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Manuscript - In Search Of A God

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    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 overnight, leaving behind everything .The only possessions they carried were the clothes on their bodies. And they weren’t the only ones. Millions became homeless and millions were massacred on their way to India. British Colonial Government had already sent most of their troops back to England and there were literally no arrangements for the people moving to another place. There was no food, no water or medicine  for them. They had to walk 15-20 miles a day in hot summers. People were starving, children were dying but no help came from the government. Trains  packed with men, women and children were being mercilessly hacked to death by  Muslim rioters all along the way. These trains coming from Pakistan to India was filled with bodies of naked Hindu women who were gang raped and killed brutally. Muslims tattooed  their breasts and private parts with words " Azadi ka taufa" meaning "A gift of freedom". This dance of death witnessed by Hindu survivors cast a  grim shadow over  the lives of many Northern Indian families, and mine was one among them.

 

 Luckily, my  family managed to escape alive. Hailing from an affluent background in Pakistan , my family -   rendered penniless and completely shattered - now struggled for its very survival in the Walled City (Shahjahanabad) of Delhi.  We 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. Though I was born much later in Delhi, I too inherited these very insecurities from my parents and grandparents and these remain with me till date.

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 four, 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. I had to fly to Karachi in Pakistan to join my first ship. I loved this 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 and ridiculed the Iranian regime. My captain got so fed up 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, this pilot  ridiculed 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 later 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 only 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, and then suddenly heard a loud splash. Two ship seamen 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 the nearby holy city of  Mecca,  but could not do so 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, and sometimes taking longer shore leave to visit those in the deeper 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.  Most relationships and friendships are temporary in a sailor’s life, forgotten the moment he gets off the gangway of 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 24.  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 99 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 a daily witness to the drama of pain, suffering and death at the intensive Care Unit . Benumbed with grief, I blankly observed the morbid scenes all around me. One day I would talk at length with some patient in the ward only to find him 'gone' the next day.      

After four months of continuous suffering, my father finally lost his battle of life in this hospital. I watched helplessly as life gradually ebbed out of him.    I sat besides his bed, dry-eyed and completely stoned. In his final moments he told everybody around him " अच्छा भाई अब मेरा समय गया सबको मेरी आखरी राम राम" ( ok my friends my time has now come and I now bid everyone my final goodbye) He passed away in my arms.

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, motionless and expressionless, watching my father’s lifeless body wrapped in a white cloth, 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, screaming and wailing  hysterically. My grandmother told everyone to leave me alone and be allowed  to cry and give vent to my grief.  Pent up emotions  finally found a way out through my 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 again.  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

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 ,a prestigious art centre in Delhi,  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 all had a wonderful time together. 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 in Delhi, 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 1996

With a spiritual  bent of mind since childhood and now armed with two new 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 14640 feet . 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 river 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 (5000 BC) 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,donkeys, 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 dash 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 that monkey suddenly stopped, turned around and bared his teeth at this poor harassed  woman. These rogues literally  hold this ancient bridge to ransom, but nobody hurts them as they are a revered lot. To pilgrims they are the decedents  of the monkey god Hunuman of Ramayana.     Pilgrims are seen throwing wheat balls from the bridge, down into the Ganga to feed the fish. Cows are the privileged ones too and roamed freely on the bridge accepting food from whoever  obliges them. Melodious chants of mantras echo across the hills, coming from nearby temples and ashrams.  Adding to these sounds resonating from all around are the sounds of the  Ganga rippling  below. I have some coffee and sandwiches at the renowned German Bakery and head back towards the hotel. I now 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 very dangerous proposition.         

I started my journey into the Garhwal Himalayas 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 walk across glaciers. 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, 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. Soon 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 my 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 men 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 other 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.

I made some last- minute purchases for Tapovan at Gangotri town. All geared up, we started 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 1,2&3, Meru Parbat, Shivling and Thelu. The mighty Ganga too 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 were fast melting away due to the approaching summer. Our next halt was Bhojbasa. As planned in advance, we   stayed the night here.

The region between Chirbasa and Bhojbasa is highly landslide prone, 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 now,   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 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 departed from Lal Baba Ashram early next morning, deciding to halt at Gaumukh for an hour before ascending to Tapovan. Gomukh is mentioned in the age old books of Puranas. It is said there that searching a lost sheep a shepherd boy reached near a glacier in Gangotri, the snout of which exactly looked like the mouth of a cow, and thus it got its name 'Gomukh. Gaumukh was rediscovered 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 through the Gangotri glacier on its right flank.  This part of the trek is highly tricky and dangerous. This area 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 fully  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 warm 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 in the form of natural beauty 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 morning, 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, Illusionary nature  of the physical world, Vedas in relation to discoveries in Quantum Physics,  questions which still  baffle top scientific minds questioning their understanding of the universe at large, the enigma of Consciousness and also Death, considered as the final frontier by many.   

 The perplexing questions of how the universe came into being and the  conundrum of origin of life have always puzzled mankind. Civilizations from time immemorial have tried to answer these  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 had built a fascination world of spirituality for themselves. They also 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 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!!!!!

The earliest known conflict between science and religion occurred in ancient Babylon. The priests then had believed  that lunar eclipses were caused by agitated gods. They were considered evil and threatened the lives of their kings. By then the local astronomers had discovered a 18 year and 11.3 day (223 synodic month) interval between lunar eclipses. This suggested that the eclipses were a natural phenomena . But this did not deter  the irrational beliefs of the priests, they still regarded eclipses as a great danger for their kings. However, now knowing how to accurately predict of the next eclipse, adamant priests put on throne a temporary king during the period around the eclipse,  in an effort  to safe guard the real king. Interestingly the substitute king  was later  killed  and the omen  fulfilled.

Later on  the most talked about conflict was between Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the Roman Catholic Church, largely over the movements within the solar system. The Church interpreted the Bible as saying that  the Earth was at the center of the universe and the sun, moon and  other planets and stars revolved around the Earth. Galileo on the other hand had observed that the sun was at the center of our solar system and  Earth  other planets also revolved around the sun and the moon revolved around the Earth. Galileo was tried condemned as a heretic.He spent the rest of his life in house arrest. Pope John Paul II later  admitted that errors had been made by the Church advisors in the case of Galileo Galilei. Interestingly he did not admit that the Church was wrong to convict Galileo on a charge of heresy.

 

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  now 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 just 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  completely an erroneous one, and that everything in the universe is 'Entangled'.   

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.

Vedantic Thought :                                                                                                                                                                  It is interesting that Hinduism distances itself from all of this  perturbation over evolution and biblical cosmology. Hinduism believes in the concept of evolution of life on earth. Although it is not exactly the same as the one known to modern science. In many ways and in a very fundamental sense, it is not much different from the latter either, and wider in scope. The Hindu theory of evolution speaks about the evolution of not only of the physical body  but also of consciousness and intelligence.

 Science, and Vedas(Hinduism’s sacred scripture) are eerily complementary. 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.

Carl Sagan - Cosmos  “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths.
It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.”

The Hindu cosmology and its timeline is the closest to modern scientific timelines and even more, which might indicate that the Big Bang is not the beginning of everything but just the start of the present cycle preceded by an infinite number of universes and to be followed by another infinite number of universes. It also includes an infinite number of universes at one given time.

Modern science with its current technology, is limited to observations within this universe alone because the universe is curved and we are something like a fish in a fishbowl, unable to see outside it.

The Rig Veda states and questions the Origin of the Cosmos(Big Bang) and what existed before that : Rig Veda 10. 129 . It is also known as the " Hymn of Creation ". 

                   1. नासदासींनॊसदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजॊ नॊ व्यॊमापरॊ यत्
                     किमावरीव: कुहकस्यशर्मन्नभ: किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥१॥

Translation :                                                                                            There was NO existence then , nor non-existence.
No realm of air yet , nor etheric aakasha (space) beyond..
What cloaked all, where, by whose maya ?
Did not the cosmic waters pervade dark and deep !

                    2. न मृत्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या।आन्ह।आसीत् प्रकॆत: ।
                       आनीदवातं स्वधया तदॆकं तस्माद्धान्यन्नपर: किंचनास ॥२॥

Translation :                                                                                                                         There was no cycle of birth or death,                                                                  Nor a mediator for darkness and light
The field of Consciousness breathed,self sustaining .
Apart from morphogenetic Brahman, there was none other !

                    3. तम।आअसीत्तमसा गूह्ळमग्रॆ प्रकॆतं सलिलं सर्वमा।इदम् ।
                       तुच्छॆनाभ्वपिहितं यदासीत्तपसस्तन्महिना जायतैकम् ॥३॥

Translation :

Dark energy concealed in darkness,
A continuum of dark cosmic ocean,
Then That which lay in void thus covered,
Burst forth in glory self excited by intent.

                       4. कामस्तदग्रॆ समवर्तताधि मनसॊ रॆत: प्रथमं यदासीत् ।
                          सतॊबन्धुमसति निरविन्दन्हृदि प्रतीष्या कवयॊ मनीषा ॥४॥

 

Translation :

 In the all pervading  great cosmic mind,                                                                                                Vibrations of Kama (Creation)  sprout from conscious thought
The seers who have searched within with wisdom
Have witnessed the conscious equation between matter and energy.

                       5. तिरश्चीनॊ विततॊ रश्मीरॆषामध: स्विदासी ३ दुपरिस्विदासीत् ।
                         रॆतॊधा।आसन्महिमान् ।आसन्त्स्वधा ।आवस्तात् प्रयति: परस्तात् ॥५॥

Translation :                                                                                                                                     

 An oblique ray cut Being from Non-being .
What was described above, and what below this screen?
Above was the power of conscious intent ,
Below was the strength of creative discipline.

 

                         6. कॊ ।आद्धा वॆद क‌।इह प्रवॊचत् कुत ।आअजाता कुत ।इयं विसृष्टि: ।
                            अर्वाग्दॆवा ।आस्य विसर्जनॆनाथाकॊ वॆद यत ।आबभूव ॥६॥

Translation :                                                                                    Who really knows? Who in this world may declare it!
When was this holographic exhalation , whence will be the pralaya ( Cosmic Destruction)
Only after this holographic projection (Adwait) )came the field gods
Who moves nature’s opposites ( Dwait ) . Who truly can say !

 

                      7.इयं विसृष्टिर्यत ।आबभूव यदि वा दधॆ यदि वा न ।
                       यॊ ।आस्याध्यक्ष: परमॆ व्यॊमन्त्सॊ आंग वॆद यदि वा न वॆद ॥७॥

Translation :                                                                                          He from whom this Creation arose,
He may hold the reins , or he may not ( for no one else can !)
He who surveys it all from his highest heaven,
He verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not ? (What do you say ?)
 


  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)

The Advait or  non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy quotes  Brahman(Supreme Consciousness)  as the Sole and All Pervading Entity.  Advaita means non-duality . It is a state of Oneness with Its Creation or in other words the Creator has become a part of His creation. . According to Advaita metaphysics, Brahman is the ultimate, transcendent and immanent God .The world in itself has no separate existence apart from Brahman. Jīva or 'individual consciousness'  and the Bramhan are in reality identical in nature and merged in each other. Though the individual consciousness apparently has a separate existence  in essence both are same. Just as space within a container seems different from space as such. This feeling of separateness  is a result of Ahankara( ego)  and Avidya (self ignorance). 

 The Buddhist Thought                                                                                                                                                          An offshoot of Hinduism, Buddhism too has no objection accepting biological evolution. Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary in nature and tends to agree more with the scientists than the clergy. Buddhism is agnostic about the existence of all pervading God. It also does not talk about with the concept of a soul surviving physical death. 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.  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.  

Buddha taught that all things are impermanent in nature and existence is 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. 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.

Parallels are also seen between Quantum Physics and Buddhism. Quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no inherent existence from their own side and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning. Whenever there is no mind there is no meaning and no reality. This is a similar conclusion to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on shunyata (शून्यता )

The Heart Sutra explains : "Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form", which fits closely Nottale's theory of quantum physics, which asserts that matter and space are not different. According to Buddhism, the nature of reality consists of everything being in a constant state of flux.  This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself is ever expanding since the Big Bang. Hence everything inside it too is in a state of constant flux.                                                                                

Adi Shankara v/s Buddha

Adi Shankara was an early 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankara was born when Hinduism as a religion was in utter chaos. The multiplicity of religious practices saw the rise of many cults all claiming to be the real Hinduism. The real Hinduism or the Sanatan Dharma was passing through a difficult phase. With vedic tradition under attack, it was Adi Shankaracharya’s genius that reinvented Hinduism and re-established the vedic tradition with his excellent commentaries on Brahamasutras, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. According to him, the ultimate reality is Brahman or pure consciousness, the consciousness of the pure self that is devoid of all attributes and all categories of the intellect. The common understanding of the concept of Maya as given by Shankara is that the world is an illusion and this makes the understanding of his philosophy difficult. The world for all practical purposes is real, then how can it be an illusion?

But the essence of Shankara's philosophy is that from the phenomenal point of view the world is quite real. It is not an illusion but a practical reality. He uses an analogy of dream to explain this. Just as things seen in a dreaming state appear to be quite true for the dreamer who partakes in that, so also is this illusory nature of the world. Only after waking does one realize that it was an illusion.

Thus it is the ignorance or avidya in Shankaracharya’s terms that makes this illusory world of Maya appear real and we get involved. This nature of Maya renders it indescribable as it is both real and unreal. Parallels can be drawn with the concept of perception in experimental psychology. The real world is not the perceived world. Rather it is the perceived world that appears to be the real world.

Apparently Shankaracharya’s philosophy is supposed to be an antithesis of Buddhism. According to some a major difference between Advaita and Mahayana Buddhism are their contradictory views on Atman(Soul) and Brahman (God).  It is widely felt that  Shankaracharya was instrumental in driving Buddhism out of India because of these two conflicting metaphysical concepts. But this notion is completely erroneous. According to Swami Vivekananda, Shankara  a great philosopher in his own right,  showed that a in-depth study reveals that the real essence of Buddhism and that of the Vedanta are not very different.

I  

  

I sat inside this lonely cave dumbfounded and completely awed by this simple down to earth ascetic. Finally I had met a man who was informed enough to answer questions which had kept cropping in my mind time and again.   He asked me if I would like to have another  cup of tea which I gladly accepted as nothing was more welcome at this time because of the unabated freezing winds blowing outside. No sooner the tea was served the discussions started again.       

He continued,  "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 soon started  discovering  how incorrect their existing paradigms were. 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. Later still it became known that 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!!!! In vedic terms this is 'Maya' playing itself out in this phenomenal world.

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.

In his biography on Schrödinger, Moore wrote: “His system – or that of the Upanishads – is delightful and consistent: the self and the world are one and they are all… He rejected traditional western religious beliefs (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) not on the basis of any reasoned argument, nor even with an expression of emotional antipathy, for he loved to use religious expressions and metaphors, but simply by saying that they are naive.
Vedanta and gnosticism are beliefs likely to appeal to a mathematical physicist, a brilliant only child, tempted on occasion by intellectual pride. Such factors may help to explain why Schrödinger became a believer in Vedanta, but they do not detract from the importance of his belief as a foundation for his life and work. It would be simplistic to suggest that there is a direct causal link between his religious beliefs and his discoveries in theoretical physics, yet the unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of the universe as a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles, During the next few years, Schrödinger and Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on superimposed inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the vedantic concept of the All in One.” (Schrödinger: Life and Thought (Meine Weltansicht), p. 173)

In Schrödinger’s famous essay on determinism and free will, he expressed very clearly the sense that consciousness is a unity, arguing that this “insight is not new…From the early great Upanishads the recognition Atman = Brahman or अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent, the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.” According to Moore on page 125 of his biographical work, A Life of Erwin Schrödinger, Schrödinger found “Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.

  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 observing the experiment, the particles were behaving as waves and when an observer was present and watching the experiment, they behaved like particles. 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.

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!!!

And 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. What the bleep do we know about reality  is 'The' question.   

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!  Space 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 a 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 mere 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 involved  with their colours, forms , 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.

The following verse from  Isha Upanishad, which is a part of the (Shukla) Yajurveda states :

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते 

Meaning of this verse :

That ( Bramhan or Consciousness)  is complete(Infinite) , This ( visible universe with all its matter and non matter) is infinite , This Infinite (visible universe ) proceeds from that Infinite (Bramhan) and is a prototype of the Same. Then  taking away the infinitude of the Infinite (visible universe), all that remains as that Infinite (Brahman) alone. 

Consciousness is present in each and everything, existing anywhere in the universe. Its existence is primary and fundamental , in all living things and matter.  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. 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.

 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. This half sloka was written by Adi Shankaracharya himself, 

|| ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः। ||  

Meaning of this verse :

"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.

Zen Teachings of Huang Po:

This pure Mind, the source of everything,                                                                                                            Shines forever and on all with the brilliance of its own perfection.                                                                     But the people of the world do not awake to it,                                                                                               Regarding only that which sees, hears, feels and knows as mind,                                                                                                                 Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing of all substance.

 

 

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. 

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 by a helicopter  to climb Mt. Shivling. They had not taken the necessary precautions to get acclimatized to this altitude. Unknowingly one of the climbers took off his shirt to change in the open, 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.  It was a sad day for everyone in Tapovan.        

 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 pace and 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. 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 multitude2. 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 300 km. to Kaudiyala, with music on full blast, receiving strange glances from passersby, eating and drinking all the way.  We lodged ourselves into a beautiful riverside resort which had wooden huts. Tired and famished as we were after a whole day's driving we sat down on the banks of river Ganga to have dinner. The resort manager got a small bonfire lit for us as evenings in these Himalayan regions get chilly  in monsoons. We all enjoyed a hearty dinner and chatted till late in the night.  A dark and muddy Ganga flowed quietly on our right flank. I had carried with me a bottle of Napoleon Brandy of which I gave a little to Kabiraj who had started feeling the chill. As the night progressed the whole area got engulfed with flying insects as this was a densely wooded area. We were advised to move inside the huts as their bite could be extremely painful and poisonous.  We all called it a day and went to bed, soon some of us snoring loudly to the irritation of others.

Next morning we started early driving leisurely through the serpentine National Highway 58. We had a sort halt at Srinagar, which is about 80 km from Kaudiyala. This largest city of Garhwal region is at an elevation of only 560 m (1,837 ft).  Temperature again rose to  40 degrees C and the heat became as unbearable as in Delhi.   We quenched our parched throats with fresh orange and pineapple juice.  I bought a jazzy red coloured monkey cap for myself, much to the amusement of a giggly Satyashri. We didn't waste much time here because of the  heat  and  drove on towards Karnprayag. Now the drive was uphill and very soon the nip in the air was back, much to our relief. It took us another two hours to reach Karanprayag where we had our lunch and I refuelled my petrol tank.

Now our next destination was Lohaganj which was another 85kms ahead and the last motor able point on route to Roopkund. Still a good 4 hour drive ahead and we were eager to make it in good time. But destiny wished otherwise as the road was blocked by a massive landslide at a place called Narainbagar. Compelled to park our car on the side of the road, we were forced to crossed the landslide area on 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. The mud had become very slippery because of the continuous rain and we needed to be very careful. Finally managing to cross over we started to move on by foot. As it was getting dark, we decided to  camp just before a place called Tharali. It was here that I hired my porter, a native of Nepal.     

      

 We soon found a patch of flat area on the banks of river Pindar to pitch our tents for the night. The flow of the Pindar was calm and quiet here making it easy for us to fetch water for cooking . Soon our tents were pitched up, as we saw the red evening 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 Ukil started to light up the stove for cooking dinner he found that the stove would not light up as it had got damaged in transit. We were starving and this was the last thing we had expected. I told my porter to run down to Narainbagar and get the stove repaired. I was furious at him as it was because of his negligent handling that the stove had conked off.  He hurried off immediately

Kaviraj in the meantime  went to the bank of the river and started collecting dry leaves, grass, wood and dry animal waste to try to light a fire. He then dug up a hole, placed some rocks around it. All the waste  that was gathered was then put into that hole and  the fire lit. This fire was just enough to make us all a hot cup of tea. The time was now around 830pm. We then saw the porter running towards us. He had got the stove repaired and all of us immediately got together to cooking khichri (a mixture of rice ,lentils, butter and spices). As the dinner was being prepared, I stood still, looking up, as the heavens had 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 to chat. Chatting  continued till late at night. Life seemed so peaceful, sitting in the loving lap of Magna Mater, far away from the madding crowds of mega cities.  An ineffable calm seeped into us, one that we had never ever experienced before. Soon the jungle sounds lulled us to 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 then packing of tents and gear. Lohajung was a good 3 hour drive ahead and we were eager to make good time. Making a brief halt at Tharali we  purchased some medicines, just in case of any unforeseen emergency. Reaching Lohajung we put up at the KMVN Rest House. With just a basic infrastructure the place was very quiet and lonely. As all of stood out in the open admiring the greenery and  mountains, we were suddenly engulfed by a very dense fog. The effect of this fog was so intense that we were not even able to see each other standing barely a foot apart. We just stood there stoned and frightened inside this white chilly blanket. This isolated existence lasted for about two hours. Distraught badly I took a strange decision to pitch my tent outside to sleep. I also could not eat any food that night.  

Natives of this area looked at us in admiration as a trek to Roopkund was a arduous task for them too. We hired two more porters here. The next morning we departed for Wan which was 15 kilometres away . As we departed,  the local people rang the temple bell to evoke the blessings of Lord Shiva for our safe returning. 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 and village damsels of unimaginable beauty, enough to hypnotize my married friend Chanchal so much that he literally walked into the hut of one of them, only to be shooed away.  We all burst out laughing at this incident.   It was also interesting to observe a small wheat grinding mill, powered  by the force of the stream flowing nearby. An innovative way of grinding wheat, indeed!  Kaviraj later told me that no money exchanged hands for grinding wheat here but some sort of barter system was prevalent for the services offered.  We stayed at the forest rest house for the night. It was an extremely cold night and altitude sickness had started taking its toll on me. I felt nauseated and giddy, it was the second night for now me without any partake of food.

It was drizzling next morning but we started towards our next halt which was Bedni Bugyal, a high altitude meadow at about 11000 ft above sea level. Stunning views of these august Himalayas from this place are a treat for the eyes and soul.  After a tough days trek we reached this bewitching meadow and lodged ourselves inside a Sheppard's hut laying deserted. Conditions are getting worse with each passing hour. Insomnia, vomiting, breathlessness and  bitter cold to mention a few. I am now also losing my psychological balance. Much to the annoyance of Ukil and Kabiraj I decide to pitch my tent outside in the open for that night again. Again I am not able to eat any solid food for the third night in a row. I keep mumbling repeatedly that I want  soup, much to their annoyance, as at this stage they were unable to gauge the extent of my psychological disturbance due to altitude sickness. I was very tired and  feverish too. Altitude sickness had taken its toll. I hit the sack after taking a tablet of Crocin for fever and Calmpose for sleep, and was fast asleep soon after.

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. 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  extremely dangerous animals.  I sat absolutely still, not daring to move or make a sound. I was so paralysed with fear that I could not even cry out for help to my friends in the nearby hut. The pushing and tugging continued till the wee hours of the morning, and then stopped. I mustered some courage to peep out of my tent but saw nothing. 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 any animal that could have 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.

The next morning we start for Baggu Basa, now  in total wilderness  with nary a human to be seen for miles at a stretch. We started climbing early the next day for our destination Baggu Basa. The climb was steep and exhausting. Very soon we found ourselves above the tree line with trees giving way to much smaller bushes and shrubs. By early evening, we had reached our destination. Here again we found a deserted Sheppard's hut  but to our dismay it was stinking of animal  faeces and dirt. Kabiraj then struck a brainwave. 'The only way to make it inhabitable for the night is to light a fire inside'. He  sprinkled  kerosene inside it and lit a fire. Soon the place was clean, odourless and warm much to our delight. That night Kabiraj too developed breathing problems due to lack of oxygen and Ukil had to keep massaging his chest.      

   

  

Morning brought in a sight of beautiful wild flowers all around, one of them called Bramh Kamal which grows only at altitudes above 12000 feet. We also had a hazy glimpse of the Trishul peak as it was still cloudy. 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.      

   

We  now make our final assault towards Roopkund, leaving one porter behind to watch over the  luggage, as we wanted climb upto Roopkund and come back within a couple of hours. To my horror I overheard Ukil and Kabiraj make plans to have a bath in the lake. We all start climbing up step by step. The climb was extremely steep and with very little oxygen in the air each step had become arduous. I was the first one to give up. I slumped to the ground telling Ukil that I could no longer make it to the top, that they should keep climbing and I will wait for them till they come back. See my state Kaviraj was reluctant to leave me and they both kept coaxing me to keep climbing and not to lose my will power now at this final stage. I get convinced and start moving up slowly. Finally we all made it to the top !!!! what a moment !!!             

This nearly frozen lake was strewn with human remains of hundreds of people who had perished here due to a heavy hailstorm that had lashed this area in the 9th century and had cracked their skulls open.  With temperatures being perpectually below freezing point all the year round, the skin hadn't decomposed and was still intact with the bones. Bodies parts 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. Kaviraj too collected some water planktons from the lake for his own  study. As for Ukil and Kabiraj,  it was a far cry to take a bath in such a morbid environment. However they did feel  jealous seeing another Bengali trekker from another group do the same. 

 With our mission accomplished, we were in an exuberant mood! We began the descent back the same day. Little did we know that our real 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. After having 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 one gets engulfed by heavy clouds and rain . High velocity winds enveloped us, screeching through the trees. It wasn't long before a torrential downpour began. To make matters worse, it was now getting dark.

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 guiding Satyasri as he suffered a problem with his vision at night. In this bellowing storm, all of us lost track of one another. The mountain track became so slippery 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. 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 hour when I espied a hut with a light burning inside. It was very late at night but I mustered up some courage to call out 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. The generous lady made me some hot tea which infused life back into me.  I was running high fever and then 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 Chanchal, Satyasri and Kabiraj. I shouted their names aloud into the mountains, hoping that they would shout back,  but for quite some time all I could hear was my own voices echoing back . Finally, to my sheer delight, I heard a call echoing back from the forest.  It was Satyasri.  Within an hour all three had joined me. It was such a happy reunion after the dreadful night. All had their own harrowing experience to narrate.

 As Satyasri was unable to walk any further, both he and Kabiraj had spent the night braving the storm. The pegs of their tent kept  uprooting all night because of the strong winds. 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. Chanchal too had spent the night alone narrating similar stories.

Thanking the lady of 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. Chanchal, Kabiraj and Satyasri wanted to stay the night at Wan whereas  I just wanted to lose altitude because of my sickness. They stayed back and I rushed to the place where I had parked my car. Without wasting a moment I started driving down and kept driving continuously until I had reached the foot hills at Rishikesh. I was literally starving not having eaten for the last five days. I check into a hotel and order a hearty meal for myself and soon after plunge into deep slumber.       

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 of Roopkund. As expected nobody paid any interest in the matter, and when he took them home he was severely reprimanded by his wife for bringing such horrible things home. 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.Chandramouli Basu episode director  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.”

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.  There 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 Entangled. 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. Now we know that there could be billions of earth like planets spread all over the cosmos with innumerable more advanced civilizations than us humans. 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 ).

 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(Observer), 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 karma (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.

A visit to Kolkata : Durga Pooja 2016

A large number of my friends in Delhi are from Bengal, and all of them always talk excitedly of going back home during Durgotsav or Durga Puja as we call it in northern India. It has always made me wonder why the mere mention of these words is enough to enrapture them. I kept asking them this question only to hear this same reply over and over, " Madhur, you need to go to Kolkata during that time to get your answers". Many other  friends had also told me that the frenzy witnessed then was more than that witnessed in carnival of Rio De Janeiro in Brazil.

 

Hindu metaphysics is complex in nature and the 'same' cosmic Spirit is represented by different forms and names in different regions. In West Bengal it is 'Durga' that represents that same 'shakti' (energy) in the form of that divine force which pervades all cosmic 'creation, preservation and destruction'. Durga is self- existent, beyond time, indestructible  and independent of the material universe as we know it. In a 'personified' form, Durga is honoured as a mother with extreme fervour during the annual 'Navratri' festival. The festival marks the beginning of autumn and occurs typically in September or October each year.  Navratri means nine nights in Sanskrit, and on each day nine different forms of shakti or Durga are worshipped.

 

In West Bengal, on the day of 'Mahalaya', Durga is invited to transcend to our earthly realm and from then on the puja ceremonies and rituals begin. The street festival of Durga Puja starts from 'Shashthi' or the sixth day of the month of Ashvin and ends with the immersion of Durga idols on Vijayadashami the tenth day. During this period goddess Durga is worshiped along with her four children- Ganesha ( Lord of Good Fortune who provides prosperity, fortune and success) , Kartikeya ( Hindu god of war), Laxmi (Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity), and Saraswati (Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and education ). Shiva (Lord of  death, destruction & annihilation )  her husband is also given a special place in these ceremonies. This period of worship is also known as Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the goddess. During the last 3-4 days of the festival, the streets of Kolkata are packed with frenzied crowds unparalleled to anything else seen on earth.

This year I finally decided to make a trip to Kolkata to see all this for myself.

 

I reached Kolkotta on 4th October 2016 on the day of 'Tritiya Puja' , wondering all the while if I was late for this mega event. The distance from the airport to my hotel was 22 kms and the cab took me through  the very heart of Kolkotta. To my surprise all seemed very quiet. I asked the cab driver about it. He informed me that it was still a little early for the festivities to begin, and celebrations would be in full bloom in a couple of days.

 

I checked into a hotel within close proximity to the Visarjan(immersion ) ghats  Early next morning I head for Kumartuli, a traditional settlement of potters in north Kolkata which has been in existence for more than 300 years now. Currently about 150 families reside there, and make a living by crafting idols. During Durga Puja, local artisans with the help of many migrant workers, painstakingly work on the idols to complete them in time for the festival.

 

Kumartuli has an interesting history. When East India Company decided to build a new area called Fort William at Gobindapur near Kolkota, most of its residents had to be shifted to Sutanuti. There was a reshuffle of workplace and specific areas became inhabited by different artists/castes/classes. Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata  became  centres of the rich and powerful, Chuttarparah became a carpenter's workplace , Collotollah became a hub for oil dealers , Suriparahwas allotted to wine merchants,  and Kumartuli became a  potter's centre.

 

Kumartuli is a narrow maze of dirty lanes and alleyways, stocked with idols of gods and goddesses, both  finished and unfinished. I wandered through this maze watching artists at work, some friendly and smiling, some oblivious of my existence, while others regarded me as an intruder into their domain, as they saw my  camera click.

 

Being from the walled city of Delhi which too has a history of more than 300 years I could immediately identify with this place. I saw the same narrow galis( alleyways) with shops or workstations on either side. These huge shops with high ceilings had the same wooden partition in between the floor and the rooftop, the lower area serving as the work area and the upper one as storage place. I heard the same call "chai chai" by the local tea vender as he moved from one shop to another.

 

There are different stages to the process of making these Durga Puja idols. On the day of  'Akshaya Tritiya', clay for the sculptures is collected from the banks of Ganges. A handful of soil or 'punyamati' is then collected from the 'nishiddhopallis' or the house of sex workers in Kolkota and mixed. Only after this ritual mixing of both these soils does the commencement of the idols begin. A basic structural shape is first given to the idol using bamboos and jute strings and then refined with clay. When the main structure is in shape, heads, fingers and other details are added. Finally, they paint the eyes of the Durga idol on  'Durgaon  Mahalya' or the first day of the puja. This is called the 'ChakkhuDaan', and is an important ritual for these artists so much so that during this period they fast or eat only vegetarian food.

 

Puja  in different pandals  was scheduled to begin soon and consequently Kumartuli was witnessing hectic activity. I saw artists deeply engrossed in giving finishing touches to the idols. Tempers ran high and I saw  artists screaming and yelling at migrant labours to finish their pending work fast.  Elsewhere  the completed idols were being dragged and loaded into waiting trucks. The roar of the labourers as they dragged the heavy idols, the screeching of the rollers of the trolleys that carried it, the chants of the people who had come to take their Mother home, broke the deadly silence of the night. I bring  you those intense moments through my images.

 

During Durga Puja, one of the most important ritual on Mahasaptami, or the seventh day, is Kola-bou or the bathing of the banana-bride. On this day, a young banana tree is taken to the river Ganga, and given a ceremonial bath. The tree is then draped in a white saree with red border, with some sindur or vermillion powder applied on its leaves. Thereafter the tree is kept on the right side of the idol of Ganesh (son of Durga), implying that she is now the bride of Ganesh.

 

This year Kola- bou was to be conducted on 8th October on the ancient Babu Ghat in Kolkotta. I set my alarm clock to 4am as the ritual was to begin with the first rays of the sun. I was one of the first ones to reach the ghat but no activities had started yet. The entrance of the ghat is through a tall colonial structure which is completely encroached by pandas (priests) and vendors. It immediately reminded me of DashashvamedhGhat of Banaras where too I had seen similar encroachments by pandas performing various ritual practices. I did not have to wait for long. Within a couple of minutes a truck load of men, women and children jumped down. This truck was followed by another and then yet another. I lost count soon. Now this place was  teeming with activity. The silence of the predawn was then broken by the 'dhaak' of multiple drums. In the hands of the leading priest was a young banana tree draped in a white saree . Together they move towards the  river bank to bathe this young bride of Ganesha. Too much to capture, I was clicking away, eager not to miss anything.

 Soon the dark skies gave way to a golden glow far away in the horizon with an ethereal light breaking through the patchy October clouds and sparkling on the ripples of Ganga. There was a rhythmic beating of drums in the background , beauty and sound were none other I had witnessed before.

 

The next few days saw a flood of people coming into the city from all parts of Bengal and outside. Crammed  streets, exploding loud speakers, shimmering lights and emotionally charged souls were a common sight. It was one big party on the streets.  Jammed traffic, slanderous drivers,  primitive trams, shattered buses, hand rickshaws, street animals, edgy policemen, happy children, scornful elderly, amorous  youngsters all added to the fervour. One wrong turn and voila !!!-one goes miles in an opposite direction. My Google Map kept screaming loudly and I soon realised that it too didnt know where to go !!!!

 

Durga Puja in Kolkata is synonymous with pandal hopping but this can get a bit overwhelming. With no personal transport at my disposal and tremendous traffic congestion on the roads, I decided to visit only a selected few. I started my pandal hopping from Kumartoli Park  as I was now fairly familiar with this area.  This puja pandal is funded by the kumars (potters) of this area and is both an extravagant and  traditional affair. I found it to be very beautiful indeed. The lighting was elegant and idols extremely well crafted. My next halt was 'Sovabazar Rajbari' which also housed one of the most traditional forms of puja in Kolkota, an aspect which fascinated me a lot. The first puja here was started by Raja Nabakrishna Deb (1737-1797).Till date the puja is performed here with the same rituals and at the same place. The durga idol is built in the 'natmandir 'and rituals are celebrated with traditional pomp and show. I also visited the 'Bagbazar Sarbojanin Puja', one of the oldest durga puja in Kolkata city. Too tired for the day I returned to my hotel room late in the night promising  myself to   resume the balance pandal hopping the next day.

 

The next day, pandals on my itinerary were Deshapriya Park, TridharaAkalbodhanPuja Pandal, College Square, Belur Math, and some others, all of them exquisite in their own right.  Serpentine bamboo barricades greeted me everywhere. All I can now consciously recall about visiting these beautiful pandals is being pushed in and then shoved out. Beautiful bengal women decked up in their finery were seen everywhere, and offered a visual treat for a photographer like me. Their elegant Dhunachi( dance with earthen lamps) was something I had never seen before.

 

Vijaya Dashami the day when everyone had to bid farewell to the Mother finally arrived. There was heaviness in the air, people had quietened down, there was not much activity on the roads and even the beat of the drums was now melancholic. The first ritual I witnessed on VijayaDashmi  was SindoorKhela, where married women smear vermilion on each other’s face. A grand farewell was expected as Goddess Durga was now on her way back to heaven. There were tears of anguish in everyone’s eyes as the time approached when their mother will be taken to the Ganga ghats for visarjan(immersion) , a symbolic departure of her return to heaven. This ceremony which marks  the end of the grand Durga Puja festivities,is accompanied  with a sombre  ambience all around. Devotees keep cheering each other chanting out aloud-“ Asche bochor abar hobe”- which means that there will always be a next year when Goddess Durga will transcend back to earth again.

 

The visarjan  activities started around noon on 11th Oct . A beeline of trucks carrying Durga idols was formed outside Outram Ghat, a place reserved for submersion of idols. On the ghats ,cranes stood in waiting to pull out all the idols that would be immersed, in order to keep the Ganga  clean. People started pouring in accompanied by sounds of beating drums, chanting and ringing bells. Sadness loomed large on their faces and tears could be seen in the eyes of many. The sound of Ulu Dhwani (It is sound generated using the tongue and lips, to bring in auspiciousness and drive out negative  vibes), was heard everywhere. The final parikrama( ritual of turning the idol around) was  done and splash !!!! the mother was immersed into the Ganga. What a sight !!!!

 

I too say goodbye to our beloved mother and head towards the airport only to promise myself to return to this very place next year.

 

Varanasi

My next visit was to Varanasi, one of world's oldest living cities of the world and rightly referred to as the spiritual capital of India. Also known as ' 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 than10,000 years. It is also known by the spiritually more significant name of 'Avimukta'                         ( liberated). It was during the British rule that it got anglicized and got the new name of Benaras.

Mark Twain 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. Mystics and philosophers like Panini, the author of Ashtadhyayi, Adi 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.

 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,  boat ride at dawn,  banks of the ancient ghats, all lined up one after the other in an arc-like formation, innumerable shrines and temples, the narrow, winding and confusing by lanes that lead to the ghats, countless temple spires,  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 this 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 orange & white. People from all over India visit Varanasi 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 Varanasi a photographer's delight is an absolute truism.

The Burning Ghats

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 Varanasi  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. 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 Hindu is almost always cremated by fire except in the case of small babies or holy men, who are given a water burial. People dead by unnatural causes like accidents, snake bite or others are also 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 'Chandal' community and are considered untouchables and are an outcast from the Hindu community . But in Varanasi these Doms are wealthy people .They are known to charge huge sums of money for their role in the cremation of the dead. 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' ( brought from the sacred eternal fire)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. 

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 its material body and is now ready to move on to other non physical dimensions. 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 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 sometimes 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. Man was definitely meeting his God in this 3000 year old Ghat, but in a bizarre and extremely undignified manner.

The most feared clan of Sadhus or ascetics of India, the Aghori sadhus are notorious for the uncommon and grisly tantric rituals that they perform as a part and parcel of their 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 Mahakal,   the ultimate destroyer of Time and the universe.  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 these rituals. 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 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. My 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.   

An Enigma Called Death

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 (consciousness) 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 'anywhere' 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!

 

According to Buddhism, death is an integral part of life itself. All hopes, ambitions 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 ebbs 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 goodness or 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.

Bardo Thodal :  Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the books that has fascinated me is “Bardo Thodal " which is a 1200- year- old  Tibetan text written to guide 'individual consciousness' 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 profound 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 individual consciousness after it leaves the body, and is intended to guide people through what all consciousness undergoes after death. The Bardo Thodol teaches that once this consciousness or awareness is released from its material body form, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream state. This dream occurs in various phases which are both peaceful and frightening. The departed experiences visions and the presence various deities who are both 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.

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 the 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 or first bardo, it will now descend into the second bardo, which is said to last for two earthly 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 himself 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 at par with 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.

Scientific Research On Near Death Experiences :

 Interestingly the experiences narrated in "Tibetan Book of the Dead" are quite 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, a pioneer in this field of study, 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.  

Interestingly many more scientists now also believe they may have found some light at the end of this enigmatic tunnel. Till quite recently a controversial subject like this one had been treated with widespread scepticism. The existing paradigm being that the brain produces consciousness and once the body is brain dead there is no scope for consciousness to exist anymore. 

 The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely. Scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria and  found that nearly 40 % of people who survived described some sort of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were 'clinically dead'. Later their hearts were resurrected.

Despite being 'clinically dead’ for three minutes, a 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines. “We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Dr Sam Parnia, a former research fellow at Southampton University, now at the State University of New York, who led the study.“But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped. The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for. He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

Recently another very interesting case of Eben Alexander MD came to light. Narrating his own story he writes " At 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2008, I suddenly became very ill with acute bacterial meningoencephalitis. Within four hours, I was deep in coma; I spent the next seven days comatose, on a ventilator. Bacterial meningitis with such a rapid decline in neurologic function conferred a 90 percent mortality rate, as assessed at the time of my initial ER evaluation, but my prospects for survival rapidly worsened. My physicians at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia were shocked to find that I had acquired spontaneous E. coli meningitis, which has less than a one in 10,000,000 annual incidence1. They were aided by experts at the University of Virginia, Duke, Massachusetts General Hospital and beyond in their efforts to find a cause and force a turnaround in what at first seemed to be an irreversible death-spiral as I failed to respond to triple antibiotics.

My medical history of recent travel to Israel (as part of my work coordinating global research in focused ultrasound surgery) raised great concern among my doctors. Around the time of my visit, physicians at The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center had reported the world’s first well-documented case of spontaneous plasmid transfer of the Klebsiella Pneumonia carbapenemase (KPC) gene from a deadly gram-negative organism into a patient’s previously uninfected intestinal E. coli, conferring total antibiotic resistance on the latter. The terrifying implications for a disastrous pandemic if such an E. coli ever escaped the strict isolation of a hospital ICU were obvious, and my doctors considered that I might represent such a case.

My neurological examinations were consistent with diffuse cortical damage plus extraocular motor dysfunction (brainstem damage). My CT scans revealed global neocortical involvement, and, on the third day, my cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) protein was 1,340 mg/dl, my CSF white blood cell count 4,300 per mm3, and my CSF glucose level was down to 1 mg/dl (compared with the normal value of 60-80 mg/dl). I was extremely ill, with diminishing chances for survival and virtually no chance for recovery. My physicians never found a cause for my mysterious malady.

Fortunately, my E. coli finally started to respond. On the seventh day of my coma, to everyone’s surprise, I opened my eyes and started to come back. I was rapidly extubated by the shocked intensivist. A family friend who was there could not get over how my amazed expression looked more like the astonished gaze of an infant, not like what one would expect from an adult returning from an unconscious state.

A recent objective medical review of my records coordinated by Dr Bruce Greyson came to the following conclusions:

“Three physicians not associated with Lynchburg General Hospital completed an independent review of the complete medical record of Dr. Alexander’s hospitalization, and spoke with the hospital’s two consulting neurologists to gather additional information.  The records indicated that Dr. Alexander was brought to the emergency department unresponsive, with evidence of a bacterial infection, and he was assessed to have moderate brain injury, which rapidly progressed to severe brain injury over the next few hours.  Brain scans showed that the membranes covering the brain as well as the grooves in his cerebral cortex were swollen with pus-filled liquid, compressing the cortical tissue.  Laboratory examination showed evidence of a bacterial infection in his cerebrospinal fluid, due to an organism that very rarely causes meningitis in adults, and, when it does, is almost always fatal or resulting in permanent neurological deficits.  Nevertheless, after a profound near-death experience, Dr. Alexander eventually awoke from his coma, and within a few months had made what his surprised neurologists called a ‘complete and remarkable recovery’ from an illness they agreed might well have been fatal, without any residual neurological deficit.”

If one had asked me before my coma how much a patient would remember after such severe meningitis, I would have answered “nothing” and been thinking in the back of my mind that no one would recover from such an illness, at least not to the point of being able to discuss their memories. Thus, you can imagine my surprise at remembering an elaborate and rich odyssey from deep within coma that comprised more than 20,000 words by the time I had written it all down during the six weeks following my return from the hospital. My older son, Eben Alexander IV, who was majoring in neuroscience at the University of Delaware at the time, advised me to record everything I could remember before I read anything about near-death experiences (NDEs), physics or cosmology. I dutifully did so, in spite of an intense yearning to read everything I could about those subjects, based on the stunning character of my coma experience.

My meningoencephalitis had been so severe that my original memories from within coma did not include any recollections whatsoever from my life before coma, including language and any knowledge of humans or this universe. That “scorched earth” intensity was the setting for a profound spiritual experience that took me beyond space and time to what seemed like the origin of all existence.

Those memories began in a primitive, coarse, unresponsive realm (the “Earthworm’s Eye View” or EEV) from which I was rescued by a slowly spinning clear white light associated with a musical melody, that served as a portal up into rich and ultrareal realms. The Gateway Valley was filled with many earth-like and spiritual features: vibrant and dynamic plant life, with flowers and buds blossoming richly and no signs of death or decay, waterfalls into sparkling crystal pools, thousands of beings dancing below with great joy and festivity, all fueled by swooping golden orbs in the sky above, angelic choirs emanating chants and anthems that thundered through my awareness, and a lovely girl on a butterfly wing who proved months later to be central to my understanding of the reality of the experience (as reported in detail towards the end of my book Proof of Heaven). The chants and hymns thundering down from those angelic choirs provided yet another portal to higher realms, eventually ushering my awareness into the Core, an unending inky blackness filled to overflowing with the infinite healing power of the all-loving deity at the source, whom many might label as God (or Allah, Vishnu, Jehovah, Yahweh – the names get in the way, and the conflicting details of orthodox religions obscure the reality of such an infinitely loving and creative source).

While writing it all up weeks later, God seemed too puny a little human word with much baggage, clearly failing to describe the power, majesty and awe I had witnessed. I originally referred to that deity as Om, the sound that I recalled from that realm as the resonance within infinity and eternity. Many lessons were taught in that core realm, with all of the higher dimensional multiverse collapsed down into a complex “oversphere” that served as a tool in advancing some of the deeper lessons. All of my understanding of space, time, mass, energy, information, soul journeys, causality, the afterlife, reincarnation, meaning and purpose took on extraordinary relationships that I am even now just beginning to unravel. I cycled through those spiritual realms from the lowest EEV all the way back to the Core multiple times, offering a rich spiritual odyssey that completely defies any conventional scientific understanding, given the duration and severity of my meningoencephalitis. Given those medical facts, my brain was incapable of providing any hallucination, dream or psychic drug effect, due to the global damage of my neocortex so apparent from my neurologic exams, scans and laboratory values.

My coma taught me many things. First and foremost, near-death experiences, and related mystical states of awareness, reveal crucial truths about the nature of existence. Simply dismissing them as hallucinations is convenient for many in the conventional scientific community, but only continues to lead them away from the deeper truth these experiences are revealing to us. The conventional reductive materialist (physicalist) model embraced by many in the scientific community, including its assumption that the physical brain creates consciousness and that our human existence is birth-to-death and nothing more, is fundamentally flawed. At its core, that physicalist model intentionally ignores what I believe is the fundament of all existence — consciousness itself.

Still another interesting case was of Anita Moorjani. She writes in her book "Dying To Be Me" ; After four heart-wrenching years with cancer, my body had finally had enough and I went into a coma.

As my husband rushed me to the hospital, the world around me started to appear surreal and dreamlike, and I could feel myself slip further and further away from consciousness.

The moment I arrived and the oncologist saw me, her face visibly filled with shock. “Your wife’s heart may still be beating,” she told Danny, “but she’s not really there. It’s too late to save her.”

The senior oncologist immediately ordered a medical team to wheel my gurney to the radiology lab so they could do a full-body scan. After they finished, I was brought to the ICU where staff administered treatments by way of needles and tubes.

In this near-death state, I was more acutely aware of all that was going on around me than I’d ever been in a normal physical state. I wasn’t using my five biological senses, yet I was keenly taking everything in. It was as though another, completely different type of perception kicked in, and I seemed to encompass everything that was happening, as though I was slowly merging with it all.

Although the medical team moved with great speed, and there was a sense of urgency in their actions, I also sensed an air of acceptance, as though they’d come to terms with that fact that it was too late to change my fate.

“There’s nothing we can do for your wife, Mr. Moorjani. Her organs have already shut down. Her tumors have grown to the size of lemons throughout her lymphatic system, from the base of her skull to below her abdomen. Her brain is filled with fluid, as are her lungs. And as you can see, her skin has developed lesions that are weeping with toxins. She won’t even make it through the night,” the doctor told my husband, Danny.

I watched as Danny’s face changed to anguish, and wanted to cry out to him, It’s ok, darling—I’m okay! Please don’t worry. Don’t listen to the doctor. I actually feel great! But I couldn’t. Nothing came out. He couldn’t hear me.

I felt no emotional attachment to my seemingly lifeless body as it lay there on the hospital bed. It didn’t feel as though it were mine. It looked far too small and insignificant to have housed what I was experiencing. I felt free, liberated, and magnificent. Every pain, ache, sadness, and sorrow was gone! I felt completely unencumbered. I couldn’t recall feeling this way before—not ever.

I CONTINUED TO SENSE MYSELF EXPANDING FURTHER AND FURTHER OUTWARD, DRAWING AWAY FROM MY PHYSICAL SURROUNDINGS. IT WAS AS THOUGH I WERE NO LONGER RESTRICTED BY THE CONFINES OF SPACE AND TIME, AND CONTINUED TO SPREAD MYSELF OUT TO OCCUPY A GREATER EXPANSE OF CONSCIOUSNESS. I SIMULTANEOUSLY EXPERIENCED A SENSE OF JOY MIXED WITH A GENEROUS SPRINKLING OF JUBILATION AND HAPPINESS.

I felt all of my emotional attachments to my loved ones and my surroundings slowly fall away. What I can only describe as superb and glorious unconditional love surrounded me, wrapping me tight as I continued to let go. It didn’t feel as though I had physically gone somewhere else—it was more as though I’d awakened. Perhaps finally being roused from a bad dream. My soul was finally realizing its true magnificence. And it doing so, it was expanding beyond my body and this physical world.

The feeling of complete, unconditional love was unlike anything I’d known before; it was totally undiscriminating, as if I didn’t have to do anything to deserve it, nor did I need to prove myself to earn it.

To my amazement, I became aware of the presence of my father, who’d died ten years earlier. Dad, you’re here. I can’t believe it! I wasn’t speaking those words, I was merely thinking them—in fact, it was more like feeling the emotions behind the words, as there was no other way of communicating in that realm other than through emotions.

And then I recognized the essence of my best friend, Soni, who’d died of cancer three years prior. I seemed to know that they’d been present with me, long before I became aware of them, all through my illness.

I was also aware of other beings around me. I didn’t recognize them, but I knew they loved me very much and were protecting me. I realized that they too were with me all of this time, surrounding me with love even when I wasn’t conscious of it.

My heightened awareness in that expanded realm was indescribable, despite my best efforts to explain it.

The universe makes sense! I realized. I finally understand—I know why I have cancer! I was too caught up in the wonder of that moment to dwell on the cause, although I’d soon examine it more closely. I also seemed to comprehend why I’d come into this life in the first place—I knew my true purpose.

Why do I suddenly understand all this? I wanted to know. Who’s giving me this information? Is it God? Krishna? Buddha? Jesus?

AND THEN I WAS OVERWHELMED BY THE REALIZATION THAT GOD ISN’T A BEING, BUT A STATE OF BEING … AND I WAS NOW IN THAT STATE OF BEING.

I saw my life intricately woven into everything I’d known so far. My experience was like a single thread woven through the huge and complexly colored images of an infinite tapestry. All the other threads and colors represented my relationships, including every life I’d touched. There were threads representing my mother, my father, my brother, my husband, and every other person who’d ever come into my life, whether they related to me in a positive or negative way.

I began to understand that while I may have only been a thread, I was integral to the overall finished picture. Seeing this, I understood that I owed it to myself, to everyone I met, and to life itself to always be an expression of my own unique essence. Trying to be anything or anyone else didn’t make me better—it just deprived me of my true self! It kept others from experiencing me for who I am, and it deprived me of interacting authentically with them.

As I looked at the great tapestry that was the accumulation of my life up to that point, I was able to identify exactly what had brought me to where I was today.

Just look at my life path! Why, oh why, have I always been so harsh with myself? Why was I always beating myself up? Why was I always forsaking myself? Why did I never stand up for myself and show the world the beauty of my own soul? Why was I always suppressing my own intelligence and creativity to please others? I betrayed myself every time I said yes when I meant no!

Why have I violated myself by always needing to seek approval from others just to be myself? Why haven’t I followed my own beautiful heart and spoken my truth? Why don’t we realize this when we’re in our physical bodies? How come I never knew that we’re not supposed to be so tough on ourselves?

I STILL FELT COMPLETELY ENVELOPED IN A SEA OF UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE. I WAS ABLE TO LOOK AT MYSELF WITH FRESH EYES, AND SAW THAT I WAS BEAUTIFUL BEING OF THE UNIVERSE. I understood that just the fact that I existed made me worthy of this divine love rather than judgment. I didn’t need to do anything specific; I deserved to be loved simply because I existed, nothing more and nothing less.

This was a rather surprising realization for me, because I’d always thought I needed to work at being lovable. I believed that I somehow had to be deserving and worthy of being cared for, so it was incredible to realize this wasn’t the case.

I also understood that the cancer was not some punishment for anything I’d done wrong, nor was I experiencing negative karma as a result of any of my actions, as I’d previously believed. It was as though every moment held infinite possibilities, and where I was at that point in time was the culmination of every decision, every choice, and every thought of my entire life. Many fears and my great power had manifested this disease.

I wondered at my newfound understanding in the other realm, enjoying and exploring that all-encompassing consciousness.

Dad, it feels like I’ve come home. I’m so glad to be here. Life is so painful! I told him.

The essence of my father was communicating with me more directly. Sweetheart, I want you to know that it’s not your time to come home yet. But it’s still your choice whether you want to come with me or go back into your body.

But my body is so sick, drained, and ridden with cancer! Why would I want to go back to that body? It has caused nothing but suffering—not only for me, but for Mum and Danny, too! I can’t see any purpose in going back.

What subsequently happened is incredibly hard to describe. First, it felt as though whatever I directed my awareness toward appeared before me. Second, time was completely irrelevant. It wasn’t even a factor to consider, as though it didn’t exist.

Prior to this point, doctors has conducted tests on the functionality of my organs, and their report had already been written. But in that realm, it seemed as though the outcome of those tests and the report depended on the decision I had yet to make—whether to live or to continue onward into death. If I chose death, the test results would indicate organ failure. If I chose to come back to physical life, they’d show my organs beginning to function again.

At that moment, I decided that I didn’t want to return. I then became conscious of my physical body dying, and I saw the doctors speaking with my family, explaining that it was death due to organ failure.

At the same time, my father communicated with me. This is as far as you can go, sweetheart. If you go any further, you cannot turn back.

I became aware of a boundary before me, although the demarcation wasn’t physical. It was more like an invisible threshold marked by a variation of energy levels. I knew that if I crossed it there was no turning back. All my ties to the physical world would be permanently severed.

But before I stepped towards this realm for good, I became aware of a new level of truth.

I discovered that since I’d realized who I really was and understood the magnificence of my true self, if I chose to go back to life, my body would heal rapidly—not in months or weeks, but in days! I knew that the doctors wouldn’t be able to find a trace of cancer if I chose to go back to my body!

How can that be? I was astounded by this revelation, and wanted to understand why.

IT WAS THEN THAT I UNDERSTOOD THAT MY BODY IS ONLY A REFLECTION OF MY INTERNAL STATE. IF MY INNER SELF WERE AWARE OF ITS GREATNESS AND CONNECTION WITH ALL-THAT-IS, MY BODY WOULD SOON REFLECT THAT AND HEAL RAPIDLY.

As I experienced my biggest revelation, it felt like a bolt of lightning. I understood that merely by being the love I truly am, I would heal both myself and others. I knew that was really the only purpose of life: to be ourselves, live our truths, and be the love that we are.

And I knew that I had a bigger purpose to fulfill in the physical world. It involved helping lots of people—thousands, maybe tens of thousands, perhaps to share a message with them. But I wouldn’t have to pursue anything or work at figuring out how I was going to achieve that. I simply had to allow it to unfold.

As though to confirm my realization, I became aware of both my father and Soni communicating with me: Now that you know the truth of who you really are, go back and live your life fearlessly.

It was the afternoon of February 3rd, about 30 hours after I’d entered the coma.

My eyes started to flicker open around 4 p.m., and my vision was very blurred. I could barely see that the outline of the figure standing over me was Danny, and then I heard his voice: “She’s back!”

Over the following days, I was slowly able to tell my family what had happened in the other realm, and also described a lot of the things that had taken place while I was in the coma. I was able to relay to my awestruck family, almost verbatim, some of the conversations that had occurred not only around me, but also outside the room, down the hall, and in the waiting areas of the hospital. I could describe many of the procedures I’d undergone, and I identified the doctors and nurses who’d performed them, to the surprise of everyone around me.

WITHIN TWO DAYS OF COMING OUT OF THE COMA, THE DOCTORS INFORMED ME THAT BECAUSE MY ORGANS HAD MIRACULOUSLY STARTED FUNCTIONING AGAIN,

the swelling caused by toxic buildup had subsided considerably. When the oncologist performed a routine checkup, he couldn’t hide his surprise: “Your tumors have visibly shrunk—considerably—in just these three days!”

About six days after coming out of the ICU, I began to feel a little bit stronger and was starting to walk up and down the hospital corridor for short periods of time before needing to rest.

Everyday the doctors reported on my latest test results.

“I don’t understand. I have scans that show this patient’s lymphatic system was ridden with cancer just two weeks ago, but now I can’t find a lymph node on her body large enough to even suggest cancer,” I heard him say.

To the amazement of the medical team, the arrangements they’d made with the reconstructive surgeon to close the lesions on my neck were unnecessary because the wounds had healed by themselves.

On March 9, 2006, five weeks after entering the hospital, I was released to go home. And I couldn’t wait to live my life with joy and abandon!

NDEs such as mine then represent the tip of the spear in a rapidly progressing enlightenment of the scientific community around the mind-brain relationship, and our understanding of the very nature of reality. The world will never be the same.

Research published in The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association has brought NDEs to light as events worthy of intense scientific study. Some common features found in many such similar studies are as under :

1. An out-of-body experience. People who have clinically died experience that they have separated from their physical bodies but can see what is happening around them or see their physical bodies  as though an observer  perceives their surroundings. Their attempts to communicate with the living people they can see and hear are unsuccessful. In this non-physical state, they experience walking through walls and moving from one place to another just by the power of their thought.

2.  Experience of going through a tunnel : Passing through a tunnel of light  is  a characteristic  of most  near-death experience.  Some people's  feelings include , rushing toward a powerful light or moving rapidly through a narrow  passageway or corridor.  

3. Seeing a  Being of Light.  This is the most common feature witnessed by  people. People feel  drawn towards a very bright and all engulfing Light, which they say lies towards the end of the tunnel.

4. All communications through telepathy: Nearly all people experienced communication through direct transfer of thought. Many said that  words are not  capable or are incapacitated in correctly portraying  the conditions they experienced in that field. In other words, the communication was non-verbal and seemed to take place on a level of consciousness rather than physically.

5. A feeling of an intense and unconditional love : People felt that they were in the presence of an  overwhelming, non judgmental absolute Love. They also often recall recognizing and meeting deceased family members in an otherworldly dimension. They may also encounter angels or spiritual guides. These angels or spiritual beings were there to assist them in transition from their physical state into the non physical ethereal realms.  Experiencers also felt their own individual ecstasy, an exuberating sense of joy being in a realm, devoid of the burdens, limitations and pain of their physical bodies and earthly troubles, and in the presence of such loving beings. A love which they had never experienced on earth before .

6.Meeting God : Some people experience meeting God in the form of their own religious beliefs on earth. Many  staunch atheists turned Believers after these profound experience.

7. Unlimited Knowledge : Experiencers  felt that they were in the presence of 'unlimited knowledge'. All the darkest secrets of the Universe stood revealed before them. The unknown now stood known. Unfortunately, they never seemed to be able to retain this knowledge upon awakening. But on awakening they remain aware that there  is vast knowledge in the universe awaiting to be retrieved.

8. A Complete Life Review. People recall seeing their entire life flash before them as though watching a movie. Every significant event of their life gets projected before him in its fullest detail. While some witnessed the review from beginning to end, others saw it in reverse order, from present day back to the beginning. 

9. Some People Also Visit  Hellish Realms :  Experiencers often  say they travelled through different spiritual realms good and bad. Some were even shown  what they understood as Hell, a place a great anguish and pain . Dr Raymond Moody in his book "Life After Life"  studies also uncovered a disturbing subset of this phenomenon that seemed to indicate that some of these experiences were far from pleasant, and pointed at people actually visiting Hell itself, or a realms similar to that as per human understanding.

One of the first widely circulated reports of such a terrifying NDEs was an account from Dr. George Ritchie MD a renowned psychiatrist. Ritchie's story was the first contact Dr. Raymond Moody, PhD had with NDEs, during his post-graduate studies and residency in Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. This led Moody to investigate over 150 cases of NDEs in his book Life After Life and two other books that followed. At the age of 20, George Ritchie apparently died in an army hospital and was pronounced dead twice by the doctor on duty. Nine minutes later he returned to life. Dr. Ritchie wrote of his near-death experience (NDE) in his book "Return from Tomorrow" co-written with Elizabeth Sherrill (1928), and published in 1978. Ritchie described coming down with pneumonia and being brought to an Army hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where he was pronounced dead but finally revived 9 minutes later with a horrifying story to tell. He claimed that he had had an out of body experience where he wandered around town and met a mysterious figure who took him on a guided tour of various disturbing places. One was a bar where people desperately tried to drink, eat, or smoke cigarettes but could not no matter how hard they tried. This vision of those who could not partake in vices or what they loved most was relatively mild compared to what was to follow. He next found himself in a barren wasteland where spirits of all shapes and sizes were engaged in vicious battle with each other, punching, biting, kicking, and slashing at each other with wrathful abandon. Ritchie would later write of this scary, foul scene: " Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us".

Another  researcher and writer of horrifying  NDEs by the name of Nancy Evans Bush has estimated that one out of every five NDEs involve terrifying traumatic experiences dark chilly voids, sensory deprivation, absolute loneliness, scary demonic monsters, blazing fires, other visions of conditions of Hell, the description of which would wary from person to person. In her book "Dancing Past the Dark", Bush explains about these different permutations of Hell thus: "Some are hot, some are cold, some are like deserts, some are like a swamp. Some are too bright, in terms of fire, and some are full of wet, slimy, nasty stuff. I’ve heard descriptions of wells with slimy creatures in them, but I’ve also heard barren wastes with nothing".

The story of Matthew Botsford, who in 1992 was shot as he exited a bar in Atlanta- Georgia, by two angry men who had been kicked out of the place and were taking out their anger by shooting guns at the building. Shot in the head, and very badly wounded he was bleeding profusely. Botsford staggered on the edge of life & death. Apparently dying he was resuscitated three times on the way to the hospital. When he arrived, doctors made the drastic decision to put Botsford into a medically induced coma in order to reduce his swelling in the brain. He remained in coma for 27 days. He  later stated that he did not remember anything of his actual death other than an acute pain, he certainly remembered what he had experienced during his coma.

Botsford claimed that at initially there was a complete pitch black void , which he described as being like “thick, black ink had been poured over my eyes.” This blanket of complete darkness then began to slowly go away with a bright white Light taking its place. He thereafter experienced incredible amount of heat and smoke coming from some place below him. It was then that Botsford noticed that his hands and feet had been tied to chains and that he was hanging in midair above the heat and smoke by some unseen entity. He began to hear horrifying screams and unearthly shrieks all around him coming from an endless sea of tortured and punished people. Looking down into the deep abyss below , he claimed that he could see strange ogres and monsters with glowing satanic eyes wanting to slit each other's throats . The smoke that was bellowing from below contained innumerable souls wriggling in pain, howling and wailing.  There was a complete sense of abandonment, isolation and despair. Botsford  then said that this Tartarean heat  started to torch his flesh & bone. No sooner he began to believe that he would be soon be burned down to ashes this whole  process of torture and pain stated afresh . Macabre, horned creatures with glowing round eyes and poisonous fangs, now gnawed at his cooked flesh to feast on it. The flesh would then grow back and the torture restart . Then suddenly a monstrous hand pulled him out of that furnace saying  “It’s not your time.” When he regained consciousness, he realized that he was no longer in that  hell but in a hospital room with a bad headache and partially paralyzed . The whole experience was so intense and unsettling that Botsford  later wrote a book titled "A Day in Hell; Death to Life to Hope".

10. Told to go back :  In many cases people were told to go back to their earthly bodies as their time had not yet come, whereas in other cases they were given a choice. These people were very reluctant to return to their earthly bodies even when told they yet have a mission to complete.

11. Vision of the future : Some people were given the knowledge of future happenings. They could be future world events or they could be events related to the life of that person alone.   

 12. Fear Death No More: People having these experiences had a marked personality shift after their return to their physical bodies. Their outlook towards life in general changed remarkably for the better. Also these people no longer feared death. Their afterlife experience is so profound and real that they are now sure that their consciousness  lives on even after the death of their physical body. Many atheists  and people with strong materialistic outlook towards life changed into people with profound spiritual outlook. They also understood that this life had a higher purpose to fulfil and should not be wasted away. Every living being and the universe at large were interconnected and that they were not isolated beings in a lonely universe.  

A Study In Reincarnation :

Reincarnation is a philosophical concept that concludes 'individual consciousness' as a core essential part of a living being, which starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death.

 This concept is accepted as a unquestionable reality in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems.  

 Neither the word 'reincarnation' nor this idea appears in the current form of Bible,  which clearly tells us that we die once and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). The Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals. Jesus told the criminal on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), not "You will have another chance to live a life on this earth." Matthew 25:46 specifically tells us that believers go on to eternal life while unbelievers go onto eternal punishment.  

Interestingly In December, 1945, early Christian writings containing many secrets of early Christian religion were found in upper Egypt, in a location where many Christians fled during the Roman invasion of Jerusalem.  These had kept hidden for nearly two thousand years. These writings affirmed the existence of the doctrine of reincarnation being taught among the early Jews and Christians. This sect was ultimately destroyed by the Roman orthodox church, their followers burned at the stake and their writings wiped out.  The writings included some long lost gospels, some of which were written earlier than the known gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  These' Gnostic Christians' claimed to possess the correct definition of 'resurrection'  based on Jesus' secret teachings, handed down to them by the apostles.

Brian A. Bain, M.A., has this to say about the 1945 discovery: "Long considered to be heretical, ancient Gnostic Christian texts unearthed this century display compelling similarities between Gnostic conceptions of life and death and modern near-death experiences. The Gnostic texts devoted extensive tracts to what readers could expect to encounter when they died. Other passages make numerous allusions to near-death-like experiences that can be realized in this life, most notably the human encounter with a divine light.

The Gospel of the Nazirenes:

Discoveries during this century are shedding more light on to one of the most clouded period in Christian history i.e. the original teachings of Jesus compared to the modern day Bible. Given the recent discoveries of the 'Dead Sea Scrolls', the 'Gnostic Gospels' of Nag Hammadi, and now the long sought 'Gospel of the Nazirenes', much has been unearthed and understood about the earliest days of Christianity in the present century compared to all the  previous years combined.

 And what is becoming more and more clear from these discoveries is that the original message of Christ differed sharply from the official doctrines later adopted by the church. Many of the most revered early church fathers, as well as a surprising number of scholars today, have boldly declared that the legendary Gospel of the Nazirenes  was actually the long lost original gospel which was collectively written by the 12 apostles in the period immediately after Christ’s death, and upon which all three of the biblical gospels were based.

For nearly 2,000 years, all information about Jesus comes to us through the biblical gospels. In the fourth century the Roman authorities decided to compile and edit all available books and scrolls  on Jesus which were then in circulation. It was left entirely on their discretion to decide what was real and what was fake. This carried with it  streaks of  political influence and compromise. Bishops making these decisions were doing so under the direct influence and instructions of the Roman Emperor. It has been rumoured ever since that true teachings of Jesus were edited and their  meanings altered  during that time. Many important Christian documents were also  destroyed during that period.

Before  325 AD  many of the early Church priests had included in their writings a mention of an earlier Gospel, upon which, they claimed  Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had  been based. This document had gone by the titles, Gospel of the Nazirenes ,Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Hebrews, The Aramaic Gospel of Matthew.

For nearly 2,000 years  this work was considered to have been  lost, but in 1870 an isolated manuscript was discovered hidden away in a remote Tibetan monastery. It  was then hurriedly translated from its original Aramaic text  and then published as "The Gospel of the Holy Twelve". This  translation was somewhat intellectually dull and un-stimulating and hence was not read much. A new and much better translation later was published in 1997, edited by Alan Wauters and Rick Van Wyhe.

Initially while  reading it, one feels  the same old message of the current form of Bible coming through. Then suddenly one is struck as if by a bolt of lightning. One starts reading passages that directly support the reincarnation concepts as taught  in Vedic theology. Along with it come equally startling stories of Jesus studying the mystical and philosophical concepts of India, Persia and Eqypt. Also contain within it are  stories of his marriage and subsequent demise of his wife. It teaches strict   vegetarianism , clearly stating that Jesus' anger at the Temple was not merely directed at the commercial rackets going on there but was directly targeted  to the  killings and selling of sacrificial animals. 'Nazirenes'  claims that one of the biggest reasons Jesus was  condemned by the religious heads of Israel was because he wanted to put an end to the blood sacrifices in the Temple. Putting an end to these sacrifices was seen as a financial threat  by the unwilling priesthood. 

Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato are among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works.

A lot of North American tribes include some form of belief in reincarnation in their religions. This is especially true for the Inuit, Tlingit, Aleut, Beaver, Kutchin, Carriers, and Kwakiutl tribes. The most intense belief can be found among the Tlingit tribe of the Alaska territory. At the moment of death, the  soul was thought to leave the body, travel to the spiritual world, and ultimately reincarnate.

Mesopotamia historically included Sumer, Babylon, and Akkadia. In this region, from 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, elements of reincarnation theory were also  widely accepted.

The early Egyptian concepts of Ba and Ka also suggest reincarnation. The term Ba seems to imply a phenomenon like the transcendent soul. The term Ka apparently refers to an aspect of the Ba which is individuated and linked to a physical body, an in a soul-incarnate. The idea of reincarnation seems to have flourished during the Old Kingdom, however  after the advent of pharoahs it lost its ground.

Dr. Ian Stevenson( 1918-2007) was a pioneer in  the scientific study of the phenomenon of reincarnation. He was a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine for 50 nearly years. He was Chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry from 1957 to 1967, the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry from 1967 to 2001, and a Research Professor of Psychiatry from 2002 until his death. Stevenson’s main subject of study was  children’s memories of previous lives.

Stevenson’s research  published in 1997, was a 2,268-page, two-volume work called 'Reincarnation and Biology'. During his original research into various cases involving children's memories of past lives  Dr. Stevenson noticed the fact that these children frequently bore birthmarks which supposedly related to their murder or to  the injuries related to their death they had suffered in a previous life. Stevenson's research into birthmarks and congenital defects has immense corroborative evidence for putting forward these cases  of  reincarnation. In many cases presented by Dr. Stevenson there are also medical as an additional proof.

Dr. Stevenson writes that in the cases he researched and resolved in which birthmarks or deformities were present, he didn't suppose there was any other possible explanation than that of reincarnation. Only 30% - 60% of these deformities can be put down to birth defects which related to genetic disorders, infections or other causes. Apart from these demonstrable causes, the medical profession has no other explanation for the other 40% to 70% of cases other than calling them mere chance.

 A Turkish boy whose face was congenitally underdeveloped on the right side said he remembered the life of a man who died from a gunshot wound from a point-blank range.

On the back of the head of a small boy in Thailand was a small, round birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet. Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle.

A child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only.

One of the thousands of other such case suggestive of reincarnation was a child from Srilanka. A small girl child one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of a small  town called 'Kataragama', that the girl had never seen or heard of before . The girl then told her mother that she drowned there when her mentally challenged brother had pushed her into that river. She had a father named 'Herath' who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa. That she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof and that her house was adjacent to a  Hindu temple, outside which people smashed coconuts on the ground .

 Dr.Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house adjacent to a temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground.

 The little girl however did get a few things wrong. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald and his name wasn’t Herath, that was the name of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise,  27 of the 30 distinct, verifiable statements she made were correct. The two families had never met before, nor did they have any friends, co-workers, or other acquaintances in common. Hence there seemed no way to gather such information from any other source .

Personally I was really fascinated reading an extremely interesting case of  James Leininger. James Madison Leininger was born on April 10, 1998 in San Francisco, to Bruce Leininger, a human resources executive, and Andrea Leininger, a resume-writer, homemaker and former professional dancer.  The family moved thereafter to Dallas, Texas and then to Lafayette, Louisiana.  James’s expressions of past-life memory manifested mostly between the ages of two and five, following the move to Lafayette.

At two years of age, James started experiencing  graphic, nightmares that would make him scream while sleeping.  One night while sleeping James starting screaming out, “Airplane crash!  Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!”   Andrea ran to his bedroom and saw James face in extreme agony. He lay on his back kicking, screaming and clawing as if trying to make his way out of something he was stuck in. The same nightmare kept coming back over and over again. After observing him carefully for sometime it became clear to Andrea that the nightmares involved someone who was stuck in a plane on fire, trying desperately to claw his way out. When Andrea asked who the little man in the plane was, James replied: 'Me'

 When Bruce asked him about who shot his plane down James replied 'Japanese'. When he was asked how he knew that it were the Japanese who shot down his plane, James replied: 'The big red sun'. Both the parents were really puzzled about what their son was uttering.

Passing by a toy shop one day when James was even less than two years of age, Andrea  saw a display window filled with  toys.  She pulled out a little propeller plane and handed it to James saying  ‘Look there’s even a bomb underneath it.’ James immediately replied, ‘That’s not a bomb, Mummy, That’s a dwop tank.’ Talking about this with her husband later she learned that a drop tank is an extra fuel tank fitted to an aircraft to extend its range.

His parents were  surprised at James obsession with warplanes of World War 2. In play, James crashed his toy planes into furniture, breaking off the propellers.  He also began expressing his obsession  in his drawings, drawing naval-aerial battles between Americans and Japanese, in which planes were burning and crashing, bullets and bombs exploding all around. Interestingly these were always WWII scenes, with propeller-driven aircraft, not modern day jets or missiles.

All he ever draws are planes fighting, and he knows the type of planes. I mean he even draws the red sun for the Japanese," Bruce says. "But after he drew 'James 3' for the first time, I asked him why he did that. James said, 'I'm the third. I'm James 3.' He's been calling himself that ever since he was three years old. I think he is struggling with something unresolved or he just wouldn't be still drawing those images, like a needle stuck on a record. "

 He named the American aircraft as Wildcats and Corsairs, and referred to Japanese planes as Zekes and Bettys, explaining that the boy’s name referred to fighter planes and the girl’s name to bombers . Andrea wondered how her 'little son' could know such details of World War II and the aircrafts of that period.

James also told Bruce how Corsairs would have flat tires every now and then, also that they would always tend to turn to the left. After checking with military historians at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas, this statement stood verified.

Andrea recalls the first time ever she had cooked meatloaf for James. When she announced that  there was meatloaf for dinner, James replied  he hadn't had meatloaf since he was on the Natoma Bay.  Later when Bruce and Andrea contacted several ex officers of that ship and found that meat loafs were a regular meal for the crew.

 Bruce and Andrea also recall how James would say his plane was shot in the engine.

The perplexing questions  as to how did he know about the Japanese and their emblem with 'the big red sun' and from where was his in-depth knowledge about these fighter planes coming from remained unanswered. 

Over a period of time, James revealed that the man in his nightmares was also named James(Huston), that he flew a plane called a Corsair,  that the plane he flew took off from a boat and that the boat’s name was the 'Natoma.' To try and make sense of it all, Bruce did some internet search for the word Natoma. The result was that there existed an aircraft carrier by the name of U.S.S. Natoma Bay, stationed in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

One day his parents took him to the Lone Star Flight Museum, they were surprised to see little James walking around a Corsair, conducting a flight check, like a pilot normally does before boarding his aircraft.

Andrea’s mother, Barbara Scoggin was the first one to speculate that the memories of James could be coming from a past life. Andrea too was now open to the possibility that James might be experiencing memories of a past lifetime.

After reading about a counselor by the name of Carol Bowman from Pennsylvania, Ms. Scoggin explained how Ms. Bowman was an expert on a child phenomenon that was similar to what James was experiencing. Ms. Bowman had also authored a book, 'Children's Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child'. Andrea called her immediately.

"When we are dreaming, our conscious minds are not filtering material as when we are in a waking state, so unconscious material, including past life memories, emerge," Ms. Bowman explains. "It is not uncommon for young children to dream of their previous lives. We tend to notice the nightmares, because they disturb the sleep and are often dramatic, realistic stories, as in James' case. They are often recurring, as the child relives the same dramatic events over and over. On some level, they are seeking resolution to these disturbing memories."

Bruce Leininger was fairly uncomfortable with the whole idea of reincarnation and began to research his son’s statements with the firm hope of ruling it out. But James revealed another piece of information which shook his skeptical father. Bruce one day was looking through a book titled 'Battle For Iwo Jima' by Derrick Wright. As Bruce slipped through the pages of that book, James jumped into his lap to watch cartoons. James pointed to a map of Iwo Jima near Chichi Jima and said, "Daddy, that is where my plane was shot down.

 In another nightmare, James gave his parents the name of Jack Larsen, and he said it was Larsen who flew with James. Bruce now needed to track down Jack Larsen to finally put an end to this story. He started searching through the internet again . Bruce couldn't find anything on  Jack Larsen  in any military record. He searched every list he could find from the U.S. National Archives on men who had died when stationed on  Natoma Bay and all other carriers during World War II. There were several Larsens  who had died, but no Jack Larsen of the Natoma Bay. He searched for more than a year, with nothing to show for it. Ironically the error being that he looked out  for a 'dead' man. After attending a Natoma Bay Association Reunion in September of 2002, Bruce found out that Jack Larsen was alive  in Springdale, Ark.

After speaking with veterans from the carrier and their families members Bruce discovered that 21 men were lost from the Natoma Bay. One of those men was a Lt. James McCready Huston Jr. from the VC-81 fighter squadron, who was shot down at the age of 21 in Futami Ko Harbor at Chichi Jima. Huston had volunteered for the mission, the last mission he would have flown before returning to the United States. He was the only pilot from the Natoma Bay who was shot down at Chichi Jima. The name stuck out in Bruce's mind because the Leiningers had noticed that James had been signing his name as 'James 3' on his crayon drawings of World War II planes.

 " Bruce visited Larsen in Arkansas in September of 2002 and asked him about James Huston. Larsen said he was sure his plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire on March 3, 1945,  the day Huston failed to return from his mission and was then pronounced missing in action. Larsen had been Huston's wingman during the day's run to Chichi Jima. After checking into the squadron's aircraft action records, Bruce found out that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat fighter plane and not a Corsair.

Just to make doubly  sure Bruce tried to locate Huston's family. In February of 2003 he made contact with Anne Huston Barron, Huston's sister, who lived in California. Through several phone conversations, the Leiningers and Ms. Barron became friends, and she agreed to send Bruce photos of her brother during his military service. The packages of photos arrived in February and March of 2003. In one of the packages was a photo of Huston standing in front of a Corsair fighter plane, the same kind of plane James had mentioned repeatedly.

According to Bruce, interviews with past servicemen and declassified U.S. military records, before Huston joined up with the Natoma Bay and VC-81, he was part of an elite special squadron, the VF-301 Devil's Disciples, from January to August of 1944. This squadron test flew Corsairs for carrier use, and only 20 pilots were selected for this assignment. However  the VF-301 squadron was disbanded after eight months and Huston was then transferred to VC-81 on Oct. 8, 1944.

"I don't have an answer for this, so I can't explain it either," Bruce says. "Through it all, there has to be an element of faith. There could still be the coincidence of dreaming this all up, but there are odd factors you have to calculate. Lightning can strike once, but when it strikes eight or nine times, you can't say it's a coincidence."

James Leininger had three G.I. Joe dolls and named them Leon, Walter and Billie, names of three pilots who coincidently served with Huston. According to U.S. Pacific Fleet records, Lt. Leon Stevens Conner, Ensign Walter John Devlin and Ensign Billie Rufus Peeler were among the 21 fatalities from the Natoma Bay. They were also members of the VC-81 air squadron with Huston. When asked why he named the dolls the way he did, Bruce says James answered, "Because they greeted me when I went to heaven." After James said that Bruce stood shocked in amazement.

In June of 2003, another veteran by the name of Jack Durham helped Bruce with his research. Durham turned out to be a member of the VC-83 torpedo-bomber medium (TBM) squad from the U.S.S. Sargent Bay that had run parallel to Huston's squadron on the day he was shot down. According to U.S.S. Natoma Bay aircraft action reports, the VC-81 squadron covered the TBMs during the Futami Ko Harbor strike. Without a doubt, Durham says, he saw Huston's plane shot down by anti-aircraft fire .  Digging up more records on the bomber squad Bruce then contacted other VC-83 crew members  John Richardson, Bob Skelton and Ralph Clarbour  and they all confirmed that not only had Huston's plane been shot down, but they saw it get hit in the engine, causing an loud explosion in the front of the plane. It then crashed into Futami Ko Harbor, the same place James pointed to in the history book with his father in November of 2000.

Now every detail of James' dreams had been verified to the Leiningers' satisfaction.

 

As a Hindu, ' Bhagwat Gita' has always been an integral part of my family. I have been hearing verses of it from family elders right from my childhood. As the story goes ,Arjuna stood in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, distraught  with feelings of indecision and confusion, as he faced the prospect of  killing his own half-brothers, uncles, friends and teachers. At this moment, Lord Krishna, who was his 'sarthi' ( person driving the chariot) in the battlefield, sought to allay his fears by teaching him about the distinction between the physical body (which is impermanent) and the soul or consciousness (which is permanent).

 

Bhagavad Gita - Chapter 2, Verse 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि।                                     तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही।

Translation :During our day to day lives we change our old and dirty clothes to put on new ones, similarly, the consciousness or atman casts off its old or worn out physical body and moves on to a newer physical body after the onset of death. Just like the clothes that we wear do not represent  our physical body, the state of our physical body does not represent the truly unchangeable and permanent nature of the consciousness that resides within it. Consciousness (soul)  takes birth again and again, gathering itself a mind, life and body, formed out of the materials of nature, according to its past karmic impressions and its needs for the future. The psychic being is the vijnana which supports the triple manifestation of body, life and mind. When the gross physical body falls away, the vital and mental sheaths still remain as the vehicle of the soul. Rebirth is the law of nature. There is an objective connections between the various forms of life. “Like corn a mortal ripens and like corn is he born again”. (Katha Upanisad, Ch 1, verse 6).

                                                                                 नैनं छिन्दन्ति शस्त्राणि नैनं दहति पावकः                                                  न चैनं क्लेदयन्त्यापो शोषयति मारुतः।।                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Consciousness (soul) cannot be harmed by any weapon, it is formless and shapeless. It cannot be cut into pieces by any weapon neither can fire burn it or destroy it. Water cannot wet it because water can only act on elements which have a physical description or dimension. For the same reason, wind cannot dry it or exert any force on it. Thus the aatman is beyond the influence of all the three primary forces (fire, water and wind) which can affect entities having physical form and description.

 

अच्छेद्योऽयमदाह्योऽयमक्लेद्योऽशोष्य ऐव च।                                            नित्यः सर्वगतः स्थाणुरचलोऽयं सनातनः।

Atman cannot be cut, burnt, it is not subject to decay, become wet or be dried out. The five forces of nature which are capable of destroying physical elements by their combined actions have no influence on the atman. That is why it is referred to as 'nitya' or permanent & unchangeable. It is omnipresence, omniscience. Atman is called 'Sanatana' which means existing since the beginning of TIME.

 

अव्यक्तोऽयमचिन्त्योऽयमविकार्योऽयमुच्यते।                                                    तस्मादेवं विदित्वैनं नानुशोचितुमहर्सि।।  

Atman cannot be known or understood by using the brain or its mental capabilities. It is known as ‘avyakta’ or something that cannot be described.  It cannot be known purely by meditating or thinking upon it  hence it is known as ‘achintya’. Atman cannot be understood by the use of any of our senses, it is without shape and is known as ‘avikaari’. It is beyond the reach of thought and does not have any form as such. Forms may change, things may come and go but that which remains without change behind them all is forever is atman.

                                           

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 New 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 controversial and disturbing  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.

Now what was the final outcome of my search ? It can be summed up in one sanskrit verse by Adi Shankracharya :

मनो बुद्ध्यहंकारचित्तानि नाहम् श्रोत्र जिह्वे घ्राण नेत्रे,                                   न व्योम भूमिर् तेजॊ वायु: चिदानन्द रूप: शिवोऽहम् शिवॊऽहम् ॥                             

I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, nor the reflections of my inner self. I am not the five senses. I am beyond that. I am not ether, nor  earth, nor  fire, nor wind (i.e. the five elements). I am That Eternal All Knowing and Blissfull " Shiva". In other words

" I AM PURE CONSCIOUSNESS AND NOTHING ELSE- PERIOD "

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