Spiritual discomfort

A yoga student discovers a real sadhu -- and spends the night in his cave in northern India.

Published June 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Late last March, I sat on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh, India, wondering if I should be in Kathmandu instead.

It's a delusion that occasionally seizes me on the road -- the nagging anxiety that I've made a wrong turn, that I'm not where I should be, that the life I'm supposed to be living is waiting for me somewhere else, packaged and ready to go, like a takeout dinner I've ordered from a restaurant whose address I now can't remember.

For five months, I'd been traveling all over India researching a guidebook to ashrams and pilgrimage sites for spiritual tourists. Now it was almost time to head back to California, and the routine grind of my job as an editor at Yoga Journal.

I wanted to finish my trip with a mystical adventure, and I had one in mind: a pilgrimage north up the sacred Ganges, worshipped by Hindus as a goddess incarnate, to its source at the ancient temple of Gangotri, high in the Himalayas. Fueling this vision was a phone call I'd gotten the week before I left for India from a close friend with lung cancer. "I had a dream that you were supposed to bring me some air from Gangotri," he had told me. "Just take a deep breath and hold it till you get back."

But after three days in Rishikesh, the launching pad for the Gangotri pilgrimage made by tens of thousands of Hindus every summer, I was reluctantly facing the fact that my timing was off.

I needed to be back in Delhi within two weeks, to catch my flight to California. But the road to Gangotri, I learned in Rishikesh, was buried by landslides and avalanches 37 miles short of the holy temple, which was still closed for the winter.

And although a trekking agent I consulted assured me that I could hike there cross-country, "no problem," the expedition he described was an eight-day, subfreezing trek through unplowed snowdrifts -- hauling camping gear handed down from the Indian army, circa 1965 -- with only a hired guide for company. "No problem," the agent assured me again. "Our guide is very good chap, speaking some English, will be discussing with you philosophy of life and all like that." That clinched it. I resigned myself to remaining in the foothills.

For any reasonable person, Rishikesh would be sufficiently magical. It's the "gateway to the gods," a holy pilgrimage spot, where the Ganges descends from the Himalayas to the plains. The river rushed at my feet, bottle-green over glinting white boulders. I gazed across the water at a pastel froth of spired and turreted temples and ashrams, peach and pink and yellow and baby blue -- I've never seen a city that so strongly resembles a 6-year-old's birthday cake.

The streets were jammed with pilgrims: the wandering ascetics known as sadhus, whose painted faces and tridents marked their allegiance to Shiva, the god of destruction; a gang of blond yoga students in immaculate white kurtas, arguing heatedly in German. A rubber raft floated by, bearing a load of tipsy white-water rafters in life jackets and helmets, belting out the theme song from a popular Hindi film.

But none of it charmed me -- I was too distracted by the foul weather inside my head. My own mind felt hard and lumpy, like a bed that I couldn't get comfortable in, no matter how hard I tried.

Rishikesh seemed like a spiritual Disneyland, mysticism packaged for tourists. I yearned for the raw, wild spirit of the Himalayas, where solitary yogis spend decades in mountain caves, practicing ascetic rites to bring themselves to God.

I was tired of doing things alone, but also tired of meeting new people -- after five months on the road, I was sick of being the new kid in town every single week. I wanted to find someone to go to Gangotri with me, but it's a tough way to initiate a conversation: "Would you like to go on a long and grueling hike through the snow with me? We really need to leave tomorrow, since I don't have much time ..."

This is about as effective as announcing, five minutes into a first date, that you're only interested in a committed monogamous relationship and you want to have a baby within a year.

Two days later, the travel gods came to my rescue. I met a traveling companion, a 37-year-old Spanish spiritual seeker named Maria. Maria didn't want to go all the way to Gangotri, but she was heading halfway there -- up the river to an ashram near Uttarkashi, where she'd heard an enlightened guru was in residence. I rented a sleeping bag from the trekking agent -- its approximate weight was 235 pounds, but I was sure the lead lining would prove very useful in the event of nuclear attack. I strapped it to my backpack, determined that if I couldn't make it to Gangotri, at least I'd get as close as I could.

Maria and I wedged ourselves -- along with six chain-smoking men -- into a 1950s-model Ambassador taxi, which blasted north along twisting mountain roads. The driver's strategy around hairpin turns was to barrel through them as quickly as possible, so as to minimize the time spent in the danger zone. (He was only egged on by poetic roadside signs like "Life's a Journey -- Let's Finish It" and "Corner Cutters Drop Dead Into Gutters.") When I dared open my eyes, though, the drive was spectacular -- terraced green valleys, rugged hills thick with birch and pine and, snaking along below us, the silver ribbon of the Bhagirathi River, one of the two strands that come together to form the Ganges. As we climbed higher and higher, snow-tipped peaks began poking up in the distance, then vanishing again, in a kind of strip-tease hint of pleasures to come.

Ten minutes after Maria and I arrived in Uttarkashi (a sudden snarl of traffic, temples and shops, lodged in a bend in the river) we met a wilderness guide drinking chai at the Belur Hotel. He was a gentle, somber man named Jai Singh, who taught at a local mountaineering school. Jai Singh informed me that the information I had gotten in Rishikesh was incorrect. (This wasn't surprising -- information, in India, is composed more of rumors than facts, and the truth must be arrived at by carefully comparing multiple versions of the same story, like scholars analyzing Biblical texts.) The road was open as far as Hirsil, 12 miles from Gangotri, he assured me. From there, we could hike to Gangotri in a single day.

Maybe I'd been drinking too much chai. In a burst of caffeinated enthusiasm, I hired him.

The next morning, I left Maria to explore the joys of a new guru, and with Jai Singh as my guide, scrambled into a bus heading north and up. We drove to where the road was blocked by an avalanche, at an altitude of about 9,000 feet. Then I hoisted my backpack and began to hike.

Aside from an occasional rock slide or avalanche, the path was clear; the climb was steady but gradual. When the pilgrimage season opened, Jai Singh explained, the road would be roaring with buses and jeeps, delivering loads of pilgrims, boom box-toting picnickers and Western backpackers. But now it was blissfully deserted. Until the paved road was built in the 1960s -- as a military response to tensions with China -- the only way to get to Gangotri from Rishikesh was on foot. I was grateful that I was getting a taste of the original flavor of this pilgrimage.

The only other pilgrims we passed were a few solitary sadhus, tramping along in ragged robes and sandals. There are millions of sadhus in India -- the wandering ascetics whose path of renunciation has been an integral part of India's social and spiritual fabric for over 3,000 years. Living on alms -- and traditionally forbidden to stay in any one place for longer than three days -- most of them wander from holy site to holy site, practicing ascetic rites and rituals designed to break their attachment to the world and bring about blissful union with God. Others live in solitude in remote mountain forests and caves. Many modern Indians complain that most of these
"holy men" are simply beggars in orange robes -- what I'd come to call "pseudo sadhus." But few will risk offending a genuine saint by refusing alms.

Snowy Himalayan peaks soared ahead of us to over 20,000 feet. The slopes around us were thick with blue pine, rhododendrons, oak and horse chestnuts. We stopped at a mud shack for chai boiled over a wood fire, tasting of smoke and cardamom. As we approached Gangotri, we began to pass seedy clumps of deserted tourist bungalows, covered up to their windowsills in dirty snow banks. In a few weeks, Jai Singh told me, tourist buses would be bumper to bumper for two miles before Gangotri.

Finally, just as my ankles were starting to ache, we arrived at Gangotri itself, at 10,300 feet: a fantastically beautiful jumble of water-sculpted, caramel-colored granite, with the pale green river seething through it; and a fantastically ugly jumble of tourist hotels, growing on the banks in a giant fungus of cinder block and brick -- many of them still half built, with bristles of rebar protruding from their unfinished walls like punk hairdos. In the middle of them stood the ancient temple to the goddess Ganga, a squat stone cube painted sky blue and silver, sealed off with an iron grating until the opening ceremonies, three weeks away.

We paused below the temple at the bathing ghat marking the place where King Bhagirathi had meditated for thousands of years, begging the Ganga to descend from heaven to purify the sins of his ancestors (who had offended the gods by -- well, it's long story). As we dipped our fingertips respectfully in the icy water, we were greeted by a raisin-faced swami in an orange robe and orange slippers -- even his two remaining teeth were sort of orange. He escorted us to his rough stone shack, where he fixed us a heaping plate of rice and dahl and cup after cup of ultra-sweet chai, laced with ginger and pepper.

We spent the night in Danda Swami's shack, with snow falling outside and the wind hissing through the cracks of the wooden shutters. The carpet was burlap bags, the ceiling was a plastic tarp, the toilet was a snow bank 50 feet away. I was wildly happy. Finally, I thought smugly, I was on my way to a real adventure.

However, I wasn't yet at the true source of the Ganges. Over the centuries, the glacier has retreated from Gangotri, and now the actual spot where the water gushes forth from the ice is at Gomukh -- the "Cow's Mouth" -- another 12 miles steep climb on an unpaved trail. The trail to Gomukh was reportedly still impassable, but Jai Singh thought we might be able to make it through. He recommended that we take an exploratory day hike in that direction, to see what the conditions were like -- leaving our backpacks, food and sleeping bags in Gangotri. Our aim was to make it as far as Chirbasa, an evergreen grove in a valley halfway between Gangotri and Gomukh, before turning around and returning to our lodge in Gangotri to spend the night.

The trail was steep and narrow, slicing along the edge of precipitous hillsides and cliffs above the Bhagirati. It was occasionally covered in snow or buried by a rock slide or avalanche, and I was glad I wasn't carrying a pack as I picked and scrambled my way along. The sleek white slopes were broken by groves of deodar and bhujbas -- a member of the beech family -- on whose papery bark the great Indian epic called the Mahabarata is said to have first been written down. The sky was pigeon-gray, the peaks toward Gomukh were draped in clouds and the wind bit at my bare neck. But the climbing kept me warm, even in my windbreaker and light cotton pants, and I figured Jai Singh would steer us back if the weather got too threatening.

Not far from Gangotri, we passed a boulder that sported the spray-painted slogan "Holy man 400 mtrs. Ask any questions" -- with a wobbly arrow pointing down toward the riverbed. "Is there a sadhu living there?" I asked.

"Summertimes only," Jai Singh answered. "Summertime, so many sadhus coming, painting their faces, wearing robes and malas, getting so much money from so many tourists. Wintertime, going to Uttarkashi, going to Delhi, living in house with central heat, watching BBC, MTV, Star TV."

"How many of the sadhus we see are real sadhus?" I asked.

He thought for a minute, then answered, "Maybe 8 percent, 10 percent maximum."

Jai Singh's idea of a day hike was a little different from mine. Chirbasa, it turned out, was a good seven miles from Gangotri, at an altitude of close to 13,000 feet. By the time we sighted its cluster of pines, dark against the snowy slopes, my legs were aching, my breath was shallow and quick and I was sincerely regretting having brought along nothing to eat but half a Cadbury chocolate bar. "Half an hour more," Jai Singh said cheerfully. "One hour, maximum --" and suddenly the wind began to blow hard down the valley, and within minutes we were wrapped in swirling snowflakes so thick we couldn't see Chirbasa at all.

We stopped and looked at each other. "Blizzard," Jai Singh announced.

"Should we turn around?"

"Going back is not so good. Can't see trail, can't see cliffs. Could be some avalanche coming."

"Then what do we do?"

"We go on to Chirbasa. There is one baba staying there in a cave. We can spend the night with him, if he is having some blankets."

A surge of anticipation wiped out my anxiety. Food, camping gear, warm clothes -- what did they matter, really, if finally, after months of pseudo-sadhus, I would meet ...

"Is this one a pretend sadhu?" I asked.

"He is the real thing," said Jai Singh.

But when we made our way into Chirbasa, slipping and stumbling on hidden boulders as the trail fast disappeared under fresh snow, it wasn't a sadhu we encountered first. Instead, the tableau that appeared amid the swirling flakes was a tall, gray-haired man in a full-body Goretex snowsuit, accompanied by a porter and a guide, sitting by a campfire next to a brilliant orange dome tent. Water was boiling and the porter was arranging chocolate cookies on a metal tray. The whole scene looked like a Christmas-season TV spot for REI.

"I do hope you're not from L.A.," the gray-haired man greeted me in a "Masterpiece Theatre" accent. "People from L.A. are such total stinkers."

"San Francisco," I clarified.

"Oh, that's a tad better. As long as you're not into any of those spiritual fads, you can stay for tea."

I looked at the cookies, the bubbling chai. I know when to keep my mouth shut. I resolved that if pressed, I would tell him I worked for Plumber's Journal.

The man's name was Menno, he said; he was an advertising producer from London. He'd been trying to make it to Gomukh, but had had to turn back; even with ice-pick, snow boots and full winter gear, the trail had proved too difficult, with neck-deep snow and the threat of landslide and avalanches. "Last night, " he lamented, "I had to wipe my bum with snow."

"This wasn't a positive experience?" I asked. "You don't want to re-create it at home, with an ice chest next to your toilet?"

"It would have been all right if it had been a two-minute crap," he said morosely. "This one went on for hours."

I rubbed the crumbs from my mouth and looked at Jai Singh. "Maybe," I suggested, "we should go looking for that baba soon?"

The sadhu lived in a cave on a ledge high on a snow-draped hillside, with a tiny lean-to of stone and plastic tarps attached to the cave's mouth. Roused from meditation by Jai Singh -- who called "Maharaj! Jai, Maharaj!" and flashed my feeble, dying Maglite around the inside of the lean-to -- he drew back the canvas flap of the door and stood squinting at us in the snow-reflected light. He was a thin man, apparently in his 50s or 60s, with a twisted knot of black beard and a great mass of hair bundled up in a brown scarf. He did not seem entirely pleased to see us on his doorstep.

Vehement talking in Hindi followed, along with much gesticulation toward me and an occasional phrase in English from Jai Singh, who appeared to be listing the credentials that made me worth rescuing from the storm: "Journalist ... yoga ... pure vegetarian."

Finally, a deal was struck. We were welcome to stay with the sadhu, if we didn't mind sleeping on the bare dirt floor of his storeroom, with one thin blanket as our only bedding and no fire. But the sadhu ate only one meal a day -- consisting mainly of nuts and potatoes -- and he'd already had it. So if we wanted dinner, we'd have to beg it from Menno.

We plowed through the mounting drifts back to Menno's campsite, a journey that felt like a snowy form of time travel -- could Menno and the Maharaj possibly coexist in the same century? I hung my soaked socks to dry by the fire and sat as close to the flames as I could without igniting, watching the steam rise from my damp cotton pants. Menno boiled up a pot of Top Ramen -- "Macho Masala," a flavor I've never encountered in California -- and regaled me with stories of drinking binges in London, Las Vegas, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. ("And so there I was, locked out of my apartment in Soho; and so I wobbled on down to the local police station and slurred, 'Excuse me, officer, I've misplaced my keys; would you mind putting me up in an empty cell for the night? My firm will be happy to make you an appropriate donation.' And they were just about to give me a bed when word came in on the radio that there had just been a drug raid, and they were bringing in 25 new criminals for the night; so I couldn't have a cell. I tell you, I made a stinking fuss. 'What about me?' I was almost crying. 'What about the cell you promised me?'")

By the time we made it back to the sadhu's cave, it was almost dark and still snowing hard. We pushed in through the canvas door flap and shone my Maglite around. We were in a tiny, dirt-floored room -- walls of misfitting stones with burlap and plastic tarps stretched over the gaps; roof of birch poles supporting more burlap and plastic tarps; and plenty of gaps everywhere for frigid air to circulate. Hanging from the ceiling were woven baskets, piled with cloth sacks of potatoes. Behind the canvas-draped door that led to the entrance of the cave itself, we could hear the sadhu chanting in occasionally faltering Sanskrit.

Tentatively, I pulled aside the flap and peeked inside: Our host was sitting cross-legged next to an oil lamp, peering at yellowing manuscript pages through Buddy Holly spectacles. He did not look up at my intrusion. Dropping the flap, I pulled a blanket around me and sat down to meditate. For half an hour I tried to focus on my breath and the Sanskrit song, which contained a recurring phrase I recognized from my days as an undergraduate religion major: "Neti, neti ..." "Not this, not this." The transcendent vision of the Upanishads, the mystical verses composed 3,000 years ago by seers in deep meditation: "Is this body the true Self? No, not this. Are the thoughts the true Self? No, not this. The feelings? No, not this ..."

When I opened my eyes, Jai Singh was looking at me. "While you were meditating," he said brightly, "three very large rats ran next to you. Back and forth, back and forth. Oh, very, very large!"

For the first time, my enthusiasm began to falter. I'd been feeling pretty excited about the chance to spend one night as an honest-to-God ascetic. But rats?

A few minutes later, the sadhu pulled aside the flap and stuck his head into our chamber. Through Jai Singh, I asked him his name, which he said was Rampal; he had been living in this cave for 15 years, he said, ever since Gangotri began to feel too social for a serious sadhu.

Rampal began to lecture me sternly in Hindi, which Jai Singh translated. If I ate mutton, he informed me, I would have to spend 64 lifetimes as an animal before attaining human birth again. I assured him that I didn't eat mutton (but thought, a little guiltily, of the occasional sushi -- how many lifetimes for a piece of maguro?). "This human life is precious," Rampal told me. "So rare it is, to be born a human! Do not waste your time."

Abruptly, the interview was over. Rampal dropped the curtain and retreated into his cozy chamber -- the really luxurious part of the cave, where there was even a fire flickering. As a woman and a foreigner, Jai Singh explained, I would pollute his home by entering and necessitate several lifetimes of penances.

My mini-Maglite was barely functioning, casting a faint circle of light about as big as a quarter. From the bottom of my day pack I pulled out a stub of candle, left over from some ashram ritual months ago. "Do you have any matches?" I asked my wilderness guide, hopefully. "Madame," he replied with stern indignation, "I am not a smoker."

A few minutes later, my light blinked out, and I lay down on a floor as cold as an ice-skating rink, huddled under a rat-gnawed blanket. In the next room, I could hear Rampal chanting the lilting song that accompanies arati, the ritual "offering of fire." I peeked though his flap and watched him swirling a candle flame in a circle before his altar. Then I watched as, still chanting the name of Ram, he busied himself in another ceremony involving a flickering flame and a kettle: It took me a while to realize that he was preparing a pot of tea. Wistfully, I dropped the flap and prepared to shiver my way through the night.

Every half hour or so, I'd hear the thunder of an avalanche cascading from a nearby peak. With every crash, Rampal would toss in his bed on the other side of the curtain and call out praises to the gods -- "Jai, Sita Ram!" To keep myself warm, I tried to practice the yogic breathing technique known as "breath of fire," a vigorous bellows-like snort that, after all, had probably been developed in a cave much like this one. Using such practices, some yogis can raise their body temperatures high enough to dry wet blankets in subzero temperatures. I soon discovered that I am not one of them. Instead I settled for turning over every 15 minutes, whenever the part of me pressed against the floor started to go numb.

I was starting to get tired of my adventure. All right, I'd visited an actual sadhu in his cave; I'd had my sampling of genuine mystical experience. Now could we fast forward the tape to the time when I was back in Rishikesh, drinking lassi by the Ganges again? How had I failed to appreciate its charms? My bones were aching, my nose was running, my head throbbed with exhaustion and altitude. I'd been waiting for weeks for a mystical moment; now it was here, I couldn't wait for it to be over.

The most exotic experience, I reflected, is made up of the most mundane details. I was in a Himalayan cave with a holy man; back in California, I could tell that to my yogi friends and they'd moan with envy. Yet the actual experience mainly consisted of damp socks, numb fingers, sore throat and shivering jaw. Maybe my spiritual teachers were right when they told me, over and over, that all moments are equally magical, if we give them our full attention. Maybe my mystical adventure had been happening all along. Maybe Menno was as mysterious as Rampal.

I wondered if Rampal found his own life extraordinary -- alone year-round, with nothing to do but meditate, chant, study scripture and pray. Was he happy? Did he manage to attain -- at least intermittently -- the state of blissful union with the cosmos that is the ultimate goal of a yogi's practice?

Another wall of snow crashed from a distant mountain. "Jai, Sita Ram!" called Rampal. "Jai, Sita Ram," I whispered, and turned my other side to the icy floor.

Sometime toward dawn, Rampal began to sing again. I peeked into his chamber and watched his shadowy figure moving about his cave, singing in Sanskrit, the ancient language whose syllables yogis believe have the power to shape reality. As pale light began to seep in between the chinks in our stone walls, Jai Singh lifted our canvas door flap and we peered out at huge drifts of snow, with scattered flakes still falling.

Rampal poked his head out and began speaking urgently to Jai Singh. "He says we must go now," Jai Singh translated. "More snow will be coming. Avalanches could also be coming as day is getting warmer. If we stay, could be trapped here long time." Clearly, this thought was as alarming to Rampal as it was to me.

I pulled on my boots; Jai Singh wrapped his feet in plastic bags and slid them into his canvas tennis shoes. We stepped out into the drifts, put our hands in prayer position, bowed to our host and started off.

But before we left, I took a long look out over the valley, blanketed in snow, with the dark thread of the river snaking through it and the mountain peaks disappearing into clouds. I thought of my friend who had asked me to bring him some Gangotri air -- and I took a deep breath, and held it.

By Anne Cushman

Anne Cushman is a writer who lives in Northern California. She previously wrote for Wanderlust about a wandering sadhu from Texas named Charan Das.

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