Entering a Shiva temple built in the distinctive Dravidian-style architecture is truly to enter into another dimension of reality. In this video, we feature one of the new temples added to our pilgrimage. We now offer a total of 14 amazing temple experiences in our Complete Experience.
Each of our pilgrimages offers unique experiences and learning. In this report, you can learn about our most recent journey to India and exciting plans for our upcoming group adventure together in January 2024.
Pilgrimages are different from other forms of travel. It is a way of caring for our souls in ways that are unimaginably different from the everyday methods we use to care for our souls. And those who make annual pilgrimages continue discovering new dimensions of their experience because new learning is always involved.
There is a nice ring to the sound of conducting our twenty-third pilgrimage in the twenty-third year of this new millennium. One would imagine that facilitating a pilgrimage for others differs from being on a pilgrimage by oneself. Even so, as facilitators, each pilgrimage is a tremendous learning experience.
Our first learning came from the concerns around covid. After twenty-two consecutive years of conducting this experience, covid dropped on us like a ton of bricks. The reality set in when, after we returned from India in 2020, the organizers of South by Southwest in Austin canceled the world's most influential annual media networking conference.
Due to covid, being away from India for three consecutive years was extremely difficult for us. India is our spiritual oasis, and we can't get enough of it :) She helps us rediscover the depth of our spiritual practice and gives us the inner resources to teach and coach year-round. On a positive note, the unprecedented isolation that came with covid rules and concerns created a new awareness for us. Additionally, we were able to go deeper into our Tantric practices in our home in Austin, and we were able to share those insights with our students in Yogic Mystery School.
On the downside, as a lover misses his or her beloved, some of our return pilgrims, Russill and Asha, longed for our annual pilgrimage retreat to resume because no amount of puja or spiritual practice here in the West could fill that void.
So naturally, when the US State Department let up on the travel rules imposed by covid, we were excited about returning to India with our group. But covid was still a concern. It hung over us like a cloud because we take responsibility for our group seriously. We need to care for the group, protect and nurture them, and we knew that covid was not entirely off the table.
Our first significant change in planning our pilgrimage was eliminating the intermediary locations and proceeding straight to the ashram. We discussed this change with our returning pilgrims, who had been with us many times on this sacred journey. All of them were in complete agreement that this would ensure safety and containment. Nevertheless, we have always considered these as icing on the cake, and letting go of them helped us realize that these spots were superfluous. They no longer served the depth of purpose; hence it was easy to give up all-around meaning for our return participants and us.
We spent four weeks in India as a group, and none of us contracted covid!
We jot it down to two reasons:
a) the Divine presence looking out for us
b) our meticulous care and monitoring of meals, temple visits, and other outings, even during hotel stays.
We included new temples and locations, some even we had never been to. In one of them, we conducted live training in Vedic mantra chanting. It was a healing experience for us all to return to India on pilgrimage together and have new experiences in new spiritual hot spots.
In one of the new temples we visited, the head priest met with our group and inquired about our practice when we arrived. We informed him that the chanting of mantras was central to our method. His first response was that pronunciation is quite essential. So we asked him if he would like to listen to us chant some ancient mantras. The students, by themselves, recited a few mantras for this venerable brahmin steeped in the tradition. When they stopped, he admired us and said the chanting gave him goosebumps. He wasn't prepared, he said, to experience such authenticity in the chanting.
He then invited our students to chant one of the most revered mantras from the Yajur Veda while the main puja was conducted in the heart of the temple. It was extraordinary to witness the awe the temple's regular patrons were experiencing listening to our students chant this ancient text that people go to traditional Vedic schools to learn.
Even more impressive was that our students did not use any notes, books, or pieces of paper: they recited the entire section entirely from memory! Of course, some of our participants did not know the text or chant, but that did not matter. The experience was a group experience, and that's what matters.
As we exited the shrine, a reporter from a well-known newspaper approached and commended our being steeped in the culture despite coming from a foreign land. This triple affirmation, the head priest's goosebumps, the awe of the temple patrons, and the observation of a seasoned reporter made us realize that mantra chanting, particularly the traditional way, is one of the hallmarks of our pilgrimage.
If you are concerned, please know that every participant does not need to know how to chant for the experience to be shared by all. The mantras carry us on a wave of devotion and spiritual consciousness. They are like riding a magic carpet into these thousand-year-old stone temples.
We started titling our pilgrimage "Transform in India" after realizing we are not just "visiting" temples. Instead, we are engaged in profound transformative processes in these old stone containers that are crucibles for the transmutation of old karma. We all carry around a certain amount of gunk in the deep recesses of our souls, which is challenging to get to and dislodge. Just as we go to a dentist for regular cleaning, certain rituals and environments facilitate a deep soul cleansing.
So for our upcoming pilgrimage in Jan 2024, we envision an even grander encounter in the temples described above and plan to include our favorite ancient city full of temples. There are roughly 200 temples in this small area. In short, it is a temple lover's nirvana! This temple city has mostly stayed the same in the last century, surrounded by emerald-green paddy fields and coconut grooves.
Another famous city known for its temples is the city of Madurai. It is mainly known for its famous Meenakshi Amman Goddess temple. Although the temple is dedicated to Shiva as Sundareswar (the good-looking Lord), it's his consort, the Shakti, with her beguiling eyes that people use to refer to this ancient holy spot.
Even for our first pilgrimage, we never took our pilgrims to a location that wasn't wholly researched first and deemed spiritually worthy of taking a group. Asha spent more than four months in 1998 thoroughly looking into the sites before our maiden pilgrimage in 1999. Madurai is one of Tamilnadu's most essential locations for tourists. Although she had a few misgivings about the city, we braved it and took our first group to this city mainly to pay homage to the Goddess and her beloved Shiva. We decided this was not a good fit for our way of conducting pilgrimages and were correct. Over the next 22 years, we would refrain from taking our pilgrims to Madurai.
In recent years, ever since our twentieth-anniversary pilgrimage, we've felt the need to add a few new locations each year, as more than half of our group consists of people returning with us. And right after our pilgrimage was completed this February, Russill and Asha made the journey to Madurai to see if things were any different and whether we could include the location for our 2024 pilgrimage. But, unfortunately, our experience was disappointing. The city has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, and the temple was fortified with armed military, police, and exceptional security measures at every entrance. And the crowds were overwhelming.
We take our roles as facilitators of this life-transforming journey solemnly. If visiting temples were the only agenda of our pilgrimage, we've succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Our pilgrims are consistently moved by their temple experiences, no matter how often they have returned with us. Somehow, in recent years, we've added several new temples, and by new, we mean locations our pilgrims have yet to visit. These temples are old, going back a thousand years in their construction and being sacred spots for millennia.
But temples alone are not what defines our pilgrimage. It is creating a feeling of belonging in the deep sense of the word in a foreign land like India and her environment that takes meticulous care and planning. And this continues to be the cornerstone of these annual journeys to India. We work hard and tactfully to create this sense of belonging, a shared communal experience that includes both external and internal spaces of enriched consciousness. We've been using "every temple built outside is a blueprint of a sacred space within."
We are now focusing on constructing the temple within our own consciousness, which is also made up of "structures." Mantras, for instance, can be used for this interior construction process in ways that help heal our hearts and minds. It is this healing process that characterizes our pilgrimages more than any external location. No amount of description or words can explain the profound states our pilgrims tap into during their time with us in India.
These states are enhanced further by our encounters with the local social projects we visit and engage in meaningful ways with children from disadvantaged circumstances and older adults, most of whom have been abandoned by their next of kin.
Each time we circumambulate around the central shrine of a Shiva temple, we encounter a row of 63 mysterious stone statues clothed and venerated with sacred markings. As Nada Yogis, practitioners of sacred sound, these esteemed spiritual personages are of profound significance to us.
We don't want to convey that everything is a piece of cake on pilgrimage. This experience would not be life-transforming if it did not come with its challenges. New experiences are not always easy to digest, and one may not be prepared for them even as a seasoned pilgrimage-goer. Nevertheless, the stunning variety of experiences during our pilgrimage renders this journey not only the experience of a lifetime; many of our pilgrims use this phrase to describe their experience with us but a lifetime of experiences. A single day on pilgrimage with us can feel like many enriched days.
"A Day in the house of the Lord is like a thousand years come and gone." — Psalms.
Let's take one day as an example. Some of us woke up early, during the pre-dawn nectar hours, to chant Namajapa in the temple, a truly magical experience. After that, we did an hour of private practice: yoga, meditation, journaling, and walking, followed by morning prayer. Some of us continued our private practice until breakfast. Some of us rested in. We got ourselves ready, dressed in colorful Indian clothes, and packed for the day's outing. The first part was a daycare center for the children of day laborers. Among the many social outreach projects engaged by the ashram, and there are many, this one was a first for us in 2023.
We set out after breakfast, winding through tall paddy fields deep in the boondocks of rural Tamilnadu. Women balanced bundles of long grass as they glided with elegant grace alongside our vehicle, which proceeded cautiously along the winding road. In the rice beds, groups of women hunched over, busy with their morning activity tending knee-deep to crop in the partially submerged fields, their colorful saris splashing water and beauty as they made their way slowly through the marshes.
Men whose genes go back seventy thousand years hacked at bamboo and brush while others dug fresh canals to bring water from the holy Cauvery River to specific plots of land. There was an entire ecosystem at work, a way of life going back thousands of years to the birth of agriculture. Gandhi once remarked that life in the Indian village has remained unchanged for millennia. This is the India we love, the India that nurtures and nourishes far more substantially than visiting the Taj Mahal or the bustling streets of New Delhi. And this is Tamilnadu, a region of the country that remained true to its indigenous roots despite the many waves of invasions.
Children were being dropped off by their parents as we arrived at the gate. One little boy was troubled because he wanted his snack right away. Another, a girl, was sobbing inconsolably: she did not want to be separated from her mother. We entered the building's premises and sat among the children already seated on straw mats in the yard outside the solitary classroom staffed by teachers paid by the monastery.
The children were encouraged to recite their lessons for us, and we were impressed that they were receiving an education in the English language, which would give them a significant edge in life. Remember, these children are not only from impoverished families but also from castes and classes of society that generally find it hard to break through in the world. After the children shared their abilities in the open courtyard, we went into the classroom to engage them with some of our singing. We had a few school teachers among our pilgrims, who introduced them to several American children's learning songs. To conclude, we all did the Hokey Pokey together, which is always a big hit, no matter which children's group we engage in in India.
Although we spent roughly an hour and a half at this location, much transpired, including sharing the food we had brought for the children, interacting with the teacher and staff, and being in this pristine environment far from bustling civilization.
After our time with the children, our pilgrimage group proceeded from the daycare center to an old temple in a remote area. There, we conducted a special puja, an ancient ritual to Shiva that goes back thousands of years. It took a while to assemble all of the ingredients. Then, we chanted mantras inside the temple hall while the preparations involving the priests, Asha, and our staff were underway.
During the actual ritual, Russill chanted the powerful Rudram Prasna from the Yajur Veda. At the same time, a team of priests conducted the ceremony of pouring milk upon the revered Shiva lingam along with many other criteria particular to the Shaiva Agama tradition. Each of us in the group participated actively in this ancient ritual. These experiences remove layers of old karmic deposits within us and are one of the reasons we feel spiritually lighter when we return from pilgrimage.
Rituals like this are calibrated to be timed a certain way. And, of course, we prepare for such pujas that involve procuring many ingredients. The result is a discernible effect on the soul, which cannot be described.
After the ritual, we walked with deep devotion around the temple, visiting the saints of the Shaiva tradition and various other shrines. A poignant silence punctuated our solemn procession, for we were far from cars, buses, and the sounds of stores and markets. We were the only ones in this old temple, far from the beaten path, in an ancient dwelling place of Shiva, known only to the indigenous population. This was just the first half of our day.
And we also know how to have wholesome fun. Oh yes! Laughter and light-heartedness are very much part of the package, along with celebrations, birthdays included :)
Children in India spark an immense delight in us and are so open when meeting folks different from them. Witnessing these encounters first-hand is remarkable, for the tiny Indian children starkly contrast the average Westerner's height and build. Yet, there a profound and palpable connection transpires.