[Jensen Martin graduated from our program in 2014, and has been studying and travelling in India during the 2014-15 academic year. Here are two reports from him about what he has learned, and how he has grown. We think that this is a good example of how students of Religious Studies build on their academic experience in order to develop their own spiritual practice and consciousness. Following are two reports, one from February, 2015, and another from April, 2015.]
Dear friends and devotees of srf
First off, I apologize for taking so long to write to you all. Many of you I told I would be writing regular monthly updates on my experiences but I have done no such thing. I hope that this letter finds you all well and that you are all progressing in your spiritual path the way that you all desire too. Please excuse the length of this letter, due to my absence the first five months of my journey I have a lot to write on.
My indian experience began in Bangalore, I was there taking classes in an indian university. It’s hard to describe all the details of that time, but I’ll write what I can. There were about 13 other students in the program, all of them girls from other parts of the USA. I could see pretty clearly that none of them were even slightly interested in spirituality or sadhana, so from the start I was the odd man out.. Literally.. We had our own series of classes arranged specially for us for me including; Sanskrit, Hindi, Kannada, yoga, indian culture, indian art, travel and enoucntet with the other (a course on traveling and cultural viewpoints) and Hinduism & Buddhism.
The biggest positive aspect of my time in Bangalore was the presence of the Bangalore dhyana Kendra. A Yss center that was 15 minutes from my dorms. This Kendra was visited by master and daya ma, she blessed this center saying that it would always draw sincere devotees thanks to the efforts of the founders. Within a few days of arriving I had visited them and already been invited back to one of their houses for lunch. Over the next four months this became a real haven for me, I became close friends with the group of young men who live nearby and work IT together and every Sunday after the service I would go back to their apartment and have food and stimulating conversation. I was going to 3 group meditations a week and by the end of it I was also leading the chanting on some of the Thursday meditations. I regularly did things with devotees; lunch at their houses, outings outside of Bangalore, and they even took care of me when I was sick. This group truly became a spiritual family for me and a resource when all else failed.
The first holiday of dassara in early October became a shifting point for me. Up to then I had a relatively smooth transition and was really enjoying my time abroad. For that holiday I visited an ashram in tiruchirapalli in the state of Tamil Nadu. This ashram was founded by Swami Abhishiktananda, a Benedictine monk from France, on the ideals of creating an ashram that was both eastern and western. His ideals were strongly in line with masters. This ashram also became home to father Bede Griffiths a well known academic writer and spiritual man who also lived for the east – west ideal. For some reason by coming to this ashram my mood plumetted. Internally I became low and frustrated with myself at the difficulties of India and being away from my home. This was partly due to the conditions at the ashram, but I think the time was ripe because it continued almost the rest of my trip. It took all my willpower and faith to get through. I can go back and read my journal entries and see the shift as I move to darker and darker stages, wanting to go back to the USA and resisting the changes India was putting me through. On top of this I judged myself pretty heavily for the mood itself and it created a cycle of unmotivated idleness. I never missed a meditation but some days it was pretty brutal. During this period the Yss center became my only place I felt uplifted. It was a lifesaver.
In early November I had another holiday and another shift. I went with some devotees on a weekend outing to sri paramudur ashram, a Yss ashram in chennai. On the way I ate some bad food and water and a long period of sickness Insued. I had a intense stomach bacteria that really drained me and after a few days of health I came down with a more intense fever. This turned out to be dengue fever, a mosquito borne illness that has no medication. I didn’t get hospitalized though I should have been. I did though go to the ER and spend several nights at devotees houses and the Yss center itself a few nights. My condition went pretty critical, by blood platelet count dropped to maybe 4000 which is extremely low and dangerous. It was a heavy period which only enhanced my mood and longing for normalcy.
In December things happened fast. I recovered and found I had passed through my mood. Suddenly I felt comfortable in India, it felt normal to me there and I had no more tensions or fears that were preventing me from being at ease. My school finished up with a lot of finals and paper writing and In mid dec i went with my school on a brief tour of north India; including the history of Delhi, Jaipur, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the village of Brindaban, where Krishna spent his childhood. His village actually was quite nice, nobody else on the group was conscious of the spiritual import if this place, but I was thankful and able to absorb some of the vibration.
After our little school tour I got on the plane to Sri Lanka. It was necessary for me to leave the country of India in order to re apply for a tourist visa. I settled on Sri Lanka because of it’s proximity and spiritual heritage, I planned to fly back to Bangalore on jan 4th to attend their groups 50 yr anniversary janmotsov program celebrating masters birthday. Sri Lanka itself was a great rest. Something about the vibration was less intense, I felt easily capable in traveling there. I had an apartment booked there for a few weeks in the capital Colombo. Right after getting off the plane I met a local who gave me a Sri Lanka SIM card for my phone and he helped apply for my visa and travel around. I went with him to his wife’s village and stayed there a night with the villagers which was very nice. On Christmas I met with the Sri Lanka Yss group and though small, they are sincere. I had Christmas dinner with the leader and some Brazilian diplomat friends of his.
On Christmas Day itself my girlfriend Casey came to Sri Lanka to travel with me. It was really nice seeing her and we went on a tour to all of the main places in Sri Lanka; some famous Buddhist meditation caves, historical sites, the temple of the tooth which houses a Buddhas tooth relic, and some of the worlds largest Buddha statues. I completed the tour feeling more connected with Buddhism and more aware of the spiritual history of Sri Lanka. There were some complications with my visa, so I had to delay my reentrance into india by a few days, missing the janmotosov program. Overall it was quite a nice time in Sri Lanka.
The return to India has been great, upon arriving I felt almost overwhelmed with the amount of love at the Bangalore center that was waiting for me. All of the devotees had been missing me and were looking forward to seeing Casey. It was a really nice feeling, almost like a homecoming. they helped us find a free apartment to stay in at Bangalore where we could stay and leave our stuff. After a few days there, we went to Hampi a world heritage site.
In Hampi we spent a week staying with a friend of one of the Bangalore devotees. It is a rural area, but famous for being the birthplace of hanuman and the home of the vanara kingdom, the race to which hanuman belongs. The land is fertile and we spent hours driving through endless fields of sugarcane, banana, and coconut on a motorcycle lent by my host. The vibration at the hanuman temple was incredible and I felt a spiritual connection with him and a piece of his devotion and loyalty to lord rama. There were an abundance of ruins there which we visited all.
Finally, a week and a half ago we took the train with a devotee friend to his hometown of dharwad to stay wth his family. The whole family are Kriyabans and the dad has been highly involved in the construction of a Yss center here which was just dedicated a year ago. We have been traveling with the family to all these spiritual sites and temples around Karnataka. Casey and I had another stomach infection here so we have taken some down time here and again they asked me to lead the chanting for their long meditation on daya mas birthday.
That about completes the update, thoguh there are a lot of upcoming trips. One of the Senior devotees in Bangalore gave me the phone number for swami krishnananda in Yss, one of the senior swamis. He put together for us a whole list of places to visit, including all the ashrams and retreats in Yss. I’ll be visiting there before my return on May 20.
It’s been an incredible trip so far, i honestly can’t even believe that I have made it. It seems I am growing but it’s hard to track. I am doing all my meditations but sometimes it’s extremely difficult to do a full routine and feel connected the way I want. It’s a total test of faith and devotion. Thanks to the presence of Kriyabans and devotees I never feel apart from master, but it It really makes me miss hidden valley and the community there.
Thank you all for reading this far, I’m sorry I don’t have pictures I’m typing on a phone and it’s hard to attach them. I’ll look forward to connecting more and catching up when I return from India.
In divine friendship
Dear friends and family,
I know its been a while since I updated everyone, I have been either busy, exhausted, or not in the mood to write. I figure its time to write once more to capture the experiences of the past month or so. Thank you to everyone for all the mental support they have been sending my way, it is very encouraging.
I dont exactly remember where my last email left off, but I have traveled through the entire southern region and traversed all of the SRF( Self realization fellowship) ashrams in North India including some holy cities. I think my last update may have talked about the visit to Dwarahat ashram in the Himalayan foothills, making pilgrimage to the cave of Mahavatar Babaji. We left from there to Rishikesh spending two nights in a retreat on the banks of the Ganges owned by a SRF devotee from Israel.
Arriving in Rishikesh was a more strenuous task than expected. The taxi ride was only supposed to be four hours but was extended to eight hours due to a landslide on the road that stopped all the traffic. Casey and I spent about a week in this city, which is known for being one of the modern yoga capitals. It was really nice to be in civilization again after being deep in the mountains, but rishikesh was almost too civilized… The city was entirely tailored to Western travelers and felt a little touristy to my tastes. It was our first opportunity to eat guacamole since being abroad, so there were some nice perks. One of our friends at the ashram in Dwarahat knew a devotee who could show us around and help us find accommodation in Rishikesh, so we did have constructive activities to prevent us from stagnating. Highlights from our time there include visiting the Vashishta Cave, ( a cave where Sage Vashishta supposedly practiced meditation for an extended period as well as Christ visiting this cave during his supposed sojourn in India) The Ashram and Tomb of Anandamayi Ma, and a famous temple that is crucially important to ancient indian mythology. We also spent a lot of time relaxing on the banks of the ganges and in the cafe’s oriented toward the western traveler. The popular drink here is a lemon nana, an ice slurpee with lemon and mint. Our friend also showed us the local places to get the best breakfast paratha’s and puri’s.
After Rishikesh, we took a train to Ambala where we spent one night to prepare for the next day’s taxi ride to Shimla. At shimla we had planned to attend a spiritual retreat themed around Easter. The drive to Shimla was beautiful, and the retreat center was beautifully constructed a halfhours drive from the city. It was built in such a way that you could overlook the entire valley from the balcony of the center. Absolutely breathtaking views mixed with such a deep feeling of peace. The swami who was leading the retreat was Swami Krishnananda, one of the most senior monks of YSS, and he infused the retreat with a lot of deep wisdom. We passed our time here absorbing the spiritual atmosphere and making friends with the other attendees (most of whom were from Chandigarh or other places in Himachal pradesh ) There were a lot of spiritual classes for the retreat as well as videos shown on the life and wisdom of Christ. We decided to stay a week after the retreat and were rewarded with some of the coldest weather we had yet experienced including thunder, lighting, and hail storms. We did spend one day visiting the city of Shimla and I was amazed at the panorama of mountains from that vantage point. In the city proper we also took darshan from the ancient kali temple there as well as the YSS dhyana kendra meditation center. In total we spent about 10 days there.
From shimla, we took a long taxi drive to Manali. A Himalayan Alps valley nestled deep in the mountains. Here, we were scheduled for another retreat led by Swami Krishnananda. This time the theme was on the guru disciple relationship. The feeling of being in Manali was unique and special, and the retreat fed us not just with gourmet indian food, but with precious wisdom on deepening our connection with the guru. It was only 3 days long, but it felt like much more than that crammed into a short time. After the retreat finished and all the participants returned home, we went deeper into the valley and checked into a room in old manali; the travelers haven and scenic section of manali. This place was one of the most beautiful places I have been in India, incredible himalayan mountain views intermixed with cherry and apple blossoms made for a picturesque scene. The people here looked like real mountain folk. Almost looking more nepali than indian, they dressed in colorful fabrics and could be seen washing their yaks off. By this point we had started getting tired of indian food, so starting in manali we started eating exclusively chinese food consisting of chow mein and momos ( steamed veg dumplings ). Manali was an amazing place to be, and we went on several beautiful hikes through the forest and were rewarded with some pretty incredible views. It is also home to some famous spiritual temples dedicated to the ancient god Manu. Supposedly the location of the temple is where the ark of Manu ( an ark containing the seeds of creation ) was kept by the avatar of Vishnu while the world was covered by a flood. This area is also known for the presence of the sapta rishi’s. The sage Vashishta who I mentioned in rishikesh also has a temple and village dedicated to him. There is a waterfall nearby which is said to be sacred for his meditations. We visited all of these locations and really tried to absorb the feeling of the place and the people. We stayed in Manali for about 10 days as well.
From Manali, we headed to our final destination; Dharamsala. Dharamsala is a bit unique among India’s holy places. It is the official seat of the exiled Tibetan government and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We have been here at least a week so far and will be here for about a month more, totally relaxing and enjoying not rushing from place to place. We are still enjoying chinese food, getting thukpa(tiebtan noodle soup) and tibetan butter tea, as well as exploring what this area has to offer. There is a nearby lake and waterfall as well as numerous buddhist and hindu temples. It is a great place to be and for us, the perfect place to take a breather and stay in one place for an extended period. Casey remarked on this today, her journey started in Sri Lanka, a predominately Buddhist country, and is ending in Dharamsala, the seat of Tibetan buddhism in India. In a way completing that cycle that is so prevelant in Buddhist spirituality.
I hope to update all of you on my journey in person when I return to the United States in may. All the best and much love.