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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Gate of Dreams (Tantrics of Kerala) - By Atmatattva Das



After three and a half years in Kerala I was transferred back to Tamil Nadu, to work under the rather severe chief accountant of the Salem branch, Mr. S. Venkata Subrahmanian. As it is common usage for educated English-speaking Tamils to be addressed by the first initials of their names, he was known to one and all as SVS.

My two good "same-age" friends were co-workers Vaidyanathan, serious, bespectacled and a bit shy, and Shankara Subrahmania, a jolly, big-bodied chap. The first six months I lived alone in a small rented room; after that I shared a place with Shankara until the spring of 1974.

I returned to Tamil Nadu with more than just office experience. While in Kerala, my youthful interest in the opposite sex had continued to flourish, but with a difference. From left- and right-hand tantra, I'd learned a highly sophisticated way of interacting with the female psyche. The several close relationships I'd had with girls while in Kerala were experiments in the power of Shakti, by which the sexual drive is channeled not towards physical gratification but to heightened experiences of mind. I'd learned well from my vamamarga master that the physical act of sex spoils the opportunity to really exploit women for what they have to offer men. So on the surface at least, I'd remained a good brahmin boy. But the real fact was that my lust had assumed such cosmic proportions that I saw no point in trying to satisfy it by mere physical means.

I returned, too, with considerably reinforced faith in Hinduism. Thrice I'd taken part in the yearly pilgrimage to Ghandagiri, seeing the mysterious flame of Ayyappa each time. The one year I'd delved deeply into occult tantrism had satisfied me that there is more to existence than mechanical pushes and pulls. Now I felt enough confidence to openly dedicate myself to the mainstream Hindu ritualism I had formerly ridiculed.

In Salem I became an ardent devotee of Karttikeya, a deity quite popular among Tamils. He appeals to the mystical as well as material impulses of the common man, and that suited me just fine. Moreover, I'd never forgotten the childhood vision I'd had at his shrine.

Occult 'self-worship' (ahamgrahopasana) is very prominent among Karttikeya's devotees. During Thaipusam, a festival held each year in early spring, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who flock to his temples in Tamil Nadu, Ceylon, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius - wherever South Indians have put down roots - are taken possession by the god and the horde of ghosts who serve him. In the trance of Karttikeya, some even thrust spears through their tongues or cheeks. Yet they feel no pain, nor do they even bleed; they prophesize and perform minor miracles, 'becoming' the god for a while.

In an interesting parallel to Christianity, South Indian Hindus believe Karttikeya to be the son of God (Shiva), born of miraculous conception. He is called Kumara, the child divine, and Mahasena, commander of the devas and militant foe of demons. His weapon is the Shakti Vel, 'the Spear of Power.'

Though he easily awards his worshipers the bounties of material enjoyment (bhoga), his intention is to instill tyaga (renunciation) in them later on, as he showed in his own life. Once he so lustfully pursued the lovely damsels of the heavenly world that the devas complained to his mother, Parvati. To teach him a lesson, she revealed that every female in the universe is a form of herself. Deeply ashamed that he had really been lusting after his own mother, he vowed to maintain brahmacharya (celibacy) from that moment on.

But I just wanted to be known as a basically normal but dedicated Hindu believer. I wasn't aware of his hidden agenda to push me to the brink of frustration so that I'd give up my materialistic life altogether.

As Coimbatore was only a few hours due southwest of Salem by train, I'd often visit home on the weekends. Overlooking Coimbatore is a large Karttikeya temple on the side of the Nilgiri hill range. One Sunday at Mum's request I went there accompanied by my brother's fiancee and her father and two sisters. The idea was to make a good impression on them of our family.

We'd walked halfway up the long stone stairway that brought pilgrims from the foot of the hill to the temple entrance, and had stopped for a rest at a shrine of Ganesh. All at once I splashed a startling remark into the gentle stream of pleasant conversation by turning to the girl and saying, "You know, before I was born, my mother had a daughter who died in infancy. You are her, born again. Welcome back to the family."

She blinked, reddened, and looked at her father for help. He winced and shook his head. "Now why do you tell such things?"

"Because I am the one you have come to see." As I answered him, it was clear that I wasn't answering him.

The four exchanged uncomfortable looks. Emboldened, I who was not I any longer wasted no words. "I am he with six faces - Shanmukha, Karttikeya himself!"

"Kannan," a sister blurted, "is your head full of rubbish? You'd be in enough trouble if you blamed the god for your one face only, because simply rubbish comes out of it."

I closed my eyes and clapped my hands thrice, then sat still while they murmured amongst themselves. Within a few moments a peacock appeared on the scene, announcing himself with a loud call. The peacock is Karttikeya's familiar.

Smiling slightly, I opened my eyes. With a discourteous grunt, the father got to his feet. "Let's go up now," he muttered to his daughters. I rose and joined them. "Right now there is a lady in the temple who is very devoted to me," I chatted amiably as we stepped out of the shrine's shadow onto the sunny stairway. "She is wearing a green sari and will soon come down the stairs." A group of women came out of the temple to begin their descent just as we reached the top. One wore a bright green sari. "Coincidence!" hissed the girls, their eyes flashing daggers of reproach my way. Their father walked ahead stiffly, acknowledging nothing.

Inside the temple, the priests were bathing the murti with various liquids. As they poured milk over Karttikeya's form, I felt the same substance coursing over my body. I rolled a shirtsleeve up to my elbow and told the father to look at my forearm. He frowned, then gasped as his eyes fell upon the white droplets condensing on my skin. His three daughters shrieked and clutched each other. The crowd pressed in around us, babbling excitedly. I was finally ushered outside by the priests, who didn't want their ceremony disturbed.

Though it didn't wreck my brother's engagement, this incident was the first noticable crack in my connection to the everyday world.

Later I got the mantra-siddhi of Karttikeya, a perfection by which I could teleport his sacred ash (obtained as a blessing from the temple priests) from a covered bowl in a locked closet to my hand. I got this power by daily chanting a mantra a certain number of times for forty-one days. But because I didn't continue the sadhana after that, it gradually faded away.

Another cryptic vista opened a few months later. One evening in my Salem boarding house, I'd just turned off the light and laid down for rest when I heard a knock at the door. I got up, flicked on the light, threw open the sliding bolt and pulled the door wide. There was nobody in the hall. I leaned out over the stairwell and scanned the ground floor below. Empty. I closed the door, put out the light and went back to bed.

Within seconds, again a knock.

I checked once more. Nothing.

When it happened a third time, I went to the window and looked out on the lane. I discerned a lone figure standing in the night shadows. He was stark naked, his body covered with ash, and had a long beard and matted locks. Raising a hand as if in blessing, he framed the words "Come to Chendamangalam" with his mouth. I heard them in my head. Then he turned and disappeared in the darkness.

It was the sadhu out of the dream of the lake that I'd had years before.

I was stunned. If I had but dreamed this now, I would have gone back to sleep and forgotten about it. Yet - I turned on the light, splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror - I'd been awake the whole time! I sat up half the night, my mind in a spin. Who could this sadhu be? And where on earth - if it was on earth - was Chendamangalam?

The next day, one of our sales agents dropped into the office
to turn in an order he'd taken for some tractor tires. He came to my desk with the down payment and I entered it in the cashbook, noting the details from his sales record slip. When I saw the customer's address, I gaped: Chendamangalam.

Barely able to hide my excitement, I asked him about the place. He told me it was a rural town not more than two hours' bus ride out of Salem. I silently vowed to visit it as soon as possible.

When I returned to my place after work I found a letter from Mum in the postbox, which I read as I walked upstairs and entered my room. Her sister's husband, a Canara Bank official, had gotten transferred to a branch near Salem. They'd moved to this area and were living in a rented house. Mum asked me to 'kindly soon visit them at the address given below.' I sat down heavily upon the bed as I saw, for the second time that day, the name of the town spoken by the mysterious sadhu.

That weekend I took the bus journey to Chendamangalam, arriving at Aunty's house before lunch. After exchanging some fond words with the family, I strolled into their back garden alone, just having a look around. The yard was enclosed by a high whitewashed brick wall with a green wooden gate set in the middle of its length. I unlatched the gate and swung it open. On the horizon I saw a hill topped by a temple, the same hill and temple from the dream of the lake.

Without a word to anyone, I walked through the gate and continued for almost an hour until I came to the foot of that hill. After ascending the temple staircase I reached the sanctum sanctorum, which was capped by a large pointed dome. Looking in, I saw a murti with three faces and six arms standing in a graceful pose on a massive black stone plinth. I recognized the symbols of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in his hands: the waterpot and scripture, the conch and lotus, the trident and strand of rudraksha beads.

The pujari came to give me flower petals that had been offered to the feet of the murti. I asked him which deity this was. He smiled, pleased at my interest. "This is Dattatreya."

Dattatreya appeared in ancient times as the son of the sage Atri and his wife Anasuya. He was a transcendental child benedicted upon the sage by the trimurti Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the three forms of the Supreme who create, maintain and destroy the universe.

The pujari showed me a cave beneath the foundation of the temple. Some five feet in diameter and twenty feet long, it was the samadhi (tomb) of a yogi whose marble ash-bedecked statue sat in the lotus position at the cave's far end, over his interred remains. It was the same sadhu I'd seen in the lane some nights ago and in the dream long before.

There were also a few framed pictures on display: some were of the yogi, some of other holy men, and one was a puzzle of a cat in a tree that the yogi had painted to entertain children visiting the temple. Again, a figment come true.

From the priest I learned that the yogi was Sri Svayamprakash Brahmendra Avadhuta Swami, who had died in 1948. I asked if it was possible that he could yet be seen in the world today. He nodded a vigorous assent: "Yes, since Swamiji passed from his physical form, he has shown himself to many people. He was a siddha-yogi, so that much power he has."

He told me that Brahmendra Avadhuta had realized Brahman, the absolute primordial consciousness devoid of name, form, quality or desire. This impersonal concept of God is well-established in India, having been widely promulgated down to the present day by the school of Adi Shankara, a Vedantist who lived some 1400 years ago. Its proponents call it Advaitavada, 'the doctrine of oneness.'

As a householder, Brahmendra Avadhuta had lived and worked in Coimbatore, but left it all for the Himalayas. He took the vow of sannyasa (formal renunciation of worldly life) from a guru in the avadhuta line. Among the austerities the avadhutas observe is the dighambara-vrata (oath of wearing only the sky). For many years he meditated alone in the mountains until he got the inspiration to come to Latagiri hill near Chendamangalam and establish his temple to Dattatreya. He took on four disciples; each started his own ashram in the area. A family descended from his older brother was maintaining the temple when I found it.

Their house was at the bottom of the hill. I introduced myself and in the course of our get-together inquired if there had ever been a lake nearby.

An old lady, the yogi's niece, spoke up for the first time: "How do you know about the lake?" I hedged, shy about revealing my dream. She pulled open the drawer of an antique cabinet and took out a yellowed sketch of the temple and hill done during Brahmendra Avadhuta's lifetime. A lake was shown at the foot of one side of the hill where now there was only a grove of small trees.

Pointing at the lake with gnarled, trembling fingers, she explained, "When Swamiji left this world, that lake dried up."

I took to visiting Chendamangalam as often as I could, becoming increasingly obsessed with Dattatreya and Brahmendra Avadhuta. My mind was drawn into a psychic vortex that seemed to emanate from the samadhi. Insights and visions streamed through this 'tube' for hours at a time, sweeping me beyond the skyline of conventional reason. I became known to some locals as a clairvoyant, for in conversation I might suddenly reveal hidden secrets of their lives or accurately predict the future, without knowing how myself. Other people thought me a crackbrain.

It was at this time that I began studying Advaita philosophy to better appreciate the level of realization Brahmendra Avadhuta had attained. I got to know his disciples and learned what I could from them. In a nearby town there was a chapter of the Shivananda Yoga Mission offering Advaitist books that I consumed by the armload.

Then:

In December of 1973, I took a holiday trip with a bus tour group to Mahabalipuram, an ancient port town some eighty kilometers south of Madras. Mahabalipuram is nowadays a sleepy little seaside resort for middle-class vacationers and foreign tourists. But the many old temples and rock carvings in the area attest to its having once been a seat of high culture during the reign of the Pallava kings, a millenium and a half ago.

The last site we were to visit that afternoon was a Devi temple near the Mahabalipuram lighthouse. On the way back to the bus we briefly stopped by the Mahishamardini Mandapam, a pilgrim's shelter (mandapa) carved out of solid rock in the side of a hill. In the gray stone of the left wall we could see the worn bas-relief figure of Vishnu fighting the demons Madhu and Kaitabha; on the opposite wall was a carving of Devi with eighteen arms killing the demon Mahisha.

As I stood before the mandapa, I was overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu. The tour guide briskly wound things up with a few last comments, but my mind was shifting into another dimension. I didn't notice the group carry on to the bus. I was alone and the only sound was the whoosh of the salty breeze blowing in from the ocean.

Though this was the first time I'd ever been here physically, I vaguely remembered that I'd had a dream some time before in which I spoke with a girl of about seven years old in a place very much like this. I sat down in the mandapa and tried to recall it. But the image wouldn't crystallize in my head.

It was growing dark. I was certain by now my bus had gone, and with it my overnight bag. But I didn't care. Rain began falling, rapidly splotching the tawny sand outside into a sodden terra umbra. A balding old man dressed in white scrambled down the stony hillside path from the Devi temple and took shelter in the mandapa; two ladies soon followed. As the last light died, the rain subsided.

The old man, now leaving with the ladies, looked back and asked, "You're not going? Raining has stopped." "I'm waiting for a friend," I answered evasively. "Well", he replied, "if you want to get out tonight, better you wait at the bus stand. The last bus to Madras is just now coming." Then they were gone.

The sky cleared, the swirling gossamer ghosts of spent rainclouds giving way to the moon and stars and the inscrutable black infinity behind them. The night - cloaked and brooding, the antemundane mystery of existence that the day makes us forget with illusory forms and colors - glided silently out of the abyss of deep space and whispered secret life into the ancient stone pantheon of Mahabalipuram. The elephants trumpeted the arrival of the night, the apsaras danced to entertain him, the gods and sages offered him benedictions. A true connoiseur of the timeless, he remained impassive, enigmatic. The night had seen things far stranger than a celebration of statues.

I suddenly sensed that I was not alone. Muscles tensing, nostrils flaring in alarm, I strained to see whatever it was.

Something moved from behind a large boulder outside. I heard the soft tinkling of anklebells approaching as a small dark shape entered the mandapa and came before me. It was a little girl.

I stared at her hard through the moonlit gloom and remembered the dream clearly. This was the very girl herself, about seven years old and exceptionally pretty. She wore a silken blue full-length skirt and matching blouse, and had a fragrant flower pinned in her hair. Her wrists were adorned with bangles and she wore a gold chain around her neck.

Smiling shyly, she sat down daintily under the bas-relief of Devi. "Uncle, you're not leaving this place?" Her voice was soft and melodious.

"No, I was waiting here, hoping I would meet you."

"You were waiting for me?" She giggled. "Would you like some buttermilk?" She sprang up and skipped out of the mandapa and behind the rock again. I followed, half-expecting her to disappear as quickly as she appeared. She ran down a path to a nearby bungalow, its windows aglow with light. As I came up behind her, she called at the door and a lady appeared. "Please give Uncle some buttermilk," the little girl asked sweetly.

I stood outside the door with the child while the lady fetched a metal pitcher and a glass. When she returned, handing me the glass full, I asked her about the girl. "Her father is a government officer here," she told me. "I'm hired by him to take care of her. She's a very unusual child. She can predict the future."

The buttermilk was delicious. I returned the glass for a second filling, and as she poured, the lady added, "Some people in this town even think she is a goddess."

After finishing the milk, I bent and shook the child's hand. "Thank you, little princess. I think it's time for me to go, but I am very happy to have met you." She twinkled. "I'll walk with you to the bus stand."

I shook my head. "No, why there? The bus is gone by now." She giggled and teasingly retorted, "Not a bus, it's a car that you'll board there!"

"This is how she always speaks," the mistress cooed affectionately, stroking the child's cheek. We all set off together for the bus stand, a short walk away.

Suddenly, en route, the she stopped and tugged both our hands. "We have to go back to Mahishamardani Mandapam," she insisted repeatedly. The mistress apologized for her behavior. "She always does these things, and while some people like it and play along, others become annoyed. I hope she's not bothering you."

"No, not at all." I smiled and surrendered to her pulling of my thumb. We turned and walked past the bungalow and up the short path to the mandapa. While the mistress waited outside, I sat down in the room's darkness with the little girl standing before me.

To my utter surprise she began speaking about my experiments with tantra in Kerala, using terminology known only to those who are initiated into vamabaga. She then told me I was wasting my time by dabbling in mysticism and Advaita philosophy. "If you want to become useful in life," she said firmly, "then you may take up the worship of Bala, leaving aside all these other things you are doing."

Bala is Devi as a virgin girl. Worship of Bala is one of the purest kinds of puja in the Shakta line. Being a child, she does not award the kind of destructive boons sought after by the tantrics.

"But I have job," I answered almost plaintively. "Isn't that useful enough?" My mind was racing. Was Devi herself speaking through this child?

"It won't last," she said in the same firm tone. "You should become useful to everybody, to all living entities. But to come to this stage you must get free of lust, which you've failed to do by your own methods. The final goal of worship of Devi is simply to relate to the goddess and to all women in a pure way. Devi is our mother, and all females represent her. As long as you see women as objects of lust, you are as sinful as someone who lusts after his own mother. But if you respect the female principle properly as mother, you will actually become powerful. And useful."

I was speechless. How should I respond to such sagacious words coming from the mouth of a babe? But she suddenly tugged my hand and cried excitedly, "Uncle, let's go to the bus stop. Your car is ready."

We walked back the way we came and on to the bus stand. A hired Ambassador sat there with a driver behind the wheel and two foreign tourists in the back seat. The motor was running. The girl stepped up to the driver's window and exchanged some words with him. He turned to the tourists and asked them if I could ride in the car back to Madras. I offered to pay a third of the fare, and they nodded their assent. The girl then went around to the front door on the passenger's side and opened it.

"Get in, Uncle." I did as I was told. Before I could get her name, the car was rolling. Craning my neck out the window, I had my last sight of her and her mistress, silhouetted hand-in-hand on the dimly lit street, waving me off in that ageless night.