The fourth and final part of the story about our two swamis' visit to
the Svami Gitananda Ashram in Altare, Savona, Italy:
A number of years ago, the Italian monastery brought a team of
sthapatis and shilpis from Tamil Nadu to build an Agamic Chola-style
temple to Sri Lalita Tripurasundari, the main Deity that is worshiped
according to the Sri Vidya tradition. Built of concrete and plaster, the temple
captures the South Indian tradition in brightly painted splendor, just as our
Iraivan Temple does in unadorned stone in Hawaii. Since the area receives one
to three meters of snow in the winter, when the monks sometimes have
to tunnel through it, igloo-style, to get from building to building,
this temple is fully enclosed and amply heated.
The temple here, as in Kauai, is the central focus of worship and sadhana. From morning to night the temple is visited, pujas performed, offerings of fragrant flowers made, musical praises ascended, quiet discovered. And like Kadavul Temple, it is the monks who do it all. Swamiji performs the noon puja himself, and all are present for this central daily moment.
The large stone Sivalingam was the first murti to be installed here back in the 1980s. Ultimately Devi was enshrined and the Sivalingam was placed in a
temporary shrine near the entrance. There is now a plan to build a separate temple for Siva, about twice the size, parallel to this temple, literally just a few meters away and slightly up the hill, where the vegetable garden is now located. In the years ahead, there will be paired temples for Siva and Shakti, side by side. The immanent and the transcendent as one.
The monks invited us to join their sadhana one evening after dinner.
This consisted of a full puja followed by Ganesha Gayatri mantra japa, bhajans led with amazing vigor by Svamini Ma Uma Shakti
and then, importantly, group chanting of the Sri Lalita Sahasranama.
This sacred hymn has become a central focus and meditation for the monastery. It began some years back when the press of challenges inspired the community to seek Devi's blessings by gathering together to chant the famed sacred mantra twice each day. When those challenges dissolved (it worked!), they were thinking to suspend the daily prayer. Swamiji offered that they should continue, since devotees don't just go to the Divine when we need help, but always, in good times and bad.
This was not a trivial direction from the guru. The chant is long, taking nearly an hour to offer to Sri Lalita, Siva's Sakti. Not only that, each of the 1,008 names is not just a couple of words, as in most sahasranamas, but a full two-line stotra, making the chanting of the Lalita Sahasranama equivalent of chanting a normal ashtottara twenty times. Do that morning and night and you will understand the commitment the monks have made to their worship.
The stotras are deeply mystical, speaking of the five powers--creation, preservation, dissolution, veiling and revealing grace and unraveling in their devotional poetry the mysteries of existence. We have seldom before heard such precisely accurate, powerful chanting in a group, any group. The Sanskrit-trained Svamini Atmananda, 30, leads the monks in this sadhana twice times each day--yes, every day--in the early
morning and again at night. As we sat in this holy chamber, filled with the divine imagery of the Southern tradition, we were frozen in the now by the practiced cadence, which, coupled with the tangible bhakti, did what such things are supposed to do, transported us to the Holy Feet. The stotras swept by and then through us, an offering so pure, so full of piety, gratitude, graceful skill.
Never before had we quite cognized the significance and power of this mantra. In the Sri Lalita Sahasranama, important to Saiva Siddhanta's sister tradition of Sri Vidya, is described the manifestation of reality out of Parasiva and Parashakti, from subtle to gross, through the tattvas and in the kalas of the cosmos. Siva manifesting as all form, in all form, just as was presented in a complex diagram we published in the article "The Five Powers of Siva" in a recent edition of Hinduism Today.
So powerful and mystical is the chanting of the mantra by this dedicated group that it seemed an eternity of silence followed as we all merged in Sakti's Infinite Being afterwards. After one or two forevers passed, we all arose to circumambulate the garbhagriham in a reverential hush and then walked outside into the cool, starry, almost-midnight night, the high "eee" sound ringing powerfully in the mind's inner chambers as we drifted back to our rooms for a much-needed, good night's sleep before our flight to Sicily.
For decades we have visited the Gitananda Ashram in Pondicherry, meeting Swami Gitananda, the founder and his amazing family. His work is alive here, kept vibrant by Svami Yogananda Giri in its full and pristine form. Any Hindu traveling in Italy will be blessed to visit the Svami Gitananda Ashram, and doubly blessed to meet the good souls who have given their life to build this spiritual citadel.
Aum Namasivaya! Sivayanama Aum!