Rishikesh: The Himalayan foothills and the Ganges in the twilight, with Ram Jhula bridge in the distance. Photo: Vipin Sharma

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
The Beatles
, The White Album; composed in Rishikesh, 1968

Once upon a time, Mother Ganga, as Rishikesh locals call one of the world’s great rivers, was visible in her turquoise green glory from the winding Tapovan road to Laxman Jhula. Not any more.

Mother Ganga has vanished from view on this road I must have walked a hundred thousand times since 2005, from hospitable Green Hills Cottage (now 60’s Green Hills) that was my first and long-term home in Rishikesh.

India’s life-giving river flows hidden behind a glass-concrete wall of shops, restaurants, two bank branches, assorted spas, dairy shops, motorbike rentals, adventure-tourism offices, a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlor. This once picturesque stretch of Tapovan road is unrecognizable from 17 years ago.

So too is Rishikesh unrecognizable from the past decade. The land of rishis (sages) has morphed into the regional El Dorado, an international tourist town of gold. This ancient Himalayan gateway town has prospered, benefited from better education, civic and health services – but also infected with the timeless virus: greed, insecurity, and endless craving.

“Ten years ago people here had less money and were more caring and sharing with others,” said Rakesh Singh Mahar, 31, who was born, was brought up, and has lived in the region. “Now people in Rishikesh have more money, but become more self-centered.”

There is no harm in honestly acquiring wealth, but hoarding instead of sharing wealth causes misery, problems, tensions.

“Happiness is contentment,” declared local adventure tourism pioneer and friend Arvind Bhardwaj one late evening last Christmas, with the Ram Jhula riverside lights turning the Ganges into shimmering gold. But that realization has to be practiced.

“The volition should be to serve society through one’s occupation,” said the principal teacher of Vipassana, Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013). “Money comes as fair remuneration.” As a millionaire, he had been through the rat race, freed himself from it. He taught the ancient Vipassana way to live a happy life, middle-class or millionaire: the actual practice to be free from endless craving.

The wealthy crown prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom and worldly happiness for higher happiness. He rediscovered Vipassana to attain full enlightenment. “This is an ancient path,” the Buddha said.

He experienced the deeper reality beyond apparent reality: the real craving is not to external objects but to pleasant sensations within. The deepest part of the mind blindly reacts to a biochemical flow in the body, with craving if pleasant and aversion if unpleasant.

The biochemical flow within is called asava in the Pali language. The blind reaction to it is the real cause of our problems – not the apparent cause outside of wanted things not happening or what someone did.

But the conditioned mind is trapped. It’s a prisoner of addictive habit patterns. And then it becomes a deeper addicted prisoner with the same blind reactions to the same sensations, again and again, time after time. The habit pattern is so strong, and the mind so weak.

Life changes with very hard work to make the mind strong enough to practice the realization: the root cause of suffering is within; happiness is within. The Vipassana path to real happiness – not fleeting euphoria – starts with sharpening, calming, and training the wildly wandering mind.

We have to train the wild mind to be in the present moment, with equanimity. Very difficult but very necessary. Life is not about years or decades lived, but how well we live this present moment, now.

A sincerely hard-working Vipassana practitioner being with reality of the present moment – objectively observing arising, passing sensations – starts being free from suffering insecurity, attachment and endless craving.

Rishikesh is a favorite frontier for those taking their geographical steps beyond the mundane life of endless craving. The Beatles arrived here in February 1968 to learn meditation from “Maharishi” Mahesh Yogi, with the international media circus in tow.

“Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich – but what it’s all for?” Paul McCartney asked before their Rishikesh adventure. It’s a timeless question asked by kings who renounced crowns, asked by those who attained great wealth.

They had the awareness to realize discontent and craving continues, and the wisdom to look for answers beyond. These answers are within, waiting to be unraveled, discovered, realized.

The Beatles in Rishikesh, India, 1968. Photo: DNA

To find within life’s core answers needs the guidance of a genuine teacher to show the pure path. Falling into the clutches of a fake “guru” won’t help. Instead of meditating, the Beatles in Rishikesh went into a creative orgy of song-writing in the US$500,000 “ashram” with a helipad. The “White Album” and the abandoned, graffiti-filled “Beatles Ashram” that I once visited became the legacy of their disillusioned stay.

The Beatles Lounge in the popular 60’s Cafe, Rishikesh. Photos: Vinod Chauhan / 60’s Green Hills

One direction of National Highway 58 through Rishikesh leads to the upper Himalayas and the opposite direction to New Delhi. After a few weeks of confusion and disillusionment, McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr were back on the road to Delhi and a plane to London.

If only the Beatles had arrived a year later in India, when the ancient universal path was again taking root in the country after 2,000 years.

The real renunciation is not geographical, but in renouncing the ego and impurities accumulated in the mind. It can be done anywhere, in a megacity or a Himalayan forest, with the meditation practice to purify the mind and be liberated from all suffering.

Some benefit so much that their long-term duty is to devote full-time practice to their meditation with no distractions, and share the merits thereby gained – for the liberation of all beings. And so I am here again in the Himalayas, this time on a one-way ticket of no return in this lifetime.

The writing cost of this article is donated by the Class of 1985, Don Bosco, Egmore; the series is in association with Red Chilli Adventure and Sukoon Home Stay, Rishikesh. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.

This is the second article in an eight-part series. To read Part 1, click here. To follow the whole “Postcards from the Edge” series, use this link.