India, the largest democracy in the world is also the world’s second largest nation with 1.25 billion people calling it home. Seemingly a homogeneous market at first glance, this nation of 29 states and 7 union territories is so diverse it is almost shocking. Nearly all of the world’s religions are represented here, while 22 different languages are officially recognised with many others being spoken across the country. India has had its share of foreign rule as well that spans over 1,100 years, with the British claiming 300 and the Mughals 800. This hotbed of various influences allowed for the shaping of Indian society as we see it today.
There is no concrete history of the birth of yoga – many of the sacred texts and teachings were transmitted orally and were considered secret for many years, so not much was preserved in writing. While the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation of northern India is widely credited with yoga’s beginnings over five millennia ago, some historians believe that it may possibly be as ancient as 10.000 years old. Pre-classical yoga was slowly refined and developed by the Brahmans and Rishis (mystic seers), who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads. Out of its over 200 scriptures, the most renowned is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 BC.
The Upanishads taught that excellence could only be achieved through the sacrifice of the ego via self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga). In classical yoga, there is an “eight limbed path*’ containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. In contrast, post-classical and modern yoga rejected the ancient teachings in favour of embracing the physical body as the true path to achieving enlightenment: the yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life, and developed a new form of practice called Tantra Yoga (what we refer to today as Hatha Yoga), consisting radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to free ourselves from the binds of our physical existence.
Delhi – My journey started in New Delhi, all ready for International Yoga Day on 21 June – it was in its second year of celebrations following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014. “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. This tradition is 5000 years old. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help in well-being.” Having been adopted by majority of the member nations, International Yoga Day is then celebrated by yogis worldwide. Although colloquially interchangeable, Delhi and New Delhi are distinct entities, the latter city being a small part of the former state.
Haridwar – The next stop was to visit Haridwar, in the state of Uttarakhand, where tourists can witness devotees washing their sins away in the holy Ganges river in the daily Aarti ritual to attain Moksha or true freedom. The river flows from the Himalayas and enters North India for the first time in this city. It is regarded as one of the 7 holiest places to Hindus. It is said that Amrit, the elixir of immortality, was spilt at Har ki Pauri while carried by the celestial bird Garuda and that is celebrated every 12 years with a huge festival of ritualistic bathing by both pilgrims and tourists alike. Nevertheless, even the daily rituals are incredible to behold, where sadhus or pilgrims clad in orange robes or just loincloths join the masses on the banks of the Ganges with both pilgrims and devotees bathing in the freezing waters as the priests chant. Everyone else can also join in the fun by lighting the beautiful flower offerings and setting them afloat in the river and joining in the chants.
Rishikesh – Just a short distance away (25km) is Rishikesh, also known to many Western yoga enthusiasts as the Yoga Capital of the World and to Hindu pilgrims, one of the holiest places where sages have visited to gain enlightenment since ancient times. The city is meat and alcohol free, one where cows have right of way and cow poop is constantly swept away. Rishikesh came to fame thanks to the Beatles who visited in 1968 and were inspired to record the ‘The Happy Rishikesh Song’. Here, one is reminded of the extremes of India, where poverty and pollution litter the streets.
However, when one steps into an Ashram, it’s a completely different story – almost as though they were two separate places. The largest ashram with over 1000 rooms in Rishikesh is the Parmarth Niketan, along the banks of the Ganges, founded in 1942. Visitors can stay in its many rooms to take part in the daily schedules of yoga, meditation, kirtan, lectures and enjoy Ayurvedic treatments. At sunset, everything comes to a halt as everyone is treated to a world-renowned Ganga Aarti.
Aarti means to remove darkness, usually with a flame or light. After songs in praise of a deity, devotees cup their downturned hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead as a blessing. The flame is waved around clockwise around a centre, suggesting how one lives with the universe or God at the centre of all activities. It was an honour to be right in front, on the river bank, dipping my feet in the holy river and even participating in the Aarti as the priests chanted. The ceremony is open to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion, to gather on the banks soaking in the magical atmosphere as the skies dim. After the Aarti, the spiritual head and President of the Ashram, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaja and Sadvhi Bhagawati Saraswatiji engage in an open dialogue again open to all who seek any guidance.
Kerala – Kerala, which means Land of Coconut Trees, is believed to have been built by God itself with 44 rivers, backwaters and 600km of coastline along with forests covering a third of the land. Its name already hints at its beauty and peacefulness, making it a great vacation destination. It is said that in Keralan cuisine and life, the humble coconut features so much that without it, they would not know how to live. Trivandrum, Kerala is home to a beautiful ashram which is part of the famed Sivananda lineage, the Sivananda Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram. There are 3 Sivananda ashrams in India — in the Himalayas, Kerala and Madurai. Ashram refers to home of a guru or saint.
While physical postures or asanas are what yoga is commonly known for, in the yoga sutras of Patanjali, they are only 1 part of an 8 limbed path that guides a yogi’s life. This stems from the belief that only in a healthy body does a healthy mind live. In asanas, one uses the body as an instrument to eventually connect with the higher self and universe. For visitors, it is advisable to visit the ashram from June to March, avoiding the sweltering summer months of April and May. For those interested in Ayurvedic treatments, it is best to go during the monsoon season of June to August when it is cooler as many techniques incorporate steaming. It was at this time that I learnt from the guides who accompanied us that the many gods in Hinduism merely represented pieces of the whole puzzle, each showcasing different facets of the universal truth.
It is said that humans created these stories in order to help them grasp the vast concept of the One. My personal favourite is the story of Ganesha, the popular elephant God with an elephant face and a human body, the God of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. His big elephant ears and long nose remind us that one should learn to listen and breathe through life’s challenges. His small eyes signify concentration. His four hands hold on to objects like the axe which notes that in life, problems may come from attachment and there is a need for balance. In another hand he holds a rope, by which farmers used to control a cow, indicating how we should be able to control ourselves and our five senses from harm.
Next, he holds a tusk, used to write, inspiring the attitude of constantly learning. Finally, he holds a sweet to remind us that life is still beautiful. And to top it off, he rides a tiny mouse as his vehicle of choice, to illustrate how contradictions can always exist. All in all, India has been both nourishing and yet entirely educational, opening one’s eyes to so many extremes, contradictions which exist next to surreal idealism. It is certainly a place which lends itself to multiple trips, revealing new glimpses into India with each visit.