Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chinmaya International Foundation

When you have an adventurous spirit and live in a foreign country by yourself, fun and exciting things are bound to happen. This effect is amplified if you have made lots of new friends in said foreign country, who also have adventurous spirits and are of the “anytime, anywhere” bend. The effect is even further amplified if those friends are scattered across the country and have a relatively strong grasp of their respective locations. Finally, the effect is maximized if you have the facility of traveling when and to where your friends invite you.


This is my life.


Previously, based on the advice of Guruji (a.k.a. Swami Tejomayananda; refer to the “Calcutta and Mumbai” post from October, I added to it a little bit – sorry!) I got in touch with Swami Advayananda, who is the resident Acharya at Chinmaya International Foundation (CIF). I actually know Swami Advayananda from before, because I studied at Chinmaya International Residential School (CIRS) when I was 9 years old in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, during 5th grade. He was the resident Acharya at the time at CIRS, by the name of Brahmachari Samahit Chaitanya. We used to call him “Bhaiya” (older brother) there. I haven’t had any contact with him since then, and this is 12 years later. He has since then been upgraded to the status of “Swami” from “Brahmachari” and is now known as Swami Advayananda.


So I had sent him an email, and I was very happy to know that he remembered me from CIRS! Our communication was in Sanskrit, which was the coolest part. It is amazing how the world turns, and with each new turn comes a new adventure and a new (or long lost) connection. So many years later, and what a way to rediscover our relationship – through the medium of Sanskrit! He invited me to CIF, and told me that a good time to come would be from November 3rd to 5th, because that was when Guruji would be there with a host of campers who would be traveling with him on his tour through India. During those days, there would be a bunch of presentations about CIF, so it would be the best method for me to learn about CIF in a short amount of time. I subsequently arranged to travel to CIF from the 2nd to the 7th of November.


On the night of November 1st I took a bus from Sringeri to Bangalore, from where I planned to fly to Cochin, Kerala. When I got on the bus, the guy who would be sitting next to me helped me put my stuff under my seat. He was speaking fluent English, so my curiosity was piqued (because nobody in Sringeri speaks English). I asked him where he was from, and he said he was from Bangalore. I asked him what he was doing in Sringeri. He said he was there with a group of about 30 other people (they were all approximately my age, or up to only a few years older), and they were all visiting Sringeri as a kind of field trip, to see the different temples and important spots of this place. He said “Yeah, we’re actually a big group of us, and we’re part of an organization – you may have heard of it – called Chinmaya Mission…” And the rest is history. Basically I immediately became one with the group, and was received as their long lost friend from Chicago. They were all amazed that I was also part of Chinmaya Mission pretty much since birth, and it gave us all a chance to reflect on how wide the spread of this organization is. We became friends instantly, and the overnight journey to Bangalore was a much more comfortable one than I thought it was going to be. I told them I was in fact on my way to CIF, another Chinmaya location! When we reached Bangalore, they all helped me find a bus from the Majestic (the bus stand I wrote about earlier, refer to the posts I wrote while in Bangalore) to Bangalore International Airport, from where I was flying to Cochin. We parted ways when I got on that bus, and I was left with such a beautiful feeling of connectedness to the world. This is just one of the benefits of being part of such a major worldwide organization. This particular incident was so random, but so welcomed. I am still amazed that it happened!


It was the flight from Bangalore to Cochin – as I mentioned in an earlier post – that inspired me to keep writing on this blog. While we were in the air, I saw mountains that reached up beyond the foggy morning mist that surrounded them, and it was this particular incident that touched me somewhere deep in my heart. I decided that I would not quit writing about my experiences in India. Sometimes you just have to take a flight to find inspiration. As a friend and teacher of mine once said, to fly is the most freeing sensation that one can feel. I experienced the truth of this statement up in the air between Bangalore and Cochin that day, and I am grateful for it. I will never forget the sight of endless mountains outside my window, all defiantly reaching up into the sky to extend beyond the fog that attempted so earnestly to capture them. Their majesty, their steadfastness, and their eternal appeal to the sun to shine down upon them made me understand that there is much more to life than simply the tasks we set out in front of us. We have so much to experience before we die; not just this time, but time and time again in lives past, present, and future. Let us not forget about the millions of experiences waiting to be had by us as we spend our lives doing the small tasks we appoint for ourselves!


And it is with this inspiration that I continue to write.


When I arrived at Cochin International Airport in Kerala on the 2nd, I took a taxi to CIF. The Chinmaya International Foundation is located in Veliyanad, Edakkattuvayal Village, Ernakulum District, Kerala. The actual location of the Foundation is known as Adi Shankara Nilayam, the birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya (more about Adi Shankaracharya here). It was evening by this time, so I went to go meet Swami Advayananda in his room. He received me with warmth such as I have almost never experienced before. It was as if I was truly meeting an older brother after 12 years! He had really not forgotten me – he told me stories of things I used to do, or that he and I used to do while I was at CIRS. He and I went on a walk outside, and that very evening he showed me the birth room of Adi Shankaracharya (“Adi Shankara” for short). This room has been converted to a small meditation chamber, with a lamp that is lit 24/7 inside it, and is located in the original maternal ancestral home of Adi Shankara. The entire home is actually a nice place to just sit and meditate, but the birth room is especially potent with vibrations conducive to meditation. I already felt at home in the presence of Swami Advayananda.


My first full day at CIF was spent entirely in preparation for Guruji and the incoming campers (who were mostly coming from the USA and Canada, though some were from other countries and some were from within India itself). I was fortunate to already gain an opportunity to serve! I helped out as much as I could. In that time I learned quite a bit about the layout of the place, and met lots of people who work there. I don’t speak Malayalam (the language of Kerala) but I’ve learned the art of communicating with gestures since coming to Sringeri. As a result, I made lots of friends and connections right away – I already loved the place, but boy was there a lot in store for me!


The next couple of days were spent with the campers who came with Guruji on the Chinmaya Dham Yatra (which is when travelers go around India learning about the different Chinmaya Mission projects going on). During these days, there were an innumerable amount of presentations about CIF and the current ongoing projects there; I learned all about CIF in just two days, which is why Swami Advayanandaji had invited me there during this time in the first place – good planning! I learned about many different opportunities for involvement, saw presentations on many projects, watched an inspirational talk about the importance of Sanskrit, and ate lots of good food!


Naturally, I visited the library as well, where the real research goes on… I was absolutely amazed by this place. It is very well furnished, and the books are arranged by topic, rather than by “call number” or any codes. Unsurprisingly, I spent a good few hours just browsing the books and looking at different topics that were available. I must go back to this place some day… It was fascinating. For the first time, I saw and touched a real manuscript that must have been at least a couple of hundred years old. I saw the instruments used for writing, and was amazed to learn that it was all written on leaves! Imagine – even 200 years ago, (but I’m talking about times immemorial – 5000 years ago even), in ancient India, the method for doing things was so different from the way we do things now. Everything was natural. They used to use palm leaves as their parchment for writing, banana leaves as their plates for eating, clay for their pots and bricks (though the bricks from the Harappan civilization are still in almost perfect condition – from literally over 5000 years ago… How did they do that?), cow dung as their fuel, herbs and other natural ingredients (such as cow urine – check this out) as their medicines, neem branches (more about neem here) as their toothbrushes, and probably several things that we don’t even know about now.


And then look at how we live our lives – almost totally synthetic and virtual. Our medicines, our food, our clothes, our tools, our technology (the paper we write on is on a computer screen!), our transportation, even our bodies… what if we were to start living naturally again? That’s not to say that we give up our technology – for without technology, the world is a big and scary place – but perhaps if we start to consider the benefits of living more naturally (buying natural or organic food is probably the only way we can do that for now, because there are hardly more ways to be natural in today’s world… who would start brushing with a neem stick? Yet, we should “think natural”); perhaps we should consider the relationship between the amount of synthetic things in our lives and the lack of immunity in our bodies? In India, the level of immunity is much higher – why is that? I think it has to do with the fact that they are exposed to the elements throughout their lives. What is the benefit of living a synthetic life if we are essentially making ourselves weaker? Consider: why do we do what we do in the first place? We become educated so that we might get a job someday. We get a job so that we might make money and be eligible to get married someday. We get married, have kids, etc. to propagate the family line, have company, and essentially be productive members of society. We make money so that we may one day save it up and retire to live a peaceful life at home when we are too old to travel or simply when we’ve had enough of working. But what good is all of this if our immunity is sacrificed? What good is living a synthetic life if we cannot even go to foreign countries without the fear of becoming ill? What good is living with all the riches in the world if we are not even strong enough to face dirt and dust? The media controls a lot of our lives – they say things and we listen. Have we ever tried to do research on our own to find the truth behind marketing campaigns? Why do we have to be slaves to such advertising? Notice how it changes every month or two… What are we missing here? Is the world really “realizing” new things every month, or is there a plan behind it all? What happened to the natural life? People who were living just fine before Purell now feel the need to use it all the time for there is no “safety” without it. We must think before we make decisions or habits based on the media.


I am not saying that everyone should make radical changes in their lives, I am simply asking everyone to think about life a little bit as we live it. What is the meaning of life? Is it to master the stock market? Is it to lock oneself up in a perfectly “clean” room somewhere? Why do we do what we do? If we just think a little bit, I guarantee our lives will change on their own. Thinking is the key to a meaningful life.


…But I digress. Now back to the story…


During the stay of the campers, I was very happy to find that I knew a few of them! I also made new friends out of lots of Aunties and Uncles from back home (the States) and from other places around the world (for example, Singapore). I got to spend time with Guruji as well, which was an added bonus. After the campers left, the people who were still at CIF included Swami Advayananda, a few other Acharyas, people who work there, some volunteers who came to help with the camp (and some permanent volunteers), and me. I must say that the benefits of being part of and involved with a big organization like Chinmaya Mission are immeasurable. Everywhere we go we make friends in a very short amount of time because our base is the same, and of course we receive support from all over the world! The most amazing part is that our reach then spans the whole world. I have invites now to travel to so many new countries!


Later, we were joined by Brahmachari Samvid Chaitanya, who I had met in Varanasi the previous year (check out this post from Varanasi in March 2008)…  I was so surprised to see him! Amazingly, having met him before, I had a special connection with him – he was previously the Sanskrit Acharya at the Vedanta course in Mumbai. I was so glad he came, because we had become really good friends that day we had met in Varanasi (even though it was only one day!). To see him again was a real pleasure. We exchanged notes about what had happened since then to both of us… To have friends like this is indeed a boon – you meet when you meet, and exchange stories each time about what adventures transpired since last time you met. Lucky for me, as a result of my previous adventures in India (and my current ones), I have a plethora of these types of friends, scattered all over the country and around the world! It is indeed a real joy to look back at how far I have come since the first time I set out in December 2007… It has only been 2 years since then, and so much has happened! I hope I continue to have the opportunity to travel like this throughout my life.


One particularly good new friend I made during this trip was Shibani Didi. She was in the same batch as Shayur (refer to the post “The People I have Met in Varanasi” from March 2008 and the other March 2008 posts for info about Shayur) in the Vedanta course at Sandeepany. I call her Shibani Didi because she is truly like a didi (older sister) to me, and even though we only hung out for a week, I feel like she has become a friend for life. She invited me to come to Hyderabad in the beginning of January where she will be for a conference about a particular translation project (a program that uses Sanskrit as the medium between translating from one Indian language to another; the conference is about a new version of this program that will translate from English to Hindi… very interesting) called “Ausaaraka” (more about Anusaaraka here). Now I have an invite to visit Hyderabad! Totally excited… I hope I can make it out there.


When it was time for me to leave, I couldn’t believe I had only been at CIF for one week. It felt as though I had known these people my whole life (well, to be fair, I have known Swami Advayananda since I was 9… technically). I got my things packed and prepared to leave on the morning of November 7th. A taxi driver came to pick me up from CIF, and we left for the airport. When we got to the airport, I went inside to get checked in, but the people from GoAir (which was the airline I was flying) were not at their check-in counter! I went outside to the curbside counter and asked the girl what happened. She said that since there was only half an hour (half an hour! And I didn’t even have any check-in baggage) left before the flight, I could not go inside anymore. I told her that I did not have any check-in baggage, and I could just run to the gate (which was literally right around the corner – the airport is not huge). She said there was nothing she could do, as the people had left their counter. I told her that she was also a GoAir employee, couldn’t she check me in? (The reason this was so important was that if you don’t check in at Indian airports, you cannot go past the security check.) She said there was nothing she could do, and that she was busy. I told her I needed to get on the flight, but she just would not budge. I was definitely not pleased with GoAir’s service… She made me re-book for the next day’s flight (they have only one flight a day from Cochin to Bangalore), and I went back to CIF. When I went back to CIF, everyone was so surprised to see me… wasn’t I supposed to be gone? But there I was, to spend yet another night at CIF. This day turned out to be a blessing, as I got the opportunity to meet another Acharya named Sagar Chaitanya, who I ended up relating to immensely. He was a wonderful person to talk to, and a good reason to stay back an extra night at CIF. I felt blessed to be given the opportunity to stay back at Adi Shankara Nilayam another day! Looks like the spirit of Adi Shankara did not want me to leave just yet…


The next day, I said my farewells and finally left. I left super early because I did not want to be caught in the same situation twice… Interestingly, the same girl that had made me re-book because she “could not do anything” the previous day was at the check-in counter the next day. I exclaimed, “So you DO work here!” and her response was simply, “Oh, you are so early today!” I silently fumed but realized that any argument now was pointless. I decided I would no longer fly GoAir.


When I returned to Sringeri, I was again amazed at the beauty I have come to accept as my home for this year. I am glad I get the opportunity to travel, just so that I may come back every time to appreciate again and again this beautiful place I live in.


watersquash said...

Dear Varun:
1. Good God this is a long post, you weren't kidding. (not that that's a bad thing, I appreciate it)
2. A picture is worth a thousand words. you just think about that.
3. I'm so glad you find people/they find you wherever you go, it's a comforting thought.
4. you always leave me with so many things to research...THANKS.
5. I know what neem is!!
6. :)
7. aight i've got to finish studying for my final that's in an hour...yay...talk to you soon

love you, bye

Skittles said...

Goodness, Varun haha. That was a rather intimidating post. But lots to read! Hooray! Thank you (as always) for sharing.

I don't even know what to say . . . so much to think about and be happy at you about! In a nutshell, I suppose I'm just happy you have been blessed with so many wonderful opportunities, adventures, and people (And that you decided not to argue with that GoAir lady . . .) What an incredible week! Keep enjoying, and thanks for blogging!


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