By Megha Bajaj
This summer go on an inner journey –– one that may begin with the holiday but will not end there
Are you going to book a run-of-the-mill holiday again this year? Before you do, try imagining an excitingly different way to travel – one that is not only revitalizing and healing but also spiritual. A quest to find that entity we call God. A re-union with the energy we call life. Just type spiritual holiday on the internet and you will know just how many people, in how many ways, have become spiritual explorers. What did they gain and what was lost – find out through the various experiences and defining moments that spiritual travel brought in all these people’s life.
The Buddha Trail
It began in 1988 with a group of three people. Shantum Seth, a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, decided that he would lead a small group on the Buddha path. They would visit several places associated with the Buddha like Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Kushinagar, etc. The trip unraveled so many profound moments and chance realizations that Shantum decided to make this a part of his life – by merging his passion and his profession. Ever since, he has been leading groups of people through the Buddha’s steps.
Anne Cushman, an eminent journalist, formerly with Yoga Journal, shares her experience of one such pilgrimage with Shantum. She writes, “…we travel to the little town of Kushinagar, where the Buddha died at the age of 80 in the shade of two sal trees. After a period of silent sitting, Shantum guides us through the Buddha’s meditation on death: ‘The practitioner compares his own body with a corpse that he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground and lying there for one, two, or three days – bloated, blue in color and festering – and he observes, This body of mine is of the same nature. It will end up in the same way. There is no way it can avoid that state.
“ ‘I came here partly to deal with my own death – but I feel much more alive than I ever have,’ says Jan (another member of the troop) that evening, as we sit in a circle on the floor of a tiny Chinese temple in Kushinagar. What’s hitting home for all of us, we discover as we talk, is the essential humanity of the Buddha. We’ve seen the places he walked, sat, struggled, triumphed, and taught, and now we sit in the place where his body returned to the earth. Somehow, this realization makes the task of achieving the liberation he spoke of seem more accessible to all of us.”
Shantum himself shares a defining moment. The Vulture Peak, located in the hilly terrains of Magadha region, was often visited by the Buddha for meditation and rest. Shantum tells his group as they walk up to Vulture Peak, ‘Buddha must have walked up and down this path thousands of times.” As Shantum sat in a cave near Vulture Peak one late afternoon, he felt the breath of the Buddha, he saw the sunset with Buddha eyes and walked up the peak with Buddha feet.
Shantum says, “Back in the city too, I live my life with a pilgrim mind. I also try to make anywhere I go into a spiritual holiday. For instance, the last time I went to see the Taj Mahal, I meditated on love and read the Metta Sutra (sutra on love) by the Buddha.”
Abode of the Gods
From the fertile plains of Northern India to the Southern Peninsula, Hindu pilgrimage centers are in thousands and multiplying. One among these famous centers is the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra – often referred to as the mother of all tirthasthans.
Mr. Prem Nirmal and his wife Bharti recently took a trip there. Electronic engineers by profession and spiritual seekers by choice, this duo undertakes an annual holiday exclusively for the soul. Mr. Nirmal confirms, “On a spiritual holiday, activities are replaced by non-doing, noise by silence and people by the self. I realized as we trekked on the precarious steeps, with oxygen levels waning, that there was a supernatural force that keeps one going in this yatra. It’s almost like the soul realizes that it’s coming closer to home and no journey seems too arduous.” He adds with a grin, “Another benefit: I shed five kilos of extra weight by the sattvic diet that one naturally adheres to in these spiritual holidays!”
The couple believes that these spiritual places are storehouses of energy that one can inherit if they perform a ritual or meditation there. Traveling with their guru, Gorakhbaba, they celebrated Guru Poornima during this holiday by performing a havan on a river bank. Silver waters, black smoke, divine chants and the silence that followed marked an unforgettable evening for all.
The act of ascending a path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Jain consciousness, which is why many of their holiest temples are located along hilly ranges. The Jains have five separate hill locations for their holiest clusters of temples and Shatrunjaya Hill, Palitana, near Ahmedabad, is considered the most important among them.
Kumkum Shah, an elderly Jain housewife, says proudly, “Even though I had arthritis I climbed to the top of the mountain. It took me three hours. The journey was arduous and we are not allowed to eat anything on the way, and yet I managed.” There is a belief that every devout Jain must climb the mountain at least once in his lifetime because of its sanctity. The peace, the radiance that spread over her wrinkled visage convinced me that there must be something in the beautiful temples atop that does not prevent the young and old, the sick and disabled from undertaking this excursion. Kumkum reiterates this point by saying, “Next year I will take my husband if his asthma is better!”
The Company of Saints
“For a Muslim living in Mumbai who is not content with visiting Haji Ali and does not want to take a pilgrimage as far as Mecca yet, Ajmer is the ideal place,” says Ali Rangwala, a young student of architecture.
His story reads like a fairy tale. He had gone to Rajasthan on a college trip to study its architectural wonders. As he stepped into a crowded market at Ajmer, an old lady caught hold of his hand and requested him to drop her to the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, famously knows as ‘Gharib Nawaz’. Surprised, but not one to refuse an old, partially blind lady, Ali consented. It turned out that Khwaja had left for heavenly abode in 1256 AD after a six-day prayer in seclusion. These six days are celebrated every year as the annual Urs, which is attended by innumerable pilgrims, irrespective of their faith. That day was the last holy day. It is considered to be a blessing if one can be present there. And here was Ali, by chance partaking of a spiritual event of such significance. He says, “Doing namaz on that special evening was divine. For the first time I was not just saying the words but feeling them, not just bowing but feeling devotion from my core.” The shrine is considered to be a place of wish fulfillment for those who pray with devout and pure hearts. Ali grins and says, ‘I won’t tell you what I asked for, but when I find her, I will make you meet her!”
Since this serendipity, Ali ensures that he goes to the dargah at least once a year. He believes that it was no chance discovery but the will of God for him to be there. ‘And who am I to disobey God?” he asks.
Christianity has had a long and glorious relation with India. Pilgrimage centres abound, of which one of the most significant is the Basilica of Bom Jesus in old Goa.
The church houses the relics of St. Francis Xavier, Patron Saint of Goa. The saint’s body is put on display once in every ten years. The last public display of the body was in 2004. I had the fortune of being there. A young devotee stood with her head down in absolute reverence. She had tears in her eyes as she murmured a prayer. As I stood behind her in the slow moving line we struck a conversation. She told me this church was extremely special as coming here gave her much comfort. She said, “I can compare the feeling of being here with being in the womb of my mother – warm, secure, happy.” She lived in Ahmedabad but came to the church often. On parting I said, “You never told me your name”. She replied, “Shreya Desai”. I must have had a quizzical look on my face because she immediately smiled and said, “So you think only a Christian can find peace in a church… not a Gujarati?”
Awakening in the Ashram
Living in ashrams has been an age-old practice in India. Earlier, it was a hermitage where sages lived. Today, ashram is an abode for just about anyone seeking peace and tranquillity in a home away from home.
The Divine Life Society, popularly known as Sivanand Ashram, is deservedly one of the most respected in Rishikesh. Rajni Arora, a middle-aged journalist from New Delhi, visits this ashram regularly. A breast cancer survivor, Rajni shares, “Having cancer made me value my body, mind and spirit much more. Ever since my treatment got over I have been going to this ashram to de-toxify. The yoga, fruits and disciplined lifestyle does wonders for my body, meditation transforms my mind and my spirit… in an ashram which is just buzzing with energy and compassion … the spirit is well taken care of. I suggest an ashram break for everyone. It slows you and reminds you of who you are. And yes, most ashrams work on donations and charge little or nothing.”
Vipassana is a rigorous ten-day residential course during which participants among other disciplines, maintain absolute silence, live on a sattvic diet and wake up much before the sun to meditate. The course is free. All expenses are met by donations from people who have experienced bliss and want others to have a taste of it too.
Father Peter of Agnel Ashram, Pune, says, “It was in a Vipassana course that I had one of my initial, most potent spiritual experiences. By the fifth day or so I has several visions and everything that I had heard or read in the Bible seemed to resound through me in that total silence.”
In the Arms of Nature
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” said Albert Einstein and how right he was. If none of the above methods appeal to you here is one that has almost never failed anyone. Even the most cynical of us will be moved by a glorious sunset, an unfurling flower, a star-clad night. Anita Fuller, a U.K based healer and hypnotherapist, believes that being close to nature coupled with silence makes the “heart open and soul take flight”. She organizes trips to Ladakh at least once a year and leads travelers through the most awe-inspiring trails – both outside and within.
The experiences of all these people have moved me to give myself a spiritual break. It’s time I did: move from being a tourist to being an explorer. A spiritual explorer. Won’t you join me?
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