Aum Tat Sat Aum
Ganga ghats in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh – this is one of the 28 states of India and the most populous country subdivision in the world, it has the same number of people as Brazil.
We are in a semi-lockdown scenario, we are free to roam during the days of the week, from 7am until 8pm, and we are under strict house curfew during the weekends, while India is steadily maintaining no. 1 place in the Korona Immunity Games for the second year in a row.
I once saw a beggar on an Indian train, a young lad with both his arms and legs amputated – cripples make considerably more money while begging and thus they are purposely maimed in early childhood. This boy caught my eye for the obvious reason but also because he had one of the most genuinely happy smiles I had ever seen and because the t-shirt he was wearing said in bright colours ‘NO. 1 WINNER’. This became a stock image in the storeroom of my memory, a poster child for the kind of in-your-face universal truths one sees regularly in India.
What about success and happiness? What about the incomparably lucky and ‘blessed’ people in the rich and educated West who are so unhappy living in social and financial heaven, always comparing themselves with their peers or with unreal Insta influencers, walking down the street completely isolated from their fellow souls, looking down into their phones and listening to their headphones, with suicidal expressions engraved on their clean and physically healthy faces. It is all truly untrue and really unreal, don’t mind it, rightly say all gurus. And still, Life is not that black and white. Stubbornly against divine law, people are not content only for having all natural four limbs intact. It’s more complex than that.
It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been travelling across India, in search of Self. Kriya Mahavatar Babaji Namaste.
On a side note, I guess I’ve also been unwillingly running away from Korona. Where, yes, where we wonder. I had the surreal blessing of spending the first 6 months of the pandemic hysteria in the Himalayas, living in ashrams from Rishikesh to Gangotri, the final stop where for some months I listened to Ganga flow in a loud low growl. Gangotri is a high altitude village (3,500m) at the base of perennial Gomukh glacier, from where Ganga holy river springs. One out of four char dham, Gangotri Yamunotri Badrinath Kedarnath.
Let’s be clear, all rivers are holy. I learned this and much more about hygiene and immunity from the best, saddhus who explained to me that loving and respecting yourself and your environment raises your vibration to such a degree that no virus could ever enter the temple that is your physical body.
There are five elements in the physical universe, Earth PRITHVI Water JAL Air VAYU Fire AGNI and Ether AKASH– respect those and you respect yourself, this is the definition of Health. Your gut/stomach is no different from the river bed, your lungs no different from the plant life on this Planet Earth we call home and your brain is just an organ, don’t confuse it with your mind, which is just like Mother Terra’s atmosphere, emanating from every cell of your body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes.
In November the snow started falling and the ice cap expanded and reached the caves. I left the Himalayas and travelled 6000kms south to Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the holy river Yamuna, the birth place of Lord Krishna Atman and his personal Anahata heart, Radha.
Holy and poor, popularly associated with ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) movement. Because of its millennial association with Radha, Vrindavan is home to hundreds of ashrams that feed and house thousands of homeless women and destitute widows. Once an Indian woman gets married, she become the ‘responsbility’ of the husband and his family – in the case of his death, especially if the concerned families are poor, the woman gets passed back and forth or, sometimes, ends up in Vrindavan to ask for Radha’s help. They can be seen in groups of dozens on daily early morning walks on the Vrindavan Parikrama – the circular road surrounding Vrindavan.
Circumambulation is a tradition in many holy Indian cities which are surrounded since ancient times by circular roads called ‘parikrams’ where monkeys, cows, dogs, peacocks and other wild and peaceful animals live. The roads are kept fantastically green and colourful with myriad of flower and fruit bushes, banyan trees and so many little temples, statues, graffiti (no insults or pornography, it’s all Ganesh, Durga, Shiva, Krishna, Kali &co)
Devotees travel from all over India to walk these parikrams and contemplate on the contradictory play between the gravity of their lives and the impermanence of their existence. They participate with money in the keeping of the ashrams and get divine blessings in the process. It’s a very successful social system that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem (as no social system in the world does) but that treats the symptoms pretty efficiently. In India, although there are many people living in poor conditions, they are not quite as numerous as imagined by the West. The middle classes here have elite lifestyles compared to Western middle class standards. There is little homelessness or destitution, despite high levels of poverty. There is something called Community.
India has 2 billion 250 million people. One Indian for every 7 human of any other nationality. That’s intense, it’s lightly heavy, it needs to be considered – for such numbers, social structures and management techniques are different. Some people live on the streets and they are all a useful part of a social network that provides for basic survival needs. Also, let us not forget that Indian weather is very forgiving all year round with street living, while banana, mango and coconut trees can be found growing wildly in the outskirts of cities. In turn, these folk are the cleaners, the animal carers, the tree tenders, the temple security guards and so forth that create the colourful Indian micro-cosmos.
This structure has been harshly put to the test during a year that saw India go under various types of lockdowns and restrictions. People and animals have died of starvation in the past year, we were witness. The migrant workers and the daily wagers have undoubtedly suffered the worst.
For me, the descent from the icy tops of the Himalayas and straight into the hot, crowded and cut-throat Indian megacities has been a lesson, a million billions lessons into the reality of human needs. In Vrindavan pervades divine love for Radha Krisna and everybody greets each other with ‘Radhe Radhe’, the name of Krisna’s eternal beloved. Often, Indian mythological stories have a secret metaphysical meaning. In this case, Gopala Hari Krishna is the enlightened Self, the First Soul, the Supreme Controller and Enjoyer of all Universes, which emerge from Him and implode back into Him. He is the enlightened active, creative Masculine principle, while Shri Radhe is the enlightened passive, created Feminine aspect of existence, Matter in its ideally blissful form. MahaShakti as energy echoes ParamAtman’s divine love back to him.
Devotees to the divine pair of Radha Govinda are living a bhakti or devotional life. Bhakti is a life practice that remembers Divinity in every moment and thus all working talking singing playing dancing loving eating bathing sleeping is done by devotees for Shri Radhe Krishna. The famous Gopi, wannabe lovers, devotees and servants. Servitude here has a different connotation, it’s like being the personal assistant of your most loved famous person. It’s a very good position to be in, close friends with your biggest star crush. Vaishnavas (or Bhaktas) sing and play kirtan, ecstatic devotional songs such as ‘Hare Krishna’ mahamantra and many others (see George Harrison, he became a highly outspoken kirtan player and Krishna gopi in his later years). This is divine love of the little selves towards the one Eternal Self.
See, Human Being is a strange creature. Spark of Consciousness living as terrestrial beast with the capacity for extra-terrestrial divine self-realisation. In order to begin to realise our godly potential, to acknowledge that we are eternal, unborn and immortal Consciousness experiencing Life through little mirrors of ‘me, myself and I’ in the kaleidoscope called MahaMaya, we first need to have our physiological and security needs met. After that we can start evolving into a sense of purpose, belonging, love, respect and finally we can start detaching from what is outside and turn inwards, starting the journey of self-actualisation.
In India this Western structure is often turned upside down and instead of crying for food and clean water, the homeless masses chant mantras and throw flowers at idols to forget about their starvation and skin infections. It works to some degree and the personal dissatisfaction, the sense of unfairness, the frustration and all the other psychological plagues of the materialistic West are minimised – in return, these less fortunate lower social classes get more out of life, not as much as the richer and more educated social groups, but more than the homeless living dirty, addicted, violent and hopeless lives on the streets of London. It is a radical acceptance of reality and working with it, it’s a belief in the fact that all is as it is supposed to be. Since social equality is not available, here or anywhere in the world, this is one system that works and also doesn’t, hence all the mini social revolutions India is ever experiencing. Some large number of people are starving and are being eaten alive by lice but they call, joyfully, the name of Ram and Krishna in the hope that they’ll be picked up by the Lord and taken straight to the Kingdom of milk and gold.
With this in mind, after a few weeks of walking the Vrindavan Parikrama and bathing in the Yamuna, I had to leave this eternal social experiment where thousands of people (it’s actually 2. 5 million people, population of Mathura District ) are trying to invert the ‘law’ of their human needs. All I could do was feel grateful for my incredibly lucky dharma of experiencing the best of both worlds and repeat the Buddhist prayer that says: may all beings in the Universe, seen and unseen, find their true happiness and liberate from their suffering.
After living in the Kali jungles of Goa and a few ashram-villages in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh… Jai Shirdi Satya Prem Sai Babaji.
Coimbatore and Isha Foundation, Jaggi Vasudev Sadhguru’s home. A slightly apocalyptic scene compared to the place I saw a year previously, volunteering for a few weeks. Entrance was still allowed but the ashram itself was sealed off and masked visitors were guided through signalled roads from Adi Yogi’s majestic 35m tall statue towards Linga Bhairavi temple, into Dhyanalinga meditation dome and out. These temples are energy magnets and transmitters, the science behind them is complex and one can feel it beyond doubt, as sure as you can feel a bath after a three days train journey. We humans have collectively been living a year and more in a stress-inducing, panic-riddled reality where sanity and insanity, truth and lies, have been dancing the shocking dance of Destruction and Rebirth, the Shiv Tandav. Natarajan. We take refuge in Nature and Temples for soothing calm authority.
In early spring I reached Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu, deep inside the hilly forests of southern India. Tiruvannamalai is famous for its intricate and colourful south indian architecture and ancient temples, particularly Arunachaleswarar Mandir. The temple lies in foggy distance seen through the mist of Arunachala Hill.
There is no time here, it literally flows differently, at a speed neither slower nor faster that is impossible to judge. It is said that the hill is a physical manifestation of Lord Shiva and, in the words of Ramana Maharishi, it is also a material representation of the Self. The Jungian notions of the ego, the superego and the ID are much related to the Vedic idea of the little self, Atman, and the higher, source Self, Paramatman. All that we modern people call ‘ourselves’ and ‘ours’ is just a false accumulation of thoughts and feelings and matter which are not real, not true and not eternal. At the core of this there is a black hole called Atman, the real self. In the universe, jagat, at large, this is the Kala force, Kaal Bhairav, Shyam Sundar and Maa Kali herself. We now begin to find out, scientifically, that a black hole is the no-thing that holds the potential energy of the Universe in it, that it is the source of the many consecutive Big Bangs happening in our Universe (see Richard Dawins and 2020 Nobel Prize winners Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez)
A parikrama circles Arunachala hill, with the regular babas, monkeys, dogs and cows inhabiting it. Walk around it once, twice, thrice and you will start floating above the smells, sounds and colours and reach a place of surreal stillness. Maybe. It was February, I started north once again, passing through Mumbai and Gujarat’s coastal city of Dwarka, the capital of Lord Krishna’s later kingdom, before heading back to the realities of Life and Death, Varanasi. Kashi Vishwanath Gange. Pictures load randomly as there is internet connection, not) AUM NAMAH SHIVAYA
Now it’s been one month since I could sit peacefully on the ghats of Ganga Ji in Varanasi, discussing about the impermanence of Maha Maya, the Devi of supernatural powers and illusions, or about the inevitable supremacy of Kal Bhairav, the dark lord of time.
Very soon after the great spring festivals of Bharat, namely Mahashivaratri, Holi and Khumb Mela, a new tsunamic wave of Corona Virus hit the great land.
Over a few weeks of lockdown during April 2021 the city of Life and Death was progressively slowed down and eventually shut down around the new moon (Buddha Amavasya). I was managing a cafe on Assi ghat for a friend who was on a two weeks yatra (spiritual journey) that physically led him to the Higher Himalayas, Kedarnath. The customers were thinning out and the instructions of mask wearing, social distancing and home staying became increasingly more severe. Some people were counting the bodies, the oxygen tanks and the hospital beds through media channels and this was causing them to fear the outside world.
As far as I see, Death is inevitable and we humans aim to stay alive and healthy for a number of years until it comes. This is understandable, while panicking on one’s own, masked up and locked inside a room, about an air borne anarchist virus is absurd and useless. One could use this uncertain time to learn something new, become healthier and more aware of one’s body, one’s mind and one’s breath. As far as the virus goes, hypotheses suggest it’s there and then it’s not, or is it?, symptotic or chronic, deadly or mild… To watch out for such a thing is a recipe for delusional disassociations and schizoid mental breaks, surely. I didn’t watch the news but I went to watch every sunrise at Assi ghat. I was cycling a red mountain bike for 2-3 kilometres past Assi market, BHU university and one emergency hospital. Varanasi is beautifully crammed with buildings, temples and gardens.
The markets were open until 1pm, there were people biking on scooters with oxygen tanks on their laps. Very empty streets, an apocalyptic Varanasi.
Every day Harish Chandra burning ghat was getting more crowded, as did Manikarnika. The stories went that bodies that died of infectious diseases, also suicides and lower casts burn at Harish Chandra, while clean deaths such as old age in the upper casts are seen through the fire of Death & Rebirth at Manikarnika, the older than time shamshan (holy crematorium) in the middle of Earth’s oldest city.
During the rise in cases the ghats were crowded with pyres in various stages of burning. The actual high-flames wood-crackling active cremation process takes 2-3 hours and sometimes the bodies are left to burn into ashes slowly, over the next 7 hours; sometimes they are put straight into the water, or they float near the shore, smoky piles of charred bones.
There were surely no ‘bodies pilling up’ but these places buzzed with an excess of the energy that is anyway always there. Dark energy like the cosmos, a certain exhaustion. The ground had been burning at full capacity, day and night, for a day, two, three, two weeks, three weeks… the atmosphere was sobre, people were alert and calm. Chai stalls and small dhabas making street food and sweets were still there, with the severe looking wallas showing off their cleanliness skills. Posters appeared advertising ‘hygienic food here’.
Tandav is the madly ecstatic and creative dance of Destruction and Rebirth that Lord Shiva, Shri Krishna, Lord Ganesh, Maa Kali and Parvati Devi dance during cosmic conflictual times. This is what is happening in the world, in every human’s life, the Tandav.
At the end of April I decided to head back north to the Higher Himalayas and see what happens next. On a full moon morning I took a (nearly empty train) on a 20 hours journey from Varanasi to Haridwar, the Portal to Lord Hari, Haribol! It was very early dawn on Purnima when I arrived and the place vibed like an afterparty – everything still on but seemingly shut. There was a corona testing station but somehow I by-passed it.
During Khumb Mela, that lasted for three months, there are a few special days for holy bath (= snan), usually on full and new moons. The last one, scheduled on the day of my arrival, had been cancelled and held symbolically due to the rise in corona cases. I walked peacefuly, barefoot, with my small home-in-a-bag rucksack, over bridges from ghat to ghat until sunrise Ganga aarti ceremony took place. The bridges, dozens of them and other centuries old buildings like the Clocktower are covered in coloured lights in a very bright and festive manner. I sat and bathed at magical Har Ki Pauri, the place where Lord Vishnu Narayan stepped into Brahmakund (lake) during Vedic times. After the daily swims I used to take in Ganga Ji in Varanasi, this version of Mother Ganga was cool, fresh, clean and rapid, fast and strong. I have not been stopped by police, nor checked for anything, visa, virus or temperature, despite quietly and subtly breaking curfew rules constantly. God is Real. Aum Namah Shivaya.
At the Naga Sannyasy ghat, the Juna Akhada was there, shouting their mantras and smoking their chillums. I meet with old friend Sandeep Puri Babaji, a full year since we first met in similarly absurd circumstances.
I spend the day with them, sitting, smoking, playing music and talking. At sunrise I took a local bus for a 12 hours journey through Rudraprayag, Guptakashi and at the end of the road, Kalimath.
40 kilometers distance from mighty Kedarnath, the high altitude glacial palace of Lord Shiva, Devi Parvati and eternal Ganesh. Also the abode of Mahavatar Babaji, the Illuminated Timeless sage. He’s a little east, in Badrinath.
This whole area of Himalaya is called Sumeru Parvat and it includes the Char Dham, the four peaks namely Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, Gangotri. The area mythologically continues into Manosarovar lake at the base of Mount Kailash, presently in Tibet, China. Om Namo Narayan.
Kalimath is a place of Mahashakti, the supreme feminine. Tridevi aspect made up of Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati meet here, in the form of three glacier rivers and three temples. Lakshmi, shakti consort of Vishnu, the Maintainer, stands for abundance. Abundance is measured by level of generosity, not by quantity of possessions. The wealthier you are means the more you give, not the more you have. Saraswati is the shakti consort of Brahma, the Creator. She stands for wisdom which, similarly, is not about how much information you have stored in your memory, but about how open you are to the infinite reservoir of Universal Knowledge. The less you ‘know’, the more open and wise you are. Lastly but firstly, mighty Maa Kali, the angry goddess of justice, retribution of rebirth who wears the garland of cut ego-heads around her sexy neck.
The preistoric holy fireplace, large, smoky and deep, is said to be from Treta Yug, around 1 million years ago.
There is also a ShivParvati temple, a Nandi, shivlings everywhere and a majestic Kal Bhairav temple at the top of the hill. It’s rarely visited, the village is visible below, no soul around, sometimes monkeys and local dogs. Every day it rains at noon and I sit behind Mahakal time itself, safe from the winds sweeping the chamber, and practice the bansuri (traditional Indian flute) in the superb splitter – splatter echo.
The lockdown is so strict that even here the tiny local shops close at 11. Police has come into the village a few times. Despite all the panicky precautions, the neighbouring family where I eat breakfast and dinner still tested positive for corona. Specifically, the young father who is now living on the third floor, in self isolation. He talks often to us folk on the ground floors by leaning over the balcony. It’s an interesting scene, the corona patient caught in an invisible cage, in full view of the confused community.
I am keeping my ground in a beautiful little mininalist room behind Kali Maa temple and will pass time in joyful expectation of the ever-present future 🔱
A Radio Ganga photo dump on its way. Jai Mata Di 👀🧡