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Pilgrimage and Asceticism: Travel as a Sadhu

    A travel experience,
    By Sam Oppenheim
"Desire nothing, give up all desires and be happy." - Swami Sivananda
December 1st, 2007

Today for the first time I put on my orange "Swami" clothing and left Malkapur to begin a pilgrimage-journey. This is an experiment. An inner journey. I am dressing the part of a Hindu renunciant, sadhu, swami, sanyasi, - one who gives up the experiences of wine, women, and work.

I am carrying one small bag. I have one set of clothing with one change of underwear, a blanket, and a lungi (3 meter cloth used as a male wrap-skirt, doubling for me as a towel). I have never traveled so lightly in my life. Of course, I do still take my pocket camera.

How will people react to me? Will I 'read' as a westerner or an insider? Will my Hindi suffice? Am I over prepared or under prepared? Does my 'costume' make me behave and think differently? I do already feel differently. I feel more responsible the way a uniform or suit makes one more aware of how one's actions are representative.

This journey is the culmination of a year in India. I have dreamt of traveling as a simple pilgrim ever since my first visit when I flirted with the idea of renunciation and spirituality.

It feels right.

December 2nd, 2007 "You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself "- Swami Vivekananda

Being in orange robes, people don't necessarily treat me better, but I am more invisible. I have been meditating more every day and I watch the world out the windows of busses and trains. Not using my iPod is different. I had forgotten how to entertain myself by just being, looking, imagining.

After traveling for more than 24 hours, I get down in Faizabad and ask for dal and chapatis at a roadside dhaba. The bill should be 16 rupees, or about 40 cents, but the man won't take my money because I am in orange. Blessings upon him, his family, and his business.

At 10pm, I finally find my way to the ashram here, in Ayodhya, the god Ram's birthplace. I get inside the gated compound and eventually go upstairs where I am reunited with Bhairav Muni, who has been a sadhu since he was 5 years old, and who I befriended in 2002 and traveled with in the Himalayas. I am in an ashram with friends. It feels good. Bhairav, who I remember had wild eyes and long hair, is now nearly bald, even his beard is gone. I have changed, too.

December 3rd, 2007 "Education softens the heart. If the heart is hard, one cannot claim to be educated." - Satya Sai Baba

I find out today that the Udasin sect is not technically sanyas - they do not turn their backs on the world. The sect was formalized by the son of Guru Nanak (founder of Sikhism) and they practice engaged spiritualism with education, orphanages, community services, etc. The Ashram has children students, young adult students, and even elder Brahmins studying Sanskrit, as well as attendant-employees. Guests come and stay all the time.

During the day I go to temples and ghats. In the evening I eat on the ground with the others, a simple meal of dal, rice and chapattis. Before bed I play with puppies kept on the roof.

December 4th, 2007 "The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong." - Swami Vivekananda

Off to Varanasi (Benares) today. We wait, and wait, then board a bus. 8 long bumpy hours later we arrive in dark Varanasi. We will be guests in Bhairav's adopted son's house on the Ghats (Riverside steps). An old 3-story home with small attached temple! Before bed I walked alone along the quiet steps, admiring the dark silky Ganges River.

December 5th, 2007 A HINDU PILGRIMAGE: VARANASI "Life is a pilgrimage. The wise man does not rest by the roadside inns. He marches direct to the illimitable domain of eternal bliss, his ultimate destination." - Swami Sivananda

Awake just after sunrise. Walking alone today along the Ganges. I stop to watch a body burn. Never watched a cremation before. Some Hindu ascetics meditate about death in cemeteries. I watch the men bend the legs backwards once the body had burned enough, snapping knee joints so the feet are no longer sticking out in order to to allow them to be completely consumed by flames. I can smell the burning flesh. There are many piles of ash at my feet. One steaming pile is being shoveled carefully into the river from a different cremation that ended overnight. Downstream dhobis are washing laundry. Ashore, not too far away, a wedding pavilion stands five stories above the surface of the holy river.

People ignore me, but sometimes address me in Hindi or English "Babaji - boat chahiye?" (Respected father would you like to ride in a boat?) Or "Maharaj - massage?" (literally: great king want a massage?). Locals are practicing yoga, visitors pay for Hindu priests to bless them and perform prayer ceremonies. Many people bathe in the sacred waters. I find a quiet nook in which to meditate.

Today I will try and gain entrance to the golden temple of Kashi, which I viewed from a rooftop in 2001 with my father on my first visit to India. As I walk closer I feel anticipation because foreigners are not usually permitted entrance. Memories of my disappointment at being denied entrance to Jagganath in 2002 surfaces into my consciousness. I walk onward.

I am admitted! The armed police security stationed to guard against terrorism check me out, but let me through. Inside I am treated with respect and welcomed. I'm garlanded with flowers and blessed in traditional Hindu ways; red vermillion paste is put onto my forehead. I bow to Shiva lingams; the crowd is all engaged in the multifaceted mannerisms of worship. It is a peak experience being inside this temple I had heard so much about. Still it is bustling and crowded, not as peaceful as praying in nature on a mountaintop.

I discussed Bhairav's spiritual path with him that night, and I asked him why he stopped wearing ash. He told me that when he was 30-something he was traveling between Europe and India a lot... "...And I had my dreadlocks up in a turban, filled with holy ash (vibhutti), bones, and bits of metal. I had piercings and bangles, and the metal detector guards always got frustrated with me, and I with them. So one time, the guard said 'Baba, just take off your turban.' And I told him 'No, you don't want me to, it will make a mess.' But, he insisted, and behind me was a long line of Indians and Westerners - rich traveler types - an impatient bunch egging me on because I was taking too much time. So I obliged, taking off my turban and shaking loose my coiled locks in a poof of smoke and detritus. In the blink of an eye the whole table, metal detector, officer, and a few passengers were covered in ash and bone, dirt and specks of other goodies! People fussed and the expression on the faces of the two authorities showed me I had made my point quite well!"

December 6th, 2007 "The real spiritual progress of the aspirant is measured by the extent to which he achieves inner tranquility." - Swami Sivananda
The trip that wasn't. Spent hours waiting at the train station for a train that was delayed 2, then 4, then 6 hours. After 8 hours, we gave up. While I was frustrated, I do have more inner tranquility than usual.

"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting." - Buddha

Today I caught the train East to Gaya and Bodhgaya- the center of Buddhism in India where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. I arrived at 3:30pm and visited the Nepali, Thai, Burmese, Japanese, and Tibetan temples asking for space to sleep, but all were full with their own nationals.

I spent the evening at the Mahabodhi temple where I circumabulated (walked around it) wondering to myself about balancing being a tourist, professional photographer, and a spiritual seeker. As I circulate I see other Buddhist monks photographing too, but I wonder, am I walking clockwise in an ancient ritual before entering a sacred space, or scouting the location as a photographer-artist, or both?

I realize of course, like all complicated questions about identity and purpose, action and intent - it's complicated and very personal. That's the human experience. Though human experience itself is universal, we all spend 99.9% of life as individuals unable to transcend interpersonal or intra-spiritual boundaries.
After meditation and a light dinner I wander around thinking about whether my decision to avoid hotels while on pilgrimage is actually unwise. While walking along a side street hoping to find another temple with space for pilgrims, a boy asked me (in Hindi) where I was going and I told him "I'm looking for a place to sleep", whereupon he offered his father's house.

I spent the night with a very welcoming family. Their thatched-roof home with split-bamboo walls and an earthen floor was full of mosquitoes. I was uncomfortable but I willed myself into peace of mind. To "sing for my accommodation" I read all their palms to great delight. I felt bad that they kicked their grandma off her bed and slept a family of 6 in 3 beds pushed together with me alone on their other bed. As usual I used my single blanket for warmth and after hours of trying to sleep despite the man's interminable snoring and flitting mosquitoes, I gave up and just meditated all night long.
December 8th, 2007 One of his students asked Buddha, "Are you the messiah?" - "No", answered Buddha.
"Then are you a healer?" - "No", Buddha replied.
"Then are you a teacher?" the student persisted. - "No, I am not a teacher."
"Then what are you?" asked the student, exasperated. - "I am awake", Buddha replied.

Spent the day exploring the Mahabodhi temple. By 6am it was already full of people praying and meditating. As the day progressed more and more devotees came to their prayer spot and either read, chanted, or did a series of bow-prayers that looks like exercise or yoga. First they 'namaskar' to the temple, kneel, prostrate fully on the ground, then come back up again. They may do this 108, 1008, or even more times a day! People walk around the temple all day, in robes of all warm colors: maroon, red, yellow, and orange depending on their nationality and faith.

This afternoon I left by train to Parasnath, a Jain pilgrimage site. After dark I found a Jain couple heading up the hill to the holy site, and we careened upward in a packed Maruti van with terrible suspension. Upon arrival I hunted for a good hostel/dormitory accommodation. Found a room for $1 US a night including one bedroll to sleep on the floor with, and one bucket (to get hot water from a wood-fired boiler in the morning).

December 9th, 2007 "I adore so greatly the principles of the Jain religion, that I would like to be reborn in a Jain community." " - George Bernard Shaw

My bucket has holes in it! It leaked as I carried it, piping hot, for my first shower in 3 days. That sure put me in a sour mood! I did get a new bucket eventually, but had only a half-buckets-worth of hot water that first morning. Did laundry and put it on the roof to dry. A day of rest, I can't hike in a lungi wrap-skirt. Tomorrow my pajama pants will be dry. I take a long walk uphill just to enjoy walking and come back at sunset.

"Where there is Love there is Life. Violence is Suicide."
"Every soul is in itself absolutely omniscient and blissful. The bliss does not come from outside."
"There is no separate existence of God. Everybody can attain God-hood by making supreme efforts in the right direction."

- Mahavir, founder saint of modern Jainism

Today I will hike to Shikarji summit and meditate in Parasnath Temple which marks where Mahavir, the 24th saint-founder of Jainism attained enlightenment.

4:30 up and at 'em. Still cold and dark. I make good time despite the fact that my flashlight is weak and I keep looking behind me afraid of Naxalites! (Local terrorist anti-government groups that hide in the jungle in this part of India) Only a dog this time. I give her a biscuit and she follows me until dawn.

6:00 am I catch up to a group of pilgrims, barefoot old ladies trucking slowly but surely uphill.

It is up, up, and more uphill. Finally after 9 kilometers I reach a summit and a fork in the trail. I am near to the goal: Shikarji summit. True pilgrims, however, take a much more circuitous route from here, 8 kilometers around a series of mountain peaks along a ridge with 20 small shrines and two larger temples. I follow the barefoot children, limping elderly, and devoted Jain pilgrims of all ages, stopping at every shrine to pray alongside them.

These Jain shrines are just a set of footprints, no idols here. This represents the feet of god, or of enlightened masters who attained moksha, or release, and hence all that is left is prints. People touch the feet, sing hymns, and leave offerings of rice, sugar, and nuts.

Finally I reach the temple. It seems like a Mayan pyramid to me, a red staircase leading up to a steep, gleaming, white temple. I climb in the heat of the mid-day sun, finally crossing the threshold into the cool, dark interior. I bow my head and close my eyes, breathing in others' intonations of prayer. The sanctum sanctorum is a simple pair of footprints on a pedestal. I love this religion! December 11th and 12th, 2007 "You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul." - Swami Vivekananda

On the road again,with cars, busses, and trains through jungles and hills. Tonight I attend services at a Sikh Gurudwara and sleep on the floor in Raipur.

December 13th and 14th, 2007 "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." - Buddha

I hurry back to Shekhar's town via two days of train travel. He thinks I am still very far away on pilgrimages, I plan to surprise him tomorrow for his birthday!

December 15th, 2007 "Your duty is to treat everybody with love as a manifestation of the Lord."
- Swami Sivananda

Success! He is completely surprised!

December 16th through January 1st, 2008 "Reach the point where churches, temples, mosques do not matter, where all roads end, from where all roads run." - Satya Sai Baba

I stay in Shekhar's home, and then we travel to Gujarat for pilgrimage to another Jain holy site. Palitana is a wonderful pilgrimage. Shekhar and I meditate together and walk at sunrise up the mountain to see hundreds of temples arrayed everywhere on the mountains with faithful praying in each and every one. Before leaving Gujarat we tour Somnath temple on the full moon, then visit Diu for beaches. Lastly we celebrate Christmas in Ahmedabad. I saw a scary man in a Santa suit who was breakdancing and frightening little children.

"We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect it's unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment." - Alan Watts