For the light and depth of love;
For the truth in compassion and wisdom;
For the breath - HA - that inspires the spirit;
This to the fruit of life,
the womb of Earth,
the darkness of the soul.
(Digha, West Bengal - 1998)
"I need to find a temple to the Goddess."
"Which one," asks the travel agent at my hotel in Puri. "Which goddess?"
Its summer in India, the time when the air is thick, sweat plentiful, and the monsoon's rains swell the skies and the streets. I have come here, to this land of spice, spirit and the sacred, to further my work in ecofeminism by looking at women's spiritual connections to social justice and activism on behalf of the environment. I am not here long, however, before Maa, the Divine Mother, shows me that there's more to my quest than I originally thought.
"Well, Kālī," I state hesitatingly, unsure of how my request will be received. The man looks me up and down, trying to determine where I fit in the spectrum of visitors with which he has to deal and from which he makes his livelihood.
"Wouldn't you rather visit Lord Jaganath?," he wonders. Lord of the Universe, Jaganath, is honored at this time in Puri (the eastern dham, one of the sacred compass points in India) in a huge festival to which hundreds of thousands flock each year. Together with his brother and sister, this is the only time the Lord leaves the mandir (temple). He's on a family outing to his summer home across the town and everyone comes out to get a glimpse of the royal family.
I'm restless though, and on a mission. It is Kālī I need to see and no one else. That She is responsible for my getting through a political uprising in Digha at the southern end of West Bengal unscathed has been made perfectly clear to me. I have come here to give thanks and find peace by the ocean waters. Sensing my urgency, the travel agent kindly calls to an auto-rickshaw driver with a shrug, not wanting to engage me further about goddesses.
The driver arrives.
"Kālī mandir," I say to him as he pulls up alongside us. In my ignorance at this point, I have no idea that Maa has many homes here in Puri. After receiving no further instructions, the driver takes off towards the center of town. I later find out (after several unsuccessful attempts to again visit the place to which I am now heading) that there are at least four Kālī temples in town. Reaching our destination, I buy a hibiscus mala, a garland of her sacred flower, and add that to my pūjā (worship) basket. Into it too go coconut, juicy betel nut and other sweets to delight Her. My offering is noteworthy at this temple for its size; but no matter. I need to thank the Goddess for getting me out of Digha alive.
The pūjāri at Maa Batakali Mandir is a Brahmin of about forty-five (although to date, I have never asked his age). In his devotion and gratitude for the goddess having given him sons, Shyam has built this temple himself. A small roadside mandir, passersby usually drop rupees on the temple steps on their daily rounds. It is nothing too fancy, but Maa here is absolutely divine.
In his time, Shyam has doubled as a government worker, making regular trips back and forth from his office to tend to Maa and her devotees. Now retired, he tends to the temple and its congregation of worshipers every day for morning prayers and evening aarati (a beautiful celebration with lights and offerings). As Shyam sees me approach for the first time, he stares. He asks me directly why I am there, and although he is not angry, his disposition and directness can easily be mistaken for exactly that at first. Truly, he's just curious, but I am startled by his question.
"Are you ISKON?" he demands.
Suspense broken, I have to laugh, and nervously let out a giggle. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (a.k.a. Hāre Kriṣṇas) has never drawn me, and in fact I have never quite been able to understand the draw it seems to have for Westerners in general. Puri, it turns out, is full of them. Lord Jaganath, I learn, is, like Krṣṇa whom those in ISKON worship, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Viṣṇu, the God of Preservation and one of the main Hindu deities.
"No," I reply, "I came to thank the Goddess." After a few more words, Shyam accepts my offering basket, performing puja on my behalf. He asks my name in order to conduct the rites. When we're through, he asks why I'm there. But my eyes are transfixed on her image, and I can only point to my heart by way of explanation. "She's here," I manage to say, and everything that has been kept inside until now in this challenging land of contrasts streams out through my eyes.
Between June and August of 1998, I live in Puri. My friends in Bankura up north forgive me for not coming back. My work on the spiritual motivations for grassroots environmental movements in India is put on hold. It was my pause when Shyam asked after the ritual, "Will you come visit my house?" that changed not only the course of my research, but also my life. A native New Yorker in addition to being new to India and aware of its potential surprises, I held a moment of silence in which I questioned his invitation and motivations after the asking.
Yet, at the same time, I also felt on a deep level that with this question, no matter how sincere or otherwise instigated, a door was opening to me that might never open again. In the pause, I could see Her face dimly, and I wondered. It took me three days to surrender to the feeling and my vision of Her beckoning. And so, after careful thought and some time meditating with the ocean's wisdom, along with reflection on the significance of my waiting time, I said yes. With that word and a return visit to Shyam's house, I met my new teacher and his family.
Shyam's mother, wife, and sons all live together in a modest and comfortable house just down the road from the temple. They greet me like a daughter, and later I learn that in many ways, my presence represents something symbolic to the family. I am, it turns out, the same age as the daughter they lost to an illness some years back. We get to know one another over the ensuing days despite my poor Oriya language skills. But it's not language or communication problems that trouble them. The family, especially Shyam's wife, is most concerned for my well being given the lack of western "latrine" facilities. I tell them that their style with its cool water is much more refreshing in the summer anyway. We laugh.
A more surprising moment, however, comes when Shyam seats himself on the floor across from me to eat one day, clearly breaking from orthodox dictate, which requires him to eat separately from me, and from any woman for that matter. The more time I spend in Puri, the more I realize that Goddess is working in quite mysterious ways and that Shyam is no typical Brahmin priest. As time passes, I learn the extent to which She is working through him, and I absorb many levels of Her teachings...some straightforward, others much more obtuse.
Dikṣa, or initiation into Kālī's mysteries is the next profound unfolding of my spiritual journey. The day comes on the August new moon, and I am thrilled when I realize it will be August 2nd, the festival of the harvest often called Lughnasad (or Lammas) in the earth-based Western calendar. It is as though Maa has answered my burning question: Can I do this? The synchronicity of timing does not escape me, and I feel She is telling me that I can have it both ways: I can be Her priestess as a Witch and a Hindu, walking as a Goddess worshiper wherever I may be in the world. To Her, I imagine, there is no distinction.
The initiation is radical by most Hindu standards. Shyam is a Brahmin priest, and I am not only a westerner but also a woman; and women in India are not initiated by Brahmins. Following the Vedas in his public work, Shyam also practices Tantra, and this is the in-road to Maa that is clearly appropriate. Tantricks care not of my birth, only my longing. But perhaps there would be less to explain and fewer staring eyes as we sit working together at the temple were he to be more public about the various faces of his devotion. As Shyam manages to satisfy people's natural curiosity with his answers to their queries and suspicious looks, I pretend not to notice the robust number of visitors to the temple in the evenings after the gates have closed and we have begun our private work and evening prayers together.
My practice deepens after initiation, and on Her sacred day of Kālī Pūjā some months later in October, I sit at the feet of the goddess in the temple, a spot that locals cannot come near. It is nearing midnight and the heat of the day lifting off the earth combined with the hot lamps that light Her image for passersby makes the sweat drip down my arms, makes my sari blouse feel even tighter than it already is, and makes me wish I couldn't see the bugs and ants crawling on my feet and ankles. I honor Her by pouring ghee (clarified butter) for the homa (fire offering) ceremony, and I remember that I am Shyam's first chela (student), a position of honor in the lineage tradition from which he comes.
I tend to my responsibilities dutifully as the Caṇḍi Pāṭh verses resonate off the temple walls and expand into the night air. In moments of quiet, I think about the day Shyam said he'd been waiting for me, how he said his own guru had told him that one day, he would be bringing someone other than his sons to the path. I remember how Shyam said he had found the signs in my face the very first day we had met at the temple...signs telling him that I was the student to which his guru had referred. We finish our time together and he tells me the most important thing: "Go! Go back to your home land, America, and spread Mother Worship!"
Upon my return to the States, SHARANYA is born and my dedication to Kali Maa takes root with the formation of community on western shores. The wisdom of the ocean is remembered.
Chandra Alexandre, PhD is the founder and executive director of SHARANYA and Chairman of The Maa Batakali Cultural Mission in Puri (Orissa), India. To learn more about the Tantrick lineages that are the roots of SHARANYA, click here.