One of the obstacles that anyone raised within a rationalist, nationalist or otherwise materialist cultural mythology inevitably faces when trying to explore the mystical is the presence of the miraculous.
I have experienced the feeling of this presence precious few times. Mostly due, not to a miraculous event, but to settling into a sense of openness and awareness that allowed me to see the miraculous as present in the minute particulars of normal life. Though every once in a while there have been small, private miracles. Strange synchronicities that seem wildly unlikely, oddly connected to the events of my life but not unexplainable in strict scientific terms. I think most people have experienced similar things. Small, forgettable miracles are common enough. It is, however, a weakness of spiritual people to aspire to witnessing the undeniable proof of a causally uncoupled divine force in the world. Some seem to have acquired this proof one way or another, most have not.
My own position is to try to remain open, to admit to uncertainty, to simply observe my subjective experience without feeling obliged to force a conclusion on anyone. For someone so disillusioned by his own deeply ingrained rationalism I think this is the best approach.
Yet in India, unlike the West, claims of the miraculous are not something relegated to dusty scriptures and forgotten legends. There are countless stories of gurus and saints performing unexplainable acts in relatively recent memory, and some are not so easy to dismiss. Neem Karoli Baba, the famous guru of Ram Das, Krishna Das, Daniel Goleman and countless other westerners who came to India in the wake of the 1960’s had hundreds of miracles attributed to him. Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Yukteshwar Giri, Shirdi Sai Baba, Anandamayi Ma, Meher Baba; these are all beings with photographs taken of them many of whom people currently living have met all of whom have legends surrounding them that are every bit as magical and seemingly impossible as Jesus Christ or Abraham or Mohammed.
Another locus of the miraculous are physical places of particularly potent spiritual energy, usually either the sites of the acts of saints or places of mythological importance, where important scriptural events are said to have occurred. These places tend to have stories of supernatural healing and spiritual awakening associated with them. These are the sites of pilgrimage and they form an important part of most religious traditions, but there is a strange abundance of them in India. One of the most significant is a place called Badrinath, way up in the desolate reaches of the Garhwal Himalayas.
I had a little break in my Yoga training so I decided to use the opportunity to get out of Rishikesh for a few days and have a little spiritual adventure. There are other significant pilgrimages much closer to Rishikesh but few were still accessible so late in the season, so I elected to rent a scooter and brave the journey to Badrinath, an estimated 12 hours away. I found out that the cook from the Yoga school, Ravi, was also planning a trip there. We decided we might as well go together.
About 5 hours outside Rishikesh, in a place called Rudraprayag, we were pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to me, the scooter I had rented had improper paperwork and expired insurance. Ravi did his best to convince them to look the other way but the fellow in charge seemed a bit more by-the-book then your average Indian policeman. They seized the scooter and apparently slapped the owner with a 14000 rupee fine. This put a bit of a damper on the whole affair, and Ravi suggested we should head back. I told him that he was free to go if he wanted to but that I intended to finish what I started and would just flag down a bus. He thought for a moment and decided that he would continue as well, this time with both of us on the one scooter. I hopped on the back and we set off. Our spirits were a bit low and we were now WAY behind schedule but its hard to stay remorseful in a place that looks like this:
At a little town called Chamoli the road curves north towards Tibet and you’re suddenly plunged into one of the most astonishing landscapes imaginable, surrounded on all sides by orange cliff’s rising up into the clouds and carrying on as far as you can see, with evergreen trees somehow clinging to the almost vertical planes. Every peak is a precipitous spire and the only way to navigate through is to follow the path of the river, on roads cut out of the sides and winding up and down in an agonizingly long series of switchbacks.
After Joshimath, the last village habitable year-round, the road cuts through a narrow valley and starts the climb up into the higher reaches of the Himalayas. Eventually the trees start to disappear, the temperature drops and the atmosphere takes on a stark, forbidden quality. This is no longer an earthly beauty. This is what philosophers call the sublime. The staggering, terrifying indifference of nature. People come to look for God in places like this because God is the only thing that can live here permanently.
Eventually the landscape opens up into a wide, stony plateau surrounded by snow capped peaks and you’re in Badrinath. A place where Narayan, an incarnation of Vishnu, is said to have performed severe penances for the benefit of all mankind.
Unfortunately for us, a 110cc scooter with 2 grown men on it stops working properly at about 3000 metres. We completed the last 40 kilometres, a rather arduous climb, at a snails pace, no faster then a mountain bike. By the time we got there our 12 hour trip had taken a full day and a half. We couldn’t stay for long. After another day and a half retracing our steps we made it back to Rishikesh barely in one piece, our bodies in terrible pain all over from spending three days on a scooter driving over the bumpy mountain roads. After 3 days of village food and cold weather I finally succumbed to a fever and spent the next day in bed.
In hindsight there was a definitely a smarter, more expeditious and less punishing way to undertake this journey then the way we chose. But somehow our quixotic little adventure was far more potent. Not 100 years ago the journey to these pilgrimage locations would have taken weeks, not days. It would have been no small feat of outdoorsmanship to get there and I’m sure many would set out and not return home. Now there is a paved road right up to the temple with jeeps running up and down and guest houses with hot running water. There’s even a helipad a few kilometres down the mountain so you can complete your holy pilgrimage in true, dystopian luxury should you have the means. Even in so remote a location the data on my phone was working fine and I could text my friends “OMG Made it to Badrinath, very cold but super cool #India #Vishnu #Shanti.”
I think this says something important about our perception of the miraculous in the modern world. I would never dismiss the spiritual potency of the place itself, but there is also a bigger picture to consider. Nothing makes you appreciate the narrow band in which all of the drama of organic life plays out like a trip to its margins. The miracle is not that God is in Badrinath, God is everywhere. The miracle is that we are here. Somehow, against all odds, in a universe otherwise completely hostile to life, in a filmy layer on the surface of a middling planet hurtling around an unremarkable sun in a galaxy with a hundred billion more, there is this impossibly miniscule thread of time and space that nurtures us, holds us and sustains us, and when I say “us” I mean the “us” that includes every amoeba, every parasite, every moss, every mushroom. Everyone you love and every jerk on the street you, incredibly, couldn’t care less about. In a universe 90 billion light years across, ten thousand metres in either direction and we’re all dead meat.
What a fucking miracle.
Om Namo Narayanaya