Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Course 2: Sanskrit and Puja/Homa Studies @ Veda Vijnana Gurukulam

I have been at Veda Vijnana Gurukulam for exactly two weeks now, and the time is seriously flying by. I have no idea where the days went, but I do know what I have done. And boy have these two weeks been eventful…


I arrived on February 5th a little after 10:30 AM, with Ashwin Mama, my mom, and my grandma. As soon as we arrived I got a good feeling about the place. First of all, they were speaking in Sanskrit so that was cool. Second of all, it was so peaceful… I can hardly explain it in words. It’s just something you feel, like, a certain light-heartedness without a cause. It’s really nice. They took me to where my room was, saying that they had made “arrangements” for my stay. When I saw the room I was really relieved. It was a nice room with a bed, desk, place to put my stuff, and a sweet bathroom (western-style, thank God). Next they served us food, which was pretty good, so then we had an idea of what the food would be like. No complaints. We took a tour of the place, (in an English/Hindi medium) and then basically chilled out for a bit. Since I could not drink the water, Ashwin Mama went to the nearest market and picked me up 12 1-Liter bottles of Aquafina water. Afterwards we said our good-byes and they left.


When they left, I had no idea what to do. I went to talk to the Acharya (teacher) in charge of me during my stay here, whose name is Mahabaleshwar Acharya. He told me not to worry and that we would start classes that night itself. By this time it was lunch, 1:00 PM. After lunch, I took a nap because I was so tired. At around 4:45 PM Mahabaleshwar Acharya came to my room to give me my stuff and tell me what my schedule would be like. He gave me a veshti, also known as a dhoti, which is traditional Indian leg-wear. It’s essentially a huge piece of cloth, which you wrap around your waist and that’s it. I’ll put pictures up later. I told him I didn’t know how to wear it, and he showed me. It took me a few days to get used to it but now to be honest it’s my most comfortable piece of clothing. He took me to the yajnashaalaa (I’ll explain in a second) where there was an Acharya sitting, teaching a class. He then told me to sit somewhere on the side and he left, only to come back with some kumkum (pronounced koomkoom, with the “oo”s as in “cook”) which he put on my forehead. When the class was over, Mahabaleshwar Acharya brought me in front of this other Acharya (his name is Arvinda Acharya, I later found out) and sat me down. Arvinda Acharya told me that he would be chanting certain parts of the Vedas, and I would have to repeat it. I did as he told, and I guess I did well, because he gave this approving type of nod with eyebrows raised to Mahabaleshwar Acharya (Mahabal Acharya for short). This, he informed me, would be my Veda chanting class. Next Mahabal Acharya told me that there would be one class at 7:00 PM with the first-year students here, called Kaavyakakshyaa (poetry class). So in the meantime I practiced wearing my veshti and eventually got the hang of it.


I’ll take this moment to describe the layout and feel of the place. My room is located in a biggish building with a huge hall in it and basically that’s it. By the way, everything is connected to the outdoors. What that means is that every building has some sort of opening or whatever to the outdoors, whether that means lots of windows (without glass, obviously) or just literally no closure from the outdoors (huh?)… I know it’s hard to understand, but I will put up pictures in a later post (yes, I promise I am taking them) and then you can see what I mean. As you step out, there is a rectangular field of just dirt. It is so… Indian. My building is on the south side of the field. On the west side, there are a few things. Starting from closest to my building and then moving to the farthest, there is a cow-shed, then the place where they wash their clothes, then their bathrooms, then the library, then the older students’ room, then the main office. Across the middle grounds from my building (the north side) are a few structures. Starting from closest to the main office and moving to the east side, first there is an octagonal building that is maybe 10 steps in diameter (very small), which has a roof but the walls only go halfway up which means that it is completely open to the outside. It’s one of the two “classrooms.” So basically, classes are held outside. How cool is that? It’s just like it was in the old days when teachers and students used to only study outside! Moving further east, about in the middle of the north-side structures, is another of that same type of building. North of this building, there is a pyramid-like structure, called a shikharni. It’s a really interesting concept. What a shikharni does is provide a place for meditation. It is designed to catch and hold cosmic energy. How this works I have no idea, but if you try to meditate in there, it’s just much easier for your mind to concentrate. More interestingly, they tried experiments here with milk and fruits where they put them, in open vessels, into the shikharni and they did not go bad for over a month!! Along the path from the second classroom to the shikharni is an Ayurvedic garden, with plants that have exceptional medicinal value. Of course, there is a saying that there is not a single plant that does not have medicinal value, but these are the really special ones. Moving further east from the shikharni, there is a kind of platform with a big tree growing there, where classes are held (yes, literally, under the tree). It is a Pipal (pronounced “people”) tree, and the special thing about this kind of tree is that unlike most trees, it produces oxygen 24 hours a day. Most trees produce carbon dioxide at night. How interesting right? This provides for better brain stimulation in that area, and I guess classes used to be held under Pipal trees in the old days, resulting in better learning overall. Moving still further east, there is a slightly bigger octagonal building (this one is maybe 20 steps in diameter) called a yajnashaalaa where they conduct their morning prayers and any sort of programs. The east side of the Gurukulam grounds is taken up by the living quarters of the younger students (4th year and down). Coming back around full-circle, just east of the building I live in  (the southeast corner of the middle ground) is the kitchen in which are the biggest pots I’ve ever seen. They are used to make food for around 70 people at a time, and it’s just such an amazing concept. Next to the kitchen is a big sink essentially with about 10 faucets next to each other all along it. There we wash our plates and cups before and after eating. We eat in the building I live in.


I feel like I have jumped about 5000 years into the past. The classes are held outside and everyone is just unbelievably nice. And they all know SO MUCH. And it’s all in their heads. How do they do it? I don’t know, but somehow in this atmosphere that kind of learning just automatically comes to you. I guess the pressure is such. My Sanskrit is quite refined now, and it’s the only language I can really communicate in here. The funny thing is, they all want to learn English from me! I’m teaching just as much as I am learning here. It’s quite the most amazing learning community experience I’ve ever had. Everything is so laid back, but somehow there is a sense of discipline (the day officially starts at 4:30 AM but activity starts here at 3:00 AM). No matter how tired I am, I still want to study. I love learning this stuff. However much I can gain over here I want to gain. I’ve found inspiration, or motivation, or whatever else you might call it. It’s nice.


Anyways so I went to my first class at 7:00 PM in one of the classrooms. It was terrible. First of all, I didn’t have a little carpet (they carry around a little 1.5 x 2 ft carpet everywhere they go because they lay that on the ground and sit on it) so someone had to go running to get me one. Second, I didn’t understand anything, and when the other students didn’t understand, the teacher would explain everything in Cannada (the language of Karnataka, India… not Canada) and I was just more lost. After the class, I went to my room just in time to get ready for dinner. At dinner, I was placed in the furthest corner (the “guest” spot) of the room to sit and eat. When they eat, they put a few long mats on the ground that are about 2 feet wide and sit on them. Their plates they just put in front of them and eat like that with their hands. It’s quite interesting actually. So you can imagine how much practice I am getting eating with my right hand! It’s pretty nice actually. But I was kind of shy to ask for more food because I didn’t know who was who. Then the guy sitting next to me helped me out. This was apparently his spot, because he sat next to me at lunch too. I later found out that he is actually in charge of the way the food service runs, and especially when guests come. His name is Arvinda Prasada, and he’s awesome. But we’ll get to that later. After dinner, I had some free time. My schedule was still not finalized but whatever, it happens. I was not the happiest camper yet. I loved the atmosphere and the people, but the classes part I was still unsure about. A little later, some of the students came to talk to me. We chatted, but my Sanskrit was still not that great. I was trying, but I could feel my self getting stuck in many places. I met these kids and then finally after about 30 or 40 minutes of them talking and me pathetically trying to keep up, they left.


That night was quite possibly the worst night of my life. I could not sleep because there were so many mosquitoes, and because of the sound that they make (in India mosquitoes are so big that they seriously sound like little jet engines when they come near you). And I could feel them biting me, and I suddenly became very aware (you would too) of the fact that I could catch malaria at any point. I decided right then that I would never forget my malaria (once-a-week, on Mondays) protection medicine. But I stayed awake, and finally it was about 3:00 AM when I decided that I would turn the light on, and the fan on, and then sleep. That way, I could not hear the mosquitoes, and even if I slept at least the bugs would be attracted to the light. So by around 4:30 AM I slept. It was painful but it happened. The next day I awoke at 6:00 AM and ran to the Morning Prayer at the yajnashaalaa, again without a little carpet (which again someone had to get for me). This time I kept the little carpet with me when I left. I went back, took a bath, and came back to my room.


I still had no schedule, and no one was telling me what to do or where to go, so I had nothing to go off of. It was finally time for breakfast. I ate in my same “guest” spot. I noticed that they always brought out my plate and cup for me before I got there, and I thought that I should be doing this myself. I was not about to spend a month being treated like this, even if this is Indian culture. They really believe that if they give more than they take, it’s fine, so if they were able to serve me in this way then it was good for them (we treat guests like God, it’s our culture… what can I say?). But I am also American, and I believe in doing my own work myself. So I informed them that I would be bringing my own plate from now on. They did not agree, but they said “Ok for now.” I ate and afterwards I did not know what to do, so again I went to my room. At 11:30 AM, Mahabal Acharya came to get me, saying that it was class time. I said alright, let’s go, and we went. And the coolest thing happened. Where did we go? We went to a tree and sat under it. Literally. It was the most amazing feeling because right at that moment I realized where I was. Again. And it struck me that this was going to be an interesting month, whether I liked it or not. Anyways he told me that this class would be my Puja Homashcha Kakshyaa, which would begin with him telling me how to do a puja properly and why we do it and the theory behind our rituals, and later on the class would move into the practicals of performing a homa, which means invoking the power of a particular God I wish to call upon. I enjoyed our first class, because it was pretty interesting – he is not very good at English, and I am not very good at Sanskrit. But since the class was in a Sanskrit medium, I was forced to keep up. I knew right then that whether I liked it or not, and whether I knew it or not, my Sanskrit would improve without a doubt. After the class I went back to my room. Again it was time to eat, so I went to go eat lunch. After lunch again I went to my room, and I was determined to find something to do. So I busied myself with tidying up my room and basically unpacking (which I still have not fully done, because there is nowhere to really unpack my stuff). For the longest time, nobody came.


Finally two students came to talk to me about some math because the previous night they had found out that I am studying math in school. We talked about math for a little while, and while we were there, Rakesh Acharya, the other Acharya (besides Mahabal Acharya) who was in charge of my stay, came to the room. He said, (in Sanskrit) “You missed your Veda chanting class today, which was supposed to be at 2:30 PM but it is not good to leave a class on the second day so you will be taught today by someone or other at 4:45 PM, come to the yajnashaalaa.” I did not know what he had said, so when he left I asked these two students who came to my room (Keshava and Ananta Sharma) what he said. They told me what it meant and I was like, HEY wait a minute, nobody told me that class would be at 2:30 PM, or I would have gone!!! (By this time it was around 3:30 PM). I was totally shocked, and right at this moment of weakness Keshava and Ananta Sharma left. I was kind of disoriented once again, because nothing was clear. Again I went to the main office and asked for a schedule. They said they would print it out for me and give it to me. I said Ok, fine, whatever you say. At 4:45 PM I went to my Veda chanting class. The same main Arvinda Acharya was there, teaching the same class, but this time at the end of the class he did not stay there. Instead another student, whose name I later found out is Shrivatsa, attended to me. He told me that from now on he would be my teacher for Vedic chanting. As it turns out, he is extremely good at it, which I guess is why they gave him the responsibility of teaching me. After that class, I went back to my room. I rested for a while and then at 7:00 PM it was time for my kaavyakakshyaa. I realized that this class was way too advanced for me, and decided that later I would tell Mahabal Acharya that I could not attend this class even if I wanted to. That night I went to Rakesh Acharya and told him that I needed a schedule, even if it was liable to change (they had told me to be flexible), because that way I could know when to do what. He said he’d type it up and give it to me. I had also informed them about the mosquito thing, and they put “All-Out” in my room. It is something like “plug-ins” or whatever, and it basically repels mosquitoes from the room that it is plugged in. So that night I slept very well.


The next day Rakesh Acharya did exactly what he said he would do. He gave me a schedule, which was totally cool. I told him I could not do the kaavyakakshyaa and he said that was fine. I asked him if I could instead take another class at that time. He said that was fine too. He asked me what class I might like to have at that time, and I told him that whatever he put there would be fine, and maybe if I could study some extra Sanskrit that would be cool. He said that would be fine and from 7 to 8 PM then my class would be sambhaashanam which means “good language,” literally. Arvinda Prasada Agraja (agraja = elder, it’s just a way of showing respect in Sanskrit, like how we say “bhaiya” or “uncle”). It was the third day and finally I had a schedule! He said that if anything was not right for me, or if I needed more classes or less classes that I should tell them. I said that I would. For lunch on the third day, which was February 7th (my dad’s birthday), we went to the inauguration of a temple nearby. There was a huge crowd there and the lunch they were serving was on banana leaves!! Imagine this – someone puts a leaf in front of you, and then sprinkles a little water on it. You have to rub it to clean it, and afterwards they put all your food on the leaf. And you eat off of it. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have had so far. It was so cool, and at the end, you simply fold your leaf upwards or downwards, and they come and clean it up. It was too cool.


The next day everyone asked me if I was ok and sleeping well and all that, and I told them that everything was fine. I had my Veda chanting class at 7:00 AM now instead of any other time, which I had arranged with Srivatsa Acharya. (I call whoever my teachers are “Acharya” because that’s just what you are supposed to call your teachers, even though they’re all only students too. BUT Arvinda Prasada I will call “Agraja” because if I say Arvinda Acharya you might get confused with Arvinda Acharya who did my original Veda chanting lesson/test thing. So I’ll stick with Arvinda Agraja.)


I heard someone playing the flute extremely well that day and so I went to Mahabal Acharya and asked him if I could learn how to play the flute. He said fine, no problem. That same day my flute lessons started.


Now let me tell you my schedule. It goes:


4:30 AM – Wake up

6:00 AM – Prarthna (Morning Prayer)

7:00 AM – Vedic Chanting – Srivatsa Acharya

8:00 AM – Breakfast

8:30 AM – Shrama Seva (cleaning up the grounds, etc.)

9:30 AM – Subhaashitani – Naagaraaja Acharya

10:30 AM – Break

11:30 AM – Puja Homashcha – Mahabaleshwar Acharya

12:30 PM – Yoganidra (nap before lunch)

1:00 PM – Lunch

2:30 PM – Sangeetam (Flute) – Shivaji Acharya

3:30 PM – Break

5:00 PM – Yoga – Bharata Acharya

6:00 PM – Shakha (Discipline)

6:15 PM – Break

7:00 PM – Sambhaashanam – Arvinda Agraja

8:00 PM – Dinner

8:30 PM – Vyaakarana – Tilaka Acharya

9:30 PM – Classes End


After 9:30 PM I can do whatever I want, unless people come to my room (which sometimes happens)… then I hang out with them for a while. Otherwise, there is so much work to be done it is unbelievable sometimes. And I do all of it, that’s the best part. I have never wanted to study this much in my life. It’s a great feeling, really. I know that I am doing this for me, and so it comes so naturally to me.


A few days later we went to go see Amritanandamayi Ma, or the “Hugging Saint” as she is sometimes known in foreign countries. She is also sometimes known as “Ammachi.” Over in America, we call her Ammachi. So I will call her that. We got a special reception because we were from the Gurukulam. They know us by the veshti that we wear. Everyone else wears pants. I didn't understand a thing Ammachi was saying because it was in Malayalam, and I didn't understand the translation either because it was in Cannada. But then one of my new friends sitting next to me translated it into English for me as Ammachi was talking. It was pretty sweet. She basically preaches that love is the only answer to anything. And not love in a physical sense, but a kind of love where you believe that everyone is your family. Then afterwards it was darshan time... I told them that my mom had met her before, and that her experience was incredible. I tried not to expect anything before getting darshan, but here is how it was: we were standing in a line to cue up for darshan. She was sitting on the stage, which was about waist-height. So she was just about as tall as everyone sitting down. The procession went up to her one at a time, got darshan, she whispered something into each person's ear and then the person was shoved aside. When it was my turn, I was all of a sudden bombarded with questions about my mother tongue. They asked, "Cannada? Cannada? Mothertongue??" and I was like, no... and somehow the first thing that came out of my mouth was "Sanskrit!!" but I don’t think they understood... so they asked again. And then I said "English!!" and they were like... "Hindi????" and I was like, oh my God... whatever... and by that time I was right in front of Ammachi. But before I got a chance to think, my head was pressed forward and down from behind and my face was essentially in Ammachi's lap. Then she whispered something that sounded like "mydohn mydohn mydohn" and then I came up. I looked at her face, and she looked at me, and let out this cackle of a laugh. I was confused and sort of angry because I didn't understand what she said, and then I was pushed away. That's pretty much where it ends. I was confused afterwards... but what can you do? It just happens that way sometimes. Oh well. It wasn’t a waste though, when I was actually NEAR her the feeling inside my stomach was incredible. Or actually it was all over my body. I just felt like I could lift off the ground at any moment. It was really different… But anyways, so I saw Ammachi.


Then, starting from the third day onwards I started teaching as well. Here is a part of my stay here that is the most different than any of the learning communities I have ever been a part of. I am teaching here just as much as I am learning. Honestly. I am teaching English to two people, piano to two people, Tae Kwon Do to one person, computers to one person, and it’s amazing. I have shown them some a cappella music and they ALL want to start a group here in the Gurukulam. The cool thing is that they ALL sing. It’ll be really hard to get it down to 15 or so people. I am teaching one guy how to lead the group so that when I leave it can run on its own. We’re still deciding on a name I think. Anyways it’s such a cool environment because there’s so much to do! Learn, teach, meditate, do yoga, explore, etc.


For the first few days I observed something: before lunch and dinner, everybody did some interesting sort of ritual, where they took water into their hand from their cup and then sprinkled it into their plate a little bit, and then took some more water into their hand, and made a little circle of water around the plate on the ground. Then they took a few grains of rice and put it on the ground next to their plate, and did some little mantra and then started eating. I asked Arvinda Agraja (who at this point still sat next to me at meals) what they were doing. He said they would teach me later. On the fourth day, I asked again and he said, “Oh, they still haven’t taught you?” so I said no and he said that he would tell them to teach me on that day. But then at dinner I told him they still hadn’t taught me and he said that he asked the Acharyas there to teach me but they had said that I needed what is known as an upanayanam before I could learn it. Why that is the case, I still don’t know but the upanayanam represents the transformation of the student from the material indulgences of the world to the world of spirituality in which he seeks the answers he has come to the Gurukulam to get. Upanayanam is literally a string of three threads that is wrapped around the body from the left shoulder down to the right hip, sort of like a messenger bag. But it’s just the thread. In the old days, young boys of 8 got this ceremony performed for them, to represent their passing from child to student when they went to Gurukulam. A Gurukulam is a spiritual school where a student goes to learn everything from a Guru. In ancient India, it was the only style of education there was.


In ancient India, there were three free things for everyone in the nation. One was education, second was food, and the third was medicine. How did they do this? I’ll get into that in my next post. I’ll also get into the details of what an upanayanam is in my next post. For now, I would just like to say that I think I will get this ceremony done because now, knowing what it means, I feel that I can protect what it stands for if I wear it. Before, I did not want to get it done because I did not know what it meant, and it didn’t really mean that much to me. I also saw that lots of other kids were getting it done, but THEY didn’t even know what it meant. They would get it done, have a big party with all their family over and stuff, and then a few days later take off the thread. I guess the gathering of the family is the main event, and the ceremony is only secondary. But now that I know what it means, I feel that I can protect it, and by protecting it, I feel that I can protect what is known as dharma. We’ll get into that later.


About five days ago, a man by the name of Arun Kankani came to the Gurukulam from America. He came from Houston, as one of the leaders of the HSS movement in America. HSS stands for Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and I will explain what they do in just a second. But first let me mention something I have noticed in America. The Hindu people of America are very segregated amongst themselves based on the different organizations they belong to. How? Suppose I belong to organization A and someone else belongs to organization B, but we are both Hindu. A and B both have their own centers, their own places of worship. Within those places of worship, they teach the same concepts. However when I meet the person from B, I see a difference between us because he goes there and I go here. It is a common cause of disunity among Hindus of America. So Arun Kankani was explaining to me that HSS’s main goal is exactly that – to unite the Hindus of America with a common thread, Hinduism. But somehow I feel as though HSS is not fulfilling its goal because they have their own rituals that are different from everyone else. It is just another group. Feel free to email me with how you think we can help this cause. Not HSS, but the overall aim of uniting Hindus in America under the banner of Hinduism, and desegregating the different groups that exist. I would also like to say that the groups people attend should not exist, because in fact they are a great resource for support. But more than just going to one group everyone should also be able to understand that there is more to Hinduism than just organization A and B.




That same day, the Gurukulam students took a trip to the nearby school to watch some wrestling, and afterwards one of our 5th year students, Shankara Agraja, told a story to all of the students of that school (plus to us, and to the high school students from nearby). The experience was so interesting… I’ve never seen wrestling like this before. The kids would hold hands and then just pull each other (there was no padding or anything) and try to knock each other down. I later learned that the goal of the match was to touch the very center of the shoulder blades of one’s opponent to the ground (that is, the very bottom of the back of the neck). And this is no easy task. So we would watch them squirm and writhe on the ground trying to avoid letting their back touch the ground, while also trying to pin the other person down at the same time. It was very interesting… and REALLY funny. We all laughed so much! Later Shankara Agraja told a story in Cannada (so again I could not understand). But the amazing part about this is that Shankara Agraja did not know Cannada before he came to the Gurukulam. He is from Coimbatore, Tamilnadu (check the maps in my first blog post) and over there they speak Tamil and English. So when he came, he did not know Cannada OR Sanskrit at all, and now he’s a master of both. I’m so inspired by every single one of the students here it’s unbelievable.


And just two days ago, my sambhashanam class went from studying Sanskrit theory to studying Indian Logic. There is an interesting story about Stephen Hawking, who is said to have called a meeting with all the modern scientists of the world. There he said, we have discovered that atoms are not the smallest particles in the universe, and neither are protons, neutrons, electrons, or even quarks. Now the quest is to find out what makes up all of these atomic particles, because whatever it is, it is the same in everything. This is because EVERYTHING in the universe is made up of only protons, neutrons, and electrons, and all three of those are only made up of quarks. Now what makes up quarks? If we can determine this then we can find out the real substance behind the universe. But modern science is stumped by this question because they fail to acknowledge spirituality or the spiritual world as part of reality. Thus they cannot go deeper into their quest. But our ancient rishis of the past had dived much further into this subject than any modern scientist has. They were able to do this by searching inwards just as much as they explored outwards. They found that the subtlest matter within us is the same as it is within everything else. And THAT subtlest of subtle things is what we call Brahman. Of course I could talk for days on this subject, and I will continue to talk about it later, but for now I think this is enough... 


mary said...

VARUN, listen these posts are almost as long as my emails... i love them!!! keep it coming ...i can't believe the boat load of knowledge you are gaining!! it sounds so amazing!! don't take a second for granted, we love you and miss you SO much at SLU!! come home soon!!!



Anonymous said...

Varun! i want to learn more about that last paragraph. the one about what makes up the world not necessarily being some other newer smaller subatomic physical particle. i have been thinking very much on this topic and have read some interesting books and i have been thinking along the same lines. that there is a lack of spirituality and consciousness from the make up of everything. and i believe it must be there because there is nothing that makes us (homosapien) that different from anything else that we might be able to think. and so i have been trying to figure where that line may be, and ive been thinking that maybe/probably that that line doesnt exist and that everything has a consciousness and a spirituality and id love very much to learn about how this fits into the sprititual learnings that you are experiencing. VERY MUCH.

also, i want to ask if you remember a girl from neuqua valley our freshman year. amy elliot? yes/no? i am dating her again, if you remember that story i think you would be very excited to hear this. i am feeling in fashions i have not done before.

i should email you so we can cover all topics in more detail.

sigh, i wish i was there!