India: Cave of the Heart
" A lot of the teachings are embedded in the land, sacred sites."
— David Frawley (Vama Deva)
On day six of our retreat we visited Vasishta Guha, or cave, taking cars a few kilometers up Badrinath Road, near Rishikesh. Vasishta, one of the seven great rishis, or sages, of India, meditated there with his wife Arundhati for many years—some say over 7,000 years ago. Many yogis and sages meditated there over time. The last one, Swami Purushattamanda, lived and meditated there 33 years, until his death in 1961. Since then many pilgrims have sought it out. Near the banks of the Ganga, the cave sits about 120 feet below the main road.
There were carts and ramshackle shops along the road at the top of the path, selling water, fruit, snacks. Locals and a few spiritual tourists milled about. Like in most places I had seen in India, trash was a part of the scenery. We passed under a yellow and red arch, past modest buildings before starting a winding descent down the dry dusty path, holding our bags tight against a warning of grabbing monkeys, as fast moving school children chattered by. After the path leveled we passed by the modest ashram which manages the cave and its visitors. A roof-high hill of cow dung, and then a few cows between the fence and building; a few monks and ashram residents. I lifted my phone to take a photo of one cow, but then a man walked out towards it, and I changed my mind, feeling that I'd be taking advantage of him if I took his picture.
Most of the group's shoes were already lined up near the cave entrance as our part of the group arrived. We were the last ones to squeeze in, just as the ceremony began. We were told to leave a pathway down the middle as we found room to sit along the walls of the dark and narrow cave, some close to the altar far inside. My spot was even narrower, so because I wanted to face forward to see the ceremony I huddled, my knees pulled up against my chest, making myself small as I leaned at a slant against the cave wall. What word is there to describe it as except energy, an infusion so strong that I felt it immediately as tears emerged from my eyes. Filled by that, there was no need to sit in an upright meditative pose, no need to think about alignment in this asana. Curled against the wall like an infant, grace filled me. That Sattvic force supported me, and I knew my body would be content in that position for hours. The chanting of the priest, or swami, was beautiful, but I didn't recognize it. What was the ritual? I could dimly see a candle-lit scene ahead. At some point he lit a diya lamp, carrying it on a small tray from the altar towards the entrance, pausing along the way as he proceeded slowly towards the entrance, so each of us could sweep the energized light over our heads and down through our bodies. He left, and eventually people up front left, and we were told we could move forward to be closer to the altar. Finally I was at the front, and the feeling was intensified, like a suffusion of light, a blessing. It was Purna, which in Sanskrit means complete. It was Santosha, which means contentment.
After some time a young women, dressed informally and looking to me like an American teenager, came in, guided by the swami. At the altar she chanted The Mahamrtyunjaya Mantra, the Great Mantra for Conquering Death. She chanted it repeatedly as she poured water that looked to me like ghee (clarified butter) over an object adorned with white blossoms. She poured the water repeatedly, and it was channeled down into a kind of pond to the right in the stone floor. A diya sat on a small altar to the right. When she finished her puja*, she leaned over it, sweeping its light over and down through her body. Then she turned and touched her forehead to the main altar, which involved a deep bow. To her left was a small table, on it a framed image of the sage Vasishta as an old man, candles set before it. Turning to it she then bowed, touching her forehead to the table. After she left, each of us performed the same actions before leaving. I felt I could have stayed there much longer, but I wanted to walk out to see the Ganga. That feeling of absorption in pure bliss came out with me, and it seemed to be everywhere.
The river was much smoother here, and along the rocky shoreline those few left in our group had spread out, mostly alone--seated on large rocks or exploring the large expanse. Some gathered together. Some went up to explore Arundhati's cave, which was more remote, and less tended to. There were dogs wandering, and some cows being walked off in the distance. The whole of nature here felt charged with the vibratory quality of that cave, and it was something like love.
After some time I started the walk back. The man with the cow asked me if I had Dana (an offering) for the cow. I was sorry to say that I didn't, especially after he asked me three times. Back at the road we waited for our ride back to The Glass Hotel. The reverberations stayed with me well into the next day, and the next, as I made my way back to Delhi via car, plane, and car again; and then by plane on the long trip towards home. And finally, approaching 30 hours without sleep, somewhere over the Atlantic, it began to dissolve.
Shambhavi-ji said, "Let nature teach you to surrender." Vama Deva-ji said, "To awaken, turn within to that Guha, that cave of the heart, condition of not knowing." Was it the cave or the resonance of meditators through centuries and millenia? Was it divinity speaking through the land, through ritual, through yearning? What I know is that I didn't have to surrender anything. Being there was surrender. Being there was not knowing. And not knowing was Shunyata: emptiness which was fullness.
On the ride to my hotel my last night in India, in Delhi, the driver looked at me in the rear view mirror. "Ma'am," he asked. "Ma'am, can I ask you a question?" After I replied yes, he asked, "Do you believe in God?" Throwing myself into it, I said Yes. "And how do you know Ma'am; how do you know?" "How do you know?" I asked back. "This," he said, tapping his heart with his fingertips. "This".
*"Pujas are short rituals and consist of chants, flowers, lamps, incense and food and water, etc. offered to the Divine, usually in the form of a statue enshrined in the temple." (97, Frawley, David, From the River of Heaven: Hindu and Vedic Knowledge of the Modern Age, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2014)