RETURN TO RISHIKESH
|This page created 20 March 2004|
|The Sri Ved Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh|
|This is Michael’s family’s account of how he was returned to his spiritual homeland at Rishikesh . . .
In the latter part of January 2004, we (Michael’s mother, father and brother) made the long journey from Sydney, Australia to northern India. The most precious part of our baggage on this trip was Michael’s little orange daypack. It contained the ashes of our beloved son and brother. We were taking them to Rishikesh, the holy place on the Ganges which had such a special place in his heart. Our mission was to release his ashes to the Ganges, the huge river which is so central to the beliefs of many millions of people, not all of them Indians. There, we hoped, his spirit would finally be freed in the country and place he loved.
At Rishikesh we stayed at the Green Hotel, in the Swargashram district on the east bank of the river. Michael wrote about its “posh” Italian restaurant in his “Just Another Day in India” piece in August 2002. We ate there often.
On arrival in Rishikesh we were met by Ian and Kamu Canover, loving friends of Michael, and now of his family. They took us to the Sri Ved Niketan ashram, where Michael had stayed in the summers of 2001 and 2002 and which he had described as his “home away from home”. The ashram fronts on to the Ganges. Its red painted buildings surrounding grassed courtyards, with a backdrop of steep, wooded hills, make a very serene and peaceful setting for those who come here to study yoga and meditate.
At the ashram we were met by Swamiji Dharmananda. He had been there during Michael’s first visit to this ashram in August 2001. He was also his teacher at a yoga course in Dehra Dun 12 months later. Michael’s description of him is spot on: “. . . a saintly, giggly old swami who just radiates love and groovy vibes as he punishes my body in ways you cannot imagine. The best teacher I’ve seen in India”. He greeted us warmly and had fond memories of Michael. He was very moved by our mission and was eager to help us. He proposed a special Vedic “Fire and Food ceremony” at the ashram, after which we would then take his ashes to the Ganges. This proposal was gratefully accepted. Dharmananda would not hear of any payment for this service, saying that “this is for Michael”.
The next morning, with Ian and Kamu, we sought out the beach on the Ganges which both Genevieve and Jimmy, friends of Michael who were with him here at different times, had strongly suggested would be the perfect site to release his ashes. The beach was not hard to find, even though the river level was much lower than it had been during the two summers that Michael was here. It is just downstream from Swargashram and in front of a hill where we explored the beehive-like structures of an abandoned ashram. The Beatles once stayed here, and Michael took many photos of this place. Down on the beach there was a stony outcrop right alongside, where the flow of the river was strongest. Standing here we could feel the physical power and spiritual force of the Ganges as it roared past, pure, free and clean. This, we decided, would be the perfect launch site for Michael’s ashes.
After this, we returned to the ashram, and Ian and Kamu showed us around the premises that had been such a happy home for Michael in the past. We went up onto the roof, with its magnificent views of the hills behind and the river in front. His soulmate, Jimmy, in an email to us while we were in Rishikesh, recalled how “we sat for hours one day at the top of the ashram, looking out over the river, thinking about life and the directions it can take . . .” We then had an audience (rarely granted to visitors) with the 99 year old Guruji (Shri Vishwaguruji Maharaj) in his private chamber. He was the founder of the ashram. He blessed us all and led us in his “World Prayer”: “Oh Perfect God, may all souls be purified, may all souls be virtuous, may all souls be in bliss”. Each of us was given a dried rudraksha seed from his personal prayer string to keep on our person to ensure personal safety and security. Afterwards we met Mataji, whose role is to minister to Swamiji and Guruji and also to supervise accommodation and food for ashram guests. She also remembered Michael. She prepared a lovely meal for our lunch.
At 10 am the next day, Sunday 25 January, the “Fire and Food Ceremony” was held at the ashram. The setting for this was an open stone structure in the middle of the ashram courtyard with a sunken fireplace in the middle. About 30 ashram guests also attended. The Guruji had asked to be present, which was a particular honour as we were told he rarely did so on such occasions, and he presided over the ceremony while the Swamiji performed it. An altar was set up with a picture of Michael over it and his smiling face looked on as the ceremony got under way. In his introduction Dharmananda described Michael as one the best students he had ever had. Proceedings started with bows of respect to the Guruji from all those present and the spreading of flower petals over Michael’s picture on the altar. This was followed by long chants in the Sanskrit tongue that Michael had spent so many years learning. Then all present walked twelve circuits around the fireplace, bowing to Michael’s picture on the altar on each lap, and then the feeding of the fire with food (dried coconut) took place while the Swamiji recited blessings. Sacred Hindu music was played in the background throughout. The whole effect was incredibly moving, an experience which left us emotionally drained, but one which will be permanently etched in our minds. We felt a very powerful sense that Michael was present, watching over us all. Ian Canover used Michael’s camera, which we had brought with us, to take photos of the ceremony, some of which are shown in this web site, including this one:
|Michael's family at the Vedic Fire and Food ceremony, with Dharmananda at far right|
|Afterwards, with Ian and Kamu, we walked to the place we now think of as “Michael’s beach”. At the chosen launch site they stayed in the background while we opened the container holding his ashes. Then we slowly gave up his remains to the river. As each handful was released it was eagerly swept away downstream by Mother Ganga, as if there was no more time to be lost. Finally it was all done, and Michael was gone. We stood silently, arm in arm, watching as the river swept him round the next bend and onwards. In a few days he would pass through his beloved Varanasi one last time, then later he would leave the river and start his slow, endless journey around the oceans of the world. Michael’s spirit was finally free. Our feelings were of great sadness at losing the last physical remnants of his body, yet also of relief and freedom in having finally been able to let him go on his way.
The next day Ian and Kamu showed us around both sides of Rishikesh. In doing so we crossed the Lakshman Jhula suspension bridge across the Ganges. Kamu had prepared a number of “friendship ribbons” from her native Nepal, and she tied one around each of our wrists. She produced a larger ribbon for Michael. We all held it over the side of the bridge while Ian spoke of what Michael meant to us all. Then we released the ribbon and watched it flutter down to the Ganges far below and be swept away to follow his ashes.
Ian and Kamu are a wonderful couple. Their loving friendship and support, and Dharmananda’s too, helped to make our whole experience in Rishikesh a most positive one. We will always be grateful to them. Other friends of Michael’s, particularly Jimmy and Robert, also provided great encouragement, advice and support before and during our trip.
That evening we made one last visit to the ashram, to thank and pay our respects to Swamiji. He requested a large photo of Michael to hang in the main entrance hall, alongside pictures of other departed friends. This was done when we got home. He then presented us with a copy of his book “Inner Yoga: Instructions from the Guru Within”. At our request he inscribed a message inside. This is what he wrote:
To Chris and family.
May the heaven’s blessings be upon you all at all times and may you blossom forth in joy and wisdom, shedding the Divine Light, as your beloved son Michael did.
With warm regards,
In the service of the Lord,
Dharmananda / 31
A wonderful message from a wonderful man. (He is the 31st Dharmananda in a spiritual lineage). The book is a gift we will always treasure.
Finally, the time came for us to depart from Rishikesh. In the early morning we paid one last visit to Michael’s beach. The river was quieter now, and shrouded in mist. We brought with us little baskets of flowers and garlands purchased from a street stall the previous day. The current was not so strong this time and the little baskets remained close to the launch site, but the garlands were immediately swept downstream. Each of us in turn stood alone at this spot in silent communication with Michael.
Then it was time for us and Michael to go our separate ways.
|The launch site, with the flowers that wouldn't leave|
|It is appropriate that we end this page with Dharmananda's words in a later newsletter to his friends and followers . . .
Dharmananda (email 13 Mar 04): Michael from Australia came to me as a student in 2002 at Rishikul. After leaving that place he was attending another course in Pondicherry where he suddenly died, putting his parents and friends into grievous mourning. His parents brought the ashes to Rishikesh to be immersed in the sacred waters of the holy Ganga. I had conducted a Havan (Vedic Fire Ritual) for the peace and welfare of the departed soul at Ved Niketan Dham. The parents found much peace here. They were very happy with the Guruji, Mataji and the Ashram.
Michael’s parents have created a web-site in his memory. Those who know him may like to look in it. www.michaels-story.org. They requested me to write something to add to the web-site. I am sending you all the letter I wrote to them and the poem that came to my mind in Michael’s honor. This just for your info hope you like it.
Dear Chris and Annette,
I received Michael’s photo. I got it laminated and framed. It has been placed in the wall in front of the Ashram as desired by you. Thanks for the generous donation. I have requested Guruji to spend the money in activities dear to the heart of Michael, which is to clothe and educate poor children. It has been decided that a part of your money will be used to sponsor such children who are studying in traditional Vedic schools where they are growing up with spiritual values and culture and are protected from the soul-destroying modern influence of society. The other part will be used for ‘BHANDARA’ or community feeding of monks, saintly people and those who are needy. This feeding is considered in Indian tradition as highly rewarding spiritually.
You requested me to write something to add to Michael’s web-site, this is what came to my mind.
Indian spiritual tradition proclaims loudly-O man thou art not human, not mortal, not limited. Thou art an eternal, immortal, blissful spirit. Bliss and love is your very essence. This whole visible universe is contained within you and not you a small speck within it as it so obviously appears. All human pain, struggle and tragedies are there to drive us to seek this deeper awareness. The easiest way shown to us to reach the goal is to dedicate our lives in the service of those who find life painful, heavy and burdened. As we wipe out falling tear drops we move toward this goal.
Dear Sir, as your life forces this great tragedy and heavy loss may it inspire you to trod the same path that your noble son cherished so much. PLEASE KNOW MICHAEL HAS GONE NOWHERE. HE HAS EXPANDED HIMSELF INTO OMNIPRESENCE.. In every shining eye and every smiling face behold him in his sacred omnipresence.
‘ODE TO MICHAEL’
Michael you were indeed
A very pure-hearted soul;
You came to Rishikesh very fondly
To strive to attain the life’s goal.
Life is eternal
Bodies come and go;
Wherever you are
You are striving for perfection we know.
Your shining eyes and smiling face
Your cheerful presence it is this;
For a long time in our hearts
This absence we will miss.
Students come and students go
Few are indeed those who know;
A Divine essence thru us flow
Whose glory their actions show.
Grieving parents and grieving friends
You have left behind;
In your sacred charms presence however
Peace in our heart we find
With love, light and peace,
Photos of the family's visit to Rishikesh