The 184th Birthday of Bhagawan Sri Ramakrishna was celebrated on 10 March 2019 at Eire Vedanta Society, Dublin in Ireland.
The programme began with a Puja of Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Vimokshananda assisted by Swami Purnananda. The little boy Advaith surprised everybody by appearing in the make-up of Swami Vivekananda and retold the thrilling words of Swami Vivekananda from his Chicago Addresses.
Basil Conroy did the Readings from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The portion highlighted the child-like mood of Sri Ramakrishna that brought the occasion so much merriment. The children from the John Scottus School of Dublin chanted Vedic Peace Prayers followed by a few verses from Srimad Bhagavad Gita. The audience delighted at the diction of the Indian and Irish children who pronounced the Sanskrit lines remarkably.
Tapas Chatterjee read out from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna – the part where Thakur was making fun of ‘M’ when he had come to visit Thakur; Thakur was addressing Swamiji and other young monks and gave the example of the peacock. Rai Kamal read out a portion of ‘The Great Master’, vol 2 – the chapter on Spiritual Teachings by the Master; section 21 to 23 – where Thakur gave examples to Swami Brahmananda about the Tamasic qualities of certain people who wanted to meet Thakur, and Thakur’s advice to stay away from them. Another section talked about how Swami Vivekananda would bring his like-minded friends to meet Thakur. Sudipto sang in his mellifluous voice a few solo bhajans.
Jeff Delmar sang a song “Shepherd Boy” in an Irish famous tune, the poem that Swami Brahmananda Ji, a Direct Disciple of Sri Ramakrishna rendered during his last days. The children from Sanatana Ireland did many charming bhajans on Ganesha, Krishna and Shiva. Lucy, a daughter of Paul Hipwell played Cello instrument to the delight of the devotees. The Chai & Chant Group from Dublin performed several bhajans that brought exuberance among the listeners. The newcomer Hariharan of the Sanatana Ireland played dholak admirably.
The programme came to an end with a chorus singing of “Ramakrishna sharanam…” led by the Ramakrishna Choir, followed by Bhogarati and Pushapanjali and Prasad distribution. Earlier Swami Vimokshananda spoke on the importance of the holy occasion. He thanked on behalf of Eire Vedanta Society all those volunteers who supported mentally and assisted with donations and labour of love (tan, man, dhan – as he put it) for the success of the function.
Swami Ishatmananda Ji Maharaj, the Head of Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Chicago along with a devotee Sri Arup Patranabish visited the Éire Vedanta Society, Dublin, Ireland on 2nd January 2019. A brief Report was given in the earlier blog post.
The next day that is on Thursday, the 3rd January, the guests visited Dungannon that has become a place of pilgrimage where Sister Nivedita was born on Scotch Street in 1867. The first port of call was the First Steps for Women Centre, where they were received by devotees Ms Jean and Mr Larry McGuinness and Manager Mr Michael McGoldrick. Mr McGoldrick has dedicated his life to the Centre. He explained that the purpose of the Centre was to provide education for women as the first step towards literacy and to acquire skills for life and as a means to get employment. The Centre also provides for the children of attendees. Michael showed the visitors the state of the art facilities that had been funded by awards and grants. He recalled with thankfulness that In the past, the Éire Vedanta Society has also given donations and support,
Next, was a visit to the historical site of the Hill of O’Neill and the Dungannon Visitors’ Centre. The Visitors’ Centre houses a museum and a small theatre where Jean McGuinness has put on a play called “Awakening a Nation” as a tribute to the life and speeches of Sister Nivedita (1867 – 1911). Sister Nivedita is on the Hall of Fame at the Centre and a small terracotta statue of her is preserved in a glass case. Finally, the group made their way to the Blue Plaque on Scotch Street that commemorates Margaret Elizabeth Noble (Sister Nivedita).
On the way, the group visited the Dungannon Public Library where they met Manager Ms Elizabeth Synnott-Telford. The Library has a small section dedicated to the Complete Works of Sister Nivedita and Swami Ishatmananda pledged to donate the complete works of Swami Vivekananda and selected Nivedita publications.
Special thanks go to Jean and Larry who always receive our guests and are passionate about our beloved Nivedita. The Chicago Swami with his devotee left for London on the morning of 4th January. Swami Purnananda and Swami Vimokshananda saw the guests off at the Dublin Airport in the morning of 4th January.
Conducting a Conference is beset with certain inherent risks. Scheduling it especially on a Sunday morning when weather is absolutely right for lazying around, you do not know how many would turn up. And if the Conference is on religious matters that does not contain even a single ‘cultural item’ its much worse. Ruminating with some sort of anxiety on these lines, I reached the Westville Campus of UKZN on Sunday, the 30th September 2012 fifteen minutes before the Conference began. What I saw was something unimaginable. The Hall was packed to its capacity!
This Conference entitled “Hinduism – The Way Forward” was convened by Sri Sarada Devi Ashram (SSDA) of Durban. On arrival, I could clearly discern the devotion of the members of the SSDA and how they were working in unison. At various points of the campus, the volunteers were guiding delegates to the parking lots and venue. Reaching nearer to the venue, I could also observe how the lady devotees of the Ashram warmly welcomed every one. They duly directed the speakers and guests to T-Block where, after registration, each delegate was given a Conference pack and led into the lecture theatre.
Well, I was thoroughly pleased to get a detailed Report from Ms Shiksha Ramkissoon who is a devotee of SSDA. Professionally she is a Physio-therapist attached to a hospital. Her Report is lucid, presenting a vivid picture of what happened at the Conference. I do hope our reader-devotees enjoy this Report. Images courtesy: Lushen Pillay.
A Report by Shiksha Ramkissoon
The clear skies and the Durban warmth presented a perfect backdrop for a Sunday morning of discussion on some of Hinduism’s sacred texts. The foyer outside T1, the venue of the Conference, was converted into a small shrine with a beautiful garlanded picture of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi surrounded by plants, bouquets and an artfully created ‘Aum’ symbol made with flowers. It was complemented by a slide show of spiritual quotations on a digital screen above the entrance.
The backdrop at the podium in the hall, was adorned with a stunning banner of an image of the Holy Trio highlighted by a beautiful gold drape around it. By 9 30 am the room was filled with over 700 guests. His Holiness Revered Swami Brahmarupanandaji Maharaj, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order based in Ulsoor, Bangalore, India, graced the Conference with his presence. Also present, were His Holiness Revered Swami Vimokshanandaji Maharaj and His Holiness Revered Swami Saradaprabhanandaji Maharaj.
The program director was an attorney Ms Prakashnee Gengan, the Chairperson of SSDA. Sister Avinta Badrinath led the congregation in prayer, before Her Holiness Pravrajika Ishtaprana Mataji lovingly welcomed every delegate including the Revered Swamijis, members of sister organizations and those who had travelled from far and wide to attend the Conference. Ms Gengan elaborated on the theme of the Conference and the topics which were to be presented. They were based on two popular scriptures, viz., the ancient and eternal Ramayana and the modern day Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
The first speaker was Swami Saradaprabhanandaji Maharaj, Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Centre of S.A. whose topic “Crime in the Ramayana – Challenges and Solutions” was discussed in a detailed and scholarly manner. Citing specific incidents in the Ramayana from the perspective of criminology, Swamiji’s talk provided a new perspective on the cause, prevention and management of crime and demonstrated that the scriptures provide the answers not only to our spiritual lives but also to the challenges that we face in our daily lives.
Swamiji began by tracing the cause of crime by quoting from the Bhagavad Gita in which Arjuna asks Lord Krishna what impels a man to commit sin, as if by force. The Lord replies that it is desire and anger, born of rajas, which are the root causes of this behavior. Swamiji then highlighted the various characters of the Ramayana who committed various crimes, starting from Ratnakar, to others such as Ahalya, Surpanaka, Ravana. These examples enforced the point that unbridled desire indeed is the source of crime.
Swamiji explained that criminal desires are to be managed before they are expressed. For this, the tool of self-control is essential. He identified personalities such as Lord Rama, Mother Sita, sevakHanuman, Queen Mandodari and others who displayed a great degree of self-control. He added that this should be adopted by Hindus as a means to prevent crime. Characters who displayed poor self-control were Vali, Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Indrajit.
He gave examples of different kinds of graded system of punishment that was meted out in the Ramayana. He identified three dimensions of combating crime, viz., individual goodness, a single individual becoming proactively good on his own and an individual working in a team, a pressure group or organization. All have to be done within the parameters of the law.
Valmiki constructed a complex crime scene in which Sita, who was untrained in self-defence, was abducted by Ravana who used disguise to deceive Her. Sita is initially portrayed as a victim of crime, but Valmiki showed that righteousness eventually prevails and Sita emerges as a survivor of crime. The Ramayana thus has many episodes of crime but eventually proves that criminals are never victorious.
The congregation then adjourned for a refreshment break. The second session saw the remaining three papers being delivered.
The first speaker in this session was Swami Vimokshanandaji Maharaj, President of the Ramakrishna Centre of S.A. who presented his Talks, undoubtedly the highlight of the Conference, on ‘Prayer in Daily Life – According to the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’. Maharaj expanded on all points by using examples from daily life, effectively bringing in humour, which left the audience roaring with laughter whilst simultaneously further imprinting the message and concepts into their minds.
Maharaj explained that prayer is a powerful tool found in all religions. In Hinduism, the importance of prayer was forgotten over the years, while other spiritual practices, like self-enquiry, yoga etc., were developed to a great extent. With the advent of Sri Ramakrishna, ‘prayer’, as a fundamental spiritual tool, was highlighted again.
Maharaj defined prayer as the simple act of talking to God. Prayer, as it is usually done, (Maharaj called this the preliminary stage, or a petitionary prayer) begins by asking God for something. There are people who criticise this type of prayer as being materialistic or unnecessary, as God is Omniscient and hence knows our inner desires. Maharaj explained that this type of prayer should not be condemned as, without this, millions of people would not think of God at all. Moreover, the acquisition of material possessions, artha, and fulfilment of desires, kama, (done within the framework of dharma) are legitimate goals of life. Since God is our very own, there is nothing wrong in asking of Him what we want.
Maharaj pointed out that, when praying, we should discriminate between a prayer for a particular need and a prayer for a want. Not all prayers are answered since God will provide what is needed and not necessarily what we want as that which is wanted, is not always good for us or we may not be capable of taking care of it. The manner in which we pray is also important. Since God is our own, our conversation with Him (or Her) should be in our own mother tongue (or the language that we understand), with tears in our eyes and sincerity of heart. Since God is Omniscient and Omnipresent, there is no specific time or place that is set for prayer.
Even though prayer is considered a lower form of spiritual practice, Maharaj emphasised that it is a fundamental practice as it opens our hearts, brings balance to our spiritual life and helps us overcome any difficulties/complications that may arise from other spiritual practices.
As we progress in our spiritual life through the means of prayer, the nature of the prayer itself changes. As our hearts grow, asking for ourselves expands to asking for others – be it wife, children, family, neighbours, country, etc. Finally, as we realise that God provides all our needs, it changes from asking for things to a pure love for God when we continuously think of/communicate with God, just want to be with God and surrender completely to God.
The next paper was presented by Dr Nirmala Balkaran. Her talk entitled “Nurturing children and youth – the Ramayana Way” was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation which had charming pictures of little children, including a stunning cover picture of baby Rama. The core of the speech was the examples of the parenting of King Dasharatha and Mother Sita, the education and nurturing their children received and how these ideals can be implemented in modern society in response to challenges that are faced by parents and teachers today.
She discussed in detail how the sons of King Dasharatha, from a young age, were given a well-balanced secular, vocational, artistic and spiritual education by their father, Guru and other teachers assigned by their father, both directly and indirectly through exposure. The importance of stimulating the child by the reading of religious texts from the foetal stage to adolescence was highlighted.
Dr Balkaran described Mother Sita as a single parent who, even under difficult circumstances, ensured that her children Luv and Kush received a balanced, well-rounded education that catered to their physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual development under the tutelage of sage Valmiki.
In contrast, the current school system merely provides a secular education which is a stepping stone to tertiary institutions that endow one with the necessary skills to earn a livelihood. As important as that is, it is not sufficient for the development of the entire personality of a human being, for as Swami Vivekananda says, education should be “man-making, life giving and character-building”. Hence there is a need for parents to involve their children with organisations that provide programs which offer moral and spiritual education and promote a holistic and balanced development which includes the growth of character and morality.
The final paper entitled “Illuminating Parables on Spirituality from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” was presented by Pravrajika Ishtaprana Mataji. Mataji chose certain tales from the Gospel as told by the Master. These contained deep spiritual truths and guidelines for spiritual life. Mataji’s simple description of the stories and the animated pictures on the PowerPoint presentation made it easy for the audience to relate to the parables.
Mataji described the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna as a “scripture which clearly points the way forward”. The popular stories provided insight on topics such as the nature of God, both form and formless; the grace of the Guru; renunciation; causes of conflicts between practitioners of different religions/sects; obstacles in spiritual life; and spiritual practices including concentration of mind. She encouraged all to take the Gospel and read a little daily to imbibe some of the lessons from them.
After each talk, there was a short question and answer segment, which drew brilliant answers from the panel of speakers to the various interesting questions from the audience. There were also some abiding comments and observations from the audience. At the end of the Conference, the speakers were presented with tokens of appreciation by devotees of SSDA. Sister Avinta brought the Conference to a close with her mellifluous shanti paath recital before all proceeded to the foyer where a sumptuous lunch was served.
The general consensus of those present was that the Conference was a ‘major success’ and ‘well organised’. It was indeed a morning well spent! The credit singularly must go to Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi whose infinite grace seemed to be over flowing that day!
I have the honour to receive host of mails from devotees of different parts of the world enquiring how Sri Krishna Janmashtami celebrations were conducted by our Centre in South Africa. Thanks for their well-meant curiosity. I do take delight in expressing in detail an account on the Sri Krishnashtami celebrations here at our headquarters in Durban. There were Satsangs every evening from the first day to the last ashtami day i.e . for all eight days! Satsang here has a definite pattern.
Themes for Talks
First four days I had vocal rest, as, a week back I had a bad laryngitis. On fifth day morning I addressed Senior Citizens at our Phoenix sub-centre. The point of my address was that the idols or pictures are not to be viewed as mere stones or paper but as a manifestation of the One, supreme Divinity. In the evening I reached Verulam where in the Gopallaala temple I met devotees and spoke on Sri Krishna’s mercy. On the sixth day I had to travel to Stanger, a one-hour distance in the severe cold. There also the Gracious God was the theme. On the seventh day at our HQ Sri Ramakrishna Temple hall, I spoke on Sri Krishna and the Black Cobra. It was the story of poisonous Kaliya and how Sri Krishna tamed it and the spiritual import of this charming story.
On the eighth day, which was the last auspicious ashtami evening, my theme for the discussion was the Divine birth of the Unborn. We had two sessions. In the first session the theory of Incarnation was dealt with. And in the second session the secret of the Unborn Supreme God appearing as baby Krishna to Devaki and Vasudeva was explained.
Brother Saradaprabhananda this year went to Chatsworth branch and gave discourses there for all eight days on the significance of the Fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. The first six evening Satsangs at HQ were addressed by our Youth members. I was witness to their speeches. On hearing them speak with confidence, I joined others in the audience in appreciating them for the research they had done on different themes and how they, in simple form, placed the ideas before the public.
Every evening of the Krishnashtami celebration, Satsang attracted a large number of devotees. There were lot of bhajans and kirtans till the end of the program. Selected passages from Srimad Bhagavad Gita were sung to the traditional tunes every evening satsang. The temple was beautifully decorated. The yugal murti Sri Radha-Krishna bedecked with finery and ornaments dazzled every one. At the stroke of midnight 12, the baby Krishna in a beautiful cradle was brought out to the audience. Finally with arati to Sri Radha-Krishna and offering of flower and rocking the cradle by every assembled devotee the solemn program came to an end with distribution of prasad.
The devotion of the devotees is worth noting; what a verve and vigour in singing bhajans! And faith and fervour in performing worship! And the day-long fasting and sitting in the temple for such long hours – absolutely maintaining utmost discipline – no chitchat, no gossip and all are tuned to the discourse and songs.
A very happy ‘Sri Ganesha chaturthi’ to every one! It is a joyous occasion always. All our Centres in South Africa celebrate this day in a solemn manner.
Importance is given to japa whereby the wisdom aspect of our personalities is stimulated. The day starts with a special puja to Sri Ganesha in our temple. Devotees, by turn perform japa of the above-quoted mantra from 6 am to 6 pm on a relay manner. In the evening it concludes with a satsang where devotees in chorus sing bhajans and kirtans interspersed with Talks or Readings.
As children we were not only treated with different kinds of sweets during dining time, (note: earlier I wrote about that delicious dish Kozhuk kattai or modakam) but also were trained in lots of traditional practices that were initially appeared as queer but later loved. In igniting the imagination of the child, Ganesha worship would or even now stands supreme. Imagination about what? About creating a living contact between the visible human and the invisible super-human. It leads the growing child in the practice of devotion. This worship acts as a means in giving practical shape to develop a healthy and loving relationship with friends and neighbours.
I am reminded of the allotted duties among the siblings and oh! what verve and vigour the children used to show in fulfilling their arduous(!) tasks like plucking flowers, cutting fruits, arranging durwa grass etc. A sense of camaraderie prevails that brings peace and happiness. May Sri Ganesha resolve all our conflicts!
Worship of Personal God in whatever form has many distinct advantages. Lord Ganesha though He is ever the son of Parvati and Shiva is known as ‘Vighneshwara’ the Lord of Obstacles. Often children (the mustachioed babies too…!) ask how is it that this God is called ‘Lord of Obstacles’. Is it not good to worship those gods who can offer boons instead of those creating obstructions? Late Revered Swami Chidbhavanandaji maharaj (famous for his translation of Bhagavad Gita in Tamil and English – perhaps the very first one in bringing Master’s teachings at relevant places – used to compare this Universe to an automobile. He says in one of his books “Facets of Brahman” which is as delightful as inspiring, explains why and how Lord Ganesha brings good to the devotees :
“In the working of an automobile each mechanism has its particular part to play. The function of one part in it cannot be the function of another.” This means that notwithstanding each part having its own structural and functional individuality the motor car an move only with the combined effect of all of them. So, he concludes that the Universe is a self-projected living and intelligent mechanism. It is the material manifestation of the saguna brahman
While harmony exists in its variation, discord and conflicts are also seen. Thus Nature brings all the beings into existence and provides opportunities ‘to evolve into higher and yet higher order of life’. All levels have their intrinsic two categories called Divine and Demoniac.
This Cosmic Intelligence is symbolically called Ganesha. Those who are honest and strive to lead a peaceful life, thus possessing Divine qualities, He definitely comes to their aid. And he does not neglect those with asuric qualities. By creating obstructions, He brings disappointment in the minds of devotees as what was prayed goes not sanctioned! But in the course of life’s journey, a devotee finds out that seeming obstruction was in one way a blessing in disguise. In short by introducing lesser evils He wards off greater evils of life and Vighneshwara (Vighna – obstacles, Ishwara – Lord) rightly represents this particular aspect of Nature.
How Ganesha came in the practical life through dreams and fulfilled the desires of the devotees is narrated here.
It was sometime in 2005. This happened while I was in Ranchi. Once I received a post parcel that looked very tiny. Well, I just kept it on my study table; I never even ventured to open it. Everyday I was seeing it but somehow had no urge to open the parcel and look what the gift was. Suddenly one fine early morning a devotee rang me up to say that she was indeed frightened by a dream. I asked her what was the dream. She explained that she was entering into our Temple. She saw a small figure of Ganesha slowly emerging from nowhere and becoming crystal clear and was walking towards her. The image was in utter black colour. She asked me whether this dream was inauspicious.
Consoling her with words of sympathy, I told her that seeing Ganesha is considered as most auspicious and who knows that black Ganesha wants to come to her home! Did she not tell me earlier that she wanted to worship Ganesha in some murti? So, I concluded by telling her that she might wait till Ganesha makes some arrangement.
That day while I was just going out, the cleaning boy came and put that tiny parcel into my hands and said that I had not yet opened it as it was lying for many days on the table. I quickly thrusted it into my pocket and went out.
It was a pleasant surprise when on my way back, I met the son of this devotee who insisted that I should visit his home. Since I had some time, I agreed and reached his house. The devotee welcomed me and was talking about her dream; she asked me, ‘Maharaj, when would Ganesha come to my home?’
While the conversation was going on I casually took the parcel and opened it and lo! it was black Ganesha murti! So tiny and cute, I said, “See! here He is!” I placed that Ganesha into her altar under the feet of the Mother Kali image. Well, son got his place again under mother!
A devotee from South Africa, the other day narrated this following incident.
It was in 1997. I was overwhelmed by money and power. I had a successful business and everything was hunky dory in my life. My day used to start quite early, leaving home everyday including Sundays at 7am and returning at 10pm. That meant neglecting my home, children and daily prayer.
This continued for 2 years. Although I was a devotee of the Master from the age of 13 years, somehow at the age of 29, I faltered in my spiritual life. My conscience used to prick me every now and then….. but still I neglected my sadhana.
As the second year was coming to a close, my body and mind was beginning to tire and so were my kids on whom I could sense the effect of neglect. It was late one night while I was asleep, that I had a wonderful dream… or was it real, I will never know that… Lord Ganesha came to me while I lay on the bed and spoke softly to me. He kept telling me ‘arise and offer some fruit and milk’. I could still see Him in His flowing yellow dhoti and with a flower garland around His neck. When I was reluctant to get up, he firmly, at the same time, very lovingly coaxed me to wake up. I lay in my bed wondering at the strange, yet divine dream that I just experienced.
I gazed around to see whether the Gracious Lord was still in the room, was it my imagination, was it a dream, was it real? who knows! After a quick bath and breakfast, just out of curiosity I went to the calendar to check what day it was… I WAS STUNNED TO SEE IT WAS THE AUSPICIOUS DAY OF GANESH CHATURTHI. I immediately went into my shrine and offered milk to the Lord and realised that the Lord is continuously knocking on my door, and He is waiting for me to open. It was on that auspicious day that by the will of the Lord, I quit my job and became a mum to my kids and held on tightly to the Lord’s Feet… Never to let go AGAIN!
A devotee who has had long association with monks of the Ramakrishna Order was telling me the other day that the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna were unique, each in his own way. He hastened to add that even today, though to a varying lesser degree, the monks are indeed special. Generally, a monk’s life is inward bound, so it is difficult to see externally the gem that each is. But when such monks occupy high positions or undertake such activities as to bring them within the ken of society, their uniqueness is visible to all. Swami Shantatmanandaji is one such monk who recently toured South Africa.
He is the present Head of the Delhi branch of the Ramakrishna Mission; this in itself is a comment on his leadership qualities, his admin abilities, his creativity and resourcefulness.
I used to wonder always when and where he took great interest in learning puja – the detailed methods of worship. In most of our branches daily puja of Master is according to the ten item method. The Special Puja of course consists of not only sixteen items of worship but also a much more expanded one. And what to speak of more specific pujas like Kali puja, Durga puja and Jagaddhatri puja which require besides expertise certain life styles too.
I came close to Shantatmananda in connection with Sri Sri Jagaddhatri puja during my tenure at Ranchi Sanatorium. That was an occasion to know more about the puja matters as he would patiently explain the science and art of many methods of worship to my varied silly questions! Sometimes our discussion would stray into those points pertaining to tantric worship. I was always just amazed at the depth and profundity of his knowledge and his ability to explain the esoteric and intricate processes in a most simple way.
It is little wonder that I looked forward with great expectation for his visit to our Centre here on a 15 day program. Though his days of itinerary were packed with hectic schedule – delivered 18 lectures in 13 days! (a detailed Report appended below) – yet during his stay here, many a post-meal time was spent in being with him thus gaining some memorable moments together leaving me wanting more! When we, monks from different parts of the world meet, (sometimes through skype too!) there is much ‘catching up’ to do. It was wonderful to listen to him about the proposed 150th birth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in 2013 all over the world and he lovingly ‘booked’ me for a program in Delhi! The unique combination of a sincere devotee and a serious academic in him added a lot of ‘masala’ to our discussions.
Contrary to what I had heard of him (that he was in the habit of keeping a distance from devotees etc.), he spoke in a sweet and simple yet enlightening manner, whether at the dining table, in the foyer or at a public lecture with whomsoever he came into contact with. Instantaneously he became a spiritual delight of devotees.
What was his impression about his visit to South Africa and the devotees here? I quote a portion from his email that he wrote after returning to India:
Dear and Revered Maharaj,
What shall I write to you? I am afraid, any attempt to pen down my feelings would fall far short of my true feelings. The South Africa experience is something which only the truly blessed people get once in their lifetime. I have never seen such a wonderful band of sincere, dedicated and devoted devotees anywhere outside India. The officials and members of Exco — they are shouldering enormous responsibilities. Hats off to them. Revered Swami Saradaprabhanandaji is a truly amazing personality. It is unbelievable how one can be so humble and self-effacing in spite of such capacity and talent. My prayers to Master that he may continue to serve the devotees of South Africa for decades. As for you I sincerely feel that you are the Master’s special gift to the devotees of South Africa. Lord has blessed you with such a loving and affectionate heart and I am sure you are providing healing touch to thousands of devotees there. Please convey my special regards to the Exco members…My special love and best wishes to devotees…My special prayers and best wishes to mothers…With deep love and humble pranams,
Swami Shantatmanandaji arrived in Durban, on 15 July from Mauritius. On 17 July he was given a warm welcome reception that was held at HQ Ramakrishna Temple during Saturday weekly evening satsang where he spoke on Spiritual Life. Earlier in the afternoon he addressed a gathering of Youth members of the Centre on A Life of Purpose, Dedication & Service. His 15-day stay saw meeting with the officials and many devotees of our Centre, addressing different public programs, performing holy home-satsangs and giving interviews to spiritual seekers. He also visited Ramakrishna Sub-Centres in Gauteng, Dundee, Newcastle, Ladysmith, Estcourt in Northern Natal and Pietermaritzburg, Phoenix and Chatsworth in Southern Natal.
At Gauteng Sub-centre, Swami Shantatmanandaji gave his Keynote address on Glory of Guru on 18 July. From there, the next day, he was driven to Dundee Sub-centre where he gave his Address again on Guru. At Newcastle the officials took him to a few welfare sites where he saw how the humanitarian work being done. On 20 July he addressed a large gathering in Ladysmith Sub-centre where he spoke eloquently on Swami Vivekananda’s Message to the Youth. At Estcourt, on 21 July, the Swami explained the concept of Spiritual Journey.
A special satsang in honour of Swami Shantatmanandaji was held at our Pietermaritzburg Sub-centre on 22 July, when he conducted Guided Meditation and also addressed the congregation on Holy Mother. On 23 July he reached HQ in the morning where a number of lady-members of Sri Sarada Devi Women’s Circle were awaiting his arrival. They listened to him speaking about Women Empowerment and their role as Volunteers. At Chatsworth Sub-centre, in the evening, he gave a lecture on Welfare of the World – Why? & How?
The next day i.e., on 24 July at the evening weekly Satsang, held at HQ, he spoke on Swami Vivekananda as the Universal Preceptor. Earlier in the afternoon the Swami met the beneficiaries of Greenbury Welfare Project and addressed them on Faith in God – the First Step. On 25 July we celebrated Guru Purnima. In the Temple he performed a special worship with sixteen items called ‘shodachopachaar pujaa’. An hour later at the Nischalananda Hall there was a Public Meeting wherein Swami Vimokshanandaji,Swami Saradaprabhanandajiand Shantatmanandaji addressed a large congregation. The visiting Swami spoke on Sri Ramakrishna as Guru. On 26 July at Phoenix Sub-centre he spoke on How to obtain the Grace of God to the assembled devotees. On 27 July in the morning he addressed the Senior Citizen Forum members at the same Phoenix Sub-centre on the topic Aging Gracefully. A Class on Bhagavad Gita in HQ in the evening drew lot of appreciation. On 28 July evening he participated in a program organised by three Satsang Groups viz., Verulam, Etete and Tongaat. The venue was the famous Sri Veerabhoga Emperumal Temple at Tongaat. There he delivered a Talk on Religiosity vs Spirituality.
He was taken to Abalindi Home, one of the NGOs with which the Centre is associated for nearly a decade. The Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa has used a multi-dimensional approach in all its welfare activities over the last 65 years. This vision and strategy ensures that our support and services reach those in need in all areas of society irrespective of race, gender or creed. The Centre works with many NGOs with similar aims and objectives to provide much needed community services. The Swami was overwhelmed at the plight of Terminally Ill Patients. He was all praise for the Centre’s help to this Home in giving a decent and dignified living just before death.
Being a Nature lover, a special visit was arranged by the officials of the Ladysmith Sub-centre to the world renowned Drakensberg mountains.
That was a good relaxing experience for the Swami after a hectic tour of 7 days. So also his lively visit to Lions Park and Zoo and the century old Botanical gardens arranged by the officials of the Pietermaritzburg Sub-centre. They also took him to the historical railway station where Mahatma Gandhiji was thrown off the train. That was the place where ‘shivering through the winter night in the waiting room of the station’, Gandhiji made the momentous decision to begin his unique form of protest against racial discrimination called ‘satyagraha’. Visiting Ushaka Marine World to see the Dolphins’ danceand aqua creatures in the undersea ship wreck, the crocodile creek, the South Coast and also the famous Umgeni River Bird Park made him feel thoroughly rejuvenated.
On 29 July of his departure day, the Exco officials bid him farewell and thanked the Swami heartily for his brilliant and inspiring lectures. The Swami, in his reply pointed out, his delight with devotees who are serving the Holy Trio with unconditional love and how he was brimming with joy in witnessing the Master’s work being carried out in South Africa so meticulously. He was full of praise of sincere devotees who served the Centre from decorating the altar to dishing out the prasad.
On the afternoon of July 29, Saradaprabhanandaji, officials and self saw him off at the Durban International Airport. On his way back to Delhi he would stop for a day in Dubai where he had two programs to attend.
The first Children’s Cultural Festival (CCF) that I saw in Durban was in 2007, three months after I was posted to South Africa. I had attended earlier many such functions in India and had come to the conclusion that too long hours was too much to be my treat. Imagine the severity of the sting of sitting for seven hours! But here the situation was smartly different. I didn’t know how the time went by and it appeared only a few moments had just passed and I was jolted to understand that the function had come to an end!
The all-pervading spirit of Sri Ramakrishna could palpably be felt in all the children who were participating in various items. There were scintillating sketches, trend-setting talks, soulful singing and delightful dances. The quick succession of multi-items moving from one scene to the other on the beautifully decorated stage was indeed mesmerizing. Suffice it to say that I was captivated by the love and devotion the children displayed towards our Holy Trio.
In this connection I saw the tireless efforts of the teacher-devotees who started preparing the children during the vacation. They are verily like the unseen and unsung dew drops which in the small hours of the day fall silently on the buds and make them bloom so that the fragrance can be spread. And of course I cannot forget the devotee-officials who worked hard in arranging the logistics without which the completion of the Festival would not be in order.
From brother Swami Saradaprabhanandaji and also some of the senior devotees what I hear about the Cultural Festival sounds wonderful. How in those days this Festival would be called ‘Rally’! All the children of the ‘Ramakrishna Children’s Club’ would meet at an Annual Mass Rally. This term ‘Rally’ even today, is used when referred to in elders’ conversations. In years gone by the children with their youth siblings along with elders would assemble in a pre-selected spot and would make a procession through the streets of Durban in the early morning. You can see a few photos of old days by clicking the below links:
Who knows you may be marching in one of the photos as a little boy or girl ?!
In their march past, the children would give a ‘wake-up call’ to every Hindu who was ‘asleep’ to his pristine culture (pun intended) with band parties that wielded drum majorettes, bugles, whistles. I further understand that the now ubiquitous vuvuzelas were conspicuous by their absence!
The ingenuity of late Revered Swami Nischalanandaji in organizing ‘Rally’ to awaken the Hindu population to its great glorious past through the medium of children was indeed very productive in that the sustenance of Hindu culture in this country amidst entirely a different variety of culture was made possible.
Here are some more old photos of 4th Annual ‘Mass Rally’:
The old theme of ‘procession’ oriented Festival has in a few years metamorphosed into a stable program, taking from the diverse aspects of the preserved culture to play a role of ‘nation-building, character-making’ among the rising level of modern participation.
Today I am attending the Southern Natal CCF. (Northern Natal branches have their own Cultural Festival day. Earlier once I did write about the 2009 Northern Natal CCF.) The following branches are scheduled to perform: Chatsworth, Durban Central, Etete, Phoenix, Pietermaritzburg, Redhill, Richards Bay, Sydenham, Tongaat, Verulam and Sri Sarada Devi Ashram. I shall try to post the photos later which you may enjoy watching as a slide show.
I take this opportunity of wishing all participating branches every success in their various items. My following Message finds a place in a printed program published on the eve of the CCF, to be handed over to more than a thousand people who have started to throng the venue :
My dear children, parents and well-wishers,
Om Namo Narayanaya!
This Children’s Cultural Festival now held in its 56th year is undoubtedly one of the great contributions of late Swami Nischalanandaji Maharaj, the Founder of the Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa. My humble prostrations to him. Propagation and preservation of Hinduism suitable to the Hindu masses and more importantly spreading the non-sectarian and broad-based teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda among the people living in South Africa was the goal he set before himself and he worked tirelessly to that end.
On this joyful occasion, Swami Saradaprabhanandaji joins me in conveying our heartiest congratulations to all our children for their brilliant performance seen year by year. Notwithstanding the severe school homework and stressful projects, they have put in strenuous rehearsals of their allotted items. This is indeed a commendable achievement. Our hearty appreciation is due to the unseen hands – especially the voluntary teachers and the the respective branch Committee members – that worked unselfishly “behind the scenes”.
What actually do we aim to achieve by holding the Children’s Cultural Festival?
– an awareness to increase the quality of life
– cultivation of spiritual values
– inculcating faith in God, the One Supreme Power
– developing mutual love and respect
– service to mankind
Though the number of children participating in our Sunday Schools have to our delight, seen a rise in recent years, yet we are painfully aware that vast majority is still remaining untouched. In this respect, the role of parents in coming forward to enrol their children cannot be over emphasized. Neglect by the parents, being the First Teachers of their children, will portend to the perils of the future family system. A happy family is the core unit of peaceful society. Home is definitely the first school.
I, therefore, earnestly urge parents to encourage their children to enlist them in the classes so that these innocent children do not become prey to modern ills. A wholesome, nourishing spiritual food given when they are young will be the source of strength in future when they will be able to face the newer challenges.
May the blessings of the Holy Trio be on all is our prayer!
Children like to question. And I appreciate it as an expression of their intense thirst for knowledge. I wrote this given-below dialogue in an easy, conversational style between two children and myself. This is, of course, based partly on an actual discussion with the named children, and later written for Dipika 2009. It is an annual spiritual magazine especially for children, regularly brought out by Sri Sarada Devi Ashram at Asherville in Durban. My grateful thanks go to Sister Pravrajika Ishtapranaji for according her kind consent to reproduce it here.
After lunch, as usual, I was about to retire to my room and take my noon-day rest. Just then two fresh faced, enthusiastic, devoted boys came into my office, bursting with joy and questions. All thoughts of sleep left me when I sensed their willingness to have a conversation.
An interesting discussion began when I asked the children to state the names of two famous incarnations of God. Rahul immediately mentioned the name of Lord Ram. His little brother Trishul remembered Lord Krishna.
Trishul: Swamiji, why do Hindus believe that God incarnates on earth?
Swamiji:That is a good question! God descends according to the needs of the time, to help us live happily, be peaceful and live spiritual lives.When people start misbehaving, fight with one another and adopt evil ways, then God comes to protect goodness.
Rahul: But some of my friends ridicule us and say that we worship many Gods. Isn’t it true that there is only ONE God, Swamiji?
Swamiji: Undoubtedly, God is ONE. Have you not heard that God is Omnipotent?
Trishul: No! What does that mean?
Swamiji: It means that God is all-powerful. Though there is only ONE God, yet by His divine power He can assume many forms and have many names. Therefore Hindus believe in different incarnations of God. The Sanskrit word for incarnation is Avataar.
Rahul: So we see that God can take many names and forms because He is all-powerful!
Swamiji: Exactly so, Rahul! You do know that there are many people on earth, though we are one as humanity, yet we have different tastes. We are born with our own varied natures. You may not like what I like. Therefore every one should have the freedom to choose the form of God that he or she likes.Each one worships the same God in the form that appeals to him or her, the most. But always remember, no matter what form of God you love and pray to, GOD IS ONE.
Rahul: Why does God manifest Himself in human form?
Swamiji: God wants to help us realise Him. He teaches us the righteous methods of living on His beautiful earth and how to care for all living beings. God loves all living and non-living beings on this earth, because everything has come out of Him alone.
Trishul: Swamiji, but I find it difficult to think of God without a name and a form. Is not God with form more lovable?
Swamiji: Rightly said, Trishul! God in his personal aspect can be loved and served too. You should be able to choose the particular name and form of God, according to your nature.
Rahul: I love Lord Ram. He killed Ravana and brought righteousness back to Lanka. He ruled this earth from Ayodhya.
Swamiji: Oh! that is wonderful. Can you name one great devotee of Lord Ram?
Rahul: Yes Swamiji. Tulsidas! My father and mother read a portion from Tulsidasji’s Ramayana everyday. They say that reading the Ramayana in the morning helps them to cope with the challenges of life.
Swamiji: Excellent!What is the title of the Ramayana that Tulsidasji wrote?
Rahul: Sri Ramacharitamanasa.
Swamiji: Very good, Rahul. Now boys, let me narrate an interesting story about Tulsidas, the author of this great scripture.
Tulsidas loved Sri Ram with all his heart. In the beginning, he did not prefer any other form of God for his personal worship. One day some of his friends decided to go to Brindavan, the playground of Lord Krishna. They requested Tulsidas to accompany them. But Tulsidas was a little hesitant, because he did not want to go to any place that was not connected with Lord Ram.
Rahul: Was he a fanatic, Swamiji?
Swamiji: No Rahul, he was not a fanatic. But he had such deep devotion to the lotus feet of Lord Ram that his mind was not willing to accept any other form of God. When his friends insisted, he accompanied them to Brindavan. However, while entering Sri Krishna’s temple, he closed his eyes. The all-knowing Lord understood Tulsidas’ predicament. Lord Krishna looked at His beloved Radha and said, ‘Look Radha! My sincere devotee has come here. When he opens his eyes he would not like to see me in the present form. So, let us change our forms to satisfy him.’
Trishul: Which form did they take, Swamiji?
Swamiji: When Tulsidas made pranams (prostrations) to the Lord, he assumed that the temple deity was Sri Krishna, so he was unwilling to open his eyes. But his friends asked him to observe the magnificent murti (image) of Sri Krishna, which was decorated so well. Tulsidas opened his eyes slowly and, lo and behold! he saw the lotus feet of His beloved Sri Ram. When he raised his head in wonder he could see the bow and arrows held in Ram’s long, beautiful hands. The Lord’s eyes looked like a freshly blossomed flower. He also saw the serene face of Mother Sita.Tulsidas was stunned and overwhelmed to see Sri Ram. He now realised that Lord Krishna and Lord Ram are ONE and the SAME divine being!
Trishul: So Swamiji, does the word ‘deity’ mean ‘God in His personal aspect’?
Swamiji: You have understood rightly, Trishul! There are many deities and you can choose any one from the hundreds of forms, according to your taste and temperament. The one that you choose is called the ‘ishta-devata’, meaning your chosen deity. By worshipping the ishta-devata, your mind becomes one-pointed and devotion to God grows very easily and quickly. In the beginning of one’s sadhana (spiritual practices), worshipping many deities dissipates one’s energy and may not be conducive to spiritual progress. Therefore our sages have recommended that we have an ishta-devata, a chosen deity.
Rahul: Swamiji, which deity should I choose?
Swamiji: Choose that deity whose form you like the most!
Trishul: Is it not true that Hanumanji also has Sri Ram as his ishta-devata?
Swamiji: Well said.
Srināthe jānakināthe abheda paramātmani|
Tathāpi mama sarvasva rāmah kamala lochanah||
Sri Hanumanji once explained that although there was no difference between the Lord of Lakshmi (Narayana) and the Lord of Janaki (Sri Ram), yet his chosen deity was the lotus-eyed Sri Ram.
So, Rahul and Trishul! What did you understand?
Rahul and Trishul: Swamiji, we understood that having a chosen deity is good for devotion but at the same time, we should not be narrow-minded. We should respect all deities because the ONE God alone has become many.
Swamiji: You both attend Sunday Classes for children. Tell me, can you remember any example that our dear Master Sri Ramakrishna has quoted?
Rahul: Yes, I remember! Master gave the example of a man digging a well. First he dug down to a depth of ten meters. He could not find any trace of water there. Then he selected another spot and dug a little deeper. He found no water there either. So he gave up that spot and dug in yet another place. Again he was unsuccessful. Disgusted at his failure to find water, he finally gave up his efforts.
Trishul: Now, let me complete the story! So, Master said that if that man had patiently dug at one place, he would have found water. The same is the case with anyone who changes his faith continually. By having an ishta-devata one can progress and reach the goal.
Swamiji: I really appreciate you, boys! How I wish all the children would attend our Sunday Classes!
Today begins the nine-day Sri Rama navami celebrations in our Centre culminating in the Navami on 24 March, 2010. A special havan will be performed at the noon. Here is the schedule for my Talks:
Many countries have their own National Youth Days. In South Africa, National Youth Day is celebrated on 16 June every year. Each country has its own reasons to celebrate it. India has its National Youth Day on 12 January which is the birthday of our illustrious leader Swami Vivekananda. Here in South Africa we, the Ramakrishna devotees, celebrate South African Youth Day on 16 June and in January, we have an half-day Retreat program for the youth in commemoration of Swami Vivekananada’s birth day. The Sunday, 24 January 2010, was chosen by the youth members of our Centre to commemorate the 147th birth anniversary of Swamiji. Despite the sweltering heat and humidity on that day, a hundred eager youth attended the specially arranged Youth Retreat. This Retreat – not definitely ‘an act of moving back’ but proceeding progressively ‘going ahead’ ! I am glad to present a Report, penned – nay! composed in a Word Processor as the modern youth are wont to – by Chetan Ramlall who is a youth member of the Centre here. Images courtesy: ‘Kamal’
The programme began at 9:00am sharp, when the youth had assembled in the main shrine hall of the Ramakrishna Temple. After the soulful rendition of bhajans and kirtans like Parama dayaal, Swamijiki jeevan gaathaa and moorta maheshwaraby the ashram’s Ramakrishna Choir, the youth were treated to another feast.
Revered Pravrajika Divyanandaprana Mataji, a respected sannyasini (nun) of Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineshwar, near Kolkata, India, delivered a Talk. She has come to South Africa on a visit and has been staying at Sri Sarada Devi Ashram at Asherville. Notwithstanding the topic entitled – Swami Vivekananda’s Message to the Youth – undoubtedly appealing, the manner in which the learned Mataji eloquently explained Swamiji’s simple 5 step formula to success, was truly awe-inspiring. The formula as enumerated by her was to combine the Five ideas : Goal orientation, Faith in oneself, Service to others, Clean and disciplined habits and Concentration. The first session concluded with meditation and prayers.
After a short tea break, the youth reassembled in the Swami Nischalananda Hall, where they waited to a very informative Seminar.
Brother Nikhil Ramdass, who matriculated last year, spoke on ‘Will power and a Disciplined Mind’ with a firm conviction. His recommendations were : identifying priorities, increasing inner vigilance, adopting time saving methods and avoiding meaningless talks.
Sister Jessica Thakurpersadh, spoke next on ‘Sri Alasinga Perumal’, one who was referred by Swami Vivekananda as ‘My dearest disciple’. She explained in detail how Alasinga was the initial instrument for promoting Swamiji’s attending Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Fired with zeal and fortified with faith in himself and God, how Alasinga started and ran successfully an English journal that preached Vedanta as propounded by Swamiji, was the rest of her illuminating speech.
The final speaker was brother Yashmille Raghunundan, who spoke on ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Secret of Work’. He narrated the ‘secret’ at three levels – physical, intellectual and spiritual. He also explained how this concept was closely linked to the eternal teaching of Bhagavad Gita. Yashmille’s powerful exposition was spiced with an interesting Presentation of a slide show.
If I say that the youth really learnt a lot, would definitely be an under-statement. The program then passed on to a cultural item.
Dance is one of the most ancient of Hindu art forms, and among the most beautiful. After the Seminar, the girls of the Sri Sarada Devi Ashram performed a captivating Kathak Dance. It was truly inspiring and once again reminded us all the lasting beauty of our long standing culture.
Thereafter, Dr H.B Parbhoo, a senior devotee and presently the General Secretary of the Centre, gave a short discourse on, ‘Lessons the Youth can learn from the 1860 settlers’. It was truly eye-opening and simply remarkable to learn about the plight of our fore-fathers when they landed here as an ‘indentured labour’, and their great struggle to survive in this foreign land of Natal, under the unsympathetic, iron-fist rule of the British. Even though they were treated like scum, they rose above the challenges and hardships, and slowly but surely, they managed to set up an infrastructure, headed by faith in God, where the Indian community would start to flourish. This Talk indeed brought out in full measure the importance of the unfailing traits that the early settlers possessed.
Following this deeply touching Talk, the youth were treated to a DVD presentation. It was part one of a four-part ‘Message to the Youth’, delivered by Sri Swami Bodhamayanandaji Maharaj, a youth monk of the Ramakrishna Order, now in Chennai Centre. Maharaj’s words were like gold, and the youth were simply hanging on to his every syllable. Maharaj addressed various issues and problems affecting the youth in modern times. Methods and techniques for overcoming these problems were alluded to. He used copious teachings of the Holy Trinity, especially that of Swami Vivekananda, as he guided the youth with his powerful voice and charged words.
After the DVD, it was time for the much awaited Question and Answer session. A panel of three, consisting of Revered Sri Swami Vimokshanandaji Maharaj, Dr. HB Parbhoo, and Mrs Rakhi Beekrum, were in the hot seat. Between them, they astutely handled all the questions posed by the youth.
After a very rejuvenating rendition of the Centre’s Anthem, and the concluding Vedic prayers, we had come to the end of what was truly an inspiring, educational and fulfilling day. The youth offered their pranams (prostrations) to Revered Maharaj, and after partaking of prasad, in the form of lunch, they made their way home from the Retreat, feeling ‘going ahead’ in their pursuit of their chosen path…