A student’s experience at the 3-day immersive retreat on the essence of Bhagavad Gita conducted by Vedanta USA. The program was conducted in September 2022 and aimed at bringing together spiritual seekers searching for a higher purpose to life.
Nestled in the heart of the Catskills Mountains on a 5,000-acre property not too far from New York City, the venue for our Bhagavad Gita retreat was an ideal one to immerse ourselves into a weekend of self-discovery and knowledge. The sprawling blanket of green, a kind of silence you never hear in the middle of suburban New Jersey, the pleasant beginnings of an autumn chill with a tinge of earthiness – all made a perfect space for engaging in sacred inner work.
I’ve been a seeker for most of my life, the nagging questions getting louder in the past decade. Sometimes it was questions about the ‘meaning of life’ and ‘why me’. Sometimes it was in the form of ‘there must be more to life than this’. Many a times, it was about ‘why can’t I control myself’ and ‘why does my mind that runs amok at times, so disciplined at other’. These questions led me down many paths of spiritual discovery. For years I ambulated aimlessly without a teacher and a focused path. Discovering this ancient wisdom of Vedanta through the Bhagavad Gita and other books recommended by the Vedanta Academy, it finally feels like I’ve arrived at the right place. In the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ and ‘The Vedanta Treatise’ teachings, I found the core of the ancient wisdom (Vedas and Upanishads) I had been seeking, the true meaning of Yoga, and the essence of Hinduism.
The first time I heard a lecture by Gautamji, it felt like the missing puzzle piece that brought it all together. He had just started a new series of online classes on ‘The Vedanta Treatise’ (Click here for details on how to join the free class) and pointed out the paradox of our current lives – a world developed to near perfection, all the comforts at the touch of a button and yet there seems to be more worry and anxiety, more stress and suffering all around. We have developed the material world at the cost of developing the inner individual self. That struck a chord, and I was hooked. The pieces were coming together – here was someone who really knew this knowledge, it was the same ocean of ancient knowledge I found myself so lost in, and more importantly he was explaining it in a way that made complete sense. I could now understand it, question it, contemplate it and practice it, actually. Several weeks later, when the opportunity to go on a weekend Bhagavad Gita retreat to immerse myself in this knowledge without any external distractions presented itself, – I jumped at it.
Bhagavad Gita for Beginners
The study of Vedanta through select verses of the Bhagavad Gita is the focus of our retreat. We start at the very first verse of the first chapter. The first word in the first chapter of the Gita is Dharma and the last word in the last chapter is Mama. The entire Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) is contained between these two words – put together, the first and the last word in the Gita makes Mama Dharma (my purpose of being). Between these two words lies the battlefield of life to which we constantly succumb. One repeatedly hears from Vedantins (followers of Vedanta) on how the Gita speaks to them personally at every point in their lives – undoubtedly so, as Bhagavad Gita is the study of Mama Dharma.
Over the next three days, we journeyed through several verses across the 18 chapters of the Gita – all meticulously picked for beginners like me, giving an aerial view of the battlefield ahead. When Arjuna stands weakened, in a state of neurosis, agitated, chaotic and devoid of morale and intellect – it feels quite personal as we take on the battles of everyday life. We’re stressed, tired, frustrated, our actions teeming with selfishness, personalizing every task and experience. The object of the battle may be different at different points of our lives (money, success, fame, family, love, power, children, etc.) but the pressure is the same, says Gautamji.
In another verse, we discuss the three Gunas making upthe constitution of every human – Tamas,Rajas and Sattva. Transcend the Gunas, says Krishna to Arjuna. Be free from the pairs of opposites (Dwandwas) – heat and cold, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, success and failure, etc. and ever be established in Sattva (purity). But how do we do this – Gautamji, goes on to explain. Be ever established in the Self by detaching and renouncing from this constant cycle of acquisition and enjoyment. Renounce these attributes steadfastly and with evenness of mind (Samathvam) by focusing on a higher cause, he says.
On the last day, we end with where it all began – understanding the definition of spirituality. Gautamji picks the verse below to underscore that it is only through action and sacrifice that one can reach the ultimate destination of union with the Self.
Bhagavad Gita by A.Parthasarathy ,Chapter 6, Verse 1
अनाश्रित: कर्मफलं कार्यं कर्म करोति य: |
स संन्यासी च योगी च न निरग्निर्न चाक्रिय: || 1||
Translation: The blessed Lord said: He who does his bounden duty without depending on the fruit of action, he is a sannyasi (ascetic) and a yogi; not the one without the fire and not the one without action.
The schedule for the weekend looks packed at first but as one flows from activity to activity, the balance of Gyana, Bhakti and Karma in our day becomes obvious. This weekend may be an intense focus on Gyana (knowledge) to sharpen the intellect by listening, reasoning, and studying but Bhakti (devotion) and Karma (action) play an equally important role through morning prayers, Gayathri chants, Bhajan sessions, exercising, hiking and volunteering at the event.
The Bhajan sessions with the live tabla and flute accompaniments are divine and a meditation of sorts, with participants singing and swaying along to the beats. Mealtimes are joyous and eagerly anticipated. Not only is the food mostly vegan and delicious, the mealtime bonding and conversations are full of enthusiasm and energy. Participants are an eclectic and diverse mix – young, old, middle-aged, married, unmarried, with and without kids – all gathered here in search of the purpose to life, yearning to find an equanimous way to cross this samsara (ocean of suffering).
In the mornings, most participants settle into the traditional Vedanta Academy schedule – wake up by 4:45 am or earlier, morning prayers followed by an hour of self-study and then pick any of the physical activities available (walking, Yoga, hiking, some have even brought their bikes). A few of us decided to take a walk around Lake Cole after a relaxing session of Yoga. The calm crisp waters and peaceful surrounds make this Upstate New York retreat center full of magic, beauty, and wonder. The sun rays on the surface of the water and enveloping the trees behind, the reflection of the trees, hills and clouds on the pristine water, the fine fescue that form perfect waves on the walking path, the old forest that rise upwards, the cool minty air tingling the nostrils – I feel the breath of God all around, I hear His song among the breeze of His creation – this is my journey homewards.
Another tradition of the Vedanta retreat is the small group discussion. After every lecture we break out in small groups to discuss the lectures and the questions that have bubbled up so far. One participant starts by posing a question, other participants seek clarifications to perfectly extract the essence of the question and refine it further. The practice of questioning is deeply entrenched in the Vedanta Academy tradition. No question is insignificant. Our classes begin and end with questions. Some questions are asked repeatedly by different people and sometimes by the same people in different forms. Gautamji answers them consistently with the same conviction and patience during the larger group discussions when all the small groups join.
Intellect vs. Intelligence
Amidst a day packed with lectures, groups discussions, self-study, devotion, and exercises, we also find time to watch a movie. This is no mindless entertainment – the movie, and the theme too, have a purpose in this Vedanta retreat. The main hall is blacked out for the viewing of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The story is familiar from reading the book in my younger days, but the movie brings it together so well, just focusing on the crux of the huge saga and the key character. I’m filled with sympathy for Dante’s situation and how he ends up in prison for no fault of his. I rejoice with a tinge of sadness when he gains the treasure and sets out to avenge his past.
The next day we discuss the movie and its context in our own spiritual development. I balk at the misplaced pity I felt initially at Dante’s situation. One can only empathize, since much like our own ambulation through the maze of life, he had many chances to amend his situation. But his lack of intellect pushed him towards his own misery and doom. The answer to his adversity comes in the form of a teacher who helps him build his intellect. An ideal teacher not only draws out intelligence (knowledge and skills) from their students but also builds the gross intellect (reasoning, thinking) and subtle intellect (identifying with the Self). The rest is in Dante’s hands. Quite often we put up our hands helplessly and wallow in self-pity to accept our fate – what is fate other than the rhythm of life returning its due.
On our last night here, a group of us took a short trip to the observatory on the property. The clear sky and cool weather had many campers queuing up to glance at what lies beyond the naked eye. But tonight, we didn’t need a telescope to see beyond. The galaxy of stars that lay hidden behind the cacophony of city lights back home, was all out in full opulence here. Every inch of the black velvet night sky was covered in a shimmering serenade of stars. Right above our head, a disc shaped hazy band stretched across the sky. The glory of the milky way stretched over our heads reminding us of our insignificant place in this mighty universe. “A virus on a virus” – I’m reminded of Gautamji’s words.
The retreat drew to an end – almost too soon. We close with lunch and much gratitude towards all those who tirelessly organized the event. Bidding adieu to each other, new friends and old ones who have come from across the country, we leave with a renewed sense of purpose. This retreat will be the booster pill we needed to light the fire of Vedanta in us. A much-needed infusion of fuel for those already following the path and a spark for those who needed to get back to the habit.
Some useful links for those interested:
- Living stress-free with Vedanta. How to manage your stress and live a more meaningful life.
- Vedanta perspective on mindful relationships. How to build lasting, meaningful relationships at your home, workplace and your community
- Online lectures and Q&A sessions conducted weekly by Gautamji
- To get notified of upcoming events and Vedanta retreats click here
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