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Vedanta Retreat, Manjakkudi, 27 January – 3rd February 2015

Last year, Pujya Swamiji invited the students who had been unable to meet him in January, due to his illness, to join him in his home village of Manjakkudi in early 2015. Many of us were able to do so and he treated us to several days of illuminating talks, took us to many events in his schedule and showed us various aspects of local village life.

By 26th January all had arrived and that evening the village reverberated to the trumpets and drums of a festival in which the temple deity was paraded down the main street – a very loud, joyous and propitious beginning to our stay!

The group was formed of Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji’s students, mostly from the UK, but also from Australia and Spain. We were housed in beautiful 5-star-standard accommodation designed and built for those visiting the Swami Dayananda Study Centre in the village. Our thanks to Sheela Balaji for that (and as we were to learn, for much else besides).

The next morning (and every morning thereafter) the day began with Pujya Swamiji conducting meditation in his ancestral home in the village, followed by the first of the daily classes by him in one of the classrooms in the large Manjakkudi campus. There are over 6,000 students on the campus, in various schools and colleges, all institutions of his creation.

After that first class we accompanied him to the Swami Dayananda Secondary School at the end of the main village street. It holds 1700 pupils and they were all there, neatly seated on the ground, row after row after row, offering pranams in unison. He spoke for several minutes, in Tamil, and was followed by other speakers, including some from our party.

Soon it was time for lunch, which like every other meal was deliciously prepared and served by expert caterers from Chennai, courtesy of Mrs Sheela Balaji. Later that day, following classes by Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji, we attended a dance performance of Sita’s Swayamvaram given by a Chennai dance troupe in the main auditorium to mark the end of the cultural festival.

Swamini Atmaprakashananda held two classes each day on a Prakarana Grantha. This advanced work was handled brilliantly by her, much to everyone’s delight and inspiration. Only a teacher of her calibre could unfold a text this obscure, and so convincingly reveal its intended and proper meaning and vision.

In all of Pujya Swamiji's classes he spoke with typical eloquence, weight and matchless logic, delivered in that rich, deep voice. Most of his eight classes were varied in theme but consistently insightful and memorable. Afterwards, we often had the privilege of meeting him informally after lunch and again after dinner for satsang.

On many occasions, Pujya Swamiji combined our daily programme with that of his own, taking us with him when, for example, he visited a nearby Veda Patashala that his educational trust supports. One such visit was to his boyhood school where we saw not only his classroom but the original paper record of his Register of Admission, and also his Register of Attendance from 1944-5 – any record of boyish misdemeanours having long been mislaid or forgotten! Naturally, the present-day boys were excited by his presence and competed for the touch of his outstretched hand upon their heads from the open window of his car. Another time we heard him speak to all the students of his English school and later to the teachers of all the schools on the campus.

One day he eagerly showed us a magnificent lotus pond in full bloom at the edge of his mother’s village and ensured that we each received a freshly picked lotus from his own hand. His mother’s house is simple and modest, a single-storey building occupied now by a highly qualified teacher at one of his many Manjakkudi schools. The interior is impressively spartan: completely devoid of luxuries.

The final event on which we accompanied him was a chariot festival on February 2nd. It was a very hot day and a very, very huge chariot (well over 40m high) so big and heavy that a JCB was needed at the rear to give the many hundreds pulling on the massive ropes some help moving it. The head of the local mutt had invited him and shared the dignitaries’ vantage point with him.

On the last day, Pujya Swamiji congratulated Pujya Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji for inspiring many students by her teaching and counsel.

Naturally, there is much more to tell – the Sesame seed press, the pada puja, the temple visits, the meetings with the children and teachers – all contributed to our many happy memories of the visit. We are, however, especially grateful to Pujya Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji for her flawless teaching as well as to Mrs Sheela Balaji whose generosity and superb organising skills provided us with such high-standard accommodation and meals and whose efficiency and care ensured that everything ran happily and smoothly. Most of all, though, our deepest thanks must go to Pujya Swamiji for the time, attention and insights he unsparingly gave us.

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