The Sacred and the Profane in the Himalayas : A little something to set you free

By Navjot Randhawa

I have been in London for business meetings and I keep looking around me at all the wonderful people wondering what really makes them happy. The truth is, they say, happiness is a state of mind. They also say desire is the root of all despair & ego-less-ness leads to enlightenment. These are my findings over a period of 3 years in the mountains in northern India where I moved from Bombay, a big city in Western India, home to many independent actors like myself. Even though these conclusions are based on my experiences, I hope they will take you someplace you’ve never been before, every word intact like a seed, from my body cells to yours, finally growing roots in your heart because this is really for your heart. I’ve not been very sure these past few months that words are the way to go about expressing, they just always seem to come out wrong even & especially after long hours of meditation ! But then it would be really sad to give up on words, so here I am, beginning my writing journey again.

The Indian Himalayas always beckoned me. So many yogis spent so many years in caves across the length & breadth of them. There are so many monasteries, temples, places that promise ‘peace’…Also, the weather is so much cooler than the intense heat & pollution of the plains (quite unbearable in the summer which is when even the British, while ruling India, moved their capital to Shimla in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh which is where I moved in 2015).

And then as a little girl growing up in Roorkee, a small town at the foothills of the Himalayas, it was difficult to not get influenced by news of Hollywood stars & famous people being nearby looking for something. Richard Gere’s visits to Mcleodganj (Tibetan government-in-exile’s home in India) & Beatles’ coming to Rishikesh stopping in Roorkee at Hotel Polaris a kilometre from my parents’ house also ignited my desire to live in the hills one day. I also remember watching Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray & Love ‘discovering’ herself in the Himalayas. And then even after growing up a little, news like that of David Lynch coming to India in 2009 to make a film on Maharishi, an Indian yogi, was not just news for me. Deeply & superficially, the pull of the mountains just kept getting stronger. The question was “Do the mountains really carry answers to existential questions, to what lies beyond? to the restless monkey-mind? to the real purpose of human life?”

It was July, 2015. I had started writing a play in Paris about Amrita Shergil (half Sikh half Hungarian), one of India’s most well- known modern painters & I was looking for a quiet space to finish it. July is when the monsoon season begins in India & I was warned by family & friends that it was not the best time to go to the hills as there had been a couple of landslides & any kind of touristic activity with the lashing rain would be practically impossible. I still went. Against everyone’s wishes, I found myself settling in Andretta, a little mysterious village with an Italian sounding name. It is ironical that one does the most egotistical things in the pursuit of nirvana, on the path of liberation from ego. And that is fine. That was my first finding.

A beautiful colonial style house in Andretta looked at me from amongst the thick trees growing in front of it & when I turned my gaze, I found myself standing in front of the mighty snow covered Dhauladhar range. I was in love. I moved in immediately realizing only later that I had landed in a community of artists in what can perhaps be called independent India’s first artists’ village. There were painters, potters, a lot of theatre history, a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking up, a lot of fresh mountain air, a lot of dancing, singing, a lot of hiking, a lot of time to brood, write, think & a lot of time to fall in love. Everything just felt purer, more innocent, slowed down, but in the beginning a little scared. However pure the environment is, the human mind remains trapped in sub-conscious patterns of competition, jealousy, ambition & is most tormented by the fear of losing out. And so initially, a dis-connect from the other world was never possible. There was WiFi, TV, phones & then there was the pressure of earning money. So unless one is going to a cave to meditate & become a hermit, the mountains, because of the isolated atmosphere, force one to evaluate what one is doing with one’s life even more. There are no long queues at the bank, no millions of people changing tubes at rush hour, no traffic jams but just silence, most profound & most tormenting at the same time. But ultimately the biggest gift. And so my second realization in that silence was that genuine human connections were most important. The Himalayas became a beautiful setting to explore the villages, the locals, their motivations, their behaviours & their values by learning their language. Most of them were always smiling, even when they were complaining. They were light- hearted, joking, laughing out loud..

There was this one-eyed young Himachali boy Aju who had never stepped out of his village. Observing his total devotion to others & his wanting to be of service to others was life-changing for me. His hunger for learning & his soft-spoken manner was saintly. He started working with me in my theatre company & was always there to pull me out of sticky situations (that an urban artist can easily get into in a remote village in India). He learnt cooking, baking, gardening, English, art...& today is the manager of The Mirage, a beautiful artists’ retreat in Andretta. He showed me how the only way to receive was to give. And how important it is to receive with open arms. Even today when I go back & even if my taxi arrives in the middle of the night, he’s there standing at the crossroad beyond which the car cannot go. He is there smiling, happy to help, truly happy to help.

The second most significant meeting was with the Dalai Lama. He for me is the definition of ‘holy’ & a bundle of answers that I had been looking for. The search, in a way, stopped after meeting him. There was no need to look further. I met many more people with similar stories, who, by coming in the mere presence of His Holiness understood the meaning of their lives ! India definitely did one thing right in recent political history. She opened her doors to the epitome of ego-less-ness on our planet. Every other spiritual master I had met in India seemed not to be completely free from ego though that’s what they were teaching their students. The Dalai Lama projected no ego, & all his teachings centered around just one topic—Compassion. And perhaps not surprisingly, the connection with him led me to my most important finding. There is only one way of stripping oneself from ego. One has to be ready to replace the ego with something otherwise the void can kill us. And spirituality is nothing but the search for a suitable replacement. To my mind & heart, the only suitable replacement is love—boundless love, intense love, passionate love, compassionate love, chemical-less love, infinite love, unconditional love, love for everyone & anyone that crosses our path & everyone & anyone who is sitting in a corner far away from our little bubble.

I found this love most tangibly manifested when I was trying to climb to a hidden waterfall, a little distance away from Andretta. I wanted to go there alone & since mobile network is quite bad up there & in any case since this waterfall doesn't show up on google maps, I had to find my own way. After a little climb up, I lost my way & was feeling quite helpless. A taxi driver came to my rescue. All their life in India, girls in India have been told to not get too friendly with strangers as they can rob you, rape you, cut you into pieces & throw you to the dogs in the forest. All of these thoughts crossed my mind when this stranger tried to help me. And then I just watched my thoughts & let them pass. I took the stranger’s hand & climbed the mountain. He narrated me stories about how he used to bunk classes with his friends & go there as a little child. He knew which herb could be used as an anti-dote when I got stung by a poisonous plant while trekking up. He waited for me as I meditated at the waterfall. He also took many pictures. His presence was sacred, protective, a glimpse into the divine. He taught me to stop taking pity on myself, to keep loving & asking for help because we humans are nothing without each other.

With so much focus on the heart & the mind, the obvious question you want to ask straight away is what about the body? The body of course feels healthier, fitter in the sacred Himalayas but does it learn the fruitlessness of desire & does it curtail its need for pleasure? As the body starts becoming aware of its various sensations & memories, does it become more careful about what it does with itself, about sex? “So are you celibate now?”, a few friends asked. “Are you going to become a nun?” The area where I lived is one of the most preferred honeymoon destinations for Indian couples & foreign hippies alike. So all around there would be the smell of sex. Ascetics & hedonists live in harmony up in the Himalayas. There are books on this subject that you will easily find in the hills, either in a café or a heritage hotel or in a friend’s house. If you are there, sooner or later you will stumble upon them. And I really hope that once there, one day you will find yourself reading “From Sex to Superconsciousness” tucked in with an electric blanket toasting your bed & a kind companion by your side. The book was written by Osho, one of India’s most well-known spiritual masters (& his retreat Nisarga not very far away from the Dalai Lama’s temple !). I can promise you it will change your perspective about bliss or “ananda” in Sanskrit. Inner & outer conflict related to sex in an Indian woman is as old as Indian society itself. This conflict is perhaps not very different from what a Catholic or a middle-Eastern woman may feel. The only difference is that India is both a land of Kamasutra, Tantra & Bollywood which, like most Indian parents, taught sex for the longest time through stories of birds & bees. Every time a couple would come close to kiss in an Indian movie, a flower would cover their lips. Times are changing but talking about sex is still a taboo. It is an open secret ! The Himalayas taught me that sex is life-energy. The monks preserve it to use it for other purposes which lead them to see reality differently, something neuroscience is getting increasingly interested in. In a nutshell, we have the power & the choice to channel it in the direction we’d like to. The direction we take can either enhance or weaken our life- force.

The mountains became the perfect place to have realizations because they didn't judge, they let me be, they guided me & taught me that standing tall with spine erect is the first step..

I wish that whosoever reads this gets to experience the Himalayas in this life-time. You wouldn't have to do much (if you are ok with doing nothing that is !). No part of your being-body & mind- will be able to remain untouched by the sacred energy. Science has confirmed that our Universe is nothing but energy. But if you are still in doubt, make this trip. Go to the Himalayas to experience the 3’o clock blues differently ! You wouldn't be able to help modifying your language to accommodate talking about the mysteries of life, things that cannot be explained by logic & rationality. Strangely you will also feel more compassion for the profane, for those who are supposedly immoral, for the ones you don't agree with, for the ones that don’t seem "normal" to you, even for the ones who spread hatred. And you will be free because you wouldn't have to take sides anymore...

Whatever they say, you will start experiencing & whatever you say, they will.