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Published: February 14th 2008
There is a saying which alleges that when people first come to Glastonbury, they spend the first few months dealing with their 'stuff', and if the place does not like them, it makes sure they leave sooner or later. I have the same feeling about Rishikesh, and perhaps India in general. It’s one of the places that gives you what you need, whether you like it or not. The energies of Rishikesh are quite strange and volatile. It’s as though half of the time you're in bliss, and the other half in darkness. Like many ‘initiatory’ power places, it seems to magnify everything you feel and experience. It also has an uncanny way of pushing all your buttons. Lessons you could take a lifetime learning can be accomplished here in days or even hours. You experience synchronicities all the time, and the right people appear almost magically with information you need to hear or connections to other people you are destined to meet. Being here is certainly not always comfortable - the lessons and challenges can be harsh, but in the midst of the chaos you may experience there is always a feeling of ‘safety’ and support, a sort of knowing
that everything is going be fine in the end. The important thing in all of these encounters is that you don’t lose the lesson.
For me, a lot of my stay here has been about disillusionment - dis-illusion in the rather positive sense of learning to see through the glamour and deception that comes with the territory of such a spiritual place, and staying centered in the emotional storms that frequently occur here. India also requires patience - infinite patience, in particular with Indian men and the frequent hassle you experience as a Western woman.
One big challenge that many people who come here experience is that of distinguishing who is genuine and who isn't, in particular where it concerns yogis and other spiritual teachers. Some say that the genuine yogis and gurus have all disappeared from Rishikesh a long time ago. Either they fled to the solitude of the mountains and caves, far away from the Western tourists that flock here in search of enlightenment, or, they left India to teach in other countries. In the latter case, more often than not, there's a woman involved. 'Don't marry our yoga teachers - they are in short supply',
pleads a sign in a cafe down the road. The yogis, Rishikesh's pop star equivalent, are in high demand by the ladies. 'Yes, they all disappear sooner or later', laughs Nandu, my landlord, one morning as we have breakfast in the garden. He recalls a long list of yoga teachers that have worked for him over the years - all of whom have left India to teach abroad. We're having bets on how long Rakesh, the current teacher, will last. Then there's the 'full-fledged tantric and yogic guru' who wants to give me private lessons and sends me amorous e-mails to gain my interest; the drug-pushing 'sadhu' who sells 'mountain flowers' on the roadside, the sadhu who meditates with open eyes by the Ganga and likes to invite female tourists to his home, which consists of a cave; and the list goes on.
However, despite - or because of? - the challenges, I am enjoying my time here. I'm not 'doing' much outwardly, but on the inside, so much is moving and shifting. I have made friends with Hee, a funny and fascinating woman from Korea with an incredibly interesting life story, and since we met through our mutual friend Swami-Ji Nirakara a couple of weeks ago, we have become inseparable. Our friendship is like a continuous meditation, as we spend entire days just sitting by the Ganges talking about our lives, thoughts and dreams, as well as musing and laughing about the often confusing and paradoxical nature of Indians and Indian life.
What's most impressive to me is the way the Indian people centre. It seems that few of them actually meditate or practise yoga, apart from the yogis, swamis and sadhus - but it almost is as though they don’t need it: they are calm and relaxed in the midst of the chaos and noise that is part of their daily life. We often see sadhus, India’s holy men, lie on little brick walls right by the busy and noisy Rishikesh road, where they sleep like babies, woolen blankets covering their bodies completely so they look like colourful, motionless mummies, as huge trucks, rattling rickshaws and an army of motorbikes roar by. That's real sadhana
, and what spiritual practice is all about.
Another good example is the nearby Kali shrine on the same busy road, situated right next to a petrol station. It consists of a large fierce-looking Kali statue. Tongue extended, she holds a severed head in one hand and a huge knife in another, as she dances on the surrendered body of Lord Shiva. A Kali pujari (priest) lives here in a tent behind the statue with his wife and two young children. I’ve passed this shrine many times on the motorbike and decide one Dark Moon to visit with Hee. The pujari, who must be in his late 30’s or early 40’s, welcomes us and offers us some chai, which he prepares on a small fire. Despite his discoloured teeth, he is beautiful, with symmetrical features and clear, piercing eyes. A necklace consisting of cream-coloured skulls adorns his neck. He radiates calm and depth, and his young daughter, who periodically peeks out of the tent, looks happy and well looked after, despite the fact that she lives on the roadside next to a petrol station. As we sip our chai, the pujari tells us with some sadness that when he first came here to build the shrine, there was only jungle: no road, no petrol station, no hotels. He gradually saw the area change. He also tells us that his wife is ‘crazy’, mentally ill - and that he looks after the children. I am not surprised - I’ve always found that Kali demands intense respect: she is a fierce but also tender mother. She cuts away all that we no longer need, often violently. Living that closely with her can certainly not be easy.
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