Sunday, December 21, 2014

Arunachala Shiva

Winter is blowing in on the wind as the darkest night of the year descends. Even with the south Indian heat in the air, I feel a chill. It’s going to be a long night.

So I’m settling in, the loving gaze of Lakshmi Ma looking down on me from the walls of my guesthouse room, the silhouette of the mountain visible against the night sky, the resident cat, Cookie, curled up next to me purring contentedly. I’m glad one of us feels contented.
For no reason I can name, I feel off.  It’s been a nagging feeling, one I’ve easily and genuinely pushed aside in moments throughout my travels so far, but one I’ve not been able to overcome or fully understand. If I’m honest, it’s not actually bothering me all that much. The melancholy, the loneliness, the sense of being a bit lost. I’m no stranger to the way transformation works. There’s a reason we use the phrase “dark night of the soul”.  Things very often get very dark before the blaze of enlightenment shines upon you.

And so I barely slept last night despite being totally spent from twelve hours of travel.  Somehow I found enough energy today to ground into my newest destination, Thiruvanamalai. The city itself seems pretty unremarkable at first glance, save for the presence of Ramana Maharishi’s ashram, but I didn’t come for the city. I came for Arunachala, both the mountain and the temple, which honor Shiva in the form of fire.  No coincidence that I should be moving through some darkness just as I prepare to stand before the light.

I ventured out by bicycle, weaving my way among the motorbikes, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, cars and cows. My heart hurt at the sight of forlorn animals amidst piles of garbage, even more so than it did at the sight of humans suffering through their plights of poverty, disability, ignorance and disease, and yet the tenderness was fleeting. It was almost as if I’d momentarily lost touch with my depth of feeling, a very strange and unsettling sensation for one who usually feels so deeply.

Then it came back.
 As evening arrived and the solstice began, I visited the Arunachala Temple for the first time. It is an truly impressive sight to behold, even if it leans toward being a spectacle with the lines of pilgrims – women clad in red and gold saris, men in black dhotis – everywhere as priests covered in ashes scramble about attending to their business. Thankfully the business of one such priest was to lead me and a few others along the fast track into the inner sanctums where we’d sit for a brief puja (offering) in the holy and hallowed chambers of Shakti and Shiva.

My mind delighted at the sight of Shakti even if my body didn’t feel the usual sensation that arises when communing with the Goddess in this way. But when I was brought in to see Shiva, whatever switch that had be in the off position in me definitely turned on.

The heat from the oil lamps seemed to bounce against the dark, stone walls and penetrate straight to my core. I was sweating immediately, though not the dripping, I-just-did-a-great-workout sweat, but the radiant warmth that emanates from a heart set on fire. Tears came to my eyes that gazed transfixed at the magnetic beauty of the Shiva Lingam before me. My whole body came alive at the intensity of the experience, my name being entered into the string of mantras chanted, offerings exchanged, light taken into the upper chakras, ash smeared on foreheads and garlands placed around necks.

Then it was over.
 I emerged buzzing with this energy that now had a name: Shiva. My feeling off still doesn’t have a name, but the resonance of the Divine in me at this moment surely does: Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, the Destroyer, dancing in a ring of fire, beating the drum of creation, stamping out ignorance, symbol of liberation.

Fitting for the welcoming of the new season. Fitting for this new chapter I am writing in the book of my life.

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