Ranchi — Then, a Trek to Badrinath!
After the Americans had been with us about two weeks, Dayama said one morning, “Would you like to go with us to Ranchi today?” I said, “Of course!” I joined our SRF guests. Binay Dubey came along also. Paramananda had purchased a big Studebaker car in which we’d already traveled to many places that Dayama had wanted to see. In Ranchi we stayed at “Wood House,” which Paramananda’s father, J.B. Wood, had built. Mr. Wood was a disciple of Master who often came to India from his home in Florida to stay for months at a time-residing mostly, however, at the Baranagore ashram.
One day we had a soccer game. Kriyananda captained the teachers; I captained the students. I hadn’t realized that Kriyananda was so good at soccer! We all enjoyed the game very much. Afterwards, Dayama gave us all candy and encouraged us to play often.
We returned to Calcutta after twelve days. Then the SRF group went on to Delhi and Kashmir. Dubey went with them again.
In time I developed a good friendship with Kriyanandaji. Among other things, he spoke much about Master. One day he surprised me by saying that Master had taught him to make samosas (which he called singharas, Bengali fashion) and other Indian foods. This impressed me very much! Sometimes also he scolded me gently for spending so much time in the mountains. “Why don’t you stay here with us more?” he asked, teasingly. “We need your help.” But my heart longed for the Himalayas. Besides, he knew that I worked very hard every time I came back, and expressed appreciation for this service. But he was concerned for YSS, which he perceived as barely bumping along, when there was so much to do here for Master’s work.
In April of 1959, I set out for a Himalayan tour, leaving from Rishikesh(1) on foot with two monks from the Sivananda(2) ashram. The trip we planned was 450 miles, round-trip. It took us many weeks to complete. Meanwhile, Kriyanandaji, infected by some of my “wanderlust,” made a trip on his own to Kashmir. Not, however, on foot!
In India it is considered extremely auspicious, and is every devotee’s lifelong dream, to make a pilgrimage to the Himalayas. Centuries ago, when the world was shrouded in spiritual darkness and ignorance, the great master Swami Shankara injected new life into India by promoting religious and national unity. In pursuit of that mission, he established four jyotirmaths, or education centers for monks, to diffuse divine light throughout the land. He established these maths in the four corners of India. These centers still exist, and are located in Mysore (in the south), Puri (in the east), Dwarka (in the west), and Badrinath (in the north, high above Rishikesh). All of these places have deep spiritual significance and power, and have been honored by Hindus for millennia.
In the Himalayas there are also four sacred spots connected with Badrinath and making a holy pilgrimage loop: Badrinath of course, then Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri. We hoped to complete the entire loop safely with the blessings of our gurus and of the saints we’d meet along the way.
The first day we left very early in the morning, heading for Gangotri. We left with light hearts, our minds and hearts focused on what we fully expected would be an extraordinary adventure. What lay ahead of us? Would we even be able to complete our long journey?
Soon, along the way, we met a few swamis living in caves deep in the forest. Reaching Gangotri, we could see the impressive Gomukh, the beginning of the Ganges, where “Ganga” (the Indian name for the River Ganges) emerges through what is thought to resemble the mouth of a cow ( Go: “cow”; in ancient Sanskrit, as the sage Sri Aurobindo discovered, it also means “light”; and mukh: “mouth”). Here Ganga emerges as a beautiful waterfall created by a melting glacier. From this point she begins her downward journey to the plains. Gomukh emerges from the foot of the impressive Shivling Peak (6543m), whose snow-laden slopes shimmered high above us in the glare of the summer sun, brilliant against the deep blue sky. Nineteen kilometers beyond Gangotri lies Gomukh at a height of 3140m.
As we approached Gangotri, the country opened out before us into a valley surrounded by jagged, snow-covered peaks. The slopes were covered by birch trees, their trunks wrapped in bark which looked like paper tissue. This material was used in ancient times for recording the scriptures, after the science of writing became not so much a discovery as a necessity owing to the increasing shortness of human memory. The mountain slopes also contain groups of giant boulders; they seem to stand guard as huge sentinels in a valley of the gods.
The river flows north here, giving the village its name Gangotri: “Ganga turned north.” One misstep on this path, and a person would fall 5,000 feet!
Walking 8-10 hours a day, we eventually came to Triyugnarayan, an ancient Narayan Krishna temple. Here we stopped for the night to visit Muni Baba, a highly advanced soul who hadn’t spoken for fifty years. As we greeted him, he indicated with hand gestures that he would be happy for us to meditate with him. Later on, he blessed us. No one could tell what he ate. When I asked him, he simply raised his hands to heaven as if to say, “By God’s grace.” There was a depth of stillness around him, a sure sign of a God-realized soul.
The following day we left for Rudra Prayag, famous now for the exploits of Jim Corbett, the English hunter who saved hundreds of villagers from the predations of a large feline that he later described in a book named, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudra Prayag. He also slew many man-eating tigers in the Himalayas, especially in the Kumaon hills(3)in the Almora district. One of these tigers had killed over 125 people. Corbett and others had noticed that the tiger was not killing the goats, cows, and other animals that are its usual food, but only human beings. The villagers pleaded with Jim to hunt it down and destroy it. So, in order to create a lure for the beast, he built a three-sided bungalow with no roof, and asked a few men to go inside the structure and wait for the tiger to come. I imagine a certain decrease in their enthusiasm at this point! He assured them, however, “Don’t be afraid. I will be here, and will protect you from harm.” He then climbed up a tall mango tree above the pretense bungalow, and waited.
Toward midnight the tiger could be heard approaching. Jim Corbett, seeing it, intentionally made a noise. The tiger glanced up at him, making itself an easy target. Jim instantly shot it dead.
Corbett’s adventures with these deadly animals resulted in the local residents revering him as a kind of savior. That mango tree is now famous.
At 11 p.m. we arrived at the small town, and saw lights in the room where people were staying overnight. Surprised, then alarmed, we saw police all over the area, carrying guns. They told us not to move, not knowing who or what we were. They told us they’d just caught seven persons with matted hair and beards in the very room where we had been planning to stay. These men were not sadhus at all, but only pretended to be so. In fact, they were dacoits: cutthroats and robbers. The police asked us to accompany them, along with the dacoits, up to the police station. The superintendent of police took the dacoits outside and proceeded to beat them severely with bamboo sticks. We were stunned and horrified, though helpless to do anything but pray for the miscreants. These men were, after all, only fellow human beings caught in one of the many webs of delusion.
The superintendent then called us into a room to interrogate us. I showed him our letters of invitation, our vaccination certificates, and a letter from YSS. He was satisfied on seeing these documents, and said, “I can see that there are no dacoits in this group!” They then offered us tea and samosas. The superintendent asked one policeman to help us find our rooms, and reassured us that we would be guarded all night. No more incidents occurred, and we left the next morning for Kedarnath.
Now we had to cross Guptakashi. It was here, in surroundings rich with colorful and incredibly beautiful landscapes, that Shiva is said to have come to hide from the Pandavas, who were seeking him out to ask redemption for any sins they may have committed during the great war of the Mahabharata. To escape detection, the Lord lived incognito. The town here, therefore, is called Gupta (hidden) Kashi.
From this spot we proceeded to Gauri Kund, where Parvati is said to have meditated for hundreds of years to win Lord Shiva as her consort. Water from this kund (hot springs) falls into the Mandakini River, which flows nearby. From here, the temple of Kedarnath is distant about seven kilometers. It is at this point that the ascent becomes quite steep. There is no bus to take: One must go either by foot or by pony. Though the trek is difficult, it is also marvelous to see the waterfalls descending gracefully on either side of the path. Stark mountains all around us were dotted with tiny temples and friendly, warm chattis, or rest places, refreshing to tired limbs. The chattis were set on barren ground, but were surrounded by fields of alpine flowers of every shade of color, which stretched out on both sides of the way. The U-shape of the Mandakini Valley suggests that it once contained an enormous glacier, which has since melted away.
We reached Kedarnath at noon, tired but very happy. The Kedarnath Shrine stands facing the Mandakini Valley against a background of majestic, snow-covered peaks. It is one of the twelve most sacred places dedicated to Shiva. The simple shrine, made of stone, stands on a ridge at a height of 11,500 feet.(4)
After making our pronams (prostrations) at the sacred temple, I decided to visit the revered and highly advanced Swami Phal Hari Baba. Because of the winter snows, he ate food only from the end of April to the middle of November, while the mountain passes were open and it could be brought to him. Even so, he ate only one fruit a day, in the afternoon.
I asked him what he ate during the winter months. He replied, simply, “Air. When a yogi goes into deep meditation,” he explained, “he never thinks of food and clothing. God takes care of his needs. If one is anchored in the Divine, what else does he need?”
Finally he blessed us with this timeless counsel: “Love God. Do not hate any religion, or any person. Do violence to no one. Give protection to all God’s creatures. Meditate deeply, and in time you will see wonderful results!”
After three nights we started for Badrinath, where the famous Badrinarayan Temple sits at 12,000 feet. We spent our first night at Joshi Math, home of the semi-pastoral Indo-Mongolian people. Here stands a large ashram dedicated to Shankaracharya, for it was here that he attained enlightenment seated under a mulberry tree, which was near his cave. Atop that cave there is a tree which has been there for 2,400 years. Its girth is 125 feet!
Only nineteen miles to go! As I had obtained a pass from the Indian Government to cross the heavily guarded Manna Pass, fifteen miles from Badrinath, we had no trouble getting to the Badrinarayan Temple the next morning. However, even in these magnificent surroundings of beauty and remote stillness, the world insisted on intruding! Halfway there we had to stop while the army blasted open a mine! It was noon finally when we reached our temple destination.
Badrinath is considered the supreme pilgrimage spot for Hindus. God Himself, it is believed, lives there in human form as Badrinarayan. Shiva promised the goddess Lakshmi that he would preserve the valley of Badrivan as a place of silence and meditation, without intrusion from worldly pursuits. The shrine is fifty feet tall, and stands on the very bank of the Alaknanda River. Its façade is multicolored and painstakingly ornamented: Truly, it is a labor of love. The temple commands a majestic view of the Alaknanda, which the imagination thinks of as praising God joyfully with a musical roar. One can almost intuit what the great yogis feel who come here for meditation. The vibrations are not only deeply peaceful, but convey an all-pervading sense of actual gaiety!
In the afternoon we went behind the temple, and there met several swamis. One of these was in maun (silence); one was in samadhi; a third invited us to meditate with him, and talked to us some, mostly of God. He advised us, “Think of God as your very own Father, Mother, and Friend. Pray to Him for everything you need. God is pleased above all when you meditate and concentrate on Him. That is the way to reach His abode. Without meditation, you will have a long wait!”
The next morning I left for the Manna Pass, which took us three hours by foot. Four times I had to show my travel pass, as this entire area was under strict army control. Our way took us along the Indian side, but across from us lay China. We straggled bravely down Nil Kanta mountain, aware of Indian watchtowers everywhere.
After reaching the pass I saw a swami taking his bath at a hot springs near by. I took a bath there also, greeting him. “I have come for your darshan,” I said. After our baths, he asked me to follow him. Soon we reached his large cave. A fire blazed inside in a deep pit. We sat around the warmth of the flames and meditated for four hours on Lord Shiva. This great yogi took no food for nine months of the year, rarely spoke, and spent most of his time in samadhi. He seldom emerged from his cave except to bathe in the hot springs.
As we were leaving to proceed back to Badrinath, I pronamed and said, “Baba, will you bless me?” By way of a reply he said:
“You see the Alaknanda below us? It flows from Nil Kanta on its way to the ocean-such a long way away! What tremendous love she must have for the ocean! It takes so long to reach it, but no one can stop her owing to the force of her love. Your love for God should be like that: patient, constant, undeterred. Like a mighty river, the force of divine devotion will wash away any obstructions on your way. Keep on, with love, until you reach God’s ocean.”
I walked quickly now, because I wanted to reach the Badrinarayan Temple before dark. Once again, however, the army patrols kept stopping me to check my pass. Finally, as I was nearing my destination, a tall, robust-looking officer said to me, “Come to my office.” I protested, “But Sir, I have a pass!” It didn’t matter; he insisted I follow him anyway. As I sat in a chair in his office-this was certainly a change in scenery!-my mind was on Lord Shiva.
The officer asked me where I was from. “From Bengal,” I said. With a great laugh he said, “I am very happy to see someone all the way from Bengal!” He then took me to his bedroom and asked someone to bring me a cot. He served me with delicious tea and snacks, then started talking about his life in the army.
He said he’d spent a few months in a Chinese jail. As he described it, it didn’t strike me as being at all a good place to stay! I rose then, to continue on my journey, but he said, “No, stay here tonight as my guest.” We had a delicious meal. The following morning he asked someone to drop me off at the temple gate.
Having had a most memorable experience in these sacred mountains, we returned to Joshimath, Rudra Prayag, and Karna Prayag, spending forty-five days on foot in reaching Vasistha Guha (cave), fifteen miles short of Rishikesh. This was the first time I had not made the journey to Vasistha Guha from the high mountains by bus.
Swami Purushottamananda, well-known as “the sage of Vasistha(5) Guha,” had been living here for many years. Dr. K.M. Munshi wrote about him: “He is, I discovered, a deep Vedantin and his ways are simple, innocent, almost childlike; he smiles and smiles all the time. Loneliness, starvation, and a hundred aches and pains mean nothing to him; he lives a real life, possessed by God, who gives him perpetual joy and peace. He has attained this state after years of sadhana.”
Swami Purushottamananda had become a disciple of Swami Brahmananda of Belur Math. The saint’s ashram had been constructed near the original cave, in which swamis had lived for centuries. He himself had lived in it for thirty-eight years. Now sixteen disciples lived with him. He was a spiritually powerful swami and, as an extra bonus, he had a wonderful sense of humor.
The first time I visited him, his twelve large hill dogs, with faces like lions, came charging up, barking loudly and, I admit, scaring me a little. “Swamiji!” I shouted. “What is this? I’ve come to see you, only to be attacked by these dogs!”
He laughed merrily, then consoled me, “Don’t worry. They only want to lead you to me. They love you! That’s why they’ve come to you.” His dogs were his beloved pets. The only thing he objected to in them was that they insisted on going into the cold Ganges water just outside his cave, and catching fish! Barking at guests was all right with him, and only a manifestation of their natural exuberance, but he did not like their eating fish. I wondered if certain of his guests had questioned whether eating people might have met with his approval!
I was staying at the guest house nearby. One night he asked me to come and meditate with him in his cave at midnight. I went gladly. After a time, however, I couldn’t help being conscious of the loud sounds of the jungle night: tigers, dogs, and other wild creatures. Swamiji said to me, “You hear those noises? Listen to them. Try to hear Om in them, and you find you go deep into meditation.” We meditated the whole night. What an advanced soul this swami was! I felt deeply privileged to spend time with him. He was a great man of God.
Rishikesh, or “City of Sages,” contains many ashrams along the Ganges River banks in a beautiful rural setting in the foothills of the great Himalayas. Located near the point where the mighty river emerges from the mountains, it is the spot from which pilgrims leave for the high country. Several miles below it is Haridwar, or Hardwar, “Doorway to the Himalayas”: land of Hari (Krishna) or Hara (Shiva), depending on whom you worship. The Himalayas generally are thought of as the “abode of Shiva.”
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Swami Sivananda was a master yogi and the founder and head of the world-known Divine Life Society, which has monks and representatives in many lands, sharing the ancient yoga teachings.
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Swami Kriyananda used to take seclusion in this area.
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The reader will have noted that at certain places I have given the measurements in feet, and at others in meters. The reason is that, with India’s comparatively recent change to the metric system, I am obliged to “straddle the fence.” Some of the measurements I knew already, according to the older system. Others I have had to look up in modern guidebooks.
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Vasistha was a well-known rishi in ancient times. He is believed to have lived here.
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