Badrinath: A Sacred Hill
“On my spiritual journey, I first encountered energy practices through Reiki.
Imagine a sacred temple on a Himalayan top that the priests close down in winter, where they light a small oil lamp which they find still lit when they return in May. They believe that sages and deities descend to worship in Badrinath temple while residents of the town move to lower altitudes, due to heavy snow, every November until May.
When I heard the name Badrinath, years ago, I knew I had to go there one day. At that time I was just back from India and I had a map of Uttaranchal region. I remember opening the map and marking Badrinath on my map. Now 10 years later, I was finally on my way. I knew it was going to be a hard journey, it’s never easy in the Himalayas but I also knew it was worth the 3 day road trip.
Badrinath is considered one of the 4 holy hills in Himalayas (Badrinath, Kedernath, Gangotri and Yamunotri) and a sacred pilgrimage site. It’s believed that even 5,000 years ago Badrinath was sacred and visited by holy persons and even at that time it was known to be old. Just imagine! I’ve been to one of the other sacred hills in Himalayas, Gangotri, 10 years ago, now I have 2 more to go.
We flew from Leh back to Delhi and took the 4 hour train to Haridwar and then bus to Rishikesh. We stayed overnight at Rishikesh and from there started our driving trip, slowly climbing through small villages and above beautiful river canyons, following the Ganges River, toward one of its two sources. On the way, we passed the holy spots where two rivers merge (Prayags) and the confluences produce great spiritual energy. It’s a custom to bathe in these holy convergence points. We passed through 5 of these prayags, Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, Nandprayag and Vishnuprayag. Devprayag is essentially the site of the beginning of the river Ganges, as Bhagirathi river from Gaumukh and Alakananda rivers confluence. The town is remarkable as it sets at the convergence of these two rivers.
The route to Badrinath is one of the most difficult one due to the lofty terrain, curves and cliffs yet the most scenic and beautiful. After driving all day, our dinner and overnight stop was at Rudraprayag, another convergence point.
We continued driving the next day, the whole day, much of the time still along the Ganges, as more and more beautiful and lofty panorama unfolded. The drive definitely takes some faith and a skillful driver is the best investment you can make. I survived the last half an hour by chanting. We were all hungry and tired and honestly I was about to lose it to the dark and endless curvy roads when finally the lights of Badrinath emerged out of deep Himalayan darkness. “Wahe Guru” 3 times to our Sikh driver!
Badrinath, at an elevation of 10,200 feet, is remote and so beautiful, with a tangible spiritual power that anyone can feel. The colorful temple of Badrinath enshrines the sacred statue discovered in the river by Adi Shankaracharya in the 9th century. Adi Shankara was inspired to dive into the river and find the lost statue of Lord Badrinarayan and reinstate it in the Badrinath shrine. The statue depicts a seated, long-haired yogi (yes, its’ indeed looking just like Babaji). It’s hard to see the features when covered with all the garments and flowers and unfortunately the face didn’t survive the centuries but we were very fortunate to witness a ceremony (Abishek pooja) at the temple that revealed the statue to the public. We had to go to the temple at 4:30am and wait in the line to be admitted but who cares about the freezing temperatures, in the end we witnessed something extraordinary. I must say I’m pleasantly surprised how organized the line was (lines usually don’t work in India). They called our names one by one and got us all on a single line to get into the temple. Given that there were hundreds of people waiting outside the shrine to just get a glimpse of the statue, it was pretty impressive that it all worked very orderly. Around 70 people stocked up in the small shrine and all seated miraculously. The ceremony lasted for 2 hours and it was one of the most unique and moving ceremonies I’ve had to witness. It was full of symbolism so I’ll not attempt to explain it fully but, the smell in the air, the fire, the prasad, the drums that beat louder and louder mixed with chanting coming from hundreds of faithful pilgrims that waited outside just to have a glimpse of the statue rise up and up until the curtain is pulled and the statue is hidden again until next time.
At our hotel, there was another westerner group. The news spread very quickly that they are Marshall Govindan and his students. Marshall Govindan’s book of “Babaji and 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Traditions” was on my Amazon wish list for last 6-7 years. Everytime I purchased something from Amazon, it didn’t feel like it was time for me to read this book so I kept it in my wish list. Who could have guessed I would meet the author in Badrinath. It turns out that Marshal Govindan was building an ashram in Badrinath and he graciously invited us for a practice together. It was another magical experience to walk to the ashram up the hill from our hotel, still under construction and join their outdoor chanting and the fire ceremony in the Himalaya sunset and meditate and chant together.
Our common ground is Babaji, the yogi who brought Kriya yoga to our times. He is a immortal guru who is around 2000 years old. Always looking 16 years old, there are many people who have an account of meeting Babaji personally and being instructed by him directly. I remember last time I was in Himalayas, I was hoping that I could have an encounter with him. Who doesn’t? Now I know why Marshall Govindan said he’s building his ashram here because this is the place one can feel Babaji’s presence. His presence is palpable. Now I know Badrinath is his abode.
A 3 miles walk from our hotel was the last village of India, Mana, it’s just 15 miles from the border of Tibet. Here, ancient history becomes blended with even more ancient Hindu mythology. I personally felt like I was living a scene from Mahabharata, the great Indian epic. Our first stop was a cave attributed to Ganesh (my dear Ganesh), the elephant headed God who removes obstacles on the paths. This is the cave where he served as Vyasa’s scribe for Mahabharata. I opened my heart to Ganesh and prayed to remove any obstacles from my way, especially the self- imposed ones, so that any karma, root causes of karma or its manifestations in this lifetime and the past be cleaned at all levels, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual and I can be in perfect harmony with my Divine self.
Short distance up the hill, there was the cave where Vyasa is said to have written the Mahabharata epic. As we entered the cave, I noticed a tall, sturdy sadhu sitting in meditation, breathing softly. His hair was pulled back, yet locks were pouring to his shoulders. Honestly I said to myself, who the heck do you think you are, behaving like Vyasa! As my eyes adjusted to darkness, to my astonishment, I realized it was the statue of Vyasa. I was so sure he was alive and breathing seconds ago. I had one of the deepest meditations there and I went there back the next day to meditate, with my deepest gratitude to Vyasa for revealing himself.
Here in Badrinath the characters of the Mahabharata come to life. “Stairway to Heaven” marks the path the Pandava brothers took at the end of their lives; the shrine where Draupadi (Pandava’s wife) dropped her body.
Bhima’s bridge, the boulder Bhima is said to have placed so his brothers could cross the Saraswati River; the Saraswati river, which represents Shuhumna, the central energy channel in our bodies, emerges here from the mountain and goes underground only to emerge hundreds of miles later. Nara-Narayana, the twin-brother avatars working for the preservation of dharma have transformed themselves into mountains as they may stay here at Badrinath.
One day we hiked to Vasundra falls. It’s a 3 miles hike on Stairway to Heaven. The hike was tough as the stone pebbled walkway was very steep at times. It took me 2.5 hours to get to the falls. Not too bad, given the high altitude. The view of Vasudhara river valley was very scenic as Mana village got smaller and smaller and disappeared behind. I was so exhausted when I get to the falls, I simply laid on a rock and enjoyed the cool breeze and the sun. My lunch of power bars, nuts and fruit never tasted so good.
Another hike was to the Neelkanth valley. Neelkanth is one of the central Himalayan peaks at 6,500 mt (21,600 feet). On the way up, we come across a rock that Lord Vishnu left his footprint when he first descended to Earth. We meditated at that point, offered a chant and continued hiking. The deep blue sky pierced with snow capped Himalayan tops, puffy clouds travelling over mountain tops, flowers, even the nettles make it easy to see God in everything you look.
I was determined to leave any karma that don’t serve me anymore behind so I made out a practice. Every single bridge I crossed over (and we crossed many rivers), I prayed to leave any karma behind. I imagined karma shedding off with every forward step. Similarly in every waterfall I put my feet in to the water to wash off any karma and visualized any karma dissolving into the water. Chance of practice is limitless!
On our drive down the hill from Badrinath, we stopped at Joshimath to visit and meditate in Adi Shankara’s cave. Joshimath is one of the 4 monasteries Adi Shankara has established in 4 cardinal points of India. Joshimath is the north one. Sankaracharya was a great philosopher, a poet and a sage who lived in the 8th century. He started his spiritual journey when he was 8, he traveled around India all the way to Himalayans, he wrote many books, poems, commentaries and he died when he was only 32. Shankaracharya’s philopophy is called Advaita (non-dualistic) philosophy advocated the oneness of individual soul and cosmic soul. Everything is GOD.. I was first exposed to Adi Shankara during a Dave Stringer Kirtan (chanting) over 10 years ago. One song touched me so deeply that even though I didn’t understand Sanskrit words, I had goose bumps. I think sometimes even the vibration of words are enough to move you even though you don’t understand meaning. I got the CD to read the lyrics (which is a Sankarachraya poem). Now it was surreal for me to be in the cave where he got enlightened. Here is the translation of his poem.
i am not mind, intellect, ego or memory;
Not ears or tongues, or smell or sight; not ether, air, fire, water or earth.
i am consciousness and bliss.
i am not virtue or vice; pleasure or pain, not mantra, not sacred place,
Scripture or sacrifice; not the food, the eater or the act of eating.
i am consciousness and bliss.
i am beyond all things. i am everlasting, self-luminous.
taintless, and pure; immovable, blissful and imperishable.
i am without thought, without forms, I am all pervasive, I am beyond all senses;
i am not detachment or salvation or anything that could be measured.
i am consciousness and bliss.
Shankaracharya (788-820 A.D.)
Saluting all saints and sages of all religions who came to illuminate our paths with deep gratitude.
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