Kedarnath - Page 2

Image of Gandhi on a rupee coin

More snow fell during the night. In the morning the sky turned from black to deepest turquoise and white balloons of cloud rose up past the mountain face behind the temple. I walked amongst the empty stone lanes of the settlement like a visitor in a museum. There was no sign of the sadhu who was said to spend the winter there.

The temple was at the back of the settlement, with the grey scree of a moraine behind it and the glacier and the mountain above it. It was no bigger than a house. After all, who would try to build a sky-defying temple amongst the Himalaya?

The ends of the temple are gabled. A squat tower - a shikara - stands above it. It is built of grey stone. The slabs at its base are so big they might have been lifted by giants. A black stone buffalo stands beside the door. There is a story that Bhima built the temple; there is another story that it was built by the Keralan sage Shankara in a century that might have been the eighth of our era. He died when he was just 32, possibly at Kedarnath. Or in Kerala. Or at Kanchi in Tamil Nadu.

Shankara believed that knowledge was the pathway to God, and to freedom from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Knowledge had to be based on the scriptures, he thought; experience and experiment were not to be relied on for matters of religion and morality. The Upanishads said that the Divinity and the Self and all perceived things were one, so it had to be so. It could not be so in the phenomenal universe, so the phenomenal universe had to be an illusion - a God-created illusion called maya. Yogis from Shankara’s day to the present have spent their lives meditating on maya, hoping to realise through experience the truth of Shankara’s terse logic.

The illusory world was very lucid at Kedarnath. Sunshine beat like a storm on my neck, and cold air nipped my fingers. Tendrils of cloud formed in front of the face of Kedarnath Mountain, and then dissolved again. Snow crystals sparkled on the grey stones at my feet.

Ribbons of ice trailed along the ground. They were the beginnings of the Mandakini, one of the Garhwal rivers that unite to form the Ganga.

I walked up the moraine until I came to two ice-glazed pools. I wondered whether one of them might be the place where the ashes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi - Mahatma Gandhi - were scattered. He was seventy-eight years old when he died, murdered by a young man who could abide neither his fraternisation with Muslims, nor his rejection of Hinduism’s warrior past.

Gandhi was a devotee of the god Vishnu rather than of Shiva. He particularly venerated Ram, Vishnu’s incarnation as the Perfect Man. He used to say that repeating the name of Ram had saved him from the temptations of prostitutes, and from the immoral landlady with whom he had lodged in England, when he was studying for the Bar.

Gandhi died on 30th January 1948, five and a half months after Independence and Partition. While hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered in Punjab – Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Sikhs by Muslims - Gandhi fasted in Calcutta. Perhaps it worked; the co-genocide failed to get a grip on Calcutta and West Bengal. Then Gandhi travelled to Delhi and Natharam Godse shot him. Hai Ram, Gandhi said as he died.

Natharam Godse was another devotee of Ram. He had read the books and pamphlets that looked forward to the day when Ram’s kingdom would be re-established on earth, and the Hindu people would be restored to glory.

Sometimes Gandhi wrote like a medieval monk

I must have been eighteen or nineteen years old when I first read Gandhi’s autobiography. It was sub-titled The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Shankara would have deplored the phrase. There is nothing experimental about Truth, he would have said.

Until I read Gandhi’s book I had known nothing of the man except that he had orchestrated one of the most successful mass movements in history. I’m not sure what I expected of him - Che Guevara with spirituality, perhaps. What I found was an enigma. It left me wondering what kind of a country could have produced a man like that.

Sometimes Gandhi wrote like a medieval monk, and sometimes he wrote like a saint. Often he wrote like George Bernard Shaw. There were pages and pages devoted to cow-protection, and to chastity, and to the value of a fruit diet in suppressing lust. There were more pages devoted to the benefits of caste, or at least of the idealised form of caste called varna. Gandhi abhorred untouchability, but he held varna to be a law of nature. It prevented the evil of competition, he said. And then there were pages where Gandhi dissected the political needs of the moment as precisely as Shankara had dissected the verses of the Vedas. Or as precisely as Lenin, on the eve of revolution.

Gandhi was a member of the merchant caste. He followed the path of action rather than of knowledge. His favourite religious texts were not the Upanishads but the verses of the Bhagavad Gita. The Upanishads are for intellectuals; the Gita is a discourse for warriors on religious devotion, and on duty, and on the importance of detachment in the performance of duty. Arjuna’s teacher in the Gita is Krishna - another incarnation of Vishnu. Gandhi read the martial background of the Gita as allegory. He saw nothing in it that contradicted his conviction that no harm should be done to any living being.

Non-harm is an old idea. Buddha had put it at the centre of his teaching, and so had Mahavira, the first Jain. The sages of the Chandogya Upanishad wrote of it, six or seven hundred years before Christ. But most Hindus saw non-harm as a discipline for renunciates and ascetics. The Pandavas were warriors, after all. Bhima drank the blood of a man he had killed. Ram slew demons righteously. When people like Natharam Godse read the Gita they found nothing in it that was Gandhian.

Natharam Godse was hanged for Gandhiji's murder. His mentor, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, is honoured nowadays as the founder of Hindu nationalism. He was the man who made Hindutva – Hindu-ness – into a political slogan. Mahatma Gandhi, not Savarkar, is the ‘Father of the Nation’ but he has become rather an embarrasment to his offspring. India is thought to need sharp suits and aircraft carriers. It is not thought to need spinning wheels and men in dhotis.

A grey pall spread across the sky while I was wandering amongst the moraine. It sank slowly down the face of Kedarnath Mountain, and snow began to fall. I returned to my tent and spread out my maps. Range upon range stretched away to the west and the north - the way that I had planned to walk. It was too late for that now. Still, I thought, maybe I can walk just a little further

The next morning was cold and thick with cloud. I packed my tent and rucksack and trudged up into the mist that covered the ridge running down from Kedarnath Mountain. I thought that I might be able to pick up a track I had heard of that leads westwards towards the Khatling Glacier.

There was no sign of the path, and my map was on far too small a scale to allow me to navigate by the kind of dead reckoning that I might have used in the British hills. Little flurries of ice-crystals appeared out of the mist and span across the hillside. My balaclava turned white with frost. There was no prospect of finding a way onward unless the cloud lifted. It was time to go home.