As the intoxicating perfume of the rose lingers where once it bloomed; as the notes of the sweet winged creatures are heard in memory, after they have flown; as the holy “OM” of the Ganges penetrates into the deep woods and stirs the hearts of the anchorites engaged in divine contemplation; as the tender whispers of love, once heard, abide as a faint fragrance in the innermost recesses of the human heart—so does the influence of the Holy Ones remain in their resorts long after they have gone.
Chittrakut was for some years the abode of Rama (God Incarnate), Sita (the perfect wife) and Lakshmana (the ideal brother) during their exile from their capital Ayodhya. It was here that Rama and Sita built their huts and thatched them with their own hands; here the Holy Mother fed the dappled fawns who visited her in the forest, and some of the great teachings were delivered by Rama to Holy Sita and his brother on the marble rock on the banks of the Mandakini which glides through the hilly woods.
Chittrakut is the name of a hill which rises like a pagoda to a height of some 3,000 feet at the end of the valley. It is considered one of the holiest spots in India. The hills surrounding the valley are covered with barren rocks and thick woods, and the charm of the spot is intensified by the fact that many great Rishis lived in its forests when Holy Rama dwelt there. Then, the hermitages were filled with the melodious chants of the Rishis and Brahmacharis, and the holy fawns wandered fearlessly among them. The birds were fed daily by the damsels attending on the Holy Rishis, who were themselves beautiful in their pure faith and love.
It is that inner tranquillity, produced by guilelessness, and a daily life lived according to the laws of Dharma, which produces real beauty, and these maidens were innocent of any artificial adornments. A heart alight with the fires of passion and ambition, which is agitated by vanity and the desire to charm others, casts a gloom over the eyes, lips and cheeks of the young. These maidens of the hermitage lived in companionship with nature; they gave affectionate names to the trees, creepers, rocks and rivulets, and received inspiration from their communion with them which coloured their simple conversation.
Chittrakut is very hot in the summer, but the waters of the Mandakini are ever cool. The Mandakini is a shallow river, nowhere more than six feet deep. Long before the stars disappear from sight, and the glorious monarch of the day makes his appearance on the horizon, now as then Hermits and Brahmacharis gather on the banks of the river for meditation and devotion. Hundreds of Buddha-like figures are to be seen, sitting serene and tranquil, meditating on the presence of Holy Rama and Sita—purifying themselves so that they may be able to sustain the vritti of “Kham Brahman” when it arises in their hearts. Readings from the Ramayana are held, the devout listeners drinking in the nectar of the holy recital, and prasad of pure butter and cooked sweets, served on tulsi leaves, is distributed and reverently accepted by all. The holy kirs (parrots) chatter among the leaves of the trees, and some repeat verses from the Ramayana which they have learnt from the many recitations they have heard.
Chittrakut has hardly changed since the time of the great Saint-poet Tulsidas, who used to pass a few months every year in its holy atmosphere. It was on the banks of the Mandakini that Shri Rama, accompanied by Lakshmana, appeared in a celestial vision and offered tilak to Tulsidas. As Tulsidas was unaware of the presence of the divine children, holy Hanuman, assuming the form of a kir, sang the following verse:
Many Saints have assembled In the holy valley of Chittrakut.
Tulsidas is preparing the sandalwood paste,
And Shri Rama is offering him tilak.
* * *
I arrived at Chittrakut, by train from Allahabad, at about three o’clock in the afternoon. Parties of pilgrims were moving slowly towards the town, which is about three miles from the railway station, singing the songs of Tulsidas.
I hired a porter to carry my scanty luggage. He judged, or rather misjudged, me to be a rich man on account of my cultured accent, and took me to the priest who catered for wealthy pilgrims. I was shown into a very clean and comfortable room, but I soon disillusioned the priest by informing him of my real economic condition, and begged to be allowed to change to poorer quarters. The Pundar (as these priests are called) gave me a kindly smile and said: “Punditji, I want your blessings and nothing else”, and he really meant what he said.
The weather was very hot. I sauntered to the cool banks of the Mandakini where, under the shadow of the high hills, groups of ascetics were holding philosophical discussions and giving readings from the Ramayana to devout pilgrims. I paused at one group where a Vairagi—an ascetic of advanced age, whose long and unkempt beard swept his emaciated breast, and whose matted hair, piled coil upon coil, resembled the snakes round the head of Lord Shiva—was expounding the doctrine of devotion to Rama to a number of men and women. He read the verses of the Ramayana on a long sonorous note, half lost in his contemplation. The audience consisted of poor peasants and their families. The feelings of devotion evoked by the holy reading were reflected on their faces, producing smiles, tears and serenity in turns. They sat in reverence with joined palms, their eyes looking downwards, and when overpowered by emotion they cried: “Jai to Rama and Sita”, while the children only cried in their tender voices: “Jai to Holy Hanuman”.
I was touched by the devotion of this group. Verily Rama enters and enlightens the hearts of the poor unsophisticated folk more easily than He does the learned and self-conscious pundits. The ascetic impressed me as being a really holy man, indifferent to the world and a stranger to fame and physical comforts. I dropped a silver coin with great reverence before the image of Holy Hanuman and, touching the feet of the ascetic, moved onwards.
The heat grew more oppressive. I took off my clothes and jumped into the cool water. Hundreds of men, women and children were already bathing. Most of them carried their tulsi-bead rosaries, and were repeating “Rama! Rama!”
At dusk, bells chimed and all left the river and proceeded to one of the neighbouring Temples to take part in the divine service. Under modest canopies, commanded by an open courtyard, were many altars adorned with the images of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita, Holy Hanuman occupying a place in a corner. The pilgrims stood in front of the holy Altar while the presiding ascetic performed the service. After purifying the atmosphere by sprinkling water, in which the feet of the Holy Family had been bathed, over the people, songs from the Vinaya Patrika of Saint Tulsidas were sung in a chorus. The ascetic then offered fruits and sweets to the Holy Family of Lord Rama, and performed the Arti ceremony by waving an open lamp, having six lighted wicks soaked in butter, round and round seven times. Each pilgrim then approached the ascetic, now seated at the foot of the holy Altar, and received prasad. Those who could afford to do so placed little gifts of love on a plate before the Altar, and then retired in reverence. I took part in such a service that evening, and the purity of the atmosphere and the sincerity of the congregation reminded me of the holy sayings:
O Narada, wherever my devotees sing of me, there I abide.
Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.
I retired to my lodgings, and performed my evening devotions. The atmosphere of Chittrakut is pure, and the Holy Guru Deva was gracious enough to give his darshana (holy sight) to his unworthy disciple.
An attendant of the Pundar brought a tray of prasad, consisting of several vegetables cooked in butter, curry puffs, sweet rice, chutneys, sliced guavas and mangoes, and sweetened water. It was too luxurious a meal for me. I requested the Pundar to send me only one cooked vegetable, two chapatees and a little rice, in future. He observed: “Punditji, I am a poor man—please do not humiliate me by rejecting my poor gift to you”.
At about ten o’clock, I walked out again to the river. Women and children were setting adrift paper lamps of many colours on the stream, and the whole surface was studded with their little lights. The stars twinkling above, the paper lamps glimmering below, and the chants of the ascetics and pilgrims mingling with the cool breezes, created a holy atmosphere. Some groups of women and children were throwing small balls of kneaded wheat flour into the river to feed the fish. I lingered on the bank— there were no traces of worldliness anywhere. Some people were carrying large pots of warm milk together with paper cups, and offering it free of charge to anyone who cared to drink it. The ascetics were feeding their fires with logs, and the pilgrims were beginning to return to their lodgings.
I reflected on the condition of the large cities such as Delhi and Calcutta. The idle rich, the semi-starved proletariat, the neurotic young men and women, the shouting shopkeepers, the moneylenders, the beggars and vagrants—all passed in review before the eye of my mind. How miserable, how sordid is the bloom of city life! The words of the poet Baudelaire—that we must be drunk, drunk either on wealth, on vanity or on learning and devotion—but that we must be drunk—seemed true to me at that moment.
* * *
Long before the glorious sun of day sent his rays to kiss the multi-coloured East, long before the sweet breezes, bearing the fragrance of wild flowers, embraced the placid waters of Mandakini, the pilgrims had started for the Holy Peak, to walk round it singing the songs of Tulsidas.
Young and old, rich and poor, illiterate and learned, all
jostling together, the pilgrims walked in a straggling procession, thinking of the Holy Peak and of the circumambulation (Parikrama) they would perform there. A chorus of praise to the Prince of Ayodhya mingled with adorations of the Mother Janaki and of that Chief of the barbarians, the young devotee of Rama, Holy Hanuman. They moved on and on; the stars were rapidly disappearing behind the veil, as though making a hurried retreat into the solitude of the firmament, inspired by the devotion of the pilgrims of Chittrakut, to contemplate the glory and majesty of the Ever-shining One. The humble do inspire the great, who know that the Lord manifests Himself both in the lowly and in the dwellers of the celestial regions.
The first group of pilgrims have ascended the slopes of the Holy Hill, and are now on the metal road which some charitably inclined devotees of God have constructed round the high and solitary Peak. The supreme moment in the life of many devotees has come, for they are now on the very spot where once trod the holy feet of Rama and Sita, of Shri Vasishtha and Hanuman. I also join in the procession. Everyone is quiet, and it seems as if the silence of the firmament has been breathed upon the earth in the form of a heavenly peace which pervades the crowd of pilgrims. This silence is spontaneous. When the heart is full, it finds no expression in utterance. A perfect prayer is a speechless stream of love, bursting forth from the heart of the devotees and travelling to the feet of the Eternal Beloved.
After about half-an-hour or so, the top of the Holy Peak is touched by the first rays of the sun, and a thin gauze of mist covers the summit. The birds sing more loudly, the wind rises, and the trees are moving a million fingers as if to say: “Wake up, O human hearts, from the dream of mundane ambition and the desire for possessions! Wake up to the eternal glory of thy higher Self, Rama.” The singing river of pilgrims breaks into a chorus: “Hare Rama, Hare Rama”. An old snowy-haired Vairagi, fixing his eyes on the Holy Peak, is singing to Holy Hanuman: “O great devotee, lift up my heart.”
Half the distance has been completed: the morning light covers the land but there is as yet no sting in the heat of the sun. One can see thousands of tulsi-bead rosaries moving slowly in the hands of the ascetics and the laymen, for each is repeating the holy mantram which his Guru has given him. I have no rosary—every fibre of my being, every nerve, is a thread in the universal rosary, and I murmur: “Jai Shri Dada!
Jai Shri Dada!” He who has shown me the way to Rama, is greater to me than Rama. Nay, Rama Himself appeared as Shri Dada to save this unworthy servant of his from being drowned in the ocean of nescience.
At the completion of the holy Parikrama, we sit down in rows facing a great door. The congregation must number some 10,000 this day. Each one takes out his little offering and waits in expectation. Some have brought precious gifts, but I have only a garland made of the pearls of my tears. Soon an aged monk dressed in a yellow robe, and holding a loshta made of dried pumpkin in his left hand and a staff in his right, appears, descending from the Holy Hill, and stops at the gate. He is the Holy Abbot of Chittrakut. There is a murmur among the crowd: “Look! the Holy Ragunath Dasji has come.” They all bow down to him, saying: “Jai Sita! Jai Rama!” He lifts up his right hand and gives them his blessing: all sit still with closed eyes. Those who have perfect faith see something not visible to the human eye. There are many faces lit with a celestial light. Fear has left them forever, for Rama has made his abode in their hearts. The holy round is over, the formal worship is done and like a flight of birds that fly from a field back to their nests after having picked up the grain, so the pilgrims retire down the slopes to their lodgings. I have done my holy round, and the remembrance of the Holy Feet of Shri Dada has sunk deeper into my heart.
During this pilgrimage, I visited a deep wood which is on the right bank of the Mandakini. It was quiet there. The pilgrims had not yet come out for their afternoon walks. I entered deeper and deeper into the wood, where the rays of the midday sun did not penetrate freely, and took my seat under a spreading tree. I thought of the time when, attended by devotees, Shri Rama went about here, giving teachings and His holy sight to those ascetics whose age or infirmity did not allow them to visit the Holy Hermitage. A kind of sleep, yet I cannot call it sleep—for I was aware of awareness, though there was no object to illumine it—overtook me.
This was that consciousness which, being devoid of the burden of remembrance and the association of mundane objects, can freely reflect the light of the Lord. When this state dawns in the human antahkarana, it is like a void, yet it is charged with that Presence which cannot be described as either a subject or an object. It may be called the primary state of consciousness before this is marred by the differentiation of phenomena. It comes as a direct gift of the Lord, through a loving Guru. I do not propose to describe the visions which followed, for I am not proud of any such attainments, and the Lord loves the poor, the lowly and the ignorant. It is much wiser to put oneself on a level with those whom He is pleased to love and call His own, than to be with the angels, who shut their eyes with their wings.
Unless every blade of grass has become a mirror reflecting the perfection of the beauty and delight of the Lord, unless all ideas of the sinner, the infidel, the lawless and the heretic, have been obliterated under the flood of the light of “That Thou Art”, the love of a devotee for his Teacher is imperfect. The book of one’s heart contains much ill-written doggerel and many silly stories. There is only one word in this volume which is worth while. He who has seen That, knows all.
Being convinced that this was the spot where the Holy Incarnation once dwelt, I went to a Temple which was enclosed by a high wall. It lay on the right bank of the river, and the door was wide open. I entered the white courtyard facing the Holy Temple of Rama. A young Vairagi offered me his respects and took me to the private library attached to the Temple. The Vairagi was well-versed in Sanskrita, grammar and the holy literature. I asked him whether there was any place nearby associated with the memory of the Holy Saint Tulsidas: “This is the very spot on which the great Saint-poet often passed the rainy seasons”, said he. We meditated there together until the chief priest, Baba Ramcharana, appeared through a private door. We received him with respect, and he ordered a jugful of sour milk to be brought, which I drank with great delight, the taste of it still lingers with me. With his permission, we again went into meditation. He kept on chanting: “Rama Rama, Rama Rama.”
It was another great experience. The priest showed me some old manuscripts, one a Purana over 1,000 years old. I asked him whether he could tell me of any other Mahatma living in the district whom I could worship. “This request does not become a disciple of Shri Dada” he said, “this is Holy Chittrakut and in fact the whole world is the playground of the Lord, and He, the Great Mahatma, the Eternal, the Imperishable, is all and in all.” I took my leave of this holy man and proceeded towards the marble rock. In the wood I met a blind old leper, led by a young and radiant girl. I offered a few coins to the leper, but the girl refused them, saying: “We have them, thank you.” Something prompted me to touch the feet of the two; the feet of the leper were soft and pale, and resembled the Holy Feet of Shri Dada. I arrived at the marble rock, the base of which is washed by the slow Mandakini. It is backed by a long and shady wood. I sat down here and thought of Holy Rama. An ascetic came and took his bath in the holy river. After his meditations, he wished to touch my feet, but knowing myself to be unworthy of such reverence, I withdrew. He told me subsequently that his desire had been due to his knowledge that I had that day had the good fortune to meet Holy Hanuman and Shibri.
On the eve of my departure from this holy spot, I gave a reading from the Ramayana. Spreading my blanket on the right bank of the river, I turned to the Epilogue and gave an exposition of the “Lamp of Wisdom”. A good many passers- by sat down and listened. Two Brahmacharis left during the course of the reading, and returned with their Gurus. After an hour, about one hundred people were sitting in reverence, listening to the discourse. The intricate points of philosophy dealing with the nature of the Jiva were expounded in clear and simple language, with quotations from the Gita and the Upani- shads. Many questions were asked, and a discussion was held. I offered my reading to the Holy River Mandakini.
A petty Rajah had his little state on the left bank of the holy river. Though the state is small, he is an independent ruler, and a Brahmin by caste. His priest, who had heard my exposition of the Ramayana, came to invite me to the court. To me, Chittrakut was the Court of the All-Highest, so I decided to enter none other while there.
Unattached to anybody or anything, with goodwill in my heart towards my host and all others, uplifted in spirit, I bade a good-bye to the Holy Peak and the River, and returned to Allahabad. I hope to leave the world in this same spirit. Although the visit was but a dream in Sansara, yet I long for a recurrence of such dreams.
OM! OM! OM!