I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers. We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai. It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.
Part 5: Elephants, Peacocks, and Snakes, Oh My!
There is a “no photos” policy inside the temples that is strictly enforced. At the Chidambaram Temple, when I stood in front of the black Ganesha, big, fat, phat (am I dating myself?), and completely composed, I stood and stared to commit his image to memory. There is something so steady, so weighty, so grounded in his presence. And then, to my pleasant surprise, Babu and Bharati brought us a case of coconuts. Really it was a big bag, but I mean it was a *big* bag. We got to take turns smashing coconuts on the steps of Ganesha’s shrine. The symbolism behind this is wonderful. The coconut is your head, your brain. When you smash it open, you are breaking through to a new, deeper level of conscious awareness. It is an offering to the gods, to Ganesha particularly, the Guardian of Thresholds, the Remover of Obstacles. You offer yourself, your mind humbly and he is there for you. When you feel smashed in little pieces by events, relationships, life, he is there, hiding in plain sight, supporting you.
As the group of us were smashing coconuts, there were local people there to pick up the pieces. Nothing is wasted. That coconut meat probably made a great chutney later that day.
By the way, it is not necessarily easy to smash open a coconut. You have to aim it just right to hit the corner of the step and you have to put some muscle into it. It felt cathartic to generate that much effort to break it open, and if you think of how it feels when a firecracker goes off, how the air is displaced in order to make that loud boom, that is something of the feeling of the coconut smashing open, there is an internal displacement that awakens you to something more. And there is always more, like an iceberg with its tip above the water, three-quarters of it is still hidden below.
Ganesha is the ultimate elephant. The son of Shiva and Parvati he is often found sitting in thresholds, the obstacle himself — elephants are rather large — and the one who removes the obstacles. He is the first one you greet walking into a temple or even into someone’s home. Images of him often show him holding Indian sweets, modaka, and he is offering them to you, to everyone, in an invitation to enjoy the sweetness of life.
Upon arrival in India, I had this desire to see peacocks in real life. As we were preparing to leave the hotel one morning early on in the trip, I asked Douglas if we would see any peacocks that day, knowing that the peacock is the vahana, the vehicle of Murugan, and that we would be going to a Murugan temple that day. His response, “now we will.” I just love this idea of planting the seed and then allowing things to take their course. That day in that temple, there were many images on the walls of peacocks. It is the Mazaradi of deity transport. In contrast, Ganesha rides a moussaka, a mouse, which is a testament to Ganesha’s lightness of foot and of heart. Durga has her tiger, Sarasvati has her swan, Lakshmi her elephant or sometimes a peacock too, she is the goddess of abundance after all. Vishnu has his eagle. The vahana seems an extension of the quality that deity offers or reflects within.
A few days later we did see real, living peacocks in Tiruchendur. The peacock is so majestic with its feathers on display. Seeking a mate it puts its best face forward. Our group in our colorful saris felt a little like peacocks to me, and it was interesting when Douglas once mentioned that the reason we follow the tradition of wearing a sari is because it is sacred. We play the part “as if” we are Hindus and belong there because we do belong there. There are no rules to participation in these rituals of the self, the universal. Show up and act “as if.” Not only is it sacred to dress the part, it is a part of the culture that is being lost. Many younger women no longer embrace the wearing of a sari, I dunno, maybe because it is a little fussy, maybe because it can take a long time to get dressed, you often need someone else’s help, and getting the pleats just right is a real skill that needs to be practiced. We dressed in so many fanciful colors to honor the tradition and just maybe in some small way, to rekindle the love of the sacred.
Naga in Sanskrit, images of snakes are abundant. Snakes are wrapped around Shiva’s arms and waist while he dances his ecstatic dance, snakes are wrapped around many deities, and they are wrapped around each other. Snakes represent spiritual power, one’s true potential, and fertility, which is really the passing along of one’s power. There is a relief image on a wall here of Murugan riding his peacock with a snake coming out of his mouth, and his father Shiva and brother Ganesha beside him. They say that spiritual energy, kundalini, is a coiled serpent lying at the base of the spine, and through meditation she awakens and rises, piercing the chakras so that the aspirant awakens to deeper levels of existence, deeper levels of humanity. It is a metaphor, a way to describe the indescribable. Awakening.
At the Kalahasti Temple in Srikalahasti Andra Pradesh in particular, there is a great naga forest just outside the gates. Many many images of snakes wrapped around each other, piled on top of each other, where young couples go to pray for children. It was an amazing and fecund sight. Kalahasti is the Shiva temple that is connected to the wind element. This naga forest had an overwhelming sense of earthiness, and a great sense of hope, potential, power, and fertility, again. It was real and palpable.
Snakes represent power. This is a difference with the goddess cult so prevalent in southern India, compared to say the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of northern India. Kashmir Shaivism philosophy is a bondage to liberation model. When one is born into a body in this life on earth, one is shrouded in darkness and must practice yoga in order to return to the light; this is the rising of the kundalini energy from base to crown chakra. According to this philosophy, the yogi should do anything to get out — relief from the suffering — of this world. In the goddess cult, one lives with kundalini energy in the world. The idea is not to leave the world through liberation or emancipation, but to remain in the world and feast on its spiritual fruits. Generally in northern India, Shiva is represented as a lingam, a formless form, which you do also find in temples in the south, but you also find images of Shiva’s family much more prevalent in the south. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Murugan, and rarely the bastard son Ayappa [see Part 3 of this series for more on him]. A family represents a full expression of love in its many forms.
And forests represent the place of human existence. They say there are three places that you can find Shiva, on the mountaintop, in the cremation ground, or in the forest. If you are on a mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and you may see vast expanses of lands. In the cremation ground it is dark and scary and there are goblins there, gravesites are often associated with the night. However, in the forest, it is the combination of these two, the sun shines brightly through the leaves of the trees, so in the forest there is light and darkness intertwined. Dappled light — which is the human experience, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes darkness reigns. It is up to each one of us individually to find our own pathway, to navigate the places of light and the places of darkness. Yoga gives us tools to navigate, and through practice we become skillful. As Douglas’ teacher Appa once said, “yoga is virtuosity in being yourself.” The Bhagavad Gita states, “yoga is skill in action.” A peaceful warrior. Impeccable and awake.