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Vākya Vṛtti, Tiruvannamalai, 26 Oct to 6 Nov 2023

It was so good to be back in India after four pandemic-hindered years! As ever, on leaving Chennai airport, the land of the Vedas embraced us with a welcoming morning sun and with familiar sounds and smells that rekindled past memories and raised anticipations of new ones.

Soon Chennai too was merely a memory as we headed south-west for Tiruvannamalai and the Tirumoolar ashram where we were to spend the next ten days studying Ādi Śaňkara’s famous Vākya Vṛtti with Pujya Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji.

The days in the ashram began, of course, in the temple and continued with several classes on Vākya Vṛtti, interspersed with classes in Sanskrit and in Nirvāna Ṣaṭkam. Delicious communal meals provided welcome breaks as well as excellent nourishment. Yet, at the hot Sun’s insistence, we all came to rest for a couple of hours each day after lunch in the quiet cool of our simply furnished rooms.

Physically, the ashram was still a work-in-progress with partially completed buildings rising day by day from the ground, all with the aim of meeting an inauguration date at November’s end. Nevertheless, our corresponding non-physical growth was completely unaffected by all that busy activity.

Śaňkara’s incomparable Vākya Vṛtti provided the material to our study sessions, but it was Pujya Swaminiji’s masterful presentation of its full and true vision that brought it so richly and meaningfully alive. Yet again she demonstrated that we remain viewing only the periphery of the depth and range of her understanding, while its interior remains unseen. Again and again those talks demonstrated the value of in-person communication, a value no Zoom call can match. That value was similarly demonstrated in her breathtaking early morning expositions in the temple of the symbolism concealed in Devī Mahātmyam!

Her tireless commitment to our welfare didn’t stop at the spiritual: it was she who personally vetted and booked the ashram; it was she who arranged our various forms of transport; it was she who not only supervised the creation of our meals but then helped serve them; it was she who led and organised every detail of our subsequent temple visits, including the required transport and hotel accommodation. Swaminiji unstintingly cares for her students every step of the way like a protective, wise mother. What an example she sets!

One of the many remarkable experiences she facilitated was the giri-pradakṣina, a 14km walk around the famous Tiruvannamalai mountain that, in our case, took place on a gentle autumnal full moon. We joined many thousands of cheerful, peaceful devotees intent on completing that long walk in honour of Arunacala-îśvara. So many, many people! And no hint of unrest or unpleasantness! Quite remarkable.

Naturally, time was found during our stay to visit Ramana Maharshi’s ashram along with each of the nine liṅgas that mark key points in that giri-pradakṣina. Filled chiefly with westerners, his ashram is a quiet, beautifully cared-for place in which meditation and readings seemed the principal activities.

Following the end of the ten-day retreat at Tirumoolar, several days of temple visits took place involving Cidambaram and Kancipuram. During each we benefitted from several excellent darśans, once again thanks chiefly to Swaminiji.

Temple visits rightly remain an important part of every camp. They of course give cultural context to the talks, but far more importantly they provide connection with the divine. It is not that the stone idols whose darśan one seeks are divine, it is that they provide a means to reach, through reverential regard and prayer, the divine within us. That darśan, that reverential seeing, quietens and refocusses the mind, freeing it for a moment from worldly orientations and perspectives and allowing it a far richer one. Prayer is ever a “will-involved auto-suggestion”.

Our programme concluded with a return to Chennai where there was a brief meeting with Pujya Swami Paramarthanandaji in his very modest study, as well as a visit to the Saṁskṛta Bharati bookstore to buy Sanskrit textbooks.

Soon a retreat becomes a memory, but a memory that leaves a lasting impression – this retreat especially so, as the many tributes and expressions of gratitude that Swaminiji rightly received afterwards now show.

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