Near the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas, the storyteller began, local Indians tell the story of a sadhu, a spiritual adept, who has been living in a cave for centuries, taking as his sole life substance the Himalayan air, which only the pure, unbounded spaces of these mountains can provide. Even though all attempts to find him have failed, the story itself has only grown in fascination and has brought seekers from around the world to find him. Most who come are tourists looking to satisfy a curiosity. Some come to satisfy a fire that is burning through their souls.
The amount of water flowing out of the glacial source of the river has diminished dramatically over the last centuries. It is this dilution of the spiritual fire in the river that has made the locals fearful. If the flow of the river stops, they believe, the world will come to an end. In a small village a day’s walk from the river’s source, many small ashrams have gone up. The yogis who are building these ashrams have set as their purpose the preservation of the river with the chanting of millions of mantras to appease Lord Shiva, who dwells on the top of Mt. Shivling, which overlooks the source of the dwindling river.
This sadhu, whom one could not think of as either young or old, is living, people say, on a mountainside in a cave high above the glacier that is the source of the Ganges. This glacier contains the kind of crevasses that, as the story goes, will open up suddenly any place on the glacier as a measure of how far the seeker has advanced in his spiritual quest. Many become aware that they have no business being there and return safely to their rented rooms in the ashrams down the river. Some come back and tell of their trekking adventures with relish at the ashram to those who are on their way up the river. Others walk down the path away from the glacier, overnight at one of the ashrams, and leave without ever having said a word.
Standing on the Ganges glacier in front of a crevasse that has just opened leaves an inner crevasse as vast and unsettling as what the eyes behold. In recent decades, a few have told this story, but only after they have returned to their homes and buried it in ideas and travel details that are a defense for the writer against the devastating astonishment of inexpressible recognitions. Some travelers to the source who write about it either have no special experiences or conceal private realizations in a marketable arrangement of words by recommending it as an easy trek which can be recorded with pictures of dramatic mountain vistas. Others bury their experiences inside until their truths suddenly emerge later in life.
Some who have had experiences on the glacier stay in an ashram for weeks and months because they cannot piece themselves back together enough simply to get on a bus and ride down the mountain. Many of the yogis know why these few westerners tend to stay and lend a silent hand to the physical construction of small dwellings with a few rooms covering dirt floors, a kitchen area outside under a tarp roof and a latrine in the woods leading up the mountainside. Soon, too, they start renting out small rooms to pilgrims.
In many of the ashrams, there is merely chatter among pilgrims, both Indians and westerners, who exchange stories that are intended to validate the life values of their listeners. The Indians admire western technology. The westerners admire the ancient traditions of pilgrimages that transcend the meat, metal and plastic of their contemporary lives.