Rishikesh is a sacred town on the banks of the Ganges. And the Ganges, as you probably know, is the most sacred of all rivers for Hindus.
Rishikesh was made famous by The Beatles, who traveled there in 1968 at the height of their fame to meet with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced them, (and through them the world,) to transcendental meditation. While there they also wrote The White album.
Rishikesh also features prominently in Autobiography of a Yogi. Yogananda spent time there searching for a teacher. Latterly, the town has become synonymous in the west for being the place to learn yoga – principally the asanas, or postures.
I’ve been to Rishikesh twice before – one memorable time in the winter, when fog shrouded the Ganges and the place took on a magical ethereal air.
Driving in from the airport this morning, and coming into town, I was struck by the number of roadside signs advertising ashrams and yoga retreats and meditation classes. Jennifer and I checked into a hotel that made some of the grubbier albergues on the Camino look positively five star.
We then went for a walk to find an ashram which the TV dude yesterday had put us onto, regarded as one of the most respected and legitimate – and the oldest in the area – Parmarth Niketan.Mission. It’s a huge expanse of gardens and shrines and accommodation and halls, right on the banks of Mother Ganges. Here is a recent story in the NY Times about the place:
The head of the ashram is Pujya Swami Yogananda Ji – a man who’s revered as being a true spiritual leader. He’s been honoured throughout the world for his humanitarian achievements – not to mention his work in spreading yoga to the west.
We went to reception and I boldly asked to see Swamiji. That’s like arriving at the Vatican and asking to see the Pope. But a volunteer assistant came out, and politely asked me who I was and why did I want to see Swamiji. I told him about my film, and gave him a sketch of my background, and he went away – only to return not long later to say that Swamiji would see me, but only after the fire ceremony.
The fire ceremony is held every evening as the sun goes down over the Ganges. Hundreds of devotees, many in saffron robes, gather on concrete steps leading down to the holy river and begin to chant, accompanied by a group of musicians.
After about half an hour, with the steps packed with worshippers and sightseers, the Swami arrived. Everyone stood reverentially, and he sat in amongst them and led a song – with everyone singing along and swaying to the music.
It was hypnotic.
I didn’t understand the words but the music, and the atmosphere, had a powerful affect on me. It loosened things up inside. In my head and in my heart.
The swami himself exuded a majesty and power that was palpable. In any culture, in any situation, he would be regarded and revered as a holy man.
After the ceremony, the swami returned to the ashram, and I was told that I could meet him. We sat in a secluded area, him sitting ramrod straight with his legs folded in the lotus position, hidden under his robes – his eyes clear and sparkling and full of mirth and wisdom – his long curly locks of hair streaked with grey, his beard trailing down his chest.
He asked me about the film, and I told him how a voice had saved my life, and how I wanted to find out what that voice was, and where it came from. He asked some questions, and agreed to me interviewing him in a couple of days. I was thrilled. He’s a wise man, and a holy man, and he’ll contribute significantly to the film.
Afterwards Jennifer and I were invited to have dinner with one of the women who helps run the admin side of things – a vivacious American lass whose name is Sadhvi. She’s a psychology graduate who threw it all in eighteen years ago to join the ashram. She has a smile that could light up the entire ashram, plus she’s super smart and very articulate. She too has agreed to an interview.
She left and we then got talking to some Americans who’d also attended the ceremony. One of them had been shooting with a Canon 5D Mk II – and watching him shoot it quickly became obvious to me that he was a seasoned professional.
I remarked on this, and he laughed and said that yes, before moving to American he’d worked for twenty years for the Vatican.
For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to gain access to the Vatican – ideally to get an interview with the Pope, but even to get some formal Church view on intuition. We leave for Rome in less than two weeks to do this filming, and up till now we’ve not been able to get a definite decision on whether we have permission.
And now this bloke turns up sitting across a table from me, telling me that he worked for the Vatican for twenty years, and he can get me that access. Perhaps not the Pope – that takes time – but certainly someone else high up on the food chain.
Once again I was bowled over. When I need something on this film, it presents itself. I keep playing by the rules – that I will be led intuitively – and I keep on being led to the right people at the right time.
Today was extraordinary – meeting the Swami, and simply being on the banks of the Ganges in amongst the very moving ceremony. And then later sitting with Swamiji in the ashram, and feeling an overwhelming sense of calm and stillness.
Each day this film opens me up more and more.