Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I’ve had a deepening interest in Sanskrit and chanting for a few years now… This interest quickened when I was initiated several years ago in an upanynanum ceremony into the practice of the Gayathri mantra  and I was able  to spend some time in a  the Agama School, a highly respected vedic pundit boy’s school which is attached to the International Art of Living Center in Bangalore…Every day since that time, I’ve spent the first part of my morning chanting, doing puja and longing with all my heart to return to that school, and that strong desire must have been heard somewhere, because, much to my surprise, this past February I was invited to spend another month at the Agama school, this time with the aim of really learning Devanagri, as the written language of Sanskrit is called,( the word is literally translated as “the abode of the Gods”), to learn to write and speak the language, and to begin to learn other pujas in Sanskrit as well…”What will it be like to do nothing but study and recite Sanskrit all day long”, I wondered in the plane on the way over… and will I be up to the task? What could I accomplish in only one month?

I was assigned on my first day at the school to  a wonderful  and very skillful young  teacher whose name is Gyan Vignesh ( which means”the knowledge of the divine being who removes all obstacles”… perfectly named for someone assigned to teach me!) and we met twice and sometimes three times every day thereafter for one on one instruction… a total of 48 classes during my visit…I quickly discovered that  it’s one thing to be in a class with a number of other students… in that environment there are moments where you can catch your breath, look out the window, practice the day’s lesson to your self before being called on… but my environment turned out to be much simpler… just me and my teacher at either end of a grass mat… alone in the school library.The whole time his attention was on me at every moment and I needed to be prepared to be called on and perform accordingly at any time.. I couldn’t let my mind wander for one second… no wonder I was exhausted at the end of each session… but even then there was little time to rest or relax  because there was always the next session to memorize and prepare for…we moved at , what seemed to me at least, breakneck speed…

My Agama Teacher Gyan Vignesh

To say that my time there was incredibly  intense would be for me a great understatement… to say it was one of the most challenging times of my life might be closer to the truth… Sanskrit is an incredibly powerful and transformative  language, arguably the most ancient language on the planet and is meant to be spoken aloud for its full effect to be felt… chanting and repeating these incredibly powerful and evocative sounds for hours on end left me feeling on a regular basis like my head was ready to explode… or else it dropped me into a space within that was so vast and deep, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open, let alone keep paying attention and reciting…but reciting and paying rapt attention was what I was required to do, over and over, sometimes for hours on end,

We were in class at either end of a grass mat

I was basically attempting to learn to speak, read, write and chant in a new language within the space of one month, and there were many times when I truly felt that I had been assigned an impossible task. It was only Sri Sri’s faith in my ability to learn this knowledge that kept me from sometimes losing faith in my ability to master it.. Several embodiments of divine assistance and grace were what finally carried me across the finish line… The first was my good friend and tutor Andrew Keaveney, a film maker living and working at the Bangalore Center, himself already fluent in Sanskrit, who attended most of the classes by my side, and who drilled me unceasingly each day in additional tutoring sessions from early in the morning (we were both assigned by my teacher to be up and chanting at 4:30) until late at night… Sanskrit is traditionally learned by rote and I quickly learned that there’s no substitution for repeating new words and phrases hundreds and sometimes thousands of times before finally committing them to memory… Andrew was my greatest supporter and also my biggest challenge during this time because he took the successful completion of my studies as his personal responsibility… one way or another he was going to get me through this course!! …I never could have gotten through it without him..

My Tutor Andrew

I also luckily had been prepared in a rudimentary way before I arrived by yet another great Sanskrit scholar, Pundit Viswanathan who lives in Concord California and who had been skyping with me every week for over a year in an online class… so I wasn’t totally unprepared for this huge challenge… although there were many moments I must confess where I was not sure I was going to make it out alive:)

My California Tutor Pundit Viswanathan

Gyan Vignesh was very patient with me, and he had a lot of compassion as well… He had just been promoted from being a senior student to being an assistant teacher and I was his first student in his new role! He did his best to keep it interesting and when the chanting practice got to be a bit too intense ( or when  I temporarily lost my voice!) we would switch to grammar and reading and I would sit on my end of our grass mat  puzzling over the Sanskrit equivalent of Dick Jane and Sally, our American 1st grade reading text:)

A First Grade Sanskrit Reading Primer

At the end of each class I was given a reward… I was told a traditional tale of Shiva, the form of the Divine most dear to the boys, which usually featured one or more of his bhakta’s or devotees,as a hero in the story, and which always concluded with a moral or a lesson…  How I would wait and wait for the words that my teacher would start with “Once upon a time there was a Shiva devotee whose name was…”because it meant that I had made it through yet one more class and could relax at least for the next few minutes… Never have I enjoyed such a wide and wild variety of stories… There were ladies who needed rescuing, unbelievably evil villains, acts of epic heroism and valor and plenty of miracles! This is where my teacher got to practice his English, and often a gang of my younger classmates would gather around to share the story and try to add to it…sometimes discussing among themselves for several minutes what the next chapter of the story should contain… Some of the boys were as young as 10 and one of them, His name was Shiva as it turned out, had been told these stories by his father since he was a little boy… and he had memorized them over the years and could remember them word for word. He would walk in quietly and sit down with the biggest smile on his face, waiting for class to be over so he could practice his craft and weave the tale with just the right combination of suspense, drama, adventure and romance so as to leave (me) the listener begging for more… So in the midst of everything else I was learning, I got to hear 48 tales of Shiva and his followers in those 48 classes…

Shiva the Storyteller

Our class was always highly disciplined and very organized… when I was learning a particular puja or shloka my first job was to master its pronunciation… I would then be examined on it before being allowed to memorize it, then examined again before being allowed to learn to perform it… all under the watchful eye of the Principal of the school, my dear teacher and friend, Sundara Murthi Swami… Each day I had to visit him in his office along with my teacher to report on my progress…. No slackers allowed in this school! Many years ago I completed graduate work in religious studies in a highly respected and rigorous academic program…Before I left Bangalore, I had to conclude that finals week in graduate school was nothing compared to what I had to get through to complete my studies at the Agama School!

My first Agama Puja

Each day I got to repay the generosity of my teachers in a small way by teaching English to the pundit boys… Every afternoon I’d visit a different section starting with the oldest boys and eventually getting to the youngest and newest students…I developed a simple curriculum which allowed them to practice their English by being interviewed by me in a mock job interview…much to the great entertainment of their fellow classmates! and my classes always concluded by telling stories about my adventures and misadventures  teaching the Art of Living in different parts of the world…I really came to enjoy those classes because they gave me the opportunity to get to know each boy in the school individually…

My Senior English Class

I was also asked to lead a singing session or kirtan with the boys on Sunday Nights and this they looked forward to above all…with no TV, internet or movies this was the biggest entertainment and social event of their week! They could let loose and sing, clap, laugh and even get up and dance as much as they wanted during our Sunday Night time together…in those moments there were no Americans or Tamils, no older and younger men, no difference in background or language… only a bunch of schoolboys hanging out and having some amazing and incredibly joyful times together… I’ll never forget those moments of oneness… when I close my eyes even now a part of me is with them there still…

The Sunday Night Kirtan Rhythm Section

Sitting here tonight 10,000 miles away, in the comfort of my own home in Santa Monica, how I am missing my time in that place with those boys… I put off writing this blog for over a week because I didn’t know how I could put into words what I learned and experienced there…How at home I felt there… how cared for I felt there, lifted up and carried away at times by such a feeling of grace..  swept by such profound knowledge beyond my own boundaries into an entirely new place in my own consciousness… and here I am and there they all are…my life here is filled with lots of responsibilities and courses to teach and places to go…I need to slowly begin to move back into this life…all the while sitting and chanting and meditating each morning, waiting for the chance once again to be back at Agama…

At Home in Agama