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Vedanta Retreat, Rishikesh, 14–30 Oct 2015

In mid October 2015 a Vedanta Retreat was held for Arsha Vidya UK students in Pujya Swami Dayananda's Gurukulam, Rishikesh. Being less than a month after his brahmaikyam, the atmosphere was still sombre — although most funeral attendees had long left. The burial site had been filled in and its surrounding fence beautifully garlanded, with pujas performed there morning and evening.

Study of the Praśna Upanishad took place from the 15th to the 22nd of October. The upanishad is so-called because of the six praśnas, questions, that begin each chapter, all with a view to revealing ultimate reality. The first refers to the origin of beings; the second to the devas that power the body and mind; the third to the nature and activity of prāṇa; the fourth to the states of waking, dream and sleep; the fifth to meditation on pranava, and the sixth to puruṣa itself.

Our teacher, Swamini Atmaprakashanandaji, guided us all beautifully through the text, making (as always) every nuance of meaning and its significance fully clear.

However, it wasn't all study! On one cultural excursion to a nearby ashram, we met a former women's all-India javelin champion!

On the 23rd, twelve of us set off for Kedarnath and Badrinath, two of the four temples of the Char Dham (four sites of special pilgrimage). Being high in the Himalayas both are open for only six months of the year (closing in early November) due to snow rendering them inaccessible. Kedarnath is 160 miles from Rishikesh and Badrinath is another 140 miles from Kedarnath, so time, although still on our side, was not abundant!

Having stopped briefly at Deva Priyag, the confluence of three famous rivers, we journeyed for hours to reach Sitapur, our overnight accommodation. Kedarnath is nowadays only accessible by helicopter, so the next morning we lifted off from the nearby helipad and after a 15 minute ride reached the Kedarnath helipad.

We wound our way through tents and other relatively makeshift accommodation (housing had been destroyed by an avalanche) in a valley cleaved between awe-inspiring mountains. In the distance was Kedarnath temple, simple, quite small and austere, its extreme and stark isolation belied by throngs of people! It is difficult to imagine the devotion of those who long ago carried and hewed the stone needed to build it in such a remote and severely inhospitable place.

Sitting serenely to the side of its main door, unmindful of the many salesmen and hucksters posing as priests, was a calm, thinly-clothed sadhu, eyes shut, apparently oblivious to the extreme cold and the clamour around him. Inside the temple was a large rock, symbolising Siva, which every devotee struggled to touch while continually pressed by the eager crowd surrounding it on all sides.

Spending only the morning in Kedarnath, we then journeyed on to Badrinath, arriving there 24 hours later.

Badrinath is a far larger temple than Kedarnath and highly ornate externally. Its mountainous surrounds seem more distant and don't dwarf it quite as much. It too is cold due to its location (a few miles from Tibet) and it too is thronged year-round with devotees — whose material needs are met by a large adjacent village. The hot spring at its feet is used by some for bathing. Its location aside, it is a more conventianal temple than Kedarnath and its priests are not pretenders to the job. Once again, its inaccessibility evokes admiration for its builders and for those who hauled the materials up the narrow, treacherous mountain paths.

We stayed exactly 24 hours in Badrinath, leaving for Joshimath and the Shankaracarya Math at Jyotirmath — and on the way stopping briefly at Vishnu Prayag. Sadly, the Jyotirmath seemed more than empty, it seemed rather barren and long past its best.

Late the next day we were once more back in the Gurukulam, Rishikesh. Glad to be back, sorry to have to say our goodbyes, grateful as always to Swaminiji for her indefatigible care and boundless wisdom.

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