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            Mysticism, Romance and...... P M Das                Between the forests and the snow lies the most poetical of the mountain regions. There, when climbing upwards you first feel the bundle of earthly care rolls off your shoulders and that you have finally cleared the ‘slough of despond’. There in the early months, you walk knee-deep in flowers, every one of which is a bit of embodied poetry.”

About the auther:  Dr P M Das IPS Inspector General of Police,Indian Reserve Battalions, Punjab, is a veteran mountaineer.                    Courtsy:- Yojana  


 I have often wondered what makes the climber take on the hard challenges of climbing year after year. Despite the well-meaning words of discouragement of near and dear ones, as to the danger of it all. The risk of a fall; of being trapped in an avalanche; of being hit by stone-fall; of an anchor coming loose on an abseil.

Let me narrate a feeling I had while on a traverse high up on the slopes of Mukut Parbat. A diagonal traverse below the last camp was peppered with falling rock and stone which whistled past you at tremendous speed during the daylight hours. Like bullets. I found myself on this traverse with a companion at eleven in the morning, a little behind others in your ascent. On seeing the rock bombardment, my companion wisely suggested we turn back, but my spirits egged me on, if only to see if I had understood their pattern and frequency. I danced and dodged the missiles and safely completed the traverse but turned back from completing the load ferry to the higher camp because it was late in the day and again exposed myself to the rock bombardment on the descent and rejoined my companions at the lower camp. Perhaps enjoying the flow of adrenalin in the process!

Why did I expose myself to this apparently senseless risk on this climb in the first place? On this traverse what had I achieved? Nothing tangible; not even a load delivered to the higher camp for future use. Yet there was this satisfaction that I had been able to move in harmony with dangerous elements of nature. Something the rational man would find difficult to comprehend. Yet it is a common streak in many climbers. It is this kind of urge which brings the serious mountaineer to take on high risk climbing, time and again, irrespective of the toll that these same environs may have taken on others of their ilk.

Asceticism : Sir Arnold Lunn wrote about mountain mysticism and the mountaineer ‘in Alpine Mysticism and Cold Philosophy’ : "He have chosen the ascetic way to mountain understanding, and among the hills, as elsewhere asceticism is the key to the higher forms of mystical experience. One need not question the sincerity of Ruskin’s condemnation of those who had transformed the mountain cathedrals into arenas for athletic feats, but I have sometimes suspected that the peculiar venom of his attack may have been due to the fact that the mountaineer provoked an unformulated doubt of his own life, which was essentially non-ascetic and soft". The hardships and privations undertaken by the Buddhist monk or the sadhu, suffering a cold winter in the heights of the Himalaya is often for granted. Is it because we have thousands of such ascetics? Pari passu, asceticism is part of Indian character and since this quality is a basic requirement of a serious climber, makes the Indian character temperamentally suited to take to mountaineering and the ascetic sports.

 Mountain Worship : Few mountaineers distinguish between worship of mountains and worship inspired by mountains. Do they perform a worship inspired by mountains? To Sir Arnold Lunn the latter makes sense but the former appears ridiculous. The Himalaya are resplendent in mountains named after the Gods, as in Gaurishankar, Gurudongmar, Swargarohini, Kailash, Parabati Parbat, Shivling and steeped in religious lore. Not surprisingly gods, goddesses and deities of the hills are deeply rooted in the lives of the simple hillfolk of the Himalaya. Therefore, I have often wondered whether most Indian mountaineers too, in indentifying themselves with these hill people, worshipped mountains.

What is definite is that the Himalaya is so steeped with religious worshipping, many mountaineers seem to have succumbed to the cant and ritual of it. The scare of the unknown and lack of confidence in the climber’s own competence and ability to work in harmony with the mountain leads him to clutch at these straws.

In fact mountaineering is perhaps the only sport in which its devotees to find a substitute for religion. Sir Leslie Stepen who had been an Anglican priest before he wrote ‘An Agnostic’s Apology’ was not the only mountaineer in whom mountains evoked something faintly like the sense of worship evoked by the religion he ceased to believe. In mountain he found "their voice is mystic and has found discordant interpreters: but to me at least it speaks in tones at once more tender and more awe-inspiring than that of any mortal teacher". Under the influence of Leslie Stephen, Arnold Lunn rejected Christianity while at school and explored materialism. He declares that he became a rationalist but by nineteen he became an agnostic if not an atheist by belief. Yet has experience of moving mountain scenery convinced him that "no purely materialistic theory of evolution (as of Charles Darwin) offers the slightest clue to the origin of our sense of beauty". Philo observes

    ‘All nature is the language in which God expresses his thoughts but the thoughts are more important than the language’.

‘Thus mountains may be symbols or images of some other reality’ but the worship of images as if they were something more than images is a form of idolatry in the strict sense of the term’ All those who profess to believe in the religion of the mountains must be prepared to defend themselves against the accusation of mountain idolatry. Thus do we believe, the mountain, Nanda Devi is a Goddess or the creation of God?

Carrying the argument a step further we may conclude that expression of mountain beauty must never be colored by religion. There must be genuine mysticism in response to mountain beauty for the true mountaineer.

The Presence : How often the mountaineer feels as R.L.G. Irving wrote ‘with each succeeding year grows an abiding conviction in the dependence of himself and his surroundings on the benevolence of some unseen power’. It this the revelation which appeared before Willi Unsoeld as he set eyes on Nanda Devi for the first time before his travers of Everest in 1963 that he came back for an ascent many years later along with his daughter whom he had named after the mountain?

Many climbers at high altitude, under stress have experienced that presence of a companion in accompaniment while perhaps there was none. There is no dearth of instances such as those recorded on the upper slopes of Everest. I recall my own experience after a disaster following an ascent of Bhargirathi-II (6150 metres), 18 years ago. On the descent from the summit one of my companions slipped on the rope and pulled me and another into a fall which were failed to arrest. The result was that I found myself having to sit out a night in the open at 20,000 feet, badly bruised, without an axe, crampons or clothing and beside one dead companion and another dying. Shivering and stamping my feet, I shouted out to the rescue party which failed to reach me.

I prepared to concentrate on keeping up the spirits of my living friend and survival. Throughout the night and till I was found by the rescue party while descending an avalanche chute next morning I felt the presence of a Being. This presence was around me and at times I talked to him and it urged me to concentrate on my survival, which I was doing. It was not a ghost-like apparition but like a companion. A presence. Eventually, the Presence disappeared from my sphere of consciousness as I sighted the rescue party. I am not sure what this phenomenon was. Was it a hallucination conjured by a weary mind? If it was, it had a positive effect on me. Or was it more than that? Perhaps I made connection with another dimension, in an etheral space by a medium medium called stress.

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