Monday, January 30, 2012

Yoga, Volunteer Work, and Tantric Rituals: Rikhiapeeth Ashram Life


If you are interested in yoga and volunteer work in India you might consider visiting Rikhiapeeth, an ashram in the North of India. You will have the opportunity to do Seva, the yoga of selfless service, pretty much all day long, while participating in two powerful yajnas (tantric fire rituals) that last several weeks.

This has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I've had during my whole yoga journey. I can't recommend it enough.

Where can I do volunteer work in India?

When I was planning my first trip to India to study yoga and meditation I also considered doing some volunteer work. I wanted to contribute to a special cause or offer some help to people in need.

Unfortunately, after several days of research, I wasn't able to find anything that really inspired me or that I could trust.

Most volunteering organizations that I found online charged quite a lot of money to become a volunteer and their intentions were dubious to me. So I eventually desisted on the idea.

Almost a year and a half later I joined a four months long yoga course at a famous ashram in India, the Bihar School of Yoga.

The course included a two weeks stay at Rikhiapeeth, an ashram located in Rikhia, to participate in two special tantric rituals: the Satchandi Mahayajna and Yoga Poornima.

This was a very intense and rewarding experience. My desire to do some volunteer work in India was unexpectedly fulfilled during this event, and I was able to do both, yoga and volunteer work.

The power of Seva: selfless service

Swami Sayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga and Rikhiapeeth, made a lot of emphasis on the practice of Seva. Seva means to fully dedicate oneself to serve others, working without any selfish interest and without expecting any reward.

I believe that's a good definition of what volunteer work really is.

Swami Satyananda considered Seva to be the foundation for all yoga practices. For this reason, the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger dedicates a big part of the ashram timetable to Seva.

The offering of Prasad: more than just a gift

The Satchandi Mahayajna and the Yoga Poornima Yajna, two special tantric rituals celebrated in Rikhiapeeth, offer an excellent opportunity to fully dedicate oneself to do nothing but Seva all day long.

During these events, there is a distribution of prasad to thousands of villagers from Rikhia and to anybody that joins the yajnas.

Villagers waiting for the Prasad
Villagers waiting for the Prasad distribution

Offering and receiving of prasad is a very common practice in India while visiting a saint or a temple. It usually comes in the form of some sort of sweet or fruits.

During these two yajnas the prasad came in the form of big sacks containing clothes, books, blankets, rice, cooking pots, and many other items.

Prasad bags
Prasad bags ready to be handed to the villagers

But these are not just regular gifts or a charity. A prasad includes the blessings of the Cosmic Forces which has been invoked through the yajna, according to the tantras.

“Prasad is not a gift or a donation, neither is it charity. Any item that is given with love for the prosperity and well-being of the recipient and received with dignity and blessings is prasad. Each item that was distributed was first placed as an offering in the worship.” Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In order to make all this happen, there is a lot of volunteer work to do, with the attitude of Seva.

From preparing the prasad to cleaning toilets, from cutting vegetables to arranging rooms, from painting trees to carrying boxes, there is always plenty to do.

Hundreds of people from different cities in India, and from abroad, come to this event as volunteers to selflessly do any required work and to participate in the mystic yajnas.

Volunteer work during the yajnas

The preparations take several weeks but each yajna lasts for about a week.

As part of the 4 Month Yogic Studies Course at the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger, we had the opportunity to visit Rikhia in two different weeks.

During our first week, my assigned duties were mainly to paint trees and also to help with some random construction works. That was really fun to do.  Just take a look at the video below.

During our second visit, when the Yoga Poornima started, my duty was mainly to work at the Beth department, where the prasad was being packed, shifted for distribution and then distributed to the villagers.

That was a very special work to do since you actually help to prepare the gifts-bags that the villagers receive themselves during the celebrations.

In this video, you can see some of my friends from the course, and myself, doing different seva activities. The video starts with the bus ride from Munger to Rikhia and ends with the bus ride from Rikhia back to Munger.

During the evenings, although this was not my assigned duty, I additionally liked to volunteer for dinner serving.

Food serving is one of my favorite Sevas. I can totally forget about myself and think only about serving others. I love to see people happy faces when they get some food after a hard-working day.

Food serving seva

What are Sat Chandi Maha Yajna and Yoga Poornima?

Simply put, a yajna (sometimes also called yagna or yagya) is a special fire ritual performed to invoke the Divine power in order to receive a blessing.

That's pretty much all I know, but to give a more accurate and in-depth explanation, this is what Swami Muktananda says about the meaning of Yajna:

“Upon first impressions a yajna is just a fire ceremony with offerings cast into the flames. But there is much more to this ancient, global ritual, in fact it is a symbol of creation itself. The true meaning, value and spirit of yajna is the unity of God and humanity. The word yajna translates into English as sacrifice, self-denial for the welfare of another, or others. It is this attitude of denying one's self, of offering up, which strengthens love and releases creativity.”

This is what Swami Niranjananda says about the Sat Chandi Yajna.

“During the Sat Chandi Yajna at Rikhia, Paramahamsaji [Swami Satyananda] mentioned that it is taken straight from the tantras.

The aim of tantra has been to purify oneself without negation of life's situations, without negation of the weaknesses which we have inherited.

Tantric yajnas invoke energy, shakti. If you have a dirty pot you take a hose pipe and clean the pot with the water coming through the pipe.

Similarly, the tantric yajnas represent the flow of water in the pipe. We are the dirty pots and it is the force of the water that cleans the pot.

The Sat Chandi Yajna represents one of the highest forms of tantric ritual.

Chandi is the aggressive aspect of the Mother. Chandi comes into existence when all human and divine efforts have failed. There is a limit to human effort and there is a limit to divine effort.” 

And here is a good explanation by Swami Satyananda himself about the meaning of both, the Sat Chandi Mahayajna and the Yoga Poornima, taken from the Yoga Magazine website:

“According to tantra, Shiva and Shakti are the two eternal principals or dual universal forces which govern our lives as well as the whole of creation. In tantra, there is nothing apart from or above Shiva and Shakti.

During Sat Chandi Mahayajna we worship and invoke the blessings of Shakti, our Cosmic Mother or Nature, and during Yoga Poornima, we awaken the benevolent force of our Cosmic Father, Shiva.

Thus together these two events, each unique in its own way, pay homage to the Mother and Father of the universe and create a full circle or totality of experience.

Through this remembrance of the eternal and abiding cosmic principles, we can consecrate our lives and awaken to its true meaning - understanding ourselves as an integral part of the entire creation. It is a way to give back what we have received and to express love, respect, and reverence for the universal forces.

In return, the unseen cosmic forces nourish and bring auspiciousness into every aspect of our lives. With the comic forces on our side, we can have happy homes, healthy families, prosperous nations, ecological balance and success in every endeavor.

There is really nothing more that we need in life. In the face of such seemingly insurmountable change, the only remedy is to invoke the benevolent forces of the universe, our Cosmic Mother and Father, and seek their compassion for the preservation, prosperity, and upliftment of humanity.”

Swami Satyananda introduced these two yajnas in Rikhia not only to provide material benefits but mainly to spiritually uplift the inhabitants of Rikhia, and all humanity in general.

Swami Niranjanananda and Swami Satsangi
Swami Niranjanananda and Swami Satsangi talking about the yajnas

So, what exactly happens during these tantric rituals?

Well, there is a continuous recitation of sacred mantras throughout the day which creates a very special atmosphere at the ashram.

There are also many havans or fire offerings which are complemented with sketches and dances performed by the children from the nearby villages.

And of course, there are also many kirtans, Indian devotional chants. At the BSY and Rikhiapeeth, the kirtans usually start at a very slow pace and the pace gradually increases until it reaches its peak.

By the time the kirtans reach their peak, everybody is dancing and really enjoying the vibrations. Each kirtan last for about six minutes or so!

“Imagine that picturesque scene. The simplicity and richness of that event. The surcharged energy and feeling of unity that it generates. The willpower and stamina that it creates. The immense satisfaction and joy that is felt. The dynamism and power of the mantras which forbid any negative vibrations to enter that sphere. The love and compassion that arises from within. The profound understanding that develops of the role of each and every speck of creation and one's own place within that. That is the purpose of a yajna. Yajna is no different to yoga.

[...] Beyond intelligence and intellect there is a much greater power and that is intuition or prajna. Yajnas alter the state of mind and buddhi to give an experience of that. The esoteric nature of a yajna draws out eternal archetypes that are embedded in us. Without our knowledge, with ease and comfort great transformations take place within us. Samskaras from the causal body get a chance to express themselves and thus blockages and obstacles are removed.” Swami Satyananda on Sat Chandi Mahayajna

The girls of the villages are known as Kanyas and the boys as Batuks.

These children are an integral part of the yajnas. The girls are conducting all the events, chanting many of the kirtans, doing the Havans and performing special Indian or modern dances.

This was actually Swami Satyananda's vision, to give education to the children from the villages in Rikhia in order to uplift them at all levels: materially, mentally and spiritually.

As we were told by Swami Niranjanananda, years ago these villagers barely had anything at all, sometimes they even had to live without any food for a week.

But now, thanks to these events, these children are receiving an education, developing self-confidence and creating a strong connection with the Divinity from a very young age.


Rikhiapeeth is the ashram founded in Rikhia by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

On September 1989, after leaving Bihar School of Yoga, Ganga Darshan, Swami Satyananda traveled to Rikhia.

For twenty years he dedicated himself to very intense sadhanas (spiritual practices). During these intense practices, Swami Satyananda had a vision.

He understood what his new purpose was and so Rikhipeeth was formed. He never came back to Ganga Darshan and stayed in Rikhia until his Mahasamadhi (conscious liberation from the physical body) on the 5th of December, 2009.

Swami Satsangi (Satsangananda Saraswati) is the spiritual guide of Rikhiapeeth and Swami Niranjanananda is the spiritual guide of Bihar School of Yoga, Munger.

They were both trained by their guru, Swami Satyananda himself, for this purpose.

Rikhiapeeth contact information

Rikhia Peeth
Village Pania Pagaar
PO Rikhia, Dist Deoghar
Jharkand 814112

Phone: +91 6432 290870 +91 9304 488889
Phone and fax: +91 9204 080006

The closest international airport is Kolkata (approx 5 hours by train from Rikhiapeeth).  The nearest railway station is Jasidih (10 km from Deoghar) which is on the Howrah (Kolkata) – Patna – Delhi line.

Related blog posts

Here are two other interesting blogs that talk about the writer's own experience at the ashram in Rikhia:

Volunteering work at an in Indian ashram

If you are interested in visiting Rikhiapeeth to do some volunteering work or Seva you can join the Four Months Yogic Studies Course at the Bihar School of Yoga which includes a two or three weeks visit to Rikhiapeeth.

You could also instead contact Rikhiapeeth directly to stay at the ashram whenever it is convenient for you and for as long as you want.

There are also several yoga courses offered in Rikhiapeeth during the year. But be aware that this is a different type of yoga that most westerners are used to.

There is not so much emphasis on the physical postures called asanas but mainly on mental purification through an integral path that combines all the main four yogas, although mainly Karma Yoga.

And if you are interested in other ashrams in India you can visit my Guide to Ashrams in India.  This list includes all the ashrams I have personally visited in India, more than fifteen ashrams so far!

Rikhiapeeth Ashram Experience

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