Overwhelmed. Ecstatically overwhelmed. These are the only words I can come up with to describe the experience that I’ve had over the past couple of weeks traveling in India with Andrew Cohen and our roving evolutionary sangha. Fourteen days ago, boarding my flight from JFK to New Delhi, I was expecting to experience what most spiritually-oriented westerners expect when they travel to the land of Enlightenment: immersion in the deep and subtle stillness of pure consciousness that India’s long lineage of saints and sages have meticulously imbued into the temples, caves, and rivers of this sacred place. I have definitely been more aware of this timeless ground of being throughout this trip than at any point in my life. But the focus of our journey here to India has not been toward this ocean of stillness. Instead, our orientation has been towards the creative fire and unbounded urgency to bring what’s possible into being that arises out of its formless depths.
You see, the main theme of this trip—one which Andrew has focused on in his various talks and presentations—has been exploring the subtle, yet very important difference between the “classical” enlightenment which Andrew was trained in as a seeker and the new evolutionary enlightenment that he’s developed over the past twenty four years as a spiritual teacher. And every aspect of our lives, from the jam-packed schedule of events to the ongoing development of Andrew’s Dharma, have reflected this super-charged, evolutionary dynamic. There’s too much to write about in just one blog post. But to give you a broad overview of why this trip to India carries a significance beyond the details, I wanted to share a first-person account written by Sri Pingali, PhD an international business and IT consultant from India (now living in the US) who heads up EnlightenNext’s India operations and has driven the planning and orchestration of this trip from start to finish. The following is my adapted version of a personal blog post written by Sri, which gives you a beautiful account of the ecstatically overwhelming nature of life on the road with Andrew Cohen. It’s a little long, but well worth the read:
On the Road in Mother India
Greetings from Rishikesh in the midst of a non-stop, action-packed trip with Andrew to Mother India! We can barely keep up with our experience here but here is a blow-by-blow account:
Days 1-5: Mumbai & Delhi
Andrew returned to India after a gap of over four years and almost immediately stepped into a whirlwind of engagements: newspaper and TV interviews, and a series of meetings with some of the most prominent figures in Indian arts, media, culture, and philosophy. A particular feature of Indian society is that its leading intellectual, and cultural figures often have an abiding spiritual interest and bring to bear this deep sensitivity to their consideration of contemporary matters. In all these dialogues, Andrew and these accomplished individuals debated the nature of Enlightenment and the challenges facing a society such as India where a sometimes superficial modernization threatens to corrupt the deepest wellsprings of culture and creativity. These meetings set the tone for our own encounter with the paradoxical, complex, and yet profoundly religious spirit of India herself.
Days 6-7: At the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh
On Friday morning (Feb 26), we flew from Delhi to the Dehradun airport at the foothills of the Himalayas, 200 miles to the north. From the airport, we went straight to the city of Rishikesh, which would be our home for the next week, and had a lunch at what claimed to be an organic, ayurvedic restaurant overlooking the holy river Ganga soaking in the bliss field that enveloped us as soon as we got to this magical place.
That evening all of us went with Andrew to meet with the elderly Swami Vimalanandaji, who is now running the Sivananda Ashram, headquarters of the Divine Life Society and one of Rishikesh’s oldest and most respected organizations. This was a heart-warming and moving welcome to Andrew at the place that is closest to being his spiritual home in India. After this, Andrew was given the honor of speaking at evening satsang in the ashram’s special Samadhi Hall where he had spent many hours listening to spiritual talks from the ashram leaders during his time as a seeker. After being introduced by both Swami Vimalananda and Swami Atmaswarupananda, a distinguished 84-year-old Canadian renunciate and old friend of EnlightenNext, he gave a powerful 45-minute talk on how two of the Divine Life Society’s most respected saints, the late Swami Chidananda and the late Swami Krishnananda, had deeply inspired his own development and teaching. He used the stories of his meetings with these great Swamis and connected them into the themes of “Going all the Way” and “Creating Heaven on Earth.” Check out the video clip below:
The next afternoon, Andrew taught there again. It was a beautiful event. First the setting: a stunning room high up in the ashram with the river visible way down below, golden light streaming in through the windows, to an audience that included many monks and Swamis. Andrew spoke about the New Enlightenment. He first methodically guided us into the unmanifest ground of being and then from there he posed the all-important question: how are we to act, respond, and engage with the world when we get up from even the deepest states of meditation and enlightened awareness? There was an irresistible logic to his presentation and you could feel the power of the breakthrough in the crowd as he declared over and over that “God WANTS to be here!” (in manifestation). There was an electric quality mixed with the eternal bliss of Rishikesh and if there is such a thing as Heaven on Earth, this was surely it.
As if it weren’t full enough already, the day kept going! In the late evening, Andrew visited the long-time residence of Swami Chidananda at the invitation of the young Swami Yatidharmananda (Yati) who was his personal attendant for several years. Yati walked Andrew through the whole house, which was imbued with a powerful current of consciousness, before sitting down to interview Andrew about his connection with Swami Chidananda. This was an incredibly moving dialogue. At one point the young swami asked Andrew for advice about how to deal with the fact that his Guru has passed away. He said though he knows theoretically that the physical absence of his late teacher should not make a difference, he still deeply missed his human form. Andrew responded by saying that the Guru is God, the Guru is Self, and the Guru is also a human being. To miss him is understandable, he said, and yet the only way to express gratitude to the Guru is by being a full embodiment of his teaching. We were all affected seeing how Andrew was mentoring this swami and it was obvious that Yati was deeply touched. He told Andrew that apparently Swami Chidananda had said that he felt a karmic connection with Andrew. (See Andrew’s memorial to Swami Chidananda in EnlightenNext magazine.)
Day 8: The Kumbh Mela
But first, we stopped off at Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s place, which is right across from the legendary (and now unoccupied) ashram where the Beatles studied with the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 60s. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is a former disciple of the Maharishi himself and is now one of the most popular teachers in the world and the Guru of choice for the upper middle classes and educated of India. This was their third meeting and he received Andrew graciously. They engaged in dialogue about the predicament of modern India. Sri Sri said that initially his teachings offer immediate relief for the stress that is accompanying the overwhelming pace of change in the country. Once this happens, people are slowly drawn into the deeper aspects of his Dharma. After this, we headed down the road to the main event in Haridwar.
The Kumbh Mela is a collection of temporary residential camps set up by different swamis and groups—a kind of spiritual refugee camp that sprawled out as far as the eye could see along the vast banks of the Ganga. We started at a camp run by Marshall Govindan who is one of the principle western teachers in the lineage of Kriya Yoga, which is the spiritual path inspired by the legendary and elusive “Babaji” that was made popular in the west by Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. (See Carter Phipps’s article “In Search of Babaji.“)
After Andrew briefly addressed the international group of Kriya Yoga students gathered there in the tent, we all headed into central Haridwar to the Naga Baba camp with Marshall who would be our guide for the rest of the day. The Naga Babas are among the most extreme ascetics in the Indian renunciate world. They often, though not always, go naked. To purify themselves, they do austere practices—“tapas”—including standing up for years on end, immersing themselves in freezing water for extended periods of time during the dead of winter, and sitting surrounded by fires at the height of the hot Indian summer, all of which is usually supported by the consumption of copious amounts of ganja.
We stopped by the tents of two of the sky-clad babas and they both declared that the austerities they perform are not for themselves but are for the sake of the humanity. Whatever one thinks of such an austere path of self-denial, they have indeed given up all hankering for material comfort. The second one, a man of 71, said that there is a great joy in the extreme practices he performs and that he has no fear. He went on to explain that all one has to fear is one’s own sin. They exhibit an unusual and unmistakable freedom and indifference to what others think, as the first man demonstrated when he nonchalantly stood up in front of us and proudly wrapped his penis around a sharp sword. Apparently such practices not only remove the ability to have sex but also sexual desire, and the claim is that this conservation of sexual energy enables them to perform extraordinary feats.
After getting our fill of the Naga Babas, we moved on to the huge camp of Pilot Baba, a military pilot-turned-Sadhu who was interviewed for the Feb-Apr 2004 issue of EnlightenNext magazine. A former pilot for India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, Pilot Baba claims to have been guided since childhood by a mysterious yogi who saved his life on several occasions. In 1973, at the age of 35 he traded his wings for a sadhu robe and headed off into the forests and spent years doing spiritual practice with Himalayan yogis. Pilot Baba recognized Andrew immediately and they had a dialogue about whether the purpose of Enlightenment is to transcend the world or to transform it. Pilot Baba seemed to have quite a large community and he was surrounded by many adoring students (sannyasins), both Indian and western. And there were, interestingly enough, many Russians, including a bald-headed western sannyasin sitting next to him on a large throne. As a matter of fact, we heard that Pilot Baba has initiated as many as 58 sannyasins just during this Kumbh Mela. While Baba is known to have many siddhis—spiritual powers—he discounts their significance from the perspective of Enlightenment, which he seems to define as perfect non-doing. There was a very pleasant vibe at his camp and we spent a fair amount of time just sitting there.
We ended this incredible day with a trip to the famous Har-ki-pauri ghat in the heart of spiritual Haridwar. In Hindu Mythology, it says that this is the very spot where a drop of nectar from the gods is reputed to have fallen (and hence the choice of Haridwar as one of the four locations where the Kumbh Mela is held). It was evening as we made our way across the bridge to the ghat and the place was lit up with a full moon above us and the Ganga gorgeous as it rushed through the canals below. This particular day was not one of the major bathing days and hence there were not millions of people at the various camps we visited earlier on. But tonight was the night of Holi—one of the biggest religious holidays of the year—and there were huge numbers of people at Har-ki-pauri, many taking a dip in the holy river. Three of the youngest members of our team also took the plunge and emerged temporarily delighted in the belief that just maybe their sins had been washed away. After the magical evening, we returned exhausted from a full day to Rishikesh that night.
Days 9-11: The International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh
The next morning (March 1st) Andrew gave the first of several teachings at the 2010 International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Andrew gave a talk, which he started out by encouraging people to make room inside themselves for what they didn’t already know (always a challenging proposition for an Indian audience☺). He then took questions and some sparks flew! Once again Andrew spoke of the evolutionary view and redefined enlightenment in ways that both included the traditional perspective and then took it further. Predictably, some of the more traditionally oriented Indians in the audience were philosophically and spiritually challenged.
After the teaching while having lunch, we were joined by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, head of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem, whom Andrew had met at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne. Very soon a dialogue opened up between the two and Alon’s scheduled post-lunch presentation on the significance of the traditional Jewish holiday of Purim gave way to a conversation around the lunch table as they debated the nature of good and evil and whether it is possible to hold on to a view that goes beyond both.
Right after this, we accompanied Andrew to a meeting with the President and spiritual head of Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Swami Chidanand Saraswati (no relation to the Swami Chidananda from the Sivananda Ashram). A beautiful, gentle and dynamic man, he welcomed us into his lovely garden-like meeting space. The atmosphere was refined and peaceful as we sat with him for two hours. Different visitors came and went, including a famed musician and a very learned and respected swami. When the swami heard that Andrew was a spiritual teacher he started questioning Andrew on the nature of his teaching (with Swami Chidanand acting as interpreter) until he was satisfied. This is not uncommon in India, when spiritual teachers meet. They ask about what the other teaches and engage in dialogue on the nature of Truth. Swami Chidanand also told us many compelling stories about how he himself came upon the spiritual life starting at the tender age of 8 when he left his home to live with a yogi in the forest for many years.
There was little time after this to get ready for another event in the evening. Andrew spoke at the night satsang , sharing the stage with Swami Chidanand and the esteemed Swami Divyanand Teerthji, who is the Shankaracharya of Bhanpura Peeth in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (The Shankaracharya’s are revered religious figures and are among India’s leading exponents of Vedanta philosophy). The setting was absolutely exquisite. There was classical Indian music (flute and tabla) that greeted them as they arrived on stage. Andrew spoke on the evolution of God and how God needs each and every one of us to create the world. The Shankaracharya then spoke about Ultimate Reality and how the evolution of consciousness means passing through various stages to connect with this ultimate nature of things. This was followed by some inspired questions from the audience that asked each of them to expound further on their views. The back and forth was spiritually enlivening, revealing once again the essence of both Andrew’s departure from traditional enlightenment and his inclusion of it.
The next day was also quite full as Andrew had a warm gathering with some of his Indian students who had travelled from all over the country to see him in Rishikesh. The meeting took place at the EnlightenNext Center in the small village of Tapovan just up the river. It was a beautiful setting and we sat for nearly 3 hours discussing everything from jazz to the future of Evolutionary Enlightenment in India.
That evening, Andrew spoke briefly at a massive, televised ceremony for the festival which was held at sunset on the immaculate Parmarth Niketan ghat in the shadow of an enormous statue of Lord Shiva sitting in the flowing river Ganga. On the stage, there were a variety of spiritual teachers and dignitaries, including the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. Speaking about what Rishikesh means to him, Andrew said that this place reminds us of what is always eternal and that there are few other places on earth where it is easier to see that consciousness is more important than anything else.
Today is our final day in Rishikesh and Andrew will again be the main speaker at the conference. Then this afternoon we fly to Delhi and will have just enough time to squeeze in one more dialogue with one of India’s cultural elite. Then a few hours later Andrew will fly to Europe. We are not done yet, but this has been a glorious visit with the depth, breadth, and extraordinary diversity of India on full display in the range of people we have met and the memetic spans we have bridged. The stunning magnificence and huge challenges of the country make this a place like no other. Andrew’s presence and the teaching have what at least to me feels like an urgent relevance here where there seems to be an almost inexhaustible spiritual depth and yet where culture is reeling with the onslaught of materialism. Reaping the benefits of modernity but struggling to make sense of the pace of change, modern India could yet be the place where Evolutionary Enlightenment finds fresh creative form.
Filed Under: Consciousness • Cultural Evolution • Culture • EnlightenNext Editors’ Blog • EnlightenNext magazine • Evolutionary Enlightenment • Evolutionary Spirituality • Hinduism • Postmodernism • Religion • Spirituality