By Suma Varughese August 2003 Satsangs are a key spiritual component of most faiths and traditions. And little wonder, for it is the lonely seeker’s solace, support and mainstay. A look at the vibrant contemporary satsangs as theyoccupy a prominent place in more and more lives It was the last day of the 10-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival and Mumbai was steeling itself to say goodbye to its favourite deity. Standing back against the railing of my suburban train, happy at having found a foothold, my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a burst of melody. Looking back at the seats behind me, I saw a small, thin woman, her face and form alive with fervour, magnificently invoking Ganesha through well-known Marathi bhajans in a trained mellifluous voice. Her companions sang with her, but so too, I noticed, did other passengers who didn’t know her at all. Finding a seat close by, they would listen transfixed and soon their lips would move in unison, even as they fiddled with their mobiles or closed their eyes in repose. I was witnessing a satsang in action. In a small clearing among tall trees and verdant shrubs in Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens, I listen to my five women companions read from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. The power and beauty of the words offset the ambience, with the sun’s rays slanting down from the leaves and the birds chirping happily. On a chair, the framed pictures of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother look on benevolently. After the reading and meditation, comes the sharing. Reema Seth, one of the principal organisers, whose father created this little sanctuary adjoining the Hanging Gardens, is a yoga teacher and she tells the others about a Yoga Nidra class conducted by an Australian. Anahita Sanjana, another Yoga teacher working at J.B. Petit School, invites the others to the dress rehearsal of a yoga ballet she is conducting. Much kissing and bussing later, the group disperses, each face wreathed in a smile. In another part of Mumbai a motley crowd of women sit in healer and channel Kashmira Elavia’s drawing room, with their eyes closed, following her instructions to apologise to their hearts and other parts of the anatomy. That done, she asks them to love themselves. The women weave their arms around themselves and sway rhythmically as she takes them through affirmations. Occasionally, there is exultant singing of a pop nature: “I close my eyes and you are there. I open my heart and you are everywhere.” The meditation is powerful and even I get under its sway. Eventually, Kashmira asks them to open their eyes and lo, it is party time. Dosas and tea are devoured and the members talk vociferously. Some of the younger ones demonstrate a dance step Kashmira teaches to improve coordination and consciousness, which soon dissolves into a bump and grind session. Laughter fills the air. These folks are having fun. Another day, another satsang. This time at a school one early Sunday morning, where some 40 Vipassana meditators of both sexes have gathered. No word is exchanged as they enter, sit down and close their eyes to the sonorous chants of their guru, S.N. Goenka. After an hour, the guru’s voice sings: ‘Sab ka mangal…’ and they open their eyes. Communion is always part of the post-meditation scenario, but especially so today, for they share breakfast on the first Sunday of the month. Over chutney sandwiches and poha, satsang happens. Tall and leggy yoga teacher (yes, another one) Falguni enthuses over the Vivekananda Yoga Kendra in Bangalore, while others ask the all-time favourite Vipassana question: “How many courses have you done?” Laughter bubbles out and there is a palpably good feeling as we come out into the early morning sunshine to return home. What is a satsang? Interpreted literally, ‘satsang’ means a gathering of seekers (sangha) of truth (sat). This interpretation is so fluid and flexible that it can incorporate a teacher and student, a seeker communing with himself, to a group of people gathering together to discuss ideas, meditate, or do kirtan. Says Vedanta teacher Uday Acharya: “The heart of a satsang is the communication of spiritual ideas, so even an e-group fits the bill. Writing for Life Positive is also satsang!” SANGHAM SHARANAM GACHAMI— partaking of group energy is one of the three refuges prescribed by the Buddha Traditionally, satsangs have revolved around a guru and his/her disciples. These are occasions when teachings and communion take place. Sometimes the guru gives discourses, sometimes he sits silently, and sometimes he breaks into song. What matters is his presence. Says Osho: “The Master is a presence; the Master is not a doer. The real Master never does a thing but his presence functions as a catalytic agent… That is the meaning of satsang: to be in the presence of a Master, in loving communion.” In today’s more spiritually liberal and adventurous climate, satsangs rarely stick to the straight and narrow path. There are groups who meet to channel or to learn automatic writing. Some gather to read books as varying as the Bhagavad Gita and Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri to New Age books such as James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. There are groups who meet for personal growth through therapy, and groups with no fixed agenda, save to enjoy each other’s presence. There are chanting satsangs, meditating satsangs, and deep breathing satsangs. There are yoga groups, Vipassana groups, TM groups, Satya Sai groups, and Brahma Kumari groups. There are even socialite satsangs where sybarites wear saffron, partake of gourmet vegetarian fare and gather to sing bhajans and listen to discourses in jasmine-scented rooms. Satsangs spread across all religions and faiths. Christians have their prayer and fellowship meetings where families gather to sing hymns, pray and read the Bible. Indeed, community (just another word for satsang) is the heart of Christianity. The practice gets its validity from Christ’s observation that when three or more gathered in his name, he would be among their presence. The Jains have the concept of swadhyaya, consisting of the study of scriptures in a group. Among the Muslims there is the concept of the majlis, held mainly in a mosque after the night namaz, where a speaker answers questions thrown to him by the audience. Sikhs are in satsang as they collectively listen to the holy scripture of Guru Granth Sahib or share the langar (community lunch). Partaking of group energy is one of the three refuges prescribed by the Buddha. Apart from taking refuge in Buddha and dharma, the seeker is enjoined to take refuge in the sangha (Sangham sharanam gachami). In the Buddhist context, this traditionally means the company of ordained monks and nuns, but its symbolic meaning includes being in the presence of all realised masters, no matter what their persuasion. The secret of its success Why is satsang a key spiritual component? And why are there so many today? One of the main reasons is the need for like-minded company. The lonely seeker often faces a period when he or she feels out of step with the immediate friend and family circle. Uncertain of his own changing perspective, desperate for validation and the need to confide the problems of the path, he sinks into the sanctuary of the satsang like a fish in water. Says 18-year-old Diana Pagdiwala, a member of Kashmira Elavia’s group, which practises an eclectic range of activities from body work to psychic protection to forgiveness meditation every Friday afternoon: “We just wait for Fridays through the week.” Adds Anahita Sanjana: “You can’t speak about spirituality to those you socialise with. Being with this group gives me the strength to continue on the path.” But even seasoned seekers draw precious sustenance from the experience. Businessman Ashish Bagodia, who is part of a recently formed satsang of followers of Yogi Ramsuratkumar of Tiruvannamalai, says: “I have been part of many groups ranging from school and college friends to business friends and family and relatives, but I have never got from any of them what I get from my satsang. An emptiness gets fed. Last week, I was out of town, so one night we had an hour-long teleconference. We were on such a high that many of us could not sleep.” Manjiri Aggarwal, a schoolteacher and member of the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, enthuses: “It’s a family beyond your own family. The bond is really strong because we have the freedom to share our happiness and our problems. We celebrate our victories over the self and get guidance on the path from our leader and each other. When in a group, you realise your own relative progress.” You are either going up spiritually or going down—there is no such thing as remaining in stasis. Satsangs reverse the process of entropy Exchange of spiritual ideas or insights, or simply being in compatible company, is naturally energising. Spirituality is the way to the life abundant and all seekers have experienced the excitement of meeting a fellow traveller who too is engaged in the tremendous and exciting task of self-transformation. Apart from the relief of knowing that one is not alone in this endeavour, there is the joy of sharing experiences, and exploring the insights and ideas that flower in this new territory. The joy of comprehending the pattern of life, of apprehending the laws that govern it, is enhanced in company that sees as you see. External factors like caste, community, sex and class recede. Says Razia Rangwala, part of the Brahma Vidya meditation group run by Justice M.L. Dudhat, ex-judge of the High C
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