Monday, October 6, 2014

Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva

The Laxmi-Narayan Temple bustles with people.  Children follow parents and grandparents, cousin-sisters and uncles, circling clockwise and visiting each god in their turn. A few of the younger ones turn to gawk and I smile, which makes them giggle and hide in their mothers' pallus.

If you visit the temple, and you are a foreigner, you are guided to a small room to the left of the arm-guarded entrance.  There are small lockers for cameras and a place to leave your shoes.  The gods don't like shoes, and they don't like pictures.

The first time I went to the temple, a decade ago, I went with my friend Avnish, husband of Ushi, keeper of the shawls. Avnish said temples are to be circumabulated clockwise, and so I did.  Plaques remind worshipers of the importance of yogic discipline.  Laxmi is the consort of Vishnu, in this temple manifested as Narayan, and they occupy larger shrines and attract the biggest crowds.  There are smaller shrines all around the central shrine:  one to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of luck and new beginnings, and in the back, one to Krishna, who plays his flute surrounded by mirrors.  ("If you look around, you see the joy of Krishna's flute everywhere," smiled Avnish.) 

The Shiva shrine is to the right of the central shrine. One over-eager Westerner has prostrated himself before Shiva and seems content to remain in place even though a sweeper is sloshing soapy water on the marble flooring nearby. 

Shiva is the god of destruction and renewal, that endless cycle of change that enlivens the universe. The symbol of devotion that is dotted in the place of the third eye is not vermillion or turmeric, but ash, the ash of the cream action grounds but also the ash from which the Phoenix rises. On that first trip to the temple, I touched the ash to my forehead and felt a rush of joy and optimism at the idea of endless transformation and renewal.

I think of that day now, because I am back in India for the first time in four years. Shiva danced much of my old universe out of being in that time, with a layoff and new job, a move after thirty years in California, losses and ashes. And as always, there are new joys and new opportunities, and I am here, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, searching out the beauty that is in this place.

In Jaipur, where I am now, there is a place that is the burial ground for the rulers of Jaipur, all intricately carved marble and a silence broken only by bird calls. Outside that place is a small Shiva shrine, a Shiva--lingam (the phallic symbol that represents creation and the power of renewal) garlanded with marigolds and smeared with honey and milk and turmeric. A friend once touched its base and was overcome with emotion that Shiva seems to inspire. 

Shiva is the god of paradox, loved and feared, embraced and distanced. In a few days i will be back in Delhi, and I will visit the temple and once again be renewed.

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