Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lighting the Match

I've just come back from one of the most intense festival experiences of my life. I still feel the energy buzzing in my hands and feet, I'm still wide-eyed, stunned.

This afternoon I went for lunch here at the Chowpatty temple in Mumbai. Across the aisle, I saw an old acquaintance from South Africa who was visiting the temple for one day.

"Bhava Bhakti, there is this Ganesh Visarjan festival this evening, it's going to be crazy," I said, "Millions of people parade down to Chowpatty Beach to immerse gigantic deities of Ganesh into the Arabian Sea. Tonight is the finale and it's right here outside the temple. You wanna go?"

With such an intense festival, I honestly thought she would shrink away from the invitation. To my delight, though, she replied, "Yes, that sounds awesome!"

"Really? It's intense. Millions of people," I repeated. I almost felt like I was now trying to convince myself not to go.

"No worries," she said.

"And anyways, we'll just stand at the edge, just to see," I said. We both nodded in agreement to just stand on the edge.

Evening fell. Just as we were about to head out, a senior brahmachari (monk) of the temple, Radha Kunda Prabhu, who I also know on friendly terms, called out to me, "Bhakti lata, the Visarjan is going on!"

"Yes, yes! We're going!"

Bhava Bhakti and I headed out onto the packed streets, the energy washing over us in a sudden tidal wave. Oboes and snare drums saturated every molecule of air, the people milling about in rivers. The night seemed to pulse. Bhava and I laughed, catching the excitement in the air, and held onto each other's hands tight, moving further into the streets. We had only a faint idea where we were going.

Suddenly, we caught sight of four brahmacharis from the temple, including Radha Kunda Prabhu, all walking with purpose towards Chowpatty Beach. "Hey," I said to Bhava, "Let's follow them!"

So we followed them secret-agent style through the crowds, stifling our laughter and keeping a distance. Suddenly, a wooden shoe of one of the brahmacharis fell off. He turned around to fetch it and the brahmacharis all saw us and we all laughed. Not-so-secret agents.

In unspoken agreement, we became a part of their crew, following at a respectful distance. They would often look behind to check on us.

We all dove deeper and deeper into the whorls of people. I took deep, deep breaths, imprinting the colors and sights and sounds in my memory.

Trucks brimming with people, bright white lights, parades, calls on the microphone of "Ganapati Bapa - " And everyone in the streets would respond, "MORIYA!"

"Mangal Murti - "


I grabbed Bhava's hand and, following the brahmacharis, we dove right into the thickest part of the crowd of thousands and thousands of people on Chowpatty Beach.

Lo and behold, we could now see the giant deities of Ganesh, slowly sinking into the Arabian Sea. We stopped moving to take it all in. The sight was surreal. The crowd of thousands had an eerie quiet to it, almost muffling out the deafening sounds of the city. Boats glided across the black water, weaving through the deities. Men swimming near the deities were stained with a  red powder all over their bodies. I surveyed the entire Bay, letting my eyes sweep from one end to the other, taking in the glittering skyscrapers and oceans of people.

Suddenly I felt the push of the crowd and I let out a yelp. So did Bhava. Immediately the brahmacharis surrounded us and cleared the way. "Follow," Radha Kunda Prabhu said. We made our way out of the crowd, and whenever the crowd would kind of push in, the brahmacharis behind us held out their arms and glared. They were like tough older warrior brothers.

When at last we emerged from the thickest part of the crowd, I let out my breath, "Holy holy moly," Bhava and I held each other's hands and walked behind the brahmacharis once again, looking at each other wide-eyed and talking about what we had just experienced.

We made our way through the buzzing streets once again to the temple. When we reached the wrought iron gates, we called out to the brahmacharis, "Thank you! Thank you!" And they smiled and folded their palms to us.

Bhava and I talked in the courtyard in exultation, letting the insanity of the experience sink in. There was no way on earth we would have ever dived that deep into the Visarjan festival without having followed the brahmacharis.

And what a sight, what a sight. Possibly once in a lifetime.

I now write this in my room, and even after writing this post I'm still buzzing. In the distance I can hear the music and the drums that saturate the city of Mumbai tonight. I am meditating on the prayers I made on the beach, praying for my enthusiasm for spiritual life to revive.

Well, I think the match just got lit.

(painting by DeviantArt) 

Monday, September 17, 2012

day 17: stirring the coals

Today is day 17 of my 30 day X-ray. And today is my final day in what I call the kingdom of Radhadesh - at the castle, nestled within the rolling hills and forests of Belgium. So right now I am gazing upon the landscape of my time here.

For the past several months I have experienced a deep kind of stuckness in my life. Like, the fire had gone out deep inside. I had all the right answers to all the questions you could ever ask - what do you want to do in life? what's your purpose? why are you a devotee? etc. - and yet I felt no fire, no zeal, not really. 

But travel has stirred up my spirits, like someone has been stirring the coals inside my heart. Being here in Radhadesh has gently stirred the coals. Many days I experienced pieces of pain rise to the surface, pieces of stuckness, and I felt grateful to let them be and let them go. 

Now that it's the evening of my departure, I feel such a deep warmth in my chest. It's a physical experience. I feel as though my heart has warmed through long walks through the woods, beautiful interactions with friends and devotees, really, really good food, and living within the loving glance of the deities here, Radha Gopinath. 

I feel that everyone has been so patient with me, and thus I have been patient with myself. I have lost track of time. I honestly couldn't tell you right now how many days I've been here. Each day has been a jewel that has lead to the next.   

Little flames are just now starting to flicker to life. I feel sad to be leaving, I truly do. I will miss this place, this sanctuary where I have connected with my own self again through patience and acceptance. 

Tomorrow I fly to Mumbai, India, and I honestly have NO idea what to expect or what's in store. I have NO plan, none, other than to learn how to love. That was my gameplan when I came to Radhadesh, and just look at the magic that unfolded. 

And maybe, just maybe, with some more gentle stirring as I continue in my adventures, the flames will stoke up to a blazing fire in my heart. 

Monday, September 10, 2012


In my life I have only vaguely understood why in Vaishnava tradition there is so much focus on the feet - how we surrender to the feet of the Lord, feet of the spiritual master, feet of the devotees. Feet are worshipable.

Um, why?

Just a short time ago, I got to stay at the Bhakti Center in New York City for a couple days. The first morning of my visit, I got to chant japa meditation in front of the deities of Radha Muralidhara. That morning I felt so raw and exposed in my faults and offenses, so stripped of my pride. Looking at Radha or Krishna's face almost felt too direct, too bold. So I had a curious experience - my eyes just kept returning to Muralidhara's feet.

There was something so safe about remaining there, like being held in an embrace.

Even now, when I'm in kirtan or I'm chanting japa, my mind often turns to the beautiful feet of Muralidhara. And I experience shelter.

(photo by Ravi Kishor)

To write is to dare the soul. So write.