When we first began to explore Eastern Philosophy in 1971, my husband and I were in our mid-twenties and earnestly in search of Spiritual meaning to our life amidst the upheavals of the era. The Vietnam War protests and voting rights for 18-year-olds, Women’s demand for equality, Civil rights and fiery racial unrest, Earth Justice, Political assassinations, Watergate and intense partisan polarization. America was awash in uncertainty then, much as we are today.
Particularly after the dramatic changes of Vatican Council II (1962-1965) many of us who were raised Catholic began to seriously question our faith. We looked elsewhere for inspiration and guidance. While reading various books of the Wisdom of the Far East, my husband and I were introduced to amazing, eye-opening concepts of Divinity, of reincarnation and the purpose of our many lifetimes in this material realm.
By the time we found M’s Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in the spring of 1974, we knew we needed a Guru to help us understand and navigate our quest for inner Enlightenment. We had tried a year of mail-order lessons with an East Indian teacher, which proved to be disappointing and inadequate without personal contact and the opportunity to learn by example and observation.
Mahendranath Gupta (M) was a householder disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who wrote the Gospel from his firsthand experience of the manifestations of ecstatic Spirituality and purity he was privileged to witness in his Guru. We were deeply attracted. I was particularly drawn to the Master’s worship of God as Divine Mother Kali. This was a thrilling revelation for me at the time, pivotal actually.
That summer the New York Vedanta Society informed us of the address of the Portland Vedanta Society, when they sent a book of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings which we had ordered from them. At the time we lived in the foothills of Mt Hood, but my husband worked in downtown Portland and used his lunch hour to locate the Temple on SE 55th. He walked past it a couple times, before getting up the courage to knock at the door, which was opened by a somewhat disheveled Swami Asheshanada. “Come on in” he said gruffly, as if he had been expecting him!
At the time Swami was in the process of giving an interview in the foyer and encouraged my husband to bring his family to attend the Sunday lectures, which we did. Our three young children soon joined the fledgling Sunday school and in October we both received initiation from Swami Asheshanandaji during Durga Puja season. We were each given japa beads and a sacred secret mantra to calm and edify the mind and to center the heart. We had our Guru in the flesh! We had taken the first decisive steps on our lifelong journey of Spiritual practices. And we had a teacher dedicated to our spiritual well-being even in future births. We had no idea how very fortunate we were to have been accepted by Swami, who gave his all to the devotees. Nor did we fully appreciate the nature of the work ahead of us.
We continued to read works such as the translation of Hindu classics as well as the writings of Swami Vivekananda. What a thrilling message Swamiji gave to Americans in 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of Religions when he said, “Sisters and Brothers of America, it is a sin to call a man a sinner.” Now that was certainly a far cry from the confessional angst which had dominated my parochial childhood!
We also received a great deal of inspiration from reading the lives and works of the other direct disciples and for me especially from reading about Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, the wife and spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna, who worshipped Her as the Goddess Saraswati. Holy Mother became my role model of how to be a stay-at-home householder devotee, seeing work as worship, repeating my mantra, filling my heart with Her essence, practicing loving non-attachment, saluting the Divine spark in all life. She was my Guru’s Guru, “a cat in the ashes” Swami would say.
Revered Swami Asheshanada was initiated in 1917 by Sri Sarada Devi who carried on the Spiritual lineage of Sri Ramakrishna after his MahaSamadhi. Swami’s lectures were laced with beautiful anecdotes about Holy Mother, amid the wisdom of the Vedas and the teachings of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swamiji’s writings etc.
In his generally unstructured Sunday lectures, Swami always seemed to know my unspoken concerns, for which he provided an answer, as I’m sure he gave encouragement to everyone. He loved to sit with and answer devotee’s questions everywhere and whenever the opportunity arose! Swami also granted personal interviews in which one met him upstairs in his austere room and we asked questions in private. But he did not let us take the dust of his feet, for which I commend him. He truly walked his talk of keeping the ego in check.
In 1982 we moved to within a mile of the Portland Vedanta Temple, and I was privileged to attend daily worship and meditation, evening vespers and to participate in karma yoga. Mostly we did some light gardening before the noon meditation time, which preceded the actual worship performed by Swami around 1:30. Afterward, often joined by out-of-town guests, we sat in the foyer, where we received blessed food called prasad from Swami’s own hand and asked him questions then listened to his words of wisdom and inspiration. There were many visitors over the years who were drawn to Swami, seeking Spiritual guidance and initiation.
Several women devotees and I were each assigned certain days of the week to prepare items for the daily puja. And many devotees as well participated in preparing for the major festivals of the Divine Mother Durga, Kali and Lakshmi and the birthdays honoring Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and the direct disciples such as Swami Vivekananda. On those occasions we started days beforehand polishing, cleaning, preparing.
By the morning of the puja day, there was a palpable energy radiating from our wizard-like Swami and our collective focus on this ritual. Large trays full of fragrant flowers, all sorts of food dishes artfully presented, spirals of sandalwood incense, the collected heat of votive candles, and our sincere prayers were laid at the feet of beautifully garlanded images. Swami was utterly absorbed while ringing the bells, chanting in Sanskrit, waving the yak’s tail, the lights and the incense wands, a pure mystical expression of blissful devotion. At the end we devotees could offer our own flowers before the altar deities, and sometimes a song or musical offering was then made as well.
After the food offerings were quickly cleared for later devotee consumption, there followed an ancient Vedic Homa Fire rite performed by Swami using the spotlessly clean fireplace in the lecture hall. During the very precise ceremony, in which even the kindling wood had to be laid in a meaningful pattern, Swami offered into the crackling fire several items including melted butter and a banana, accompanied by Sanskrit chanting. The offerings to the flames represented purification of the ego. When the fire was extinguished but still sizzled and smoked, we all stood and chanted in English these powerful words repeated after Swami “I… who am an embodied being… no matter what I might have thought, said or done… in my waking, in my dreaming, in my deep sleep… I offer up myself and all that I am to Brahmin…”
I will only say that such profoundly reflective moments with my Guru, and there were many, gave me a genuine sure-footed grounding. The rich soil of these real-life experiences nourished the seeds of absolute Faith that my Bhakti path is real and worthy, is what I came for, and is the best of blessings.
Another gift I received early on from Swami was the Devi Mahatmayam, the 700 verses in praise of “She Who Removes All Difficulties”, also known as Chandi. Originally an ancient forest dwellers oral teaching, one must read Chandi aloud, in the morning before eating. Divided into three episodes, the increasingly subtle battles take place between the sneeringly aggressive Asuric armies of all forms of negative
Thoughts and great Egos, against the all-powerful Divine Mother Durga, with Her many manifestations, including Kali “The Remover of Darkness.” The Goddesses use weapons such as the arrow of speech, bow of determination, the net of unity, the battle-axe of good actions, the pike of concentration, the club of articulation, the discus of revolving time, the sword of worship. Ultimately, the Divine Mother Durga laughs as she removes all difficulties and restores the three worlds into balance and harmony. Peace reigns in all the quarters for all colors, tribes and castes. I do love that ending!
During my years of reading Chandi, I never imagined I would be experiencing firsthand this allegorical battle going on today in America between the forces of darkness and light, the distortions of reality and bold-faced lies hurdled throughout the internet and believed by millions. There is openly callous indifference to the suffering of others. The haughty have an attitude of entitlement to their individual liberty at the expense of the vulnerable in society, and ironically ultimately to their own detriment as well. Deep rooted cultural prejudices undermine the search for reconciliation and understanding, for healing. Waves of anger, fear, and hostility follow the trails of rampant misinformation intended to create chaos.
In my home I have a long-time dedicated shrine room filled with pictures and images, relics, wands and candles, in which I read Chandi and meditate, cast spells and pray for Gaia and for all the creatures who call this world home. I try to keep my heart full of love for all mankind and think good thoughts, but the recent overtly hateful and perverse behavior of so many prominent politicians, has taken its toll on my generally tolerant nature. It’s not easy to stay centered within oneself, while our planet is roasting, an increasingly virulent virus shrouds the land, racism is rampant and overblown egos with unbridled greed still dominate significant aspects of our teetering Democracy. The war of words and ideas is upon us. Our collective mind does create our environment, for good or evil, we each matter.
We humans learn spiritual lessons throughout lifetimes of experiences in the material world. Even those trying to destroy the Good, will eventually evolve to a higher state of awareness, in which they experience the ultimate teaching of Vedanta, that we are all equally valid faces of one Divinity, worthy of respect. We are each Divine. There is nothing but Divinity! Bow then to the Divine spark.