By Punya Srivatsava
Punya Srivastava rhapsodises about the Chinmaya Mission’s Sandeepany Himalayan ashram, set in the picturesque locale of Sidhbari, near Dharamsala
Visiting Sidhbari was purely serendipitious. I had been meaning to flee to the mountains since weeks but circumstances always threw a spanner in the works. Then my uncle told me about his scheduled visit to Sidhbari, and I heard myself ask, “May I come along?” Bookings were made in a jiffy, and in no time we were seated on a bus to Dharamsala, a scenic town in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh.
It was around five in the morning when the cab, after winding its way down a half-kilometer dirt track, halted before the gates of CORD’s (Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development) new campus. The night sky, studded with stars, was yet to give way to the morning light. We proceeded to the gleaming hostel, aptly named ‘Giri Darshan’, which literally translates into ‘View of the Mountain’, seeing that the building stands facing the mighty Dhauladhar range of lower Himalayas. I stood ensconced in a meditative silence that was serenely punctuated by the gurgling sounds of a nearby rivulet. Luckily, the room I stayed in, paid direct obeisance to the Himalayas and I couldn’t have felt more welcomed by anything than by the picturesque sunrise from my window. Totally my kind of meditation!
As I went to the impeccably clean dining area for morning tea, an imposing, life-size photograph of Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati – standing against the backdrop of the towering Dhauladhars with both hands crossed at his chest and saffron robes billowing in the mountain winds – greeted me. It immediately reminded me of a similar photograph of another realised Advaita Vedantin – Swami Vivekananda, who stands radiating divine glow in a similar pose. Photographs of Swami Chinmayananda, in various moods and poses, find place in every room, in every part of the mission’s buildings. Swami Chinmayananda is founder of Chinmaya Mission, a gigantic spiritual organisation spanning the globe, promulgating the study of the Vedas and Upanishads of which CORD is a part. There are over 300 Chinmaya centres across the world. The mission has around 250 ordained monks – both male and females.
Sandeepany: complete illumination
The ashram is a 30-minute uphill walk from CORD’s campus. Inhaling long drags of crisp mountain air and feasting my eyes on the blooming multitudes of colour seemed to cleanse my Delhi-polluted lungs and weary body. Observing woollen-clad toddlers and kids frolicking on stacks of cattle hay at a nearby village, feeling the cosy sunlight warming my back, watching iridescent butterflies fluttering near my shoulders, filled me with bliss. I couldn’t have asked for a better retreat to rejuvenate myself.
However, a greater joy was waiting for me around the corner. The moment I stepped into the ashram premises, my senses tingled with rapture. The Sandeepany Himalaya ashram is a sight to behold. Each part of this beautiful institution is stamped with gorgeous aesthetics. The front facade of the premises boasts of a stately Ram temple, while the path winding up to the administrative block is lined with majestic deodars and thick, green hedges. The red-bricked buildings gorgeously complement the verdant greenery. This tiny world is an alluring interplay of the elements of nature – the crisp mountain air caressing the dewy fresh greens, while they dance in rhythm with the gurgling water of the Bindu Saras rivulet. One look at this idyllic ambience and my heart never wanted to leave the place.
Probably this is what motivated Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati to make Sidhbari, which is located 10 kilometers from Dharamshala, his home. In Sidhbari – abode of the siddhas – he might have felt the divine vibrations of the wise sages. Gurudev, as he is lovingly addressed, envisioned a retreat where knowledge would meet devotion and service. Thus, in 1981, the ashram took birth and opened its gate for seekers and devotees from across the globe. This is the land where Gurudev spent most of his time in India, and this is the land where his ashes were laid to rest in a Mahasamadhi, on August 9, 1993. His life-size ashtadhaatu (eight-metal) statue sits on this very spot, housed in a sanctuary of maroon granite made in traditional Kerala style. This is the most peaceful and serene spot in this paradisical ashram. One can sit in front of Gurudev’s idol, lovingly embraced by nature, and lose oneself in the master’s reverberating presence.
A few steps from the Mahasamadhi stands Gurudev’s anand kutir… out of which evolved this grand ashram. Standing at a bulwark leading to the Mahasamadhi and looking past it, one can see a great expanse of mist hovering above the valley and playfully veiling the giant sentinels – the deodars. The way to this magnificent view goes past an imposing semi-circular building of white walls that houses the Chinmaya Shataabdi Sabhaagaar (auditorium) which was constructed to celebrate the birth centenary of the Master, in May 2016.
A few steps to the auditorium’s right is a gigantic statue of Lord Hanuman looming above the whole complex, standing exactly in front of Gurudev’s kutir. The imposing statue has a sweet little back story of its own. Apparently, while Gurudev was still around, villagers were facing an acute problem of uprooted plants. The strong, high-velocity mountain winds would not allow any tree to grow. It is said that Gurudev sat in samadhi and called upon Pawan Putra Hanuman to not only mellow Pawan Dev (wind god), but also to allow the trees to grow. A 22-feet idol was consecrated on the very spot to keep the damaging winds at bay. In another version, the statue was consecrated in order to stop the gusts from hindering the progress of ashram construction.
Knowledge, service and devotion
Sandeepany Himalaya ashram continues the legacy of the master. The name ‘Sandeepany’ was selected by Gurudev after the name of Lord Krishna’s Guru – Maharishi Sandeepani. The word Sandeepany itself stands for ‘that which illumines.’ Legend has it that Chinmayananda’s guru, Swami Tapovan Maharaj, negated the idea of going out and disseminating the knowledge of Vedanta to the masses when the former proposed it, as the latter believed that only true seekers should be taught. However, the disciple is believed to have countered with, “What if the Ganga stopped at Uttarakashi and refused to flow any further? I want to flow like the Ganga in the whole country and quench the thirst for knowledge amidst the masses.”
True to his vision, Sandeepany Himalaya ashram hosts students for various courses ranging from a few weeks to two-and-a-half years. Interestingly, the ashram, run by Chinmaya Tapovan Trust, bears the lodging-boarding cost of all the students under the age of 30 years who opt for the two-and-a-half-year-long Vedanta course under its ‘Rishi Putra’ scheme. “Earlier in the gurukula system, disciples would go around asking for bhiksha to sustain themselves and their guru. But Gurudev decided to take the onus of sustaining himself and his disciples on himself. He went on world tours several times to generate bhiksha for his gurukuls, which are called Sandeepany Sadhanalaya. Serious seekers who are above the age of 30 are required to pay the course fees,” informs Arun Kumar Gupta, the current administrative head of the trust.
The Vedanta course is the second most significant USP of Sandeepany Himalaya after Gurudev’s Mahasamadhi sthal; Swami Tejomayananda, the current head of the worldwide Chinmaya Mission, was the first acharya to teach the Vedanta course in the ashram, from April 1981 to 1983. Presently, Swami Subodhananda is the Chief Acharya of the ashram. Apparently, the ashram has a residential capacity for around 500 people with separate quarters for men and women, and acharyas. Apart from residential quarters, auditorium and Mahasamadhi sthal, the ashram complex includes a meditation hall, a satsang hall, and a health centre. Not only that, men and women from surrounding neighbourhoods have been employed by CORD in various rural development initiatives. It is a delight to see men in colourful hand-knitted sweaters and women in lavender salwar kameezes get together at the prayer hall of CORD campus and set the agenda for the day’s work after a quick obeisance to the Divine and to the Master.
As I made my way back to the ashram gates, I heard an elderly woman who had come for a residential retreat, remark, “Look at these bright green trees! Their leaves are shining as if they are routinely dusted. Trees in cities look so grim and grey.”
An apt metaphor for the state of more than just trees, I would say.
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