There’s the question of deities in India. They can represent the myriad attributes of the Divine, and our interaction with the sacred.
The Indian people are in general very accepting. As a result, Hinduism is one of the most accepting religions- you can often pick your own deity.
I like Ganesha. Being the Remover of Obstacles, he’s one of the most popular deities in Hinduism. Who doesn’t want that?
Generally, what I want doesn’t coincide with what the universe decides I need.
After a long day of yoga practice, swimming, powder massage and Ayurvedic cooking class, we made our way toward the rickshaw stand in Trivandrum to find a ride home. Before we reached it, we discovered a Ganesha temple. They sold coconuts for 10INR (20 cents). We bought coconuts, because if you throw them inside a pit in the temple and they crack, Ganesha grants your wishes.
I was nervous about being strong enough to break the shell, but it turns out, a coconut striking a stone wall inevitably breaks. My wishes would come true!
I was then given a piece of coconut to offer to the deity in the inner sanctum of the temple, so I got in line to enter the area (after mistakenly thinking I was supposed to eat the coconut shard and taking a bite). A man with a fleshy pouch for an eye came up and spoke vehemently about something. After a while, I gathered I could not enter the inner sanctum because I was not wearing a sari.
The men, by the way, were mostly shirtless, with a piece of cloth tied around their hips.
Ganesha, my favorite, had denied me access.
Still buoyed by the memory of my shattered coconut, I drove a sleepy 20 minutes home in a rickshaw, dodging pariah dogs, bicycles and all manner of other conveyance. I told my friends I thought I knew a shortcut, and as usual, we became lost, winding through mazes of alleyways filled with small shops selling tiny gods and crystals, artwork and hippy clothing.
Eventually we came to a temple and decided to enter. The priest gave us prasad and explained that the temple in front of us belonged to Parvati, the mothering, benevolent consort of Shiva.
Usually when I receive prasad at a temple, it is food to eat. I was confused when this prasad was composed of red powder and flowers on a banana leaf. I assumed I was supposed to offer it to Parvati. I began to climb the steps to her temple.
“No!” the priest cried, rushing over.
Apparently I was not supposed to climb the steps.
“Only Brahmin,” he said.
Parvati had rejected me as well.
There was another temple area and I asked the priest what deity resided inside.
“Bhadrakali,” the priest said. I had no idea who that was. I could barely tell what the image inside the temple represented until my friend Liza pointed it out. (I had thought the head was a sweater or something.)
“See the blue head and the crazy eyes and tongue?” she said. “That is Kali.”
I stood and gazed at the image, and the priest appeared beside me, smiling. He handed me a banana leaf covered with fruit and ghee.
Success. Apparently this deity had chosen me.
Of course, I thought. Just when I’ve become a full-fledged vegetarian on principle, the goddess of carnage and animal sacrifice appears. So appropriate.
Since visiting the Kali temple, I have been visited by a strange force. I’ve been a bit confrontational. I’ve demanded what I need. Instead of negative reactions from my friends, they seem thankful.
“I think you needed a little Kali energy,” Liza says.
I look up Bhadrakali on Wikipedia. Bhadrakali is the manifestation of Kali worshiped in this region of India, Kerala. She’s the auspicious and fortunate goddess of battle.
There is a ritual in which you seek to confront Kali, and thereby assimilate and transform her into a vehicle of salvation. This fits within the tenets of yoga. Pantajali says all fear, at its heart, is a fear of death. Conquering the fear of death conquers fear.
From Wikipedia: In the Mahanirvana-tantra, Kāli is one of the epithets for the primordial sakti, and in one passage Shiva praises her:
He, O Mahākāli who in the cremation-ground, naked, and with dishevelled hair, intently meditates upon Thee and recites Thy mantra, and with each recitation makes offering to Thee of a thousand Akanda flowers with seed, becomes without any effort a Lord of the earth. 0h Kāli, whoever on Tuesday at midnight, having uttered Thy mantra, makes offering even but once with devotion to Thee of a hair of his Shakti [his energy/female companion] in the cremation-ground, becomes a great poet, a Lord of the earth, and ever goes mounted upon an elephant.
So, in seeking transformation, I don’t get the contented god Ganesh. I get the terrifying goddess of fear itself. At least in its auspicious form, the odds are that I will confront her and win.