The Delhi Project
Walk like a man,
Even though you walk alone.
Why court approval,
Once the road is known?
Let come who will,
But if they all turn home,
The goal still awaits you:
Go on alone!
—Lyrics from a song by Swami Kriyananda
When Swami Kriyananda arrived back in New Delhi in the autumn of 1960, he was fired with enthusiasm to launch the new ashram project and to expand Yogananda’s work in India. To his dismay, almost immediately after he embarked on the undertaking he was confronted by a series of seemingly insuperable obstacles.
He learned that it would be next to impossible to build anything new in New Delhi. He visited and spoke with a Mr. Ratti, the finance minister for Delhi State, and explained his needs. The councilman replied, “That will not be possible. Delhi is a government town. And the government’s priorities in this matter have been strictly set: schools, factories, hospitals, businesses, and residential communities first. Another ashram? The country is already crowded with them!”
“What about land outside the city?” Swamiji inquired.
“All the land around the city,” Mr. Ratti replied, “has been designated as a ‘green belt’ area. No construction of any kind is permitted there.” He expressed himself very decidedly.
Friends took Kriyananda to Kutub Minar, on the outskirts of the city. There, he learned of a village beyond the horizon, over what looked like a prairie of uncut grass, named Gurgaon: “Guru Gram,” the village where Dronacharya, the teacher of martial arts in the Mahabharata, had lived many centuries ago. That seemed much too far away for people to visit. Very few had cars; few even had bicycles. Most went about the city by bus, and the end of the city bus line was at the city’s outskirts. Swamiji soon realized that the doors were shut, figuratively, to every possibility for him to realize his dream. The various government departments he spoke to almost laughed at his proposal.
“By my will,” he declared, “I will make this dream a reality!” He had discovered during his youth that seemingly impossible things could be made to happen by putting forth enough energy, with great will power.
While in New Delhi, Swamiji had been invited in 1959 by Rani Bhan and her son Indu, a lawyer, to stay as a guest in their home. Rani was the wife of Dr. T.N. Bhan, a well-known physician. A brother of hers was a justice on India’s Supreme Court. The Bhans helped Swamiji for many months in his campaign to interest the government in his project. They became close friends of Swamiji’s, and have remained his loyal supporters ever since.
The more he looked into the possibilities of getting land in the city, the more hopeless his project seemed. His first thought, born of desperation, was, “Since I’m refused land everywhere, I might as well try getting it where I’d really like to have it.” Through friends he learned of a piece of land across from Mandir Lane, just next to Birla Temple. This was in the green belt, where a loop of land curved in fairly close to the city center. When he saw it, Swamiji realized it would be an ideal location. The land was amazingly tranquil considering its location near the heart of a large city. He resolved to do his best to acquire it for the new ashram. Two thousand other societies, as he learned later, had already tried to get property in the green belt area. All of them had been refused. Undaunted, he made a stronger-than-ever resolution to succeed.
The time had come for him to give serious thought to launching his campaign. He realized that to get the approval of the Indian government he would have to address their interest and, more specifically, that of those running the city and state of New Delhi. His own interests were to them, of course, secondary if not inconsequential.
He pondered the matter. New Delhi was the heart of a new country, aspiring to international recognition and respect. If only he could find ways to highlight the international aspects of his project, he might be able to appeal to the government in terms of its actual interests.
He gave deep consideration, of course, to making such an international work a reflection of what Yogananda also wanted. His Guru’s last words at the banquet for India’s ambassador had been an appeal for international amity and cooperation. Swamiji recalled how, in Autobiography of a Yogi, his guru had written also about starting a “Yoga University,” where the flags of all nations would fly, symbolic of world unity.
Repeatedly Yogananda had said, “We are not a sect.” He had named his churches, “Churches of All Religions.” Kriyananda felt that creating an ashram that welcomed all, and that tried to show, as Yogananda had done, the underlying unity of all religions, might appeal to the Indian government in its desire for global approval, and might at the same time further his own Guru’s vision.
To solicit outside support for his project, Kriyananda paid visits to ambassadors of various nations, courting their approval. He also contacted the chief ministers of different departments of the Indian government -– Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, and many others –- to familiarize them with the project in hope of enlisting their support.
Armed with supportive letters, which he received from all sides, Kriyananda then wrote to Bhagwan Sahaya, the chief commissioner of Delhi State. He pointed out that, although the green belt had been designated “green” to provide fresh air, or “lungs,” for the city, most of the land was in fact not “green” at all, but was a virtual wasteland of sand and rocks, its monotony relieved only by scattered, stunted shrubs. “The obvious solution,” he wrote, “is to allow individual institutions to undertake to develop and beautify certain approved areas of that area.” He also mentioned the foreign ambassadors and local ministers who had expressed their approval for his project.
Bhagwan Sahaya telephoned him at the Bhans’ home a few days later to set up an appointment. He liked Swamiji’s proposal, he said when they met, but wanted reassurance that this wasn’t just another ashram created along sectarian lines for the sake of its followers. Kriyananda, thinking quickly, responded that all religious groups would be welcome, and would be allowed occasionally to hold meetings on the grounds.
Mr. Sahaya considered the matter further, then finally said, “Very good. I can sway the other commissioners to your idea. Only one obstacle remains. Since the decision for a green belt area has come from the very highest levels of government, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself, the prime minister, will have to give his permission before we can proceed further.”
“Fine,” said Kriyananda. “Then would you speak to him?”
“Oh no!” was the reply. “You will have to speak to him.” Bhagawan Sahaya was not going to stick his neck out for someone else’s project. What he was asking, however, was tantamount to saying, “Go first to the moon. Then we’ll talk.” How could Swamiji, by his sole effort, find a way to reach Pandit Nehru? Once again this project seemed faced with an insuperable obstacle.
And then, unexpectedly, a solution presented itself. Dr. and Mrs. Bhan were Kashmiri Brahmins. So also was Nehru’s family. The Kashmiris in Delhi were a close-knit community, and Rani Bhan knew an elderly cousin of Pandit Nehru’s. Swamiji, Rani, and Indu paid her a visit. She, in turn, arranged a meeting with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.
At that first meeting Swamiji found Mrs. Gandhi reserved and aloof. “Please state your business quickly,” she said. “I’m busy packing for a trip to Paris. I am to address a conference there.”
“Do you speak French?” Swamiji asked. Somewhat brusquely she replied, Yes, she did. From then on Swamiji continued the conversation in French. “Where did you learn French?” he asked.
“It wasn’t anywhere you would know,” she replied, dismissively.
“Just try me,” he said.
“I learned it at a school called Beau Soleil, in the village of Villars, French Switzerland.”
“Beau Soleil!” Kriyananda exclaimed in amazement. “Why, I went to school in the very next village, at L’Avenir in Chesières. We walked by your school every day. It was there that I, too, learned French.”
Mrs. Gandhi’s aloofness evaporated. They began to chat affably together in French. After some time, she said she’d be happy to recommend to her father that he spare Swamiji the time for an interview.
Another fortuitous, and fortunate, event occurred at this time which helped to move the Delhi project along. A year earlier, Swamiji had chanced to meet Jayprakash Narayan, the former number two man in the Indian government. J. P. Narayan and Kriyananda had shared the same train compartment between Calcutta and Benares, and had conversed together about several matters, including cooperative communities. Hearing that “J.P.” was in New Delhi on a visit, Swamiji made arrangements to go see him and share with him his ideas for the ashram.
“I shall speak to Panditji on your behalf,” J.P. said to him after hearing the proposal. “If he is as well impressed with you as I am, I don’t think you will encounter any difficulty.”
And so, finally, that “impossible” meeting with Prime Minister Nehru had the go-ahead. The next step was to prepare for the upcoming interview. To give substance to his vision, Swamiji painted a twenty-by-thirty-inch canvas of how he wanted the property to look after it had been developed.
He also created a promotional brochure describing the project in more detail: “A Golden Lotus Shrine of All Religions is being projected,” he wrote, “in the heart of New Delhi, the modern capital of India. The shrine will serve as a symbol of man’s need for divine love to bring about lasting peace on earth.
“There is a need in our time to demonstrate the essential oneness of all religions, on the obvious premise that they are all dedicated to the worship of the same One God, or at any rate to eternal principles of Truth. There is a need to inspire men not only with political ideals, but also with a universal spiritual vision.
“India has long been the home of a universal approach to religion. Tolerant toward all, never interested in the conquest of other nations, her masses inspired even today by spiritual ideals, India is undoubtedly the most suitable country in the world for a monument such as that which is now being projected in her capital.”
In the brochure, Swamiji went on to describe different aspects of the projected ashram: beautiful gardens, calm pools, meditation caves, a large temple with an innovative dome design on the interior and a partly opened lotus shape on the exterior, a natural amphitheater for cultural and musical programs, which could be used by all religious societies, and simple retreat facilities for guests wanting seclusion.
This, truly, was a vision of an ashram of the future!
The day of their meeting found Nehru in a thoughtful mood. He had just received news of the death of a close friend. He listened quietly as Swamiji explained his ideas for the project. He looked at the painting, and asked a few pertinent questions. At the end of their interview, which lasted forty minutes, the Prime Minister said, “Your idea attracts me. I will make it a point to walk the property. If it meets my approval, you shall have my consent.”
A few days later, Pandit Nehru did walk the land. Some days after that he gave the project his formal blessing. The miracle had been accomplished: a visionary new work in Yogananda’s name could now be created in India!
On May 14, 1961, Swamiji elatedly wrote to Daya and the SRF Board of Directors reporting the success of his Delhi project. He was confident that Mt. Washington would celebrate. At last the Master’s work in India would flourish! He mentioned in his letter that he’d be going to Darjeeling for a needed rest. His “Delhi campaign” had left him joyful, but exhausted. In Darjeeling he meditated, rested, and waited happily for the response from America.