Book Review | Masters and seekers unravel philosophy of the Himalayas
By DECCAN CHRONICLE | Shunali Khullar Shroff
Upon first seeing the cover of Mystics and Sceptics, which features an exquisite artwork by the renowned Himalayan painter Nicholas Roerich, I was immediately drawn in. Given my long-standing fascination with Roerich’s immortal depictions of the region, I knew without a doubt that I simply had to obtain a copy of this book.And then there is the subject matter itself — ‘Himalayan Masters’ — those superior beings of light — part myth, part legend — who we may have heard of often and yet know so little about.
It’s in the very air of the Himalayas — a commanding mystical presence that even the most disbelieving among us cannot deny. Mystics and Sceptics takes readers on a rare journey through time and space, offering them a glimpse of the spiritual and physical expeditions of some of the Himalayan region’s most influential spiritual masters, both male and female. These revered figures have been profoundly shaped by the mountains, which have served as a wellspring of spiritual insight and have played a pivotal role in their individual awakenings.
While offering you a sliver of the transcendent wisdom of these spiritual lodestars, the book also urges you to contemplate your own spiritual paths as you traverse through its 25 chapters. The essays also touch upon the beliefs, legends, rituals, and divination practices observed by people living along the Himalayan ranges.No book on spirituality would be complete without exploring the darker side of the search for truth. Mystics and Sceptics delivers on this front with firsthand accounts of encounters with charlatans and essays by disillusioned seekers as well.
The anthology has been skilfully edited by the accomplished Namita Gokhale, a writer who has published works across various genres and has been honoured with numerous prestigious literary awards.
The contributors to the collection of essays include a diverse group of individuals, ranging from poets, diplomats, and scholars of Buddhist studies, to academics, journalists, authors and anthropologists. Among them are seekers, sceptics, and some who are both, creating a rich tapestry of perspectives on the subject matter.
In Makarand Paranjape’s essay on Swami Vivekananda, we discover the Swami’s profound fascination with the Himalayas, his pilgrimage to Kashmir and Amarnath, and his complex relationship with his disciple Sister Nivedita. The Swami felt strongly about the Himalayas being the crucible of India’s spiritual heritage and he proclaimed, during a speech in Almora, that without the Himalayas, religious India would have very little history to show.
The revered Tibetan Buddhist master Milarepa, who by employing black magic murdered 35 guests at a wedding and eventually came to regret his crimes, trained with a Buddhist master to expiate his karma. He spent the rest of his life practising meditation and teaching disciples through his songs in seclusion across the Himalayan borderlands in southern Tibet and northern Nepal. Evan Wentz writes about his vast compassion not only for fellow human beings but also for the woman sent to poison him.
There’s the excerpt from the extraordinary Belgian French explorer Alexandra David Neel’s life. A polymath, she was the first woman to travel across to the Himalayas at the age of 55 and write about her meeting with the 13th Dalai Lama in Kalimpong.
In a chapter about the mountain sojourns of Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh, Navtej Sarna writes about Guru Nanak’s visit to mount Sumeru where his meeting with 84 siddhas took place “among them ancient souls who possessed great power and great wisdom”. Guru Nanak later documented his conversations with these enlightened beings in ‘Siddha Gosht’ in the Guru Granth Sahib.
During a dialogue with Rajiv Mehrotra about reincarnation and past life, the 14th Dalai Lama tells him that, whether one is a believer of the karmic theory or not, what matters is that one should be a kind-hearted person. ‘That is religion in itself,’ he says.
In his essay on Lal Ded, the wandering yogini of Kashmir, Ranjit Hoskote explores her life and her resolute commitment to the path against all odds, while Ramola Butalia delves into the siddha traditions. Madhu Tandon reflects on letting go of attachments in one’s twenties, and Alka Pande examines the Devi, or the Divine Feminine.
There’s also Tsering Dondrup’s riveting novella, The Handsome Monk, translated into English by Christopher Peacock that is both funny and tragic. This story provides a rare glimpse into the contradictions and ironies of a community largely unknown to outsiders.
Capturing the depth and breadth of one’s lifetime of insights and spiritual experiences in a single chapter is akin to attempting to grasp the boundless expanse of the sky within the confines of one’s fist. And yet, in her essay on the beloved Neem Karoli Baba, Namita Gokhale somehow manages to do that with remarkable skill and tenderness. She writes poignantly about receiving her guru’s blessings as a child and her transformative, often silent, encounters with his spiritual successor Siddhi Ma after his samadhi. Theforeword written by her in the anthology too evokes a vivid portrayal of her childhood spent in the spiritually charged mountains of Kumaon.
The line drawings by Siddhartha accompanying each chapter of the anthology are both meditative and artistic and deserve a special mention. With 25 chapters in the book it is impossible to do justice to them all in this review for want of space but each one of them through their own unique narratives and perspectives contribute to the overall theme and message of the book.
Mystics and Sceptics is not only intended for the spiritual seekers, but also for the curious-minded. Take the time to savour this book by reading it slowly, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the world of monks and mystics within its pages. You will be delighted, inspired and surprised by turns with the anecdotes and wisdom it has to offer.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is an author and journalist based in Mumbai, whose most recent book was Love in the Time of Affluenza
Mystics and Sceptics: In Search of Himalayan Masters
Edited by Namita Gokhale
pp. 336; Rs.699