Shivaratri in Haridwar
I wasn’t nearly ready to leave Rishikesh after only a handful of days there, but the clock was ticking; soon it would be Shivaratri (the night of the worship of Shiva, the god of destruction and dance), and for that we wanted to be in Haridwar. As the cosmic caravan wound its way out of the hills, past a golden, high-rise sized statue of Shiva, I started to notice fields of tents in the clearings along the road. Indians were camping out in anticipation of Shivaratri.
This festival marks both the day when Shiva married one of his consorts, Parvati, and the night when Shiva performed a dance (the Tandava) that both created and destroyed the universe. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I did know that it sounded like just my kind of celebration: dancing, creation, and destruction. I had heard that people fast and stay awake all night, and I imagined it might be India’s version of a rave: hordes of people singing, dancing, and jumping in the Ganges, like an extremely crowded Pentecostal church service gone mad.
Seema (our guide and mistress of the Johari House), it seemed, knew and was known by everyone in town, so we got the royal treatment. We went shopping at a special mala store for custom malas; then we took them and blessed them in the Ganges. We got ayurvedic massage and a consultation with an ayurvedic doctor. I loved the consultation and found the practitioner wise, but the massage was challenging. Without warning or explanation, I had what felt like an ocean of oil poured on my third eye, and then I was placed, dripping, in a “steam box”; a wooden box with a seat inside and a hole for my head, it clamped around my neck like a medieval torture device. I tried to relax, but the attendant insisted on chatting with me for the entire time while excruciatingly hot steam poured out. Maybe she had to do that to make sure I was still alive.
We were all excited when Anu took us, one evening, to see a real Bollywood movie at a real Indian movie theater in (where else!) a shopping mall in a suburb (a suburb!) of Haridwar. There was almost no one in the mall and few people in the clean, spacious theater. The movie was in Hindi with no subtitles, but Anu translated a bit, and, well, Bollywood movies are not known for being hard to follow.
The day before Shivaratri, we spent eight hours on the yoga deck making Ganesh yantras (a type of mandala). Yantra painting is a devotional practice involving both technical precision (geometry! we busted out the rulers and compasses), and creativity (painting). We tried to keep silent and chant a mantra while we made our paintings, but truckloads of Indians blasting house music kept going by on the riverbanks, arriving for Shivaratri. “I feel like I’m at Burning Man,” I said at one point – and I really did. I was participating in an obscure, transformational activity that was uncomfortable and/or triggering (I really, really dislike painting), in the middle of an exuberant, building energy, listening to thumping beats drift by – all under a parachute. I imagined the desert heat washing over me and smiled. It took all my strength to be still, focus on the mantra and paint silently while my whole being wanted to jump up, run to the river and dance.
The morning of Shivaratri we took a trip out of town to see Seema’s husband’s organic rose farm. The countryside was lush and green. We visited a small village that was surprisingly impeccably tidy – the land everywhere else in India sprouted with mountains of plastic trash. Seema’s husband is a medical doctor, but he grows roses, his favorite flower, on his little plot of land. When he realized most rose water in India was of poor quality or contaminated with pesticides, he built a homemade distiller and started making his own. I bought four bottles and regret not having invested in a lot more.
Arriving back at the Johari house, our own private Shivaratri had already begun: there was a puja (prayer ritual) being held by a family friend on the second floor. This was it, I thought. Now it was time to really focus on Shiva and helpful destruction. However, I felt strangely weary and disconnected. It didn’t help that I couldn’t understand anything being read and nothing about the ritual had been explained. I sat cross-legged on the hard floor listened as the priest read interminably from a book and poured milk or threw various things such as flowers and fruit and maybe seeds into a gold receptacle in the middle of a big metal cooking bowl. A table in front of him was arranged with piles of marigolds. Toward the end, we all took turns pouring water into the gold receptacle (“It should never stop flowing,” someone whispered to me); I proceeded to pour with my left hand, but several women immediately stopped me and made sure I used my right. At the end, I fanned smoke from a burning offering over myself and knelt in front of the priest, who pressed a piece of rice dipped in red paste onto my forehead, tied a red string around my left wrist 12 times and gave me an orange.
“The string can fall off or you can pull it off, but it must not be cut,” someone in our group told me. “And that is blessed fruit.” I looked at the orange. I felt nothing. I absentmindedly pierced the skin, but then, wondering if my hands were clean enough to eat it, I set it on my nightstand, where it languished, uneaten, until I finally threw it out a couple days later.
While we all got ready to go out for the rest of Shivaratri, it started to rain and a massive lightning storm erupted. Bolts of lightning shot through the space between the two houses. “Surely something major is about to happen,” I thought, while also wondering if wearing my waterproof hiking sandals would ruin my outfit – glitter, bindi, and a kameez (a pretty embroidered tunic) I got from Anu.
We had been invited to a special puja at the temple of a prominent local Brahmin, a friend of Seema’s. Crowds were waiting in the rain outside, but we all got ushered in to sit inside near the altar. I felt like a rude outsider as I gingerly stepped through the throng of Indians sitting waiting on the wet marble floor. Inside, the lights were bright like a blazing summer afternoon. The ceremony was supposed to go until midnight. When we arrived, it was already the hour when I usually went to sleep. I was exhausted and my body ached from sitting on the floor for the puja we’d already had at the Johari house. I managed to get a piece of floor (no cushions to sit on, as usual in India) next to the wall near an alcove where the light wasn’t as bright. I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes as dissonant screeching from a chorus of boys, amplified at an abusively high volume, assaulted my ears. It was the same reading I had already heard at home. Men and women gathered around a large, ornate altar enclosed in a square silver gate. I could only assume they were pouring and throwing things on the representation of Shiva as before since, sitting flat on the floor several feet away, I couldn’t actually see anything through the crowd.
I tried not to panic at the thought of enduring the situation for the next three hours. It was as if it had all been perfectly designed to be the hardest possible conditions for devotion or meditation. I breathed deeply and did my best to connect with my intention. Later, Seema would tell us that even she couldn’t understand what they were saying, but that it was very auspicious to be there. The priest handed out special malas with enormous rudraksha beads to all of Seema’s guests and invited us for lunch the next day (we didn’t go).
Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, everything ended abruptly, an hour early. As we walked out, I went over to look at the altar. Something about the “Shiva statue” had been tickling the back of my mind. So I took a closer look, and that’s when I remembered: the Shiva representation was actually a Shiva lingam (Sanskrit for penis). “Does it help that its base is actually a yoni (Sanskrit for vagina)?” my friend said when I mentioned my discomfort. I was just speechless. Oh, India, look what you made me do. I laughed at how disturbed I was, chided myself for my innocence, and took my aching bones to bed.
Two weeks was an excruciatingly short time to be in such a country. In daily life, challenges and opportunities were exploding all around me. How could I help the destitute? What could we do about the heart-wrenching rivers of plastic trash? Were all these gurus on to something worth investigating? Maybe Shivaratri hadn’t turned out like I imagined, but using actual practices (like acts of devotion, ritual, and chanting) instead of just sitting around and thinking, to destroy what no longer served me, had felt powerfully transformative. I was a little taken aback by how much I had loved Mooji – he hadn’t pushed any of my (easily pushable) buttons, but had bypassed my critical mind and gone straight to my heart. I had never let a teacher in so swiftly and easily. Add to this that each day, after our morning meditations, chanting, and vinyasa practice, I had felt more alive and comfortable in my body and mind than ever, like I had reached some higher potential. Then there was the feast of colors, tastes, sounds, and smells around every corner. Please, press rice and red paint onto my forehead, paint my hands with henna, and saturate my food with turmeric! I was heartbroken to walk away from the cuisine alone.
Abundance WAS India. Abundance of the good and the sad. All the extremes and all the ways that balance them. I wanted to stay and live where life was full-on coming at ya. My little glimpse had been intoxicating, exhilarating and refreshing. After all, I had thought I should never go to India. Now, I couldn’t wait to come back.
A big part of the magic had also been our group. We had many funny and deep times during our long bus rides. shopping expeditions, and extended meals together. We had all mostly just met, but we supported each other like we had been friends for years. Finally, the most important, the person who designed the whole adventure: Miraculous Astrud, who poured her heart into teaching us and chanting with us every day and then had the energy and space to be our wise and gentle support in all that came up during the daily activities. Thank you, and namaste, dear teacher!