Thursday, October 19, 2006

India #3, Train from Hardwar to New Delhi

Dear Friends:

Two years ago, when we took the pilgrimage group to Badrinath for the first time, it was a physically demanding trip for all of us, mostly because of the cold. The hotels in both Josimath, where we stopped on the way, and Badrinath itself, were unheated. The temperatures went into the low thirties every night and it was hard to sleep because we were so cold.

There had been a late monsoon that year, and the road was very rough. In fact, a huge boulder fell across the road and we were stuck in Josimath for two extra days while the rock was dynamited and the fragments taken away. The trip up to Badrinath from Josimath – only a few dozen kilometers – took several hours – and, two years ago, was truly harrowing. It is a one-lane track hewn into the side of the mountain. That year, because of the late rains, it was very rough, often water was flowing across it.

This year we carefully warned the pilgrims – repeatedly – to prepare for the worst. Of course, this time everything was different.

Badrinath is just forty miles from the China (Tibet) border and the army has a great interest in having easy access to the area. In the past two years, many sections of the road have been well paved. And the weather was 15-20 degrees warmer than last time. And, most glorious of all, we stayed in a new hotel that was well heated and even had the best hot water showers we have encountered so far in India.

Traveling in these mountains is still not easy – there were long stretches of road that haven’t yet been repaired, and God made sure that there was a constant degree of discomfort in almost every situation. Still, there was no comparison to our previous visit.

Badrinath has a been a pilgrims’ destination for centuries – perhaps thousands of years – and the whole place feels like hallowed ground.

The image that is worshiped in the temple at Badrinath is a black stone that the first Shankaracharaya found in a riverbed. It is reputed to be “manifested” – rather than carved – and is a rough- hewn bas relief of a yogi sitting in meditation posture. It is roughly square in shape, about two feet across and two feet high.

The figure itself resembles the picture of Babaji that Master guided his brother Sananda to draw. The head of that picture is used on all the Ananda altars. The full picture is also often displayed at Ananda.

Badrinath is 10,000 feet in the Himalayas. The figure is widely considered to be a representation of the Babaji that Master describes in his Autobiography as a “deathless Himalayan master.”

So in addition to the traditional view of Badrinath as a holy destination, being there had special significance for all of us on this path.

There is an ancient temple at the center of village. The whole village really sprang up around the temple. Four times a day a head priest conducts a puja (a ritualized worship ceremony) of the statue of “Lord Badrinath” as the image is called.

Once an image is consecrated in a shrine, it becomes, for the devotees, a living person and must be cared for as if the image were alive. So the pujas four times a day are essentially the care and feeding of Lord Badrinath. In the early morning he is bathed and dressed and fed. Later, the puja is serving him “breakfast.” Midday he receives another meal, and is then given a time to rest. Late in the evening, he is prepared to sleep through the night.

It is easy for those outside the tradition of India to dismiss these ceremonies as mere superstition or outward ritual. But sitting in the temple at Badrinath at 6am, watching the priest carry out the first puja of the day – the most elaborate, in which the statue is carefully washed in Ganges water, then “dressed” in flowers and sandalwood paste – we all felt a powerful divine presence.

The priest who carried out the ritual is a fine and sincere man (we had a private audience with him later, and were well impressed), the ritual itself is exotic, beautiful, and interesting, but the power we felt was greater than the sum of these parts. Somehow, the stone itself, and that ancient temple, are a focal point for divine energy.

What Master brought to America is yoga, rather than Hinduism. That is to say, what he taught are the techniques of God realization – meditation, especially Kriya Yoga. Although he sometimes used mantras and fire ceremonies and a few other such things, he never taught in America the kind of ritual worship that is common in India.

But Master did teach devotion to God and respect for the sacred everywhere. In fact, that devotion is fundamental to the right practice of yoga.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, there is a whole chapter about the round black stone of Tarakeswar, and the difficulties Master encountered when he failed to suitably honor that stone as a manifestation of the divine. So it was with all this in mind that we received the inspiration of “Lord Badrinath.”

This year we were in Badrinath long enough to spend most of a day roaming around the mountains that surround the village.

The Himalayas here are a series of steep, narrow peaks, one after another. In some ways they look like a huge crowd of tall, thin beings all crowded in together. Every so often, one glimpses beyond the “crowd” a snow-covered peak in the distance, higher and more remote than those around Badrinath itself.

The village is small, and just a huddle at the base of these mountains. It is the mountains themselves that define the experience.

At the end of the epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, having completed their duty as kings in this world, renounce the world and set off for the Himalayas. The way the story is told, they resolved to walk to “heaven,” which is to say, to consciously leave their bodies.

The tradition is that they walked through Badrinath and up a trail which is now called “The Stairway to Heaven.”

Near the base of that trail is a cave that is reputed to be the place where Byasa wrote down the Mahabharata and other of the scriptures, such as the Srimad Bhagavatam, stories of the life of Krishna. We meditated for a short while in that cave then went up a little ways on the Stairway to Heaven.

It was extraordinary to be so high in the mountains. Even though we were only a short way from the village, there was still a remarkable feeling of remoteness and separateness from the usual concerns of the world.

Dotted throughout these hills are little kutirs (cottages) made of cement or stone where sadhus (wandering monks) live. Our guide, Mahavir, frequently visits this area, and had been asking the local people, “Who are the really spiritual ‘babas’ in this area?” (“Baba” means “father” and is how sadhus are commonly referred to, even the “Babaji” of Autobiography of a Yogi is known by this name.)

Everyone referred to a certain “Kriya Baba,” as being the most spiritually notable in Badrinath at that time. He is a follower of the Babaji written about in Autobiography of a Yogi and practices the same Kriya we know.

Several times Mahavir had climbed up to this Baba’s kutir, but each time there was a “Do not disturb” sign on the gate, so he was unable to meet the Kriya Baba.

Sadhus in this area live somewhat removed from the population as a whole, but close enough to be available to those who seek them out for spiritual inspiration, so this simple method of signaling by the presence (or absence) of a raised flag, or a sign on the gate, allows them to protect their privacy and still be available to meet sincere devotees.

Anyway, several attempts by Mahavir to meet him ended in failure. Then, just a few weeks ago, he was climbing that hill in the company of the pilgrimage group led by Shivani and Arjuna from Ananda in Assisi, Italy.

Mahavir was at the end of the column of several dozen devotees, and this time when he passed the Kriya Baba’s kutir, the sadhu emerged from his doorway and beckoned to Mahavir.

Mahavir, called the group back, and they all had a deeply inspiring satsang with the Baba.

Mahavir was noncommittal about our ability to see the Baba this time, so about a dozen of us climbed the steep mountain trail without any particular expectation of what would happen. When Mahavir reached the kutir, however, once again the Kriya Baba emerged from his doorway and beckoned to Mahavir to bring us in.

He lives in a tiny cement cottage, with barely enough room for the twelve of us to sit around a small platform where the Baba was sitting. He has been in silence now for almost a year and communicated by writing with a piece of chalk (mostly in Hindi, sometimes in English) on a small piece of slate.

One of the most sacred peaks in the area is a high Himalaya called Neel Kanth (I am not sure that is the right spelling, but that is what is sounds like). Anyway, the doorway of the cottage perfectly framed the view of this high peak. We felt as if we had entered a timeless zone, far removed from anything we had ever experienced before.

With his little slate and Mahavir’s translating, he told us a little of his spiritual life, the fact that he spends a great deal of time with Babaji in a “secret place.” That he often leaves his body in his kutir for months at a time while he travels in his subtle form to be with Babaji.

In fact, in his kutir, there is a huge tin box – about eight feet by four feet and five feet tall, in which the Baba sits to meditate and where he leaves his body when he goes to be with Babaji. Because of this, he is known in the area as “Baxa Bala Babu” – the “Box Baba”

Of course, it was impossible for us to verify the Baba’s claims, but Mahavir told us later that, in fact, when winter comes, and all the other sadhus have to come off the mountain and go to live at a lower altitude – the whole hillside, including the Kriya Baba’s kutir is covered with up to 17 feet of snow for months in the winter – the Kriya Baba remains on the hillside and only reappears in the spring after the snow has melted.

The Baba impressed us all with his calm dignity, his inner stillness, and the joyful expression in his eyes. He was also deeply humble. Even though it is common to touch the feet of a sadhu in respect, the Baba steadfastly refused to allow that honor to be bestowed on him. And he constantly referred with reverence and devotion to Babaji, rather than in any way drawing energy to himself, except to describe in simple terms, how he lives and his relationship to Babaji.

The Italian group had given him some of the material from Ananda Assisi, which included a beautiful photograph of Swamiji. The Kriya Baba spoke in glowing terms of Swamiji and described a vision he had of Swamiji a few days after the Italian group visited him.

It was a very uplifting visit and one of the most unusual experiences we have had in India.

The next day, we got up early and made a 13 hour drive down from the mountain to a lovely hotel right on the Ganges where we spent a day recuperating from the trip up to Badrinath. Even though it was much less difficult than two years ago, it is not an easy trek.

The hotel is situated right on the Ganges and we had a meditation, and then a Purification Ceremony on our own private beach there.

One of our pilgrims was recently widowed and she brought some of her husband’s ashes with her. So we read the astral ascension ceremony and then she waded a few feet into the water and gave the ashes to the Ganges. The river is wide and raging at that point, and once again, as at Devapriyag, we were all blissfully aware of God’s power and presence and how tiny our little ego selves are in relation to that.

Then we took a ceremonial dip in the (freezing cold) Ganges. David and Vidura had the foresight to bring a piece of rope, and the two of them held each end, while we took turns holding on to the middle while we dipped three times in the water.

Once again, the divine power of the river seemed to rise up to meet us.

Before the Purification Ceremony we spent some time reflecting on the simple words of that ritual: “The Master says, ‘Open your heart to me and I will enter and take charge of your life.’”

Many of us have done this ritual dozens, even hundreds of times by now. Yet, we asked ourselves, to what extent have we truly allowed the Guru to enter in? And what does it mean when Master says, he will “take charge” of our lives?

It was with these thoughts that we entered the Ganges, as a strong outward affirmation of our inward resolve to give our lives wholly to God.

Now our time in the mountains is done and we enter a completely different phase of the pilgrimage. We are on the train from Rishikesh to Delhi, arriving in just a few minutes.

Tonight Swamiji will come to our hotel for dinner. Tomorrow we fly to Varanasi.

Joy and blessings,
David & Asha for all the pilgrims

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