10 November 2011/day 5 of Panauti somayajña.
“O thou who seest all things, Sovran as thou art and passing strong, thy rays encompass all abodes.
Pervading with thy natural powers thou flowest on, and as the whole world’s Lord, O Soma, thou art King.
The beams of Pavāmana, sent from earth and heaven, his ensigns who is ever steadfast, travel round.”
This morning, I am stepping on the earth more carefully than before; I take the Nepali tilaka with a careful hand, moving slowly to impress every moment with significance. It’s the last full day of rituals here, and I do not know if I will be blessed to witness this rite again.
I pull off my heavy sandals and duck inside, hoping to slip into the shelter’s peace unnoticed. A few children run past me, skipping a circle on the mats and then looking back at me giggling. People have already started to gather, and a lady makes a circling gesture, her and her companions’ faces asking an untranslated question. I nod. Today will be more parikrama indeed, to offer devotions into this living temple while it still stands.
I realise that I have not visited Indreshwar temple, and may not, because I don’t want to leave these potent fires to step on cold, ancient stone.
A few volunteers sweep yesterday’s dust from the carpets and mats as I set down my bag and jacket and prepare to walk. Two-and-a-half sides of the rectangular ground are covered; the remaining one-and-a-half sides are bare dirt with pebbles, sharp rocks, hay blades. My feet are already sore and torn. But I take heart; there is no need to rush on this calm, cool early morning, and I recall Śrī Ramana Mahaṛṣi’s instruction on parikrama:
“One should go round either in mouna (silence) or dhyana (meditation) or japa (repetition of Lord’s name) or sankeertana (bhajan) and thereby think of God all the time. One should walk slowly like a woman who is in the ninth month of pregnancy.”
Silent japa seems to echo and vibrate within the body, and I am already restless; walking slowly does not come naturally to me. But I move, my heart attentive to the centre fires, and a dreamy peace descends.
More and more people arrive, and outward silence departs. A few children begin to walk with me, asking detailed questions in English. Their energy wants answers, but that my focus is elsewhere; I answer them in a daze. I count each circumambulation by the mālā anchored on my wrist. It occurs to me that I am being watched with every revolution, eyes following, and then I realise that the eyes of others do not matter – or rather, that the human condition involves many eyes watching, that the notion of unknown privacy is illusory anyhow. I listen to the singing at the centre of my footsteps, and am reminded of the cones of power raised in pagan circles, the synchronized dances around the Vodou temple’s center; I fervently hope that the energy of this effort resonates similarly in Vedic ritual, to contribute in even some small way.
Around the thirtieth round, the morning subrahmaṇyā pervades the structure and positively electrifies the air; the power of this rite has been growing day by day, and the priests sing boldly today. I feel content. Dried fruit and nuts from the chant taste like heaven itself. This chant makes me so happy. I continue my own prayers to Beloved.
As I continue to walk, I am brought small bowls of prasad which I leave with my friends; I wish no more food or water until the end. A university professor stops me for a moment, asks if I understand what I see. We discuss Veda for a few minutes, and his face softens from its stern and scholastic mien to a warmth I did not expect to see. You look and behave as an Indian devotee, he tells me. Finish your parikrama.
I think it is halfway through when Baba arrives to the grounds. He grins and gestures around the Soma-house; I nod, and show him my mālā with its current count. He smiles and hands me a piece of fruit before going on his way. I reach out, take it, and lose my touch on the beads for a moment.
Isn’t this what happens in forgetting God for a moment? I think wryly. Lose your path! Fortunately, I knew the count in my mind, found the right bead and continued. A good lesson.
I am in the seventies or so when I begin to tire. I am wearying of questions, looks, the pebbles on my feet, rounding the ritual instead of observing it, and then one of the priests stops me with an upraised hand. He pulls a marigold garland from a table and drapes it gently around my neck, then claps my shoulder with an encouraging smile and gestures me onward. Could I have doubted the power of a single simple gesture?
I don’t look at anyone anymore. The faces, I can see them following me but everything is a blur. The fire in the centre of the space, the fire in the centre of me, the chants around and within. Only Veda. Should I care that my feet hurt, that I felt hungry or tired? Only Veda.
At 107 I feel oddly sad; once there had been a time when yajña was life, wasn’t there? But this grief faded; inner yajña is eternal and needs nothing but desire and knowledge.
I complete the final pradakṣina in peace, and half-collapse into a prostration as my stiff joints remember again how to bend to the earth. Though it seems my spirit never rose from the dust of this place. I pray quietly: Beloved, let me keep You at the centre of my life as long as I live. And it is done.
Everything after that seems strange, as though I’d known reality only in the parikrama and then drifted into dreams. I sat in a chair. I ate sooji halwa, I drank water, refueled the body though nothing “I” had achieved was mine; the Lovely One had kindled, fulfilled, and extinguished desire.
I walked for a while, took another bowl of prasad, returned to the shade by the altars. Three women stopped me and held out hands in the manner of receiving. I was astonished; I had been told that Nepalis do not share food. But then I think, they are not asking food of a person, they seek the blessings of an act of tapasya. I give, and continue back to my seat, and as the day of conversations and conventional behaviour continues, I slowly sink deeper into the dream where daily life again matters.
That night, the priests must muster all of their strength to haul and place several huge, heavy logs – including the one to the left of the altar in this photograph – into the fire.
And the fire burns very brightly as a huge multi-gallon jug of ghee is poured steadily into it.
I think this fire is the garhapatya, but I’m not certain.
I watch the fire for a long time. I wish I could do more. But still I am not a priest myself, not even a student. Only a devotee, and tomorrow the ritual ends, and what then, what will I do then?
Hours later, I leave the shelter and look up to the cold Moon as if for answers – Indu, Soma – and suddenly see, and remember, the Full Moon night. Without realising it, I had done my worship that morning during the Pūrṇimā tithi. Bright, blissful light streams down, unexpectedly soothing my low mood, and oṁ somāya namaḥ reverberates in my thoughts as I walk – a wanderer, seeking a direction under the gaze of the Moon and the stars’ thousand eyes.
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