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Namita Gokhale: The lure of the Himalaya is like a call to the restless soul

Both mystics and sceptics are in search of truth but the paths they take and means they use seem quite different from each other. What made you bring them together in this book?

Mysticism and scepticism are not in any way antithetical to each other. The mystic path is not one of fuzzy romanticism. It is incisive; it is discriminating. It is capable of enormous leaps in understanding. Scepticism is an aspect of that quest. There is often disappointment and disillusion in the journey of faith – that too must be examined.

What was the broad framework that you used to determine whether a particular writer or essay would be a good fit for this anthology?

It was an intuitive process, as it often is in the act of clustering ideas and diverse perspectives. I would take notes and sit on them for a while, waiting to process them. Serendipity, synchronicity and happenstance would lead me to books and essays. Learned friends would guide me. I was searching for something in the process of compiling this anthology – it was a series of learnings and illuminations.

The book showcases diverse spiritual traditions – Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh – from the Himalayas. Why, according to you, are these mountains so sacred to people regardless of the tradition they come from or practise in?

There is something about the Himalaya… Perhaps it is because they are the highest and youngest mountains on earth. It could be the accumulated spiritual vibrations of the Himalayan masters who have prayed and meditated there – or the earth energies as manifest in those peaks and valleys.

For me, it is the emotional comfort of homecoming that the sights and smells of the mountains represent. All mountains are in some sense sacred, but the lure of the Himalaya is like a call to the restless soul.

What was it like to work with Sidharth, whose art accompanies every essay in the book?

Sidharth is an old friend with an extensive and grounded knowledge of Himalayan spiritual traditions, who had written a chapter for the anthology on the enigmatic figure of Laal Baba. He offered to work on some accompanying images to bring the essays to life. He had a meditative and mindful approach to this, derived from his understanding of Tibetan ritual and training in Thangka art. So we discussed the different pieces in the anthology, the spiritual aspects and learnings they represented. Then I left it to Sidharth and he went about interpreting the different narratives at a furious, immersive pace. It was a joyous experience for me, and one that gave me new insights into the different stories.

336pp, ₹699; HarperCollins

There is a strong Tibetan presence in the book, thanks to the essays contributed by Holly Galley, Andrew Quintman, WY Evan Wentz, Alexandra David-Neel, Rajiv Mehrotra, Sujata Prasad, Rene Von Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Tsering Dondrup, Tshering Tashi and Vaibhav Kaul. How did this strand evolve, and expand your understanding of Himalayan traditions?

Before its annexation by China, Tibet was tied to India by religion, culture and trade links. The spiritual and cultural connectivities continue with the blessed presence of the Dalai Lama. The shadow and spirit of Tibet is still tangible across the length of the Himalayan ranges, from Kashmir and Ladakh in the west to the Burmese Himalaya in the east. Tibetan spiritual and tantric traditions have deep convergences with Hindu ones. There is also a great deal of documentation and diligent recording by scholars and travellers. This book would have been incomplete without the essays that you mentioned, and there is still so much that could have been included.

In your own essay on Neem Karoli Baba and Siddhi Ma, which is part of the collection, you write, “I am personally both mystic and sceptic, reluctant to yield my rationality. Yet, there are mysteries that are best left alone…” How does this mode of being shape your creative process as a writer and editor? How do you balance staying open to inspiration and working on your craft?

I do not presume to be a scholar and I am certainly not a rationalist. I live by my intuitions and carefully assess knowledge systems before accepting them in their entirety. In that sense I am a sceptic, cautious about pledging my faith. But when I do, I am capable of trust and surrender. That sounds a bit pretentious, but that is the best I can do in expressing these ambiguities.

And I think this fine balance between faith and scepticism enters my writing and also the various forms of curation I engage with.

As for Neem Karoli Baba and Siddhi Ma, these are spiritual figures linked deeply to my hometown Nainital and the Kumaon region. There is an undefinable bond with who I am.

Bhushita Vasistha’s chapter “In Search of the Miraculous” comes across as a cautionary tale for people who aren’t aware of the pitfalls that can come with being open and vulnerable in a spiritual community. What did it evoke in you when you read it? What made you include it?

Bhushita Vashisht is an extremely fine and sensitive writer and I am honoured that she trusted me to publish her very nuanced piece on the fragile boundaries between the master and devotees, and how these are often breached.

Your book takes people on a journey to many places but it also urges readers to go inwards. It is a bit like going on a pilgrimage. How did the experience of working on this anthology transform you?

I began working on this anthology during the first Covid outbreak and lockdown, and continued through the subsequent waves of the pandemic. Through those months of isolation, I encountered voices and visions that were transformative in so many ways and at so many levels. I reached out to strangers who have become friends. It is difficult to describe in mere words what this book means to me.

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