I feel like a struck chord this morning, vibrating with the echoes of the past as they collide with the present and shift my movement into the future. It was a year ago today that I plunged my hands into the ashes of the body of my sister, and they slipped through my fingers at sea. A year ago that an initiation descended upon me, the continuation of a process that had begun in a vision now made manifest.
I now find my own life in ashes; what remains after having endured the most difficult year of my life. One can’t hold onto ashes… they are too easily picked up by the wind, slip through the fingers, are too easily gone never to be seen again, whisked off to dissolve back into the world.
The fires have stripped away my resistance and my fear, have reduced my attachments to the life I thought I wanted to something that will blow away at the slightest breath of will. In the space that remains I am finding the vulnerability to open my heart to the love of the Great Mother in ways that I have never known. It is giving me the confidence to step off the ledge and fall into the great unknown, to open to the ecstasy of Her love and to find Her within myself. To take myself as my own Lover.
I’m taking the leap into a new vision for my life. I’ve survived the trifecta of life tragedies this year – Death, Disability, Divorce – and the loss of my housing. There’s a new page on my blog explaining more about what is to come next to support my survival as I take this leap. I hope you will read it and offer whatever support you can.
I had just received darshan from the podium above the image of Maa Kali. My senses were overwhelmed with the headiness of the spiritual experience, and the overload of being crowded and jostled by devotees, and harangued for money by the phaledar delegates. I exited the temple into the not-so-fresh Kolkata air, and walked around to the other side. Suddenly, my bare feet felt something slick. I looked down, afraid of what I would see, and noticed the blood red streaks from the enclosure next to me, going around the outside of the temple. I turned the corner and took in the sight of the Harikhat-Tola. Covered in blood, as well as red siddur and piled with flowers, this is where the animal sacrifice took place. There were two harikhat, a smaller one for goats and a larger one for buffalo. It was a festival day, and there had obviously been a sacrifice that morning – the blood on the stone around the temple was still fresh.
I was sitting peacefully within a temple high on a hill, having just entered the womb of it and received darshan of the yoni of the goddess. Pigeons were being released with devotion, having been blessed with red marks by a priest. The bells were ringing, and people were praying with looks of complete bliss and devotion. Goats were wandering everywhere, and I had to remember to not set anything down, for a nibbling goat would quickly be there.
A very young goat was led by a rope into the enclosure next to me, bleating the whole way. The cries briefly became more desperate, and then suddenly stopped. A moment later, a priest walked out with a bowl full of blood and siddur, and devotees gathered around him fervently, ready for the blessings.
On my second visit to Kalighat Mandir, a gentle and devoted man that a friend connected me with guided me through the temple complex. He took me back to the Harikath-Tola, and looked at me as he explained the purpose of the place. I could sense that he wasn’t sure how I would react as a Westerner, and was quick and sure to explain that only in some Kali worship was this done and that the animals never suffered and nothing was wasted. I lingered there a moment after he spoke, the full meaning of this place settling on me after experiencing his sharing of it, the devotion and reverence transforming any sense of disdain I had felt.
As a vegetarian of over a decade and a Westerner these experiences should, and did, shock me at first even though I knew to expect them. And as a white person in the US I would never conduct animal sacrifice in my worship of Kali. But within the fabric of Hindu Tantric practice this was an essential thread.
There is a Tantric dictum that says Yaireva Patanam Dravyaih Siddhih Taireva – That by which one falls is also that by which one rises. This of course speaks to the core philosophy of tantra, that desire and attachment to the material world cannot be overcome simply by abstaining from it; one must confront that desire and those material attachments themselves. It is through desire and attachment that we can be free of it.
“The Tantra holds that the impure, the ugly and the unholy things of life are things which have been wrongly seen out of their context, and, from their own particular positions, or from the point of view of the things themselves, they are neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither holy nor unholy.”
~Sri Swami Krishnananda
In Tantric rituals, items are used in acts of devotion that may seem out of place at best, and abhorrent at worst, to our Western perception. There are items that are often taboo in Hindu culture, for example tobacco and meat. And in Tantra, particularly in the worship of Kali, there is sometimes blood through animal sacrifice.
As a witch I agree that the things of life, from their own particular position, are not in and of themselves good or bad – that is far too binary for me. But I do think that the things of life become good/bad, beautiful/ugly, and even holy/unholy, through the meaning that we give them. Unfortunately, the context within which we find and ascribe meaning is powerfully influential. And the means through which that context and meaning is constructed is just as important.
The first time I attended a tantric puja, I wondered about the use of tobacco. I was a smoker at the time, so it wasn’t particularly taboo to me to use tobacco. Within the context of my life, tobacco was a normal thing. But as the small cigar was passed around, I thought about the lives that had created that object, whose own contexts were very different from mine. I thought about the history of tobacco in America – the sacred use of it by indigenous peoples, the harm and subsistence it has brought since colonization. For some people tobacco has a very significant meaning. For me, it had become so commonplace as to barely register in my awareness. I inhaled the taste of it, noticing the small part of me that was repulsed by smoking tobacco in ritual, while the multiple layers of meaning shuffled in my head.
We know daily use of tobacco kills people. We know that the corporations that produce tobacco for mass consumption do so using 100s of chemicals that increase addiction and that lead to a multitude of health problems. And so this too is a part of the context, is a part of the origin of the thing which influences our construction of the meaning. We cannot ignore it – that awareness is a part of our consciousness.
But we can acknowledge it, and flip it in an act of offering, of sacred-making. We can open ourselves to all of the meaning that has been ascribed to a thing, and thus reclaim our power to create our own meaning. We can move through our binary attachments and recognize the complexity of our own and other contexts.
In India, I opened myself to another source of meaning, a different context for the things of life. That awareness has created an even greater opening in my devotional practice, and for the creation of my own meaning.
I recently returned from two weeks in India. I was there mostly on business; I had been invited to participate in a hackathon against gender based violence, as a subject matter expert and mentor. After the hackathon, I gave a couple of presentations at local schools and organizations and enjoyed getting to know local youth. It was an incredible opportunity to not only share my knowledge and expertise but to learn from local NGOs and youth.
I visited Kolkata, Ranchi, and Guwahati. Of course, I could not be in India without visiting some of the Temples. I’ve been a devotee of Kali for quite some time, and have a strong alignment with Tantra (the real Tantra – not the Western tantra-is-sex thing). I feel very lucky to have been able to visit the Kali temple at Kalighat, Umananda temple on Peacock Island in the Brahmaputra River, and most especially Kamakhya Temple.
But just as meaningful as the large temples, were the many many shrines to be found on almost every corner or under every other tree. And to walk on ground that has supported the feet of pilgrims for centuries, to feel earth and community that has steeped in devotion – those feelings I will struggle to describe for a long time.
And yet, the problems that India has are also very real. We’ve heard about them – the poverty, the violence, the pollution. The ways of living and being in community that seem irredeemable to the Western eye. And indeed, I saw much that shocked me. Being in India, I was constantly holding both shock and awe. It shook me and woke me up in ways that I had never experienced, and forced me to move through perceptions of duality.
And it made me realize just how much the United States has in common with supposedly “third world”, “developing”, “Global South” countries. Why else would we label them as something Other?
So keep an eye out here for more posts about my experiences. I’ll try to be timely with them, but words flow when and how they will.