Today is a new moon which means that Eli and I left home exactly one month ago. It is also a national holiday marking the liberation of India from the British. I have been looking forward to today for another reason.....it is Saddhu Feeding day here at Treveni II.
A Saddhu or Sadhaka is someone who does Sadhana (“spiritual practice”) 24/7/365. Saddhus take vows which include to not have a family and household, to not work for money and to not sleep in one place for more than 3 nights. A Saddhu is devoted to God but/and belongs to a particular face of God. (You might compare this to a monk who is devoted to God but has a particular connection to Mary). The Saddhus who belong to Shiva dress in orange and are pretty ragged in appearance. (What with Shiva being the Destroyer and all, I guess there's not much reason to stay tidy). The Saddhus who belong to Vishnu – the Maintainer – are dressed in white and are much tidier. Today one Saddhu was dressed in Red – that means he belongs to Kali. (He behaved himself nicely....no worries.)
Beggars often dress in orange, which is the most common Saddhu color, to get a bigger take. But you can tell they are beggars, not Saddhus, because they actually ask for money and Saddhus don't. We try to make it a point to “pay out” equally to Saddhus and beggars alike.
Treveni II – like a lot of ashrams in Tiruvanamali – has regular Saddhu feedings. Today we did the usual morning practices and work and breakfast. At 10:30, Laksmi and her mother and her daughter arrived to help and we all began preparing for the arrival of 50 hungry Saddhus. The cooking is too much for the kitchen here so it is hired out to a nearby household which is actually a full time equivalent to our “soup kitchens” in the states. We all washed up and removed our sandals – it would be wrong to serve food in shoes – and began making trips back and forth from the “big kitchen” down the road to Treveni II carrying basins of rice, and pails of things like Sambar (a curry gravy). We also served dahl, amlaki pickle, buttermilk and bananas.
We took all the food to the eating area where we had set up long rows of straw mats. Each place was marked by a banana leaf which would serve as the plate. Eating is done by hand so no need to set out utensils.
The the Saddhus were waiting and when we opened the gate they came in from the road, filed up the narrow stairway to the lovely rooftop space, and sat down in silence (this in not a social event). Then they began chanting. The chanting went on the whole time we served. Each of us had some part of the meal to serve and went up and down the rows, putting our part of the meal on each banana leaf. Once it was all done, the chanting stopped and the eating began.
After the Saddhus finished – and they all finished at the same time, as if they had practiced Synchronized Eating – there was some more chanting and out they filed. We then set aside some of the food for our own lunch and carried the remaining food down to the courtyard and opened the gate up again. In came a crowd of waiting beggars to finish up the rest of the food.
After the beggars had finished, we went back upstairs and ate our own meal finally. It was wonderful to sit with these awesome people from Germany and India and eat exactly what we had just served Saddhus and beggars alike. This was, for me, a melting of difference and separation that is otherwise so evident and inescapable for me as a white wester woman traveling in India.
After we ate, we washed all the pots and pans. I squatted outside alongside the others for what felt more like playing in the water than washing dishes.
What an amazing morning.....to serve holy men and beggars, work side by side with Indian women, and wash dishes with 2-year-olds splashing alongside me or sitting in my lap.
Even after a month here, I still cannot quite believe my good fortune....to get to be here and to be here in a way that allows me to work here. If I weren't actually doing Seva I think I'd just be floating through, like someone walking through a zoo or a museum. Most travelers I've met are doing just that – not really dipping much below the surface. But Grace keep organizing circumstances and opening the most amazing doors for Eli and I. Being at Treveni II has been a huge doorway. In fact, think I have to officially say that Treveni II gets “BEST OF INDIA”.