A Visit to the Santhagiri Ashram
A few weeks ago while the kids and Steve were in class I was invited along on a class trip for some math students in the 7th and 9th standards to visit a nearby Ashram. We were going to see a beautiful new "Parnasala" that had recently been dedicated. This impressive lotus shaped structure is a mausoleum built for the remains and belongings of the Guru.
When we arrived we were told that the design for the structure came to the Guru in visions and that there was no architect for the project. They also explained to the math students that it is the tallest single story structure in the world. Hmm...I stood there scratching my head, puzzled by this proclamation. Inside there is smaller polished wood alcove with a solid gold statue of the guru with a clearly defined ceiling above it supported by pillars. The children were then given all the important measurements about the building to copy down (and probably later tested on). I was introduced to the engineer for the project. He explained that of course there were designers and engineers and he wasn't sure exactly what they meant by the height thing and that they need to work on what they tell people when they visit. So classicly Indian. Regardless, as you can see it is quite stunning.
Some elephants were brought in by their mahouts and made to bow down before the statue of the Guru.
I spent a while walking around the complex speaking with the sculptor of the statue who is also a film maker. I asked questions about the beliefs of the devotees. He talked a lot about not needing organized religions and the "Oneness" of God, love, truth etc. Sounded interesting and I have been hoping to find a Guru. We walked a bit further and he said that Guru merged into the "Plane of Primordial Consciousness" ten years ago, but they believe that Guru is still with them. I was shown the thatched hut where Guru used to live which is kept ready for him each day and the vehicles that he was transported in. In fact some men were offering up incense near the car as they had just returned from "driving" him around.
They are so dedicated to Guru because their spirituality is based on the Guru-Shishya (disciple) relationship. They don't have any writings on the teaching of Guru. I bought a few pamphlets in English to try to learn more but they are mostly descriptions of clairvoyance, astral planes and visions of Guru. From the website it says:
"human beings have the possibility of full awakening or realization, but they need the guidance of a Guru who has transcended to the highest spiritual stage. This alone helps in spiritual advancement and not religious dogmas and rituals. When Guru’s words are followed, the disciple experiences them as Truth. Thus the revelation: "Word is Truth,Truth is Guru, Guru is God"."
Well for a teaching that says that you do not need religious dogmas and rituals it appears to this humble outsider that their lives are filled with them. One interesting belief is that families suffer from the consequences of errors in one’s ancestral lineage and worship practices. They can been saved by the invoking of Guru’s intercession on the astral planes to purify ancestral souls and deities worshipped by the family, thus creating children born with greater virtue and luck. Guru envisioned a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the world through the birth of such purified progeny and high souls. (After some of the experiences Steve and I have been having with our 11 year old progeny lately I thought about doing a few poojas and making some offerings to Guru.)
Interestingly, I noted on the website a long list of the Offerings and the Ceremonies Rates, including:
Pushpanjali A ‘Floral Offering’ performed according to a person’s birth star. It is done for the removal of ‘karma dosha’ (ill effects of bad actions) from one’s ‘jeeva’ or life force. Rs. 5.
Special Pooja/ Akathupooja A special prayer to resolve major problems and to pray for goodness for oneself and the family. Rs. 75.
Aravana Payasam Sweet Dessert Rs. 500.
Pal Payasam Milk Dessert for Lunch Rs. 5000.
Panchamratham Sweet Preparation with honey, ghee, fruit etc. Rs. 1500.
Haara Samarpanam Flowers and garlands are offered to Guru on special occasions and to pray for a change in one’s luck. Rs. 250.
Kaadul Poovadil Ear piercing ceremony for girls. Rs. 75.
Adi Gurupooja The first ‘Gurupooja’ or ‘shuddhi’ (purification) is performed generally one year after the death of a person for cleansing the ‘jeeva’ of its ‘dosham’ (faults). Rs. 10000.
Pithrushuddhi Cleansing or rehabilitation of ancestral souls (manes). Rs. 10000.
Pithrushuddhi and Devashuddhi Cleansing or rehabilitation of ancestral souls and other negative spiritual influences . Rs. 25000.
Pithrushuddhi, Devashuddhi, Kutumba Maranam Cleansing or rehabilitation of negative ancestral souls and other spiritual influences including family curses. Rs.75000.
Poorna Mochanam and Mukthi of Pithrus, Devas, Kutumba Maranam Complete liberation and salvation of ancestral souls, astral deities and family curses and sins. Rs. 1,10,000.
From a 5 rupee floral offering to complete liberation for 1,10,000 rupees ($2444). Perhaps like going thru a car wash, would you like just a basic or the works?
I guess for now I will stick with my faithful friends at The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH... whom I miss very much.
Oh yes, following this list it notes that "Devotees can make the offerings through DD/Cheque/Money Order or through Bank transfer" and gives instructions on how to do so. Am I sounding cynical?
At the end of our visit we all processed down some steps into a dark, maze-like series of makeshift displays. The words were written in Malayalam but I think it had something to do with good and evil, demons, gods and Guru.
Just in case you missed the architectural masterpiece outside they included a picture of it at the end.