The Himalayan chain, home of yoga and yogis, extends for about 1,250 miles from Kashmir in the west to Burma in the east. It separates the tropical Indian subcontinent from the central Asiatic plateau. The geographical explanation of how the Himalayas first came into existence is very interesting. A chain of mountains is formed at the line of junction where continents collide. When continents drift apart, the space between them deepens to a sea. Long ago in the far distant past, the Indian subcontinent was separated from the Asian mainland by the Himalayan sea. Then, still in the very dim past, these two land blocks began to move towards each other. Their last approach started some seventy million years ago in the Mesozoic era, and resulted in the first of the Himalayas. Further collisions followed over eons of time and during the last which occurred quite recently, under the eye of early man, the very highest peaks in the Himalayas were piled up, the only mountains on earth which rise to a height of over twenty six thousand feet.

For mountain climbers these majestic mountains offer a great challenge, the possibility of conquering nature's highest stronghold. For the spiritual aspirant the Himalayas also have a special meaning. They are associated with the even greater challenge of surmounting the foibles and frailties of the human mind to attain the peaks of spiritual illumination and human perfection. These shimmering white peaks are synonymous with the perfection of spiritual practice and renunciation. The Himalayas are the abode of the great sages and yogis of our race - those beings who though born as men, have attained self mastery and divine illumination through a life of intense spiritual effort. These god men live in the rarefied atmosphere of the world's greatest mountain range, watching over the whole world below from their lofty vantage point of perfection and expansion of individual human consciousness into divine cosmic awareness. Some of these masters live for hundreds of years without any physical sustenance or amenities. Theirs is the realm of pure light, and only those of pure heart and ardent aspiration can ever reach it.

To the hundreds of millions of souls who are busy working out their karma in busy lives, duties and commitments down in the heat and bustle of the great cities and agricultural plains of the vast Ganga delta, the Himalayas are a breath of cooling inspiration, the source of high and encouraging spiritual vibrations. The Himalayas are the world's highest peaks and equally the Indo-Gangetic plain is the most heavily populated of the earth. Mother Ganga, sustaining the millions who live along her banks, arises in the Himalayas above Rishikesh. At Sri Gomukha, near Gangotri, she emerges in a deafening roar from a huge snow formation shaped like the mouth of a cow. Places like Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath have always been known as the abode of yogis, sannyasins and mahatmas.

Traditional mythology tells that the Ganga onginated from the hair of Lord Shiva, who dwells ever in the state of mahanandam (cosmic bliss) on the snowy peak of Mount Kailash. Parvati, Lord Shiva's wife, was the daughter of Himachal (Himalayas). She was born high up in the snow peaks and practiced intense austerities there for many years in order to win her husband.

It is easy to understand why the Himalayas have always been such an important place of pilgrimage. Since time immemorial solitary pilgrims and whole families, sadhus and kings alike have left their duties and abodes to undertake this arduous and often dangerous journey with the goal of spiritual purification and knowledge. Often the pilgrimages would last for months together, with extreme hardship and uncertainty along the way. Even today, for the vast majority of Indian people, perhaps 85% of whom are villagers and farmers, this barefoot pilgrimage is the highlight of a lifetime of labour.

Indeed, the Himalayas are so highly revered that the individual mountains themselves are named after particular deities and considered to be a spontaneous manifestation of that particular higher power. Thus the whole region from foothills to the highest glacial peaks is imbued with an intense spiritual feeling which is impossible not to become a part of, at least while you are passing through. As the feet trek, the soul also treks, higher and higher towards the peaks of spiritual fulfilment and enactment.

For many, the actual experience of these enormous mountainous gods looming up on all sides is so profound that the small ego temporarily slips back and a vision of the higher dimensions of reality replaces it. In the face of these majestic peaks, the conditioned mind is forced to take another look at itself and at life. From the perspective gained at this great altitude, our life path becomes very clear. As inner vision begins to unfold we are able to see that we are not just the limited body and mind which we had previously identified with, but an integral part of the whole. These vast mountains whose snow peaks pierce the blue heavens enter into the depths of our being and we into theirs. The higher regions of the earth somehow reach out to us and open the higher regions of mind. It is not necessary to have previously been in tune with the higher forces or one's nature to feel this cataclysmic opening of heart and soul which increases with every step as we journey higher and higher into the sacred Himalayas.

However, for most of us, it is not possible or even profitable to remain always at the summit of life. We must return to the valleys below where there is food, water, shelter and support for our material existence. But in returning, we bring with us this vision of another world where the great snow capped gods reign supreme and it is possible to communicate with them not only in the language of soul but with the physical senses as well. Perhaps the Himalayan pilgrimage is the closest one can ever come to contact with God in the material form. The purity of these celestial peaks will always stand as a symbol of highest realization for those who have journeyed beyond this world to the heights where peace, clarity and great understanding prevail.

This month, as a special feature, we are publishing the account of our guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati's pilgrimage many years ago to Mt. Kailash (the seat of Shiva and Shakti) as well as the account of an Australian disciple's recent pilgrimage to Sagurmatha (Mt. Everest). Both journeyed by foot high into remote areas which cars and buses are unable to penetrate.