India keeps holding me close. No matter where I live, India has always moved me and she will always move with me.
Unlike others who come to find themselves on this magical land, I am not a seeker, nor do I follow a religion I just live by what I feel in the moment and in India I simply come to life by living the culture.
This time, my sadhana (practical studies) bring me to spiritual places, places were the great knowledge emerged from the mountains flowing downwards on the river of Ma Ganga, spreading words of wisdom into the world.
Rishikesh, named after the Rshi’s, seers, or the wise poets to whom the sacred Vedas where revealed in verses (mantras) during long periods of meditation, becomes my first destination. From what I've read there were about 400 rishis who had heard or seen these mantras (verses) and of those there were at least 25 known woman.
Having left Belgium with a base in Vedic mantra’s I came to search for a new teacher (guru) in an ashram. An ashram is a spiritual monastery were sadhaka’s (students), of Vedanta and Yoga philosophy live away from society to learn about the “Truth” of life and to focus on their spiritual practice.
I first visited the traditional ashram’s that were highly recommended but soon found out that, this wasn’t working out for me. At Swami Dayananda, the Swami Ji, I was referred to for my Vedic Chanting practice, didn’t even look me in the eye, nor listened to my voice. He rudely sent me away with the words: “I am busy, I have no time now”. There was no welcoming feeling nor help offered.
At Parmath Niketan Ashram, I was honoured to meet Mata Ji, the director and Sadviji of the ashram. With her I had a beautiful connection, we didn’t need words. We just chanted together and felt the joy and love of our short mantra practice together. She wanted to teach me but honestly admitted she couldn’t be of any help at this time due to a course she was running and due to the fact that my practice was Southern tradition while she was Northern educated.
Since I’ve learned to maintain my spiritual practice outside an Ashram, I didn’t feel the need any more to invest more energy in exploring other ashrams. I decided to follow some random yoga classes and was blessed to meet a young soul from Bangalore with a passion for Vedic mantras and Vedanta philosophy and so GopalJi came into my life as my new mantra master.
To me living in Rishikesh is just like living in Goa, a tourist destination to enjoy, that doesn’t resemble the Indian culture, nor the Indian life I came to live for and this was enough for me to follow Ma Ganga downwards to live a devotional life in a community that still resembles the ancient traditions. I’ve chosen, Varanasi also called Banaras or Kashi, one of the world’s most sacred cities. With my full expression of my inner being and full devotion to the higher Divinity I will be here to grow and expand.
Photo's taken in Rishikesh, Haridwar & Varanasi ~ Photo credits: Mata (Brigitte Gouwy)
As the sun sets or rises, the sound of the shankh (Śiva’s seashell) to evoke the spiritual world echo’s into the atmosphere. Vedas chanted forcefully with full devotion, oil lamps being gracefully twirled, a fresh scent of Jasmin flowers blended with doop (incense) and sweet flavours, decorated and dressed up icons, offers of sweets and holy Ganga water.
For the Hindu devotee, daily puja’s (worship) are essential to make a spiritual connection with the Divine or cosmos. Through invocations, prayers, songs, rituals and offers, they show their adoration and gratitude toward there God. Each offer is carefully handled, each mantra chanted flawless and with full observance. Nowhere else in this world you’ll find devotees with such dedication but in India and especially here in Banaras.
As for me, since I was little I had an interest in acts of worship. I remembered I always had some shrine with objects I had collected. Around the age of 13, after watching a movie about witches, I became intrigues with priestess things and started worshipping the five elements and paying my gratitude to our Earth, the moon, stars and sun. I always loved lighting candles, flowers and burning incense sticks but never had an idea of what I was doing until I discovered the Vedic traditions of worship, called pooja’s.
Attending a Christian mass as a baptised Christian was depressing and boring to me. Besides that, churches where cold, dark and reminded me on the death that was centralised by the crucifixion of Jesus. The bible stories didn’t make sense, the philosophy was poor and I never received the answers of what I wanted to hear about live after death.
As a kid, I wanted to sing in churches but was expelled from the kids-choir that traumatised my childhood and my drive to pursuit music classes during my adolescence. While in Europe and Australia they say the child isn’t suited for its chosen subject, in India they say anyone can do anything with full dedication, lets’ teach you.
The first time religious rituals left me motionless was in Bali when people stopped their lives for just a few minutes to a lit a candle and pray for their safe journey but India definitely stroke my heart when it comes to their devotional rituals. What may seems like a crazy religion to you, each deed, action and adoration towards an icon has many layers, its’ in fact a science that creates the entire lifestyle for the Hindu.
To me Hinduism isn’t a religion as many think, including Indians. Hinduism, is a philosophy that is lived by the Hindu’s, the people of Hindustani (India) who lived in the Indus valley. It roots from the Vedas and is passed on through family traditions. It’s a science towards living a balanced life, blissfully in peace and in unison with nature, the Earth and entire cosmos. But for common people who couldn’t understand the complex poetry of the Vedas, rules had to be set, stories had to be created and so icons of worship where born. Later it just turned into a commercial act, just as many other religions.
At my first temple visit in Manali I was already charmed by the performances of the priest, called a pandit. I was curious and wanted to know the significance of the activities. In the meantime, I have lived in various places in India and have seen many different rituals from the North to the South. I started observing the handlings of the devotees and that of the priests but it was only after studying Yoga and Vedanta that I started to understand.
During my Yoga TTC in Mysore I became absorbed with mantras, I felt a connection with these ancient texts and wanted to learn more. I was lucky to meet Shantalla, shortly after my return to Belgium. She’s a Bangalore born Sanskrit literate and Vedic chanting teacher, she was my inspiration and drive to where I am today.
Mantras are specifically engineered to release certain powers or natural forces that connect us beyond the physical plane of existence. It was during the recitation of a mantra that I discovered the power of sound, and its’ subtle vibrations. My focus and consciousness rose during my studies, meditation became easier and changes occurred in my perception. Today, I cannot deny the strength and the healing force of these ancient verses that are to be chanted in a very precise way.
Since my mantra practice, the acts of worship have also returned to my attention and this is what led me to living in Varanasi today. Banaras, Varanasi, Kashi is one of India’s most devotional and traditional cities were these ancient rituals are kept alive.
Devotees come to this sacred place from all over the world to pay their gratitude to the Lord, the cosmic force. From far and near, they come to pray, to ask for compassion, forgiveness or to purify themselves from sins, internal darkness and external negative influences. They come to make special wishes for themselves, beloved or friends or to exhale their final breathe in return for moksha (liberation) at Manikarnika Ghat.
Here in Banasras, its’ all about deifying “God”, this entire city evolves around prayers and offers. It is unavoidable not to miss one of the many idols. In every street there is at least one temple shrine and the longer I am here the more I am discovering.
What interests me the most are the hidden temples underground, which I not yet had seen in India. At times you see a glimpse of a Śhivling through a little window or gate as you direct your vision downwards in basement. Everywhere else in the world people have wine cellars, while in Kashi they have Śhivling crypts.
It is said that the city is based on a very strong magnetic, energetic field of our planet which wouldn’t surprise me as the energy here is of high resonation. Some of the Śhivlings are actually natural rock pillars that grow each year such as the one in Kedar Mandir.
The first few days upon my arrival, I didn’t knew how to deal with the strong sensations I was receiving in and around my body. Like a campfire in a storm, my energy danced chaotically. I remembered when I was here 3 years back, I couldn’t stay, it was too much and too intense. This time I wanted to stay, give this dancing fire time and find the peace within the chaos of this mystical place.
Where there are devotees, there are temples and so are the priests, lots of them. One of my mission here is to connect with the Brahmins and Pandits to learn from them the correct rituals for worship towards living a pure and devotional life.
Pandits, or priests are being trained from a very young age and to be graduated it takes around 18 years of training involving Sanskrit teachings, Yogic practices and Vedanta studies with sometimes up to 6 hours daily chanting.
I love listening to the mantras coming from the knowledge centres, temples and ashrams. I could listen to them all day and fall into a deep state of meditation but rather than doing that I would prefer to learn them by heart, chant myself all day and feel their vibration to transcend with the Divine. At this point, I have been carefully observing but from whom I will learn is a different quest.
Since the migration of the Aryans (Indo-Europeans), Vedic scripts were differently interpreted and woman were suddenly band from chanting and performing priestess rituals. Woman nowadays only chant Banyans, Kirtans (devotional songs) and some mantras to perform daily family rituals but there are no Pañini (female pandits) to be found.
In spite of the Upanishad’s that doesn’t distinct male or female neither says who should do what and who shouldn’t do, woman today are still forbidden to chant the Vedas and perform the tantric rituals (priest rituals) that go along with them. The Vedas talked about conversations between man and woman and that we should teach the Vedas to those whom are willing to learn with faith, interest and devotion.
In fact, before this invasion, in early Vedic times woman chanted and performed rituals just like there were witches in Europe who were burned alive and disappeared because their lives were under threat.
At this point, I have come across one Mata temple in Palolem, Goa, Mata Santosha mandir. So far she is the only female priestess, except for the babbi’s and sadhu’s (yogi’s), I have seen in a temple shrine, performing tantric rituals and accepting offers from devotees.
In this city most of the woman my age or older are householders, although change is coming rapidly in this new age. Young girls nowadays can study anything, even Pandit things but becoming and acting as a Pañini still seems far away. Even if this ancient city is still holding so strong to its tradition, I would love to see them in this 21st century, where woman are mechanical engineers, electricians, pilots and so on, perform the Aarti alongside the man at Assi Ghat.
I have been practicing on temple grounds and in a few occasions’ man looked at me disturbed, told me I shouldn’t chant the Vedas. On other occasions I have been praised and supported with my practice and been offered Prasad (blessed sweets) from the priests.
Photos above: Pañini’s at Panini Kanya Maha Vidyalay Ashram (left) and at Assi Ghat during the morning prayers (right).
Although my mission seems impossible, I was so excited to come across the Pañini’s. Young girls, who are trained and taught all of the 4 Vedas through recitation at the Panini Kanya Maha Vidyalay. I felt honoured to visit the Ashram on the outskirt of the city where I spend my afternoon amongst some very vibrant strong young woman and girls.
Their daily routine begins with a meditative practice before their mantra practice followed by pranayama and yoga. After breakfast their studies proceed including subjects such as Sanskrit, Hindi, English, music, dance and arts. Later in the afternoon they have a karate class to break the lectures, which surprised me pleasantly. And eventually their daily routines concludes with performing Homa (fire ritual), worships and mantra practice.
The girls are fully educated to perfection but none of them becomes an actual priestess. At the most they chant on Assi Ghat supporting a Homa (fire ritual) which is performed by a male priest, just as the Aarti (Pooja, worship) in the evening.
Perhaps one day in the near future we will see the change.
Video above: Pañini’s during "Subah-e-Banaras" Ganga aarti on Assi Ghat, Varanasi ~ Video credits:
Banaras beyond life and death
As I drink my morning tea at my local tea stall at least 3 bodies pass by. They are carried on a bamboo structure by their family members, wrapped in golden cloths, covered with flowers with a scent of perfumed balm and incense sticks. The entire day de mantra “Ram Naam Satya Hai” echoes through the alley that leads to Manikarnika Ghat. The recitation of this mantra, the name of Lord Rama, is sang to give mukti, liberation to the soul, meaning that we leave everything to God as He is the ultimate truth.
In the Hindu mythology it is believed that Manikarnika Ghat is especially sacred and when cremated here one receive moksha, or the transcendent state of salvation. Meaning that the soul becomes free from bondage and no longer requires rebirth. The soul merges with Brahman or the divine force and ultimate reality.
Confrontation with the death is unthinkable when living in one of the world’s most spiritual cities on Earth. The passing of the life is a daily passage especially when you live near Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat. The city burns daily around 80 to 120 bodies brought from different neighbouring districts.
Showing emotions isn’t permitted at the cremation site, therefore we rarely see any woman attending the ceremony. As well it is not recommended for woman to be in the act of setting the soul free as it is to be believed that woman are more sensitive to attract spirits. I call it “science of logic”, as woman are to give re-birth to souls that haven’t yet completed their “human” journey it makes them bait for floating spirits.
Photo's above: Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, India
But not only family members carry the death, so does the river Ma Ganga. Weekly five to ten floating bodies pass this holy city. I’ve seen many cows, dogs, occasionally a goat and was fortunate to witness two dead human bodies who stranded near my meditation spot. Seeing a human cadaver, full or half eaten didn’t touch me, but the smell is a different scent than that of the passing scented embalmed bodies.
Unfortunate for the deceased who has been ditched in the river by their family members, because following the Hindu rituals of cremation each act, blessing, mantra, extracts purity and positive vibration for a divine departure of the soul of the deceased. Again there is an entire science behind the rituals which evoking the five elements and work with the cosmic vibrations.
Death didn’t just captured me at Manikarnika Ghat. One day coming from the ghats on my way to Kedar Mandir (temple) I walked into a family carrying a lifeless body outside their home, throwing her on a wooden chariot. No doctors were present and it seemed a serious case of life and death.
Feeling completely detached from humanity, and having the sensation of a lost cause I still felt compelled to do whatever I could. At the same time I felt a little helpless having to apply my first aid knowledge for the first time but I tried.
Her pols was weak her breath very subtle or perhaps nothing was there, I had my doubts if she was in fact still a life. As I am doing the full body scan, bubbles come from her nostrils. Vomit. I did what I could but failed with my mouth to mouth performance as this left me refluxing from the excess gases coming from her body. I couldn’t anymore, she was death.
In the meantime, her husband and some others ran with the chariot through the tiny allies rushing her to the nearest hospital. I sat beside her, asking for forgiveness and wishing her a safe journey. On the way we passed by a doctor, who looked at us dumb and sent us away without even looking at her.
Through the never ending traffic jam we eventually arrived at the hospitals a half hour later. I gave the doctors the sign that she had left our planet, but they told the family she was alive and sent them away to another hospital. The reality here in Kashi is harsh, the first doctor didn’t care, the first hospital didn’t want to deal with her death body and then send the family running to the next hospital, thirty minute away thinking they would save her life.
This event made me think a lot about my future life I aspire to live on this land. Is it the universe showing me the reality or testing me how determined, strong I am?
The strangest thing is that I in fact had questioned my friend a couple of weeks before, what people do here in case of a life-death threat. Just to get you to the hospital in Kashi is a mission hard to accomplish. The small streets are not accommodated for transportation and even if so traffic completely holds you, standing foot or the hospital rejects you. Here I am a couple of weeks later life itself showed me the answer.
A big week later I saw the family again who was so pleased to see me pass. Her husband and an older lady hugged me and payed their gratitude me for all I had done. They gave me there blessings and confirmed with me she had left her two little children. They seemed at peace.
What may seem odd to most of my readers is that when you come to realise that life on Earth exists out of many, not a single ‘body’ lifespan but many births, deaths, rebirths things change. You become immune for the death, it doesn’t touch you, it doesn’t frighten you, it becomes like a daily routine just as you wake up and go to bed at the end of the day. Many of you wonder about life after death, are freighted to know the truth or are in complete denial.
In yoga science we are taught that our human system exists out of three bodies, our physical body, our intellectual body and our energy body, which is a subtle vibration, also called our aura or soul (atma). Just as everything else in nature we, beings resonate subtle “sound” vibration, even our thoughts vibrate through the atmosphere into the cosmos.
As we pass, those frequencies, subtle vibrations remain in existence and carry in fact a lot of history which can have a huge impact on our current life, behaviour, intellect and surrounding …
For example, a couple of years back I received a memory of a beautiful love story I once lived. The story was about my lover. He was a devotee, a musician that played on temple grounds where we often met in secret. We wanted to marry but our love was forbidden by our cast and my parents had arranged a different plan. I fled my home and moved from ashram to ashram, to avoid being wed out to a stranger. Instead, I devoted my life to the poor, education and children.
About a year before this memory appeared in a state of meditation, I met a boy who happened to represented this man from that past life love story.
Everytime I heard him play, I received a strong sensation, a familiar memory of knowing him. As years passed I kept hearing his voice, I kept seeing him in dreams, I could feel his whispers in my heart. I had to face him, see him for real. I wanted clarity and understanding of my inner feeling and so I did.
Meeting the person behind the play of Maha Maya (the world greatest illusion), I indeed receive a tremendous sensation of love every time I heard his play in temples. A feeling of in-loveness arose at times so strong I thought it was real. Luckily as always, the truth reveals itself as it reveals it comes with detachment followed by freedom, lots of freedom.
This encounter proofed to me that the memories of our astral body cannot distinguish reality from illusion and what our mind makes up of the current situation. The vibrations we pick up may not discriminate past from current and as they say: “Don’t be fooled by love as love is blind.”
Nevertheless this illusionary love story, moved by the life in Kashi and living in the Indian chaos by Ma Ganga enchanted me so much that I changed all my plans and decided to stay. I cancelled a job that came as a gift from God but the magnetic force of Varanasi is so magical and mystic that its pulled me and asked me to stay, to live it, to feel it. So lets’ see what more this sacred city gives. In the meantime I keep chanting, keep learning …
Mata with love for India.
“The timeless glory of the Divine intelligence reveals the true path of peace,
happiness and Divine enlightenment.
To taste the sweetness of His Divine love in an intimate style
is the guideline for the true lovers of God who desire.”
~ Wikipedia ~
Resources and interesting links:
Panini Kanya Maha Vidyalay, Varanasi (U.P.): http://paninikanya.org/contact.html |
Story of Kedareshwar temple, Varanasi and Manikarnika: http://www.shaktipeethas.org/shiva-temples/topic19.html
Manikarnika ghat, Varanasi, India
Hindu cremation rituals for the death:
“Ram Naam Satya Hai” ~ https://www.rvcj.com/heres-say-ram-naam-satya-hai-carrying-dead-cremation-ground/
Post Scriptum: “The above text are my diary notes of my travels in India 25 July 2018 - 20 October 2018 , they are notes based on my personal observations, feelings and perceptions. My intentions are of pure heart and not to offend people nor to disrespect cultures or religions. In case you feel so I apologies in advance. And if there is any incorrectness feel free to write me privately on email@example.com” ~ Brigitte Gouwy (Mata)
Author, Design & illustrations by Brigitte Gouwy (Mata)
Photography by Mata unless stated differently © 2014 - All Copyrights reserved by Brigitte Gouwy alias Mata, MataArt, Mata-Designs.