It's still dark when I get up. I usually stay in bed much later, but right now sleep seems much less important than being at the temple; I don't even wait for the alarm to go off. I fumble an approximation of the correct mudra and whisper "Hamsa Shiva Soham" once before my feet touch the floor, kiss my wife, and pad to the bathroom.
Half an hour later I'm in my car. There's nobody else on the road this early and in fifteen minutes I'm pulling into a middle-school parking lot. I just have time to straighten my dhoti before a late-model Toyota minivan with a sign reading “SVTS Shuttle Service” picks me up. Its stereo is playing songs to Bala Tripurasundari, the Goddess's manifestation as a nine-year-old. The couple next to me says hello and the husband whispers something to the driver in Tamil. The morning sun brightens over the Western New York countryside, its rolling fields especially beautiful in the raking light, and soon we're turning into the temple driveway. Another day is about to begin in one of the largest Hindu rituals ever performed in North America.
The Sri Rajarajeshwari Peetham, my temple, sits on 23 acres of farmland in Rush, New York, just south of Rochester. In ordinary times you'd have a hard time recognizing it from the road; it looks like a nondescript ranch house and a few farm outbuildings, all painted an unobtrusive pale yellow. Come closer, though, and you'd notice the shrine to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings. Park and walk around and you'd see that under the redwood gazebo is a massive Shiva lingam with markings that suggest that it had been worshiped by one of Vishnu's avatars. Inside the temple itself you're definitely in a South Indian world. There's a great black granite murti of Rajarajeshwari, the resident goddess, with a black granite Ganesh at her side, a gold Nataraj—the famous dancing Shiva—and many Shiva lingams, Surya the sun god with the planets. and half a dozen other deities, most of them beautifully dressed and bedecked with flowers.
In the hallway outside the sanctuary is a large mandala-like design made of sequins and costume jewelry gems, the Sri Chakra, a pattern of ascending and descending triangles surrounded by lotus petals and four doorways. This and the other Sri Chakras throughout the temple are more than decorative. They identify the temple as a center for Srividya, or “auspicious wisdom,” one of the few surviving branches of Hindu tantra.
“Tantra” is a loaded word, and like everything else in Hinduism, including “Hinduism” itself, it gets applied to an unruly variety of practices and teachings. Westerners usually associate it with sex, and many more knowledgeable outsiders, both Western and Indian, think of it as deeply transgressive, an occult school partial to animal sacrifice and secret rituals designed to shock and terrify.
Srividya, though, is as respectable as tantra gets, even a bit bourgeois. Sri Rajarajeshwari—the Esteemed Monarch of Monarchs—is always beautiful and gracious; she has none of the terror or ferocity of Tara or Kali and demands no cremation ground rituals and no blood. Her worship is widespread among the professional classes in South India and its leaders and devotees have always stressed its compatibility with mainstream Vedic principles and rituals. If anything, in fact, Srividya practice is Vedic ritual on steroids.
Yet for all its sobriety and restraint Srividya remains true to the core of tantra. Its elaborate and deeply embodied fire offerings and pujas and its mantra repetitions are meant to bring devotees to experience everyday life as the blissful play of the divine. Sri Rajarajeshwari does not govern the world. She is the world, manifesting it out of herself and within herself, so that she is literally everything—the horse manure in the street as well as the flower, you and me and the child molester, the awful and the magnificent. She thinks our thoughts. We think hers, at least the fragments of her thoughts that fit our puny and fragmented state. She dances in our steps. If we eat, she eats. If we fast, she goes hungry.
Like every other branch of tantra, too, Srividya leads its devotees to experience and harness her energetic, creative power—her shakti—that is the only reality. The Sri Chakra is a map of its flow out from the incomprehensible unmanifest state which is beyond even the separation between subject and object and into the world that is its phenomenal form. Emergence is separation; everything starts with the polarity of Shiva and Shakti, the archetype of all the inescapable divisions and contradictions of experience, and their separation and union produces a seed. These three together make up the inner triangle at the heart of the Sri Chakra. From there the energy flows outward, its activity ever more diverse and concrete until it is manifest as the world of our experience. The accomplished Srividya adept can move both ways along the flow of that power, dissolving his or her body and the world itself into divine shakti and putting them back together again.
All of this is ordinarily hidden within the country-plain architecture of the temple. Today, though, it's obvious even to passers-by that something is going on that doesn't fit the American exurban norm. The driveway is blocked by a large tent where you're asked to leave your shoes, handed a schedule and offered a tour. Inside the tent and beyond everyone is in Indian dress—dhotis for the men and saris for the women, reds, golds, greens, and rich blue and orange. To the left of the temple buildings is a tent more than 250 feet long. Shelves on its four sides hold rows of metal pots wrapped in bright-colored cloth, topped with turmeric-dusted cocoanuts and decorated with flowers, and next to each pot is a right-handed conch shell filled with liquid and flowers. Inside the tent are 121 fire pits, each with its own decorated pot and all the utensils for a Hindu puja, and under a flowered canopy in the center, flanked by banners representing the sun and the moon, are two larger pots. With their decorations, cocoanut tops, crowns, and garlands, these central kalasams look eerily like human figures.
Nobody is in the tent right now, though. Instead, people are gathering at its entrance around a cow and her calf, lent for the occasion by a local dairy farmer. The cow puja is about to begin. Aiya, the temple's founder, and his wife Amma put dots of red kumkum on the cows' foreheads and hang garlands around their necks. Circling them they chant and offer incense, light, food, flowers, and a camphor flame—the five basic offerings. The puja done, the couple walks clockwise around the cows and prostrates to them. The devotees do the same, touching the animals for a blessing as they walk. Another day has begun in the eleven-day ritual, the Ati Rudram Mahayajna, that will renew the energy of the temple.
Every Indian temple has to be purified and renewed every twelve years. Our temple was twelve years old this May. Some kind of ritual was called for, but what Aiya has organized goes far beyond the customary rites of purification. The Ati Rudram is one of the grandest and most serious rituals in the Hindu tradition. At its heart is a Vedic chant named Sri Rudram, a litany of salutations and supplications to Shiva in the form of the dangerous, even savage deity Rudra. Of incalculable antiquity, it's generally considered one of the most powerful and complex of all mantras. (At a decent clip it takes ten to fifteen minutes to recite.) Aiya likes to tell us that the tapas generated by reciting the Rudram is the energy of the Big Bang.
That parallel is quite in keeping with Indian tradition, which sees the world as made of sound, starting of course with the primordial mantra “Om.” This is what makes mantras different from ordinary language. They don't say or describe, they make things come into being. Their sound is the shaping activity of divine energy itself, and few mantras are as potent with that energy as Rudram. The point of this ritual is to fill eleven days with repetitions of the chant and to gather and store the power it creates, which is strong enough to begin with and is only magnified by the fire offerings that will accompany its many repetitions.
On the first day of the ritual, in a ceremony so delicate that it was held behind a curtain, Aiya transferred the spirit of the Goddess and Shiva from the murti in the sanctuary into the two large kalasams that were placed in the center of the tent. These and the other 1006 kalasams in the tent are meant to absorb the vibrations as on each of eleven days the eleven chapters of the Rudram are chanted eleven times by eleven times eleven chanters and as millions of offerings are made into eleven times eleven fires. On the eleventh day of the ritual their liquid will be poured over the Goddess in the temple and on the chanters, and this will renew the life of both the temple and its community.
The Ati Rudram is so rare that devotees and visitors have come from Australia, New Zealand, England, India, and a dozen other countries. They would not have come just to watch, however. They've come because nowhere else and never before would they have had the chance to participate in something this holy. The most extraordinary thing about this Ati Rudram is not its scale. It's that the 121 chanters who make the offerings aren't priests. Many aren't Brahmin. Some aren't even Indian, and there are at least as many women as there are men, too. In India, even today, most of our homa kartas would have to sit outside and watch. Here, though, every day after the opening pujas, they sit down, consecrate and light their fires, and begin to chant and make offerings.
Aiya has devoted his life to building a genuinely open spiritual community here in Rush. His deep egalitarianism is implicit in tantra but it's still rare in India and sets this temple apart from just about every other Hindu temple there is. Thanks to Aiya someone like me, raised a nice Jewish boy in Cincinnati and Albany, can sit in this tent with vibhuti ash and kumkum on his forehead, chanting with hundreds of others words that reach back to the beginning of time.
I'm not at one of the fires, but that suits me fine; I'd rather chant than mess with ghee and worry about whether the fire is burning well. The chant is awesome enough, and I'm getting better at it each day. Each day it seems to get richer and deeper. And there's a lot of depth to discover. Even if you haven't a clue what the words mean the Rudram is imposing. Its eleven chapters fall into four large sections, each with its own rhythms. Complexly structured verse gives way to paired phrases and then to paired words. The pace accelerates gradually but unstoppably until the mantra opens up into the expansive verse of the final chapter. Simply negotiating the tongue-twisting Sanskrit for a cycle feels like winding yourself up they way you'd wind up a coiled spring and letting yourself go at the close.
The words do mean something, though, and they're both perplexing and challenging. Shiva is where all the opposites meet. The Nataraj image, after all, depicts him in the act of both creating and destroying the world, and in stories he is both the great ascetic and the insatiable lover, the killer and the healer. The deity we honor is contradiction itself, everything and nothing, beyond good and evil, beyond any possibility of grasping or even thinking about:
Salutations to the trees tufted with green leaves; salutations to the Lord of the cattle.
Salutations to Him who is light yellow-red tinged and radiant; to the Lord of the pathways, salutations.
Salutations to Him who rides on the bull, to him who has the power to pierce all things, to the Lord of food, salutations.1
That makes some kind of sense, as does the chant's list of occupations and objects, because Shiva, like the Goddess who is ultimately not separate from him, is all that there is:
Salutations to you who are in the form of those who teach the chariot driving to others, and those who drive the vehicles themselves.
Salutations to you who are in the form of carpenters and fashioners of chariots.
Salutations to you who are in the form of those who mold clay and make mud vessels, and artisans working in the metals.
Salutations to you who are in the form of fowlers who net flocks of birds and fishermen who net shoals of fish.
And yet Shiva is all the things we don't like about the world, too:
Salutations to Him who stands prominent, the wielder of the sword; to the prince of thieves, salutations.
Salutations to Him who holds a dart in His hand to fit in His bow, who has a quiver in His back; to the Lord of those who thieve openly, salutations.
Salutations to Him who worms himself into the confidence of others and disillusions them occasionally, and He who cheats them systematically; to Him who pretends to be an acquaintance and takes away what belongs to them.
Salutations to Him who moves about guardedly ever with intention to steal; to Him who moves amidst crowds and thronged places for pick-pocketing; to the Lord of forest thieves, salutations.
Salutations to Him who is in the form of those who protect themselves in armor, who want to kill others; to the Lord of those who want to steal crops and wealth, salutations.
Salutations to Him who is in the form of swordsmen who wander about at night; to the Lord of those who kill and seize others’ possessions, salutations.
Everything is everything. We don't get to pick and choose. But we can beseech:
You who makes sinners lead contemptible lives, Lord and dispenser of food.
You who chooses to remain poor amidst your riches.
You who are dark in the neck and red elsewhere.
Frighten not these our near and dear persons or these our cattle. Let not even one among them perish or get ill.
Lord Rudra! Afflict not the elders in our midst, nor the tender babe, nor the procreating youth, nor the child in the womb, nor the father or mother, nor our bodies dear to us.
Lord Rudra! Getting angry at our transgressions hurts not only our children, our sons in particular, but also our cattle and horses, and our warriors.
Making offerings into the sacred fire, we shall serve and calm you by our salutations.
Do the words matter? Like so much in the Indian tradition, they do and they don't. They're true, but only if you move beyond them to inhabit the wordless place where all the words come from.
Sitting in the tent, chanting Rudram with so many others, smelling the warm, acrid, organic smell of burning ghee and the smoke of herbs, resting on the drone on the PA system that underpins everything, I feel at moments as if I am holding the entire universe in my arms. All of its contrarities, all of my needs and hopes, all of the dangers of the Bronze Age and and the post-nuclear age, the trees and the streams, the large and the small, the fords and the rocks, the thieves and the makers of drums, everything dances in the smoke and fire. All of it fills me with delight as I chant.
After the climactic purnauhti offering the sound of shawms, drums, bells, and blaring conch shells dies away in the warm summer air. I walk outside, rubbing my eyes, wondering how long I can tolerate the smoke, ready for samosas, watermelon, and tea with cream and sugar. As my thoughts fade I see with sudden clarity that the tent itself is the universe and the Sri Chakra, too. At its center is the original pair of Shiva and Shakti, the first manifestation of the process which flowers into the whole of things, and around them are the deities who together encompass every possibility of existence. And in the midst of this microcosm we are chanting the chant of all beings and all things, the mantra that reaches back to the Big Bang and out to the manifold beauty and terror of our world. Our little cosmos has blossomed from and within the goddess, and it will return to her—though it has never left her—at the end of the ritual, as the world of the Ati Rudram dissolves back into the oneness beyond oneness that she leads us towards.
We are doing something more than re-energizing the temple, I realize, or maybe we are re-energizing the temple in the best way possible. Over eleven days, sitting together in a tent in upstate New York, we have the privilege of sitting at the heart of things and chanting the world back together. And it seems to me, too, that this is what human beings have always done, and it is exactly what we are meant to do. I pull my shawl around my shoulders and get in line for a snack.