With the immense grace of our beloved Guru Maharaj, a wonderful Bhagavata Dharma retreat was conducted by Sri Poornimaji on May 5-6 in the serene surroundings of Lake Houston State Park. Right from the time the idea was conceived, till the completion of the retreat, it was obvious that everything was being guided and taken care of from Above! All the arrangements, right to the minutest detail, were planned and completed unbelievably perfectly. Several devotees from Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, California Bay Area, Chico, Redding, Chicago and Michigan participated in this unique event, that was to take place (by sheer chance) on a very auspicious day which was Swathi nakshatra (the star of Sri Swamiji), Narasimha jayanthi as well as Chitra Pournami.
The retreat started off very early on Saturday morning in a beautiful open-air campsite surrounded by lush, green woods. The first item on the agenda was an orientation session by Sri Poornimaji where she explained the purpose of the retreat–to immerse ourselves completely in thoughts of the Lord and learn how to lead a life in Bhagavata Dharma–and how to make the best use of the time given to us. She encouraged all the participants to avoid unnecessary talk or socializing as the 24+ hours given to us were extremely precious. The retreat schedule itself was planned such that idle talk would be minimal. At the end of the orientation, each participating family was given framed pictures of Sri Madhuri Sakhi sametha Sri Premika Varadan and of our Guru Maharaj, HH Sri Sri Muralidhara Swamiji. These would comprise each family’s altar during the retreat. The families were also given a folder containing booklets of Sri Swamiji’s kirtans and slokas that would be sung and chanted during the retreat.
Next it was time for Prabodhanam (waking up the Lord). In the presence of the Holy Padukas of Sri Swamiji, all the families sat in neat rows in front of their own little altar under an open pavilion, as a gentle breeze caressed everyone. Sri Poornimaji then led the group in singing the prabodhanam kirtans and slokas. The Lord was woken up, washed, offered milk, bathed and decorated. Slokas praising Him, composed by Sri Swamiji, were then chanted to please Him.
After this, breakfast was prepared by assigned volunteers and offered to the Lord. Following breakfast, which was filled with the chanting of “Govinda” “Govinda” between sips of porridge, and a short break, the participants again settled down before their altars for the morning puja. Archana was performed with Ashtottara Namavalis and a kirtan was sung. Then Poornimaji led parayanam of the 12th Canto 12th Chapter of Srimad Bhagavatam and had everyone repeat the verses after her. Following this, fruits were offered as neivedyam. Then it was time to prepare lunch prasad. A new batch of volunteers tried their hand at outdoor cooking while the others settled down to chant and/or write the Mahamantra. When lunch was ready, it was offered to the Lord, and then the participants partook of the prasad, while again chanting the name of Govinda.
Come afternoon, and it was time for a game. First it was the children’s turn to play musical chair, except that in every round, the person without a chair would not be “out” but become “special” and get to sing a kirtan or chant a sloka or tell a story about the Lord or His devotees. All the children enjoyed playing as well as taking turns as the mike as the “special person”. Next it was the turn of the womenfolk, and later the men, to play the same game. For the adults, Poornimaji had prepared a set of questions in chits from which each “out” person would pick. The questions ranged from “Share a Madhurasmaranam” and “Tell a true or a made-up experience with Sri Swamiji” to “Sing a kirtan by Sri Swamiji” and “Who is your favorite Mahan and why?” It was an extremely interesting and fun time for everyone, including the children.
Following this, everyone moved back into the pavilion to enjoy a short talk by Sri Poornimaji. Next it was time for some devotees to share their experiences with Sri Swamiji and how they came into Bhagavata Dharma and to the Lotus Feet of Sri Swamiji. Smt. Uma Balasubramanian from Singapore, Smt. Arthi Ravi from Dallas and Smt. Chitra Shenoy from Dallas shared their moving experiences, and listening to them indeed brought tears to the eyes of all who were present.
After this, the entire camp shifted to a dormitory-type cottage that had been rented for the night. The cottage had an outdoor picnic/campfire area right next to it that was ideal for all the events to come… bhajan, Divya Namam and more. Though unplanned, how totally perfect it all was!
As the next set of kitchen volunteers prepared dinner prasad, the others got ready for the Purappadu (procession). The beautiful palanquin from Houston Namadwaar had been carried to the Park and was now decorated and ready for its esteemed guests. The Holy Padukas of Sri Swamiji ascended the palanquin, followed by His life-like cutout and a picture of Sri Premika Varadan-Madhura Sakhi. Four fortunate devotees lifted the palanquin onto their shoulders and, while taking turns with others, carried the Lord on a wonderful procession complete with chathram (umbrella) and chamaram (hand fan), down a scenic park road as everyone–led by Poornimaji–sang kirtans of Sri Swamiji praising the Lord, His gait, His beauty and everything about Him.
After the Purappadu, dinner prasad was offered to the Lord, and everyone partook of the prasad while, as usual, chanting “Govinda”. The post-dinner session was a blissful Bhajan and Divya Namam with Sri Swamiji’s kirtans, again led by Poornimaji. It was a wonderful experience indeed to sing the Lord’s glories and dance to His tunes in the light of a lantern, under tall pines and a star-studded sky with a beautiful full moon sending its cool rays down, bearing the Grace of the Lord.
Finally, and sadly, it was time to put the Lord to bed and retire for the night. Everyone once again lined up their altars and, led by Poornimaji as usual, sang the Dolotsavam kirtans and lulled the Lord to sleep. No one wanted the day to end, but, in anticipation of another morning of satsang, everyone soon fell asleep.
The next morning everyone was up by 4 AM in order to get ready for the day’s events that would begin at 6 AM. By 5:45, everyone was outside chanting the Mahamantra and waiting for the “Silent Morning Walk” to begin. Exactly at 6 AM, everyone headed out silently, down the park road, across a bridge that ran over a creek, out to a wide meadow. Then we traced the path back over the bridge, but now turned into the sandy shore of the creek where Guru Maharaj, in the form of His Holy Padukas were already waiting for us, having been escorted there by a few devotees. It was now time for an hour of Nama meditation. Everyone sat down on a sheet laid out on the sands, the women on one side and men on the other, facing the Padukas and Poornimaji who sat next to Him. The Padukas looked serenely beautiful against a stunning backdrop of the flowing creek with green trees hanging over it. As everyone settled down, Poornimaji began to chant the Mahamantra in a soft tone. Then the women and men alternated the chanting, as everyone sat still with their eyes closed. After about 40 minutes of chanting, there was about 10 minutes of silent meditation. In the serene stillness punctuated with the sweet chirping of birds and the light gurgle of flowing water, a wonderful peace descended on the group as we sat quietly in the presence of the Lord. As the meditation session concluded with a few more minutes of Mahamantra chanting, everyone felt happy and energized by the experience.
Now it was time to head back to the cottage for Prabodhanam, followed by breakfast preparation and offering, breakfast, morning puja and parayanam, similar to the previous day. There was also an extended session of kirtans as we were ahead of schedule and had time. After the morning activities, Poornimaji conducted a feedback session where people were invited to come up and speak about their experience, learnings and thoughts about the retreat. Poornimaji first spoke of how the entire event had just unfolded without a hitch and how Guru Maharaj’s Grace was obvious in every little detail, right from the spots chosen for the activities to completion of the packed schedule well on time, and everything in between. All through the morning there was a light cloud cover and a few light drops of drizzle could be felt now and then. Poornimaji compared this to the scene in Vrindavan when the Lord would go out to herd the cows and play with the Gopas, when the clouds would stay right above the Lord’s head and send down a light drizzle now and then to cool Him. Later, several devotees came forward and excitedly spoke of how wonderful and life-changing the experience had been for them, and how much they had enjoyed spending every moment in the thought of the Lord. At the end of the session, Poornimaji gave out special, beautiful mementos customized for each family that, along with a picture of Sri Swamiji, read “A Weekend with God, presented with love to the family of ‘_______’ ”
This wonderful sharing session was followed by lunch prasad offering, and to conclude the retreat, the Mahamantra was chanted and a moving prayer was made to Sri Swamiji and Bhagavan that He should ever abide in our hearts, that we should always do only whatever pleases Him, and that we should lead a life dedicated to His service, simply for His pleasure.