When Shiva’s demonic servants destroyed Daksha’s fire sacrifice they shook the balance of the universe. The gods realized that if the ghouls and demons were allowed to continue their rampage they might destroy much of creation. And if a ritual of such import went uncompleted who knew what kind of chaos might result. Brahma, the Creator, and Vishnu, the universal Preserver, traveled to the mountains and begged Shiva to end the madness.
Shiva’s grief endured but his anger cooled. He went to the site of the yagna and sent his ghouls back home to the Himalayas. Then he found Daksha’s headless corpse and attached the head of a sacrificial goat to the neck. Daksha came back to life and instantly prostrated before Shiva. The three-eyed god pardoned his father in law and Daksha was from then on his staunch devotee.
Sati’s half-burnt body lay still and cold in the ashes. Weeping inside, Shiva lifted her onto his shoulders and carried her off from that fateful place. He wandered all over the land of India carrying his wife’s corpse. As he walked pieces of her body and jewelry broke off and fell to earth. The sites where a part of Sati landed became the Shakti peethas, highly sacred goddess temples where worship continues to this day.
As I approached Daksha Mandir, the purported site of that fateful sacrifice, my mind was moving in circular patterns like a kitten chasing its tail. Or perhaps a baby monkey is a more apt simile. The streets of Kankhal were empty and this threw me off completely. In India one becomes used to moving in crowds, constantly shouldering, nudging, being subjected to the shouldering a nudging of others, dodging motorcycles, trying not to tread on small children and cow patties. Something about the cold, empty streets with their shuttered windows and closed-up shops seemed wrong and eerie. From time to time I ran into posses of stray dogs who would follow me barking loudly, though they never got within biting range. I thought it best to ignore them. I was experiencing occasional stomach discomfort, but that is par for the course in India, especially when your digestive system is as finicky as mine.
Time slowed to a crawl. The night air felt dark and thick, a kind of ooze or ectoplasm which held me and made forward motion difficult. Whenever I checked the time it was invariably at least a half hour behind my guess. In distant places people were chanting the names of Shiva.
Sometimes I passed by lighted temples in which clusters of people sat around linga offering milk, incense, prayers. I realized at some point, perhaps midnight, that I did not really know where I was going. I had no map, no phone, and I had been forced to detour from the river by the Delhi highway. Kankhal by night was completely different from Kankhal by day. I recognized nothing. Maybe you’ll call me foolhardy, but I’ve always trusted my sense of direction, even when I don’t know a place. It’s hard to explain in abstract terms, so I’ll give an example. Some four years ago I drove with a friend of mine from New Hampshire to a country dance in Greenfield, Massachusetts. My friend and I were too busy chatting and listening to music to pay much attention to directions and ended up missing the Greenfield exit. Neither of us owned a phone at the time and the car we were in didn’t have a GPS. I think sensible people would probably have turned back at the next opportunity and made for the correct exit. But my friend and I have always agreed on one thing when we travel together: never turn back. If we have to return somewhere we go in a circle. Only in the direst need will we retrace steps already taken. In this spirit we took the next exit which presented itself and drove off into unknown countryside, simply using the available roads and guessing. When we arrived at a fork in the road we played rock-paper-scissors to choose a direction. Chance was our only guide and still we arrived in Greenfield early and had time to get pizza and sit down to it.
That’s just luck, you say. Well, I trust my luck. I trust my intuition. So in the spirit of that long ago drive on the other side of the world I continued on through the alien, dog-haunted streets. When I arrived at Daksha Mandir it was lit up with green and glittering lights. In the West we tend to dress religion up in solemnity. Our gods wear respectable clothes and our churches are respectably, tastefully designed and decorated. In India things are different. Of course the ancient stone temple structures are beautiful and intricate, but they are usually covering with lights, cloth, neon, glitz and glitter. The aesthetic sense here goes so far beyond tacky that it arrives at sublime.
The lingam in Daksha Mandir is unique in that it is not a phallus but a low bowl-shaped stone. Like Daksha, it has been beheaded. I made my way into the inner sanctum, prostrated before the lingam, and received some prasad (food which has been offered to the deity). After eating the banana and ladhu I made my way to the bank of the Ganga and located a spot to meditate. There is a certain banyan tree between Daksha Mandir and the river where the great saint Anandamayi Ma used to meditate. I sat beneath its ancient limbs and tried to calm my mind. It may have been the bhang finally taking my side, or perhaps it was some residual influence left there by the presence of Ma, but I became incredibly focused and still. Between my eyes and inside my head I experienced a weird sensation, as if my brain slowly imploded. That may sound frightening but in the moment it was very pleasurable.
Soon however the acute sensation of peace was replaced by the acute sensation of cold stone against my ass. I stood and went down to the river. I decided that I would walk back to Haridwar by a different route wherever possible. I went on beside the river. The stone steps were completely deserted and I could hear the whisper of Ganga moving against them. I passed a cluster of small house-like shrines. They were grave markers.
Shiva’s deceased wife Sati gave her name to practice at one time common in India where recently widowed women were expected to hurl themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands and join them in death. The custom was outlawed by Queen Victoria in 1861 and more strictly banned by the Sati Prevention Act in 1988. These small grave markers were in honor of women who had committed, or been forced to commit, sati. I wonder, is it right to ban such a thing? Of course no woman should ever be forced to die simply because her husband has, that much is absolutely clear. Still, to ban suicide in any form seems to me completely immoral. It flies in the face of human rights. If we have a right to anything in this world it is the right to decide what we will do with our own bodies, up to and including the deaths of those bodies. If a widow honestly wishes to burn with her husband then shouldn’t it be allowed? Of course the issue is much more complex. There is custom and coercion involved, both of which may constitute and negation of the widow’s legitimate choice. And what about the accounts of women being forced bodily into pits of fire? We humans are unbearably strange. The empty windows of those tiny hollow houses watched me like passive eyes.
When I at last made it back to my hotel my feet were sore and my right ankle was making a troubling squeaking noise. My walking boots fell apart a month ago, after years of abuse, so I had had to travel in my treadless dressy shoes (dressy no more). It was growing colder too as the night approached those chilliest hours which come just before dawn. But at the hotel I was in store for a final obstacle.
The gate was locked. I could see that a light was on in the receptionists office but no matter how hard I knocked I got no response. Perhaps he was asleep at the desk, or had forgotten to turn off the light when he left. The gate was too high to climb and besides it was right on the main street. I didn’t much fancy being seen and questioned by somebody. Still, all hope was not lost. This hotel looked out onto the Ganga and even possessed its own private bathing ghat, right on the water. If I could get to the river I could probably walk along the ghats and reach the hotel from that side. I made my way down two alleys, one dark and the next nearly pitch black, before I found the river. The hotel’s private ghat was protected from both sides by metal fencing which stuck out into the water. I thought about the ipod in my pocket, the money and cards in my wallet, and the clothes in my backpack. Then I put my fingers through the holes in the fence mesh and set my toes in below. The fence was old and wobbly and I didn’t trust it with my full weight. Still, what choice did I have?
I clambered out above the water, made my way around the spiked outer edge of the fence by leaning out above the river, and arrived again on solid stones. I stood on the ghat steps and took in the sight of the black river glistening under white lights. Haridwar had somehow grown quiet. My journey was complete but I felt that it needed a coda, something to represent finality. A closing ceremony.
I stripped off my clothes and stepped down into the dark water. I expected it to be freezing and was pleasantly surprised to find it merely frigid. Holding onto one of the chains set there for the purpose I waded in until my knees were underwater, then squatted and submerged myself. The cold night water and cold night air felt synonymous.
I exited Ganga, toweled off, dressed, and crossed the hotel courtyard to reach my room. In the end, though I tried to keep awake through the small hours by chatting with my friend P (she was not up for Shivaratri, but her jet lag woke her around 2 am anyway) the fatigue and residual bhang in my stomach conspired against me. I drifted off sometime after 3:30. When I woke up the recently risen sun was painting gold on the windows. So, I had not made it through to dawn. Still I was not disappointed. I had met with some fear, some joy, some peace, and many healthy dollops of confusion. That was my taste of Shiva.