It was over two years since my last trip to India although it seemed even longer. Maa and I had spoken about my trip, deciding that I would not return for Maa’s program “Divinization of Matter”, rather traveling from Kashi (Varanasi) to Uttarkashi in the Himalayas and then to Puttaparthi before returning home.

This was my time to devote myself to devotion: my devotion to Maa of course; my devotion to my sadhana or spiritual practice; my devotion to going within and focusing upon my Self, my Atma, the Truth that can only be found inside; my devotion to stillness, to moving out of doing and expanding through being. I highly recommend to everyone to take an extended period of time for this kind of devotion, if possible, although I know this is a luxury for many. As an alternative, this might take the form of devoting a whole morning or afternoon or full day to devotional practice and whatever this looks like for you.

We can always go inside and find everything no matter where we are located, and yet the “outside” environment is influential in supporting and contributing to our inner work and state of being. In this case, I was in three different environments that served me in my devotional journey. I will take you through the experiential highlights of my three weeks in India and these inner/outer journeys.

Just arriving in India, Delhi and then Kashi, feels like home – so familiar, comfortable, with sights and sounds and smells, an immersion in the culture and daily living that activates in me an inner focus and greater awareness of my energy and state. I’m not going to lay out all the activities of my stay, just those that offer some insight into aspects of devotion and the impact of devotion within me that may resonate with you, or call you to make new choices for your devotional practice.

In all three locations I set up my altar with a photo of Maa, Aarti lamp (with incense and cup of water, spoon), small Ganesh, mala and the small book I have created of different mantras, and other sacred items. (Among my India photos and videos on my Facebook page, you can see a photo of my altar in Uttarkashi – http://www.facebook.com/swamijiauthor).

Each day during my stay I meditated, recited mantras, offered Aarti to Maa, chanted the Hanuman Chalisa (Hanuman, the monkey god so devoted to Ram and Sita), chanted the Guru Gita (listening at the same time to Swami Muktananda chanting it). In Puttaparthi I added in reading chapters from the Shri Sai Satcharitra that Maa recommended we read, containing stories of devotion and teachings from the life of Shirdi Sai Baba, the first incarnation of Baba. I also read throughout my trip the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text that describes the self-realization of Arjuna through his devotion to Lord Krishna who has taken the form of his charioteer (more about this later).

At the beginning of my trip, I celebrated Maha Shivaratri in Kashi, with Mohan Das, Krishna Das and David O’Grady who are the India team serving Maa’s ashram there and humanitarian projects through the Sai Maa Vishnu Shakti Trust, as well as a visiting group of about 15 of us from around the world. We all experienced the power of the ashram combined with the ceremonies, mantras, slokas, and vedic chanting of the pundits through the whole night of Shivaratri.

In addition to the Abhishek, puja or offerings to the Shiva lingam, the highlight was the yagya, the fire ceremony with flames shooting to the sky (see photos), as we shouted “Swaha” (so be it!) along with the pundits. For me, the Shakti and expansion were immense and intense especially during the yagya, as I merged with the sacred fire and devoted myself to loudly reciting two mantras dedicated to the vibrant health of Maa: the Mrityunjaya mantra which I also recite at home and listen to Karunamayi chanting it; and the Dhanvantari mantra (an avatar form of Vishnu, physician of the gods, and god of Ayurveda).

I moved into an expanded state radiating light to Maa and merging in oneness with the purifying fire, through my love for and devotion to Maa, my wish for Maa’s continued health, and unity with the pundits and entire group in our focus and collective intention. Yagyas are such powerful instruments for activating our devotion, deepening our purification, and raising our vibrational state. We open our heart, throat and higher chakras as we focus and express ourselves, and the fire burns through all of our impurities the more devoted we are, the more we open and allow the vibration of the Sanskrit to move through us, the more we offer to the fire.

My devotion to seva, to serving others, in this case women and children, was reinvigorated and reinforced in Kashi when I visited a school and Maa’s Women’s Center and Shelter. As I saw the impact of the work, and spoke with the children and women, I felt (and still feel) the joy and expansion that comes from service and manifesting our shared mission through humanitarian work. This seva is an expression of my devotion to Maa, to Atma, to all the souls who are being served.

I wrote that I would come back to the Bhagavad Gita. Among the powerful teachings in this sacred text, we are educated about the impermanence of the physical form, the everlasting permanence of the Atma, the Self, the power of the different forms of yoga including Bhakti or devotion to the Guru or that Absolute within us, the Eternal and the absence of death, the bondage of maya or illusion, the importance of not being attached to the body or to outcomes of our actions, the state of equanimity and mastery over the unsteady mind gained through practice.

Now on to the second leg of my trip. My time in Uttarkashi, where I re-read the Bhagavad Gita, represented even deeper immersion in my sadhana in an environment of very high vibration, higher altitude of the surrounding Himalayas, and, in retrospect not surprisingly, inner work around my physicality, about form and formless.

I arrived in Uttarkashi after a 4 ½-hour car trip, with a driver who drove very fast around hundreds of winding curves and steep cliffs, weaving in and out of other cars and trucks. Do you know where I’m leading with this description? When I arrived at the hotel, although I felt fine in the car, I had to rush to my room to relieve myself bending over the toilet. Let me say that this was a rarity for me since I had not vomited for over five decades. Yes, I know, hard to believe except when you know about my long history of control, retention, contracted living. Even more surprising, I experienced this as an interesting turn of events, and realized how much better I felt rather than living through an extended period of nausea.

I mention this experience because it points to one of the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita about form and formless, not identifying ourselves with the body, releasing attachments and opening to the limitlessness within us. My time in Uttarkashi was spent partially in being aware of my physical form while focusing on my practice and merging in the energies of the Himalayas. In others words, I felt dizzy and an imbalance of sorts in being there, while I appreciated Mata Ganga (the Ganges River) and the Himalayan mountains from my balcony as I did my practice. For those interested, even though I felt off balance physically at times, my stomach was in good condition on all counts.

As you can see in my Facebook videos, the environment was sacred, majestic, “Shaktified”. As I recited mantras on the balcony, I expanded even more as I listened to the sounds of the birds and gazed upon the beauty of the surroundings. Although the person who had organized my week’s stay in Uttarkashi brought me to the Vishwanath Temple, Shivananda ashram, and his own nearby tent resort on the Ganga, I spent a great deal of time in my room with my daily practice, reading through all of the Bhagavad Gita as well as learning to chant the Guru Gita, following along in my little booklet as Swami Muktananda chanted.

Another highlight in Uttarkashi was walking upon small and larger stones to reach the Ganga after a few minutes, and sitting on a large boulder with my feet in the water. The cold anchored me throughout my body, as the high vibration penetrated me, expanded my state, and moved me into meditation. Just as the yagya purified me, so did Mother Ganga, as I closed my eyes, and when I opened my eyes to witness the steady flow of the silky waters over and between the rocks. On this particular day it was very sunny (compared to several overcast and chilly days), and the combination of the light shining on the mountains and in the water, and the sun on my face and cold water on my feet, filled my heart and being with peace and contentment.

Moving on to Puttaparthi, I come back to familiarity, feeling at home and natural, after 20 years of visiting this village filled with Baba’s loving Shakti and devoted to His life and teachings. It was so easy for me to practice in the apartment I owned there for many years, especially since the temperature was very hot outside and the indoor fan helped to reduce the perspiration. My devotion, and that of many people living and visiting there, is palpable and expansive, especially when I visited the ashram for Omkar between 4-5:30 am every morning. For Omkar, we sit outside and then inside Baba’s meditation room, chant OM 21 times (the meaning of “Omkar”), meditate in silence, and listen to ladies chanting a sloka about Baba. One morning I walked around the ashram with the group of men (another group of women does the same), as we chanted slokas. I am amazed and filled with joy as the birds chant with us, as I hear the loud chirping of the birds especially in the same trees that are near the quarters where Baba used to reside.

Each day I visited with my friend Aftab from Kashmir, who is very close to Maa and me and owns a gem and statue shop “Himalayan Heritage” right near the ashram entrance. We sat together for satsang (and he gave me mango juice and electrolytes for my water to energize me). I spoke of Maa and my experiences, and he, unlike during numerous visits over the years, shared many personal stories about miraculous and touching experiences he had with people (visitors and beggars) during his over 30 years living in Puttaparthi.

Finally, I end with my visit to Baba’s meditation tree, my favorite place in Puttaparthi aside from the ashram and Maa’s bedroom that faces the mandir (meditation hall), where Baba used to stop to look at Maa. On my final morning in Puttaparthi, I sat for about an hour under the tree, as the meditation meditated me, as I merged in the profound Shakti of Baba and the yantra buried underneath the tree. I experienced its unique energy, such deep comfort, relaxation and stillness, a oneness that arises and spreads within me when I am there. You can see a photo of the tree, and learn more about it and my past experience, in an earlier blog (December 27, 2012).

As I complete this sharing, I encourage you again to devote yourselves to your devotion through devotional practice, to go within and realize the formless, the Eternal Truth, the permanent, the higher and higher vibration, that is ever-present and available for all of us as we shift our focus to everything waiting inside of us. The more we practice, the more we devote ourselves to Maa, Master, God, Atma, love, light, the more we move into a constant state of devotion that leads us into the depths of our divinity, to the realization of the Reality of Self.

All ways devoted to you in our shared path of devotion and realization.