Spirituality and the Himalayas

Our emotional response to mountain landscapes

Sunrise landscape with the Himalayan mountains of Panchachuli – Photo by Balaji Srinivasan on Unsplash

Since ancient times the Himālayas have loomed large in the consciousness of the Indian people, geographically, politically and most of all in the context of religious belief and practice.  This was perhaps in part because the ritual drink of Soma was fetched down from Mount Munjavant in the Himālayas during the Vedic period.  As Professor A.B.Keith explains –

“The mountain birth of Soma is made more precise by the epithet Maujavata, which seems to point to mount Munjavant, and the Avesta declares that Haoma grows in the mountains … The bringing of Soma from the mountains was no doubt a physical act, performed regularly by the priests or on their behalf …”

At the same time, the majestic beauty and vast scale of the Himalayas also impressed itself on the Indian mind from an early date.

यस्येमे हिमवन्तो महित्वा यस्य समुद्रं रसया सहाहुः |

यस्येमाः परदिशो यस्य बाहू कस्मै देवाय हविषाविधेम ||

Whose power [is represented in] these snowy [mountains];

Whose [are] the oceans together with the rivers;

Whose these regions of space; whose arms;

To what [such] god should we offer oblations?

[RV 10.121.4; my own translation]

In subsequent literature, the Himālayas have been the subject of praise and veneration in their own right.  Many poets provide elaborate descriptions of the Himālayas in terms of their status as source of the holy Ganges river, as the abode of Śiva and his family, and in fact as the site of a multitude of activities, especially connected with romance or spirituality or both.   

The opening verse of Kālidāsa’s long poem Kumāra-sambhava, setting the scene for romance of Pārvati with the ordinarily ascetic Śiva, provokes a sense of awe at the immense scale of the Himālayas as follows –

There is in the northern direction a divine-souled king of mountains named Himalaya,

Plunging into the eastern and western oceans, stood like the measuring-rod of the Earth.

[Kumāra-sambhava 1.1; my own translation]

In his shorter poem Meghadūta, Kālidāsa also extols the beauty of the Himālayas in terms that its romantic and spiritual significances.

Having reached the [Himālaya] mountain which is the source of that [river Gangā],

White with snow, Its rocks fragrant with the musk of the deers that sit on them,

While you rest on the peak of that mountain to recover from the journey,

You [the raincloud] will take on an appearance like mud kicked up by Siva’s white bull

[Meghadūta 1.55; my own translation]

Kālidāsa’s naturalistic descriptions of the Himālayas in the Meghadūta lead some to believe that he had first-hand experience of spending time in the mountains.  This is perhaps not the case for Bhāravi, who is sometimes surmised to be a South Indian who would have drawn on his reading and his imagination to depict the Himālayas in his long poem Kirātārjunīya.  Here Bhāravi creates a similarly elaborate description of the Himālayas in the fifth canto, as a setting for the romantic activities of Apsaras and Gandharvas and for the ascetic practices undertaken by Arjuna in the first part of this poem.  As Prof. Indira Viswanathan Peterson explains –

“The syntactically connected description of the Himalaya in the first fifteen verses echoes Kalidasa’s celebrated opening description of the mountain in his court epic poem Kumārasaṃbhava (The Birth of Kumara).”

Thus the opening verse of this description too stresses the immense scale of the mountains from a human perspective, in a way which also elevates the human explorer who wishes to tackle these mountains –

Next [Arjuna] launched out onto the mighty snowy mountain,

Wanting perhaps to conquer the mountain Meru ,

Or perhaps to see the most distant horizon

Or perhaps to soar above the clouds

[Kirātārjunīya 5.1; my own translation]

Like Kālidāsa frequently does, Bhāravi also mentions Śiva in connection with the Himālayas, and similar to the above verse, in an analogy that plays on the similarity of form and colour on a massive scale –

From one side, lit by the moving sun,

From the other, constantly covered in darkness of night,

As if Śiva is breaking through the heaped darkness in front of him with his laughter

While his elephant hide lies behind him

[Kirātārjunīya 5.2; my own translation]

The connection of the Himālayas with the divine and supernatural is of course a prominent theme in much Indian poetry, and the next line of Bhāravi’s poem reads as follows –

For the inhabitants of the earth, the skies, and the world of gods,

Unseen by each other [yet] becoming a [single] home

Like a replica of the cosmos

Created by Śambhu to reveal [his] supremacy

[Kirātārjunīya 5.3; my own translation]

Indeed, a special aesthetic quality has been perceived in mountain landscapes by many peoples of the world.  In Chinese culture, mountains are also connected with deities and with the sacred, especially through Daoism, and as such have been a prominent subject in Chinese painting. 

In European thought, mountain landscapes such as the Alps have been connected with aesthetic qualities such as the sublime since at least the eighteenth century.  In this regard, Edmund Burke explains –

“Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect … Greatness of dimension, is a powerful cause of the sublime.”

We may indeed perceive some of the same features at work in the earlier description of the Himālayas by Bhāravi.  Thus as Professor Indira Viswanathan Peterson also explains –

“The tone of this chapter is set in the long description of the Himalaya mountains with which it opens, suggesting the aesthetic emotion (rasa) of wonder (adbhuta).  To facilitate and underscore the wonder of the mountain, here Bharavi employs a variety of meters, colorful and fantastic imagery, and figures of speech based on play of sounds, words, and patterns.”

Indeed, a concern with the vastness of space and its emotional effect on us is already found in the Rig Veda, in sections such as Book 1 Verses 185, which expresses wonder at the overwhelmingly vast dimensions bounded between the earth and the skies above.  As Prof. Wendy Doniger explains about this section –

“The expression “Sky and earth, guard us from the monstrous abyss” is repeated at the end of many of the verses … The word (abhvam) designates a dark, formless, enormous and terrifying abyss, particularly associated with night (1.92.5) and the underworld, and hence opposed to the light of the worlds of sky and earth.”

We may end with another verse from the Meghadūta, in which Kālidāsa weaves a strong moral message into a poetic depiction, as indeed he frequently does throughout his poetry –

If a forest fire, sparked when pine tree branches rub against each other [and] spread by the wind, burning the hairy tails of the Yaks with fireballs, should trouble [the mountain], you should completely extinguish it with thousands of rain-showers.  To explain, the wealth of the uppermost [in society] is for the purpose of relieving the suffering of the afflicted.

[Meghadūta 1.56; my own translation]

Image Credits

Mountain Clouds – Royalty Free Stock Footage

Varuna, the God of Waters (1675-1700) – LACMA

Mountain And Clouds – RoyaltyFree — Videos for content creators

Shiva’s Family on the March, circa 1800 – LACMA

Photo by Balaji Srinivasan – Sunrise landscape with the Himalayan mountains of Panchachuli – Unsplash

17th-century manuscript copy of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, Kavya, Sanskrit, Nepali script – Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Anton van der Weijst on Unsplash

Monkeys and Bears Investigate the Rikshabila Cave, Folio from the “Shangri” Ramayana (Adventures of Rama) – LACMA

Arjuna and Celestials, Folio from a Kirata-Arjuniya (Arjuna and the Kirata [Hunter]) – LACMA

Photo by Félix Besombes on Unsplash

Photo by Anuchand C P on Unsplash

Kurma, the tortoise incarnation of Vishnu – Wikimedia Commons

Lofty Mt.Lu by Shen Zhou (National Library of China) – Wikimedia Commons

Newport Mountain, Mount Desert by Frederic Edwin Church (1851) – Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Royal Lions B-Roll :Burning Forest Shoot (Royalty Free Footage)

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