It’s not yet 4am, it’s a moon day, I’m not a new mother nor am I an advanced yogi, why am I awake and out of the house? I hope when I turn 90 somebody will be willing to get up early for me. We’re off on a yoga family field trip to Mount Madonna. (We’re sorry you couldn’t make it). Today is Hanuman Jayanti, or Hanuman’s birthday, it also happens to be Baba Hari Dass’ 90th birthday, but he would rather you didn’t know. Baba Hari Dass, or Babaji as he is affectionately know, is an advocate for Hanuman worship as most true teachers are. As strange as it might seem from an outside perspective to worship a monkey god, Hanuman represents all the best qualities that a disciple could aspire to: boundless devotion to the guru, unlimited physical strength, the sharpest intellect and yet complete control of the senses.
For the city folks Hanuman Jayanti begins well before the sun comes up, we brave a 4:30 am caravan ride to the Mount Madonna Center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We arrive just before sunrise, about 6 am today, in perfect time to begin chanting the praises of Hanuman with the rise of Surya through the redwoods. The cold is enough up here in the hills at this hour for the outdoor temple to provide a chest full of blankets for devotees to swaddle themselves in while temple residents simultaneously perform the daily Hanuman and Ganesh artis. After the waving of the lamps and incense the guests are invited to take Hanuman darshan, prasad, and the marking of the third eye with kumkum.
The official birthday celebrations begin as the smaller, more portable image of Hanuman is placed in his chariot, complete with stately parasol, and is paraded around the ashram grounds accompanied by constant drumming, chanting and dancing. And oh what a beautiful ashram it is! This seems the perfect time of year to visit an ashram in 355 acres of redwoods, many of the trees are in bloom and each of the guest houses along the hill are covered in intoxicatingly fragrant flowers of all kinds.
Back at the temple, finally warm after our hike up and down the steep grades of the ashram paths, the birthday guests have begun to arrive in earnest. While the early-birds were out spreading the birthday news an elaborate puja has been set up in the middle of the temple. People have begun to situate themselves around the neatly organized collection of ceremonial objects. Across the circle from one another sit a simple empty chair decorated for Babaji and a small group of musicians and singers.
The next event on the agenda is a traditional oral recitation of the Sundara Kanda which is book five of the Indian epic the Ramayana retold here as Sri Ramacaritamanasa by Tulsidas. This specific book, or kanda, is being chanted not only for Hanuman’s infinite devotion to Rama and his consort Sita but because it is in this book that Hanuman is the Hero. Sundara Kanda describes in great, poetic detail Hanuman’s leap across the ocean to the island of Lanka to console Sita that her beloved Rama will soon come to rescue her from her kidnapper, the terrible demon Ravana. Before escaping Lanka Hanuman allows himself to be captured and his tail set on fire by the demon. Becoming a small monkey Hanuman frees himself of his bonds and leaps from palace to palace setting the entire city of Lanka alight. It is this story that we sit absorbed in for nearly two hours, in front of us a triple bill, the story in Sanskrit, its transliteration and an English translation.
After a pause in the program our eyes feed on the multitudinous, intricate actions of a longtime ashram resident as he performs an elaborate, esoteric Hanuman puja. The puja includes the honoring of many images on a small alter, countless ancient Sanskrit mantras, offerings of incense, flowers, water, and food, but also the occasional showering of water and dry rice on the devotees in range, which, if I had the expertise to explain I might try. Directly following the puja is a yajna which mainly consists of offerings made into a ritual fire built on top of a beautifully rendered and colorful Hanuman mandala. A number of people, somewhere between 12 and 14, who are sitting in a close circle around the fire have been designated to each make their own offering into the fire from a small wooden bowl heaped with black seeds. We all begin to chant the Hanuman Gayatri mantra followed by Om Svaha during whose invocation each simultaneously makes a small offering into the fire with a gentle underhand toss of a pinch of black seeds. A small mango is also offered into the fire during the 108 repetitions of the mantra. The final oblation is that of a coconut filled with ghee, ‘clarified butter’, and wrapped in a white and a red cloth strip, rolled gracefully into the fire from a large wooden spoon obviously made just for this purpose. The endless string of minute and obscure rituals comes to an end with some hands-on exercises incorporating nadi shodhana pranayama, or the practice of alternating nostril breathing, and the awakening and devotion of our senses and limbs to Hanuman through the touch of the four fingers on our right hand, among other directions we receive. The entire practice is finished just as it began: arti to Hanuman, Anjaneya.
Ruining our carefully cultivated appetites the crowd now partakes of the large variety of Indian sweets that have been soaking up the devotional atmosphere and are being passed around as prasad. It’s time for lunch and people are beginning to gravitate towards the community building where the bhoj is to be offered free of charge according to Babaji’s birthday wishes. Babaji sits in the main room of the community building in front of a wall of great windows looking all the way out to Monterey Bay. I can’t fully explain the effect the presence of a great yogi and guru like Baba Hari Dass has on a room. The people seem to swarm around him like bees to the hive and for many it is enough just to sit gazing at him for long periods of time. Babaji is the first to be served his meal and he eats slowly while continuing to receive, without prejudice, all those who seek his blessing, and also all the children who just want to draw on his desk. Babaji maintains silence as he has done for more than 60 years even as we descend upon him with cake and candles accompanied by a lively rendition of the classic western birthday song. How ridiculous birthdays must seem by the time one has reached 90, even more so to a highly advanced yogi of such an age.
No trip to an ashram would be complete without a visit to its bookstore so we make a stop by on our way out to pick up some new reading material. Heading back over the hill on our way home for a nap it seems as though we’ve spent several busy days at the ashram, and it’s not yet 4pm.