The Pilgrims tell their stories

Community Pilgrimage to India – Part 1: Puri

In February 2024, a rare event took place: a pilgrimage (almost) exclusively for community members of Ananda Assisi in Italy: 40 participants made their way to New Delhi in India and from there to four different pilgrimage sites: Puri, Calcutta, Varanasi and Babaji’s Cave.

In a four-part series, various participants of the trip report on the different places we visited. We start in Puri, a small coastal town in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal.

The Journey to Puri

First Atul, an American who was one of the few who is not part of the community of Ananda Assisi, shares his experience:

“Being originally from India but living in the U.S. from a young age, returning to my homeland by the grace of the Masters for a pilgrimage was especially moving for me. I have returned to India to visit family a handful of times while living in the US, but this pilgrimage was a whole new experience. When I would visit relatives, we would just go from house to house (in and around Delhi) drinking chai and being fed non-stop. So, traveling through India, exploring the spiritual side of it, being with gurubhais (not to mention 40 non-brown European ones), offered a whole new perspective of the country in which I was born.

We departed Delhi on the bus to the airport for our first flight to Bhubaneswar. I recall the view of the golden sunrise to our left. It felt like I was witnessing my first Indian sunrise. Shortly after, I witnessed my first “bus kirtan,” during which I closed my eyes, chanted along with my new family, and attempted to take in the deepness of the moment. This is when I knew that this would be no ordinary trip. My heart filled with gratitude.”

Puri’s beach

Our hotel was not far from a very nice area of the beach, which was quiet and well maintained. It was a great place to meditate and do yoga.

Ruby: “I hadn’t been to Puri before, and it surprised me in multiple ways! The first blessing was the beach – to walk on the beach with the soothing sound of the waves and the image of Master and Sri Yukteswar walking hand in hand on that sacred sand, to practice yoga and meditate there every morning at sunrise and even have our purification ceremony, bathing in the ocean – it just felt so special and expansive. India can be quite intense but the beach was an oasis of peace and nature to be able to recharge.”

Dhuti: “A resounding memory of this pilgrimage is of being at the beach.

Meditating on the beach in Puri, the peace, the crashing of the waves, and the stillness of meditating with deep devotees. A highlight of our Beach Meditations was the Purification (PURI-fication) ceremony on the beach. Afterwards, writing some negative qualities in the sand and then watching the waves melt them away was magical and powerful. And then running into the sea with all of my clothes on and playing in the waves was fun and joyful!”

We also often used the path along the beach on our way to Sri Yukteswar’s Karar Ashram.

Madri: “I always wondered why at the thought of the Master an image opened up within me that evoked the presence of the sea, the waves, the horizon.

It was in India that I had the answer to these sensations. They aroused in me vague memories of  a remote past.

The ancient city of Puri overlooks the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean laps its shores-an ideal place to land on the Indian continent without being completely overwhelmed by the traffic and sound pollution that characterize this country.

Yogananda, whose original name was Mukunda, and his Guru used to walk on the shores of this beach. At that time, Sri Yukteswar’s Karar ashram directly overlooked the sea. Today it can be easily reached from the beach through a maze of narrow streets that wind along, leaving the sea behind at the height of the Sonali Hotel.

Following the path to reach the ashram was one of the sweetest and most meaningful moments for me. My feet recognized that ground and could follow with a sense of familiarity the bumpy road leading to the sacred space, where the presence of Sri Yukteswar and Yogananda is still alive and tangible.

The Ocean, with its powerful waves, provided the backdrop for this place of realization, where two souls, united with the Divine, used to walk hand in hand, in the silence of true, complete, and blissful inner communion.

In this sacred sea I was able to immerse myself and offer everything of myself that I was ready to abandon after a purification ceremony at dawn on a special morning during this pilgrimage, together with brothers and sisters united by so many lives of meditation, service and friendship.

More than in any previous experience with the sea, I experienced this element as a living entity,  that reached out to communicate with me; I could feel a presence of boundless joy; and  I could merge with it. There I found the Master who was part of this divine play, his essence fused with the whole, and at the same time I could “see” him emerging from the waves and sharing this play with the most receptive, expanded part of me. I saw his orange robe, his smile, his look of pure love, his hand outstretched toward me. I closed my eyes and plunged in. The waves pushed me hard toward the shore, but I kept diving in wave after wave. From a “tiny bubble of laughter,” I experienced for a shining instant, becoming “the very sea of joy.”

Wave of the sea … return to the sea.“

Blessings from Sri Yukteswar at the Karar Ashram

Sri Yukteswar’s Ashram was the place that many of us found most transformative. But not everyone found an immediate connection with the great Gyanavatar:

Thomas: “A powerful stream of blessings overflowed me in Puri and at the Karar Ashram. Till then, I had always struggled to open up and connect with our dear Master Sri Yukteswarji in meditation. Besides all our great Masters, it was only with him that I felt a gap which seemed to be impossible to cross..

I think a big part of it always was, that since the first moment I came in contact with Sri Yukteswar I perceived him as that „very strict & tough disciplinarian“, that and only that, nothing else.

I think a big part of it was always the fact that since I first came in contact with Sri Yukteswar, I perceived him as that “very strict and tough disciplinarian“ – that and only that, nothing else.

Therefore, to be honest, the first time before we went to the Karar Ashram it was not the place I was particularly eager to visit during the pilgrimage.

It took me one or two days, but I slowly came to realize that the bond between him and me had been turned upside down. Or rather, my perception had shifted, and my heart has opened up to another dimension of his divine reality.

I started to feel a sweet, loving connection in all our meditations at the tomb of our dear Sri Yukteswarji. I still can’t really explain it well – that’s what blessings and miracles are all about… just beyond our mind’s capability.

I asked some of my Gurubhais, and I came to understand that Yogananda (or Swamiji?) said that when we go into deeper levels of meditation we can and will perceive Sri Yukteswar as wisdom and calm perception of bliss. This has blown my mind and it still does. This blessing taught me to listen more to my heart instead of always wanting to “try to understand everything“.

Now, when I see my dear Sri Yukteswarji on an altar I can connect with him in a very sweet way. And when I want him to be “my strict disciplinarian“ he will be that, too!”

Dhuti: “Whenever I think of Puri, my immediate feeling is anticipation. The anticipation of meditating at Sri Yukteswar’s mandir, knowing that his body is just below us, sitting in the lotus posture.”

Atul: “With Puri being our first stop in the footsteps of our Masters (and also being my first “landing” in India in 6+ years), there was much to take in. But what stands out the most to me is our time at Karar Ashram. It was my first visit to an ashram in India, and the meditations there held a special feeling in the captivating vibrations of Sri Yukteswarji. The particular moment I will never forget is when our “famiglia” (Italian for family) had already been meditating for quite some time, and then we broke out into a beautiful kirtan with chants dedicated to our Paramguru. To hear such a big group play and sing in such harmony with such devotion surrounding the grounds of the temple was simply mesmerizing to me. After the fact, I reflected with a gurubhai that the ashram was located right in the middle of a busy area with the normal sounds of city living. Thus, if one were to zoom out and see our group meditating and “kirtan-ing” at the ashram from a “higher perspective,” it would be much easier to see (and hear) how incredibly rare and special our experience was. Or… maybe it’s just me since it was my first time). All this to say, I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of the experience.”

Prashana: “Meditating in the Karar Ashram was a transforming experience. I very clearly felt the presence of Sri Yukteswar and the deep calmness that distinguishes this great Master. I have always loved Sri Yukteswar very much, especially through Yogananda’s description in the “Autobiography of a Yogi,” but in this Ashram not far from the ocean where he left his body, something special happened. Thanks to the vibrations of his love and deep calmness, I was able to take a journey into unexplored parts of me that needed to be seen, transformed and integrated. Sri Yukteswar, like a loving father who knows what is needed, took me by the hand and led me to deep and difficult places in order to help me towards my next step of my spiritual growth. It was intense and also difficult. If I had to give a name to this experience it would be,  “Experiencing the power of Love that knows what is needed.

Nayaswami Atmajyoti: “Meditating together with all the members of our pilgrimage where the body of the great Yoga Avatar Swami Sri Yukteswar lies, was for me the highlight of our stay in Puri. It made me realize once again how very important it is for us as devotees to have the opportunity to meditate where the Masters have lived and left their body.

The energy during our meditation was so strong that it immediately changed my consciousness to a level which I was not accustomed to. It was exhilarating, and in a sense, liberating: practicing all the meditation techniques seemed effortless, entering into the silence was easy and joyful and then, there was this sweetest energy of deep love, powerful calmness & strong joy. It touched me deeply!

I just wanted to burst out crying – not of sadness, but just out of pure, deep gratefulness to Swami Sri Yukteswar, all the Kriya Masters, this path of Self-Realization, Swamiji and our community here at Ananda Assisi.

The experience felt like inside myself something had been purified, re-energized but also a kind of “re-adjustment” took place in terms of ‘who I am’ and ‘what my true priorities are’.

The experience and effect of meditating all together was deeply inspiring and transformative. Once again, it highlighted to me the importance of meditating and sharing the grace of the Masters with one’s spiritual family. Thus, one of the resolutions I brought back from Puri is to make more time to meditate with the community, and to very consciously give and share energy with all.”

Jagannath and Totapuri Baba

Durga: “Puri not only has a special significance for the disciples of Yogananda and Sri Yukteswar,  it is also one of the four Char Dhams (sacred pilgrimage sites) of the Hindus. The four places are Badrinath in the north, Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east and Rameswaram in the south of India. It is said that visiting these holy places helps Hindus to find moksha (liberation). Unfortunately, we were not allowed to enter the Jagannath temple in Puri, but our guide Prem took us around it and told us many stories.”

Gianpietro: “I often dwell on the memory of Totapuri Baba, that very silent and mysterious place in the forest. Once more I can hear  the mantra Baja Govindam. We chanted it for  many hours, near his tomb, where the acoustics were heavenly…”

Durga: “I had a profound experience at the ashram of Totapuri Baba, the guru of Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Totapuri Baba was a Naga Swami (naked Swami) who lived to be over 200 years old. He spent his last years in the ashram near Puri, absorbed in silent meditation… It is a somewhat secluded spot,  surrounded by many trees,  of a species  that I had rarely seen before in this area. There were hardly any people in this ashram while we were there.

After we had seen everything, we sat down on the terrace and started an Ananda Kirtan (Baja Govindam). It was one of the most profound experiences of silence I have ever had, in which the inner silence was nourished by the outward chanting.

The Art Village

The last stop was at the small artistic village Raghurajpur near Puri.

Suryani: “The painters of Orissa  live about 12 kilometers from Puri, in the village of Raghurajpur, nestled in the Orissa countryside. That this is no ordinary village is indicated upon arrival by a sign: Raghurajpur, Heritage Craft Village.  It is here that the Chitrakaras, the painters of Orissa, live.

This village is unique in its genre and style. In fact, every house features drawings and graffiti with minute decorations in which the inhabitants have taken every opportunity to tell the stories of their great culture. The style is unique and in fact, the masters who teach this art are very few and try to pass on their knowledge to the young students who live in the village.

Inside each house you can find a rich assortment of objects such as: figurines, boxes of all shapes, or decorative objects made from raw materials such as coconuts, banana leaves, papier-mâché and more.

Their specialty, in my opinion, however, is precisely the designs they can make on all these different materials, using different colors which are always natural ones, extracted from spices, fruits or vegetables, such as the red color of beets or the deep yellow of turmeric. They often make black and white drawings, a color they obtain by finely chopping and dissolving the lead of their pencils in water.

There are many houses you can visit but since there is little time, I decided to listen to their vibrations and then choose one. I came across a very small house consisting of a hallway/workshop and a room where they stack either raw materials or semi-finished objects to dry and to be sold to tourists. The thing that really struck me was the care with which the artist displayed his works, trying to point out to me all the small details that were drawn and that obviously represent the elements of a story. Unfortunately, the artist did not speak my language, so we tried to express ourselves as well as we could through gestures. I chose a meticulously decorated and very colorful coconut, which, unfortunately, was not completed and he tried to talk me out of buying that one and into buying another one that was already finished. However, I stuck to my first choice for its colors and all those wonderful details that made it unique. The item is a decoration to hang on the Christmas tree made from the empty coconut. The price was so modest compared to its actual value, that I gave him the double amount, after which he tried to give me some other item to make up for what I gave him, but I thanked him with a Namaste and he gave me a wonderful smile that filled my heart with a joy that is priceless.

I continued my walk and tried to remember some details of this village that I had already visited, 12 years earlier. In fact, I remembered a kind of amphitheater where performers stage spectacular dances that tell the stories of their wonderful culture.”

At last

Even after our pilgrimage in India, Atul could not let go of what he had experienced in Puri:

The roof of the Karar Ashram

“In addition, while taking in the sights and sounds of Karar Ashram, I remember noticing that the lotus structure on top of the temple was tilted to the right. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but later, Darshan pointed out the same thing and wondered if we could do something about it. To make a long story short, we learned that the structure had likely been damaged during a storm, and the idea arose to do a fundraiser amongst our worldwide Ananda family to have the lotus structure restored to its original beauty. We emailed the ashram back in February to see if they would be open to the idea, and we just found out this week that, indeed, they would be. As Darshan mentioned upon receiving this good news, it feels like Sri Yukteswar is smiling. We are coordinating the next steps to have a more detailed discussion with the Ashram, but if things go as planned, we will at some point be starting a fundraiser for this unique idea to help restore the tomb. As I touched upon earlier, being originally from India and returning for the first time for a pilgrimage, I felt a special connection to the land, the people, and the ashrams we visited on our journey together. For this reason, I feel honored and humbled to be able to assist the Karar Ashram with this endeavor, not to mention to be able to work with an Ananda Assisi gurubhai (Darshan) to make it happen. It’s simply amazing to really think about how Divine Mother is connecting all her children through the complex interwoven tapestries of this world to bring about change for the better.

With heartfelt gratitude, A.”

In Joy

Durga, Atul, Ruby, Madri, Dhuti, Thomas, Gianpietro, Suryani, Prashana and Nayaswami Atmajyoti