Monday, December 30, 2019

Astrophotography at Jalna

It is becoming very difficult to see the stars in large numbers in the night sky owing to the glare of city lights. Many, many years ago I once saw the Milky Way in the night sky at Churu, Rajasthan.

I had to wait many more years to watch the spectacle again in Jalna.

I don’t remember the exact time of the year. It must have been October or November. One late night we reached Jalna a few months back. It was a clear sky. And the time was about ten-o-clock in the night. Once again we were blessed with a spectacular view of the Milky Way. The sight was simply awesome and unbelievable.

Astrophotography in Jalna

My son Shashank is a photography fan. I suggested that we go Jalna as it offers a spectacular star-studded night sky. However, he was reluctant. He has a prejudice that I suggest Jalna because we have some work there in Amba Retreat. So I searched the Internet for a suitable place in the Himalayas, which is suitable for, star photography. I found out that Majkhali a place not far from Jalna is a suitable place. I read that a renowned photographer of Delhi uses it for conducting astrophotography classes. I booked the rooms in the same hotel used by this photographic expert.

We reached the hotel in Majkhali early in the evening. The hotel had a large terrace suitable for sky photography. However, there were some hilly obstructions on the star-rise side. So we identified a suitable alternate place. It was a hilltop about a few kilometres from the hotel. The star-rise was at 1.00 am in the morning. We set the alarm got up and went. We had to park the car at a kerb and walk into the jungle for about kilometre. It was pitch dark. I was scared with panthers roaming the forests.

After all this effort we were utterly disappointed. We could not see even a handful of stars leave alone the Milky Way. To be fair it is more the season’s fault and not that of the place.

Astrophotography from Jalna

As planned the next day we set out for Jalna, a couple of hours of drive. In the evening after a long walk and early dinner, we retired to bed. Again Shashank set the alarm for one am. The vantage point an open car park actually is hardly 50 meters from the hotel and about 100 meters from Amba Retreat.

Even though he could not see the Milky Way with the naked eye through astrophotography techniques and a bit of deft editing he could take the awesome picture showcased below.

In the end because of its faraway location glare of the city lights Jalna is an ideal place for stargazing and astrophotography.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sai Baba of Shirdi

A Brief Sketch of Sai Baba of Shirdi

Shirdi Sai Baba was a great spiritual master who lived in Shirdi, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, about 1858 and remained there until his death in 1918.

No one knows for sure the early details like When Shirdi Sai Baba was born, who his parents were, were he a Hindu or Muslim, etc.

He came to Shirdi along with a marriage party and stayed there till his passing away. He settled down in an old dilapidated mosque and called it Dwarakamai. Initially, villager thought he was a mad man and troubled him a lot.

He begged in about a dozen houses for food and alms. He used the little money to buy tobacco for his pipe (Chillum) and keep up the sacred perpetual fire (Dhuni). Maintaining a Dhuni is typical of the Nath sect of renunciates. Therefore many devotees believe he belongs to the Nath sect and call him Sai Nath.

He performed many miracles, cured many incurable diseases. Generally, he loved, protected and took cares of the material and spiritual wellbeing his devotees.

Sai Baba’s Teachings

Both Hindus and Muslims revered Sai Baba. He disliked religious orthodoxy.  Sai Baba encouraged his devotees to pray, chant God's name, and read Holy Scriptures. Even though he nudged common people towards devotion he also advocated the Advaita (non-dual) philosophy.

Sai Baba used to often say Allah Malik (God is the only Master) and Sabka Malik Ek (Everyone's Master is One), Allah terabhala karega, etc.  These words point towards the Bhakti path.

On the other hand, Sai Baba constantly urged his devotees to develop dispassion towards material objects and focus inwards. Such advice also suggests his Jnana (wisdom) leanings.

My Experiences with Shirdi Sai Baba

I did not know about Shirdi Sai Baba till I was about thirty years old. However, as a child, I met the other Sai Baba from Puttaparthi.

In my late thirties while I was passing through a major personal crisis I accidentally wandered into a Shirdi Sai Temple near Mahabalipuram near Chennai. The visit gave me immense peace and solace.

Afterwards, I lost touch with Shiridi Sai Baba. Many years passed. We shifted to many cities.
While on a trip to Thane for a family function I visited Shirdi. I had a quick darshan (beholding).  Still, I did not know much about him.

Now in my present home, we have a large framed picture of Sai Baba. I don’t know where it came from. Nor did I care to check.

I used to place a flower on the picture occasionally along with other deities. But I never cared to read or know about him. I had heard stories of many miracles he performed for the wellbeing of his devotees. Perhaps these tales had led me to a preconceived notion that he provided more material good than spiritual progress leading to enlightenment.

The revelation about Sai Baba

A few months back my wife told me that Sai Baba had granted her prayer and she had decided to distribute free meals to the poor at a nearby Sai Baba temple. We visited the temple to make the necessary arrangements. It was a replica of the temple complex in Shirdi. I experienced peace.

I had bought a book. The book was more about the evolution of the various buildings in the temple complex in Shirdi and not the life and teachings of Sai Baba.

Again we went to the temple on the appointed day. After making an offering of the food to him we distributed it.

I also bought another book. This time it was Shri Sai Satcharitra English edition. The book narrated the life and teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba.

It was a revelation. Reading the book always gave me a sense of peace and wellbeing. I no more had misgivings about him. I have added him in my list of great spiritual masters.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharishi and his Path

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was born in Tiruchuzhi in the year 1984. He was a normal and athletic boy.

One fine day when he was lying on the bed alone at home he went through a near-death experience. This set him on the quest of “What will happen to me after my death?” and “Who am I?” From that day he lost interest in studies and regular activities.

Ramana Maharishi’s journey to Thiruvannamalai

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi heard about the sacred place called Thuruvannamalai from a relative. The place pulled him strongly. One day in 1896 he slipped away from home on his epic journey to Thiruvannamalai.

Once he reached Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi never left the place. The whole of his life he spent in Thiruvannamalai meditating and preaching.

Initially, he meditated within the temple complex of Sri Arunachaleshwarar and in the caves of the holy hill Arunachala. LaterA small ashram was built by devotees. It is functioning today as Sri Ramanasrmam.

His path is the Jnana Marga or the path of wisdom. The core of his teachings is self-enquiry – “Who am I?” and “What is my real nature?” Ramana Maharishi said that such relentless pursuit of one’s real nature will lead to the conclusion that we are not the bodies, not the minds nor the intellects. And as we go on peeling off the layers - I am not this, I am not that, what will be left will be the real Self. The eternal, ever glowing and all-knowing Self. It is the same and single reality that pervades everything.

My Encounter with Ramana Maharishi

As children we used to visit a small community called, “Ramana Kendra”, where prayers and bhajans were held. It also used to have a white marble statue of a saint called Ramana Maharishi. People used to sing songs in his praise. As a child, I too used to sing even though I knew very little about him.

As a youth I remember my father relating the story of his personal meeting with Sri Ramana Maharishi.

My father was a sceptic and doubted all godmen. Having heard about Sri Ramana Maharishi he had gone to Thiruvannamalai to meet him. In the middle of the night, my father went to the hall where the sage used to usually sit to check on what the man is doing. To my father’s utter surprise the saint was sitting motionless, his eyes wide open, staring into seemingly nothingness. He was in a trance immersed in bliss. He gestured my father to sit and continued his gaze in silence.

After sitting for a while my father had left filled with peace, the saint continuing his motionless state.

My father had told me, “Then I realized that the man I am confronting is no ordinary human but a rare saint.

Time passed. I totally forgot Ramana Maharishi and pursued a materialistic and hedonistic life.

One bright morning when I was a young man of about thirty I read a full-page article in a popular newspaper about a god-man who lived in Thiruvannamalai. The article claimed that the saint called Visiri Samiyar never had a bath but his body emanates a fragrance. He also was said to have a sweet voice and would sing songs in praise of Lord Ram.

One weekend my younger brother and I set out to Thiruvannamalai meet this supposed saint.

Early in the morning the next day after a good night’s sleep with rum and cola, we set out in search of this god-man. After a lot of enquiries and searching here and there we found him. To our utter dismay, we found him smoking a cigarette and reading the popular English newspaper The Hindu. There is nothing wrong with either smoking or reading an English newspaper it is only that we expected it the least. Still, we bowed and placed the offering of banana fruits at his feet. He gently enquired in English from where we came and dismissed us by advising us to go to Ramana Maharishi’s ashram, stay for a few days and then go back. We bowed and left.

Though totally unprepared for such a journey we did find our way to Sri Ramana Asramam.

On entering I remember seeing a big board depicting a deer with its neck caught in the jaws of a tiger caught my attention. In the inscription the saint proclaims that the spiritual seeker who comes to Him is like the deer firmly caught in the jaws of a tiger (with no escape) and that He will let go only after the seeker attains enlightenment.

Despite visiting without prior arrangements we managed to get accommodation in the ashram and stayed a for a few days.

To this day I find that despite many wayward and materialistic patches of morass I was always pulled back to the central spiritual line.

Today my wife and I live a spiritual life. 

Ramana Maharishi seems to be keeping his word.

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