High in the Himalayan range is the majestic, glacier-capped peak of holy Mount Kailash, legendary home of Lord Siva. Along the way to the peak are the homes of Tibetan peasants and monks. The farmers live in their tents, high in the rocky hills. Yaks graze lazily on the mountain grasses, tended by black-haired, laughing children. Monasteries cling tenaciously to the bare hills. The more extravagant lamaseries climb over the landscape, level after level reaching up to the sky. The landscape is vast—as awesomely, incredibly vast as heaven. Prayer wheels and prayer flags spin and wave in the wind—each swoop of the wind whips thousands of flags, vibrating thousands of mantras. Shrines protrude like rocks from the glacier peaks.
In 1958, Swamiji made a pilgrimage to this holy mountain, along with Sri Swami Premanandaji of Poona, Sri Swami Bagawathanandaji of the Himalayas, Sri Praveen Nanawathi of Bombay and Sri Ramdas of Punjab. The pilgrimage—which is fully and beautifully recounted in Swami Satchidananda’s book Kailash Journal—took two months. They climbed on foot through 800 miles of rocky ups and downs, to a height of 19,000 feet. The group took no oxygen masks, nor were their clothes particularly heavy. Swamiji lectured and visited villages, schools and monasteries along the way. When a person makes a pilgrimage to holy Mount Kailash, no one asks, “When will you return?” It is enough that one is going to see the God’s shrine, circle the holy peak and receive darshan, God’s blessing. Twice on the pilgrimage, Swamiji faced death.
After he returned, Swamiji was asked, “What did you gain by that pilgrimage?” He answered: “A great lesson. The lesson is that by such a pilgrimage you realize that nothing you have owned, nothing you call yours will help you to experience God within and without. There are many situations where we depend on money or position or bodily strength. But on the pilgrimage, nothing is going to help you. You might have a strong body; but when there is no oxygen, what are you going to do? You may have millions of dollars, but there is nothing to buy. You may have an important position; you may be a powerful person. But on the pilgrimage, you are more or less a slave to your own mule drivers because they are the people who give you directions. So everything becomes nothing. In a way you are made to learn the worthlessness of everything that you have depended upon. It is at that point you say, ‘It’s only God’s grace that helps me.’
Swamiji also felt drawn to visit the holy place of Amarnath in Kashmir. Just as he had been happy to share a tent with others on the journey to Mount Kailash, he was now happy to have a little solitude. “Here in Kashmir, the Lord Amarnath has taken abode in a cave at an elevation of 14,000 feet,” Swamiji wrote. Within the cave He can be seen in the holy form of a dazzling Siva Lingam of pure white snow. This form only appears for a few days each year during the time of the full moon in the Tamil month of Aavani. The full moon day itself is the day especially set aside to worship at His feet. I started out on the 25th of August—four days ahead of this important date—in order to make the pilgrimage at this most auspicious time.”
Swamiji left the camp at Panchatharani for Amarnath Cave. It was cold, dark and icy. The cave lies at a height of 14,000 feet. It is fifty-five feet across, fifty feet long and forty-five feet high. Swamiji bathed near the cave in the melted snow of the Amarawathi spring. Then: “With an offering of flowers in my hands and an offering of love in my heart, I entered the cave. My entire body tingled with the thrill. My heart was exuberant with joy. Here I beheld the holy person of the Lord of Amarnath. I clasped my hands and prayed. I fell at His feet in worship. I arose and stood reverently in His presence, wondering at the grace he bestows on His devotees by appearing before them as the lingam. It is His gift of grace to allow them this experience of seeing His holy person. The form soon melts away, but the realization of His presence remains with the devotee for all time.”
After this pilgrimage, Swamiji returned to Rishikesh. He arrived on the morning of the 8th of September—in time to join the celebration to honor the Jayanthi (birth anniversary) of Sri Swami Sivanandaji. Swamiji was privileged to narrate, in the presence of his holy master, the experiences of the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. He mentally offered all of the benefits of that journey at the feet of Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj.