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HINDUISM TODAY’S journalistic team, Rajiv Malik and Dev Raj Agarwal, spent a week in Rishikesh in October, 2013, to create this story. They visited the large and famous ashrams as well as the humble hermitages of swamis living on the banks of the Ganga. They interviewed those teaching traditional Vedanta to sadhus and those coaching visitors from other countries in modern forms of yoga. They found time to sit by the river, worship and meditate. Their story opens with a description of this sacred region, its infrastructure and religious landscape, then proceeds to profiles of selected ashrams and yoga centers—large and small, famous and unknown.

BY RAJIV MALIK, NEW DELHI

“JAI GANGE! JAI MA GANGE! HAR HAR GANGE!” These words reverberate in the air of Rishikesh around the clock. They greet you on the streets and in the ashrams, dharamshalas, hotels—even in the markets of this holy city. They are on the lips of every saint and pilgrim as they take their sacred bath in the cold and rushing river. While Rishikesh today is renowned for its realized saints and world-famous ashrams, even first-time pilgrims will understand within hours of their arrival that it is the river Ganga which is everything in Rishikesh.

I myself came here when I was just one year old, in 1959, for my head-shaving ceremony. At that time the area was undeveloped as a commercial center; its many ashrams enjoyed the peace and quiet of nature. In recent decades Rishikesh—just a day’s journey from Delhi—has become more and more a tourist attraction, and both the local population and economy have boomed.

Rishikesh: A town whose main industry is religion

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DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Pilgrims’ paradise: An extended family on pilgrimage to Rishikesh pose on the steps of the ancient Bharat Temple.

History

Rishikesh comes from the Sanskrit Hrshikesha, a name of Vishnu that means “Lord of the Senses” and relates to a vision of the Lord obtained by a rishi meditating here in ancient times. Geographically, it is the point where the Ganga leaves the mountains and enters the plains of Northern India. The area is spoken of in the Skanda Purana and the Ramayana—the temples of Lakshman and Shatrughan relate to the latter, as do its two famous suspension foot bridges, Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula.

Rishikesh is the starting point for the Chota (“little”) Char Dham pilgrimage to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri—a route of hundreds of kilometers in the Himalayas, named after the Char Dham (“four holy abodes”) pilgrimage of greater India: Badrinath, Rameswaram, Dwarka and Jagannath Puri—a route of 8,000 kilometers. Tens of thousands pilgrimaged through here each year until the massive floods of June, 2013, that devastated Kedarnath. The floods killed some 6,000 people and trapped 100,000 for days in extremely hazardous circumstances. The pilgrimage has come to a virtual halt for 2014, as damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure are being restored. In Rishikesh itself the surging waters washed away or damaged several ghats—the wide expanses of steps into the river which line its banks in many places—and flooded an estimated 12 percent of all the town’s buildings, filling the ground floors of riverside structures with mud and sand. Four months later, during our visit, the disaster still cast its long shadow over Rishikesh; the pilgrim population remained much reduced.

There are four main areas here. Rishikesh proper is the commercial center. Going upriver, one passes through Muni ki-Reti, then Shivananda Nagar, a large piece of land gifted by the king of Tehri-Garhwal to Swami Sivananda for the Divine Life Society ashram. Farther upriver is Lakshman Jhula bridge and several big temples. The area on the eastern bank is called Swargashram—a name also used for several ashrams in Rishikesh.

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MAP: HINDUISM TODAY; PHOTO DEV RAJ AGARWAL

A partial list of the 150-plus major and minor ashrams, temples, yoga centers and landmarks in Rishikesh; (right inset) evening meditation at river’s edge.
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Exploring the Town

Photographer Dev Raj Agarwal and I ensconced ourselves at the pleasant and centrally located Hotel Great Ganga in the Muni ki-Reti area. Efforts to make appointments in advance had been unsuccessful, so we proceeded on a day-by-day basis, exploring on foot or by taxi. We often just visited an ashram unannounced—a perfectly acceptable practice and a charming throwback to an earlier, less hectic life.

Mother Ganga, the heart of this town, pulled us to her whenever time allowed. Despite the nearby noise of the three-wheeler cabs plying in and out of a huge taxi stand and the hustle and bustle of the marketplace just a few yards away, as soon as we walked to the banks of Ganga, we stepped into another world. We encountered pilgrims and devotees performing simple rituals, taking their holy bath or deep in meditation. Such is the peace and serenity at the river’s edge.

A different kind of experience comes from crossing the town’s two hanging bridges. Lakshman Jhula (#1 on our map), 284 feet long, was built in 1939, replacing earlier bridges washed out in floods. Its name comes from the story that Ram’s brother Lakshman did penance here in ancient times and crossed the river at this point. The 450-foot Ram Jhula (#12), built in 1980, connects the area around the Divine Life Society with the temples and many ashrams on the river’s eastern bank. Both bridges have big shopping areas at each end, bustling with pilgrims and tourists.

The bridges, high above the river, swing in the wind and shake as you walk across them. Here one finds a contrasting way to connect with Ganga and Rishikesh. In the early morning or late at night you can experience the cool breeze and go into a meditative state. In the late mornings and afternoons, the bridges can be packed with tourists, pilgrims, bicycles, carts and even cows, who have no fear of crossing them. Then there are the monkeys who quite literally “hang out” here. They are quick-witted thieves with the brazen skill of a New York street mugger who can relieve you of any snacks or other edibles in an instant.

Most pilgrims, especially those with luggage, will opt for the charming ferry boats which ply the river. People buy fish food from vendors along the banks and throw it to the eagerly jumping fish who follow the boats.

Where there are motorable roads, despite their noise and polluting exhaust, nearly everyone takes the three-wheel cabs called tempos. But to really explore Ri­shi­kesh, one must walk long distances and negotiate hundreds of steep stairs to reach ashrams located a hundred meters above or below the main roads.

Early one morning at the ghats, we encountered Shyam Bhardwaj, an engineering student from Gorkhpur, Uttar Pradesh. He studies in nearby Dehradun and is able to come to Rishikesh several times a year. He lamented the state of the Indian youth, “When they do not take any interest in our own traditions and culture, I feel ashamed. Modernization is compulsory, but we do not have to Westernize. Rishikesh is a spiritual place. When we sit on the banks of Ganga, we feel very peaceful.”

Everyone extolled Ganga. Swami Abhishek Chaitanya of the small Kerala Ashram (#32) felt this way: “When I wanted to have a true spiritual experience in Rishikesh, I prayed to Ganga. My prayers would always bring me in contact with the sages and saints who answered my questions and doubts. Anyone who comes here with a heart full of prayers on the banks of Ganga will not go back disappointed. She is not just a body of water; she is our mother who listens, hears and knows.”

In the Lap of Mother Ganga: It is the river that makes Rishikesh holy

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DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Unworldly life: A family holds a Hindu samskara, rite of passage, on the river ghats.

A City of Temples

Almost every ashram of Rishikesh, large or small, has a temple of its own where the pilgrims and saints in residence perform their daily puja and rituals. Pilgrims and residents alike also frequent the ancient Bharat, Shatrughan and Lakshman temples (#6, 15 and 39). These are named after the younger brothers of Lord Rama, who are said to have done penance here following the war described in the Ramayana. The first is near Triveni Ghat, the second near Ram Jhula bridge and the third—about 2.5 km from the first—near Lakshman Jhula bridge.

These three temples were already well known in the 8th century when Adi Shankara visited Rishikesh on his way to Badrinath, the first temple of the long Char Dham pilgrimage. According to Mahant Manoj Prapannacharya, head priest of Shatrughan Temple, pilgrims to the Chota Char Dham coming through Rishikesh used to worship first at Bharat temple, then Shatrughan and lastly Lakshman. The temples are less famous now. Still, Dinesh Chandra Nautiala, priest of the Lakshman temple, said visitors range from five hundred to a few thousand a day at his temple.

Bharat Temple’s age is apparent in the heavily weathered sculptures in niches in the otherwise recently rebuilt outer walls. Head priest Ashok Prappannacharya told us the temple maintains a dharam­shala (religious rest house), a public school and a Sanskrit school with 90 students who can train up to the level of shastri. A museum attached to the temple has rare local artifacts that date back to the 3rd century.

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All PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Pilgrim in contemplation on a specially-built platform at river’s edge; a meditating sadhu; Russian pilgrims offer worship at Triveni Ghat; The isolated but easily accessible river shore upstream from Lakshman Jhula bridge.

Ganga Aarti

At Parmarth Niketan (#21) on the eastern shore and Triveni Ghat (#40) on a long section of the western bank pilgrims congregate in the evening to worship Ganga with oil lamps. Frequent VIP guests—most recently, Prince Charles—have made Parmarth Niketan famous internationally. An average evening sees some 300 attending at Triveni Ghat, rising to thousands on auspicious days. Ganga Seva Samiti started the Triveni program 23 years ago, about the same time as Parmarth Niketan. At both places the worship comprises bhajan, Vedic chants and offering of multi-tiered oil lamps. This relatively recent practice has been adopted in Haridwar, Banaras and many other places along the Ganga. Triveni Ghat is also popular for pilgrims taking a holy bath or performing some of the 16 Hindu samskaras, rites of passage, such as my own childhood head shaving.

TEACHING ASHRAMS

T HE ASHRAMS OF RISHIKESH DIFFER IN THEIR GOALS AND FOCUS. In some, such as Kailas Ashram, sadhus and devotees from various traditions come to learn Vedanta in a scholarly program. Others, such as the Divine Life Society, maintain the teachings of the founder and care for the devotees of their specific lineage. Some, like Parmarth Niketan, have vast accommodation facilities for pilgrims and offer intense programs in meditation, yoga and philosophy. Still others exclusively offer basic lodging for the pilgrims. Nearly all these ashrams charge no set fees for someone to stay, but accept whatever donations are offered.

Kailas Ashram

The most highly regarded traditional ashram in Rishikesh, and one of the oldest, is the Shri Kailas Brahma Vidya Peeth, popularly known as Shri Kailas Ashram, located in the Muni ki-Reti area. The ashram (#27) was founded some 150 years ago by Swami Dharmaraj Giriji Maharaj in the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Adi Shankaracharya and now has 15 branches all over India.

Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Srimat Swami Vidyanand Giriji, the head of the ashram, was traveling when we visited, so we were hosted by ashram manager Swami Pragyananda Saraswati, a senior student of Vedanta here. He told us anyone of any guru or tradition can come to study at Kailas Ashram. While the founder belonged to the Dasanami order of sannyasins, the ashram does not exclusively perpetuate that lineage. Rather, it is a school for those wanting to learn Vedanta, with a library of around 11,500 ancient and modern books and around 900 manuscripts on various topics. The ashram’s own publication division has over 90 publications to its credit. Influential Hindu leaders who have studied here as young men include Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Rama Tirtha (among the first swamis to come to America) and Swami Sivananda of Divine Life Society.

The ashram has 100 rooms, 50 for sannyasins and 50 in a separate area for visiting householders, who may stay for a maximum of three days. No women or non-Indians are allowed. All who stay are expected to follow the strict routine of the ashram, attending the morning worship at 5am and each of the classes. If they miss three days in a row, they are asked to leave.

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DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Kailas Ashram: The famed ashram with its Lingam-shaped roof structure in the background, visible from the main road
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At present the ashram has 50 students, most in their 20s and all sannyasins. Initiation into sannyas is given to anyone providing a written request from their guru. The rites are performed and the saffron robes presented in the name of that guru. There are lectures in Hindi in the morning and evening, each about two hours. The full course of study is three years, after which the sannyasin is expected to leave; no one stays here permanently.

Kailas Ashram: Where Swamis Vivekananda and Sivananda came to study

T O HAVE A TRUE SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE IN RISHIKESH, first of all you must have a bath in Ganga with full devotion. You will benefit tremendously. Second, you must try to attend the satsangs that are conducted by sadhus and mahatmas on the banks of Ganga in the morning and evening as well as at Kailas Ashram, Sivananda Ashram and the ashram of Dandi Swami. Third, you should sit on the banks of Ganga and chant mantras and God’s names. Japa on the banks of Ganga is much more beneficial than that done in one’s home. Besides these, the pilgrim should avoid consumerist tendencies and not lay too much emphasis on food and drink when here on pilgrimage. This is a spiritual place, and therefore you have to perform spiritual activities here: chanting, fire worship, bathing in Ganga and giving to the sadhus and the poor. By continuously engaging in these devotional activities, inside we will feel clean, experience the divine power inside and help to connect with our inner self.

“In Rishikesh, sadhana, satsang and tourism activities take place side by side, with tourism increasing. I think the Uttarakhand government must ensure that the spiritual character of Rishikesh is maintained. So far as the saints are concerned, our job is also to educate. For fun and material pleasures, tourists should go to Goa or other hill stations which are visited for fun, frolic and entertainment.

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Swami Pragyanand: Manager, Kailas Ashram, Rishikesh
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“Today we have all the material comforts of life, but still we are not living a peaceful life. If peace is not there, then all that we have becomes of no use. Here at Kailas Ashram we try to teach you how to be happy in life with whatever you have. We teach you how to be happy in your day-to-day life. Whatever you are doing in life is okay. You may be married or unmarried, come from various places and follow different traditions. But the purpose of life is still to become happy. Only knowledge can make you happy, says the Bhagavad Gita. It says there is nothing more valuable than knowledge. Knowledge is the purest thing, a godly element and it should be earned. Through knowledge, we find the techniques of simple living by which we can be happy.”

Divine Life Society

The Divine Life Society (#14) was founded by Swami Sivananda in the 1930s, on land gifted to him by Narendra Shah, the then king of this area. Its vast publication program, which distributes practical religious books worldwide, has made it more widely known than Kailas Ashram. Even the king only became familiar with Swami’s work when visiting a friend in London, who was reading and benefiting greatly from Sivananda’s books published just a few miles from his palace!

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founder of HINDUISM TODAY, recounted how as a young man in California in the 1940s he wrote to the Divine Life Society and received some months later a gift box of books from India. When he wrote to thank them, he received more books. He was deeply impressed with the importance of the printed word, so abundantly distributed; one result is this magazine you hold in your hands.

The Society is a huge place, extending from the banks of the river far up the hill. Spread across the grounds are temples, living quarters, lecture halls, feeding halls, library, bookstore, a large publication facility for print, audio and video, and Yoga Vedanta Academy, which offers a residential course for up to 40 students. Residing here are 100 sannyasins, all initiates in the lineage of Swami Sivananda. Unlike Kailas Ashram, residents here—and those who come to visit or for short stays—must belong to this particular sampradaya.

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DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Some of the Divine Life Society’s facilities.
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Hundreds of DLS devotees visit the various offices and facilities each day. The monks try to give each as much personal attention as possible. The current president, Swami Vimalananda, is available most mornings without appointment in the hall which holds Swami Sivananda’s samadhi. One can also visit Swami Sivanananda’s small apartment on the banks of the Ganga, which still vibrates with spiritual energy from his intense meditations.

While the DLS ashram does not cater to tourists, short-term visitors are welcome. “We give those who come here and are our devotees an opportunity to serve,” said DLS general secretary Swami Padmanabhananda. “They can sit and meditate, perform prayers, study philosophy or worship in our Viswanatha Temple. They can participate in our charity work in our hospitals or leper colony or serve in the kitchen.” He explained, “A pilgrim who wants to have a true spiritual experience has to first study, then practice. When you practice dharma, you start evolving and become more and more good. Dharma is not just learned from books. Religion is not learned from books. Religion is learned by practice. The more you practice, the more it unfolds.”

Here we met Omar Djezzeini, a technical translator from Beirut on his 29th visit to Rishikesh and a disciple of Swami Chidananda Saraswati, the previous DLS president. “He used to call me Hari Omar,” he related, “I met him by the grace of God and now he is always with me. He embedded in my system the philosophy and beauty of this place. I am not following any religion to the letter, but I am a humble disciple of Swami Chidananda and Swami Sivanananda. There is a lot of grace here, but you have to tap it in your mind. If you are sincere enough, then divine force will guide you. This is an ideal place, especially in this Kali Yuga.”

Divine Life Society: One of the original ashrams of Rishikesh

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DEV RAJ AGARWAL

A daily darshan session with Swami Vimalananda, DLS president.

Swami Dayananda Ashram

Swami Dayananda Ashram (#30) is located in the Sheesham Jhadi area, an unexpected mix of residential houses and ashrams. The three-acre ashram was founded in the 1960s by Swami Dayananda, the famed teacher of Vedanta who also founded the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam of Coimbatore and Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. A medium-size facility with 160 rooms available, it is focused on teaching rather than providing accommodations for pilgrims. As at Kailas Ashram, many people coming here to learn are not necessarily associated with the sampradaya. Instruction is in English, rather than the Hindi of Kailas Ashram. There are 10 to 12 sannyasins stationed here, two or three of whom are teaching and rest doing their own sadhana. A hired staff of 50 handle management and upkeep.

This ashram hosts the teaching programs of other swamis, who may come with two to three hundred students at a time. During our visit, for example, there was a large group led by Radha Krishna of the World Community Service Centre, an organization founded by Vedatri Maharishi of Chennai and unconnected with Swami Dayananda.

One participant in that program, social worker Yamuna Rani from Chennai, shared her feelings: “I get a lot of peace when I am here. Every day I go sit on the banks of Ganga and meditate in the morning and evening. I feel so spiritually uplifted that I do not want to leave. I am leading a completely stress free life here. I am not even bothered by any thought of my home or family. One big change here in Rishikesh is that my sleep is very sound and good. Back at home I could not sleep properly even if I took so many sleeping pills.”

According to Swami Shantatmananda Saraswati, the resident acharya and a disciple of Swami Dayananda, the ashram has 30 resident students doing a one-year course in Vedanta. Most of these are aged 30 to 55, with a lesser number below 30. “We teach Sanskrit and Vedanta right from scratch,” he explained, “then take them to the advanced level and discuss how Adi Shankara and our own Guruji thought. We do this in a concentrated way, without any dilution.”

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All PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Swami Padmanabhananda, DLS General Secretary; pilgrims await their turn to worship at the samadhi shrine of Swami Sivananda.

While they do teach some yoga and meditation, Swami explained, their focus is Vedanta. The ashram has a Siva temple with worship in South Indian style, a school with 450 students and a charitable dispensary.

“Rishikesh is actually a place for knowledge,” Swami Shantatmananda told us. “It is not a place for pilgrimage, but a place for sadhus, sannyasins and brahmacharis to come, do their sadhana and gain knowledge.” He lamented the development of tourism in the area and said many sadhus long for the peace and calmness of the past. “Today the whole place has become extremely crowded. If a sadhu wants to go to Ram Jhula to have a holy bath, he has to think ten times and look around to see how many people are there before he takes the bath. We cannot go back to the past, but at least the sentiments and emotions of the people here should be respected. The entire culture of this country is being kept upright by the sadhus here.”

Parmarth Niketan

Parmarth Niketan (#21) and its present head, Swami Chidananda Saraswati (Muniji), are known the world over for its well-attended evening Ganga Aarti, annual yoga festivals, Ganga cleaning initiative and other environmental campaigns, the Encyclopedia of Hinduism project and, most recently, its disaster relief efforts in Uttarakhand.

Muniji himself is arguably the most popular and charismatic swami-in-residence in Rishikesh, with devoted followers ranging from the rich and famous to the poor and unnoticed. In keeping with tradition he is available for darshan most days without an appointment. In his simple backyard garden one can find politicians, Bollywood stars, wealthy entrepreneurs and even royalty sitting on the floor seeking spiritual insight. Muniji is highly respected by the local population as well; he has championed their causes in the face of outside political pressure and influence.

Parmarth Niketan lies just downstream from the Ram Jhula bridge. It is a huge facility, with spacious gardens and more than 1,000 rooms. Twenty sannyasins live here, and the ashram’s gurukulam has 160 students and 15 teachers.

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Sacred spaces: The spacious gardens of Parmarth Niketan; (inset) Muniji.

Asked about the ever-increasing level of activity in Rishikesh, Muniji offered, “Even in all this noise in Rishikesh, the lamp of spirituality is still burning strong. It is the responsibility of all of us to keep it that way. Most who come to stay with us are spiritual people, but even those who come as tourists shift their attitude in the atmosphere here when they meet and interact with us. Let the youth come for rafting, and then let us do the drafting which will influence their life forever.”

Asked for her thoughts, Muniji’s assistant, Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, said, “People are not coming to Rishikesh for untouched nature, there are coming for something deeper, an energy that is untouched, in pure form. It would be an underestimation of that divine power to say a cyber cafe, coffee shop or rafting can undo it.”

Swami Omkarananda Ashram

This ashram (#16), founded by Paramahansa Swami Omkarananda, is a well-funded institution, unusual in that all its trustees and managers are of European origin, though now Indian citizens. Following their guru’s instructions, the ashram’s focus is on karma yoga, selfless service, and it is popular with the local populace for its involvement in many charitable and welfare projects that benefit the people. It runs dozens of public schools and degree-granting colleges in Rishikesh and the surrounding hill country of Uttarakhand.

The ashram owns substantial land and buildings in Rishikesh which it rents out to other organizations. Additionally, a large air-conditioned auditorium—a facility currently lacking in Rishikesh—is now under construction in their vast complex. The swamis feel the holy city will benefit immensely from the ability to host big national and international spiritual events. Their popular yoga center is run by Usha Mata Ji, a senior disciple of Yogacharya BKS Iyenger. Students apply months ahead to get into her classes.

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ALL PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Siva temple at Swami Dayananda Ashram; Heavily weathered ancient sculpture indicates the true age of Bharat Temple, otherwise recently renovated.

One of Usha’s students, Elain Tan Siew Keow of Singapore, is a Buddhist and a yoga teacher. She shared that she had found no other place in India as peaceful as Rishikesh. “Even now I spend hours and hours on the banks of Ganga and experience true peace, quietness of mind and bliss every day.”

Another student, Markus Eniger, an engineer from Germany, shared Elain’s reverence for Ganga and added, “Rishikesh has a very nice community, like a stream of people who want to evolve, who want to go on the spiritual path, find themselves, improve and change. This is good vibe and good energy. That is why I like it here.”

Omkarananda Ashram has 14 temples in Rishikesh dedicated to various Gods. The popular Omkarananda Kamakshi Devi Mandir, built mostly in the South Indian tradition and kept spotlessly clean, is unique here. It is one of the few temples where dance—traditionally one of the 16 parts of puja worship—is featured. Worshipful dance is offered regularly by Kumari Somashekhari, the ashram’s dance instructor, and her students.

“My advice to foreigners here,” said ashram president Swami Vishweshwarananda, “is to go deeper and deeper. India has produced the greatest saints on the planet. Go through their holy books. If you want to pursue your interest in spirituality, then try to find a good guru. Try to lead a life which is full of purity if you want to experience the Vedic system which India produced thousands and thousands of years ago. Rishikesh is still very much a place where serious sadhana is being done. I think we have a bright future ahead.”

Teach, Learn, Pray: Knowledge & devotion are the town’s stock in trade

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Library at Swami Dayananda Ashram. Sadhu in study at Kailas Ashram.

Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama

The spacious campus of the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama—literally, “village of spiritual seekers”—and Sadhana Mandir Trust lies on the outskirts of Rishikesh. Founded by Swami Rama (1925-1996) and built in 2001, it is a world-class facility which provides an ideal and serene environment in which to learn Vedanta and meditation. Others in Rishikesh term it a preferred place to learn meditation. It is patronized by a wide range of people from other countries.

Overseen by Swami Veda Bharati, this is a strict ashram. The daily schedule begins with a 4:15 am wake-up bell and 5:00 am prayer, continuing through an intense day of yoga, meditation and classes and ending with 9:00 pm prayers. Its huge library is a personal project of Swami.

Now 80 years old, Bharati met Swami Rama in 1969 while a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota in the US; in 1973 he retired to pursue his guru’s mission full time. According to his biography, he now runs 60 meditation groups in 25 countries. Currently in poor health and observing silence, Swami communicated with us by typing on his computer.

Varied faces: Temples, yoga, free feedings and.... shopping

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The popular and immaculately clean South Indian style Omkarananda Kamakshi Devi Mandir; Usha Mata, Omkarananda Ashram’s yoga teacher; (inset right) Swami Vishweshwarananda.

The Meditation Research Institute was created here in 2005 “to bring together the perennial wisdom of the Himalayan traditions and contemporary science. The main objective is to document the various meditative techniques of these traditions and to test their effectiveness with scientific tools.” People of all religions come here to learn meditation—including, according to Swami, “Christian missionary trainees by the hundreds” as well as Sufis, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and others, each taught according to their own tradition.

Krishna Kumar Uperati, a resident, explained, “Technically speaking, according to Swami Veda Bharati, we do not teach meditation. We prepare the seekers to evolve their instrument of body, mind and soul to a level where they can catch the vibrations that lead to a higher level of consciousness.”

Phool Chatti Ashram

Twelve kilometers upstream, along the footpath pilgrims would historically take to Badrinath, is the 128-year-old Phool Chatti Ashram headed by Swami Devaswaroopananda. This is a popular destination for those looking for a retreat in the lap of Himalayas. The ashram, which can accommodate 200 to 500 pilgrims at a time, has an ancient Siva temple and a commodious yoga and meditation hall. The ashram’s yoga center, under the guidance of Yogacharya Sadhvi Lalita Nand, is popular with foreign women who come and stay here for an extended time to learn India’s ancient sciences. Swami expressed concern about the increased camping and rafting activities on Ganga. Not far from his ashram is a commercial camping site, and another is being set up even closer. He feels the consumption of liquor and nonvegetarian food is spoiling the area.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Back in the Swargashram area we searched out what is certainly the most world-famous place in Rishikesh: the now-abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where the Beatles stayed briefly in 1968. The ashram (#25) was built on land leased from Rajaji National Park. The government declined to renew the lease when it expired in 1981 and reclaimed the land in the mid 1990s. Today, locked up and falling apart, it still attracts the occasional visitors wanting to see the Yogi’s first ashram.

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Large shopping districts have developed on both sides of the river; a family prepares fried puris for pilgrims staying at Baba Kali Kamli Wali ashram.

PILGRIM LODGINGS

M ANY OF THE LARGER ASHRAM facilities in Rishikesh offer lodging for pilgrims as well as short- and long-term housing for sadhus. Most of these are by no means luxurious; that niche is taken up by the yoga centers catering to foreigners. These are places the poorest pilgrim can stay.

Baba Kali Kamli Wale Atma Prakash Ashram (#20) is located just a few hundred yards downstream from Ram Jhula bridge. explained manager Shri Gangadhar. The founder, Baba Kali Kamli Wale Ji—so called because he wore a black blanket—was a key force in improving the infrastructure in Rishikesh in the early 1900s. He insisted that facilities be provided for the Char Dham pilgrims and worked to improve the roads. One of his disciples, Swami Atmaprakashananda, opened a free feeding place for sadhus on the opposite side of the river; Swami Sivananda came there for food during the time he was doing tapasya.

Continuing this tradition, the ashram maintains over 100 cottages for sadhus, providing them with food and medical care, and some 140 rooms for ordinary pilgrims, most of whom are on a shoestring budget—a family of a dozen might share a single large room.

Shri Ved Singh and his family operate a free bhandara on the premises, capable of feeding hundreds at once. We found the food excellent; it included some popular North Indian delicacies. The ashram has shops which sell daily necessities to tourists and pilgrims.

Shri Sant Sewa Ashram, under Shri Mahant Govind Das Ji, is a venerable and popular ashram near Lakshman Jhula which serves low-budget tourists and pilgrims. The mahant expressed appreciation for those who come to Rishikesh: “More than our Indian tourists and pilgrims, the foreigners patronize us to learn about our culture. Many of them wear traditional Indian dress and rudraksha mala. They have a keen interest in our way of worshiping. I am touched to see how they praise Hinduism and take a bath in Ganga with so much devotion.”

Another example of simple living is the Bhagirathi Dham Ashram, a large facility right on the banks of Ganga. The manager, Swami Gyanananda, said their ashram is open to any true seeker who wants to pilgrimage to Rishikesh and do sadhana. “We deal with people according to their personality and background in terms of spiritual advancement and give them a program that fits them individually, as judged by our guru. This ashram is completely for sadhana.”

“Before setting out on pilgrimage,” Swami said, “one must study scripture. On pilgrimage, we should not keep in touch with family, nor bother about having a luxurious lifestyle. If you are looking for such facilities, then where is the spirit of pilgrimage?”

SMALL ASHRAMS AND YOGA CENTERS

RISHIKESH HAS BECOME AN UNLIKELY mix of facilities ranging from high-end boutique accommodations for foreigners to the simple huts of sadhus along the river. One cannot, however, categorically judge the more plush of these as the less spiritual. No doubt one does find here a few teachers more interested in money than spirituality, but most, Indians and foreigners alike, are dedicated servants and seekers of God. In the central areas such as Swargashram and the two bridges, advertisements are posted for hundreds of local yoga centers which can be found in every nook and cranny of the town.

Yogalaya Ashram, founded by Spanish national Swami Tilak Ji Paramhansa, is located in Ganga Vatika, an upscale area of the Muni ki-Reti area. It is the main monastic training center for the Vedic Foundation. One apartment houses a beautiful temple; the current guru, Swami Shankar Tilakananda, lives in an adjacent apartment. He was traveling during our visit; but when in residence, he is available daily to devotees.

Rich & Poor: The logistics of low and high-budget travel

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ALL PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL

Like Starbucks in Seattle, yoga entrepreneurs here in Rishikesh know that free WiFi is a draw for customers; students in a yoga class at Deepeshwar Mandir practice purvattanasa in the system of Pattabhi Jois.

Half a dozen nearby apartments are rented out by the day as guest houses. These well-appointed and scrupulously clean apartments are booked mostly by Western pilgrims looking for a more luxurious and homelike environment than is available at the main ashrams.

Two resident senior disciples, Brahmachari Vedanta Chaitanya and Brahmacharini Disha Chaitanaya, offered details on the ashram’s programs. The day here begins with a meditation session from 5:30 to 7:00 am. They teach meditation, various forms of yoga, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and also Ayurveda marma therapy, based on pressure points on the body.

Vedanta Chaitanya told us: “We have a program called Ganga Yoga under which we take people to different parts of Haridwar and Rishikesh. We have them take a bath which helps them release the results of their past karma and leads to good karmas. This is done with proper chanting of mantras accompanied with the practice of meditation.”

This ashram formally brings people into the Hindu religion along the same lines established in the 1980s by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. This “ethical conversion” process requires the candidate to demonstrate a deep understanding of the faith they are leaving, a deep understanding of Hinduism and the reasons they are changing. “If someone wants to embrace Vedic dharma, we offer the same serious process as developed by Subramuniyaswami. Those who are serious have to study and then take examination based on their studies. If they are found to be prepared, then only is the process completed. The process is not done just because they want it. They need to qualify for it.”

Brahmacharini Disha offered insight into the lure of Rishikesh: “Foreigners come from all over the world, but mainly North America and Europe. They do not come to study a particular subject, but rather to seek peace in their lives, to get some relief from their suffering and pain. They find we have some tools that can offer them such relief. We offer them a guru, scriptures and sadhana. I feel that even in today’s time if you are a true seeker you can find the real Rishikesh, which can give you what you are looking for, but you will have to search it out yourself.”

Yogacharya Swami Sudhirananda runs a yoga center in a hall of Omkarananda Deepeshwar Mandir in the Lakshman Jhula area. When we visited early one morning, he was engaged with a class of foreigners from 18 different countries. “In one month’s time,” Swami said, “we make them a yoga teacher. We charge them us$1,325 for the one-month course. Half of this is for their lodging and food, and part is spent on the rent of this hall. After every course is complete, we spend thousands of dollars on bhandaras, free community meals for pilgrims.”

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All PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL

105-year-old Dandi Swami Maharaj; the Phool Chatti ashram about 12 km above Rishikesh.

“We try to complete all the eight parts of ashtanga yoga in one month. The main benefit these foreigners get is physical and mental health and strength. Once the mind becomes powerful, and we stop focusing on pain in the body, we become wise and start to realize the true Self.”

Asked his advice for pilgrims, Swami said, “The first thing to be done after coming to Rishikesh is to have a bath in Ganga. If this is not done, coming to Rishikesh is useless. Once you have that bath, you will feel you have come to heaven.”

The 25-room Nirvana Hotel is part boutique hotel, part ashram, offering both spa facilities and yoga classes. One of their teaching gurus, Acharya Shri Maharishi, explained that his role is to initiate people in kriya yoga meditation with an intense regime of training. On Rishikesh in general, he observed, “It has all kinds of ashrams and saints, some famous, others working silently, and I think all are doing a good job. We should not view this activity of teaching as commercialization. In the ancient past, seekers used to learn and pay something in exchange for what they learned. Calling it mere commerce today is not fair. With the changing times, there are changes in this area of learning also.”

IN CONCLUSION

LATE ONE EVENING WE REACHED THE SIMPLE COTTAGE of 105-year-old saint Dandi Swami Maharaj on the banks of the Ganga, a high point of our adventure. Here we found the popular ideal of Rishikesh: an enlightened sage sitting on an elevated wooden platform in a humble building, giving his evening discourse to all who draw near. Quoting from the Gita, Vedas and Upanishads, Swami explained to his 30 listeners how one should live in this world in a correct and ethical manner.

Asked for a few words of wisdom for HINDUISM TODAY’S readers, Swami offered: “We saints do not pray just for the welfare of Rishikesh but for the whole world. Our prayer to God is ‘Let all mankind be happy.’ The whole humanity must prosper, be blessed and never experience any sorrow. Dharma should be victorious and adharma should be destroyed. If you truly seek a realized saint, you can definitely find him. Once you come to know about such a saint, you must visit him again and again, because truth is known when you meet him and listen to him repeatedly.”

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Our well-protected team and guests running the rapids above Rishikesh on their way down Ganga
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Rafting the Ganga: Sacrilege or Worship? One Thing for Sure, It’s Thrilling!

In recent years, boating several miles down the Ganga from above Rishikesh has become an increasingly popular—and controversial—activity. HINDUISM TODAY decided it best for journalist Rajiv Malik and photographer Dev Raj Agarwal to find out what it was like.

By Rajiv Malik

Rafting in Ganga in Rishikesh was a first for me, and turned into the experience of a lifetime. Initially, I was conflicted about it, having just interviewed saints who were strongly opposed to it and others who did not see the harm.

We started from Shivpuri, about 20 kilometers upstream and reached Rishikesh in two-and-a-half hours at a cost of us$25 each. It was pure, unadulterated fun.

Throughout the journey photographer Dev Raj Agarwal and I kept shouting and chanting “Har Har Gange” and “Aum Namah Sivaya.” Even the Brazilian couple who shared our boat—it is hardly a “raft”—joined in. We greeted the fellow pilgrims and tourists in the boats ahead of us by shouting “Har Har Gange,” while they responded to us enthusiastically with the same chant. At least for those we encountered, this was a sacred experience.

Along the whole route I felt one with Ganga, with the mountains on each side and all of nature. The scenes my eyes were capturing made my soul joyful. Then there is the sheer power of the river. You can get some sense of this from the banks, but can truly experience it only as you are tossed about in the rapids.

There were moments when I delved into deep meditative silence as I felt that Mother Ganga was showering her blessings with water that was falling on me as we crossed the rapids and cut through the waves. The whole scenario was breathtaking, mystical and magical. By the time I was back in Rishikesh, I felt completely blissful. I had developed a very close connection with Mother Ganga. She was so kind, affectionate, loving and caring towards me when I was in Her lap for over two hours which passed like minutes.

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Dev Raj and Rajiv (at right) at end of the run

By Dev Raj Agarwal

I feel like a humble little creature as I float down the Ganges in a blue colored raft, ferrying me to Rishikesh from some distance up the river. I am seeing my reverence for the holy Ganga from a new perspective. Not only do I feel energized in body and soul, I am overwhelmed by the stature and power of this river as all my senses seem to have been replenished with fresh energy. Also, Ma Ganga has displayed her Rudra Roop (form as the Destroyer) to me, as I almost fall out from the bouncing raft on the “Golf Course,” the giant rapids (grade 3 on a scale of 4) which can overpower any human might.

Looking around from the view point of the river has not only unfolded the divine view of the Himalayas from the perspective of the water itself, but has also explained to me why rishis and saints down the ages have opted to spend their lives here. This is the physical energy of the Ganga, never displayed to human beings, but enough to explain why Lord Siva Himself was called to hold her waters in His coiled hair, as she landed on the Earth. For me, the river has been personified after this ride and my belief in her as a source of life has increased. The spirit of the river dwells here, not on the sleepy and sometimes unclean ghats downstream.


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