The next morning Ashok decided to climb the Mountain of Shiva. Since that first dramatic impact, his eyes had time and again been drawn back to the temple. At night it was skillfully floodlit, so that it glowed with a mysterious translucence against the clear, starlit sky. From inquires made at the hotel, Ashok had learnt that it was always open and could be reached by a fairly stiff half-hour climb from the base of the mountain. He decided to start early, having had the previous night an early dinner and gone to bed, leaving Ramesh and Sheila together. He set the alarm for five, and after a bath and his morning prayers he left the hotel at six. He did not eat or drink anything before he left, and planned to be back for a latish breakfast.
The taxi drove him around to the other side of the hill, and up to a gate which read "ANANDA ASHRAMA" - blissful resting place. "You have to walk from here, Sahib, said the driver. "Shall I wait?" "No, don't bother," said Ashok. "I'll get another taxi back. By the way, what do you know about this Ashrama?
"The temple priest is a very learned man, Sahib," said the driver, "not a greedy fool like most of them. He has built this ashrama and lives here with one or two disciples. He is known as Ananda Maharaj."
Ashok paid the fare and the taxi drove off leaving him alone at the foot of the hill. He opened the gate. A large signboard with an arrow showed the way to the temple, while another path led into the Ashrama. On an impulse Ashok decided to visit the Ashrama before ascending to the temple.
The first thing he noticed was the complete stillness that prevailed. The main building was a modest wooden structure with the usual Kashmiri gabled roof. Around it were two or three tiny huts, evidently used by disciples. The compound was spotlessly clean, dotted with several small beds of yellow flowers and pervaded by a gentle aroma of incense. In the centre of the compound stood a solitary chinar tree, its green leaves fresh and virginal in the early morning light.
Ashok hesitated for a moment in the middle of the compound, not sure whether to knock or call for someone. Suddenly the door of one of the huts opened, and a young ascetic appeared. He was dressed in a bright ochre robe, his jet black hair fell to the nape of his neck.
He must have been about twenty, but his face had an extraordinary composure. In one hand he held a string of beads and in the other a wooden receptacle for carrying water. His eyes glowed as if with some inner fire.
As soon as he saw the sadhu Ashok joined his hands in salutation. The young novice lifted his right hand in a gesture of blessing so natural and effortless that Ashok marvelled at his poise.
"Can I see Maharaj?"Ashok asked in Hindi.
"Maharaj left for the temple over an hour ago. He always greets the sunrise there." His voice was liquid, like a brook in summer.
"Oh, I see," said Ashok. "I am sorry to have disturbed you."
Not at all," said the novice. "We do not often get visitors so early. You are a stranger here?"
"Yes, ,just on a short visit." He paused for a moment. How long have you been here?"
"For a sanyasi time should have no meaning." The young sadhu smiled, revealing a set of glittering white teeth.
"Yes, of course," said Ashok. "Well, I had better be getting up to the mountain."
Ashok felt ridiculous. He had forgotten the traditional offerings - water and flower - for a Shiva temple.
"Here," said the sadhu, seeing his embarrassment, "take this water to bathe the lingam. And here are a few flowers to offer to the Lord. We don't usually allow our flowers to be plucked, but with you it's different."
He knelt at one of the flower beds and broke off half a dozen yellow marigolds.
"Go soon," he said, "Maharaj is expecting you." With that he turned on his heels and walked back into his hut, closing the door softly behind him.
Ashok looked at his retreating figure in surprise. How could Maharaj possibly be expecting him? He himself had only decided late last night to visit the temple, and had not told anyone about it. He had mentioned casually to Ramesh and Sheila that he might climb the. mountain, but it was inconceivable that they could have sent Maharaj a message to expect him. He made as if to follow the young ascetic, but then decided not to disturb him.
Mystified, Ashok started the ascent, holding in one hand the water vessel and in the other the flowers. There was a dust track about two feet wide, which Ashok followed in his firm and youthful gait. He was wearing a pair of brown corduroy trousers and a brown and grey checked shirt, with a light muffler thrown around his neck. The morning air on the mountain was crisp and invigorating, and he drew it in with animal satisfaction. After the stifling heat of Delhi the change was excruciatingly pleasant, and as often happened to him in moments of heightened physical well-being and pleasure, his thoughts turned to Shiva in love and gratitude.
Of all the myriad deities in the Hindu pantheon, representing diverse aspects of the same divine Reality, Ashok had always felt most attracted to Shiva - Shiva Mahadeva, the Great God, the Compassionate, drinking the poison to save the world from extinction; Shiva the Ascetic, lost in fathomless meditation in the snowy Himalayas, the crescent moon on His forehead; Shiva Nataraja, dancing His cosmic dance of eternal creation, protection and destruction. As he walked he seemed to shed the worries and cares that had been revolving in his mind for so long; to "let go" of himself Swamiji had once said to him, just before he died, that there was very much more of life and existence than the conscious mind could comprehend, whole ranges of being and existence which, though as "real" as anything one could understand with one's normal mind, were yet completely beyond its scope.
It was therefore very useful from time to time to break away from the stranglehold of the false ego and to let one's being come into contact with deeper ranges of experience. For this purpose he prescribed yoga, but he also said that in certain physical conditions this sort of liberation became much easier.
This mountain thought Ashok, it really must have some special quality. With every step he took he felt lighter and stronger, a peculiarly exhilarating combination. The path led for about half a mile along the lower crest of the hill. Then the pine forest began, and Ashok found himself walking between huge trees stretching far up into the morning sky. The ground was littered with cones and needles, the rocks covered with green moss, the whole air suffused with the strong but pleasant aroma of the forest. Small multi-coloured birds twittered in the bushes, and at least twice Ashok saw a paradise fly-catcher, its long white plume so prized by the Mughal emperors, flit across his path. Of human company there was no sign. So much the better, thought Ashok, It's good to be alone after the mass of sweltering humanity in Delhi. People, people, people, pushing and jostling, shouting and gesticulating. He was thankful for his glorious solitude among the birds and the pines.
After about fifteen minutes' brisk walking Ashok noticed that the forest began to thin out. A little later he rounded a bend and stood transfixed. He must have climbed about a thousand feet, and now the whole of the Dal lake lay before him, surrounded by an imposing amphitheatre of mountains. From the hotel the lake looked lovely, but from up where he was the view was much richer and more overwhelming. He saw the hotel itself, neat and white in the morning light. The Dal lake was much bigger than he had imagined - it seemed to fill the entire space between the Mountain of Shiva and the high range to the east of the valley. In the morning stillness it was a sheet of glass, its surface dappled only where tiny fishing boats flitted around. Three houseboats used by tourists as changing rooms for swimming stood motionless and deserted, like children's toy models. The mountains behind were bare and massive, the highest of them covered with snow. So powerful was the stillness and so overwhelming the majesty of Nature that Ashok stood for a while absolutely motionless, unable and unwilling to break the spell. Then, suddenly, a deep voice close behind him broke the silence."Great indeed is the glory of God."
Ashok spun around with a gasp and found himself standing before a tall, strongly built man with flashing eyes and a long, flowing beard. His hair was brown and fell to his shoulders. He was dressed in a spotless white gown and a white dhoti, and wore a pair of wooden slippers.
Around his neck was a rosary of rudraksha beads, symbol of a Shiva devotee, and on his forehead the tripunda, the triple mark of Shiva. His eyes were set wide apart and glowed with unusual brilliance, forming the focal points of a powerful presence. Most surprising of all, they were sparkling blue.
All this Ashok took in within a few seconds. Then he raised his head and their eyes met. Obeying an irresistible impulse Ashok put down the flowers and the water and made to prostrate himself at the other man's feet saying, 'You must be Maharaj. " With a swift gesture the man in white caught Ashok's hands and embraced him warmly. Ashok was tall, but Maharaj stood several inches higher, and for a split second Ashok got the curious feeling that he was a little boy again."Welcome, my son," said Maharaj. "I have been awaiting you."
"That's exactly what your disciple said to me in the Ashrama," said Ashok, "but how could you be expecting me? You do not know me, you have never seen me before, and I myself did not know that I would come up here today."
Maharaj smiled, but only said, "Come, you must be keen to have darshan of Lord Shiva." Then he turned upon his feet and began striding up towards the temple, which was now only about two hundred yards away. Ashok picked up the water and flowers and walked after him, quickening his pace to keep up with the taller man's stride. Soon they came to the temple, which stood on a plateau at the very top of the mountain and rose dramatically into the clear blue sky. Built over a thousand years ago, it was made entirely of stone, and exuded a sense of mystery. A long flight of steps led up to the shrine. Maharaj halted at the foot of the steps for a moment, and waited for Ashok to reach him. He removed his wooden sandals and Ashok also took off his shoes and socks, and washed his hands in a small receptacle on one side of the steps.
Maharaj took Ashok's arm and said softly, "Come." They both ascended the steps. The first flight ended at a small landing, from which a second steeper flight ascended to the shrine. At the head of this was a large metal bell, and as he passed Maharaj gave it a push which set it ringing with a deep sonorous sound. The boom of the great bell resounding in his ears, Ashok followed Maharaj up the final five steps into the Inner shrine. A strong wave of incense swept over him as he stood at the door of the sanctum sanctorum, hexagonal and hardly ten feet wide. In the centre was a large stone Shivalingam about six feet high and five in diameter, made of a greenish stone that Ashok had never seen before.
Behind the stone lingam glowing in the early dawn, was a magnificent bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja. In one hand was the drum, the primeval sound symbolising creation, and in the other fire, the symbol of destruction. Of the other two hands, one was raised in a gesture of reassurance and the other pointed to his raised foot as the path of salvation. This, great image, which originated in South India, added a special dimension to this Kashmir shrine.
Maharaj raised his hands and folded them in salutation. Then, in flawless Sanskrit he began to chant one of the many hymns written in praise of Shiva Mahadeva, the Great Lord, by the great Shankaracharya after whom the temple was named. He sang In the morning 'Raga Bhairava', his rich voice resounding through the tiny shrine. Ashok also folded his hands and stood enraptured as Maharaj chanted:
At dawn I meditate on Shiva,
the God of gods,
who frees us from the fear of endless rebirth,
whose vehicle is a bull, and from whose locks
pours the sacred Ganga,
who with two of His hands wields the club and spear
and with the other two offers protection and boons,
who is the one and only infallible remedy for the afflictions of finite existence:
At dawn I bow down to Shiva,
who combines in Himself the Eternal Male and the Eternal Female,
the primeval Lord who causes
the projection, maintenance and dissolution of the Universe,
the ruler of the world, captivator of the mind,
the one and only infallible remedy
for the afflictions, of finite existence:
At dawn I worship Shiva,the one, the Infinite, the prime cause of existence
who can be learnt of only by Vedanta,
the Pure One, the Supreme Being,
devoid of the differentiations of name and form,
the one and only infallible remedy
for the afflictions of finite existence.
As the hymn drew to a close Ashok, saw the Shivalingam begin to glow softly. The sun had risen, and its first rays streamed into the shrine between the two men who stood in the doorway. Suddenly, almost miraculously, the shrine lit up and the Shivalingam took on a glow as if emanating light, with the Nataraja gleaming behind it as if made of pure gold
Ashok felt a strong upsurge of joy and emotion, and for a moment he thought he would lose consciousness and fall. As if urged by some telepathy Maharaja put his hand on his shoulder and said, "Now offer the water, and then the flowers."
Ashok stepped forward and poured the water over the stone symbol, repeating at the same time a Sanskrit couplet of Shiva which Swamiji had taught him many years ago:
I bow down to Shiva
who, along with His eternal consort the Divine Goddess,is always seated in the lotus of my heart:
who shines with dazzling radiance
and wears as a garland the mighty king of the serpents;
who is the incarnation of compassion
the true reality behind relative existence.
Then he emptied the small basket of flowers and bent low, acutely aware all the time of the piercing blue eyes fixed upon him.
"Come," said Maharaja again, and Ashok followed him down the five steps and out onto the platform surrounding the shrine. This accorded a panoramic view of the whole valley, with the city of Srinagar stretched out like some gigantic amoeba and the mountains in all directions. Slowly they walked around the temple. Ashok was in complete possession of his faculties, fully alert and conscious, yet the dramatic setting of the temple, the sound of the great bell, the exquisitely chanted hymn ringing in his ears and, above all, this magnetic and mysterious figure clad In spotless white striding along ahead combined to give him a strange feeling at once of unreality and heightened awareness. He felt that it could all be a dream, and yet he had the inner conviction that this was more real than anything he had ever before experienced.
After encircling the platform Maharaj bowed towards the shrine, again rang the great bell until its sound flowed out into the morning air as if eager to fill the entire valley with its resonance, and then descended the steps, Ashok followed. At the foot of the temple Maharaj turned to the left and went towards a small niche which Ashok had not previously noticed. This contained a marble image about three feet high of an ochre-robed monk, evidently the great Shankaracharya who in the eighth century swept through India on a wave of spiritual and intellectual power which enabled him virtually single-handed to restore and glorify Hinduism. Both men bowed before the image
Then Maharaj looked at Ashok and smiled. His face was powerful, exuding confidence and serenity. But his smile was even more remarkable - a blend of wistful tenderness and deep compassion, the smile of a Buddha; a Christ. Ashok smiled back rather shyly, a thousand questions suddenly surging through him.
"Let's go into the rest house," said Maharaj, "there we can talk for awhile and you can ask me whatever you wish."There was so much he wanted to ask Maharaj but such was the spell of his personality, his almost hypnotic magnetism, that Ashok could hardly speak in more than monosyllables. On being seated in the rest house he stammered, "Who-who are you?""A Devotee of Lord Shiva," Maharaj answered simply."But, I mean, are you an Englishman?"
Maharaj looked at Ashok quizzically for a moment and then burst into a long laugh, so sincere and infectious that Ashok had to grin rather sheepishly.
"And since when has Lord Shiva become the monopoly of Indians? Is he not Vishwanatha, the Lord of the world?"Ashok reddened. "I'm sorry," he said, "only I was so surprised I had to ask."
"Yes and no," said Maharaj, "I was English by birth, but now I do not claim any particular nationality. I am a devotee of the Lord of the world, and therefore the world is my nation." After a pause he added, "What is your name?""Ashok Singh," Ashok began, then stopped suddenly. "But you must know my name, considering that you were expecting me."
Maharaj smiled. Ignoring Ashok's remark he said, "What is it that you seek?" Ashok hesitated for a long while before replying uncertainly. '"I seek to redeem the glowing promise of the Upanishads - to achieve the state where all sorrow and strife cease and where shines the eternal light of bliss and certitude." Maharaj smiled again. "You seek well, Ashok, you seek what is your birthright, you have been named Ashok, "free from sorrow, and it is but right that you seek the sorrowless state." "But will I ever find it, Maharaj, or will I seek all my life in vain?" "True seeking is never in vain, my son, and true life is never ending." With that cryptic remark Maharaj abruptly rose. "You must return now. Feel free to come and see me whenever you like. I am up here for the sunrise and sunset, at other times I am in the Ashrama."
Ashok got up and bowed to touch the other man's feet. This time Maharaj did not stop him, but when he rose he held his shoulders affectionately. His blue eyes looking deeply into Ashok's, he said, "Yes, I have been expecting you and I will try and help you in your quest. But remember, it is you who will have to tread the path and reach the goal. Others can help, as signposts help a traveller on his way, but the journey must be undertaken by each one of us alone."
He turned and strode back towards the temple. Ashok stood for a moment looking at the imposing figure walking away from him. Then he turned, picked up the empty water receptacle, and began to descend the mountain.