From the book Yoga and the Sacred Fire by David Frawley (Lotus Press)
I first discovered the Goddess as the muse that arose as part of my youthful poetic inspirations before I had even heard of the path of Yoga or studied any eastern spiritual traditions. The muse is the intimation of beauty and mystery who guides us along our path beyond the world of necessity to the heart of creation. She is a form of the Goddess highly honored by the ancient Greeks and Romans and never completely lost to western culture unlike so many others.
Many western poets have lauded her from the medieval poet Dante to the modern French poet Yves Bonnefoy whose works I found particularly inspiring. Most poignant is Bonnefoy’s discovery of the muse of the Earth, the stone and shadow who carries the secret light that allows us to go beyond death and suffering. This is a power that we need to recognize once more today for a creative renewal to occur within us:
Oh with your wing of earth and shadows wake us
Angel vast as the earth, and bear us here
To the same part of the mortal earth
For a beginning. May the ancient fruits
Be our thirst and hunger now assuaged.
The fire be our fire…[i]
The muse is the secret voice and presence of nature as the guide of the soul. Through her the forms of nature become transparent as symbols and metaphors for our own deeper strivings and aspirations. She is the beauty of nature personified as a spiritual force.
In the yogic traditions of India, I discovered that this feminine power of inspiration had never been reduced to a mere poetic device but remains as a spiritual reality, the very power of consciousness itself. In Vedic thought, the Goddess herself is the Divine Word, called Vak –the Word Goddess who like the Logos creates the entire universe. In the yogic view, in the beginning was the Word but the Word was the Goddess. Her main form is called Sarasvati, which means ‘she of the flowing movement of inspiration’.
The Goddess represents the Divine creative force, which is only natural as it is the mother who gives birth to and nourishes the child. In Yoga she is a living force of inner transformation that one can contact within one’s own heart. She is the very power of Yoga or Yoga Shakti that provides the energy and grace to carry us along the ascending path to Self-realization.
Yet the Goddess is not simply an ethereal form but is embodied through great female gurus like Anandamayi Ma (1895-1982), the ‘bliss-permeated’ mother of Bengal. Anandamayi Ma was generally regarded as the foremost woman saint of India of the last century, the Great Mother for many yogis, sadhus and pandits, comparable only to Ramana Maharshi as the Great Father.[ii] I corresponded with Ma for several years in my twenties through Atmananda, one of her western female disciples. She guided me in my early Yoga practices and aided in my discovery of the Vedas.[iii] She gave me the confidence to proceed in my esoteric quest, at a time in which I had no other real support. For her devotees, Anandamayi Ma was the Goddess as a human being.
Another such living form of the Goddess is Mata Amritanandamayi of Kerala, also called Ammachi, who has many centers in the West and frequently visits the United States. Nearly a million people from all over the world recently came to India for her fiftieth birthday celebration. Several other such great mothers or female gurus now visit the West regularly as well.
The Goddess is an essential part of any real work with the sacred fire, which is her means of manifestation. All the main Hindu Goddesses, including Lakshmi, who rules over beauty, love and prosperity, and Kali, who governs suffering, death and transformation, originally arose from the sacred fire.[iv] In my study of Vedic and Tantric Yogas, I discovered many forms of the Goddess that we can approach through ritual, mantra and meditation — notably the Dasha Mahavidya or Ten Great Wisdom Powers of the Goddess, on which I have written.[v] Her powers and manifestations occur on all levels of existence from the Absolute to the very ground on which we stand. The entire universe is her flowering, but fire is perhaps her most essential form.
We can all feel the presence of the Goddess in nature, particularly in displays of beauty and light. I came to sense her in the feminine forms of nature through the waters, valleys, plants, clouds and stars. As the mountain Goddess and wife of Shiva, the mountain God, I could feel her as much in the Rocky Mountains of this country as in the Himalayas of India. She communicates to us through nature wherever we may be, as the spirit of the land on which we live.
As I took on a more social activist role relative to environmental issues and the preservation of native cultures, I found her again as the warrior-goddess Durga, who leads the Divine army. [vi] All those who strive to take the light of truth forward in humanity, we could say, become part of Durga’s army. To those whom she specially blesses, she grants her many weapons to destroy the powers of darkness, the foremost of which is her sword that represents the power of discrimination. Certainly we need the help of Durga in order to overcome the many difficulties that lie before our species. A famous hymn to Durga states:
She who has the color of fire, blazing with ascetic power, resplendent, sought in achieving the fruits of our labors,
For our deliverance, we take refuge in the Goddess Durga, who takes us across to the other shore.[vii]
Visit to Kamakhya, the Home of the Goddess:
The Tantric Fire
Throughout India there are many sacred sites to the Goddess. For example, the Goddess Kali, who represents the Divine power that transcends death and suffering, has her main temple in Calcutta where the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna lived.[viii] Yet perhaps the most sacred and mysterious site to the Goddess is Kamakhya in Assam in the northeast of India, which represents her generative organs that symbolize the powers of universal creation.
Kamakhya is one of the most important centers of Tantric Hinduism, where regular Tantric rituals and worship of the Goddess have gone on for thousands of years. While Tantra is often reduced to sex in the West, it is really a comprehensive system of working with the primal powers of the living universe, turning even our ordinary biological drives, including sexuality, into forces of inner transformation. Tantra is not concerned with sex as a mere human drive but with the entire creative energy of nature that works behind our impulses and can also afford us the power to master them. Such a transformative Tantric approach to life, in which we connect our personal nature with the universal nature and supreme consciousness, is important for any higher evolutionary change within us. Its concern is with turning all aspects of our lives into yogic rituals of inner transformation, yogic fire practices.
Some scholars, usually coming from an academic rather than experiential background, like to separate Vedic and Tantric approaches, as if the two are very different, failing to note their obvious connections. Both Vedic and Tantric practices are rooted in the forces of nature as powers of consciousness and both use the sacred fire as their primary tool and metaphor. Most Tantric rituals are based on older Vedic rituals using fire, water, special plants and, above all, on special Vedic and Sanskrit mantras like OM and HREEM.
Tantric Yoga has its roots in internal Vedic rituals of pranayama, mantra and meditation. It takes the female principle of fire (Agni) in the root chakra upward to unite with the male principle of ambrosia (Soma) in the head, uniting the Shiva and Shakti or Divine feminine and masculine forces within us. The great Vedic deities of fire (Agni), water or the Moon (Soma), air or wind (Vayu), and the Sun (Surya), are also the prime factors of Tantric practices.
I visited Kamakhya in early 2002 as part of a tour of the northeast of the country working with the tribal peoples. The temple is located on a small hill on the bank of the Brahmaputra River, one of the largest rivers in the world, considerably bigger than the more famous Ganges into which it flows. Kamakhya carries the energy of this great stream that is the result of five great rivers that cascade with great fury down the slopes of the eastern Himalayas, which is the wettest place on Earth.[ix] The river’s name Brahmaputra, or ‘the child of God’, suggests its magnificence. This region of great floods is a natural place for the Goddess, whose main form is water, to be honored.
As one drives up the small hill to the main shrine, one observes the ancient temples and pilgrims in traditional dress and feels a humid and hot air thick with the energy of the Goddess. In the main temple near the top of the hill a special small spring of water arises, which represents the generative fluid of the Goddess and is famous for its great healing and spiritual powers. Kamakhya represents the ultimate creative power of the Goddess that arises out of the corpse of Shiva, the cosmic masculine force in its state of complete rest. She is the supreme transformative power that arises out of the state of total stillness.
As I visited the temple I felt the Goddess as if she were riding in a helicopter spinning her powerful energies above Shiva like the unmoving ground below. I saw this image many times in my mind and wondered what it meant. I was scheduled to take a special two hour helicopter ride across the Brahmaputra valley to the town of Itinagar in the nearby state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayan foothills. Such old helicopters in India are not always safe and recently an important Indian political leader had perished in such a crash. So I wondered if I was going to the abode of Shiva myself!
When I got into the helicopter a few days later, sure enough the vehicle was old and shook badly as it took off. The old pilot himself, with a handlebar mustache, looked like a figure from a World War II movie, which didn’t inspire much confidence either. Then a few minutes after we ascended in altitude I looked down below and to my surprise saw the Kamakhya hill below. I could see the great temple and shrine of the Goddess from a point directly above it. Suddenly I was in the whirlpool of the Goddess’ own energy at the center of her world. Time seemed to stand still at that moment and space opened up like a lotus. One was simultaneously at the center and at the periphery, at once a point of pure focus and a boundless expansion through all possibilities.
I received a ‘helicopter darshan’ (vision) of the Goddess, both outwardly and inwardly as it were. Her energy is much like a whirling helicopter, a spiraling power of transformation rooted in the supreme silence. It is the highest form of fire that dwells within the void or emptiness of pure consciousness. There the fire burns on itself, with its own flames as its fuel.
This experience taught me how silence and energy, stillness and movement, inaction and the highest transformation, Shakti and Shiva always go together. The highest transformation arises from Being itself. When we rest in the center of our own being, we are dwelling at the heart of all creation. Then through all events we can enter into eternity. Through all places we can touch the infinite.
Afterwards I was involved in an exhausting speaking tour of the area, traveling to remote villages in the hills, but whenever I started to feel fatigued, I remembered the energy of Kamakhya Devi and accomplished my work without exhaustion.[x] To save our planet today we need such immutable stillness on the inside along with the greatest dynamic action and effort on the outside. We need the creative powers of the Goddess rooted in fire, water and the Earth that carry the blessings of the God of infinite space.
[i] Selected Poems of Yves Bonnefoy (Anthony Rudolf translation), the Dialogue of Anguish and Desire.
[ii] There is a wonderful reference to her in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, recounting his visit with her in India in 1935.
[iii] This was the period between 1976 and 1982, starting before I met MP Pandit.
[iv] Note the famous Sri Sukta of the Vedas, the main hymn for worshipping Lakshmi, which asks the sacred fire or Agni to bring Lakshmi to us.
[v] Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses.
[vi] Mother India as a Goddess is generally portrayed in the form of Durga with her lion.
[vii] Durga Sukta, Taittiriya Aranyaka 4.10.2.
[viii] Note his biography, The Gospel of Ramakrishna.
[ix] Cheripunji is perhaps the wettest place on Earth. The eastern Himalayan foothills get more rain than any other ecosystem on Earth through a heavy monsoon that lasts two thirds of the year.
[x] Another related sacred site for the Goddess is Kamakshi in Kanchipuram near Chennai (Madras), which has a beautiful gold domed temple to the Goddess and is also the site of one of the great Shankaracharya Maths (centers). I have visited it and its great gurus several times. Kamakhya is the Assamese pronunciation of Kamakshi. Kamakhya is the Kamakshi of the north.