Hey, everybody, as we say in the South :) Here is my writing assignment. I'm looking forward to reading yours!
My Journey to Dakshineswar
Foundations and Approach
Like Usha, I first heard Mother’s call in 1986 when, unexpectedly for an agnostic punk rocker, I had a vision of the Divine Mother. This experience sent me pinballing from atheism to Catholicism to Vajrayana Buddhist meditation to neo-paganism to, finally, in the mid-90s, a spiritual desert where I decided there’s no one Upstairs—it’s all atoms and the void. I grew depressed. I tried, with some success, hacking my emotions and reactions like Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, and John Lilly wrote about doing. Wilson mentioned doing pranayama during a very difficult time in his life, saying it made him “fall in love with everybody” he met.
That sounded a bit intense for this introvert, but I was in no shape to turn down help, even if it was some exotic yogic breathing technique. Like Wilson, I started doing pranayama 30 minutes a day, having no idea that this a) could be dangerous b) is said to be a sure way to bring Kali into one’s life. The breathing helped, but that spiritual stuff was all still wishful thinking, I believed; as a scholar of religion, my interest had become purely intellectual and pranayama was, at the time, another interesting experiment with one of the religions of the world.
On a vacation in 1998, I chanced on Mark Matousek’s spiritual autobiography Sex Death Enlightenment. All you need to know about my priorities at that point in my life is, I bought the book because the blurb on the back said Matousek had worked for Andy Warhol. Warhol! So postmodern and cool! And I liked spiritual autobiographies, though I was no longer spiritual myself. I also need to say that my knowledge of Hinduism at that point in my life was in the negative numbers—I knew less than nothing because what little information I had was based on sources burdened with so many Western, colonialist assumptions that it barely resembled anything actual Hindus did or thought.
Matousek’s spiritual journey was sparked by Hinduism, and he wrote about that faith with a vigor and precision that humbled me: I felt like my misconceptions were crumbling before my eyes. For one thing, Hinduism had little to do with belief or dogma—it was about doing, and seemed to have an empirical bent. Hmm. That was cool. Matousek wrote, among many other things, about bhakti yoga, and with my academic hat on I thought, “Aha! Another interesting technique to try!” And try it I did, and after a few weeks it wasn’t an experiment any more. My world changed, brightened, warmed, came back to life. To make a long story short, I devoted myself to Matousek’s boyfriend’s guru, a major figure in Sex Death Enlightenment, who soon made it clear to me that she didn’t want devotees. She wasn’t God, she was here to point the way to God. So-- go find God, she told me.
I was crushed. But I was also hooked. This religion held riches I had never imagined, among them the concept of ishtadevata. Who was going to be my ishtadevata? I felt my ex-teacher had challenged me: there’s a form of God out there that is perfect for you—you just have to find it. I had been interested in the Divine Mother ever since my 1986 experience, but what I knew about Kali came mostly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and of course the Beatles’ film Help! Well, there had been a woman in Sex Death Enlightenment, a Shakta Ph.D. working as a tour guide, who hadn’t tried a single time to rob or sacrifice Matousek and who taught him some profound things (not least of which: teachers come in unexpected forms).
My Hindu Divine Mother researches led me to Usha Harding’s book Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, which the People of the Internet held in very high esteem and said was essential reading for anyone interested in Hinduism or the Divine Mother. I believe I ordered my copy from Kali Mandir, and I was on the Mandir’s mailing list for years and the website was an oasis in my early Shakta period. I made it the home page in my browser (probably Netscape), and Maa’s three eyes on that black background were always comforting to me. An image of Sri Ramakrishna and Kali I clipped from the Mandir newsletter is on my altar to this day, as is Sarada Devi’s Smashan Kali image that I bought from the online Puja Shop. I also bought the Jai Ma Kirtan cassette, which I’ve sung along with thousands of times (I had it digitized years ago).
But let’s get back to how I met Kali. When Usha’s book arrived in the mail, I couldn’t take my eyes off the photo on the cover. Maa was at once repellent, beautiful, and shocking, and oddly resembled my own mother. My colonialist “this is a primitive religion” programming tried to kick in, and I have to say that at first I didn’t find Kali an attractive a figure. She was scary and earthy, not what I felt a deity should be like, which I guess was sparkling and holy and floating far above mundane reality.
But Usha’s book shattered that assumption. The section “Kali’s Boon” hit like a bomb: here was a faith tradition so sophisticated, yet so intimately close to who we are as humans and what it means to be alive—I was entranced. And that photo on the cover of the book kept grabbing me. I couldn’t help staring and the more I stared the deeper I fell in. I made a deal with Kali. I know! But this is where I was, and we all start somewhere! I made a deal with Her: “My partner is going in for surgery and I’m terrified. Whatever happens to her is in Your hands. But if you get me through it, I’m Yours.”
I prayed to Maa all the time. She got us both through the surgery—the patient, who sailed through like it was no big deal, and me, who made a big deal out of everything. Through Usha’s book I was introduced to Ramprasad and Ramakrishna, and through my immersion in their lilas I met my gurus, Shree Maa of Kamakhya and Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Walking out of, appropriately enough, the classroom in which I first met Shree Maa, I said to my partner, “Now I know there’s a God!” The adventure was just beginning, and thank you for this assignment that has helped me remember these beginnings.