The Road to Badrinath, Part I
Notes from the pilgrimage by Ananda devotees to the Himalayan region of Badrinath, India, in September 2007.
The pilgrimage road to Badrinath is long and winding, symbolic of our own spiritual quest. Pilgrims in the old days, before the road, would walk the 300 kilometers from Himalayan foothills town of Rishikesh, but few do so now, with the exception of an occasional sadhu with water pot, blanket and staff (or its modern equivalent, an umbrella).
You still can see the old pilgrimage trail visible on the opposite hillsides, snaking from village to village, carrying the traffic of the local Garhwali people to terraced fields, the river far below. My imagination couldn’t stop thinking, “What would it be like to walk that trail, all the way, once again?”
We left Delhi on the morning train and by noon reached Hardwar, the starting point of the pilgrims’ journey. There were 32 of us, 16 Indians, 8 American residents from our ashram, 7 from Ananda communities in the USA and 1 Canadian, a nice mix of devotees from East and West who would together make the journey to Badrinath.
Traveling with Indian companions would prove to be particularly enjoyable because they are a reservoir of knowledge about customs most foreigners know little about. When in doubt about what to do, just look to the Indians and do the same.
At the train station, we were met by our guide Mahavir, who loaded us into 8 SUVs with drivers. We embarked immediately for our first day’s destination of Devprayag, a couple of hours beyond Rishikesh.
Badrinath is an ancient pilgrimage site, located at about 10,300 ft in the Himalayas at the headwaters of the Alaknanda River. It was through Badrinath that the Pandava brothers passed, as recounted in the Mahabharata, on their final journey to heaven.
All along the route from Rishikesh are temples, shrines and sacred spots associated with stories from the Indian epics, each with a tale to tell. Above Badrinath is the village of Mana where Saint Vyasa is said to have lived while reciting the Mahabharata to Ganesha. In need of a writing implement, Ganesha broke off one of his tusks to use as a pen, so devoted was he to his task. His cave too is there.
Close to Vyasa’s cave flows the mystical river Saraswati, bursting in full flow from a mountainside crevice. It’s quite amazing to see because no one knows from where the river comes before appearing in full force, only slightly smaller than the Yuba River in Nevada County.
After flowing but a few hundred yards it merges with the Alaknanda. There, it is said to mystically go underground to reappear at the sangham (confluence) of the Yamuna and Ganga in Allahabad, site of the kumbha mela (large religious festival).
Yogis say the Saraswati is a symbol of the sushumna, the mystical channel in the astral spine, the Ganga and Yamuna being the ida and pingala nerve channels on either side.
During and after the reign of Ashok, Buddhism became the dominant religion in northern India, supplanting the ancient Hindu practices in Badrinath until Adi (The First) Shankara came, probably sometime during the first millennium AD.
You can see the Buddhist influence in the architecture of the Badrinath temple. Shankara’s birth date is hotly debated, but all agree that his life and influence profoundly affected the religious practices and philosophy of India. He is said to have attained enlightenment in Joshimath, a little ways downstream from Badrinath, and it was Sankara who revived and reorganized the ancient Order of Swamis into its present form.
He established four maths (centers of spiritual worship/pilgrimage), one in each corner of India, to spiritually unify the country. To Badrinath he sent priests from his native Kerala to oversee the worship of Lord Badrinarayan in the temple, and this tradition continues to this day.
Shankara was a proponent of absolute advaita (non-dualism) as is expressed in the philosophy of Vedanta. Some say he was a former incarnation of Swami Sri Yukteswar or of Paramhansa Yogananda, and indeed, there are many similarities in their lives. Yogananda said that Shankara was initiated into Kriya Yoga by Babaji in Varanasi.
Local lore says that upon the arrival of Buddhism, local devotees of Lord Badrinarayan (a form of Vishnu), hid the stone image of his form in the Alaknanda River, or in the hot-spring pool next to the temple, in order to preserve it from destruction by the Buddhist priests.
Other versions of the story say the Buddhists submerged the image into the river when they cleansed the temple of Hindu images. Shankara is said to have divined, in vision, the location of the stone image, and to have plunged into the rapids to recover it, a Herculean feat if true.
One version of the story says he promised to restore the image if the local people would worship it appropriately. Upon the villagers’ concent, he “raised” the stone from the river. In any case, the stone was installed in the temple and has been worshipped daily ever since.
The smooth, black stone stands about 30″ high and has upon it, in relief, an image of a yogi sitting in meditation pose. The image looks strikingly similar to the drawing of Mahavatar Babaji, an incarnation of Lord Krishna in our Kriya Yoga tradition, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism. It is said that the stone is not carved, and that the image on it is naturally occurring.
Many, if not most, locals consider Babaji of the Kriya Yoga tradition and Lord Badrinarayan (Sometimes called Badri Vishel or Lord Badrinath. “Badri” is a name for Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort. “Nath” means husband), to be one and the same.
For all these reasons, Badrinath is considered to be a place to which devout Hindus should make pilgrimage if possible. Many of the Indians who participated in our pilgrimage spoke of having wanted to visit Badrinath since before they came to know of Yogananda. Once they read the Autobiography of a Yogi, their desire increased because Badrinath is said to be in the region where Mahavatar Babaji lives, and many stories associated with personal encounters with him are centered there.
Because of this tradition, pictures of Babaji from the Autobiography of a Yogi are commonly seen and it is not unusual to meet people who say they have met the great Mahavatar, or who claim to be one of his direct disciples. In fact, one man complained that a bad consequence of Yogananda’s Autobiography has been the creation of so many Babajis, each claiming authenticity!
All along the route to Badrinath are small temples and spots of spiritual significance. Merging with the Alaknanda on its journey downstream are other rivers descending from holy sites. A bath at each confluence (sangham) is said to wash away past sins and purify one for a visit to the temple in Badrinath.
It was at the first such major sangam at Devprayag that we stopped for our first night’s rest. Here is found an old temple where Lord Rama did 14 years of meditation and austerity in penance for killing the demon Ravana. Here too the rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi join and become the Ganga.
Traditionally, it is the Bhagirathi that one follows upstream to reach the origin of the Ganga at Gomukh, but our journey would follow the larger Alaknanda. Tradition demanded, of course, that we stop and bathe and so we all filed down to the river, crossed the footbridge and walked to the waters’ edge. An iron railing is there to prevent one from being swept away and pujaris (priests) guide devotees through the appropriate mantras if desired.
I, along with the rest of our group, made my way to the water and found myself being blessed by a friendly pujari [Hindu priest]. He prompted me in repetition of the appropriate Sanskrit slokas [verses] which I did my best to utter correctly, word for word. His concluding phrase, “Yada, yada, yada, 200 rupees” had me stumped, and I was forced to repeat it a few times.
It didn’t sound Sanskrit to me, especially the last couple of words, but I matched the pujari word for word, until it dawned on me that I owed the fellow 200 rupees! An unholy thought of whether I should bargain crossed my mind. I didn’t. I just took my dip, dunking myself three times in the cold water, and felt amazingly refreshed and clean.
The road into the Himalayas is so very, very beautiful that it’s hard to do it justice. Steep mountain flanks border each side of the river, ascending thousands of feet. At the lower elevations they rise at a 45 degree angle and support forest and terraced fields of rice, millet and vegetables, but by the time we reached Badrinath, the slopes were often sheer with trees and villagers were few and far between.
Landslides across the road were a constant sight, but because Badrinath is close to the Chinese border, this is an area of strategic importance to the Indian army. They are quick to clear the road when necessary, although it was not uncommon for us to be halted while bulldozers worked.
Locals said this year’s monsoon was the heaviest in 50 years, and the damage done to the road was evidence of its power. All along the roadside are seen men and women with hammers, breaking rock into gravel for the road. What a job! I asked Vijay, our other guide, if these were local workers, but he said, “No, they are mostly from Bihar. They come for a year’ contract to work on the roads.”
This area of India is known as Garhwal, and like most hill regions, the locals are mostly poor and engage in subsistence agriculture. The terraced fields climb many hundreds, and sometime more than a thousand, feet up and down the sides of mountains, wherever there is enough soil to support crops.
A common sight is that of women carrying enormous loads of grass to be stored as winter feed for their cows and goats. Never do you see men working in the fields, and its said that almost all work on the land is done by the women.
I asked about this and was told that young men often leave the village to seek work in cities, sending cash back to support their families, while the older Garhwali hillmen are mostly idle, spending their days drinking tea and gossiping, leaving most everything else to the women. It certainly seemed that way. I mention this unflattering characterization of the local, older hillmen only because it was repeated to me, with distinct disdain, at least 6 times by our guides and the young drivers.
In any case, seeing how hard the women work reinforced my great respect for them as the foundation of the country.
The road to Badrinath passed through Rudraprayag where Jim Corbett shot the famous man-eating tiger that killed 125 people. I remember reading that story in one of Corbett’s books years ago, and it was fun to see where it actually took place. A little further we stopped at a small shrine to the eagle Garuda, the “vehicle” of Vishnu, and there took a stone from the nearby stream. It is said that anyone who keeps such a stone in their house need never worry about snakes coming there. Mahavir told us a story of how he brought many such stones to his village home, there keeping the snakes away.
Not too long ago, a woman in his village was bitten on her finger by a cobra, and came immediately to him for help. The headman must deal with everything! She could feel the venom moving up her arm and it was apparent that should it reach the core of her body, she would die.
Because the village is remote, carrying her to a clinic for modern medical treatment was not an option, so he called upon the village “mantra man” to come immediately. He repeated the appropriate mantras (incantations) to counteract the bite, all the while making a clawing motion on her arm from her shoulder to hand.
Amazingly, the pain and venom retreated and left her. She was told to avoid certain foods and to do certain rituals to complete the healing process. One of the things she was told not to do was to comb her hair, but after some time had passed, she couldn’t resist temptation and used a comb.
Immediately, the pain returned to her finger and the venom started its movement once again up her arm. In a panic, she called upon Mahavir who again summoned the mantra man. Naturally, he was very angry but he cured her nevertheless.
Mahavir explained that the mantra man follows an ancient tradition that prevents him from ever accepting money for his services, and he must respond to every plea for help.If he refuses to respond, or if he takes payment, the power of the mantras will leave him for someone else.
At Joshimath is the cave where Adi Shankara lived and received enlightenment. It is under the canopy of a large mulberry tree said to be 2500 years old. We stopped for an hour to meditate in the cave and visit the Shiva temple under the tree. I walked the traditional three times around and tried to feel Shankara’s presence but I wasn’t successful. Some in our group were very touched by this spot but I couldn’t get past the noise drifting up the hillside from below and all the hustle and bustle of modern India. I wonder what it was like in Shankara’s time–probably just jungle and river.
Eventually, after a long, long day of driving, we reached Badrinath in the evening, tired but satisfied with all the wonderful experiences and sights encountered along the way. We checked into our hotel and prepared for our early morning visit to the temple of Lord Badrinarayana.