img-glyph img-glyph

The Road to Nirvana: Stories of a Pilgrimage through India



Reflections from a Pilgrimage through India




Dr. Gabrielle Francis




" God is too Big for One Religion"


  I saw this saying on a T-shirt today.  Or as Gandhi said, “There are many paths leading up the same mountain."  You can't be in India without being immersed in religion, spirituality, and ancient wisdom.  It is evident everywhere in elaborate temples and mosques, pictures of gods hanging from rearview mirrors, altars of incense and statues in business establishments, and wandering Sadhus in an assortment of colors and face paint. 




I try to experience all travel as a sort of pilgrimage.



 In India, it comes naturally.  Most places have deep spiritual significance to one of its many religions.... Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Christianity.  And the journey getting there is ALWAYS sure to be full of trial, tribulation, and adventure.  I read a line in a book once that said having a guidebook in India was as useful as taking a day planner on an acid trip.  This is the best way to describe the attempts to find your way.


People from all over the world come here to “Find Themselves.”   I've heard many interesting things from Westerners such as...". Where is God?" "  I’m looking for my Guru. " " I’m hoping my Guru will find me." "  I’m not leaving India until I am enlightened."  Its as if these things can only be found in India.  Somehow it seems more holy and mystical to embrace an exotic religion in a foreign land.  A religion that doesn’t have the associations of past trauma or an unhappy childhood.  I see broken people trying to find themselves only to give their mind, soul, and sometimes body to a Guru.  Others are more practical and are just seeking experiences and knowledge. 


 As Westerners come to India to embrace spirituality, the Indians are embracing the gods and false idols of the developed nations...Hollywood, Disneyland, and Nike.  A homeostasis of East and West seems to be occurring. 


The effect that India has on transforming people is very REAL. Another traveler described it to me as this....  If you take a rough stone and throw it in a stone tumbler with other stones, eventually the process of constantly rubbing up against other stones causes a softening and refining.  The rough exterior chips away.  Judgments, criticisms, expectations and the need to control evaporate until you are left very open, without defenses and peaceful inside.   I love the experience of travelling here.  As the external world seems more out of control, I’ve become more introspective. As I cover the ground outwardly, I advance fresh interpretations of myself inwardly.


     This pilgrimage brings up some important spiritual questions to ponder as I stare out train windows such as…

How can a religion that has 330 million deities be considered monotheistic?  Hinduism that is.

How can a religion as tolerant as Hinduism, tolerate the caste system?

Why do Christians feel the need to come to foreign lands and convert people?

Do the Jews really believe that they are the chosen ones?

Will Muslims ever be able to live peacefully with their neighbors?

Is it necessary to lose oneself in order to find oneself?

Can enlightenment be attained in a Tantric hot tub class in Northern California?

And perhaps most importantly...

Why is Krishna blue? 










  Jaipur is my favorite city for enjoying a good Indian traffic jam.  Camels and elephants join the entourage of cars, tour buses, rickshaws, Indians piled on top of rice on carts and barefoot pedestrians in saris, suits and rags.  And then there are the thousands of free wandering cows, which are revered and considered sacred in India. 


 Murdering a cow is considered a crime more heinous than the murder of humans to the Hindus.  The cow represents the Feminine mother energy of God.  Perhaps, it is really more useful alive as all of the Indian dishes use milk products. Lucky families have their own cows and send them out to roam the streets everyday eating trash to its hearts delight.  Often disturbing, is the sight of shopkeepers feeding a big plate of food to a cow as a starving family of 5 looks on.  But even the poor would rather feed the cow than themselves, as it is a way to earn Good Karma Points for your next life.


 I went to Mc Donald’s to see the only McDs in the world that do not sell beef burgers.  Instead they have 5 different veggie burgers called fun names like the Mc Maharaja and the Mc Alloo Tikii. 


 One of the political parties in India is promoting that as part of its platform they would like to adopt all the "Mad Cows " from Great Britain and bring them to Indian.  Bloody Madness! What happens to cows when they get old and their families can’t care for them?  There are retirement farms for cows to spend their final days lazing in the fields and basking in the sun. 


 Holy Cow!








    Varanasi, also known by its ancient names of Benares and Kashi, is a magical and mystical city and the heartbeat of Hindu India.  The city is located at the only place where the Ganges River takes a sharp turn to flow north.  In a metaphysical sense it signifies that the human being who always headed south to death, is afforded a chance to turn back at Varanasi.  A dip in the Ganges is said to wash away 7 generations of bad Karma.  Breathing the air of Benares, feeling the dust of its earth on your feet, and stepping into the water can wash away sins from all of your past lives.





     It is the city of Shiva, the destroyer, and the manifestation of death.  Many Hindus come here simply to die.  Hindu ashes are thrown in the Ganges for purification of the Soul.  Truly the circle of life and death are seen in every aspect of activity here. 


     Colorful, dilapidated, run down buildings greet the Ganges through a series of stairs and Ghats.  Like all other sacred places in India, it is not immune to the lack of environmental concern.  Plastic bottles and waste line the streets, stairs and edges of the Ganges.  Herds of cows bask in the sun along the stairs and roam the back alleys of the old city. 


"Burning Ghats”, or crematoriums, line the river where Doms (lower caste workers) work like ants on an ant hill...wrapping bodies in colorful foil and flowers, attaching them to boards, then carrying them to the rivers edge to be burned.  They are burned in fragrant woods like Sandalwood in funeral pyres.  Burning goes on all day and night.  Male family members and tourists can watch the burning, but Indian women are not welcome.  This is to prevent the ritual of Sati (now Illegal), where the widow, willingly or by force, is placed upon the funeral pyre of the husband.  She does this to avoid the sorry state of widowhood, which is considered a disgrace... and the death of her husband is often considered her fault.  The day after the burning, the entire family takes a boat out onto the Ganges and the ashes are dropped in-an act of final liberation.




    Sadhus, Hindu renunciates, who have taken to a life of austerity, flock the stairs in different colored robes and designs of face paint indicating which path they follow.  Euro Sadhus are occasionally seen looking like hippies that moved east after Jerry Garcia died.  Pseudo Sadhus are charlatans, looking for some wide-eyed westerners to take them afar and build them an ashram in the West. 


 Pilgrims from all over India and the world flock to the Riverbanks to bathe, play, wash clothes, take a shit, have a drink and absolve their sins.  Every aspect of Human life and death lay before you.


      Evenings are quite enchanting when the Puja, worship services, line the Ghats.  Pilgrims come to the river led in prayers and rituals by Hindu priests and Sadhus.  Bells clamor and fires burn all along the River.  Pilgrims send little floating candles with offerings out on the Ganges.  Incense permeates the air.


     Here death is embraced as a doorway to new life.   Life and death are seen as a continuum, a mere changing of form.   It is a spectacle to behold.... a stretch of the imagination where you wouldn’t dare to wander unless it was before you.   I felt that the Ganges could be a metaphor for my life...embracing life and death, constantly flowing, taking shape to the land around it, carving canyons in the land itself, rolling over rocks and around boulders, never being the same in any one place...and never knowing what was around the bend. 


" At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet gazing in amazement at the cold and yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable.  Life and Death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being."







" You cannot travel the path.... until you have become the path."


     A day trip from Varanasi to Bodhgaya seemed highly rational in the travel agent’s office. This was our only option as all the trains and hotels were booked there.  Our travel agent said that a 4 1/2-hour taxi ride would be no problem for one day. 


Bodhgaya is the central most important Buddhist pilgrimage site as it is the place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago.  The annual Kali Karma festival is a Tibetan purification festival that is held every year in Bodhgaya.... and the Dalai Lama is there to orchestrate it. 


 The 4.5-hour pilgrimage took 9 hours in Indian time.  The heavily cratered road was a Full-on Indian nightmare of traffic jams, military searches and bandit scares.  But I was sure that Shangri-La awaited us with gentle smiling Tibetans, prayer wheels, and prayer flags.  We left Hindu Madness at 5am and arrived at Buddstock at 3pm. 


 It was NOT the Shangri-La of my memories in Tibet 5 years ago.  Instead, it resembled a Buddhist amusement park...a Karma Karnival or Dharma Disney.  It included Ferris wheels, backwards roller coasters through past lives, and silly games.  Aggressive Indian vendors sold tacky Tibetan memorabilia and Dalia Lama charms.  Young Tibetans paraded around in heavy metal T-shirts, flared jeans, and funky hair styles with techno music blaring from boom boxes.





Thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns swarmed about with shaved heads and maroon robes...pushing and shoving past as if Enlightenment were being given out for Free.  A loudspeaker droned in the background the very particular throat singing of the Tibetan monks chanting.  A large area surrounded by a cold metal wall fenced Babo and I out from the Center of the Universe at the moment...the area where the Dalia Lama was giving his purification ceremony and initiating some lamas.  Apparently, you needed tickets for this event months ahead.


      Disappointed and dismayed we made our way over to the Mahabodhi Temple to see where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Aggressive monks pushed past to see the ugly little Buddha shrine.  I watched a young Indian girl stealing people’s offerings from the shrine.  Outside monks and nuns did laps around the temple muttering OM PADME MANI HUM at a marathon pace.  Thousands of Indian beggars had heads and hands with steel cups pushed through the fence hoping for some Compassion.  The monks barreled past completely unaffected by the suffering they were whizzing by.  In the center of the Buddha track were thousands of Euro Buddhists and Tibetans doing prostrations on modern day prostration platforms resembling some kind of Abs of Steel commercial.  What irony this is? we thought.  Where did the Buddha’s message of Compassion for the suffering matter here? 



     Buddstock was an entertaining and enlightening experience.  While Babo and I were having Momos and Lassies at the Om Cafe, I told her that I felt like we would receive some inadvertent blessing for making the pilgrimage to Buddstock. 





We had another 9 hours on the highway to hell back into Hindu Madness only to leave in a couple of hours for a plane to Kerala...  Varanasi was bitter cold.  Of course, the plane was 3 hours late.  Waiting is penance for impatient Westerns. 


 I got into a bit of an argument with the security people as they insisted on taking my batteries away.  Apparently, they were suspicious now and decided to pull all my checked bags for a search.  Confused and irritated, I followed the security man to the door to go retrieve my bags.  As I approached the door, 2 guards pulled me back and said....” Wait here!  VIP coming through. “


  At that moment, I looked on the runway and saw some maroon robes disembarking a private jet.  Following, and surrounded by guards was non other than...His Holiness, the Dalia Lama!  Babo, 2 British punks, 4 security guards and I all lined up like iron shavings pulled toward a magnet.  He walked over to us, put both hands together and bowed with the same unassuming smile I've seen only in pictures.  We bowed back in silence.  With that, he saluted us and walked away laughing. 


      The synchronicity of that moment flashed before me as all the events leading to this came together.... the late flight, security search, and previous days disappointment.  The Blessing came more powerful than I could have imagined.  Serendipity happens all the just have to notice the Non-coincidences.

“Unless you leave room for Serendipity, how can the Divine enter in?  The beginning of the adventure of finding yourself is to lose the way.  "
-Joseph Campbell






     Watching the sunset on the Arabian Sea was no less exotic than it sounds.  Kerala, the southern most state in India, is an exotic blend of cultures.... Indian, Dravidian, Portuguese and Syrian.  It’s the most literate state at 91% and women enjoy better status than elsewhere in India. 


Varkala beach was a lovely idyllic, palm fringed paradise of coconut palms, rugged cliffs, clean white sand beaches, cascading ocean currents and colorful sunsets.  A place where fisherman and locals mingle.  After 4 days the locals knew our names and Babo and I decided to head out before the beauty immobilized us. 



We took a ferry through the serene and tranquil Kerala backwaters and got off at the ashram for Mata Amrithanandamayi...also known as Amma, the Hugging Mother.   Amma is said to be an Avatar, or God Realized incarnation of the Divine Mother.  Her teaching is not translated by her words but in the presence of being with her.  Hugging her devotees passes on her darshan, or blessing.  I had heard of Amma for years from friends who would see her on her Hugging Tours.


     The ashram was packed with Indian and Western devotees singing as Amma entered riding her pet elephant.  We were able to get darshan tickets fairly early since we had connections. 


After about 2 hours of waiting in line I approached the stage, which was in a huge auditorium.  Beautiful devotional songs were being sung accompanied by Tablas, tambourines, and bells.  I looked out into the audience at a spectacle of blissed out devotees singing, smiling, laughing, crying, meditating, sleeping and rocking back and forth.  Some were even talking to and holding on tightly to Amma dolls. 


 As I approached Amma, I was quickly pulled to my knees by her police force of devotees.   Next I was shoved into her bosom.  She smiled, grabbed my head, and gave me a blessing in her native tongue.  Before I could process it, I was yanked backwards, and another person was pushed into Amma.  I didn’t feel any surges of Kudalini or lightening bolts.  My third eye is still closed as far as I can tell.  I walked away confused and ruffled. 



      It was after I sat down at her side and looked on for a few hours that I Really Got Her message of Universal Unconditional Love.  Earthy, vital, and archetypically maternal she greeted everyone with the same radiant and unforced smile.  Sometimes she laughed, scolded, consoled...but always pulling them in for a mammoth hug.  Watching her caused my heart to warm and my body to tingle.  She reminded me of a browner version of my maternal grandmother always full of unconditional loving acceptance. 


I thought of my Mother, which I am so grateful to have, who gets the same radiant smile every time she sees me even if I’ve only been gone a few hours.  Then I had gratitude for my Aunts and friends who have been mother figures to me. My heart ached for all the people who have never known a mother’s unconditional love like I have or who lost their mothers to death.  And then I thought about Mother Earth and how our species has such little respect for all the gifts she's given.


     Amma continued hugging people from 10am till 12 midnight without stopping to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom.  She hugged 12,000 people that day! She has done much for the poor in India including schools, hospitals, orphanages, pensions for widows, 25,000 homes for homeless, and 50,000 meals per month to the hungry.  Truly she is Divine Compassionate Service in Action.  No one could deny she is a hugging saint. 


“When Love overflows and is expressed through every word and deed, we call it Compassion.  That is the goal of Religion.  When someone is full of Love and Compassion, he cannot draw the line between 2 countries, 2 faiths, or 2 religions.  He has no ego.  He simply forgives and forgets.


Compassion is love expressed in all its fullness."







My first exposure to Sai Baba was through the clever sayings displayed at the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues concert club.  The owners, being devotees, have postings of his famous quotes such as…





I always wondered, who is this interesting Indian Swami with a Jimi Hendrix hairstyle?


Sai Baba devotees, 20 million in number, flock to India from all over the world.  He is known as the Man of Miracles- God Incarnate. 


 When on the plane to Bangalore I met an Indian man.  I told him I was going to see Sai Baba.  He laughed at me and made a figure eight wiggle with his head..." You people (pronounced Pee-Pool) have lots of money but no peace of mind.  We have peace of mind but no money."  




Landing in the airport you are greeted by huge signs of Sai Baba and the option to take the Sai Baba express train to the ashram.  I opted for the taxi, which was quicker.  The Highway to Heaven was paved better than most Indian roads but the Indian safety precautions of horns favored over brakes still persisted.  What struck me most about the Highway to Heaven was the huge billboards and posters of Baba along with Sai Baba shrines at all the road stops. 


Arriving at the ashram is like driving into Disney land.  Its s a sprawling city of pink, yellow and blue ornately designed temple architecture.  I am thinking that whoever this guy is…he must have some money.


     Ashram schedule begins with a morning darshan of Baba walking through an auditorium of about 10,000 people.  It begins at 7 but the line starts to form at around 4.  Some people even come around 1am.  I check my criticism of this fanaticism by remembering all of the times I camped overnight for concert tickets.  The idea being... to get as close to Baba as you can to give him a letter when he passes by. 




 The waiting seems to be part of the spiritual benefit.  As I observe the devotees, I see the difference in the way people wait.  For the Indians, the waiting Is the Activity.  Its what they are doing, and they are quiet and relaxed.  For the westerners, Waiting is something you do in between Doing things. They are irritated and bored.  Indians are Humans Being, and Westerners are Humans Doing.  


Groups of devotees from all over the world are in groups with country flags as sashes.  Apparently, Baba likes big groups.  The German devotees, famous for strict adherence to schedule and moral code, are constantly shhhhhing the Italians, who are laughing and whispering loudly.


 Now it time to go into the temple.  But first you must pass through metal detectors and a brutal search by militant little Indian ladies in Saris.


      The energy shifts to abrupt attention with the beginning of the twinkling Sai Baba theme song.  Seconds later, Baba appears out of nowhere and starts his 10-30-minute Walk of Fame.  He is smaller and older than I expected.  He is wearing a long orange robe and still has the very cool Jimi Hendrix Afro.  You almost expect smoke to fill the meditation hall and him to break into” Purple Haze” at any moment.  It is the slowest, strangest walk I’ve ever seen...taking a few steps, staring forward, moving his hand as if to stir the air, then abruptly changing direction, taking a few more steps, and holding his hand in the air. His hands manifest a certain magic dust known as Sai Baba Booti, which devotees collect for its miraculous benefits.  His face has a peculiar grimace.  In this case, enlightenment resembles senility very closely.  He is Definitely Not of This World...but then again, neither are the patients at my Dads nursing home.  Yet I found there to be something endearing and mystical about him.


      My first impression of the ashram and Sai Baba was that it was a creative redistribution of wealth.  High-profile devotees give lots of money that goes into free institutions for the poor.  This I support.  God knows that the politicians and corporations aren’t going to help these people. 


    I hung out for 3 days talking to and listening to devotees.  I heard many miracle stories on healings of diseases, healings of soul conflicts, and resurrections from the dead, changing objects into other objects, and manifesting new objects.  For many of the devotees, Sai Baba appeared to them in a dream first...before they ever heard of him. 


Devotees claim he is God Incarnate in a human body, an Avatar, whose mere presence has the power to raise the consciousness.  Many of the Italians believe he is the Second Coming of Jesus.  For all, everything at the ashram is playing out according to Baba's Plan. 


There are lots of sick people here.  Yes.  Are there lots of people trying to heal?  I think so.  Are there lots of sick people trying to heal everywhere in the world?  For sure.  I’m starting to believe that What or Who people believe in is less important than the Act of Believing...Faith.


       Is Sai Baba God?  Sai means mother and Baba means Father.  In his simple words...








This offbeat pilgrimage is turning into an Odyssey of sorts.  I see it as a mindful, soulful travel.  A state of mind rather than a goal.  I’m thinking of a quote from Van Morrison...


” I’m a Soul in Wonder."



 I experience a sense of awe and innocence at the small as well as the magnificent…seeing myself as an extension of God in everyone and everything.

On the Odyssey time exists as a spiral with many realities coexisting at once...all moving inward towards my soul.  The road of the journey is not comes full circle.... ending where began.... and arriving at the beginning as if I were seeing it for the first time.