Part 2: Friday, Episode 2 – The Story Of Ram
Now that all that unpleasant political stage-setting is over, we can get down to the real business at hand… Gods and stories.
The first thing that greeted me upon entering the temple was the feeling of being wholly at home. There is an elaborate sensuality combined with an ancient holiness that overwhelms me in a highly personal way when I walk into Hindu temples. To this day the first-impression shimmer of awe I experienced on my first temple visit has never dulled. Some things are always fresh and invigorating for me, like seeing Eagles overhead when I’m in a kayak, or seeing deer in the forest out my window, or temple visits. These are things to which I never grow jaded. The first time I walked into a Hindu temple was in Ohio at the Shiva Vishnu Temple, and I was immediately hit by an astounding dualistic impressions, on the one hand, a powerful homecoming, and on the other a spicy exoticism. Early in my history of temple visitations I spoke to one of the Priests, “Though, while Krishna talks of renouncing worldly pleasures, when I walk into the temple I am surrounded by the sensuality of the silk sari’s, the jeweled bare feet, the heavy aroma of incense, the Deities are sensual and adorned in colorful and elaborate silks, you give me succulent fruit, and I go downstairs and am served spicy delicious foods. Unless I completely misunderstand, there seems to be a contradiction…” To which he said, bobbing his head in that distinctly Indian way, “You do not misunderstand, it takes time.” Cryptic as it was, he was right, it took time, and while it’s not so simply resolved as what I’ve figured out over time, what I have realized is that the temples are meant to draw you immediately out of ordinary reality and transport you to another world, a world where we are free of mundane concerns of daily living. This is why they are extravagant even in poor cultures. Temples must inspire a sense of otherworldliness. More deeply, I also realized that Krishna warns specifically against the desiring of earthly sensual pleasures, of being attached to them, less than against the earthly pleasures themselves. He seems to wryly smile when he tells us it’s OK to be joyful and enjoy them… just don’t crave or fixate on them. But, like I said, it’s not so simple as all that, and I am constantly learning to revise whatever it is I think I know when it comes to Hindu spirituality. The point being, no matter how many temples I have visited I have still never gotten over the strange combination of wonder and homey ease that I felt when I first set foot in a temple. Simply put, it is always awesome, inspiring, and overwhelming.
The biggest difference between now and then was that then the nearest temple was a manageable 45 minutes away, now I must add between 90 minutes and four hours to that 45 minutes and it becomes much less manageable, especially when driving old leaky cars. There is no temple near me in Gainesville. Now when I step into temples, I feel devastatingly overwhelmed and weep. I weep warmly before Ganesh and Durga, then uncontrollably when I bow before Shiva. These are unbearably warm tears of ecstasy and release, tears of agony at being so despairingly separated from such a rich source of spiritual life, company, nourishment and community. I can easily say that 75% of the extreme energy caused by my current suffering comes from having been torn so far from the nourishment and peacefulness I find in temple life. I used to go to the temple 3 or more times a week when I lived in Ohio, now I get to one every couple of years, and I have grown weaker for it, far weaker. This world is not my home. The temple brings me closer to home than any place I’ve ever known, and that is no small matter.
After I paid all my respects and explored Atlanta’s fabulous temple (of the 7 I have visited, this is easily my favorite and the most spectacular), I sat down to write in my journal, but was soon called to my feet by a Priest and a small warm-faced man with a great big heart. The Priest began asking me questions that I honestly did not understand. I understood the core of the questions, but none of the intent or details. I tried my best to answer, until at last the kindly little man with him stepped in. A few minutes after the Priest went away, he began telling me what was going on in the temple that evening, and what would be going on Saturday as well, and he congratulated me for coming for to be part of such “auspicious” occasions. He spoke with profound enthusiasm about Saturday, when Vishnu would be bathed in milk, and of the rare Navagrahas (planetary) ceremony I would be part of on Saturday.
We talked a little, and I told him how I had arrived and that I was nervous about finding my way back to 75. He drew a little map for me, then pulled up local hotels on his phone so I could book a room. At last he told me his name was Ram, “As in Ram and Sita!” I said brightly, knowing this would make him proud. Ram, is of course, one of the most beloved and revered, even worshipped, of heroic Deities in Hindu mythology. In case you don’t know this, many Indians are named after Gods and mythic characters. In fact the name I was given as my Hindu name “Kameshwari,” means “Goddess of desire.” Kameshwari is a form of Shakti, the Goddess, who, when she passes before Shiva (and I can only hear this in Sadhguru’s beautiful booming voice) “He roars!” The name for me is appropriate in that she is largely only worshipped by those who practice tantric arts, and moreso desire is dualistic here, both invigorating and exciting to Lord Shiva, but we all know that desire is also what leads to attachment and attachment leads to suffering.
Ram soon went about his business, as did I, observing the rituals in the temple. As things began to wind down I spoke with him again, and when he recognized my distress at having to get back into my leaking car, hopelessly lost (no GPS), Ram offered not only to lead me to the hotel of my choice (I chose the Ramada, as I felt it was auspicious that it had “Ram” as its first three words), but he offered to drive me to my car, which was in the lower lot. I was pleased for the help because the anxiety I had been carrying for months had only increased since being lost AND having all the oil leak out of my car. Once in his car, Ram began telling me his life story in that charming way that only an Indian for whom English is a second language can–and I mean this with no hint of condescension as the musicality of the Indian accent is music to my ears. We sat in his car two spaces away from mine and he started.
When Ram was a child he was very skinny and tiny because he was raised by, in his words, “wicked people.” These wicked people did not feed him, and abused him, rather like a cinderella story (and by the way, “Cinderella” and most of our modern fairy tales are of Indian–or Chinese– origin). Ram decided as a child that no matter how poorly he was treated by these “wicked people,” that he would treat those very people and everyone else around him with only love, positive energy, and he would only accept and think positive thoughts about all the events of his life. Even though his family did not feed him, he treated them with respect and positivity, as he realized that even though they were wicked, they, and all wicked people, are still God’s children and therefor we must love even the wicked. It is true in Hinduism that we are taught to see that all people are God potential beings. Ram said he silently chanted the Lord’s names over and over, forever in meditation, and it did not matter if it was Ohm Namah Shivaiya or the name of Jesus Christ, to him God was God. He asked God that if he would continue this powerful Sadhana (yogic practice) and meditative life of positivity and unconditional love, that when he turned 23 his life would change.
It did. Ram came to the states and got his Masters degree, and sitting in his new but humble car, he told me that of all the people in his family no one has a better life than him. “My life is the best of all of them, the best!” he said bobbing his head and gesturing with finality. He told me to think only positive thoughts no matter how bad things can get, and to treat everyone as one of God’s children. This, folks, every aspect of this story, is core Hinduism, right down to not seeing any difference between Shiva and Jesus. This is also not dissimilar to the wisdom passed down to me by my great grandmother when she was on her deathbed. I asked her what she had learned in 98 years, and she told me: “Be nice to people, try not to hurt anyone, and mind your own business.” Wisdom is wisdom, whether it comes from ancient India or the depression-era hill-folk of Pennsylvania.
Once at the Ramada, Ram went so far as to get out of the car and come in with me to make sure I had a room, just in case I would need him to lead me to another hotel. Now, for many, this level of care from a stranger might make them uncomfortable, but the thing most people don’t realize is that the good deed a person does for another is not an imposition, but for many, it is a deep Sadhana, a karmic realignment, a duty or a pleasure… a thing that should be allowed to happen. Never resist good deeds or hospitality for fear of imposing, it is far more imposing to rob that person of the good karma created by caring for another person. Speaking of Instant Karma, just last year we had a student come to SAW from India, and when he arrived, I helped him every step of the way, from offering him a room at the lakehouse, to finding him an apartment, taking him out on his errands, and even intervening in conversations with his landlord. I would even feed him and find him work. This is the way of karma, and the energy of karma is not a tit-for-tat trade-off, the positive karma of living this way creates an unending flow of give and take. The help I received from Ram was the help I had earned, and the next time I come across someone who needs similar help, I will again do all I can. I do not expect or demand help in return, but I am open and receptive to it when it comes, and living this way means the help comes more often than not. But it has to be a give and take, and never a selfish exploitation nor self-righteous sacrifice.
I began to realize that perhaps my car running out of oil at that very moment was not merely Ganesh delivering me to the Temple and into the hands of caring Indians at the gas station, I was being delivered to a new plan for my journey, and perhaps, just perhaps, I was not meant to go to Tennessee at all, perhaps I was meant to go no further than the Hindu Temple of Atlanta.
The events of the next few days have all but stunned me. From the hospitality shown to me the next day, Saturday, to the sacred events dedicated to Lord Shiva this coming Monday, with each passing day, turn of events and decision, I am eternally grateful that my plans did not work out and that I am here now. Just as when my cancer led to a better life, it seems my oil leak is one more thing I have cause to be thankful for. And I am ever grateful that I did not cower in my room in Gainesville, that I got on the road, and that I did not turn tail and run home when my car leaked oil, and ultimately that I followed the dictate of my favorite line from the Bhagavad Gita…
“Fight the battle Arjuna.”
And speaking of the Bhagavad Gita… just wait until we get to Sunday… ah, but there is still a whole Saturday to talk about…
NEXT (Part 3, Saturday): Justine, The Visiting Deity?