Archives: April 2007
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?
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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!
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What is sadhana? Simply put, it means an intentional practice, but more deeply, it means spiritual discipline, or very simply, the Way. The word itself comes from the root "sadh," which means "to go straight to the goal." This is the same root from which we get "siddhi," the great spiritual power obtained by performing sadhana.
In the West, there are some models for sadhana. The simplest is daily prayer. This simple action, when done with a focused intention, can be a means of connecting more fully with the Divine. In the East, meditation is the foundation of sadhana.
The simplest form of sadhana is simple, quiet meditation. The most basic form of this is the simplest, but sometimes also the most difficult. It can be done anywhere, but is easiest in a quiet location with no distractions.
Before you begin, you might want to have a small clock or silent egg timer (one that doesn't tick, as ticking will be a distraction) with you. Take some time to stretch your body a bit. Stretch your arms and legs, feel your blood circulating through your body. Breathe.
Sit comfortably, with the spine straight and supported. You might sit cross-legged, in full- or half-lotus position (padmasana or ardhapadmasana), and you may wish to sit on a firm cushion to help support your spine. If you have difficulty sitting up straight because of a medical issue, simply sit in a straight-back chair. Breathe deeply and roll your shoulders back, letting them rest comfortably back, your chest open. Feel your head floating up, as if someone were pulling the crown of your skull gently up by a string. You may rest your hands in your lap, right hand palm up, with left hand resting palm-up on top of it, or you may place your hands palm-up or palm-down on your thighs.
When you find a comfortable position, take a deep breath to settle into this space, and if you have a timer, set it for five minutes. Make sure you're comfortable - for the next five minutes you will not move.
The exercise is simple: for the next five minutes, breathe normally. Don't try to control or adjust your breathing, simply witness. Be with your breath, noticing how it moves in and out of your body, how the air outside becomes part of you, and then leaves your body. Simply witness, nothing more. Focus all of your attention on witnessing your breath. If you become distracted, gently bring your focus back to your breath, without judgement. Each time your mind wanders, notice it wandering, and bring it gently back to your breath.
After five minutes, take a deep breath to come back to normal waking consciousness. Stretch your body again.
Take some notes of your experience - how did it feel? Was it difficult? For the vast majority of us, this simple little exercise will be incredibly difficult! I was reminded this morning of how difficult it is - even after years of practice - to come back to this simple little exercise, and how incredibly important it is in training the mind to be quiet and merge with the body.
The trick in turning this meditation exercise into sadhana is discipline. An example of cultivating discipline is to give yourself a schedule. Commit to performing this daily for one week, and mark on your calendar each day that you've done the exercise. The following week, if you feel very comfortable with five minutes, increase your time to ten minutes. Or, deepen the practice and perfect those five minutes, until you can focus on your breath without your mind wandering. Then increase the practice to ten minutes, and begin the process again. Keep going until you can do this practice for an hour. It may take months to get to that place - but that is the benefit of cultivating discipline, of cultivating sadhana. Through sadhana, we experience deeper connection in ritual practice, deeper connection in personal practice, deeper connection in community practice, deeper connection in daily life.
If every day seems overwhelming for you, then take it a step or two slower. Can you commit to doing this three times a week for a month? If you find yourself saying "my life is too busy for spiritual practice!" consider the new mother in our community who has turned her early morning breastfeeding sessions into time for sadhana! There is truly time enough for sadhana, if we create it.
I encourage you to try this simple breath practice. For me, it is a humbling and powerful practice that reminds me of how far I've come, and how far I have yet to go. It strengthens and heals, and brings me more fully into connection with the all-pervasive Divine Spirit, whom we lovingly call "Maa."
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