by Gurprasad Kaur Khalsa, Courtesy of True Tales: On the Spiritual Path…Memoirs and Writings
“Beloved God bless us to keep up in this endeavor. Please give us the strength and courage to gracefully complete this meditation. And please bless Nav Jiwan Kaur with healing.”
The words of the Ardas brought peace and surrender to my apprehensive mind. It stilled the worrisome thoughts, which had begun to take over, after a gradual advent in the final hours before our arrival at Goindwal Sahib. Months of excited anticipation had given way to a cascade of fears and doubts. I had maintained absolute steadfastness in my birthday prayer to complete the steps at Goindwal, but with the growing realization of the magnitude of the undertaking, dread had started gnawing at me. Would I be able to chant Japji Sahib and dip 84 times, keeping up through the long and cold night and into the projected 17 hours that it would take?
We were starting at night in order to coordinate all the various elements of our trip and make them fit. I was the last one in our group to arrive at the Baoli Sahib. In my flurry of last minute angst I was still unsure of what to bring with me, in the end grabbing everything; a blanket, a bunch of towels, a bathrobe, my Nitnem, as well as the laminated copy of Japji Sahib given to me by Hargobind’s mother, Amarjit Kaur. Our band of pilgrims had dispersed. I could hear the echo of voices from the men’s side, and wondered if Sat Purkha Singh, my husband and son had already begun their meditations. Nav Jiwan Kaur had also descended and only Simran Kaur and Hargobind remained at the top.
As we stood together for the Ardas and the remembrance of relying on God for everything flooded back into me, my certainty returned. No matter what happened, Guru would see us through this and whatever the experience was, it would be the right one. “Some people take 30 years to complete the steps,” Nav Jiwan had said.
“Well, I can’t imagine that would give you the same experience,” Sat Purkha and I had both intoned. “I really think you have to do it all at once to get the most benefit.”
“That sounds fanatic,” Nav Jiwan replied. “Let’s not talk about it.”
Cold and smooth, the white marble steps beneath my feet descended into the timeless domain. Deep stillness immediately enveloped me, punctuated by resonating devotion rising from the depths and vibrating off the walls. Down, down, down I dropped, growing ever closer to the center of the Universe, to God’s heartbeat. “I’m here, I’m really here,” was all that kept circulating in my consciousness. “Oh God, thank you for getting me here.”
My hands shaking, I hung up all my paraphernalia, took the laminated copy and slowly walked down the last 10 steps. As I stood in ankle-deep water, about to begin my first Japji, panic struck again. “I’ve got to use my own Nitnem. I know it will get wet but the print is large and I want the English translation too. It is my rock.” After rushing back up to get it, the three of us, Nav Jiwan Kaur, Simran Kaur and I, stood together on Step 1 and began Japji.
“How fast can you read Japji?” Simran had asked me earlier. “Well, it is really hard for me to do it in under 12 minutes…I just jumble all the words up.” I had replied. “But I’ll see if I can do it in less. And should we be chanting out loud or silently? I know you can do it faster if it’s silent, but I connect more if I can hear what I’m saying. As I began my first recitation, exhilaration and anticipation coursed through me at the same time that I could feel the weight returning to my shoulders. Oh my God, am I really going to be saying this 83 more times?
I had a list of people for whom I wanted to dedicate a step, and I tried to summon a prayer to begin that process, but it was all that I could do to keep my focus on what I was doing and not flip out into negativity or fear again. This is hard, I thought. This is really going to be hard. I’ll start praying for others after I get into my rhythm, after I get my own bearings. I could hear Nav Jiwan and Simran chanting faster than I was…I was already falling behind.
The first dip was a bit of a shock. The water wasn’t that cold, but it was so wet that the cold night air turned it icy. Dripping water, I went for the towel that I had hung up at the bottom and then put on my terrycloth bathrobe. There, that would dry me off and keep me warm. It wasn’t until much later that I noticed that the Punjabi women who were reciting were not drying off after each dip, but sat down on their step, soaking wet and shivering.
By the fourth or fifth step or so, my two comrades had passed me and we were all on different steps. I was still not over the shock of dipping. I would warm up as I was chanting, but that would all end with my next dip. Shaking from the cold, it would take me half of Japji to generate enough heat to stop, and then I would start to dread coming to the end and returning to the water. And besides the cold, I was really getting into the bliss of chanting Japji Sahib. I just wanted to chant and chant and never stop. It was feeding my soul and pulling me into a very elevated space where God was holding me. I could feel my heart opening up in gratitude for this opportunity and gift to be imbibing the Name at such a visceral level. A taste of heaven and I felt myself leaving my body behind, expanding, soaring. Please don’t let it end, God, please don’t let it end. And then all of a sudden, I was plunged back into the physical plane with such a jolt that heaven evaporated and I was dealing with the agony of the body and all my limitations. Just a microcosm of life, I mused, just life intensified.
My bathrobe was soaking wet, as were all my towels and my blanket. I could now not control my shaking, almost convulsively, from the cold. Time had completely disappeared; it could be any hour of the day or night. I reckoned that it was sometime in the amrit vela…it just had that feeling. I had to go to the bathroom and I truly wanted relief from the cold. My dripping bathrobe around me, I climbed, or rather hobbled up the stairs, feeling as though I were passing from a womb experience into a strange world, only this time the womb was freezing cold. The world was foreign and remote, but it could take care of a bodily need that the womb could not. I entered the nivas and found my husband and son asleep. They had done 11 mul mantras on each step and had made it to step 39, before retiring at midnight, I found out later. The 39 Steps, that’s a famous movie I told Dev Amrit. My husband woke to find me bent over and shaking like a leaf. He urged me to get into bed and I didn’t wait to be invited twice. I climbed into bed next to Siri Shiva, hungrily searching for warmth. I really only intended to thaw out briefly but found myself seduced by the relief of just being able to relax my tense muscles, which I’d held in a defensive position against the cold…It was 3 am, he told me. Maybe just an hour or two, I’ve already broken the continuity. It’s OK, it’s OK I told myself, drifting off into another zone, not quite sleep, but something close to it. I kept shivering, and the hours passed and I was still unable to get completely warm. I found myself deciding to wait till the morning and some sunlight before my return.
Some time later, Sat Purkha Singh came into the Nivas saying he was done; he couldn’t do it anymore. He was completely cooked, although more accurately the term would be completely frozen. I could understand, I muttered, noting the irony that the two who had insisted on doing it all at once, were going down in icicles (frozen flames!) while Nav Jiwan was going the distance. I had watched her face as she passed me, climbing up, gradually putting more and more distance between her step and mine, and I had noted the determination and the strength of character that were deeply etched there. If anyone can do it, she will, I thought. She absolutely will.
I am finally back on step 22, where I left off. But it was a false start. Having replaced my soaking bathing suit for kacheras, it wasn’t long before they were as soaking as everything else I had. The shaking had returned and my resistance was low. Siri Shiva Singh called from the top and bade me come up. There’s langar, he said. Nice hot langar. It might be just what you need. My dear husband, I thought. Always taking care of me. The only problem was that now all the clothes I had brought were soaking wet. Bundled up in the one remaining dry blanket, savoring the hot langar, I hatched a plan. I would dry myself in the sun. I would walk in the sun and chant and my clothes would dry. I would say all the prayers for all the people for whom I had originally intended. And so began my two hour walk outside the nivas. Finding a thin patch of sunlight, which later grew into a huge chunk, I walked back and forth, praying fervently for those I had put on my list and for others I hadn’t. I prayed for myself, I prayed for strength and fortitude. It was a time of grace. An island of repose in a tumultuous sea. Some warmth returned to my limbs and my clothes got almost dry. I would return to the steps and I would finish.
I couldn’t believe how close to the top Nav Jiwan was, somewhere in the high sixties, and Simran not far behind. Wow, I thought, different realities. They had kept going through the long cold night and they were still going. I was truly humbled by their endurance. “I know it looks close but I still have at least 3 more hours,” Nav Jiwan told me. Three hours, that’s nothing when you’re looking at a minimum of 11 more hours. But of course if you’ve been going 14 hours straight already, then it’s an eternity.
“You really don’t have to dip all the way,” Simran told me. “ I muscle tested myself and got that I would get the same benefit by just doing a sprinkle instead of a full dip.”
“I’m there,” I said. No more purist here.”
The daytime energy was very different than the night. It was loud and crowded. Heavy traffic on the road to salvation. Lots of families with children and grandmothers. All shapes and sizes. Mounds of flesh and sweaty bodies. Sometimes the line to dip was formidable. But I had found my groove. Determination flowed into me. This, the third time, I would do it. Nothing would stop me from finishing, not cold, fatigue, hunger or bodily functions. I was in it, God willing, and by Guru’s grace, till completion or death, whichever came first.
And so the hours passed and one step melted into the next. The forties gave way to the fifties. My descent to dip was growing longer and longer. Nav Jiwan came to say goodbye after her three hours had slipped away. She had not left the Baoli from the time she entered it 17 hours earlier. Not to eat, not to go to the bathroom. She had done the whole meditation without a single break, dipping all the way each time. What steel lay beneath that mild-mannered exterior? I marveled, absolutely awe-struck. How can God not hear her prayer? She retired to do her hour of bound lotus, I found out later, falling asleep in that position.
Two hours later Simran finished triumphantly and I was left alone with the hordes and two other faithful pilgrims also doing the recitations, one close to the top and the other close to the bottom. Our bond grew over the course of the next 6 hours. I shared the joy of the first one to finish and empathized with the one behind me. It was from the latter that I learned the proper way to dip. She was fully clothed and she went in all the way and dripped her way back to the next step. A tiny young woman, her thin frame shook as she recited Japji, soundlessly.
And there was another one of my faux pas. I had kept up a quite audible recitation from the beginning, which in the night hadn’t seemed to matter with the reduced traffic and others employing the same method of staying awake. But I hadn’t reduced my volume with the daylight multitudes and I was severely admonished by the sevadar to chant silently. It was amazing how I understood the streams of Punjabi that came my way. Another time it was that I shouldn’t leave my Nitnem on the step, even though it was wrapped in my shawl, but I should wedge it in the banister. And my third scolding came because of my lack of modesty in wearing kacheras to the upper steps where I was visible to someone who might be passing by. By that time I was so oblivious that I hardly knew what I was doing. I dutifully put on my one polyester dress, in a last-ditch attempt to repel the water.
I had now moved into a different realm. Now it was no longer me moving my aching body or directing my numb lips to chant. It was God. God was directing everything. I was His and I surrendered to His Might and His Will, because it was only that which would allow me to finish. Certainly there was nothing that I could do anymore, except just be there. I was God’s marionette. He was doing it all. I felt pain and I felt exhaustion but I didn’t relate to it anymore. I just kept going.
Chanting on and on until the evening shadows grew long once again and my husband came to check on me. He and Dev Amrit had finished hours before. And Sat Purkha was almost finished. He had returned to the steps before I; he had quit again and resumed once more. What a saga. And now he was approaching the last few steps. I would be at least 3 more hours I told him, remembering how long it had taken Nav Jiwan from the same spot. I had been the last to arrive and would be the last to leave. I was the one for whom everyone else had to wait, and wait and wait.
I don’t remember much about those last 3 hours except that I clung to Japji like it was my life preserver on an endless churning ocean. Towards the end, it got harder and harder to pronounce all the words and my vision was starting to blur. Grateful once again that I had my own Nitnem with me, I turned to the English transliteration. I had thoroughly exhausted any facility I had in reading Gurmukhi. My Nitnem was now swollen with water-logged pages. I’m so glad, I thought. I will literally be taking some of Goindwal Sahib home with me.
As I stood on that last and final step, and looked down, a million thoughts and images and nothing at all, came rushing in, both at the same time. Completely full, completely empty, ecstatic and desolated, exhilarated and exhausted. It’s all God… it’s all God. I slowly and deliberately walked down 84 steps, savoring each one, to take my final dip. When I got there, I plunged myself all the way in, releasing 8.4 million lifetimes of karma, liberating the generations behind and the ones to come. It was an awesome purge and it felt so good. Water, I finally understood the significance of water to the Sikh. The nectar tank at the Harimander Sahib and at every gurdwara, the river where Guru Nanak spent 3 days and emerged chanting the Mul Mantra; water was the genesis and the final destination, healing, cleansing, liberating. Water poured off me at each of the 84 steps all the way back up. I nodded goodbye to the lone, remaining devotee and made my way back to the Nivas.
I am filled with the deepest gratitude to the Siri Singh Sahib ji, who recognized the longing for exaltation of the soul in each one of us and who led us to the promised land. My heart belongs to Guru Amar Das ji, who built Goindwal Sahib and the 84 steps as a symbol of undying love for the Infinite and a profound tool of transformation and liberation of the human spirit. And all my respect, admiration and affection is for fellow travelers on this path, who, if only just once, reach for the heights in whatever way, small or large, to touch the beauty and majesty of their own soul.
This story from Gurprasad Kaur Khalsa is courtesy True Tales: On the Spiritual Path… Memoirs and Writings