I had heard about Aiya for many years but Devi had never blessed me with the bhagyam (good fortune) of meeting him until the Sahasra Chandi in the summer of 2015 in Ontario, Canada. That event was to celebrate the 113th birth anniversary of our Guru, where our students delivered the required 1000 renditions of Devi Mahatmyam with great gusto and enthusiasm. This was the 2nd Sahasra Chandi held in Canada. The same students had also helped to deliver a significant number of the Devi Mahatmyam chants at the 1st Sahasra Chandi held in Quebec conducted by Shri Murugan Temple. GRD lyers GuruCool and Devi Mahatmyam are inseparable! Devi chooses Her time and we can only comply. Aiya was very generous with his praise for the chanting by the students, which was a huge boost for us. During a brief chat with him, I confessed my dream of conducting a Sahasra Chandi within half a day at least once in this lifetime, and he smiled and blessed Gayathri (my wife) and I saying that it would happen.
What is a Sahasra Chandi?
In simplified terms, it is the chanting of Devi Mahatmyam (DM) 1000 times and the performance of 100 Chandi Homams. There are other requirements as well but I will focus on the major ones. DM is also known as Durga Saptashati. This text is an excerpt of 700 shlokas taken from the Markandeya Purana and has been declared as equal to Vedas in their potency by Shri Bhaskararaya Makhin, the founder of our paddhati (tradition). The 700 shlokas consist of 13 chapters, which are further consolidated into 3 portions called Prathama Charitram (1st portion called the "1st section" consisting of the 1st chapter), Madhyama Charitram (2nd portion called the "middle section" consisting of chapters 2-4) and Uttama Charitram (3rd portion called the "ideal section" consisting of chapters 5-13). These 13 chapters are preceded by a few chapters called "Poorvangam" that comprise of mainly Devi Kavacham, Argala Stothram, Keelakam and Tantrokta Ratri suktam. Depending on which tradition is followed, Siddha Kunjika Stothram is added too - either at the beginning or at the conclusion of DM. Furthermore, there are additional chapters known as Hridayam, Dalam and Namani, etc., and when chanted, DM is referred to as "Navangam".
DM by itself is inert and just a story glorifying the greatness of Devi. However, what converts an inert pauranic historical story into a mantra is the recitation of the wonderful Navakshari Mantra called "Aim Hreem Kleem Chamundayai Vicche" before and after the recitation of DM, thereby enveloping it, and imparting immense power and potency to their recitation. The 3 presiding deities of this mantra are Shri Mahakali, Shri Mahalakshmi and Shri Mahasaraswathi. Durga Devi is the presiding deity of DM and dominates the text magnificently with Her fiery presence and deeds. There are 3 Rahasya or secret chapters called "uttarangam" recited after DM, which make the recitation of DM complete. These chapters are considered a secret and their contents are revealed only to those initiated in the Navakshari mantra. They contain the secret of the creation of the world and the prescribed method of worshipping Devi. In the 12th chapter, Devi declares the extraordinary aspect of DM which is the immense benefit to the listener in addition to the chanter. DM grants enjoyment as well as "moksha" or liberation to the devotee as we can see from the shloka describing Her as "bhukti-mukti pradayini". DM has meanings at the gross and subtle level. At the gross level, it describes the great battles of Durga Devi where She vanquished various asuras in great detail. At a subtle level, these battles refer to the raging battle within ourselves as our innate good nature struggles against various vices that rear their head within us such as ego, lust, greed, anger, intoxication and the like. DM is closely linked to Sri Vidya in many ways and there are subtle references equating Durga Devi with Shri Lalita Tripura Sundari Herself. For example, in Devi Kavacham, we see the words “Hridaye Lalita Devi. In chapter 7, Durga Devi is referred to as “Lalita” who confers the name of “Chamundi” on Goddess Kali upon slaying the asura brothers Chanda and Munda. In addition, the entire text is about overcoming Maya, illusion, to merge with Devi, which is the very essence of Sri Vidya.
Enough said about DM. Let us see the events that led up to Sahasra Chandi 2017!
In January 2016, Aiya graciously invited us to attend the Shivaratri celebrations at the temple. This was the Maha Shivaratri where Aiya had invited us to take part in the Sahasra Linga puja. Aiya welcomed us with immense love and took us on a grand temple tour filled with warmth and enthusiasm and drowned us with his kindness. It was there on the same night where my anahata sound got activated and started ringing fiercely in my left ear in the Devi sannidhi. Soon after, Aiya asked me, "Thambi, can you hear that "eeeeem" sound?" Later that year, during the Navarathri celebrations, I was in a daze when I saw Sri Rajarajeswari at Her most resplendent, decked with the 1000 gold coins, on which, each of the thousand namas had been engraved. It was then during a break that I heard about his plans for a grand granite temple for Devi! My head was abuzz with his audacious plan. But I had no doubt he would achieve it, as his mind is resolute and his energy and enthusiasm is legendary. Later that spring, Aiya visited our humble abode in Mississauga. It was then that Devi put a grand thought in my head. II made a bold suggestion to Aiya and offered to teach DM to the temple students. I explained that an apt gift for the grand granite Devi temple that he was planning to build, would be to create a tradition of high quality DM chanting and Chandi Homam performance that would be the epitome of excellence and that would last till eternity - just like the granite temple would! Would he accept my gift?
He smiled and agreed. He showed more confidence and faith in me than I had ever seen. His nod and smile was all that I needed. SriG aiya and Ekta amma then got involved along with Vimalan aiya and Natarajan aiya. A temple newsletter was issued with details of the class sessions. Students started signing up actively for the chanting class. It was a beautiful moment when I saw messages of registrations popping up every second like popcorns! Then another chilling thought stuck me. How would we ensure that the quality of chanting of the students was good? Most of them would be joining online and there was no way I would know whether they were practicing or were making errors. I was seriously concerned with this issue. Devi then placed the idea of ‘Mentorship’ in my head. Why not involve senior students in mentoring new students? I would teach from our home as I usually did, which would be telecast over Ustream and Livestream for online students. The students would then record their homework and send it to their respective mentors, who would evaluate and provide support to the students. Since I had done this with all the senior students myself, they were aware of what was expected and were eager to contribute. We then created a video showing the mentors addressing their protégés and uploaded to YouTube so that the students could recognize and bond with the mentors. Each student was assigned a mentor.
It was then that Gayathri and I drove down to the temple in Rochester to commence the first class. Aiya was also present and offered encouragement. His presence itself ensured a good audience. Subsequently, we alternated between holding a class at our home in Mississauga (around a 3-hour drive from Rochester) and the temple. Devi guided us to make the right decisions and soon the classes were in full swing and a great bonding and camaderie developed amongst all. During the classes, the students were taught to chant "swaha" along with the shlokas so that they were well prepared for the upcoming grand events. From Nov 2016 - May 2017, the students received intense and rigorous training which earned them the title "DM commandos"! I would say "1-2-3-start!" and off they would go in unison. It was great fun!
Around April 2017, as we were nearing the end of DM classes, Aiya invited us to his home. Vimalan aiya and Natarajan aiya and several other key members joined us. We discussed ways to celebrate the graduation of the 2016-17 DM class, many of whom were devotees and active volunteers of the Sri Vidya Temple. Without blinking an eye, I suggested conducting a Shata Chandi event at the temple. Aiya looked at me and decided to go a step further and announced "Shata Chandi in Aug 2017 and Sahasra Chandi during Navaratri 2017". This was Nadaswaram to my ears as I had already anticipated him scaling it up based on his fearsome reputation! Well, I calmly took out my laptop where I already had detailed plans drawn up for conducting a Shata Chandi and Sahasra Chandi. This was spiritual jugalbandi at its best! We discussed animatedly and within an hour, most of the key decisions were made and responsibilities had been allocated. Shortly thereafter, sign-up forms were sent out and Ritwiks registered eagerly! We suspected that Navaratri 2017 may be a challenge as many may choose to perform puja at their own home we were aware of the possibility of a lower turnout during Sahara Chandi 2017 compared to Shata Chandi 2017 in August. Although only a single chant by over 100 Ritwiks is sufficient to complete the 100 DM chants required for Shata Chandi, I proposed that the Ritwiks be asked to recite three times through the course of the weekend so would experience a taste of what Sahara Chandi would be like. This proposal was accepted and the students were subjected to additional rigorous training. With Devi’s grace, several Chandi Homams were performed prior to the Shata Chandi event that offered excellent practice for the eager Ritwiks.
August 11-13 were the 3 dates fixed for Shata Chandi. On Aug 11 evening, we commenced the official proceedings with Aiya leading the way. The Guru padukas and photos of both Gurus of the 2 respective paddhatis adorned the "vedikai" where the Devi kalashams had been arranged beautifully. We had brought "Gauri Kund" water from 20,000 ft. from the holy Kailash Mountain and these were poured into the Devi kalashas. Parvati is believed to take a bath at the "Gauri Kund" and the holy water was considered highly tantric in nature and absolutely fitted the grandness of the occasion. The required number of Navakshari homams were performed in 3 homa kundas that were managed by Aiya, Shankar aiya and myself. The next day was going to be the D-Day i.e. Devi Day! 100 DM chants were required to be delivered that day. Would the Ritwiks measure up or collapse with exhaustion? The Mentors had given their reports and I had heard many of the students’ recordings myself. I was confident of my team. The day was magical. More than 130 students had registered and streamed in and took their spots in an organized manner. They had come not only from Canada and USA, but also from other countries like Australia, India, Singapore - to name a few. Their time for performance had come! The rendition was led by Ekta amma, Palani thambi and Anupama amma supported by yours truly, Gayathri and Swami lyer. The following renditions went off equally smoothly. We had achieved more than 300 chants or achieved our target 300%! There was a huge smile on Aiya's face. He was a stickler for perfection and he felt satisfied with the delivery of the students. The following day, Sunday, was when we would be performing Chandi Homams at the 3 homa kundams. On Sunday morning, Aiya garlanded me quietly with a beautiful chain strung with marble sized sphatikams (crystal) that had 108 cuts on them along with a golden pendant containing a "Gauri-Shankar" rudraksha. I was humbled as this was Aiya's own and worn by him. Only the Almighty knows how many japams of various mantras he had done wearing that mala. I felt truly blessed. That day, we had around 15 homa kartas at each homa kundam and achieved more than 50 homams where the requirement was only 10. That is a 500% achievement rate! The required number of tarpanams and poojanam had also been delivered for DM and Navakshari by the students. All in all, the Shata Chandi was a grand success. Ritwiks and onlookers, who felt the strong vibrations of DM and Chandi Homam, were left with a unique experience. The Ritwiks had delivered and more — with sincerity, humility, style and confidence. DM had come home to Sri Vidya Temple. Surely, both Gurus must be blessing us from the heavens above!
Now loomed the challenge of conducting the Sahasra Chandi during Navaratri 2017. Would there be enough sign-ups? Would 1000 DM chants be delivered? Would the Ritwiks have the energy and stamina to withstand the rigour of the 1000 chants? Well, the registrations started happening but as expected, were lesser numbers than Shata Chandi. But we had 10 days to deliver the 1000 chants which would help us with the time factor. It became increasingly apparent that the daily renditions of the local temple devotees, who stayed close to the temple, or had taken vacation off for all the 10 days and would be staying at the temple, would be extremely crucial to achieving the 1000 counts. We counted around 20 local devotees. We had between 60-100 registrations for the 2 weekends falling during Navaratri. Assuming 3 chants a day, it was going to be "touch and go" to reach 1000 chants and for the first time, butterflies started fluttering in my stomach.
One interesting fact is the arrangements of Kalashas and Shankhas for the Sahasra Chandi. Apart from the regular setup required of Kalashas for Devi and other deities, we setup a 3-D form of the Chandi Yantra with all deities invoked in Shankhas placed in the right spot as dictated by the Chandi Yantra and the Chandi Navavarna Puja. This was the first time I believe it has been done anywhere of recent knowledge, and the team that worked to get the arrangements done in such a perfect fashion deserves a royal salute.
Official proceedings began on the first day of Navaratri on 20-Sept, a Wednesday. Gayathri and I came in the morning on that day and took part in the proceedings. There were no chants held that day as the day was consumed in all the preliminary pujas and homams as required. One day had passed by already and zero DM chants! The butterflies grew in number in my stomach. The 2nd day report for Thursday came in that there were like 30 chants or so that day. The 3rd day was Friday and we had around 70 students that day. We first performed a Chandi Homam in the morning at all the 4 homy kundas, that were led by Aiya, Shankar Aiya, Kanakeshwari Amma and myself. All the students present got an opportunity to perform the Chandi Homam. After the Shata Chandi experience, the lead chanters were in top form. They were requested not to chant "swaha" so that their chants could be taken into count for the DM renditions. This needed great coordination, but if you recall, the students had already been well-trained and took to the change as a duck to water and there was perfect synchronization between the DM chanters and those performing the homam. Subsequently, 3 DM chants were performed. The 4th day was Saturday. More than 100 Ritwiks streamed in. The energy level was electric. The team achieved 3 chants as smoothly as a race car would swallow the miles. No sweat! Someone said "Let's do one more!". I hastily looked for this announcer to protect him from a deadly assault from all the other students. To my astonishment, there was a chorus of "Let's do it!". I was floored. The 4th chant was completed. No one got up. "Let's continue!" yelled another voice. I was thinking "Who is that lunatic?" when there was a chorus of "YES!" and off they went without waiting for me as I swallowed hard and sat down. The 5th chant was done. This was the first time I had done 5 chants in a day. Prior to that I had done only 4 chants maximum per day — but then these spiritual Frankenstein Ritwiks were something unique! We then had dinner. Energy levels were still unbelievably high. What was amazing was that different students had taken up the mike confidently to lead the chants. This was a dream come true for me! During dinner, many came upto me and coaxed me "Let's do one more in the night!". Now, I was really seriously concerned. Would there be a burn-out? But we needed the numbers! I announced that only those who wanted to chant needed to be present. Well, there was a full turn-out! No one went back. This time, the chant was led by Gangadhar Vennamaneni. Boy, was he in form! He hit the right note and speed, and the group chant was as smooth as jam on bread. That night's 6th chant was a turning point, in my opinion, and was the "Eureka" moment that made the team believe as to what was possible with pure group synergy and with minds focused on a single goal. This was the magnificence of Devi's Shakti in action. SIX CHANTS in a day and that too by first timers! It was mind-boggling. The students were teaching a lesson to their teacher! I was humbled. Devi's Shakti was at work. By 11pm, we had completed 6 chants in a day and caught up with the backlog and were ahead of the game. Someone croaked "Come on! One more!". That was it, I muttered to myself. I grabbed the nearest stick and yelled "Idu t0000 much!" and chased everyone away vigorously — spiritual "Iathi charge" if you ever saw one!
The following day was Sunday and we had to leave after 3 chants as we had to return to work for Monday. But reports kept trickling in and the remaining time had again clocked 6 chants! I was awe-stuck. I had reasoned that the local temple devotees would be crucial for the success of delivering the chants and indeed, they rose to the challenge in style. They reeled off 6 chants a day the following days and they all confessed that they did not feel any strain or lack of energy. They were feeding off the amazing energy of Navaratri and the electric atmosphere in temple created by the devotion of Aiya and devotees over the years. Devi was helping them. There is no other explanation for their wondrous performance. I was embarrassed and ashamed about wondering at whether the 1000 chants would be achieved and remembered Aiya's confident words "Don't worry. SHE will get it done!".
We rejoined the team the following Friday morning and Chandi Homams were performed at the 4 homa kundams followed by 3 chants and achieved 1008 chants that evening and completed the most daunting deliverable of a Sahasra Chandi!
We performed a Chandi Homam exclusively using only the Beejaksharas and this was appreciated by all present. We had also completed the required deliverables for tarpanam, poojanam and marjanam for DM and Navakshari. Vimalan Aiya and team kept a close count of all deliverables and routinely carried out a board showing the status of all the deliverable that kept the Ritwiks alert and focused. Some of the Ritwiks were volunteers too and would rush off to the kitchen to help during the breaks. This was service of the highest order to Divinity and was truly inspiring. The following Sunday was the grand finale and what a finale it was! After the Chandi Homam was completed at all the 3 homy kundams (thereby exceeding the required 100 Chandi Homams), a grand abhisekham was performed and Sri Raja Rajeshwari Devi was then decked in the 1000 Lalita Sahasranama gold coins. It had all come a full circle. The same sight that I had beheld on Shiva Ratri night in Jan 2016 was again being beheld on Dashami day of 2017 Navaratri. She, Maha Maya that she is, inspires, guides and motivates us towards the right goals and actions.
All through this, Gayathri was firmly by my side, supporting and encouraging me. That day evening, Gayathri and I took part in the Ratha Yatra festival. It was FUN ! As someone pulled me amongst the dancing ladies, I, who dreads dancing and am leaden footed, suddenly found that I could shake a leg! Chants of "Jai Chandi" rent the air and that jig was one of the highlights for me of the entire event. Aiya and Shankar Aiya flung chocolates into the air and I jumped and tried to catch as many as I could, just like the kids scampering around. I must have shocked a few with a side that they never knew existed in the "Drill Master"!
It was a feeling of great fulfilment at bringing DM home in such a grand manner through the dedicated students and Ritwiks to the Sri Vidya temple and with the blessings of Aiya and Sri Raja Rajeshwari Devi. It was an ambitious project that was brought home only because of the dedication of the committed Mentors and the enthusiastic students. It was brought home by the dedication of unsung volunteers, the gems of Sri Vidya temple. All the Ritwiks got a chance to perform the Chandi Homam. Men and Women participated as equals in chanting and in performance of homams. In fact, women outnumbered men by 3:1. Children participated with gusto. This was picture perfect in every respect and a modern template for true Sanatana Dharma followers where substance, ability, competence, equality and quality are the celebrated values, and discriminatory traditions are eschewed completely. Where a noble vision meets determined action from various spiritual souls, a grand victory can be the only miraculous result. We all had witnessed such a miracle twice during Shata Chandi and Sahasra Chandi due to the blessings of Devi and the Guru Mandali. More such grand projects continue to beckon us. This is but the beginning. The best is yet to come, as the wise say!
The saga continues....the 2017-18 sign up of DM students has been completed and around 220 students have signed up. More than 100 have signed up for learning Sri Rudram and Mahanyasam. The chanting fever has caught the fancy of all. Shiva and Devi have commenced their Ananda Tandavam, embracing everyone in their delight. Let us celebrate their grace and glory and proudly uphold the grand traditions of our Sanatana Dharma which have sustained our culture and made us the thinking and caring human beings that we are!