India Dreaming
Accounts of previous tours to India by Sundaram



Part Seven: Holy Rishikesh


Rishikesh is a holy town at the beginning of the Himalayan foothills which has been the abode of rishis, yogis & sadhus for a very long time. Although the name does seems to imply this, the word "rishikesh" actually means "one who can control his senses." Much attention was drawn to Rishikesh in this century as it was there that the great master, Swami Sivananda attained God-realization, established the Divine Life Society & built his ashram, drawing aspirants from all over India & abroad. The last 40-years, however, have seen a great many young people from the West -- hippies & tourists, as well as spiritual aspirants, converging on this picturesque town on the Ganga, spanned by two bridges, Ramjula & Lakshmanjula, & lined with ashrams & temples.


The Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where we stayed, is a beautiful, spacious ashram with nice rooms -- sort of a spiritual park, as it were, with many gardens & statues of the various avatars & forms of the Divine adorning the grounds. It includes its own private ghat (river access with steps for bathing), which is the scene of the nightly Ganga Arati, a beautiful, high-energy, congregational worship of Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges). In India one quickly comes to realize that all of nature is alive & holy: a direct manifestation of God, personified as Mother. Every river is a holy river, every mountain a holy mountain & every tree a holy tree. Nature's manifestations are living deities in India, not simply geographical landmarks!


As a guest in this Ashram, a guest is not required to attend any particular programs, although there are, of course, certain rules common to most spiritual communities. Attending the nightly Ganga Arati, however, is highly recommended. It begins before sunset with a yagna (Vedic fire ceremony). This is followed by the group chanting of certain prayers, hymns & bhajans, such as Sri Hanuman Chalisa & the Mahamantra. Then, as darkness settles over the river, the blazing ghee lamps are lit & ceremoniously waved to honor the Mother in the form of the River Ganga while the Ganga Arati song is being sung by all: Om Jai Gange Mata! Maiya Jai Gange Mata!" It is thrilling, indeed, to behold.


After the arati ceremony was completed upon the night of our arrival in the Ashram, we were invited to attend a satsang (informal gathering) with the founder of the Ashram, Swami Chidananda Muniji, on the patio of his kuti (room where spiritual practices are performed). Swamiji, who became a sadhu at the age of eight, has become well-known for his wonderful work for the upliftment of society in many way. He takes orphans from the street & enrolls them in the gurukul (spiritual school) in the Ashram where they are provided all that they need physically, as well as schooling & spiritual guidance. He calls them "rishi kumars," "children of the rishis," & literally transforms their lives. It is a joy to behold. He is currently arranging for a similar girl's school to be opened at a different location. He is the first Indian religious leader to be allowed, by the Chinese government, to build an ashram at Lake Manasaravor near Mt.Kailash, which are in occupied Tibet. He was also one of the two Hindu saints who hosted the Dali Lama at the Kumbha Mela at Prayag Raj in 2001, & is very much involved in the ecologically minded "green India" movement.


As a group. we were in Rishikesh for only 2-days, although Shivani & I returned for a stay of nearly 2-weeks before returning to the States in mid-December. Having spent 3-weeks together almost continuously, upon arriving in Rishikesh everyone in our group pretty much went their own way. Shivani & I spent time with our friend, Swami Bodhichitananda, visiting his beautiful kutir built on the cliff above the Ganga just down from Sivanandashram & just past the Kali Murti, a well-known roadside shrine to Goddess Kali. Swamiji was in the SRF Ashram in the States for a while but felt drawn to live in India. He lived at Sivanandashram for 10-years, taking sannyas (final vows of renunciation) from Sri Swami Chidananda Maharaj, successor to the great Swami Sivananda. In 2001 he began building his own small 3-room ashram (Kevalya Forest Ashram, which is very tranquil & secluded. As Swamiji points out, although his life is different from that of most SRF devotees, he is still a loyal disciple of SRF & practices the Kriya Yoga sadhana as taught by our Guru.



Part 8: Haridwar, “Gateway To The Lord”