There would be no way to count them, but across the Himalaya mountains there are thousands upon thousands mystics. They come in all hues and traditions, from seekers who live in complete isolation in remote dwellings to those who actively work to enrich the lives of hill communities. At the same time, there are the high flying godmen who invoke the Himalaya and claim to be spiritual ambassadors to the plains and to the West. Then there are those operating in the fringes of the mystical tradition, charlatans in saffron waiting to rip off the innocent believer.
As in any other segment of humanity, among the Himalayan mystics too there are the mediocre and the brillant, the selfish and the selfless, the cheats and the true sages. For the villagers, the sadhu can either be a Shiva incarnate or a fraud, and so they are careful when a sadhu comes amidst them.
At first, the local inhabitants did not take kindly to the sadhu who came and set up a ramshackle shanty upstream from Uttar Kashi. Shankar Puri spent three precarious years by the rushing torrents of the Bhagirathi river, through freezing winters and without regular access to food, before the populace was convinced that he was worthy of reverence.
What brought him to this remote corner of Uttarakhand, says Shanker Puri, was the search for independence of action (swatantatra) and the bliss to be derived from it (ananda), which can only be found “far from the settlements, in the mountains, and close to Mother Ganges”.
Having proved his spiritual worth, the ascetic then became the villagers’ mentor and a process of give-and-take began. A stream of worshipers pass through his ashram, known as Gangeswor Mahadeo, bringing everything from flowers for his early morning arati to milk for his evening tea. The supplicants gather around the sacred fire and receive little nuggets of wisdom from Shanker Puri or one of his gurubhais, Hardwar Puri and Niranjan Puri, all from the akhada (tradition) of Dasanamis. Occassionally, a larger spiritual point emerges from extended village gossip. Today’s session begins with talk of a proposed extension to a local highway and a road accident below Uttar Kashi.
Naga Baba Bihari Giri, a guest at Gangeswor Mahadeo, adds his own insight, gained from 60 years of ascetism. “Ramta jogi, behta pani,” he says: the roming seeker does not rest in his search, like water which flows towards its own sublimation. Bihari Giri is on his third pilgrimage to Uttarakhand — probably his last, he says — from his chosen seat in the Western Ghats outside Bombay. During his Himalyan wanderings, the ascetic picks up wild herbs and minerals which he will use to treat the Warli tribals among whom he lives.
Up From The Plains
Many of the sadhus who inhabit the high Himalaya, like Bihari Giri, actually come from the plains. Such a plainsman is Khaptad Baba, who lives in the 13,000 foot Khaptad plateau in west Nepal. The sage is a botanist by training. He keeps deliberately aloof and descends to Kathmandu every four years or so during the festival of ,Shivaratri.
Among the most famous ascetics to reside in the Nepal Himalaya was Govindanda Bharati — known as the Shivapuri Baba after his seat in the Shivapuri forest north of Kathmandu. Born in Kerala in 1826, he took his monastic vows in 1844 and spent 40 years walking through North and South America, Australia, Japan and China. At the end of his travels he settled down in Shivapuri, it is said, at the age of 100. He died 38 years later, in 1963.
The forest of Shivapuri now claims another ascetic, Swami Chandresh, who was born to a Kshatriya family in what is now Bangladesh. At the age of 20, he received his initiation into the Patanjali yoga system from a renowned Indian yogi at an old British graveyard near Calcutta. With a longing to visit the Himalaya, he arrived in Kathmandu 16 years ago and has been meditating in the quite caves, of Shivapuri since.
Separate Paths to Wisdom
Swami Chandresh, Khaptad Baba, Shanker Puri and Bihari Giri, as well as thousands of other sadhus whose ashrams dot the hills, share in their renunciation of daily life. However, they come from widely differing arms of the Hindu spiritual ethos, which is not monolithic in character. After the primary division between the Shaivite “yogis” and the Vaishnav “bairaagis”, who belong to two of the three principle deities of the Hindu triad, the greater traditions break out into a vast number of sects and sub sects. They observe different rituals and take separate paths to divine wisdom.
Bihari Giri, for instance, is a Naga from the Shaivite Dasanami Juna Akhada, headquartered in Varanasi. He represents the oldest form of the forest dwelling Hindu mystic. The mahantas of Gangeswor Mahadeo are also Dasnamis, but from a different akhada. The Nagas demand strict adherence to vows and traditional norms, but impose no restrictions on entrants related to their caste, region, regional origin or religion. The Shaivite Niranjani Akhada, on the other hand, grants entry only to Brahmans and emphasizes the study of the scriptures.
Many aspirants are drawn towards mysticism by an inner compulsion. Others seek solace in sadhuhood to escape the widespread rural poverty. Many may never finish the 12 years or more of apprenticeship with their gurus. Some get turned out of their akhadas for disobeying their vows. Many of the dropouts become phakkads, an aggressive lot of beggar-mendicants who can neither return to domesticity nor complete their spiritual journey.
The sadhus themselves are acutely aware of the black sheep in their midst. “See child,” says Bihari Girl, using the form of address babas use for their lay devotees, “sadhus are no different from the world in which they live. There are gidhs (vultures) and sidhs (realized souls) amongst us, just like among everyone else.”
Apart from the charlatan sadhus who have traditionally waylaid pilgrims along the pilgrimage trails, today there are godmen who would own factories that produce guns, babas who invoke the Himalaya purely for effect in climate controlled ashrams in Western countries, and others who use scientific jargon to beguile the gullible.
The larger ashrams belonging to internationally known spiritual celebrities such as Sai Baba, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, Dhirendra Brahmachari, Swami Muktananda and Bhagwan Rajneesh provide a steady stream of controversy. The ability of some to produce sacred ash and gold wristwatches out of the thin air are believed to be sleights of hand. The Indian Rationalists Association has demonstrated how many of the so-called miracles are performed using a bag of simple magic tricks.
A departure from the tradition of selfless ascetism is to be found in the pseudo scientific rhetoric of Basudeva Baba, who claims to be from the tantrik Shaivite cult of Aghori. His audio cassette tape, marketed under the title “Harmonic Rectification through Radiative Sound Energy . Vibration,” recently surfaced in Kathmandu shops.
As the tape unwinds, a soft feminine voice announces in melodious English that Basudev Baba “descended” from Kaitash in 1962 to deliver the holy message derived from many years of yogic practice. “During his sadhana, his holiness realized the technique of penetrating the paravibration ozone. With this realization came to him spontaneously as a gift from the divine level: art of rediversifying this regenerative energy in the form of vibrations to heal human suffering.” Basudeva Baba then comes comes on to announce that his music will cure a multitude of illnesses ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes and asthma. What follows is a poor recording of an inderminate raga played on a modern electronic organ.
A Descent Into Wooliness?
In a just published book, Stephen W. Hawking, regarded as the. greatest among living physicists, calls for exposing those who would invoke the name of science to support the claims of parapsychology and mysticism. Hawking, who specializes in the study of “black holes”, time, and the origins of the universe, describes the ever ambitious claims of some mystics as “a gradual descent into wooliness”.
While Basudeva Baba might represent a particularly egregious departure into scientific mumbo jumbo, other swamis also claim the power of mystic thought to control and channel the human mind beyond normal physiological limits. Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in the United States claims to have used “stress testing and psycho physiological measurement” to have proved “positively beyond doubt that yoga can have a direct effect on brain waves, patterns of respiration, heart rate changes, and muscle tension”.
A brochure published by the Institute states that Swami Rama, who comes from “the noble heritage of Himalayan sages”, left his “beloved Himalaya Mountains” to come to the complex technological culture of the West in order to “bring science and spirituality together into a harmorious synthesis.”
Madan Mani Dixit, a veteran Nepali man of letters who professes scientific materialism as his faith, challenges the claim that yoga can transcend the basic laws of matter. “The human brain has immense potential without having to rely on supernatural support,” says Dixit.
“The stories of hidden gods, levitating yogis and other supernatural phenomena associated with the Himalaya are like the stories of the Yeti,” says Keshav Ram Joshi, an astronomer who is also a learned Sanskrit scholar. “Prolonged research has produced no conclusive evidence to show why we should believe them any more than we should the Abominable Snowman.”
Invoking the Mountain
“A hundred lives are not enough to tell of the glories of the Himachal. As the dew before the Sun, so does everything base vanish at the sign of the eternally pure snows,” says a Sanskrit verse in the Vedas.
These peaks and snowfields have served as mystical symbols down through the ages. However, the element of exoticism and drama that comes from association with the mountains are often crudely exploited.
Some swamis zero in on the urban elites or on the westerner in search of quick religious fixes. However, there are thousands more — swamis, babas, mahantas, sadhus and sanyasis — who man the spiritual barricades across the Himalaya and bring higher knowledge and inner strength to its people. For them, there is something in the Himalaya that cannot be corrupted.
THOSE WHO PERCH LIGHTLY
“Through celibacy, community isolation, and the long, sober intoxication of prayer, the monks in old age develop the kind of eccentricity that Oxford dons used to exhibit before they were permitted to marry. Old monks are wild as well as simple. They perch more lightly on the globe than the rest of us.” – Peter Levi, in The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Sudhindra Sharma assisted in reporting this article.