Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, originating around 5,000 years ago. It tells stories of hovercrafts and cosmic powers. There are 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.
Hinduism at its core supports the idea that each person has their own spiritual path. Hinduism has obscure origins and no founder. The Vedas are the earliest Hindu texts. They contain knowledge claimed to have given by God to seven seers at the dawn of time.
The goal: reach enlightenment
The Vedas contain prayers to a multitude of gods (giving the impression of polytheism). In contrast, the Upanishads (published after) emphasizes 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.
Hinduism arose 5,000 years ago. 2,000 years later, Guatama Buddha extended the Hindu philosophy into Buddhism. Through his teachings, he passed forward core Hindu concepts:
- People will keep getting 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 a distorted reflection of a larger spiritual reality.
- Quieting the mind is the way forward. Meditation and yoga are tools to help achieve this.
- All living spirits will reach enlightenment — even if it takes many incarnations
Are you an expatriate traveling across Asia seeking meaning and purpose? Here are three areas that have been drawing pilgrims for thousands of years.
The Himalayas are the roof of the world. Spanning 612,021 square km across six countries, it’s home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. It is the source of the Indus Basin, the Yangtze Basin, and the Ganga-Brahmaputra. These are three of the world’s primary river systems.
The Himalayas start in the foothills of northern India. The range extends across Nepal, Bhutan, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Along the way are thousands of miles of pilgrim trails. This is Asia’s ultimate spiritual destination.
Hundreds of temples and shrines decorate the Himalayan foothills. The snow-capped peaks have inspired many legends at the core of Indian culture.
Rishikesh is a noted gateway in the foothills. It is an ancient waypoint for saints and sages. Here is where they would gather to embark on the arduous pilgrimage north. The route goes through Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri.
North of Rishikesh is the Kullu Valley. Starting in the 1970s, this became a popular pilgrimage spot for stoners. Wild marijuana plants grow in the hills.
At an altitude of 1200 meters, Kullu is one of the most idyllic settings in the Himalayas. Wild marijuana plants grow in the hills. Stoners have been making pilgrimages here since the 1980s. Activities include eating space cake, smoking hash and hiking in the hills.
Kullu is also called the “Valley of the Gods”. In legend, a great flood tumbled the gods down from the heavens. They used the slopes of the Himalayas to break their fall.
The Sage Manu played the role of Noah. He visited the Kullu Valley during the Great Flood. Unable to cross the Rohtang pass, he stopped at the last settlement he found. There, he organized the world of men with rules to guide them.
Spiritual Significance of the Himalayas
The famous Indian Yogi Sadguru explained the spiritual significance of the Himalayas.
“Most yogis and mystics chose mountain peaks because they were not visited by people. They were safe places. They chose rocks to deposit their knowledge in an energy form.
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. Since Shiva, yogis from all traditions stored all they knew here in energy form.
If you only 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
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
More insights from 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.
The Buddhists consider Kailash as the axis of the existence. That reverence extends across the Indian sub-continent, the Far East and Central Asia.
Per Sadhguru, an average person who visits Kailash is like an illiterate going to a library. There’s too much concentrated information there to absorb.
Learning how to read the information requires starting from zero. You have to learn the fundamentals of how to decipher life, starting with yourself. If you cannot decipher self, deciphering anything else in the cosmos is out of the question.
Sadhguru says that all the knowledge you seek is here. The trick is to learn how to decipher it. “Everything that you ever want to know. About your own creation, about your existence, and about your liberation. It is all there.”
Routes to Kailash
The Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bons revere Kailash as the centre of the universe. The mountain is in the wilds of western Tibet. Only four roads that lead there. One from India, one via Shigatse in Tibet, another via Kathmandu and a third via Kashgar.
China controls Tibet and therefore entry to Kailash. In 2013, China received 14,084 foreign pilgrims to Kailash.
There are four routes to the mountain, summarized below:
- Lhasa: drive on a good paved road through Shigatse, Lhatse, Saga and Paryang. This should take around 7-10 days.
- Kathmandu: drive to the border (1 day) and enter Tibet at Kyirong. Then drive to Saga, and then Darchen. From Darchen, you make the 3-day Kailash trek on foot.
- Simikot: this is in the deep northwest of Nepal, called the Humal District. From here, embark on a 6-day Limi Valley Trek to Hilsa. From there, you cross the border into Tibet and head for Kailash.
- Nepalgunj: this is the best route from India. Cross the border to Hilsa. Then trek three days from Burang to Manasarovar and Kailash.
This writer took the Kathmandu route. The drive took around a week. Then you take a pilgrimage on foot around the mountain. It’s a 52 km hike that takes three days and reaches 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 koras confer instant Nirvana.
Ganges River, Varanasi
Many parts of India divided along lines of religion or caste. But in Varanasi, people have been coming together for centuries. In Hindu lore, Varanasi is one of the seven main places of pilgrimage in India. The driving belief is that dying here grants liberation from the cycles of rebirth.
Chaos on the riverbanks
There are more touts and schemers in Rishikesh than anywhere in India. When you walk out along the banks of the Ganges, expect to swindlers to swarm. Among them are street kids, gurus, yogis, carpet sellers, massage men and ‘students’.
Beyond the touts is a kaleidoscope of goats, feral dogs, ravens, monkeys, flies, and turds. See lepers, dead bodies in the water and aggressive monkeys watching you from power lines.
The only espcape from the throng are the back-alleys behind the ghats. This is a disorienting labyrinth of tiny alleyways. They’re packed dense with cows, carts, motorbikes and peddlers. Also in the alleyways are corpses getting stretchered for the fire pits. Around it all is sweltering heat and a steady buzzing of fat black flies.
If the chaos gets too much, retreating to your hotel does no good. There are daily power cuts, meaning no AC or fans. You’ll steam like a ham in a hotbox.
Most people flee Varanasi after a few days. It’s very intense. Those who tough it out will get deeper into the scene and find plenty to discover.
Connecting with Varanasi
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.
If you stick with it for a few days, it gets easier. The touts will get used to you. Hassles will soften down to friendly banter. Eventually, you will be able to sit down by the ghats and nobody will trouble you. That’s when you can let down your guard and ride the wild energies.
Watch the story unfold on the ghats. Death, acceptance, poverty, devotion. Commerce buzzes through as kids sell chai while women hawk wares. Get a haircut along the lanes while squatting on a bucket. Buy some prayer beads. Knock back an ‘extra strong’ bhang lassi. Lose sense of all time and space.
As day turns to night, the colors fade, the noise dies down and everything crosses over into the realm of death.
Among the foreigner guesthouses, you might meet some suffering from ‘god intoxication’. In 1999, this writer met a Malaysian with the affliction. He described it as “an addiction to cosmic power.” He was in the city to meditate and soak up cosmic power. He talked of seeing dark monstrous entities around the burning ghats.
Acquisition of Yogic Powers
The Malaysian fell into the spiritual trap of attachment and addiction. Along the path to Nirvana, the devotee acquires eight psychic powers. In Hindu lore, these powers are called Siddhis.
The eight siddhis are superhuman powers mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Devotees can only gain them through years of practice and devotion.
Siddhis are major instruments of maya (illusion). Attachment to these powers leads to the downfall of yogis who seek to gain them. Yogananda says that “those who have realized God never show their powers, unless God directs them to.”
|Siddhi Power||Real-life Practice|
|1. Anima Siddhi: reduce oneself to the size of an atom; ability to pass through physical objects.||Reduce ego. When faced with obstacles, work around them.|
|2. Mahima Siddhi: enlarge oneself to the size of the universe.||Think big, aim for large goals.|
|3. Laghima Siddhi: weightlessness, ability to travel at light speed.||Be loose and adaptive. Follow positive energies.|
|4. Prapti Siddhi: materialize physical objects.||Focus your thoughts on bringing ideas into reality.|
|5. Prakamya Siddhi: fulfill any desire.||Be authentic, moral and aware. Use your power to benefit others, not yourself.|
|6. Ishita Siddhi: physical mastery like walking on fire or water.||Free yourself from fearing physical harm.|
|7. Vashita Siddhi: control the minds and actions of other beings.||Help people to help themselves.|
|8. Kamavasayita Siddhi: a sum of all the other powers.||This means to become enlightened, like Jesus or Buddha.
You can find many “stuck” yogis along the banks of the Ganges. They also cluster at all of the Hindu holy spots in the Himalayas. Beware of these men and be careful of becoming like them.
Walking this path is a razor’s edge. Learn more in our dedicated guide on the topic:
For 5,000 years, the Himalayas have drawn pigrims seeking salvation. From the peaks of Kailash to the bank of the Ganges they flock to worship.
If you have the time, desire and means, consider experiencing these places yourself.