Travelling with Swamiji

by Tejaswini

Note: Tejaswini served as an assistant to Swami Veda Bharati.

Lots of people were involved behind the scenes in organizing Swamiji’s travels, and he masterminded it all.

Swamiji’s itinerary round the world usually started around mid-March or April, and he returned to Rishikesh early to mid October. Sometimes he also had to make short trips in winter if it was needed.  He planned his itineraries with great care. He took into account the Centre Leaders’ convenience of hosting him, incorporating any conferences that he was invited to, the travelling teachers’ itineraries, how much time he would have to give in between venues and resting places in between.

At one time, Swamiji put Costa Rica on his itinerary and everyone wondered why Costa Rica as he did not know anyone in Costa Rica. Swamiji did not say exactly why, but he felt something would turn up. A few days before he was setting off from Rishikesh a lady named Eleanor de Tiger came to the ashram, met Swamiji, and invited him to Costa Rica. Then he also found out that Dowlat and Indira Budhram had also moved to Costa Rica. Indira told me recently that Eleanor was searching for a nice home for Swamiji to stay while he was in Costa Rica, and she came to Indira and Dowlat’s place and was very happy. Then they found out to their delight that it was Swami Veda who was coming.

Till 2012 he used to travel on his Indian passport, so visas had to be organized for each country, well in advance. All this work took place together with everything else he continued to do, like overseeing the building of SRSG, inauguration ceremonies, inviting dignitaries, running programmes, having priests come to do big yajnas to purify the grounds, etc. A tremendous amount of work always took place simultaneously, and Swamiji was working with so many different people via email keeping everything connected and reminding anyone who had not done what was asked of them. Swamiji used to say, “We are all links in the work that is being done and when one link breaks the whole chain suffers”. At that time I was not quite aware of the links. Afterwards I realized that there was not one chain of links he was working with, but several chains.

I remember when I had just started travelling in 2001, we were in Holland, and he was dictating emails to many people involved in organizing a trip to Allahabad Kumbha Mela.  So many emails back and forth. That was one link. He was trying to get some uniform kurta pajamas for all the participants of that Kumbha Mela trip. In one email he called the tailors the ‘haute couture’ tailors of Rishikesh and that just made me laugh so much because I had a picture in my mind of Rishikesh tailors designing fashion garments – Swamiji just looked at me and could not understand why it was so funny that I could not stop laughing, and put it down to increased amount of unchannelised energy!

I did two round the world trips with Swamiji. When I asked Swamiji the first time I started travelling what he expected me to do, he said “just tag along” and that is exactly what I have been doing.

Later he arranged for Linda Billau to travel with him in the US and also sometimes to Europe on some important engagements. Linda also worked on arranging his travel tickets, his contacts list which needed to be amended constantly and copied to various people concerned with his travel. She also took care of him in the US. I would mostly do the Europe part and some of the Asian travel.

Swamiji’s persona was so strong and large that one cannot imagine that his body was so weak. He always used to say in his lectures “Don’t make your mind condition your body condition” and I witnessed him living that statement in his day to day life.

People wondered why we needed to carry so much luggage. Swamiji was on the road, or rather in the sky, for six months at a time and sometimes more, so he had to plan for all the destinations and what would be required in terms of clothes for different climates, medicines, suits/shoes/ties that he wore for plane journeys, etc. As I am sure most readers know by now he had a weak heart, having had triple by-pass surgery in the 80s and subsequently two of them were blocked, so he had only one artery working. He was diabetic on insulin. He had some ruptured disks in his lumbar spine, scoliosis of the neck, stomach ulcers due to Helicobacter bacteria, and torn ligaments in his knee joint. He travelled with considerable amount of medicine which needed to last for six months. The medicine packets would be made in the US and India. Some of the medicines were from the US, and pilgrims coming for winter programmes would carry these with them. It required a considerable amount of emails to make sure all the required stocks of medicine were brought from US, and the packets were made up in India by Kushlanand. Some of these packets would be bundled in two week supplies and various Centre Leaders from Europe and the US would take them back and keep them in stock for Swamiji’s arrival.

We normally travelled with two large suitcases and one smaller case for electronic items.  This is check-in luggage. Then there would be one carryon and Swamiji would have his own shoulder bag with his tickets, passport, medicines, credit cards, phone, etc.

The bags would have one packed winter suit for the US, saffron Swami clothes, and undergarments for 6 days, toiletries, medicines, insulin pens that needed to be put in a cool bag (and as soon as we arrived at our destination we would immediately unpack and put the insulin pens in the fridge), blood sugar machine, BP machine, alcohol swabs, needles, etc. The other items that were packed were his medical records and two thick books, Upanishads and Yoga Sutras. He would never travel without them, and sometimes I argued if these were needed because I did not see him referring to them, but he was insistent that they must be packed. He also carried malas, gift items (mostly for children), small crystal shivalings, initiation items, bairagan (the ‘T’ shaped stick that he rested his arms on), small travel hotplate with a container to warm up food or make some tea or hot milk at odd hours.

All the packing was done in Rishikesh by Surendra and Medha. Swamiji would then arrive in London where he would normally have one or two programmes, and then we would travel to Europe.

Swamiji covered the following places in Europe most of the time. Hamburg in Germany, Holland, Florence and La Verna in Italy, Innsbruck in Austria, Budapest in Hungary, Slovakia.

Swamiji ensured that, if the travel assistant was coming to a country for the first time, the hosts organize some time to do site seeing.

Whenever we arrived at our destination, there would be a welcoming party waiting to greet Swamiji, with big smiles and everyone looking so happy and excited to see Swamiji. We always attracted a lot of attention when we arrived, because a few people would gather to greet Swamiji.

A lot of preparation took place by the Centre Leaders before Swamiji’s arrival. In some places, we would stay at the host’s home, like in Germany we stayed in Wolfgang’s home, in Holland we used to stay at Atem’s and Oesha’s home and when they moved, we stayed with Feroze and Razia. In Italy we would stay in Christina’s home, and during retreat in La Verna Christina and Debora would drive us to the retreat centre with all that Swamiji needed for a comfortable stay, including books, linen, etc. In Innsbruck Michael and Nura made sure we were very comfortable in Nura’s house. In Hungary we normally stayed at the Retreat Centre, and I remember Margo didi fondly for she was also there. She lived in Canada, but was originally from Hungary. She made great efforts to make sure that Swamiji was well taken care of in her homeland, helped by Joseph, Anna and Radhika. Geza Timcak took good care of us in Slovakia.

In all these places so much care was given not only to Swamiji, but also to me, and I truly appreciate to what lengths people went to, to accommodates us and make us feel at home.

I remember in Hungary Swamiji’s lecture was organized in a big hall on the first floor. There was a staircase but no lift. Four strong men very happily lifted Swamiji in his wheelchair all the way up the staircase for the whole week.

These are just a few names I have given, but so much work was done by others. To name a few like Willem who passed away, may his soul rest in peace, the translators (Laura in Italy, Emola in Hungary, Wolfgang in Germany). Kries Manniesing.

In England, Denise and Alex were planning to sell and move from their home. They arranged it in such a way that Swamiji could stay in their home as he needed to rest and stay in a place that had no stairs, was in the countryside and quiet and wheelchair friendly.

In places like Korea, Helen Choe and her husband Dr. Choe accommodated us to stay once in a retreat centre where we slept on Tatami mattresses on the floor. Swamiji was very happy to stay in such a traditional way with elaborately designed bedsheets and pillowcases, quilts, etc. Swamiji admired them so much that Helen organized to bring some for him to Rishikesh. We still use some of the pillows. It was during December, and the weather was quite cold. I remember having a back ache after long travel, etc. Lying on the warm (almost hot) floor was just so wonderful.

At another time they arranged for Swamiji to stay in a traditional hotel with Tatami mattresses.

Once Swamiji arrived at his destination and a room was allocated, he would make his working space and generally stayed there most of the time.  He would eat there, work there, and see people there. He observed silence in the mornings and only broke his silence after his lecture, mostly to talk to people who wished to see him for any reason, talk to teachers. He would do initiations just before his lecture or straight after his lecture.

Food would be brought to him in his room. In some places, like Holland, food is made for him by Indian families, especially Komal’s wife, and they would bring fresh food for the whole day. In Wolfgang’s house his home help, Ashu and Andrea, would be involved in preparing lunch and dinner. Nura and Michael were equipped with a really nice home and made ghee, spices, rice, different daals, vegetables, all organic. I would cook for Swamiji there. In Hungary also shopping was done and I would sometimes cook for Swamiji, sometimes Hungarians brought nice cooked food.

On my first travel, Swamiji slipped a long piece of paper under my door when I was sleeping. When I woke up and saw it, I panicked, thinking ‘when am I going to complete all the tasks set out’. This happened every morning, and I began to enjoy receiving these slips of paper written so sweetly. Sometimes the sweetness evaporated when the tasks were difficult for me!

The routine was waking up in the morning at around 7 am, get ready, and wake Swamiji for his morning medicines. Sometimes he would be awake already, but sometimes one would have to wake him by touching his toes or forehead. One never woke him by calling him. He would check his blood sugar, and if it was low he would take something to eat to raise it. It was still his resting and meditation time, so we tried not to disturb him too much. After massaging his feet one leaves quietly, letting him rest. This was also the time to make sure a fresh set of clothes were laid out to wear.

Then getting on with all the tasks set out in the list. Of course, all did not get completed, and there was always a pending list. This was also a time when the hosts could get in touch if they wanted something conveyed to Swamiji. One would collect any such messages to take back to Swamiji.

If internet was available, one task would be to check all the mails and see if there were any urgent emails that needed a response quickly. Otherwise the emails would be dealt with in the evening when Swamiji settled to do his other work.

One needs to prepare for his lecture by making some fennel tea and pouring into a thermos to take with a cup, making sure the recorder is all set with a fresh battery, take the bairagan, his meditation seat, some glucose tablets, his Upanishads and Yoga Sutras book or any book that he suggests needs to be taken for the lecture. Sometimes there will be questions that people have asked on paper, and these would also be taken as Swamiji replied to questions by answering them in his lecture or afterwards.

During his lecture, one has to be alert to his needs so one sits close by and serves tea whenever needed.
In most places, Swamiji’s lectures were translated by disciples very competently.  Translators who were not disciples also became initiated into the Tradition once they started listening to Swamiji’s lectures.
Unless the Centre Leaders had organized a specific series of lectures, like the Yoga Sutras, generally Swamiji never asked to see the title of his lectures. Once he sat in the hall, he would then ask what the leaders wished him to speak about. He said his preparation was his meditation before he came to speak. Generally he guided a meditation and then gave a lecture.

The travelling assistant is required to stay close by and be on duty at all times. It is a training in endurance. Swamiji tries to increase one’s capacity by giving more tasks. One needs to be vigilant of what is required, how much to talk, when to keep quiet, be aware all the time. One is not always successful in living up to all this. I was always feeling a lack of sleep, and sometimes it would be really hard to wake up early. Swamiji used to say - whoever wants to stay close around me should be prepared to get burnt. He would say you are representing me and my work when you are with me, so your conduct has to reflect that.

Sometimes Swamiji would say, call such and such a person. When he asks to talk to certain people out of the blue, one needs to deal with that kind of request straight away as it invariably is urgent, like some person may be ill, or in some mental anxiety about something, etc. He once explained that while he travels and goes about his work he also scans in his meditations for people asking for help in their prayers. So I learnt that one should not ask too many questions but just do what is asked as he knows best.

One can go on writing so much, because so much happened during these travels. This is a glimpse of some main things that happened.

The day of departure is always anxiety ridden as the re-packing was upper most in my mind. So much took place at the last minute and sometimes Swamiji has received gifts that need to be packed. It always seemed that the items had multiplied, but eventually everything got packed, and I would get strong people to close the suitcases. The last thing always to be packed was the computer. Then suddenly one remembers the insulin that is in the fridge so, of course, one suitcase needs to be opened again. Once we reach the airport and check in one can relax and look forward to a cup of coffee which was a regular ritual with Swamiji in the airport.



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