My mother Indra-Spiritual Journey with a difference.
by Danielle Thompson
( Danielle is the daughter of Indra and George Thompson, who have both been serving Sri Swamiji for many years, in whichever way they could! Indra was for a long time now the Head of the Volunteer group of devotees. Her seva was a great privilege and joy to her, as she lived for her Sadguru. Indra remains an inspiration to all devotees , by her life and also in her passing. Danielle and her father George and family are living proof that our Swamiji takes good care of His 'family'.)
Jai Guru Datta!
December 16th, 2019 is a day to be written in history, not just for our family but for every foreign Datta devotee. To get a phone call that your mother or wife died in a foreign country while on a spiritual journey is something that you only hear of in the movies. Who could believe at first instance that this phone call was true?
This surreal experience began mid-October 2019 when my mother, Indra Thompson decided that she wanted to go to India. You see, she had been longing to return since her last visit to Mysuru in 2012 for the Inauguration of the 70 feet Sri Karyasiddhi Hanuman & Dattatreya Jayanti Celebrations, 23rd - 28thDecember. Every year for the past three or four years she planned, but the plan would always fall through. Last year however, she decided that staying home was not an option and by any means necessary, she was going to India to meet up with the Trinidad contingent.
She literally dropped everything deemed unimportant and flung herself into organizing. A barrage of emails and phone calls were flying back and forth organizing the flights, Indian visa, other paperwork and tying up loose ends. She was in and out of the house like a hurricane shaping the trip. She planned many trips before, but something was different about this one. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I recognize now there was something (or someone) pulling her there. Mom persisted and refused to let any speed bumps (and there were many!) stop her. She was relentless and desperate to go.
November 8th came in the blink of an eye, and it was time for her to leave Trinidad. I remember that morning clearly. She got up around 4:00 am, showered, dressed and calmly walked downstairs. No dawdling. She was ready. It was the last time we laid eyes on her while she was alive and in person again.
Her time in India…
Through daily phone calls and instant messaging, she would relay her day’s occurrences and send photos of the things she witnessed. Some of the photos I can recall receiving were of her room in Kashi where she stayed for 12 days, the different meals they had, photos of places she visited and several of the Ganga River, which she visited often! On one conversation with my father, George, she revealed that she never in her life thought she would get to see the Ganga. She talked of how everyone from the Trinidad group got sick including herself and so far, it was not keeping her back. When we spoke, you could hear her now raspy voice straining from the effects of the foreign Indian climate, but the willpower was still there. There was no indication that she was too sick to continue or that it was something she could not recover from.
From Kashi, she travelled to Mysuru and arrived there on 25th November. Our messages and calls to each other kept flowing throughout the days. She would always write with childlike joy of her encounters with Appaji and Bala Swamiji. November 27th - “Met Swamiji this morning after homa and he told me that I am lucky to go to Kashi and be here for Datta Jayanti also.” December 2nd, she said, “At the Venkateshwara temple. Special program today. Here all morning. Bala Swami blessed me specially as he recognized me.” And perhaps my favourite of them all was sent on December 3rd, “He (Swamiji) garlanded me with a tulsi mala in Kashi which I am still wearing 😊”.
On December 8th, she travelled to Bengaluru for the day for Sampoorna Bhagavad Gita Parayana on Gita Jayanti day with some more of Appaji’s foreign devotees. Two devotees who stayed in Angel Hall said she was so proud to be one of those doing the Gita reading in front of Appaji as she could not stop talking about it. One even recalled her saying that it was by far her most fulfilling moment in India on this trip.
One of her reasons for going to Mysuru was for Datta Jayanti Celebrations on 10th- 12th December 2019. Following that, the last program she participated in was the Mauna Seminar from the 14th - 15th December 2019 which ended the day before she was scheduled to leave the Ashram.
At 2:23pm on December 16th, 2019, my Uncle Edward called to say my Mom died in India and that he had no other information. Cold waves flowed through my body. Shock. Denial. Confusion. Disbelief.
Comfort came very soon…
Mourners were flowing into our living room within minutes. I got busy doing the dreadful notification of family members and friends and organizing for the visitors. After everyone left that night, we (George, my husband Najeeb and I) sat down trying to assimilate what was happening. Was this true? Was she really gone? Then as if to answer our questions, the phone rang. A fellow devotee called around 10:30 pm to say, “Stay by your mobile phone, Prasadiji is going to call.” We were not sure what to expect but we waited eagerly to speak with him.
Prasadiji called. I turned on the speakerphone so we could all hear him. “George,” he began (with his Indian accent, pronounced it like Jar-ge). “We are so sorry for your loss.” Now, I am not sure if it was his words confirming the news, or that he was physically closer to my mother’s body where I wished I was, but I began to cry in a silent sniffly way. He was saying she passed on the Ashram’s compound and they were taking good care of her. Her body was removed and kept in a college mortuary.
Questions…. I had the world of questions to ask him. He patiently answered them one by one and with such understanding while we listened intently. Prasadiji paused then said Appaji himself wanted to talk to George. I did not even realize He was listening. If Prasadiji mentioned it before, it didn’t register. Neither George nor I can recall the exact conversation for me to confidently pen here, but Swamiji also expressed His condolences and told my father to go to the Ashram in Trinidad should he need any assistance at all. He told him to arrange to get to India as soon as possible.
A few seconds later, Swamiji’s voice rose a few octaves, “Daniella, are you there?”
My head jolted up good as I heard him call my name. “Yes Swamiji” was all I could think to answer.
“Daniella, no cry. Don’t cry. Mummy is okay. She is very happy. Swamiji take care of Mummy. Mummy has good loka. She is going to good place. Do not cry. I take care of her.”
An instant calm swept over me. A swift but light feeling. He must have heard me weeping on the other end and decided that I needed some sort of comforting I thought. Or maybe he realized that the details I sought from Prasadiji were so miniscule compared to what she had in store for her next and I just needed to be gently silenced. Who knows? But after those words, I no longer worried. We all went to bed waiting to face the coming days with a different strength that we did not know we possessed, a strength passed on by Appaji!
Getting to India and settling in…
Everything, and I mean everything, fell into place one after the next. Our very own Trinidad Datta family came to our rescue, calling the contacts they knew wherever they could to get the documents fixed on time. We were ready to leave in the blink of an eye.
Our first order of business in Mysuru was to meet with His Holiness himself. We went to the Darshan line inside the ashram to meet with Appaji. He spoke firstly to George and reassured him that his wife was at peace and was where she needed to be. He said it was okay if we had to wait on my brother to arrive (he was delayed due to issues with his passport) and that anything we needed He would assist.
He pointed to me interrupting my wordless observation and said, “You are Daniella, you are who I spoke with on the phone!”
All I could do was smile and say, “Yes Appaji.”
“Don’t cry for Mummy. Mummy go to heaven; she is with the angels now. Swamiji took care of her. You and George be strong now.” He reinforced. I did not even realize I was crying in front of him. He said a few more words, enquired about our plans and wished us well for the funeral.
From there Prasadiji took us to his office, where he spoke to us about what to expect regarding the funeral, the different segments of her last rites, immersion of ashes and to introduce us to a few key people that would be assisting us along the way. He spoke of how my mother made history by being the first foreign person to die within the ashram’s walls and no one knew where to start regarding the legalities not even the police! He revealed that she was the second deceased person he had ever been near in his whole life and how he helped the undertakers remove her body from Angel Hall himself.
It was encouraging to see the affection for George from Swamiji, Prasadiji and so many others that have encountered my parents throughout the past 25 odd years they had been devotees of the ashram. They were nothing short of hospitable and compassionate.
My brother finally arrived in Mysuru on Christmas morning around 6 am. Without any further delay, it was time to organize the funeral and all they needed was a few hours to prepare. We opted for a funeral in a crematorium (as opposed to our traditional open wooden pyre cremation at home) for two reasons. The pollution levels are high in India and we were told this was the most environmentally friendly method chosen these days. Also, the wooden pyre is more costly to the average Indian citizen and is not used as often as the crematorium in these modern times. Also, Appaji was gracious enough to bear the costs of the funeral and we did not want to burden the SGS Ashrama any more than necessary. We asked them to do whatever was financially and locally acceptable.
December 25th, 2019 at 1 pm Mysuru time (3:30 am in Trinidad) the funeral began. The cremation was short, no more than 45 minutes. The finer details are a bit foggy, but I can distinctly recall the simplicity of the funeral: No expensive hearse but a tiny ambulance. No fancy coffins but a long metal tray. No fancy outfits and makeup here, she was wrapped in a plain white cotton cloth. No flowers or malas but only tulasi leaves, rice and water, ghee and dahee (from what I remember). No long lines of mourners and family to lean on, only the five of us. No wailing as we were told that excessive crying prevents the soul from departing freely.
We watched as the pundit guided my brother from beginning to end of their foreign customs. Finally, it was time to see her off one last time. We walked inside the building, they removed her body from the tray and placed her on some pieces on bamboo and briskly slid her into the furnace just after asking us to chant some mantras. That was it. She was gone.
The immersions and days after the funeral…
We were unable to collect her ashes on December 26th as there was a solar eclipse. Everything in the ashram and all religiously affiliated places were closed. We collected her remains instead on 27th December at the crematorium where the Shraadh was performed. At the cremation site, we split the ashes into four containers: 1 large clay pot for the first immersion and 3 small vials to immerse in other rivers. From there we were off to do the first immersion at a village near Srirangapatna, a popular Triveni Sangama or confluence of three rivers. In this case the three rivers were the Kaveri River, Lokapavani River & Hemavati River. A round boat made from woven bamboo, sealed with tar and lined with canvas material (or feed bags as we know it) took us out a few metres to the middle of the Kaveri River where we submerged the large clay pot of the ashes. Appaji asked one of the teachers, Prasanaji from his school in Mysuru to accompany us and ensure everything was done according to custom. We were most grateful as the language barrier proved challenging outside the ashram.
The last time we saw Appaji in India was on Saturday 28th when we visited his Darshan window again. He enquired as to how everything went and let us know of his plans to leave the Ashram soon. We verbally thanked him for all that he had done for Mom and for our family. He approved silently with a nod when we told him of our plans to immerse her remains here in India. He then handed each of us those infamous orange rakshas and bid us farewell and a safe journey wherever we went.
We wanted to give something back to the ashram and decided to partake in Annadanam Seva (donation of a meal) through a lunch at the Mysuru Ashram the very next Sunday 29th December. Appaji and his devotees treated us like VIPs, sparing no effort to ensure we were content, and we wanted for nothing. It was the very least we could do. This was also in keeping with the tradition to offer a meal (like our bhandara in Trinidad) for those that assisted with the funeral.
Kusuma Akka, Appaji’s life long assistant and chief of the Ashram’s kitchen prepared a meal for 500+ people including all the ashram’s staff and even a few people from the village. We were thrilled to discover that Kusumu Akka and the other cooks went through extra lengths to prepare some of the Trinidadian cuisine she learnt about when she visited here in previous years. Can you imagine them dishing out sweet rice, saheena, pelau, curried channa and aloo and amchar masala mango! She explained afterward that while they had the raw ingredients for the amchar masala, this mixture was not native to India and they concocted their own version. My heart melted when I realized how much she went through to make us feel at home and to remember my mother. Mom’s photo was displayed in the feeding hall garlanded with flowers. Before eating, many approached the photo and performed aarti as if she were a deity herself. All the pundits and even Appaji ate from this special meal as well.
My brother and sister left the ashram to return to the US the next day, Monday 30th December as they both had their own families to take care of. George, Najeeb and I remained to fulfil our duty of letting go of the rest of her remains. Appaji left the ashram as well early that same day. It later occurred to me that He really did cancel all his plans outside of the ashram to stay with us until the end of the Shraadh. If this was not compassion, then I do not know what is.
The second immersion on 30th December 2019, as advised by Prasadiji, was at the beautiful village of Mekedatu: the village of Sri Swamiji’s birth. After travelling to this remote village by taxi, we stopped first at the place of Sri Jayalaksmi Mata’s family home, which is now a small beautiful ashram on the banks of the Kaveri river. After meeting with the resident pundit, Karthik, he took us over to another Triveni Sangama a few kilometres down to perform the immersion. This time it was the confluence of three sacred rivers Kaveri, Guptagamini and Arkavathi. We took the time, guided by Karthik to visit Appaji’s actual place of birth, Brahma Kunda, which sat among enormous rocks with jagged edges. It was visited via bus ride on a bumpy dirt road that ended 7 km from where the remains were let go.
The third immersion was a necessary one. My father recalled the conversation he had with Mom where she emphasized that she never thought she would ever get to lay eyes on the Ganga. Because of this he made it his personal quest to have her ashes scattered in the Ganga in Kashi where she was just days ago.
Before we departed Mysuru for Kashi on January 3rd, 2020 we had to ensure we secured all the legal documents and have them notarized. The death certificate seemed to be caught up in some red tape at the government office mere hours before we left and panic was creeping in. As if to answer our worry Siddhartha, PRO at the ashram, came bouncing around a corner. “Hey, I was just looking for you!” he exclaimed excitedly. He went on to say he spoke to Prasadiji on the phone and there was nothing to be worried about, they will look after the paperwork and get it to us when it is eventually completed. A couple minutes later we all sat under a tree between the Nada Mandapam auditorium and the Universal Prayer Hall still discussing the death certificate with Siddhartha. My father was still not fully convinced it would be sorted as he considered that we were leaving Mysuru (and eventually India) and we had no legal proof my mother was no longer alive and was cremated. As we were still there, Bala Swamiji was leaving and as we thought he was just going about his affairs we continued discussing. Then I realise that he was leaving in his car and i told everyone,"Get up, stand up!" As his car was passing by us, he suddenly stopped, wound down the glass and told us, looking at my Dad, " Don't worry about anything. Go to Kashi and everything would be sent to you." Only then, my Dad calmed down. We had not told him anything, but clearly, Appaji sent him to reassure us all, especially Dad.
Varanasi/ Kashi/ Banaras/ Banares – Different names, one place.
This third immersion required a longer journey than the others. One taxi ride to SGS Ashram in Bengaluru to store our large bags, another taxi to the airport in Bengaluru, one 2.5-hour long plane ride to Varanasi and one final taxi took us to the Hotel Tamil Nadu. The hotel was a two-minute walk from the Ganga River and just next door to the newly inaugurated Avadhoota Datta Peetham branch. The hotel manager arranged our plans for the very next morning (5th January). A local pundit led us through a small puja on the banks after which a pirogue took us to the middle of the river to do the needful again in the chilly North Indian weather. Again, thanks to Prasadi's arrangements, and Appaji's loving care, everything went well. I was sure my mother would have been happy!
On the 6th of January it was time to head back to Bengaluru and await our final departure from India the next day. Just like that… it was over. We did keep one more vial of Mom’s remains and immersed it in the Aripo River in Trinidad. It would have been remiss of us if we didn’t bring part of her back home.
I am sometimes still unsure if it has really absorbed in my mind that she is not coming back. With that said, we feel at peace with the way it happened, where it happened and knowing she spent her last days extremely happy. It gives my family and I comfort knowing that she died with her Guru nearby, in His ashram and she completed everything she wanted to, spiritually while on this vacation. Sometimes I feel guilty about not being overly sad, but I know it is only because He is the holding me up and somewhat filling the void my mother has left.
After all that has happened, the one thing that stuck with me is how much my mother’s love and devotion for Appaji had come full circle. All the years of seva and selfless service to the Ashram here and the Jayalakshmi Children’s Home --this was able to see our family through one of the most traumatic experiences to ever occur. Her Sadguru Datta Sri Appaji really took care of her in those last days and He took care of us when she left the earth, and is taking care of us still! All the running around, paperwork at the government offices, visits to the forensics labs, funeral home etc. was looked after by the Ashram’s staff. There was literally nothing left to do except to sit and carefully heal from the loss of Mom.
I think it is only through His grace that we are all able to move forward with the peace of
mind that she truly is in a better place. Om Shanti! Sri Guru Datta!