I took the ticket for Haridwar. I thought, ‘Let me take a dip in cold waters of Rishikesh.’ Amma’s strong faith had created some hope of my fate reversal after visiting there.
There was a distinct change in my thoughts those days.
I had started believing in omens, acts of faith, and fate, while confidence on my own abilities reduced without any notice. Within a few minutes of self nurtured faith, I had full confidence on Ganga’s ability to change my fortunes. The faith had built subconsciously from the moment Amma told about it till the time I bought the ticket. And it kept on building. It gave me a new energy and cheerfulness.
I went where Amma was. There was still an hour before the next train to Delhi.
It was peak business hour for Amma. I told her, “I am going to Rishikesh. You want to come?”
She thought for a while, and then said, “I can’t go now.’
She was not the usual cheerful self I had seen in the morning. But I had seen my parents also like that in evenings. Old folks were normally cheerful in the morning as they were full of energy, but became pensive as day wore them out.
Amma took out a small paper and asked me to offer it to Ganga. The paper had her husband’s name on it. His last remains had long back been given to a local river. But this wish had remained. I took it and kept it in my bag, and started on my journey to Rishikesh.
I was standing on the Lakshman Jhoola at Rishikesh. It was seven in the evening.
Below, the mighty Ganges was flowing in all its beauty and force. The daily Ganga Aarti was being performed at a distance with fervor. The chorus of the Aarti and the ambience with the river and the mountain air could make anyone feel the divinity of the Ganges and the universe.
With the onset of summer, there were a lot of tourists, vehicles, street vendors and beggars around. I checked with a few small hotels around the Lakshman Jhoola market but they were either full or expecting too much. Wandering, I crossed over to the other side of the Bridge. There were many economical eating joints there. After dinner, I roamed around in the Tibetan market there and asked for rooms. One boy selling toys offered to get a room for me. He took me inside the market to some shanties. The families there were letting out a room in their homes. They were most filthy and also charged through the nose. Everyone was taking advantage of the packed season.
After I refused the options, the boy asked, “Sahab, Ashram will do?” I nodded.
I was fine to stay in a Dharamshala or an Ashram. I had stayed in a Dharamshala in Haridwar with my parents but it was almost twenty years back.
The boy grew bolder, and asked, “Sahab, you want a foreigner Ashram or Indian one?” I asked him about the payment required. He said, “Sahab, Just mention my name in the entry register. You will have to pay 200 rupees only at any place. But you will have to listen to the lectures or participate in the rituals. They will start at nine and go on till midnight.”
Then I told him, “Any clean one will do. Lectures and rituals I can handle for one evening.”
Then I asked, “But what will be your fee?” The boy said, “You pay me fifty bucks. I will get you to a heavenly place. You will come back to this place all your life. But don’t forget to mention my name to the Ashram.”
I told him, ‘Friend, if I can get a clean place to sleep and clean toilets, I will surely recommend you to all I know.” He said confidently, “Then come.”
We walked on the paved path that turned left from the Jhoola. For almost half a kilometer, it was well lit and had tourists sitting on benches with some food vendors roaming around. Then it started getting dark as the lights pillars were now placed at longer distances. We must have walked for half a kilometer, when he turned right. We left the paved plain path for a climbing path. This path was also well lit. There were a few boards on that path, some signaling to resorts, and some to Ashrams. They were spread in wide area, and one could see lights in clusters at some distance.
After about ten minutes of walk, we came to the gate of an Ashram. The guards let me in after checking my bag. They also took my identification card. It was to be returned while leaving. The boy came inside and continued with me. After a hundred meter walk, there was a reception house. While going in there, I saw a family with kids was coming out. They were not found fit for the Ashram stay. Inside the reception room, a middle aged man greeted me. He took me to another room, and asked my purpose of visit. Then he asked about my background. I explained everything honestly.
Then he explained, “This ashram is for people like you. We believe that only those sent by God come here. We run on your donations which do not mean money only. One can introduce friends, family members and make them members. I would advise you stay for a few days here and absorb the teachings. For today, you will be requested to attend the session which will be taken by Swami ji. Here, we emphasize that one should have complete knowledge of all sciences. We want you to study the whole universe from your point of view – the study of macrocosm through the study of the microcosm. If you do not understand something here, do not leave it. Study in depth what we practice and come back if you need more time.”
I could not understand what he was talking about. I nodded. Then he took my signatures on some forms and asked me to proceed. I gave the money to boy and told him that I will see him tomorrow.
From the reception cottage, one escort took me to an open sleeping area. On the slopes and around the trees, many open areas had been well maintained. One had to sleep on the ground but a mat and a rug was provided. Each place had been given a number. He asked me to leave my bag there, and come to the hall by nine p.m. I roamed around a bit. Apart from mats, each area also had hammocks, a few comfortable wooden benches and charpoys. Then I checked the common restrooms. They were quite clean. It seemed like a decent place.
At nine, I reached the hall as instructed. There were about a hundred people gathered, sitting on floor in rows away from the deck where Swami ji was going to sit. There was enough space between rows for people to move and stretch themselves. The hall was marble floored, and the walls were white painted, without any paintings or religious structures.
Almost all were young or middle aged men. I could see only a few old men. There were groups of hippies or other foreigners. They occupied the front rows as they had come early. They must have been more than a quarter of the population. Within their group, most of them were young women. Rest of the folks looked like tourists or like me and had wandered off to this place for night. There were a few groups of young boys also around who must have come on group tour. Later I realized that many of these people were long time residents there or were regular visitors as they were well versed with the rituals.
Swami ji arrived and sat on the deck floor. All other lights were dimmed. This Swami was a younger fellow; there were posters of many old Swamis behind him. There were four other people seated behind him – one man and three young women. They all were dressed in white clothes draped around. On his call, people chanted a verse in unison. Then he greeted everyone. His words were very clear and diction impressive. I do not remember his speech but it started with description of the two forces denoted by Shiva and Shakti. Then he explained how these two create a continuous process of creation, preservation and destruction in this world. He talked about the power of ‘desire’ that guides this process in universe. He gradually came to humans and how their desires can lead them to God. He talked about virtues of desire and how it should be viewed, and how curbing desires lead to anxiety and loneliness, and how the free expression of desire leads to God.
It had been half an hour of intense session. He took a ten minutes break for people to relax and ask questions. During this time, there were a few questions. Then he asked two of the women to distribute the Prasad while he resumed the speech. I looked at the watch and said to myself, ‘Half an hour more’. But looking around, it appeared that others were totally engrossed. I also had admired his clarity of thought, but I just wanted to crash at that time.
Swami ji repeated some of the stuff he had said earlier. Then he explained how the desire is created in humans through their senses. I was dozing off but pretending to be wide awake, as we used to do in our classes. But this class was getting much more entertaining. Swami ji started talking about the desires between a man and a woman and how it was the most basic desire, before any other material desires came into being, and hence it was the path to God. I was dozing but still awake enough to see that the cloth of the woman behind him had gone above her knees. There was a similar show above her waist. The man sitting next to her had come closer to her and had a good muscular body. It was quite artistically and perfectly done to raise everyone’s senses. Swami ji was speaking, raising everyone’s heartbeats but I was struggling to keep my eyes open. The two Sanyassins came closer in our row distributing prasad; first one had a vessel- the common liquid prasadam supposed to be made of curd and other ingredients. Now I was temporarily but fully awake. The first one slowly poured the Prasad in a person both hands, then waited as he gulped it. Then she moved on while the second one wiped the hands with the edge of her cloth. All the surrounding men watched as much as dim lights provided for. I realized the matter when they came to my neighbor. Both women were quite beautiful, and they had a single cloth draped around their waist. It had moved much higher than their knee and just one layer that loosely covered their body below shoulders. I thanked them for the Prasad as they moved on with a smile.
Swami ji had reached the end of his speech by the time Prasad distribution was over. He said approvingly, “For all those who deny desires, I have seen it your eyes, and how you have struggled to suppress them. What I have told you is just a tip of the whole Tantric Yoga. Those who want to rest now may please proceed. We are grateful that you visited here. Those who want to know more can wait and even stay in the Ashram as members.”
I walked off to sleep; the Prasad also made me feel drowsy. I guess those used to regular intoxication would have had different orientation.
It was a good business. Even if they got five new members each day, it would cover all of their running lavish expenses. On top of it, they had lots of regular members anyhow. I did not deny that the Swami ji had a hold on his subject. The group’s mastery of a branch of ancient knowledge and ability to use it for exploiting a human desire or emptiness meant a lot of money.
Later, I observed that out there, a lot of ashrams existed catering to different human faults and distresses. Many of them were doing good work too.
That night, I slept without any care. It was the effect of Rishikesh air and open sky. But I got up early next morning. As I stood up, the scene around and in the hall was telling the story of the night. Some people had left, while a few were still lying asleep, some men and women snuggled together.
I got ready, collected my Identity card and left for the Lakshman Jhoola. Last night nothing was visible but today, the path was beautiful. There were tall mountains all around and the Ganges was visible at a distance. I went past the Lakshman Jhoola, looking for a path to the ghat.
The toy vendor boy shouted in excitement from above as many heads turned to listen to our conversation, “Sahab, Raat kaisi rahi? Desi ne lee ki firang ne?” (Sir, how was the night? You got it from a foreign one or an Indian one?)
I said, “Aajkal meri sirf oopar wala leta hai.” (Now days, I get it only from God)
He laughed and said, “Fir to Gangaji hi madad kar sakti hain.” (Only Ganges can help you then)
The commercial set up of the place and all kinds of activities around were distracting me from inhaling the divinity of the place. The force of Amma’s faith that had set me in motion had dwindled but I went down the Ghat steps. I took Amma’s paper, deposited my belongings for safekeeping and sat on the steps with my waist submerged. Then I released Amma’s paper in the water. The water was ice cold even in summer.
I immersed my head a few times, prayed to the sun and the Ganges and came out. I had completed what I had come for but the results were awaited.
I left Rishikesh, and went straight to Agra by bus. I had called my parents to the Railway station and made a booking in the overnight train to Bhopal. My parents were looking relaxed when they arrived at the station. In the safety of an Air force campus and the stability of an officer’s life, they had felt what life should have been.