The Himalayas has been the abode of saints and yogis for over 5,000 years. Livings in caves thousands of feet removed from human settlement, the sages continue to be the source of wisdom for civilization. As high and wide as the Himalayan mountains themselves, stretching over 1,500 miles in length and reaching to 29,000 feet high at Mt. Everest, so too is the consciousness of these beings as compared to most of the population. I met one during my stay at this ashram in Rishikesh, though he himself had left his body in 1996. Swami Rama was raised by a Himalayan master and, as part of his training, travelled to far corners of the sacred mountains to learn from the sages that dwelled in the forests and the caves. He wrote about them in Living with the Himalayan Masters.[i] Swami Rama later brought these teachings to the U.S. and established the Himalayan International Institute in Pennsylvania. While being a scholar and a monk, he understood the struggle of humanity in the modern world and was able to communicate his message very effectively, as in the The Art of Joyful Living.[ii]
And so I mention these two books in juxtaposition because they are emblematic of two very different realities. The one is the world we inhabit, that of the “householder” who has a family, earns an income, goes to work, raises children, and strives to enjoy life usually through acquiring a certain standard of living. The other world, closer up the heavenly peaks is a renunciation of any attachment to the material world. Anything related to the body, survival, or lifestyle is downgraded to the lowest priority. Sages will even cast off the body at the moment of their choosing, when they feel it has become a burden. They survive on very little food intake, sometimes just on ‘prana.’ The purpose of life in the body, according to the yogis, is to achieve self-realization. Depending on where you are in your own life journey, this may sound very lofty and unattainable.
Swami Rama tells us that it is attainable. It is not about trying to fix things in the external world – change your job, buy a piece of property in a beautiful place, find romance – it is all to do with the study of self and the inner world. And for that, he says, one needs a practice and discipline. Enlightenment is not gifted to us through prayer or good deeds. This yogi was instructed by his own master to bring the ancient wisdom and the techniques to the West.
Much of my own knowledge about the sages is through reading. But if there’s one lesson I wish to share with others, it is this: we owe it to ourselves to examine the lived experiences of the sages to grasp the immense potential we have to become far more than our own, often unconscious, self-imposed fetters allow. It is becoming who we are. Like the universe that keeps expanding, the self is similarly capable of expanding. The vast majority of people have no clue of the limitless power that lies within the source of pure consciousness. When the mind stops being in control of everything, something bigger emerges out of the stillness. Swami Rama says, “When you come in touch with the finest of all knowledge, and that highest of knowledge gives you clarity of mind, then your whole life is a poem and a song.” The Art of Joyful Living (2003: 120).
There is a infinite cascade of benefits from turning inward. Self-healing, an abiding peace, the peeling off of layers of our own illusions, a ‘knowing’ connection with the source of life, gratitude, freedom. And if that is not enough, well there is more that you will have to read about. It is time for our own society in the West to take a different view—to stop ‘phenomenalizing’ the sages and sidelining them as an outlier. So long as their wisdom is accessible to us and they reside in this world, it is also our responsibility to tap into this resource so that we too can evolve.
I myself have learned that reading helps, but no matter how much of it I do, one more book or one more person’s story will not flip the switch. The only way is through practice and experience. So study your self and be your own judge.
[i] Swami Rama. Living with the Himalayan Masters. Honesdale, PA: the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy 1996.
[ii] Swami Rama. The Art of Joyful Living. Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA, 2003.