A Retreat to the Source of the Ganga
By Dr. Keesha Ewers and Ajayan Borys
The Dalai Lama calls the Himalayas the masculine spiritual center of the world and the Andes the feminine spiritual center. This is why we take groups to both places, India and Peru. This year we are traveling to the Himalayas, a treasure trove of ancient history, mythology, symbolism, and spirituality. It is also one of the most fantastically beautiful regions of the planet. We will traverse through jungles at the lower elevations, to spectacular mountain forests adorned with waterfalls, to the wind-swept, otherworldly landscape at Gaumukh, the glacier at 13,000 feet that is the source of the Ganga.
Do you need to “believe” in Eastern philosophy to enjoy a sacred pilgrimage to India? Absolutely not. Just as there is much anyone can enjoy in the natural beauty of the Himalayas, so can you find great richness in India’s spiritual culture, no matter what your beliefs. One of the most beautiful things we have noticed about India is that it’s a melting pot of all mysticism, and whatever you look for is what you will find, be it Christian symbolism, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu.
Not a Journey into Hinduism
By the way, the truth is there is actually no such thing as “Hinduism.” The word Hindu was assigned to the people of the Indus Valley by foreign raiders. The Sindhu River was called the Indus River. The invaders could not pronounce the “S” and made it an “H” and therefore, all people living on one side of the Sindhu River were called Hindus from that point on. In any case, Hinduism, as the foreign invaders called it, was never intended to be a religion. That’s true. Rather, it is a way of life, and by those who practice it, it is therefore often called Sanatana Dharma, the natural or eternal order, duty, or path. The Vedas and Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts that provide the “way of life” for the people in this part of the world, never included discussion of God or religion. Science, medicine, music, mathematics, geography, astrology, architecture, and other fields of knowledge were taught in the Vedas. Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, which means “the world is one family,” was the Dharma, the duty, both personal and societal, not religion.
Over the centuries, a “pantheon of Gods” has emerged in the folklore of this part of the world. Again, with deep misunderstanding by Westerners. These devas, or what we call “gods” are simply a physical symbol or representation of an aspect of the Divine Source of all that the devotee would like to focus on and aspire to in their own daily life and behavior. This is very different from the style of worship practiced in formal Abrahamic religious traditions. In fact, the people of India tend to readily absorb any form of spirituality into the fabric of their society. On our travels through the Himalayas, you will see spiritual seekers and devotees of the Divine who have nearly as many ways of worshipping as there are people in the country. It’s a wild, bright and colorful, widely diverse country that reflects the highest and best of humanity, as well as some of the lowest (in terms of poverty and its consequences in the big cities). You will find what you seek when you travel in this land.
The Pilgrimage of a Lifetime
One of the life goals for Indians is to travel to the source of one of the most sacred symbols of the country, the Ganges River. The roads to the source are peppered with scores of shrines and areas of special and spiritual significance. As you ascend higher and higher into the purity of the Himalayas, you can easily feel you are ascending into a heavenly realm, surrounded by not only magnificent natural beauty, but also the purity of the atmosphere and the sacred energy that has built over eons of so much meditation, prayer, and devotion here. In fact, for thousands of years, ancient legends have extolled this river and the value of meditating on her sacred banks. Just one of the many virtues of the Ganga is eulogized in the ancient text of the Mahabharata:
Even as the sun, when he rises at the dawn of day, blazes forth in splendor, having dispelled the gloom of night, after the same manner the person that has bathed in the waters of Ganga is seen to shine in splendor…
Thus, the source of the Ganga has become a destination for countless generations of Indians, as well as a haven for sages and yogis throughout the millennia.
There are actually four pilgrimage centers that the spiritual seeker plans to visit at least once in their lifetime: Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. In each of these centers there is one major temple for the “deity” that each represents. Kedarnath houses a shrine devoted to Shiva, the God of death and destruction of what no longer is needed; think autumn moving into winter. Badrinath is home to a shrine devoted to Vishnu, the preserver; think summer (Brahma is the creator; think spring). Yamunotri is the birthplace of the Yamuna River, another very sacred place in the mythology of this country. Finally, there is Gangotri, the birthplace of the river Ganga, where we will be traveling to.
The Story of Gangotri
According to legend, the mythological King Sagara, destroyer of all of the demons on earth, was eager to unify the surrounding kingdoms under his rule. As was tradition at the time, he hosted a horse sacrifice. Part of the ceremony was to turn a decorated horse loose with the army. Whatever kingdom the horse traveled to was to become part of King Sagar’s kingdom. To resist was to invite war. One of his 60,001 sons, Asamanjas, accompanied the army and the horse as the king’s representative. According to the story, the war god Indra became worried that his power would be usurped by a mere mortal king. He therefore stole the horse and stabled it in the hermitage of Kapila, a great sage who was deep in meditation. All 60,001 sons heeded the angry call of their king father and mounted an attack on Kapila’s hermitage. Just as they began to storm the hermitage, Kapila opened is eyes and reduced the 60,000 sons to ashes, saving only Asamanjas.
According to the myth, the souls of Asamanja’s 60,000 brothers could only rest in peace after being washed by the sacred River Ganga, which was said to be flowing only in the Heavens. It became Asamanja’s duty to bring the Ganges to earth so his brother’s souls could be put to rest. However, he and three successive generations of rulers were unsuccessful in this impossible task. That is until Bhagiratha, a descendent of Asamanja, successfully coaxed Mother Ganga from the Heavens to the earth through his meditation practice and tapas. She answered his request with this:
“I shall gladly flow on the earth over your dead ancestors. But when I flow down from the heavens, the earth will not be able to withstand my mighty force. If you find a solution to this problem, I shall gladly follow you to the earth.”
So, the humble and pious Bhagiratha prayed to Shiva for help. The legend goes on to say that Shiva broke the mighty force of the celestial Goddess Ganga by his head, lest she shatter the earth. Then the river flowed from his locks to the earth at Gangotri. Gangotri is translated from Sanskrit as “the place where Ganga descended.” In Gangotri you will see the legendary waterfall where the Ganga is said to descend to the earth.
Your Sacred Indian Tour
There are many facets to the tour. We will visit temples and ashrams, and you’ll even have a chance to take advantage of budget prices on the wonderful sacred arts and crafts of the area. In addition to an optional rafting trip on the Ganga, our tour will include an option to trek into the mountains to the headwaters of the Ganga, to Gaumuck, the glacier that is the source. You will be able to leave behind (figuratively) anything that no longer serves you—at the feet of Shiva. The trek back down will allow you some time to replace what you have let go of with something new to begin a new chapter of your life. For those who have made this trek, it is always a transformative journey.
As part of that new life, Dr. Keesha will be doing Ayurvedic pulse diagnosis and offer personalized healthcare plans. Ajayan will be teaching meditation practices that are indigenous to this region, personalized from beginner to advanced. In fact, here is literally the birthplace of much that we know of yoga and meditation today, and there is no better place to learn and practice. When you return home, you will have all the tools you need to make your metamorphosis stick. We invite you to allow the water of Mother Ganga, the river of the heavens, to wash away your suffering. It is a re-birth that can only be experienced.
For more information, see Himalayan Meditation Retreat.