A friend asked me this evening why don’t I do some kind of ceremony before leading a kirtan. I thought about this for a while and said why would I want to do a ceremony before the ceremony? For me the kirtan IS the ceremony, the invocation, the dance of feelings, the Great Cosmic Drama of Devotion!
He also asked me what I thought about the Bhakti movement in the west. I said I didn’t really think about it at all. There was silence on the other end of the line…. Clearly I needed to say more. Bhakti is about a deep, intimate relationship with God, not a ‘movement’. It’s enough for me to just try and nurture my own heart of devotion, one day at a time. And this is what I hope and pray for others.
Back to that first question about the ceremony. I do perform a small puja at home every evening, but its so simple and so quiet, and I love it. But if we’re talking about CEREMONY, well, I have a story to tell…
About twenty years ago I was in India, visiting my Guru’s ashram in the Himalayas. After a few very quiet weeks I got the inspiration to make a pilgrimage to Badrinath, way up in the mountains, thirteen miles from the Tibetan border. Badrinath is one of the four main pilgrimages places of the ancient Vaishnav path, established by Adi Shankara in the ninth century. As I was packing the car, making sure I had enough blankets, sweaters and hats to not freeze to death on the journey, my Indian mother came running up to me with a package. “Here Jai, please take this blanket and this thermos of milk to Bhagavati Mai, a great woman sadhu who makes her home up in Badrinath on the banks of the Alaknanda river. When I asked how would I found her, Ma simply smiled and said “Maharaj-ji will guide you”.
So twelve hours of driving over tiny curved roads, overlooking thousand mile drops into the vast, rocky cliffs below, japa mala turning ‘RAM RAM RAM RAM RAM RAM”, taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel, making wrong turns…. OH MY GOD!!! Would I make it there alive???? Well, it turned out that the driver’s drowsy wrong turns actually saved us from a snowy avalanche and a slow, freezing death! Wow, was someone looking out for me? After a sleepless night in an icy and extremely ‘rustic’ guesthouse we hit the road again, and as the morning sun rose above the great Himalayas we arrived in holy Badrinath.
After settling into my hotel room I began the daunting task of finding out where I could find Bhagavati Mai. After all, I had an important package to deliver. One by one, the people who I asked simply pointed their fingers to the jagged cliffs above the raging waters of the Alaknanda. There in the distance was a figure sitting in stillness, wrapped up in a very high tech looking ‘space blanket’ (remember them?), reading from a large golden-brown book, which was propped up, on the rocks. Every few minutes another sadhu would step up to this figure and gingerly turn the page of the book. As the day grew warmer, that same sadhu gradually removed layer after layer of blankets, finally revealing an elderly but statuesque woman with short grey hair wearing what appeared to be a used burlap sack as her only garment. As unassuming in appearance as this woman was, her energy seemed to permeate the village, sitting in total stillness, without moving, ALL DAY LONG!!!! From a distance I began to feel my mind and my heart become more and more inwardly focused. Her PRESENCE was like a soul magnet, awakening the deep heart call of all who walked within the shadow of those rocky ledges.
Finally, after many long hours, the sun began to set. And now began the breathtaking scene that became permanently imprinted in my consciousness. With the help of her attendants, Bhagavati Mai stood up and lit a very large ‘aarti’ lamp, with gigantic flames shooting up into the night sky. Dusk happens very quickly up in the mountains and very soon just the traces of a blood red sun were dancing between the fingers of fire as Bhagavati Mai slowly turned in circles offering her reverence and light to all the mountains, rivers, Gods and Goddesses of the Himalayan range. This is where words fail me. The colors, the high pitched sound of her voice, the chill of the night winds, the whirling flames from her lamp, the awe inspiring spiritual energy of this great being. Cecil B. deMille couldn’t have even dreamed of anything more spectacular. I stood by the side of the road and as she passed I extended my hand and gave her Ma’s package. Bhagavati Mai looked into my eyes; rather she looked THROUGH my eyes, and kept singing in her strange alien-like voice. Perhaps she was singing the Srimad Bhagavatam, for this is what she had been reading all day out on her hard and lofty perch. Then she was gone, into the night…
Now this was a ceremony!
The next day I rather timidly went to visit this sadhu in her ashram, an old run down little shack on the side of the road. She welcomed me like a long lost son and wept at the wondrous gift I had brought, a blanket and some milk. Then through her tears she cried that the gates of the great temple of Badrinath would be locked until her dearest friend, Siddhi Ma, came to visit. We sang and sang for the rest of that day and night, eating sweet cream of wheat and drinking strong chai and calling to the spirits of eternal love and liberation.