By Sonya (Sharaddhananda) McNeill
Interviewed by Marlene (Matrika) Gast
The people in Ganeshpuri have this incredible capacity to make you feel welcome. It seems deeper than general kindness and hospitality. I first traveled to Ganeshpuri with Sadguru Swami Nirmalananda in 2013. On the 2017 trip, I was greeted with a personal warmth that made me feel as though I had returned home. It was as though they had held me in their hearts for four years. During my stay I was taken care of in a myriad of ways that I could never have anticipated.
Our group stayed at the Fire Mountain Retreat, headed by disciples of Bhagawan Nityananda. One of their charitable initiatives is training women in impoverished communities in sewing. They craft beautiful quilts, coiled fabric purses, placemats and various other items. I had the opportunity to visit their shop. I met the seamstresses and picked out fabric for quilts for my nieces’ Christmas gifts. After a few days, the head seamstress showed me the base square for each quilt. My nieces cherish the splendid finished quilts —this piece of India that I brought to them.
My most ecstatic memory is two-fold: the yaj~na (Vedic fire ceremony) and receiving my Sanskrit name from Swamiji the next day. The Brahmin priests lit the fire by wrapping rope around a slender stick, standing in a long wooden tray filled with light cotton fibers. A priest held both ends of the rope and pulled it back and forth, feet braced against the tray, twisting the upright stick with all his might. It reminded me of the Shivaratri story of churning the ocean.
We all chanted mantra as the priests worked ardently to light the sacred fire. There was a continuous play of process, being present and letting go of outcome and attachment. All the while, the Brahmin priests, their faces full of joy, were laughing and chanting.
They playfully challenged each other. The chanting was like a battle of the bands. They multitasked, arranging flowers, fruit and other offerings for the fire. They chanted ancient Sanskrit words with specific intonations. They marked the beat and emphasis of the words with hand gestures. It was a miraculous blend of cacophony and melody.
Our group participated in the yaj~na, feeding ghee and other offerings to the fire. I felt like I fed my “small-s self” to the fire. I was transformed. The culmination was my exchange with Swamiji when I took my Brahmacharya vow and received my Sanskrit name. Since our yaj~na, I have felt continuously supported by Grace. I’m carried in the midst of my life as though seated on an arati tray as an offering to God. My transformation continues, mentally and spiritually and I am profoundly grateful.