Sunday, July 5, 2020

I Visited Lahiri Mahasaya and Babaji's Cave Temple in Varanasi


If you want to experience the most authentic spiritual India and the most impressive Ganga aarti, then you have to visit Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India. But what truly motivated me to visit this city earlier this year, is the stories of Indian yogis (such as Lahiri Mahasaya) who walked its streets more than 100 years ago.


What I missed during my first visit to Varanasi


The first time I visited Varanasi was back in 2005. Yeah, that was a long time ago. It was a very short trip though. Only for a couple of days. 

My favorite things during that short trip were getting lost in the narrow streets and witnessing the evening Ganga arati. But while I was in Varanasi I had not realized something very important.

Varanasi was actually Benares (also known as Banares, Kashi, or Kasi).

I had read about Benares before in a book that had literally changed my life. “How silly I am,” I thought back then. Had I known that Varanasi was actually the same Benares I had read about, I would have spent a bit more time there. 

Now, before telling you about this book, let me first tell you a bit about Varanasi.


What is so special about Varanasi?



Varanasi Ghats

Varanasi, a city that lays along the banks of the holy river Ganges, is one of the holiest cities in India, or as mentioned in Wikipedia, “The holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism.” 

Whenever you see images of Indian people bathing in the River Ganges, those shots are usually taken either in Haridwar or in Varanasi.

Varanasi Ghats

There are thousands of temples and at least 84 bathing ghats in Varanasi. The ghats are the stairs that lead to the Ganges where the local pilgrims go for a dip into the river holy waters. Hindus believe that a bath in the river purifies all sins. 

The city is also famous for its burning ghats. This is where dead bodies are cremated and then their ashes laid on the river. Hindus believe that if their ashes are laid in the Ganges one can attain salvation from samsara, never having to be reborn again.


The book that introduced me to Varanasi (Benares)


The book, which is a classic in spiritually and a must-read for anybody who is interested in yoga meditation, is called Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda.

In this book, Yogananda talks about his spiritual journey since he was a little child living in his house in Kolkata. He talks about his incredible encounters with many sages with mystic powers, and about his spiritual training under the guidance of his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar.

Benares (Varanasi) played a significant role in Paramahansa Yogananda's life. It is mentioned numerous times throughout the book.


Lahiri Mahasaya, the yogi of Benares


The holy city was the home of a great Indian yogi named Lahiri Mahasaya. This yogi was the guru of Yogananda's parents, and when Yogananda was a newborn baby he received a special blessing from Lahiri Mahasaya himself. His mother tells: 

“My master [Lahiri Mahasaya] seated you on his lap, placing his hand on your forehead by way of spiritually baptizing you. ‘Little mother, thy son will be a yogi. As a spiritual engine, he will carry many souls to God's kingdom.’”

Lahiri Mahasaya
Lahiri Mahasaya


Further in the book, talking about a portrait of Lahiri Mahasaya, Yogananda says:

“His picture had a surpassing influence over my life. As I grew, the thought of the master grew with me. In meditation I would often see his photographic image emerge from its small frame and, taking a living form, sit before me.”

Yogananda met his guru in Benares


But most importantly, it was in Benares, while walking around the market for some ashram errands, where Yogananda met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri.

Swami Sri Yukteswar
Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri

 
Yogananda had left his home in Kolkata to live at the Mahamandal hermitage in Benares, under the guidance of Swami Dyananda. He was hoping that this will help him in his spiritual journey.

His family was not very happy with his decision though. They wanted him to stay with them in Kolkata. Well, it turned out that Swami Sri Yukteswar was just visiting Benares. He actually had a hermitage close to Kolkata.

During their brief first encounter, Swami Sri Yukteswar said, “My chief hermitage is in Serampore, on Rai Ghat Lane. I am visiting my mother here for only a few days.”

After realizing that his guru was actually living near Kolkata, Yogananda says in his book:

“I wondered at God’s intricate play with His devotees. Serampore is but twelve miles from Calcutta [Kolkata], yet in those regions I had never caught a glimpse of my guru. We had had to travel for our meeting to the ancient city of Kasi (Benares), hallowed by memories of Lahiri Mahasaya.”

Sri Yukteswar's guru was the yogi of Benares


Four weeks later, when Yogananda visited his newfound guru at his hermitage in Serampore, he made an amazing discovery. 

“‘Come; I will show you the hermitage.’ Master [Sri Yukteswar] rose from his tiger mat. I glanced about me; my gaze fell with astonishment on a wall picture, garlanded with a spray of jasmine. ‘Lahiri Mahasaya!’

‘Yes, my divine guru.’ Sri Yukteswar’s tone was reverently vibrant. ‘Greater he was, as man and yogi, than any other teacher whose life came within the range of my investigations.’

Silently I bowed before the familiar picture. Soul-homage sped to the peerless master who, blessing my infancy, had guided my steps to this hour.”

Sri Yukteswar's guru was Lahiri Mahasaya himself, whose presence had blessed the life of Yogananda since his early childhood. 

This story reminds me of the moment I discovered a photo of my two spiritual guides, from different continents, standing together in the same photo as close friends. I talk about it in this previous blog.


Sri Yukteswar didn't bow to Babaji in Benares


There is another interesting story about an encounter between Sri Yukteswar and Babaji, first in Serampore and later in Benares.

Babaji was the direct guru of Lahiri Mahasaya. I wrote briefly about Babaji in my blog Visiting Mahavatar Babaji's Cave in Kukuchina, Dunagiri, India

Babaji, with a group of disciples, appeared to Sri Yukteswar at the Rai Ghat in Serampore. Sri Yukteswar then rushed to bring them some sweets but when he came back they were already gone. Yukteswarji felt hurt by this and promised himself that he will not talk with Babaji next time.

Then, Sri Yukteswar tells Yogananda:

“A few months later I visited Lahiri Mahasaya in Benares. As I entered his little parlor, my guru smiled in greeting. ‘Welcome, Yukteswar,’ he said. ‘Did you just meet Babaji at the threshold of my room?’ ‘Why, no,’ I answered in surprise.

‘Come here.’ Lahiri Mahasaya touched me gently on the forehead; at once I beheld, near the door, the form of Babaji, blooming like a perfect lotus. I remembered my old hurt, and did not bow. Lahiri Mahasaya looked at me in astonishment.

The divine guru [Babaji] gazed at me with fathomless eyes. ‘You are annoyed with me.’ ‘Sir, why shouldn’t I be?’ I answered. ‘Out of the air you came with your magic group, and into the thin air you vanished.’

‘I told you I would see you, but didn’t say how long I would remain.’ Babaji laughed softly. ‘You were full of excitement. I assure you that I was fairly extinguished in the ether by the gust of your restlessness.’

I was instantly satisfied by this unflattering explanation. I knelt at his feet; the supreme guru patted me kindly on the shoulder. ‘Child, you must meditate more,’ he said. ‘Your gaze is not yet faultless—you could not see me hiding behind the sunlight.’

With these words in the voice of a celestial flute, Babaji disappeared into the hidden radiance. That was one of my last visits to Benares to see my guru.” 


Babaji promised to keep his physical body while in Benares


Another very special event took place in Benares, at the Dashashwamedh Ghat (Google Maps). It was an extraordinary meeting between Babaji, Mataji (Babaji's sister) and Lahiri Mahasaya. 

The meeting was witnessed by Ram Gopal, the sleepless saint. All of them basically materialized from thin air right in front of him. Babaji had the intention to leave his physical body, so the meeting was an intervention to prevent him from doing so. Ram Gopal told the story to Yogananda:

“Mataji replied with a quaint flash of wit. ‘Deathless guru, if it makes no difference, then please do not ever relinquish your form.’ ‘Be it so,’ Babaji said solemnly. ‘I will never leave my physical body. It will always remain visible to at least a small number of people on this earth. The Lord has spoken His own wish through your lips.’”

So, as you can see, it is all these incredible stories of Indian yogis what makes Varanasi a must-visit place for me, and what has inspired me to visit India over and over again since 2005.

All these quotes are from Autobiography of a Yogi. If you haven't read this book yet I strongly recommend you do so. It could change your life.


Searching for Lahiri Mahasaya's temple in Varanasi


Shortly after realizing that Varanasi was Benares, I also came to know that there is actually a temple dedicated to Lahiri Mahasaya and Babaji in the holy city; the Lahiri Mahasaya Samādhi. Samādhi in this case means a shrine or temple.

I promised myself that one day I had to go back and visit this temple.

That intention finally became a reality last February. After visiting Jaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur, and Agra with my friend Aly, we headed towards Varanasi for a six days stay.

By chance, the guesthouse that we had booked was walking distance from Lahiri Mahasaya's temple.

It took us about an hour to find the temple though. The location in google maps was incorrect. But once we found it I realized that this was not the temple but actually Lahiri Mahasaya's house.

“Even better!” I thought.

Unfortunately, according to the owner of the tiny shop right in front, the house only opens on Guru Purnima, which is celebrated on a full moon day somewhere between June and July. 

That was very disappointing.  

But hey, guess what.  Today that I'm publishing this blog is actually Guru Purnima!  Must be an auspicious sign, right?

We decided then to walk towards the other location shown in Google Maps, the Satyalok Lahiri Mahasaya Temple (Google Maps). It turns out this was actually the temple that I was looking for.

“Finally!” I thought, “After all these years I'm finally going to enter the temple.” But guess what... It was closed!

To my relief, a local told us that the temple would open the next morning.

So we decided to come back the next day. Meanwhile, we continued exploring the city, visiting the ghats, and joining the beautiful Ganga arati at the Dashashwamedh Ghat (Google Maps). 


The famous Ganga Aarti in Varanasi


The second reason why I wanted to visit Varanasi was to experience once more the beautiful Ganga aarti.

Aarti (or arati) is a ritual where oil lamps are waved in front of a deity, as an act of worship and as an offering towards that deity. 

In the Ganga aarti, huge oil lamps are waved by priests in front of the holy river Ganges, along with the recitation of mantras. It is performed every day in Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi. 

Ganga Aarti in Varanasi


If you wonder why, that's because the Ganges, for Hindus, is not a mere river. It is actually considered a goddess. The goddess Ganga.

This reminds me of a story about Swami Vishnudevananda that we were told during the yoga teacher training course at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala.

“Before leaving, I went down the Ganga where it was the custom of the Ashram to do Aarati (waving of lights) every evening. All the devotees and inmates of the Ashram assembled by the banks of the Ganga to watch Master [Swami Sivananda] perform this evening worship. I was sceptical. I was of a scientific temperament and knew that a river is only water, H2O.  Imagine worshipping H2O!!

But as I stood there and watched Master waving the lights, I saw the river become a mass of flowing lights. At that instant the river assumed a divine flow, a manifestation of the Grace of the Lord. Master turned and looked at me and in my mind I heard his message, ‘God pervades everything; this too is His Special Form.’ This entirely changed my outlook on life.” Source: The Divine Life Society


Unfortunately, although the Ganges is the holiest river in the world it is also one of the most polluted.

“If just one day’s wastewater was pumped into the river was packed into half-liter soda bottles, they would stretch to the moon and back nearly four times. If it was formed into a cube, it would be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.” 

“The problems are striking in Kanpur, near Varanasi. Here, toxic pollution from tanneries flows down slum-lined open sewers, straight into the Ganges. Tannery workers haul chemical-soaked buffalo hides into huge drums. The filthy run-off is dumped in the river” Source: graphics.reuters.com
 
That is sad, isn't it? 

However, the faith of the locals is so strong that some people not only bath in the river, but they also brush their teeth and even drink the river's holy water.

Anyway, for me the Ganga aarti in Varanasi is incredible. Hundreds of people including local pilgrims and foreign tourists gather each day by the Ganges for this special event. 

Ganga Aarti Varanasi


It starts at 6 pm and ends around 7 pm, but you need to arrive earlier if you want to find a good spot to seat. I think we got there around 5:30 pm.

Ganga Aarti in Varanasi


Somebody recommended me (via Instagram I think), to also visit the Ganga Aarti at the Assi Ghat. This one starts at 6 am. She said she preferred this aarti because it is performed by girls that sing the mantras with beautiful voices.

Unfortunately, we couldn't make it to this aarti cause the Assi Ghat was too far away for us. We didn't want to walk for half an hour at 5:30 am. Maybe next time. 


Meditation at Lahiri Mahasaya's temple


After the arati was over, around 7:30 pm we decided to look for a restaurant. We were starving!  But without planning it, while searching for a restaurant we passed by Lahiri Mahasaya's temple again. This time it was open. 

So we walked in right away, just in time for the evening puja. Dinner could wait.

I felt a bit emotional, to be honest. I couldn't believe I was there. It was like traveling back in time to the first moment I read Autobiography of a Yogi. The spiritual inspiration and awe were back with me.

It's a really nice and well-maintained temple. The main building has a gigantic Shiva Lingam and three statues. One statue of Lahiri Mahasaya, and two other of yogis that I had not heard about before.  Inside there are many pictures of different Indian yogis.

Lahiri Mahasaya Temple Varanasi

Lahiri Mahasaya Temple Varanasi

Lahiri Mahasaya Samādhi Varanasi


Opposite to the temple, there is a small hall and right next to the hall there is a “cave temple” dedicated to Babaji. It's beautiful, and it's a perfect place to sit in meditation.

Lahiri Mahasaya Temple Varanasi

Babaji Cave Temple Entry

Babaji Cave Temple


You don't always find a comfortable and clean space like this in Hindu temples to use for meditation. So I decided to come back the next morning for my meditation session. And again the following day. It was priceless. A real meditation haven.

If I had stayed longer in Varanasi my daily routine would have included a morning meditation session at the temple and the evening Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.

The temple apparently belongs to the family of Shibendu Lahiri, the grand grandson of Lahiri Mahasaya. Shibendu Lahiri is a Kriya Yoga teacher. He received initiation from his father, Satya Charan Lahiri, grandson of Lahiri Mahasaya.


The Maha Shivaratri in Varanasi


One of the best things about this trip was to be in Varanasi during the Maha Shivaratri, which was celebrated on the 21st of February.

Maha Shivaratri in Varanasi
People ready to celebrate the Shivaratri after the conclusion of the Ganga aarti


The Shivaratri is one of the biggest religious celebrations in India where the devotees honor Lord Shiva, and Shiva is the main God that is worshipped in Varanasi. So we were definitely in the right place.

“Varanasi's legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time.” Source: smithsonianmag.com

My main concern was to find a good place where to celebrate the festival.

Normally, the Shivaratri is celebrated at night and the devotees usually stay awake all night long. But there was a small ashram (which I'll talk about in my next blog) that did their Shivaratri puja (ritual) in the morning. I was happy they invited us to join this puja. It was absolutely beautiful.

But where could we go in the evening, when the Shivatri is actually celebrated?

Well, of course, we went to Lahiri Mahasaya's temple. There couldn't have been a better place for me to join the Shivaratri puja.


Visiting Sarnath


By the way, a spiritual trip to Varanasi must include a visit to Sarnath.

“Sarnath (along with Bodhgaya and Kushinagar in India, and Lumbini in Nepal) is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in the world. It has special significance because it's the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon.” Source: tripsavvy.com.

So of course we visited Sarnath. We took an Uber during the morning and stay there till the afternoon. It is only thirty minutes from Varanasi but it has a completely different vibe. 

Similar to Bodhgaya, you can find many Buddhist temples and monasteries from different Buddhist countries, all around Sarnath.

Vietnamese Temple Sarnath

Vietnamese Temple Sarnath


I was very impressed by the huge Buddha statue at the Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery (Google Maps). I had not seen this one during my first visit in 2005.


Video:  a spiritual trip to Varanasi


Update 27/07/20:  This video I just published is a more condensed version of this experience but at the same time you'll get to see and discover a lot more about Varanasi.  I hope you enjoy watching it.  




One day I'll return to Varanasi


There is a lot that I have yet to discover in Varanasi, but spending a little bit of time at Lahiri Mahasaya's temple and witnessing the Ganga arati was exactly what I wanted to experience during this trip.

I'm sure one day I will visit Varanasi again. I hope I will discover a lot more then.

After Varanasi, he headed more north. It was a very long journey (24 hours with two trains) to reach the Aurvalley Ashram in Rishidwar where we stayed for six more days.

In my next blog, I'll tell you about the only ashram I was able to find in Varanasi, plus a lot of tips to plan your next visit. So make sure you subscribe to my newsletter here to be notified whenever I publish a new blog.

If you've enjoyed reading this blog please don't hesitate to comment, like it, and share it with your friends. Thanks for your support.

3 comments:

  1. Just like how you revealed the route to Babaji's cave in Kukuchina in your blog from a few years ago, and which I took to reach there, in this blog you have pointed the way to Lahiri Mahasaya's home and Temple. I shall reach there soon! Thank you!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks to you Sasi. I'm happy you find these blogs helpful.

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  2. I have just been reading the Autobiography of a Yogi so it is a great moment to receive your new blog and read all the quotes from the book you carefully selected and posted here. Such nice pictures! So blessed - you eventually visited Lahiri Mahasaya's temple. Thank you Marco for bringing Varanasi closer to my horizons, a place I yet to travel to! OM

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