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Ancient Hindu texts written 5,000 years ago put forward the idea that there are many paths to salvation, and each person is responsible for finding the one that suits them best. The idea spread across Asia via Buddhism. Here are three key areas Planet Asia suggests to those wanting to tap into ancient mysticism for personal betterment.

Cartoon of the path to enlightenment from the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita gives practical keys to reach God realization in one lifetime (pic)

Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, originating around 5,000 years ago. It tells stories of hovercrafts and cosmic powers, and gives step-by-step instructions on how to become one with the universe. Ancient Hindu texts teach that there are many paths to salvation – each should choose the one that best suits them.

Expats on a search to find themselves in Asia have plenty of material to work with. Hinduism at its core supports the idea that each person has their own spiritual path. Hinduism has no founder, and obscure origins. The Vedas are the earliest Hindu texts, containing knowledge claimed to have given by God to seven seers at the dawn of time.

While the Vedas contain prayers to a multitude of gods (giving the impression of polytheism), the Upanishads (published afterwards) emphasize the idea of a God found within. From the Upanishads:

That which is Supreme Brahman, the Self, the great support of the universe, subtler than subtle, eternal, that alone thou art. Thou art that alone.

“That Thou art” (Tat tvam asi) is the secret key to Hinduism: you are Brahman.

Painting depicting Bodhisattva Gautama undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment

Painting depicting Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. A god is overseeing his striving. The five monks in the background are his future ‘five first disciples’ (pic)

Two thousand years after the birth of Hinduism (3,000 years ago), Guatama Buddha’s teachings extended the Hindu philosophy into Buddhism, passing forward core Hindu concepts:

  • People will continually get reincarnated until they learn their lessons
  • There are many paths to enlightenment
  • Human suffering is caused by attachment to physical things
  • The world we perceive is actually a distorted reflection of a larger spiritual reality
  • Meditation and yoga are keys to quieting the mind and discovering larger realities
  • All living spirits will reach enlightenment – even if it takes many incarnations

If you are an expatriate traveling across Asia in search of meaning and purpose, here are three key areas that have been drawing pilgrims for thousands of years. Learn how to go beyond passive tourism and actually tap in to the power you will find.

Himalayan foothills

Pilgrims headed to worship at Amarnath cave in Kashmir, India, with snow capped peaks in the background

Pilgrims headed to worship at Amarnath cave in Kashmir, India (pic)

The Himalayas are the roof of the world, 612,021 square km across six countries, home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. It feeds the lives of billions, as the source of the Indus Basin, the Yangtze Basin and the Ganga-Brahmaptura, which are three of the worlds primary river systems.

For those on a spiritual journey, this adventure – starting from the foothills of India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Afghanistan or Pakistan – is the ultimate spiritual destination.

Hundreds of temples and shrines decorate the Himalayan foothills, while the snow-capped peaks in the distance have inspired many mythological legends that form the core of Indian culture.

Rishikesh is a noted gateway: an ancient waypoint for saints and sages before undertaking the arduous pilgrimage north though the distant Himalayan Peaks. Here is also the starting point to deeper pilgrimages to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.

Rishikesh buildings along the riverbank, with Himalayan foothills in the background

Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is a key Gateway to Himalayan holy spots (pic)

Further north of here is the Kullu Valley, a long-popular stoner route with marijuana-covered foothills, relatively easy transport and chilled-out vibes:

Trekking through the Kullu Valley with Himalayan peaks in the distance

Trekking through the Kullu Valley is an exhilarating way to tap into the natural power in the area (pic)

Spiritual Significance of the Himalayas

From Sadguru: “Most of the Masters go without ever being able to transmit what they really want to transmit. You do not want this to go lost. Generally, in India most yogis and mystics always chose mountain peaks because they were not frequented by people, they were safe places. They chose rocks to deposit their knowledge in an energy form.

Sadhus smoking hashish in the Himalayan mountains

All Sadhus in the mountains have been smoking hashish for thousands of years, used as a means to more effectively realize the God within (pic)

When we say it is the Abode of Shiva, it does not mean that he is still sitting up there or dancing or hiding in the snow. In the yogic culture we see Shiva as the first Guru. Right from Shiva, many yogis from all traditions stored everything they knew here in a certain energy form.

If you just want to feel the power, you can come to certain spaces, be there, feel the power, enjoy it, take something and go. But if you really want to decipher and know these different dimensions, you have to put in a certain amount of investment, time and life.”

Mount Kailash, Tibet

Mount Kailash with prayer flags in the foreground

Mount Kailash is the grandest pilgrimage in the region

The Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar Yatra is one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrimages in known history. It is revered as earthly abode of Lord Shiva. It also holds great significance for in Buddhism, Jainisn and Bon.

Tapping into a mystical data center

From the modern mystic Sadhguru (paraphrased):

Mount Kailash is the greatest mystical library. People have been making the pilgrimage there for the last few thousand years. Generally people say 10,000 to 12,000 years, many people say it is much more than that.

The Buddhists consider Kailash as the axis of the existence. In the whole area from the Far-east Asian countries to the Indian sub-continent to the Central-Asian countries, Kailash has been held as a very sacred space for centuries. That awareness has dropped in the last one or two centuries because there is no active culture to keep it up, but even today there are small groups of people who are very much aware of this.

Generally, in India most yogis and mystics always chose mountain peaks because they were not frequented by people, they were safe places. They chose rocks to deposit their knowledge in an energy form. For thousands of years, realized beings always traveled to Mount Kailash and deposited their knowledge in a certain energy form. They used this mountain as a basis and created this. It is because of this that Hindus say Shiva lives there.

A chart showing the meaning of Shiva's symbols

Shiva is revered as the first mystic to store his learnings in the rocks of Mount Kailash

If you are going to Kailash, you are like an illiterate person going to a huge library. You don’t know a word of it – you will be overwhelmed. If you want to read it, you have to start from ABC. You have to learn the fundamentals of how to decipher life, starting with yourself. If you cannot decipher this small piece of life, deciphering anything else in the cosmos is out of question.

In terms of inner dimensions, anything that you ever want to know is in Kailash. If you know how to perceive it and decipher it, everything that you ever want to know about your own creation, about your making and your existence, and about your liberation, it is all there. [/content_band]

Sacred to four religions and believed to be the centre of the universe for Buddhists and more than a billion Hindus, Mountain Kailash is located is the wilds of western Tibet. There are only four roads that lead here: one from India, one via Shigatse in Tibet, another via Kathmandu and a third via Kashgar.

In Tibetan territory, the area is controlled by the Chinese. In 2013, China received 14,084 foreign pilgrims to Kailash, a slight increase compared with the year 2012. The from Kathmandu, the drive to Kalish takes around 12 days. The pilgrimage around the mountain takes three days, a 52km hike reaching altitudes of 5,000+ meters. One time around the mountain is called a Kora.

Buddhists believe that making one kora washes away the sins of a lifetime. They also believe that 108 kora confer instant nirvana.

Ganges River, Varanasi

A body on fire at the Burning Ghat in Varanasi

A devotee’s perfect ending at the Burning Ghat in Varanasi (pic)

While many parts of India are divided by religion or caste, Varanasi (formerly Benares) attracts all classes and people in a giant spiritual soup, as it has for centuries.

According to Hindu lore, Varanasi is one of the seven main places of pilgrimage in India. Dying here is said to grant complete liberation from the cycle of re-birth.

Tourists are a magnet here. The first few times you walk out along the banks of the Ganges, prepare to be swarmed by every type of swindler imaginable: street kids, fake mystics, carpet sellers, drug dealers, massage grifters, shady westerners, gems dealers and ‘students’.

Beyond that first line is a kaleidoscope of goats, feral dogs, ravens, monkeys, flies, heaps of steaming dung, open wounds, dead bodies floating in the water and aggressive monkeys lurking in the trees and rooftops.

Overhead view of Varanasi city streets

Walking the streets of the ancient city (pic)

If you duck into the back alleyways to escape the throng, you will immerse in a disorienting labyrinth of tiny alleyways packed dense with cows, carts, motorbikes, sheet-wrapped corpses being stretchered to fire pits in a sweltering heat buzzing with flies.

Most people endure for a few days, spend most of their time hiding in their guesthouses and move on. Those looking to go deeper will have plenty to explore.

Benares is the city of Lord Shiva, the center of spiritual knowledge in the region, the city of light.

Tapping into the Scene

You need to build up a tolerance for the unpleasant physical environment. It is claustrophobic and smothering. There’s no escape, except hunkered down in your guesthouse.

Once able to shrug it off and deter touts with a glance, sit by the water along the main ghat and wait for mysticism to come to you.

Watch it unfold: otherworldly holy men (the ones who ignore you are the ones to meet), kids hawking chai and snacks, women lumbering with the beasts of burden toting bundles. Get a haircut along the lanes while squatting on a bucket. Buy some prayer beads. Knock back an ‘extra strong’ bhang lassi and lose sense of all time and space.

River life along the ghats in Varanasi

Blend in with the punters around the ghats and let India come to you (pic)

As day turns to night, the colors fade, the noise dies down and everything crosses over into the realm of death.

Varanasi at night with red flames over the dark water

Varanasi at night: city of death (pic)

Among the guesthouses where foreigners stay, you might meet foreigners suffering from ‘god intoxication’. This writer met a Malaysian with the affliction. The Malaysian described it as “an addiction to cosmic power.” He was in the city doing heavy meditation, soaking up all sorts of power and cosmic visions, wondering whether to renounce everything and stay there forever.

People like the Malaysian fall into a sort of spiritual trap: a trail of breadcrumbs leading to attachment and addiction. Along the path of cosmic power there are eight yogic psychic powers, which in Hindu lore are called Siddhis.

Acquisition of Yogic Powers

The eight siddhis are superhuman powers mentioned in Patajanli’s Yoga Sutras. They can be obtained by very few, through countless years of practice and devotion.

Siddhis are part of the spiritual path, but can become a major instrument of maya (illusion), leading to the downfall of yogis who desire them. Yogananda says that “those who have realized God never show their powers, unless God directs them to.”

Hare Krishna devotee bowing to a false master

With great power comes temptation of ego and attachment. Mystics become rock stars, devotees become sheep (pic)

Siddhi PowerReal-life Practice
1. Anima Siddhi: reduce oneself to the size of an atom; ability to pass through physical objectsReduce the ego and remove obstacles in your way
2. Mahima Siddhi: enlarge oneself to be as large as the universeThink big, aim for large goals
3. Laghima Siddhi: weightlessness, ability to travel at light speeds/ along light energyBe loose and adaptive, follow positive energies
4. Prapti Siddhi: materialize physical objectsFocus your mental energy on bringing your ideas into reality
5. Prakamya Siddhi: fulfill any desireBe authentic, moral and aware; use your power to benefit those around you
6. Ishita Siddhi: physical mastery like walking on fire or water, breathing fire etcFreedom from fear of physical harm
7. Vashita Siddhi: control the minds and actions of other beingsA very tempting power that have drove many insane with bloodthirst
8. Kamavasayita Siddhi: a sum of all the other powersProbably someone like Jesus or Buddha

Along the banks of the Ganges and at various points across Himalayan holy spots, you will find countless mystics who have gotten stuck, bound by ego and the intoxication of discovered power.

Beware.

Conclusion

For 5,000 years, the Hindu concept of many paths to salvation has drawn thousands to the holy places mentioned in this article. Each person is responsible for finding their own path, yet across several religions they tread the same mountain roads to the same holy spots.

If you have the time and means to work on unlocking your personal power, chances are high that your search will lead you to the banks of the Ganges and the Himalayan mountains.

Planet Asia suggests that you visualize a broad objective during the planning for your pilgrimage, then seek clues in the moment when you’re out there in the thin air along the trails.