e descended towards the lake that stood serenely at the foot of the mountain and let the mountain breeze gently touch his face. The water in the lake was deep and sky blue and he could see the bottom closer to the shore. A touch of it alone left a cold sensation course up his body. Though the landscape was only partially wooded he was not inclined to let the nature’s beauty go unnoticed. He looked at the sky to make sure there were no dark clouds that may break in a splashing rain as it had done for the past two days. He had been in solitary confinement for almost thirty days now, deep in meditation. He knew it was tough to go on with the effort but he continued, nevertheless. The sunrise this morning brought with it the warmth that he badly needed to lift his spirits to withstand the harshness of his “tapasya”. This was no near enough to the culmination of his effort he made every year for the last five years with only wild berries, root bulbs and tree leaves for food. He survived thirty days of rigorous meditation every year with no signs of slowing down. He had vowed to find an answer to his prayers and he had faith in himself. On many occasions he subjected himself to intense physical pain and denied himself any kind of nourishment. By sustained concentration he could eliminate sensation from consciousness. He knew he had a strong will power and an equally strong body to withstand hardships he had encountered during his stay in the wilderness of mountains. This time over he had a feeling he would succeed.
Ashwanivardhan was a young spiritual man of thirty-three and had been greatly influenced by the Vedic teachings. Although he had graduated from a prestigious institution of the Benares Hindu University, he found solace only in the Vedic scriptures that he studied alongside his normal educational curriculum from early on in life. Born to a devout Brahmin family at Kashi and going originally by the name of Ashwani Kumar, he had imbibed a scientific temper. He took a great interest in learning about the human anatomy and physiology. At a tender age of 14 he had taken a very renowned sage Kripalacharya from Varanasi as his Guru, who renamed him as Ashwanivardhan, and he had faith in the teachings of this man. He acquired a thorough knowledge of the Sanskrit language and could easily understand the text of the Veda’s that he studied with the help of his master. He had a clear concept of his goals and knew that he would one day achieve the unthinkable. Knowing his goals he had taken the precaution not to keep any family ties and nor had he given in to his father’s demands to marry and lead a secure family life. Kripalacharya knew about Ashwanivardhan’s desire and he very much tried to dissuade him and change the subject of his study, cautioning him about the outcome of the results, but he persisted in following it up till he achieved the desired knowledge.
It was the auspicious day of “Ashad Ashtami” and Ashwanivardhan had an insight of the coming events unfolding. He felt his instincts tell him that today was the day he would receive his gift. He took off his clothes and kept these asides on the lakebed and slowly lowered himself in water. He felt the cold shivers climb up to his torso and the goose bumps showed clearly on his body. He performed “pranayama” and let the body heat slowly course up towards his upper limbs. He said his prayers while bathing in the lake and after his bath emerged out of water duly cleansed. He started a slow climb up the cliff towards an outcrop of the hill forming like a cave, where he had made arrangements for his meditation. He had a small fire burning with wet smoky wood collected from the jungle and his body started taking in the slow heat from the fire. Knowing that today was the last day of his “tapasya” he put all the remaining wood in the fire. He had felt all along that Physiology was an incomplete science without a mention of the life force, other than blood, that coursed through it and gave it the power of analysis. He wanted to acquire an insight into the human body in order to solve some of the mysteries of life that were not documented anywhere. And what he wanted to learn about was what nobody had ever achieved, not at least that he was aware of. He knew that in attempting to probe such mystic designs he had to depend on some kind of spiritual powers that he could awaken in himself only through meditation. He was sure he would receive a revelation that would enhance his knowledge. Kripalacharya told him that the acquisition of such knowledge may prove to be unrewarding, as it did not fall in the realm of humans to comprehend, but failed to wean him away from the exercise. He also told him that God did not reveal the secret of life to an ordinary mortal for the reason that he might put such information to misuse. Had that been so, he said, all you wanted to learn would already be in the textbooks a long time ago.
Ashwanivardhan wanted to learn the state of existence of the soul in a living body. Someone may have succeeded to learn the secret, but nobody had ever been successful to record as to where in particular the soul of a human resides in the body and what shape it reflects. And once the soul leaves the body after one’s death where does it go and whether it returns to the earth in any other form and if so what becomes of it as a new entity. He had studied some papers regarding the return of the memories of some reincarnated forms of life and had found similarities in some statements made by such people. In fact it all started with news about such reincarnations taking place around the globe that kindled in him the desire to learn more about the soul theory. All that the scriptures could tell him was that a human being had to pass through 84,00,000 births in other lesser forms before being born as a human, a superior race known in the universe.
Within the hour he got engrossed in his “samadhi” and lost conscience of all happenings around him. He did not see or hear or even feel the passage of time and kept on relentlessly reciting his prayers. It was now well past daylight hours, when the sun reached its setting stance, that Ashwanivardhan felt a sense of trembling through his entire body. It became uncontrollable and yet he continued his prayer. At one point he felt himself floating above his seat as he took the lotus posture. Towards the evening Ashwanivardhan fell unconscious to the ground and went into a kind of stupor. Even in this state his lips moved in prayer and he did not give up. He did not feel the pain when his hands went deep into the fire to consign the offerings. He kept on passionately, not feeling his hands burn and the flesh begin to char with the heat.
It was nearly midnight when he felt a shaft of light and a loud thunder explode before him. He knew not if the God was going to appear to him and he opened his eyes to try locating the source of this strong energy. All that he sensed was a great gleam of light and a voice asking him about his reason to invoke the Gods in heaven. Ashwanivardhan did not lose time for fear the contact would be lost and he asked, in a spastic but frantic tone, what he wanted to learn. He heard a response in a clear and serene voice not louder than a whisper but that he did hear the response very clearly. So much so he felt inwardly convinced he now had the knowledge he had come to seek. He soon realized that there was no further word coming from the source and felt no one around him. Was this all a dream or did he have the good fortune to have witnessed God’s presence. He thought he should have interacted with the unseen form but this sudden silence was a bit unnerving and he resigned himself to his fate. He had learnt what he wanted to and in ecstasy began reciting his prayers a bit more loudly than before.
The enlightenment that coursed through his body was pure and warm. He fell asleep and when he woke up the next morning he found a light drizzle that continued for some time. He examined his hands and found these had charred with fire and his fingers had become crooked with burning. He cried in anguish and found he could not even hear his own voice. But as he craned his neck and allowed some natural sounds to pass into his ears he could easily hear the slow hum of the wind, the passage of the stream nearby and the wing flap of the birds. He realized he was unable to speak. He had gained the secret of the souls and with it lost the ability to communicate, orally or with use of his hands. And it was now clear that like others before him he could not reveal God’s secrets to anyone. And that was all explained so that the humans may not lose the reason for faith, which is the one and only lead available towards the achievement of salvation.
When the rain stopped he started descending towards the valley below that would eventually lead him home. All that he had to do was to follow the course of the Ganges that flowed graciously in the plains and lead him to Benares from where he had started his journey two months ago. He planned to pay obeisance to his Guru and confess to him with any means at his command that his caution was perhaps in right earnest. It was almost a month of agony walking back home as he begged for food enroute. To beg was an admission that he had given up his ego. It was late in the night one day when he reached the Ashram of his Guru, but heard none of the chanting of hymns or any congregation of disciples of the Guru at the Ashram. There was an eerie calm and a sense of foreboding took root in his heart as he closed in. When he entered the inner courtyard of the Ashram he found a single devotee in front of Swamiji’s portrait that had a marigold flower garland around, an indication that Swamiji had left his mortal remains behind. He closed his eyes in a silent prayer and his Guru appeared to give him his blessings.
As no one appeared to recognize him, he soon found out that his appearance had changed considerably. He had lost the use of his hands and was bereft of his ability to speak. He became an ascetic and rooted himself on the banks of the Ganges at the Manikarnika Ghat where he began to observe the ritual of burning of the dead bodies. The process of cremation of the dead consumed him and it continued all day and night with bodies coming in at regular intervals, about 150 dead being cremated every single day, that is one every ten minutes. Some dead or partially burnt bodies are consecrated into the holy river once the burning wood runs out. He prayed for these souls and even seemed to be in communion with them. This brought some kind of bliss to him and unknowingly he turned into an Aghori Sadhu and smeared ash on his body that he took from the cold pyres of the cremated dead. The other Aghoris welcomed him to their fold. He knew his end was close enough as he was ordained by God to merge with Him. He repeatedly prayed for his own salvation. The truth that he was living with his impending death demystified death itself. The knowledge he had acquired after a great struggle was of no consequence to him anymore. His Guru was right all along and he did not heed his advice. But he had no regrets at all and seemingly remained content with his knowledge that he perforce kept to himself.
At the burning ghat at Manikarnika the Doms (community associated with cremation) tap the skulls of the dead with a pole and turn the corpses on the burning pyre till nothing of it remains. When the ashes turn cold the Aghoris look for an unburned piece of the deceased flesh and this they cook in alcohol and eat. While eating they pick the flesh with their mouth instead of using their hands and that was the ritual that Ashwaniwardhan followed. It suited him since he had burnt his hands and was not able to make a functional use of them. A couple of years later and for unknown reasons Ashwanivardhan died at the Manikarnika Ghat at age 36. For two days his body laid on the Ghat with no one realizing this was a dead one until the Doms picked it up and threw it in the river. No one had come forward to buy the wood for his cremation. The Aghoris had their fill for the next few days as the body was fished out from the river downstream where it was thrown. They ate it with relish, cutting out pieces every day and eating either raw or cooked with alcohol whenever available. Outside his body his soul witnessed the final disposal of his remains with a cool mind, now that he was aware of the truth of life and all its mysteries he had set forth to learn.
I recently read an article on “The Burning Ghats of Benaras” in the Times Of India and a reference to a budding Indian filmmaker Mahiema Anand whose film on the subject of Aghoris of Benaras was shown all over the United States on Turner Broadcasting System on several occasions. Her film has inspired the ending of this story. Read about her organization on email@example.com. A special mention is also made here for work done by a Kashmiri young man, Rajesh Jalla, on the making of a documentary on a similar subject, “Children of the Pyre”, that received a special jury award presented to him by the President of India Smt. Pratibha Patil on March 19, 2010 at New Delhi.
B.L. Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. He did his Master's Degree in Mathematics. For work he joined the Civil Aviation Department as a Gazzetted Officer and later shifted to a PSU, Airports Authority Of India from where he retired as a General Manager in the year 2000.
Since his retirement he has been writing articles and stories, some of which have appeared in Shehjar on a regular basis. He claims he loves writing right from his college days, but majored in Mathematics instead of English only as a challenge to his talent. He lives in Delhi with his wife, the children having moved over to the USA for work.
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