Even though the hot season was supposed to be over, ever since we arrived in India, it has been “unseasonably hot,” even in Rishikesh, which is usually more moderate and comfortable.
To make the pilgrimage to Badrinath should require some tapasya (austerity performed with devotion to God), so we have cursed global warming, but accepted the hot, sticky, conditions as an offering to the Divine.
Two years ago, when we came to Josimath and Badrinath for the first time, it was “unseasonably cold,” or so we were told. Sometimes in India people do their best to put a good face on things, especially to make guests feel comforted. Since we had never been to these mountains before, we had no way of judging whether this explanation was factual, or simply the effort of our hosts to make us feel better.
All we knew then was that it was cold – very cold. It was above freezing, but what made the experience notable was that the hotels were unheated, so there was no respite. Sleeping (or trying to) was an especially memorable experience.
We had brought jackets and long underwear, but none of us expected to don them the day we arrived and wear them virtually continuously (day and night) for the four days we were there.
So we had really built up for the pilgrims this year the need for them to prepare themselves to repeat the tapasya we had endured.
We should have remembered, what we learned long ago, that no two pilgrimage groups have the same karma. Each seems to draw something different according to its own spiritual need.
Anyway, today we are cheering global warming because Josimath has turned out to be merely cool and refreshing! And we are holding out great hope for Badrinath as well.
On the way from Rishikesh we stopped at a holy site called Devaprayag. This is where two rivers – the Alakananda and the Bhagirathi merge together to become the Ganges. This is the first point at which the name Ganges is applied.
To reach the point of confluence you have to walk about ten minutes down sloping paths and stairs from the top of the canyon, where the road is, to the floor of the valley where the river flows.
This has been a pilgrimage spot for generations so the walk down takes you through a small village and the path itself is lined with shops. Not only shops for pilgrims, but also shops that serve the everyday life of those who live there.
Finally one reaches a relatively small patio right at the level of the river.
Of course, since the level of the river rises and falls, there are a series of platforms as you descend and one simply stops at whatever point you meet the river. This day, the river was relatively low, and, among other marvelous sites, was a cave as big as a small room carved into the rock right at the site where the rivers converge.
A wandering mendicant of some sort had installed himself there, with a fire pit and various other accoutrements of the priestly life and was offering various rituals – for a price, of course.
We had no need to avail ourselves of his services, however, for our long time guide and dear friend, Mahavir, had made arrangements with other priests known to him to provide us some little ceremony.
The platform and the steps above it are in the V-shaped space created by the two rivers coming together. These are not small streams but wide raging currents of water several hundred feet across at the bottom of a deep canyon.
Just from the point of view of Mother Nature, it was thrilling to stand at the junction of so much power. We were there for about an hour and much of the time was spent simply staring at the water and the canyon walls through which it flowed. The sound alone was almost deafening – Nature’s AUM.
It was humbling to appreciate how insignificant in the great scheme of things one little life can be. If one had slipped – deliberately or accidentally – into that raging current, the life in this little body would have been snuffed out in a moment. And the river would have given that event no thought at all.
It would not have been right, of course, to deliberately cast away this body. A human incarnation, the scriptures say, is a great blessing, not to be squandered. The human form is capable of perceiving infinity, and one should do one’s utmost to refine the body through spiritual practice to the point where that realization comes.
Then the purpose of the incarnation is fulfilled. As Master put it, once you have eaten the “wisdom dinner from the plate of life” the plate (i.e., the body) no longer matters. But in that state, there is no reason to cast it away either. One simply surrenders to God’s will in the matter and lives or dies with calm acceptance.
But inasmuch as none of us on this pilgrimage have reached that point, we were careful not to let the river take us!
The river gave us perspective, though, on the ephemeral nature of the life the ego clings to so tenaciously compared to the vastness of infinity. It was not at all depressing or disturbing. Rather it was blissfully liberating.
The custom in India is to make an offering of flowers and light – in the form of burning camphor – into the moving water. Mahavir had brought for each of us a small bowl made from leaves, filled with flower blossoms and a tiny clay dish with three little squares of camphor.
We lit our bits of camphor, then held our illuminated bowls of flowers in our upraised hands, facing the confluence of the rivers. Together we recited a few mantras, chanted AUM together – adding our little voices to the roaring AUM in front of us – then placed our leaf-boats with a personal prayer into the starting point of the Ganges at our feet.
It was magnificent to see the way the water seized those boats and rushed them away to their destiny in the turbulent water.
Pilgrims also bathe in the waters there – very carefully, of course, given the power of the current. There is a system of stairs and railings arranged in an area where the current is somewhat less.
The water, of course, is very cold, but the air is warm, so it is not that difficult to do.
At first, only a few of us were inclined to join the Indian pilgrims already there and submerge themselves in the water. The water is shallow on the steps and you can kneel safely and dunk yourself that way. The tradition is to go under three times.
The first time, the cold is so intense it takes your breath away, but then it becomes easier.
After a time, the draw of the water became irresistible and almost all of us took a turn.
Joslyn Black is with us. She is a trained paramedic (not that we needed her specialized skill, thank God!), but she is strong and capable, and inspires confidence. She stationed herself right behind where we were taking our turns in the water and her presence, and reassuring hand on one’s shoulder, gave even the most timid among us the confidence to enter the river.
When I first came to India many years ago I had a certain skepticism about the concept of a river being “holy.” I had felt Divine Mother’s presence in Nature, but that was about as much as I was willing to concede.
However, when I took my first dip in the Ganges on a pilgrimage many years ago, I felt a living presence rise out of the water to meet me, effectively dissolving forever any Western skepticism I had brought with me.
Now, as I stood watching each of our pilgrims enter the water, submerge themselves three times, then step out on to the upper platform again, it was profoundly moving to see in their eyes (most are in the India for the first time) the same realization I had about “Holy Mother Ganga,” as the river is often called.
As I mentioned in my last letter, whereas in the past, the only way to reach Badrinath was to walk up the mountains, now one can drive, and everyday they are improving the road, so in time it won’t even be an arduous journey.
I was thinking how much this is a sign of dawning Dwapara Yuga. The consciousness of the planet is moving toward a higher vibration of spirituality. In the age just ended – Kali Yuga – the age of materialism, the subtle truths had to be hidden away, accessible only to the handful of people who had the subtlety to respect, and not misuse or defile them.
The most notable example, from the point of view of our path, is the dissemination of Kriya Yoga. As Master describes it in Autobiography of a Yogi, when Lahiri Mahasaya met Babaji in the Himalayas and received Kriya Initiation from him, Lahiri assumed (as Master tells the story) that he would simply turn his back on the life he had been living as a householder in Varanassi, and spend the rest of his incarnation in the Himalayas with Babaji.
His guru, Babaji, however, told him that his duty was to go back to Varanasi and teach others this Kriya Yoga.
At first, Babaji told Lahiri that Kriya should only be given to those who were willing to renounce everything and devote their lives to seeking God.
On behalf of all of us, Lahiri protested, saying that only a few have reached that level of spiritual advancement, whereas many souls are suffering and that suffering could be eased by the practice of Kriya.
In the Autobiography, it says Babaji recognized in Lahiri’s words the will of God, and relaxed the ancient prohibition and instructed Lahiri to give Kriya to all who sincerely seek.
This was a great and glorious moment for all of us who have been the recipients of this spiritual generosity on the part of this Himalayan master.
In fact, through this story, what Master is describing is the shifting of the Yugas. During Kali Yuga the teaching had to be protecting from the ignorance of mankind as a whole. Now that ignorance is lessening (it will never disappear completely, this will always be the material plane) and spiritual truth can be made more accessible.
When you look around, you see this happening everywhere. Even 50 years ago, words like karma, chakra, and guru were little known outside of India. Now they are common parlance all over both East and West.
The road to Badrinath is just one more example. And, inasmuch as we will set out on that road tomorrow, we are deeply grateful.
Joy, blessings, love,
David, Asha, Durga, Vidura and all the Ananda pilgrims