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 Early Years

I was born an only child to my parents in Delhi, into a family torn apart by the aftermath that followed the Partition of India and Pakistan. My family originally belonged to a place called Gujranwala in Pakistan. The exodus from our ancestral land in Pakistan was so sudden and hurried that my family had no choice but to flee, leaving behind everything .The only possessions they carried were the clothes on their bodies.

They weren’t the only ones.  Millions became homeless and millions were massacred on their way to India. Trains  packed with men, women and children were mercilessly hacked to death by  Muslim rioters along the way the dance of death witnessed by survivors cast a  grim shadow over  the lives of many Northern Indian families.

 Luckily, my family managed to escape alive. Hailing from an affluent background, my family -   rendered penniless and completely shattered - struggled for its very survival in the Walled City of Delhi. b. My family  embarked on a new life there, venturing into trade of wholesale fabric -  yet rife with insecurities running deep and a psyche forever scarred by dark and ugly memories of the Partition.

My father never really recovered completely from the wounds that Partition inflicted upon his consciousness. (It is relevant for me to mention this background because although I was born much later in Delhi, it is these very insecurities that I too inherited and remain with me till today, even with the considerable passage of time.

Over time, things improved for us financially. The trade flourished, thanks to sheer hard work put in by my grandfather, father and uncles (father's brothers).  We all lived as one big joint family and I grew up hearing tales of how we started life again from scratch, selling fabric on the pavements of the Walled City where we now own several properties.

We were allotted two houses in the Walled City, by the Custodian, an agency appointed by the Govt. Of India to look into the rehabilitation of displaced people from Pakistan, in lieu of the property that my family owned in Pakistan. These were the homes of Muslim families who like us, had left India to settle in Pakistan. Deeply agitated by this forced move, many of them burnt their homes in vengeance before leaving for Pakistan. A feeling of deep hatred existed between both Muslims and Hindus after the post-Partition carnage, the undercurrent of which can still be felt at times, in the Walled City.  Both the houses we acquired from the Custodian were in a totally burnt down condition.  I have preserved some pieces of those burnt up portions to this day, as a reminder of those terrible days.

The family’s next generation imbibed deeply religious sentiments from its god-fearing elders.  My grandfather would wake up daily at 4 am to visit a nearby temple. This practice was subsequently passed down to my father and uncles.  Everybody kept fasts on a regular basis and observed a strict vegetarian diet. On Janamashtami,   Lord Krishna's birthday, and Shivratri, the anniversary of Lord Shiva's marriage to his consort Parvati, our house was always  lit up beautifully and devotional songs were sung with great fervour. Alms were given to the poor and needy. That included animals and even insects! I remember my grandfather carrying a bag full of flour to feed the ants on the way to his daily visit to the nearby temple.

My father was rather short-tempered and  quick to rise to anger on trivial issues. The whole household was mortally scared of him. His word was law and even my grandfather was scared of his unpredictable temper. This resulted in strained relations between him and my mother too. There was always an ongoing tension in the household because of his erratic temperament. This continued tension took its toll on me in those formative years of my life.  I became a victim of acute insecurity and started suffering from anxiety neurosis.  Although   I was too young to understand its implications then, it had a devastating impact on my psyche and mental faculties later on in life.  

At the age of five, I started school at St.Xavier's High School on Raj Niwas Marg in north Delhi. That particular period of time became the most memorable part of my life which I enjoyed thoroughly. I was always a rather average- above average student with scarce love for academics. In school I would relish the opportunity to go hiking, camping, swimming and cycling with the boy scouts. From the very start, I was a naughty and mischievous child, routinely getting into trouble.

After completing school, I joined Delhi University to study English literature, but it never  occurred to me to  take my studies seriously. Restless from the outset, I wanted to travel the world.

 

The Merchant Navy

I quit studies and joined the Merchant Navy at the age of seventeen, as a deck cadet. Interestingly, I had to fly to Karachi in Pakistan to join my first ship. I loved the new experience and was good at learning navigation.  I was promoted to the position of a navigating officer soon afterwards. That first year, I did not go back home at all. I was too busy fulfilling my desire to see different places, meeting different people and experiencing different kinds of cultures. 

My ship once had to unload cargo at the port of Basrah in Iraq and then at Khorramshahr in Iran.  These were the days when political relations between Iran and Iraq were at their lowest ebb. Our ship had to navigate through the Tigris- Eurphrates river. Due to treacherous river navigation, an Iraqi pilot was the first one to board our ship and his job was to navigate our ship to the Basrah port. All through,   he continuously criticized   the Iranian regime. My captain got so bored with his talk that left me in charge and went down to his cabin. We finished unloading cargo at Basrah and headed for Khorramshahr port. After the Iraqi border, an Iranian pilot boarded our ship to assist it to the Khorramshahr port. All through the journey, the pilot  criticized the Iraqi regime at length, so much so that our  captain  left for his cabin the second time!  After we had docked, all the officers had a real hearty laugh over the incident, mimicking the tones in which each of the pilot spoke. This bad blood between both these countries soon culminated into a major armed conflict lasting nearly eight years.   

Ours was an old steamship named "Ocean Empress". Daily the engines required a huge amount of fresh water to run, hence there was always a shortage of fresh water on the ship. We used to get 30 minutes of water supply once in the morning and once at night to wash clothes and take a bath. This was peak summer time and the air conditioning on the ship was also not working. A Pakistani radio officer and I sat chatting on the starboard side of the ship. The subject of our chat was the Gulf heat and the under- repair air conditioning of our ship.  Just then a naughty idea struck me. I said: “Let's go from a swim in the river!” The radio officer shook his head and said, "I don't know how to swim!" I told him to grab his life jacket which he did and together we jumped into the Tigris Eurphrates river.

I swam a little distance from the ship and found the current too strong for me to handle. I swiftly swam back. After scrambling up the gangway, I remembered that the radio officer too had jumped in the river. I swiftly turned around to look for him and found him drifting away from the ship towards the middle of the river. He had panicked and started screaming with all his might, calling for help. I was shocked out of my wits. I then heard a loud splash. Two ratings had seen the radio officer jump into river with his life jacket on.  Being strong swimmers from Maldives, they braved the strong current and pulled him out of the water.

The captain was watching the entire drama unfold from the ship’s bridge in silence. We were both summoned to his cabin.  He asked the radio officer, "Who’s stupid idea was it to go for a swim in this river"? The answer was obvious!  I was, as a result, appropriately punished with cancellation of my shore leave for the next port.                       

 Once while roaming in the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, I was amazed to see gold bricks and coins being sold on the city’s pavements.  It was evening, and   I heard the muezzin call out the azaan -- the prayer call of the Muslims – on the loudspeaker. To my utter astonishment, I saw people leave all the gold unattended and enter the nearby mosque for prayer. Nobody dared steal, for the prevailing law of the land was and continues to be so strict that anybody caught stealing would have his hand chopped off. I had a great desire to visit Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, but could not as non Muslims are not allowed there.

Once, while in Kuwait, during the month of Ramadan, our Burmese second officer fainted on the road due to intense afternoon heat. We searched for water and asked the several passersby for help.  Nobody came forward to offer him even a glass of water. During the fasting hours, most shops remain closed and the streets are practically deserted. Moreover, I observed that the fasting ritual is followed extremely dogmatically. We had to put him in a taxi and rush him back to the ship.

It was quite a different experience when my ship first entered Bangkok. I was dazed at seeing hordes  of women, no less than a hundred-odd, entering my ship as it docked.  As I was on deck duty at that time, I objected to their entry but was immediately told to back off by my senior officer, as they were entering with the captain’s permission.  The women turned out to be sex workers who remained on my ship for the entire time it was docked there, with complete disregard to morality or ethics.  This was the usual way of life for most sailors and it proved to be a gala time for all officers, crew, and Captain alike.  Even as the whole ship's staff was making merry to the fullest degree, I was out visiting the Buddhist monasteries in Bangkok, which was my first exposure to Buddhism.

As our ship was leaving Bangkok, I was told by the second officer to keep a supply of penicillin ready. I wondered why, but did not have to wait long to know.  Seamen started falling sick one after the other with venereal diseases.  They had to be isolated from the rest of the crew, as this disease is contagious.  I was aghast seeing these seamen scream and howl in pain.  It dawned on me thus that this lifestyle was not meant for me.

My interest in Buddhism grew during my repeated visits to Sri Lanka.  I would leave my ship and visit the monasteries in Colombo whenever I had a chance, paying obeisance at  temples and monasteries even in the interiors of Sri Lanka. I bought my first book on Buddha's teachings on the Law of Cause and Effect, the concept of which kindled a fair amount of curiosity in me about Buddhist philosophy.

Certain questions had always troubled my adolescent mind. Why are winds of disease and pain moaning in the lives of every single human being? Why do disasters strike   thousands of people, decimating their lives within a moment’s notice?   Why are corrupt, dishonest, treacherous, violent and wicked people prospering and enjoying the best life has to offer? Why does a benign,  merciful and all- loving God -- if there  indeed was one --   allow such misery,  affliction and suffering  on his  own children? Why is pain   the alpha and omega of all human existence? These were pertinent questions for which I had begun to seek answers.  

One horrific incident that left a deep impact on me was when our Burmese radio officer died on the ship due to a liver problem. As we were still days away from the next port, his body was put in the deep freezer of the ship, the same place where all vegetables and other eatables were stored. Life went on as though nothing had happened and everybody ate and drank as on any other day.  All relationships and friendships are temporary in a sailor’s life, forgotten the moment he gets off the ship. My bag of experiences filled up fast and emotions became   edgy. Loneliness, my childhood friend, had set in again. A strange void seemed to have engulfed me. I did not belong where I was currently.  I was fully convinced now that my inherent nature and outlook towards life was not that of a sailor. I finally decided to call it quits and returned home to join the family business.

I had no problem settling into this environment as i suspect that trading just happened to be in my blood.

 I got married soon thereafter. I was all of 20.  Soon enough, I became a father of two adorable children, a girl first, then a boy. Earning bread and butter for my family made time fly. Nothing was more important to me than providing for my family and giving my children a good upbringing. I showered them with lots of love and care, making them feel completely secure. This rested my demons of inherent insecurity to an extent.

Life suddenly took a turn for the worse when my father fell seriously sick. He developed high temperature that would shoot up to 106 degrees F. We shifted him to a hospital but the fever refused to normalize. Day after day, I saw him suffer in agony -- his fever would rise alarmingly to 106 degrees F during the day and then fall to 100 degrees F  by evening. . I helplessly watched him shiver violently and groan in pain as his fever rose and fell.  Doctors at All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), New Delhi, the country’s premier medical institution,    could not detect his ailment.  I was deeply traumatized by my father’s suffering and daily witnessing the drama of loss and death at the hospital. ., Benumbed with grief, I blankly observed the morbid scenes around me.  

After four months of continuous suffering, my father finally lost the battle of life and passed away in my arms. I watched helplessly as life ebbed out of him.    I sat there, dry-eyed and completely stoned.

The body was brought home. My grandmother, my father’s sisters and brothers, my mother, and other near relatives sat near the body, wailing loudly. I sat in a corner, expressionless, watching my father’s lifeless body and blankly observing people come and go. I mechanically went through the Hindu rituals of cremation, still blank with denial.  Three days later, sitting in the same corner, I suddenly burst out crying, shedding copious tears and screaming hysterically. . My family allowed me to cry and give vent to my grief.  My pent up emotions had finally found a way out through the flow of tears.

Things began to settle down gradually and the entire burden of managing the business fell upon my shoulders alone. As an only child, all eyes were now on me.    With the blessings of God and my hard work, things carried on smoothly, giving me a big moral boost.  Some years passed by peacefully, with things turning out fine both at home and at work.  

However, it was not long before the same restlessness gripped me.  I found myself in a dilemma, trying out new ways to fill the emptiness. Initially I tried my hand at learning sculpture at Triveni Kala Sangam at Mandi House, but soon realized that I was not meant for the medium. Destiny had other plans for me.

Introduction to Photography  (1996)

It was around that time that my mother in law  gifted me an SLR camera --   a Ricoh 500.  The camera body had a dial with some numbers and also some numbers on the lens about which I  was clueless.  I enrolled into photography classes at Triveni Kala Sangam along with the sculpture classes that I was already attending.

My photography course was about the techniques of Black & White photography. It was here that I met my photography teacher and now a lifelong friend, Satyasri Ukil, for the first time. Satyasri was a dedicated, honest   and straightforward teacher. His likes and dislikes purely dealt with the merits of the image and not with the person who had shot the image. Thanks to Satyasri, I became a fast and avid learner.  A few other students (some of whom are now renowned photographers) and I, formed a team under the guidance of Ukil, as we lovingly address Satyasri to date. We would shoot, develop and print all day long, sometimes even continuing through the night!   Ukil would accompany us occasionally to shoot monuments around Delhi and also to the Delhi zoo where he would teach us the techniques of shooting wildlife.

It became a daily routine for our group to hang around together every evening at a teashop near Mandi House bus stop. We would discuss photography, gossip and guzzle endless cups of tea. A strong bond developed among us during this period. After his teaching sessions got over, Ukil would join us there for tea and discussions. We had a wonderful time together at that time. This routine continued till much after our course was over. Life now had a new meaning and a goal. I now had a burning desire inside me to prove myself as a photographer of substance. . 

Photography had by now crossed the border of being just a hobby for me. I soon set up my own darkroom in my house where I developed and printed negatives all night long. I have retained the black and white enlarger on which I used to print negatives, as a keepsake of my early days of learning the art. The gifted SLR soon became obsolete for me. I bought two new Canon camera bodies and some new Canon lenses. 

Soon, I started trekking to high altitudes in the Himalayas with my new SLRs in hand. Ukil was overjoyed to see my first serious body of work. Soon, I grew ambitious and started shooting products for advertising agencies. My first breakthrough came from the agency 0gilvy & Mather whose creative head at the time was a man named Benoy Mitra. One day Benoy happened to be at a colour lab called "MultiColour"   at Jhandewalan, which had produced my portfolio prints. He saw my work and quietly handed over his card, asking me to see him in the agency. I was thrilled. This turned out to be the breakthrough I desperately needed. I soon began to get assignments from most major agencies.

Trek to Tapovan (1997)

With a spiritual t bent of mind since childhood and now armed with new two cameras, I decided to make a trek- cum- pilgrimage to Tapovan, a beautiful place above the Gangotri Glacier. This is a dangerous and a tough two- day trek from Gangotri, into complete Himalayan wilderness, at an altitude of about 15000 ft. An important spiritual place for Hindus, many sadhus and yogis have spent their entire lives meditating and studying the Vedas  and Upanishads here. Tapovan is also one of the primary sources of the river Ganga and is at the foot of a mountain peak called Shivling.

 I decided to drive down to Gangotri in my car. Two porters who would carry my camera equipment, tent and rations, along with a guide were to accompany me from Uttarkashi. My first halt was at Rishikesh, an ancient city on the foothills of the Himalayas, where the -mighty Ganga meets the plains for the first time. Rishikesh is a spiritually charged place, impregnated with temples and ashrams. It has a recorded history which dates back to thousands of years. Ascetics, mystics and seers from time immemorial have lived in caves around this place and meditated.  Considered by Hindus as a holy city, it is ordered to be vegetarian by law. Meat and alcohol are not served within the city limits. Cows roam freely in the streets and have the right of way. With so much peace abounding in this region, away from noisy crowds, it has since become my favourite haunt where I bring my books on spirituality and philosophy, sit on the pristine white river banks to read. An unimaginable hush seeps into an agitated mind.  

I checked into a hotel and after a nice shower decided to take a stroll across the Ganga, crossing towards the other side through the Laxman Jhoola. Laxman Jhoola is an iron suspension bridge  450 feet  long and at a height of about 70 feet from the river bed. This bridge was initially a hanging jute bridge, till the year 1889. Its roots go way back to the Ramayana period, when Laxman, the younger brother of lord Ram crossed this bridge at the very spot the bridge stands now. This is how this bridge came to be called Laxman Jhoola.

Laxman Jhoola is a thoroughfare for a queer genus of traffic. Pilgrims, saints, mystics, philosophers, residents, beggars, photographers, rag pickers, pickpockets, thieves, motorcycles, scooters, cycles, handcarts, cats, dogs, cows, and even monkeys can be seen pushing their way through this five- foot-  wide bridge. I stood on the bridge watching monkeys snatch food items from unwary pilgrims and dashing away. It was really an amusing sight to see an old woman run after a monkey who had snatched away her bag, screaming and abusing on top of her voice. I literally burst out laughing when the monkey suddenly stopped, turned around and bared his teeth at the old woman. Pilgrims were throwing wheat balls from the bridge, down into the Ganga to feed the fish.. Cows, the privileged ones, roamed freely on the bridge accepting food from whoever   obliged them. Melodious chants of mantras echoed across the hills, coming from nearby temples and ashrams.  Added to these sounds resonating from all around were the sounds of the  Ganga rippling  below. I had some coffee and sandwiches at the renowned German Bakery and headed back towards the hotel. I needed a good night’s sleep as I had a whole day of driving ahead of me the next day. Moreover I had to start early, because I needed to get to my destination before it became dark. Driving in the Himalayas after dark can be a dangerous proposition.         

I started my journey into Garhwal at about 5 am the next day. My next destination was Uttarkashi, from where I had to pick up the porters and a guide. An experienced guide is a must while trekking to a dangerous location like Tapovan, where one needs to trek across the glacier. These glaciers become soft in many areas as summers approach. Trekkers are at peril to slip down into the freezing Bhagirathi river (as the Ganga is called at its point of origin), never to be seen again. After picking the porters and the guide I headed towards Gangotri hoping to reach there before it’s too late.

But fate wished it otherwise. As I drove towards Gangotri, I found that the roads were fairly bad for driving.  Then suddenly the unexpected happened!!!! Right in front of my car, a few meters away,  as  a snow slide came crashing down  thunderously.  Within minutes the whole road was blocked with huge chunks of snow. I jammed my brakes hard and my car screeched to a halt.  We were now stuck in the middle of nowhere. By now it was pitch dark with no streetlight or any inhabitation in sight. The porters searched for a place to sleep for the night. They soon managed to find a deserted shack for themselves and decided to spend the night there. I decided to sleep in the car. None of us had anything to eat and I kept cursing myself for not buying any coke or chips on the way.  Icy winds kept howling all night long, hitting forcefully against my car windows rudely waking me up from my half sleep.

I don’t remember when exactly I slipped into a deep sleep, only to be woken up by a knock on my window pane. It was daybreak, and I was happy to see Border Roads Organization soldiers busy clearing away the snow.  I parked closer to the mountainside to make way for the ice clearing bulldozer, only to find a long line of cars parked behind me, waiting for the road to clear. Upon inquiry, I was dismayed to learn that clearing the road for vehicular traffic might take another day more. As there was a paucity of time, a BRO official   suggested thus: “I’ll give you three of my men, you also have three men of yours, just pick up your Maruti 800 and walk through the snow.”  We did exactly that, and after lifting the car and walking through the snow patch we put the car down, thanked the officer and drive away. The owners of the vehicles lined up behind me stared at us in utter astonishment.  I was smirking with satisfaction at my small victory over this minor adversity.   

The rest of the drive was indeed picturesque. There was no need to rush now as I had ample  time, so I  drove  slowly, enjoying the occasional glimpses of unnamed snow peaks, thick deodar trees and the  meandering Bhagirathi river.  We arrived at Gangnani, passing over landslides and potholed roads, traversing through scary heights. A fall down the mountain side could crush a car like a piece of paper. l had a bath at the hot springs of Gangnani, visited the nearby  temple and then drove on. As I was driving totally engrossed in the bewitching natural beauty, I missed noticing a bus filled with passengers coming uphill. As per driving rules in the mountains,  vehicles coming uphill have the first  right of way.  Both vehicles screeched to a halt on a mountain curve. The driver of the bus gave me an angry look, which I well deserved. To make matters worse, the curve was so narrow that there was hardly any space for the bus to pass through. I had to move my car to the extreme edge of the road, which scared the life out of me because of the tremendous fall below. A slight error could push a car thousands of feet down the mountain. The experienced bus driver, noticing my nervousness, alighted from his bus, got into my car and cautiously took it to the extreme edge of the road.  I heaved a sigh of relief after he had driven off, never to make the mistake of taking my eyes off the road again.

 I arrived at the beautiful village of Harshil, en route to Tapovan, which reminded me of the legend of the Pahari Wilson or Frederick E. Wilson, an adventurer who deserted the British Army just after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  He became one of the first to   plunder the natural resources of the Himalayas, cutting down trees, exporting skins, fur and musk, building a huge fortune for himself. This was the period when the British were building the Railways in India and there was a huge demand for quality wooden sleepers for laying down of rail tracks. Wilson cashed in on this opportunity, cutting down deodar trees mercilessly and sending the logs floating down the river Bhagirathi to the plains below. He later built a huge cottage for himself known as the Wilson Cottage which now lies in ruins. The timber trade, export of fur, musk and skin made Wilson a very wealthy and powerful man in the entire region of Tehri Garhwal. He began minting his own currency and as late as the 1930s, his coins could be found with local people.  His name and power evoked terror among the locals, using them as slaves for his killing of wildlife and cutting down of trees. The forest rest houses at Dharasu, Bhatwari and Harshil were all built by Wilson. Wilson married a local girl Gulabi from the village of Mukhba. The portraits of Mrs. Wilson still hang in these sturdy bungalows. Wilson was popularly known as the ‘Raja of Harshil’ and introduced apples to this area.  These are still called “Wilson Apples”.

Building bridges was another of Wilson’s passions. The most famous of them was a 350- foot suspension bridge over the Jatganga at Bhairon Ghati over 12000 ft above the Bhagirathi where it thunders through a deep gorge.  The original bridge has since long collapsed, but locals of the area say that the ghostly hoof beats of Wilson’s horse are heard  to date on moonlight nights, galloping away. 

Frederick ‘Pahari’ Wilson’s life has been a subject of many local legends of great romance. Some people leave their spirit behind, in the place they have lived, long after they are dead. Frederick ‘Pahari’ Wilson was one such man.      

From Harshil I drove onwards to Bhairon Ghati, then Lanka and finally to Gangotri (3066m/ 10,059 ft).  At Gangotri I checked into a hotel. The next day was spent roaming in the vicinity and getting acclimatized to the altitude and do some sightseeing.   The spectacular waterfalls of Surya Kund took my breath away, with a thunderous roar, the Bhagirthi takes a deep plunge down this Kund !!!. All seven colours of the spectrum are reflected in the spray of the gushing cataract. . The beautiful rock formations around Surya Kund are fawn in colour and polished like mirror. It was a glorious sight to behold and I clicked many pictures of Gangotri temple, Surya Kund and surrounding areas.

The temple at Gangotri was built by Amar Singh Thapa, a Gurkha General, in the early 19th century. I made some last- minute purchases for the trek towards Tapovan.

 All geared up, we started the trek towards Tapovan the following day. The trek to Tapovan scores high on magnificent views, as it is nestled between the majestic Himalayan peaks like the Bhagirathi, Meru Parbat, Shivling and Thelu. The mighty Ganga also has its source at Gaumukh, the mouth of the glacier.  Ganga is known as the Bhagirathi at its point of origin and is called Ganga only after Devprayag, where the Bhagirathi is met by another tributary of the Ganga  called Alaknanda. Together both Bhagirathi and Alaknanda combine to form the Ganga. ‘Prayag’ essentially means ‘confluence’.   Tapovan also serves as the base camp for climbers wanting to scale the peak of Shivling.

 As we trekked ahead, we arrived at  Chirbasa, which is at an altitude of 3,585 m. Chirbasa literally means abode of Chir trees. Blue Pine and Silver Birch trees also abound in the region. One gets a magnificent view of Sudarshan Parbat from here, standing tall among a cluster of other peaks. The trail is dotted with small streams and waterfalls. Occasionally, I saw   glaciers on the river that are fast melting away. Our next halt was Bhojbasa. As planned in advance, we   stayed the night here.

The region between Chirbasa and Bhojbasa is highly landslideprone, hence we had to walk very cautiously looking out for any falling boulders. Bhojbasa is a fairly scenic place. We stood at an altitude of 3775 m.,   having trekked a total of 14 km during the day. We spent  the night at the Lal Baba Ashram were we were  served  food  and some much- needed hot tea. By mistake, I had left my glass of drinking water outside in the courtyard at night, only to find it completely frozen in the morning. Night temperatures fall way below zero in these regions and the strong unabated winds make matters all the more worse. This is the last inhabited region of the trek. After this point, one is in complete wilderness, with no electricity and totally at the mercy of nature’s elements.

We started from Lal Baba Ashram early in the morning, deciding to halt at Gaumukh for an hour before ascending to Tapovan. Gaumukh was discovered in 1818 by two British officers Captains Hodgson and Herbert. At that time, it lay at the base of huge blocks of snow nearly 300 ft in height. Hardly any of that snow can now be seen due to massive tourist inflow and global warming. This place has a great religious significance for the Hindus, hence I offered my prayers before moving on. The trail from Gaumukh to Tapovan involves climbing glacial moraine and traversing the Gangotri glacier on the right.  This part of the trek is highly tricky and dangerous. This area too is landslide prone and one has to walk across the glacial stream called Akash-Ganga. Moreover, the climb is extremely steep and exhausting.  One must be accompanied by an experienced guide who knows the safer areas to cross over.  We were  thrilled to spot a group of Bharals or the  elusive Himalayan Blue Sheep madly running down the mountain slope, making the moraine come crashing down after them.  We finally reached Tapovan which is at an altitude of 4,329 m, covering a distance of about 10 km  that day.          

Tapovan is a high-altitude alpine meadow and on arrival I found myself encircled by bewitching Himalayan beauty.  Exhausted and bone-tired, I instructed the porters to pitch up the tent so that I could rest. I was feeling restless and nauseous and my body was showing its first signs of altitude sickness. I got inside my tent, unpacked my things and within minutes was sound asleep in my sleeping bag. I was not feeling hungry as with the onset of altitude sickness, one tends to lose appetite.

Tapovan is indeed a very harsh place to endure. Oxygen levels go down sharply; headaches, nausea and fever are common symptoms of altitude sickness. Night temperatures can go down to minus 6-8 degrees or more.  Time crawls and  lack of electricity makes things seem unduly depressing. An absolute quietude prevails. The pitch black darkness gets all the more eerie, as the deadly silence suddenly gets shattered by howls and wails of wild animals. As I had visited the area in early April, the snow had not yet melted, hence the conditions were all the more severe.   

I woke up early in the morning to find myself in close proximity to  Mt. Shivling (6543 m), flanked by Mt. Meru (6630 m), Kedar Dome (6808 m), Sudarshan (6507 m), and   the Bhagirathi group of peaks on the other side of the glacier - 1 (6856 m), 2 (6512 m) and 3 (6454 m).Early morning light falling on these snow peaks is breathtaking, to say the least. The sky is a deep azure blue in colour due to the high altitude and ultraviolet rays. The whole day I roamed around the area looking for vantage points to take pictures.    

I   began shooting as early as 5 AM the next day, standing outside in knee -deep snow, with winds blowing at neck breaking speed.  I was shivering violently despite the heavy woollen attire. Occasionally, my tripod would keep getting toppled over because of the gusty winds. My cameras too had started behaving erratically, because the temperatures were well beyond their endurance level.  I had no choice to but to keep a kerosene stove burning continuously, so as to keep one spare camera body warm at all times. I shot with one camera until its battery froze, used the heated spare one, keeping the first one near the stove. Only after enduring such harsh conditions was I rewarded with some beautiful pictures by the Almighty. Tapovan is undoubtedly a photographer’s paradise.

Occasionally, ascetics or sadhus crossed my path with smiles and folded hands. God seemed incarnated right in front of me and I was ecstatic. I met a young saint called Simla Baba. He was living in this absolute wilderness with his German girlfriend. Talking to him was really a pleasure and spiritually enlightening.

 The next day, as I was walking on the frozen Gangotri glacier, I saw a cave and heard some noise inside. Frightened, I stopped, thinking there could be a wild animal inside. A hand beckoned me to come in. I found myself in the company of a young Tamil mystic, clad in a spotless white robe. He was very kind and offered me tea which I accepted gratefully. He had a doctorate in physics, seemed to be a highly intelligent man who spoke fluent English. I could thus converse with him at ease. He was spending his time in this wilderness studying the Vedas and Upanishads in the company of other like-minded mystics.  We  entered into  interesting dialogues on subjects like the origin of  science - religion divide, illusion of the material world, discoveries in quantum physics which still  baffle top scientific minds questioning their understanding of the universe at large, the impact and relevance of this new science in our day to day lives, ethics and spirituality,  and the most intriguing of all questions: Who am I? Does life have a purpose to fulfil? Is there a Creator?        

 It is interesting how the need and quest of a Creator is embedded so deep inside the human psyche. The perplexing questions of how the universe came into being and the enigma of life have always puzzled mankind. Civilizations from time immemorial have tried to answer these basic questions in their own peculiar ways. Ancient Mesopotamians believed that the earth was ruled by numerous gods, goddesses, devils and monsters. They were hundreds of gods who were responsible for everything that happened in their life. They had a god of rain, god of moon, god for justice, god for wind, to name a few. Egyptians too built a fascination world of spirituality for themselves. They too worshipped many gods, and as many as 1500 gods are known by name. Their search for immortality led to the building of the pyramids, fabulous temples and tombs with the mysterious mummies buried inside them. Greek too worshipped many gods like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo and so many others. Science and religion too have always been at loggerheads over the issue of a Creator and creation -- though both seeking answers to the same questions that have baffled mankind since time immemorial.

 Science on one hand, is a systematic study of nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation,, experiment and measurement,  formulation of laws to describe those facts and to use them to make predictions. Any conflicting evidence must eventually lead to either modification or even abandonment of the law.

On the other hand, religion does not depend only on any observational and experimental evidence and by and large relies on revelations, faith and myths to explain the mysteries of the universe. It does not feel the need to modify its beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence. In religion, faith in its doctrines is paramount and unequivocal.

History stands witness to philosophers like Filippo Bruno being burnt at the stake for his cosmological theories of stars being small suns at a distance and for saying that the universe is infinite and hence could not have any celestial body at its centre. The Church during that time believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Nikolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilee and many others also suffered the oppression of the dominant Orthodox Church, but unrelenting science was in no mood to be cowed down. They kept shooting down all the superstitions and myths held by the church. The war was on!!!!!

 A formal divide between religion and science took place during the seventeenth century when French mathematician Rene Des Cartes demarcated  the scope of science to only what was material, by bifurcating the universe as matter (res extensa) and mind (res cogitans), limiting science to the study of  the former. The science that evolved on the basis of this Cartesian bifurcation was confined to the study of material objects within the limits of human sensory perception. The study of God, soul, spirit and anything beyond the perception of the sense organs were in the domain of the Church.

The result of this unhealthy truce was a complete materialization of all scientific knowledge, its applications, approach and attitude. Science no longer oppressed and hounded, hit back in retaliation saying that anything that was beyond the grasp of the senses was merely a delusion.

Then we see Charles Darwin with his  Theory of Evolution and  Natural Selection. Evolution is a gradual process in which a living organism changes its shape into a different and usually a more complex form, adapting itself according to the conditions of its environment. Natural Selection is the survival of the fittest and removal of the unfit ones in due course of time.

 No figure in modern history has received as much religious criticism and backlash as Charles Darwin.  He is portrayed even worse than an atheist. His work has been attacked as a denial to the belief that the universe and all its diverse life forms are a creation of God. Ironically, at Cambridge University, he studied to become a minister. While studying for the ministry, Darwin undertook a field trip with Adam Sedgwick, one of the three principal founders of modern geology. This earned him good reputation as a naturalist. A year later he went as a resident naturalist on ‘HMS Beagle’, a scientific exploratory ship, which was going sailing around the world for 5 years.  

During his service on ‘HMS Beagle’, Darwin finally decided to give up his aspirations of becoming a minister and opted for the life of a scientist-naturalist. He made judicious observations of birds, turtles and mammals, which gradually evolved into an idea of evolution of species by natural selection. 

Darwin initially played a leading part in the parish work of the local church, but from around 1849 he would go for a walk on Sundays while his family attended church. Though reserved about his religious opinions, in 1879 he responded that he had never denied the existence of God, and said, "An Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind." He went on to say that "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities”. The followers of Darwin further went on to say that there is no God or any intelligent force anywhere in the universe. All life forms are random mutations, carriers of DNA’s perpetual quest to replicate.

 Christianity believes that God created all the animals, reptiles, birds and everything else that exists today, through His supernatural powers.  Any organism created by God can't produce a new form all by itself and only God has the power to do this. Many Christians believe that The Book of Genesis which deals with Origins had actual information on how the world came up into being. The Book Of Genesis starts with the statement "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth", and goes on to describe how in six days God created the plants, the animals, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Orthodox Biblical interpretation infers that the world was created about 6000 years ago. Christian beliefs are usually based on a strict interpretation of the Bible and some of their other holy texts.  Archbishop James Ussher from Ireland actually calculated the ages of the patriarchs and worked out to his self satisfaction that the world was created in the year 4004 BC on 22nd October Saturday at 6 PM.  Interestingly, any Biblical scholar will vouch that the Book of Genesis was never meant to describe the actual origin of Creation.

Scientists vehemently say the young earth theory is completely wrong, with so much of geological, fossil, astronomical and other data against it. Scientists are almost unanimous in saying that the Earth is 4 billion years old.

Most religions of the world have primitive concepts of God. Mankind has been made to believe that God is a Being, distinct in relation to his own self, to whom  he is supposed to  worship, please, seek pardon or obtain  awards from. He is made into some superhuman being with a big long white beard,   sitting somewhere in the universe judging people and ordering punishments and rewards. But this is not what God is. The whole concept of such a God is preposterous. Religion has deliberately played upon these insecurities and served its own vested interests.  

Most religions have done tremendous harm by spreading hatred and violence through their manipulative, ignorant and dogmatic doctrines. History all through has been a silent spectator to unimaginable acts of barbarity resulting from hatred spread by the protectors of these religions. Modern man however, is more open minded and looks with disdain at certain portions of these doctrines and refuses to accept them at their face value. They seem irrational and childish to his logical mind.

Simultaneously, I also emphatically state that science is definitely not the only irrefutable way of knowing and understanding reality but rather just another way of knowing that differs from other ways, because of its dependence on measurable means. Experience however, keeps reminding us that such a methodology does not always lead us to correct answers. The above mentioned method sometimes act as a constraint on science and stand in the way of achieving the objective of understanding the true nature of reality. Reality may not be confined to matter or to the known dimensions of time and space. Such phenomena however find its place outside the parameters of the current scientific paradigm.

Orthodox science has also painted a very bleak picture for humanity. It keeps telling us that we are some sort of a genetic mistake, that we have genes that use us to move on to the next generation and that we randomly mutate. It also keeps telling us that our existence is just a matter of chance and that we are alone a very lonely and meaningless cosmos.  Such a viewpoint of being disconnected with the universe that we all live in is the most disastrous thing that science has ever taught us. We are now coming to realise painfully that this conception is completely wrong. We are not isolated beings but on the contrary, the whole universe is interconnected. The idea of separateness is a completely an erroneous one, and that everything in the universe is One.   

Ironically both science and religion, due to their dogmatic approach, ignorance and selfish interests have led mankind astray in its understanding the true nature of Reality. Pitching one against the other has mainly been done by people of vested interests on both the sides. A sincere seeker however, takes no time in seeing through this sinister design.

Religions like Buddhism however, have no objection accepting biological evolution. There are also strong parallels in the Buddhist way of perceiving Reality and Quantum Physics. Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary and tends to agree more with the scientists than the clergy. Like science, Buddhism does not assert or depend upon the existence of any God. It conforms to the scientific view of an ordered universe, governed by Dharma—a system both moral and physical, where everything works itself out on its own over a period of time without any divine intervention. In Buddhism, no gods have any power to alter any natural laws. Buddhism believes that every Cause will have an Effect or in other words, what you sow, so shall you reap. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent in nature. The term expresses the Buddhist notion that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is impermanent and in a constant state of flux. Just as in science Buddhism does not require its exponents to have blind belief in anything that Buddha said or taught.  Buddha himself advised his disciples not to accept anything just because he was saying it, but to experience its truthfulness for themselves. For this reason, his teachings have remained unaltered and valid for all times and under all circumstances. The knowledge Buddha acquired through meditation is similar to what scientists aspire to achieve though experimentation. While the goal of the teachings of the Buddha is eradication of human suffering, the goal of modern science is providing mankind with all material comforts.

Hinduism has traditionally incorporated reason and empiricism in its folds. It is of the opinion that   science brings us credible, but partial knowledge of the reality. Vedas, their sacred texts  have a  pragmatic understanding of reality, and integrate this understanding with subjects like arithmetic, medicine, aeronautics, cosmology, geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, metallurgy, and many other branches of science.

Sanskrit is the language in which the Vedas are written. They are believed to be one of the oldest books ever written by mankind. For thousands of years they were passed down from one generation to the next by way of oral recitation. They were finally written down in 1500 BC. Vedas may have their philosophical foundation in Hinduism but are universal in their appeal.

The famous Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Laureate Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was a follower of the Vedas. He said, “I go into the Upanishads to ask questions.” Both Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrodinger, the founders of quantum physics, were avid readers of the Vedic texts and observed that their experiments in quantum physics were consistent with what they had read in the Vedas. Erwin Schrodinger wrote in his book ‘Meine Weltansicht’: “This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. Schrödinger, in speaking of a universe in which particles are represented by wave functions, said, ‘The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics.  This is entirely consistent with the Vedanta concept of All in One.’ The multiplicity is only apparent. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads, and not of the Upanishads only. The mystical experience of the union with God regularly leads to this view, unless strong prejudices stand in the West.” (Erwin Schrödinger, ‘What is Life?’, p. 129, Cambridge University Press)

Numerous scientists and saints have written ardently about their awe and admiration at the elegance of the universe and life on Earth, explaining that they see no conflict between science and   existence of a Creator. Albert Einstein once said that 'science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind'. Ethics, goodness, truth, love and righteousness exist on the fundamental level of space time geometry. They influence our actions and have an impact on our mind and body. These connect us to all other beings and to the universe on the whole. So let’s put to rest the antagonism between science and religion. Both work distinctly but in tandem. Religion should accept scientific truths as gospel and science should accept religious truths as pointers to “meanings beyond the how of things”.  

In the Newtonian period, science was deterministic in its outlook and held a view that the world was governed by factors which are beyond human control, whether it was initial conditions, environment, physical forces, heredity, or a host of other external forces that play upon it. The concept of a human free will was relegated to an insignificant place in the working of the world.  

 Science discovered that matter, thought as solid and real, is far from solid. For more than two thousand years, it was believed by scientists that atoms were unquestionably the ultimate components of matter. They were depicted as tiny particles, indivisible and solid. As the understanding of modern physics grew, it clearly showed that this was not true. Early in the twentieth century, physicists realized that atoms are composed of even smaller subatomic particles called electrons, neutrons and protons. An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these subatomic particles are a hundred-thousand times smaller still. Let us imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a cricket ball, the electrons would spinning around it in orbits several miles across. The reality is that matter is 99.999999999999% empty space. Neutrons and protons are further composed of still smaller particles called quarks.

 It is now being theorized that all these subatomic particles are further composed of dancing filaments of energy, like vibrating strings. In physics, this Planck length, denoted ℓP, is a unit of length, equal to 1.616199(97) × 10−35 metres. It is a base unit in the system of Planck units, developed by physicist Max Planck. Scientists believe that space and time cease to exist at this Planck length but still don’t know what takes its place.

Evidently solid matter has literally disappeared into nothingness.

Then how does the world seem so solid? The answer has to do with the forces that bind the atoms together. When my hand touches the table, the force fields in the atoms of my hand come up against the equally strong fields in the atoms of the table. The mutual repulsion of these billions of tiny, but very strong force fields prevents my hand penetrating the table, giving rise to the appearance of solidness. Our hands, feet, fingers never really touch anything but only get a feeling of that repulsive force which gives us a feeling of solidity.  But however real it may seem, this solidness is only how things appear to us, it is not an intrinsic part of matter.  The things we touch are mostly empty space and our bodies made up of those same subatomic particles too, are mostly empty space. What actually holds everything together and makes reality appear to be solid is a sea of fluctuating energy which is not anything physical. Such is the illusionary world we all live in!!!!

Almost 100 years ago physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max Born und Erwin Schrödinger created a new field of physics: quantum mechanics, which is a science of possibilities. This new branch of science predominantly came into being because the laws that were valid in explaining everything in Newtonian physics were breaking down completely at the microscopic level. Quantum physics put before traditional science many baffling questions which would otherwise have been brushed aside as impossible and spooky. At this sub atomic level a particle could be invisible, it could go through solid objects with ease, could be at multiple places at the same time and also go backward in time and change the past. Two objects could get entangled or linked in such a way that whatever happens to one, also affects the other no matter how far they are from each other.  Interestingly, the findings of this new science also pointed to the fact that it was in no way in contradiction with the age old spiritual idea of the presence of a Creator=Observer. 

At the Quantum Level: Matter can behave both as particles and as waves.  This theory became known as the principle of Wave-Particle Duality. Our reality exhibits a dualistic nature. The matter we experience in our day to day lives exists as waves and as particles. The wave form has no definite location in space or time but can only be understood to be everywhere all at once spread out throughout the entire universe. In particle form, matter occupies a definite place in space and time. In the 'double slit experiment', when no observer was not observing the experiment, the particles were behaving as waves (infinite potential) and when an observer was present watching the experiment, they behaved like particles (finite possibility).This was something bizarre !   It proved that a particle's property is not predetermined but defined by the very mind that is perceiving it. Consciousness or mind had always been kept out of limits for traditional science, since the time Rene Des Cartes had demarcated the scope of science to only what was material. But the new science was forcing scientists to reconsider their outlook. Buddhist mystics have been saying for two thousand years:  "Reality is only a projection of the Mind."       

A particle can appear simultaneously in more than one place at the same time. In one experiment, it appeared at 3000 places concurrently. Physicists speak of this as Quantum Superposition.

 Electrons can change position instantaneously. They suddenly jump to another orbit of higher or lower energy or distance from the nucleus. This is known as Quantum Leap.

Quantum Entanglement is considered “THE” property of subatomic particles. When two particles interact, they may become entangled with each other-- that means their spin, position and other properties become linked in a process which is still unknown to modern science. Also, when something happens to one, the same thing happens to the other instantaneously, no matter how far apart they are. This distance could be millions of light years away, and when we make a measurement of one particle, that immediately determines the behaviour of the other particle. This is something that is mindboggling and scientists are unable to make head or tail out of it.  Information is somehow travelling faster than the speed of light from one particle to another. Albert Einstein called this “Spooky action at a distance”. The phenomena of Quantum Entanglement tells us that once matter is physically joined even when it becomes separate, the energy that once connected them is still there. This further implies that all the matter that is now present in this continuously expanding universe, which was once meshed to a size of a small marble at the time of the Big Bang, is all interconnected. And that you, I and everything else, are all a part of that same particle and energy field. We are all One and interconnected. This property can revolutionise our day to day world, enabling space travel incredibly fast and multi tasking computers and military applications, to name just a few.  

The Collapse of the Wave Function: This is the transition of a quantum system from a superposition of states to a component state. The process is also known as collapse of the wave function or collapse of quantum states. In the double slit experiment, it was observed that when nobody was observing the experiment, the particles were behaving as waves and when an observer was present, these waves collapsed into behaving as particles. For some reason unknown to science, the presence of an observer was influencing the result of the experiment. Physicist John Archibald Wheeler   considered the 'Observer' such a crucial aspect of Quantum Theory that he suggested to replace this term to 'Participator'.

The Uncertainty Principle: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that you can never simultaneously know the exact position and the exact speed of an object, because everything in the universe behaves like both a particle and a wave at the same time. This is not due to the inaccuracy of measurement instruments, but it arises from the wave properties inherent in the quantum mechanical description of nature.

A particle can come out of the void and then disappear again. They keep coming and disappearing. It appears that void and matter are one and the same.

Quantum Field: This is an electromagnetic field from which all matter arises from. The particles that arise from this field are not separate but different forms of the same system. Thus the field or the matter arising from this field are the same thing. Some scientists explain this as a field of pure abstract Consciousness.

"We may therefore regard matter as being constituted by the regions of space in which the field is extremely intense...There is no place in this new kind of physics for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality." --   Albert Einstein

Scientists were now being forced to reconsider the prevailing paradigm of physical laws. And also that if they were to understand the working of the Cosmos in total, they will need to make sense of the bizarre micro world. To move on in the right direction, science now needed a new vision. And for this it needed to move beyond the information imparted by the human senses alone. The old lawful ways of understanding things seemed dead.

There are certain profound spiritual and psychological implications of the findings of Quantum Physics. Such is its bizarre world that it has left scientists scratching their heads and forcing them to realize that there could possibly be an error in their understanding of the basic nature of the universe. They are pointing to the fact that the original scientific paradigm of an isolated existence in a lonely universe is wrong and that we are all interconnected. We all come from a single source field and are creators of our own reality. That the concept of space is an illusion, as an object can be in more than one place at the same time and also that when one thing happens to one, the same thing happens to the other, no matter how far apart they are physically. Similarly, there is no time because it takes no time for a particle to appear in a different location and a particle can appear in more than one location simultaneously. Numerous spiritual teachers and many scientists equate quantum field with the field of pure consciousness containing all possibilities from which everything has come into existence. Our body and mind are just different aspects of this pure consciousness or energy.

"All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force... We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter"--Max Planck.

 We perceive and create our own reality based on our experiences, beliefs, emotions and desires. Our thoughts and intentions affect our reality not only at an individual level but collectively at a universal scale. The Universe is not punishing you or blessing you. The Universe is responding to the vibrational attitude that you are emitting.” ~ Abraham Hicks.

Mystics have told to us from time immemorial that individuality or separateness is an illusion and that all Creation is interconnected at the basic level and is One.

The discussions I had with my learned mystic friend became more and more interesting. They demanded another cup of tea which I offered to make this time. My offer was politely turned down by him and he started making tea on the stove again. We furthered our discussions on the weird and illusionary nature of the world that we experience around us.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”-- Albert Einstein

What is Reality? The reality is that we know nothing about Reality as such. All the so called reality we perceive is that which is filtered through our senses alone. If we believe what we taste, smell, touch, hear and see is real, then these are just electrical signals interpreted by our brain. Our brains take in information and give it form. It is not that the picture is out there, it is that we are getting information and we converting it into a picture according to our perceptions.  It may well be that whatever that is going on inside our bodies, our brains, nervous system or minds is some sort of observer matter conjunction that makes things ‘appear’ real for us.

Since the time of our birth, all we know about the external world is information imparted through what our eyes see, our ears hear, our noses smell, our tongues taste and our skin feels. This is the reason why the perception of the external world to man has only a material reality. But modern science tells us something quite different. It tells us that when we see, light clusters called photons travel from the object to the eye and pass through the eyelids where they are refracted  and focused on the retina at the back of the eye. Here rays are turned into electrical signals and then transmitted through neurons to the centre of vision at the back of the brain. The act of seeing actually takes place at this absolutely dark and small part of the brain which is of just a few cubic centimetres. Suppose we disconnect the nerves that lead this information to the brain, then the image that we are seeing will also disappear. All that we see are merely interpretations of the object by the brain and not the object in itself. Such goes for other sense organs also. The brain then compiles all these sensory inputs and generates 3-D, surround sound, multicoloured, touchy feely, virtual reality of the world for us to experience.      

The brain receives a huge amount of information but we are aware of only a minuscule of that. Of the 400 billion bits of information per second that reach the brain, only 2,000 bits are utilized by the brain, so as to keep man conscious of the world around him. This is just about enough information about his surroundings, body and the kind of decisions to be taken at that moment of time. Consequently, the perception of reality is an extremely limited one. We are continuously taking in so much of sensory information that our brain needs to filters most of it out. Your eyes have good peripheral field of view , your skin is stacked with sensors, you're always sampling the air for smells, and  hearing from the ears is also always on. All of that becomes too much to handle, so our brains filter out a lot of these incoming sensations. For example, you won't even notice a sensory input from your arm till the  time a insect  bites you there. Consciousness is taking only the most important and the amount that reflects the maximum possible absorption of objective reality. The reality that we know is the one that our brain manufactures.

Not very long ago, we believed that the earth was flat and the sun moved around the earth. Pythagoras was the first person known to have taught that the earth was not flat but spherical. We also thought that the earth was the unmoving centre of the universe, because it looks this way. Nikolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilee proved this to be wrong. The Copernican system stated that the Earth and other planets circled around the sun.  The earth seems stationary, but we are all zooming at 67000 miles an hour around the sun. We all feel solid but we are 99.999999999999% empty space. Many stars we see in the night sky, for instance, may not be really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This illusion is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. For example, it takes sunlight an average of 8 minutes and 20 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth. If the Sun suddenly disappeared from the Universe, it would take a little more than 8 minutes before you realized that it was gone. Perception and reality are two different things. How we perceive things may not be how they really are!!!

When the scientists thought that they knew practically everything about the visible universe, the enigma of the undetectable Dark Matter and Dark Energy  sprang up. The existence and properties of Dark Matter are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, radiation, and the large-scale structure of the universe. Thus, Dark Matter is estimated to constitute 84.5% of the total matter in the universe, while Dark Energy plus Dark Matter constitute 95.1% of the total mass–energy content of the universe. This is the only thing they know Dark Energy because they know how it affects the Universe's expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery.  They know that it is not what shines in the light but what hides in the dark that makes up most of the universe. It has not been detected directly, making it one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. Some scientists believe that dark matter is not made of any known subatomic particle, but of something weird and unknown that was leftover at the time of the Big Bang when the universe was very hot and dense. Another opinion among scientists about this Dark Matter is that it may not be made of some unknown substance but may be located in another dimension.   

The discussion between the mystic and me further entered the arena of the illusionary nature of space and time.  Space and time are imperative for 3D perception of things, objects and events around us. We cannot recognize objects and events unless one is separated from the other in space and time. Both are equally imperative for us to experience the world. Supposedly if all things were brought to the same point in space, it would become impossible to distinguish one from the other. It is also interesting to observe how light works in coordination with form to generate space. Theoretically, let us start eliminating all objects from space. After we have eliminated all those objects, we will then remove light, with which we unconsciously fill all space. We will now find that space itself has disappeared. Thus the common conviction that space is some kind of a massive container which holds all objects within it and is determined by distances between them is an erroneous one and an illusion!  It is merely a construct of our mind.

 What is Time? To an ordinary human being, time is what the ticks of a clock indicate and measure or the way of nature to prevent everything happening all at once. We would never be able to perceive events if they all happened at  the same precise moment. Time and space imply and depend on one another to make our world look real. Most scientists will admit that there is hardly any aspect of Time that they fully understand. What we all perceive about time is that it seems to flow unendingly from one moment to the next and that the flow of time is always in one direction, towards the future. But this may not be correct. Contrary to our everyday experience time may not flow at all. Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. Planck time is the smallest unit of time that has any physical meaning. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality. “The meaning of time has become terribly problematic in contemporary physics,” says Simon Saunders, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “The situation is so uncomfortable that by far the best thing to do is declare oneself an agnostic.”

 Newtonian physics understood time as something external and absolute. Newton’s concept of time understood at as some kind of a container where events unfold in a completely deterministic way in a linear manner and independent of any observer. Then came Einstein who proved that time was not absolute but was relative to the observer in his General and Special Relativity theories.  He proved  that time depends where you are and how you move relative to others. There was no such thing as universal time. Both space and time are constrained by velocity of light in such a way that the now of one observer is different from now of a different observer. Mass can also distort space and time. Time dilation is a difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from a gravitational mass or masses.

We perceive time and space as something external and outside ourselves According to mystics of ancient India, this perception, however, is illusionary because like every other perception, we experience the perception of time and space only within ourselves, in our own mind or consciousness. Though time and space appear to exist outside us, we have no way of knowing that they actually do exist outside of or independent of ourselves, because all that we know or can ever know of time and space are the images of them that we have formed within our own mind by the  power of our imagination. Therefore, like everything else that we perceive within time and space, time and space themselves are merely mental images, conceptions or thoughts.

In the Upanishads the concept of Maya is more than 4000 years old.  According to the writer Stratford Sherman, "Maya is quite a difficult concept to define in simple terms. I envisage it as a multi- layered web of illusion. The deeper one goes into the web, the more intricate and tangled the illusion becomes. It applies, I feel, to the latest scientific exploration of the physical world. Until the new science, we have only been scratching around on the surface of this Maya. As we go deeper into it, the bizarre twists and turns seem to push the answers further from our grasp. When we confront this web of illusion, it takes us closer to the boundaries of human awareness. We realise even more that the understanding of the infinite cannot be achieved using our own finite means. In other words, when we are within the illusion of a physical reality, it is not possible using its own inherent methods and conceptions to fully understand what reality really is. Only by accessing or looking from a higher level of awareness or consciousness, going beyond the boundaries of physical illusion, will we escape the constraints imposed on us by the finite physical world and manage a glimpse of the true nature of Reality”.

Seeing me visibly confused with a bewildered look on my face, the mystic  smiled impishly. I asked him, "Sir, if everything in the material universe is an illusion then please enlighten me on the true nature of Reality, if indeed there is any?”   The focus of discussion now shifted to the concept of Consciousness and how it can effect and even create reality.  

What exactly is consciousness?  Though it is very difficult to define consciousness as such, we can broadly say consciousness is a state of awareness or the capacity for experience and the space in which all experiences arise. Consciousness is something that just can’t be denied. We simply cannot negate the fact that we are all experiencing beings.  René Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist’s philosophical proposition ‘Cogito ergo sum’ means "I think, therefore I am". René Descartes said that he could doubt any philosophy, idea, concept, going to the extent of doubting his own body and senses, but the one thing he could not deny was that he was a conscious experiencing being.

Materialistic science has always tried to explain away consciousness as a by product of brain activity.  This is well in accordance to the current scientific paradigm, that the only real world is the material world where space, time and matter are primary. It is very hard for materialistic science to break the shackles of this meta- paradigm and accept something as subjective as consciousness in its fold, knowing very well that it exists. Consequently, consciousness was conveniently left out of all scientific discussions as if it did not exist.

Consciousness is not limited to human beings alone, anything whether it be mammal, bird, insect, fish, microscopic bacteria, down to even vegetation, are all conscious beings. They are all experiencing reality differently and in accordance to their own peculiar senses and perceptions. Scientists at the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness declared:  "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical, and neuro-physiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates."

Consciousness is something that mainstream scientists have conveniently chosen to ignore, and this started when René Descartes divided the paths between religion and science. Science was to study all that was material,   whereas religion was given to the study of the soul and all that was non- material, beyond the grasp of the senses. Moreover, consciousness is something that science can't explain. There is nothing in traditional physics, or any other science that can conclusively account for consciousness. Scientists cannot measure it nor can it be weighed or proven using any conventional scientific methods. Yet we all know for sure that we are experiencing beings. Science looks for well defined objective truths which are common to all observers but such is not the case with consciousness which is purely subjective. Moreover, the universe functions so very well without the need to understand consciousness, hence it’s more convenient for science to simply ignore its existence. The bottom line is, ‘for orthodox science, consciousness is still a very big anomaly and they prefer to stay away from trying to explain it, because it is something beyond their existing paradigm’.

David J.Chalmer is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. In his article in the ‘Scientific American’ titled “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience” he raises a pertinent question; why are we consciousness? This he calls ‘the hard problem for science’.  Since consciousness is too big an anomaly for orthodox science and does not fit into its existing paradigm, they have tried to explain its existence within its materialistic framework. Matter for orthodox science being fundamental, consciousness has been explained as a result of neuron activity in the brain. The questions answered by science so far are mainly about what parts of the brain do which bits of processing. This is ‘the easy problem for science’, and unanswered questions will definitely be answered some day. But as David J.Chalmer puts it:  ‘How could something as immaterial as consciousness arise from something as unconscious as matter’? Why do we have qualia or phenomenal experiences, or why do sensations acquire characteristics, such as colours, sounds, smells, emotions and tastes, etc.? In simpler terms, how does it translate into a subjective experience of such a rich and beautiful world we live in?’

All our experiences, whether they are perceptions, feelings, emotions, knowledge, ideas, and impressions are forms appearing in consciousness. No matter how real our world may appear to us but the truth remains that it’s all a construction of the mind. We never experience the physical world directly:  all we know are the images of the world generated in our consciousness, and these images are no more real than those generated during sleep.  An analogy can be given with a movie projector, the  light inside that projector, the film through which the light passes  and finally the images and forms that are projected  on the white screen .When these images get projected on the screen we get so engrossed in their colours, shapes, content and story etc. that we completely forget that these images are nothing but light, projected through the projector. This light has the potential to become any conceivable form or image. Our emotional involvement with these images gets so intense that we start laughing, crying, etc. Similar situations are taking place in the world we live in. The light in the projector is the consciousness. The ideas, emotions, perceptions, memories, thoughts and feelings that we experience are compared to the images that are formed on the screen. Likewise, without consciousness all ideas, emotions, perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings have no existence. Our brain corresponds to the film in the projector which causes the image forms to appear on the screen. But this does not in any way mean that the brain produces the consciousness. The brain may help in producing the forms, perceptions memories, etc. but saying that the brain produces consciousness is like saying that the film produces the light in the projector. Like the light in the projector has the potential to take or become any conceivable form on the screen, our consciousness too has the potential to take or become any form in the material universe.

Consciousness is present in each and every thing, existing anywhere in the universe. Its existence is fundamental, in all living things and in all matter, at the quantum level.  And interestingly, every living being perceives its world differently, according to the limitations and peculiarities of their own senses. Some life forms see their world in black and white, some have very sharp sense of sight, like an eagle flying in the sky, for example, which can even see a rat on the ground.  Some have a very strong sense of smell, some an acute sense of hearing and so on. They are all perceiving reality differently.

When on one hand we say that consciousness is in everything, its corollary that everything is in consciousness is also true.  All forms, emotions, thoughts, feelings, perceptions etc. are images that take place in the consciousness. All our senses of sight, touch, smell, sound and  taste work in coordination to give us  impressions of the world we live in. Light enters the eye and generates a chemical reaction in the retina. Signals are sent to the brain, and the brain deciphers the information in order to detect the appearance, location and movement of the objects we are sighting and creates a picture of its own, of what is out there. We then have the experience of viewing that object. But what we are really experiencing is not the object in itself, only the image that has formed in the mind. As the Upanishads have said 4000 years: 

||brahma satyam jagan-mithyä jivo brahmaiva näparah ||  

The only fundamental Reality is Consciousness and all material world is an illusion.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, was also of the view that we can never know something by itself   -- all that we will ever know is its form that appears in the mind. It has always been the endeavour of science to try to understand what the thing in itself is like. But ironically,, the thing in itself turns out quite different from our perception of it. For example when we see something of a particular colour, the human eye, nervous system, and brain together translate light into that colour. Light receptors within the eye transmit messages to the brain, which produces the familiar sensations of that colour. Newton observed that colour is not inherent in objects. Rather, the surface of an object reflects some colours and absorbs all the others. We perceive only the reflected colours. Thus, red is not "in" an apple. The surface of the apple is reflecting the wavelengths we see as red and absorbing all the rest. An object appears white when it reflects all wavelengths and black when it absorbs them all. Similarly, all sounds too are appearances in the mind alone. The world out there is nothing like how we are experiencing it.

The mind experiences qualities which are purely offspring of the mind alone,” said A.N.Whitehead. .

 The rudimentary error in our judgement is that we mistake our experience to be the exact representation of the world rather than perceiving it as just an experience of it. All other things being merely perceptions in the mind, the only thing we can say with absolute certainty about ourselves is that we are all conscious and experiencing beings. This consciousness is prevalent in each and every thing that is present in the universe. Right from the most complexly structured organisms to any unicellular organisms and going down to fundamental units of matter at the quantum level, 'It Is There.' Consciousness is more primary and fundamental than matter, time or space.  Everything is just consciousness, observing a consciousness. 

Summing all the above we say that all sensory perceptions like matter, colour, shape, form and sound, are a construct in the mind. Space and time are just a part of the framework within which mind interprets its experiences. One way or another, the mind is responsible for the notion of causality, which we can't prove exists independent of the mind. John S. Bell and others since the 1960s have taught us that this world is also non-local, violating a fundamental principle of classical science. It is very strange and weird. It seems all the more weird to us because we believe that the way we experience the world is the way it actually is. Light too, is not a part of the physical world -- that is, it is not a part of space and time. All these are qualities in the mind which we mistakenly assume also apply to the external word. We now clearly understand that consciousness is even more fundamental than matter, time and space because there now seems a remote possibility of any objective reality being prevalent in the world we live in. All we know for sure is that there is consciousness, being observed by a consciousness and creating all these appearances in the mind. We have an experience in the mind and think it as real, just as in a movie theatre we get so caught up in the images that we start laughing, crying or having other emotional reactions. The reality of the show being only a play of light and sound is totally forgotten. Similarly, in the world we live in, we are so caught up in enjoying the world of our physical senses or to the past memories or future anticipations of its enjoyments, that we fail to realize the true  nature and purpose of our very ‘self ‘. In other words, the individual I (self) gets so involved with worldly pleasures and pursuits  that he forgets that he is but a part and parcel of that Universal Self (Consciousness) or God, if  one may call it that. The Upanishads have said, from time immemorial “ Aham Brahmāsmi” or “I am Brahman (ब्रह्म).”  This mahāvakya belongs to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Shukla Yajurveda. It is one of the four Mahavakyas used to explain the unity of macrocosm and microcosm. According to this Upnishad, Brahman (ब्रह्म) or Universal Consciousness is the Ultimate and Infinite Reality, and when the ego (individual self or the “I am ness”) disappears can the state of (Sohum or “I am that”) be realized.

It is the endeavour of all serious mystics and philosophers to transform this theoretical understanding into a practical and conscious realization. It is not enough to just have a mental understanding of Reality but to experience it firsthand. No animal processes this capability to become aware of the Self, hence no animal will ever behold the pure and elusive Reality of Consciousness. It is the privilege of man alone to soar up to that height of pure Self Awareness. It becomes a matter of his own free will wither he wants to waste this opportunity in pursuit of sensory gratifications or fulfil that higher purpose of life. This necessarily involves detaching consciousness from our physical senses which are causing this illusion to arise in the first place. We have to retreat from sensory and surface existence. And this needs to be done through deliberate self discipline. Thus the question of the ultimate purpose of life stood answered with the understanding that we are all nothing but Consciousness period.

“And this is exactly what I am trying to achieve in the remoteness of these Himalayas. Trying to realize my unity with that all- pervading Supreme Consciousness,” said my learned mystic friend.

 It was getting dark, so I bid my new friend good night and quietly walked towards my tent. The heavens above, with millions of stars shining like diamonds on this clear night, seemed to be  smiling, ecstatic with the outcome of our dialogue.

An unfortunate accident had happened just a day before my arrival at Tapovan. A team of climbers from Switzerland had arrived here to climb Mt. Shivling. They had not taken the necessary precautions to get acclimatized to this altitude. One of the climbers took off his shirt to dry his sweat as soon as he reached Tapovan. This particular climber soon started suffering from high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE). He passed away a day later. His body was flown back via a helicopter to Delhi. The climbing team called off their expedition and returned back home.          

 I spent   another three days shooting at Tapovan.  After my shooting was over, on my fourth morning there, I went outside to relieve myself and found some strange symptoms. The colour of my stool was charcoal black in colour. I was worried, though in perfectly fine health. When Simla Baba woke up and came out from his stone hut I told him about my symptoms. He was shocked and told me in plain and simple words, "This frenzy of photography is going to kill you, man!!! My dear friend, you are bleeding internally". He advised me to pack up my things and lose altitude immediately.

Terribly scared, and with the  death of that climber still fresh on my mind, I packed up everything quickly, thanked Simla Baba and began rushing down as fast as possible. It had taken me two days to climb up to Tapovan, but I reached Gangotri in just 14 hours! Such was my fright!  

Reaching my hotel room, I fell unconscious. I don't remember who called the doctor and what treatment I was given. I regained consciousness after 24 hours.  I then had some food, as I had not eaten anything for more than 36 hours. After paying off the porters and the guide I   drove off, heading  straight for Rishikesh. I reached Rishikesh after 12 hours of non-stop driving, thrilled to see flat land again. My wanderings in the Garhwal Himalayas continued for another couple of years more.

I also began to accept my inherent loneliness much better after my escapades into the quietude of  mountains. A personal enlightenment had dawned on me that I might never be able to escape the clutches of the loneliness embedded deep inside me. All I could manage was a temporary respite through my social duties, work, photography and travels. It is indeed ironical that in moments of acute crisis and deepest anguish, I – like all of mankind -- will always remain alone.

We, the mega city dwellers have bartered our soul for an estate of briars and brambles. Nature has imposed a condition on us to remain in tune with it, but society and work conspire to hide this from us for long stretches of time. We have all become isolated beings, living amidst the ever -swelling multitude. We suffer because we refuse to recognize this fact, but the moment we do recognize and admit this, we will receive immeasurable strength and peace.  The strength gained from the spiritual solitude amidst nature in all its glory is something which a city man can carry back with him, into his chaotic world.

Trek to Roopkund

I continued to wander in the majestic Himalayan ranges from time to time, whenever I could manage some time off from work.  The trek to Roopkund Lake is something that really demands a special mention. Four photographers: Satyasri Ukil  , Kabiraj, Chanchal Ganguli  and I decided to go for a trek to Roopkund Lake. Roopkund is a high altitude glacial lake situated in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand (India), at approximately  5000 m  above sea level. It lies in the lap of the Trishul massif, surrounded by rock-strewn glaciers and snow-clad mountains. The lake is fairly shallow, having a depth of about 2 m only and generally remains under snow cover for 8 months  a year. Hundreds of human skeletal remains are strewn all around the edges of this circular lake. The identity of these people, what happened to them and how they died has been a matter of speculation, until recently. Numerous folklores and theories exist, from spiritual to scientific, trying to explain the existence of these skeletons, dating back to 9th century AD.  This lake has also been called the Skeleton Lake by many travellers.

 My friends and I spent the first day in high spirits, driving leisurely up 270 km. to Rishikesh, with music on full blast, receiving strange glances from passersby, eating and drinking all the way.   We halted at Rishikesh for the night, but not before sampling the sumptuous fare at the famous Chotiwala restaurant and a sauntering over the Laxman Jhoola, revelling in the feisty Ganga rippling swiftly below us, and a star-spangled sky above us. Temple lights twinkled brilliantly at a distance and the occasional sound of temple bells struck the mountains and echoed  back.  The massive statue of Shiva (Lord of Destruction), stood tall and forbidding, standing in the rapidly flowing Ganga.  

 The next morning we stored up on petrol in huge jerry cans and drove up about 390 km to Lohaganj, which was to be the starting point of our trek up to Roopkund. As the rode higher up, the air became crisp and cool, while the relatively demure but murky Ganga turned into a froth of clear blue waters, thundering and crashing against mighty boulders in its path.

 We arrived at the town of Devprayag, the first of the five confluences, where the Alaknanda merges into the Bhagirathi river. It is from this place onwards that Bhagirathi gets the name of Ganga. From its origin at Gaumukh  upto Devprayag, it is known as Bhagirathi. We made e a short halt here and had our breakfast  of delicious poori with alu ki sabzi and tea. Never in my life, have I found this taste better! 

 Our next halt was Srinagar, which is   about 100 km from Rishikesh. It is the largest city of Garhwal region at an elevation of 560 m (1,837 ft). .  With temperatures touching 40 degrees C, the car air conditioning was barely able to keep up its work.  We stopped to quench our parched throats with fresh orange and pineapple juice, where I bought a jazzy red coloured monkey cap for myself, much to the amusement of a giggly Satyashri.

 Out of Srinagar, barely 35 km onwards, we arrived at Rudraprayag, where the tributaries of the mighty Ganga, the Alaknanda and Mandakini embrace and flow in unison.  

Rudraprayag is also famous for being the abode of the most feared man- eating leopard in history, who was ultimately shot down by the legendary British huntsman-cum-conservationist Jim Corbett on 1st May, 1926.   The man- eating leopard stalked this region for almost 8 years between 1918- 1926 and was accountable for more than 300 deaths. We saw a plaque commemorating those events as we drove past Rudraprayag. Our next stop was Karnaprayag about 30 km ahead of Rudraprayag, and the third of the five confluences, where the Alaknanda merges with the  Pindar river. We now stood at an altitude of 1,451 m (4,760 ft), feeling the chill of the breeze on our faces. The sun was setting, with its last rays flickering on the golden waters.   We hurried on, turning right from Karnaprayag, in a bid to find a suitable place to pitch our tent for the night, thus   missing out on seeing the last two confluences of the Ganga. The torrid Pindar river  flowed alongside, but deep down, on our left flank. All of us were hungry too, as there was hardly any time in between to grab a bite.

. We soon found a patch of flat area to pitch our tents for the night. The flow of the Pindar was also smoother, making it easy for us to fetch water for cooking food. Soon our tents were put up, as we saw the red skies gradually turn into a melancholy mauve.  I stood there looking up at the heavens, smiling at the first stars which had come out to greet us. As dinner was being prepared, I stood still, looking up, as the heavens came out in all their glory, brilliance and splendour, each star so big, as if teasing me to come and grab it.

After a hearty dinner under the starlit skies, we gathered around a small bonfire and sang old favourites from Hindi films.  Life was beautiful, sitting in the loving lap of Magna Mater, far away from the madding crowds of mega cities.  An ineffable peace seeped into us, one that we had never ever experienced before.

 The jungle sounds lulled us into sleep, the stillness of the night occasionally broken by howls of wild animals lurking around the river bed.

The next morning, we were on our way after quick ablutions by the riverside, and packing of tents and gear. Lohaganj was a good 5-hour drive ahead and we were eager to make good time.

(Is it Lohaganj or Lohaghat?)

But destiny wished otherwise, as the road was blocked by a massive landslide. Compelled to park our car on the side of the road, we crossed the landslide area by foot. A very dangerous and tricky feat, as one wrong step would have been enough to throw all of us 3000 feet down the mountain edge. Having crossed over, we hired a local jeep to take us to Lohaganj, finally reaching our base camp in the evening.

We stayed the night at Lohaganj, and then next morning hired porters to assist us in proceeding towards Roopkund. Our next destination was Wan village and we had to cover a distance of about 15 km. This turned out to be a very beautiful walk with small streams gushing past us every now and then.  Waterfalls sprayed their droplets on our faces as walked pass them. The area is heavily forested with myriad flowers of unimaginable beauty. It was interesting to observe a small wheat grinding mill, powered   by the force of the stream flowing nearby. An innovative way of grinding wheat, indeed!

 After a night stay at Wan,   we trekked onwards. Our next halt was at Bedni Bugyal,  a high altitude meadow at about 11000 ft above sea level.  Bedni Bugyal is one of the largest meadows in Uttarakhand. The stunning views of these august Himalayas are always a treat for the eyes and soul.  The majestic   Trishul massif, Gangotri peaks, Nanda Ghunti and Chaukhamba are all clearly visible from here. This lush green meadow is adorned with blooms in a wide range of varieties. The rich flora of the meadow includes the rare 'Brahm Kamal', a type of lotus found only in high altitude of about 4500 m and above. . There is also a small lake known as 'Bedni Kund', situated amidst the meadow.  Bedni Kund holds a great religious significance for the locals of this region. On a calm and windless day, one can see the alluring reflection of the Trishul massif in this lake, which leaves one mesmerized. The entire area is densely forested with rhododendron and oak trees, with a scent that leaves you utterly intoxicated. Camping in such pristine surroundings is a memorable experience to cherish.  

We were now into our third day in total wilderness, with nary a human to be seen for miles at a stretch. We started climbing early the next day to our next destination Baggu Basa. in time. The climb was steep and exhausting. Very soon we found ourselves above the tree line. By early evening, we had reached our destination, finding it a rocky place with lush green grass growing in patches. There were beautiful flowers all around and in the distance, we had a hazy glimpse of the Trishul peak. With such exotic beauty all around, the question about whether God exists or not had suddenly become redundant. I had found an answer deep inside me in the affirmative. No intellectual gymnastics or debates were now needed, it came in the form of a Realization that He was everywhere and in everything.      

 Satyasri, Chanchal and Kabiraj found themselves a shepherd's hut to sleep in but I decided to pitch my tent under the open sky for the night. I was very tired and somewhat feverish too. Altitude sickness had taken its toll and I had hardly eaten anything since Wan. I hit the sack after taking a tablet of Crocin for fever and Calmpose for sleep, and was fast asleep soon after. Satyasri woke me up asking me to eat some food which they had cooked, but I was too nauseous to even think of eating.  In the middle of the night I was suddenly shaken awake by a push on the tent from outside. Since it was pitch dark, I could hardly see anything, but when I pushed my head out to see, I was gripped by an uncontrollable fear and blood froze in my veins. A snow leopard was the first animal I could think of, or perhaps a Himalayan brown bear. Both are extremely dangerous animals.  I sat very still, not daring to move or make a noise. I was paralysed with fear and could not even cry out for help to my friends in the nearby hut, such was my fright. The pushing and tugging continued till the wee hours of the morning, and then it stopped. I mustered some courage to peep out of my tent but saw nobody there. It was near daybreak and I quietly crawled out of my tent. I shouted out to my friends and told them the whole story. Intrigued, they all started to look around for pugmarks of the animal that had been lurking around my tent. All they could find was some fresh and slippery cow dung!  It was neither a leopard nor a bear that had tried to attack me at night but a cow who was desperately trying to get inside my tent due to the freezing cold outside. They all burst out laughing, much to my embarrassment.

We were now on the final leg of our trek to Roopkund.  We reached Roopkund by midday, after a very steep, almost vertical climb to find the lake completely frozen. The lakeside was strewn with the bodies of hundreds of people who had died here, due to the heavy hailstorm that had lashed this area and had cracked their skulls.  With temperatures being below freezing point all the year round, the skins hadn't decomposed and were still intact with the bones. Bodies could be seen jutting out of the ground all around the circular lake. It was not at all a pleasant sight to witness. Satyasri carried back some samples for the Anthropology Department of University of Delhi, wondering if they could throw some light on the mystery of the Skeleton Lake.

With our mission accomplished, we were in an exuberant mood! We began the descent back the same day. Little did we know that our woes were yet to come!  Climbing down being much faster compared to climbing up, we crossed Baggu Basa and Bedni Bugyal in a single day. As we crossed Bedni  Bugyal, we were suddenly engulfed by severe stormy conditions. Weather in the Himalayas is very unpredictable:  one moment it is sunny and the next, it rains. To make matters worse, it was getting dark. High velocity winds enveloped us, screeching through the trees. It wasn't long before a torrential downpour began.

When all this started to happen, we were all at some distance from one another, as each was walking at his own pace. I was right in front with a porter, Chanchal was somewhere behind me, and   Satyasri and Kabiraj were way behind, walking slowly. Kabiraj was constantly with Satyasri as Satyasri suffered from night blindness and needed help on the track. In this bellowing storm, all of us lost track of one another. The mountain track became so slippery due to rain that it was difficult to put the next foot forward without slipping. I slipped quite badly twice and hurt myself too. Lightning struck threateningly, with such ominous thunder, that it seemed as if did not intend to let us come through  alive. I have never been a superstitious person but at that moment, I just couldn't help wondering whether disturbing the peace of those dead in Roopkund was really such a good idea after all.

Completely wet, hurt and shivering badly due to the intense cold, I was unable to walk any further. I asked my Nepali porter to pitch the tent, but he opined that it would be much better to climb down the mountain and pitch it up next to the riverbed. I could clearly hear the roar of the surging water crashing against the boulders, in the deadly silence of the night. I agreed, albeit reluctantly as I was dead tired and in no mood to climb down. When we reached the river bed, another brainwave struck the porter.   He said, "Sahib, it is now night time and if we pitch the tent here we could be in grave danger, as wild animals from the surrounding forest are likely to come down to this river to drink water during the night. This is not a safe place to pitch a tent.  We would be better off if we climbed up a little towards the other side of the mountain.” I almost fainted with dismay when I heard this suggestion, but was left with no choice, thus started climbing up again. We kept climbing for another two hours when I espied a hut with a light burning inside. It was very late at night but I mustered up some courage to call for help. A woman responded from inside, saying that her husband was not home, but we could still come in and rest for the night. Chanchal, who was not far behind also joined us in that hut after sometime. We were given some space to sleep in one corner of the hut. The generous lady made us some hot tea which infused life back into us somewhat.  I was running high fever but I took some medicines that I had in my rucksack along with a couple of sedatives and went off to sleep.

 In the morning, the first thing we had to do was to find the whereabouts of Satyasri and Kabiraj. We shouted their names aloud into the mountains, hoping that they would shout back,  but for quite some time all we could hear was our own voices echoing back to us.  Finally, to our sheer delight, we heard someone shouting in the forest.  It was Satyasri, much to our relief.   Within an hour both Satyasri and Kabiraj joined us. It was such a happy reunion after the dreadful night. They had had their own harrowing experience to narrate. As Satyasri was unable to walk any further, both of them had spent the night out in the open braving the storm. They were unable to pitch their tents because of the strong winds that kept billowing all through the night. Neither had they been able to eat any of   the soaked rations. Shivering in the cold and out in the open, they were indeed lucky to be alive. Thanking the lady in the woods for her hospitality and happy to be together again, we headed for Wan. The sun god was out again with his rays peeping through the soaked foliage.  Finally the trek ended on a happy note with all of us back safely in Delhi after another couple of days.  

Satyasri had brought back some of the skeletal remains to given to the Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, primarily to arouse their curiosity about the unsolved mystery at Roopkund. As expected, nobody paid any attention or showed any interest in the matter. When he took them home he was severely reprimanded by his wife. ll this. Poor chap!!!

The remains at Roopkund Lake have intrigued anthropologists, scientists, historians and the local people since the time they were  rediscovered in 1942 by a Nanda Devi game reserve ranger H K Madhwal, although there are reports about the presence of these bones from late 19th century. There are several theories about whose remains they actually were.  Initially, it was speculated that the remains were those of Japanese soldiers who had sneaked into the area during World War II and had then perished to the ravages of this inhospitable terrain. Some British explorers however attribute the bones to General Zorawar Singh of Kashmir, and his men, who are said to have lost their way in these high Himalayas, on their return journey after the Battle of Tibet in 1841. It was speculated that it were they who lay perished there. Local folklore says that in medieval times, King Jasdhawal of Kanauj wanted to celebrate the birth of an heir by undertaking a pilgrimage to Nanda-Devi  However, he disregarded the rules of pilgrimage through exuberant singing and dancing en route. This angered the local deity named Latu and they were caught in a terrible hailstorm and subsequently had their skulls cracked and died.

This mystery was finally solved by a team of National Geographic scientists who later visited the region in the high-profile series, “Forensic Investigation Report (FIR)”: “Skeleton Lake.” The Skeleton Lake expedition was headed by German cultural anthropologist Dr. William Sax and included forensic scientist Prof. Rakesh Bhatt of Garhwal University, palaeopathologist Dr. Pramod Joglekar of Deccan College (Pune) and geologist Dr. MPS Bisht.

"This is the first time that scientific evidence coincides with the local legends about the human remains in the lake area, which is a very significant thing in terms of cultural anthropology,” said Dr. Sax. While the expedition and the subsequent tests proved the cause of the death of the people in an incident estimated to have occurred around 1,200 years ago,  Mr. Basu says," It has been proved through DNA testing that some of the skeletons belonged to Brahmins from the Konkan region of Maharashtra. We also know there were at least two communities of people there, but exactly how many more, we are yet to know.” (who is Mr. Basu plz elaborate)

DNA evidence indicates that there were two distinct groups of people, one a family or a group of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of locals, likely hired as porters and guides. Rings, spears, leather shoes, and bamboo staves were found, leading experts to believe that the group consisted of pilgrims passing through the valley with the help of locals.  All people had perished in a similar fashion, from injuries on the head. However, the small and deep cracks in the skulls were not a result of weapons, but of something spherical in nature. The bodies only had wounds on their heads and shoulders, as if the blows had all come from directly above. Trapped near the lake periphery, with nowhere to hide, the hard (8” circumference) ball-sized hailstones came pouring down in thousands, resulting in the sudden death of these pilgrims. The remains lay in the lake for 1,200 years until their discovery.

Among the local women there is an ancient folk song. The lyrics of this song describe  the residing deity goddess Nanda Devi as having gotten so antagonized with these outsiders who had dared to defile her sacred mountain sanctuary, that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” Strangely enough, this is a complete agreement between scientific evidence and local folklore.

  Travels In Ladakh & Zanskar

As my interest in Buddha’s teachings was generated during my sailing days, Ladakh was one place I had always dreamed of visiting. Monasteries which date back several centuries are found scattered all over this region, though historically it is not very clear when the first Buddhist communities were established in Ladakh. Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, travelled from North-west India through Lahaul-Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunchal Pradesh and firmly established Buddhism in these lands. Though Buddhism has lost much of its hold in India, the country of its origin, it is completely at home in Ladakh and surrounding regions,  and represents the greater Tibetan culture that once existed, right from 10th century onwards up to the present day.

The gompas (monasteries) in ancient Ladakh were built as pure wooden structures, though none of those exist today. The gompas one sees now are a mixed structure of stone and wood, with outer walls of stone and sun-dried brick and wooden construction indoors. In many monasteries which consisted of a large hall, they had to erect columns to support beams, making the total system a wooden structure. Walls are generally made of sun-dried brick. The doors and windows are wooden and delicately carved. Although the reason for black paint around windows is not known, it is a common custom giving a unique feature to Ladakhi architecture. In the main halls in these gompas, the central part stretches up through the roof, and the hall gets light from above.

Visiting these monasteries acted as a balm for my troubled mind. I would sit inside these monasteries for hours at a stretch, hearing the prayer gong echo through the main hall, breaking the pin drop silence momentarily. The filtering light from the windows and doors playing hide and seek with the shadows in the dark monastic interiors was  beautiful. I have always equated Light with God and firmly believe that the darkness of the human soul will ultimately come alive with the play of Light (God) on it.

 It is a pity that the leisure and quiet which I saw in the lives of the people of Ladakh has completely lost its relevance for people who live in mega cities. It reminds me of a wise observation by somebody who wrote, "Eagles dwell in the lonely eyries of crags and hills, but sparrows twitter plentifully in the cities." The whole region of Ladakh has this power of silence and is truly blessed by God.  Hardly anyone sees people hurrying  madly, trying to reach his place of work --  no vehicles honking away like crazy, trying to reach some unknown destination, a scene so commonly observed in big cities. The people of Ladakh understand the sacred importance of leisure so well and their lifestyle blends intrinsically with it. Through my images I have tried to bring back to you the peace, leisure and tranquillity I found there.

After wandering in and around Leh for some days, I decide to move on further towards Kargil and then to Padum. En route I saw the most colourful landscape I ever witnessed. It seemed God had specially sculpted this barren mountain scape with the five elements and painted it with strokes of  different hues. I stood there spellbound, admiring the creativity of that Master Sculptor.

 Kargil was very different from Leh. The population being predominantly Shia muslims, monasteries gave way to mosques and the colourful red attire morphed to black. From Kargil, I moved on towards Padum. The road was neglected and un-metalled. Open trucks, small buses and tempos ply here, doubling up as public transport. I too travelled in an open tempo, bouncing up and down the pothole- filled road. By the time I reached Padum, my bones seemed totally shattered and I was smothered with dust, looking like a ghost.

Padum, named after Padmasambhava (known as the second Buddha) is the only town in Zanskar and one of the two main capitals of the erstwhile Zanskar Kingdom. Padum is around 3505 m above the sea-level and is the most populated town of Zanskar, inhabited by around 2000 people. In the close vicinity of Padum are rock carvings from the 8th century, on a large rock on the banks of the river Lung-nak. There was an influence of Buddhism in the region of Zanskar even in ancient times and Padum has existed since that time. It was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Zanskar.

 I stayed a couple of days in Padum and visited nearby monasteries. While returning, instead of travelling by  bus I decided to walk down some part of the Padum- Kargil road. I hired a porter and a horse, took some rations along and started walking back. This walk back was one of the most memorable ones I had ever done. On my left were the majestic Himalayas.  Their perspective would change to showcase their beauty, with every twist of the road. After walking the whole day, at dusk we decided to camp near a running stream. The porter cooked some food for me and I retired inside my tent for the night. Exhausted, I fell asleep almost immediately.

Late at night I was suddenly awakened by a loud noise. Then another and then one more that literally shook my tent. Panic-stricken, I rushed out and glanced around in the dark for my porter. He was sound asleep nearby with the horse grazing quietly, totally unfazed. I was surprised at both the porter and the horse. It appeared as if both of them were either deaf or had not heard the noise at all. Puzzled a thought struck me. Had I dreamt this all up? I quickly woke up the porter and asked him if he had heard the loud noise. He replied with an expressionless face  " Go back to sleep, Sir.  T here is shelling going on from the Pakistani side of the border. This is a daily routine and nothing to get panicky about." Aghast I walked back to my tent. The shelling continued for quite some time but midway I fell asleep too.  It was just a matter of getting accustomed to the Ladakhi way of life.

During my wanderings in this spiritually charged region, dotted with these ancient monasteries, I gained a better insight some basic facts about existence through what Buddha had preached. I realized that there is nothing that gets completely lost in this universe:  it merely changes its form.  Matter turns into energy and energy back into matter. A dead leaf turns into soil; a seed sprouts from that soil and becomes a new plant with new leaves. Old solar systems disintegrate and turn into cosmic rays, and new ones are born. We are born of our parents, our children are born of us. We are the same as plants, as trees, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us and we are the same as everything. We do not live an isolated existence but on the contrary, everything in the visible and invisible universe is intertwined. If we destroy something around us, we actually destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves.

It's a universal truth about life that everything is in a continuous state of flux. Nothing remains the same. Change is the basic principle governing everything in the universe. The earth is moving around the sun and so is everything else in this expanding cosmos. Day is followed by night and vice versa. Seasons change, tides change:  we are born as babies, grow young and then eventually grow old and die. Life is like a river flowing endlessly:  sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly, smooth and gentle in some places, but then suddenly snags and rocks crop up out of nowhere. No sooner do we think we are safe, something unexpected happens and lands us back into uncertainty.

Once upon a time, dinosaurs, roamed this earth. Eventually they all died out, but their passing away did not mark the end of life itself. Other forms of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles made their presence felt, eventually paving the way for humans to appear on this planet. We then changed from primitive homo sapiens to the modern intelligent man. Our ideas also keep changing continuously.

People once believed that the world was flat, but now we know that it is round. Earth was once supposed to be the centre of the universe whereas we now know it as a mere speck in this immeasurable cosmos. We once believed that we were a lonely planet in an extremely lonely universe and our existence was just a matter of chance. Quantum physics is now teaching us that nothing could be more wrong than an idea like this one and that we are all interconnected at the basic level of our existence. Our mind too, is also in a continuous state of flux, with one thought preceding another. Thus, there is continuous change both inside and outside and is the underlying principle governing our existence.   

Another irrefutable fact observed by Buddha is the Law of Cause and Effect. This is similar to the law of cause and effect found in every modern science textbook. The law of cause and effect is also known as the law of ‘karma.’  According to this law, nothing ever happens to us unless we have done something to deserve it. We receive exactly what we earn, whether it is good or bad. We are the way we are now only due to the things done by us in the past. Our thoughts and our actions always determine the kind of life we have or will have. If we do good things, good things will happen to us and if we do wrong,  wrong things will happen to us. Every moment of our life we create a new karma by what we say, do, or think.

"The kind of seed sown will produce the same kind of fruit. 
                                        Those who do good will reap good results. 
                                        Those who do evil will reap evil results. 
                                         If you carefully plant a good seed, 
                                         You will joyfully gather good fruit." 
                                                          Dhammapada

Buddha's main concern was the eradication of human suffering and he found that this could be achieved by following a path of moderation by  reining in our rampant desires, through compassion, meditation and annihilation of ignorance. Nature has given man everything he needs in abundance, but his greed and lust abound and proliferate. Modern man has brought the world on the fringes of disaster, ignoring the fact that whatever he takes from nature needs to be replenished. When the eternal law of cause and effect is pushed into motion, he will have to reap the effect of the seeds sown by him, and that time is not far away. All will be held responsible, and will have nobody to blame except ourselves.     

It was time to say goodbye to Zanskar, as my flight was scheduled for two days later from Leh. I hired a taxi for the rest of my journey upto Kargil and further down to Leh. I stayed the night in a hotel in Kargil. An interesting fact I must mention is that this hotel was later destroyed in the bombing that followed during the Indo- Pakistan Kargil war. Days later, I watched it reduced to rubble on TV in Delhi.  

 At Leh, I packed up everything and departed for the airport only to find the flight cancelled due to bad weather. The next day the same story repeated itself. The locals told me that this was nothing unusual as flights get cancelled frequently and people get stranded for days till the weather clears. Three days later, the sky cleared and the sun was shining brightly. Two Airbuses were dispatched from Delhi to clear the stranded passengers. From the flight between Leh and Delhi, I witnessed a breathtaking view of the pristine  and lofty Himalayan ranges--  an experience which will stay with me throughout my life. The plane landed in Delhi and with a heavy heart that I acceded to the reality that I was to live my life in the same concrete jungle which I had left some days ago:   a life full of activity, noise and turmoil, which Destiny had earmarked for me. 

 

Back in Delhi

In Delhi I would spend my time shooting temples and dargahs in and around the city. My favourite place was the Dargah of Hazrat  Nizamuddin  Aulia in Delhi. Friday nights (Jumma) witness maximum activity at this dargah, with thousands of people coming in to hear sufi devotional songs. I earmarked the early morning and late evening hours for my photographic explorations because these were the hours of breathtaking light filtering   through the marble jalis, a typical architectural decoration of Islamic  design.

I now decide to hold my first solo exhibition and show my work to the management of India International Centre, New Delhi. After seeing my work, they agree to sponsor my show, which is later to be held in their art gallery. It is pertinent to mention that I had only shown the management of IIC the landscapes which I had shot in Tapovan and Ladakh, to which they readily approved for display.

 Kumbh Mela

During the same time period, Kumbh Mela was being held at Hardwar which I decided to cover. Considered to be the largest Hindu religious gathering in the world, with around 1 million people expected to visit, it is a spectacle to watch. Hotels were jam- packed with people and media from all over the world. After significant hunting, I managed to find a room for myself. Not wanting to waste any time, I immediately set out for the shoot. On reaching Haridwar market place I saw hundreds of completely naked Naga sadhus loitering around aimlessly, smoking hash.  Their behaviour showed no signs of spirituality either.  With ash- smeared faces, they looked more demonic than godly.  It was a weird sight. Soon, I came to understand from the local inhabitants of Hardwar that the whole show was a complete farce. These so-called ascetics shed their clothes and storm the streets only during the Kumbh festival. Neither do they live in the remote Himalayas leading a renounced life, but on the contrary live in lavishly furnished air conditioned rooms at Hardwar itself!

My contention was proved right the very next day when I witnessed a massive fight that broke out between the local police and the Nagas. Whoever came in the way of these Trishul - bearing sadhus was at his life's risk.  The streets of Haridwar resembled a battleground with broken bottles, stones, iron rods, bricks strewn all over the place. Blood lay splattered on the streets. I saw local shopkeepers down their shutters in a frenzy and run for dear life. The police retaliated with full force with tear gas shells. It was now the turn of the so called ascetics to run. The ash smeared faces morphed into blood- stained ones. Oh God! What a sight it was! These were no saints but downright criminals to the very core, most of them. 

On the day of the procession, I woke up early and positioned myself on the roof top of a house near the Niranjani  Akhara, a place that  houses  the Naga sadhus. I was testing the auto focus of my telephoto 300mm Canon lens when I saw a group of Nagas gathered in the Akhara compound. What shocked me was the sight of one Naga fiddling with the genitals of the other Naga. Luckily, I was just in time to capture the act in my camera. This image created a furore when it was published on the first page of a leading Indian newspaper "The Indian Express".

I would be presenting a lopsided story of the Kumbh if I were to write only about the wayward lifestyle of these Nagas. This festival all through history has been a congregation of learned mystics and saints. These are the people who have devoted their life to study and meditation. There were hundreds of huts built by the Kumbh authorities for the sadhus to stay, across the river bed. I visited those and sat with some very learned sanyasis, listening to their discourses and hear them sing bhajans (devotional songs), an extremely nice and peaceful experience for me. Animated discussions took place among the mystics about the existence and nature of God. I too  sat among them, trying my best to grasp whatever was being said.

According to Vedas, there is One Reality that pervades the entire universe. The term used for this impersonal, transcendent reality is Brahman (ब्रह्म). It is the uncaused cause of the universe and its nature is described in Sanskrit texts as Sat Chit Anand (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute).  Brahman (ब्रह्म) is not conditioned by time, space and causation and is the basis, source and support of everything.  It is the transcendent Reality which is the original source of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond the universe. It is the Alpha and the Omega. All beings emanate from Brahman (ब्रह्म) and all beings will return back to this same source. The Brahman (ब्रह्म) is the indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute infinite existence, and the ultimate principle who is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe.

 

Upanishads further classify Brahman (ब्रह्म) is a part and parcel of our own self, dwelling inside our  heart as a divine Self or Atman (individuated consciousness). This Atman is beyond the cycle of birth and death and is the immortal aspect of our mortal existence. It is because of this atman that we become experiencing human beings. Atman in reality is Brahman (ब्रह्म) itself, which descends down into the elements of nature through self projection and participates itself in a beautiful and elegant game of self induced illusion. Brahman (ब्रह्म) is the all pervading Cosmic Spirit.

 

Though there are many maha-vakyas or great sayings in the Upanishads, the following four are considered to be the most prominent ones. They convey the essential teaching of the Upanishads, namely that Reality is one, and the individual is essentially identical with it. Swami Krishnanand ji explains their essence:

 

(1) tat tvam asi :   तत्त्वम्असि  :  from Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda

A literal translation from Sanskrit to English would be "That thou art"". Sri Adi Shankara interprets "tat tvam asi" to mean that "The jiva (individual self) and Brahman (ब्रह्म) are identical so that there is no difference between the atman of jiva and Brahman (ब्रह्म). It establishes the identity or oneness of the individual soul with Brahman (ब्रह्म) the universal soul. In the Chhandogya Upanishad occurs the Mahavakya, ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ or ‘That thou art’. Sage Uddalaka mentions this nine times, while instructing his disciple Svetaketu in the nature of Reality. That which is one alone without a second, without name and form, and which existed before creation, as well as after creation, as pure Existence alone, is what is referred to as Tat or That, in this sentence. The term Tvam stands for that which is in the innermost recesses of the individual soul, but which is transcendent to the intellect, mind, senses, etc., and is the real ‘I’ of the individual soul. The union of Tat and Tvam is by the term Asi or are. That Reality is separate, is a misconception, which is removed by the instruction that it is within one’s own self. The erroneous notion that the self is limited is dispelled by the instruction that it is the same as Reality.

 

(2)  Prajnanam Brahma: प्रज्ञानम ब्रह्म :  from Aitareya Upanishad of the Rigveda.

Prajnanam Brahma’ means Consciousness is Brahman (ब्रह्म). The best definition of Brahman (ब्रह्म) would be to give expression to its supra-essential essence, and not to describe it with reference to accidental attributes, such as creatorship, etc. That, which is ultimately responsible for all our sensory activities, as seeing, hearing, etc., is Consciousness. Though Consciousness does not directly see or hear, it is impossible to have these sensory operations without it. Hence it should be considered as the final meaning of our mental and physical activities. Brahman (ब्रह्म) is that which is Absolute, fills all space, is complete in itself, to which there is no second, and which is continuously present in everything, from the creator down to the lowest of matter. It, being everywhere, is also in each and every individual. This is the meaning of Prajnanam Brahma occurring in the Aitareya Upanishad.

 

(3) Aham Brahmasmi : अहं ब्रह्मास्मि: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Yajur Veda

In the sentence, ‘ Aham Brahmasmi,’ or I am Brahman (ब्रह्म), the ‘I’ is that which is the One Witnessing Consciousness, standing apart from  the intellect, different from the ego-principle, and shining through every act of thinking, feeling, etc. This Witness-Consciousness, being the same in all, is universal, and cannot be distinguished from Brahman (ब्रह्म), which is the Absolute. Hence the essential ‘I’ which is full, super-rational and resplendent, should be the same as Brahman (ब्रह्म). This is not the identification of the limited individual ‘I’ with Brahman (ब्रह्म), but it is the Universal Substratum of individuality that is asserted to be what it is. The copula ‘am’ does not signify any empirical relation between two entities, but affirms the non-duality of essence.

 

(4) Ayam Atma Brahma: अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म: Mandukya Upanishad of the Atharva Veda

Ayam’ means ‘this’, and here ‘this-ness’ refers to the self-luminous and non-mediate nature of the self, which is internal to everything, from the ahamkara (ego) down to the physical body. This self is Brahman (ब्रह्म), which is the substance out of which all things are really made. That which is everywhere, is also within us, and what is within us is everywhere. This is called Brahman (ब्रह्म), because it is plenum, fills all space, expands into all existence, and is vast beyond all measure of perception or knowledge. On account of self-luminosity, non-relativity and universality, atman and Brahman (ब्रह्म) are the same. This identification of the self with the Absolute is not any act of bringing together two differing natures, but is an affirmation that absoluteness or universality includes everything, and there is nothing outside it.

 

One learned sanyasi, during a discussion, tried to explain the concept of God to me. He elaborated, "We must understand that the Universal-Mind (God) does not exist separately along the universe but in it and as it. The universe was not arbitrarily created by an outside intervention but was periodically self-born through the hidden activity of karmic forces, governed by the law of cause and effect. The impressions of all objects in the universe lie dormant within the inner depths of the Universal-Mind, until the time they become active by the working of karma. They are then projected in our familiar space-time dimension which we call the physical world. The universe is not only self-actuating but also self-determining. There is no intervention of an outside being simply because there is no outside being. It is the law of karma which brings the universe into being and not a personal creator. If by God you mean something higher than mere material existence, then I do not deny God. It is the false notions of God that I deny, the caricatures that appear in churches and temples and sermons and books. We should look on this higher Reality as something not a far off from the essence of our own selves. Worldly men and women want a God who should be attentive to their personal requirements and be helpful during their times of distress. Mystics have come to realize God as an impersonal essence that is present everywhere and which is a part and parcel of their own beings, too. Like waves rising and falling in an ocean are a part of that ocean, similarly we as individual beings have our essence in the all pervading ocean of Consciousness. These men of higher intelligence perceive that the "I" is illusory, that it is only ignorance of this fact that causes man to regard himself as separate from the divine essence that he actually belongs to. The moment he realizes his true nature or essence is the moment of his Enlightenment".

As night fell, the discussions gave way to devotional singing. Drums started to beat and the Harmonium played. Soon everybody was dancing in sheer spiritual ecstasy.  Watching this Maha Kumbh was a indeed a wonderful experience for me. I gained deep insight into both the filthy and reverent sides of religion. My understanding about God was also more mature. I was growing up spiritually. The next day I returned to Delhi.

Varanasi

My next visit was to Varanasi, one of world's oldest living cities of the world and rightly referred to as the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Kashi its ancient name,  this holy city is located in the south-eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India and is situated between two small streams that flow into the river Ganges, Varana on its northern border and Assi  on its southern border, from whom it derives its name Varanasi. Varanasi has been a sacred place for the Hindus since ancient times and no exact date can be placed on its antiquity. As it has a mention in the epics and texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas and Puranas, it can easily be said to have existed for more than 7000 years. It is also known by the spiritually more significant name of 'Avimukta'. It was during the British rule that it got anglicized and got the new name of Benaras. Mark Twain, the renowned Indophile, said, "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Since time immemorial, Kashi was a great centre for education and art, not only for the Hindus but for other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. Students were taught the Vedas, the Upanishads and other schools of philosophy and religious thought in its ashrams. Buddha also visited Kashi frequently, and delivered his first sermon at Sarnath near Kashi, immediately after his enlightenment. The Jain tradition also recognizes the sanctity of this place because two of its Thirthankaras were born and raised in Varanasi. Mystics and philosophers like Panini, the author of Ashtadhyayi,  Sankaracharya, the religious reformer of Hindu school of monism (Advaita Vedanta), Ramanujacharya, the great teacher of Vaishnavism, Madhavacharya, the famous Vaishnava teacher who propagated Dvaita (dualism), all have their roots in Kashi.

 P.V. Kane aptly said about Varanasi, "There is hardly any city in the world that can claim greater antiquity, greater continuity and greater popular veneration than Banaras. Banaras has been a holy city for at least thirty centuries. No city in India arouses the religious emotions of Hindus as much as Kasi does."

 Every devout Hindu hopes to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the famous ghats of the Ganga, (something I did not do myself nor recommend to anybody else because of extremely high levels of pollution and toxins), walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and if God wills, die here in old age.

Varanasi offers a different shade of experience to the variety of visitors that embrace its shores. The gently flowing waters of the Ganga, the boat ride at dawn, the banks of the ancient ghats, all lined up one after the other in an arc-like formation, the innumerable shrines and temples, the narrow, winding and confusing by lanes that lead to the ghats, the countless temple spires, the ancient dilapidated palaces at the water's edge, the akharas and ashrams,  the melodious echo of chanting of mantras, the colourful parasols, and much more. All of these offer a mystifying experience that is unique to the city of Shiva, the Lord of Destruction.

 Anxious to capture this ancient city on my camera, I started early in the morning for ghats, about 4 AM.  As I walked towards Dashashwamedh Ghat which is one of the most active, I thought that probably I would be the only one reaching there this early. But I was in for a surprise, as activity had already started on this ghat. Flower sellers were displaying their goods, boatmen were preparing to take the pilgrims across to the other side of Ganga, sadhus and saints dipped in and out of the Ganga, taking their morning ritual bath, people doing yoga, milkmen bathing their buffaloes in the river, and pilgrims working hard to improve their karma, giving alms to beggars. The pandits (priests) were busy giving  blessings on the receipt of payment, parents busy arguing with barbers about the amount of money to be paid for the mundan ceremony (the first ritual  haircut of a  Hindu child after birth)  and children displaying their diving skills by jumping into the river from elevated platforms. Some people had come to get their hair shaved off, as required by tradition, following the death of a parent. It was this strange and fascinating array of activity that I witnessed at the ghats, long before the sun could make its way up to the horizon. And when it finally came out of its hiding, its first rays lit up the ghats in an ethereal fashion. Golden rays dancing off the ripples of the Ganga in ecstatic abandon, making it seem like a celestial ballet.  I saw hordes of men, women and children gathering on the ghats in colourful attire, whereas priests and saints were dressed in pristine white and orange. People from all over India visit Banaras to perform various rituals from the birth of a child to the cremation of the dead and also post-death rituals for a safe and comfortable passage to the other world for their loved one. My camera began clicking spontaneously. That people call Banaras a photographer's delight is an absolute truism.

There are two important ghats for cremation of the dead in Varanasi, one is named Manikarnika Ghat and the other is called Harish Chandra Ghat, Manikarnika  being more important of the two. People from all over India come to Kashi (ancient name of Banaras) to cremate their dead at Manikarnika. It is believed by the Hindus that a cremation at Manikarnika   gives the human soul liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It is said that pyres are being lit here continuously, without once getting extinguished for the last 3000 years. At Manikarnika,   one comes face to face with death in all its starkness. The dead body of a person belonging to the Hindu community is almost always cremated by fire except in the case of small babies or holy men, who are given a water burial.

When a body is brought in for cremation at any of these two ghats, it is first bathed in the Ganga for purification. This ritual bathing is accompanied by chanting of mantras. Meanwhile the relatives of the deceased are engaged in purchasing wood required for burning the body. The logs of wood are then brought down manually to the place of cremation.  The bodies on both the ghats are cremated by people who are called Doms. They belong to the 'Dom' community and are considered outcastes, engaging in professions such as labourers, potters, and cremators of dead bodies. But in Varanasi these Doms are very wealthy people .They are known to charge huge sums of money for their role in the cremation of the dead. The 'Dom Raja' of Varanasi is a multimillionaire. In the Hindu tradition, when the dead body is brought to the cremation ghat, it is the Dom who lays down the first five logs of wood required for the funeral pyre. The remaining wood is  laid down by the relatives of the deceased. The Dom then hands over the lighted straw to the eldest son of the deceased or in case there is no son it is the wife or husband who lights the funeral pyre with that bunch of burning straw. It is for these services that the Dom exacts his fee which he decides at will and is based upon his discretion, judging the financial background of the deceased and his family.  They are really smart at this and are known to charge huge sums of money from the rich families who bring their dead to Manikarnika Ghat. The Dom Raja is the undisputed lord of Varanasi’s famed cremation ghats.

The current Dom Raja is Sanjit who has inherited this title from his ancestor Kallu who was the first Dom Raja. As folklore says, it was Kallu who had kept the vow-abiding King Harishchandra as his apprentice, more than 3000 years ago. "We are untouchables and are kept at a safe distance by everyone. In the bazaar if I have to drink water I cannot touch the glass. They pour it down to me. The locals don’t allow me in their homes nor come to my place,” he says. To top it all, he is not even allowed into the holy temples in Varanasi, including the most sacred Vishwanath temple. This was his side of the story.

 Dom Rajas are keepers of the holy flame revered by all Hindus. No matchstick is used to light a pyre. All bodies must be cremated by the holy fire that has been burning for centuries in Dom Raja’s hearth. Dom Raja is the leader of a two-tier hierarchy of Doms and coordinates all duties assigned to other Doms. The two burning ghats at Varanasi, the Harishchandra Ghat and  Manikarnika Ghat are crowded with hordes of these lower order of Doms. They begin their funeral duties by offering a prayer to Kallu Dom. The Doms build up the funeral pyre methodically after the body has been bathed in the Ganga. To make sure the body keeps burning, they poke it with long poles from time to time. When the corpse is half burnt, then the deceased person's son performs kapal kriya (ceremonial breaking of the skull of a corpse), where he taps the head of the corpse with a long bamboo stick three times and then throws it in the pyre, assisted by the Dom. This ritual of kapal kriya symbolizes that the individual soul is now completely relieved from the clutches of the material body and is ready to move on to other non physical realms. The son then stands towards the feet of the deceased facing south, while holding an earthen pot filled with water on the shoulder. Holes are made in the pot and the son moves around the body three times. Thereafter, he throws the pot backwards so as to break it without looking back. This symbolizes the breaking away of all emotional and physical attachments of the departed soul with his current life.  After the body is completely burnt, the fire is extinguished with water from the Ganga. The ashes are then gathered and are cast unceremoniously into the Ganges, where another set of Doms neck-deep in the charcoal black water search for  valuables that can’t be taken off the dead, like gold teeth or firmly embossed rings. Life and Death are seen to move on concurrently on these ghats of Kashi.      

Ironically, it was on this 'Burning Ghat' that I had my worst experience. I would visit this ghat daily to observe the ongoing cremations. I saw a continuous inflow of dead bodies coming in from all parts of India as it is the desire of most devout Hindus to be cremated only at the Manikarnika Ghat. It was not very long before I realised that whenever a body of a poor person would come in, it would be cremated in a bizarre manner. It requires approximately 40 kgs of wood to cover the human body completely (from head to toe) for cremation. But the people accompanying the dead body did not have enough money to buy the required quantity of wood. Hence only that much wood is purchased in which only the torso can be covered. The legs and head are left hanging out and the pyre is lit. The body gets burnt in such a horrific manner that the head and feet  fall   away from the torso, partially burnt, with the skin melting due to heat. Then these torn away parts were picked up and put back into the pyre, as though barbequing the human body. If the body is still not fully burnt, the remaining un- burnt parts are thrown into the Ganga for the fish to eat. This whole sequence was so bizarre that I decided to capture on my camera and show this ritual to the world. The management in charge at Manikarnika Ghat objected but I managed to quietly achieve my goal. Man was definitely meeting his God in this 3000- year- old Ghat, but in a bizarre and extremely undignified manner.

The most feared and the most respected clan of Sadhus or ascetics of India, the Aghori sadhus are notorious for the uncommon and grisly rituals that they perform as a part and parcel of their religious routine, and they hound the Manikarnika Ghat in plenty. These dark skinned sadhus, dressed in black clothes, with long flowing hair, are easy to identify. They are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs most of the time.  Aghoris worship Lord Shiva or Mahakala,   the ultimate destroyer of the universe.  They also worship Goddess Kali who symbolizes Time which again is the eventual destroyer of the material world. The Aghori sect has strange and twisted beliefs. According to them, Goddess Kali demands satisfaction through consumption of meat, alcohol, and sex. All these things are banned for other sadhus. Disgusting as it sounds, Aghoris try to gain awareness of Oneness of everything by resorting to such weird practices. According to them, their effort is to find purity in the filthiest of acts, therefore they consume faeces, human fluids and human flesh. As per the Aghoris, when the goddess Kali demands satisfaction in sex, they then need to find a female corpse and have sexual intercourse with it. They also resort to making love to women of lower castes during their menstrual cycle. If an Aghori manages to remain focused on God even during sex with a corpse or while eating a human brain, then he is on the right path! According to this ritual, having sex in the midst of the dead can give rise to supernatural powers. In the dead of the night, on the Manikarnika Ghat, amidst the strong stench of burning skin, the Aghori clans unite to perform this ritual. The women involved in this act are smeared with the ashes of a departed one, and the consummation is carried out along with the beats of drums and recitation of mantras. It is essential that the women have to be menstruating while the act is going on, and they cannot be involved in the act by force. This sexual intercourse carries for about an hour, and the men involved cannot complete their orgasm until the whole ritual is over. Taking the form of Shiva and Kali, the men and women perform this act in a strange methodical state of trance, releasing sexual energy in the form of supernatural powers. A human skull or Kapal is the first thing an Aghori must procure from the floating corpses of holy men in the Ganga, where they are laid to rest. This hollow skull he later uses as his eating and drinking utensil.

Aghoris meditate during the dead of night hoping to gain magical powers by breaking the distinction between the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure. In spite of Varanasi being a densely populated city, this ritualistic cannibalism is openly practiced by the Aghoris, without any public outcry, as they do not kill humans for these rituals, but only consume corpses from cremation grounds. Corpses are eaten raw or sometimes roasted over open flames. After eating some of the flesh, they meditate, sitting on top of that corpse, and this ritual continues all night. They move about in the city wearing nothing but a loin cloth and at times are completely nude. Being nude symbolizes complete renunciation of the material world and its attachments. Such is the strange world of the Aghoris I saw at Manikarnika Ghat. I befriended one of them and he was nice to offer me tea. We chatted for hours and gradually he opened up all chapters of his life to me. The emotion of disgust slowly changed to empathy as I tried to understand his underlying search for the answers to those same questions which mankind has been asking from time immemorial.   

Death has always fascinated me along with the myriad   unsolved questions and the mystery that surrounds it. I have raised questions about it time and again when in the company of mystics, researching through books and findings of science. I have finally come to an understanding that life (consciousness), like any other energy, is indestructible. Though there comes an end to the experiences undergone by it when it is in its finite mortal garb. Just as sound goes back into silence but never lost, also so the individual self or consciousness merges back into the fundamental ever flowing sea of Universal Consciousness (God), from which it may re-emerge once again at another time.   Edward Munch poetically wrote," From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them and this is Eternity".

 Gloom engulfs people when they see the ephemeral nature of the world.  But everything must die, even the innumerable faraway galaxies with all their planets and stars.  For they too come under the same Eternal Law; whatever is born within the realm of Time will ultimately be destroyed some day. Those who lament this certitude of death view it from a narrow perspective.  But Nature is wise and if decay and destruction were not present, the wheel of change would grind to a halt.  Consciousness (life) was never born nor can it be destroyed and death is simply nature's way of rechanneling.  The Bhagwad Geeta, the sacred text of the Hindus written over 5000 years ago in Sanskrit, states,

जायते म्रियते वा कदाचि-    न्नायं भूत्वा भविता वा भूयः

अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो-   हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे

(The soul is never born nor dies at any time.  Nor does it come into being when the body is created. Soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. Soul is not destroyed when the body dies )

 

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय  नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि

तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णा-   न्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही

(As a human being puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones)

According to Hinduism, the soul is immortal and it is the body alone that dies. Life, death and then rebirth are all a process of perfection for the soul. Birth and death are the game of Maya (माया). Maya has many meanings but can roughly be described as illusion or ignorance in English. For he who is born, the countdown towards death begins immediately. After death, the process to take another birth starts, according to his karma (कर्म) or actions performed and experiences gained during his lifetime. Life and death together form a never ending cycle through which each human being has to keep on going till he attains Moksha (मोक्ष) or liberation. Birth and death are merely doors of entry and exit on the stage of this world. Death is not the end of life. Life is one continuous never-ending process. Death is only a passing over and a necessary phenomenon, which every soul has to pass to gain experience for its further evolution. Dissolution of the body is no more than sleep. Just as a man sleeps and then wakes up, so is death and birth. Death is like sleep. Birth is like waking up. In reality, no one comes and no one goes as we are we are all a part of Bramhan, the Supreme Consciousness which is deathless, timeless, causeless and beyond space. We merely merge back into that Brahman and re emerge once again from it.

Just as one moves from one house to another house, the soul passes from one body to another to gain experience and knowledge. Just as a man casting off worn-out clothes, takes new ones, so the dweller in this body, atma (आत्मा)   casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others which are new. The final goal of the soul is to attain liberation (मोक्ष) through realization of its Oneness with God. The individual consciousness or atma (आत्मा) is an integral part of the Universal Consciousness (God) or Parmatma (परमात्मा). Due to the veil of Maya (माया), it is unable to recognize its true nature, hence keeps drifting from one body to another. This process of rebirth continues over and over till the time it gains enough experience and knowledge and realizes its Oneness with the Supreme Being. After physical death, the soul carries along with it its past memory, experience and knowledge.

 In Hinduism, there is no concept of an external Hell.  An unworthy soul goes through hellish states of mind with woeful rebirths. However, no states are permanent and a soul can again work its way up from any lower plane. Life in higher planes has a fixed time period. After enjoying the fruits of his good karma a soul is subject to sudden death here too. Ultimate liberation can only be achieved in the form of human birth and not in any higher plane of existence.

 

I am reminded of a poem,

Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was.

I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

 Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was.

There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident?

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval,

 somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.

Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before.

How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

Buddhism is a religion which has its roots deeply embedded in Hinduism. The word ‘Buddha’ means The Awakened One. It originates from the Sanskrit word (बुद्ध) – 'to wake'. Buddhism is an agnostic religion. Nowhere in his teachings does Buddha write about the existence of God. His emphasis was only on pointing out that the great Law of Dharma runs through all that exists and it is by living in accordance with this Dharma, that freedom from suffering can be achieved.  One stark difference between the two is between "Everything" (Brahman or ब्रह्म) and "Nothing" (Void or Sunyata, Sanskrit word :शून्‍य). Hinduism sees all existence ultimately united in one glorious divinity ब्रह्म , whereas Buddhism sees the ultimate reality as a Void or Sunyata. This conceptual disagreement between Vedic scholars and followers of Buddha, ultimately led to the uprooting of Buddhism from its country of origin (India). It later found roots in all surrounding countries like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, China, Japan and others. 

 According to Buddhism, death is an integral part of life itself. All that is born must die. All hopes and fears we cherish during our lifetime will become irrelevant and redundant once we die. On the luminous continuity of existence which has no origin and which has no end, human beings project all the images of life and death, terror and joy, demons and gods. These images become our complete reality and we submit without thinking to their dance. In all the movements of this dance we project our greatest fears on death and we make every effort to ignore it. The fear of death has its roots in the apprehension of complete annihilation of one's identity. There is 'change' happening all around. We all were once strong and youthful- , and then things changed with the passage of time. Youthfulness gave way to old age accompanied by sickness and death:  rapidly ebbed the river of life.  

However, death is not a complete annihilation, but merely an end of the physical body. Our consciousness will still remain and again seek attachment to a new body and new life. The self will be reborn according to his karma or the net result of   its positive and negative actions.  The rebirth according to Buddhist thought takes place on one of the mentioned 6 realms:  

1.  Deva-gati, the Realm of Devas (gods) and Heavenly Beings

2.  Asura-gati, the Realm of Asura (anti gods)

3.  Preta-gati, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

4.  Naraka-gati, the Realm of Hell

5.  Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realm

6.  Manusya-gati, the Human Realm

 A spirit is reborn in any one of these realms according to the severity of his karmic actions. Buddhists however, believe that none of these places are permanent and the 'self' does not remain in any of these places indefinitely. So we can say that in Buddhism, the flow of life never ends, but goes on in one form or another as a result of accumulated karma.

The supreme aim of Buddhism is to obtain Nirvana or Enlightenment. Literally this word means "to blow out or to extinguish" and translated, it refers to a state of liberation or illumination and release from the limitations of mortal existence. It is the liberation from the cycle of rebirth through countless lives up and down the 6 states of existence. It is obtained through the extinction of desire, meditation, non attachment and knowledge.

Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula explains the concept of Nirvana as.....

The only reasonable reply is that it can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvana. Language is created and used by masses of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense organs and their mind. A supra-mundane experience like that of the Absolute Truth is not of such a category. Words are symbols representing things and ideas known to us; and these symbols do not and cannot convey the true nature of even ordinary things. Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding of the Truth. So the Lankavatara-sutra says that ignorant people get stuck in words like an elephant in the mud. Nevertheless, we cannot do without language.

 It is incorrect to think that Nirvana is the natural result of the extinction of craving. Nirvana is not the result of anything. If it would be a result, then it would be an effect produced by a cause. It would be ‘produced’ and ‘conditioned’. Nirvana is neither cause nor effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state, such as dhyana or samadhi.

People often ask: What is there after Nirvana? This question cannot arise, because Nirvana is the Ultimate Truth. If it is Ultimate there can be nothing after it. If there is anything after Nirvana, then that will be the Ultimate Truth and not Nirvana.

He who has realized Truth, Nirvana, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all ‘complexes’ and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore, he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.

 As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such ‘defilements’, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, because he is free from the illusion of self and the ‘thirst’ of becoming.

One of the books that has fascinated me is “Bardo Thodal " which is a 1200- year- old  Tibetan text written to guide the soul through its journey in the afterlife. Bardo Thodal, meaning liberation through hearing, during the intermediate state, was composed in the 8th century by a mysterious Indian mystic named Padma-Sambhava, originally written down in Sanskrit. The Tibetans of that time were not ready for the spiritual teachings contained therein, so Padma-Sambhava hid his texts in strange and remote locations, leaving them to be discovered at a later time when their spiritual message could be received by those with an open mind.  These writings were subsequently discovered by a Tibetan called Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century.

An Oxford educated American anthropologist and writer Walter Evans-Wentz who went on a spiritual quest, travelling alone through Europe, Arabia, India and finally to the borders of Tibet, became the first foreigner to discover Bardo Thodal in a small monastery near Tibet and translated it into English in 1927 and named this translation "The Tibetan Book Of The Dead" for the western audience. Since that time this book has fascinated the western mind and has been gone out of print with its translations further done in several other languages. Walter Evans was so influenced by this text that when he died in July 1965, this Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral.

This book deals in detail with the experiences of the human spirit after it leaves the body, and is intended to guide people through what all the consciousness undergoes after death. The Bardo Thodol teaches that once this consciousness or awareness is freed from the body, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream. This dream occurs in various phases which are both peaceful and frightening. The departed experiences visions and the presence various deities who are benevolent and wrathful.

This interim state between death and the next birth is called ‘bardo’ by the Tibetans. The word bardo literally means “between two.” Although popularly taken to refer to the after-death state, its principal meaning is the "now" in every moment of time, the continuously moving point between past and future. Thus bardo occurs at every moment of time.  Buddhism teaches that change is an integral part of existence and life in itself is a continuous flow of interconnected moments. The nature of each moment is determined by what has gone before just as actions done in this life will govern the type of life we will live next. Although this book is primarily supposed to be read to guide the soul in its journey in the afterlife, it is important to read and understand it during lifetime because its teaching concern this life as much as they concern the next.  

 Tibetan death and funeral practices are unlike any other in the world. After the death of a person,  Buddhist lamas visit the  deceased person's house to chant prayers. The text read by them will be Bardo Thodal. This reading of text will guide the soul though the different doorways or bardos of afterlife. According to Bardo Thodal the bardo of dying lasts from the beginning of the body's physical collapse until the body and consciousness are separate. While we are living, the basic elements of nature like earth, water, fire and air together support and condition our consciousness and perceptions. Death occurs when this is no longer the case.  As the person is dying his body is turned to its right side by the lamas. This is the same position the Buddha lay when he was dying. This position makes it easier for the life force to be in a more peaceful state.

The First Bardo: 

Afterlife Realm: Moments Immediately After Death and Appearance of a Brilliant White Light:

The first bardo comes at the very moment of death. At this stage the dead person is sensitive to sounds, and he can see and hear his loved ones.  He does not know that he is now dead and in a spirit form. The spirit can hear and see what ever is happening around his body but those present in the room are unable to see or hear him. When he sees and hears the lamentations of his near and dear ones, it results in confusion and fear, as he is unable to understand the cause of their crying.  The lamas instruct the relatives of dead person not to cry as it confuses and frightens the spirit. It is very important for the spirit's mind to be clear at this point. The lamas whisper into the dead person's ears that he need not be frightened as they are there to help and guide him. The text further describes the collapse of the body supporting elements, earth collapses into water, water collapses into fire, fire collapses into air, and air dissolves into consciousness.

The consciousness then experiences a pure and extremely luminous white light. This is the direct experience of its own basic nature. The consciousness is then immersed into this brilliant and boundless white light which is the Ultimate Reality or Mind. This Ultimate Reality is infinite and beyond Time and Space. This brilliant radiance is also the collective Mind of all Buddhas and all the Enlightened Ones. To recognize this Light as one's own Mind and Ultimate Reality is imperative, according to Bardo Thodal. If he can recognize this supreme state at the moment of death, he will attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This condition is called the "Dharmakaya". Dharmakāya constitutes the un-manifested, inconceivable (acintya) aspect of a Buddha, out of which all Buddhas arise and to which they return after their dissolution.

Most souls, however, will fail to recognize this Light. They will again be pulled down by the weight of their karma into the second stage of the first bardo, called the Secondary Clear Light, seen immediately after death. At this point, there are separate instructions to be read according to the spiritual growth of the person while he was living. For a person adept in meditation and other spiritual practices, the instructions are the same as at the moment of death, enjoining him to recognize himself as the Dharmakaya. For a person who was still at a student-level on the spiritual path, he is instructed to meditate on the particular god for whom he performed devotional practices while alive. Finally, if the deceased is not familiar with any spiritual practices, the instruction is to meditate upon a known avatar of his religion and worshipped by many others in the same religion. For Hindus it could be Krishna and for Christians, it could be Jesus.

Second Bardo:

Appearance  Of Karmic Apparitions;  Peaceful Deities: About this time the deceased can see that the share of food is being set aside, that the body is being stripped of its clothes, that the place where his sleeping rug was kept being swept, he can hear the weeping and wailing of his friends and relatives, and, although he can see them and can hear them calling upon him, they cannot hear him calling upon them.

A concept central in all forms of Buddhism is reincarnation, which means that after death a soul is reborn again in a better or worse body, conditions or environment, depending upon his good and bad Karma or deeds done in the present life. This cycle of birth and death continues till the time there is residue Karma to fulfil, as for every Cause there has to be an Effect. The goal of Buddhism is to step off this eternal wheel of Karma and attain liberation through extinguishing of desires and acquiring of true knowledge.

If the soul is still not liberated at the previous stage, it will descend into the second bardo, which is said to last for two weeks. The second bardo is also divided into two parts, in the first the soul of the deceased encounters what are referred to as the Peaceful Deities. On each of the seven days, a Buddha-like Being will appear to him in all its radiance and glory. Accompanying him will be other angels and spiritual figures. Also on each day by turn there will shine a light from one of the six lokas or worlds.

 On the first day of the second bardo, Bhagavān Vairochana, white in colour, and seated upon a lion-throne, bearing an eight-spoked wheel in his hand, and embraced by the Mother of the Space of Heaven, manifests him Self before the consciousness. If his life on Earth was pious, he will now also be in a state of purity, and attain liberation. If on the other hand he has lived an impious life, the effects of his bad karma will cause the intense radiant presence of the God to strike fear in his heart, and he will be drawn instead to the softer light of the Deva-Loka, which has dawned along with this deity. This too is a fairly attractive as Devas are the gods or angels, and their abode is equivalent heaven.

On the second day, Bhagwan Vajra-Sattva, holding in his hand a five-pronged dorje, seated upon an elephant-throne, and embraced by the Mother Māmakī, will appear before the soul.  This deity will be accompanied by attended by Kshitigarbha and Maitreya, with the female Bodhisattvas, Lasema and Pushpema. Once again, if the soul responds to their dazzling white light God with a pure heart, he will be liberated but if he reacts specifically with 'anger'  having indulged in this vice on Earth, he will retract from the light in fear and be drawn into hell.

On the third day, the Bhagavān Ratna-Sambhava, embraced by Divine Mother Sangyay-Chanma, accompanied by two Bodhisattvas, Ākāsha-Barbha and Samanta-Bhadra, and attended by the two female Bodhisattvas, Mahlaima and Dhupema -- in all, six ‘Enlightened’ figures will appear before the soul. This time if his 'ego' falters he will be drawn back to the human world, where his next incarnation will thereby take place.

On the fourth day, Bhagavān Buddha Amitābha embraced by the Divine Mother Gökarmo, accompanied by  Bodhisattvas Chenrazee and Jampal, attended by the female Bodhisattvas Ghirdhima and Āloke will visit the soul. If the soul has a negative reaction to him because of 'miserliness and attachment', he will be drawn toward rebirth in the Preta-Loka, a world of hungry ghosts who have huge stomachs and throats the size of pinholes and so they wander about in a constant state of unsatisfied ravenous desire.

On the fifth day Bhagavān Buddha Amogha-Siddhi, embraced by the Divine Mother, the Faithful Dölma, accompanied by two Bodhisattvas Chag-na-Dorje and Dibpanamsel, attended by two female Bodhisattvas, Gandhema and Nidhema will come to the departed. This time it's 'jealousy' that will unseat the soul, and he will be born into the Asura-Loka, a world of fierce demons.

On the sixth day all the deities return and dawn together, along with the lights from all six Lokas.

On the seventh day appear the Knowledge-Holding Deities, who are more fierce and demonic-looking than those that have been previously seen.  And because of ignorance and stupidity, the soul cannot face the Knowledge-Holding Deities, he is drawn toward the  Pashu-Loka,  that is he will be reborn on Earth as an animal.

 The Second Bardo: Chönyid Bardo- :  Appearance  Of Karmic Apparitions- : Wrathful Deities

In the second week the soul meets seven legions of Wrathful Deities, gruesome, monstrous demons who attack him with fire and sword, drinking blood from human skulls. They threaten to injure, exenterate, decapitate and kill him.  If the soul runs away in fear he loses his chance to liberation. At this juncture Bardo Thodal advices the soul not to have any fear, but rather to recognize that the Wrathful Deities are really the Peaceful Deities in disguise, manifesting their gruesome side as a result of his own evil karma. The soul is told to calmly face each demon and see it as the deity it really is. If he can do this, he will merge with the Being and attain Liberation. He is instructed to understand the reality that all these horrific creatures are not real, but are merely manifestations of his own mind. If he can recognize this, they will disappear and he will be ‘Liberated.’ If he can't, he will drift down to the next bardo.

The Third Bardo:

In the third bardo, the soul encounters Dharma-Rāja, the Lord of Death also known as Yama, a fearsome deity who appears amidst fire, riding a buffalo. He is the dispenser of justice and the governor of eternal law that ensures rejuvenation of life and a sense of balance between the old and the new in all existence. He is the embodiment of righteousness, the Dharma;   and he is the king of justice. He judges the dead but is amenable to compassion and reason.  When the dead person protests saying he has done no evil, the Lord of Death holds before him the mirror of karma, wherein every good and bad deed is clearly reflected. Now demons approach and begin to inflict torments and punishments upon the soul for his evil deeds. The instructions in the Bardo Thoral are for him to attempt to recognize his own consciousness in all these beings, including the Lord of Death himself. The dead person is told that this entire scene unfolding around him is a projection from his own mind. Even here he can attain liberation by recognizing this. The soul who is still not liberated after the judgment will now be drawn helplessly toward rebirth. The lights of all the six Lokas will appear again. Into one of these worlds the soul has to be reborn. The light for the one he is destined to be reborn will shine brighter than the others. The soul is still experiencing frightening visions and the torment of the third bardo. He will resort to any measure to escape from these visions. He tries to seek refuge in what appear to be caves or tunnels, but which are actually the entrances to wombs. He is warned of this by the text of the Bardo Thoral  and urged not to enter them, but to meditate upon the Light instead, for it is still possible for him to achieve liberation and avoid rebirth. Finally   comes a stage where it is no longer possible to attain liberation, and after this the soul is given instructions on how to choose a favourable womb for rebirth. The method urged is non-attachment to worldly pleasures and repulsion for worldly ills.

According to this text the soul wanders in the afterlife for a period of 49 days.

 Interestingly the experiences narrated in "Tibetan Book of the Dead" are similar to those who have had a ‘near death experience’ or NDE, after being pronounced clinically dead, but somehow revived to live again. In his book "Life after Life" by Raymond Moody he has emphasised the fact that most people who had near death experiences never wanted to return back into their old, sick and fragile bodies. This act of dying is not accompanied with any feeling of sadness or unhappiness, but in fact is experienced as a liberating process from the limitations of material existence by a dying person.  There is a perception of seeing one's body from above, called an out-of-body experience, sometimes watching medical resuscitation efforts or moving instantaneously to other places by the dying. They witness rapid movement through a dark narrow passage or tunnel, often toward an indescribable light. There is a sense of being transported to a beautiful otherworldly place, or a landscape that may seem like a spiritual realm or region. The talks and thoughts are transferred telepathically, along with encounters with deceased loved ones and relatives. There is an exhilarating feeling of being with God or other spiritually evolved figures. In some cases, these figures may be terrifying and threatening. In many cases, there is a life review, reliving of actions performed and the emotional impact of those deeds on others; in some cases, expanding of knowledge about God, life and the nature of the universe.

The management of India International Centre, Gallery wanted to see the final prints that I had decided to display. Nowhere in my final selection were those beautiful landscapes I had shown to them earlier. Their place had been taken by pictures of rioting naked sadhus armed with Trishuls , engaging in weird sexual practices and badly burned corpses of Manikarnika. The Gallery management told me in no uncertain terms that they would not allow the show to go on unless these pictures were withdrawn. My dilemma was that my photo essay was a story of a man's passage of life, his wanderings, his search for God and finally his encounter with death . The essay was incomplete without these pictures. I told the management that I would show my work as it was and would not like to remove any picture from the display list. The courage to take this right stand was influenced by Satyasri Ukil who stood by me throughout this drama. Eventually, the IIC Management banned my exhibition.

It was during this period that Satyasri Ukil and I were introduced to Suneet Chopra a reputed Art Critic of Delhi. Suneet Chopra liked my work so much that he decided to  introduce me to Siddharth Tagore, the art gallery owner of Art Consult, Hauz Khas Village in Delhi. Siddharth Tagore offered to hold my preview party at his gallery inviting respected artists like B.C.Sanyal, Jatin Das and many other reputed artistes. The preview was a major success with all these stalwarts in their respective art fields giving their nod to my exhibition. They were all of the opinion that art was not all about beauty but was an intrinsic part of life itself, which had both the beautiful and ugly aspects attached to it. Late Mr.Khushwant Singh, the reputed writer and columnist also came up with an article on me in his Hindustan Times column "Malice Towards One And All.” All major newspapers gave full page coverage to my work and rendered their support.

Given all this, the IIC began to adjust its stance and a compromise was reached.

"The images will be allowed to display but only facing towards the Gallery wall, whoever who wanted to see them could do so at his own discretion."

The exhibition was allowed to run as scheduled. People from all walks of life came to see it. Almost everybody saw those wall facing images. The exhibition was a massive success.

As for me, a photographer, my journey continues...............