Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar …
… Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe.…
– Die Lorelei (The Lorelei)
The most beautiful maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair …
… The skipper in his small ship,
Enraptured with a wild pain,
He does not see the rocky reefs….
The sunshine-bathed village of Lodsi on March 14 celebrated Spring Festival in the Himalayas. Girls decorate their houses with flowers. I saw yellow petals at the entrance to the room where I occasionally meditate in the Mahar home. But flowery festivities clashed with the water shortage the village suffered.
The sprinkled flowers in the doorway were probably the work of Sanjana, Sanjay Mahar’s younger sister. A tall, pretty girl who speaks English with a musical lilt, she is in her first year in college but does hard housework like other Lodsi girls.
While staying with the Mahar family, I said I did not need the evening meal. Yet Sanjana cooked and brought me supper on bitterly cold January nights, up a mountain trail in the winter darkness.
On March 14 on the same steep trail, I saw Sanjana struggle under the noon sun carrying a heavy vessel of water on her head. Governments of the world spend trillions of dollars on nuclear submarines hiding underwater, but cannot find money to ensure drinking water for all.
“Let her pain come to me,” I said, and I was on the beautiful highway to Rishikesh that afternoon for a night of meditation by the Ganges.
On March 1 by the Ganges, I had been the only human out in the open in the bitingly cold river air after 11pm. “You will die if you sit here,” an elderly baba (holy man) from Gita Bhavan angrily told me. On March 14 tourists came traipsing to Ram Jhula for a dip in the Ganga at 2:30am. Rishikesh had waved goodbye to the coldest winter in memory. It then happily dived into the Holi spring festival on March 18.
Rafting trips were sold out on Holi Friday, restaurants busy in Tapovan, Western tourists seen, Amul ice-cream carts and strawberry sellers were back. Post-pandemic days had arrived, after two years of worldwide suffering.
Suffering too is impermanent. But Mother Nature’s laws remain permanent. Rishikesh remains a geographical junction of renunciation: one way to mundane happiness, the other path to higher happiness.
The latter path is fraught with temptations, distractions, delusions of a careless mind. German folklore warns of the siren song of Die Lorelei (The Lorelei). Mesmerized sailors saw the alluring maiden singing her haunting song atop the cliff of Lorelei, high above the River Rhine. With stormy minds, they lost their way, their ship, and their lives in Lorelei.
“Lorelei is near where we live,” a young doctor from Cologne, Germany, told me on March 16. She was in the spaciously designed adventure-tourism office in Tapovan, Rishikesh, where I do most of the writing for this series. She had been reading the opening of this article, and she became the latest in a series of Germans whizzing through my life.
Germany is a connecting pattern like Rajasthan in my life (See Part 5, Interconnections). I chose to learn German during high school in Don Bosco, Egmore, Chennai, thanks to the benign Herr Jerome Rajan. Since I began voluntary Dhamma service in Dhamma Giri circa 1994, Germans comprise about 90% of the Westerners I meet.
In Rishikesh on March 16, I knew the answer before asking, “Bist du aus Deutschland?” No coincidences in this world, only the unseen Law of Cause and Effect.
With her voice, accent, and even footwear, the young German lady in black attire eerily reminded me of a girl from Germany once very close to me. She is from near Hamburg, a special friend I have not met since 2007 despite being mind-mates on the same path.
Though beautiful to the eye, attractive to my mind, and everything I could want, marriage or physical intimacy was not initially in my mind when I took her out for her favorite margarita pizzas by the Arabian Sea in Mumbai. I talked about Vipassana and she listened, during what would have otherwise been intimate dinners.
Inter-connecting patterns of life entwine us. My first meeting with her outside a Vipassana center was unplanned. We barely talked to each other while voluntarily serving long-term in Dhamma Giri, in Igatpuri near Mumbai.
Vipassana centers have strict segregation rules (Why is there segregation of sexes on a course?). We came across each other in Mumbai soon after we had served the unique Teacher’s Self Course in Dhamma Giri in December 1999.
I saw her standing outside a cafe in Churchgate around midday in January of the new millennium. “Lunch?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. And like an idiot, I took her to a spicy Indian meal. She would have been craving for a pizza or pasta, after weeks of Indian food in a Vipassana center far away from her home in Germany.
I had never before or since asked any other single female meditator out for a coffee or a meal. She was the only one. But such friendships can be misunderstood. Complications arose. We stopped meeting and the complications increased. My feelings toward her changed. I wanted physical intimacy, sexual relations, marriage. As usual, the monkey mind wants what is not there.
Going through a dark phase, I fell over the edge. I was unable to calmly untangle knots within. And this was despite the Principal Teacher of Vipassana Sayagyi U Goenka giving me permission twice to marry her, including in my last meeting with him in this lifetime.
I had circa 2004 accepted her generous invitation to stay in her U Ba Khin Village apartment next to Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, when she was not using it. “Now you have a place to write,” the Dhamma father Sayagyi U Goenka told me after he had asked “whose flat is it?” and I mentioned her name.
When there was a need to let things play out – or as we say in the Vipassana family, “Leave it to Dhamma” – I madly plunged in to fill a void of silence with horrifically stupid e-mails. The unbalanced ship smashed into the Lorelei cliff. Like the invincible Achilles had his vulnerable heel, sometimes the strongest become weak, skillful warriors forget to use their weapons. I suffered a mental fracture.
But the core volition came to the rescue. Despite foolishness in the darkness of ignorance, Dhamma (laws of nature) had more beneficial plans for her and me: separate.
To separate with wisdom is the separation of suffering from happiness. This is Dhammavijaya – the second of the seven Bojjhangas or factors of enlightenment.
“Apparent, consolidated, integrated, illusionary truth creates delusion and confusion resulting in wrong decisions and actions,” taught the Principal Teacher. “‘Vicaya’ or ‘vicayana’ means to divide, dissect, disintegrate, separate (at the level of bodily sensations), which is what Vipassana intends you to do.”
Dhammavijaya separates reality from apparent reality. It separates the real happiness from the imposter happiness we chase when lured by the siren songs of delusions.
We see things in their true nature with pativedhana – the piercing, penetrating paññā. This is precious wisdom gained from direct experience, and not merely hearsay or intellectual understanding. This is the deeper wisdom from dividing, dissecting, disintegrating, dissolving at the level of bodily sensations in Vipassana practice.
Then the reality of this “I” or “mine” becomes clearer: change and impermanence every moment. The no “I” or anatta becomes clear. The siren song of Lorelei can no longer lure sailors, those crossing stormy waters of suffering to the shores of true happiness.
True happiness is often the opposite of what we consider happiness in the mundane world. In delusions, we mourn what should be celebrated and celebrate what should be mourned.
A different reality works in the inner world of sub-atomic subtleties – the actual reality. The mind made clearer through meditation realizes the deeper suffering of attachment, the accompanying shadow of tension, insecurity, dissatisfaction. This is more so when the world often mistakes lust for love.
The wise young crown prince Siddhartha Gotama had everything a man could want in the world. But he felt that subtler reality of deeper suffering, the price to pay. He worked hard to find a way out of the cycle of suffering, to go beyond the beyond. He found and shared the universal path to true happiness beyond impermanence, decay, and death.
In ignorance of the deeper reality, there is the ego full of craving and yearning. In wisdom, love is pure: one-way traffic of giving without expectations. No ego “I” full of possessiveness. Then no undercurrent tensions of attachment.
Storms of attachment again swirled through my mind after meeting the young lady from Lorelei on March 16. I was again very strongly reminded of her, my mind-mate from northern Germany. I had called her the “life of my life,” but now life’s work beckoned.
“We need your horoscope, Raja Sir,” Arvind Bhardwaj said out of the blue a week ago, from his office verandah with a spectacular view of the Himalayan foothills and the Ganges. “We want to get you married to a local girl.”
“If you are destined to get a bhabhi [sister-in-law] through me,” I told him, “It will be a German bhabhi.”
Time has run out in this lifetime. Yet each moment in life is a new life, with a new moment. The sun was setting in the Himalayan foothills beyond the Ganges, the day was dying. The Rishikesh chapter will end after 30 days, when I take the one-way ticket to the upper Himalayas. A new moment, a new day, a new life dawns.
“Meditate with us, Lord,” the gods (samma devas) seem to be calling from the Himalayas of Uttarakhand, the northern Indian state that is officially tagged as the “Land of the Gods.” Siren songs of Lorelei cannot haunt me there where I am powerful.
The writing cost of this article is donated by a school friend Satish Shankar, a past pupil of Don Bosco, Egmore, 1984. 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 seventh article in an eight-part series. To see other “Postcards from the Edge” articles use this link, which will be updated as the series progresses.