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Mystics and Sceptics
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Namita Gokhale edited a collection of writing, “Mystics and Sceptics, In Search of Himalayan Masters”, which I reviewed for Open Magazine.*
At the launch of her book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, a member of the audience asked Namita why sceptics and mystics should feature in the same book. Her answer was that mysticism and scepticism must live together.
Not just side by side, I reflected - my own being has often been transported, even shaped, by what appear to be mystic events. I wrote about one such experience in this space almost exactly a year ago**, when I found myself dancing around an abandoned temple on a high ridge in the Himalaya, where
“darkened by centuries of smoke was the tiny shrine of Buda, or old, Madhyamaheshwar.
I bowed my head to the generations of piety that had worshipped there, and to the looming grandeur of Chaukhamba, which reared above me like a chattri. On a stone ledge, I found a tiny brass bell. I picked up, and rang it, once, twice. Then, a man possessed, I danced around the temple, ringing it above my head, elated by the majesty of the setting, the towering snows of Chaukhamba. Did Shiva sit here in contemplation of this beauty? Was he intoxicated by the beauty of creation, as I was?”
This unexpected moment of abandon helped me understand the origin of the name Maddmaheshwar - the intoxicated Lord Shiva - now commonly sanitised to Madhyamaheshwar.
On the scale of significance, I compare this experience to solving a crossword clue that has eluded you for a couple of hours. The resolution is deeply satisfying, but not exactly life-changing.
Other events from thirty years ago did alter my life, and those of my family, in substantial measure. In 1993, my company was awarded a contract that had been in the works for over a year. A colleague told us that she had prayed for this at Vaishno Devi, and must now return to the shrine to offer thanks for the boon. Would any of us like to accompany her?
Several of us did, I without any deep sense of piety. The walk up to the shrine was a celebration,“Jai Mata di!” rang out in joy and fraternity, groups danced to a dhol, stalls sold mithai, chaat, and chai.
Closer to the shrine, night fell as we were shepherded into a series of holding rooms, the mood turned reflective, bodies sat unmoving, “Jai Mata di” became a quiet chant. We entered into a dark tunnel, and then I was before the tiny shrine, interrogating myself about the boon I should ask for.
“It is not for me to ask; the cosmos decides what I should have”. Those words express, as closely as I can access, my thoughts at the time, and could be read as saying that I wanted for nothing.
But there was at least one layer below that, less accessible, which went something like, “And I will be grateful for that gift”, which carried some greed, some sense of anticipation.
The flow of pilgrims to Vaishno Devi is unceasing, and your time with the deity is measured in seconds. The moment of intensity passed, and we walked down to Katra through the cold of an October night. I got to Delhi in the early evening, expecting to have tea with my parents. But the house was empty, and I was about to enter the kitchen when the phone rang. My sister’s father-in-law beamed across the line, “Welcome home, Mamu!”
Three years earlier, my sister and brother-in-law had adopted their first child, Pia, my much loved niece. For several months now, the family had urged them to bring another child into the family, a sibling who would draw the shy, smiling Pia out from behind her mother’s skirts. They didn’t need any convincing, but Amit had a reservation that was utterly charming, “We have been so lucky with Pia, I don’t want to tempt fate by rushing into this.”
That morning, as I was driving down from Katra to Jammu, Mala, Amit and Pia were scheduled to visit the Orphanage of the Holy Cross, to meet an infant who would soon bless someone’s home.
“We are only going to take a look”, Amit had reminded us all.
“Then we will come back home and think about it for at least a week, before we take a call.” The Sisters of the Holy Cross brought the baby boy down to the waiting room, and placed him in Amit’s lap. Mala cooed at him, and Pia looked shyly on. The baby peed into Amit’s lap, the Sisters flurried in to scoop him out of Amit’s lap, and into the nursery to change his diaper.
“Where are you taking my baby brother?” Mala had never heard Pia speak so forcefully.
Many hearts melted.
My sister asked to use the Orphanage phone. My mother was instructed to rush out and buy diapers, baby food, rubber sheets, baby clothes. By the time I reached home from Vaishno Devi, I had a nephew, Rishi, who has charmed our hearts for thirty years now.
Sceptics will dismiss any link between my visit to Vaishno Devi and the events at the Orphanage. Randomness, they declare, rules the world. The Law of Very Large Numbers*** tells us that extremely unlikely events happen all the time, because of infinite throws of the dice of life.
Where the incredulous detect mystic links between two scenes flashing by on the unspooling bioscopes of a million lives, the sceptics say - “Naah, that’s just the monkeys dancing on buttons in the control room.”
Me, I engage with the world through the levers of science and reason, of inquiry and logic, of fairness and transparency, the fabric which has brought prosperity and well-being to billions on this planet.
But sometimes, alone in the stillness of the night, or in the thin air of a remote ridge, it feels like a tiny tear has appeared in the fabric of this umbrella, allowing me the briefest of glimpses of another universe, another fabric, woven on another loom.