By Abbot George Burke
I had always been an “idolator.” (“Idol” comes form eidol, the Greek word meaning “statue” or any three-dimensional figure.) I expect I caught it in this life from my Aunt Faye who loved religious imagery of all kinds and-as already related-had encouraged me as an infant to embrace and kiss the statures in the chapel at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Since in our previous life together she had enabled me to breathe my last looking upon the unveiled face of Christ crucified, it was thoroughly appropriate that she should inculcate in me the love of sacred images.
To the ignorant, name and form veil the Sole Reality, but to the wise, name and form reveal that Reality-indeed are recognized as manifestations of that Reality. I well remember being taken on a walk by Manmatha, the priest of the Anandamayi Ashram Kali temple in Ranchi, India. As we went down the street at the side of the ashram, he pointed to a yellow-painted wall on our right and asked me: “Do you believe that God is inside that wall?” “No,” I told him, “I believe that God has become that wall!” “Thank you! He replied with intense satisfaction, and proceeded to teach me how to say: “Everything is God,” in Bengali.
Spiritual imagery is one of the most potent tools in awakening and transforming our inmost consciousness. Of course the imagery must be spiritual and not earthly. This is why the authentic traditions of all religions have a precise form of stylized imagery. Unfortunately, Western Christianity long ago abandoned the tradition of Christian iconography-as did Eastern Christianity within the last two hundred years under Western influence-but now there is a resurgence and appreciation of traditional iconography among both Eastern and Western Christians.
Hinduism, too, has drifted far from its authentic iconography, especially in the north. The popular religious pictures current throughout India are really satires of the sublime subjects they claim to depict. Fortunately, in South India the images in the temples are mostly in the correct stylization, as contrasted with the images of Northern India, which are carved and painted in gaudy “baby-doll” style. Even when somewhat tastefully sculpted and colored, they still depict only fleshy materiality-as has Western religious art since the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
As I have said, Manmatha was the priest of the Kali temple of the Anandamayi Ashram in Ranchi, a major city of the state of Bihar in Northern India. A few days after landing in Calcutta, I had taken an overnight train to Ranchi to visit the Indian headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship, which in India is know as Yogoda Satsanga. Upon my arrival, I went to the Yogoda Satsanga Ashram where arrangements had been made for me to stay in the guest house.
Readers of Autobiography of a Yogi may recall that Paramhansa Yogananda founded a school based on the principles of ancient Indian spiritual culture and yogic tradition in Ranchi, inspired by the example of Shantiniketan, the school of the great Indian poet and sage, Rabindranath Tagore. While meditating in a storeroom one day, Yogananda has a vision of a multitude of Westerners and realized that he was destined to eventually go to the West and become their spiritual guide, imparting to them the methods of Raja Yoga. The storeroom had long ago vanished, but a modest-sized temple had been recently built in its place to commemorate the Master’s vision. Meditation was held there morning and evening. Also every evening the ceremony of the waving of lights-corresponding to the “wave offering” of the Old Testament -was performed. This rite is known as arati (or aratrika), constitutes a major part-usually the conclusion-of Hindu worship.
Arati is usually performed three times a day in all temples, at sunrise, noon, and sunset. The priest waves the burning lights (usually five or seven) with his right hand as he rings a hand bell steadily with his left. At the same time, other bells and gongs are sounded in rhythmic patterns according to traditions which vary from temple to temple. As a rule, those who are witnessing the arati sing a hymn in praise of the deity being worshipped. At the end of the ritual, the burning lights are passed among the devotees, who warm their hands in the sacred fire and tough their eyes, head, and heart with a prayer for spiritual purification and enlightenment. Then all sit, and various forms of religious music are sung, concluding with “pranam mantra” in salutation and farewell to the deity.
(It should be understood that all Hindus understand that there is but one Supreme Consciousness, Parabrahman. But this one Consciousness has manifested in many forms, including devatas, or gods. Therefore, although it is usual to speak of “gods” and “goddesses,” it is done so for ease of expression, but always with the understanding that in reality all gods and goddesses are but the multiform “faces” of the Formless Absolute. It is also realized that an image of clay, stone, or metal is just that-an image. But the image can be used as a point of concentration on higher spiritual realities, which are conveyed by the symbolism of the image. Since the One Consciousness is all pervading and within everything, it only follows that It is within the image as well, and by concentrated attention through ritualistic worship, the image can be made into a point of communication with That. For the Hindu, as for the Eastern Christian who venerates an icon, the image is a means of reaching beyond the world of name and form into the real world of the Absolute. At no time is there a question of idolatry, though I have used the term jokingly in the opening sentence of this chapter.)
The evening arati at the Yogoda Ashram was simply awful-graceless and raucous, with arrhythmic banging of gongs and blowing of conch shells. And the “music” afterwards was sheer misery.
Sometime in midweek my interior discontent became verbalized in conversation with some of the young men whom I had met at the Yogoda Ashram, though they were residence of Ranchi and not monastics. They suggested that I attend the arati at the Anandamayi Ashram, assuring me that it would be a completely different experience altogether. When someone objected that the gates of Yogoda Ashram would be locked before I could get back from the Aanandamayi Ashram, I volunteered to climb over the wall!
Consequently, one heavenly-beautiful evening, such as does not-and cannot-occur outside of India, I bore my beleaguered ears down the road toward the main street of Ranchi on which Anandamayi Ashram was located. By this time I was wearing Indian clothing, and some well-meaning washer man had put starch in my dhoti-a kind of wraparound “skirt” worn by Indian men. This had the undesirable effect of the slick thing falling off me every few yards, much to the amusement of my companions, none of whom could read minds and perceive my extremely profane inner tirade at the boob who had done this to my dhoti. I was furious, and their eventual suggestion to give it up and try going on another evening only compounded my volcanic state.
Somehow we got to the ashram, and were even ahead of time-a marvel never repeated in that or any subsequent trips to India, where it is well know that “Indian Standard Time” is at least thirty minutes behind the clock time. (The Vietnamese have a graphic expression: “Rubber Band Time.”) Introductions to the head of the ashram, Sri Kalachandji (called “Kalachand-da” by everyone, the suffix “da” meaning “elder brother”), and Swami Gnanananda Giri, who was supervising the extensive construction going on at the time, helped to put be back in balance. Kalachand-da excused himself and said that because of a very important meeting regarding ashram business he would not be able to attend the arati that evening, but that we should go on into the temple.
The temple, which was less than half completed at the time, was a huge hall. The walls were cement-covered brick, unpainted. My guides positioned me facing large wooden doors fronted by heavy locked grillwork of the type I had only seen in the worst parts of Los Angeles and Chicago. Oh, boy.
With ratings and grindings the ponderous doors were eventually opened by the priest, who then unlocked the grillwork and pushed it back against the doorway on both sides.
Within the shrine room beyond the threshold I saw a remarkable image of the goddess Kali which, as I later learned, had been made according to a detailed description given by Sri Ma Anandamayi of a vision She once had of the goddess. Unlike most images of Kali, this one was a dark royal blue, rather than the usual black (“Kali” means “the black one”). Her black hair streamed down behind Her as She raised one left hand on high holding a bloody sword while with the other She held a severed head. Her upper right hand was raised, palm outward, in the ritual gesture (mudra) of blessing known as abhaya, “fear not.” Her lower right hand was extended, also palm outward, in a mudra which meant “draw near.” in this way the dual aspect of the Divine Power the Hindus call Maha Shakti-and the Christians call “Holy Spirit,” Holy Breath,” the “Mighty Wind,” the “Great ‘Amen’”-was revealed.
To those who tread the path of ignorance, Kali is terrible. With Her sword, upon which an eye is painted to indicate that it is the symbol of awakened spiritual consciousness, or prajna, She cuts off the “head” of egoity, the false self. Moreover, She wears a skirt formed of severed arms strung together. The arms represent the egoic delusion “I am the doer,” which blinds us to the fact that God is the only power and the only actor. As the skirt hides the generative organs of Kali, which give birth to all that “is,” so our egos also blind us to the fact that God alone is our source and our destiny of return. Behind all our “doings” is the power of the Sole Doer, so Mother Kali says to all: “Without Me ye can do nothing.” She cuts off our egoity with the sword of illumination so we can become wise and say with Christ: “I do nothing of myself.” On the other hand, literally, Kali is benevolent, even loving, bestowing blessing and asking Her children to draw near to Her and receive Her grace and mercy.
To the Bengalis an image of Kali is far more revealing than any ink blots from the Rorschach test could ever be. Those who tread the path of ignorance shudder and shrink back in fear upon seeing Her, while others respond instinctively with admiration and trust, drawing near just as She wants, however strange She may appear to them. The Divine Power is the enemy of ignorance and the loving Mother of truth and gnosis. Those who dwell in “the valley of the shadow of death” of the ego, see Her as the bearer of their death, not realizing that it is the ego She will slay, and not them. Those who yearn for the light see Her as their merciful Liberator form the bondage of the lying ego, and hasten to place their necks beneath Her sword to be made “free indeed.”
So when someone presents himself in Bengal with the claim to be seeking higher consciousness, the Bengalis just trundle him off to the nearest Kali temple and watch his reaction. If he fears or dislikes the goddess, then he is lying to himself and them. If he loves Her, then he means what he says-and chances are, will succeed in his search.
The crucifix of the Christian is another “test image.” To those who are dead in material consciousness the crucifix is “morbid” and an image of death, whereas to those who are alive in the spirit it is an image of life and divine love. The same, of course, is true of those who tread the way of the Cross. As Saint Paul wrote: “We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the ones we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life.”
I did not realize it as I gazed upon Her image that evening, but my new friends had brought me to undergo the Kali Test. The priest had moved away from us after opening the doors, and was evidently doing some last moment preparation and blessing of the intended offerings. Then he picked up the light and the bell.
Immediately, upon the first note that rang out form the bell, the image of Kali turned several shades darker. Even mort dramatic, Her eyes began to shine with a dazzling whiteness that sparked-not just sparkled. Suddenly She was immense, far larger than the material image, and She was coming towards me with an inexorable and inescapable motion. I knew Her purpose: it was nothing less than the death of Roger Burke, a son of an earthly mother, in order to be reborn as a son of the Heavenly Mother.
And I wanted it-O, how I wanted it! I opened my entire being to Her-at least as much as was in my province. Terrible as it was, I offered myself to Her sacrificial sword. This, I knew, was the only path to life.
I cannot describe or explain any more than this.
At the end of the arati and the sounding of the bell, Kali Devi was once again “just” an image that had instantly resumed the color painted by human hands, Her eyes the simple white of earthly pigments.
The light was passed around and I suppose I “took” it. I really do not remember.
When we all sat down I entered into a profound interior state, which heightened my external awareness at the same time. My consciousness descended into that the yogis call “the cave of the heart.” I began practicing Kriya Yoga, worshipping the ascending and descending current within my spine as manifestations of Kali. Other things occurred that are inexpressible.
I started to fall over to one side, but someone caught me and held me upright. A hurried colloquy ensued as to what was happening. “Be quiet! This happens to yogis sometimes!” I heard a man tell the others. Ordinarily, I would have been mortified at being “a spectacle,” but at this time I did not care: Mother alone was real, not my little drama.
Several songs were sung, led by a junior monk with an exquisite voice. Then I felt a gentle pressure of some object against my legs. Not opening my eyes I reached out and discovered that a harmonium had been placed before me. “Brother,” spoke a voice softly, “Please sing.” And to my surprise, I did, not of my own volition but from an inner force. I began to sing a song by Yogananda-a version of an ancient Bengali hymn to Kali, with the refrain: “What lightning flash glimmers in Thy face, Mother! Seeing Thee I am thrilled through and through!” A couple of nights before I had been awakened by a drunk man staggering past the Yogoda Ashram, loudly singing, “Jai Shiva-Kali!” (Shiva is the Lord, the perfect Consciousness behind all phenomena, and Kali is the Lady, the universal energy that manifests as the phenomena.) Now I was both drunk and crazy, and my singing showed it.
I did not know it until other told me later, but as I was singing, Kalachand-da came into the temple in an ecstatic state, his arms held out before him and his eyes turned upward so that only the whites where visible as he looked out through the inner single eye of spirit. As the people made way, he came to stand before me, immobile, rapt in interior contemplation to the Mother I was calling by my song.
The intensity of my condition eventually rendered me incapable of singing, though I needed no support to remain upright.
Slowly, still facing me with eyes upturned, Kalachand-da moved backward, retracing his steps until the shadows beyond the side door of the temple received him.
The final mantras of salutation were sung, and had the effect of bringing me to an external semblance of normality. My interior state was another matter, altogether.
Before leaving the temple I went to stand before the image of Kali. Although the grill had been closed and locked, She could be seen between the diamond-shaped openings.
I clutched the ironwork and with all the fervor of my soul silently entreated: “Mother, break this jar! Break this jar! Let “me” be dissolved, and You only remain. There has never been any “me” anyway; there has only and always been You. Let it be so!”
Then we left in silence.
I think I had passed the test.
Excerpt from An Eagle’s Flight, Autobiography of a Gnostic Orthodox Christian, Saint George Press, Geneva, 1994, pp. 199-207.