By Swati Chopra
Meet Nanima, an Englishwoman and spiritual teacher turned healer, living high up in the himalayas
High in the Himalayas, a hermitage stands on the banks of the Ganga. A few huts surrounded by fruit trees and wildflowers, embraced by a stretch of white sand and exquisite river-rounded stones. The closest town is 20 km away, where I ask for directions at the end of a two-day drive from Delhi that has taken me across the alluvial plains formed by the Ganga, towards her source in a Himalayan glacier. I have come in search of an enigmatic, reclusive spiritual master – an Englishwoman known simply as Nanima.
Some kilometres before Gangotri, a temple town near the Ganga’s source, I am directed to steps that go downhill towards the swift-flowing river. A slight figure emerges from the wilderness, her shaved head covered with the edge of her white sari. Though we’ve never met before, she envelops me in a spontaneous hug. Under a lemon tree, we chat as if we’ve known one another all our lives.
Next morning, Nanima invites me to a sun-warmed patch of grass before her one-room hut. The Ganga glints a burnished gold. We sit facing the river Nanima considers her mother, without embracing whom she never begins her day, chopping the ice sometimes for her daily dip.
Questions I have been mulling over now bubble forth. How did the search begin, how was she transformed? How did she become healer of spirit, transformer of mind?
“Perhaps the search started in hospital when I was young,” Nanima says softly. “I had a serious accident at three months old, and spent most of my childhood in hospital. I started to think what life is about. I was brought up in a Christian family, and loved God very much. But I didn’t receive the answers I was looking for in the Christian faith.”
Her intense longing led her to India straight after university. Travelling with acquaintances, she arrived in a Himalayan town where she chanced upon a religious procession.
“What are you doing, and why?” she asked.
“We are singing hymns, our guru asked us to.”
“Who is a guru?”
“Where do these gurus live?”
“By the Ganga.”
It was as if she had been handed a talisman. She left her companions, and headed to the Ganga. Somewhere along the way, she heard a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. “Those were the words I had been waiting to hear all my life,” she says, “that the self is never born, never dies.”
Ignited by the idea of the immortal self, and determined to know more, the courageous young woman immediately renounced worldly life, gave away all her money and possessions (including her shoes), and continued on foot. Soon, her feet were blistered, and she was crying from the pain. A man noticed her (“a very nice man, thank God!”), and through him, she at last met her guru who lived, as luck would have it, under a rock on the banks of the Ganga.
An extraordinary spiritual apprenticeship followed. Babaji, as Nanima calls her guru, guided her through a period of rigorous, incessant learning and practice that lasted 16 years. It included the study of scriptures and a thorough grounding in diverse spiritual traditions like Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge) and Karma (action).
Gradually, she became as free-flowing as the Ganga, smoothening rocks of outer adversity and inner turbulence with the force of spiritual practice. One day, Babaji said, “Close your books and meditate.” Just like that? Says Nanima, “It is you that has to go within. One’s inner experiences are one’s own.” He did say, “Mind is just thoughts, so if you remove your thoughts from everything else, that silence which follows is the self.”
The Ganga’s gentle roar punctuates our conversation, fills our silences. I ask her how it was, living in an ashram. Being a woman wasn’t particularly problematic, being a foreigner was. “Though Babaji was beyond those things, his ashram was traditional.” She was not allowed into the kitchen, nor could she touch anything. How did she deal with this?
“The spiritual path is about letting go of the ego. Thinking of ourselves as the body is what keeps us away from God. So any type of prejudice towards your individuality is wonderful!” No bitterness creeps into her voice, no shadow flits across her face. “I was the lowest of the low in many people’s opinion. But Babaji held me through everything with a cord of love and understanding. Sometimes I would be sitting by him. His devotees would arrive, and throw me out to the farthest corner. Babaji would just look. I knew it didn’t really matter.”
From Babaji’s personal example, Nanima imbibed the values of dispassion and renunciation – crucial attitudinal shifts on the path of inner yoga. “Babaji lived in akash vritti (sky-nature) – he never had any possessions, and never asked for anything.” I sense a similar sky-likeness in her; a quality of being that is free and unbounded.
When Babaji left his body 20 years ago, Nanima moved out. She lived for a while in Gangotri, then, with the help of friends, was able to buy this land, and build a few huts. A small community of seekers came to be, sometimes joined by those who came to Nanima for spiritual guidance. Other than that, she lived in seclusion. And then, cancer entered her life.
“I have cancer on both sides of my family. My father, mother, uncle and brother died of cancer.” In 1999, Nanima was also suspected of cancer, and operated upon. Luckily, it wasn’t malignant.
“I spent three weeks in hospital. When people see you in white with a shaved head, they come to you. So I got an opportunity to speak to a lot of people.” Some time later, a dear friend was diagnosed with cancer, and came to her hermitage to spend his last days. Through caring for him and his wife, Nanima realised the importance of spiritual and emotional care for terminally ill cancer patients and their caregivers. Thus when she was asked to help establish a cancer hospice, she came on board with one condition – that it have a spiritual orientation.
“When people have peace of mind, they don’t have so much pain. For the families, spiritual counselling can help understand their grief, and come through it,” she says, outlining her vision for the Ganga Prem Hospice. Though land has been bought near the holy town of Rishikesh, further development requires funds that Nanima and other volunteers are attempting to raise.
Having spent the last 35 years in solitary spiritual practice, how does she view her re-engagement in the world, so to speak? “You know, in the West they have psychotherapists – in India, there are sadhus (ascetics)! People bring their problems to sadhus. One realises the huge need (for spiritual succour). The pain that people have to go through in this modern world is tremendous. You think you are going to teach meditation, but you can’t before taking care of people’s pain. First the pain has to come out. Then they come to God, but many just want some love.”
So, it’s about love, then? “Compassion is inevitable. On the spiritual path, you are trying to destroy the ego, the boundary between yourself and the all-pervading. When that happens, there is closeness with God; there is also closeness with everybody else. You become open to others’ pain because you can’t separate yourself from them anymore. And there’s so much love you can’t help hugging everyone!”
Like you hugged me when I came, I say. She smiles, a wellspring of calm, carefree love. The answers seem to have come to her at last, beside this tempestuous river-goddess whose waters shimmer silver-grey in the last rays of the sun. We fall silent after a while, our heartbeats merged in the rhythm of the Ganga’s flow.
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