The Mixed Blessings of Spiritual Tourism. Rishikesh, 1999
The distance from Delhi to Rishikesh is about 200 kilometres.
One of the disadvantages of unplanned travel in India is that, although there is probably a train service to the place you wish to visit, an advance booking is essential. So my hard-earned advice is that if you propose to make this particular trip, book a first class ticket on an air-conditioned train rather than travelling by popular bus services, unless you are lucky enough to find a first class air-conditioned vehicle. A hired taxi would also be a very worthwhile investment.
The character-building experience was preceded by a purgatorial one-hour auto-rickshaw ride through the least attractive suburbs of Delhi in morning rush hour traffic because my Indian friend and guide (S) was too parsimonious by nature and necessity to allow me to ‘waste’ money on a decent taxi. Ironically or karmically – more probably bureaucratically – half of the 20 kilometre rickshaw trip turned out to be quite unnecessary because the bus service did not actually depart from the advertised station but from another one 10 km away.
The tediously slow five hour ordeal on wooden slatted seats was bone-jarring and, given the conditions and driving habits prevailing on India’s overcrowded and lethal roads, hair-raising as well. Nevertheless, we eventually reached the extremely venerable city of Hardwar, situated on the Ganges. Here my companion of meagre means and needs insisted that we stay in his favourite cheap hotel despite my readiness to ‘splurge’ a few Rupees more, a gesture which was rejected as an inappropriate and self-indulgent luxury, especially in this hallowed place of pilgrimage. My small room was spartan, with a bloody mattress (literally), a battalion of mosquitoes and a squat toilet which induced instant constipation. But at least the night’s rest was more or less recuperative. Up at 6 a.m. to explore the sacred bathing ghats.
14 February – not only the festival of Mahasivaratri in 1999 but also St Valentine’s for cross-cultural adepts. What a nice ecumenical occasion. Down to the ghats beside the sacred river. Still dark and cold, but crowded. S. dutifully bathed while I declined the purgative experience but gingerly christened myself with a small handful of Ganga water. Then, for a tiny fee, a priest gave us a blessing with marigolds and a two-tone mark over the Third Eye. Actually, S. paid Rs10 and magnanimously suggested 500 rupees would be appropriate for me to offer; fortunately, 50 turned out to be all the priest required. A very quick breakfast in an unsavoury ghat-side café before two more street blessings from venerable itinerant saffron-robed Danda-Swamis toting their characteristic long Staffs. Where else can you get three blessings plus an updated christening in one hour! Things looked promising. Was I now a Hindu? Would the Pope, or the Dalai Lama, be upset about this? Would I be a better person?
Another bone-rearranging rickshaw ride for 30 km from Haridwar to the city of Rishikesh via the little hamlet where S’s – and now temporarily my – Swami protégé lodges (free of charge) with a family of Dalits in a tiny thatched hut. These dirt poor people are Swami R’s converts to Sathya Sai Baba, so it is their duty to feed and shelter him. Drawing aside a thin curtain, they wake the Swami him up to greet us and we sit under the pale early sunlight in the handkerchief-sized backyard, enjoying their very generous bananas and biscuits as prasad (blessed food). In a tree towering over the hovel stands a large sign announcing the Swami’s Mission:
Kali Age Incarnation, Hardwar Rd, opp. J.G.Glass Factory
Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba Learning Centre.
We exchange greetings and Swami R proudly informs us that he has been befriended by Baba Ram, who is the president of the local village’s Bharatiya Grib Chesna Parishad (Organisation for the Awakening of Poor [Grib] Indians). So he has a sound base for his Mission.
The self-appointed Swami’s self-appointed task is to go from village to village giving out thin proselytising leaflets about Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings, and to sing bhajans, etc. But in our conversation that morning he constantly harped on the lack of cooperation and, as he implied darkly, worse obstacles, from the local Sathya Sai Baba Centre in Rishikesh. In spite of all the alleged obstacles to his success, Swami R maintains (quite unrealistically to the independent observer) that this area will soon be the biggest Sathya Sai Baba Centre outside the Organisation’s HQ, the thriving township of Prasanthi Nilayam in far distant southern Andhra Pradesh. And, he confides, he needs Rs 5,000 to buy a neighbouring plot as a proper Centre. (Oh dear! What are his expectations from today’s visit? A quick calculation reveals that this is not an unattainable sum, since it is the equivalent of $US100, so I can give a modest but useful donation.)
Swami’s story: originally a teacher of economics and a lawyer, he lived in the main Sathya Sai Baba ashram in distant South India for several years. He has also lived for short periods in several Rishikesh ashrams since 1991. He says he is very dedicated to his important spiritual task but his constant carping and whining seem so, well, Unspiritual. He has nothing good to say of the officials at Sathya Sai Baba’s Centre in Rishikesh – but he may just be echoing his benefactor, my friend S (also a Sathya Sai Baba devotee), who has confided several reasons for complaint about his treatment by the Sathya Sai Organisation down south.
Swami R also appears overly fond of Sathya Sai Baba’s widely propagated disaster predictions to students during the mid-1980s. Although admitting they are only rumours, he is convinced that many people will be consumed by fire this year and that 8 May and 24 October are dates not to leave one’s home; certainly not to travel. (Later, I forgot to notice if anything happened on those specific days, so I imagine it didn’t, as usual with Doomsday predictions – so far, touch wood.)
What am I to make of all this negative stuff in the positive world of spirituality? Is its purpose to show me that the real India is not my cuppa chai? But is this the real India? Maybe it was, once.
Swami R takes us on a spiritual tour of the centre of Rishikesh and across the famously flimsy-looking Lakshmana Bridge. I treat my companions to a frugal vegetarian lunch in the Chotiwala Restaurant and finally hand over to Swami R my rather paltry donation of Rs 500, as previously commanded by S, who has also given him some money from time to time, like many other Indians, mainly elderly Hindus, who are merely doing their time-honoured spiritual duty (dharma).
The morning has heated up, so the river and mountain breezes are welcome. There is much activity and many western spiritual tourists are visible in the town and in the ashrams. The river and Himalayan foothills panorama is inspiring and distractingly photogenic. I can appreciate the strong attraction this setting has for Germans and other Europeans but what central Rishikesh really seems to offer is basic consumer spirituality on the cheap – except in the one or two expensive ashrams with their comfortable consumer flatlets. Up in the wilds of those overhanging Himalayan foothills, perhaps the smaller ashrams are different, more authentic.
The bookstalls in Rishikesh are full of books on the main Hindu saints and especially on tantric topics, which (like a number of Indian gurus since 1960) seem to exert a strong appeal for many foreign seekers. The gamut of literature on offer in the streets ranges from ‘Sex to Superconsciousness’, etc., plus books on Shirdi and Sathya (both of them are Sai Babas), and, for a few homesick British travellers, ‘The Day that Diana Died’.
We try to enter the old ashram where the famed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught the Beatles for a while in the 1960s, but we find entry is not allowed and an attendant at the main gate mutters something about the Maharishi being forced to flee after murders in the ashram committed by westerners – surely not a good career move, karmically. (In Sonepat, Haryana, much closer to Delhi, but still distant from Andhra Pradesh, another self-appointed guru, Siddheshwar Baba (aka Professor Bhim Sen Goel, a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba) set up his own ashram specialising in Kundalini Yoga, which for many years until his death in 1998 was much frequented by those ubiquitous and indefatigable ‘one-pointed’ German seekers of exotic spirituality, and other westerners.)
The return journey to Delhi by bus was equally horrendous but more bearable because, when I confided in S that I had stupidly left my pyjamas behind in the Hardwar hotel, he had informed me that that is in fact a blessing – because someone else will benefit from finding them, and even a double blessing because the loss and the find take place in such a holy site. Apparently you can leave behind a problem or an ailment here, paid for with such a ‘blessing’ for someone else to discover. What a lovely religion! In fact, my pyjama deficit was to bring a third blessing, thanks to S’s solicitous local inquiries: in spite of a couple of missed opportunities on my visit to India the following year, I was finally reunited with my pyjamas two years later (probably washed in Ganges water), by airmail post.1