12 Hour Chant

Mar 26, 2005

"How do you serve your community?" I ask the bearded man. "We chant. 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year." "Hmmmm," I mumble. "Yes, we have doing that for the last 25 years," he adds to see my jaw drop wide open.

25 years of non-stop chanting? Holy smokes. What kind of place did we arrive at? Within a minute of arriving at this tucked-away-in-corner ashram, we all feel at home. "It's like a little piece of heaven," Sheetal adds as we rest amidst "Asopalav" trees, a river front view of Narmada, and the gentle breeze.

"You see, this place has been used by many saints for their 'tapas' and that's probably what you are feeling right now," the bearded man tells us as he confirms free room and board for us.The day before, 10 folks from our crew had returned to Ahmedabad. The remaining eight of us, all rookies in such work, decide to venture onwards to the unknown.

We cross the river once again and walk to a nearby village; our immediate objective is to find a place to sleep that night. Once we secure the floor outside the temple as our bed, we split up into teams to survey the village, meet its people, understand their needs and see how we can help. And of course, see if someone will make food for us. In the process, we make tons of friends. When we recovene, though, most folks felt that the village was in decent condition, was a bit unsafe and that we should walk further into the unknown.

So we do. Sporting a serious tan, we walk, walk, walk with luggage on our shoulders, heads and anywhere in between. "There's a temple on the other side; near there, there's an ashram. Villages near there really need help," someone tells us. We get distance estimates anywhere from 10 kilometers to 1 kilometer to right around the corner; after a while, we keep asking just to humor ourselves as we continue walking. On the way, we sing, we chat, we offer help to ladies balancing huge haystacks on their heads, we enjoy the unique type of birds whizzing past us, and keep telling ourselves, "This is it."

Before sunset, we arrive. We don't know where, but somewhere. It ends up being a holy place, a place of non-stop chanting, a place called Assa on the banks of the Narmada.

By the next morning, we all have ideas: Maria wants to interact with the nearby village, Parbat wants to help clean the ashram, Mark wants to play frisbee with the kids, I want to chant, and so on. Viral and Mark hook up with a school next door that invites everyone to speak about the trip; at one point, they ask everyone (I wasn't there), "What can we do to help?" John runs outside and picks up some plastic. Someone else asks, "Who are your role models?" Another person asked, "Why can't you do this in America?" All awesome questions from village elementary school kids. And Viral, the chief translator, whipped up responses in his usually charismatic way. By the end, the kids are fired up to do a community-clean-up slash fun-n-games project as Guri and Maria rally kids from nearby villages.

Since the ashram was hosting (and feeding) us for free, we want to offer them some services. "Can we clean up your kitchen floor?" I asked the good-ol beared man who seems to have answers for everything. "Yes, by all the means, that would really help," he said. Not satisfied with his answer, I pressed further: "What else can we do?" And he say one word, "Chant."

Almost immediately, I decide that I am going to chant. For 12 hours straight.

I toss the idea to the group and someone says, "Let's do a collective 24 hour chant perhaps." After exploring various options, we decide that I should start off the chant by myself while the rest of the folks interact with kids and local community.

At noon, I go in the main temple hall. Devotees are assigned 3-hour rotation slots, and they chant one phrase continuously: "Hare ram, hare ram, ram ram hare hare; Hare krishna, hare krishna, krishna krishna, hare hare." So I join in. No one is playing the drums, so I jump on it -- this being the first time I have attempted to play in a public setting.

First chanting state: I'm sleepy, from all this heavy lunch. Just keep chanting. Second state: this guy chanting really has no rhythm, it's kind of annoying. Just keep chanting. Third state: the 'manjira' sound is really really loud. Just keep chanting. Fourth state: the pigeons are listening, especially the one that has been sitting on top of the center idol for the last five minutes. Wishing compassion the pigeon, I cry. Just keep chanting. Fifth state: I have been drumming for six long hours; my fingers feel like rocks, my legs are stiff, my back is sore, I'm exhausted; if I don't stop now, I will regret it tomorrow. But this is the real test, yeah baby. Just keep chanting, just keep chanting. Sixth state: two more hours left, when will it finish? Don't give up now. Just keep chanting. Seventh state: life is good, and I ain't stopping anytime soon. Bring it on, bring it all on!

Just keep chanting. Outside of two breaks -- one dinner and one administrative -- I chant till midnight.

I come out of the temple, with the chant buzzing in my head, with a relaxed smile on my face. A stray dog is sitting straight, on its hind legs, almost as if waiting for me. I go to him and pat him on his neck, after which he goes away. I put on my sandals, stretch my hands towards the sky, and see the luminous full moon stretch its radiance through the vast lands.

It's full moon. It's holi, my first holi since I had left India 18 years ago. Holi is a festival about devotion to Rama, and here I was -- rather accidentally -- stepping into holi from a temple of Rama.

With a half a tear in my eye, I walk back to my room.

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