Intimacy with God and Guru in Hindu traditions
I was terrified the first time I visited a Hindu temple in India. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know how to behave. At the same time, chaos seemed to reign. I was caught in a limbo between wanting to comport myself properly and feeling anxious about the relative lack of orderliness.
I’ve heard that temples in South India are more rule-bound than in the North. But for sure, the most renowned North Indian temples are generally host to a fair amount of devotional disarray. If you are used to more sedate mosques, churches, and synagogues in the U.S., you are going to be unsettled.
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On weekends and festival days, the noise can be deafening. Bells are ringing. Priests are shouting at the crowd, managing the flow. There might be music or prayers booming over loudspeakers. Constant streams of brightly-clad worshippers come and go. People are praying, singing, corraling their kids, talking, playing their own music, snacking, conducting puja, and purchasing food and flowers for offerings.
And as for how close you are going to be to the bodies of other worshippers, think of the crush at the front of the stage at a rock concert. The “lines” to receive the darshan of a temple’s main deity might place you in a concentration of humanity that occasions thoughts such as “well, if I die here, I guess it will be auspicious.”
The smaller neighborhood temples are more peaceful, but also less accustomed to Western visitors. The first time I visited the Shiva temple tucked away near my guesthouse in Varanasi, I felt anxious and did not take enough time to survey the scene. I tried to enter quietly and sit down as unobtrusively as possible. But as I did so, every head in the place swiveled to stare at me.
I raised my eyes and saw that I was sitting in a men’s only section. I quickly moved over to the women’s section, and the heads mercifully swiveled back to look at the priest instead of me.
Despite my intial discomfort, I quickly came to love the multi-layered messiness of many pilgrimage sites in India. At the Neelkanth temple above Rishikesh, I saw a broad stone offering bowl graced with a riot of marigolds, lotuses, water, coins, sandalwood paste, red kumkum, and glistening honey. Bees danced happily around the colorful, sticky scene. It was dazzling.
But the aspects of temple worship, and Hindu worship in general, that have most impressed me are the no holds barred expressions of intimacy with God and Guru.
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
I grew up in a Roman Catholic neighborhood. As a nominally Jewish little girl, the mystery, darkness, and even dankness of the local parish church fascinated me. I attended services on the occasional Sunday with my best friend, Katie O’Brien. But I would also sneak in alone at random times to breath the scents of years of worship, light votive candles whose real import wasn’t known to me, and relax in the eternal dusk of the Church’s deep, cool interior.
The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary church was like many others. The priest officiated from a raised platform. The larger-than-life statues of Christ and Mary rested on pedestals guarded by ornamental balustrades. The parishioners stood, knelt, and sat down according to an ancient script. When the proper time arrived, they shuffled up to receive communion in a single line that would not have disturbed a librarian.
Now see the normally obedient parishioners overrunning the proscenium, charging the balustrades, and crushing close to Jesus and Mary, competing for a moment of holy touch. Many hands reach out toward the images of God, smearing holy substances on their bodies and draping them with garlands. Worshippers pray and weep loudly at their God’s feet and even grab onto their bodies in full embrace.
Now that would be some church.
In my experience, the signal quality of God and God's representatives in the Hindu traditions is their profound availability. This is particularly true in Trika Shaivism where the principle of Gurukula shines at the center of spiritual life.
Gurukula means “the family of the Guru.” In a conventional sense, Gurukula refers to the ancient, indigenous system of education in India. Young people lived with perceptors who prepared them to be participants in spiritual and public life.
The Gurukula system was largely dismantled by the British during the colonial period. But after a post-independence revivial, a relatively modest number of Gurukulas still exists in India. They impart spiritual and cultural education and generally work adjacently to the modern educational system.
Kula and Gurukula in Trika Shaivism
“Kula” can mean family in the ordinary sense. But in the Kaula stream of Kashmiri Tantra—one of the main streams that has fed into the blended tradition we call Trika Shaivism—kula is the essence of spiritual life and cosmology.
One way of understanding the different meanings of kula is as a spectrum from limited to less limited to unlimited, or from contracted, to more expansive.
At first, we are limited in our capacity to love and show up for others. We embody the learned concept that our birth family and chosen friends are our primary relationships.
If we become practitioners in a tradition that supports the phenomenon of Gurukula, the teacher and the community of practitioners become our expanded family. Spiritual community is an aspect of our sadhana. We did not choose the community members, but we are called to include them in our circle of beloveds. Our capacity grows.
My experience of Gurukula is one of profound intimacy with teachers and their students. Most often, teachers who create Gurukula are householders, not monastics. They might have spouses and children, or not. But they will live with or in close proximity to their students.
At a retreat in Varanasi, the teacher suffered from severe sciatica. He was unable to sit or walk comfortably. The pain got so bad, he became bedridden. So we students were invited to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in his bedroom while he gave teachings from his bed. A half-dozen students sat nearest him, massaging his arms, legs, and feet as he taught. For myself, an American student, this was a weird, but life-changing experience.
Gurukula affords students the opportunity to reside in a field of transmission and to receive teachings embedded into everyday life. They will study with the teacher and practice with the teacher, but they will also eat meals with the teacher, hang out with the teacher, travel with the teacher, and participate generally in the everyday life of the teacher.
Every aspect of life becomes an opportunity to practice and grow. Every moment is a teaching moment. The division between spiritual life and ordinary life is erased.
Anandamayi Ma is revered for her extraordinary, enlightened activities, but she also cooked for her devotees, laughed and sang and put on dramas with her devotees, chatted with devotees about their ordinary problems, and lived and traveled with devotees, sometimes in extremely rustic circumstances.
The intimacy that she demonstrated with all was, to me, as extraordinary as her displays of spiritual siddhis. She only ate when fed by her devotees. They bathed and clothed her. And she lived in a condition of total availability.
This aspect of her life, more than any other, is a beacon to me.
The body of the Mother
The most expansive meaning of kula is the family of all beings and things. We graduate from caring deeply only for family and friends, or perhaps for even a smaller number of beings, to caring a about a wider circle of beings, including some strangers and elective family.
But we still make distinctions that leave most out of our circle of love. We still consider some beings to be unworthy. And we generally would not think it possible or desirable to love and feel intimacy with mere objects as we do with people and animals.
These are not stages happening in the same way for everyone. Some of us are born with more capacity to love and desire the well-being of others. We are each in a unique condition.
But eventually, when the gates of our perception open, including the gates of the heart, we naturally love everyone and want the best for all. We feel a tangible, usable intimacy, not only with sentient beings, but with every being and every thing here.
In Trika Shaivism, the totality of manifest life is the body of the Mother. This vibrant, self-awareness, full of wisdom, that we call Shakti, or by many other names, has created all of this out of herself. And this incredible upsurge of experiences is happening within her. All is made by and full of Her.
We now recognize that all of manifest life is kula, our family.
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