Adventures in India

This is an open journal of some of the things I see and think about while trying to find a place to live in India. It may or may not be interesting. I make no promises.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Welcoming God

I am now in Chennai, having made good my escape from the pleasure realm of Mamallipuram.

Kumar came to my room this morning to make sure I got my ass on that bus. I was packed and waiting. My fisherman friend, Arnee, also showed up to say goodbye. He is a big, strong guy with the sweetest, gentlest face. He always came by my room just to look at me, and make sure I was O.K. Sometimes we would sleep the hot of the afternoon away under the fan, the sound of the waves in the background, his muscular arm thrown over me protectively. Murugan's two young nephews also came by to see me off. They speak very little English, but find my antics amusing. I send them off to buy some idly for breakfast, but I am too anxious to eat, so they and Arnee eat it all.

Murugan is in Kodicanal for "business", but I suspect it has more to do with Sai Baba coming there in the next few days to offer his darshan to devotees. He is the famous guru with the huge afro. I had a book of his sayings in high school, but never really felt a strong connection. Maybe it was because he doesn't have a beard. If you are a guru, you should have the long beard. Its a rule. Most people know him as the guru who creates things out of the air with his spiritual power. Usually it is sacred ash or sweets. But I like the story of him answering the challenge of a skeptic by placing his hand on a table and raising it with a monkey under his palm. Apparently the poor primate was spooked (suddenly coming into existence must be a bit disorienting) went crazy, running around the room making a nuisance of himself, until Sai Baba clapped his hand over his hand and forced him back into the void. I would have liked to see that. Still, I am not overly anxious to see guru tricks.

Greater miracles occur every morning all over India. Every day, before others are up and moving about, the women of every household sweep the area before their front door clean and sprinkle water on the area to keep the dust down. Then, taking a handful of white powder, they allow a tiny stream to escape their hand, and create the most intricate and beautiful designs on the damp earth. It is easy to take such things for granted after being here a while. Walking to the bus stop this morning with Kumar and the others, I mentioned them to him. "Oh yes", he said, "they are welcoming God." Many of them are huge, elaborate, geometric mandalas, and it is difficult imagining how the women created them by dribbling powder between their fingers. They are very pleasing to the eye and mind. Everyone walks on them, but the designs are surprisingly tenacious, maintaining their integrity all day. Some of them are simple stars of David with a dot in the center, and I imagine the woman of that house to be busy that day, or distracted in some way. Some are so rich in detail one has to stop and just take it in. I want to find out if the designs are handed down from mother to daughter, or does each woman create her own trademark design?

I like the idea of temporary people making temporary works of beauty on their temporary doorsteps every morning to welcome God. Walking through the fishermen's village this morning, each fresh, white design seemed so hopeful, so full of life and vitality. You are welcome in this place God, tsunami or no. We will continue lovingly making beauty in the dust as long as we can, until we ourselves become dust.

Let's see Sai Baba beat that.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Gooey

I have lost all track of time here. I know its towards the end of April, but I just don't care enough to ask the date. I haven't seen any news in almost a week, and have forgotten what George Bush looks like. But then who knows what George Bush really looks like? I have fallen into the gooey maya syrup and am only now struggling to break free.

But who can really resist the weaver of this web? Who has the strength to break free if the Weaver doesn't want it?

Sitting on the deck last night looking at the moon with friend lovers, watching the angels coming and going between this world and the next. Kumar had brought special flowers for Kali, and we offered incense and chanted prayers to Her. He instructed me in India's ritual traditions, such as how many times I was to wave the incense sticks before Kali's image and in what direction. He also told me never to smell the flowers before you offer them to God, and if you have sex in the same room with a picture of your god, you must cover the image before engaging in skinship. The altar can be in disarray, but must be cleaned every Friday. But Kumar also told me that the most important thing is to open the heart to God and pray with everything you have.

Then he rolled one of his special joints.

No one seems able to make them as he does. He says he puts his power into them, and he has a lot of power. There is definitely something special in them. I think it is the sweat of his hands. But he is abstaining tonight because he smoked too much in the past, and now only occaisonally partakes. I smoke the love joint gratefully and pray before Kali, the candles catching the jewels of Her crown and causing them to glow. The pictures of the three holy men who blessed me in Varanasi look benignly from their place at Her feet and continue to offer their benediction.

Some holy men smoke marijuana in a concentrated way that allows them to slip between the cracks. They use it to help make the ego infrastructure combustible, and then the flames of devotion are fanned to a red hot heat until the whole flimsy contraption goes up in flames. This is why you will sometimes find a holyman sitting in the cremation grounds late at night, sitting on a corpse smearing his own body with the ashes of the dead.

I content myself with smoking the gift Kumar has given me, and feel my own heart opening. We go outside and sit on the deck. A fisherman whom I know well comes to join us, and a boy who had tried to kill himself the day before comes along also. We sit and watch the moon and talk about God. The boy goes in to Kali and prays a bit before Her shrine, then comes out to join us. I tell him Kali will look out for him, and he smiles sweetly and says he will pray very hard to Mother. We talk about love and how it is the only way to true freedom, then sit in silence, the moon spilling it's soul wine all over the dark waves. An angel with no wings appears in its glow and gingerly climbs down and makes its way over to us. Whenever love is the topic of conversation, angels are thick as flies on one of the cow patties in the street here.

Kumar takes this time to take me aside and tell me that I must leave Mamallapuram as soon as possible. He tells me that I am wasting my time and money here, sinking deeper into a waking sleep. He says he hates to see me in my current state, and I must improve my condition. He says all this with such deep affection in his face and voice, it touches me deeply. I promise to go tomorrow and he loans me his cell phone to help in the job hunt. Then someone orders a beer, and we listen to the roar of the ocean, watch the angel struggling to shore in the shallows.

It is the evening after, and I am still here. Overwhelmed by pleasure and contentment, I gave in to inertia. But my bags are packed now, and I have renewed my promise to Kumar to leave post haste. When he found out I wasn't going until the morning, he gave me the same disapproving look my mother used to give. But we are meeting in a few minutes. I knew him when I lived here 7 years ago. He was 17 years old then. He is a chess master, and recognized by everyone here as such. He beats me gently every time we play. But what impresses me most about him is his loving heart, and determination to live deeply and truly. He has come from nothing, and now has a little hammock shop and sells handmade paper notebooks. They are beautiful. If you come here, you will see him. Buy a hammock, play a game of chess, ask him to roll you a joint. But listen when he tells you to leave. He always gives sound, sage advice.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Back in the water

A couple of days ago there was a flurry of activity on the beach here in Mamallapuram. A few fishermen pushed a couple of boats into the water and paddled off towards a dark shadow out in the waves. It was a school of "guru" fish, a small tuna-like fish. This was the first time since the tsunami that anyone had ventured out. But the schools of fish were pretty close to the shore, and folks must have felt safe enough to get back in the water. A crowd gathered on the shore to watch. I was told by a friend watching with me that the catch would be divided equally amongst the fisher families, to help everyone get by. Communalism in action. After the boats went out, a few people even dared to go swimming in the shallows. Villagers are slowly learning to trust the sea again.

I visited my friend Kumaran's mother and sister in the tsunami relief village. They still refuse to return to the beach-side house they share with Kumaran. They are terrified that it could happen again. And the plain truth is that it could. It could happen in another two hundred years, or in the next minute. Slowly stories are shared. The death toll was light here; eight people died altogether. One woman was taking a shower in the five star hotel just down the beach. The waves crashed into her room, and carried her away. They found her body a hundred meters down the beach near the shore temple. My friend Saravan lost his little nephew. The boy was down at the water's edge taking a crap, (a common scene here in the early morning) when he was overwhelmed and carried away. He found him with life still in his body and ran with him to the village. Saravan said he was shouting for help, but everyone was in a panic and no one listened. The boy later died in the hospital. Afterwards, they were the only family left in the village; everyone was gone. He said, "Can you imagine what that was like, Tim? We were there with my little nephew's body, and no one was in the village. We were alone." Saravan said that he still can't stomach the religious rituals in the temple or at the shore the other villagers sometimes hold to placate the gods. He says no one in his family can. They just walk away and stay in the house. Everyone in his house is angry with God.

Wednesday night a powerful wind blew off the ocean. It sent tables flying on the deck outside my room and shook the glass in the window panes. I stepped outside to look at the blazing moon and feel the gale, and saw that twenty fishermen had crowded up the stairs and were looking out at the sea. There was some nervous laughter as everyone began to realize that a tsunami would not come because of a wind. But any sudden change in the weather makes people jumpy here.

Talking with Indian friends over beers, we discuss how events such as this are reminders that we simply do not know what is going to happen. At any moment. We are not in control.

The image of mad mother Kali dancing wildly on the cosmic battlefield provides a powerful image for this reality. According to tradition, it is She alone who has become everything (including all beings) in order to enjoy Her divine play, or "lila". When She scares the shit out of us, say the sadhus, She is just trying to get us to drop our attachment to the notion that we know what is going on. Cold comfort to Saravan who can still remember his nephew struggling to live in his arms.

Once, in a vision, the avatar Ramakrishna asked Kali why She allowed so much suffering in Her play here on Earth. He said the Mother smiled sweetly at him, and said, "Because it pleases me." Its basically the same answer God gives Job on the dung heap, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" Job replies "How shall I answer thee? I cover my mouth, and am silent."

I think Saravan would have a very different response.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Instant Karmic Debt Reduction Plan

I am back at my favorite haunt here in Mamallapuram, the Luna Magica Restaurant and guesthouse. Sitting up on the large deck in front of my room, watching the ocean and enjoying the cool breeze. The last time I was here was seven years ago for six wonderful months.

There are many changes. The road from Chennai is much improved, and now there are cyber cafes everywhere, but the biggest change has been the impact of the tsunami. The beach is trashed. Fishermen loiter among the new, brightly colored boats the government has provided, but seem to eye the sea with suspicion. Tourists look like aliens in their clean white pants, large cameras dangling from their necks, gingerly stepping amongst the broken detritus of other's lives, as they make their way down to the dubious water.

My friend Kumaran tells me that people are still too afraid to venture out onto the ocean. His house sits right on the beach. The day of the tsunami Kumaran was sitting in the front, feeding his nephew. He said the sea withdrew abruptly from the shore and the fishermen started running. He grabbed up his infant nephew and called to his sister (she has a twisted foot) and they ran up to higher ground as the giant wave crashed in behind them. His mother is still too scared to return to the house. Kumaran said he knew something was wrong that morning because all the animals had fled the beach earlier for higher ground. Animals usually know what is going on.

The place has certainly been kicked around. People seem lost and dazed. The usually placid sea rose with terrifying force, and now people can't seem to trust her again. Kumaran and his family received 75 dollars and a big bag of rice from the government, but financial aid has been slow in coming. The biggest need amongst the fishermen are new nets (a large net costs $100), and the villagers need basic household goods and personal items. The Indian government is notorious for its corruption and inefficiency, and it seems as if it is living up to its reputation. Funds are trickling down to desperate folks very slowly. But the people are stoic, and carry on the best they can. Why haven't the major news networks done follow up stories on how the relief funds are being dispersed? A close-up examination of the disbursement process of money by government officials here would be interesting.

Tourists are helping out a little, but there are not many of these. My funds are very limited, and I am between jobs. But I remember reading in the news about a woman who raised 50,000 dollars on the internet in order to pay off her Visa card. She basically set out a cyber begging bowl. So I wonder if it might not be possible to do the same for the people here?

With this in mind, I am starting the Instant Karmic Debt Reduction Plan. If people feel the need of acquiring a little karmic merit (perhaps to offset previous actions of dubious virtue) they can send twenty dollars, and Kumaran and I will purchase requested items and give them to families that need them. The person sending the twenty dollars (almost a thousand rupees, which is quite a lot of money here) will be sent a scanned photo of the items purchased, and a photo of the people getting them. They will also get a copy of a receipt with the thumb print of the head of the household, saying the items were indeed received. I'll also post copies of the photos on the blog.

A friend has said there is an internet service called "Paypal" which allows people to send and receive money via the internet. So I have to look into that. Anyone with suggestions as to how to make this project work, please send them to me.

The large charities are doing good work, but small gifts of money given for specific needs can make all the difference. I am taking photos of the camps and of Mamallapuram, and will be posting them soon.

Those who know me will probably sigh and chalk this up to yet another crazy scheme to come out of my cracked noggin. But when for the price of a large pizza one can make an entire Indian family happy, it seems crazy not to try.

I would like to contact that woman who paid off her Visa card debt on the net and get some advice.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blessings

April 12th, 2005 Chennai, Dashprakash Hotel

There is a lot of blessing going on here in India. Temple priests bless you during puja. An old beggar woman invokes Jesus's blessing when you give her 10 rupees (25 cents). Babas bless you on the banks of the Ganga because you look so tired and lonely, and those bastards are so full of cosmic joy they're busting to give it away.

I think it is all a trick; there is no transference, no real transmission. A blessing is a ruse meant to re-direct your attention to the truth of your beauty.

It is like complimenting a beautiful rose in someone's lapel. The person looks down and is startled by the forgotten bloom. But the compliment didn't create the flower, nor put it in the button hole.

A blessing reminds us of how impossibly full the Cosmos is. It makes us look up with a delighted smile and say, "Ah".

A blessing completely transforms by not doing a thing.

I like the custom in the West of blessing someone after a sneeze, but this tradition could be expanded:

Bless someone when they fart,
hiccup,
laugh,
sigh,
stumble,
or cry.

Bless someone when they cum,
lean,
stutter,
stall,
eat,
or fall.

And why stop at people?

Bless the rock in your shoe,
the frog in your throat,
the bee in your bonnet,
the bug up your butt.

Bless the top gun,
the third wheel,
the underdog,
the lame duck.

Be sloppy with your blessings.
Be muddy and moist.
Smear them on the glass late at night,
then lick them off before dawn.

Write obscene blessings on the bathroom wall.
Send pornographic blessings in the mail, and include
your return address.

Fold up tiny little blessings into white cranes
and leave them in trees.
Put a secret blessing in a bottle and throw it in the sea.

After you pour out all the blessings your heart contains,
shatter the cup.

Savor the majesty of the lips that come to drink then.

Brown Sugar

April 11, 2005 Chennai

After six days in Puri in a cottage by the sea, smoking ganja and flirting with the waiter Srinu, I am back in hot, mobbed, throbbing Chennai. We are staying at the venerable old art-deco Dashprakash Hotel. It has a wonderful restaurant and icecream bar, and was also the scene of my spiritual bitch-slapping, 20 years before.

I was last here Christmas Eve, 1985. I stayed with a few friends from my college study tour. My friend Clair and I shared a room, and after a bizarre Christmas belly dance celebration at one of the ritzy hotels, we returned and smoked something that ripped the top of our heads off and sent us spiraling inwards on a madcap psychic adventure.

I won't go into details, because it isn't possible, and any attempt would be a bore. But suffice it to say it was a glimpse of something truly amazing. I would have given in to the terror of that great beauty, and simply have melted away. It was only the sound of Swami Narayana chanting "Aum" in Mysore that acted as a beacon light and brought me back into my body. I think it fitting that he was the only holy man I have ever asked to be my guru and he said no. Said it was too hard and that I should go be a teacher. Shows what he knew.

I have always wondered what it was we smoked; I think I found out.

This morning an ambulance pulled into the courtyard of the hotel and parked in front of the section where my room is. Somebody working for the hotel told me that they were taking away a young Itallian man who had been smoking brown sugar (smack) for the past three days and was running around naked, ranting to the skies, and refusing to eat.

They brought him down tied to a chair, eyes staring, tongue sticking out in a parody of madness. Everyone was crowding around. I went up and patted him on the head and told him it would be O.K.

No response.

He was gone.

I sat down in front of my room, said a prayer for him and then read the paper.

The ambulance doors slammed shut and it drove off.

Advice to travelers in India: don't smoke the brown sugar

The Job of the Unsavory Sadhu

By the way, the fellow I described earlier as the "Unsavory Sadhu" at the temple of Kama Baba in Varanasi, made off with all the money I donated to the monks in the middle of the night.

This is why I think the Kama Baba mentally called me to come the morning I was to leave.

When I heard the tale, I gave Kama Baba more money and he took it and put it in the folds of his lungee and yawned. Yes, I was a sucker...and proud of it.

That night, as I sat before my little Kali shrine in my room, I felt a strong message from Kali come through:

"Pay special attention to the teachings of the Unsavory Sadhu.

All cheats, scoundrels and rascals are great teachers doing a difficult job. Most don't know they are teaching when they cheat, a very few do; they are Master Rascals.

Unsavory Sadhus bring to the surface attachments, feelings of entitlement, and self-righteous indignation. By asking questions such as, "Who is the Unsavory Sadhu?" "Who has he stolen from?" "Whose money is it?", the attention is redirected towards what is real, and the attachments are burned to ash.

Usually it is the Unsavory Sadhu who sweeps up afterwards.

The job of the Unsavory Sadhu is a thankless one."

Photos from the Calcutta sacrifice

These pictures were taken the day of the goat sacrifice I arranged, Friday, Full Moon, March 2005. I describe it a bit earlier in this blog.

Here the brahmin is explaining the cost of the sacrifice: wood, ghee, herbs, incense, camphor, rice for the goat dish served to the poor afterwards, and vegetables and other essentials. The cost of the goat was seperate.

The goat and I are introduced. He is beautiful. I thank him. He eats the flowers

First there are a series of rituals in the smaller temples in the courtyard. Here the brahmin helps me with the chants as I make an offering to the lingham (big stone penis).

Murugan makes his offering to the big stone penis (lingham)

One of the brahmins comforts the goat, whispering secret mantras into his ear. This soul will never have to be reborn as a goat.

A garland of 108 red hibiscus flowers (Kali Ma's favorite) are placed around the goat's neck (and it must always be a male goat) and another identical garland is placed around the neck of the image.

Is the woman feeling sad for the goat, or just sad?

The goat decides to cram one last meal in before the big event.

Another brahmin makes the Homa offering. This is an ancient Vedic ceremony using fire as the medium of sacrifice. The brahmin is chanting the names of my friends and family.

Making an offering to God.

I say goodbye. The goat says, "Gosh, I like flowers."

Murugan and I pray after the Homa ceremony.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Leaving Varanasi

Yesterday sitting on one of the ghats, watching the young men in their skivvies bathing in the Ganges. Some young boys start mocking an old mute woman on the shore, throwing old garlands and garbage at her and laughing. She is making sounds of outrage deep in her throat and is looking for a weapon. She finally lays hands on a big stick and walks up to a guy washing his shirt in the shallows and hits him on the shoulder. He may or may not have been one of her tormentors. He takes the stick from her and lands a crippling blow to her legs and she goes down on the paving stones, bellowing like a buffalo. She is crying and moaning in an errie rythm. This carries on far longer than the pain must have lasted, and the boys begin to get restless, acting a little scared. That's right... she is calling on the Mother...I'd make myself scarce if I were you fellas; there's always the chance She might show up.

Later I go to see the Kama Baba, but he has gone to the Hanuman temple. He hasn't sat down, or lain down in 12 years. He has a chest-high swing in the temple which he rests against, sleeping with his feet on the ground and his back supported by the swing. The first thing I did when I first met him was offer him a seat. He smiled and declined.

There is something about him that makes me want to look after him. Is he a "real" holy man? Does he have mystical powers? I don't know anything about that. What does a real holy man or woman look like? What is a mystical power? These things are ideas we have about reality, not reality itself. But whenever deep love is kindled, some connection has been made with the truth. So I fall in love with a shaggy young holy man on the banks of the Ganges, and he smiles at me as if to say, "Sorry man, I have no control over this mojo." But his smile is sweet and says that he knows how it feels. So why do we need to have an excuse for falling in love? And why is it such a big deal? Or rather, why isn't it always a big deal, and why aren't we always falling in love with door knobs, holy men, stars and anything else we can?

So one of the Babas attendants invites me up to a holy man crash pad above the Ganesha temple not far away. I hesitate a bit, but then decide to go on trust. Besides, these holy men are a pretty frail bunch, and I figure I could handle any trouble (except for the Kama Baba, who looks like he could kick some serious ass).

So I go up and there is a very old swami who seems to have a position of authority, and a couple of others sleeping, making tea, hanging out. I have brought some hash, and this gets one of the attendants working up the curious mixture of tobacco, hash and ganja so potent when smoked in a chillum. It is all very cozy and comfortable. Tea is served, much hash is smoked.

Afterwards I go down and sit by the Ganesh temple, and the old swami comes out and hits me up for money for puja gear. I explain I have to get change and take off walking the gauntlet of beggars that line the stairs leading down to the river. A boy on crutches approaches me and I attempt to steer around him, but he says, "Sir, I am hungry." O.K. So we decide to go and get some food. His name is Ramesh, and is very happy with the orange soda at the restaurant. His right leg is withered, and hangs limply, but he is an expert at climbing the ghat stairs with the crutches. So we sit and talk in the resturant. He has a brother and sister, goes to a special school. I don't ask him about his future plans or dreams. "What do you want to be?" doesn't come up. He asks for new shoes and some new school shirts. After lunch we have to slip around a corner so no one sees me give him the cash, otherwise there would be trouble. Ramesh seemed like a very nice kid.

I swing back to the old swami, give him a little money, and he performs a long fire ceremony and gives me a blessing, stopping occaisonally to tell the little beggar boys swarming around the front of the fire temple to "Fuck off!" or some Hindi equivalent. They have their collective eye on me. Another priest from the same temple walks by and gently lays his hand on the head of one of the boys as he passes. Just a thoughtless gesture of kindness, but enough.

Later that evening, after a brief boat trip with the boy Mahon, I go to see the Kama Baba. In an earlier entry I described his temple as a cave. It is made of brick, but seems to sit back into a hill. It is dark inside and smells of earth, incense and camphor. This time the baba is there, his large eyes languid with lack of sleep but very warm and inviting. The chillum is brought out, the unsavory sadhu mentioned in an early entry prepares the mixture, hitting me up for a gift.

There is a black out, and Baba gets a small flashlight and turns it on and sits it on a shelf. The chillum is passed around, with Baba taking the first drag after a very silly little ritual involving the fluttering of his lips and a strange sound he makes. We always smile at one another after the procedure. I am given a crash course in the various methods of using a chillum. And my heart is feeling open and it seems as if Baba is Lord Shiva in the flesh (which is the truth, even if cloaked in delusion). I follow a natural impulse and begin rubbing his feat, and this time he allows it. He motions me to rub his calf. The muscles are incredible, but then apparently so are the cramps. I touch a sensitive area and he winces. He motions me to massage his thigh, which is also mighty. But then I suddenly think, "Oh my gosh, I am totally feeling up this baba." This is when he waves me away with a smile. I am sure he busted me telepathically, but he is smiling and beaming as always. We all sit together in the hazy dark(except Baba, he leans), smoke drifting up around us, drinking water from a brass pot, chanting when the mood hits one of us.

At some point around 9:00 I realize I have to make the long, trecherous climb up to my guest house, stoned and in the dark. But Baba gives me his blessing, as well as some sacred ganja from his personal stash, so I am sure all will be well. And it is.

This morning I took Murugan to see the Standing Baba. He wasn't all that impressed, even refusing the offered sweet Baba tried to give him. Oh well, one man's wierdo is another man's baba. We smoked a chillum, drank bottled water and Pepsi, and exchanged addresses. I am sending him copies of the pictures I took. Then my other favorite baba shows up and he gives me a real thorough blessing, mussing my hair up and pulling on my brain. Turns out he is an aghori...a holy man who worships Shiva and Kali and breaks taboos as a way of deconditioning the mind and discovering the holiness of all things. They perform secret ceremonies in cremation grounds late at night with corpses. So I have my two favorite babas here, the other one is the priest at the Kali temple. It is an exceptional morning.

I am sad to be leaving Varanasi. But it is for the best. Another week or two and I would be living in that temple by the river and rubbing Baba's feet. Now that I think of it, it doesn't sound too bad, except for the lack of a shower, bed, and mosquito nets. I guess I am too soft to serve the Kama Baba.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Pope Puja

Last night there was a special puja performed for the Pope on the banks of the Ganges.

There was a sign nearby urging all to pray for the Pope and for "peas on his sole."

May everyone's soles have peas, including the Pope.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Kama Baba

The boys in India are beautiful. Large eyes, long lashes, finely sculpted features, with brilliant white teeth. They invariably have broad shoulders and narrow hips, lean like young race horses, they move with their own graceful rhythm. The young swamis can be especially radiant, giving one the impression they possess tremendous inner power.

This morning I was returning from my favorite Kali temple near the river when I had a nice encounter with a baba of transcendent beauty.

This Kali temple is very special, because the priest tending the shrine is a Love Dog. He told me to come to the special 8:30 puja last night, and I went. Arriving late, I kicked off my sandals and stood in the street across from the tiny cupboard of a temple, the priest inside ringing a large bell with his left hand and circling a flaming brass stand in front of the black image of Kali with the other. A youth is pounding hard on a large drum and there is an electric energy in the air. There is a steady stream of passersby through the small throng of devotees in the street. Some stop to say a prayer, others do not. The beggars loiter around the edge. No begging during puja. At one point the ringing of the bell and the pounding of the drum blend together to become the singing voice of a woman, The priest has long grey hair and beard, not a brahmin. He is dressed in a red lungee cloth around his waist and a red shawl draped elegantly over his shoulder. He has a kind, peaceful face. Moving from Kali's image to Durga's, his face shows complete absorption in love. He turns to the street and shakes the flame at an image of Hanuman across the way, and then to the river, to pay Her homage. And the bell is ringing steadily and each note is like a spark of pure devotion flying up to Heaven, and the drumming is sexy and dangerous and howls out its hunger to fuck that ringing bell in the blood and sweat and crushed flowers in the streets. Then I notice the tears on the priest's face as he is waving the flames before Mother's image again. Then he picks up a fan and begins to fan the image, his shoulders shaking with emotion, tears gently sliding down his face. He seems to be helplessly drowning in love, shrugging his shoulders, laughing gently, then crying even more gently as he carefully enacts the ancient gestures of devotion. I imagine them like two old lovers grown so comfortable and cozy with one another there is no longer need for speech. Yet both still carry out the daily rituals of intimacy just for the sheer joy of it. As the ritual reaches its crescendo we all lean forward with hands clasped, trying to warm our hearts by this sacred fire.

After the puja, the priest was giving out prasadam, blessed food, and people were eager to get it. I was too late to get the puffed rice he was handing out(getting change for the collection plate), so the priest handed me a little cookie laying on the altar at Kali Ma's feet. I took it with great reverence...a special prasad.

This morning I returned to give a garland of 108 red hibiscus flowers and another of marigolds. When I made an offering to the priest he gestured at the beggars and said, "Every day we give lunch here for the poor. Every day at 2:00."

He asks me what I plan to do. I tell him. He asks Mother Kali's blessing on it. But I tell him that what I really want is to have the intense devotion to Kali that he has. He seems bashful, but blesses me any way.

So, as I am returning from the Kali temple I pass a cave temple to Shiva, where I gave some babas a little cash last night and one invites me in to spend time with the main baba.

He is the radiant Shivite baba. Huge eyes, scraggly beard, matted dreds coiled on the top of his head, yellow painted brow. Achingly beautiful face. When he smiles you can see his bad teeth. His attendants tell me that he is 32 years old, and has not sat down in 12 years. I want to add that he is also a hottie.

He leans against a bamboo staff, arms languidly folded behind his head. His torso is like a swimmers, toned and flexible. He looks down at me, I look up at him. I fall effortless in love with him. He looks out at the river and says telepathically, "So what took you so long?" He indicates his legs are bothering him, I offer to rub them, but am informed that that distinction belongs to another devotee. Whenever I make any sign of obeisance to the standing baba, he smiles slightly and gestures to one of the images of God, as if to say, "Hey man, its not my doing." An unsavory sadhu sitting down next to the wall in the cave asks me if I smoke. At first I demure, but all the sadhus know the truth. Finally I say I do smoke, to help me pray to Kali. So ganja is produced, prepared, and I am instructed in the fine art of chillum use by the ragged sadhus. A chillum is a hollowed stone cone in which ganja is smoked.

We all smoke together. Then we sit in silence. Finally Baba's leg rubber begins a chant to Rama, and Baba joins in, radiating this clear, vital sort of love...musky and bestial. He is a perfect incarnation of Lord Shiva, Sacred Cock, Lover of the Cosmos, and the Destroyer of the Cosmos...clearing out the clutter in the attic of Time.

I tell the unsavory sadhu that I think Baba looks like a king, and that I wish I was his wife or servant. The unsavory sadhu laughs and says, "You see good!" The Baba endures my trying to touch his feet, but lets me look at him all I want. I pray to him as if he was Shiva in the flesh. Because it is the truth. God is the only reality.

I offer the Baba some money. He takes it. He invites me for food tonight. I will go. Sitting in that cave at night with that beautiful baba, smoking ganja out of a chillum and listening to the river, this will be a good thing.

Maybe I will give away everything and go live in that cave and serve that beautiful baba.

I can think of many worse ways to spend one's time.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Beggars

There is a Kali temple near the river, not too far from the guest house I'm staying at here in Varanasi. I like to go there in the morning and offer garlands of red hibiscus flowers to Kali. The priest is very calm and happy. He told me he is happy because people bring presents for his Mother.

Walking up the broad stone steps from the river to the tiny temple alcove set into a long wall of shops and shrines, one must walk through a gauntlet of about 40 beggars, twenty on each side. They reach out open palms, calling you "baba", some are insistent, others soft and gentle...old women and men, lepers, amputees, filthy children in rags asking "One rupee! One rupee!" Holy beggars are everywhere, as well. Some are smiling, whining and wheedling, others are silent, their gaze fixed on the horizon. A few lepers are pushed around the broader streets in little tricycle carts, peddled by a comrade. Old women can be tenactious; one gave me a nasty little scratch in Vellore clutching at my arm.

What to do? Give or not to give? I give when I have change, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I give a huge amount because they are hideous, or very old, or missing all of their digits and their nose. I don't think this makes me a good person; I feel more like a courier.

People in India refer to Westerners coming to India searching for spiritual wisdom as "spiritual beggars".

I have an idea for starting a unique form of charity while in India. I hit people up for 25 dollars via the internet, which is about a thousand rupees. I then go out and give it to someone who needs it, take their picture, and send it to the donor. People who send money can even specify who they want me to give the money to: lepers, women with children, the disabled, the old, the blind, the crazy, holy people. I could create a questionnaire.

I'll probably start out with friends at first, then let word of mouth do the rest.

I saw a young man today when we went to the holy Buddhist city of Sarnath. Dredlocks, piercing eyes, legs like a rag doll, just flopping behind him. His face was so thin it looked like a skull. He asked me for some money, so I gave him some.

It is a mystery how some hold onto life so tightly, and others throw it away.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Very pretty, very brief

I have been trying to finish the blog entry about the goat sacrifice in Calcutta for almost a week now. Absurd. Must record everything. Must hold on tight. Must use colorful expressions. Must be witty and a little jaded. And Time just keeps on eating us.

This is what happened:I made a promise to Kali Ma almost two years ago that if She helped a friend of mine out of a tight spot, I would go to Calcutta and offer Her a pure black goat. She helped my friend in a big way, so as soon as I could I went to Calcutta.

I then bought a small, beautiful billy goat in Calcutta, after a short ritual of purification, and an offering to the fire god, I said goodbye to the goat, and thanked him for his service. He said, "No problem; my time now, your time later."

Yeah.

The goat ate the wreath of red hibiscis flowers around his neck as the priest whispered a secret mantra into both ears. I wish I had been able to hear it.

When they brought him to the blood-soaked sacrificial area, he tried to bolt.
But they caught him. They always do. No one escapes.

They secured his head between two posts.
A man with a curved sword stepped up, swung it up high and brought it down swiftly on the goat's neck, slicing through it like butter.

Blood spurted, legs kicked.

The priest dipped his finger into the blood on the blade and marked me between the eyes, then marked the image of Kali I had brought, conveying enormous spiritual power into it.

Later they made a rice dish with the meat, and served it with vegetables to the poor. I thought everyone benefitted: the goat's soul immediately goes to a very high plane, and doesn't have to be reborn as a goat again, the poor get food, I fulfill my vow.

Now Murugan (my old Indian friend) and I are in Varanasi, the holiest city in India.Yesterday we sat on the ghats and watched the sun rise. In the afternoon I took a young man to the doctor because he was losing his weight, and we got some medicine. Later we tried to get some lunch, but kept running into tourist hotels that refuse to serve Indian guests. Disgusting. Check with the owner before you eat in one of the touristy hotels close to the water, apparently the practice is pretty widespread.

Later that same afternoon I bought two marijuana candies from the government shop that sells them for worship purposes. I sat down by the river under a stone shelter with some old holy men, bums and tea vendors. People sleeping in the shade, washing in the river, a big bull wallowing his horns in the muck. I share some water with an old guy with arthritic claws I met the day before, and give him one of the ganja candies. He sings a hymn to Krishna.

I then have a conversation with a boat man I know slightly. We talk about God, and the importance of cultivating a deep longing for the Divine. Then somehow we decide to buy a basket of these little leaf boats with marigold flowers and tiny blobs of candle wicks in wax. We will light them on the river tonight. The boat man is 12 years old and looks like Krishna. His uncle is old and grissled, he likes to laugh and has a deep spiritual nature. He will come and help with the lighting of the candles.

I go back to the hotel to see if Murugan is back from his personal quest. On the way I see one of the many babas sitting by the river and talking with a couple of guys. He is wearing bright yellow sparkle pants, and bits of Christmas tinsle at his wrists. His hair is coiled into a top knot, most of his face is painted white, with red between the eyes. I don't understand the words he is speaking, but I like the feel of them in my mind, the way they agree with my heart. So I listen, as the tourists stroll between us, and the cows, and the holy men walk their paths. The baba sometimes looks over at me with large smiling eyes, like we are sharing a privite joke, like it was only he and I sitting here. I salute him and he offers me his open hand as blessing.

I go on to the hotel. Getting up to the hotel is like climbing an Aztec pyramid. Long ancient stairs from the river, then a long fetid tunnel where holy men sit and offer you their blessing as you try to side-step the shit and move around the cows and goats, then more stairs, then tiny twisting stone paths hundreds of years old. Once I am gasping in the lobby, I still have three floors of steep climbing ahead. So I just ask the desk clerk if Murugan has returned, and he says he doesn't think so. So I begin the steep descent back down to the river.

When I pass the mysterious baba again, I sit down for another session. It is about this time that the marijuana candy kicks in. The baba is sitting there radiating unconditional love. He is always smiling and laughing as he walks around the ghats, but not in a kooky way. This is why I think he is a real baba. If you have tasted God, it must make you really, really happy. So I close my eyes and drift inwards on a drug/devotion-induced trip into this moment. Then there is a sudden long blast from a conch shell, Lord Vishnu's weapon to dispell illusion! It does the trick. The baba begins chanting, something about Love being the only reality, waves on an ocean returning to the source, a song from the heart. I also heard something about drunkards trying to find to meet the vinter, but after that the chant became slurred.

Then the baba stopped chanting, and looked at me. I bowed to him and he motioned me over and put both his hands on my head and began blessing me, moving his hands all over my head, massaging here, pushing between my brows, and he is murmuring something under his breath that sounds exactly like the gentle cooing of a mother trying to comfort a frightened child. I give him 50 rupees and he just looks at me. Then he says, "For the guru you give one rupee." I only had a two rupee coin, and he took it. Then he gave me an even stronger blessing, and it felt really great. I touched his feet in reverance, which was the traditional thing to do. He looked bored.

I went back to find my young boat guy and his worldly wise old uncle, it was getting close to our agreed 5:30 boat excursion. They had arranged for a huge basket of the little flower/candle leaf boats, so we cast off and the boat man threw all the fiber of his 12 year old muscles into pulling the oars.

The river was very calm, swallows filling the air with happy acrobatics, people bathing, bells ringing in the temples, loud-speakers softly blaring a holy hymn to the Mother, or the latest hit from Bollywood. It is easy to imagine this city down through the centuries. The great holy men who have lived and taught here, the people who come here to die. The main burning ghat is right next to the hotel. I look out my window at night and see the smoke rising from the burning pyres. Walking through the tiny, twisting streets, one often has to step aside for a procession carrying a silk wrapped corpse on a bamboo ladder, winding its way down to the burning ghat chanting the glories of God.

One morning I saw the corpse of a tiny baby bobbing in the shallows.

The feeling I get walking around the bathing ghats and the small temples by the river at twilight, is the same feeling I used to get when I was going to have a sleep-over. There is a peaceful feeling of exubriance, a calm joy. So the uncle starts lighting the leaf boats and setting them down into the bottom of the boat for me to place in the water, and say a prayer. At first I am praying for friends and family, but then realize that doesn't fit in with the purpose of the project. So I start praying this prayer, "May all beings be happy and freed of suffering." I figured that covered it.

The boat man is gently pulling us through the dark, placed water, and we are leaving a chain of flickering lights behind us. On the shore 5 priests conduct an elaborate ritual in honor of Mother Ganges, with the swinging of tiny burning Christmas trees, and the ringing of many bells, and the beating of many drums. Classiical Indian ragas fill the air as the eldest Brhamin chants the mantras over a loud speaker.

We look back at our tiny prayer flames flickering precariously on the ripples. It is very pretty. The last blush of crimson fades as the sun sinks behind the city, and the puja ceremonies are picking up steam. A hundred candle flames sparkle on the river. I think about the prayers that went with them; would they do any good? Impossible to know for certain. But here on this river, at this time, we have all made something very pretty, even though very brief.

Photos will be posted soon