It is at this point that I probably should abandon understatement. It is time to let go of the last vestige of self-respect. To claim to be witness-archivist any more would be a sham.
I may have started out on this trip as a seeker-observer. A sympathetic one, it is true. Committed to my guru, it is true. But still, if I were honest, I have been oscillating for the large part of this week between respectful observer and cautious participant.
At some point yesterday, however, I realised the extent to which the journey had diminished me. I had been pared down to a pilgrim. Nothing more and nothing less. Footsore, travel-weary, breath-rationed, bewildered, like everyone else around me. Helpless, ineffectual, leaning on wooden staffs and sturdy Sherpas, the stoic strength of yaks and the goodwill of fellow-travellers for support.
But at this point, I have been whittled down even further. There isn’t much of a choice about it either. If I were to look at the path winding endlessly before me, it wouldn’t take much time before I sink down and accept defeat.
The only strategy, I discover, is one step at a time. And one breath – one shuddering breath – at a time.
But of course, the mind that is wily enough to think up strategies is also wily enough to see through them. And so it is a matter of minutes before I give in to the inevitability of failure and beat a retreat.
The fact is I don’t.
I admit that this has nothing to do with tenacity or courage. After the Manasarovar dip, I carried a soupcon of pride, perhaps not entirely unpardonable. Pride at my capacity for endurance, for being game enough to brave the elements, for midlife recklessness. But at this point, I know that not a single step I take has anything to do with me.
Which brings me to my confession: I am now, quite simply, whether I like it or not, a devotee. The only way I make this ascent – past a twisting, winding panorama of stream and crag, glade and rock – is by pinning my gaze on the guru. It is the sight of his form ahead of me, sure of foot, long of stride, nimbly negotiating the path ahead, that keeps me going. Each time it feels like agony to put the next foot forward, each time it feels like my lungs are going to burst, I focus on him. In savage terror, in desperate trust. If he is my guru, he has to ensure I make it. I don’t have much mind left now, or much body, or very much breath. If he is my guru, he has to carry me along.
And I find that although the prospect of a trek is still hair-raising, I am able somehow to take the next step. The next breath. And then the next.
Periodically, he turns. His gaze sweeps over us all, alert, calm, dispassionate. On a couple of occasions it rests on me. I realise then that he knows the truth as well as I do – the fact that I am, in fact, subsisting on his presence. Perhaps others are too.
It feels like an era before we halt. In actuality, it has taken us just a little over an hour. Sadhguru decides that we should stop by a waterfall. As I take my last few steps, faltering and stumbling, he looks down at me, his gaze not unkind.
“You’re doing well,” he says quietly.
It takes me time to reply. “Because of you,” I say inarticulately, short on breath.
His eyes glimmer with amusement. He is not unaccustomed to my longstanding distaste for overstatement. This clearly doesn’t sound like me. It is now, however, a fact, a bald statement of truth.
I manage to add, “And my back. The pain. It’s gone.”
“So miracles do happen,” he says lightly. He has turned away before I can respond.
I subside on a rock. We are now at the highest point of our journey – over 17,500 feet. When I look down, I marvel at how far we have climbed. The hotel now seems like a distant speck below us. Looking at the path we have taken uphill, it feels we have travelled more than a kilometer. But it is not the hotel or the path behind us that commands our attention after a moment. It is what lies before us: this towering presence, striated by snow, swathed in endless diaphanous tissues of mist. Black, enormous, emphatically present.
If the invariable human problem with the sacred is its intangibility, its elusiveness, here all complaints are surely laid to rest. For here is reality in capital letters. Here is mountain – solid, physical, eminently tactile. And here is metaphor – richly veined, textured, inflected by aeons of spiritual folklore. The result of this conjunction between the physical and the metaphysical, between the literal and the emblematic, is Shiva frozen eternally in form.
Or to put it another way, here is simply the staggering sight of centuries of abstraction – of incredible mythological and mystical sophistication –embodied in unequivocal stone. Here is idea made image. The conceptual made concrete. Thought turned thingy. Miracle as mountain.
No pilgrim, no aesthete – no one, I decide – could ask for more.
For the next hour, twenty of us sit meditating on the mountain. The chant of “Tryambakaya Mahadevaya” accompanies us.
Later, I ask others in the group what this experience meant to them. “Magic,” says S. “The deepest meditation I’ve ever had,” says A. “Time stood still,” says T. “It was my seventh time,” says M, “and it still took my breath away.” “Bliss,’ says N.
Swami Nirvichara merely smiles. Our young “non-meditator” photographer from Delhi grins. “I was busy shooting Sadhguru and all of you in your meditative trances and explosive states,” he says mischievously. “But then I started shooting Kailash. And the closer I went to the mountain, something began to happen...” He pauses. “Man, that mountain’s alive.”
In my case, I’m not sure what exactly that hour meant. But with Sadhguru seated a few feet behind and the mountain in front, I do remember being aware that this was the defining moment of my journey, the point of my pilgrimage – a pilgrimage that began much earlier than ten days ago.
This is the hour I will look back on, I told myself, the hour I will remember, the hour that I will wonder at for the rest of my life. This is the stuff of personal myth, the point at which a bunch of seemingly random human histories – mine and the rest of the group’s – intersects with the beyond without any of us ever being any wiser of what that intersection really means.
The mountain begins to pulsate. Perhaps it is the effect of moving cloud and shifting light. The effect of being in a place that swims between fact and symbol. Or perhaps it’s just the altitude and Diamox. Or perhaps it’s the two accomplices at work yet again: the master and his “fifty-percent partner”, Shiva. I wonder if they even know, as partners in crime, where one’s sphere of influence ends and the other’s begins.
Then the tears start. And great wracking sobs. And so prose ends and another language takes over.
Excerpted with permission from “Just A Strand In Shiva’s Hair: Face To Face With The Axis Of The World” by Arundhathi Subramaniam, from Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations, Life, edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale, Speaking Tiger.