A Tantrick Initiation
"Babaji wants to see you."
I’m walking barefoot down the muddy side of Nilachal Hill at Kamakhya after witnessing one of the most beautiful Sanskrit recitations I have ever heard. The white kurtas of the Brahmin men gathered in a circle around a sacred fire stand in marked contrast though to the throngs of red-clad women waiting in long lines to see their Mother. Both, I imagine, receive Her blessings. I am in northeastern India, in Assam, participating in an annual Tantrick pilgrimage to the seat of the goddess’ power, the place where her yoni, or sexual organ, resides on Earth. It’s a powerful place, a place of contrasts where all come together, whether Vaishnava, Shaivite or Shakta, to honor Maa. It's a place, one might say, where all unites in Her name.
Babji, I learn, is a 400-year old Aghori. A believer in the preeminence of the divine as Shiva, pure consciousness, he is a practitioner of the non-dualistic or "left-hand" Tantrick rites. In short, this means that he adheres to a rather literal interpretation of what other Tantricks might do symbolically in ritual and devotion on the path to enlightenment. He meditates, for example, not only on yantras (sacred diagrams), but on yantras in cremation grounds on top of corpses; he drinks wine and liquor; he smokes hash and takes in other natural mind-altering substances. He believes that the pathway to the divine is through the body, through this world, through all of creation. His accepts it all, the pure and impure, the wicked and sane, as sacred. He is a radical non-dualist—one who believes in the One as well as in the reality of the phenomenal world. His path is fast and furious, sweet and sublime, potentially off-putting at the same time that it attracts wonder, excitement, and awe. He loves Maa.
The three black-clad initiates standing outside his cave-like shelter on the hillside welcome me in. I meet Babji. He’s old but looks young, his face the only give-away that he’s been around the block a few times. His body, otherwise, is baby-like. He looks pregnant, a little round belly on a very thin frame. I sit cross-legged in front of him. To his left, the fire pit. To his right, a kapala, or human skull cup from which wine and other mind-altering substances are drunk, sits upturned. He calls me "Beti," or daughter. Two followers of his are there; his initiates have left us alone. The woman wipes the snot dripping from Babaji's nose with a handkerchief and then moves to mop sweat from his forehead. No one, it appears, is immune to this sweltering summer heat. The Indian devotee next to her, perhaps her husband, has had far too much bhang (Cannabis) or something; his eyes have trouble steadying on me.
My Sanskrit is better than my Hindi at this point. Fortunately, I can make out meaning from of the ritual language Babaji is using. The man helps a little, but his English is as poor as my Hindi. We quiet. Suddenly, Babaji grabs me. He pulls me to him with unsuspected strength. Face against face, I feel the bristles of his long beard against my cheek, and I feel coolness where the snot has been touching. I am startled, but now I’m held. I am held firmly, with apparent intention. The touch is not violent or inappropriate. The strength is deep and calming. I stay quiet and listen inside to my belly and instincts. Presence prevails, and I allow myself to trust the moment. Just then, Babaji begins. His mouth now pressed to my ear, he sounds an ancient mantra. My heart trembles, my eyes close, and I go inward. I surrender to these sounds, soaking in the ancient reverberations, feeling in them the voices of the lineage, the guttural utterances of vibrations across time and space. All enter my ear. All penetrate my soul.
Moments pass and I eventually sit back upright in silence. One moment, then two. From deep inside, the sobbing begins. There’s no rational thought, no rhyme or reason, just the moment and my feeling of tremendous love and connection to all that is…I recognize a touch of sat chit ananada: being, consciousness, bliss. My forehead now on Babji's knee, he pats my head and strokes my hair. I sit back upright. Silence. One moment, then two. Babaji reaches to his left where a rusty knife about four inches long sits waiting. I follow his motion with my eyes. Instantly, I am terrified. I have visions of blood. Stop! One moment, then two. Stop! This time, it’s an admonition to remember. Allow yourself to be taken, it says. You’ve been here before; you know what's happening. It's safe. Breathe.
Babaji lowers my head with his hand and takes a fist-full of hair from my crown. He pulls hard enough to undo strands from my braid. Close to the scalp he cuts with the knife. Old and well-used, it doesn’t cut very well. He pulls harder to get through the thickness of my mane and it hurts for an instant. I deepen my surrender. He cuts. He finishes, and I sit back up. Dazed, with my awareness in another place, I still must know.
"What," I ask, “are you going to do with it?"
"A sacrifice,” he says, "will be offered in the fire tonight." He holds up my hair.
"It’s an equal exchange," he says, "the price you pay for being welcomed into the family.”
Chandra Alexandre, PhD is the founder and executive director of SHARANYA. She gives thanks to Babji and to all those who have helped guide her to Maa, Shiva, and the Divine Presence abundant, resplendent, in this world.