Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Moment of Rapture

December 11th, 2010

After more than 7 or 8 excruciating hours in the taxi from Delhi, the road sign finally came at around midnight: 

How does one have a highway sign for the holy land of Vrindavan? Vrindavan is not so much a geographic location as a place of the heart. So every time I see that sign, I never cease to shake my head in wonder.

Then we passed the magnificent Krishna Balaram temple, whose white marble spires seemed to glow against the black silk of the night sky. All was quiet. We turned down the tiny alley which leads to the MVT guesthouse and the taxi rumbled to a stop.

We all let out huge sighs, as if exhaling the 24 hours of travel in our blood.

I remember how long ago, I once envisioned that when I would finally enter Vrindavan for the first time, I would get out of the car and roll in the dust, weeping. That's the traditional vision of someone who has longed to visit the holy land and has finally arrived.

But when I came to Vrindavan for the first time two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle and repulsed by all the noise and pollution. I thought, rolling on the ground is definitely reserved for the saints.

But tonight was quiet. When I stepped out of the taxi, I felt overcome by a spontaneous desire. I slipped off my shoes and knelt right there on the cobblestone ground. The cold of the stones seeped through my clothes and pressed against my fingers and forehead. I savored the chill. I breathed in deep - I could smell the rich scent of cow dung and dust and smoke in the ground.

I didn't want to get up. I just wanted to keep kneeling and keep breathing in the scent of Vrindavan.


Related Posts:
Mystic Moment: I sit upon the stone ledge in the temple of Radha Raman. The sun slants through the courtyard and holds my face...
Refuge: It was my last night in Vrindavan, and I wound my way through the bustling temple grounds to the rooms of Srila Prabhupad. When I entered, I felt washed with that clean scent of home; wherever Srila Prabhupad resides is where my heart finds refuge...

Monday, July 11, 2011

My Body is a Temple

Ever met a Hare Krishna and wondered what in the world was on his or her forehead?? And why

Tilak is a marking that Vaishnavas apply to the forehead with sacred clay. As a kid I wore tilak but rebelled against it as a teenager. I didn't want to be labelled as "one of those Hare Krishnas." Besides, I didn't really know how to put it on and I always ended up with mud all over my face. 

Then a couple years ago I had a very odd inspiration. The tradition for the holy month of Kartik (October-November) is to make a special vow, or vrata, and surrender that effort to the Lord. So I decided to do the unthinkable:

Wear tilak every single day. 

To school, to gatherings, and even - who woulda thunk? - to the temple. I figured that a) I would get over my tilak phobia, and b) I would become a killer tilak artist by the end of the month. 

So for the first day of Kartik, yes, my tilak was all over my hair and forehead in messy streaks, even after spending ten minutes trying to perfect it. When I went to school, I thought I would get weird looks. But I didn't. What I got were questions. And the question always came: "Why?"

As the month progressed, I began to enjoy answering these questions because they would always stir up a conversation about God. And when the last day of Kartik rolled around, sure enough, my tilak phobia had vanished. 

And, if I say so myself, I was a killer tilak artist. 

Over the years as I've traveled around the world with tilak upon my forehead, I've been asked that question countless times: "Why?"

Inspired, today I wrote this concrete poem as one of my answers.   

Related Posts:
The Chosen and The Choosers: The Youth. The Future of the Movement. Descendants of the Demigods... 
An Unexpected Guru: Around the curve of the bench, I saw a young man absorbed in a small black book with gold on the edges of the paper...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Long-Awaited Photo Essay

My friend Balaram has been begging me to post my pictures from South India for the past seven months. I'm not kidding - 7 months. As a running joke, he has tried every trick in the book: random text messages, bribes, philosophical arguments, and just plain old-fashioned begging. 

Finally, this morning I just buckled down to edit and post them!  

Amazing how photos can transport us to another world, another time, another place. So I was quite stunned to find myself in India this morning. 

What pulled me there was the people; I experience the people in India as so unguarded. To lock eyes with total strangers is normal; laughter is full and rich; devotion is expressed openly. 

If you haven't noticed yet, my joy in photography is to capture the Incandescent Moment - the soft and unexpected moment of poetry. Just by being aware and observant, I get to distill the beauty and essence of life into an image. With photography, I get to view every moment of life as a work of art.  (You can view my Incandescent Moment photo essay here)

So thank you, Balaram, for encouraging me to revisit my surreal experience on the South India Yatra.

To conclude our joke, after I had posted this album, I asked him: "Okay, so where's my bribe money?"

He replied: "How can I pay you for something that is priceless?"

Bravo. Point taken.   


Radhanath Swami with the leaders of the Ramanujacharya line

one of my favorite places in South India, the Corridor of a Thousand Pillars

Related Posts:
Countdown of Fate - "This is a screenshot of the countdown gadget on my Google homepage. I put it there about 120 days ago..."
River of Prayer - "I sit in the corridor of a thousand pillars in the Ramanatha temple in Rameshvaram..."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Graveyard Scene

I love to give homework to my writing students. (At last I can give homework instead of receive it, ha HA!!) We're studying ancient Greek literary devices, so I assigned them the task of looking up famous quotations that utilize these devices.

One student, Bali, has a tendency toward the dark and brooding, so he brought in: "To be or not to be, that is the question."

I laughed in recognition of the famous line from Hamlet. "A famous quotation indeed, Bali," I said. "Do you all know of this play?" I described my favorite part of the whole play: the graveyard scene. Hamlet picks up a skull, and the gravedigger lets Hamlet know that he's holding the skull of a jester. With shock Hamlet realizes that as a little boy, he used to ride upon the shoulders of this very same jester.

And yet what remains? A skull.

Indeed: "To be or not to be, that is the question."

What is the point of life?

We then continued on with our writing class, and that discussion about Hamlet evaporated from my mind. Or so I thought.

When driving home, I passed a graveyard - a graveyard I have passed literally hundreds of times - and I felt this powerful urge to go inside.

The urge mystified me. I even passed the graveyard, shaking it off as silly. But then I slowed my car to a halt and turned around.

I pulled into the cemetery slowly.

I randomly stopped my car in the bright afternoon sun. I felt this sensation of surrender: "Krishna, please give me whatever realizations you want to give me."

I got out of my car. Immediately I was greeted by one very broad gravestone, which marked the graves of a husband and wife. The wife had died over ten years ago. But curiously enough, the husband's name was imprinted upon the gravestone with his birthdate, but the death date was still blank.

I realized that his grave was empty. This man was still alive, simply waiting to die to join his wife... wherever her soul had taken her.

I sat there for a long while in the sun, meditating on the connection of these two souls.

I wandered through other graves. I saw one of a 9-month-old baby girl - such a little gravestone. But she had died in 1932. Maybe old age would've claimed her by now anyway if she had lived.

What struck me the most was that husbands and wives were buried side-by-side, even if the husband or wife had died 20 or 30  years later. Not friend next to friend, or even parent next to child. Yes, families were buried together, but not side-by-side. Not with the same gravestone.

As I left the graveyard, the thought settled over me - life comes. Death comes. And all that matters, what most people in this world will boil down their entire existence to, is a relationship with their husband or wife.

But ultimately, I won't be buried in the ground next to my husband. My body shall be burnt to ashes and cast to the wind or the ocean or a river. I shall not even have a gravestone to mark my birth and my death, and who I shared that birth and death with.

All that shall remain of me is memories within the hearts of my loved ones, but even those shall fade with time.

So what is the essence? Why am I alive?

Only when I was leaving the graveyard did I remember the conversation with my students from this morning: To be or not to be?

That is the question.

I found the answer in a poem my father once wrote:

So far away
I am still so far away
I need to cross the ocean
walk millions of miles
and fly through the sky
until one day
tired of this body
I will lay down
and pray
and remember
who I am
where I came from
My body is dust
but my soul
is the light of the sun
the flame that burns incessantly
inside my heart.
Only Your name will be left
upon my lips
like a kiss
like a blossom

To write is to dare the soul. So write.