The Saraswati ghat, a wide expanse of steep steps leading down to the Ganga is one of the many iconic landmarks in Rishikesh. A part of it seems to be renamed after a twentieth century Godman but the local people continue to call it Saraswati Ghat.
One of my local friends here told me in a few crisp sentences what she thought of modern Godmen and Godwomen with self-proclaimed honorifics and multi-million dollar empires. It is interesting to see how the local people in this ancient town who continue to revere mountains and rivers and all aspects of nature as sacred, easily see through the charlatans who call themselves Gurus. It took me seven years of armchair seeking in my twenties, after visiting various spiritual organisations, reading books on their philosophies and feeling disgusted by the cult-like atmosphere that prevailed in most of them, to realise that the business of spirituality was a farce not worth it.
The Seeker’s School in my first novel The Reengineers was based on my observations of these frauds who lure gullible and vulnerable souls with the idea of spirituality wrapped in shiny package deals, selling saltwater and sand by the seashore. But real Gurus exist, and they find the seeker rather than the other way around.
As I sat on the steps of the Saraswati ghat watching my thoughts flow with the Ganga, the water so clear I could see the stones beneath the swirling currents on the river bed, I realised I had found my Guru long ago, whose Sanskrit verses I grew up reciting and unconsciously absorbing many years before I assumed the identity of a seeker on the primaeval quest for the meaning of life.
There is a story in the Upanishads about a mystic Avadhut who had twenty-four gurus including the sky, the earth, fire, water, wind, the moon and the sun.
It is Voltaire’s birthday, the Twitter feed notified me as I logged in and logged out again. I no longer force myself to stay away from social media, neither interested nor repelled by the cacophony of voices in both digital and corporeal worlds that fade away dissolving in the silence that pervades the air. The notification reminded me of A Visit from Voltaire, a delightful fictionalised memoir by Dinah Lee Küng in which the narrator finds a kindred spirit in the character of Voltaire’s ghost, who briskly imparts her life lessons with his characteristic dark humour, his dialogue supplemented with real quotes from Voltaire such as ‘Fiction is nothing but Truth in Disguise’.
Voltaire who once said that ‘Veda was the most precious gift for which the West had ever been indebted to the East’ is one of my Gurus as much as Adi Shankaracharya, I realised when I remembered how I channelised the premise of his novel Candide: ‘You must cultivate your garden’ into a poem I wrote in a creative writing class.
The book I had brought along to read (At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell) remained in my bag, while I sat watching my thoughts flow in and out again like the clear green waters of the Ganga which slowly turned gold in the sun.
“I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc… It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe” – Voltaire