The summer of 2008 began with immense excitement, like every other year, where I was eager to learn and explore new and different things. Little did I know that this summer would be different and give me an experience of a lifetime.

The original plan was to go to Kashmir where I could meet and spend time with my grandparents. The eruption of trouble in Kashmir however, caused a change in plans, leaving my parents worried about where to send me for that period of time. It was then that Poojya Swamiji suggested that I should come for the Retreat. 

Poojya Swamiji has been a part of our family ever since I was a little kid living in the city of Jamshedpur. He has been coming to the Steel City every year, without a break, for almost fifty years, and it was there that my parents got close to Him. I remember how as a child I was associated with the activities of the Brahma Vidya Centre in Jamshedpur, including the spectacular Vishnu Sahasranama Yajna that would be conducted during the presence of Poojya Swamiji, Ma and Nutan Swamiji in town. I was therefore somewhat familiar with Swamiji. But my forthcoming trip was to be my first visit to the Ashram. 

I had several preconceived notions about the people in an ashram, and how life in an ashram would be; so I was a little apprehensive to go.  When I asked my mother about what the experience would be like, she said, “Well, for one thing, there won’t be any internet or phones to distract you.”  It was then that I realized that the two weeks at the Ashram were going to be unique, different and memorable.  

We arrived in Kochi in the evening of July 17, and soon after headed straight for the Ashram.  The warm Kerala breeze surrounded us, and it felt different and soothing. With the windows of our cab rolled down, we allowed the invigorating monsoon air to blow over our faces, even as we admired the coconut trees that lined the streets. 

My first reaction was one of joy. I seemed to like Kerala already! It was an hour’s drive to the Ashram, and I enjoyed it!  A few potholes here and there and we were finally at Narayanashrama Tapovanam.  A meal was ready for us in spite of our late arrival. Ma and Nutan Swamiji saw to it that we had a good fill. That was very touching.

The next morning started rather early for me. I was struck by the order and discipline that was palpable in all that was happening at the Ashram. From pushpa-samarpanam to the orderly breakfast, and washing and wiping the utensils thereafter, provided a very austere ambience.

I participated actively in all events. I enjoyed working with the other devotees who were all doting on me, since I was the youngest person around. In the Annakshetra I liked placing the glasses and katoris on the tables before every meal. Throughout our stay we had some great ‘saattvika’ food, and met new people. The classes, the seva and the interactions between the classes – our whole day was full and joyous!  

The days following Gurupoornima were filled with learning new lessons from the classes with Swamiji, Nutan Swamiji and Ma Gurupriyaji. Besides the classes during the retreat, we were also engaged in seva, and then preparing for the dana-satra, scheduled for the 24th of July. 

The dana-satra was described to me as one of the most well-planned events that the Ashram conducted – one that needed great organization, and dedication to execute. Our very own Poojya Swamiji was actively involved in the details and often supervised the different rooms where the articles to be distributed were being filled, packed and stacked into neat piles.

I was intrigued by the magnitude of the planned donations. I gathered that dana-satra, which means ‘making sublime offerings’, was an event where about 20,000kg of rice, 6000 sarees/dhotis and abundant helpings of delicious payasam made specially in the Ashram kitchen, would be distributed to over 6000 economically disadvantaged people from the neighboring villages, who had been meticulously identified and given tokens before the event. In fact, the entire Annual Dana-satra, taking place over a period of one and half months from 50 centres, covers about 23,000 families spread over 300 villages.

The experience at the Ashram was an eye-opener. Far from being a place where no action was taking place and everyone was involved in passive-meditation, here was a living, acting group of people led and inspired by Poojya Swamiji, who were making a difference to the lives of the underprivileged. We were explained how this endeavour inspires people to give, and thereby plays a great role in inculcating fellow feeling and social integration. All my misconceptions were gone. The ambience at the Ashram, and the teachings I had been exposed to, gave me a glimpse of what Poojya Swamiji, Ma and Nutan Swamiji kept on reminding us: “Make every moment of your life Divine!