Searching for meaning in Rishikesh

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Knowing others is wisdom; knowing yourself is enlightenment.

- Lao Tzu

The holy city of Rishikesh lies in the hills of Uttarakhand in northern India. It’s a beautiful, sacred city, revered for its spiritual significance to Hindus. Devotees come to bathe in the holy Ganges, make offerings to the gods, and worship in the many holy temples.

Rishikesh holds an important place in Hindu mythology, which tells that Lord Rama - one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities - was sentenced to penance in Rishikesh

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Knowing others is wisdom; knowing yourself is enlightenment.

– Lao Tzu

The holy city of Rishikesh lies in the hills of Uttarakhand in northern India. It’s a beautiful, sacred city, revered for its spiritual significance to Hindus. Devotees come to bathe in the holy Ganges, make offerings to the gods, and worship in the many holy temples.

Rishikesh holds an important place in Hindu mythology, which tells that Lord Rama – one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities – was sentenced to penance in Rishikesh for killing Ravana, the demon god of Lanka.

The word Rishi translates to ‘seer’, referring to the monks living in caves in the hills surrounding the city. It was these holy men to whom the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) were first revealed. Today, a visit to Rishikesh and its neighbouring city Haridwar is a religious pilgrimage for Hindus in India and all over the world.

But when the Beatles visited Rishikesh in 1968, it was forever changed. In the half-century since the world-famous pop group stayed in the Maharishi ashram, Rishikesh has become a haven for wellness enthusiasts and spirituality seekers. It’s now known as the ‘birthplace of yoga’; a holy city that’s home to five-star hotels, backpacker hostels, international yoga schools, restaurants, coffee bars, and clothing stores. Locals describe it as a ‘spiritual playground for Westerners’, most of whom are seeking their own enlightenment.

Backpackers and boomers alike crowd the ancient streets, usually clad in baggy yoga pants or white robes. Some come to study yoga or meditation. Some come to live in ashrams and attain soul-enriching experiences. And some come for the cheap backpacker lifestyle and local bhang (marijuana). There are classes in everything from yogic meditation to Hindi to belly dancing.

Although still one of the most celebrated sites for Hindu worship, Rishikesh is no longer exclusive to Hindus.

So, why has the rest of the world developed a taste for Eastern spirituality? Was it just because of the Beatles, or was it something else?

Although Rishikesh had already been a holy city for centuries, it was relatively unknown to the Western world until the Beatles arrived. Following their skyrocketing fame and success, the band was on a quest for ‘spiritual reawakening’. The ashram they chose was the home of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of what was called the Transcendental Meditation movement, and the Beatles were sold on the idea of self-discovery through meditation and yoga. According to some reports, the Maharishi promised them “happiness and enlightenment” through transcendental meditation – and without drugs.

Their stay was cut short for various reasons, including apparent misconduct of the Maharishi. However, they did achieve some level of productivity, writing nearly all of the songs for the White Album while there.

The Beatles not only put Rishikesh on the map but also created a new interest in Eastern spirituality for generations to come. In the decades since their visit, the ashrams of Rishikesh continue to draw visitors of all ages, creeds, and backgrounds, all of whom seem to be on a search for the same thing: a deeper meaning in life.

What is it about an ashram that appeals to us Westerners?

Originally founded as Indian hermitages or places of seclusion, ashrams are technically the homes of spiritual masters or teachers. In recent decades, they’ve become a kind of spiritual ‘school’ for both foreign and domestic visitors. Accommodation is free, but those seeking guidance and spiritual wisdom through the master’s teachings are expected to adhere to the rules and strict daily routine. This generally involves helping with chores around the property between studying and meditating. One of the biggest and most famous ashrams in Rishikesh is Geeta Bhawan, with over 1000 rooms.

Ashram life is by no means a holiday. A typical day involves waking with the rising sun (around 5am) for two or three hours of meditation, yoga, and/or chanting routines. Food is very simple: strictly vegetarian, and sometimes also sattvic (no garlic or onion). Meals are eaten while sitting on the floor, usually after group chanting. Afternoons involve more yoga practice, and the day ends early (usually around 9pm) with a strict curfew. Visitors are also expected to take part in cleaning duties within the ashram and around the local area.

Ashrams do not promote any particular religion or faith. They are instead founded on the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, self-awareness, and the cultivation of self-discipline and personal reflection. The daily routine is designed to be free from external distractions. This means no Wi-Fi, no cell phones, no music. This simplicity is to help participants focus on the most basic elements of life, reflect on one’s inner spirit, and be free from habits and addictions.

In many ways, ashram life offers many things that our modern Western society does not: peace, serenity, and the time to focus on oneself. Many of the travellers here are on a quest to improve themselves in some way.

It’s easy to see how this can be so appealing. Despite the simple food and strict routine, a few weeks’ stay in an ashram can seem like the perfect opportunity to ‘get back to basics’: something that many of us rarely have time to do. Our lives are led by commitments to work, family, and finances. Technology does most of our thinking for us. It’s become more and more difficult to stop and take time out for ourselves; time to simply reconnect with our thoughts.

My experience of Rishikesh wasn’t quite that. I was 26 at the time and, like the hordes of om-chanting backpackers around me, I was drawn to the idea of ‘finding myself’ in this Indian city. I sought out a yogi, signed up for a yoga class, and prepared for enlightenment.

That didn’t happen. I attended maybe two yoga classes and one vaguely philosophical discussion with my yogi before succumbing to a serious case of giardia. So violent was my illness that I spent most of my time in Rishikesh curled into a foetal position on the bathroom floor of my guest house. Needless to say, I left the place no more enlightened about life than I had been when I arrived (but less several kilos).

At the time, I felt I’d missed out on something; that I’d failed to attain what Rishikesh offered. There was something intimidating about the way that other foreigners seemed to float about in blissful haze, apparently on the path to a higher meaning, free from the constraints of Western society. Why hadn’t I achieved that?

Over the years since, however, I’ve come to realise that ‘enlightenment’ – whatever that may be – probably doesn’t happen over a week-long stay in an ashram. But it can be found in Eastern philosophy.

Studies in social psychology suggest that, in our search for meaning, we are looking for a way to make sense of our existence. We associate a meaningful life with positive functioning. This includes satisfaction with life, enjoyment of work, happiness, positive affect, and hope.

The book Meanings of Life by social scientist Roy F. Baumeister suggests that our lives are shaped by four needs for meaning, or four ingredients for a meaningful life.

The first is a sense of purpose, which can be achieved when we think our current lives are in pursuit of a certain outcome. The second is feeling that we have control over our outcomes and that we can make a difference in some important way. The third is viewing our actions as having positive value or being morally justified: that is, we are more motivated to act in a way that makes us look like morally good human beings. Lastly, we desire a sense of positive self-worth. We seek ways of establishing ourselves as people with desirable traits.

It makes sense, then, that we would seek a more meaningful life by stepping outside of modern society. Perhaps this is why Eastern philosophy is so appealing.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern doctrines date back thousands of years. These are not religions but rather ways of living based on a unique spiritual approach to self-consciousness and awareness. And the wonderful thing about these philosophies is that anyone can access them. Whatever your sex, race, religion, or other such belief system, we can all embrace the concepts taught.

When Buddha achieved enlightenment, he was asked: “So, what are you?” He replied, “I am awake.” Of course, the level of enlightenment that Buddha himself reached is something that few (if any) other people achieve. But many of these philosophies – Buddhism and Hinduism especially – are based on a concept of being awake. They teach that by being awake, we may be better able to find happiness, inner peace, and a sense of fulfilment.

Certainly places like Rishikesh appear to represent a means of attaining those things. But it’s not necessary to become a devout yogi to achieve transcendence or to become a Buddhist to accept and practise Buddhism. We can apply these philosophies and beliefs in our own lives at our own discretion.

Spirituality is, at its essence, entirely subjective. For some it could be having an epiphany of who they are in life; for others, it could be finding purpose in life through a certain form of work or achievement. And some might find it in just being content and at peace with themselves.

Finding meaning in life is a journey. It can be guided by the teachings of the Buddha, or by a guru in a hermitage, or by reading Dr Suess. Or, it can be realised on all your own. And you don’t have to go to an ashram.

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