The Dedicated – 46. Kedarnath

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46. Kedarnath

She had never foreseen the moment when she would look Backon her life and see it slipping away from her like a broadflowing river with its tall colored dhows and its heavy dirt-covered lighters, with the songs ot its fishermen and the shouts of its bargees, and, echoing in the twilight, the music of conches and puja bells wafted down from the lighted houses. For a long time she had followed in her guru’s footsteps, never moving out of his shadow, content through her own developing personality to reflect the light. Then, suddenly, she had had to take over the leadership. She had played her part in the great struggle. Her work had expanded rapidly and yielded abundantly. Now it was all over.

This newly won freedom transformed her life, and made her a different woman. It was the freedom Swami Vivekananda had sought at the same stage of his life, with the sole object ot servings the Divine Mother. Nivedita remembered the imploring words of the monk, in their childlike simplicity: “Let me worship my Divine Mother in those wild retreats where voices cannot reach!” She, likewise, had become as simple as a child. For her this state of grace was the miracle for which she had so earnestly striven, and which, now that she strove no longer, was within her. Achieving it, she forgot her struggles. She drank at the spring of pure delight.

In her humility she sought the blessing of Swami Sadananda, who for several months had been nursing uncounted maladies in his fever-stricken body. The old monk was exhausted and broken, a hollow-cheeked invalid, sensitive and touchy. Nivedita had been profoundly saddened when she had found him in this condition on her return from Europe. She had gone to him in a village of northern Bengal where he lacked every comfort, and had brought him to the house of a friend next to the school in Bagh Bazar. Here he slept on a wooden bed, with his clothes hanging on a line strung across the room. His “furniture” consisted of three earthenware pitchers that stood on the floor, but through the window he could see the green trees of Nivedita’s garden. It was like the monastic cell of a medieval cardinal who, having put off his red robes, had become his naked self. Nivedita noticed that he had abandoned his monk garb, and also his austere devotions; he was nothing but a mass of suffering life. Why? She bent over to question him.

Swami Sadananda seldom talked much, and never of himself. He pursed his thin lips until the cry of suffering became a paean of joy, as the leaping flame escapes from the log consumed in the fire. His suffering was, in his own way, his austerity. The deeper he plunged into this dissolving darkness, the more transparent became his soul. His face and hands were like carved and gilded ivory. Everything hurt him, even the lightest touch. It is said that Saint Augustine in the same condition could eat only with a silver spoon; Sadananda liked to drink milk and honey from a silver bowl. No nourishment was delicate enough.

His eyes perceived a vision, and one day, during a bout of fever, he murmured, “The land of Kailasa.” He was reliving his meeting with Swami Vivekananda at Hrishikesh, where he had received his sannyasa. He remembered the very words exchanged between himself and his guru. “But, Swami, am I ready? If there be a fall?” – “If there be a hundred falls, no matter! I am responsible! I have chosen you, you have not chosen me!” Was the sick man still dragging his body over the Himalayan roads toward his guru? He said to Nivedita: “The land of Kailasa, that is where you must finish your life’s pilgrimage. The supreme Master Shiva is there waiting for you.”

He spoke as one who is certain of what he is saying. Dying men often have this uncanny power. He was remembering silently, too, that country where one seeks Shiva, sees Shiva, is Shiva oneself…. There was no need for him to go; but Nivedita had to, and quickly. He looked at her with infinite tenderness. He had no more need of anything. Six years before, Swami Vivekananda had appeared to him in a vision and had spoken to him, shown him the way. What was now necessary was that Nivedita should go to the land of Kailasa, and carry the message back. Then he could sleep in peace. . . .

Nivedita had already heard this summons from the mountain. But her practical existence was now linked with that of the Boses. She waited, made no plans. It was at last Jagadis Bose himself who suggested a journey to the North during the hot season. He and his wife, his nephew, and Nivedita would leave the lowlands in early May and would follow the clear tracks up to the valleys of the Himalayas to visit Kedamath and Badrinath – the two great temples that every Hindu hopes to see once in his lifetime. Why not? For Jagadis Bose it would be a journey of scientific and ethnographic discovery, although he well knew that the members of the Brahmo-Samaj group would criticize him for going there. At all events, everything was arranged so that Nivedita need not reveal to her friends the real meaning of her wanting to go there.

The travelers spent several days in Hardwar, the traditional first stage astride the Ganges, where hundreds of pilgrims live. Nivedita’s party had to find a guide who was well acquainted with the route, knew the night refuges, and could organize the caravan with porters, palanquins, pack mules, and ponies. A cook was sent on ahead to reserve accommodations in the dharmashalas – those shelters that were half bazaar and half caravansary, scattered along the route.

As for Nivedita herself, she was letting life slip by, enjoying her freedom. She needed nothing, demanded nothing. She would sit on the Ganges’ banks listening to the great prayer-symphony, of which she would seem to be a single note calling upon the name of God. Shiva! She knew she was looking toward Him, to that mountain that is His dwelling, to live in Him and through Him. The conch knows not the breath that is to blow through it. Sitting among the women who crowded onto the Brahma Kund Ghat, she took part in the prayers that were chanted for hours. Suddenly, that very night, she realized the seriousness and solemnity of what she was doing. This pilgrimage was the final dedication of her life, like a rosary of prayers strung out for forty-eight days in succession, in glorification of Shiva. She gathered a handful of dust and pressed it between her fingers. She herself was that dust, and the very silence in which Shiva had modeled it and also freed it of form. She worshiped Him in all His forms, in His glory and His light, in His Oneness and in His creatures. Yonder in His dwelling she wanted to see no more, to feel naked and pure in her soul, to be at the same time what is no more and what will be, simply what is. . . .

The party set off, the women in palanquins, Dr. Bose and his nephew Aurobindo on ponies. After a five-day journey they reached Srinagar; and then came the high mountains with all their dangers. Nivedita covered the mornings on foot with the passing pilgrims. Their prayers upheld hers, intoned them in answer. The whole mountain of Kedarnath rang with hymns of devotion. Strange power of Shiga’s incantation: like the hammer on the anvil, it breaks the resistance of the strong and removes the timidity of the weak. “O Destroyer of obstacles, protect me as I stray in the desert of the world’s suffering!” The voices were repeated incessantly: “]ai kedar nath Swami ki Jai, I prostrate myself before Shiva, God of good augury, granting happiness, Destroyer of Sin, Vanquisher of Death. . . .”

Jagadis Bose’s nephew watched Nivedita with fascination. She seemed so different here from what she was in Calcutta! Where did her true personality lie? At the halts, she talked science with his unde, asked questions, and plunged with him into the symbolic interpretation of cults. The details of their comfort, their food and lodging, seemed to interest her for the moment as much as Bose. But she attached no real importance to them. Then what surprised him more was that she never spoke of Shiva, even though His name was re-echoing on all the mountainsides. Was she worshiping Him in secret, with all the fervor of the superstitious Hindus? Aurobindo had surprised her putting ashes on her forehead, and had not been favorably impressed. He questioned her, and she answered:

“Come and walk with me in the morning, but ask nothing. That would be useless. Be content with loving and admiring piously what you see around you, for every gesture is a prayer. Don’t you see that here, in the great Unity, reigns Shiva, the Guru of gurus? You don’t know Him yet. Don’t ask Him yet You must first find your guru, in life, who will lead you step by step along the path. Shall I try, dear little one, to tell you a bit about how we must come to the guru? We must come in a great stillness of the soul – all other thoughts, all other teachers and loves and friends, fall into the background as we stand before Him. We come as Arjuna stood before Krishna, giving his whole self, forgetting all his past, standing as he was, with folded hands, before him, giving ear to the words of the Gita. That is it. Whenever we stand before the Guru, it is to hear the words of the Gita. We have to remember that he is not a man at all, in one sense, for he is a great truth, one with the truth, and that is that truth which we must strive to see. In another sense, of course, he is always a human being, always one of us, for we love him, and would pour out our very life at his feet, if only that would serve him!”

She climbed the mountains with the pilgrims, and shared their mysticism. The path would sink down to the valleys, then mount the steep rocks, to fall away again into the scree. A hard path it was, to the top: a path assigned by God. . . .

One morning Nivedita saw a woman seized with dizziness on the edge of the precipice: she could neither advance nor retreat; the void held her spellbound. She shouted. Nivedita ran to her, clutched her close to give her confidence, and led her Backto a safer spot. For a long while she walked by her side, until the memory of fear had disappeared and the woman looked at her with clear eyes. Then together, peacefully, they took up the prayer of light, as it was chanted by the pilgrims: “O Shiva, Thou who dwellest on Mount Kailasa, Thou who triumphest over death, protect me as I stray in the desert of this world’s suffering. . . .”

Old men and invalids, fortified by their faith, marched on, suffering great hardships to be with Him who is the essence of sacrifice. Every pilgrim brought an offering in his heart: a flower, the discipline of a whole life, a difficult renunciation, the submission of the intelligence, the abandonment of force, a courageous effort. The secret recesses of the soul stood bare like the mountain slopes in the sun, and the blinding light consumed the noxious poisons of the heart. The journey to Kedarnath was a triumphant hymn of resurrection. Shaking off their weariness, the pilgrims pointed their staffs toward the summit: “There is our goal! There is the lingam of life! All the sages have confirmed it; the sacramental rites prove it Shiva gives life after death! He offers His perfect meditation, the living grace which is a promise. Namak Shivaya,, numah Shivaya!”

Nivedita and the Boses had made strenuous efforts to reach Kedarnath on a Monday, the most auspicious day of the week. They arrived in the afternoon, when the temple was closed until the evening worship with lights, offerings and hymns. The pilgrims waited in throngs, crowding into the single street of the tiny village that nestled among the rocks. In the blue glow of the twilight, the snow on the mountain peaks gleamed under the first stars. Suddenly there was a rush toward the temple; bells began to ring; a delirious shout of joy arose – ‘Vaya, jaya!” Their hands outstretched, their voices hoarse, people pushed and jostled forward. Swept on by the crowd, Nivedita passed suddenly from the darkness of the night into that of the temple.

She could see nothing in the gloom. She could only sense the breathing of all the perspiring bodies pressed tight together. She also heard the sound of water dripping on stone. Here and there was the fitful gleam of smoky lamps. Everywhere was the passionate surge of prayer, surrender, submission.

She remained motionless, not thinking, not feeling. For how long? She listened to the furious beating of her heart. Shiva’s trident was knocking, breaking the mold, dislocating the solid frame of her body. “I am life, I am life,” the mystic sound went.

“Shivo’ham, shivo’ham “ came the panting breath. She felt herself seized with the cold divine death, then consumed with fire. She prostrated herself.

For a long time she stayed there passive, lost in the present moment, which contains eternity, while time passed. Time had no more existence; all was lost in the gray ashes and the incense fumes. In a moment of intimate perception, she knew ”That which is.”

There was a new expression on her face when she rose; but she felt a divine weakness within herself, and she staggered. It was only gradually that she became conscious of the moment before, the moment after, of time which is yesterday and tomorrow. Her thoughts went racing on and were transformed instinctively into acts of worship. She wept “O Shiva. . . . The golden lotus of Thy heart bursts out from my narrow breast. I bear it away in silent felicity.. .. O Shiva, art Thou there before me? Are we then already separated from each other?”

In her rediscovered identity she felt a strange complexity of emotion: distressed and overwhelmed, at the same time freed; her prayers answered and a grace bestowed on her. Shiva had freed her from movement, from action. She now perceived her Divine Mother Kali reabsorbed in Her principle – a motionless contemplation, Divine Energy in its essence. She had known for ten years that this moment would come at last. O mystery of suffering! She was recalling her revolts at Almora, in the midst of which her passionate love for India had been bora, and at Amamath, which had heralded this last stage of her life’s pilgrimage.

“I had to worship the Mother to get the energy to carry out Swami’s will,” she wrote in a letter, “but there comes a moment in eternity when that will is done. … I retire now, and love and worship only Shiva for ever and evermore.”

She felt her Divine Mother depart from her. She watched Her going, saw Her fade away and become a power outside her, which she could worship in her calm and silent weakness, her hands joined – a spectator of the dash of the terrible dualities.

But what, now, was to become of herself, bereft of passion, will power, and memory? Any kind of anguish was a sacrilege in that land oi Kailasa where the earth itself is the contemplation of involved power. The mountains with their rock skeletons bared by the winds and the rains were so many calm and oblivious images, the fleeting eagle just as much part of the whole as the temple itself. There was no remembrance: only the enjoyment of that which is nameless, of that which is both the source of the Ganges and the cloud, bringing Backthe sea to the mountain. The pious recollection of the guru himself, who had led her to Amamath, had vanished; so, too, the memory of her hands offering purple hibiscus to his image – all-powerful idols worshiped in the secret of the heart and in the vision of the soul, which are all thrown one day away because form has lost its meaning.

She relaxed in this complete surrender of herself. Now she had to take up the staff again, and go down from the mountains and live her life in the world in perfect harmony with “That which is eternal.”

The Boses were so preoccupied with the beauty spots of the journey, the details of the pilgrimage, the brilliant processions, that they noticed nothing of Nivedita’s behavior. The descent was difficult, because Mrs. Bose had fallen ill. They had to hurry to reach the Tibet road, where the spaciously built dak bungalows would give her more comfort. Then came the climb toward Badrinath, the twin temple to Kedamath, where Lord Vishnu is worshiped. At Kedamath it had been the passion of renunciation; here there was the communion between God and His worshiper in a narrow sanctuary. Early in the morning the worshipers walk around the temple, telling their beads, lost in a vision of God. . . . Sweetness of Badrinarayan, temple of love and compassion, where the dead for whom prayers are offered find an infinite peace in the light! “Glory to Badrinar-ayan!” sang the pilgrims, throwing flowers into the gorge. Nive-dita’s great pilgrimage was ending in a surge of fervid worship.

The way Backwas long. In the evening of the 29th of June the travelers reached the station at Kotdwara and caught the train bound for the plains. It was precisely the forty-eighth day of Nivedita’s vow. For her, all was accomplished.

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