My first son was born in Delhi in 1987. Two months after his birth, like Prince Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini, I kissed my sleeping wife and son and travelled to Rishikesh, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. I didn’t know then that I would return there 22 years later. But that is another story, to be written when I have the mental fortitude to narrate it.
For now, let me tell you about my spiritual quest and how unlike Prince Siddhartha, I failed to become the Buddha or the enlightened.
It was late afternoon when I reached Rishikesh. Holy men, devotees, hippies, beggars, cows and stray dogs jostled for space on the bathing ghats of the Ganges. Men and women prayed to the river, offering her garlands of marigold and tiny clay lamps whose burning wicks defied the breeze for a few brief moments until subsumed into the water.
Sandalwood incense perfumed the air and the devout dipped in the water, three times, seven times, preoccupied with transferring their sins to Mother Ganges or Ma Ganga. Recalcitrant children and babes in arms were dunked too, and emerged spluttering and bawling. Some collected the Ganges water in little brass urns to be sealed in the local shops, and to be opened and consumed only on their death bed. All the while the river flowed on at a terrifying pace, unaware and uncaring about her elevated status among mortals.
I walked on to escape the chaos of the town. I was in search of solitude, convinced that the elusive peace would be sheltering in the confluence of the Himalayan mountain and the river. I recognised it when I reached my destination where the river took an abrupt, sharp turn. The mountain appeared to embrace the Ganges as she turned the corner, forcing her to relinquish her fury and metamorphose into a sensuous, sparkling lake. She was unrecognisable, her upstream tumultuousness replaced by a shimmering calm. A Himalayan Langur, an aureole of silky white hair around its coal black face, bared its teeth at me from the top of a pine tree. I experienced a primordial chill of fear down my spine.
The mellow evening sun shone furtively through the abundantly lush foliage on the mountain. The events of birth, the clamour of relatives and friends who came to see the new-born, the rituals to propitiate the many gods and goddesses, had all overwhelmed me. I was tired of the bustle and was glad to find a quiet place at last. I swam in the cold water and laid down on a flat rock, emptying my mind of thoughts until it quietened down.
As I soaked in the sun, I noticed the ochre robes of a Guru up on the mountain. His hut, built on an impossible slope, overlooked the river. On an impulse, I walked up to the Guru and asked if he would accommodate me for a few days.
‘Have you run away from your family?’ He had obviously known others who took the ascetic route out of family responsibilities.
‘Yes, for a few days’, I was candid.
The Guru gave me a small room with an enviable view of the river. The breeze percolating through the trees carried the fresh smell of pine and Deodar cedar. I spent most of the next couple of days staring at the river waking at dawn and sleeping at dusk. The Guru barely spoke, and respected my preference for silence over conversation. One afternoon, three days later, he tapped me on the shoulder.
‘I will show you a better place”, he said.
He took me down the mountain side to a little cave on the river bank. The only furniture inside was a rough cement platform, the size of a single mattress. We had to crawl around on our hands and knees due to the low ceiling. The Guru gave me a long piece of yellow cloth around a meter wide. He also gave me a Rudraksh bead strung on a cotton thread, and said I should wear the cloth around my waist and hang the seed from my neck. Discarding my city clothes, I wore the cloth and spread my sleeping bag on the cement platform.
Living next to the Ganges was very different from living in the Guru’s hut. I felt a part of the roaring river that flowed within a few feet of the cave. A huge boulder in the middle of the river caused the water to spray upwards painting the air with dancing rainbows, and reflecting the orange glow of the sun as it slowly set.
As night fell, I lay down to rest. I could see the rugged ceiling of the cave when my eyes got used to the darkness. Some moonlight filtered in through the entrance. I began to drift off to sleep feeling at peace with myself and the world. I was excited by my experiments with spirituality and thought I was beginning to understand another dimension of happiness. I reflected on the Eastern tradition of seeing worldly attachments as the causation of misery. The simple life appealed to me and I was glad to be rid of my urban appurtenances.
Suddenly, there appeared on the ceiling just above my head, a giant spider. It was almost as big as a rat – hairy legs, hairier body and twitching whiskers – a tarantula. I was overcome with fear. The spider had come to carry me away to the netherworld. Why couldn’t I stay home like every other normal father of a new born? What was I doing in this bloody cave? I panicked silently, but lay still.
Then I remembered the words of Ramana Maharshi from a book I was reading on the bus. “God is present everywhere, in animate and inanimate objects”. I looked at the tarantula armed with this piece of wisdom and saw God in its hairy body. I observed the protruding rocks around it and listened to the sound of the Ganges with an intensity I didn’t know I possessed. It occurred to me that perhaps God permeated everything around me. I reasoned that the spider which was about to devour me, the moonlight which touched the river outside, and the river itself were all the same: manifestations of the Divine. My fear dissolved completely. As if on cue, the spider walked away and disappeared into the crannies of the cave.
Encouraged by the previous night’s experience, I decided to intensify my quest. I turned frugal, reducing my food intake to one meal a day, mostly comprising fruits and a few chapatis that the Guru delivered to my cave once a day. The very acts of walking about in town and attempting to purchase something were lessons in themselves. Dressed only in the yellow cloth, chest bare except for a solitary Rudraksh, barefooted, I became invisible to the crowds as I ventured into town to buy some essentials.
I would stand and wait at a shop for a very long time before the shop keeper grudgingly served me. My ego took a massive blow, but in compensation, I had insight into the frailty of human interaction that was based on appearance rather than substance. I also realised that one can only transcend one’s ego by destroying it or even diminishing it. I began to see myself less subjectively and treated every social encounter as another lesson in self-realisation. I began to take pride in my spiritual achievements. Unknowingly, I was substituting one type of ego with another.
The weeks passed. Every morning I woke up at sunrise to swim in the icy cold Ganges and spent most of the morning meditating on a flat rock on the shaded bank. The tree under which I sat, I believed, was my very own Bodhi tree. My face, I imagined, was glowing with the inner peace. I spent hours sitting still and cross legged on my rock and the pain in my ankles gradually disappeared. I was well on to my path to Realisation, or so I believed.
One evening, engrossed in deep meditation under my tree, I noticed in the periphery of my vision, a beautiful young woman. She hadn’t seen me and began to remove her saree, preparing for a swim. I watched her undressing, open mouthed. Naked except for an underskirt, she swam with languidly elegant strokes, her long black hair floating in the water, the cold water forming tiny bubbles on her warm skin. I had lost my composure and my exalted state of mind. I had fallen right off the enlightenment tree and knew I could not climb back up again.
As suddenly as she had appeared, the woman vanished. I didn’t waste any time. I quickly got off my rock, said good bye to the Guru and took the next bus home. I realised then that I had a long way to go spiritually and a longer way to go by way of being an ideal husband and a model father. To this day I wonder about the woman – was she real?
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