AT THE FEET OF THE GURU
Given the title, this chapter should go something like this: James and I spent months travelling through India until finally, one day, while we were hiking through the Himalayas, we came upon a cave in a mountainside. Attracted by the scent of sandalwood incense that emanated from the dark space, we peered inside. To our surprise, there in a lotus posture sat a white-bearded man, dressed in crumpled white robes, surrounded by flickering candles. Opening his eyes, he said to us in a melodic voice, “Come, my children. I know what it is you seek. Come and sit here at my feet and I will tell you the secrets of the Universe.”
Then I could proceed to reveal those secrets to you, dear reader, making you so happy you had stuck with this book all the way to here. Of course, this would not be a very tantric story then, for it would rob you of any toil or devotion incumbent upon you discovering the ultimate truths of your existence in your own body, in your own time.
Nonetheless, in our wanderings through India, James and I did meet many gurus, and they revealed certain truths to us because of – and sometimes in spite of – their guru natures. We were paying attention because India had represented to us the final chapters of Venus and Her Lover; revelations about the fifth element, ether; and the ultimate pilgrimage of our eleven-year odyssey.
But to tell this story properly, I must back up in time, to 1991, and to a pyramid by the sea on a tropical island . . .
When I lived in Puerto Rico with Will and our three-year-old son Alex – while James was off on his global artistic odyssey, long before we ever looked at one another in a romantic way – I was honing my priestess talents in the wooden pyramid underneath two stately old mango trees. Our little spiritual community always gathered to mark the wheel of the year. So it was one winter solstice afternoon in 1991 that over 50 of us sat in meditation, focused on inner peace and world peace. We concluded by chanting “Om”. As people filed out of the pyramid to prepare the potluck meal at the beach, a short man with black hair, a beard, and dark brown eyes approached me. I had never seen him before. A friend introduced us, and I learned he was Shashi, a Hindu Brahmin, who was passing through Puerto Rico for three days, and so “naturally” he had turned up at our peace vigil.
“Very nice ceremony,” the short Indian man told me.
“Thank you,” I said, apparently interrupting him, so he continued.
“But your practice is sloppy.”
took a breath and looked at this man. His light brown skin might become much darker, I thought, if he spent time in the sun. He had the bearing of someone who spent time indoors. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, framing a small mouth with full lips, on the verge of a smile. His slightly protruding eyes, I now saw, were not his alone; he seemed to be looking at me with such depth, I felt that a whole of line of people was peering into me.
“Sloppy practice, OK,” I ventured. “Tell me more.”
“You come from a family that did not actually comprehend who you were. Your sisters – sisters, isn’t it? – thought they saw reflections of themselves in you, but you did not fit in with any normal picture. So you have tried to fit into it, but that is actually not possible for you. You are a great soul, and you have a great destiny. When are you going to tend to it?”
I realized I was holding my breath and exhaled. “How do you know all this about me?” I asked.
Leaning toward me as if to whisper a secret, but never taking his eyes off of mine, he said, “My dear, it is written all over you.”
“Well, I don’t know about the great destiny part. I mean, I’m just doing what I can here . . .” I began, but his gaze stopped me, making me realize for the first time that I was making excuses, fending off any intimation of my magnificence. It was just a flash of a realization, like a pelican’s sudden plummet for a fish, but one that would circle back around later when I began posing questions as to why I was enduring Will’s alcoholic behavior, why I would want to martyr myself in relationship for the sake of my son, why I would deflect the title of High Priestess, why I was peddling handicrafts because my dream of being a writer was just that . . . a dream. All those questions would come much later; at this moment, the fish got away.
“You need to devote more attention to your practice,” Shashi said.
“OK, how would I go about doing that?” I asked.
His tidy smirk stretched a little farther into a smile. “I can teach you.”
That is how we began. Shashi became my teacher, and I agreed to be his student. I was not a Hindu but I did not mind learning the tradition so associated with yoga. Shashi was from a Brahmin family. In the old caste system of India, the Brahmins were the priest class, the highest rung on the social ladder. According to a Vedic creation myth, purusha (Primordial Man) was dismembered to make creation: from his feet came the women, slave class, and Shudras (agriculturalists); from his thighs, the Vaishyas (merchants); from his arms, the Kshatriyas or Rajputs (warriors, rulers); from his head the sky; from his eye the sun; and from his mouth, the priestly Brahmins. And what do you know? – the higher up the castes, the lighter-skinned were the people in them. Millennia ago, the Brahmins were crucial in Vedic culture, for they alone knew the proper ceremonies through which to contact the gods. They orally passed the ancient wisdom of the rishis – the original “seers” of the Vedas (texts which would later be written down and become the foundation of the Hindu religion) – from generation to generation for at least 5000 years. Next to paganism, Hinduism was the oldest spiritual system on Earth, and that longevity is due to the Brahminical tradition.
Shashi’s family was part of that tradition, and when he became a teenager, he had agreed to study the esoteric arts. Now in his late 20’s, he was already counseling political and business people through astrology and other methods. He and I set a time to meet in the pyramid, when he proceeded to teach me chanting and breathing. He gave me a small engraved metal square to look at when I chanted: a shri yantra.
“How long do I practice this?” I asked him.
“When you’re ready, I will come again,” he said.
After about six months, our mutual friend dropped by with a message: Shashi was coming through Puerto Rico again, and I should be ready. He arrived, we went to the pyramid, and he said, “Show me your practice.” I breathed and chanted. He made a few adjustments, gave me new mantras, and told me to keep practicing.
“For how long?” I inquired.
“When the time is right, I will come again,” he said.
And sure enough, about nine months later, he reappeared, I ran through my chanting with him coaching me, and then he said, “Come now, sit on my lap.”
Startled, I glared at him sitting cross-legged on the floor of the pyramid. Oh no, I moaned internally, so it comes to this! A seduction? My Venusian qualities had attracted this dynamic before, but when I checked in with my feelings, it surprised me that I did not detect lechery. Deciding that it was safe, I cautiously sat down. He guided my legs so they met behind his back. Likewise our arms held one another. Years later I would learn this position was called a yab yum. Instructing me to breathe in his out-breath, as he did mine, we began breathing, looking into each other’s eyes. Again there was the feeling of the eyes of many other souls, somehow telescoping through his, and boring into me. It was so intense that I had to close my eyes. A gentle undulation moved through our bodies that – to my shock – felt sexual in my groin. But I kept breathing in and out, breathing, breathing. I had the sensation of a feather touch at my chakras, particularly the heart and the third eye. When I felt Shashi’s hand on the top of my head, a surge of energy sloshed up through me, as if I were a thermos being filled with hot soup, until it reached the top and I was completely full. Then my body was no longer there, and I was just a sea of energy, a warm ocean swirling with life. I knew my body rested heavily on a solid floor but it was also absolutely porous with the Universe around me.
Breathing, breathing . . . the energy subsided. Still sitting in Shashi’s lap, I opened my eyes, and he was smiling. A breeze redolent with the sweet odor of crushed mangoes – fruit fallen off the tree – wafted in, and I could hear the faint buzz of bees and flies feasting on the yellow flesh outside the pyramid windows. “You have done very well. Excellent, actually,” Shashi pronounced. “May your practice serve you well in your life. Now you can take me to the airport.”
On the drive to the nearest city, Mayagüez, we did not speak much – words felt superfluous to the deep communion we felt. I put him on the plane and did not see him again for 17 years.
What had happened there in the pyramid? It was only after James and I had been working on Venus and Her Lover for several years, requiring the study of tantric traditions, that it hit me: Shashi had given me a tantric initiation. Shaktipat is a spiritual transmission, from guru to disciple, that awakens the kundalini and jumpstarts his or her process toward moksha (liberation). In my innocence and naïveté, I had called in a guide to set me upon the path of fulfilling my destiny as a tantrica. Even the mandala he had given me, the shri yantra, was a symbol used in Hindu Tantra. Shashi had shown up at that homemade temple by the sea, setting a force in motion that would completely redefine my life.
Delhi: Entering Guruland
In a way, I agreed to do Venus and Her Lover that morning in the pyramid. Now look where it had brought me! By winter solstice 2008, exactly 17 years after first meeting, Shashi, James, and I were now guests at his apartment in New Delhi. Shashi welcomed us warmly, expecting us to stay with him for months, but accepted it when we explained we had more to experience of India than New Delhi. His hair and beard were now salt and pepper colored, and he looked even more like he spent too much time indoors. He had never married, and devoted himself unreservedly to his business and spiritual practices.
We had been with him about a week when Shashi sat us down to have a serious conversation about Venus and Her Lover.
“This is a great book! It will help many people,” he declared. “But you must do two things. First, you must take out the paintings of the Hindu gods and goddesses. There are Hindu fundamentalists who will be offended how you show the gods and goddesses naked . . . and sexual.”
“But they are shown that way traditionally,” I argued.
“It is true. But this is now and the norms of the society now do not accept it. Sex is something private, and it’s not something people accept in their gods and goddesses.”
“But everything is sexual, Shashi. You know that. The whole Universe is the union of opposites,” I explained.
“Yes, you are right. You are absolutely right. Sex is a natural part of life. But people here will not accept it.” He leaned toward us and drilled us with his brown eyes. “Listen, people here will kill you for it. I cannot protect you. There are fanatic people here.”
James interrupted. “Shashi, that is exactly why this work is needed. Because there are people who would kill us for portraying love. Listen, if we take out what is offensive to people, we will have no project, no book! There are Christians who will be offended, and Buddhists who will be offended . . . ”
“You must take out those paintings for your book to be published!” he insisted.
“Shashi, this book is not for the people who will be offended. They have no reason to ever see it. It is for the people who are already waking up to their own natures and the nature of the Universe,” James asserted.
Like the immovable mountain, Shashi could not accept our position. So I changed the subject. “Shashi, you said there are two things we must do for Venus and Her Lover. What is the other thing?”
Tilting his head from side to side as if to dispense with the previous topic and begin a new one, he finally asked, “Where is KamaDev in your book?”
“KamaDev?” James asked.
“KamaDeva – the god of sex, of love, of the honey of life. Kama Dev holds the secrets to the deep joy of life, the secrets of sex. Without his help, you will not complete your book.”
“I’ve finished the paintings,” James stated with finality.
“But yes, we’re open to knowing about him,” I hurriedly added, not wanting to quash both his suggestions outright.
Subsequently Shashi provided me with a mantra through which to invoke this Hindu god of love and sexuality. I would learn that he was depicted much like Cupid: a handsome young man with a bow of sugarcane, string of honeybees, and arrows decorated with sweet-smelling flowers. He was associated also with Krishna. While in India, I did ask for his help. Shashi’s first advice, however, we could not follow. James and I would not remove characters from Venus and Her Lover in the name of sexual repression.
Running a business supporting development projects, Shashi spent long days at the office. His days included a parade of appointments – some business, some spiritual. He often sat cross-legged and barefoot in his chair to receive them. Before coming to India, I had asked in meditation for a guru, if it was meant to be. Receiving guidance from a guru was an Indian tradition and a particularly tantric requirement, after all, and I wanted to be open to learning from Shashi, or any spiritual master willing to share his or her wisdom. Having blatantly exceeded the bounds of Hindu propriety, however, I was not receptive to Shashi’s advice, so he could do nothing but let me go my own way, as if I were a headstrong kindergartner.
Nonetheless, in the company of Shashi, I met the spiritual teachers that came to pay their respects. A Sufi man offered me a blessing, though he would not look me in the eye. We spent one morning with an older Hindu man named Guruji who spoke no English (and we no Hindi); he kept jovially bobbing his head at James and me. At the shrine of a Muslim saint, even though I was not fully covered, the worshippers welcomed us, giving James a hand getting up and down, and sending us off with presents. It was only with a Sikh man, however, that I connected on a spiritual level. Breaking Shashi’s warning for me to not talk about our work, I had explained Venus and Her Lover to this older man in a turban, even showing him some images. He listened a long time, nodding, and finally saying to me, “You are very brave. It is all true what you say. The feeling of sexual passion – maybe you experience it only once in your life, but you never forget it — because you do feel like you are in union with God.” When he left, he bowed, reaching his hands toward my feet, a gesture of deference that completely took me aback. I had seen people do that in front of gurus.
Before leaving Delhi, Shashi wanted to stoke my energy, to give me strength to finish our work. Recognizing how depleted I was from the previous months of moving out of Taos, he had me stand before him. His eyes were deep pools of brown – how well I remembered those eyes that would appear through my eyelids in my meditations in the pyramid! Waving his hands around my aura, he blew his breath toward me.
Then he had me sit yab yum in his lap and hug him tightly. We breathed together. Tingly energy moved along my spine. In spite of the horn-honking, polluted atmosphere of Delhi, I did feel my energy re-balancing. In addition, I felt gratitude to this man who had initiated me on a path that now led into a swamp of sexual shadows and dangerous conclusions . . . tangled roots, perilous currents, and apparitions that seeped up from the muck of frustrated human desire . . . to reveal a shimmering new reality. It was a path he had repudiated – both physically and philosophically – and yet he was willing to offer blessings as James and I blazed a trail into territory he himself dare not enter.
Varanasi: Got the Ghats
If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India.
— Max Mueller (19th century Orientalist)
After ten days in Delhi, James and I were more than ready to get out of the city: a megapolis of 12.25 million people, who overflow into the streets – sleeping, pissing, sweeping, begging, and making little fires on the pavement to brew chai (milk tea) – or who overload bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, three-wheeled taxis, automobiles, buses, and trucks with extended family and baskets of their wares. The traffic is overwhelming, and even in Shashi’s apartment we could not completely escape the belches of exhaust smoke and cacophony of honking: from sickly Roadrunner beep-beeps to ear-splitting blares, blasts, toots, squeals, bleats, and trumpeting howls each trying to outroar the other. Amid the fracas wandered humpbacked cows – millions of them, too – who, despite their divine status, were left to forage the garbage in the streets, many of them strangling from ingesting too much plastic. Counterpoised to polluted, teeming Delhi, our pilgrimage had dubbed India the realm of Ether – a spiritual land – and I fully realized that Delhi was part of that. It could be argued the human condition is, in actuality, central to that. All the same, we were glad to board the train out of town, to discover the milieu that has brought so many religions into the world.
Starting in Neolithic times, the Vedic pantheon and fire ceremonies merged with indigenous Dravidian gods and earth worship over the course of thousands of years on the Indian subcontinent. Out of those woven traditions, the Tantric philosophy emerged at the start of the first millennium (4-7 CE). Earlier, Gautama Buddha had pursued his enlightenment here, and upon attaining it, founded a religion that would eventually define Asia. Contemporary with the Buddha (6th century BCE), Mahavira founded Jainism, a more ascetic and dharmic religion that currently has nearly 5 million followers in India. Sikhism, which recognizes one (albeit indefinable) God, attracts pilgrims to its famous Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar. Islam, which has common monotheistic roots with Judaism and Christianity, reigned in India for over 500 years, beginning in 1192, and left not only formidable Mughal architectural monuments but also deep cultural influences. Nearly a third of the world’s Muslims live on the Indian subcontinent. Christianity probably arrived with St. Thomas in 52 CE, though some speculate that before that, during the “missing years” of Jesus Christ’s life, he was learning from gurus in India, possibly in Kashmir. Christianity took a firmer hold when the colonial powers (the Portuguese, French, and British) set up trading centers, which, in the case of the British, extended to outright rule by the 19th century. Mother Theresa is the most widely known icon of Christian missionary work in India. How so many (and I just mention, very simplistically, the main ones above) diverse and even opposed religions could coexist in one place is a tribute to the flexibility of the predominant religion of India: Hinduism.
Without any central organizing authority, it allows a wide range of personal interpretation; some Hindus believe in a supreme God while others do not. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second Indian president, stated that, for the Hindu, religion “is not an idea but a power, not an intellectual proposition but a life conviction. Religion is consciousness of ultimate reality, not a theory about God.” [India Handbook, p.1462] In the temples and shrines that James and I visited during our time in India, we primarily witnessed people doing their own puja at an altar, reminding me that this was a religion mainly practiced in the privacy of people’s homes. The homespun altars, I might add, are generally tended by the women of the family.
What ideas do most Hindus hold in common? Karma is a central concept — the idea that our actions have effects. A belief in reincarnation flows from karma – its first mention is in the Upanishads in the 7th century BCE. Since your actions in this lifetime will bring you consequences in the next – and you do not want your arrogance and cruelty now to land you into a lifetime as an ox with the whip constantly on your back – then better to cultivate positive karma: practice ahimsa (harm no one: hence Gandhian nonviolence and Hindu vegetarianism); meditation to feel the god within; yoga to stay balanced; and living life according to dharma (what is right, according to universal law; hence an ethical way of living that includes spiritual discipline). Darshan (“vision” or “sight” or “beholding”) is important in the sense that the devotee wants to catch “sight” of divinity either from a statue in a temple, in the presence of the guru, or while in meditation. Once samsara (the cycles of death and rebirth) is broken through, and self-realization is experienced, then the practitioner attains moksha (liberation) from the ever-rolling Wheel of Karma.
What happens, then, if you choose not to live your life according to the dharma, and you accrue “bad” karma? Well, then, next lifetime, you just might be born as a poor cripple, or dark-skinned Untouchable . . . or a woman. This leads us to how the notion of karma has inflicted its most egregious harm on people for millennia: the caste system. A hierarchical ranking of humans, the caste system determined how people were treated based on the class into which they were born. The Vedic culture of patriarchal, aggressive, and nomadic cattle-herders and raiders, which began its rise to power in the Indus River valleys after 1700 BCE, brought with it an efficient, organizational mindset. All people fell into the following castes:
(1) Brahmins – priests and teachers
(2) Kshatriyas – warriors, rulers, nobles
(3) Vaishyas — farmers, merchants, artisans, commoners
(4) Shudras — laborers, servants, slaves
Outside of this pyramid fell the “outcastes” (the Untouchables, the Dalits) to whom fell the dirty work of disposing of waste and the dead.
The Sanskrit word for “caste” is varna, which means “color” – and as I already mentioned – the higher you go up the ladder of caste, the lighter the color of the skin. Varna was outlawed by the British colonial government, as well as by the present Indian constitution, but to our shock, we found most Indians we met still dealing with one another based on their caste background. The five basic divisions of class are subdivided into a rigid hierarchy of 3000 castes, which determine your job, where you live, whom you marry, and even the color of your sari or turban. As William Dalrymple explains in The Age of Kali, “To rise out of your caste does more than just rock the foundations of society, it breaks the cosmic cycle and defies nature.” [The Age of Kali, p.115] Indeed, it seemed to be most people’s opinion that if it were not for a caste consciousness that dictated where everyone should be and what was expected of them, the burgeoning chaos of India’s 1.17 billion people would explode into unbridled anarchy.
I bring up the topic of caste because it is relevant to our social interactions in India. For we came here not just to pay homage to the religious arena in which Tantra had been born, but to learn from the land and its people in real time. Whomever we met, whenever we talked about gender and sexual relations, the reality of the caste system with the value it gave ranking was always present, as if Indra, the old Vedic war god, looked down from his perch in the clouds ready to come down with his mighty sword upon anyone who defied the “natural order” of things.
The caste system notwithstanding, the philosophy of Hinduism and the science propagated by the Vedas (from physics on the origin of the Universe to Ayurveda, a comprehensive system of medicine) is known far and wide in India. Eighty percent of Indians identify themselves as Hindus. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism_in_India, Oct 2009] Sri Swami Sivananda states: “It is in India alone that every man knows something of philosophy. The cowherd who tends the cattle, the peasant who ploughs the fields, the boatman who pulls at his oar, sing songs replete with philosophical truths. Even the barber repeats OM NAMAH SIVAYA, SIVOHAM before he takes up the razor.” [“Hinduism: Emphasis on Spiritual Practice” by Sri Swami Sivananda]
Sitting on the west bank of the Ganges River, Varanasi – which the British called Benares and Hindus call Kashi, meaning the City of Light – is one of the holiest cities in India.
When James and I first found our way to the ghats, the steps and platforms along the Ganges River, we soon came upon the charnel grounds. As we stood there beholding several funerals in progress, a Dom struck up conversation with us. He was a Dalit, a man from the Untouchable caste, people “low” enough to handle corpses. Making the best of the position, the Doms charged for the wood, the sacred flame that they have tended for hundreds of generations, and all the arrangements. With all his gold necklaces, he looked like a Puerto Rican loan shark, but that he had dyed his hair orange, which matched his teeth (turned reddish from chewing betel nuts). As he explained the funerary procedures, the sun was setting into the smog of the city, casting a sickly orange glow onto the charnel grounds. James and I witnessed corpses in various stages of demise: from the man whose relatives sprinkled him with Ganges water before lighting the pyre underneath him, to a barely-discernible corpse in a roaring fire, to red embers of a body totally consumed. We also saw a body wrapped in yellowish orange cloth and marigolds rowed out to the middle of the river, tied to a stone, and dropped overboard (this burial reserved for saddhus, holy people, children, pregnant women, and others who did not need the purifying force of the fire for their souls to depart.)
As the dead man’s face was covered with gauze, the rituals performed, and the fire lit, his body slowly was engulfed in flame. I could hear sizzling and popping, and the smell of the smoke changed … more acrid. Ash fell on our shoulders.
“Burning … is for learning,” the Dom proclaimed.
James and I stood there transfixed by the scene. On loudspeakers, a woman sang in a high-pitched lilting voice to Mother Ganga (the Ganges goddess), constantly repeating the refrain, like the ever-returning flow of the river. There was neither crying nor wailing, “so not to make the soul want to stay,” the Dom explained. I asked why no women were present among the mourners (if you can call them that). “Women are not allowed because they cry.”
“They cry,” I repeated. The Dom nodded. I felt myself bump up against what must have been a whole mountain of assumptions about women.
He went on, “Also, sati is now illegal.” He was referring to the old practice of burning the widow when the husband died.
“I don’t think too many widows would want to throw themselves onto the fire, do you?” No response from the Dom. “Do you mean the relatives might throw her on?” I asked.
“Maybe!” he said, flashing his orange-rimmed teeth. “It’s better the women stay up there.” He pointed up the ghat to a terrace high above. Glancing up, I saw a huddle of women in white saris peeking out of the white scarves that covered their heads at the fire just below us that crackled and smoked. Saying goodbye to the kind Dom who stood with us, James put his hand out, saying, “You’re not untouchable to me. Thank you for talking with us.” They shook hands, the Dom’s smile bright against his chocolate brown skin.
Leaving the charnel fires, James and I hired a boat to row us downstream. In the twilight, a fog, cold as death, gradually obscured the horizon. The broad Ganges blended into the sky, the temple spires and ghats seemed to float in space, and every candle and light made dancing reflections on the water. “I feel like we are on the River Styx,” I said to James, as we glided over the water. All reference points blurred; we travelled between worlds.
The oarsman rowed us to Dasashvamedha, the main ghat, where an elaborate puja (ceremony) was underway on the platforms above the water. Brahmin priests draped in red and yellow cloth rang bells, twirled candelabras, and led the packed crowd in chants. I joined in as I could and clapped in beat to the chanting. As I understood the fire ceremony, the offerings tossed into the fire symbolized thoughts or feelings that needed to transform, be carried to the gods, or be reduced to ashes. I also knew that the fire god Agni was one of the earliest Vedic gods, and that the Bronze Age migratory herder-warriors had to count heavily upon the Brahmin’s ability to commune with the gods via the fire ritual. Amazing how these practices had been passed down for over 3,000 years, providing a mystical participation with the element of Fire, touching Earth and Heaven. Reflections of flames glimmering on the Ganges cast a spell, banishing the dank chill of the winter’s night.
Soon our little skiff was hemmed in by larger boats, which were all filled with Hindu people uniting with the puja. The Brahmins twirled large censers in unison, and we were enshrouded in frankincense smoke. The night felt eternal.
That was how James and I spent the first evening of the New Year.
Some days later, I hired a boat one morning at dawn to row me down river. We glided past naked saddhus with painted bodies and wild dreadlocks performing puja, old and young soaping up and dipping or making offerings to the river, the washerwomen and men beating clothes on washboards at the shore, and groups of people doing yoga (I especially liked it when they shouted “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”: laughter yoga!). When we got near the Narad and Raja Ghats, where one legend has the Buddha receiving enlightenment under a tree, he put in ashore so I could do my own puja. The barefoot oarsman seemed very happy to accommodate me, waiting patiently. I had brought with me three little bottles of water: from icy Lake Wai-au high atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i; from Sacsayhuamán, the megalithic stone ruins in the Andes; and from the Río Pueblo de Taos, which flows down from the sacred Blue Lake of the Pueblo people of New Mexico. Bringing blessings from these holy places to mingle with the Mother River of India, I poured them in, envisioning the unity of water that we all share (being 70% water ourselves), and thanking the waters for sustaining life on the planet. If Dr. Masuru Emoto’s research is correct [that human emotions can affect the structure of water], those waters had a lot to communicate with each other. During my little ritual, standing in the Ganges, I really got the feeling of gratitude for this grand river who gives so much to the people. As polluted as it must certainly be, it somehow seemed like holy water to me, too, purified by a million daily prayers. Blessed Ganga Ma.
I spent our days in Varanasi wandering the ghats. (James was often resting, done in by all the steps). I put on my full Punjabi garb, covered my head, and put a bindi on my forehead. This seemed to increase my invisibility by tenfold. Hardly any touts hassling; instead men calling me “Madame-ji”, “Auntie”, and “Punjabi”, and women meeting my eyes for a change. I walked, I sat, I took it all in. One morning on the ghats, I sat amid a knot of people listening to a holy man teach. Although I could not understand what he said, the passion of his belief carried me along. With a small mouth overgrown with a mustache and beard of white wiry hair, he pronounced each phrase like a prayer, his brown eyes aglow with loving-kindness.
Varanasi was like nowhere else I had been on Earth. Along the banks of the Ganges were people talking, praying, selling, shitting, pissing (but not directly in the water), giving massage, beating drums, teaching, chanting, burning, playing cards, reading palms, wrestling, resting on dais, patching boats, washing clothes, making cow patty pies (for cooking fires), herding cows and goats, charming snakes, wailing to the gods, flying kites, shaving, and of course: bathing.
Here in India James and I had witnessed filth, squalor, and human decrepitude, but Varanasi won the prize in all categories. Even though many people walked around barefoot, I felt like I should have been wearing a haz-mat suit. People believe that to die in Varanasi allows the soul to achieve moksha (liberation); therefore sick and old people congregated here. Locals we talked to considered themselves fortunate to live in “the holiest place on Earth”, and in spite of all the nastiness of Varanasi, I could feel what they meant. So many prayers, so many rituals, so many blessings given over these waters . . .
The saddhus were here – half-naked ascetics who covered themselves with the ashes of the dead, who had renounced all worldly attachments, who would perch cross-legged on the ghats and give teachings. There were thousands of pilgrims who came to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges. Some sat at the shore chanting their hearts out. There were a few raving lunatics, too, with wild eyes and staggering gait – or were they in some kind of religious altered state that I could not interpret? Lepers who pointed their stubs of appendages at us, and women in dingy saris with kids on their hips who gestured at their mouths (“Feed me!”) begging for rupees. Children chasing through the cows and goats, monkeys climbing the temple spires, mangy dogs running in packs at night, growling and fighting . . . all here.
As I was wending my way through the labyrinthine lanes behind the ghats (this city is thousands of years old, once a center along with Babylon and Ninevah), navigating through the piles and plops of shit, I was suddenly enveloped by two overwhelming smells: the perfume of jasmine and the stench of urine. And I thought: that’s Varanasi. The two extremes of the sublime and the wretched are so radical that they meet in a common netherworld that is neither entirely and yet both.
James and I were grateful to have come to Varanasi, but we got to a point of being ready to leave. The smell of burning got caught in my throat, and I just had enough of it.
Tiruvannamalai: Climbing the Mountain
India chose her places of pilgrimages on the top of hills and mountains, by the side of the holy rivers, in the heart of forests and by the shores of the ocean, which along with the sky, is our nearest visible symbol of the vast, the boundless, the ‘I’.
— Rabindranath Tagore
(Nobel Prize-winning Indian writer)
At the bedrock of Hindu Vedantic philosophy are the concepts of Brahman and atman. Brahman is . . . well, here I begin fishing for red herrings, which any sage will tell you simply roils the waters, since Brahman is indefinable. But to continue the fishing expedition: Brahman is absolute being, absolute consciousness, the Uncaused Cause, the All that Is, Suchness, or the Godhead that is formless, boundless, and unmanifest. Atman, on the other hand, is the immortal soul, the way in which Brahman manifests into the world(s) of form. You could say Brahman is Self, and atman is the self. When atman recognizes its true nature as Brahman, then it is, in fact, Brahman.
India has produced numerous saints, sages, rishis (seers), and gurus, and probably the greatest one
of the 20th century was Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). When just a teenager, he had a spiritual awakening akin to death and rebirth, which propelled him to leave his family and travel to Mt. Arunachala, a mountain in South India consecrated to Shiva. Upon his arrival, he entered into ecstatic trance sitting in meditation in the temple. Enraptured by the holy mountain, he then moved into Virupaksha cave (1899-1916), followed by Skandasramam Cave (1916-1922), where he was so deep in meditation that he completely lost awareness of his body. Emaciated from lack of food and his skin eaten by insects, he was occasionally pried off of the cave floor to be spoon fed and cleaned. So powerful was his state of ecstasy that it attracted people who were uplifted or transformed simply by sitting in his presence. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi had self-realized and found himself to be Brahman.
An ashram had sprung up at the base of the mountain to accommodate the growing crowds of pilgrims. In 1922, Ramana left the cave to give darshan in the ashram temple – generally silent audiences but, as more and more people addressed him with questions, he would speak, gauging his answers according to people’s abilities to understand. His favorite response to their continuous questions was “Who’s asking?”, encouraging his devotees to cultivate a practice of self-enquiry, to get them past identification with the body, and then atman, until finally realizing their Buddhahood, or existence as Brahman. Attaining this awareness, Ramana assured visitors with humble elation, was pure sat-chit-ananda: being-consciousness-bliss.
Here is an exchange between a pilgrim and Ramana:
Question: Do Vishnu, Shiva, and other gods exist?
Ramana: Individual human souls are not the only beings known.
Question: And their sacred regions . . . are they real?
Ramana: As real as you are in this body.
Question: Do they possess a phenomenal existence . . . Where do they exist?
Ramana: In you.
Question: Then it is only an idea which I can create and control?
Ramana: Everything is like that . . . . As long as you respond to a name, what objection could there be to your worshipping a God with name or form? Worship God with or without form till you know who you are.
[The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, pp. 206-207]
James had underlined this exchange in the book, Be As You Are – The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, by David Godman, and it gave a fair description of how we conceptualized all the mythological characters in Venus and Her Lover – not to mention all deities everywhere – an entertaining way to spend our time until we knew for sure who we truly are.
Arunachala – the sacred mountain; after our relationships with Maxwaluna in Taos and the apus of the Andes, we were ready to meet this mountain. James was especially looking forward to Arunachala, as Sri Ramana Maharshi was the first guru to get James’ attention, years back when he was living in Spain. While studying him then, he began dreaming of Puerto Rico and remembering me, which led eventually to our partnership.
“So in a way coming here is coming full circle,” James said.
“I guess so, in a circle within circles kind of way. . .” I said.
Now that we were in Tamil Nadu, South India (and gratefully out of the cold, foggy winter of North India), it was only proper that James should come to the temple town of Tiruvannamalai and pay homage to his first guru. This meant walking the stone path up the mountain – not an easy feat for him.
Knowing full well how challenging it might be, I argued with him. “You’re still recovering from knee surgery, James. I see how you wince when you climb the temples, and how wiped out you are after a morning of walking. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
“I’m climbing that mountain!” James declared. The die had been cast. The warrior had spoken.
So we went slowly. Sometimes he leaned on me, but mostly he did it alone, steadying himself with his cane. Step by step. Along the rocky, brushy slope, we worked our way up, with some passages beneath the branches of ficus, satinwood, and palm trees. I left my shoes behind, wanting to feel the earth underneath my feet.
The day was somewhat overcast, gentle in its light. We had agreed to make it a silent pilgrimage, so we did not talk. As a writer, I am literarily overflowing with words, which accompanied me, incessantly, on our climb. We passed families of monkeys; they foraged through the bushes, chased one another, and swung from tree branch to tree branch, very much like my thoughts. Stilling the mind is an enormous challenge, especially in a walking meditation!
Up and up went the path, my feet treading upon stones smoothed by countless pilgrims on their holy missions. The path of Ascent, I mused. So many have tried to climb their way up to God. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and many Hindus launched their prayers heavenward, while Buddhists spurned this world as pure illusion and everything in it as mere shadows of the Real. We must withdraw our attachments from the temporary to attain the wisdom of the timeless, the formless, the eternal All . . . Brahman. We must dissolve the illusion of separation and return to Source. The Many to the One.
Aristotle aimed his philosophy at discovering supreme essences, Augustine decried physical desires (temptations to sin) that inhibited the spiritual take-off, and Jesus ascended into Heaven because his kingdom was “not of this world”. [John 18:36] As I climbed the mountain, I reflected on Ascent.
Sri Ramana Maharshi had recognized the importance of Ascent in a famous three-part declaration. The first two lines go like this:
The world is illusory
Brahman alone is Real
As we ascended Mt. Arunachala, I felt myself leaving worldly attachments behind, aspiring toward the summit of wisdom. Could I, with each step, release my self-identity, and then maintain the realization that I was one with Brahman?
James spied some yellow flowers growing just off the path, and indicated that he would like me to pick them for him, so he could make them as an offering. I winced. Being barefoot, I was wary to tread into the brush, but I certainly did not want him to step onto unsteady ground, for which reason I picked my way to the laburnum bush, silently flogged by my internal growling. Just as I, glaring at him with the eyes of a martyr, handed him the sprig of flowers, I stepped on a thorn. Shedding my blood on Mt. Arunachala, I had to laugh at how adept it was at instant karma. Obviously, I was not remembering myself as Brahman yet!
Finally we reached Skandasramam Cave, where we joined people inside to sit quietly. The cave floor was paved with timeworn stones, and at a simple shrine, ghee candles illuminated a photograph of Ramana Maharshi. My mind kept up the monkey circus, so I decided to do the talking: I prayed there that James be able to transcend the pain of his body. I prayed that I could transcend my mind.
Hiking on, James went ahead of me, propelled by some new surge of energy. Gingerly striding out of sight, he carried his cane in his hand. How could that be? When I made it to Virupaksha Cave, I found James standing there staring at the entrance marker. Upon entering, he found a stepped wall where he could recline on his side. Inside I could make out the flower-draped shrine in the light of many flickering ghee candles. Settling in, I closed my eyes, and finally my mind allowed me to drop down, under the radar of my constant internal chatter. In the quiet, what arose in me was a flame. Naturally! I had read that, according to Hindu mythology, it was here that Shiva appeared on Earth as a column of fire, and Arunachala was his blazing sthavara lingam. During the holy festival of Karthigai Deepam, in December, a huge lamp is lit at the top of the mountain (using 2000 liters of ghee and a 30-meter long cloth wick), so that Shiva’s light burns for all to see.
In my meditation, I did not perceive the fire element as I had in Hawai’i – the molten churning and erupting of Earth Goddess Pele – here it was a candle flame: constant, consuming, yet continually renewing . . . the kundalini serpent? the auto-luminescence of atman? an undulating tongue of ether? The flame lapped up the center of my body, making me the connection between Earth and Sky. It occurred to me that we humans were uniquely equipped to make such a connection. With mammals, their spines ran parallel to the ground, but we, somewhere along evolution’s course, decided to stand and to sit up. In fact, I saw that all humans forged that vertical circuit with our internal light, allowing energy to flow between the worlds. We were the bridge, and at the same time, the river. I envisioned all of us as human candles, a glowing aura around the Earth, and its light bathed me in love. It was an eternal love, an energy very familiar to me; I knew not only that I came from this energy, but I was this energy. In fact, there was nothing else but this energy of love! I rested in the bliss of that awareness.
When I opened my eyes, several people sat cross-legged in silence, and James had gone out. I found him outside the cave, and he offered me a banana. Breaking our silence, I said, “You mean you have bananas left?” He had been giving out fruit to beggars and saddhus all along the way. He peeled one and gave me the big half. How nourishing that banana tasted! We chewed thoughtfully.
Because the way down the mountain was steeper and a different trail than the way up, James and I fell into silence again, focusing on placing each step securely. The Descent. After the exhilaration of “I have been to the mountaintop!”, there is the return to the world. The trail down this side of Mt. Arunachala revealed broad views of the white stair-step temples in town, the streets of Tiruvannamalai jammed with people, cows, cars, scooters, and carts, and a hazy green horizon. Still below us, the din of honking horns hovered just above the town. We passed a saddhu crouched against a boulder. He smelled. With a dirty orange cloth wrapped around his black dreadlocks, he looked thin and frail. James offered him a banana. The saddhu, whom I could now see was a young man, received the banana reverently, a broad smile of uneven white teeth shining through his unkempt black beard. As we bowed in “Namaste”, I looked him in the eyes, and suddenly I was overcome with his dignified beauty. A voice in my head intoned, “Brahman!” Pulling myself away to follow James, who was already ahead of me, I blinked at the realization: I had just looked into the eyes of the Divine! In fact, as the feeling dilated and rolled out from me like a shock wave, the trees shimmered as green as empty beer bottles, the bees buzzed lustily, and warm air hit my nostrils with a dusty allure. Brahman . . . the All that Is . . . rushed joyously into each precious soul, each insect, each photosynthesizing green leaf, each solid grey rock. The One to the Many! No wonder pagans worshipped the immanence of Spirit in this great Creation, and scientists studied and marveled at the diversity of Nature. As varied as this world was, it would be easy to think it was all there is, as anyone driven by scientific materialism, consumerism, hedonism, greed, political ambition, or ecophilosophy can tell you. How very engaging is the material plane . . . but even more so when seen as expressions of Spirit!
Sri Ramana Maharshi had clinched it with line three:
The world is illusory
Brahman alone is Real
Brahman is the world
Here was the tantric insight. Even though the proponents of Ascent and the defenders of Descent had been battling each other through religious wars, persecutions, witch hunts, mandatory salvation through either religion or scientism, and their respective imperialistic campaigns – and committing atrocities in the name of the One True Way – all along, they were both right! Both right . . . and partial.
Tantra, the nondual path, has been trying to tell us this for 2000 years:
(1) First, you must ascend. Detach from the illusions of the world. The path of wisdom. Attain the Real: the transcendental enlightenment of the Godhead. Spirit as the One.
(2) This realization brings an exuberant impulse toward Creation, where everything is a perfect expression of Spirit. It is all so precious. The path of compassion. The embodiment of the Goddess-heart. Spirit as the Many.
This was why Tantra did not condemn the pleasures of the body nor the variety of experience in the descended world. The only way to keep it all in balance, however – and this is crucial – is to do the Ascent first, to realize our oneness with timeless, formless, boundless Brahman. Thus liberated from attachment, we can enjoy the Descent into matter. It is the connecting of Ascent with Descent that completes the circuit – Shakti sits in Shiva’s lap circulating the energy of the Kosmos, and from their ecstatic lovemaking, everything arises.
Climbing down the mountain, I chuckled to myself. Once you taste the infinite expanse of the Formless, the realms of Form seem like one miracle after another. As much as I had stumbled along the tantric path, with its nondual truths patiently obvious, they had to place themselves as metaphors here on Mt. Arunachala for me to find. If they had been a snake, they would have bit me, and if they had been a thorn, they would have jabbed me . . . drawn blood, even!
The trail led us into town, and we found ourselves back in the raucous streets of Tiruvannamalai. I asked James if he had had any realizations or experiences on our little mountain pilgrimage.
With a determined grin, he replied, “Before enlightenment, there are many bananas to carry. And after enlightenment, there are many bananas to carry.”
It was a cute quip, but as our wanderings through India progressed, I noticed that something was different after Arunachala. James did not limp like he used to, as if he carried less weight somehow, and this registered not just in how he walked but how much easier he seemed to feel in his skin. Months later we had a conversation about it.
James said, “When we made the pilgrimage to Arunachala, I was not there worshipping Ramana. I was worshipping myself, and as he might say, ‘who’s behind all that’. . . Do you remember when we were at the Taj Mahal, what I said?”
“You mean that it may have been a Wonder of the World, but it was still only the second greatest love story, after ours?” I asked.
James laughed. “No. When we were surrounded by those women covered head to toe in black. All you could see was their eyes peeking out of veils.”
I did remember, because I had wanted to shush him, just like when he started mooing inside the Vatican. James answered before I could.
“I said, ‘And I thought I was crippled!’”
“You said it loudly, right in front of them,” I reminded him.
James continued. “Yea, well, then I started wondering why I would ever want to consider myself crippled. Am I my body? At Ramana’s mountain, I just felt like knocking down some internal barriers, transcending my own limitations. It was a perfect opportunity for me to affirm my strength.
“Later, it dawned on me that I was rewarded by climbing that mountain. I was rewarded with not only more strength, but with a broader definition of who I am. I don’t have to be bound by old ideas, especially if they’re my own!”
“A transformational man!” I exclaimed.
“A Mars warrior who’s laid down the sword but who’s still strong enough to fight the battle within, to be the best I can be . . . to be true to my essence,” he elaborated.
Perhaps James had identified with Ramana Maharshi because they had both, in their own ways, transcended the pain of their bodies. For me, Ramana – whose enlightenment was truly remarkable, no doubt about it – was, regardless, no paragon of spiritual evolution that I wanted to follow. I did not want to escape my body, nor leave the physical world behind before my time. I wanted to experience myself as Brahman here, now, in this body, and when possible, while in ecstatic union with my lover.
Therefore, I must admit, that my request for a guru in India had always had a foregone conclusion. Perhaps my American “rugged individualism” precluded fully submitting to another’s requirements. Or my Renaissance woman could not confine herself to one teaching only. Or, like a good Taurus bull, I was simply too headstrong.
We sat with other gurus during our travels: pressed up against thousands of devotees and sweating through darshan with Amma at one of her ashrams in Kerala; listening to Vedantic philosophy from Baba Ram Puri, a naga baba (“naked yogi”), from the ascetic Shaivite tradition; savoring chai and conversations with Ganga, a wise sannyasin who had known Osho (Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh) from the early days of his Poona ashram, when the “sex guru” helped followers to a new sense of freedom by deconstructing traditions and practicing his brand of neo-Tantra. In addition to being grateful for how willingly they all shared, I could appreciate the truths that each tradition brought to the fore. In the end, however, the Truth (with a capital T) continued to be what I experienced resonating deep within my core, the Truth – as many gurus have said – that has been there all along, which Ramana called sat-chit-ananda: being-consciousness-bliss.
Or, as James liked to say:
Question: How do you spell guru?
Answer: G-U-R-U (Gee! You are You!)