The Himalayas and Ganga in their varied display of nature’s glory personify the medley of inner calmness and outer activity, which are essential qualities for every spiritual aspirant.
For centuries, they have been revered and associated with religious sentiments. However, for the worshippers of divinity in nature, these ancient mountains and rivers carry deeper symbolisms. For instance, in the presence of Himalayas, many discover an ineffable peace which then flows over into one’s daily activities like the Ganges river flowing from the high plains to reach the masses. Exploring such symbolism of Himalayas and Ganga can be a worthy exercise regardless of where one dwells, and thus is the purpose of this work.
Just like the thousands of nature zealots who are drawn to the Himalayas, my romance with these seemingly inert mountains began over a couple of decades ago, bringing me back repeatedly to live among its different regions. I sought among them the ‘sacred home,’ the pristine joy of being in nature, and an unbounded inspiration for my spiritual practices. One such place that has been my home in the past couple of years is the “Land of Gods”. Dev-bhoomi (translated as ‘land of Gods & Goddesses’) is the colloquial name for this region of Garhwal Himalayas in the Uttarakhand state of India.
What is special about dev-bhoomi? Going by its literal meaning, dev-bhoomi is where God and Goddess dwell. It is believed that their presence, albeit in subtle unseen ways, blesses all pilgrims who generally visit here in large numbers during the summer months (except for the past two summers due to Pandemic). It is further said that any spiritual aspirant living in this region finds multifold results for their spiritual practices. Even if you don’t believe such a claim literally, it’s easy to see that such an environment is highly conducive for training one’s mind.
Dev-bhoomi is also so named due to the many pilgrimage sites spread out mostly across Uttarakhand and Himachal region against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas. Some opine that this land is named dev-bhoomi because here one finds not only the splendor of the Himalayas but also the origins of various streams that make up two of Indian most sacred rivers—Ganga and Yamuna. Of the northern Char-dhams (four sacred sites of pilgrimage), pilgrims consider taking a dip at Gangotri to be the most purifying location based on the belief that a dip in Ganga purges one of all negative past karmas.
So this coming together and a partnership of two of nature’s grand manifestations, Himalayas and Ganga, beginning from Gangotri until Haridwar is considered by many to be the primary region of dev-bhoomi. Interestingly, the Hindu myth narrates that Ganga is the daughter of the Himalayas and that she was coaxed to come down to earth by King Bhagirath. Thus this metaphysical meeting of father and daughter attracts thousands of spiritual seekers and Hindu pilgrims, who have traveled here from time immemorial, and further sanctified this region by their reverence. While there are many natural wonders around the world, what makes these unique is this sense of devotion among people.
For an earnest spiritual practitioner, guidance can come in many ways. For an introspective and insightful mind, Life and all of one’s experiences can itself unfold the path to perfection. The Guru (divine teacher or literally, the dispeller of darkness) is not just one who comes in a physical form but that the Guru-principle (source of wisdom and divine guidance) can manifest through form and formless, living and non-living, conscious and inanimate, etc. Accessing this Guru-principle within is to discover a mental state wherein the highest wisdom flows through without much inner and outer resistance. Yet the outer environment can help cultivate the inner environment of our thoughts and feelings. Thus the Himalayas and Ganga, representing the Guru-principle in nature’s sublime manifestations, are potent with divine blessings and offer profound guidance on one’s path to awakening.
Many great Indian saints have lived and wandered among these sacred mountains, including Tapovan Maharaj and Swami Rama Tirtha. Their lives stand testimony to the fact that through outer pointers in nature, one can stabilize the mind in the divine state and realize the supreme reality. These mountains have also been the source of inspiration for much of Tibetan Buddhism, ranging from Marpa and Milerapa to the current Dalai Lama (who resides in Himachal Pradesh). Tibetans continue to find terma, hidden teachings, among these mountains by enlightened teachers of the past.
Key pointers for Spiritual seekers
In this dev-bhoomi in particular, the movement of Ganga against the backdrop of the Himalayas provides a conducive environment for contemplation and meditation. Symbolically, in the path of a spiritual seeker, he or she is initially drawn to the quietude that these mountains exude. Renouncing the outer engagements of the world, the seeker finds a new ‘home’ in the solitude of the mountains. But as his practice matures, he finds in the vicissitude of his life the steady flow and current of divine presence or the awareness of one’s Self. Then quietness and activity no longer oppose each other within one’s mental poise.
That what strikes us the most in these lands is the energetic bursting forth, and the continuous flow of Ganga against the immobile and the deeply grounded Himalayas. Whether it is the rushing waters over chiseled rocks, the rows of pine and deodar trees over steep mountain tracks or the ebb and flow of pilgrims, this sacred land offers boundless insight and inspiration for anyone who is reflective and on the quest for inner perfection. In fact, as we shall explore in the following sections, it is Ganga’s restless energy and roaring sound that makes the stillness and quietness of the Himalayas even more meaningful. This interaction between the two is symbolically expressed in various spiritual traditions as the dance of spirit and nature in creation—Purusha and Prakriti, Shiva and Shakti, Ying and Yang, and so on.
In this article I have attempted to capture some of this essence along with the insights and guidance it imparts. We can explore in a step by step manner on how the Himalayas, symbolic of stillness, and Ganga, symbolizing activity, unite in nature and thus mirror within oneself the attributes leading to inner harmony and peace.
1. Stillness – the quiet, underlying substratum of life
O majestic Himalayas,
You are the very embodiment of stillness,
You prod all who glance upon your presence,
To realize the profound quietness in their own hearts
In this world there are many great wonders of nature such as the Swiss Alps in Europe, the Grand Canyon in the US and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. They are undoubtedly unique in their beauty and grandeur. The Himalayas are also famous, and they attract many visitors. Some visit for its spectacular views while others attempt to conquer it through expeditions. Yet, if one is merely attracted by its physical beauty or enthused about adventure and expeditions, then they have missed out on the real value of these mountains. You may visit the Himalayas any number of times, but without taking a spiritual perspective, it is just another mountain range.
I once asked an old sadhu (a hermit) who has spent most of his adult life living in different parts of the Himalayas as to what kept him here. He responded, ‘these mountains exude a sacred energy which has enriched my whole life.’ Another old monk who had spent several years taking photos to capture the beauty of these snow capped mountains mentioned that all of his famously published pictures fall short of capturing that ‘something else’ which is beyond physical beauty in these mountains.
The convictions of these statements are consistent with those practitioners and spiritual seekers who live amid these vibrant hills despite the lack of comforts. The fact that so many people from different beliefs and backgrounds come here and undertake their practices, by itself creates a spiritually compelling environment. Obviously both these factors of the innate sacredness of these mountains and the quality of spiritual seekers it attracts combine to strengthen the spiritual potency of the Himalayas. Yet the most sublime and powerful manifestation of these mountains is the inner stillness and quietude that it creates in the mind. By its mere solid presence, it offers us an anchor to hold onto despite all the changes and transitions in our inner and outer environments.
Spiritual practitioners often take up the practice of long or frequent short periods of maunam, the vow of silence. In most worldly environments, one has to exercise effort to overcome the temptation to refrain from interaction with others and to train the mind to dwell in the quietude of body, speech and mind. Not only does it become hard to practice silence, but there is also minimal motivation for one to remain quiet.
On the contrary, living among these mountains, one finds that their background presence is the very embodiment of stillness and quietude; they serve as a constant reminder to turn inwards. Thereupon one finds oneself naturally and effortlessly slipping into that state of inner quietude where perchance one may glimpse one’s own Consciousness reflected in the form of the Himalayas.
2. Activity – the energy and expression of life
The unique and distinctive attribute of this region of dev-bhoomi in comparison to other regions of Himalayas is that of the river Ganges. While there are many rivers in the world that are bigger and longer, none is revered as much as the Ganga by the Indians. Ganga forms part of India’s history, legends and mythology and is lovingly referred to by many as Ganga-Ma (Mother Ganga).
The stillness of Himalayas is enriched by the presence of the turbulent flow of Ganges, which seemingly mocks the sage-like stoicism of these mountains. In fact, Ganga wreaks havoc at times by devouring and displacing houses and lives. Interestingly the sadhus whose dwelling or property was damaged or destroyed by Ganga carry no sense of negativity as they see in Ganga the divinity of nature—as the giver of life, the preserver of it and at times fulfilling its role as a destroyer as well.
O Mother Ganga,
You are the personification of movement,
Flowing unceasingly through every season,
Your roar and volatility compels all towards action
Activity and movement is the essence of Life—not just the individual life but the cosmic life in all creation. The waters of Ganga flows unimpeded whether rocks stand in its way or mountains threaten to block its path. The rushing waters of Ganga have a way to maneuver past them all. Similarly, Life never ceases just as Ganga never ceases to flow. Surcharged with divine power every spiritual seeker has to keep on moving through life despite all obstacles, with the élan of Mother Ganga.
All rivers like Ganges seem to project an optical illusion of a kind. Consider how at no point in time, or at any one place, can we say that the water flowing in the river is the same. From an observer’s perspective, every moment the waters change and get refreshed. However, right within the ever changing waters of a river like Ganges is the thread of continuity.
Similarly, our life is meant to be continually flowing. Good things may happen and so do bad things. We may be bubbling with hope and inspiration at one point in time, and at another point find ourselves in sadness or dread. Regardless of whether we are bursting with enthusiasm or sapped out of all energy for living, Life continues on, whether in the form of childhood, adulthood, old age and beyond. The energy of human life takes on various forms and names and even continues as formlessness with no name just as how Ganga ultimately merges into the ocean and loses its separate identity. This continuous energy, the divine current, is life itself! Honoring the essence of life, its dynamic and unbroken nature, and not the ever-changing disposition of body and mind, is the foundation for an intelligent spiritual seeker.
Another allegory that can be drawn is from observing the varied forms of Ganga, such as the turbulent waterfalls seen commonly at its origins, the river-like gushing flow for the most part of its journey downward or the graceful soundless movements seen in large expanses of land. Besides the contours of land and obstacles, the flow of Ganga also varies according to seasons. Although the volume and intensity of Ganga may be subject to these aspects of time and space, its flow remains nevertheless purposeful until it culminates in the ocean.
Stabilizing on one’s spiritual path or in any pursuit of life is to move with determination and poise like the waters of Ganges, until one reaches the highest goal. There may be times when one may need to rest and patiently wait. But as long as there is life it has to be engaged in the pursuit of pure happiness (Ananda).
3. The underlying unity of Stillness & Activity
When wisdom matures in the heart of a spiritual seeker, there is no distinction between being active and being still. Wisdom manifests as effortless action and abiding stillness. This deeper truth is seen metaphorically in nature that just as the Himalayas abide in the ground with ease, so do the Ganges flow on the riverbed effortlessly. The Himalayas do not have to be held in place by force; nor do the waters of Ganga need to be pushed and pulled around. It is their nature to be as it is or to express according to their nature. Similarly, a wise practitioner doesn’t strain to be still in meditation, nor do they experience stress when taking action. Accepting the continuous changes of life helps us to open up and live from the heart center. Then everything is seen as a spontaneous flow guided by a divine current or as the display of our own true nature. We make peace with ourselves and we accept everyone as being interconnected with the essence of our one being. We navigate through good and bad circumstances without losing ourselves in the outer drama of our life and the inner content of our thoughts and emotions.
In other words, we play out our role without carrying the residue of those actions in our minds. This becomes possible, as we progress on the spiritual journey, and as we begin to recognize the underlying Consciousness or Awareness that remains unaffected in both stillness and activity. The essence of our being is like the riverbed of Ganges, the substratum on which flows the dance of life. Yet this dance of life is not different from the one underlying Consciousness from which life springs. The dance of life is the very manifestation of Consciousness itself.
This metaphor for the ground of Awareness can also be seen from the perspective of the Himalayas which comes across to our minds as being more tangible and less volatile than Ganges. This ever-abiding presence of Himalayas gets imprinted in our intellect as a quiet formless presence of Consciousness. In fact this mirror image of stillness and stability carries forth into our activities and makes it possible for the intellect to also acknowledge that the manifestation of activity is non-distinct from the manifestation of stillness.
Certainly words have a limitation and they fail to convey such experiential insights, glimpsed by many at this dev-bhoomi. Yet the outcome of such realization is the ability to see clearly the underlying unity of stillness and activity, as clearly as the physical confluence of Himalayas and Ganga. For those who see with the eyes of wisdom, this mystic land becomes their one and only home on this planet regardless of where they live physically. This experiential realization helps them to not only discover the true symbolism of ‘dev-bhoomi’ but also to abide always in that sacred inner home.