By Barbara Briggs
Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri form a square of sacred energy in the Himalayas. Intertwined with Hindu mythology, these four dhams are more than pilgrimage centres, they are manifestations of divine power
According to saints and sages, tat srstva tad evanupravisat—having created, the Creator entered into his creation. All that we see is a reflection of the infinite fullness of the Divine which breathing out, creates from within itself, and breathing in, draws everything back in cosmic dissolution. The universe is eternally humming—spinning and unravelling the shimmering web of life—singing in silence the song of creation, preservation and dissolution.
To hear this song, the mind must become silent. Habituated to directing our senses outward, we have forgotten how to experience inner silence. Yet there are certain places where no matter how active the mind, how outwardly directed the senses, one will inevitably feel a deepening stillness, an awareness of something inexpressibly sublime, a bliss that will draw the senses and mind inward toward their source. These places are the spiritual power spots, where the earth is charged with divine magnetism. Even though the whole universe is the body of the Lord, the energy is not equal in every part of the universe, just as in the human body, there are particular power spots along the spinal column that act as storehouses of spiritual energy.
Dhams of Bliss
The Char Dham in the Himalayas—Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri are power spots eternally alive with divine energy. The divine realm of life is described as satchitananda, eternal bliss consciousness. Who would not wish to have darshan of that divine world, to have the veil of darkness lifted, even if momentarily, no matter how arduous the journey? In these four shrines, the air is saturated with the meditative silence and heartfelt prayers of countless saints, sages and yogis. Towering mountain peaks remind one of the vast immovable wholeness of life that endures in the midst of its ever-changing expressions.
The shrines are situated at heights ranging from 3,050 to 3,660 metres above sea level. The pilgrim’s ascent upwards is an outer symbol of the inner journey everyone must make, to that temple hidden deep within the heart. For anoraniyan mahatomahiyan: smaller than the smallest, larger than the largest is He. The Char Dham yatra demands courage, patience, faith and perseverance—the same qualities so necessary to tread the path to self-realisation. And the outward journey can inspire the inward journey, leading to a strengthening of determination and a redefining of priorities.
Abode of Narayana
The dramatic ascent to Badrinath, one of the holiest shrines in India, begins from Joshimath, a town nestled in a valley flanked by towering mountains. As the vehicle zooms upwards, one is suddenly face to face with soaring grey boulders and dense forests clinging to the edge of jagged cliffs. One can only hold one’s breath and mutter a silent prayer as the vehicle climbs steadily from 1,890 metres to 3,110 metres above sea level.
In Badrinath, a scintillating freshness pervades the air. To reach the temple, one must cross the bridge over the fast-flowing Alaknanda. From one side of the steep rocky incline, one can see steam rising from the bright blue water. Before entering the temple, it is customary to bathe in the Tapt Kund, a hot water spring. It is said that if one enters the Kund with the name of Sri Badri Narayana, resident deity of Badrinath, on one’s lips, all the fatigue of the journey is washed away. I can vouch for this! There is also the belief that anyone, no matter how wicked he is, becomes pure after bathing here.
The façade of the temple is painted in colourful tones of blue, red and white. Entering it, one’s vision is immediately drawn to the inner sanctum where the Shaligram Shila, statue of Sri Badrivishal sitting in the lotus posture, adorned with a diamond crown, sandalwood tilak and tulsi garlands, is placed. It is believed that in Kaliyug, Sri Narayana manifests in the Shaligram Shila, whereas in Satyug, the Lord actually resided in Badrikashram, modern-day Badrinath. The Lord tells his devotees in the Puranas that if one sees the Shaligram Shila in Kaliyug, one gets the same reward as actually seeing the Lord. This idol of Narayana was taken out of Narad Kund by Adi Shankaracharya and established in the present temple more than 1,200 years ago.
According to mythology, Badrinath was originally the abode of Shiva, until Narayana resolved to do tapas there. By assuming the form of a small child, he tricked Shiva’s consort Parvati into giving him shelter. Then while Shiva and Parvati were bathing, Narayana locked the door from inside. Shiva and Parvati then moved to Kedarnath. Narayana decreed that the valley of Badrinath would be meant for meditation and worldly things will not enter this place; and that the Lord will be worshipped by human beings for six months and by the gods for the other six. Thus the tradition of closing the Badrinath temple from mid-November to mid-April.
Ambience of Shiva
A little distance away from Badrinath is Kedarnath, one of the 12 jyotirlingas in the country. To reach the temple before dusk, one must begin the arduous 15 km trek from Gaurikund before dawn. Wending one’s way through narrow dirt roads, one joins an amorphous group of pilgrims clustered together at the foot of the mountain.
While Badrinath and Kedarnath embody male energy, Yamunotri and Gangotri personify the Mother Goddess
Along the way, wild mountain foliage, waterfalls cascading from great heights, narrow ravines and barren ridges jutting out from rock-strewn cliffs evoke the image of Lord Shiva. For he is the quintessential ascetic, oblivious to the outer world, wrapped in deep meditation, hidden in the midst of snowcapped Himalayan peaks. Wherever one looks, there is an ambience of Shiva. The path takes one beyond the individual ego, for so many journey together as one.
At the summit, the temple is temporarily hidden behind the many ashrams on the mountain. Standing in front of the gate, one sees sadhus with matted locks twirling rudraksha malas, barely clothed in spite of the chill that twilight brings. A majestic statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull, guards the entrance. But nothing can prepare one for the fervour around the linga.
Stepping into the small dimly lit sanctum, one enters a space vibrating with energy. I reach when the Rudra Abhishek is in progress: devotees press forward to anoint the linga with garlands, milk, honey, curd, ghee and rudraksha malas as the priest intones mantras that resound in the ancient stone enclave like huge bronze bells.
The linga here has an unusual shape: it is flatter and wider than other lingas. According to the Mahabharata, the Pandavas sought Shiva’s forgiveness for killing their relatives. Shiva, unwilling to give them darshan, took the form of a bull. Bhim, the strongest Pandava, found Shiva. As Bhim tried to get hold of him, Shiva sank into the earth leaving behind the hump. Pleased with the determination of the Pandavas, Shiva absolved them of their sin and asked them to worship his hump here in Kedarnath.
The Divine Feminine
Although all four Himalayan dhams are power spots, the energy in each one is qualitatively different. Whereas Badrinath and Kedarnath embody the powerful male energy of Narayana and Shiva, Gangotri and Yamunotri personify the gentle female energy of the Mother Goddess.
Approaching Gangotri, one passes apple orchards in bloom, villages where people are friendly and the air sparkles. The heart expands, revelling in the sight of snowcapped peaks in the distance. As one nears the small white symmetrically built Bhagirathi temple, the inimitable song of the Ganga greets one.
Here, the great goddess appears to be dancing in rapture, as her frothing waves rise and fall in carefree abandon before cascading in rushing streams down the mountainside to the plains far below. Mother Ganga’s dance is a symbol of the overflowing fullness of life.
At Gangotri, the Ganga bears the name Bhagirathi, derived from King Bhagirath, who is credited with bringing the Ganga from heaven after years of intense tapas at Gangotri. He was asked to do so since 60,000 of his ancestors could attain mukti (liberation) only if their ashes were immersed in the Ganga. Many others tried, but to no avail. Finally, Bhagirath’s meditation bore fruit, and the Ganga began her tumultuous descent. As she descended, she got suspended in the coils of Shiva’s hair. Then, Bhagirath propitiated Shiva who released the Ganga in three streams, one of which came to earth as Bhagirathi.
The source of the Ganga is at Gomukh, 18 km from Gangotri. The quality of the Mother Goddess, whose heart is ever open and giving, a symbol of purity, harmony and grace, is further elaborated in the graceful unfolding of the landscape from Gangotri to Gomukh. From the flowering trees to the music of the river, everything seems to be calling to the soul to awaken to the beauty of God’s creation. The glacial waters at the source do not deter pilgrims from taking the holy dip, so charged is the atmosphere with purity and bliss.
Yamunotri, at a height of 3,235 metres, is where the Goddess Yamunotri is worshipped. After a long 13 km trek, the sight of the temple perched high on the mountain rewards one. Before entering the temple, it is customary to worship the divya shila (divine rock) near the Surya Kund. Pilgrims dip a pinch of rice tied loosely in a cloth into the hot springs, where the water gushes out of the mountain at boiling point. A few minutes later, it is cooked and taken home as prasad. The source of the Yamuna lies one kilometre ahead, at an altitude of 4,421 metres. The approach is difficult, so pilgrims offer pooja at the temple only.
While the places might be imbued with divinity, the experience of each pilgrim will not be the same. This will depend on the receptivity and awareness of the individual. The more sensitive, awake and open the heart, the more one will be able to feel the spiritual energy in these power spots. Yet, everyone’s inner vision is destined to open to the eternal truth that the whole world is the manifestation of the Lord. Outer pilgrimage eventually leads to inner pilgrimage, to the holiest of the holy: the innermost sanctuary of the human heart. When the heart is purified, one can see God everywhere, in everyone and everything. Then one need not go anywhere. As the shastras say, yatra yatra mano yati, tatra tatra samadhyayah—wherever the mind may turn, he sees the One and gets immersed in Him.
May everyone embark on the ultimate pilgrimage to self-realization.
Barbara Briggs is a teacher of Transcendental Meditation. She is author of Vision Into Infinity (Sterling), a book on Maharishi’s Vedic Science, and an unpublished novel.
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