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  1. 1. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India Seeking together Helping to Create A Planetary Vision A Universal Heart Satsang INDIA a sub-continent Reflections on her years in India and some connections with the ideals of the Satsang Association Sister Ishpriya ( Founder of the International Satsang Association) SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  2. 2. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India Background Some of you have been asking questions about the connection of the ISA (International Satsang Association) to India and Hinduism. These are very important questions which touch upon the basis of our Satsang Commitment, so I would like to respond to them. There is so very much to share and I can only make a small selection. I will try to choose the most essential influences from my years in India and involvement in Inter-faith Dialogue: those crucial experiences which changed my personal journey and which also led directly into the founding of the ISA and gave it a distinctive character. This will be neither a complete historical record nor a mini- autobiography. It is merely an attempt to share how some of the main principles of the ISA emerged. The Beginnings of the Satsang Journey In June 1971 I left England for a 6 months visit to India.. I returned in June 1972 and for the next 32 years, although I sometimes travelled extensively, India was my “home” base. When I first arrived in Mumbai in ‘1971, I knew almost nothing about Asian cultures or Religious traditions. This lack of preparation, far from being an obstacle, proved to be a great advantage. Challenges and impressions could make a direct impact on my consciousness without being distorted by the explanations and warnings of others. Later I realised that I had thus been gifted with a key to effective inter-cultural, inter-faith dialogue; i.e. the need to achieve a receptive attention, to allow people and events to tell their own story, free from pre- judgments of any kind. A first influence on the future ISA.! Although the original visit to India had not been my own choice, I soon discovered that there is no richer pluralistic, socio-religious soil on this Planet. A sub-continent with the second largest population in the world; speaking 14 main languages; teaming with vitality, abundantly rich in culture, artistic skill , in wisdom, natural resources and spiritual experience But where 55% of the children were still undernourished. This was an atmosphere where one’s spirit could fly in freedom, while the physical demands of daily survival and the constant psychological pain of powerlessness before so much social injustice, kept one rooted in reality. From the beginning, I lived mainly in Ashrams and according to the ancient and actual Hindu Ashram tradition. Ashram, is the name given to any place where a Guru teaches and transmits spiritual insight to disciples. An Ashram can be a bare cave in the rock or a building complex housing hundreds of people. The life style can be in total solitude or involving multiple social work activities. But an Ashram only exists where disciples receive spiritual initiation from a Guru. Over the years I stayed in a wide variety of Ashrams but lived between three of major significance. CPS Ashram in Pune: Shivananda Ashram in Rishikesh and Jeevan Dhara Ashram in Jaiharikhal. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  3. 3. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India The First Ashram – Christa Prema Seva Ashram , (CPS) The first Ashram was in Pune, in the large Central State of Maharastra. Central India is an area where the Bhakti tradition is pre- dominant. Bhakti is the spiritual path or Yoga of Loving Devotion. So the religious orientation and practices revolve around temple rituals; devotion to shrines and saints; celebration of religious festivals; pilgrimages and the reading of Scriptures, texts and commentaries of classical spiritual literature e.g., the Ramayana. There is a natural warmth and attractiveness in the practice of Bhakti Yoga. This, plus the availability and variety of good teaching make it the spiritual path of the majority of believers. Christa Prema Seva Ashram, (CPS), Service of the Love of Christ, was an Ashram in the Bhakti tradition. It had been one of the very few early attempts at forming a Christian Ashram and had played an important role in pre -Independence India. At a time when segregation was the rule, a group of English and Indian, Protestant Franciscan monks, had lived there in equality and harmony. In the days before Independence both Mahatma Gandhiji and the British Viceroy had visited CPS Ashram but by 1972 it was no longer in use. We reopened it, this time with an Ecumenical community of Catholic Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Protestant Sisters of St. Mary and a devout Hindu woman, Sarwaswatibai, who gave me my Indian name. From those first years of vigorous efforts at religious enculturation several sound teachings would flow into the ISA. Experience showed us that divisions between members of a single tradition, in this case Christianity, are healed less by theological discussion than by living, working, praying and laughing together over a long period of time. Only thus can we form a world community. It demands also that we develop the ability to accept that other traditions sometimes see us differently than we expect. Yet this is another essential step towards global peace. For example: As Inter Communion was not allowed between our two Christian churches Mass and Communion services were held separately in the Ashram but one tabernacle was use by both Priest and Pastor. One day our Hindu member asked: Which Jesus is in the box to-day? the Catholic Jesus ?or the Protestant Jesus? Her experience of our theological problems was a humbling lesson. CPS was also on the pilgrim route to an important shrine in Pandapur. Often a group of pilgrims , travelling by foot for days or even weeks, would stop by the Ashram to rest, and as was the custom, to be given food and to sing and pray with us. That way we shared in the blessings of their pilgrimage. Whatever motivations inspired this or other forms of Bhakti, I remain with the impression that their devotion was always spontaneous and free from rules and regulations. Songs of praise must rise from the pit of the stomach and the quality of voice production is of little importance! As one Maharastran Bhakta prayed: Lord, as nothing can hurt You, I will sing. From all that Bhakti Yoga taught me, the ISA gained a respect for spiritual paths that are different to its own. A Satsang is not a Meditation group, as you have heard me say so often. It was also clear that spontaneity is not destroyed by discipline but rather strengthened and purified. Among the great Spiritual teachers I was privileged to meet and learned much from during this time were B K lyengar, the World master of Ashtanga Yoga and Sri Ma Anandamai, who once honoured us by visiting CPS as a gesture of inter-faith understanding. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  4. 4. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India By the 1970’s the rapid increase in the complexity and violence of Western Society, plus the general breakdown in the moral authority and leadership of established religious and political systems, left thousands in confusion. Seeking meaning and guidance in their lives they turned to the Eastern mystical traditions for help. It was the era when influential Hindu and Buddhist Gurus (some genuine some not), settled in America, Europe and Australia. Travelling in the opposite direction, huge numbers of Western Youth came to India looking for a Guru. During the 1970’s and 80’s especially, hundreds would pass through our own Ashrams. Indirectly they too led to the founding of the ISA as on seeing and hearing their distress at being unable to find” back home” , the spiritual guidance they found in Asia, I decided to respond to requests to teach in the West myself. From participants in these early retreats and workshops out of India, the first Satsang groups would form. Rishikesh - Sivananda Ashram Genuine spiritual experience via the practice of Meditation was the main attraction and has remained so into the 3rd millennium. As this was my own way, the next phase began, inevitably, with the move from Central to North India, from a Christian to a Hindu Ashram; from the exuberance of Bhakti Yoga to the profound Silence of Dhyana. (Meditation) Rishikesh (or the home of the Enlightened Ones) and Muni-ki-reti (the Sands of the Silent Ones) were known since Vedic times as the source of authentic spiritual masters. Lying on the banks of the River Ganges , at the foot hills of the Himalaya, these two small towns are part of a 22 kilometre stretch of innumerable Ashrams, small and large, richly endowed or miserably poor, home to a swarming mass of hundreds of Sanyasis and Sanyasinis (monks and nuns). Even in the winter cold and rains, their Saffron (fire coloured) robes glow all around, so that one cannot easily forget one’s purpose for being here, in Rishikesh or on this planet. The one desire is to be totally immersed in the Waters of inner Silence, to attain Moksha, final freedom. For this, the tradition insists, a Guru is needed. Here I had entered a totally unfamiliar world. Here Christianity did not exit, neither in concrete presence, (for several years Sr. Vandana and I were the only 2 Christians known to be resident in this Hindu Holy place), nor in relevance, for the thousands of pilgrims from all over India and abroad, who passed through here each year. The concept of Guru was equally unfamiliar, except as the misconception so often presented to the Western world but living with authentic believers in another tradition rapidly removes the last traces of triumphalism from the heart and prepares one for dialogue, prepares one to learn. Although we became familiar with the Gurus of all the main Ashrams in the Area, we soon settled down in Shivananda Ashram, head quarters of the International Divine Life Society. Its founder, Swami Shivananda, had been hailed as a spiritual giant of the 20th Century. Most of the disciples he trained, both men and women, became in their turn, important spiritual leaders through out the world. His senior most disciple, Swami Chidanandaji who had inherited the charisma of his master, would teach me patiently, graciously, as Guru over many years. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  5. 5. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India The role of the Guru is to awaken and guide the disciple into his/her own spiritual depths. Once awakened and ready, the Guru will send the disciple away, dressed inn the Saffron robes of Sanyasa, to: “cross the Infinite space of the heart (consciousness), alone”. Here there is no tolerance of an immature, emotional dependency. These Masters, of international reputation lived their own religious tradition so authentically, that they were free enough to reach out in understanding to all other traditions. From rigidly Orthodox Hindus they received sever criticism for their outreach to those of other cultures and religions but their lives were hope for our world. Certainly, without Swami Chidanandaji’s continual “protection” the rest of this story could not have been written. The “community” of the Ashram was a continuously changing mixture of men and women, of all ages and nationalities. The core group was composed of the Sanyasis, those wearing Saffron who had made vows of renunciation and those in white or yellow who were preparing for initiation into Sanyasa. The majority however were married or single and who shared fully in the life and work of the Ashram. It was a Global microcosm. Some stayed for weeks, others for a life time. Four things held this mobile mixture together: a common spiritual purpose: acceptance of a tradition of teaching: recognition of each one’s personal Sadhana and Seva. This has become true for the ISA also. Our multi-cultural Companionship is bonded together by our common (Triple) Commitment. I Sadhana and Seva were characteristics of Shivananda Ashram. These are two of the few Sanskrit words which we use in the ISA, in order to keep the strength of the concept behind the words which translation s might lose. Sadhana can be translated as “spiritual practice”. A practice which is chosen willingly and not fulfilled as an obligation, as are most religious practices. It is usually chosen with the help of a Teacher or Guru: must fit the life-style and personality of the seeker. Possibilities are numberless but some serious Spiritual practice is seen as essential to keep us awake on our inner journey. The First aspect of the ISA Commitment stresses the responsibility we all have for our Sadhana. Seva can be translated as Service but this is inadequate. Seva is Action: any Activity which is done with full attention to the action itself, for itself and not for the satisfaction of achievement. Seva is training to living in the present moment; to being awake to the needs of those around us. All ordinary, routine actions of every day life can thus become a way to expand our Spiritual; awareness and the living out of the 2nd and 3rd aspects of the Commitment. A Satsang, formed in the Ashram ideal, can cross all the barriers of race and Religion, because it is based on respect and genuine concern for the total and spiritual well-being of the other. When we have understood this, we have understood the essential character of the ISA. I am well aware that this is a very brief and incomplete indication of all the gifts from the Eastern traditions which have enriched our Satsang but I want to add just one or two from other contexts SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  6. 6. International Satsang Association :- Ishpriya – the Early Years in India The Kuttirs at Tapovan After some years we move out of Shivananda Ashram to live in a small Kuttirs (cottages) of our own in order to have time for our own Sadhana. These were high up the river on the edge of a small village. Most of the families in the village lived at little more that subsistence level. Hard work and the minimum of food and clothing was not their choice (as it was for many of the monks). Their knowledge of the vast wisdom of the Hindu tradition was also minimal. But through the faith they lived every day the essentials shone out clearly. God is the Indweller: the Mystery present within each person without any exception. All will finally realise their union with God . Each life must be lived so as to become more aware of this Truth. Economic wealth or poverty will pass. The true wealth is to know who one is:to realise the Self: Real poverty is to be still in ignorance of this. Studying, for example, the doctrine of re-birth ,via books and discussions may be a first step. But sitting on the mud floor cutting vegetables ,with a mother whose beloved 6 year old son drowned in the Ganges only days before, and hearing her say :1 know Ramu is alive. I know that he has taken another birth: reveals an amazing psychological and spiritual maturity. She simply accepts that he is now the “child’ of another woman for he(we) belong only to the Self. The time came to move into yet another context . The kuttirs at Laxman Jhula ( near Tapovan) had been intended only for our own Sadhana but increasing numbers of people had asked to live with us for a while. It was time to build our own Ashram. We moved 2,000 metres up into the foothills, lost the presence of Mother Ganges and the many Ashrams, but gained a panoramic view of the High Himalaya. Two years before we move to Jailharikhal the inspiration for the ISA had come to me. During the years while the Ashram in India was being built and established I was already scattering the seeds of the ISA in different countries to which I had been invited. By 1995 our Jeevan Dhara Ashram in Jaiharikhal was complete and the ISA established in 5 countries. In that year a group of ISA Members from Mexico, Germany, the USA, Austria and England joined me on pilgrimage to several of the India sources of our Companionship. The stories of the development of those ISA seeds must be told in other videos, as must the ways in which inspiration from Buddhism via Japan and Taoism, via Taiwan entered the life of the ISA. The finding and first 10 years of the ISA’s, Die Quelle; The Source: La Fuente also needs to tell its story. Here are just some of our first roots, and answers to your questions, even why Ishpriya Mataji wears a Saffron sari! Ishpriya Mataji SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart