Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place. Rumi
So I’m finally in India.
If you read this blog, you’ll know how much heart and soul, how much meticulous planning – read rumination, anxiety and self-doubt – I have poured into this trip. To me, this is a manasatirtha, a sanskrit word that means ‘pilgrimage of the heart.’
Over the years as my attraction to Indian mysticism has blossomed, I felt compelled to connect with this wisdom at the source. But where was the source? India is vast and its wisdom has evolved over millennia. Cities and civilisations have risen and fallen, time and again.
I couldn’t find a particular place that was ‘the birthplace’ of the chakra system, the Vedic wisdom is interwoven into the very fabric of Indian life, but to pinpoint a geographical source seemed near impossible. But there was one thing that kept calling me, the great river, Ganga.
What is this power that calls to us? I know it’s not just me. Where does this call come from that compels us to leave the comforts of home and travel? Where does the power of place originate?
Do people flock to a place because of its power or does place take on the power that is attributed to it over millennia of pilgrimage, worship and devotion?
We see the work piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole of which these are the shining parts, is in the soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson
I tend to think both. It’s a symbiotic relationship where we intuitively recognise a power place and then project more power onto it through our devotion and the intense focused intention of pilgrimage.
As much as we wish to be near the gods, they wish to be near us too.
India is a land of pilgrimage places where trails to holy tirthas have been trudged for thousands of years, and are alive and well today. Aarti – the sacred Hindu fire ritual – has been offered to the river Ganga every single day for five thousand years. That’s a power of place that is palpable. In an increasingly secular age, Hindu worship is bigger and brighter than ever.
My dad brought me to India as a teenager. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before and I was captivated. I have always wanted to return.
I was not a happy teenager. In fact when my dad took a year’s long service leave and decided to take the family on a massive overseas trip, I was relieved. It felt like the ultimate escape. Nine days in India was our first stop, on route to an Irish Christmas with mum’s family. I don’t know why but it was the highlight of the year for me.
Yes, it was confronting. Arriving in Delhi in the middle of the night, stepping over sleeping bodies to get out of the airport. It was a foggy December and all I can remember is that smell, the people, and the frenetic drive to our hotel.
The fog was so thick all you could see was the headlights reflected in it for about a metre ahead. Out of this jumped people, cars, cows, as the driver erratically veered across five lanes of traffic to dodge them. It is commonly said that driving in India one needs three things “Good horn, good brakes, and good luck!”
The body is a multilingual being. It speaks through its color and its temperature, the flush of recognition, the glow of love, the ash of pain, the heat of arousal, the coldness of nonconviction. . . . It speaks through the leaping of the heart, the falling of the spirits, the pit at the center, and rising hope. Clarissa Pinkola Estés
It was so otherworldly. I had never been or seen anywhere like it. People literally mobbed our car. Waving wares and missing limbs, begging.
The car pulled into a driveway, blocked by elaborate white wrought-iron gates. Suddenly we were confronted by an enormous white Raj-style hotel, along a wide driveway lined with trees – a rare sight in Indian cities. In the daytime the grounds were immaculate green with fountains of clear water, a stark contrast to the dry and dusty road beyond the gates.
I was fascinated.
I wonder whether something in this place, which could morph from paradise to hell in the blink of an eye, appealed to my teenage sensibilities. For whatever reason, India lodged herself firmly in my psyche and called me relentlessly to return.
This call intensified at the turn of the last year. My heart was suffering, needlessly caught in a cycle that should have completed long ago. Unable to break free, I sought solace in my yearning to travel. Bali had awakened some dormant knowing in me, some ancestral memory of worshiping the divine as part of daily living. India became the next logical place, why not sate my passion for the Hindu tradition at the source.
There were a few serendipitous signposts which propelled me from the dreaming to the planning stage. First a dear friend who was planning to travel to India put an actual date to my plans. Then I kept being drawn to the sight of Alana Fairchild on the cover of various New Age magazines, tempting me with the Grace of the Golden Goddess Lakshmi Retreat, in Varanasi. As I explained in a previous post, despite seemingly rational and sensible reasons why I couldn’t afford it, my heart would leap out of my chest and beg “Take me, please!” I wanted to visit the Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh, and was thrilled to discover it was further upstream on the Ganga from Varanasi.
India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is true. It’s rich and poor, spiritual and material. Cruel and kind, angry and peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It’s all the extremes. India defies understanding. Sarah MacDonald
And so it happened, it all began to fall into place and the next thing I knew, I found myself standing above the Ganga river at Rishikesh. Feeling that I had never felt so right about anything in my entire life.
India has a distinct smell – and no, I don’t mean a bad one , although there’s plenty of those. In trying to describe it, the best I can guess is a mix of various types of smoke, incense, spicy cooking, cow dung, rotting garbage, and diesel fumes. And it’s a hot and steamy smell, in that way organic matter starts to exude a ripe odour in the sun. I know it sounds awful, but it’s not. Well, sometimes it is. Other times, it’s just distinctive, unique. It’s a smell that permeates everything, your hair, your clothes, and your soul.
As soon as I stepped onto the tarmac at Delhi airport my olfactory responses kicked into overdrive and I felt that sense of returning to a familiar and beloved place.
So here I am, back after almost 30 years. Still transfixed by the polarities of this place. Still mesmerised by the kaleidoscope of colour, scent and sound, in amongst the dirt and stench.
Being here is not a letdown, even though my expectations were high. I’m pulsating with love for this place.
Here I am in the midst of an Indian ‘Room with a View.’ Gregory David Roberts wrote that India is the Italy of Asia, with its insatiable lust for God, food and music, where the vibrant dance of life explodes in stereo sound and vivid technicolour in multiple directions all at once.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet. Think about it carefully! Don’t go off somewhere else! Just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things, and stand firm in that which you are. Kabir
Every evening the temple opposite my room bursts into sound at 6pm. Well in fairness it is never really quiet, the temple bells ring from dawn, and the evening sound check starts around 4pm, with a gorgeous Indian rendition of ‘testing 1,2’ where the kirtan leader just shouts “hello? hello?” repeatedly in various tones, before descending into an indecipherable stream of Hindi.
The evening aarti is a Ganga tradition that can be found at most places along the river. Although over my time in India I will experience aarti at a truly awe-inspiring level, there’s something lovely about watching this little ceremony from the comfort of my balcony.
Aarti is a Hindu religious practice, a part of ‘puja’ or ritualised deity worship, in which offerings made from lighted wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities. Aarti is derived from the Sanskrit word ārātrika (आरात्रिक), which means something that removes rātrī, darkness, or light waved in darkness before an icon.
During these ceremonies, conducted daily in many holy cities along the Ganga river, offerings are made with the symbolic inclusion of fire, incense, flowers and chanted mantras.
The power of mantra and sound is ubiquitous here. Music is everywhere, from the singing of women as they work, to the chanting and bells emanating 24/7 from the multitude of temples, to the constant barrage of loud Hindi music. The place is a vibrational smorgasbord. And that’s apart from the constant car horns, yelling, animal sounds and firecrackers going off.India is perpetual motion. From pre-dawn the cattle herders move their herds through the streets, cow-bells toning across the bridge and through my window. Calls to prayers, chanting, car horns. Constant sweeping of the doorways and streets – not really impacting the piles of garbage outside, but surely moving energy around. People work from day-break until late at night, where they often bed down in their place of work to sleep. But it is not the frenetic pace of the west, work is punctuated by frequent resting and drinking of chai, the sharing of food. It’s not uncommon to enter a shop only to find the keeper fast asleep on the floor.
Nobody rushes, everything is done at a laconic pace. The division between labour and leisure non-existent compared to western societies. It is just life. Every day, excepting the many holy festivals, is the same. The relentlessness of life may explain the frequency of religious festivals, but moreso for the majority of Indians there is the surrender to life without ambition or any drive beyond living.
From the moment I arrived in Rishikesh I had the strongest feeling of being, if not home, certainly somewhere that my spirit found an energetic affinity with. A deep maternal feeling rose around and through me, an all-encompassing loving welcome, as if from the very earth, the river, the mountains, the sky itself. It whispered encouragingly to me “welcome home to yourself.” It felt like the unconditional love of the divine mother.
No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time. Salman Rushdie
Quickly, within hours, I was lulled into a blissful sense of being at one with myself. I happily wandered the streets, absorbing the sights and sounds, the atmosphere of constant activity and sensory engagement.
I felt good in my body, strong in my spirit. Except for lapses into fear and doubt I felt a new sense of steadfastness.
I began to notice that when I was out of integrity my energy was scatty and anxious. When I was in integrity, even to the point of following through on what I told myself I would do, like finding a yoga class, I was calm and things seemed to unfold for me. I was in the flow.
In India the difference between lovingly being in the flow and being blocked and stunted by fear became such obvious polarities. And suddenly I saw my power, it was choice.
So far India has demanded full immersion from me. Instead of holding back from life, watching, waiting for some perfect moment or opportunity. Here I feel fully present. Every moment demands decisions from me and I can’t operate on automatic pilot.
There’s no traffic lights so you have to pay attention, wait for the gaps and pauses, seize the opportunities. Sometimes I feel like I sleepwalk at home, red says stop, green says go. Good little automaton. If you sleepwalk here you’ll get a quick and loud wake up toot!
The river Ganga is the archetype of sacred waters. Ganga is river, goddess and mother. Ganga is the mother of all. Her waters, like mothers’ milk, are said to be the drink of life itself.
He stood breathing, and the more he breathed the land in, the more he was filled up with all the details of the land. He was not empty. There was more than enough here to fill him. There would always be more than enough. Ray Bradbury
The Mahatmyas – Hindu scriptures – call the Ganga by a thousand names. She is ganga because she has ‘gone to earth’ (gamgata) from heaven. She is Mankakini, the River of Heaven, flowing through the heavens like the Milky Way. She is Vishnupadi, because she flowed forth from the foot of Vishnu. She is Bhagirathi, because the sage Bhagiratha brought her from heaven to earth. The Mahatmyas extol the benefits of bathing in these waters – purification, lifting the burden of sins, the cleansing of the heart – all are the fruits of bathing in the Ganga.
My first immersion in Ganga was a big deal. I mean, I took it very seriously. I knew both the spiritual significance of what I was doing as well as the physical risks, having read reports of the e-coli levels and fierce currents, amongst other dangers of the river.
Hindus believe that Ganga waters will cleanse any sin. The poet Jagannatha, author of Ganga Lahari, ‘The Ganga’s Waves,’ was cleansed as he composed his ode, the waters rose to touch his feet and purify him.
I come to you as a child to his mother, I come as an orphan to you, moist with love. I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest. I come a fallen man, to you uplifter of all. I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician. I come, my heart dry with thirst to you, ocean of sweet wine. Do with me whatever you will. Jagannatha
Above all it is mercy and compassion that flows out from the foot of Vishnu or from the hair of Shiva in the form of this mothering river. I had sensed this energy just being near the river, but I had yet to go in her waters.
On my third morning I prepared to go at dawn to the ghat – the steps leading to the river and used to bathe from – directly opposite my hotel. I had the intention of letting go of all that had been limiting me in my life. The limited thinking that got in the way of my being of service to the divine, and to humanity – my shame, my sadness, my disappointment in life, my disappointment in myself. I wrote out my intentions and brought an offering of incense to burn.
Of course as local tradition demanded I would be fully clothed.
After I had all I needed, I headed up to the lobby. There, curled up in blankets, asleep on the lobby floor and adjacent restaurant, were all the staff from the hotel. The dark and serious manager, the gorgeous lobby boys, the manager and waiting staff at the restaurant, who joked with me each night at my vocal and near-orgasmic appreciation of their South-Indian curries.
The lobby was dark, the metal security doors locked. As the product of a society where even our poorest workers usually have a home to sleep in, it took me a while to adjust and comprehend what I was seeing.
I knew if I made a sound they would all jump into action for me, open the doors, I wasn’t trapped. but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
There was a small beach I had tried to access at the base of the cliff the hotel perched in. Maybe I could try getting down that way.
My previous attempt to access this beach had only got me halfway down to an ornate landing inhabited by monkeys. I couldn’t see a safe way down the cliff, and thought even if I did manage to get down, how would I ever get up again. So instead I sat in the peace of the trees and river and watched the monkeys play.
This Ganga was sent out for the salvation of the world by Shiva, Lord of lords, filled with the sweet wine of compassion. Shiva, having squeezed out the essence of Yoga and the Upanishads, created this excellent river because of his mercy for all creatures. The Skanda Purana
This time with new resolve I decided to try the descent again. I appealed to Ganga that my intentions were true and to please help me to follow through my desire to be in her waters.
From the monkey landing there were no steps, but a series of further narrow landings, interspersed with rocks and shrubbery. I scrambled my way down wondering if I’d ever make it back up or would have to swim back to land.
When I reached the little beach, I knew it was perfect. Secluded and slightly hidden by the hovering mass of the Lakshman Jhula bridge.
I placed the lighted incense in the sand, read my intentions to Ganga, then set them on fire. Well I tried to. Mornings in the Himalayan foothills are cool and breezy. As the charcoaled ash floated down the river, I braced myself and stepped in.
The Mahatmyas claim that the Ganga concentrates into her waters some thirty-five million tirthas. Indeed it is said that every wave of the river is a tirtha. Diane L Eck
The water here is fast flowing and cold. I guess I should have braced myself for the cold – hello melted Himalayan snow – but I hadn’t.
It took my breath away. Hanging onto rocks with each hand, I went deep enough to submerge myself completely, and as it the custom, dunked myself one, two, three times.
By this stage I was gasping. It was a strange mix of chill, exhilaration and a lurking fear that I had swallowed some water and some horrible bacterial army was now plotting mutiny in my body.
But mostly I felt triumphant. I had done it!
This blog has always been about intentions, and this had been my great intention for this trip, to plunge myself mind, body and spirit into the grace and power of this great river goddess. And I had done it. Tears came, but all I felt was intensely loved and held. It was indescribable.
No, really, it is indescribable. I tried to describe it many times, but people only really got this when they felt it for themselves. When my friend Tanya went in the river at the ashram near Varanasi, suddenly she looked up at me, her hands and feet in the glistening water, and said “I couldn’t understand what you meant, about this river and her loving power before, but now I do. I feel it.” And she had the same star-struck look in her eyes that I saw in photos of myself after experiencing the power of Ganga Ma. But why should we be surprised? The Hindu scribes had been recording testimony to this power for thousands of years.
One should not be amazed … that this Ganga is really Power, for is she not the Supreme Shakti of the Eternal Shiva, taken in the form of water? Skanda Purana
India mythology is labyrinthine, there’s so many deities, so many stories, and so many incarnations or avatars who are actually the same deity in various forms. After reading about it for years, I thought none of it had stuck. However I found myself in India playing tour guide, seeing images and icons and explaining who they were, an avatar of so and so, how you could tell by their number of arms, colour and accoutrements. Then I’d tell an amusing anecdote on each. This made me ecstatic – it was sinking in, I was starting to really immerse myself in Hinduism. It was as if being in the energy of India activated all this knowledge and brought it to life.
That said, I had not read many stories of Ganga. Which allowed me to appreciate her for myself, through direct experience, before learning of her rich place in Hindu mythology.
The Ganga is believed to be the distilled lifeblood of the Hindu tradition, the essence of the scriptures and embodied goodness of the Gods. She is the manifestation on earth of the great Lord Shiva who is commonly depicted with the stream of its waters flowing out from his hair. Thus the Ganga is believed to continuously descend from heaven through Shiva’s locks. The Ganga is said to be a liquid form of Shiva’s shakti, his active and creative energy. Shakti is the feminine life energy through which Shiva manifests himself in the world.
Just as Shiva became the vehicle for the Ganga’s fall to earth, Ganga became the vehicle for Shiva’s merciful work of salvation. Unlike many deities who carry a weapon in one hand and a symbol of blessing in another, Ganga is depicted as carrying the lotus in one hand and the water-pot in the other. She is symbolic of unambiguous goodness. Both are symbols of auspicious blessing.
Fortunately for me, considering how I literally dove right on in, her worship does not require the usual rites of invocation at the beginning and dismissal at the end, required in the worship of other gods. Her divinity is immediate and everlasting.
The Ganga is also the mother, the Ganga Mata of Hindu worship and culture, accepting all and forgiving all. Unlike other goddesses, she has no destructive or fearsome aspect, destructive though she might be as a river in nature.
As liquid shakti, Ganga is, in more familiar terms, God’s incarnation, God’s divine descent, freely flowing for all. One can even immerse one’s body in her liquid form. Diane L Eck
The power of this experience was not so much what Ganga Ma gave me or even took away, though both were palpable. Instead it was the vision of myself I saw mirrored in her unconditional maternal love, I saw myself as divine innocence, a perfect child of creation.
Ganga Ma saw me completely, nothing was hidden from her perception of me. She bathed me, cradled me as a mother would her child, as her all-pervading love flowed into every single aspect, every part of me, every dark, hidden nook and cranny of my being, even my shame, which melted away in the glow of this divine love. I felt deeply, completely, unconditionally loved. Loved to a degree I had never known possible before.
I had glimpses of this divine love before, but this experience was overwhelming, it washed over and through me as her waters held me. I came home to myself, to my divine self, to my innate sense of divinity.
This experience has reawakened my soul. Making choices, allowing grace and desire into my life, letting go of the limiting thinking that has blocked me from doing what my heart desires. Somewhere I had got the idea that desire was bad. It may be toxic when it turns into a demand or an ultimatum, but when desire is allowed to steer my choices, from a place of love, showing me my preferred path but not being so attached as to resist the divine flow, that to me is the ideal partnership with divine. The heart is my barometer and my rudder but in the end, the divine is my ocean. Or should I say, my river.
I looked in temples, churches and mosques, but I found the divine in my own heart. Rumi