On January 1, 2011, twenty-six other Americans and I arrived in Southern India. We came together not as tourists but as pilgrims to visit six primary temples of a diety known as Subrahmanya. Each temple represented a different aspect of this diety’s identity and reflected a different aspect of our own. Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks hosted the trip.
According to Professor Brooks, Subrahmanya represents the capacity in each of us to be exceptional, to seize the moment and to use all our abilities. Subrahmanya tells us to love ourselves just as we are, warts and all. He also invites us to shine a light on the shadowy aspects of ourselves so we can transform them.
For me this pilgrimage was the ultimate in taking yoga off my mat.
In preparation for this journey into the inner sanctum of the temples and the inner sanctum of our souls we were invited to contemplate, and to begin to answer what Professor Brooks refers to as the three great questions of the temple. Why are you here? What do you desire? What difference does a difference make?
Visiting the temples was a multi-sensory experience, intense and at times overwhelming. The temples are places of ritual and worship, but they are also like community centers where people pray, meditate, chant, celebrate, bathe in the temple tanks, sleep, and eat; children play there, and vendors conduct business on the colorfully decorated stone floors under gorgeously painted ceilings. Everyone comes to the temple, worshippers, beggars, vendors, tourists, pilgrims, monkeys, goats, and even elephants. The temples are the heart of the community.
You are received in the temples the way you come. As pilgrims, dressed in traditional clothing, salwars and saris for the women and dotis for the men, we were received warmly, treated with respect, and were the object of great curiosity. “Why are you here?” “Why are you dressed this way?” “Where are you from?”
We walked to the temples barefoot through dirt streets and climbed 650 stairs to a mountain top temple to the shouts of pilgrims, whose shaved heads were covered in saffron-colored sandalwood paste, chanting “Aarogya” (be well). We meditated on the cool stone floors of ancient temples in our saris and dotis in 90 degree heat. We participated in temple rituals and experienced the offering of the lighted lamps, looked in awe at the ritual objects adorned in colorful silks, fragrant jasmine, and opulent jewels, heard the ringing of the bells and the sacred chants being recited, smelled the incense, smeared kum-kum and sacred ash on our foreheads, and tasted the blessed food offered at the end of the ritual. We received the gift of the divine from the temple priests, and offered the ordinary, ten rupee notes, as the divine. We received blessings from the temple elephants and rode them, too.
Each temple, with its unique attributes and mythology, invited its own exploration of the three questions we were asked to contemplate, ultimately revealing that there is more than one way to experience oneself and to view life. By contemplating the questions what you discover is that beneath the surface of reality there is always more reality. Everything is part of something larger. Life is an ever-expanding process. There is always more.
The temples beckoned us to go to new places within ourselves, to go deep, and explore the hidden aspects of our being; to step into as many selves as we could become. The invitation to become more of yourself was ever present, and by opening to the hidden aspects of your being you didn’t become different, you just became more of who you have always been.
This pilgrimage was really a journey of self-discovery that allowed for every possible emotion: joy and hope, enchantment and aliveness; and also longing and sadness, frustration and sometimes pain. When you open fully to your experience you discover how wonderful it is to be alive; sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes ordinary, sometimes sublime. You learn not to shut down when feelings become bothersome; to stay awake even when it’s unpleasant. This is the path of the heart: to develop tenderness toward yourself by opening to the wonders and complexities of your self, which allows you to open to the wonders and complexity of the world.
While I would not have traded it for the world I realized you don’t have to go all the way to India on pilgrimage to experience the sacredness in the ordinary. You can enter the temple of your own heart everyday through the cultivation of a spiritual practice of meditation, contemplation, prayer, yoga asana, or other spiritual practices, to align with the deepest level of your being.
As soon as I returned from India, I unpacked, washed, and put away my clothes. I am still however, and will be for some time to come, unpacking the suitcase of my experience.
I put together a short slide show to share more with you about my pilgrimage to India. Enjoy!