How a holy place and its people helped a Western woman find wholeness
Story by Jessica Ravitz, CNN
Photographs by Chiara Goia for CNN
Rishikesh is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. For two weeks, I would explore this spiritual landscape.
Shoes off and feet freezing, I fidget cross-legged in front of the first swami I've ever met.
He's draped in saffron robes, serene and still. His eyes are shut, his mind taking him to places I can't know. Vines climb the thatch wall of bamboo behind him.
Around me, as the courtyard fills, women weep. The swami's eyes open and are as gentle as his smile. I feel the warmth, but I don't understand the tears.
I'm in Rishikesh, a spiritual hot spot nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, where ashrams dot the landscape and the sacred river Ganges flows toward the plains. Hindus have long made pilgrimages to this holy place, where saints and sages are said to have meditated for thousands of years. But ever since the Beatles came here in 1968, Westerners have made it their spiritual Disneyland. They roam the streets, dotted with shops, seers and more yoga classes than any yogi can possibly take, looking for enlightenment.
I understand this hunger to find one's path. I've done plenty of searching in my years and wrestled with life more times than I can count.
The Beatles, including John Lennon, left, and Paul McCartney, spent time in a Rishikesh ashram in 1968. There they practiced meditation and wrote most of the White Album.
Paul Saltzman/Contact Press Images
I took off for Israel in my 20s to dig into roots I'd never explored. I struggled with the wounds of childhood, my parents' divorce when I was a toddler, a second divorce when I was a teen. I've lived in eight states and moved more than two dozen times. I've traveled a road rich with twists — and some potholes — on my journey to find a career that fit, face my father's sudden death and navigate a foible-filled search for Mr. Right.
But I arrive in Rishikesh feeling fully formed. At last, I'm settled, happy, perfectly comfortable with where I am. At 44, I've cleared obstacles and found serenity, which includes a profession, home, life and — to my surprise, I think — a man I adore.
I'm now on a far less personal mission: to write about this place and what it means to those who flock here. I plan to push myself out of my comfort zone, get my yoga on, try my hand at meditation. I'll meet with gurus, hear about past lives, dabble in some ancient therapies.
My overriding goal, though, is to study those around me, the people seeking answers I suspect I've already found.
Granted, just days before I left for India, I received a sign that this trip might have deeper meaning.
My older brother dug up a document that caught my breath. It was a seven-page typed letter our father wrote in the early 1960s, proposing a trip to India. He hoped to study and walk with one of Gandhi's disciples, a force behind a social revolution to give land to the landless. He imagined writing a book and bringing these teachings to America.
While the content of this letter was new to me, the character behind it was no surprise. At 22, when he wrote the proposal, my dad was becoming the man I admired. He dreamed big, with compassion that knew no bounds, and went on to have a legal career dedicated to social justice.
I was 38 when I lost him. For most of my childhood, he'd been out of my grasp, the courts only allowing us every-other-weekend visits. When I became an adult, though, I claimed him on my terms. He understood me like no one else and became my anchor in his final years. Losing him in December 2007, after I finally had him, left me feeling robbed, unmoored.
"I wish to go to India in January of 1964," he wrote in the letter.
He never made it. Fifty years later, to the month, here I am — in front of a swami, trying to make sense of the emotions around me.
Then a sobbing woman asks a question that reels me in.
She says she can't have babies and wonders: What's the point of my life?
That's pretty dramatic, I think, but I recognize her pain. I've already mourned that I won't have babies myself.
The swami nods to his sidekick, a disciple called Sadhviji, a woman about my age. She, too, never had children.
"Just because our bodies can give birth doesn't mean that's what we're supposed to do," Sadhviji answers. "Everybody's put here on the Earth for something very, very special.
"You've come onto this Earth with so much.
"A womb is about this big," she says, making a fist.
"What else have you come onto Earth with?" she asks, reminding the woman of her other attributes: a heart that can love, hands that can cook and caress, a mind that can create and plan.
I fight back a sudden welling in my eyes. I'm a journalist on assignment to observe others, raise questions, take notes — not cry. Why is this happening?
"Through your mind, with your heart, you can give life that is so much more than having one baby or two babies come from your womb," she says. "Life is more than a heartbeat. Look how many hearts are beating but don't have a life. ... So many people's lives are empty. So even though you didn't have a baby in your womb, you can bring life to so many people."
I hang on her every word.
I thought I'd already come to terms with the loss of that dream, but I hear something that resonates for me in new ways. Tears aren't always sadness; they are truth, she says. Her words comfort me, help me move deeper in self-acceptance.
In this moment, 8,000 miles from home, I realize this journey may be as much about me as those I meet along the way.
In coffee shops, in restaurants and along the winding alleyways I see them: Westerners searching for higher meaning. Many are 20-somethings who shrug when I ask how long they're staying. Some exchange sideways glances and smiles with friends, as if to say they are onto something I couldn't possibly understand.
The thing is, I was just like them 20 years ago, only my spiritual destination differed. I was a clueless Jew when I landed in Jerusalem. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged to something bigger. Until then, no rabbi had ever spoken to me, literally or figuratively. No one in Israel cared that I'd never had a bat mitzvah, belonged to a synagogue or given to a Jewish Federation. I simply counted. And I tapped into something that was entirely for me.
Neither of my parents was thrilled about where I was. It frightened my mother and, I suspect, confounded my father — a man who'd been a leader in Detroit's lefty circles and felt more connected to the Palestinian cause than the Jewish state.
Some come for adventure, others for spiritual sustenance. Join us as we walk the banks of the Ganges, go inside the Beatles ashram and sample all that Rishikesh has to offer.
Video by Jessica Ravitz and Edythe McNamee
In Israel, where I studied and worked for about a year and a half, I came to know the beauty that faith can offer — but I also witnessed the ugliness it can generate. I saw the love and the hate, the meaning and the madness, the peace and the destruction. My time there would later shape my interests as a journalist, my attraction to stories about religion and spirituality. And ultimately lead me to the journalism fellowship that offered this assignment.
For me, Rishikesh is a new and exotic playground. It's a place where people gush about gurus, bow down at their feet, dance in ecstasy and chant in Sanskrit. And, ironically, it's a place where many Israelis, the bulk of them recently out of the army, travel.
The Rishikesh searchers are not so different from some of the wide-eyed seekers I knew in Israel, the ones I sometimes joined. I, too, once owned a pair of rose-colored glasses and devoured the words and spirit fed to me.
But the people I'm drawn to here are not just the seekers; they're also those who seem to have found what they're looking for. The ones who've already had an awakening. They become my unexpected guides in a spiritual experience I didn't see coming.
He was 8 years old, living outside New Delhi, when his father, a devout man known for his service to saints and holy men, brought a swami home for lunch.
"He touched my forehead, and suddenly something happened. He took me to a different world for an hour and a half," the boy, now grown, remembers. "I was gone."
After lunch, as the master stood to leave, the young boy clung to the man's shawl and asked to go with him. He was so desperate, he began to cry.
"I didn't know where I was going," he says, "but the call was there."
He told his mother that day that he hoped to grow up to be a swami himself.
Six months later, the swami returned. Again, the boy begged to go with him. This time the swami said that if the boy wanted to be with him, he'd have to stay silent for a full year and eat only rice and lentils once a day.
He was laying out requirements he thought a young boy couldn't possibly meet, but at 8½, the boy was ready. He ate as instructed and didn't speak for a year.
When the swami came back a third time a year later, he said that the boy could join him only after meeting another challenge. He had to head into the jungle and meditate — for what turned out to be eight years.
"I was alone with the divine insurance company," he says.
Eventually, at 17, he was brought to the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh.
The city of 100,000 is considered the yoga capital of the world. Swami Yogananda, 105, tried to teach me poses, but this one I’ll never learn.
He learned from holy men, began studying yoga, continued his meditation practice.
Unofficially, he began steering the ashram's vision in the early 1970s. By age 34, Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji — or Swamiji for short — was named president.
Today, at 61, he travels the world with his message of caring not just for people but Mother Earth. Celebrities, students, politicians and other spiritual leaders absorb his wisdom.
"After charging your heart with meditation," he says, "you use this energy in the service of humanity."
As the sun sets on the banks of the Ganga, as the Ganges is known here, a woman lights a wick nestled amid bright flowers in a small boat made of leaves and sends it downriver with her prayers.
A father stoops in devotion and sprinkles water on his son's hair. The toddler bends down and splashes his father's face, determined to return the favor.
From the water, wide marble stairs lead up to Parmarth Niketan Ashram. They fill with hundreds of visitors — Westerners and Indians alike — here to take in the daily sunset ceremony, or Ganga aarti. This is a celebration to honor God, who Hindus believe can manifest in any form.
Sitting near the top of the steps, his legs crossed, is Swamiji. As always, he's clothed in saffron. His long dark hair, peppered with white, moves in the evening breeze. His eyes are shut as he sings, accompanied by musicians and the voices that rise around him. People in the crowd wave oil lamps, offering blessings. Behind him, banners tout the environmental work he holds dear.
Bollywood stars and Indian politicians have been to this Ganga aarti, as have Prince Charles and Camilla. Uma Thurman was once here. Oprah planned on coming down from a nearby Himalayan spa to join in — but passed when she learned that Swamiji was out of town.
He is the force behind the 11-volume "Encyclopedia of Hinduism," a seminal work 25 years in the making. And since taking over the ashram in 1986, he's embarked on a campaign to clean up the Ganga, provide clean drinking water, honor the land.
When he added garbage cans around the ashram, some complained that it was becoming too Westernized.
The objections grew louder when he updated the guest rooms -- nothing fancy, no minibars, microwaves or TVs, just a few basic comforts like beds, electricity, space heaters, hot water and Western-style toilets. He didn't want to limit the ashram to those willing to sleep on the floor.
There are more than 1,000 rooms at Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh's largest ashram. Many house widows, holy men and employees, as well as boys rescued from the streets. They all stay here and eat for free. Hundreds of rooms, though, are reserved for visitors, people who come to study at the ashram or attend an annual yoga festival in Rishikesh — which is considered the yoga capital of the world.
I check into Swamiji's ashram for a night to learn more about his message. Each time I see him, he greets me with a grin and his signature hello, "Welcome home." He motions for me to sit near him during the Ganga aarti ceremony and makes sure a large oil lamp, camphor ablaze, is placed in my hands. The special attention, what I imagine he's bestowed on the rich and famous, is an honor that makes me a little uncomfortable.
Finally, one evening, I get him alone. We sit across from one another, a couple of feet apart, on grass mats atop a cow dung floor. I want to know more, especially about those who follow him and other Rishikesh gurus. What are these searchers looking for? What do they need? I wonder about them — but I also wonder about my own path and what I have yet to discover.
"We are just an instrument, my dear," he tells me, as if he can read my thoughts. "When you find yourself, you're in the mode of returning. You live with a purpose."
Seekers, he says, are looking to find themselves so they can be grounded and anchored, especially during life's ups and downs.
When we're connected with who we are, he says, we can respond calmly to challenges instead of react. When we're anchored, he says, we can live our purpose — which isn't about having more but about being more.
The path to understanding one's self is through meditation, which he calls "the best medication."
"You are the mantra. You are the meditation. Meditation is not doing; it's being," he says. "Let go, let God. … If you don't want to be cornered, create a divine corner for yourself."
I nod and smile, as if I can relate.
I once signed up for a series of meditation classes, even bought an expensive, beautiful meditation pillow, thinking it would help. The experience was miserable. My body ached. My legs and feet fell asleep. Others in the class sat calmly and, I thought, smugly — their eyes shut as I peeked around the room to see if I was doing it right. I couldn't wait for the series to end and promptly sold that pretty pillow on Craigslist.
But now, sitting before this swami, I love the idea of creating my own divine corner and becoming my mantra. I hope to be more than I have and live my life purposefully.
Sunset ceremonies like this one at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram are held each day along the sacred Ganga, or Ganges, river. Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati — the woman in the foreground on the far right — became a guide during my stay.
It's getting late, so I thank him for his time. Before I can bow down in gratitude, though, he interrupts: "Do you like sweets?"
"I love sweets," I answer, looking around, not sure where this is going. If sweets can lead to personal enlightenment, I'm golden.
Seconds later, a man rushes through a door bearing a box of handcrafted candies.
"Whoa," I say, jaw dropped. "How'd that just happen?"
Swamiji laughs. His eyes twinkle, and he lifts his right knee to reveal a button hidden beneath his robes. It's good to be a swami, I think, as I reach for a silver-coated treat.
"It's been such an honor to meet you," I say, as I lean forward. He puts his hand over his heart, smiles and bows.
An assistant leads me away and into an empty dining room where I am served dinner. No one else is brought to join me. I eat alone, forced to face my own silence.
Everywhere you turn in Rishikesh, storefronts, flyers and guides offer tickets to self-awareness and improvement. But in a place where Westerners wander with wide eyes, where many of the sadhus, or holy men, roaming the streets are said to be fakes, it's hard to know who to trust. Word of mouth becomes my friend and leads me to advisers with different messages to share.
Enter Prateek, a man who doles out 15-minute astrological readings by appointment. I kick off my shoes and walk into his unassuming little office, take a seat on an old, faded pillow and watch him at work. He's finishing up a phone consult with someone in Germany.
"You can be friends with this woman ... but just friendship," he says to the man on the line. "Your wife is good for you." This new woman the man's eyeing, Prateek warns, is a "karmic energy connection from a past life" and not intended for this one.
Prateek Mishrapuri, 43, says his family has been doing readings since the seventh century. He is the first in the family, though, to do them for Westerners. So far, he says, he's completed at least 18,500 readings. He says he's even done them for Nicole Kidman and Sylvester Stallone.
He asks for the date, time and place of my birth, taps them into his computer, recites a prayer and begins.
"Wow. What a stubborn woman you are. Very, very stubborn," he says, as I grow nervous.
"You decide to do something, you do it. Very brave."
That's more like it, I think, letting out my breath.
Prateek talks about my creativity and says I must write. He tells me I was once a French revolutionary who wrote articles that criticized the king and queen. That energy remains with me, he says. "You want to change things."
I sit, mouth agape, as he goes on.
He physically describes a man who long ago blocked my "energy" and held me back for years. He also brings up the one I was with in 2006, my ex-fiancé. He was my husband in a past life, Prateek tells me. I wasn't always good to him, he says, but he would have been good to me. I nod, knowing I didn't like who I'd become when I was with him.
"Big mistake letting go of him," Prateek says at first. I object. He then pauses. He sees something else. He motions toward his genitals and says my ex and I were doomed. Our sex life, he says, was broken. I gasp. I'd refused to go into a sexless marriage and handed back the ring.
Mahatma Gandhi, who used peaceful civil disobedience to lead India’s independence movement, inspired social reformer Vinoba Bhave. My father once hoped to walk and study with Bhave, who pushed to give land to the landless.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life via Getty Images
Prateek knows I looked into having a baby on my own.
It was the year before my father died; he told me he couldn't imagine my not being a mother. He'd been my rock when I called off my engagement, and we explored how I could become a parent on my own. We even agreed on who my sperm donor should be. Minutes after the donor said yes — he was known and loved by us both — I went to my father to tell him the news. His smile, always big, grew even bigger. We hugged and wept. In the end, though, our plan fell through.
No other options ever spoke to me — perhaps because after losing my dad, I often thought I wouldn't live a long life either. Another astrologer I met in Rishikesh scolded me for thinking this way. Prateek says a daughter may still be in my future.
"You have the heart of your father," he adds out of nowhere. Tears spring to my eyes. My dad always said my older brother was his spirit, my younger brother his soul — and I was his heart.
Prateek then gives me a mystical punch to the gut. He tells me my father committed suicide.
My dad had a hard-to-diagnose neurological disorder, somewhat like Lou Gehrig's disease. It was progressive, degenerative and slowly stole the active life he'd lived. He was open with me, saying that someday he might want Dr. Kevorkian on speed dial, a comment I more than understood.
But he wasn't ready for that when he died at 67. He was still getting around and, to some extent, doing his thing.
He and my stepmom had gone to their vacation home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. She'd stepped out for two hours and came back to find him in bed, lifeless, his body already cold. There were no pills, no bloody, gruesome discovery. We never got an autopsy — rushing my dad back to the States was more important — but the medical examiner who showed up that night was certain that whatever happened was instantaneous, natural.
I tell Prateek I don't like what he's said and refuse to believe him. My father would have said goodbye. He was a thinker and a writer who would have penned something poetic.
Prateek shrugs and continues.
"If you can find a man now, it's a good time to have a relationship," he tells me.
"What if I just found someone," I say, thinking about the great guy I met less than two weeks before coming to India. On this tangent of his, I want to believe.
"Yes," Prateek answers. "He's very good."
On her first flight to India, the California doctoral student thought she'd made a big mistake.
She hadn't a clue why she was on the plane. She was 25 and finishing her Ph.D. in psychology. She had no interest in India. She wasn't a wanderer; she wasn't particularly spiritual or religious.
A devout vegetarian — dubbed a "vegeterrorist" by friends — she was going simply because it was cheap and she liked Indian food. It felt absurd.
She decided there must be a reason she agreed to take this three-month trip with friends; she just didn't know what it was yet.
"I made a vow to keep my heart open," she says. She told herself: "If I find I can't do that, I'll come back."
Cows roam freely in the streets of Rishikesh, a Hindu holy city that does not serve meat or alcohol. The sacred animals stop traffic and always have the right of way.
She and her friends flew into New Delhi with no itinerary. She flipped open a Lonely Planet guidebook, and it fell on a page about Rishikesh. The city offered yoga, a big river, mountains. It seemed a good place to start.
After they made it to their hotel, the woman from California set off to cool her feet in the Ganga.
What happened next surprised her as much as anyone.
"I'm standing at the river, and I start sobbing," she says. "They weren't sad tears. They were tears of truth. ... I'd come home. It was as immediate and complete as if I'd come out of a 25-year coma."
She'd grown up in Los Angeles, an only child in a Reform Jewish household. She had a good life but says she felt like L.A. "sucked your soul." She vowed to leave the city as soon as she finished high school.
As an undergrad at Stanford, she cultivated her environmentalist spirit. She worked with Greenpeace and organized the school's first Earth Day celebration.
Her only connection to God was in nature. She'd hike into the redwoods, lie down in the pine needles and lose herself while looking up. She wouldn't have called it meditation, but looking back, that's exactly what it was.
Now, at the Ganga, she wept. She had a vision of the divine in the river, and when she turned her gaze from the water, the vision stayed with her. Her friends thought she'd lost it. While they wandered around Rishikesh, she says, "I pretty much spent all day, every day, sitting on the banks of the Ganga."
Their hotel wasn't far from the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, so one day she ambled through the ashram's gardens on her way to the river.
"I hear a voice: ‘You must stay here.' " She ignored it but then heard it again. "You must stay here."
She remembered the vow she'd made to herself. If she couldn't have an open heart, she'd leave. She peered up to see a sign in English: "Office." She marched in and announced her intention.
"I want to stay here," she told the people inside.
They told her to look elsewhere, that everything in the ashram was taught in Hindi.
But she didn't give up. She visited the office the next day. This time she was told she had to speak to the president, who was out of town.
Day after day, she returned. Each time, she was told he wasn't back yet. Finally, she decided there was no president — the people in the office were just too polite to tell her to get lost. She made plans with her friends to leave for the mountains but postponed the departure for one day.
As she walked through the ashram's gardens that last day, a priest came running to her with news of the president.
"He's here! He's here," the priest said. "Come meet him."
She was led into a room empty of furnishings but full of devotees. Sitting on a little cushion at the far end of the room was Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji.
She told him she wanted to stay at his ashram, and he said, "This is your home." She took that as a prophetic statement, not realizing Swamiji says that to everyone.
Being near the swami, she felt something she'd never felt before. Judaism had taught her that God does not take form. She knew Christianity taught that God took form in Jesus. Both of these were teachings she'd never really thought much about or questioned.
"Suddenly, here I was in the presence of someone that palpably felt like ... the divine," she says. "This being felt like a manifestation of God."
What she experienced in that room felt more real to her than anything she'd known in synagogue. She felt like a slate had been wiped clean, that she was an empty vessel ready to be filled with knowledge.
She told him she was going to the mountains but that she'd be back. She hadn't gotten across the outside garden, though, when her legs suddenly froze. She couldn't lift her feet. She flailed her arms and began to panic.
Her first thought was she'd contracted some strange disease or had a horrible reaction to a vaccine. Then she figured her legs had fallen asleep; she wasn't used to sitting on floors. But they weren't tingling.
Finally, she was able to lift a foot, but it would move only toward the room where the swami sat. So she did the only thing she could do: She walked that way and went back inside.
"I think I'm supposed to stay now," she remembers saying. "He says, ‘Welcome,' and that was it. ... I haven't left this life since."
She won't reveal her birth name; it is no longer her identity. She is Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati. Or Sadhviji for short.
I first meet Sadhviji over tea in her office, beneath a large wall hanging of Lord Krishna. She's the swami's sidekick, his disciple whose wisdom about the womb jolted me to attention.
She, like her guru, is dressed in saffron. She wears a red dot on her forehead to keep her spiritual third eye open and sips a simple vegetable soup each night for dinner. I wear my favorite jeans and an overpriced puffy Patagonia jacket and, frankly, could go for a steak and glass of red.
Indu Sharma, who was sickly as a teenager, teaches yoga at Parmarth Niketan. She’s been at the ashram for 12 years and credits yoga with curing her.
She long ago took a vow of celibacy and hasn't hoped for love, family, children. I can hardly stifle my smile, thinking about the wonderful man I've recently met.
She has spent more than 17 years of her adulthood living in an ashram in Rishikesh, devoting her life and work to simplicity in the service of Swamiji. I'm bound to a job and mortgage in Atlanta and concern myself with saving for retirement.
In so many ways, Sadhviji and I are of different worlds. But here, we enjoy a familiarity that feels like an old friendship. As different as we are, we're very much the same.
She's a 40-something Jewish woman who spent years in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I did. We exchange "oys," laugh about the concerns of our mothers — "On some level, my mom still thinks this is a phase," she tells me — and share stories of our younger selves.
We crack up, with affection, talking about the earnestness of the local rabbi from Chabad, a Jewish outreach movement — his insistence that her Hanukkah menorah isn't kosher enough, his delivery of an elementary-level Hebrew workbook, his dismay that she's not studying Torah and bearing children. Since the day he learned about her, she says, she's been his "special project."
Over the course of two weeks, she and I brainstorm ideas, share hugs and fire off messages:
You must meet the 105-year-old yogi!
Too bad you missed this one, she writes, forwarding information on an "orgasmic meditation" class.
I can't wait to hear about your visit with the astrologer.
And, a nod to our shared heritage, You know I can't send you home tonight without feeding you.
She also fields my endless questions. She becomes my touchstone, a guide. And she emerges as a sort of mirror, a reflection of what might have been.
In her mid-20s, she went on a journey to a faraway land and was so moved she chose to make it her home. I went on my distant journey at the same age and struggled with the idea of making a similar leap.
It was 1996, and my flight from Israel back to the States was only hours away. I walked through the streets of downtown Jerusalem in the middle of the night and picked up a pay phone. I told my mother I wasn't sure I could leave. She laughed, unable to take me seriously: "Oh, get outta here. I've already made you brisket!"
Later, in line at the check-in counter at the Tel Aviv airport, I thought about turning around. On my knees in a bathroom stall before boarding, I threw up. I cried for most of the return flight and often over the next year whenever I thought about Israel.
What if I had shared Sadhviji's conviction, her completely open heart, and made my life in Israel? Would I have stayed more religious? Would I have married and had children? Would I have bonded with my father the way I did? Who would I be today?
An astrologer hands me a box of tissues. I've been sitting with her for a mere 10 minutes, and already the tears are flowing. In the chart spread out before her, she reads my life. I am the product of a clock, geography and years. Positions of the stars, the planets, the moon and the sun.
Almost immediately, she speaks of my parents, who split up when I was 2. She says my father and I shared "pure love." His soul, she says, has traveled with me throughout lifetimes. She sees the love I have for my mother but describes our karmic bond as more complicated.
In caves around Rishikesh, sadhus, or holy men, worship. For 10 years, Guru Sharan Das, 30, has lived beside and meditated in the cave of his spiritual master.
From the time I was in her womb, I'm told, I've been absorbing her pain.
My mom knew when she was pregnant with me that her marriage would not last. She once told me she got pregnant deliberately because she didn't want my older brother to be an only child if she never remarried. I was conceived by a couple that was crumbling, by a love that was lost.
It is no surprise, the 61-year-old astrologer tells me, that I've questioned whether I was worthy or capable of love. Add to this the fact that I saw my father so rarely growing up; I learned early that I couldn't have the guy I wanted.
"Whatever happened to them is their business," she says. "Unfortunately, it became your business."
I came into this life as a "pure psychic sponge," she says. Which means I lived their divorce and became "collateral damage." And when my mom had a second failed marriage, I soaked up that hurt, too. And I allowed this role to extend further; it became who I was in my own relationships.
"You have been a receptacle for projections of other people's inner murk. They take your light, and they give you their darkness. Unconsciously, you have lived like this for 44 years," she says. "You are wide open for all those hits, just sufficiently enough to convince yourself that there's no love for you in this life. You have to send this away. It's all a big misunderstanding."
Over the next six hours, Sri Ma Amodini Saraswati, who holds a Ph.D. in social work from the University of California, Berkeley, continues to read and teach me. She lays out my tarot cards, serves me tea and sweet sacred offerings, takes me through a guided meditation. She sits me down at an altar in her home, in front of a photograph of her spiritual master, and asks me to talk to him. She tells me I've got abilities that need to be revealed.
She says I was born to communicate, heal and teach.
"It was part of your mission to experience this pain," Amodini says. "Now you have to release it. It's time to send it all away and connect with your power."
And, she tells me, there's only one way I can let go of the past and own my present and future. It lies in the river Ganga. I pick up my notebook and pen, ready to record and follow her prescription.
Along the riverbank, beggars with missing and crippled limbs or clouded eyes call out for donations. Pilgrims brush by, clinging to their children's hands, carrying plastic bags full of offerings. Guards scream for us to remove our shoes as we walk near temples.
My head spins as I weave around human obstacles, chasing after Kalam Singh Chauhan, co-owner of the guesthouse where I'm staying. Today, he's leading me through Haridwar, a holy city for Hindus not far from Rishikesh. It's a festival day and especially chaotic.
Thousands fill Har ki Pauri, the famous ghat or steps that lead down to the Ganga. People have come to bathe in the sacred river and wash away their sins. Others are here to release the ashes of loved ones. The Ganga is considered a river goddess who gives life, rejuvenates and liberates. She was brought to Earth, it is believed, to purify souls and release them to heaven.
As Kalam strips to his underwear to go into the water, I watch a family of women step off the ghat and submerge themselves, their bright saris hanging wet and heavy. Three children approach and ask if they can pose with me for a picture. A little girl squeals as her mother coaxes her into the river.
Kalam returns, towels himself off and asks if I want to go in next. I know I won't leave India without going into the Ganga, but I'm just not ready.
What I'm watching is more than I can handle. This isn't my place; it's loud, overwhelming, intensely meaningful to those who are here. I'm afraid, amid this crowd of pilgrims, I won't feel a thing.
Devotees of Sri Prem Baba, a Brazilian guru who spends four to five months a year in Rishikesh, gather to be in his presence. Their music moved me more than his words.
Instead, we head upriver, smoke plumes in the far distance luring me forward.
Stacks of wood tower above us and line the path to the beach. Bodies carried on wooden stretchers arrive wrapped in shrouds, draped with garlands and flanked by families. Men, young and old, carry pieces of wood and build pyres. A Brahmin priest spots me using my cellphone camera and yells at me to stop: "Delete! Delete!"
I'm just getting my mind around the steady flow of funerals taking place when I spot a woman being comforted by her children. She's about my age and has come to say goodbye to her father.
Before his body is ritually washed in the Ganga, she walks down to the beach to see him one last time. The shroud has been opened to show his face. She falls to her knees and bends over, stroking his ashen features.
I think of my own father and how he looked when I last saw him. His face was pale, his signature rosy cheeks no more.
I, too, fell to my knees — but I couldn't touch him. He was in a coffin, beneath a sheet of plexiglass. I didn't think to ask why. He once said he wanted to be cremated; my stepmom wouldn't have it and joked with him, saying he wouldn't have a choice.
On the beach, four men carry the man's body to the water to be purified. One or more are his sons, Kalam tells me. A priest chants holy mantras. The oldest son smears ghee on his father's face. Tumeric and other spices used in Hindu rituals are sprinkled on his body. So is cow dung. Wood is then stacked around and on top of him. The oldest son circles the pyre, reciting prayers, and sets it ablaze with long burning stalks of bamboo.
The smoke rises as more families arrive with their deceased loved ones. They come to release their souls and offer them peace so they won't suffer in the next life.
Bodies are burning or being prepared on pyres all along this stretch of beach. Ashes of the dead float in the air. Kalam turns away from the billows of gray to rub his red eyes, but I stand mesmerized.
There is no horrifying smell, no haunting image being seared in my memory. What I see is beautiful: an act of love unlike any I've ever known.
Later, still smelling of the fires, I sit with Sadhviji at the ashram. She tells me how sometimes, during the Ganga aarti ceremony, she'll see a burning pyre on the other side of the river.
She knows that people across the way — who surely see the light of the ashram's oil lamps and hear the songs of celebration — are mourning. There was a time when this contrast struck her as horribly sad, if not unintentionally insensitive. Now, though, she sees it differently.
"There are no thick lines between where life ends and death begins," she says. "Smokes intermingle from aarti and funerals, breaking down the distinction. One can't tease them apart."
It is only by grace that she sits and sings. Someday, she knows, she will be on top of a pyre.
Days later at an aarti ceremony, my eyes catch hers through the crowd. She motions with her head to look across the water. In the distance, on the other side, I see fire and smoke rising from a single pyre.
I turn back toward her, and we both smile. She closes her eyes and continues to sing.
As a child growing up in Brazil, the boy was different from his friends. He concerned himself with the mysteries of life.
"I'd ask my mother, ‘Who made the world?' She'd say it was God. And then I'd ask, ‘Who made God?' "
"Don't think about it," his mother said, "or you'll go mad."
It was then that he understood the meaning of his life.
At 14, he began practicing yoga. He was listening to his first bhajan, a devotional song in Sanskrit, when he heard a voice. It told him that at age 33, he'd go to Rishikesh — a place that meant nothing to him.
Years later, in the midst of an "existential crisis," he was meditating in his Sao Paolo apartment when he saw an image of an old man with a long white beard. The man told him that at 33, he'd travel to Rishikesh.
The Ganga, Hindus believe, is a living river goddess brought to Earth to purify souls and release them to heaven. I know I'll go in, but I have to be ready.
At 33, he was a trained psychologist about to be married. He convinced his bride-to-be to honeymoon in India.
The newlyweds traveled across the country, meeting various spiritual teachers, but he felt nothing. "My anguish would only grow," he says.
It was during a car ride near Haridwar that it happened.
"A light took over me. A silence came. My mind calmed down, and then I felt joy for no reason. … I sang a song in the form of prayer that came spontaneously through me."
He made his way to Rishikesh, where he heard people talking about a guru named Sri Sachcha Baba Maharajji. He knocked on the gates of the guru's ashram, and an old man with a long white beard — the man from his vision — appeared.
"I looked at him, and then I just fell to my knees," he remembers. "He said to me, ‘What is lacking, what is missing in your process, is a live guru.' " From that moment, everything in his life would change. "I began to remember who I was."
Today, he is Sri Prem Baba. At 48, his home is still in Sao Paolo, but he spends four or five months in Rishikesh each year at the Sachcha Dham Ashram, where he met his own guru 15 years ago.
Sit in cafes frequented by Westerners here, and odds are you'll hear his name.
A stream of devotees walk through the ashram's courtyard and leave their shoes outside the main hall. They've come from Brazil and all corners of the Western world: Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom; Austria, Belgium and Israel.
I never followed the Grateful Dead, but the daily in-gathering for Sri Prem Baba is what I would have imagined seeing. Musicians seated among the crowd of hundreds strum guitars, beat drums and lead the group in devotional song. They sing themselves to a frenzy, anticipating his arrival. Women in long, flowing skirts sway and spin in front of windows, rays of light streaming in from across the Ganga.
Near the front of the room, I spot Renata Rocha, 32, whose kindness drew me in the first night I met her at the guesthouse where I'm staying. She's from Sao Paulo and lives a mere 20 minutes from Prem Baba, but this is her sixth annual trip to see him in Rishikesh.
She knows this place inside-out. Need an astrologer? She's got one. Looking for the best Ayurvedic doctor? His number's in her phone. Best place to start yoga? That's a no-brainer: Yogi Vini, the gorgeous one who leaves women swooning. Want to understand why Prem Baba moves people? Come see for yourself.
Picking a guru, I hear, is very personal. Serendipity often leads a searcher to the right master. You'll feel it when you've found the one, people say. It'll be obvious.
That's certainly how it worked for Renata. Raised a strict Catholic, she'd been searching since she was 13. She did social projects with nuns, became a youth leader and studied at the Vatican. She learned to serve others but had spiritual questions that went unanswered. She dabbled in Buddhism and Kabbalah. She was nursing a broken heart when she headed to India with a friend at age 26.
Their first stop: Rishikesh. While grabbing dinner in a restaurant after they arrived, she found herself talking to an American guy. He took her hands, looked into her eyes and said, "I've been seeking a spiritual path for 20 years and finally found my guru. Tomorrow's my initiation. Will you come?"
Their eyes were locked, and they both began crying. How could she say no?
The next day she walked into Prem Baba's meditation hall and found herself surrounded by mantras and music. "This is heaven," she remembers thinking.
She watched Prem Baba sitting silently, assumed he was Indian and was startled when he opened his mouth and spoke her native tongue.
About 200 boys call Parmarth Niketan home. Besides academics, they are schooled in yoga, meditation, chanting, scriptures and service to humanity.
By chance, her path was changed. He would teach her to integrate her spiritual, professional and personal lives. He reminded her, through his workshops and his teachings, that God resides in her, that she has a purpose.
And so, each day she is here in Rishikesh, she takes her seat on a pillow and soaks in all that he brings her. Now a life coach, Renata tells me the word "guru" means "one who takes you from darkness to light."
"Everyone is searching. Who am I? What am I doing?" she says. "He doesn't tell you what to do. He helps you see who you are. It's all about self-knowledge. Once you understand who you are, you understand the universe."
As Prem Baba enters the hall, Renata and hundreds of others rise to face him. They press their hands together in front of their lips and hearts. They beam. They bow. Some wipe away tears. I scan the sea of people, examining their faces. From what I can tell, there's not an Indian in the room.
He steps up onto a riser and takes his seat in a large chair, looking out at those who welcome him with music of adoration.
When he speaks, they drink in his words, which are translated into English from Portuguese. To me they seem like spiritual sound bites, simple nuggets of wisdom.
You only find yourself when you acknowledge you're lost.
A little girl weaves through the seated crowd, a section of her blonde hair dyed purple.
Life is like a great game, and everything that happens in this game is an opportunity for growth.
A toddler drops his truck and climbs into his mother's lap to breastfeed.
God is one. Truth is one. Love is one.
A woman, meditation beads strung around her neck, stoops over her journal, drawing a web of hearts.
I see the awe of his followers but fight the urge to yawn. Maybe I'm not listening hard enough?
The goal is to rescue the ones who are ready to be awakened.
Maybe I don't understand what he's saying?
Some get warm under the sun, but others cannot absorb the sun's light.
All I know is that the music moves me more than the words.
People line up to be close to Prem Baba. They shower him with petals, put garlands around his neck and pass him bouquets. They offer him boxes of sweets, bow down at his feet and take his hands and hugs as if they are treasures.
Around me, I see people weep. I spot a woman who, after greeting the guru, is curled into a corner, sobbing. I want to tap her on the shoulder and ask why she cries, but her eyes are closed, this space is sacred, and she's somewhere else.
Instead, I look around to see if anyone shares my questions. I spot Alexia in the back of the room, sitting on a table against the far windows. She looks out at those before her, silent and unmoved.
I first met Alexia, who didn't want her real name used, outside the gates to the old, long-abandoned ashram of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Or, as it is more commonly known in these parts, "the Beatles ashram."
The Fab Four showed up here in 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation. They also wrote most of the White Album during their stay. Now their old ashram seems a sad afterthought, a dead end of town on the east bank of the Ganga. Abandoned since 1997, it's overgrown, dilapidated and under government care. Visitors are not allowed. If caught, violators are fined 5,000 rupees — about $80.
The gates were locked and trespass warnings prominent, so I arranged with an official to get in with a guide and invited Alexia to come along.
Together we ducked through trees, stepped over tangled weeds and fresh elephant dung, walking the old ashram's pathways. We crunched across glass shards and marveled at artistic graffiti. When our guide took us underground to see hidden meditation caves and warned of the possibility of snakes and leopards, we spun around and headed toward the light.
Now, days later in the sunlight of Prem Baba's meditation hall, I watch as Alexia sits quietly, her expression blank — not budging as others rise to prostrate in front of their guru. I'm dying to hear her perspective.
She's from the Bible Belt in Texas, the niece of a minister, born into a family of hunters — but she's a vegetarian who speaks Hindi, attended yoga school in Thailand and is now studying Indian philosophy in West Bengal. She's 21, less than half my age, and seems wise beyond her years. Surely she would have something to say about this scene.
"The first time I went to Prem Baba, it felt like church," she tells me over lunch. The closed eyes, the emotion, the ecstasy didn't seem so different from what she grew up experiencing in Baptist churches across the South. But the longer she's watched, the more she's wondered — not just about Prem Baba's devotees but those flocking to gurus in general.
Are their hearts really in it? The smiles on their faces, the euphoria they share as they sing and chant — sometimes it feels forced, she says. Is what they're experiencing real?
"These Western people are singing mantras, and they don't know what they mean," she says. "If I don't know the name of the mantra, if I don't know what it means, I don't want to say it."
I nod in agreement. Only later do I think about the Hebrew prayers I've recited and sung without knowing their meaning.
In my hands are three sheets of notebook paper. They hold a list of painful memories that the astrologer made me write down.
"Bring it all up," she'd told me as I scribbled in front of her and wiped my eyes. "You must validate everything you felt to the nth degree."
A vision led Sri Prem Baba to Rishikesh from Brazil 15 years ago. After meeting his guru, he became one himself. Now, he returns each year to be with his devotees.
The words that stung, the betrayals that buried me, the needs that went unmet — all of it I recorded. I am perfect as I am, Amodini told me, coaxing me along. What I need now is "an overdose of pure loving self-acceptance."
That was several days ago. Now, back at my room in the guesthouse, I hold the toxic pages up and begin to shred them. I tear apart the past, the moments that have unconsciously held me back. Then, as instructed, I stuff the scraps in a small ceramic bowl and set the hurt ablaze.
I dump the ashes in a small plastic baggie and head to the Ganga.
Ice-cold water laps at my toes on a secluded stretch of Rishikesh beach. Only by letting the vibrations and energy of this water goddess flow over and through me can I fulfill my life's mission, Amodini said. I must enter to free myself, open my chakras and welcome new light.
The prescription, this language, is the sort of talk that just weeks earlier might have made my eyes roll. But today, awash in the magic of a place so far from home, it makes perfect sense. Here I've suspended all judgment and simply choose to believe.
"We are not happy because the heart is closed," Amodini said.
"So if I go into the Ganga, my heart will open?" I asked.
"Absolutely. You have to experience it," she said. "Ganga is the mother, the feminine cosmic energy. Give the river permission to take away anything you don't need."
Girding myself, I slowly wade in. I turn the plastic bag of ashes upside down, pouring the memories into the river and sending them downstream.
My loose clothes cling to my skin as I tread further into the cold after tossing the emptied bag by my shoes on shore. I peer up at the mountains and scan the vast sky. As instructed, I send gratitude and love to my parents, my siblings. I don't really know how to pray, but I think that's what I'm doing.
Then I turn to the business of my father. There's something I must do in his name; it's a gift he needs and something, Amodini said, only I can give him.
"He's not able to be released if you are not happy," she said. "You have to surrender this battle from inside of you."
I turn to face the sun, cup my hands full of water and raise my arms toward the light as an offering. I send him love and peace and thank him for the life he helped give me. I promise him I will embrace happiness — and allow myself to love and be loved.
A stream pours through my hands and fingers, and with this, I do what I'm told I've needed to do since I lost him more than six years ago: I free my father's soul.
I breathe in the fresh air, close my eyes, curl into a ball and surrender. The Ganga envelops me as I hold my breath and slip under. The rush of cold water echoes in my ears as I exhale, and everything that is possible begins to take hold.
Everywhere I went in Rishikesh, my forehead was marked with blessings: at ceremonies along the Ganga, with priests in temples, in a holy man's cave. Sometimes I got back to my room and realized I'd walked around all day wearing a smear of red, orange or ash.
The tilak, Sadhviji told me, sits at our body's second highest energy center, or chakra — between and above our eyes. What we see with those two eyes, she said, is what causes us problems. We become greedy. We get jealous, react to other people, grow angry.
Reflected in the Ganga is the "Om" symbol , the Sanskrit sound central to Hinduism and often heard in yoga and meditation practices. It represents the universe's essence: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
"But we also have a third eye," Sadhviji told me. "It's the center that when opened helps us see truth, that everything is divine."
The tilak reminds her to see from her third eye, that she's a holy person. It helps her think before she acts or speaks.
In these two weeks, Sadhviji has taught me more than she knows.
"Everyone comes into the world with their own karmic package," she said. "You're supposed to be where you are. ... The universe doesn't make mistakes."
Even if I never consciously wear a tilak to keep my third eye open, I hope to hang on to these truths and comforts.
The day before I leave, Sadhviji and I speak by phone. It's not goodbye; we'll undoubtedly be in touch and meet again.
"There's something I need to tell you," she says before I hang up. "You've been transformed."
"What do you mean?" I ask her.
"Well, the first day we met, you walked into the room and then Jessica — the real Jessica — followed. Now you are one."
My eyes well on the other end of the line. I know, I feel, that she's right. I am, in this moment, exactly as I'm supposed to be.
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