Amarnath, Temples and Tantra

I was on a bus plying winding and steep roads when we picked up Swami Radhakrishnananda. The bus had already climbed to 9000 feet in the Indian Himalaya, and there were several thousand feet left to climb to one of the most sacred pilgrimage spots in India, the temple at Badrinath. The Swami was barefoot and carrying only a blanket and a small bag.

The Swami entered the bus as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a non-stop bus to spontaneously pickup a man and not demand any fare from him. Undoubtedly this is more common in India, but I hadn’t seen it before.

The Swami said he visited Badrinath each year to harvest rare herbs that grew in the alpine valleys beneath Himalayan glaciers. Those herbs were said to bestow energy and longevity. I took the man very seriously. He claimed to be 96 years old and we just found him walking barefoot up a steep mountain at 9000 feet!

The bus stopped at a temple at the foot of the final grade up to Badrinath. The Swami took the opportunity to comment on the foolishness of Man creating God, installing God in a Temple, and bowing down before his own creation. Of course, the Soul and God would both be found within ourselves, not within the temple. The swami said, “If God were really in the temple, why drop in and leave immediately. You’d want to go and stay with God in the Temple!”

Then the Swami excused himself, saying he would be back shortly. I asked him where he was headed. He said was going to the temple! He would visit the temple for darshan, the blessing of viewing the temple’s image.

In the end, I visited the Swami a few times during our time in Badrinath. I bought him a pair of shoes that he didn’t request, and he gave me one of the very few possessions that he had with him, a very old and worn copy of the Bhagavad-Gita.

That story sums up a lot of India for me, but I’m not sure I have the words to explain it.

I was on my way to Badrinath to visit Baba Amarnath, whom I had met at the Kumbha Mela a month or so earlier. Amarnath spent summers in a little hut perched above the Mandakini River, one of the main tributaries to the Ganges.

I met Amarnath when I observed a large Western man bathing in the Ganga at Haridwar during the Kumbha Mela. The Mela is the largest gathering of humanity in one place. It’s a spiritual fair that’s held once every twelve years sequentially in four places across India. In 1986 it was in Haridwar, where the Indian plains give way to the Himalayan foothills. On the most auspicious days for bathing in the Ganges, several million people might be present.

The Westerner’s name was Bodha and he told me that he had a great teacher with him and could arrange a meeting for me. That’s just the sort of thing I was attending the Mela for. I got directions to the place the Baba was staying.

When I entered the room, I found a man in his early 70s with long gray hair, a long grey beard, and strong handsome features. I sat down and tuned into his energy. He seemed to be in ecstatic state, the air was charged with his bliss.

What followed might be one of the strangest conversations I could conceive of having with an unknown elderly man from a conservative culture. I told him that I wanted to sleep with his wife, and he told me that he was constantly in “a state of sex.”

When we spoke, we communicated not only our words poetically, but transmitted the essential meaning wordlessly, such that he knew that “sleeping with his wife” meant becoming absorbed in the energy of the Goddess whose power shapes all things. I knew that in his constant “State of Sex” that he was absorbed in that energy himself and that in his Love he exchanged life force with everyone around him constantly.

This was not the India that I read about in books or learned about at UC Berkeley’s department of South Asian studies. Amarnath was a tantric yogi, a devotee of the Goddess and of Absolute Being. As we got to know each other over many days, I learned that he had been a member of the caste and family of Priests for the temple of Badrinath. He was plain spoken about the venality, greed and corruption among priests, whom he claimed exploited the temple and its pilgrims for economic opulence rather than any real devotion.

In India, “tantric” generally refers to those who are devoted to forms of the Goddess, the energetic power of creation, and who use mudras, mantras, yantras, and visualization to connect to that power underlying all manifest forms. Connections between overt sexuality and tantra were uncommon in India’s near past until the West revived tantra’s sexual element and reintroduced it to India. Amarnath had a very liberal attitude about sex, but doesn’t seem to have practiced sexual tantra.
Amarnath spoke excellent English. He said that he learned it by a miracle when he was a kid. A friend in his school class who knew English drowned in a river. After the child’s death, Amarnath suddenly could read, speak and write this language that was previously unknown to him. The gift of languages (Vak Siddhi) is not unknown among tantrics.

He also enjoyed cooking for his guests. He really was like the stereotypical Jewish Grandmother stuffing us with food. Any protest and he became offended. He said that cooking was a spiritual practice for him and that feeding us was his way of infusing us with his love and energy. He taught us to relish and swim in the energy of each experience without getting wrapped up in it.

I visited Amarnath in India several times over the course of time. One year he took a friend of mine, Jim, now chairman of a religious studies department, and I, on a trip to visit some notable Himalayan temples. We wanted to visit Kalimath, one of the Himalayan “Shakti Peeths” or energy centers. On the surface of things, and intuitively, the temple, situated in an impressing bend of an icy Ganges tributary, seemed rather lifeless.

Ironically, India probably has more Goddess Worship than any other country, yet the feminine spirit is commonly oppressed. India had a powerful woman prime minister who ruled the country long before a woman president became likely in the United States. Goddesses are commonly worshipped in India because their specific powers to bestow blessings. Lakshmi is Goddess of abundance. Saraswati is Goddess of art, music and learning, and so on. Local villages might have a temple for their own local favorite goddess. Women would be likely to pray to the Goddess for fulfillment of a particular boon.

The tantrics have a more sophisticated concept of the Goddess as the energetic foundation of all manifest form, the active aspect of the universe in contrast to the unmanifest pure consciousness of the unchanging Absolute. They have a saying. Shiva (God) without Shakti (Goddess) is Shava (a corpse). It’s both a play on Hindi spelling and a real philosophical statement.

Still, when in comes to accepting, nurturing, and empowering a dynamic balance of the Feminine Energy within a person, the West’s resurrection and enhancement of ancient teachings enables the healing and balance humanity needs for an enlightened future; perhaps for any future.

It was rarely the temples that gave me inspiration in India.

Temples are mirrors and they are environments.

Temples are mirrors because they act as a focus of a pilgrim’s attention. They provide a medium for the energy and devotion of the believers to be focused on the divine and reflected back to them.

Temples are environments because they provide a social ecosystem for a variety of people. Priests make their living from the worshippers, a local economy develops around the needs of the pilgrims, and sadhus and holy men have a place where they can receive support from temple charities and from pilgrims. I always found the holy folks exuded more spiritual eminence than the temples offered. There were exceptions though, temples build a energetic charge after years of devotion and worship being performed there. Sometimes the devotion offsets the “money changing,” sometimes it doesn’t.

A friend and I went to visit the temple of Kedarnath, a famous ancient temple nestled among high Himalaya peaks. Everybody has to walk 15 miles up a mountain to reach the temple. We went early in the season. It snowed hard in the afternoon on our first day of the hike to the temple. Pilgrims, even elderly ones, often poorly dressed and walking barefoot in the snow persevered to the shine. India’s pilgrimage tradition promises great heavenly and karmic rewards to those who endure the journey to visit certain shrines; Kedarnath has particularly generous terms for the faithful.

I wore shoes for the trek in the snow, but they weren’t allowed in the temple. I waited in line barefoot like others to enter the granite shrine built many hundreds of years earlier. The representation of the God Shiva at Kedarnath is actually just a large stone with some kind of history in Indian mythology. The cramped inner chamber vibrated with intense spiritual power. I stepped back and soaked it in for some time while others filed past.

Indians will tell you that they don’t actually worship idols, as God is in everything and is only represented in the temple. That said, there are elaborate rites, rules, and rituals to install the divine in the statue of God, and offerings and ceremonies are continually in order.

Not all Indian holy places are temples. Many Indians regard the River Ganga as a goddess. Over the course of several visits, I spent several months living on the bank of the Ganges. Although I wasn’t initially very receptive to the idea that the Ganga was a special divine entity, I am a nature lover and I develop an intimate feel for nature around me. In the mountains where I live, I regular find renewal in icy dips in the local river. I continued that practice in India at the Ganga.

Over time I realized the Ganga had a presence that could be connected with, communicated with. As our relationship deepened, there were a few occasions when a dip in the Ganges literally felt like a dip in white spiritual light that absorbed me into it’s exquisite peace, freedom and love. This was something different than the renewal I felt dipping in Sierra Streams, I became a lover of the Ganga after that, a believer out of experience.

One year I felt a hankering to visit the source of the Ganga, where the main tributary erupts from a 200 foot cliff of ice at the head of a large glacier high in the Himalaya. I didn’t tell any of my Guru friends that I was coming, neither Poonja Ji nor Amarnath. I didn’t want to visit the city of Lucknow where Poonja lived and I knew Amarnath was too old to hike several days to the Ganges source. I didn’t want to be distracted by obligations to anyone.

Amarnath was in Haridwar when I arrived to trek up the Ganges. I was keen for a short visit with him since I loved him and he was on the way. After not having seen him in several years, I walked into his room unannounced, with no previous hint that I was coming. He exclaimed that just a few days earlier he had sent me a postcard imploring me to visit him in India before he died. He had symptoms like arthritis in his knees, nothing that looked likely to kill him.

Still, he said that after he discharged his social duty to marry off his daughter, he was finished with this world, He said that he expected that he would have to return for another life because of extensive karma with the women in his past. I assured him that I would track him down in his next life and torment him with all kinds of indignities. I’d set him up working in a tea stall, find him a nice fat wife, and on and on.

A few months after I returned from India I got two letters on my birthday. One was from Amarnath and one from Bodha. (neither knew my birthdate.) Bodha wrote that Amarnath died a in early May and that Amarnath’s last letter was the one I had in my hands. To this day, a few of us are careful to look for signs of Amarnath’s return in their kids.

Thanks you for the Love and Wisdom Amarnath Ji.