Initiations of Ash

The man placed a line of gray ash from the sacred firepit upon my forehead, above the bright sindoor red bindi he had marked me with in Kali’s temple. I felt a shudder of energy release memories of past and future; a layer of old self replaced by a new layer of meaning. There was fire behind my eyes, gray of ash and red of blood. In that instant the gravity of the experience I had just received in the temple, the shrines I had visited marking patterns of a deeper mystery, began to transform me.

* * *

She came roaring in a cloud of ash, bright flashing blade and lolling tongue. Slice, chop, red palms to hungry skulls, CRACK. Here, my child, You Are.

* * *

The boat was rocking so softly as I took my place on the very edge, toes just touching the surface of the water; green-gray that seemed to taste extra salty. Or perhaps that was the tears trapped on my tongue. I plunged my hand into the depths of the black container, pulling out a grasp of the ashen remains of my sister’s body. My hand began to tingle as energy spread across it and up my arm. With a silent prayer I stretched out my arm and released, the ashes falling from my hand and spreading in a cloud in the water. I looked at my hand – it no longer felt like my own. It felt lighter, possessed of something holy and yet weighted by a mass defying it’s size.

Again. Plunge into the plastic, a handful of grains and chips of bone, release. The boat jumped slightly as wind and wave shifted, and the ash blew back into my face. Forehead, nose, lips – the graininess of salt and ash, borne on a gentle caress of wind. Again I felt the shudder, and the energy in my hand surged through my body and blasted through my new layers of meaning as freshly healed skin tender to the touch of it. I felt my crown open as my vision doubled, tripled, became clearer.

Now you see.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about initiation lately. The experiences I told you of here all happened within the span of about a month, this year. I’m also studying another initiatory tradition, and rolling that around has been an interesting exercise around my views on power and authority.

I’ve never really wanted initiation by a teacher (though I have craved the devotional relationship of student-teacher – but that is another post). The tradition I studied under the longest was non-initiatory, though I was given the blessing of self-initiation and acknowledgment as priestess.

But that isn’t to say I’ve never been initiated.

How could these experiences not be initiations? What if initiation is not only a single act, bestowed upon us by another supposedly (hopefully) with the support of the Gods? And what contextualization do we have for these experiences, let alone what support? I’ve struggled to feel comfortable discussing some of these experiences and to be taken seriously, and that struggle has really illuminated the places where initiation is tied to power and authority.

For me, being a priestess is who I am. It is how I walk in the world. It is in my actions and my way of being. It isn’t about holding power over others, dictating meaning or relationships with the Divine. It isn’t about being in service to any one or any thing either, though it is about being of service. It does mean an awful lot of work and sacrifice and looking at things that sometimes I would really just rather not.

It is going to the places unseen, doing the work that needs doing, and bringing it back out into the world. It is walking in cremation grounds, those places where people dare not go, and receiving the ashes.

“A healthy Priest makes all things sound.” Francesca DeGrandis

If I am a god, in relationship with other gods (embodied and not), then where do initiations come from? And if a God should deliver an initiation to me without an intermediary, how is that somehow ‘less valid’?

Ultimately for me, it comes down to the most important questions of all: how do you walk in the world? How are you of service? Do you live with integrity and accountability? Are you willing to show up and do the hard work? Will you thrust your hand into the ash and do what needs done?

If so, you have very likely undergone many of your own initiations, whether through the hands of another or the hands of the Gods.

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Athena and the Floods

My first attempt had been thwarted by floods. It was Beltane 2010, and having just finished priestessing at our community Beltane gathering, I was traveling to Nashville to meet with my partner. He was on a long layover due to his semi-trailer truck being grounded for the weather. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen him, and always up for an adventure I decided to brave the storm.

It was apocalyptic. The rain was so heavy my windshield wipers could literally not withstand it, and continually broke free of themselves, rendering them useless every few miles until I could stop to readjust them. By the time I reached Nashville the storm was breaking. After a kind man fixed my wipers for me, I collapsed in the hotel room I had reserved, alone and exhausted. In the morning light, the devastation was shocking, and all the more emphasized by the entirely vacant mass of highways.

I braved the 1000-year Tennessee flood. It kept me from my partner. And from the Parthenon. But it did not keep me from myself. It was a reminder of how capable I was, the strength and resilience I possessed, and that even alone I could weather the storm.

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Nashville Parthenon Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Five months later I returned to Nashville, my life swept away in its own flood. I was on my way across the country to start a new life in San Francisco, recently single, with only my dog and what I could pack into my Subaru.

The pull to visit the Parthenon and to see the statue of Athena was irresistible. I knew I would need her on this journey. So I planned my route through Nashville. It was the first stop on what came to be the second, but most important, pilgrimage in my life that far.

I pulled into the parking area and took in the sight of this most unlikely Parthenon. Perched at the top of a small park, it looked more like someone had taken one of the plastic replicas from Greece, enlarged it to actual size, and plopped it down in the middle of a quintessential Southern city. The contrary nature of it began the shift in my awareness toward a liminal state.

I made my way to the Naos, past the galleries, and taking in the towering columns and the reproduction art and statues. I passed through a massive doorway, turned a corner, and fell to my knees. There She was, a 42 foot replica of the statue of Athena, as she would have been in the Parthenon of Ancient Greece. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I think at most I had hoped for an authentic museum like experience. Instead I found the certainty that the goddess was present here, that this was not a museum, not to me anyway, but a living breathing temple.

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Athena Parthenos Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Having just spent the last few years working to the bone to nurture community-as-temple and to create physical-space-as-temple, the feeling was overwhelming and a balm. Here in the most unlikely of places was a building in which the divine resided.

My knees protested against the marble floor, and the tears that would be with me for the rest of the journey began to wet my face. But this pain, and this flood, was sacrament and offering. As some of my tears fell to the floor at her feet, I remembered the flood waters that only months before had been on this same ground.

I prayed for strength and wisdom as I went westward, weary from long battles and yet feeling as though I was being deployed to new territory. Would I make it? Could I do this? Was this even the right thing? I tried to quiet my sobs as more people were entering the space, and I took in her physical presence her more closely.

Her serene face belied a deep wisdom as I considered her shield, and what a fine raft it might make in a disaster; my mind firmly unattached from its usual hinges. Nike’s wings brushed against my face as I heard Athena’s voice resounding in the echo chamber of my heart. Here in this sovereign Goddess of wisdom and battle, I began to feel the ray of divine love in my heart again, and the support of a sister who is larger than life.

I offered my tears and weariness to her, and felt an abiding strength fall across my shoulders as a cloak. I knew I had many days travel ahead of me, yet I did not want to tear myself away from her. I shifted my body and craned my face to look at her one more time, and asked for her support in the days and months to come. At that moment, I knew this was another trial and another part of my journey and that I would never be alone.

I will stay with you as you drive this chariot, Warrior Sister.”

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Offering and Taboo

CW: discussion of animal sacrifice

Kalighat

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.

Kamakhya

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.

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Goat at Kamakhya Photo by S. Nagakyrie

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.

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Harikhat at the Kali temple Photo from http://www.kalibhakti.com/kalighat/

Taboo

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.

Offering

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.

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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.

Land of Maa

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.

Jai Ma!

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at Kamakhya Temple