Going to Uttrakashi was one of those moments where we threw our itinerary in the bin, and took a leap of faith.
The Kumbha Mela has similarities with a political rally. Posters advertise the many gurus that are in attendance, and these guys have stalls where people can come and meet them, hear them speak, get an idea of their teachings. I could be wrong, but I think ultimately their goal is to recruit followers.
We were filming at the stall of a guru called Pilot Baba, and while there I took a soundbite from an Australian female monk called Sunny. It transpired that Sunny was a former top model, who turned away from her highflying life when she discovered God.
We left after interviewing Pilot Baba, and I thought that was it. But after digesting the Kumbha Mela a little bit, and discussing things with my guru (Raj), I decided that there was a story worth pursuing.
So we embarked on a 24 hour journey to beautiful Uttrakashi, where Pilot Baba's ashram is.
The accommodation was basic... very basic! If you were coming for a spiritual pampering, this was not the place for it. The buildings were old, and the paint was peeling. Most of the surfaces were black with flies. There were stacks of rotting potatoes everywhere (a big help to the fly situation) and the food that we got twice a day was curry with... potatoes. This was occasionally peppered with gourmet pebbles.
All this said, the location made up for it. From our room we could see the Himalayas, the forest, and the roaring Ganga. A million dollar view.
The iconography on the walls, and the dilapidated environment didn't sit well with me. But over the course of the week I started to understand what was going on here.
The accommodation was a step towards asceticism: the renunciation of the material world. I met a Russian man in his late thirties, who lived in a tin hut on the banks of the Ganga. He built it himself, and had a bedroom, a living room/kitchen, and a garden (a patch of ground where he grew vegetables). He didn't want to be filmed, but I spent two evenings with him, drinking chai and talking about life and spirituality.
It's clear that some people operate on a different level to the average person who works 9 to 5, and wants a family and a house. They feel a connection to God that made them want to devote their lives to their spiritual journey. This guy, Sunny, and some other disciples I spoke to (who were mainly from Russia and the Ukraine), believe that the best way to do this is with the guidance of a guru (teacher). The guru is a bridge to the divine.
According to Sunny, this is the most intimate relationship two people can cultivate, because the guru enters your mind and teaches you telepathically. It requires complete surrender, and complete trust.
Over the course of several days, Sunny showed us around the ashram, and explained Pilot Baba's philosophy and powers (his 'power' is his ability to submerge himself under water or ice for days, and then resurface, alive). We took a trip to one of the most spiritual places in India - Gangotri: the source of the river Ganga. Sunny told us about her own complicated life as a top model, and how she unexpectedly found God at the lowest ebb of her life. After some years, she came to India and found a guru. She was with him until his death, and for the last year she's been with Pilot Baba and is "spiritually in love with him".
Apparently every true guru's goal is to connect their followers with their own inner guru. But until that point, they must follow the word of the guru without question. The Pilot Baba followers I met were intelligent and articulate. They admitted that they were following blindly, and yet they weren't blind.
But I still struggle with the idea of surrendering yourself to another person as a way towards God. Followers may tell me that's my ego refusing to believe that someone else may know better. How to resolve this disparity in thought?