The Garden of Light

Photos from the Garden of Light, Utsahi's gift store in Ottawa

For many years, I had been dreaming of opening a divine enterprise. During my monthly visits to New York, I had adopted the habit of helping out at Guru Health Foods, which was run by disciples. Working with the boys there gave me lots of joy,

When Guru found out that I was working there, he immediately suggested that I should open a health food store in Ottawa. Wow! What a challenge! Having worked there for some time by then, I kind of knew what it meant: so many products, about which you need to have knowledge, so many trends in health, natural living and healing, plus the staffing, the displays, not to mention the finances...

I started looking for a location in Ottawa. I was drawn to the Vanier area and learned that Hladini had had a health food store there in the 1980s. I continued to look for a suitable location. In addition, as I continued to work in Guru Health Foods, I became more attentive to customers’ needs, trends in health food products and health care. I was getting ready!

But in 1998, all of a sudden, the health food store plan changed. The Supreme has His own plans, I guess. In the same building as Prapti’s Perfection-Satisfaction-Promise restaurant was a very small, messy, second-hand bookstore. And through Prapti, I had known for a while that the bookstore owner was struggling financially and considering letting go of his lease. Prapti pointed out to me that this location would have many advantages: it was in the same building as another divine enterprise, there were lots of students coming by, there was lots of other pedestrian traffic. This seemed like a unique project, where we could attract the student population into something divine. But what to put in this tiny spot? I was looking for signs, praying for God’s Will to be manifested.

One curious sign was given to me while running in a remote area of Gatineau. At that time, I would run 10 km before going to work every morning. This was my training for the long runs: marathons, the 47-mile race, the 24-hour in Ottawa, the New Year’s self-transcendence run, and a few others. That morning in May, 1998, I was running on a small dirt road, and what did I find on the side of the road? An angel! Yes, an angel figurine that happened to be there... Was it a mere coincidence? Was it a sign from above? I picked up the angel and looked up to Heaven, full of gratitude, and smiled.

An angel figurine on sale at Utsahi's store

I had always had a fascination for angels, ever since I was very young, and visited angel shops whenever I had the occasion.. My childhood dreams of Heaven always were comprised of two elements: angels and bicycles. Yes, bicycles – because we could not afford such a luxury when I was young. And angels because, in my Christian background, Heaven was full of angels singing, flying and gracefully dancing at the feet of God the Father, sitting on His throne! (Both my dreams have come true: I now have a bicycle, and in our Centre, angels are singing at every meditation.)

A wonderful idea materialized: an enterprise that would sell Guru’s books and music, and spiritual merchandise, where we could sell angels and other spiritual statues, and where human angels would work selflessly. When this concept was presented to Guru, he loved it: People working selflessly in a store offering his message, his books, music and Jharna-Kala products.

And then the work started. The location had to be entirely renovated. A disciple from Montreal helped me plan the renovations. I had literally no money at the time, but with contributions from friends, I had set aside $5,000 for the project. Then I got quite a shock: The estimate for renovations was more than $17,000! This was balanced by a wonderful surprise: the generosity of disciples. For example, to this day, I have never seen the renovation invoice... many disciples helped financially.

Next, we needed a name. We had a friendly competition in our Centre, and disciples suggested approximately ten names. These were submitted to Guru. He listened to our suggestions, was silent for a minute, and then came up with his own name: The Garden of Light. What a beautiful name! What a gift! To this day, when we buy merchandise, we think about the name Guru gave the enterprise, and ask ourselves: Will this item bring light into his garden of light?

We opened on September 27, 1999. The inventory was very small, but the staff and I were full of hope... Yasodhara, a retired school teacher, gave more than her full time and energy to the shop for two years. There were, at some point, 27 people working selflessly at The Garden of Light. Practically the entire Centre was involved, either working in the store itself or carrying out other responsibilities for the enterprise (accounting, scheduling, buying, etc.). Spiritually, it was a beautiful concept; financially, it was a great challenge and, as we all know, challenges are great opportunities to learn, to grow.

A few months later, on November 21, 1999, Guru came to Ottawa for a concert. Of course, we had prepared The Garden of Light, hoping that he would come to visit. Our wish came true: He came and blessed the enterprise in such a beautiful way I can’t even describe it. When he entered the store, he looked at me, silently, for several moments, meditating on me. Then he started looking around, and at some point picked up a pen, paused for a while, then wrote in our guest book:

My Soul’s Infinite Blessings,
My Heart’s Infinite Joys,
My Life’s Infinite Gratitude.

Guru Sri Chinmoy

What a gift from our Guru! He continued looking around, and after 15-20 minutes, sat down and said:

Selfless service is the one hundred percent manifestation of my light and goal. It is the ideal way. In this place, you are doing exactly that. My infinite light, delight and purity are being manifested here.

Approximately three hundred disciples were outside, waiting for an opportunity to come in. They came in through Perfection-Satisfaction-Promise, and took prasad at Guru’s feet while he was sitting inside The Garden of Light.

In New York, Utsahi speaks with Sri Chinmoy about how 'The Garden of Light' is doing

Over time, we were able to open a second location, next to the Peace Garden on Clarence Street. Eventually, we moved this store to Ottawa South, the area where our first divine enterprises were located in the 1970s.

This second location on Bank Street offers more possibility in terms of space; plus, in the basement, we have a permanent exhibition of Guru’s Jharna-Kala artwork.

With The Garden of Light stores came lots of new challenges, possibilities and opportunities: what and where to buy, how to manage a divine enterprise, how to offer to the community some spiritual opportunities, through classes, informal dis- cussions, meeting with seekers, etc. In this way, our enterprise, as well as selling products, offers an oasis of peace where people can come and browse through a book, listen to spiritual music, experiment on a singing bowl or two.

One woman expressed it this way in our guest book: “Every time I come to Ottawa from Maniwaki (more than one hour away), I go and eat at Perfection-Satisfaction-Promise and then I come here, to The Garden of Light and bathe in its atmosphere. After this, I have enough of the city and head back home."

I’m so fortunate that, through my work, I participate in conferences the world over. So whenever I travel to Tunisia, Turkey, Myanmar, China, India and other countries, I take some time to shop, and then I can bring home unique gifts to sell in the enterprise.

Once, while at a conference in Chennai, I made a little detour to Kathmandu, and there I realized that there were many opportunities, both for my spiritual edification as well as for our business. Since this initial three-day detour, I have made many more trips to Nepal. This lovely land, with its soulful inhabitants, is a very spiritual place. I have met many people there who have become close friends and not merely business partners. Now when I visit, it’s not mainly for shopping; it’s more to be with my fellows, my sisters and brothers. Also, I have attended the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Kathmandu so often that I now consider it my second spiritual home. Of course, I do some shopping on the side, and love to give classes there, as well.

The dream of becoming a wholesale distributor had been in my mind for a while; it became a reality in August 2013. From now on, going shopping in Nepal has become even more important, since we have to supply both the stores and the distribution business. I never expected that doing a little selfless service in Guru Health Foods would bring all these consequences.

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