Incredible India

India is incredible for its truly unique culture and heritage – abstruse but pleasant to explore and get assimilated. A kaleidoscope of dynamic traditions, culture and geography, India presents itself as a moving journey. Many historical writings shed light on various aspects of incredible India. About two thousand and five hundred years ago, an Indian travelled to Athens and met Socrates. “What is the scope of your philosophy?” he asked the celebrated Greek savant. “An inquiry into the phenomenon that is man,” was the savant’s reply. The Indian burst into a laugh. To the perplexed philosopher he then said, “How can you make any inquiry into the phenomenon that is man without knowing God?” This account left by Aristoxenus, a disciple of Aristotle, contains a cardinal clue to the understanding of the Indian mind. The laughing traveler’s attitude to things must have been moulded by the well-known thesis of the Upanishads about the Brahma — knowing which alone one knows everything. The enigma of life cannot be understood through an analysis of its manifestation; a seeker must go to the source; must realize One to know the mystery of the many. India can be summed up thus: A sub-continent, nay, a continent itself; the land of the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, the Buddha, Mahavira, Shankara, Gandhi, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Basaveswara , Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, to name only a few, the land of the Holy Ganga, Brahmaputra,Yamuna, Krishna and the Kaveri, the land of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the land of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; the land of the Taj Mahal, Elephanta caves, Ellora, Ajanta, Belur and Halebid, where the variegated forms of Indian art and culture come alive, the land of Varanasi, Sanchi, Khajuraho, Sarnath, Bodhgaya and Konark, again to name only a few, the land of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and the Sikhs; and the secular, democratic India. This is India of the Indus Valley Civilization that is also Bharat, the land of Emperor Bharat. Get to know about incredible India tourism and its multitude cultural and historical facets. Optima Travels will unfold exotic features and serve as incredible India travel guide.

The Spirit of India: True, few travelers come to India with the intension of sounding the profundity of her philosophy or spirituality. But there is hardly an aspect of the Indian life, apart from the bare surface of the ‘modern’ Indian’s existence, which is without some influence of a pristine philosophy or the much of spirituality. And so far as the said surface is concerned, surely, no traveler has any reason to be enamoured of it; it is as colourfully dull and lifelessly modern as elsewhere in the world. A traveler surely comes to have a feel of the culture and the civilization that is India — through travel across this vast country, gazing at her magnificent monuments and coming to know her people. To have this feel in its authenticity, one would do good to familiarize oneself with the spirit of India that pervades her atmosphere.

Indeed, to the average Indian, religion and philosophy come as handy as weather to the Englishman. An evening does not pass in any town or city without a couple of discourses by pundits on some sophisticated issues ensuing from the Vedas, the karma , the six systems of ancient Indian philosophy, so on and so forth. And here is an example from the other extreme of the population: To Ravishankar Maharaj, a celebrated social reformer of Gujarat, a burglar named Fula explains his inspiration behind his activity: “Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, forced into boarding in a house not her own, longs to be liberated and scattered. I can hear her crying out from miles away. My heart calls out to me, ‘Fula, get up and move!’ Hence I move and help liberate the wealth so choked up, scatter her and expand her Listen to me. Maharaj, once I went across the river to steal. I broke open a house and emptied the ornament-box on a piece of cloth. As I was tying it up in a sack, the housewife woke up and saw me. She was about to scream. I had to silence her by showing her my dagger.

The scream sank and the woman stood in shocked silence. All of a sudden, I don’t know what possessed me, I undid the knot on the sack and started picking out ornaments one by one and tossing them towards her. After having thrown the last piece, I made my exit. On the way back, I reproached myself, “ You bloody fool, Fula! This wealth must have rightly belonged to the house. It could not have called out to you. You must have heard it wrong and mistaken the location. Thus, Maharaj, we feel it in our bones. We shall never step near a house to which, we feel, the wealth belongs by right. God has created thieves to cleanse the dirt just as he has created carpenters, blacksmiths and sweepers to perform various tasks. Nonetheless, if you bid me to stop stealing; I shall-do so.

It must be said— despite all the vulgarization of the term wrought by its charlatan champions on the one hand and its superficial critics on the other — that India’s forte is her spirituality. At times it is observed that there is no evidence of the Indian being any more spiritual than mundane. The chief trait of a country’s life stream is not to be read in what is evident on the surface at a given time. It is the highest a nation had achieved in its long life is to be taken note of in this regard. The significance of that achievement cannot remain confined to the nation’s life alone; it is a contribution to the collective growth of humanity.

It must be admitted that although spirituality is the soul of India, its manifestation on the surface has been varied, diffused and often distorted. Numerous experiences and explorations in spirituality have resulted in the formation of a variety of schools and cults, each one tending to grow rigid for the sake of its stability and longevity. Only a patient observer whose ken is not limited to such accesses can see the truth behind them.

A People Who Live in Mythology: Schools, cults, and rituals apart, the masses of India were so much influenced by their mythology that a study of the phenomenon will result in staggering revelations. Thousands of years ago the vast forest, Dandakaranya, was far more grand and picturesque than it is today. Numerous hermitages dotted the region. And the river Tamasa that flows so sweetly through the woods to the present day, must have looked even sweeter than, for Sita of the Ramayana, a refugee in the Ashram of Rishi Valmiki and lately a mother, bathed in her flow. Once it so happened that while she bathed in a solitary area of the stream, unmindful of her clothes, some women of a tribe of the forest-dwellers saw her and they laughed. Sita fixed her serene gaze upon them. The women fell into silence. Slowly in their minds her gaze got translated into a question that she seemed to put to them: Being women, how do you fail to feel that alone in the lap of Mother Nature one dwelt in the mother-consciousness oblivious of the demands of social decorum? The women repented. Their repentance drove them to do away with their own clothes. The women of that small tribe living in not-too-easily accessible hamlets on the hills of Koraput still go without clothes!

For these tribal people, the aforesaid legend is a truth as real as their hills, so much so that when a certain religious mission induced some of their women to take to clothing, they died inexplicably in a short time. For a rational interpretation of the phenomenon it can be said that the deaths were the result of a collective guilt-conscience. Even so the pointer is significant. If the impact of a character in the Ramayana could be so far reaching on a community which was not in the habit of reading the epic, we can imagine the epic’s influence on those who are familiar with it. By the way, the illiteracy of the villagers should not be taken too seriously! If they do not read the epics, they all listen, to them. As C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer observed, “The literacy of India is not literacy of the eye, but a literacy of the ear."

While Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit has two well-known versions in the works of Tulsidas and Kamban, in Hindi and Tamil respectively, almost every Indian language has a version of its own, authored by one of its most celebrated poets. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata , indeed, have been the sources of an integral satisfaction , for the people -since time immemorial. From them the people have derived contentment of all their emotions: the craving for drama, fiction and philosophies of life. The two epics have plenty of all this. Mythology had played a unique role in giving the nation a psychological unity. Through their unique impact on the minds of the people of the entire nation, the mythological works were able to achieve an emotional integration that was stronger than that could be fostered by a linguistic or political unity.

The Sthala Puranas, a genre of sacred books of yore that enjoyed immense popularity, drove home the classical concept of India as one indivisible land by singing the glory of the numerous significant places scattered all over the land and ancient works and linking one another through legends. Coming to the other ancient works , the Buddha’s Jataka tales, the world's first collection of esoteric tales, the Kathasaritsagara, one of the world’s most ancient collections of stories, and the Panchatantra, the first ever collection of animal fables, have for their background no particular region, but India in its entirety.

Attitude to Life, Love and Death: While the mystery of death has been a cardinal theme in the myths of all the peoples of the world, in India the belief in reincarnation dates back to the earliest known times as projected in the Rig Veda. Consequently the thought and even the conduct of a typical Indian cannot always be interpreted in terms of the life he lives at the moment. The vision of a life he looks forward to lend in his next incarnation can influence his conduct too. Behind some of India’s most intriguing customs, say, the practice of salt, lay such deep-rooted beliefs. Needless to say, a practice, bereft of the spontaneous idealism whence it had sprung, becomes only a grotesque caricature of the original inspiration and that is what had happened to numerous institutions in India, with the setting in of periods of decadence. It is mythology, through India’s vast religious literature reached the masses and has inspired the Indians over the ages, providing them with some of the most sublime characters and visions. An aversion to life — the so called other-worldliness — certainly assumed the status of an ideal attitude for many Indians at a later stage and such an attitude proved a wet blanket for the country's social life and activities. But going back to the Vedic times we see that the attitude to life was highly creative and robust. Life, in fact, was looked ' upon as a scope and a means for the realization of higher possibilities and exploration of hitherto ungrasped truths.

To such a concept of life, death was as much a challenge as an enigma. The Upanishadic story of Nachiketa - the boy who braved into the presence of the God of Death and obliged him to expound the mysteries of death and immortality to him - is a precise instance of the primeval quest of the awakened man.

When we come to the legend of Ruru and Pramodvara, the diagnosis of the malady that hides under the mask of death has already been made. Death can be tackled only by love. Pramodvara, the charming wife of the young Ruru, suddenly dies. Dazed at first, Ruru soon succeeds in turning his agony into a grim determination to win her back to life. He is guided in his mission by the God of Love. Ruru enters the domain of the dead. But the God of Death cannot be placated by offerings or prayer. For bringing Pramodvara back to life, Ruru must pay a rather pragmatic price and that is half of the span of the age granted to him by Providence. Ruru pays the price and Pramodvara is resurrected. The theme grows into a greater issue - and through the Mahabharata exercises far greater impact on the minds of the Indian women - when it comes to the legend of Savitri.

The battle is no longer between love and death alone, but also between destiny and free-will. The two mythological characters that have sustained the spirit of Indian women are Sita and Savitri. Sita can be looked upon as the symbol of tolerance for the sake of Truth. She had emerged from the earth. Rama, the divine incarnation of Lord Vishnu married her winning over all the earthly and superhuman contenders. Even then the hostile forces — they are so powerful — represented by Ravana, managed to steal her. She was rescued by Rama, vindicating the triumph of the good over evil. But because of the doubt expressed by a petty mind — whether she should be looked upon as pure in spite of her internment in the demon-king’s abode — she had to suffer again and ultimately she decided to re-enter the earth. The little men did not deserve her presence and even the incarnation of God could hardly do anything but look on, helpless! It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the solace the memory of Sita has been to the ever-enduring women of India.

The Vision of Human Destiny: Equally great has been the significance of what Savitri symbolizes — the assurance that we have the power to change our destiny. That some of the Indian myths carry in them a time-defying portent — that they can suddenly spring to a new life revealing a significance hitherto unknown — has been proved by Sri Aurobindo using the Savitri legend for the exposition of his vision of human destiny, through his epic, Savitri. According to the legend, Savitri, the “luminous daughter” of King Aswapathy of Madra, chose to marry Satyavan, a prince who lived in the forest along with his parents, deprived of their kingdom. Satyavan was to die in a year and Savitri knew this even before her marriage. On the day Satyavan was to meet his doom, she accompanied him into the forest. The ominous moment arrived and the God of Death was there to take away Satyavan’s soul. But the brave Savitri, through her enlightened wit, obliged the God of Death, Yama, to restore Satyavan to life.

If once the pure love of an individual could defeat the death that was destined for another individual, the advent of Divine Love can do the same for an aspiring humanity as a whole. In fact, such a conquest of death shall be the sign of a sublime victory over the ignorance that rules human life today. The state of immortality shall be the sign of a transformed humanity.

The Parable of Evolution: There are opinions to suggest that certain ages of Indian mythology defy any attempt at placing them in known time. Take the case of the story of “Dasavatara” — the Ten Avatars. The commonly accepted meaning of Avatar is incarnation (of the Divine). Etymologically, Avatar means one who has descended. The concept suggests that from time to time there has taken place the descent of a power from the perennial source of the Divine and such descents have helped the evolution of consciousness upon the earth.

The first of the ten Avatars was Matsya:, the Fish, which could symbolize the "primeval stir of life in the water. Thereafter, comes Kurma, the Tortoise, a new release of power that is capable of moving between water and land. It is followed by Varaha, the Boar incarnation, the manifestation of an abundance of life-force. Aeons flow by. Comes Narasimha, the Man-Lion, signifying a transition between the animal and the man, the lion representing the most beautiful and harmoniously developed creature in the animal world. He is followed by Vamana the fifth incarnation of Vishnu. Thereafter comes Parashurama, the strong Brahmin man with an axe, showing his capacity to take hold of external means for his own end. Significantly, he is immediately followed by the next Avatar, Rama, the ethical Kshatriya prince who disarms Parashurama, symbolizing the superiority of prudence and conscience over physical prowess. Krishna no doubt is the manifestation of a greater enlightened consciousness. So far as the Buddha is concerned, he comes to show the possibility of a different kind. While all the previous Avatars have striven to develop and ennoble existence in the world, he shows a direction which could be taken by those souls who consciously choose to withdraw from participating in the evolutionary fulfillment of the world, embracing Nirvana, extinction or immersion in the source.

The tenth Avatar, Kalki, is visualized as one who would destroy the Mlecchchas - the barbaric men - and pave the way for the advent of a gnostic race, a new humanity. This is as it should be, for the world once created must have a sublime goal to reach. What a symbolic prophecy describes as destruction of the barbaric may very well be an evolutionary transformation of the barbaric elements in men.

A Staggering Concept of Time: Those who believe that there have been several cycles of ages, a great deluge occurring at the end of every cycle may take the earlier Avatars as originally belonging to a bygone cycle of ages which have been associated with new stories in our cycle of ages. In any case, the obvious symbolism in the story of the Avatars and the evolution cannot be ignored. And, it is a fact that the latest anthropological research puts the origin of man back to a far remoter date than hitherto accepted, suggesting the emergence and disappearance of many a civilization of which we hardly know anything. The Indian concept of time has been staggeringly vast— 4,32,000 years constituted a Yuga; 43,20,000 years made a Mahayuga, 71 Mahayugas made a Manvantara and 14 Manvantaras amounted to a Kalpa. And time is relative. 14 Kalpas make one day of Brahma. No wonder that a belief in rebirth, along with such a concept of time, would secure for the Indian a pattern of living that was free from tension. Repeated foreign invasions disrupted the pattern.

Ancient India’s Stamp on World Literature: India’s contribution to the world culture has been a much discussed subject in the recent past. It is well known how tales from the Jatakas, the Kathasaritsagara and the Panchatantra migrated abroad in the twilight of international contact; their influences can be traced in the Old Testament Tales, Aesop’s Fables, tales of the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and in numerous fables and folktales retold or reconstructed by others — for example in the Welsh story of Llewellyn and Gebert, La Fontaine, not to speak of brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson. The extent of ancient India’s contribution to the ideas in philosophy, mathematics and sciences in the world is well acknowledged by these words of Will Durant: “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages; she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.” The ancient India, no doubt, was an affluent land. Diodorus of Sicily, visiting India 2,000 years ago, quoted a popular saying among the foreigners,"A famine has never visited India."

Aspects of Indian Culture: The Vedas, India’s oldest heritage to the world, were called Shruti. Metaphorically it might emphasize their sublime origin — that they had been heard by their authors, spoken to them by a divine voice. Popularly it is believed that they are called Shruti because for a long time each generation of seekers heard them from an older generation and memorized them. There was a lofty musical style for reciting the Vedas. The association of musical instruments with the gods and goddesses speaks volumes for the place of music in Indian consciousness. Lord Shiva holds Damaru, a tiny drum played with one hand; Goddess Saraswati has her Veena; Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, has his famous flute.

Let Pandit Ravi Shankar speak for Indian music: "I have come to appreciate and believe that the greatest and the most soul-touching quality of our music is its spiritual aspect. It is this which has formed the enduring foundation of our music and which has helped it to retain its own character despite various influences through the ages. Certainly there have been some changes, additions and subtractions, for music can never be considered static, but the framework has not been destroyed by these. From the earliest days music was an outburst of man in praise of the Supreme Being, the Guru of Gurus. With it in its most enduring state have been long associated qualities of Bhakti i.e., reverence, and Vinaya, i.e., humility.

people who have made a little study of Yoga and Tantra know that there is a very thin borderline between the Anahad, nada — the audible, sound — and the Anahadnada — the supreme sound which is heard only from within. “The emotional basis of our music, from which the aesthetic qualities stem, is thoroughly elaborated by the nine Rasas (रस) or moods.” The nine Rasas are: Karuna (करुणा) or the emotion of sympathy and compassion;' Hasya (हास्य)— the emotion of mirth; Shringara (श्रृंगार) — the emotion of passionate love; Raudra (रौद्र) - that of wrath; Veerta (वीरता) — that of heroism; Bhayankar (भयंकर) — of terror;. Bibhatsa (वीभत्स) — of the bizarre; Adbhuta (अद्भुत) — of wonder; and Shanta (शांत) — of peace. The two great styles of Indian classical music, the Hindustani and the Karnatak, the first style generally practiced in the north and the second in the south, are like two palms folded together- in an offering of devotion.

The classical Indian dance forms are the Kathak — practiced mostly in ''the north, Bharatnatayam — practiced mostly in the south, Odissi, emerging from Odisha, Kathakali emerging from Kerala, Manipuri practiced in Manipur and Assam, and Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh. Most of the Indian dance forms were born in the temples, as offerings to the deities. Till the beginning of this century, a number of ancient temples had Devadasis— danseuses who regularly performed before the deities.

How does a Western danseuse, if she chooses to learn an Indian dance feel? Here is a relevant statement: “But Western and Indian classical dances are so different from each other, both in presentation and performance that I had to have a knowledge, of the background of the gods and goddesses I was portraying while performing Bharatanatyam. In Bharatanatyam, the dancer performs alone sometimes portraying several different characters in the course of a single dance. The stories have a religious background but they range in mood from comic to serious, and to tragic, spanning the whole range of human emotions. In this ancient art, dance and theatre combine to form a spectacle which is at once unique and universal. To gain the feeling, as well as the techniques of the dance and an application of the environment in which the dance originated, I studied Sanskrit, the language of the ancient texts devoted to the dance.”

To appreciate Indian art, it will be good to remember this observation: “Its highest business is to disclose something of the Self, the Infinite, the Divine to the regard of the soul, the Self through its expressions, the infinite through its living finite symbols, the Divine through his powers. Or the Godheads are to be revealed, luminously interpreted or in some way suggested to the soul’s understanding or to its devotion or at the very least to a spiritually or religiously aesthetic emotion. ...It is not that all ’Indian art realizes this ideal; there is plenty no doubt that falls short, is lowered, ineffective or even debased, but it is the best and the most characteristic influence and execution which gives its tone to an art and which we must judge. Indian art in fact is identical in its spiritual aim and principle with the rest of Indian culture.”

While the antiquity of India’s art and architecture is lost in the unfathomable past — impressive ruins of Harappa and Mohenjodaro (now in Pakistan) perhaps show glimpses of its twilight. Magnificent temples were built over a vast period, from 1st century AD to 12th century AD. Most of them were destroyed by waves of invasion. However, a number of medieval temples in the South — at Kanchipuram, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Madurai and Rameshwaram — bear testimony to the striking imagination and a sound knowledge of science of the Indian sculptors and architects of yore.

No less impressive are the paintings at Belur and Halebid in Karnataka, and frescos of the cave temples of Ajanta, Ellora and Nasik. Then there is the Konarak, Puri and Bhubaneswar on the eastern coast. Never had the stone proved so very plastic, so very amenable to an artist’s vision of a certain mood as it did in these places. Nowhere in the world, the ruins of a monument arouse such deep tragic pathos as they do here.

One question disturbs many. Some of the temples are known for showing men and women in embarrassingly compromising positions. A temple ought to be the last place for a depiction of such scenes! Several theories— from the influence of the Tantra to the need for rapid procreation in an era of frequent battles claiming numerous human lives— have been put forth as possible answers to this riddle. The true answer, however, seems to be lying at a different plane. The scenes in question are presented on the surface of temples which represents the surface of life. The scenes, with disarming frankness, reveal all that life has to offer when one has not gone deep into its significance. The pictures do not let anything remain shrouded in mystery. What men look upon as the highest pleasure has been exhaustibly explored. If one wishes to stop there, well, one might do that. Those who seek the inner truth of life must reject them and enter the temple. For them awaits the deity.

An Incredible Mingling : India as a country is vast; but the variety it presents is relatively much more vast. While the severe summer of Delhi might threaten to skin one, a night’s journey away, at Shimla, one might shiver under four blankets. The rains may be an unforgettable experience. And there are regions which the spring transforms into veritable paradise.

What is true climatically is true in every other respect. Jet planes vie with the bullock-carts just as the latest innovations in a materialistic lifestyle vie with the bare-bodied mendicants both claiming to speak for India. Past mingles with the present in an incredible intimacy. The Sati — the practice of the wife sacrificing herself in the husband’s funeral pyre ceased to be in vogue long ago. But here is an extract from a report: “The embers of the suppressed leanings found vent from time to time and the historian is confronted with a number of cases where a revival of the practice was in evidence. As recently as in 1954 and 1961, the now rare occurrences in the field, however, were revived. In the former case a Rajput girl achieved Satihood in a village in Jhansi district; another one in the same year having been committed by the wife of Brigadier Zabar Singh. The latter instance pertains to a village woman, Roop Kanwar, who immolated herself on her husband’s pyre at a place known as Mitava in Nagpur district, on November 9, 1961. Nearly six to seven thousand people are reported to have witnessed the spectacle.

The past, in India, is a perpetual present. In the 1980 elections, Indira Gandhi was opposed in her constituency by the Rajmata of Gwalior. It had so happened that the legendary leader of the great rising of 1857 against the English East India Company’s Government, the Rani of Jhansi, had not found the Gwalior Raj friendly. The Rani occupies a place of undying glory in the Indian memory. Hence, during the election campaign, there were people who “invoked the Mutiny to accuse the Gwalior Raj of complicity in the Rani of Jhansi’s death.

The Strange India: Many of the old institutions, beliefs, and practices are dying, but their memory lingers. Till some years ago a village called Mayong in Assam was populated by sorcerers —that is what all who knew or had heard of the village believed. A reporter wrote: “Incredible stories about sorcerers who could turn a man into stone or animal by incantation or the mere wave of hand, made outsiders give a wide berth to the village-.. the sorcerers of the village were in great demand outside for exorcism, treatment of snake-bites and various diseases. It was said that they could subdue, attract, paralyze, excite, or even kill a man by their spells...."

Along the Grand Trunk Road, near Varanasi, a tourist, with a professor for his guide, had this sight to amuse him: “Before a temple, 20 or 30 large monkeys were sitting, chattering and holding out their paws as they begged from passers-by. ‘They are sacred like the cows, sahib,’ said the temple attendant. ‘The king of the monkeys helped our Lord Rama in a great battle with the demons.’ ‘They're so wickedly intelligent,’ added the professor. ‘When you leave your shoes on the temple steps to go inside, the monkeys steal them and climb up to the roof. They won’t let you have the shoes until you give them bananas or nuts in exchange." ("India's Highway to Romance" by Ben Lucien Burman, The Reader's Digest, October 1962).

There are temples and temples, from the famous ones like those of Rameshwaram and Puri to the numerous little-known or curious ones: “Deshnoke, a tiny village in the Rajasthan desert boasts a unique temple dedicated to the glory and protection of the rats.... Thousands of them crown the ornate white marble and silver temple of the Goddess Karni Devi.... Seven mustachioed men from the Charan tribe, wearing red, white and yellow turbans sit at the temple doorway to collect donations from pilgrims and see to the welfare of their charges. Legend has it that Karni Devi, worshipped by the Charans, had once pleaded with Lord 'Yama, the God of Death, for the return of the soul of a boy who had died. When she was rebuffed, she retaliated by commanding that none of her tribe would in future come under Yama’s jurisdiction, instead, at death, their souls would inhabit the bodies of rats, until reincarnated in human form. So, the rats owe their cushy life to this legend. Temple devotees take care not to injure them, believing that they house the souls of their ancestors.

Vast has been the range of rituals and worships. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers, represents much that is evil. But near Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand Duryodhana is worshipped by a tribe inhabiting the western portion of Yamuna Valley. This information was given by Brig. Gyan Singh, Principal, Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.... Brig Gyan Singh also spoke of another set of tribesmen who entered their temple with their backs towards the deity.” (The Mail, 15 October 1967).

“On the 5th day after the new moon in the month of Shrawan (July or August), the Nagpanchami is celebrated. On that day worshipful homage is paid to the cobras. In a village called Shirala, near Sangli in Maharashtra, the people capture live cobras and preserve them in pots. On the auspicious day, all these pots are taken out in a bullock-cart in a procession accompanied by the village band.. ..The procession goes to a temple of a goddess outside the village, where home-made sweets are laid out as offering....”

“In Sholapur district of Maharashtra, there is a village called Shetpal where each house has a resting place for live cobras in the rafters of the ceiling. There is a temple with a copper image of a seven-hooded cobra over a Shiva idol.... In spite of a live cobra moving about in the house every day, there has been no case of a cobra bite in that village for the last three years. This shows that if properly handled a cobra will not v bite. It is a gentleman snake.” (“Snakes in Indian Culture” by Dr. P.J. Deoras, Imprint, July 1976).

Have you heard of the Jhampan snake festival of Vishnupur, a small town in West Bengal, a few hours journey off Tagore’s Shantiniketan? “Thousands of people come here to witness the Jhampan snake festival which takes place on the last day of Shravana (mid-July), the eastern Indian monsoon months. It is truly a spectacular occasion. The priests of the festival, well known as Jhampanias , are performers of this grand snake show and brought in carriages called Jhampans, from which the festivals as well as the performers get the names. “On the day of the Jhampan festival the Jhampanias are brought in colourfully decorated carriages and bullock-carts to the old palace ground by their disciples. King cobras, spectacled and monocled cobras, vipers, kraits, pythons, rat snakes, vine snakes, flying snakes and many other poisonous and non- poisonous snakes are brought in bamboo, grass or cane baskets. “Jhampan is basically a regional harvest festival and is closely associated with the fertility cult. It owes its origin to a 16th century ritual performed during a grand reception to honour Vir Hambir Malla, the King of Vishnupur, on his winning a battle. Snake charmers were the principal participants in the performance which became a tradition, being repeated every year on the same day. Today, long after the kingdom has been dissolved, the festival continues.” And there are vocations and vocations!

On the bank of Yamuna, near Delhi, live a few men who, whenever they need money, make a dive into the river and come out with a handful of coins! When a train passes over the bridge, many passengers throw a coin or two into the river as their tribute to her. Once in a while the diver might emerge with a bit of gold in his grip! “It is a difficult job going down 30 feet deep without breathing aids. But I as well as the other ten in the business learnt the art from the Guru,” one of the divers told a correspondent. (The Hindustan Times, 12 April 1973).

Feats like fire-walking, a regular event at Tiruvannamalai and many other places in the South, are among the amazing experiences that come to a traveler if he has the time for a leisurely study of the life in the interiors of India.

The God-Souled Himalaya: Wonderful — mysterious— you can exhaust the most sublime words from your vocabulary; yet the Himalayas will remain beyond them. “Among mountains I am the Himalaya,” said Krishna in the Gita. Kalidasa defines the Himalayas as god-souled, monarch among mountains, and the Manadanda — the measuring pole— of the earth. The region is not a mere world by itself, but it contains many worlds. One can devote as much time as one can afford visiting the holy places of the range and yet many would remain unseen. The same applies to places of anthropological significance or simply scenic beauty.

“The geographical feature which dominates India most is the Himalaya. There are no mountain ranges anywhere in the world which have contributed so much to shape the life of a country as the Himalayas have in respect of India. It is not only the political life of the people of Hindustan, but the religion, mythology, art and literature of the Hindu that bear the imprint of the great mountain barrier. To the Hindus the Himalayas have been a perpetual source of wonder and veneration. To the peoples of the south, a thousand and five hundred miles away, to the men of the sea coast, to the dwellers of the desert land of Rajputana no less than to the inhabitants of the Gangetic valley the Himalayas have been the symbol of India.

The majesty of the snow-clad peaks, visible from afar, the inaccessibility of even the lesser ranges, the mysteries of the gigantic glaciers and the magnificence of the great rivers that emerge from its gorges have combined to give to the Himalayas a majesty which no other mountain range anywhere can claim.

The appeal of the Himalayas is irresistible for anybody, for one reason or another; here speaks a Russian under the spell of one of the many moods of the Himalaya: “I shall never forget those Himalayan dawns — like the approach of triumphant avalanches, a dazzling array of the subtlest tones and hues, overwhelming in their regal generosity and range of colour combinations. How bravely the heavenly legions clashed above Annapurna! How boldly the celestial elements locked forces in the chill blue haze! The mother-of-pearl turned to ice, the brass froze. Peeping through the ragged confusion of clouds, the wheel of world harmony gathered momentum.

Here is another Himalayan mood: The elements are in a fury and the heavens are rent as sunder. The monsoon hurtles its millions of large raindrops from the sky with speed of a flying machine and amid the roaring noise of a gunfire attack. It avenges its long absence with incredible ferocity. The terrific downpour which now gushes out of the skies in such quantities possesses no parallel in temperate Europe.

Of Mystics and Miracles: A note on a rather delicate issue is called for. A sizable number of travelers come to India with some curiosity about the much talked of mystic heritage of this country. In the recent past there has been a number of publications, many of them by Indians, debunking India’s claim to any specialty in this regard. They leave seekers confused. The factors contributing to the confusion are many. Often magic and miracles are mistaken for mysticism and spirituality. Some try to find mysticism in cults and rituals. The shallowness of the phenomena of magic and miracles and the lifelessness of the rituals soon disillusion them. Often by mysticism or spirituality what is understood is the cult of non-violence. When one sees the Indian scene not free from violence, one questions India’s claim to mysticism. Then there are others who feel appalled at India’s poverty. They dislike to give any credit to a country for any high claim when it has failed at a purely physical plane.

To begin with the last observation, the economic misery of India is unfortunate. Such is the magnitude of the problem, that it has defied many attempts at solution. But that does not disprove her mystic achievement any more than an environment of wilderness can disprove the existence of a beautiful monument. Mysticism is a lore, a discipline, constituted of many a way man hit open in his quest for a hidden reality, for a truth higher than the ordinary values that govern life. The mystic quest is an inalienable trait of human nature. In most it is not manifest, in some it is manifest. The trait embraces all humanity. However, call it Providential or chance, in India it has been cultivated since the dawn of her history. The oldest works of Indian heritage, the Vedas are marked by profound revelations of mystic nature. The mystic tradition was founded in India in a remote past when religion as it is understood today did not exist. In fact there was hardly any agency to intervene between man’s aspiration and the Truth.

Agencies - religious cults, shrines, hierarchies — came into being much later. Many of them were born out of a true mystic inspiration —but true for the founder or a few around him. For the succeeding generations of adherents all that remained was a dead set of rituals. Spirituality steers clear of dogmas and taboos. It is not likely to be found in cults and rituals.

So far as non-violence is concerned, though a laudable ideal, it has hardly anything to do with mysticism or spirituality. It is a moral doctrine. Spirituality concerns a plane of consciousness that is far above the moral plane. Spirituality does not believe that violence can be eliminated through moral inducement. It can be suppressed only to manifest under a new mask. Nothing short of a transformation of human nature can truly eliminate violence, and transformation, of course, is the goal of spirituality.

The words magic and miracles are not synonyms. Magic is trick. Miracles are performed by manipulation of some occult laws. Those who dismiss miracles as certain types of tricks lack the elementary knowledge of occultism. Some tricks might pass as miracles, but all miracles are not tricks,

A so-called godman’s reluctance to come out of his environment and perform his miracles in a setting where we can feel sure of the genuineness of his power does not mean that he was taking recourse to tricks. The fact is, the laws of miracles can operate in certain conditions, including the mental state of the audience. The skeptic’s attitude is not conducive to them. But miracles, even when true, do not contribute to a seeker’s spiritual quest. Anything supernatural is not necessarily spiritual. Things good and great are always sought to be exploited by the vulgar and the ambitious. No wonder that charlatans should find in Yoga, mysticism and spirituality excellent avenues to satisfy their egoistic, if not purely commercial, ambitions. But nothing is lost for a true seeker. India, indeed, is the repository of spiritual splendours and the seeker armed with patience and perseverance will never go back disappointed.