Return to Gangotri
The weather in Uttarkashi was still a little warm for the long sadhana we were trying to perform, so we decided to return to Gangotri for cooler weather.
During our first visit to Gangotri, we stayed at the Ishvashyam Ashram which is located on the side of the Ganges where the sannyasis live and where the ashrams are located.
This first visit was a spectacular success as Swamiji and I made friendship with several sadhus. We were very well received and fit in seamlessly. We always felt welcomed, but most importantly, we took advantage of numerous teaching opportunities as we shared our iPad Apps and presented our sanskrit texts and translations to the sadhus of Gangotri.
Last visit, we performed our sadhana at the Ishvashyam Ashram, which was secluded and well out of public view.
In contrast, on this second trip to Gangotri we stayed on the opposite side of the river. This side of the Ganges is the commercial district and houses the main Gangotri Mandir. The tourists flock here and so it is not as peaceful and secluded as the ashram side.
Uttam helped us locate a guesthouse adjacent to the main Gangotri Mandir, which was easy walking distance to a previously seen wonderful spot near the Ganges to perform sadhana.
The location Swamiji scoped out for sadhana is actually where they perform the evening Arati to the Ganga, but from morning through the early evening, it is unused and no one enters the small protected area.
Swamiji knew we would not be disturbed here, and it afforded us the opportunity to chant right next to the river.
We arrived in Gangotri in the evening, rested for the night, and awoke early morning. After showering, we walked a short distance to Arati area and performed our morning sadhana.
We were so close to the Ganga that even though Swamiji had a mic, I still had to listen very closely to follow along with him.
When we began, there was hardly a person in sight. Every now and then, one of the pujaris would quietly walk by.
The waters flow so rapidly here, that we could hear no other sound other than our chanting and the river. It is naturally a place for sadhana — all worldly talk is drowned by the song of the Ganga.
We were sitting for Pancha Ratna Gita and the full Chandi, which is about a five hour asana. As time went on, more and more pilgrims came to the bank of the Ganga.
Though we were in plain sight chanting on a loud speaker, we met with little disturbance. The sound of the Ganga is so loud, and people so engaged in what they are doing, that only once in a while did someone notice us sitting there and chanting.
When we had finished the Pancha Ratna Gita and the Chandi, Swamiji decided to expand our recitation to include the Shiva Puja and Shiva Sahashranam.
I have found that once you get into the rhythm of chanting so many hours a day, day in, day out, it is hard to stop! There is just no better way you can think to spend your time than in the bliss of worship.
By the time we finished, a little over seven hours of our life had been offered in worship. We slowly strolled back to our room when we were met by some of the pujaris from the Gangotri Temple. They had come to express their extreme appreciation of our Sadhana.
One of the main temple pujaris said to Swamiji, “We are brahmins, and though we may be considered the highest in Santana Dharma (eternal dharma, ideal of perfection), sannyasis are above even us. So, you are our Guru, we bow to you. You have shown us what Santana Dharma really is. Thank you for your sadhana. Thank you for all of the translations and the books you have contributed to this Dharma. I am not just thanking you myself, I am offering you thanks from the Santana Dharma itself, please, please, continue with what you are doing.”
My jaw dropped as I heard this expression of respect. I can think of no words which could better describe Swamiji’s contribution to humanity and to the fulfillment of Sanatana Dharma than the words from this priest.
Of course, Swamiji accepted this praise in the most humblest of ways.
There are many sannyasis in Gangotri, and I can assure you that the brahmins rarely show such reverence and say such things to them. Even more rare is the fact that it was said to a foreign sadhu.
They were simply in awe of the example of sincere worship Swamiji had given them. Swamiji made an offering of dakshina to them for our stay at the guest house. The pujari looked at him and replied, “You are our Guru! I will never spend this dakshina; I will always keep it as a reminder of you.”
Thus began our first day back in Gangotri. It became apparent that we were as equally welcomed on this side of the river as we had been on the other side, by both the temple pujaris and sannyasis.
Gangotri is a sacred space where Mother India opens her arms to all of us who come to worship. The people of Gangotri honor and respect those who have made tremendous contributions toward uplifting humanity through their example of Sanatana Dharma. No doubt, Swamiji’s contribution was worthy of this respect.
Optimal Place for Sadhana
Gangotri has been a perfect place for us to perform sadhana. The Ganga flows by constantly singing with us as we chant…
… while the Himalayas stand strong in the background demonstrating the perfect stillness of how to sit in an asana.
Yet there is something even more important for our sadhana than the surrounding beauty, and that is the support of the local community and visiting pilgrims.
Swamiji has said that the location is much less important than the people who are around us when we do sadhana. I would venture to say that it is true for life in general as well!
Any place, no matter how beautiful, is enhanced or degraded by the people who reside there or are visiting. There have been times when we had visited some temples that were in the most beautiful and inspiring locations, but the high-volume blast of Bollywood music over the loud speakers ruined the spiritual mood. Other times we may have been chanting, and the people could visibly see we were chanting, yet they began talking loudly to each other, disturbing the bhava created by the mantras.
A beautiful location may be nice, and a good climate is always helpful for sadhana especially if you are outdoors, but without the key ingredient of a supporting respectful community, they do little good.
The pilgrims, pujaris, and sadhus of Gangotri have been a complete blessing to us. Not once did they disturb our sadhana. On the contrary, they have empowered us and have shown the greatest respect for what we are doing.
The pujaris have allowed us to sit everyday in their evening Arati Shala, a place which is shaded (very important when reading from an iPad), close to the Ganga and enclosed so that we don’t have to worry about people walking by and knocking over our music stands (it has happened in other places).
This prime spot for sadhana was such a blessing, especially when bus loads of pilgrims arrive all at once to take darshan and bathe in the Ganga. We were always safe in our spot, remaining undisturbed.
The pilgrims that visited Gangotri showed great respect and support for our sadhana. Even though Swamiji and I are two foreign sadhus, chanting from iPads with a mic, speaker, and a laptop, they still offered us dakshina. They appreciated our performing sadhana at this sacred site enough to try to make some offering to support our activities.
It’s easy to imagine a devout pilgrim seeing a poor sadhu, one who has little or nothing with him, and offering him dakshina. But it is a little more difficult to imagine that they would be so generous with sadhus who are obviously a little more well-to-do. There we were chanting while surrounded by fancy electronic equipment, yet they offered what they could out of respect for what we were doing, and not because they made a judgment on if we were wealthy or not, or whether we were in need, but they needed to make their offering in support. That was their dharma!
Many of them bowed down as they passed by or folded their hands together in namaskar. Even sadhu walking by would bow down to Swamiji! They too were inspired to see this worship.
After we had finished chanting one day, a man from the temple came and thanked Swamiji for his wonderful worship and expression of devotion. The manager of the temple came with the man, and they requested Swamiji to perform the evening Arati to the Ganga! What a sign of respect!
I am quite sure a foreigner has never done, nor has ever been invited to do the Gangotri Arati for the Ganga. Yet, such is their respect and appreciation for what we are doing.
They also requested Swamiji to perform the Samasti Upasana (Cosmic Puja) at the Gangotri Temple. Swamiji took a rain check on both the Ganga Arati and the Cosmic Puja, preferring that Shree Maa be with him when he performs these sacred offerings.
Gangotri is no doubt a beautiful and inspiring place on its own, but the love, respect, and support of the people here is what makes it an ideal place for sadhana.
There is no reason this should not feel remarkably familiar. We have been doing this same sadhana, this same rhythm of life, even the same quality of life, for literally thousands of years.
We are sitting in the Arati Sthal, the covered veranda in front of the Ganesh Temple right on the bank of the river, just below Ganga Maa’s Temple, with Ganga Maa rushing past us with a tremendous roar. We are literally a few steps from where Bhagiratha performed his tapasya to request Ganga Maa to come to the earth many thousands of years ago.
He may not have had an iPad, or a battery-powered microphone, but without doubt, he was reciting many of the same mantras that we are reciting these days, in much the same spirit as we are currently reciting.
She blessed him, and it is our every anticipation that she will bless us in the same way. I truly believe that she looks to the sincerity of the effort, and not just to the precision of the execution.
And that is why this feels so familiar. We have done this in so many times, in so many places, in the past. Today also we are producing the same effort, with the same integrity, with the same intensity, a firm commitment, seeking the same blessings of peace for all beings with whom we share this earth.
We are part of a lineage, supporting a tradition, with wisdom as our heritage, training ourselves to move beyond the attachments of the ego. We are expanding our capacity, redefining our nature, seeking to move beyond the limitations of body and mind, so we can reach the everlasting soul.
Only then will we be qualified to call ourselves Purusha – full, complete, and perfect Consciousness, as it inhabits a human body.
We are requesting all our friends and family, along with all the forces of nature, to bless us in our pursuit of these worthy goals.
The Sacred Yatra of the Great Himalayas
The Himalayas are mentioned in numerous scriptures, highlighting the sacredness of this mountain range. Even two of the scriptures that we chant frequently, the Devi Gita and the Chandi Path, make reference to them.
In the Chandi Path, when troubled by the forces of duality, where do the Gods go to pray? None other than the Himalayas!
In the Devi Gita, the Goddess shows Her universal form consisting of the Himalaya Mountains as Her bones, the trees as Her hair, the rivers as Her veins, and the sun and moon as Her eyes.
But, in the Devi Gita, when asked about Her places of pilgrimage, the Goddess replied that all places are Her place of pilgrimage, because she exists everywhere.
Why then do we have, or need, special pilgrimage places? Why then is it so important to make the journey all the way to the Himalayas?
Though the Goddess is everywhere all the time, many of Her children have difficulty perceiving this. As an expression of Her endless love for Her devotees, the Goddess has named special places where her divine energy can be felt more deeply.
In this way, if we aren’t able to perceive that God is everywhere at all times, then at least we can feel God’s love in specific places at specific times.
In addition, most of us cannot focus on worship each moment of the day, so carving out a specific time for a special festival or a pilgrimage can provide the necessary inspiration to focus our attention on worship.
The pilgrimage places where sadhus, saints, and, as the Chandi Path mentions, even the Gods have worshipped, have a special divine bhavana. If we are receptive to this, it can serve as a catalyst to help us perceive God’s presence all of the time.
There are a lot of pilgrimage locations throughout India, but the Himalayas offer something extraordinary.
Here the climate is ideal, it is remote and a place of solitude, and nature is in its most majestic of forms.
Leaving the world behind, it feels as if we’ve entered a heavenly paradise filled with divine beings showering us with love and inspiration.
This is why, since time immemorial, sadhus like Swamiji have made their way to the Himalayas to make use of these ideal conditions for worship.
Their tapasya, in turn, keeps the location sacred and serves as an inspiration to the pilgrims.
On the road between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, we saw many such pilgrims making their yatra (pilgrimage).
These journeys traditionally take place at the beginning of the monsoon season, when the Himalayas are abundantly green.
Along the roadside, against that lush green backdrop, can easily be seen the many yatris who shine brightly in their orange clothing.
They are the pilgrims. They are the ones that are compelled to spend their vacation in sacrifice to God. They are the ones with pure devotion that walk uphill and/or downhill for hours at a time. They are the ones that are inspired by the tapasya of the saints and sadhus who have visited the sacred spots.
But there is something even more surprising about the total scene. Stepping back, I would venture to say that the sadhus too are equally inspired by the spirit, tenacity, and devotion of the pilgrims.
Imagine this pilgrimage scene and the pure hearts of the people of India….
On this day, there were thousands of them — mostly boys and men, but occasionally women. They were dressed in orange shirts and shorts and had walking sticks.
They had a pack on their back for their daily supplies, a fanny pack carrying their valuables, and a cloth tied like a brazier carrying one set of fresh clothes.
They each had a bottle of Ganga water from Gangotri or Gomukha hanging from the waist. Some tied the Gangaajal on their walking stick and balanced it on their shoulders taking extra precautions not to spill the sacred water.
Some are walking by themselves and others are in small groups of four or five. Those lagging behind the small groups end up joining other groups who were slowly creeping up behind them. Sometimes the groups grew to more than 20 people.
They follow the road, slowly, step by step, and since their isn’t much space, they merge into a single file line when a car passes by.
They come from all over India, and they are going back to various parts of India – north, south, east and west. But they all have one thing in common — their desire to offer gangaajal collected from Gangotri or Gomuka to the deities at their local Shiva Temple.
They were adults with jobs, families, and responsibilities. They were students with futures yet to unfold. Undoubtedly they had obligations and many things to do, and yet they chose to use what little holiday time they had to make this annual pilgrimage for God.
The longest and most famous of such journeys is from Gomukha (the origin of the Ganga in the Himalayas) to Rameshwara (all the way at the Southern tip of India). Ram had said that anyone who brings water from the Ganga in the Himalayas to offer at Rameshwara would receive special blessings.
Swarms of people making the yatra reached Gangotri. Upon arrival, they collected Ganga water, bathed in the Ganga, and then, placing the collected Ganga water in front of themselves, they chanted and prayed to it as a form of divinity.
It was incredible to see so many people taking the time out of their daily lives, routines and jobs, to make this offering to God.
And what dedication!
Many of them were walking huge distances, while carrying the smallest amount of possessions with them.
We are used to performing sadhana by sitting for eight to ten hours a day, but these pilgrims were probably walking for that much time every day!
“Om Namah Shivaya! Om Namah Shivaya!” and “Shri Ram! Jai Jai Ram!” could be heard occasionally as some softly chanted a mantra with each step of the foot through the mountain path.
Others could be heard singing devotional songs, while some were simply listening to bhajans. Most appeared to be in meditative silence, focused on God with every step.
All of them, in their own way, tried as much as they could to dedicate this time and effort to God.
No matter what we are doing, if we do it for God, that itself is our sadhana. That itself is our tapasya.
While the devotion of the pilgrims is so inspirational, the expression of support offered by the local people was equally touching. These yatras would be much more difficult to accomplish without the support of the local people, who provide rest stops, beds, and food along the path.
Such is the cultural of India, that everyone feels blessed to support any and all endeavors which express heart-felt devotion. Swamiji and I certainly experienced this support many times on our journey.
There were rest stops set-up every six to seven kilometers (approximately four miles) that offered shaded areas for the pilgrims to take rest. At some rest stops they even had mattresses laid out on the ground for pilgrims to sit or lay comfortably.
As we drove by a rest stop, there was a familiar scene of a collection of walking sticks with orange backpacks hanging together on a horizontal bar.
Many of the walking sticks, which were well intact at the beginning of the yatra, had become frayed at the bottom. They took the resemblance of a clod of wooden fibers several times larger than the original circumference of the walking stick, symbolic of the tenacity and pure devotion required to make such a long and difficult journey.
Every couple of rest stops there was a dabha, which is a place offering nutritious warm food. The love and support of the local people was overwhelming – I saw many times that the food was offered free of charge to the weary, tired pilgrims.
Some local people were so inspired to support this annual tradition that they set up areas with free freshly cooked food and water. As the pilgrims walked by, and even as every motorist passed by, they called out to them to pull over, rest and eat.
One time when we drove by, the local people pleaded with our driver to stop, exclaiming, “Please, everyone, get down and take rest, take food!”
Even more touching was that some of the local people drove small trucks alongside the pilgrims, played bhajans for them, and offered them food and water as they walked!
Just think, a pilgrim could begin the journey downhill from Gangotri without a rupee, and could arrive all the way to Rishikesh (total distance 180 miles) without missing a meal! What an incredible and sincere offering!
Everyone participates in some way — either in supporting the devotees, or being the devotee, but participate they do!
Swamiji told that long ago, when there was just a foot path and no paved road, there was a sadhu by the name of Kali Kamliwala (literally the guy with a black blanket) who used to make tea for anyone passing by on their way to Gangotri.
It was this sadhu who started the tradition, and now it has expanded into a full support system for all the people making this journey.
Swamiji went on to explain …
The pilgrim scene was quickly coming to an end. That evening, Swamiji looked across the river and saw that only four pilgrims remained out of the hundreds that had visited here recently. Though Gangotri experiences a lot of foot traffic from the pilgrims, most of the people stay for only a short period of time. The pilgrims will come and go, but the Himalayas remain the residence of sadhus, sannyasis, and Lord Shiva himself.
The next morning while chanting, I could feel the bhavana of Lord Shiva and felt that indeed, He is a permanent resident of the mountains. I am sure this is why the Rishi’s named him He Who is the Beloved of the Mountain and He Who is the Resident of the Snowy Mountain. The constant flow and sound of the Ganga, like a never ending mantra, muffled and drowned out all thoughts and quickly drew my attention back to the sadhana at hand.
The beautiful Ganges, which thrusts itself forward toward the ocean with such vibrant energy while boasting a “no-regrets, no looking-back” attitude, performs endless service to the sadhus, calling our wandering minds back to the mantra. But more than this, what an example the Ganges River shows us to follow!
Having experienced the grandeur of the Himalayas, it is no wonder that it is mentioned in several scriptures. It is not at all surprising that people flock here by the thousands from all over India. Indeed, this sacred mountain range is one of the greatest blessings that God has showered on humanity.
Sadhana as a Way of Life
Expanding the amount of time we sit for sadhana is certainly a major part of our day, but it’s not the only thing we do! Traveling with Swamiji, I have really gotten to see how he makes sadhana a way of life, and how we can as well.
In short, our day is something like this: In the morning we perform our sadhana (currently around nine hours), in the afternoon we do whatever activities need to be done (answer emails, cook, clean etc.), in the evening we study the meaning of what we chanted and after that we find some medium to share our activities and inspiration (this travelogue for example).
It is really a beautiful and efficient cycle to follow. Each evening, we read the translations of the texts we are chanting. Then when we chant in the morning, I always notice meanings from what we had read in the evening!
In the morning we perform our sadhana and in the evening we study what it is we are saying when we chant. Each activity enhances the other, and together they keep us focused on God the whole day!
In this way, we not only expand the amount of time we sit for worship each day, but also the amount that we understand and apply to our lives. The sadhana grows in length, intensity and meaning.
So we perform the sadhana, we study what we are saying, and then we act in accordance by applying the meanings to our lives.
As a small example, we are chanting the Devi Gita each day. In the Devi Gita and many other texts, you will find passages about feeding both the brahmans, the knowers of divinity, and the sadhus, those striving towards God and efficient action. It is a great privilege to help empower those who are striving towards God, and to help provide some of their material necessities.
Swamiji has applied this wisdom from the Devi Gita. Gangotri, being a remote location, has very few vegetables. There are no nearby farms and so nutritious vegetables are a valuable commodity. As such, before departing from Uttarkashi, Swamiji, with the help of Uttam, purchased an abundance of vegetables to distribute to the ashrams and sadhus in Gangotri.
One day after finishing our morning Sadhana, Uttam and I divided up the vegetables so we would have enough for ourselves and plenty to share with a couple of different ashrams. Then, led by Swamiji, we took the vegetables and offered them to the Harihara Ashram (which we had visited on our first trip to Gangotri).
Upon receiving our food offering, they were so grateful and we too were very happy to have the opportunity to give. After all, the scriptures had recommended it!
Of course, Swamiji doesn’t stop there. He always offers dakshina to every temple and sadhu we visit, helping to empower them to continue what they are doing.
He doesn’t only empower those who are physically nearby either — he also makes every effort during the gaps in our chanting and studying, by email or otherwise, to keep everyone connected and inspired.
He is a true example of pure love, inspiration, and appreciation. He always makes sure we have something to share. Depending on our internet connection the medium may change from video, to audio, to pictures, down to just plain typing, but always Swamiji makes sure we have something to share!
The Ideal Satsangh: Association with Beings of Truth
Certainly this quote from the Sundar Khand sounds like a lofty claim, but is it?
The word “sat” means truth and “sangh” means in the company of or union, so satsangh means to be in association with truth, or to be in the company of beings of truth, such as as sadhus and saints. In my experience, satsangh certainly is as great as the Sundar Khand claims it to be!
Satsangh varies in form and level of intensity. Sometimes it is used in reference to a spiritual talk, a gathering of devotees to sing kirtan, or even to perform some other activity focused on God. No doubt, these are all forms of satsangh, but these are referring to temporal events.
The “ideal of satsangh” goes beyond just a gathering that we have once in a while, or even on a regular basis.
True satsangh, in its ideal form, is a continual inspired relationship between souls who are headed toward the same goal.
The satsangh may be with fellow disciples who keep each other focused and inspired toward the goal, or it may be the Guru and disciple. While these are both examples of external satsanghs, there is also an internal satsangh, which is the relationship we have with our own self (minds). Here, the objective is to keep our attention focused on truth rather than worldly matters.
In continual satsangh, we work together mutually to maintain the most conducive environment and circumstances for doing sadhana and keeping our minds focused on divinity. When this relationship is with the Guru, it actually empowers the disciple to become like the example that we respect most and to live life as they do.
If the satsangh is with fellow disciples, we help each other to constantly stay inspired toward remembering and achieving that same goal.
Whoever is involved, when everyone is working together, focused on the same goal and ideal, then the true essence of satsangh is experienced.
During this journey in the Himalayas, I have had the privilege of sharing the most wonderful satsangh with Swamiji. Our rhythm of worship became the whole of our lives with nothing else in between. Our whole association together became focused on supporting and maintaining this rhythm of worship. This is real satsangh.
Our daily routine consists of a very early morning wake-up call from sleep, followed by preparing ourselves for daily sadhana and chanting together.
Then we automatically divide-up the various duties, such as chopping vegetables, cooking, cleaning , etc., and implement them.
We help each other to get our daily chores completed efficiently, and often this happens without any conversation about it — spontaneously we work together because we know what needs to get done in order for us to live this kind of life.
Through our time in India, we have built our asana to be anywhere from 8 to 10 hours a day. This chanting, combined with our daily duties, does not leave much time in the day for other activities, but with whatever time we do have left, we read the scriptures, talk about their meanings, and deepen our understanding of the sadhana.
The bhavana (spiritual feeling) that manifests from our worship stays with us throughout the day and creates a continuous satsangh — a continuous association with truth. The wisdom of the scriptures spontaneously flows into the activities of our daily life with little to no effort, making it possible to live in accordance with the scriptures.
When life becomes immersed in Vaidika Shabda (words of wisdom), then inspiration and meditation are with us all day long.
To stay in a continuous satsangh, every aspect of our life must be maintained with the utmost of purity. While staying associated with people who are rooted in worship and wisdom goes a long way, satsangh involves more than just divine communion in our relationships and interactions with others. It also includes divine communion with our own internal selves — meaning, our mind and thoughts.
As information is the food that either nourishes or provokes our thoughts, we should invite only pure, unworldly information into our minds.
Here in the Himalayas, with just two sadhus, it is easy to control the information that enters into our minds.
We can easily tune out the normal talk of the latest news, movies, and sensational world events.
We can easily remain free of idle chit-chat and gossip.
The secret to making satsangh a continuous reality is creating the divine environment. The effort it takes to pull together this type of satsangh is well worth it, as it can manifest a divine way of life for everyone involved.
Should others join the satsangh who aren’t completely immersed in the same discipline and schedule, then the satsangh becomes less powerful.
Unless everyone in our sphere of interaction is really focused on the same discipline, with the same understanding and goals, it is difficult to maintain that unbroken satsangh.
The conversations then erode to Bhautika Shabda (talk of the world) and our thoughts follow the same course, moving out to the world. The blissful bhavana generated from the sadhana drifts away, making it difficult to maintain through the day.
Ultimately, the external satsangh supports the internal satsangh. We become inspired and encouraged by the association with external satsangh, which in turn fosters divine thoughts, ideas, and the inner purity required to maintain an internal satsangh.
When our own internal satsangh becomes firmly established, we then are able to offer our support to someone else. We become their “external satsangh”.
Even if our external satsangh is supportive, sometimes various mundane thoughts and ideas creep into our minds. When this is the case, we can reflect and ask ourselves,
“Where am I inviting this in from?”
“Do I read the news first thing in the morning before remembering God?”
“Do I view everything going on in social media before remembering God?”
Somehow, we must be doing something to disrupt our own satsangh. If this be the case, there is nothing to fear! There are a set of tools, or practices, that will free us from our thoughts.
The set of practices are called Siddantachara. The word “siddant” means principle and “achara” means code of conduct, or behaviors. So siddantachara are the behaviors recommended in the scriptures that we should perform to quiet the mind and re-establish our internal satsangh when we get off track. These practices are also called Nitya (eternal) Karma:
Shankaracharya advises in the Sadhana Panchakam,
“Whenever possible seek out the company of the true and knowledgeable people, and serve the sandals of their lotus feet, and ask from them even one letter of the knowledge of Brahman and listen to the great words of wisdom from the Vedas.”
The satsangh between disciples and Guru is a mutual endeavor. The disciples offer whatever service they can to take away the material responsibilities of the Guru. The Guru in return has more energy, mind, and time to share the knowledge and sadhana with them.
This verse points out that the disciple needs to ask the Guru for the knowledge and show that they are eager to receive it. That is a part of the satsangh too.
It isn’t a one way street where we are just waiting and hoping that the Guru will give us the wisdom. It is our responsibility to seek it and ask for it.
When this happens, the respected and empowered Guru will certainly do everything in his or her power to empower us towards our highest success as well. Both Guru and Disciple will both be blessed by the beauty and divinity of that satsangh.
Now it is time for us to apply this knowledge in our own lives. What can we do to ensure the people we associate with our supporting our spiritual progress? What are we going to change in our daily lives to foster purity in thought, word, and deed? Where can we set the example for maintaining a conducive environment? There are so many aspects of our lives that can be leveraged for the benefit of all.
I have heard Shree Maa say, “It is easy to perform sadhana in India, but the real tapasya is maintaining satsangha in everything we do, whereever we reside.”
What a great aspiration!
While we were in Yamunotri, our dedicated guide, Prashant, told us that a police lady had seen us enter the temple in the early morning. Later during her rounds, she was surprised to see we were still there. Again, near the end of our sadhana, she saw that it was five or six hours later, and still we were there chanting!
When she saw Prashant, she asked him, “What are they doing, why are they chanting so long, for what reason are they doing it?” She was so surprised to see two foreigners performing such a long worship, that she had trouble trying to figure out what she even wanted to ask.
When Swamiji heard the story from Prashant, he thought about it for some time, and this is the answer he gave:
Those who sit for a short time, invite God to come into their lives.
But those who sit for a long time, are praying to God to allow themselves to move into God’s life, and this is really our goal.
We often think that if God would grant our desires, we will achieve happiness.
Ultimately though, we come to the true understanding that if God would take away all of our desires, then we will achieve real happiness — Peace.
Once we decide that moving closer to God is the goal, we recognize there are four steps to its achievement:
1. Asana Siddhi- Perfecting Sitting Posture
We must first perfect our sitting posture, and our comfort zone, so we can stay longer and longer with God.
One should strive to sit still for at least four or five hours, in one sitting, every day.
The longer we stay in one posture at the altar with God, reciting scriptures, thinking about Godliness, and thinking about people who achieved Godliness, the less scope there is to create any more bad karma for ourselves.
So long as we are sitting still, we can’t get into any more trouble.
So in the first step, let’s try to achieve Asana Siddhi and be able to sit with God for longer and longer periods of time.
2. Spashtha Ucharan – Clear pronunciation with Pranayam
We want to read words and sentences. We want to recognize the words we are pronouncing, while making our breathing regular through pranayam. In this way, we can sit for longer periods of time.
Then, we get the opportunity to move to the third step, which is understanding what we are saying.
(Note: Swamiji’s book Pronunciation and the Chandi Samputs is a “must read” for serious students of Sanskrit. It discusses the differences in Sanskrit pronunciation, the origins of these differences, various methods of chanting, the history of Sanskrit literature, and the original of Roman transliteration.)
3. Understand the Meaning of the Scripture we are Chanting
When we recite scripture, we are studying the history of what other realized beings did in order to achieve their greatness.
We are reading stories and prayers and other literature which can inspire our greatness.
In order for the information to be useful, it is desirable to understand what it means — not just the words — but the real meaning, the intrinsic meaning.
Only then can we contemplate how to inculcate the meanings in our lives. This moves us to the fourth step — aligning our actions with the meanings.
4. Act in Accordance
As we come closer and closer to the path of Godliness, it becomes more natural to act with the greatness of the examples that we have studied.
We begin to act as they would have acted under similar circumstances.
Ultimately each of these great beings was left only with one desire — to be with God, and they spent more time sitting in ultimate communion.
We become the character in the scripture we are reading, the scripture is the study of the path which we took.
Building the Asana
The Bhagavad Gita speaks of controlling the indiryas, the organs of action and the organs of knowledge. Swamiji has explained that by sitting in the asana, we automatically control the organs of action. They have no where to go and nothing to do but worship God!
By focusing on the meaning of the text and reciting the mantras, we focus and control the senses, which are the organs of knowledge.
To that end, in Gangotri we have continued expanding our Sadhana, but Swamiji never does it in a haphazard way. He always starts with an amount of Sadhana we are accustom to, say the cover to cover Chandi, and grows it day by day.
Maybe the next day we would chant the Pancharatna Gita and the day after a shortened Chandi and Bhagavad Gita together.
Then again we would expand the Chandi to its full length and then add the Pancharatna to the Bhagavad Gita, chanting them both together. From there we could add something more each day, systematically growing the Sadhana.
The body and mind both need time to adjust and get into the rhythm of longer sadhana.
Swamiji explains that if we just jump into a long sadhana we haven’t built up to, we aren’t likely to succeed, and even if we do, we may not be able to maintain it into the future.
On the contrary, if you suddenly sit for eight hours of chanting when you have only ever sat for three, then your body may not be ready for it. You may end up with sore knees, hips or a hurt back.
Even the number of days for which we are engaged in this expanded sadhana is something we slowly grow. Swamiji builds to the desired length of sadhana, maintains it for some days and then again takes a respite and reduces the amount of sadhana.
By taking a break, we have a chance to rehydrate and rest the body. Each time after taking a break, we again build the asana day by day, rather than just jumping back to the full length sadhana.
Each time we build our way back to the longer practice, it becomes more natural to us and less of a strain and we are able to maintain it sustainably for a longer period of time before resting again.
It is more likely that if you don’t build the asana systematically, you won’t be able to sit for eight hours continuously. There are a lot of factors to being able to sit for that long, and not least among them is how much food you eat and water you drink.
In slowly building the asana, you can get a feel for how much you can eat and drink the day or night before without causing yourself a problem. Nothing could be more disruptive to trying to sit for eight hours than having drank too much water the night before.
When Swamiji is engaged in this kind of sadhana, he likes to eat one major meal a day, and then a small snack in the evening. How much water to drink is something you get a feel for by building the asana step by step.
Too much water and you will have to get up; too little water and you may feel too parched while chanting. Too much and too little, I guess it always goes back to the Chandi.
If we follow the example of the Gurus, and build our worship and sadhana in a systematic step by step way, then we too will be able to do the sadhana they did and attain the same result they attained!
The Application of Hatha Yoga to Sadhana
After our chanting for the day, we gathered our belongings and headed back to our room. As we climbed the stairs at the Gangotri Temple we were met by the Head Pujari and Chairman of the Temple Trust. He had met us previously so it was nice to bump into him again.
When he saw us, he said: “I have been watching you every day. What you are doing is incredible! It is an amazing achievement to have translated so much of our sanskrit scriptures, but then to be able to sit for nine to ten hours at one time and recite them with such impeccable accuracy in one asana, is absolutely incredible!”
So when we returned home, we thought about the ingredients that went into our discipline.
All forms of yoga find an application in the sadhana we perform. The Devi Gita famously proclaims that for reaching the goal of yoga (Union), combining Bhakti (Devotion), Jnana (Wisdom), and Karma (Action) is most effective.
The Goddess also proclaims in the Devi Gita that it is easier to meditate and perform sadhana when the body is free from pain. Hence, Hatha Yoga too finds a place in our sadhana, as a tool for enabling us to sit for longer periods of time with less pain or discomfort.
The word “hatha” means forceful. Hatha Yoga is a method we learn to restrain our bodies, minds, and souls into the union with divinity (it takes some force sometimes).
If we can sit in one asana, without having to get up, our mind and especially body are limited in the trouble they can cause. The mind may be able to think of many random desires, but it can take no action to obtain them as the body is restrained in asana. With the body remaining in the asana, the mind is eventually forced (hatha) to pay attention to the sadhana and give up other thoughts.
Ultimately, there are three asanas which are recommended for the long sitting sadhana that we are doing: Padma Asana, Swastik Asana, and Siddha Asana as illustrated below:
These three sitting postures allow for the free flow of pranayam, the flow of our breath without restriction. This is essential to long continous chanting.
Pranayam is measured in mantras, the mathematical formulas which make the breath controlled with regularity. Mantras are written in chhandas, the rhythm of sanskrit which tell stories and express philosophy in poetry. So this sadhana requires an asana which supports our ability to breathe fully and easily.
To reach the point where we can sit comfortably in these asanas for long periods of time will require the practice of other yoga poses as well.
We will not need to do every yoga pose under the sun, but for our purposes we should focus on those which will lengthen our sitting posture and free our body from pain.
Often, when we sit, we discover (whether we like it or not) that certain parts of our body are tight, weak, or sore. We then choose the Yoga Asanas which will stretch or strengthen those areas in question.
For example, if you have tightness in the hips, then Baddha Konasana will be an aid in achieving the desired limberness. If you find you have a weak back when you sit, poses like locust (Shalabhasana), half locust and warrior II (Virabhadrasana II) can strengthen your back muscles.
If you have sufficient time, you can practice the whole Shree Maa Yoga Sequence which Swamiji used in the days of his sadhana to prepare his body for sitting in longer asana. Swamiji has said that practicing the Seated Postures of the Devi Gita will also aid us in sitting longer in our choosen asana:
Adding these practices to our regular sadhana will give us an arsenal of tools by which we can prepare ourselves in every way. Remember, our sadhana is holistic spirituality, a way of life which affects everything we do. We must prepare ourselves in every way possible to become the sadhus we choose to become.
Three Practices for Chanting Over the Long Haul
There are various styles of chanting which are appropriate for different circumstances and goals.
When we are new to a text and want to study its meaning and pronunciation, we use the Bhakti Path. The Bhakti Path involves breaking the verses at the quarter and reading slowly.
As we become more familiar with the text and we want to shift the focus to the energy contained therein, we practice the Shakti Path. Shakti Path involves chanting quickly and strongly.
Then, we perform Pranayama with the chanting and lengthen the asana so we can forget the mind and body. Finally, letting the mantras take you into a deep meditation is Jivanam.
For performing the type of long sadhana that Swamiji and I have been doing in Gangotri, the Pranayama Path is the most appropriate. So, the first secret to maintaining long continuous chanting is to chant with pranayama path in a regular rhythm — breath after breath, hour after hour.
In the Pranayama Path, we inhale a mantra while pushing out our belly, and exhale the verses of the scripture we are chanting. Each exhale will include the same number of verses throughout the entire recitation. So the decision on how many verses to the breath is decided prior to starting the sadhana, then it remains consistent throughout.
In a case where we decide to do two verses to the breath, there is a rhythm created in the chanting: inhale one mantra, exhale two verses, inhale one mantra, exhale two verses….on and on.
As we chant, we never think about how many verses or how much time it will take. We don’t have to because as soon as we have chanted two verses on our exhalation, we are inevitably going to inhale a mantra. After inhaling a mantra, we are, of course, going to read two verses on the out breath. So the process continues.
This method of chanting is referred to in numerous scriptures. For example, in the Chandi Path, Chapter 11, Verse 13, there is a reference to pranayama as it pertains to the form of Goddess Brahmani,
“…wearing the form of Creative Energy sitting upon the carrier yoked to the swans of vital breath.”
Here, the “swans of vital breath” refer to the movement up and down of the prana (energy current, life energy) that is carried in the breathing process. The Goddess resides in the prana that moves up and down through the nerve channels.
(Note: A swan, which is called Hamsa in sanskrit, is likened to the vital breath because the root “Ham” vibrates with the ascension of the breath, or inhalation, and the root “sa” vibrates with the descension of the breath, or the exhalation).
It is the prana, through the process of pranayama, that provided the energy to carry us through the long recitations, some of which were slightly over 10 hours in one asana.
Without the practice of pranayama, it would be very difficult to sit for even a few hours without feeling sleepy.
Another scripture that discusses the benefit Pranayama Path is the Gita Mahatmya (The Greatness of the Bhagavad Gita). Here, it states, “Whoever will recite the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita with the method of breath control known as pranayama, will be freed from all sins, even those committed during previous lives.”
The Pranayama Path is so powerful that it keeps pulling us forward through the recitation, keeping our minds focused. In this way, the sadhana becomes our very breath, with the ultimate goal that the sadhana continues indefinitely, for as long as we breath!
In addition to the regularity of breath in this kind of sadhana, Swamiji chants in one even tone following the “swara” or tone of the sound of the Ganga. This is the second practice to jump start your chanting.
If we chant too loudly or in a sing-songy fashion, then there is a chance of straining our voice.
If that should happen, it is not only more difficult to complete the recitation, but could cause trouble maintaining your sankalpa day in and day out.
A soft, consistent tone with a regular rhythm also allows us to focus inside on the meaning of the mantras.
I was very surprised the first time I chanted with Swamiji using this method of one tone in chanting. The meanings and pronunciation of the mantras became much more clear!
One tone chanting allows us to focus on pronouncing the words rather than trying to maintain a tune.
Tapasya is often a test of overcoming the influence of the body and mind. During my two and a half months of tapasya with Swamiji, there were several internal battles brewing inside of my mind, especially in the beginning.
Thankfully we usually began our sadhana with the Bhagavad Gita, where in the first chapter Duryodhana, the Defender of Evil, comments,
“Look at the battle formation of the mighty forces of Those without Prejudice (Pandava, the Pandava Brothers)…” Then, Duryodhana proceeds to list the valiant heroic fighters on the Pandava side, one by one.
So when the going get tough, it is time to rely on the third practice, which is to remember who we have fighting with us, get inspired by their example, and call on them for support.
Just look at the heroic fighters on our side!
And look — there is one warrior, Cekitana, whose name actually means “He Who is One Tone in Chanting!” (I did not imagine this, that really is his name!)
Indeed, when we are performing this kind of sadhana, One Tone in Chanting is a great warrior to have on our side! The others are great as well.
For example, when the mind drifts and forgets to stay in the bhavana, Clarity of Pure Devotion (Arjuna) can give us the inspiration to keep moving forward.
Should negative thoughts which tempt us to call it quits come to our doorstep, we can slam the door shut by remembering three warriors: He Who Knows No Fear (Bhima), who will give us the courage to continue; the great Drupada, He Who Attacks Impurity, who will annihilate our negative thoughts; and the excellent Abhimanyu, He Whose Mind is Directed, who can re-direct our attention back to the mantra.
During times when we feel weak or vulnerable, we can use the example of Uttamauja, He Who is Not Overcome, and Purujit, He Who is Victorious. Both will provide the strength, endurance, and stamina to not give up.
Finally, sometimes it is helpful to envision the end game — why we are doing all of this. For me, my goal is to be in association with Truth continuously. Remembering Satyaki, He Whose Nature is Truth, can bring great inspiration to any situation or obstacles we face.
Swamiji says that all of these characters in the Bhagavad Gita reside in us. In my experience, remembering these warriors helped to not only sustain my sadhana, but also to keep up with Swamiji!
Let’s all take our sadhana to a new level by applying these three practices: Pranayama Path, chanting with an even tone, and remembering the virtuous soldiers of dharma when the going get tough.
Chanting Multiple Scriptures
During the course of this yatra, the sadhana we have performed consists of chanting a collection of different scriptures, one right after another. Swamiji told that in his younger years, when he was performing intense tapasya in the Himalayas, his sadhana mostly consisted of Chandi Samputs, along with other scriptures.
Comparing the two sadhana approaches, Swamiji has found that the sadhana we are doing on this trip, reciting various scriptures one after another, is even more empowering than the Chandi Samputs.
By chanting Bhagavad Gita, Pancha Ratna, Chandi Path, Devi Gita, Guru Gita and many other sahasranams together, we get an amazing cross section of the inspiration and philosophy of Sanatana Dharma (eternal ideal of perfection).
As we recite the spectrum of scriptures, we become part of all of the traditions contained therein. We get to truly become Savarni, He who belongs to all colors, tribes, castes, and creeds. Everywhere we go, people have respect for our sadhana and are inspired to see all the different sects of Sanatana Dharma joined together in one worship.
As we move from one recitation to another, there is endless flow of wisdom and devotion which is presented in so many engaging and inspiring ways. Swamiji has said that the Shatakshara Samput of the Chandi takes eight hours, and we are already well beyond that!
(Note: Shata means 100 and akshara means syllables. The Shatakshara Samput for Chandi Path is 100 syllables consisting of the Tryambakam mantra (32), Jatavedase Mantra (44) and the Gayatri Mantra (24). These mantras are recited before and after each of the 700 verses of the Chandi Path.)
With such an amazing collection of texts translated by Swamiji, we could just keep going and going (and we do!) We get to enjoy so many of the various attitudes presented in the scriptures. Sometimes they are a story about Gods, Goddesses, and Rishis; at other times a philosophical discussion, a description of divinity and divine qualities, a list of the names of God, or a song of praise to one form or another.
As we chant, our rhythm and pranayama remain consistent throughout, yet the variety of meanings and ways of remembering divinity play in our consciousness.
Each night we read the translations of what we chanted during the day and find new inspiration of how to make our lives more divine, just as the characters in the story did.
We aren’t doing something new. The Rishis always held respect for and worshiped all of the various ideas and aspects of the Divine. They were universal in that they praised all forms of divinity and wrote songs and hymns for each manifestation of the Divine.
As an example, the Rishi Veda Vyasa is said to be the author of both the Mahabharata, from which came the Bhagavad Gita, and the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam, from which came the Devi Gita.
He is even said to be the author of all 18 Puranas, from which came the Chandi Path, the sahasranams of different Gods and Goddesses, the Guru Gita, and many other songs of praise.
The sadhana we are performing on this yatra, where we worship all forms and manifestations of divinity, affords the privilege of moving closer to the universal attitude that the Rishis have reflected.
Only One Thing to Overcome
There is something truly unique about being on top of a mountain, in a remote place, with the performance of sadhana as the main focus of our day. Normally in life, we have so many different obstacles and tasks imposed upon us from the outside, which we may or may not want to complete, but still we must.
Here in the Himalayas, engaged in sadhana for most of the day, we have only one thing to overcome, and that is our own selves. Truly, there is nothing else more worthwhile than to be victorious.
Sitting in the asana, reciting the mantras, there is no one to disturb us, but we ourselves. As the Bhagavad Gita states: “Only the atmana (the Reflector of the mind) is the friend of the soul; only the atmana (the Reflector of the mind) is the enemy of the soul. Who has conquered the atmana (mind, Reflector of the mind) has the peace of the Supreme Soul.” (Chapter 6, Verse 5)
It is difficult to sit in an asana and perform sadhana for eight or more hours if the mind is not united with the highest intentions of our soul, our own eternal self. Who would be capable to sit there with a restless mind jumping from one thought to another for more than half the day?
In such conducive circumstances for sadhana, if you don’t stop yourself from performing sadhana and moving deeper inside, nothing else will. There is nobody but ourselves to put the brakes on our sadhana. There is nothing else to divert us from moving deeper inside, but for the jabbering mind. Taking the mind and body as our support, we constantly create reasons or justifications for why we should make less efforts in our sadhana.
The mind will always call out in various ways “My back hurts, my knees hurt, we should move. This is too long. I need to pee. It’s hot, it’s cold. I have other things to do…” etc. It is up to us to withdraw our attention from these thoughts and move the attention back to the mantras.
Even during this trip, I have seen people come to join Swamiji and I who were sincerely interested in performing sadhana with us. They had the same conducive circumstances and environment, even the example of the Guru, yet somehow they were stopped by their own selves, and left quoting some reason or the other for their inability to stay quietly.
If we can continue in our sadhana, not accepting the suggestions of the mind, then we can focus on the meanings of the mantras and tap into the constant flow of inspiration coming through them. The mind eventually gives way and becomes focused in worship, and when that happens it is really beautiful.
What an incredible circumstance, where the only thing to do is to overcome oneself, and overcoming that, what difficulty can confront us? Everything just flows with joy and ease, “Who has conquered the atmana (the Reflector of the mind), has the peace of the Supreme Soul.”