terrace to be officially welcomed by Maa Ambaji, who along with her brother disciple Swami Tanmayananda coordinated the entire programme with great poise. In attendance, alongside Shri Babaji and Shri Chandra Swami, were several visiting dignitaries, including sannyasins and brahmacharins from both lineages. Tea and snacks were served to all in attendance. Swami Premvivekananda, Chandra Swami's chief disciple, was then invited to sing a bhajan before the hosts performed Aarati to Shri Shivabalayogi Maharaj, Shri Babaji's Guru and the founder of the Ashram, as a mark of supreme reverence for Realized Souls from all traditions. This tribute was apt for this rare occasion in which not one but two Self Realized Masters were present. As the Aarati began, Shri Chandra Swami insisted that He perform the Aarati Himself to Shri Babaji. He was followed by his chief disciple Swami Premvivekananda. Maa Ambaji performed Aarati to both Masters, while Swami Tanmayananda led the singing on the harmonium. When Babaji opened His eyes, He concluded the Aarati with a tribute to Shri Chandra Swami. The two Realized Masters, Shri Babaji and Shri Chandra Swamiji, then answered questions on the value of physical and mental silence and the nature of the Self, before a delicious lunch was served for all those attending.
The night before the Holi festival, the group gathered with Shri Babaji and members of the Ashram to light a bonfire and have dinner by moonlight. Maa Ambaji told the story of the origins of the festival and its dedication to Lord Narayana, as well as the deeper significance of anointing each other with color. The next day the festival kicked off with local devotees, ashram members and the retreat group being showered with water and colors in a celebration of joy and oneness. Individual identities were erased, for the moment, by mountains of red, green, yellow and purple color. Shri Babaji watched over the fun from an elevated platform. A few days later, each member of the Ashram and retreat group planted a tree on the Ashram slopes. Babaji Himself traversed the slippery slopes to ensure the trees were well planted. Later that day, the group paid a visit to a school supported by the Mission, where Maa Ambaji addressed the children and handed out supplies purchased for them by the Mission. Hopefully, both ventures will bear fruit.
The Dehradun Ashram retreat was much more than an individual spiritual experience. The group worked together, helped and inspired each other and came together as a family. It was first-hand experience of what Babaji means by 'Mission'. The Ashram operates at a hectic pace with spiritual aspirants from around India and overseas visiting each day. Shri Babaji, Maa Ambaji and Swami Tanmayananda are constantly involved in the hands-on work. Babaji's teachings emphasize adjustment and management, and the group saw how He chisels His disciples' characters in the midst of their relentless service. We came to a deeper understanding of the words of His Guru, Shri Shivabalayogi Maharaj: "If I smile at you, I can give you the world. If I scold you, I can take you out of it". Babaji Himself was frequently involved, guiding us directly on all matters, including cleaning of the Ashram, how to move pots and fix stamps on invitations. Though we all faced many challenges and bumps in the road, everything always came together in the end, and we emerged as a family, stronger, more closely linked and more refined. The retreat was an exquisite and shared experience that will be cherished forever.
Below is a selection of the photos. Please click on the icons to view the images in their full size.