Monday, April 8, 2013

India Pilgrimage - the Final Episode!

It seems right to me now to skip ahead to the final adventure on our three week trip to India: Babaji's cave (near the hill station town of Ranikhet). Yes, it's true I skip the Taj Mahal and our visit to the lovely Ananda Center in Gurgaon (a few miles south of Delhi). But all good things must end and so, too, this travelogue.

After visiting the Ananda Center in Gurgaon on Sunday, March 17 (in the afternoon and evening), we bussed to the old train station in Delhi for an overnight train to the line's end at the foot of the Himalayas--a town called Kathgodam. The Old Delhi station was a museum piece, a small version of the old Howrah Station in Calcutta, but much messier in what I saw, with lots of people sleeping on the floor everywhere and a narrow warren of steps and overhead passageways with descending stairs onto each train platform across a large and enclosed rail yard. Very old fashion, very NOT tidy, and very old. One felt claustrophobic and slightly ill at ease, safety wise. The response was to "puff up" as it were and look snappy and snippy like a seasoned traveller. I kept a close watch, as did my friend, Bimal, on those few pilgrims with wanderlust.

We scurried through these ancient corridors like rats, resembling a new form of rat (of Western origin) but otherwise pressing forward or against a sea of rats just like us: going to and from trains, or servicing trains (porters, e.g.). After some confusion about our track number, we found our train and hustled aboard a faded blue, decades old set of cars. Ten of us, out of the some thirty, were arbitrarily assigned by the railway online service to First Class cars: a euphemism, merely, they were hardly "first class." Each compartment had 4 berths so I and one other pilgrim, Patricia, got the other eight seated and we took a compartment that had two others (men) in it. The bunks were positioned so the head or feet faced crossways to the direction of travel. The compartment door closed to the hallway but otherwise the bunks were open one to the other.

A man, attempting already to sleep, did not want us to turn the lights on. We had to position our belongings, make our beds, and prepare for sleep in very dim light. I was not feeling well, having a cold and sore throat. I meditated a while but, though lying down, slept not at all through the night. The train would stop for a few minutes and then move on.

Before dawn, we arrived at Kathgodam. The morning air was slightly chilly. We disembarked groggy and perhaps a little grumpy, all of us. We stumbled in the darkness toward the station and out into the parking lot. Fortunately, our guide, Mahavir, and the two buses were waiting. In a few minutes drive, by pre-arrangement, a local hotel welcomed us into their breakfast room where we could use the toilet, have some tea, and biscuits.

Then off we went into the dawn, quickly rising up the foothills on a twisting and turning two-lane (paved) road. Already the air here was clearer and cleaner. The refreshment of woods and mountains poured down from high above like a healing breeze. We dozed and then would gaze at the increasingly beautiful scenery that unfolded in the morning light as we went up and up and turns we could see a hint of the vast Indian subcontinent plains stretching south into an invisible distance hidden by a slightly brown layer of dust and smoke clouds as far as the eye could see.

After some time, perhaps an hour or more, we arrived at a delightfully scenic village on a pond (well, ok they called it a lake). Our buses negotiated the village lanes in a cumbersome, elephantine gait and deposited us a few steps from a hillside ashram belonging to the silent woman saint, Mauni Ma, a direct disciple of Neem Karoli Baba (guru to the famous Baba Haridas). It is a lovely place, clean and quite large, freshly painted. We were still befuddled with sleeplessness. Murali guided us in energization exercises and stretching exercises to help throw off the sleep and I did a guided meditation sadhana lest too much silence produce the sacred hong snore mantra.

Mauni Ma's son addressed us afterwards in the sadhana room and then invited us down into the courtyard for tea and prasad. (We met her, in silence of course, on our way back to Kathgodam before boarding the night train back to Delhi. On that train ride, I slept like a newborn, thus redeeming my less than felicitous prior experience.)

We didn't stay long as we then began a longish but most delightful hike around the village and its lake to a resort hotel on the far side where we had a wonderful breakfast inside and out on the patio. We enjoyed and prolonged our stay as much as we could as it was healing balm visually and in all ways from the intensity of the last many days in the crowded and polluted cities and the heat of the northern plains.

At last we had to board our buses for the long ride up and up the mountains toward Ranikhet. The scenery was stunning but most of us soon tired of the turns and twists and unending mountain roads in these buses which seemed out of place on the narrow and steep roads. We chanted and sang; rested and watched; chatted and read.

Half way up we stopped at an ashram of Neem Karoli Baba. It is extremely clean and beautiful, at the edge of a happy and flowing river in a wooded canyon of sorts. We meditated there for quite some time; had tea at the tea stalls and generally were refreshed and prepared for the next many hours. As we rose in the mountains the sun beat more directly upon the mountain sides and our buses. The last part was mentally and physically challenging for most of us.

At last we reached the hill station along a high ridge facing north. Between the trees I eager looked for glimpses of the Himalayan peaks, still some one hundred miles or so north of us. Soon I was rewarded, even in the fading light of the day. Soon all were pressed to the glass oohhing and aaaahing at every turn as new peaks appeared and brightened our faces and warmed our hearts. We were, though tired, thrilled, for few, if any had ever seen the majestic sacred Himalayan range except in photos.

The Woodsvilla Resort was several miles past Ranikhet, driving along the ridgeline going east. It seemed the bus drive would never end! But at last we arrived and were warmly welcomed by the hotel staff and assisted down the long flight of stone steps into the lobby and soon thereafter to our rooms and into the dining room for dinner. We all retired early to await the big day of going to Babaji's cave on nearby Dronagiri Mountain.

The next day I arose long before sunrise. I could not wait to see the morning light streak across the face of the Himalayan magistrates. I laugh at myself because in my eagerness to watch the drama of light on such a panorama, I decided that surely my guru wouldn't mind if, just this morning, I meditated with my eyes open!

So, I sat on the cushioned window seat facing the Himalayan range and waited as I meditated. Slowly light began to fill the sky. The faces of of the eternal-snow rishis went from darkened silhouette to a clear outline and then a full face. At last, streaks of light shot forth from the east (to my right) and hit the snow-clad mountains full on. Their faces burned with light and came to life before my eyes. The morning dawned cloudless and clear. The sky gradually but quickly turned from inky darkness and star-lit to brilliant blue. It was a thrilling experience; one I will never forget.

This day, then, we are to travel to Babaji's cave. I won't take the "real estate" to describe the wonderful story of Lahiri Mahasaya, age 33, in the year 1861, being transferred mysteriously to Ranikhet and, while out wandering the hills, being called to meet the peerless and deathless guru, Babaji, and being initiated into Kriya Yoga in a cave on Dronagiri Mountain.  I refer you , instead, to Chapter 34 - Materializing a Palace in the Himalaya in Yogananda's famous Autobiography of a Yogi. It is to this cave, reputed to be the very cave, where we are to go today.

It took several hours to get there by our bus. The windy road led down the other side of the mountain, traveling north from the hill station of Ranikhet and along a beautiful, green-carpeted and terraced river valley with quaint villages and picturesque scenes. Then, up the other side along the flanks of Drongiri, not far from the town of Dwarahat. Our drivers took a "short-cut" to avoid going through Dwarahat. I was looking forward to the town because my daughter Gita and I had stayed there two nights on our first visit here less than two years ago. Not knowing this I became confused because as our vehicles rose higher and higher, it seemed to me that I recognized my surroundings as being Drongiri Mountain, yet we hadn't gone through the town! (Later the route we had taken was explained to me.) While very close to our destination, we stopped to take a group photo with the backdrop of several Himalayan Peaks cast against Drongiri Mountain. It was absolutely stunning. All we could do was joke and cajole but inside I think we all felt we had died and gone to heaven but, having just arrived, we weren't sure quite how to behave!

Within minutes, then, we had reached the trailhead to Babaji's cave. Increasingly throughout the world, this remote pilgrimage spot is becoming known. (See ). There's a tea stall and very rustic "hotel" there. We got our provisions readied, did a brief prayer, and began our walk. It starts along a jeep track that follows the curve of the mountain. The sun was hot because now midday, so many of us covered up. The altitude is about 8,000 feet and you feel it when you leave the jeep track and begin trekking more seriously up the side of the mountain.

For me in both visits there I experience the mountain as having a soft light, a mellow light "around the edges." It feels mystical. If that is mere sentiment, then so-be-it. The large rhododendron trees had flaming red flowers on them and on the ground beneath them. The pine trees are dwarf-like, and somewhat spindly and miniature, adding to a fairy-like feeling that someone is watching or the landscape is alive and conscious. You can't see the cave from below.

The trail, once leaving the jeep track, is steep but basically in excellent shape. Signs display the fact that Yogoda Satsangha Society (YSS) owns the property. One crosses what is supposed to be the Gogash River (see Chapter 34) but in March it was sadly dry. It is a shadow of its former self. Lahiri Mahasaya said that Babaji had him lie down at the river's edge after taking some kind of cleansing herbs or drink. He spent the better part of the night there before being summoned back up to the cave.

Just below the cave, YSS has constructed a fence-enclosed outbuilding. I suppose it has supplies in it but it is locked. It makes for a good staging area and picnic area for the final ascent up the trail to the cave itself.

The cave is small. On the inside, it was walled off by YSS to protect the deeper reaches of the cave. I do not know why. The cave itself is locked with an iron gate. We were fortunate however to be allowed in and we took turns meditating there. Many also meditated just outside the cave and on the ledges and hillside surrounding the cave. For breaks one would descend the trail back to the staging area for a snack and a rest.

The hill is pocked with caves and legend has it that not far away there is (are) a cave(s) where centuries ago the Pandavas sought shelter. According to the internet link shown above, the region is spiritually charged.

In meditating there, one should not expect great inner experiences. Should this occur, well, of course that is wonderful. Safe it is, rather, to be still and pray to receive the blessings and grace of the Mahavatar Babaji and the other great rishis (starting with Lahiri Mahasay) upon one's life.

I came away with a deeper appreciation for the truth that in this sore-pressed world come such great souls to show us the way out of delusion and into inner freedom. More than that I came away with a greater appreciation that without the grace of God incarnating in human form through the avatara (divine descent into the human forms by Self-realized souls), we can never find our way out of the labyrinth of suffering and unhappiness. All the great moments and trends of history, politics, religion, science and the arts pale by comparison with the significance of the avatara. Though human history largely ignores them and human beings are indifferent or worse, it remains, in my view and that of devotees and saints everywhere, the most significant fact of human history and our soul's greatest blessing and opportunity.

The rest of our journey was essentially the journey back home to Seattle. Most of it warrants no special description. We were weary and many bore the marks of travel fatigue and illness, but our hearts and souls were cleansed and refreshed. I hope and pray to God that each of my fellow pilgrims retain some permanent beatitude, some light, that can guide the next steps of their spiritual journey towards soul freedom.

With gratitude and devotion, I bow at the lotus-feet of Babaji, of my guru Paramhansa Yogananda, their lineage and to all saints and sages in every time and clime who have walked the path to God-realization and, in so doing, have lit the path for others to follow.

Thank you, dear friends and readers, for coming on this journey with us.

May the light of the Masters shine upon you,

Nayaswami Hriman