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From West to East to West again – Seekers and Pilgrims in Haridwar and Rishikesh

Sep 01 2011

From West to East to West again – Seekers and Pilgrims in Haridwar and Rishikesh

“So Parmarth seems to be more of a ‘city’ ashram, then, rather than a traditional ‘forest’ ashram, wouldn’t you agree?” the interviewer queries. He is a young man from Bombay doing a story on Rishikesh, gurus and the spiritual path in general. He’s come to Parmarth Niketan to take my interview regarding the ashram, its activities, the types of people who come and other topics. However, from this question I realize he has completely misunderstood not only Parmarth Niketan but the fundamental truth of the traditional ashrams of Rishikesh. “No,” I explain. “It’s not a city ashram. It’s a traditional forest ashram, actually, based upon all the principles of traditional Indian spiritual practice. However, a city has grown up around it.”

The exodus of pilgrims and seekers to Rishikesh in the last two or three decades has turned this quiet village-like refuge of ashrams into a veritable city. But the city which has erected itself in front of, behind and around these ashrams does not change the nature of the ashrams themselves. The ashrams still are, in most cases, traditional Indian spiritual communities, places where sincere seekers can study yoga, meditation, the scriptures and the inner workings of their own minds.

This distinction, between the traditional and the modern, the forest and the city, the Western and the Eastern is one that must not be lost as the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh quickly become refuges for seekers from every corner of the Earth. There is actually a tragic irony running through these cities, which I’ve watched spread, like an epidemic, in the twelve years I’ve lived in Rishikesh. Indians, in general and those living on the banks of Mother Ganga are no exception, long for everything non-Indian. Fairness creams are the fastest selling items in stores and items from Amreeka are inherently more valuable than their exactly equal Delhi-purchased counterparts. I cannot tell you the number of times someone — having acquired God-knows how much punya for good karma over lifetimes and lifetimes thus having been born and raised on the banks of Ganga — asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, matlab meri naukri lagwa dijiye please. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwana do bus.” [1]

The tragedy of this almost laughable paradox is far greater than simply Indians not appreciating that which they have. The tragedy is that the local people’s own yearning for the West is leading to a situation where the very richness, the very treasure chest of ancient wisdom, insights and spiritual secrets which draws Westerners here, is being deliberately diluted. Westerners do not come to India to sit in cyber cafés drinking cappuccinos. They can do that on their own corners. They do not come here to hang out in the Indian mimicry of Starbucks or to eat peanut butter and nutella. They come here, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, called, drawn, compelled by an irresistible force toward the Truth. They come here because their souls are searching for that which cannot be found in the West. They come here to find that depth of spirit, that pulsating, dancing, singing, ecstatic existence which touches the very core of our being. They come here to find their true Selves.

The problem is that Westerners, like everyone, are creatures of habit. If we’re used to sitting in coffee shops and cyber cafés, we will naturally gravitate toward these places if they are available. If we’re used to drinking lattes, we will choose them over lassis. If we’re used to eating pizza, and if it’s easily available, we will usually forsake the traditional fare for that which is habitual. Thus, it is becoming more and more likely that Westerners who come to the holy banks of Mother Ganga — called by that indescribable, unknowable, yet irresistible universal force toward Truth, Depth and Divinity — can now successfully idle away their entire time here gossiping over cappuccinos or emailing friends back home. This is a tragedy of universal proportions, for India, for the West and for the entire world which is, I believe, relying upon India to guide it back to a properly balanced system of values, ethics and priorities.

I believe, fervently, that it is the responsibility of those purveyors of this ancient wisdom, those who have blessed beyond blessed to call Haridwar and Rishikesh home, those who are making decisions about what to offer and how to offer it, to do as much as they can to gift the ancient Indian wisdom and culture to those from the West, to satiate their hunger and to quench their thirst with Indianness. If one has traveled across the world, to the holy banks of Mother Ganga, dying of spiritual thirst, the answer is not to be handed a coca-cola upon arrival. The answer is to dip one’s hands into the flowing waters of Ganga, to be taught to take archana, to drink and drink of that sacred nectar. But, if upon arrival, one is greeted only with soda pop, one could tragically depart from this holy land never having tasted the nectar of Ganga jal.

What is the answer then? Clearly Uttarakhand needs development. Clearly, we must move forward and not backwards. Clearly we must not thwart progress. Yet, we must ask ourselves: “Development at what cost and for whom?” We must ask ourselves: “What is really forward and what is really backwards?” Are shop after shop after shop selling trinket after trinket after trinket really development? Are stall after stall after stall selling pizza and coke really a step in the “forward” direction? Are coffee shops and cyber cafes which obscure the banks of Mother Ganga from our view, and dump their waste into Her waters, really progress?

Yes, Rishikesh and Haridwar are starting to look more Western and more modern, but we must not forget that all those who travel here from across the world have left “Western” and “modern” at home. They have consciously and deliberately traveled across the world to the East, and once arriving in India they have consciously and deliberately chosen these holy teerth [2] areas over cosmopolitan Mumbai or Hyderabad. Clearly, they didn’t come for a coca-cola, a slice of pizza, a cappuccino, or an internet connection. They came seeking that ancient, true, priceless “experience” of India through which one can experience the Divine. They came, not for the same conveniences they have at home, but for something they DON’T have at home. My fear is that in the rush toward modernization for the sake of the foreign traveler, we must not ruin that for which they are coming in the first place. In our rush to put up more and more ATMs, more and more coffee shops, more and more cyber-cafes, we must not obliterate that which has compelled the travelers to come here.

The first and most crucial step lies in the awareness and consciousness of those who call this area home. When we awake each morning and think not about how we can get to America, but how extraordinarily blessed we are to be on the banks of Ganga…..when first thing in the morning we rush, not for the newspaper or the TV to see the latest celebrity gossip, but rather to the banks of Ganga to offer our prayers and our pranams at Her holy waters…..when we fill our homes and our children’s minds not with Western sitcoms and soap operas, but with traditional Indian music and stories……when we stop spending our disposable income on fairness creams and spend it on traditional rose water or kumkum [3] instead…..when we realize how very, very precious and matchless the priceless wisdom, insight and answers of Indian culture are, and how very blessed we are to have access to them. Only when that full, deep appreciation and awareness saturates our own beings can we share that with the visitors.

Rishikesh and Haridwar need development, but they need development of that which makes this area sacred – traditional yoga and meditation, pious and pure puja, a clean and pristine Ganga in which to bathe and ashrams which maintain traditional standards of purity and devotion. People come here looking for the birthplace of yoga and meditation. They come looking for purity, sanctity and divine, spiritual truth. Let us focus more on giving them that. They won’t even notice the lack of cappuccinos. I promise.


 

[1] “Please get me a job, any job, in America. I’m prepared to do anything, please just arrange something for me in America.”
[2] Sacred pilgrimage spots
[3] The traditional powder made from turmeric used to apply tilak

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