The Icy Warmth
Underneath the mask…
April 15, 2016. Midnight in bed: “Cybage CEO is just a mask. That’s NOT me,” I pictured an imaginary mask and peeled it off. “I am NOT a husband,” I told myself, and the husband’s mask also disappeared. One by one, all roles met the same fate…son, father, brother, friend, and so on. Then arrived the last one. “I am NOT a body,” I convinced myself. Now there was nothing left. I was I. Free. The exercise had worked out much easier than I had anticipated! It was in accordance with Sadhvi’s evening prophecy. And then, something strange happened…
Earlier in the day: It was not exactly a homecoming. True, I had spent a few of my adolescent years just an hour’s drive from here, during Dad’s BHEL Haridwar posting. However, the place had changed. Rishikesh, I knew was filthy and a bit stinky. India’s spiritual capital had a leap of faith. There were more foreigners than beggars. Even Indian tourists descended from privileged settings. A few adorning Guccis and Pradas. The place was swarming with seekers.
We were away from the swarm. An hour or so upstream—Raga on the Ganges—a cozy resort tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas. Our charter was river rafting. We were here to conquer Ganga, not God. The planned evening Aarti at Rishikesh Ghats was a sidekick.
Later in the evening: The Aarti rendezvous at Parmarth Niketan turned out to be surprisingly stirring. It all started during a private audience with Stanford graduate Sadhvi Bhagwati. The intimate interaction is not a privilege accorded to commoners. Our white clad group was special. My wife, Ritu, is a member of Pune’s EO club (Entrepreneurs’ Organization). I had tagged along as a spouse for their club’s retreat. It was in this tailored sermon where Sadhvi taught us the trick of unpeeling our masks, “Our daily roles are like the different characters an actor plays while shooting. Just like an actor, we need to unpeel our role masks every night and sync back with our true self. When we disconnect with the world, we connect with our soul”.
Sadhvi’s message lingered as we were escorted towards our VIP seating by the ghats. It was Ram Navami—Lord Rama’s birthdate. There were celebrity performers, led by Bhajan king Anup Jalota. His holiness, Pujya Swami Chidanand was in full elements with his captivating discourse. Gushing Ganges. Dancing diyas. Havan bonfire. Resonating chants. Enchanting hymns. Orange-robed students. Setting sun. It was heaven! God must have been close by. My thoughts were far away. I was busy shedding my masks. But the external action kept interrupting my exercise.
Midnight + 10 minutes: In the night’s quietness, I finally managed to peel away my masks. And then, something strange happened. The stillness lasted only a moment. Every time I got rid of my ‘masks’, they were back in a flash! Holiness was slippery. Doubts flooded. “‘Sadhvi’s message is jargon. Soul is an illusion. Divinity is a myth.’’— Some of my random thoughts as I snored away.
Afternoon, next day: There were eight of us. Synchronized. Paddling furiously when the cliffs came perilously close. The waves were tossing our rubber raft. The rollercoaster ride only strengthening our resolve! There was no time to think. No time to socialize. We were co-travellers. That was our only bond.
The rapids eventually smoothened. We all jumped into the Ganges. Quenching our thirsts with holy sips. Then floating with the current. The life jackets keeping us straight, our faces tilted towards the Himalayan skyline. A view that has stayed untouched for a millennium. It was like drifting through the waves of space and time. We were an extension of the river. The river was an extension of the mountains. The mountains were an extension of the sky. Everything was connected—the sound of the river, the chirping of the birds, and the laughter of my fellow floaters. I was a mute witness to my tiny identity in the vastness. All my roles—CEO, husband, father, son, and friend—were miniature links to the surroundings. Tied to everything, yet strangely free. The icy water had warmed up my soul.
Sure, the quest of self-discovery is important. But how we pursue it is our choice. The spiritual path advocated by holy gurus is not the only option—I find it too abstract. I feel there are simpler ways. Be it a rafting adventure with friends, an invigorating board game with family, or a cultural activity with colleagues. Numerous social hobbies to bare our soul surround us. All we need is a zest for life to experience the liberation they offer.
Connecting with self doesn’t have to be at the cost of disconnecting with the world. In fact, the closer our bond with humanity, the closer we are to self. After all, beneath the roles we all play, aren’t our souls identical?