India has, for long, stood the onus of being the spiritual darling of the world. The lost, suffering, restless masses have often sought refuge in the chaos, and hospitable arms of Mother India. The destitute finding a corner in pravachan sabhaas and the affluent a villa in high-end ashrams of Osho, Ravishankar and Sadhguru. But there is more to India, much more when it comes to offering the spiritual experience – not in a secret Sanskrit code but in the very humdrum of life. You do not need a spiritual guru to decipher it, you just need your eyes and an open heart.
This entry is a scrapbook, more like randomly chosen pages from an encyclopedia, rather than a carefully written guide. I am not going to try to give it a fanciful name but these are some places that touched me or made my inner sense of wonder come out more strongly. I hail from a religious brahmin family and had finished my chaar dhaam in early teens. I wish I was old enough to know what any of that was about.
Coming back from USA is when I really started exploring India mythology, spirituality (I hate how cliched this word is becoming, I wish there was a better synonym). Because let’s face it, consciousness does not appeal to you when you are sitting lavishly in a comfortable home with a PS3 and iPad lying around you. Or when you have kids or partners keeping you busy.At that time, it is a leisure read and a thing to show off at your social gatherings. It really seems important when life throws you a curve ball and the shit hits the fan. Then, my friend, consciousness looks very appealing. As they say, “you dont know how strong you are, until being strong is the only option you have.” This ‘being strong’ is a very spiritual characteristic. So, that is the consciousness that came gliding into my life in my late twenties.
Why is Ramayana so touching and purifying? Why is Ram called Purushottam? Why is the character of Krishn so complex? What is the moral basis of Mahabharata? Can there even be a moral basis of historical and mythical things? Why are we here? What happens when we die? Why do we suffer? By the way, if you are feeling sad or hopeless for whatever reason, just read Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanas – open it anywhere and start reading it with translation. Read it for ten days, I can bet 200% you will feel better. And if you are feeling lost and restless, read Gita (or Seven Conversations :D).
Next phase of my exploration happened over last two years when unknowingly I touched upon some of India’s conscious kernels. So, I am compiling a list of my spiritual places and experiences in India. These are not made to go into LonelyPlanet guide as they are not at all famous but they were significant in my journey. Plus, I felt many people long to experience these understated experiences and don’t know where to start. If you cannot find anything else, my dear reader, please feel free to visit these (of course at your own risk)-
Experiencing Auroville over longer periods of time
A town or colony of 20 sq km near Pondicherry stands obscure from most of the popular tourist itineraries. Relatively less known even to Indians, the place is nothing like anything you will experience elsewhere. A meager population of 2000, less than 10 dusty roads, a handful of buildings, hardly any cars except that of visitors and a throng of white and local population on bicycles and bikes. It is sometimes so futuristic that it seems ancient. a I remember a distinct moment in the Matrimandir amphitheater when I could feel the presence very strongly. Of what? Of something that I cannot verbalize very well – an awareness of the grandness of it all. Do not make the mistake of doing a day tour of Auroville. You need to stay there at least for a week, roam around, watch the sunset on Thursdays in Matrimandir with the background Savitri music. You need to walk around and hug the banyan tree. You need to visit Savitri bhavan and watch SA’s statue against the moonlight. You need to meet strangers from everywhere and have a filter coffee in the visitor center. You need to see the units run by foreigners and locals. You need to see Sadhana forest. You need to eat the red rice dosa and hibiscus syrup. You need to bike back in pitch dark on the dust road. You need to hear the crickets and watch the world around you falling quiet to zero. You need to just be. It has become my yearly retreat.
Attending Jeevan Vidya
A very unassuming teacher, a very simple setting often chosen in conscious institutes and places, locally sourced organic simple meals and deceptively simple yet profound discussions over 9 days. A free workshop, run by one of the best teachers I have come across – Vinish ji. A man who evokes deep respect and awe, talks about basics of life and casts a surprisingly wide net that covers everything from relationships to food to body to mind. And he famously says, “there is no going back from here”. I wonder if the Matrix scene of ‘choosing the pills’ was inspired from him. The difference is he smiles a wry smile after making u take the pill. He announces – you have been transformed. Welcome to this new thinking and being. Nothing ever will meet your eyes in an uninspired way again.
Vipassana at Dharamsala
Vipassana has become a synonym of cool Buddhist meditation retreats. Vipassana is a well-established meditation practice in more than 150 centers worldwide. I happened to experience it amidst the beautiful center at Dharamkot. With mist, rains, mountain, pine smell and yes, the monkeys! – it was a memorable and transformative experience. It is not about any religion and the recorded evening sermons provide a good mental cleansing after long hours of meditation everyday. I enjoyed the cerebral discourses, they made a lot of sense. They tell you why they are making you follow these weird rules such as no dinners, no fee, no yoga etc during those 10 days. I developed a good respect for S N Goenka and the practice itself. The crux is to realize how impermanent things are. Although I could not assimilate much during one year after the course, I find threads tying up with my other experiences and I am able to do Vipassana meditation more sincerely now (although not too frequently). But this was the place that spurred me on to reading more about meditation, buddhism, mindfulness and I am glad I did. Some of the beautiful books I recommend highly-
Be it Sikkim, Kashmir or Himachal, if there is one thing that can make you realize the vastness of universe and your physical insignificance, it is the Himalayas. And if there is anything that can make you realize that you are the part of the same vastness and hence infinity packed in a small body, that is the Himalayas 🙂 Go, watch them stand there mighty and towering. They have seen more than you will ever see.
The chaos of Vrindavan
It is messy and dirty and yet, there is nothing like it. With history so intertwined with the presence of one of the most fascinating deities, Krishn, Vrindavan reeks of Hindu faith. During the bhakti era, many saints have taken their inspiration in the holy land, including Mirabai, Surdas, and Tulsidas. Immerse yourself in a morning darshan of Baanke Bihari and an evening bhajan at Iskcon. Who knows what you may find? Or what might find you?
Please share your favorite spiritual places in India in the comments 🙂