I've never been able to visit Kali Mandir in person, though I've been digitally connected for the past couple of years. Through Swamiji's podcasts, satsangs, and puja broadcast I've felt like something of a virtual congregant; a distant member of the family. I am so grateful that through the Seminary I can develop relationships with the devotees from this uniquely eclectic and deeply sweet community.
I grew up with religion and spirituality sort of on the peripheries of my environment. My mother was an occasional Christmas-Easter Catholic, and my father, an atheist coming from a Japanese Pureland Buddhist family. On the occasions where I attended church or temple for a wedding, a holiday, or a funeral, I remember being fascinated and perplexed by the ceremony and ritual, even afraid. I remember being terrified of church because of the huge, bleeding figure of the crucifixion that hovered ominously above the tabernacle; whenever I would go I would look instead on a smaller figure of Mother Mary, stretching out her embracing arms with her billowing sky-cloak of blue and white
In middle school, I had a phase where I dove head-first into faith in Christianity; I saw Billy Graham on television in a sermon talking about hell, not yelled with fire and brimstone, but told calmly, bluntly, and so convincingly that I resolved to attempt to become a proper Christian young man. I dove into my new faith with fervor, to the alarm of my parents, but quickly, I began to find a lot of things that didn't make sense. Most of my family wasn't religious, or even Christian, and so the notion that they are all destined for an eternal fire, unless I take it upon myself to convert them was quite disturbing. I was also beginning to discover my queer identity at the time, and the inconsistencies of a loving God who does not accept people based on conditions like those led me to become frustrated and disillusioned.
I read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time in a high school class, my senior year. At the time, I was exploring alternative modes of spirituality, Wicca, Neo-Paganism, and especially Shinto and indigenous Japanese spirituality, and so the perspective offered by the Gita opened up a whole new door for me. The summer before I started at university, I began reading and studying everything to do with Hinduism and India, the Mahabharat, Ramayan, and when at university, I got involved with a local Hare Krishna center called The Harmony Collective, where I encountered for the first time practices like deity worship, kirtan, and bhakti being lived and practiced instead of just described in books. At The Harmony Collective, I've found a second family. I was able to make connections, gain knowledge and spiritual experience. I found a place where I could be myself, practice as I feel comfortable, and enjoy the benefits of a loving, supportive community.
The devotees at THC are regular attendees at Michigan YogaFest, a yearly gathering at a Yogananda retreat center in the woods of northern Michigan. I went twice, and both times had the pleasure of attending programs by Kamalakanta Prabhu of Kali Mandir. I remember being spellbound by his kirtan, and the second time I went I attended one of his pujas at a small tent mandir on the festival grounds, housing pictures of Sri Ramakrishna and Ma Bhavatarini Dakshineshwari. I'd heard some about the Divine Mother from friends, but I'd never looked into Shakti worship before. I didn't quite know what to make of it at first... Kali's radical form frightened me, but at the same time there was some attraction. I later ordered a copy of Devadatta Kali's translation of Devi Mahatmya, and this was my introduction to Ma, the Ramakrishna tradition, and, subsequently, to Kali Mandir.
At this point, I was interested in bhakti, as a student and aspiring scholar, and had been impressed and moved by it, but didn't consider making it seriously a part of my life and practice. Slowly, through various coincidences, discovering the Kali Mandir satsang podcasts, a profound psychadelic trip, and other realizations, I decided to begin to develop a sadhana of my own, dedicated to Ma. I struggled with, and sometimes still, the apparent contradictions between the Shakta and Vaishnava conceptions of God, devotion, and spiritual practice, but as I read more of Thakur's teachings, I've come to realize that these paths are not complementary, not contradictory. From an advertisement at my work, I found out that Mata Amritanandamayi, the "Hugging Guru" was coming to Detroit, and I quickly found carpool arrangements with a couple other lovers of Ma to go. I was skeptical at first, but as soon as Amma entered and filled the immense room with her presence and love, I had a profound realization that she is someone who is in tune with Ma's frequency, so to speak. In a spontaneous, very "come to Jesus" type moment, I went forward and received a mantra from her, that I chant to this day. I had recently come out as transgender, which was causing some strife and misunderstanding in my family... when Amma hugged me to her chest and whispered in my ear "my daughter, my daughter, my daughter", I felt as if Kali herself was speaking those words to the core of my being. It was infinitely liberating to be recognized by the Divine as I am, as someone's daughter. Shortly afterward, I ordered a murti of Ma's feet from Kali Mandir, and began to worship Her daily out of the Simple Kali Puja book, which I've been doing for about the past year now.
My journey with Ma has been powerful, confusing, intensely sweet, and just beginning. There have been dramatic ups and downs, hard learning experiences, but overall, one thing that's come through is Her deep and abiding grace in which we are all held as devotees. Right now is a time when I've had to deal with some of the deepest, darkest, and most confounding things She's revealed to me, but I'm trying as best I can to lay them at Her feet and rest in the assurance of the fact that Her grace and compassion is the only thing that's real.