Our objective was to explore, inwardly and outwardly, the different faces of the sacred feminine so brilliantly articulated by the Shakti and Tantric traditions in Indian culture. This tour was also a manifestation of a long held dream, one sparked by a radical kundalini awakening that I experienced at the age of 20, initiated by a master of one such tradition.
Exploring the Shakti goddesses allows us Westerners to touch layers of the deep feminine that have become anaesthetised and anaemic in our culture.
These range from the fierce to the erotic, the abundant to the ecstatic, the transformative to the restorative. This is a pathway to purifying distorted inner primal layers and reclaiming safe, authentic psycho-spiritual empowerment. Our sexuality once more becomes sacred, preparing us for the sacred marriage as both an inner union and fulfilling relationships.
India is unique in so many ways; importantly, most of its inhabitants actually live their spiritual culture on a day-to-day basis. So, despite the poverty, chaos and pollution, this spiritual depth pervades the psychic environment. It provides the spiritual technology to access the divine through powerful mantras, chanting and meditation practices. And there is less division between the worldly and sacred, all of which creates a field that invites each individual to connect deeply to their inner divinity.
India is unique in so many ways; importantly, most of its inhabitants actually live their spiritual culture on a day-to-day basis.
Our base is the small pilgrimage town of Ganeshpuri two hours from Mumbai in West India. The settlement grew around an enlightened master called Bhagavan Nityananda, who came into the area in the 1930s when it was raw jungle to take advantage of the natural hot springs to soothe his arthritis. Nityananda's tomb or Mahasamadhi shrine is the centrepiece around which the entire village revolves.
Within this village is a small guesthouse run by exceptionally generous and loving hosts for our group of seven women and three men. As five of our group had never been to India before, the feeling of being absorbed into this extended family in a mostly quiet town was the perfect way to ease into this complex and chaotic culture.
Our own program was to spend some time each day connecting with individual goddesses, through their myths, meditation, mantra and experiential astrology. Later, we would visit the local temples to each, whether on foot, rattling along in rickshaws or by car and bus.
Having prepared internally during the morning we would then have time to visit, meditate and tune into the energies of each goddess in their temple, whether Durga, Kali, Lalita, Lakshmi, Parvati, Radha or Sita. And as 2015 has been, astrologically, a year of the sacred marriage, we also spent time in the temples of their consorts, particularly that of Shiva.
I struggle to put into words how deeply this combination of experiences opened all of us up to the Shakti, or spiritual power, of each of these expressions of the sacred, whether male or female.
The very next village of Vajreshwari has a 300 year old black granite temple to Kali and the central altar has three human size murtis or statues of this fierce but beautiful goddess. While you feel the ancient power of her, there is so much love that her faces literally shine.
Since it is Navratri, the nightly ceremonies and festivities supplement our own program. A highlight is a ritual circular dance that starts slowly with a simple skip and glide eight-step movement. As it proceeds, it draws literally hundreds of people of all ages into a serpentine circle that moves in unison and takes up the whole of the main street.
Our crew progressively join in, to the delight of the locals and we become famous for our dancing! The sense of a community in common rhythmic movement is entrancing and a joy to experience. Eventually, the pace builds to the point where it becomes a free-for-all Bollywood-style expression session around midnight. Great fun and a welcome balance to our intense and powerful inner practices of the day.
Our crew progressively join in, to the delight of the locals and we become famous for our dancing!
By day eight, we had visited the MahaLaxmi temple at Varai, the Parvati Temple at Santoshi, and a very potent hilltop temple to Lalita, the goddess of sacred sexuality at Jivdani, where they have the spiritual version of a mosh pit for going safely into trance and catharsis!
When I first came to India in 1982, I was taken to an obscure mountain temple of a version of Durga, an unforgettable experience that had me vowing to return. On day nine, we make it to Saptashrungi, whose history makes this goddess, who was an actual emanation in the sheer rock wall of the last peak of the mountain, the intersecting point of four major stories in Hindu mythology. And she radiates her Shakti over the entire region, something we clearly feel as we approach her mountain.
So we rise at 4:30am to climb the last 500 steps to the Devi's actual temple to meditate and watch the dawn awaken over the plains below.
We take part in the morning arati, a sweet yet boisterous ceremony linking our own hearts to the heart of the goddess. She is awesome, a mixture of Durga and Kali, three metres high with 18 arms and the round face of a child.
Having stayed overnight to get maximum exposure to the Devi's energy, we then move down the mountain to meet with her consort, in the form of the ancient Shiva Temple in the town of Trimbakeshwara. This is a famous Jyoti Lingam whose central sanctum is not a statue but a column of light said to drive into the earth's core while piercing into the heavens.
Shiva is said to be the highest expression of refined masculine power - part yogi, part cosmic dancer, a Tantric God and untameable wild man, whose consorts are three faces of the same goddess, Kali/Durga, Parvati, the goddess of the sacred marriage, and Lalita, the goddess of sacred sexuality. Again, we get up early to beat daily crowds that wait up to four hours to spend a brief moment in the inner sanctum. Even at 5am the atmosphere inside the temple is dense and noisy with multiple Brahmins plying their trade with mantras and pujas.
Nevertheless, the energy that resonates with the central core of our own chakra system is obviously present as we cram into a corner to meditate. This combination of intense Shiva energy overlaid by Brahmanic business proves too much for the women in our group who progressively leave, leaving the three of us men to dive deeply into this stream of Shiva consciousness.
This swing towards the sacred masculine is then incredibly sweetened as, after the obligatory chai to ease out of the Shiva "stoned" experience, we make our way up a nearby hill to a very old temple site. While it is currently being rebuilt, its essence is that of Lalita and Parvati, two goddesses of the sacred union with Shiva. Their softer energy draws us even deeper into heart spaces, a lusciousness that is erotic and yet something beyond it as well.
Working with these great powers is simultaneously opening and intensely healing. Our experience ranges from ecstasy and gratitude to sorrow and rage, as any journey towards the sacred marriage must do to clear the way.
Of all the myths, that of Sita and Rama stirs our group the most, with its story of the betrayal of the feminine by the orthodoxy of masculine dharma.
This brings the shadow of India into stark focus; the treatment of women, especially widows, the sexual violence, pollution, poverty, the domination of the temples by Brahmin priests
This brings the shadow of India into stark focus; the treatment of women, especially widows, the sexual violence, pollution, poverty, the domination of the temples by Brahmin priests. Kali rears her enraged head in our group and we work with her demand for expression and release.
By this stage we are pretty much cooked and happy to be heading home to Ganeshpuri for two days of rest before our final completion ceremony to honour the Shiva/Shakti relationship. In this stage, the men and women separate overnight and go off to do their separate business.
We men rise early, walk into the village for the morning arati, and bathe in the hot springs before putting on our white kirtas and meditating in the Shiva temple. We then move to our host's family farm where we create circle for the final ceremony, just finishing as the women, resplendent in their saris, emerge single file and chanting out of the forest. And we honour the goddess in them and they the god in us, before we bring the symbols of the inner sacred marriage together for each individual.
This could easily be seen as pantomime but it invokes depth and texture, heart fullness and release. The last 14 days have been beautiful, challenging and gracious with pockets of great joy and gratitude and now we are completely, happily saturated with the energy of the goddess.
Daniel Sowelu (BSc Dip Ed) is a therapeutic astrologer, primal therapist and groupleader in his 35th year of private practice.