ON THE WAY to the holy Amarnath cave, Swami Vivekananda had to convince the leaders of the various congregations of pilgrims that it was all right for a European renunciate to accompany him. His own servants and companions included Muslims. Vivekananda, thus, pointed out how ‘the warmth of his love and sympathy for Mohammedanism’ was not misplaced in the interest of human unity even though ‘the soil of the Punjab… was drenched with the blood of those who had died for the faith.’
After Pahalgam, 3,000 pilgrims strove to reach the icy grotto of the Lord of Immortality. Higher than the snow line, they pitched their tents by the frozen river. Warming themselves by a blazing juniper bonfire, they rested for the night. The next evening, firewood became even more scarce. The regular pathway ended, forcing them to trek along goat paths at altitudes close to 13,000 ft.
Nivedita recounts the vivid scene in The Master as I Saw Him: ‘As we ascended this, we had before us the snow-peaks covered with a white veil, newly-fallen; and in the Cave itself, in a niche never reached by sunlight, shone the great ice-lingam, that must have seemed, to the awestruck peasants who first came upon it, like the waiting Presence of God.’
Vivekananda had observed all the rites of pilgrimage with the utmost and punctilious diligence. He had not only kept his fasts and told his beads, but ‘bathed in the ice-cold waters of five streams in succession’ (ibid). Nivedita describes her master’s exaltation when he finally entered the cave, after such a long and arduous pilgrimage, on August 2nd, 1898:
‘And now, as he entered the Cave, it seemed to him, as if he saw Siva made visible before him. Amidst the buzzing, swarming noise of the pilgrim-crowd, and the overhead fluttering of the pigeons, he knelt and prostrated two or three times, unnoticed; and then, afraid lest emotion might overcome him, he rose and silently withdrew. He said afterwards that in these brief moments he had received from Siva the gift of Amar—not to die—until he himself had willed it. In this way, possibly, was defeated or fulfilled that presentiment which had haunted him from childhood, that he would meet with death, in a Siva temple amongst the mountains’ (ibid).
This is how his Eastern and Western biographers describe what the master experienced:
‘He then reached the cave, his whole frame shaking with emotion. The cave itself was “large enough to hold a cathedral, and the great ice-Shiva, in a niche of deepest shadow, seemed as if throned on its own base”. Then, his body covered with ashes, his face aflame with supreme devotion to Shiva, he entered the shrine itself, nude, except for a loin-cloth; and kneeling in adoration he bowed low before the Lord. A song of praise from a hundred throats resounded in the cave, and the shining purity of the great ice-Linga overpowered him. He almost swooned with emotion. A great mystical experience came to him, of which he never spoke, beyond saying that Shiva Himself had appeared before him and that he had been granted the grace of Amarnath, the Lord of Immortality, not to die until he himself should choose to throw off his mortal bonds, corroboration of the words of his Divine Master regarding him…’
In her Notes of Some Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda, Nivedita also offers a vivid and deeply felt account:
‘To him, the heavens had opened. He had touched the feet of Shiva. He had had to hold himself tight, he said afterwards, lest he “should swoon away”. But so great was his physical exhaustion that a doctor said afterwards that his heart ought to have stopped beating, but had undergone a permanent enlargement instead. How strangely near fulfilment had been those words of his Master, “When he realizes who and what he is, he will give up this body!”’
In the cave of Amarnath, ‘a great mystical experience came to Swami Vivekananda, of which he never spoke, beyond saying that Shiva himself had appeared before him and that he had been granted the grace of Amarnath, the lord of immortality, not to die until he himself should choose to throw off his mortal bonds, corroboration of the words of his divine master regarding him’
Share this on
Later, Vivekananda, much calmer, told Nivedita: ‘I have enjoyed it so much! I thought the ice Linga was Shiva Himself. And there were no thievish Brahmins, no trade, nothing wrong. It was all worship. I never enjoyed any religious place so much!’ (ibid). The assurance of the Lord that Vivekananda had been conferred the boon of icchamrityu, to die only with his own consent, is reiterated. To a somewhat perplexed Nivedita, the master says, ‘You do not now understand. But you have made the pilgrimage, and it will go on working. Causes must bring their effects. You will understand better afterwards. The effects will come’ (ibid).
The darshan of the ice-lingam of Shiva made a deep impression on Vivekananda. As Nivedita puts it, ‘The purity and whiteness of the ice-pillar had startled and enrapt him’ (ibid). It was as if ‘he had entered a mountain-cave, and come face to face there with the Lord Himself’ (ibid).
A few months later in, November 1898, Sharat Chandra Chakravarty records his conversation with Vivekananda about the latter’s experiences at Amarnath.
Sharat: ‘Won’t you relate to me what things you have seen at Amarnath?’
Swamiji: ‘Since visiting Amarnath, I feel as if Shiva is sitting on my head for twenty-four hours and would not come down.
‘I underwent great religious austerities at Amarnath and then in the temple of Kshir Bhavâni.
‘On the way to Amarnath, I made a very steep ascent on the mountain. Pilgrims do not generally travel by that path. But the determination came upon me that I must go by that path, and so I did. The labour of the strenuous ascent has told on my body. The cold there is so biting that you feel it like pin-pricks.’
Sharat: ‘I have heard that it is the custom to visit the image of Amarnath naked; is it so?’
Swamiji: ‘Yes, I entered the cave with only my Kaupina on and my body smeared with holy ash; I did not then feel any cold or heat. But when I came out of the temple, I was benumbed by the cold.’
Sharat: ‘Did you see the holy pigeons?’
Swamiji: ‘Yes, I saw three or four white pigeons; whether they live in the cave or the neighbouring hills, I could not ascertain.’
Sharat: ‘Sir, I have heard people say that the sight of pigeons on coming out of the temple indicates that one has really been blessed with the vision of Shiva.’
For Vivekananda the Amarnath darshan was peak spiritual experience. As Nivedita herself affirms,it was an ‘overwhelming vision that had seemedto draw him almost into its vortex.’ His monastic brother, Swami Brahmananda, the first president of the Ramakrishna Math, remarked, ‘Since returning from Kashmir, Swamiji does not speak to anybody, he sits in one place rapt in thought; you go to him and by conversation try to draw his mind a little towards worldly objects.’
But what about Nivedita? Did she feel equally blessed? What did she expect? And did she find her own spiritual quest fulfilled?