Thursday, February 7, 2013

Kumbh Mela--the world's most massive act of faith

Arial shot of Kumbh Mela camp
Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu Pilgrimage made by devotees, sadhus and monks, to bathe in sacred rivers believed to free one's self from past sins and thus be eligible for liberation from the cycle of life and death. It is held every third year at each of these four places: the Ganga at Haridwar, the Godawari at Nasik, the Shipra at Ujjain and the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati (Triveni Sangam) at Prayag, Allahabad. These four places hold a special place in Hindu scripture.

Hindu Mythology tells the tale of the 'Churning of the Ocean of Milk.' The Devas (gods,)  always under siege from their brothers, the Asuras (demons,) desired immortality. They sought advice from Lord Vishnu who told them Amirt, the nectar of immortality, could only be produced by Churning the Ocean of Milk. The Gods realizing they didn't have enough power to complete this task alone, made a truce with the Demons to work together proposing an equal split of the nectar upon completion. Vishnu, aware of the agreement, assured the Gods he would see to it they alone would receive the nectar.

As the story goes, the Mondara Mountain was used as the churning rod, the Serpent King Vasuki as the rope and Kurma, a giant Turtle, as the support beneath the mountain.  Demigods and demons pulled back and forth on the snake causing the mountain to rotate and churn the ocean. This went on for a century during which time many things were produced: poison from the serpent's mouth (which Shiva himself drank to save the universe) goddess Lakshmi, Kamadhenu the wish-granting cow, jewels and many other treasures. And finally, the Amrit Kumbh, the pot of the nectar of immortality.

Immediately, fierce fighting began. In an attempt to protect the nectar from the demons, Garunda, the King of Birds, took the pot and flew away from the battle scene.  Legend has it during  Garunda's flee, lasting 12 days-equivalent to 12 years on Earth, four drops of nectar spilled to earth;  at Haridwar, Godwari, Ujjain and Allahabad...hence the four centers of pilgrimage for the Kumbh Mela.

The Maha Kumbh Mela, held every 12 years in Allahabad, is considered the holiest and most auspicious of the four locations. Not only is it believed that Brahma, after creating the world, offered his first sacrifice here, but it holds a significant position in Hindu scriptures for possessing  the Triveni Sangam; the meeting of the three holy rivers where one of the drops fell.

This year, between January 27-February 25th, over 80 million people will travel from over the world, from all walks of life, to take part in religious discussions, devotional singing and bathe in this most auspicious place. Several of us, friends and family of the Bal Ashram, were blessed to take part in this spiritual where people come together irrespective of caste, color, creed, or religion. It was an experience of a lifetime.
Joyti and myself dipping in the Sangam

 “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon mulittudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.  It is done in love, or it is done in fear;  I do not know which it is.  No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people…”
Mark Twain 1895

To view more amazing pictures, please click the link below

Maha (Great) Kumbh Mela 2013
(Slide show photos courtesy of Maria R.)

Bal Ashram


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Namaste from the Bal Ashram


 Namaste from the Bal Ashram! It's been a year since my last visit and it's wonderful to be back with the children...each and every one looks bigger, happy and busy!

There is always something going on here...a new project, a new lesson, new activities....
Here's a quick peek at the latest:

The Ashram's Organic Store, which sells items grown and produced at the EcoPark, is more popular then ever. Every day, people from the village come to buy fresh milk, honey and vegetables. A recent addition on the menu: fresh mushrooms! The 'mushroom center," located adjacent to the store, houses several growing pods; grass layered with spores and shaped in to spheres, then kept in the dark and moist room...a perfect growing environment

Mackenzie 'Mira' Dooner is a regular face around the Ashram. Mira, who graduated from high school in Carmel California, was accepted to Princeton University. Instead of starting college right away, she opted to take part in their Gap Year Program. She is spending over seven months in Varanasi and comes to the Bal Ashram daily to work with the children. Mira carries on the important work of her predecessors by maintaining the grey wager filtration system that was installed last year. She teaches the children how the filter works and the importance of water preservation and conservation. You can read more about the filter in the December 2012 newsletter



The holding tank containing the water processed by the grey water filter sits on one of the terraced steps and often has a small runoff. The benefit? A perfect area to grow rows and rows of spinach and beets!



School work finished?

Seva completed for the day?

It's time for Cricket!

The boys...both young and old...even the teachers...are all avid cricket players. Most every evening, in the open field across from the Ashram gates, there is a lively and competitive game to watch. Only darkness or the ball going in to the Ganges can end the fun!




New Arrivals! The Amirt Sagar Environmental  Center has been blessed with four new calves in the past few months....three of which are girls! They are all happy and healthy and are a welcome addition to the organic dairy which is so vital in helping the Ashram move towards self sustainability.



I'll leave you with the sun rising over Ma Ganges...... 



Om Shanti,


January 28, 2013

Bal Ashram



Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Things are thriving this spring

Dear Friends,

After completing a wonderful Navaratri celebration in March, the Sonoma Ashram is thriving. The shift of seasons brings gratitude for the extra hours of daylight and the much needed spring rains.

The garden is in full bloom providing an abundance of food, beauty and Seva (selfless-service) opportunities. From simple day-to-day tasks to more major projects, residents, guests and volunteers deepen their practice by working together to maintain and beautify this sacred space.

Friends old and new are arriving weekly from all over the country for personal retreats. We recently had a successful visit with a group of teens from a local high school who were interested in learning more about the teachings of the Ashram.

Most exciting, however, is the movement on several improvement projects. The removal of the trailer that has served as Babaji’s personal residence began this week. This is just the first step of this project and we look forward to sharing more about what’s in store for the future. Additionally, we are in the midst of upgrading guest accommodations in the main house.

With all of the new growth happening at the Ashram I can’t help be reminded of a lesson I learned during Navaratri, that new found courage comes when we take action and follow divine inspiration.

We hope that you are thriving this spring, and that we will see you at a class or event in the near future.

Please click on the links below to learn more about Sonoma Ashram’s offerings.



Saturday, March 17, 2012

Little Stars School Students Visit Ecopark

Sadhana overflowing to Seva: When your heart fills to the brim with happiness, the excess flows over in the form of selfless service. At the root of Aghor Tradition, it is this which devotees and students of Baba Harihar Ramji strive towards.

Little Stars School was formed in 1996 by Babaji's long time friend and devotee, Asha Pandey. Starting out with twelve students on her rooftop and a vision to provide much needed education and nurture for Varanasi street children, the foundation was quickly laid for the first-ever school of its kind in the state.

Babaji and Asha both share the philosophy that creating significant change in the future begins with responsible, educated, respectful and civic-minded young people. Together they procured funding to buy property and build a school... enabling the program to flourish. Now with nearly 750 children, forty teachers and many dedicated friends, the school is alive with determination, encouragement and the promise of a better future for everyone there.

Learning not limited to the confines of a classroom, 30 students arrived at the Bal Ashram last week where we piled in to a boat and were rowed across the Ganges to the Amrit Sagar Ecopark.

Most of the kids from Little Stars are from underprivileged areas surrounding Banares, heavily polluted without open space, greenery or nature. This was the first time many have seen fields of organic vegetables and herbs, bees producing honey, bio gas production and solar panels. The 10 acre parcel of land acts as a giant classroom to the students, modeling sustainable farming and overall environmental awareness.

Group shot
We spent the day in the care of ‘graduated’ Bal Ashram students. Several of these young men have gone off to college and returned to take on leadership roles in maintaining, promoting and educating the community about the Ecopark.

Ramesh welcoming the kids to the park

Students learned about composting, renewable engery, turning cow dung in to bio fuel and toured the dairy and organic gardens.

The kids learn about solar energy

The boys take a look at the Park's dump truck

Before lunch, we broke up in to groups to lend a hand in some of the days chores…

Pruning flowers
Fertilizing new garden site
Preparing compost

Harvesting chilies


After returning back to Bal Ashram the kids sat and shared their experiences with Babaji. Brimming with excitement,  you cant help but think it will overflow...

Caspian Merritt
Bal Ashram

The "Strong Girl" team

Friday, February 24, 2012

2012 Shivaratri Celebration at the Bal Ashram

Every year, on the 13th or 14th night of the full moon in February, Hindus revel in the celebration of Lord Shiva. One of the three 'Supreme Gods,' Shiva is known as the destroyer or transformer. What Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves. But there is an unenviable end to everything...and Shiva destroys allowing for rebirth. Each year, people from all over India travel to Varanasi, Shiva's home, to pay homage to this beloved deity. Devotees flock to temples and honor, while thousands of young men carry on the tradition of running through the city in lively chanting.

Running through the streets of Varanasi celebrating Shiva!

There are many stories surrounding Shiva, but it is commonly thought that this day marks the wedding between Shiva and Parvati...the ultimate connection of matter and energy.

This last Monday February 20th, we celebrated Shivaratri here at the Bal Ashram. Friends and family traveled far and wide to take part in this auspicious day of worship.

A two hour morning Shiva Rudra Abhishekam, or Puja was preformed. All gathered around the linga, a phallic symbol representing Shiva's energy, and watched while it was ceremonially offered bael leaves, milk, ghee and honey.

Some of the Ashram boys front and center

Babaji's niece Dolly (on right) watching the ceremony

Flowers, milk, honey and ghee offered to Shiva

Babaji reminded all that this is a time to be aware and connect with your energy.

"Be careful of boundaries," he said. 'Whenever you create a boundary with something...I hate this, I'm jealous of this person, I care for this but not for that...all your energy is tied up. When this energy is free, we are able to be whole. Wherever your attention is, that's your reality."

After concluding Shivaratri Puja, everyone performed Arati to Babaji

Caspian Merritt
Bal Ashram

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What's all the buzz about?

Directly east from the Bal Ashram, across the Ganges, the Amirt Sagar ('Ocean of Nectar") Environmental Center constantly brims with activity. The 10 acre parcel is home to many on-going projects, including a dairy, vegetable and herb gardens, solar panels, bio gas system and a bee colony. This last month, the buzz has been all about the bees.

I had the pleasure to spend time with Bee Experts Alessandro and Barbara Buisnar, during their one month visit to the Bal Ashram from Venice Italy. Although the bee project has been active since 2010, the program needed a bit of guidance and fine tuning from the father-daughter team.

I accompanied Alessandro and Barbara on a recent trip to check on each hive with Eco Center resident and Bee Keeper in Training, Ramesh. The Center currently homes over 20 Langstroth Hives each hosting 60-70 thousand bees..each with one Queen.

 Queen bees lay an average of 1,500-2 thousand eggs per day. While most result in workers and drones, the rearing of another Queen is avoided to prevent swarming -the original queen leaving the hive with her 'swarm' looking for a new residence. This is done by pulling each cell out of its hive and knocking off any 'queen cells' that contain the larvae of potential new leaders. It was inside these queen cells that I was able to taste a little bit of heaven. 

Ramesh, Alessandro and Loknath check one of the hives.
Ramesh inspecting for a 'Queen Cell"

Royal Jelly is secreted from the glands in the heads of worker bees. All larvae is initially fed royal jelly but only  burgeoning queens are fed it exclusively. Reported to have many health benefits including  brain cell growth, antibiotic effects, cholesterol lowering and anti-inflammatory agents as well as anti-aging properties, this bi product is certainly sought-after. The taste is mildly sweet with an almost goat cheese like quality. Sucking the jelly out of a freshly cracked queen cell is certainly a moment I will remember forever! 

After removing the larvae, the Royal Jelly is ready to eat!

My first taste!

Alessandro and Barbara spent many days with the Eco Center team, sharing their vast knowledge and immense respect for bees and the vital role they play in the  worlds ecosystem. Success with this program moves Bal Ashram closer to self sufficiency, with income generated from the sale of the honey as well as provides the young adults of the Ashram with responsibility and ownership in an important link to the Aghor Foundation's prosperity.

Caspian Merritt
Bal Ashram