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 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. My imagination couldn’t stop thinking, “What would it be like to walk that trail, all the way, once again?”
Why go to Badrinath?
You may be wondering, “Badrinath? Why go there?” 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 Byasa is said to have lived while reciting the Mahabharata to Ganesha. In need of a pen, Ganesha broke off one of his tusks to use, so devoted was he to his task. His cave too is there.
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. All agree that Shankara’s life and influence profoundly affected the religious practices and philosophy of India.
It was Shankara 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.
Some say Shankara was a former incarnation of Swami Sri Yukteswar or of Paramhansa Yogananda, and indeed, there are many similarities between their lives. Yogananda said that Shankara was initiated into Kriya Yoga by Babaji in Varanasi.
A carved image of Babaji
Local lore says that upon the arrival of Buddhism, local devotees of Lord Badrinarayan hid the stone image of his form in the Alaknanda River, to preserve it from possible destruction. 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’ assent, 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 inches 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 Babaji in our Kriya Yoga tradition. It is said that the stone is not carved and that the image on it occurred naturally. Many, if not most, locals consider Babaji of the Kriya Yoga tradition and Lord Badrinarayan 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 had read Autobiography of a Yogi, their desire increased. Badrinath is said to be in the region where Babaji lives, and many stories associated with personal encounters with him are centered there.
A purification in the river
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 (sangam) 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.
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 water’s edge. I, along with the rest of our group, made my way to the water and found myself being blessed by a friendly pujari. I took my dip, dunking myself three times in the cold water, and felt amazingly refreshed and clean.
Morning puja at Badrinath Temple
Badrinath is quiet at 4:00 am, the rushing waters of the Alaknanda the only sound to break the silence. Several of us rose early to take a traditional morning bath at the temple hot spring.There to the right of the bridge, from a lighted pavillion by the river’s edge, steam rose in the morning chill. I assumed that was the Tapta Kund, the place where hot water gushes from a natural spring to fill bathing tanks for both men and women.
By the time we had dressed and made our way to the temple, the others in the pilgrimage group had already arrived. We left our shoes with a friendly vendor and went in for the morning worship of Lord Badrinarayan. It’s only in the morning that the image can be seen uncovered.
The morning worship was a treat, but as a Westerner brought up outside the Hindu tradition, I approached the ceremony more as a detached observer than as a participant. I couldn’t help but remark mentally upon the attentive faces in the crowd, the colorful temple decorations, the head priest’s costume, the sounds of the bells, the hard floor and the drone of the chants. All these wonderfully new impressions were mentally stored, sifted and sorted during the ceremony, with the unfortunate result that I felt little divine presence.
The Nawal, who I later found to be a sweet, joyful man, seemed so stern during the ceremony that I wasn’t drawn in. I could sense that those who could attune themselves inwardly, received much more. I resolved to return at a time when I could meditate and be alone with the image….