Friday, 13 June 2014

VRAJESHWARI MA: THE LIVING DEVI



The temple of  Vajreshwari is situated on the side of a hill in a small hamlet that has grown up around it, about a mile or so from the pilgrimage town of Ganeshpuri in Maharastra, the place where the great Avadhut Yogi Bhagavan Sri Nityananda chose to live in the latter part of his life, and where his famous disciple Baba Mutktananda built a gigantic ashram, mostly for western devotees. The current location is the second place for the temple, which was established in the middle of an 18th century war after the Portugese destroyed the original site.

Vajra means thunderbolt, and the name Vajreshwari is included in the Sri Lalita Sahasranam, although it is unlikely to be specifically linked to this temple.

Now some murtis, images of the goddess, seem to be far more alive than others, and of all the temples I've had the fortune to visit, this one temple has for me a deity almost unnervingly alive and aware.

About 15 years ago I was staying at Baba Muktananda's ashram doing a long spell of sadhana, which - given the ashram's emphasis on seva, or selfless service - consisted of scrubbing walls to get rid of mould in the stifling humidity and heat of an Indian post-monsoon season. The work seemed pointless. As soon as our team cleaned one building or apartment, within a week the mould would creep back again. But my companions were congenial, consisting of someone from Thailand, Switzerland, Australia, Holland and Spain (truly a World Cup team!), and there were opportunities as well for deep meditation and swadhyaya, daily recitation of sacred texts such as the Sri Guru Gita and Sri Rudram. So apart from the sweat, I was relatively content.

The visit to Vajreshwari was part of the Ganeshpuri western tourist trail, so I went along not expecting too much, curious to see the deity, as I had read of Her power and magnificence.

To get to the mandir itself, you climb up some steep steps, and then enter a cool and breezy hall, and then line up with other worshippers to greet the deity. Indians are always a little curious about westerners in Indian dress in temples - some famously bar the dreaded barbarians from the darshan of a deity and that is understandable. But the Vajreshwari temple is open to all.




Given the long line of devotees, time with the deity was very limited. But as I bowed and offered my offering, I was startled to see what seemed like human eyes looking at me. This small figure of the Goddess seemed to be actually living and breathing! She had a tremendous benign presence. But I put this down to an optical illusion and left the sanctuary to look around the temple itself.

Most people after darshan head up the steep hill to a Yogi's hut/samadhi shrine at the very top, and I was no exception. There is a fine view of the surrounding hills and lazy river below. My fellow pilgrims were busy taking photographs and various groups of Indians were sitting eating picnics - it's always a delight to see the entirely natural way the Hindu culture does have with its revered deities, very much like children safe in the home of the Mother and a world away from the stiff kind of approaches to God in western culture, who seems to be the kind of angry God that wants everyone to wear stiff suits all the time.

After a while I went back down to the temple, and sat to meditate in a small side hall, another samadhi shrine and I aimed to sit for about 5 minutes and then leave, as my companion wanted to get back to the ashram in time for lunch.

Then something curious happened. As I sat on the stone floor,  a little uncomfortably, and closed my eyes, I found my mind sinking into quietness, almost as if I was being sucked into silence. Then the top of my head seemed to burst open, and this magnificent vision of two golden sandals, padukas, appeared within a golden triangle. This vision eclipsed everything else. I could not move, could not breathe. The vision eclipsed normal awareness, and was like a perfect self-completing loop of fixed awareness. The golden padukas eclipsed everything else, shining with an indescribable lustre, radiating unearthly splendour.

I don't know how long this lasted. My companion kept returning to the place and at one point had to shake me and say "We must leave!". But I could not move. Meanwhile the small room was constantly filled with other pilgrims, who shuffled in and out, no doubt gawping at the westerner. Normally this kind of noise and disturbance would be more than enough to break my concentration. But not that day. I could have gone on like this day and night - but another much rougher shake from my now irate companion finally brought me back.

More than a little dazed, I staggered to my feet, we hailed an auto-rickshaw and were soon back at the ashram. 

I  never told my companion what has gone on, and kept silent on the journey back. Indeed I could not quite figure it out myself. In the great scheme of things, the shakti should have been at Baba's ashram. That was what I confidently expected. But it wasn't. It was at Vajreshwari. The darshan of the merciful Goddess had given me an unexpected boon.

I later learned that the particular room in which I meditated had been used by many saints over the years, including Baba himself when he was pursuing sadhana. It had a wonderful holiness and purity. 

I have never been back to Vajreshwari, and would almost prefer not to as these kind of experiences are not repeatable. But those living eyes of the deity I remember still. And I bless Her presence and thank Her from all my heart. I also truly regret I was with any companion that day, but destiny is destiny and alas the meditation experience was short-lived. So if you are in the Ganeshpuri area... pay Her a visit!



Thursday, 5 June 2014

NIRJALA EKADASHI: A SPECTACULAR FAST TO OBSERVE


The system of fasting on every 11th day of the bright (Shukla) and dark (Krishna) half of the monthly Lunar cycle is one of the more challenging but magnificent spiritual practices you can undertake. Ekadashi days (Ekadashi means eleven) have a rich mythology about them, but in essence are days of fasting dedicated to Lord Mahavishnu, and during the Ekadashis the fasters agree to abstain from grains and beans, or take a total fast. In this way the system is purified and reset at regular intervals.

Nirjala ("without water") Ekadashi is one of the 24 Ekadashi days that have a greater significance than the others. It falls this year (2014) on Sunday 8th June (from 12.43pm) to Monday 9th June (12.40pm). Or the simpler method is fast on the Monday, then break fast (called Parana) the next day between 4.40am and 10.14am.

For the really dedicated, this is a day or 2 days where you do not just refrain from food but also from water for the whole day, thereby attracting immeasurable spiritual benefit because this really is a significant tapasya. In addition it is a day to offer a Puja to Lord Vishnu as a way to eradicate sins, wrong behaviours and mistakes of all kind - or simply as a love offering. 

Even if you cannot perform the waterless fast, the one thing you SHOULD remember to do is refrain from eating rice, grains, or beans. 

It is said that even if you miss every other Ekadashi, this is the one to observe. It is especially good for thiose who have appetites that might have veered out of control over the course of years, or who comfort or binge eat. 

Nirjala Ekadashi is also known as Pandava Nirjala Ekadashi and is associated with Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers who had a problem with food - he had a voracious appetite. The great Rishi Vyasa told him to correct the tendency by observing this one particular fasting day.

So, the test is no intake at all, and fairly obviously this can be difficult if you work for a living, especially in hot countries. So do be sensible. I'm spending the day in prayer and japa, and will no doubt be very grumpy company so will be alone that day, and no doubt up against my outraged appetite! But it is also important to remember that you CAN do this fast, if you actually pray before hand for help and tell the Lord frankly "On my own capacity, this fast I cannot perform. It is only possible with Thy help."  Don't try to do the fast arrogantly or without a sense of humour, either. You'll find you can be tricked by your own mind on Ekadashi days.

Fasting is a really core practice of sadhana and not one that anyone particularly relishes, but it is an age-old solution to an age-old problem: lobha and krodha, greed and anger. Both are often surprisingly linked. Indeed your anger might rise like a red mist, or you may simply opt to stuff your face and say "well, it was not for me." But if you faithfully stick to it..when the next dawn comes, and the day of fasting is passed, imagine the joy you will feel! Truly there is no joy like the joy of spiritual practice well and faithfully performed. It is truly such wonderful achievements that bring heaven to Earth. You benefit, your whole family benefits; the world benefits. You are laying up treasures in heaven.

But it takes courage to opt for this one fasting day and it is a test for you too. Maybe your luck will change in a wonderful way with this fast. Whatever happens, you reset your system and that is no bad thing.

The spiritual benefits

Strict observance of this Ekadashi in particular is sort of like a fast track to the Heavens. It is said that at death, those who have observed Nirjala Ekadashi by-pass the judgements of Lord Yama, the god of death, and proceed to Vaikuntha, the heaven of Vishnu... so a sort of VIP pass. Good to have in your back-pocket at the moment of death.

The only water permitted by the way would be if you perform Sandhya Vadanam and the observance of water purification. But otherwise, be completely steadfast!

So: Go for it! As the old saying goes: "Brave hearts win the prize." And Good luck.

The day itself

My own fasting day on 2014 was certainly challenging... I managed to get a parking ticket in strangely unjust circumstances, and otherwise perform 36 rounds of japa, Sandhya Vandanam in the morning and various other sadhana practices, but still felt like a clumsy clown at the end of it, and definitely missed the water most of all. Not for the faint-hearted, this fast, but I'm glad this was done. And in the milder climate of the UK, its relatively painless compared with the searing hot sun of India and Asia, so if you also managed the fast, many congratulations! 



Monday, 2 June 2014

THE MAHAVIDYAS: DHUMAVATI MA, HER WORSHIP AND SADHANA



(This in one of a series: Next in Series is in August 2014 on Matangi Ma)

The other morning I was about to enter a sandwich shop to get lunch when this old woman strode past me. She had an ugly misshapen face and curious, fiery eyes. She proceeded to sweep every available baguette into her shopping basket, leaving nothing remaining, then strode to the check-out counter and ordered the checkout girl to use a particular bag. She paid a large amount of money by cash, then stomped out of the shop. There was something odd about her. Why so many sandwiches? Why such a lack of concern or manners? I put it down to an anti-social eccentric that cities often contain, and scratched my head wondering what now to buy for lunch, as the choice unexpectedly had become very limited.

A few hours later a friend of this blog asked for some thoughts on Dhumavati Ma, and instantly my memory went back to the odd figure.

Dhumavati Ma is one of ten Mahavidyas, the different aspects of Divine Mother in the Tantric path.  She is almost completely unknown in the West, yet there are many echoes of her in western folk traditions. She represents the harsh side of the Divine that for most of us is almost impossible to accept, let alone worship. Yet Dhumavati Ma deserves very close consideration for those pursuing serious sadhana.

Iconography

Dhumavati Ma. First, her name, which means "the smoky one",  the one who destroys enemies through acrid, stinging and blinding smoke. There is a greyness about her, a little bit like Rahu in jyotish astrology.

She is associated with inauspicious life. She is old, thin, angry. She rides a horseless carriage, and the crow is also her mount. She hangs around smarshanas, cremation and burial grounds. She is a widow: she is said to be the aspect of Sati, Shiva's first wife, who was so hungry that She even ate up her husband. Thus she represents dissolution, the Void, and for normal people, especially married  couples, Dhumavati Ma is to be avoided.

She is ugly, pale, almost toothless. She wears inauspicious clothes, no jewellry. She stands on no ceremony, yet is also extremely meticulous especially towards those who approach her. The evil-minded, the crooked, those who wish harm on others, or who simply want powers, She will never welcome. Consider the fact She ate her husband. Judge her by her looks and you fail to perceive Her. Consider what teaching she really represents, and She hands you the keys.

As with all the aspects of Shakti, this dreadful appearance is not the whole story. Behind the terrifying, gaunt image, is Her true beauty, which only gets revealed to worshippers and those She wishes well. She is the granter of extraordinary boons, especially siddhis, and is a friend especially of those who choose to be single, or isolated from socity, especially widows in the Indian system who are usually cast out of society but who are said to have a particular strength to assimilate the lessons She teaches. She has Her own mantra and stotra, but Her worship is no casual affair and normally barred unless some catastrophe or sequence of events lead you to Her. She is the goddess of those who are utterly crushed by events, for whom all is lost, for whom life holds no promise either now or in the future. 

But if you are determined to really stand alone, no matter what, and pursue moksha, or liberation, She is the soft heart and the welcome arms. She helps create a distaste for the world, a disgust with worldly dealings, worldly chatter, worldly concerns. She is the lover of the avadhut. Those crazies you see lurching towards you in rags, those are Her children. 

In the west

Not surprisingly Dhumavati Ma is almost unknown in the West, and does not fit into the sanitised and prettified Hinduism the West knows, stripped of its folk traditions which used to seen as mere superstitions (such as worship of the Naga/snake goddess Hoi). You cannot easily bring such a figure into the living room or at a polite Yoga class! 

But even in western culture there are many echoes of Her. The figure of Baba Yaga in Russia. The worship of the crone or hag in Celtic traditions. Even the figure of the Queen of Swords in the western Tarot pack.All these are echoes of the two ways you can view the existence of evil and disaster in life. One, the western way, is a dualistic view of a good God and a bad Devil. The Hindu view is acceptance that good and bad proceed from the same ultimate source, and are two sides of the same coin. When our lives are thrown into disarray, when we face impossible problems like homelessness, death, poverty, loss, then this wake-up call can lead us to contemplate what appears to us to be the ugly side of life.

Only the bravest of sadhakas can profit from accepting the higher meaning of what is inauspicious. What is really going on? Who is hurting, by what, from what? Often our sadhana may proceed very serenely until that moment when a bomb gets thrown into our comfortable lives... and then comes the test. Can we see the Devi even in the most terrible, in the smoke of war and disaster? If we can, we see Dhumavati Ma at work.

Worship

One odd ability that comes from her sadhana is the ability to totally destroy your bitter enemy, but this takes such dedication, such extreme efforts that perhaps forgiveness is the easier answer. Here we stray into two different "hands" or paths of tantra, the left-hand or right-hand, and the right path or Dakshinamarga for moksha not for powers is what She will most readily aspire to. She has her own mantra and shlokas, and just a very few temples in India. 

If She calls you, it may be through the crows. So watch out for any unusual activity you may see involving crows (such as the crow that came all the way up to the garden doors in the Kutir I live in the other day. Then watch out for a particular powerful rippling in reality, like invisible circular waves coming your way. But remember that this worship will be intensely private, and may cause you to walk a very antisocial and potentially fearsome path. Not for everyone, is Dhumavati Ma. But life might just lead you through times so difficult that the face of disaster She represents cannot be easily escaped.

Destruction of enemies

This aspect of Dhumavati Ma unfortunately seems to provoke the most interest, mainly from cruel hearted people out to destroy others for perceived wrong-doing and hurt. Such people never seem to have heard of forgiveness or love for all. The Tamasic, lowest form of worship does give access to this kind of power if you follow the right rituals (which include a burial ground). But anyone contemplating doing this is entirely missing the point and will ruin not just the current life but their incarnations to come.

The real point here is destruction of inner enemies and parts of your own papa purusha, your body of suinful tendencies, that hold you back, such as addictions, malice, jealousy, greed, anger and so forth. That is what you really want destroyed, and Her worship will help you do this. But it takes an unusual soul to be ready to do this, and if you are ready, then you need a grim determination.

So: don't be stupid, selfish, brutal, and aim to lash out at all your enemies real or imagined. Think very carefully about it. Don't be an idiot.

Her yantra: