PART 3A: By the River Ganges I Lay Down and Wept

Apologies to Paulo Coelho for appropriating his book title, with a dash of locale readjustment. I could possibly also bastardize John Kabat Zim’s truism that “Wherever you go, there you are”. In other words I can export myself to some other land, with the judicious application of some $ facilitated by wiling airlines, trains, rickshaws, taxis and good old shank’s pony. All the external details are different, but inside it’s still me. And who is that “me” that’s trekked halfway around the planet to supposedly discover?

Well, that question brings legions of spiritual seekers to Rishikesh annually to expand their chakras and other bodily parts in a variety of yogic positions. Its alternately known as the yoga capital of the world, or in Hindu “Lord of the senses, Vishnu.” You can bungy-jump, go mountain trekking into the foothills of the surrounding Himalayas, do wild-water rafting, and much else to delight the senses. It lies on the river Ganges, as it flows from the mountains and tumbles turbulently into the larger more sedate river of the plains. The town rambles delightfully down the mountainsides on either side of the sacred river. It was famously where the Beatles received their cosmic blessing in the 1960’s by Maharishi of Transcendental Meditation fame. There’s a derelict local icon – the Beatles ashram – that draws the curious, and you can even dine in ramshackle splendour in the 60’s Cafe on the main drag on Laxman Jhula, nestled alongside every other kind of hippie holdover and New Age talismans. Tibetan singing bowls and cosmic realignment can be had for a handful of rupees. The local style seems to be colourful tie-dye, a swirling semi-psychedelic panorama for all those who want the material trappings of enlightenment. Shops of touristic knick-knacks compete for space with every flavour of yoga imaginable. If you don’t depart Rishikesh in a higher state of consciousness, then you’ve not meditated for long enough, or consumed sufficient weed, which is also in ample supply. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to be here on the holiday called Holi, then you can join the multitudes whacked out on Bhang Lassis – a particularly potent yoghurt drink fortified with loads of hash.

Me, I want the Truth. Cut to the chase, forget the trappings of the paranormal, body contortions or sacred mantras. I am here for two weeks to see Mooji – aka Anthony Moo. Of Chinese Jamaican origin, he wears divine dreadlocks, has a wicked sense of humour, and is in the same lineage of a tradition that was made available to the world most famously (at least in the West) by Ramana Maharshi.

I came to these teachings via a circuitous route that brought me to India with a gaggle of Canadians in 2001. Almost 16 years later I am on a similar path. Some might say I am a slow learner. Others will declare that pain is a great teacher. I would say that it’s a surplus of suffering that’s directed me here once again.

Back in 2001, I was footloose and fancy-free ricocheting around India wherever fate would take me. I knew at the culmination of this colourful adventure I was to be immersed into the Holy Mt Arunachala, theoretically bathed in the Grace of Ramana Maharshi, who offered liberation through Self Inquiry. He had been spontaneously and completely “realized” at age 18, and resided for the remainder of his life in a space where he was free from attachments to the physicality of body and mind. He freely offered anyone who came to sincerely seek the potential of what he called “The True Self”, through constantly refining that inner search with the question of Self Inquiry: “Who Am I?” He considered it the highest achievement of humanity, and like me, thousands flocked from the West to absorb his message. He was totally free of all trappings of the ego, which he, and many other wisdom traditions, consider to be the root of all suffering.

Sitting at the feet of his great nephew V.P. Gneshan in 2001, I got a taste of that freedom, and once discovered, my spirit has craved that inner nourishment ever since. I had a couple of cosmic openings back then – a whiff of awakening – that has been enough to keep me on this so-called search for Truth ever since. But it’s a road filled with potholes, diversions, wrong turns and sometimes seems to just peter out altogether.

It’s brought me back here half a dozen more times, once in the role as assistant to a Kriya Yoga teacher, but indulgence in the delights of the material world have created sufficient distractions that I seem to be forever trapped in the loop of The-almost-but-not-quite-there-yet Club.

I was originally catapulted into this path by a painful divorce in the mid 1990’s that threw me into the grips of alcoholism, rescued subsequently by the profoundly spiritual arms of Alcoholics Anonymous, which ironically has proven to be the bedrock of a more meaningful presence in my life.

I returned to India in 2010, and I found myself once again at the foot of Mt Arunachala, giving my spouse Karen a taste of my love affair with India. Our ultimate destination was to participate in The Kumbh Mela in Northern India, that mother of all festivals, attracting millions of devout Hindus (and the not-so-devout extreme-experience junkies such as myself). I wanted to witness that single-minded intention to be reunited with their source, the Mother Ganga.

En route I thought it appropriate to show Karen a little bit of the delightfully “shanti shanti” perfume of South India. We had rented a sweet cottage not too far from Ramana’s Ashram, to be close to that Source. I hadn’t really “got” Self Inquiry the first time around in 2001. Couldn’t quite figure out how I was to loose this identity I had so carefully constructed called Richard. But no worries, I could join the other spiritual tourists jostling for space to worship at the Masters shrine. For a bit of a lark we had joined 100,000 others one night to do Pradakshana – a 14 km walk around the Holy Mt Arunachala and imbibe some of that mass desire to be rid of accumulated karmic attachments. Numbers in India defy the senses. At the most recent celebration of the Kumh Mela in Alhalabad, 25 million souls simultaneously did the holy plunge into the Ganges. That’s the entire Canadian population taking a joint bath.

One day heading out from our cottage I spied a motley crew of assorted Westerners, crowded around a big outdoor TV screen apparently broadcasting live what was happening inside an adjacent house. It turned out this small crowd were followers of Mooji, and we were welcomed to return earlier the next day to see the man himself.

Ever curious, we did join these same folks who were adorned with the usual trappings of Western travellers: a rag-tag mixture dressed in “spiritual” garb and bedraggled cheap Indian clothing. Mostly here to “do India”, as I caustically dismissed them, earnestly quoting Sanskrit prayers which I assumed the majority had little knowledge. I reflect back now on the savage state of my supposedly superior mind – bolstered by reason and science. I arrogantly judged what were the humble origins that have now blossomed into an international movement.

Fast forward 6 painful years, where a lot of what I took for granted in my life of comfort and predictability unraveled. I had made some unsound financial decisions, and found myself in a new phase of life, sans house, employment and community, and impending retirement. There are several ways forward in such situations. One is to wallow in apparent misfortune, and spend too much time in regrets. Although I have done my fair share of that, another route is to take stock, take a deep breath, and move forwards. Which is how I find myself back in India re-affirming my desire to make some meaning of what remains of my time here on Earth. I won’t pretend it’s been a joyride: I was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago, perhaps as a result of recent or previous experiences. At various times I have been a ward of the mental health system, and there have been dark times where I genuinely lost faith that I would ever enjoy that delightful lightness of being that is our birthright. But here I am once again in the land of Saddus and saints.