India, the land you and I are spiritually drawn to, is the birthplace of Yoga. She is also lovingly referred to as the Meditation capital of the world. And indeed she is! Oh, and let us not forget that Bharata Mata (Mother India) is the cradle of Mantra Sadhana.
Her exquisitely built and vibrant temples are equally important, in the south, specifically in Tamil Nadu, my native state, because these Dravidian-styled places of worship contribute a unique quality of energy and presence that we associate with Yoga, Meditation, and Mantras. It is why we travel to India on pilgrimage each year, to reconnect to the source energies for mantras, meditation, and Yoga.
Although we typically associate Sanskrit with India, Tamil culture and language are one of the oldest in the world; it precedes Sanskrit, and scholars say that Sanskrit adopted numerous Tamil words.
The art form Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance that originated in Tamil Nadu, is famous around the globe. You would agree art, culture, language, and spirituality define our humanity.
Growing up in Tamilnadu, like numerous young Tamil girls, I started learning the traditional art of Bharatnatyam, the classical dance form of India, when I turned six. The dance expresses spiritual and religious ideas through stories and mudras (hand gestures), some of which are used in Yoga and Tantra practices.
Although I loved Bharatanatyam, I was no good at it. My exasperated teacher tried to train me by hitting my ankle or knuckles with the tala stick (the tool that keeps the rhythm). The more he hit, the worst my coordination became.
Of course, we know today that beating a child to learn is not the way, but that was how things were when I was growing up in India. Moreover, I seemed more suited to sprinting and horsing around like a tomboy than the delicate hand and foot movements that the dance required.
So by the time I turned twelve, my mother decided it would serve me better to let go of dancing and concentrate on my studies.
The Tamilians, that is, the people of Tamil Nadu, are considered tolerant, hard-working, down-to-earth, or better said, they epitomize the term "salt of the earth."
This recurring term within this blog is what I hope resonates with you because there is a spiritual connotation to it. And when I encountered some industrious salt workers, the term salt of the earth registered strongly in me.
Here is what happened:
Russill (hubby) and I were preparing to return to the United States after our annual pilgrimage to India and were on our way to the airport.
As we drove past vibrant green paddy (rice) fields and palm trees laden with sweet jelly-like fruits, we came across acres and acres of salt mines. Scantily clad barefooted men (see image below) worked vast areas of corrosive swampy outlets. They appeared serene and went about their chore, rhythmically harvesting salt from solar-evaporated ponds under the Indian sun.
The scene beckoned me to connect hands-on rather than viewing it far removed from a moving vehicle. Fortunately, we had factored in time to make a stop or two on our way to the airport. As I exited the car, to my surprise, I was greeted by my new four-legged friend (picture below), who took it upon himself to be my escort.
My interaction with the men working the mounds of salt was profound. They responded with kindness to my questions and spoke to me patiently about their families, the back-breaking work of mining salt, and their hopes and dreams for a better future for their children.
After a heart-to-heart connection, I bid them goodbye, knowing I may never see them again. The term that these people were not just salt workers but quite literally the salt of the earth came to me vividly at that moment.
Russill calls me an eternal optimist. It is true; I wholeheartedly believe life is beautiful. However, what makes it extraordinary is the experiences we have and the relationships we form. It is easier to limit our bonding to family and the circle of friends we feel comfortable with. But the more we stretch our comfort zone, the quality of our life invariably becomes remarkable.
One of the joyous aspects for our participants during the pilgrimage is a sense of belonging to this sacred land, to the carefully chosen places, be it a fancy hotel or encountering young minds and hearts in a classroom of a daycare center that caters to disadvantaged children.
The result is that most of our pilgrims make such a deep connection to India so much that India and her people become part of them. And they feel a sense of belonging!
This experience of belonging, the feeling of oneness in an ancient country like India, is far different than merely encountering India as a foreigner or tourist, removed from the land, its people, and her culture.
Gratefully, I can and do use my nutritional training to ensure we consume healthy food and maintain good immunity throughout our pilgrimage. And have a good track record of over 24 years.
As a foodie, I love seeing people enjoy delicious and healthy food. To this end, we ensure our participants are well-fed and enjoy various flavors and tastes to make their time in India sensuous as well.
Now the real gem of the adventure is the teachings in mantra and meditation presented by Russill. He is a genius in creating and helping our pilgrims access states of consciousness beyond run-of-the-mill practices.
In Russill's vocabulary, he uses the term "soil of the soul" to teach students how to plant mantras in their consciousness. It is an ingenious way of teaching because it connects powerfully to the agrarian associations of Yoga.
If you are familiar with the term, Yoga is sourced in the word "yuj," meaning to yoke, and stems from the plow used to yoke oxen to till the fields. Tilling the ground is what salt-of-the-earth people have done for thousands of years the world over.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Russill's work, he is considered one of the pioneering figures who helped establish the many spiritual and practical connections between Yoga and Sacred Sound in the Western world. He has served on the faculty of leading educational institutions in California, teaching in graduate and post-graduate spirituality programs for 15 consecutive years.
And for the last 15 years, Russill has mastered and honed his skills to guide students in mystical and conceptual methods via our online Yogic Mystery School.
But most of all, Russill is tremendously caring and funny. After almost 35 years of being together as a married couple and facing all kinds of ups and downs, he can still make me laugh silly. And he does this a lot in India, during our outings, and even in the middle of teaching sophisticated spiritual concepts and methods.
Another aspect our participants enjoy is the continuity of living day after day in this spiritual family-like experience while studying, traveling, visiting temples, and undergoing deep healing and rejuvenation of the soul.
Becoming salt of the earth while in India is really what our pilgrimage is about because we genuinely help our pilgrims embrace the culture and spirituality as locals do.
If you have an interest in our pilgrimage, I want to take this opportunity to invite you to our last pilgrimage in January 2024.
Venerable Benedictine monk, Bede Griffiths, lived a good part of his life in India, founding a Hindu-Christian monastery open to all the world's spiritual traditions and studying them side-by-side while pursuing a dedicated life of mysticism. Russill was a monk there for about five years, while I visited and spent substantial time in retreat.
Bede's life and spiritual teaching was very much based on the salt-of-the-earth principle that Mahatma Gandhi formulated. Gandhi felt that India's power lay in her villages, where a way of life preserved for thousands of years continues into the present day. He postulated that the consciousness that comes from being close to the earth is key to our spiritual balance. Bede Griffiths modeled the direction of his ashram on this principle, which is where we conduct our retreat in India.
As close students of Bede Griffiths, we have much to share on this theme of the other half of the soul as we approached the process the other way around, coming from India to the West to find the other half of our soul.
And there is this sense of cultivating the soil of the soul that meditation and mantra practice offer us, and we teach this in our Yogic Mystery School and during our pilgrimage.
Learn more at www.russillpaul.us/india-pilgrimage
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