Monday, October 1, 2007

Pilgrimage to Badrinath, Part 2

Badrinath is quiet at 4:00 am, the rushing waters of the Alaknanda the only sound to break the silence. Neelam, Sangeeta, Shishir and I rose early to take a traditional morning bath at the temple hot spring. There to the right of the bridge and from a lighted pavillion by the river’s edge, steam rose in the morning chill. That must be the place, the Tapta Kund, where hot water gushes from a natural spring to fill bathing tanks for both men and women.

The Tapta Kund Hot Spring
The men’s tan
k is about 4 x 5 meters and about 1.5 meters deep. Shishir and I found a spot for our clothes and dipped our feet into the water. Yeow! It was burning hot! I tried again but couldn’t keep my foot in for more than five seconds. A dozen others were at the kund, all at the edge with cups for dipping and pouring water over themselves. I regretted my lack of a cup and squatted at water’s edge to use my hands instead. Off to my left came a splash as a sadhu jumped into the pool, rubbing himself happily in the steaming water, seemingly oblivious to the heat. “Well,” I thought, “that’s what sadhus do.” A few moments later, taking his queue perhaps from the sadhu, Shishir jumped in too. Dang! Now what was I to do? I had come this far, so turning back was out of the question. I took the plunge. Wow, it was hot! Hotter than any bath I’ve ever taken. I dunked myself three times and quickly hauled myself out without delay, but then jumped in again for good measure. It was hot enough to be painful, but not so hot as to cause injury. In other words, it just right for tapasya and the temperature had the side benefit of preventing the tank from becoming overly crowded. I felt a wonderful, tingling glow afterward and a deep sense of contentment. Truly, the bath was purifying and a blessing. Thank you Shishir for leading the way.

Morning Puja at Badrinath Temple
By the time we had dressed and made our way to the temple, Sadhana Devi and the others had 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. During the ceremony, the Nawal (chief priest) washes the image, spreads sandlewood paste onto it, performs an arati and “dresses” it in garlands and fabric, leaving only the face visible. The paste is said to cool Lord Badrinarayan from the heat generated by his yoga meditation. Offerings from the audience are collected and placed before him, later to be redistributed back as prasad. Everyone receives something, whether a sweet or a piece of the flower garlands offered to the image, a representation of Lord Vishnu.

The morning worship was a treat, but as a Westerner brought up outside the Hindu tradition, I tended to approach the ceremony as a detached observer more 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, was so stern and lacking in devotion 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, but sadly our schedule didn’t allow it.

The Village of Mana
The remainder of our first day was spent in the village of Mana, two kilometers north of Badrinath. T
here is located Vyasa’s and Ganesha’s caves, the trail known as the Stairway to Heaven, the Sarawati River, and other spots associated with Indian lore. Sadhana Devi and I could feel the effects of elevation on our breath as we trekked up the pathways. I was reminded of backpacking in my youth at high elevations in the Sierras. Go at a pace you can sustain and don’t stop—just like the spiritual path.

From Mana, each in the group explored on our own. Some walked the trails to higher elevations, others spent time in the caves and some returned to Badrinath. I chose to meditate at the spot where the Saraswati and Alaknanda met and then crossed over the river to make my way to Badrinath, following a trail on the opposite side of the Alaknanda. It was a beautiful walk through fields cultivated by Tibetan women weeding, hoeing and carrying their great loads of grass. The air was warm and clear, and all around, mountains framed the valley floor. Badrinath and Mana are nestled in a Himalayan valley, one-half kilometer wide with steep slopes on either side. Nilkanth, a high Himalayan peak, snow capped and well over 20,000 feet can be seen from time to time. Since I had the trail mostly to myself, with only an occasional villager passing to and from the fields, I stopped frequently to meditate on the rock walls bordering the terraced fields. Walk, meditate, walk, meditate, until I found myself once again at the temple.

Baksavale Baba
Our second day was reserved for
visits to Brahmarishi Swami Rishidev Ji Maharaj Hathyogi, also known as Baksawale Baba, and to other babas in the vicinity. Baksawale Baba lives in a small kutir up a side valley from town, far enough away to dissuade casual visitors. Mahavir came to know of him and guided a group of Ananda pilgrims for a visit last fall. He is a disciple of Babaji and is known for having a metal box into which he reportedly sequesters himself in a state of samadhi during the snowy winter months, astrally traveling with his guru while his body remains protected from the insects, mice and other small animals that might disturb it. Such a thing, if true, is extraordinary and sparks a good measure of curiosity. Mahavir had made prior arrangements to make sure our visit was welcomed and so we headed up the mountainside to see him.

We had planned to hike up in two groups—fast walkers and slow walkers—with the latter leaving early so we would all arrive at the same time. Daya, Keshava and I designated ourselves as fast walkers and caught the others at the base of the mountain before they had even started on the steep part of the climb. The result was that Daya, Mahavir and I made it to the kutir a half hour before most of the others. Courtesy demanded we wait for the group, but since we were there and the door was open, we went in. Two young women from Germany were outside affixing a new tarp to the roof of the kutir and two others were within cutting vegetables for Baba’s lunch. We pronamed and introduced ourselves, telling of our trip to Badrinath and of Ananda. His kutir was very small and had space only for half a dozen to sit comfortably. There, against one wall was his metal box, about four feet high. It looked to be made of stainless steel or aluminum, guessing the latter because someone had to carry it all the way up the mountainside.

I asked permission to sit and Baba invited me inside, communicating through gestures and a small chalkboard because he observes silence. He proceeded to show Daya and me his collection of photographs and letters received from previous visitors and seemed much pleased when we recognized faces from Ananda communities and related to him a few details about this person or that. When other pilgrims began to arrive, we moved to a pandal (tent) that had been set up adjacent to the kutir. At Baba’s request, we began chanting, which he enjoyed. He then instructed us to chant Aum eleven times, and followed that with a brief period of meditation. All this time, he communicated through short messages on his chalkboard in Hindi and English, but after meditation he began to use his voice, saying he was commanded to do so by Babaji. The German women were surprised and said it was the most he had spoken to anyone in many years.

Baba's Life and Stories
He told us of
his life, the spiritual path, his respect for Swami Kriyananda and of many other things, most of which I cannot remember clearly. He was once a professor at a university in Delhi for eighteen years, married and had two children. At the age of twenty-eight, his wife died and he was plunged into a period of deep grief, ultimately leading him to renounce his worldly life and take vows of sannyas. Thus began a period of seclusion, meditation and tapasya until 2003 when he was in a tent during a snowstorm on the Gangotri glacier, high above Gomukh. There, he said, he “died.” It was unclear to me whether he meant “physically dead” or whether he meant he was in a superconscious state. Whatever the case, he awoke to find his head in the lap of a radiant being, a person seven feet tall with golden skin and golden hair. This, he said, was Babaji who had come to rescue his disciple. Baksawale spoke little of what happened next other than to say he was directed to go to Badrinath to continue his meditation until November of this year, after which he will go, as directed by Babaji, to Tibet to continue his austerities in complete isolation for three more years. After that, he will return and travel to Germany, as instructed by Babaji.

Here are a few things I remember him saying. He can remember clearly his last three lives. Three lifetimes ago, he was a very poor man but very generous. I assumed that lifetime was spent as an Indian but I am unsure. Two lifetimes ago, he was born as an Englishman and it was because of this past association with the West that he is being drawn back to Europe in this lifetime. There, he said, disciples await him. The conversation veered in other directions at that point and he said nothing of his immediate past life. Babaji, he said, is 2500 years old, yet also omnipresent. In Tibet, Babaji has two disciples, each over 200 years old. When he travels to Tibet later this year, he doesn’t know exactly where he is to go, but trusts he will be guided by Babaji. He emphasized more than once that we are the Atman, not this body. He had great respect for Swami Kriyananda and commended his service to his guru and Babaji. I asked him if he would like to send a message back to Swamiji with our group and he said that he wanted Swamiji to know that he would look after the other students of Swamiji planning to visit him in October from Italy.

People ask me, “What did you think of him? Is it all true?” To that I can only say, “I’m not qualified to judge.” We understand life through the filter of our own intuition and experience and Baksawale’s life is outside my realm. Some, out of habitual skepticism, will reject anything hinting at the supernatural while others tend to accept all claims unquestioningly. My tendency is to neither accept nor reject, but to allow for all possibilities. As the Bible says, “The tree is known by the fruit it bears.” By that measure, I liked Baksawale Baba and felt an attraction to him because of the calm stillness in his eyes, the way he held his body, his smile, and because of the devotion he expressed when speaking of Babaji. He seemed sincere.

When visiting those with spiritual power, there is a tendency to look for personal gain in the form of blessings, uplift, or personal benefit. We want to receive to ourselves rather than give, limiting our capacity to have blessings flow through us. While listening to Baksawale Baba, I felt a strong impulse to give him whatever good wishes I could in response to an intuitive perception I felt quite clearly. When he told of his plans to go to Germany in 2011, my thought was, “Yes! He’ll be very popular with the Europeans. They will be attracted and drawn to him, perhaps more so than Americans.” There is something about Europeans that resonates. I could feel it in the four women who were serving him. Following close on the heels of that thought was a remembrance of how Master prayed to Babaji before embarking to America for assurance that he would not become lost in the materialism of the West. That was my sincere prayer for Baksawale Baba. Because of my warm feelings for him, I hope he uses the next three years to inure himself against the tendency of Indian swamis who go to the West and become celebrities. As they say about India, “There are lots of gurus, very few disciples.”

The Badrinath Temple Priest
In the early afternoon, most made their way down the mountainside to visit Hanuman Baba and Muni Baba, both living in the same general vicinity. I gave my pronams to Hanuman Baba and went down the mountain to be by myself and meditate without visiting Muni Baba, meeting the group later in the afternoon for an appointment with the head priest of the temple, the man I described earlier as being very cold during the morning puja. What a surpris
e to find him warm and joyful in the afternoon. It was like night and day. He shared stories, told of his life, the history of the temple and, toward the end, brought out a picture drawn many years ago by a prior temple priest of Babaji (I think). No one was exactly sure of the picture’s provenance.

The next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Badrinath. We loaded up the cars and made the reverse trip down the mountain to Rishikesh, stopping overnight at Rudraprayag and then at Vashista Guha the next day to meditate in the cave where Swami Purushottamananda lived for forty years. I had my best meditation of the whole trip there, sitting in the silence on the hard rock floor for well over an hour, absorbing the experiences of the days before. Close by is the cave Swami Kriyananda inhabited for a month when still with SRF. We stopped at Swami Shankarananda’s Kriya Yoga temple, the Shivananda ashram, and had time to wander about Rishikesh the next day and visit Ananda Moyi Ma’s ashram in Hardwar before catching the evening train back to Delhi, arriving home after midnight.

Our pilgrimage to Badrinath was a wonderful experience that I’m still integrating. I mentally return, again and again, to things that happened on the journey, finding new inspiration and lessons as the days pass. Spending time on a spiritual adventure with other devotees builds lifetime bonds and I certainly felt that to be the case for me and Sadhana Devi with our fellow pilgrims. The dedication and commitment I saw in them, in the other pilgrims along the road, and in the sadhus we met in Badrinath all inspired me to meditate deeper and longer. Ultimately, outward pilgrimage is but a symbol of the journey each of us takes within, strengthening our resolve to tread the long and winding road to Self-realization.