Rishikesh is about an hour by auto-rickshaw from Haridwar, a major destination for Hindu pilgrims due to its location at the confluence of three sacred rivers. Rishikesh is the more meditative of the two towns, an accumulation of ashrams and saffron-clad sadhus. Lonely Planet calls it ‘the yoga capital of the world’. Eating lunch in a small café I cannot help hearing a man with a blue turban and a Scouse accent animatedly talking about his recent visit to an astrologist.
Brother Dinesh from the Brotherhood had put me in touch with Sivananda ashram, where he knows some people and had arranged that I could stay. I was not entirely sure about staying in a Hindu ashram, but I thought I should take the opportunity, Hoping that I could avoid that which was explicitly idolatrous, and see what a Hindu ashram was all about: I could at least do some pranayama breathing exercises and learn to stretch and to concentrate. On checking in at the reception it turned out that the yoga hall was currently out of order and so there would be no pranayama yoga, but I was free and eagerly encouraged to join the other activities. A notice on the door of my hostel reminded us to ‘call on the name of the Lord at all times, and so experience the presence of God’. I am all for exhorting people to call upon the name of the Lord – but once translated into a list of activities that meant first chanting Omsivaomsivaomsiva at the Siva mandir, and then similarly for Vishnu and so on, the situation is very different. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “for us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ”.
The afternoon I spent strolling around the town: plenty of brightly-painted statues of Siva and a lot of sadhus. I got in a boat to cross the Ganges, next to two sadhus. One complimented my kurta, and we started talking.
– Where was I from? I told him I was a theological student from England.
– Oh, had I read anything by Annie Besant? No.
– Any other theosophical writers? No.
– But why had I come to India and not read anything about religion in this place?
I told him I had read Brahmobandhab Upadhyay, Abhishiktananda.
There was a pause. Ah, he said, in India these people are considered dishonest.
– Why was that?
– They are disguising themselves as Hindu, but preaching Catholicism.
A little further discussion, limited by language, and we reached the other side of the Ganga and went our separate ways.
I returned to the ashram, not sure really what to do. The ashram had a pillar in the centre saying: be good, do good. Various shrines to Hindu deities were scattered around the place, a few old men shuffled around.
I went for dinner, and was impressed by the efficiency with which the food was served. Afterwards the evening satsang was to take place – which would involve some chanting and then talks in Hindi and in English. This was said to be compulsory for every visitor to attend, so I thought I probably should. I sat outside the hall, waiting. No-one seemed to be coming. The incongruity of my situation weighed on me: my own theological convictions were entirely incompatible with those of the ashram, and I had little language in common to communicate with the people here.
I decided that since there was little more with which I could fruitfully engage I should return to Delhi. I packed, returned the key to reception, got a bus to the Haridwar train station, and from there managed to get a ticket on the night train to Delhi. I arrived at the Brotherhood in time for breakfast. I assure them there has been no problem, and explain the reason for my quick return — which triggers a fascinating conversation.
– Did you manage to go to Ajatananda ashram? asks Father Monodeep – this being an ‘inter-religious’ ashram in Rishikesh with which the Brotherhood has contact.
No, I hadn’t… and they started talking about Ajatananda ashram, and the peculiarities of its swami.
– I visited once, says Monodeep. You go into the garba-griha — the cave…
– There is a cave? a surprised Father Solomon asks.
– Not a real cave… it’s a hi-fi ‘cave’. You go in, and the lights go out, and there in the darkness, where you see nothing and hear nothing, you realise… [a dramatic pause] … that you Are. Because you see, – Father Monodeep is enjoying himself, – it is not the eyes that see, but You who see through the eyes. it is not the ears that hear, but You who see through the ears.
There is a pause while we drink our tea.
– It is all quite strange. In the cave they have three statues. One is of Siva, one is of Jesus – but there is no cross, no sign of crucifixion. He is sitting cross-legged, a ‘Hindu Jesus’, beneath Siva.
Father Monodeep continues: It is meant to be a Christian ashram, but if anyone asks about this, the swami will only say that he gives mass every Sunday. He has a group of boys, some Hindu, some Christian, that he is training as brahmachari: he says it is best for them to learn their own spiritual traditions first. But, tell me this, if a Dalit wants to come and join them, then what will he say? They will not let him.