Updated: Dec 7, 2021
1st Visit to Vashistha’s Cave
Today is a pilgrimage to Vashistha’s cave, the cave of the seven great primordial sages who are manifested in the Big Dipper in the sky. Vashistha’s story is recorded in the Hindu classic, the Mahabharata. He is an unborn rishi, the highest form, thought of by Brahma and thus created. He is older than the galaxy, I was told, and has described the disintegration of galaxies in the Yoga Vashistha.
The cave has been used for meditation for 20,000 years. It is 14 miles long inside, opening on the other side of the mountain. It is now blocked, but I was told that when God wants, the cave will open again. Vashistha is one of the great ones in our Himalayan lineage. Many have done practice here: Lord Rama and his brother Laxmana of ancient history; Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananada, Swami Rama of more recent history, and hundreds between. Many sages did practice there for thousands of years and some saints say they are still there meditating. Some of us have been to this auspicious place years before and are excited about a return visit. Some say, "I've done that." and mentally check it off the list of sites to be seen in India, stay behind to catch up on their suntans. About twenty of us climb aboard the bus and begin the trip north of Rishikesh. We pass through town, busy with the events of daily living, drive past a new school on the outskirts of town, the children in uniforms, some with bare feet, some with sandals, some with worn gym shoes, some with dusty leather. They wave to us, excited to see so many foreigners at one time from the rich place, America. "Hello, hello!" they shout to us as we drive by.
The route to the cave is beautiful. Waterfalls cascade down the mountain sides and splash into brooks and gullies in the forests of eucalyptus, bamboo, tall neem trees, rhododendron. Monkeys sit on boulders along the highway combing through each other's fur, looking for lice. Green, red, and yellow parrots fly from tree to tree, announcing our disturbance up and down the road. We drive past workers building a new bridge across an almost-dry riverbed. The men stand in their dirty clothes next to piles of gravel and sand that women in torn, dusty saris are shoveling into large baskets and carrying on their heads down the hill to other men making cement. We pass the place where the Himalayan rafters set their rubber crafts in the water and work their way down river on the waves and white rapids. Their camp of purple and teal tents stretches along the sand invitingly. After an hour our bus pulls up to a large archway on the side of the road. The Hindi letters tell us it is the cave of the respected sage, Vashistha. Three hundred feet below us winds the Ganges River, at this point being joined by a wide stream swirling and cascading down the rocks into its green-blue depths.
We walk down series of cement steps, a sloping ramp, through trees and scrub brush, garden plants and palms all a jumble to a little clearing of earth and cement surrounded by a simple temple, a small, quiet ashram, and the face of the mountain. The cave entrance has been enlarged and covered with a makeshift canopy of tin and wood, decorated with garlands of flowers, photos of the last saints to live there, a little offering box, two priests sitting by the entrance drinking tea.
We remove our shoes and socks, bow to the priests and ask if we may enter the cave. They tell us that there are three people already inside but that we may join them if we wish. The leading person holds a small flashlight and we follow him single file into the darkness. The floor is cool, but dry, the air heavy with energy. I hold the arm of the person in front of me who holds the arm with the flashlight. We stumble along on the rock floor as it dips downward into the cave. Two people clutch at my arms and shirt behind me. As my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, I can see that we are in the round sitting room of the cave. Before and above us is a stone outcropping holding the worship stone, a vessel of water dripping on the lingam, flowers offered by pilgrims scattered around the stone. I know from the photos of my first visit in 1975 that there is also a small statue of God Shiva against the back wall but it is too dark to see it without light.
I sit down on the cold floor, my ankles wedged painfully against a protruding rock. Next to me is a woman dressed in white. In front of her is another, also dressed in white, and next to them both, on a wooden platform, a European man, stripped to the waist, long matted blond hair hanging down his back, sits with folded legs, hands on knees, in the classical meditation pose. He appears deep in meditation.
I close my eyes and the intense energy of the place grabs at my heart. My head hums; my chest hurts with the effort of breathing. The air in the cave is electric; it plays havoc with my equilibrium. I feel as if there were a large hook set into my chest with someone by the lingam slowly and steadily pulling at it. The people around me are trying to sit down, unzipping packs, snapping photos, whispering instructions to each other. Why are they not stunned into silence as I am? Suddenly one of the priests forces his way into the midst of the group and shines a bright flashlight around. Its beam settles on the face of the meditating young man. The priest is angry, trying to move the meditator. His words pour out in Hindi whispers, louder and louder. His flashlight beam bores into the head and face of the young man. I do not know the words but I know he wants the man to move, to pay attention to him, to come out of meditation. When this does not happen, he marches, mumbling, out of the cave. Minutes later he is back, this time with a larger flashlight. Several of the group leave, giving him more access. He turns the light beam on the young man again, whispers louder and louder, insisting that he move. Finally one of the women in white turns around and tells the priest to go away. In a loud whisper her Italian accent is pronounced, "Leave him alone. Can't you see he is meditating? He will move when he is finished. Go away." The priest turns the light into her face and I can see her beautiful features twisted in disgust. "Go away. Get out!" Surprisingly, the priest turns off the flashlight and leaves the cave. After a few minutes the young man begins to move. He stretches out his arms and puts on a white shirt. He slowly moves his legs out of position and stands up. The two women stand as well, offering him a shawl. They turn to leave but the cave is crowded and there is nowhere to move. I stand up and reach out my hand to the women. They take it, step over sets of legs, and pass behind me to exit. There is a general shifting of bodies as everyone changes positions.
Several more leave and I am pushed deeper into the cave. When I sit down again I find myself centered before the altar. Next to me, someone has taken the seat of the young man. Behind me more cameras snap and whirr as film is rewound. There is the zip of backpacks, the quiet grunts and moans of standing and exiting, the whispers as people move out of the meditation area to the mouth of the cave. The priests chant a prayer, taking turns with the verses. I watch and listen to it all as if in a dream. Nothing seems real at all except the intense energy of the place. After some time I open my eyes and look at the lingam. Jasmine flowers lay in heaps around it, offerings from those who worshipped here today. Next to the stone a golden cobra guards the lingam with hood fully opened, erect about two feet. I had not noticed the snake before and felt a momentary fear when I see it so close to me. But I just close my eyes and go back inside.
All is quiet. The cave is still again. Silence descends like a thick blanket and covers me well. My body becomes still, my breath is barely noticeable. There is only the darkness and way beyond the muffled sound of voices and dogs barking. A wasp flies into the cave, circles around my head, flies out again. I sit and notice. Nothing holds my attention except the hook in my chest. Now that the group is gone, the one on the other end is pulling harder than ever. Only now there is also a hook in my throat and forehead, smaller hooks, but sure and insistent.
Why am I here? My mind throws up the question. Without a thought, the answer pops up: Where else could I be? And then all is still again and I am filled with joy. I feel a part of everything that has happened, that is happening now, that will ever happen. The cave grows heavier and heavier in the deep quiet and then suddenly, the sharp, triple cry of a passing crow. All at once my heart jumps in my chest and tears roll down my cheeks. It’s all one! The call of the bird is the same as the chanting of the priests. The darkness is light, the silence is sound, the sound stillness. The road workers are the sadhus, the beggars are rich. The cave is my office; my workplace is the Himalayas. Yesterday’s temple is in my supermarket in St. Paul. The lecture of the swami I heard last night is as important as my last telephone call; the bark of the big, black dog as valuable as the pandit's prayer. My tears are flowing down my face, yet I feel so much joy that I want to scream out loud. "It doesn't matter," my mind laughs, "everything is one."
I open my eyes and the cave is full of light. I feel the plop of the spider before I see it walk across my hand. It's OK, I think, laughing. It’s all the same. Bowing to the lingam, I stand up in pieces and head towards the cave entrance. The group is just coming back from the beach on its way to the bus as I emerge from the darkness. "Oh, we were just coming to get you. We thought you were never coming out!"
On the bus I sit with Brian. He loved the cave and wants to go back. "Wonderful," I say, "just let me know when. I'll go with you the next time. How did you like your meditation after the group left?"
"Oh it was great. Such strong energy. I was glad you stayed too."
"Of course I stayed. After all the ruckus I had a wonderful experience. Everything got so light in there I could see the lingam, the water vessel, and the snake clearly."
"What snake?" demands Brian.
"The big golden cobra by the lingam."
"There is no cobra by the lingam. What are you talking about?" he laughs at me.
"What do you mean no snake? Didn't you see an erect cobra with its hood spread open next to the stone lingam? It was right in front of me."
"No. I didn't see it because there is not one there. I watched the altar very clearly and there was no snake there." He laughed and laughed at me, but I answered, "Wait ‘til next time. I'll show you!"
A few days later, Brian, Doris and I decide to return to the cave. Doris had missed the first visit due to shopping, and I was delighted to show it to her. This time we are armed with towels and a small flashlight to find our way in. The ride by cab is a delight. Brian finally admits that he speaks fluent Hindi, having grown up in India, and talks to the cab driver during the ride, translating for us as we go. We are told that tigers and cobras frequent the wooded areas through which we are driving. Last year the driver saw four tigers on this very road. It was nighttime and their eyes flashed at him. We are told about the elephants who migrate through the area each year and are given advice on what to do when a wild elephant chases us. “Run downhill as fast as you can; elephants are not good for running downhill!” We try to look serious and thank him for the advice. He tells us of the many saints who live near Rishikesh, of the many theories of God he has learned in his life, of the need for a teacher to guide one through the myriad systems of beliefs and practices. But what is most important, he insists, is that we must realize that God is within us. We really do not need to go anywhere on pilgrimage, he tells us, “Just acknowledge the God within and you will know how to act.”
Today the cave is cool and very quiet. Brian takes my flashlight and shines it all around the lingam. We see the black worship stone, the water vessel, the flowers, and in the back the statue of Shiva, but no cobra. He whispers, "So, show me your snake."
"I don't see it today. But I swear it was there. Right there next to the lingam. It stood up about this tall. It was right here!" But clearly there is no snake. Brian chuckles, Doris wonders what we were talking about, and I am confused, surreptitiously looking behind the protruding rocks of the walls. We put on our shawls, fold our towels into seats, and settle down to meditate. Brian places himself on my left where the Italian man sat yesterday; Doris is on a little rock outcropping on my right. I am centered again before the lingam. Our breathing quiets and all grows still in the cave. Sound and light is part of the outside I left behind; there is now only this quiet, this stillness, this strong energy pulling me inside.
I do not hear the footsteps hurrying into the cave until it is too late. With a thud, an Indian man falls over my back, pushing my head down to the floor. He catches himself on the edge of the stone wall and continues with his offering of flowers and mumbled prayers as if nothing had happened. Then just as quickly he stomps out of the cave, leaving me stunned. I move over to the left side in case someone else should enter, blinded by the darkness. But no one else comes in. After a while Doris leaves quietly. Back to meditation. Peace and stillness. Snippets of worry, thoughts, plans, come and go and then stay away. I sit in the peace of the cave. Suddenly I feel someone kick me hard in the center of my back. I think I almost hear the thud of the foot; I certainly feel its shape on my body. Not another blinded worshipper! I take a deep breath as the pain runs up my spine and turn around to see if I need to move again. The kicker must have left already; I can see no one now. Perhaps he was frightened away by what he had done. My back continues to ache as I return to my meditation yet again.
After a while I feel Brian stirring and realize that our time is up. We help each other out of the cave after bowing to the lingam and go to find Doris. She is down on the beach talking to a little girl with long black hair and a fist full of plumeria blossoms. We collect smooth river stones—pink, white, purple with white streaks to take home for loved ones. Brian looks at his watch.
"Were you all right after that man fell over you?" he asks.
"Yes, that one was OK, but the one who kicked me really hurt me."
"What one? There was no one else."
"Yes there was. After I moved to the side of the cave someone came in and kicked me. I can still feel his foot in my back."
Ralph laughed and said, "You're kidding me, right? There was no one else there. After the first man and Doris left, it was only us two in there for the next hour and a half."
"Of course someone was there! My back is still hurting!"
"Theresa, there was no one there! Boy, you are something else. The last time you saw a snake that no one else saw; today you get kicked by somebody who wasn't there."
The next week, Brian, and Carol from the second group to arrive, plan a trip to Vashistha's Cave and ask if I wish to go along. All is quiet at the ashram, and so we set out by cab along the banks of the Ganges. No traffic today, the air is clean and fresh, the monkeys along the highway at their most charming. We leave our driver to his cigarettes and begin the long descent to the beach. Today, stretched across the path is a four-foot spider web holding in its center a 4-inch spider. Is it there to warn us off? Frighten us? Welcome us? I take it as a welcome and proceed down the path, noticing dozens of webs and huge spiders as we descend to the cave.
It's Monday, God Shiva's day, and the usual pandit has been joined by a swami in bright orange robes. They both sit at the cave entrance, musical instruments around them on little prayer rugs. They have begun a long series of prayers, holding frayed prayer books marked with green leaves, a basket of flowers at their side. We remove our shoes and I hesitate at the entrance but the Swami motions for us to enter. I lead our little band down into the cave. It is empty save for the profusion of jasmine flowers covering the lingam, the saint’s seat, the yoni, and filling the air with heavy perfume. Like iron filings to magnet, the cave energy pulls me down to my place on the floor and my mind becomes calm, serene, pulled in and out simultaneously. The energy surrounds my heart, my head, quickens my pulse, and then settles me deep into the lap of the divine—full of warmth, love, caresses. With fishhooks bitten into forehead, throat, and heart, the energy pulls me along its familiar lines towards the deep center of the cave. My mind sees only black with the smallest yellow-white flame burning steadily between my brows as on the stone altar before me.
After a while there is activity at the mouth of the cave. The pandit and the swami begin playing bells and a little marimba-like instrument, singing the praises of Lord Shiva. Over and over the chant continues until its sound becomes the very air we breathe. All of creation must surely be singing the chant. The sound goes on and on, bouncing off the rock of the walls, the earth of the floor, the air around us. The very flower petals are vibrating with the chant. Then a haunting moan from a conch shell fills the cave and the chanting changes melody. I listen to the words, the notes, and feel them fill my pores, enter me on the breath I inhale. I have become the chant, the rhythm moves my lungs to breathe. Now from across the courtyard comes the sound of sitar and drums as a man and woman raise their voices in song to the divine. The purity of the voices mix with the sitar melody and the tinkle of the bells. The voices call one to the other, louder, softer, in and out, weaving a spell, a net of sound, a web of beauty in which I am caught totally, happily pulled to the center of the sage's cave. Then, with a final thrust, all the sound comes to an abrupt end, leaving only the echo of the last bell to dissolve in the darkness.
In the quiet that follows, meditation deepens, breathing becomes so subtle that I cannot feel it at all, mind is quiet, quiet. I become so still that I become stillness. I am darkness. I am peace. I am nothing. I am everything.
A rustle of sound enters my awareness; the others are leaving. It makes no difference to me. Tiny ripples of sound in another world, that is all. I am aware when a young widow comes in and falls to the floor next to me sobbing. I feel her pain, her confusion. I pray for her comfort, I wrap her in love. I am aware the moment she quiets her sobs, takes a deep inhalation, bows to the ground before the divine image and tiptoes out. And then I am aware of nothing until the whisper of Brian calling me to the waiting cab.
Three weeks later, Justin, Charles, and I travel by cab to Vashistha’s Cave. It is a bright morning, the Thursday before the November full moon. We did not know the significance of the day but will find out later that it is a major celebration day. Our cab driver takes us through the town, bustling and noisy with hawkers, travelling pilgrims, tea merchants, cloth salesmen, ox carts piled high with vegetables, children playing, women hurrying with baskets on their arms and heads, cows and bulls roaming freely and inconveniently through the streets.
We travel the road above the sparkling river, so clean and blue at this point as it flows down in silver streams from the Himalayas—Shiva’s hair, tradition insists. When we arrive at the archway, the spiders are out in full force, the water below gurgling a welcome. Justin remembers his visit from years ago; this is a new site for Charles. We walk to the cave entrance and find no pandit today. All is quiet and empty. We seat ourselves in the cool darkness and the three of us begin our meditation practice. I am delighted to sit there in the presence of these two yogis whom I love, and the hour goes by very quickly. We leave and make our offering at the little box outside and then walk down to the beach below to gather stones.
Above us, almost overgrown with vines, is the second cave I visited years before. I always think of it as "the woman's cave" remembering the story of the British woman who lived and practiced there for years until one day, deep in meditation, a voice commanded her to leave the cave immediately or she would have to leave her body. Opening her eyes and walking to the edge of the cave she found that the Ganges River, normally 100 yards from Vashistha’s Cave, had risen to the very mouth of her cave, 40 feet above the ground. The winter snows had melted and the entire area was flooded with raging water. I am told that she managed to swim through the water until she reached the road above. Years ago I climbed to her cave and sat there to meditate. Now Charles and I climb up again. This time it is very apparent that someone else lives in the cave. There are little rock steps set in the dirt of the mountainside, a seat of burlap spread before the remains of a small fire inside. We do not wish to intrude and so bow in respect and make our way back down the hill to the sand and rock below.
Today at the river are two young men, very anxious to talk with foreigners. They are so curious about us when told we are on pilgrimage, that we came to India to do spiritual practice. Their idea of Westerners was anything but that! They asked our teacher's name and bowed to us as they hear it. His holiness and service to others is epic in the area. We all leave the river together, we carrying a bag of beautiful river rocks, they chatting to me in broken English. One of them stops near the small temple next to Vashistha 's cave and disappears into the stand of trees. When he comes out he gives me some sweet limes fresh picked.
In the cab again, Justin & Charles thank me for bringing them to this place. They loved being in the sacred space, pleased to have meditated there. I ask a question for Brian: "Did you see anything inside the cave?"
Justin answered that when he closed his eyes and sat quietly for a while, a very, very old and powerful man appeared to him, smiling, pleased with his guest, and then sat in deep meditation with us.
"Wow," said Charles, "that sounds like a vision of Vashistha. All I saw was a big snake!"