Pilgrims of Eternity
Maestro Ravi Shankar and Sri Chinmoy
by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
Sometimes, as human beings, we seem to be afloat on the sea of time. The days and even the years merge together. This was one such occasion. The date was September 20th. The year? Ah, that is where we must pause and consider the facts. If the year should prove to be 1973, then we could quite accurately say that the events of which I speak occurred in Queens, New York. There two sons of India met for the first time. Their identities? The legendary sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar and spiritual Master Sri Chinmoy.
If, however, we should vault twenty-nine years to September 20th, 2002, then it would be an entirely different matter. Why, then we would find ourselves in Del Mar, California, where Ravi Shankar and Sri Chinmoy were once again scheduled to meet. And, lest you imagine such reunions to be their habitual practice, I must point out a most remarkable fact: this was to be their second only meeting.
So let us cross the ocean of time, immense in its breadth and full of trackless paths, and arrive at September 20th, 2002 – a day when history repeated itself.
Del Mar Hilton Hotel:
The sun glides towards the limitless blue rim of the Pacific, causing trees and humans alike to cast long, cool shadows as they witness its glorious descent. Sri Chinmoy stands framed in the doorway of the Hilton Hotel ballroom, watching the exquisite scene and waiting for Ravi Shankar and his family to arrive. It is no coincidence that Ravi literally means ‘the golden sun’.
A sudden quickening of activity indicates that the moment has come. Ravi Shankar, his wife Sukanya and their daughter Anoushka, approach and Sri Chinmoy offers them his soulful pranams. At age 82, Ravi Shankar is eleven years older than Sri Chinmoy, who affectionately addresses him as ‘brother’ and later as ‘dada’, meaning ‘elder brother’ in their shared Bengali language.
By virtue of Ravi Shankar’s legendary musical genius and his pivotal role in bridging the musical cultures of East and West, he seems larger than life, a lion among men, in spite of his diminutive stature.
As human beings, many of us stand in the reflected light of some great personage, our lives are ennobled far beyond our imagination by this contact. But when two such giant souls meet together, each one basks in the light of the other. So it is with Ravi Shankar and Sri Chinmoy.
“A drop has arrived at the heart-door of the ocean to receive affection and compassion from the ocean.”
With these words, Sri Chinmoy greets his guest, adding that he is “absolutely enamoured of [Raviji’s] nectar-flooded music.”
While offering Ravi Shankar the ‘U Thant Peace Award’, Sri Chinmoy elaborates:
“Every single day, your colossal music soul swiftly travels the universe and prayerfully gathers a huge bouquet of twinkling stars to place at the Feet of the Absolute Lord Beloved Supreme … Ravi Shankar the musician and God the Supreme Musician sleeplessly communicate with each other through the language of love.”
Deeply moved, Ravi Shankar responds:
“Sri Chinmoy, my brother, I am so overwhelmed and emotionally I feel choked with the love that you have shown towards me.”
Sri Chinmoy now introduces an aspect of the programme that has become almost a personal signature for him in his meetings with men and women from all countries and diverse walks of life. He wishes to honour Ravi Shankar by lifting him overhead with one arm. Clearly enthralled by this unique request, which has something of a child’s playfulness about it, Ravi Shankar springs to his feet and approaches the metal lifting apparatus. He then steps onto a small elevator and is transported to the top of the machine. “It’s nice up here!” he quips on arriving at the top.
For Sri Chinmoy, this is a particularly light lift, given that in the past he has lifted many individuals weighing in excess of 300 pounds. But he approaches it in the same prayerful mood that he has shown in each of his previous lifts. We realise anew that for each lift, light or heavy, this spiritual teacher relies fully upon God’s unconditional Grace.
With a surge of power, he raises his left arm to full extension and the platform travels upwards. Sri Chinmoy holds Ravi Shankar aloft for nearly a full minute and then lowers the platform with infinite care and tenderness. Afterwards, as he garlands Ravi Shankar with a special medallion, Ravi Shankar says, “It is I who should honour you in this way.” Sri Chinmoy next invites Sukanya and Anoushka to ascend the platform and he lifts them simultaneously, one in each hand.
Following the lifting portion of the ceremony, Ravi Shankar tells the audience of more than two hundred of Sri Chinmoy’s students:
“You are so lucky to have him as your guide in life – and what wonderful work is being done! Please keep it up. We are all so tired of the violence and all the negative things, all the discord that is happening. Amidst that, people like him and those who love him and follow him are doing wonderful work.”
Ravi Shankar’s heartfelt testimony reminds us that he and Sri Chinmoy are kinsmen – not only Indians, but Bengalis, among whom there exists the strongest of bonds. It is a bond of the land, a bond of culture, of history and, above all, of spirituality, for Bengal has been the cradle of so many spiritual luminaries in India’s past – Sri Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Lahiri Mahasay, Sri Yukteshwar, Swami Yogananda, Anandamayee Ma and many others. All these saintly figures comprise the rich and living spiritual heritage of Bengal. Sri Chinmoy’s meeting with Ravi Shankar is eloquent with the silent presence of such great souls.
Fittingly, Sri Chinmoy has celebrated Raviji’s life in song and he and his students have recorded their arrangements on video. As the first strains of music fill the air, we watch the maestro tapping gracefully with his forefinger in time to the rhythm and listening intently to catch the Bengali words. This is Sri Chinmoy’s exquisite tribute to him, translated into English by the composer:
Ravi Shankar, to you I offer my soulful obeisance.
You are the lion-sitarist.
In the hallowed world of music-pilgrimage,
Immortal you are in every heart.
From high Heaven the Cosmic Gods descend and garland you.
At every moment, they illumine your life-road.
Two sleepless friends you have:
Heaven’s Fragrance, Heaven’s Glory.
Rapt in dance at the Feet of the Absolute Lord Supreme
Is your outer frame.
It is a monumental and majestic song, prompting Ravi Shankar to exclaim, “Sri Chinmoy’s voice has such expression!” The programme continues for several hours, with many surprises for Ravi Shankar and his family. Finally, the time arrives to exchange parting words.
“First Swami Vivekananda came to give India’s spiritual wealth to the West. Then came Paramahansa Yogananda. Now Sri Chinmoy has come,” reflects Ravi Shankar.
“I shall treasure in the inmost recesses of my heart your blessing-light,” replies Sri Chinmoy.
“Go on giving as much as you have been giving all the time,” says Ravi Shankar to Sri Chinmoy, in a final benediction.
Queens, New York:
Having found each other again after twenty-nine long years, neither Ravi Shankar nor Sri Chinmoy can afford to allow another twenty-nine years to elapse before their next meeting. After all, both of them are now in the evening of their lives. This time, the magnetic pull of their inner connection charts a direct course across the ocean of Time.
Sri Chinmoy expresses a soulful and prayerful wish for Ravi Shankar and Anoushka to offer a private concert for him and his students in New York. Ravi Shankar immediately accepts the invitation and a date is set for October 11th.
“Love, and do as thou wilt,” wrote St Augustine. So, like a bird of passage, Ravi Shankar sets his sights on the distant horizon of New York and flies east with his family.
For the next few days, Sri Chinmoy and his students entertain them with music, singing, conversation and stories. Ravi Shankar’s comment on the experience is a single Bengali word: abhutpurba, meaning ‘unprecedented’.
Later, he enthuses:
“What Sri Chinmoy does is God-given. He has such a tremendous and fantastic creative urge.”
At the close of one function he leaves the hall, walking side by side with Sri Chinmoy, holding his hand. The maestro and the master – two highly venerated human beings and, at the same time, two simple Bengali village boys.
Friday, October 11th – the day of Ravi Shankar’s private concert – is ushered forth under a patina of grey clouds and persistent rain. It is Sri Chinmoy’s wish that Ravi Shankar perform at Aspiration-Ground, Sri Chinmoy’s little meditation park. Because of the inclement weather, Sri Chinmoy has arranged for a huge white marquee to be erected. Wooden boards are laid over the ground and, if one peers between them, it is possible to see that the water level is now several inches deep. The whole of Aspiration-Ground is literally flooded and the marquee reposes on it like a barge on Dal Lake. Sri Chinmoy then requests his students to decorate the interior so that it resembles “a rishi’s abode – full of purity and simplicity.”
When Ravi Shankar visits the marquee during the afternoon for a sound check, he confides to an assistant, “I knew Sri Chinmoy would do something extraordinary for my concert.”
By early evening, a bright panoply of umbrellas in the driveway indicates the arrival of Sri Chinmoy’s special guests for the occasion: Mrs Mariam Chowdhury, wife of United Nations Under-Secretary-General Anwarul Chowdhury; H.E. Vijay Nambiar, Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, and his wife Malini; H.E. Ananda Guruge, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the USA, France and the UN, and his wife Darshanika; local councilman Jimmy Gennaro and many others.
Among Sri Chinmoy’s students, many have flown in to be present at this historic concert, some from as far away as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, England and France. The seats inside the marquee rapidly fill up and still people continue to pour in, choosing to stand at the back rather than miss out on the performance. Still others sit outside on bleachers in the rain, cocooned under umbrellas, fully prepared to participate in this momentous event aurally, if not visually.
Sri Chinmoy arrives and greets his special guests. Then he takes his seat, not more than three feet from the stage itself. There is a hush as everyone waits for the maestro to arrive. Suddenly, word spreads that Ravi Shankar has entered the marquee. He is walking slowly down the aisle from the rear entrance. The crowd bursts forth in a thunderous standing ovation.
Ravi Shankar and Anoushka seat themselves on the stage, side by side, flanked by the two tabla players – Tanmoy Bose and Bikram Ghosh. The two tanpura players, Kenji and Premik, are positioned to the rear, one on each side. Behind this cluster of musicians, the maroon archways and coconut palm decorations create the illusion that the musicians are, indeed, seated on the porch of an ancient rishi’s abode.
The moment has come. The great maestro places his plectrum on his right index finger and commences the alap. A trained Indian classical musician could perhaps describe in more detail the experience of the next one and a half hours. Most of us could only listen with all our hearts and souls and allow ourselves to be washed away by the river of sound that Ravi Shankar created.
Ravi Shankar has written:
“The raga reflects the spiritual hopes of the people, the constant struggle for life. It is drawn out of the moods of the seasons, the prayers in our temples, for our music is not written down; it is passed from heart to heart.”
Some members of the audience feel that the music has become a capsule of Indian history, weaving together strains of Kashmiri folksongs, Bengali baouls, ghazals and South Indian carnatic music. Others feel that the music expresses the mood of India, especially her seasons. Definitely, the steady thrumming of the rain on the roof of the tent and the occasional crack of thunder confirm this impression.
Moreover, as Ravi Shankar plays faster and faster, his left hand moving like lightning up and down the teak stem of the sitar, the steady beat of the rain seems to intensify more and more, until it is literally beating down on our flimsy shelter. I have heard of Tansen and other legendary musicians of old who could cause fire to break out or rain to fall depending on which raga they played. But this is literally happening before our eyes.
With the fingers of his right hand mimicking the pitter-patter of the raindrops, Ravi Shankar urges the two tabla players to recreate the sound of the rain on their instruments. Their duet chimes perfectly with the pelting tattoo above our heads. As Ravi Shankar plays with ever-increasing speed, he signals Anoushka with a nod of his head to repeat his breathtaking musical arabesques. She looks spellbound by her father’s brilliance. His musical genius, ever unpredictable and always original, has reached new and dizzying heights and she abandons herself to his lead. It takes supreme courage and consummate skill to perform like this. Forgetting his age, forgetting time, forgetting anything external to the moment itself, Ravi Shankar soars on wings of purest inspiration to realms that others can only dream of.
Suddenly the music finishes and the entire audience springs to its feet in rapturous appreciation. Sri Chinmoy approaches the maestro with a beautiful garland but Ravi Shankar is too humble to allow Sri Chinmoy to place it around his neck. He and Sri Chinmoy clasp hands lovingly, the garland suspended between them.
At dinner together later that evening, Sri Chinmoy recounts to Ravi Shankar an experience that he had during the concert:
I prayed and meditated. Then I asked God, “God, please tell me, where is Heaven?” God’s immediate answer was, “Are you blind? Where else is Heaven, if not inside Ravi Shankar’s heart?” I asked God another question: “God, where are You?” He said, “Are you deaf? Are you blind? Can you not see where I am? I am inside Ravi Shankar’s music.” Then God said, “I am not only inside his music, but also I am his music as well.”
During the dinner, Sri Chinmoy also reveals to Ravi Shankar that he first heard him perform around 1947 when Ravi Shankar visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in South India. Sri Chinmoy was then a young boy of fifteen or sixteen and he was fortunate to sit on the floor only a few metres away from the maestro. He never forgot that sublime experience.
Ravi Shankar, in turn, tells Sri Chinmoy that very few times in his life has he played with such enthusiasm and inspiration as he had at Aspiration-Ground. He says that he was getting such joy from the spiritual atmosphere; it reminded him of ancient India. Nowhere could he trace the feeling of modern India. He praises Sri Chinmoy for evoking the real atmosphere and spirituality of ancient India.
Anoushka comments that she has never before seen her father indicate to the tabla players to try to imitate the rain. It is something totally new and improvised. Sri Chinmoy offers his own spiritual interpretation of the weather conditions that prevailed during the concert:
“Instead of calling it torrential rain, let us call it the tears of Mother Earth for Father Heaven to descend. Ravi Shankar represents Heaven and here Mother Earth cried and cried for Heaven to descend. So this rain was nothing but the tears of Mother Earth for Heaven to descend. Heaven descended in response to the ceaseless tears of Mother Earth.”
Still later that same night, long after his illustrious guests have departed, Sri Chinmoy reflects:
“For me, it was an unforgettable experience, a truly unforgettable experience. In my memory, it will remain forever. Ravi Shankar’s performance was absolutely unique. He played and played with all his heart, wholeheartedly, absolutely like a young man. At the age of 82, he played really like a young man. We were all transformed.”
Indeed, as the days pass and the memory of that evening lingers, we realise the truth of Sri Chinmoy’s words. We are all transformed, transformed forever.
– End –