Celebration of Divinity
It was indeed a magnificent setting for a momentous occasion. The place was Rishikesh in Northern India, one of the holiest places in the world and an all-time favoured destination of saints, sadhus and seekers, since time immemorial. ‘Rishi’ and ‘kesh’ – the name itself is a pictorial incantation evocative of a sage, a rishi, a sadhu with matted locks (kesha), deep in contemplation. The venue was Vanprastha Ashram, an extremely clean, spacious, warm and welcoming Ashram nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas where the winter meditation camp conducted by Her Holiness Anandmurti Gurumaa was taking place.
The placid Ganges with its pebbled banks flowed close by, just as it has for thousands of years, its musical lilt ever-present in the tumultuous quietude. The backdrop of high mountains covered with green foliage wreathed in early morning mist, saffron flags mounted atop temples fluttering gaily in the fresh air, tiny village huts dotting the landscape and of course, the unique energy of Rishikesh does not fail to cast a spell on even the most casual holiday visitor. Over the ages, thousands of seekers have meditated here and experienced an inner awakening. The throbbing and pulsing divine vibrations of this sanctified atmosphere continue to charge this place, pulling seekers from all over the world to its spiritual bosom.
The special event at Rishikesh was a bhandara on the 25th of December 2009, hosted by Anandmurti Gurumaa. The venerable Sant Ram Kripalu Maharaj, a dear revered friend of Gurumaa was also present to oversee the elaborate arrangements. Bhandara is a huge gathering of people for the purpose of being served a feast. This particular bhandara was especially for sadhus, to honor and felicitate them, commemorating the time-honored, age-old Indian tradition of the sadhu way of living.
“The sadhu way of life embodies one of the highest ideals a human being can aspire to and moreover, attain.” It is simple living and high thinking actually put into practice, each moment, everyday. It encourages a life of rigorous inner discipline, devotion, prayer and love for God/Guru to the exclusion of everything else. It means extinguishing all desire but the one for darshan of Truth. It implies an unquenchable thirst for true knowledge, which breaks the shackles of ignorance of the conditioned mind. It presupposes a life born out of an inner yearning to grow and evolve, to be completely nurtured and fulfilled from within. It means going beyond mind and being reborn anew, in Supreme Self.
A beautiful tent was erected; carpeted white sheets lent a sober yet elegant and dignified ambience to the entire dining area. Elaborate seating arrangements were made as per the Indian tradition of serving and dining, using patals (plates woven from leaves) and kasore (earthen cups). These were arranged in symmetrical rows on a raised platform draped in spotless white and decorated with colorful flowers.
One hundred and eight sadhus had been invited for this bhandara, a very auspicious number. It was a solemn, heart-warming sight indeed to see so many holy men as they quietly walked in and took their seats. Sadhus of all age groups, from different traditions as well as some from overseas too were present to grace the occasion. Once all were seated, Gurumaa and Ram Kripalu Maharaj together entered the pandal, and the ceremonial proceedings began.
Tilak (red vermillon paste) was lovingly applied on the forehead of all the sadhus and they were garlanded by some of Gurumaa’s closest disciples. Just before the meal, the disciples went around with hot water for the sadhus’ hands to be washed. Vedic mantras in Sanskrit were chanted by the sadhus themselves and just before eating, some more prayers were chanted too.
As per Indian custom, when feeding saints and holy persons a certain protocol needs to be followed. Food becomes prasad, a consecrated offering, and thus it should be served very reverentially, with love and devotion. The subtle essence of the food we eat fashions our mind. Thus, the ancient saying, “We are what we eat!” holds true indeed. Food served and eaten in this spirit enriches both, the person eating and the person serving as well.
A sumptuous lunch followed, with Gurumaa Herself supervising and moving around, observing that all the invitees were being attended to appropriately. The disciples who were serving all wore caps, aprons, masks to cover their mouth and gloves to ensure that the food was served as hygienically as possible. These disciples were all extremely fortunate to be given an opportunity to serve such an august gathering.
After the meal was over, few of the sadhus spontaneously burst into singing bhajans as an expression of their love and gratitude towards Gurumaa. Some emotionally shared that they had heard Gurumaa’s discourses on television but had never envisioned that one day they would actually find themselves being felicitated by Her Holiness.
After the meal, once again Gurumaa’s disciples went around with water to wash hands of the sadhus. Some sadhus continued blissfully singing bhajans and later, Gurumaa personally went around distributing vessels, clothes, shawls and dakshina to all the sadhus. And thus, this solemn yet happy occasion came to an end with Gurumaa and Ram Kripalu Maharaj both personally present to see them off. With their characteristic humility and warm-heartedness, it was only after all the sadhus had been respectfully escorted out that, Gurumaa and Ram Kripalu Maharaj, both sat down to be served.