Thu Jul 24, 2008
Devi's Yoni: The Divine Mother Kamakhya
We are just back from our annual pilgrimage to the sacred goddess sites of Tantrick India. While many friends and loved ones think us crazy for visiting during the hottest time of year, we can't resist India in the summertime! The reason for our voyage during Summer Solstice is the great Ambubachi Mela, or festival of the Divine Mother's Sacred Water. The festival is held at Kamakhya, a famous pilgrimage site for Hindus located just outside of Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in the northeast region of India. Primarily important to Shaktas, the site functions as the most important Shakta pitha, or sacred “seat” of the goddess for devotees (although you will find many other Hindu traditions represented at the festival).
Across India, fifty-one sacred pilgrimage sites are scattered across the land; however, the most sacred for Shaktas is Kamakhya. Can you guess why? The mandir, or sacred temple, to which pilgrims and devotees come to worship is situated on a beautiful hill overlooking the Brahmaputra river and the green lushness of Assam’s tea plantations and jungles. It is here, the puranas (sacred texts) tell us, that the yoni (vulva or womb) of Devi (Goddess) fell to Earth.
At Kamakhya Mandir during a dark moon phase occurring once during the equivalent of our solar calendar year, usually corresponding with Solstice, devi’s yoni is believed to release menstrual blood. The celebration and honoring during this time is known as Ambubachi. Annually drawing over 40,000 devotees primarily from eastern India, Ambubachi is at once a spiritual gathering and a celebration of connection to the fundamental life mysteries, bringing together women's bodies and Earth body in sacred celebration. Now you know why we bother...and perhaps sometime, you'll join us! (Click here for more information.)
To imagine what this festival is like and how we honor Maa, you'll have to close your eyes. Imagine yourself descending a very steep staircase into the center of the Earth. The walls are dark and moist, the heat of the worshipers' candles and the earth's springs creating a living sweat inside the small sanctum sanctorum, known in India as the garbhagriha, or place where the holy of holies resides. This holy of holies is none other than the yoni of the Goddess, literally a vulva-shaped stone (about the size of a beach ball) in the ground that has been honored as such in all likelihood since pre-Vedic times. The stone is worn down with the centuries of devotees' adoration, and a spring provides a pool of water in which it rests. She is at the center, a bindu or cosmic center contained within the borders of a carved yantra. As you approach, get down on your knees and touch the stone with your right hand. Now, touch the water surrounding Her and bless yourself. Take away some of the flowers you have offered as a sacred souvenir.
Know that no one may look upon Her directly--all who visit look upon and touch Her through a dressing of red cloth and flowers. Out of respect, the priests who are Her guardians even perform the requisite bath and other initial rites blindfolded. But you and the other devotees on this day have experienced much beyond the seen world. Take it all in...and know you can come back any time you wish. Open your eyes and bring the worlds together. Let us know what She has gifted you with today!
Fri May 23, 2008
Mantra as Part of Daily Practice
Mantra (mantram in the singular) are an important part of spiritual practice in many religious traditions. At SHARANYA, we understand mantra to be a core component of individual and community work because of the multiple levels on which they can operate to effectuate positive transformation.
A mantram is a sound or series of sounds--usually delivered in the Sanskrit language--designed with a particular intention, purpose and effect in mind. All mantra were originally perceived by sages and offered to spiritual seekers to help them reach enlightenment. While specific mantra can channel great power by virtue of resonance with cosmic energies (and can therefore sometimes be challenging to work with), most mantra are easy to use as part of a daily spiritual discipline.
Mantra japa is the practice of using a mala (rosary) or other means to count the number of repetitions of any mantra so that the energy of the sound vibration of the mantra increases and thus bestoes the practitioner with a wealth of vital energy with which the sound connects for spiritual growth, healing and facilitation of shifts of consciousness.
For example, one may chant Kali's bija mantra, Her seed syllable, KRIM over and over (often, the number of repetitions recommended is 108, a number which aligns with the 27 astrological houses as divided into 4) to allow the vibrational energies of the Divine to assist in one's practice and life. Again, in using such a mantra, it is important to understand and be willing to work deeply with the energy of Devi (Goddess) as Kali in all Her forms...from the personal goddess, to Her transcendent manifestations, to Her presence beyond form and name. This is because the mantra, being sound, vibrates in all these realms across time and space and draws on the power of each. It is for this reason that many on the spiritual path utilize certain mantra only after an intense period of study, self-reflection, and spiritual strengthening through sadhana (spiritual practice).
Should you wish to work with the many mantra provided on this site, use all your faculties and senses in determining what is right for your practice and path...and feel free to contact us if you have specific questions. We are happy to help guide you in the work.
Learn more about mantras and practice along with us! >>
Fri Feb 22, 2008
At SHARANYA, we hold monthly closed circles (in addition to our Daughters of Kali group) for initiates and those studying the Sha'can path. At each meeting, we review material, learn new mantras and spiritual technologies, and do ceremony to help us embody the work we're doing individually and together. In February, we met to learn about yantras and possibilities for engagement with them. One of the points that arose from the teachings came out of the fact that in Tantra, we have seven different levels on which to engage with reality while on the spiritual journey. One way is through karma and our daily activities.
With this in mind, our discussion turned to mindfulness about food and drink, with several community members noting that putting a mantra on a bottle of water to have throughout the day is a great way to maintain mindfulness and dedicate prana consciously. Out of this idea and the corresponding reflection on the work of Masaru Emoto, our Pani Sadhana was born (click here for a definition of sadhana)!
A practice suggestion for this week might be to work with the mantra found here for world happiness. Place the mantra on your water bottle and read it aloud before you drink. What do you notice? Feel free to share your reflections with us in community!
Wed Feb 20, 2008
PantheaCon 2008 - Kali Puja
This past weekend, SHARANYA hosted our 4th annual Kali Puja presentation at PantheaCon in San Jose. Intended to welcome those not familiar with the Sha'can tradition and ways of honoring the Divine Mother as Kali, our community held space for over 100 lovers of the goddess. It was a splendid, rich gathering as we created sanctuary together by chanting "Om Maa!" as everyone filled the room, participants taking in the cleansing sounds of rattles and purifying sprinkles of water upon entering.
We began our evening presentation with an introduction through spoken word, helping those gathered understand the context for worship of Kali in our community. Learning more about the Dark Goddess of India, some of her stories, how to approach Her and how to honor Her with her mantra, "Om Krim Kalyai Namah," enabled those present to begin to understand the depth and beauty of this complex divinity.
Questions and answers finished, we transitioned to our ritual, a puja designed to include worshipers at all levels of devotion and practice. The room positively hummed as we began our heartbeat drum and shifted our energies and intentions to Her. Starting in the North, we began our invocations of the directions, community members stepping forward to call forth the powers of each cardinal point on the compass. Walking the energy around the circle, we then blessed water, purified our altar, and proceeded to welcome in Ganesh, Agni, and our beloved Ancestors of past and future. This accomplished using English and Sanskrit invocations as well as bija (seed) mantras, we took time to remove curses from Devi (goddess) through recitation of the Shappodhara Mantra. This verse from the Chandi Path allowed all present to reflect upon the ways in which we malign ourselves as well as the Feminine in self and world, helping us to clear a space for new realizations of our connection to the Divine through every breath.
With a reconnection to our individual and collective intentions for the ceremony, we next together proceeded to invoke Lord Shiva with mantra and song, raising our voices to Him singing, "Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambo, Hare, Hare, Hare Shambo!". Yellow flowers imbued with participants' blessings were placed upon the bathed lingham/yoni at the central altar, and we together intoned "Hraum" into silence, feeling Shiva's reverberations inside.
Next, Maa Kali herself was asked to be present. With verse, Her Gayatri mantra, and an honoring through offering of Her 51 names, we then collectively breathed life into our work with the incantation, "sa'ham" or "She I am." With this meditation, our in-breath focused the "sa" and our exhalation focused the "ham," each breath a release of our heart's yearning to be with and experience the Divine Mother.
Once present with us, we celebrated triumphantly, chanting and singing Her praises with "Jai Maa!". Raising energy was exhilarating, a rich experience of Her joy, mystery, power and compassion. Grounding after a time, we held space for gratitudes and then our closing prayer, a chant for the gifts of the Divine and a thanksgiving for all we are offered in the universe of possible unfoldings. Gratitudes to all the spirits and energies gathered were then articulated, and we opened our circle feeling deeply the community we had created in Her name and in Her service.
On behalf of all of us in SHARANYA, thank you lovers of Maa for making the evening so special. If you joined us for the event, please let us know of your experience! I can't wait until next year.
Thu Aug 09, 2007
Teachings of Kali
The teaching of Kali in my dear relationships--how She has changed who I am and how I show up for those I love and who love me--has been to show me the path of a strong heart. A strong heart is one that has weathered many storms yet remains flexible and open to new potentials and realities. It is a heart of yoga (union) that breathes in moments of challenge seeking inner clarity in order to inform action. She teaches that strength is found in vulnerability and in a sincere willingness to completely surrender oneself...to completely offer oneself and one's ego...to the divine, often as expressed through others, in the crucible of relationship. She teaches that getting past one's ego attachments--really hard work because we're often so committed to our woundings, as I was--offers the real reward, which is freedom in love.
My intimate relationships have been both battle grounds and cremation grounds, to use two of Her most powerful metaphors. They have also, in the end, been fields of delight where the challenges offer immense opportunities. For the first, the metaphor of relationship as battle ground, there have been learnings for me around the importance of my weapons ( i.e., what they are and how to use them appropriately in times of need) and the importance of knowing when to surrender them in service to something higher than what I think is right, fair, appropriate or in line with justice.
All of this for me, i.e., my commitment to what is right or fair or just, has been of service in many ways in the world, but in many instances in relationship it has overshadowed love. In short, this has been the case in the past because I have had such a strong ego-attachment given early life experiences in a violent home, which of course wasn't right, fair or just. Her teaching has been though to realize that ego attachment fully and move beyond it to a place of love carried and emitted from a strong heart. Love is higher and deeper than all these things, and action from a place of love rather than anger is indeed Her revelation.
Here is where the psycho-spiritual process Kali Maa provides gets intense, deeply powerful and ultimately brings healing. Which leads to the second metaphor. I have learned on Her cremation grounds to burn away the attachment to my need to make things fair, right and just above all else. Today, She has shown me the pain I have caused by not being fully present in such situations. She has shown me too that I am 'bigger' than the hurts and fully capable of living from a place more deeply connected to the wellspring of Her embrace. This is Her path.
Were I to sum it up, I would say that Kali embraces the fullest spectrum of what it means to be human. She helps us utilize our weapons to survive, helping us craft them skillfully so that they may serve; but she then transforms us when we're ready, if we walk with Her, to see that using them is not all life is about. She moves us to Her 'other' side, where attachment is not found, where She and Siva sport, love, play and adventure in the freedom of a love that knows no projection. She moves us past our individual ahamkaras (egos) and their wants, needs and desires, if we pay attention and do the hard work, into a place of absolute yearning for the truth of the Divine, which is limitless bliss. I'm not trying to speak poetically here. My own experience through the tremendous difficulties of love relationships has shown me what Her lessons can be, some of which I have briefly described. She has utterly transformed me and will continue to do so as I integrate Her teachings.
I do not think Her path is easy or for the timid, but I do think it is as direct as one can get if seeking real, intimate and lasting partnership. Her lessons are big and they require deep work, especially a willingness to dive deep into the underworld (our shadow material) and resurface. Sometimes, that resurfacing is humbling, and again, in the vulnerability we find a stronger heart, a better, healthier place from which to love and be loved. I know it has taken me time to get through the largest blockages I have had; yet, it hasn't taken me a lifetime, and at 40 I am exuberant in life. So, while I am scared that I may not have done enough soon enough to be able to fulfill my dream of having a child, for example, I do trust in Her and in the other potentialities lain open by a stronger heart that this path has provided. I trust and I believe because I have seen the results born of my commitment to Her.
I offer that so much more seems possible to me now...so much burned away in the process of relationship, the crucible of the heart...so much more is open now, things to which I was previously closed; so many more choices when the gaze is more clear. So much more of life and love to touch and be touched by. In this, my heart rejoices and I forgive myself for all the stubbornness and whatever else kept me from Her glory.
What has She taught you?
Thu Jul 12, 2007
From Prehisory to Future Goddess: Kali and Beyond
A disparate chronology of development on the Indian sub-continent is said to have led to the emergence of traditions such as Śākta Tantra, which were largely an amalgamation of beliefs from “unassimilated tribal people, outcastes, lower castes, and women,” with more formalized patriarchal forms of worship. Thus, the Śākta tradition itself is a product of both Āryan and other (tribal or Dravidian) influences, because it brought together multiple sources over time in a cultural landscape that did not lose the 'prehistory' of the goddess-worshipping peoples even as newer civilizations developed.
In Her, the Goddess, both the brahmanic (usually called Āryan) and autochthonous or indigenous (usually called Dravadian) viewpoints were integrated. As David Kinsley notes regarding Kālī’s appearance in the Hindu pantheon:
"It is well known that the brahmanic tradition for various reasons accepted into its fold (either willingly or unwillingly) many indigenous deities and customs. In just this way the Aryan tradition was able to accommodate very diverse peoples among the indigenous population."
And as he continues noting Her development beyond Her origins :
"But at some point Kālī ceases to be an indigenous, tribal goddess, associated with the periphery of society, and begins to gain an amazing prominence in the pantheon. At this point, I think, one has to recognize the fact that Kālī has become a Hindu goddess, expressing the Hindu vision of things in her own way. The point is that Kālī’s origins do not and cannot adequately explain her subsequent history. She eventually transcends her origins."
More generally, however, the assimilation process is further reflected mythically. As Vina Mazumdar and Kumud Sharma note:
"The process of assimilation made room for cultural myths and their ideological implications to continue side by side, often expressing contradictory ideological superstructures. The influence of earlier matriarchal traditions continued virtually unbroken through various cultural symbols that identified female deities with important aspects of social life such as knowledge, wealth, energy, change, or humanity’s quest for survival against destructive forces emanating from the underworld. At the same time, alternative male principles emanating from patriarchal traditions emerged and were assimilated through the process of divine marriages and adoption of familial relations between different deities. As a result, Indian mythology encompasses a bisexual concept of reality (Ardhanarishwar)."
The Sacred Androgyne image of the Divine has ramifications outside of pathological dualisms for the lives of men and women. Serena Nanda, for example, has opened the doors to the world of hijras in India, and her scholarship would be a good basis for further exploration of how deities such as Ardhanarishwar may be related to the bisexual, transgendered, or differently gendered manifestations of humanity with all that might imply.
How then does it feel to be honoring Hindu deities in the West? Are we simply part of the expected course of history? And how, if so, do we create a mythology that indeed affirms healing potentials from outside the normative western constructions of gender regarding the immanent as well as the transcendent aspects of divinity?
Sun Jul 01, 2007
In India, dualistic thinking certainly has been used to justify many inequalities and abuses. Such a worldview, however, runs against the force of the entire Indian philosophical tradition, which stresses non-duality. The laws of karma, for example, are found within a non-dual framework. Although often pointed to as a justification for the caste system (among other oppressive systems), karma supports a harmonious relationship between cause and effect where actions provide the impetus for reactions. Hindu interpretations of karma are derived from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (ca. 600BCE), in which it is said that one’s karma or destiny within the cycle of life, death and rebirth eventually leading to mokṣa (enlightenment), is determined by conduct.
Karma can be understood as a position in which individual responsibility is taken for action and reaction through the cycle of life, death and rebirth. As Swami Abhedananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Math in Calcutta has said, karma is:
"...the universal law of cause and effect, of action and reaction [meaning] that every cause must be followed by an effect of a similar nature, that every action must produce similar reaction, and conversely every reaction or effect is the result of an action or cause of a similar character. Thus there is always a balance and harmony between cause and effect, between action and reaction."
A disavowal of responsibility in human and world relationships means an unharmonious balance between cause and effect. Thus, for example, while humanity may not have an identifiable reason for patriarchal systems, taking responsibility for the effects of those systems, as well as for their transformation, is definitely a matter of individual karma.
How do you understand your relationship and/or your individual karma relative to systems and things you wish to change in the world? In your own life...for your own happiness?
Wed May 02, 2007
Women and the Goddess
Are women reflected in Devi, the Goddess? If we are, what does this mean for us as we strive to heal our patriarchal wounds?
In relationship to a patriarchal worldview, women and goddesses are creatures simultaneously feared and revered, honored, and expunged. Women and goddesses maintain, throughout all patriarchal spheres, the paradoxical nature of femaleness: for example, as socially constructed, S/she is at once attractive and repulsive, seductively sexual and chaste, powerful and victimized.
Such responses to women and goddesses have particular manifestations within both western and Hindu culture. Overall within arenas of patriarchal control, there is a general effort to reinforce and perpetuate male dominance as a means of not only control, but protection against the Shakti, or inherent power, of woman. In India, both ancient and modern times, the roles women play within the cycle of family, penury, diligence, division, injustice, divine intervention, then back to family, is as consistent in the Indian context as is worship of DevÄ«.
In a mysterious confluence of organisms, power-plays, ideas and ties at once social, political, religious, and economic, women and the goddess are subsumed within patriarchal constructs that all revolve around the fundamental properties of femaleness and the cycles in turn, of life, death, and birth.
True in India and also true outside of that boundary many of women's and goddess' societal roles are often determined by patriarchal controls that arise particularly out of male fears in response to essential femaleness (i.e., biology) and in particular, the death phase of Her cycle. Of note in this regard is the point that the controls arising from male fears may be maintained through any number of patriarchal agencies and agents, including women themselves.
In India particularly, the cycles and qualities of femaleness are indeed reflected in a variety of myths and stories about the goddess, but they are also the basis for many laws and other social constructs that define what it means to be a woman within the Hindu world. The purity and impurity, dishonesty and sacredness of women, for example, is substantiated and reinforced with rituals and social structures, and these further establish women's identity, in most cases only through relationships to men. The reality of women's marginal and subservient position within Hindu society was codified by the Manu Samhita (Laws of Manu) in the 7th century BCE. This document supports a theory proportionally relating the degree of male control to men's perception of women's power; i.e., the more her nature is feared, the greater the textual validation for her subjugation.
Women are therefore subjugated to patriarchal laws both religious and social and these controls are then reciprocally made manifest on the divine level in a translation of patriarchal ideas into brahmanical texts. Such renderings, have portrayed the goddess(es) as either merely the consorts of male gods or as the wrathful exterminators of men. Accordingly, goddesses and women have been labeled and imagined in similar ways within Hinduism. Women's profane nature requires subjugation, and a goddess' independence must be checked if patriarchal power is to be maintained.
The question is then, how do we today tell another story...a story of liberation, justice, and healing? What do you know, feel and see in the connection of Goddess to women, Goddess to men and Goddess to our planet that can move H/her beyond patriarchy?
Tue Apr 24, 2007
Understanding the Hindu Goddess
Devī (Goddess) is hot. The Goddess is alive, part of a living tradition in India, and to many westerners without a recognized goddess, She is more than a passing curiosity—She is the lifeblood to a deeply personal and caring ethic for Self and the whole of Creation. For us at SHARANYA, this is certainly the case.
In India, She is not only understood to be Goddess (with a capital "G"), responsible for all cosmic matters; but also as the goddess, who at the fundamental levels of societal functioning handles the necessities and intimacies of everyday existence: agriculture, crafts, health and well-being, reproduction and all facets of family life. She has many names and takes many forms. Great literary works have been written for and about Her, and she is equally the topic of myriad folktales. Some worship Her in gilded images while others paint a stone or a nook in a tree with red paint and a mixture of sandalwood and vermilion paste, and see in that Her beauty and protective power.
She is Earth and the shining power of the Cosmos. Either way, She is Universal Mother. As such, her many names and forms reveal that she is simultaneously the Supreme Goddess as well as every local grāmadevatā (village goddess), both a transcendent and an immanent spiritual presence. How is it that she is acknowledged on both the metaphysical and the practical levels?
For many of those who worship Her, she is easily recognized in each of these ways, with any one form or aspect usually implying the other. Some Hindu paths do teach a preference for transcendence while others stress immanence; but in Hindu cosmology and everyday life, as well as in both the sacred and the profane literature of India, Devī finds no contradiction in manifesting as intimate mother and transcendent, universal creatrix; as virgin and celestial lover; or as faithful, complacent wife and bloodthirsty, independent huntress.
For example, at Tārāpīṭh in West Bengal, She appears in one of her most gentle aspects, as a mother suckling Śiva. Yet here she is offered blood sacrifice daily, and the cremation grounds near her temple have been used for centuries as a site for non-dualistic (what many call left-hand) tantrick sādhanā (spiritual practice). In any of these forms or combinations, She encompasses and transcends western notions of duality, thereby defying western attempts to quantify, qualify or explain Her.
Not only confined, however, to a representation within dualistic extremes, the Hindu goddess is also understood as a trinity of emanations. She too has a life in the spectrum of Maid, Mother, and Crone. Brahmanical literature, for example, portrays her as counterpart to the orthodox trinity of Brāhma (Creator), Viṣṇu (Preserver) and Śiva (Transformer/Destroyer) through her guises, respectively, as: Sarasvatī (Goddess of Learning and the Arts); Lakṣmī (Goddess of Wealth); and Kālī (Goddess of Time and Death).
Within the Śākta (Devī worshipping) tradition, however, the goddess as Supreme Reality is formulated completely independent of the male gods. Within the Śākta Tantrick tradition, the goddess’ independence becomes acute and Kālī herself is all manifestations of the Trinity. Particularly in her fierce forms, Devī is beyond succinct and simple explanation. She lies beyond a monological interpretation and is a Goddess who mocks the very structures that attempt to contain and control Her.
How does She speak to you? How do you best know and experience Her? What do you think a western appreciation of the Hindu Goddess facilitates?
Thu Apr 05, 2007
Shakti Strongholds in India and Nepal
I am researching for our next documentary project, "One Couples' Digital Pilgrimage to Sacred Goddes Sites of India and Nepal," and would like to hear from you which of the temples you have visited (or heard of) that had the most impact on you. Where have you felt Her the most?
We are especially interested in the less popular spots.
For instance, Shakti pithas aside from the major ones like Kalighat, Kamakya, and Tarapith (which we are planning to visit in any case).
Or other Devi temples and important tantric spots that are powerful but usually unheard of in the West.
In addition, if you are interested in supporting our project, please contact me off blog.
Your support is deeply appreciated!
Jai Bharata Ma!