by Sadhana cofounder Sunita Viswanath
Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos, NM, is an idyllic ashram and Hanuman mandir in the quiet town of Taos, in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountain range. Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately called Maharaji or Babaji by his devotees, lived in India from 1900 to 1973, and was a Hanuman bhakt. He started a number of ashrams in India. This ashram in Taos is the only one outside India. His philosophy can be summarized in the quotes, “Sab ek,” (all are one) and “Love everyone, serve everyone, feed everyone, remember God.”
I first came here to this ashram and mandir 24 years ago, and during the past 11 years, I have come every summer. On a weekend morning, you will find a sizeable group of devotees gathered in the mandir before the beautiful marble Hanuman who looks as if he is about to take flight. The devotees, very few of them of Indian origin, chant the Hanuman chalisa from memory. The singing is spirited, and full of bhakti and love. After 108 Chalisas, there is a vegetarian lunch for everyone.
This ashram manifests the values and mission of Sadhana. Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, caste, gender and sexuality. Everyone is welcome to lead the chalisas and prayers; we can all go right up to the murthi and take our blessings from Hanumanji. There are no disposable plates and cutlery. Meals are served on steel plates which everyone helps to wash. And most of the vegetables are grown in the ashram's organic garden. A popular item sold at the mandir dukan (store) is an apron that says, “Feed Everyone.” Indeed, the weekends often bring more than 150-200 devotees from as far as Texas and Colorado, and everyone has lunch together. During the financial crisis of 2007-9, the ashram provided meals regularly for 100s of people in Taos.
I was at the ashram last Sunday, when Lord Hanumanji moved into the new temple space. It was a huge celebration. There was a havan for Hanumanji, and chanting of Hanuman Chalisa for many hours. The chants of Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman filled my heart with peace and happiness tinged with the deep sadness of the knowledge of the pain all around.
I remembered Tabrez Ansari, one of several Muslims in India who were recently beaten to death while being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman.
I took the opportunity of this special day to ask a few of the devotees what the salutations Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman means to them.
Here is what they shared with me:
The center of our ashram is Jai Guru Dev.
I actually wasn’t crazy about Ram. Particularly because of the way he treated Sita. But then over the years I realized that Baba loved him. Baba wrote his name over and over, and chanted it. Here at our ashram, Jai Shri Ram is not a war cry. Rather, it is a cry of wholesomeness and forgiveness. We claim Ram this way: we can be good, no matter what. We can make the choice to be good rather than give pain to others. That’s the Ram I love.
There is suffering, but Ram made the choice to take the pain away from others and take it on himself. That’s what I love.
Rama really is for everyone. The story goes like this.
Valmiki was originally thief and a killer named Ratnakar. Some sages that he tried to rob reasoned with him, and he wanted to change his ways. The sages advised him to chant Rama’s name, but he refused to say Rama. He believed saying Rama’s name was a sin, because he had lived a life of wrongdoings. The sages said, don’t worry, just say mara mara mara mara (killed, killed killed, killed). And so Ratnakar sat in penance chanting mara mara mara, which of course became Rama Rama Rama. After many years, ants built their anthill all around him.
Some sages were passing by, and they heard the chanting of Rama Rama coming from an anthill. They pulled apart the anthill and found Ratnakar inside, deep in meditation. They named him Valmiki (which means anthill), and he went on to become a great sage and poet.
Hanuman Ji helped me sleep when I was scared at night as a child. My mother asked us to chant Bajrang Bali’s name. That always stayed in my heart. Hanuman unfolds in so many stories in the vernacular. He is available to us. There is no limit to Hanumanji’s love.
Ram is the name of God, and uttering is makes us happy and peaceful. I live in Texas but I come here whenever I can because I find great peace here in this ashram. What does Jai Shri Ram mean? It means: Give us good thoughts, positive thoughts. Give us peace of mind.
Ram Ram. Jai Shri Ram. Jai Siya Ram.
It feels so good to say, The feel of the tongue on the back of the teeth, and the beautiful sound of these words – it all gives me an ecstatic feeling.
This is how we greet each other at the ashram: Ram Ram. Sita Ram. Jai Shri Ram.
When I say it, I pull it out from my heart. It is an internal practice as well as an external offering of gratitude.
Jai Hanuman – for me, this is a celebration. The reason why we all get together here. An expression of joy.
Jai Shri Ram. Or Ram Ram.
This is pure intent, full commitment, a wholesomeness and light.
It is calming and centering.
It is always there in our heart and mind. Not separate from us.
Jai Shri Ram is the heart’s intent projected and manifested.
Hanuman for me is giving. Abundance. Unconditional generosity.
Chanting Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman is a higher way to honor the Guru. My heart gets filled with the love I have experienced in this Hindu and Hindu-inspired community in the middle of Taos.
Rama means Rama and Sita. I heard this at one of Ammaji’s (Mata Amritanandamayi) programs: If you say Ram Ram Ram Ram, you will find yourself saying Ma Ma Ma Ma. Ram is also called Sitaram. The Hanuman Chalisa invokes him as Siya Vara Ramchandra, the husband of Sita. When Hanuman opened his chest, there were both Rama and Sita within.
Ram ji is the vibration of love in the heart.
Ram ji is unconditional love and acceptance.
Neem Karoli Baba gave us a way to see the divine fully – through all our paap (sin) and punya (good acts), everything. Babaji and Ram ji, they can see transparently through everything, right to our soul, and they love us after all that.
Hanumanji represents service. He serves Ramji and inspires us to love everyone, serve everyone. That’s all I know.
It is bittersweet to hear these beautiful reflections on Rama, Sita and Hanuman, knowing that these same deities are being invoked during abominable acts of violence. I fill my heart with the hope that comes through from the reflections of these devotees.