From a very early age Baba Hari Dass had a dream. He lived near an orphanage where the staff were cruel to the children. Around the age of 8, Babaji decided that one day he would build an orphanage where the children were treated with love and kindness instead of cruelty. He first started Mount Madonna Center where he taught yoga classes. Next came other projects, including Mount Madonna School. Eventually, he decided it was time to start work on his true dream. In the late 80’s he and his yoga students broke ground on the Sri Ram Ashram, outside of Haridwar, India. In 1987 the Ashram received its first child. Growing up at Mount Madonna Center, I heard this story multiple times and every time I got more excited for the day when I could finally visit.
Immediately upon arrival at Sri Ram Ashram, I was greeted with dozens of smiling faces that made me feel at home. We are not treated like visitors here; we are treated like family. Vansh and Rohit are my younger brothers. I push them on the swings and rough house with them. I treat the older kids like siblings as well. I talk with them and I’m not afraid to occasionally make jokes at their expense. Staying here at the Sri Ram Ashram has made me the happiest I have ever been.
Yesterday we were taken to Har Ki Pauri along the river Ganga for Aarti. Here the river is considered a deity and it is prayed to the same way someone would pray to Hanuman, Shiva or Ram. Songs are sung, prayers are chanted, and large fire lamps are lit and swung around. I have been to Aarti at Mount Madonna Center but it is a totally different experience. On a busy day maybe a few hundred people will show up compared to the thousands that showed up along the Ganga. To me, that is where the differences end. It doesn’t matter where you are, how you pray, or who you pray to. All devotion is the same to me. It was interesting to see that everyone who attended Aarti knew exactly what to do, and what prayers to say. The beauty of this experience will stay with me forever.
Walking through the crowded Haridwar market, dodging the motorcycles and bicycles going too fast for the small pathways, I noticed a perfect chaos. It seemed dysfunctional and disorganized but somehow it worked. At first, the motorcycles honking their horns was just loud and annoying but I soon appreciated that the startling noise as a warning to get out of the way as they sped past. After an hour of shopping and bargaining, with a lot of help from our friends at the Ashram, it was time for Aarti. We were told that Aarti at Haridwar was a huge, colorful event, with thousands of people in attendance. Despite this information, I was in no way prepared for the experience. I will never forget looking down from our perch on the bridge at the masses of people below. I looked through the crowd and focused on individual faces, some with beaming smiles, some with stoic stares concentrating on the ritual, and some with tears of joy rolling down their cheeks. I looked down at the river Ganga below us, the flaming flower boats floating by, away from the crowds. I saw barely clothed men bathing themselves in the holy water, and others splashing handfuls on their heads. There was so much happening and I wanted to take it all in because, for me, it was probably a once in a lifetime experience. That’s when I realized that this unbelievably remarkable tradition, happens daily. Every day, flower boats are lit with matches and sent down the river, and thousands of people gather at the edge of the Ganga to share this experience. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of something so important and pivotal in the Hindu culture, and hope one day to participate in it again.
My chest tilted forward and my heart fell onto the steps of the Ashram as Preethi jumped onto my back, kissing my cheek goodnight. After a day of her explaining to me that she wanted to be a dentist, and how my teeth “really need some green braces,” we were sisters.
At the Ashram I feel whole, and most of all I feel loved. A parade of smiles encircles me as I am asked a multitude of questions. Priyanka asks me if I am scared to leave my family to go to college. I sit against the cold wall knowing the answer is yes but reluctant to tell her. She notices my hesitancy and takes my hand tightly and says, “It’s okay, I am too.” I have never met someone as full of color as Priyanka, her vibrancy shines through as she shows me her favorite dances. Her kindness exists in the way she holds baby Arjun close to her chest, kissing his tear filled eyes. I knew as soon as she grabbed my hand it would be a hard goodbye.
At the Ashram I have come to the realization that you only need a smile and a swing set to make a friend. “Very, very high,” Sanjana yells at me as I push her through the Indian heat. I must admit I would stop the high pushes just to hear her yell through her giggling, “Very, very high.” Baffled by the children’s inability to get bored after swinging for hours, I look around at my surroundings and I am filled with complete, and utter content. I love it here.