One of the things I love most about the culture here in India, is the ornate ceremony that happens daily, if not multiple times a day. The Hindus have a specific God for just about everything… health, prosperity, family, enlightenment, learning… the list goes on. Alongside these many gods, there are specific rituals meant to ask for protection, rituals to give thanks, and rituals meant simply to connect you deeper to your god or goddess of choice and the specific purpose they represent. Protocol dictates certain times of day, days of the week and times of the month for different prayers and offerings to be made, generally in timing with the natural cycles of day and night, sun and moon etc… and sometimes I wonder how the devout here have time to fit in the rest of their lives.
One of my favorite ceremonies has continued to be evening aarti… the nightly fire ceremony that happens on the banks of the Ganges. There are many different forms of aarti and it can be as simple as a small ceremony performed at home using a small bowl of ghee (clarified butter) that is lit and used during the prayers, but here on the banks of the river at dusk, it is a bigger production, and the beauty of it never fails to engage me.
On previous trips, both here in Rishikesh and in Varanasi, I have visited the ornate productions put on by the bigger ashrams, but this time I found pleasure in the smaller, more intimate ceremonies. This particular ceremony was performed by the young men at the neighboring ashram and although it’s nightly occurrence was brief and didn’t include the traditional blowing of the conch horns, chanting, drums or dancing that happens at other ceremonies, I found the simplicity to be enchanting nonetheless.
Further upstream, on a quiet stretch of Ganges near my guesthouse, I found myself making my way down to the river quite early in the morning in order to meditate in solitude before the sun completed its increasingly warm ascent over the hill crest that creates this beautifully etched river valley.
Even though there are very few people here, one doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of the private rituals that happen along this river at all hours of the day. This span of river is, after all, one of the most sacred places in India and has been for time immemorial. As you walk along the rocky shores, you find a variety of man-made alters, places where people have felt called to create a space that facilitates a greater connection to whatever it is they seek. There are rocks painted with the sacred symbol ‘aum’ and there are flower petals that float in little pools of water between rocks, remnants of someone’s personal aarti from the previous night, and most notably, there are the various alters of Shiva Linga. “Linga” is the iconic statue-like symbol of the great Hindu Lord Shiva that is said to represent (among other things) the elliptical shape of all creation at the moment of its inception, and it’s one of the most prolific Hindu symbols of worship in India. Like any symbol procured by the masses, there are limitless options… miniature linga that can be carried around in pocket sizes for your prayers on the go, small but more substantial shapes for the home, moderate sized statues for public alters, or as found in some temples, incredibly large odes to this all-encompassing god.
It was on one of my morning forays along the banks of the Ganges that I came upon a river-bound linga alter sitting atop a stone stand in the shallow waters along the shore. As I approached, I saw a man making preparations for pooja… the term for daily prayers and offerings. Seeing my curiosity, he motioned me over, asking me to join him if I chose, in the ceremonial washing of the linga that proceeds the prayers. He guided me and showed me the proper way to offer respect to this symbol of god, and then invited me to sit with him while he prepared for his particular version of pooja. Little did I know that this moment would turn out to be a pivotal one for me, marking some of the more significant moments of my entire trip.
I learned that this man, Satya, has come to Rishikesh after being called here by the great goddess Maa Ganga herself. Mother Ganges is the symbol of spiritual rebirth, and in taking a long hiatus from work and his life in Hyderabad, he comes here with the specific intention of connecting with and praying to this great Mother. He tells me that he has only been here for a few weeks, coming to this specific patch of river to pray to her, twice daily, at this alter he has created for himself in order to connect with his desire for spiritual growth.
For me, this is the beauty of these rituals. While there is an unquestionable (and rather prolific) amount of protocol, there is also ample space for one to build and create an individual practice that suits your specific intentions, letting you give thanks or communicate with your version of Divinity in the way that feels right for you. And although you create the ritual that works best for you, there is generally a familiar overlap between individual choices, as many people repeatedly use the most popular (popular, because they are seen as the most powerful) prayers and mantras found in both the yogic tradition and Hinduism alike. Regardless of spiritual or religious affiliations, the familiarity created by ritual and the comfort found in the repetition of something you find both faith and beauty in, is highly gratifying… and this shows in the unwavering way with which ceremony and ritual are simply a part of people’s lives here.
At these morning sittings with Satya, I learn new ways of structuring a practice, new mantras and reorganizations of the mantras I already know, and in simply observing the ways in which this man proceeds through his particular ritual, I expand my horizons, taking in and absorbing whatever is meant to be absorbed. To me, this exemplifies the truest form of yoga. Through the process of opening oneself up to all possibilities, going inward, inquiring as to what feels right for me, and proceeding accordingly, I gently reshape and expand my awareness and understanding of my own ‘truth’… and this is what spiritual growth is all about. What felt right yesterday may no longer be applicable today, but it is only through the process of persistent self-inquiry that you can discern the shifts as they occur.
This yoga being practiced here today by people like Satya and myself, and by the thousands of yogi’s who have come here with their own intentional practices in times prior, is what makes this land so special. While the ground under this hand-crafted alter where we sit is public land, there is an inherent and extraordinary intimacy to it. Part of this is due to the care taken in choosing a spot where the natural placement of rocks situate themselves against the gentle curvature of the river, enhancing the feel of seclusion… but part of it, I realize, is the strong energy and deep peace that have been infused into the space by this man’s consistent and earnest practice, compounded by the practice of all the souls who have been here before him. It is this energy of intention itself, that creates the sanctity of space… and it is consistently here, in these highly charged spaces, where I feel the happiest and the most connected to the inherent beauty of life. It is, quite simply, blissful.
In my many meaningful experiences with sacred places, I am finding myself more and more in tune with the energy that binds itself to objects or spaces that are spiritual in nature. This idea might be somewhat esoteric for the more literal-minded, but if you consider the scientific reality of energy exchange that is present in the entire manifest world, then perhaps the idea becomes a bit less abstract. More importantly, if one is able to move away from any sort of thought process whatsoever, and simply tune in to the sensate experience provided by the body, which is always telling us our ultimate truth should we choose to listen, well then the understanding becomes crystal clear.
I come back to this spot, back to this man, each of my remaining mornings in Rishikesh, compelled by some nameless energetic pull of the aforementioned, non-logical kind. Outside of the chanting, the meditation and the ritual that he leads me through, we sit together in the morning sun and discuss our individual paths… what brought us to this city, to the specific point in our lives where each of us finds ourselves, and what pursuits compel us to continue moving forward on the spiritual path.
In my travels, I have had many similar discussions with a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds, and these conversations are always meaningful, at least on some small level. But here, things are markedly different, more impactful. Our connection is not only one of literal common ground… this small patch of sacred earth… but it is an energetic one as well. It is, for lack of a better term, a karmic re-connection that cannot be defined by either space or time. This is a big statement, I realize, and one might be prompted to ask (as I momentarily did myself) – How do I know this? Intuition would be the easiest term to serve you, but I feel that word is somehow insufficient and entirely incomplete. After all, the specifics of energy can be very difficult to articulate, even though we’re very clear on the fact that it exists. But more on karma in a moment…
According to yogic science, our entire being is made of five layers often referred to as “sheaths,” or in yogic terms, koshas. Our koshas move from the outer, grossest layer of our being toward the most subtle, internal layer of self. The topic of the koshas is an extraordinarily expansive one, so to say I am encapsulating here, is a vast understatement. As such, along with my extremely brief summary I will add that on a basic level, most people move through the world operating with an awareness of only two, perhaps three of these layers… and initially it will probably be obvious which ones. The five layers of self are:
-our body or physical layer
-our energetic layer, the life-force that makes us alive and facilitates the workings of all the physical systems as an entire unit
-our mental layer or mind-space, which has a direct effect on all the others, dictating their workings
-our higher intellect or intuitive source of knowing
-our “bliss” body, which is our built-in access to ‘enlightenment’ once we are able to identify with it
Like everything else in the universe, there is a strong connectivity and interaction between our layers of self, the function of each one interdependent upon the functions of the others, irregardless of our awareness (or lack thereof.) And although some of these sheaths (particularly the bliss body) lay shrouded for most of our lives, for those of us who choose to concentrate on and tune into all the layers through practices such as yoga and meditation, we begin to find access to our complete selves… a beautiful and rewarding endeavor, to say the least.
Moving back to karmic connections, it is at the fourth layer, our source of truth, wisdom and of knowing that has nothing to do with the thinking mind, where past affiliations and the incredibly familiar territory of a person I’ve only just met become recognizable. I both feel and know, on a deep level, that some, perhaps many, previous interactions have already carved a canyon of connection, not unlike the flowing waters of the river itself that has carved a permanent path through earth and stone. And while we tend to throw the term ‘karma’ around rather freely, this recognition of connectivity (not just with person to person interactions, but in our pull toward certain likes, dislikes, passions, talents etc) is an integral part of what we term ‘karma’… which is merely our past actions, left incomplete, that we inevitably bring forward to our current life situation in order to fulfill their understanding.
Over the course of about 5 days, my final days in India, Satya and I share small pockets of time together here at the river, and we also (not surprisingly) run into each other in town, where, outside the confines of our spiritual space on the river, we share chai and exchange stories about life with a more light-hearted approach. These unplanned meetings are, to me, further proof that paths cross not in random haphazard ways, but within the confines of an organized pattern specific to the fabric of your life (another way of defining karma)… which given our usual, limiting perspective, can sometimes be difficult to recognize. For me, however, the understanding that there IS a bigger picture, regardless of whether or not I can see it while it’s happening, is profoundly satisfying in and of itself… mostly because experience has shown me that if I choose to hold onto the idea that all of this has very specific meaning, that meaning will eventually surface and make itself clear.
And so, another visit with my beloved Rishikesh has come and gone, this time leaving me with the deepest resonance yet. While most of my time here was formally spent focused on yoga, all of my time here was spent synthesizing the countless ways in which this ancient practice affects my entire being. For many of us, myself included, the depths of the yoga practice begin with our outermost layer. It is through the capabilities of our physical body that we are able to understand the world around us, but more importantly, with time and understanding, our physicality becomes the gateway that enables us to begin understanding the world within us… and therein lies the magic. Once you begin moving inward, the possibilities are endless.
Yoga, in it’s countless formats, has become my ritual… my daily routine that may or may not include a physical practice, but which always includes the truest form of yoga: the practice of awareness. And so… I encourage you to find your own ceremony… your ritual, your practice, whatever that thing might be, which has deep meaning for you, and brings you unquestionable satisfaction… the thing that pulls you away, at least for a moment in time, from the stimulation of the outside world and takes you through the layers of self toward the vast universe thriving within. That is the thing that will bring you closer to your bliss. Because it’s there, that shrouded sheath, patiently waiting for you…