The solo journey is an archetype across myths, cultures, and religious traditions. This past year, I took my own earth-spiritualist, goddess-focused, pilgrimage-journey in India.
Preparation involved study, and I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and found my story in its pages: the individual setting out into the unknown on a quest. My religious tradition had its own archetype to offer: the Maiden form of the Goddess is that heroine, and also explorer and initiate. It was important that I travel alone so that I had the best chance of engaging new people, while also being free to dedicate the overall structure to seeking interfaith opportunities and sites of goddess worship.
About a month after I arrive in India, I am looking for a rusted, shabby local bus out of the dozen or so waiting in Uttarkashi’s dusty parking lot: destination Gangotri, the spiritual source of the sacred Ganges river.
The metal hull quickly fills with people and we set off, winding up into the Himalayan Mountains. The Ganges’s official source is a glacier, but the river goddess (Ganga) is said to have touched down to earth in Gangotri. There are quite a few pilgrims on the bus, coming to pray and bathe in the sacred water. The bus winds its way up and along the mountainsides, gripping the eroding dirt road along cliffs – a free-fall through pine trees down to the Ganges far below. I figure that if we die rolling, falling, flipping into the sacred river, we ought to transcend reincarnation immediately.
We’re working our way backwards up the Ganges, finding her thinner and thinner the higher we climb, hinting at an imminent origin. To be the Maiden form of Ganga is to hold the potential of the future, to plunge powerfully towards the unknown/known – her future and her present co-exist. Famous, we experience her initial stages within the context of her later eminence. She spirals out from the glacier, the Maiden stepping out on a quest, yet also every other stage at once.
The bus reaches Gangotri village, and its occupants unpack themselves and disperse. I settle into a cabin in a local ashram, and set out to make the first major grounding point in the arc of a complex spiritual and physical journey.
She really is lovely.
Nestled into the mountains, the Ganga flows crisp and clear over white river stones, pines clustered close to the banks, snow peaks in the distance. Water speaks to emotions, to the flow and change of feelings, but the Ganges is so very much of this earth.
I sit at her edge, on a smooth, white boulder, contemplating the movement. So far, experiencing India has been all about receiving. The chaotic pulse of winding streets dense with people, the wave of sound and bodies. So different, so fully Other, so raw and ancient and human. For the first month in India, I can barely write, I am so overwhelmed by trying to make sense of it.
I reach into the icy, sunlit water. Contemplating fresh, bright energy and clarity, I cleanse my hands, face, and feet, then kneel and think.
Once I stand and walk away, I will begin tracing her back down the mountains, and through cities and ultimately to her final resting place in the sea. Eventually, I will be heavy with experience, with questions and thoughts that still need to be sorted out. But the wisdom of that vibrant, determined, dancing river, the call to risking comfort and clarity for greater wisdom, is found throughout it all.
Photo by the author.