A while ago, I came across a remarkable book, The Goddess and the Guru by Michael Bowden. Remarkable because of its power to change my life in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Mostly, it opened me to the flow of the goddess, leading me to a miraculous encounter with her. And the guru.
Being a Sri Vidya upasaka, reading the book brought up a deep sense of sadness for not having met Sri Amritananda Saraswati, the seer of Devipuram. I was particularly sad for having grown up in South India, not too far from Devipuram, and yet never hearing about Guruji or the temple. Well, I reasoned, I wasn’t open to the Goddess back then, for my entire outlook including my spiritual journey had been assiduously masculine. She couldn’t have reached me back then.
In the book, I read the foreword by Guruji’s foremost disciple, Sri Chaitanyananda Saraswati, affectionately called Haran Aiya, the founder and guru of the Sri Vidya Temple in Rush, NY. Deeply moved by his words and convinced that I must meet him, I looked for a way to contact him. However, I could find no way to contact him directly. I was too shy to ask Michael to introduce us without a purpose. There was nothing I wanted from him. I had no idea what I’d even say to him. Yet, the inexplicable urge was there to meet him.
So I turned to the goddess. “You want me to meet him, Ma. It’s up to you,” I thought.
I forgot about it, trusting that if it was meant to be, she would take care of it.
The Power of Social Media
Two weeks later, I was engaged in a discussion on a Facebook group on nonduality (the Direct Path as taught by my beloved teacher, Greg Goode), which has nothing whatsoever to do with Sri Vidya. We were discussing a particular phenomenon that is common to many paths, and keeping with the decorum of the forum, I said nothing about other paths. Ram, a gentleman I’d never interacted with before, responded to one of my comments with a reference to Sri Vidya. “Hmm, that’s odd,” I thought, surprised to see a reference to it, seemingly out of the blue. We soon started chatting offline about Sri Vidya.
Quite casually, I asked him if he had read The Goddess and the Guru, and he replied that he had met Guruji and had received a mantra from him. In a wistful way, I confessed that I wanted to meet Haran Aiya. To my utter astonishment, he said that Haran Aiya was his uncle, and, of course he’d introduce me to him.
The goddess had heard.
Three days later, I was talking with Aiya on the phone, at once intimidated and drawn to his booming voice that exuded absolute love. “Come to the temple during Navarathri,” he said. Without a second thought, I said yes.
Meeting the Goddess
Two months later and accompanied by a dear friend, I found myself in Rush, NY. Getting ready for the temple that morning in the hotel room, I still didn’t know what to expect or what I’d say to Aiya. Again, I relaxed into the goddess, knowing that she would take care of it.
We arrived at the temple, buzzing with the Navarathri ritual of Chandi Homam, the magnificent fire ritual that invokes the goddess, cleansing us in deep and powerful ways. Aiya sat at the main homam pit, chanting mantras into the microphone and offering various items into the roaring fire. Two other pits in the temple courtyard were surrounded by a large crowd of temple devotees, chanting in unison from the Devi Mahatymam and offering oblations into the fires.
Being a lover of tantric rituals, I was immediately immersed in the melody of the chanting, the powerful presence of the goddess in and out of the fire, the sacred atmosphere of the temple, and Aiya’s melodious voice. I wasn’t sure if he had noticed us. We delved into the homam, participating in the rituals and reveling in it. Many hours later, the homam ended and Aiya’s assistant beckoned me into a room. Aiya walked in and taught me some mantras, making sure I was pronouncing them correctly, touched my head as I bowed to touch his feet, and went back to the rituals. We too returned to the festivities and I noticed that my mind was completely still. I had asked Aiya on the phone to help me go deeper with my Sri Vidya practice, and he had assured me that he would.
It was soon time for worship of the main temple deities – goddess Rajarajeshwari (whom the temple is named after) flanked by Ganesha on her right and Shiva on her left. Rajarajeshwari (translated as the empress of emperors), the central deity of the Sri Vidya tradition, is the source of creation and all universal laws. The Sri Vidya temple in Rush is a “peetham,” a permanent abode of the goddess. Decked in silks, rich jewelry and fragrant flowers, the many deities of this temple are a treat for the senses. For those who have the eyes, the deities come alive during the rituals, accepting oblations performed with so much love and diligence.
And Aiya’s rituals are unmatched. I watched in fascination as he performed the puja with unbroken concentration, his voice, the mantras, the hand and body gestures (mudras) perfectly in sync with one another. When he was absorbed in the puja of a particular deity (and there are many!), the deity and he became inseparable. It was as if he was oblivious to the rest of us, and was in a different plane of reality. I’d never witnessed a puja like this. I looked around and saw that everyone in the crowd was equally mesmerized.
Meeting the Guru
By late afternoon, the rituals had ended and Aiya finally had a chance to rest. He asked us to sit close to him and soon a group had formed around him as he regaled us with stories of the joys and challenges that had come from breaking away from tradition and convention – this is no ordinary temple after all. Unlike most others, this is a teaching temple. Everyone is equally welcome here to worship, to learn, and to study the highest principles of tantra and Vedanta.
I was captivated by this being, who exuded a love I’ve rarely known. He seemed to know each of us so intimately that we had nowhere to hide; I felt that he could see to the depths of each of our souls. Yet, he welcomed us into his heart and this, his home, without reserve or judgment. He readily and patiently answered questions in his characteristic storyteller’s way, here poking fun at someone in a good-hearted manner, and there asking a visitor if he had eaten. He laughed aloud at jokes, cracking many of his own and making us giggle with his choice of words as he expressed his frustration over patriarchy and misunderstanding of the scriptures. And just as unassumingly, he slipped in words of great wisdom.
In every other spiritual group I’ve been in, there is invariably an inner circle of practitioners/devotees that are close to the guru and an outer one that remains disconnected from him/her. Here, I felt immediately at home, like I’d always been part of the inner circle. I felt as if Aiya’s presence and heart can easily include all of the world in his inner circle.
Among other things, the Sri Vidya temple is unique for teaching and allowing women to perform rituals that were previously the sole privilege of men. Girls and women of all ages had participated in the homam earlier, chanting the mantras and hymns with perfect intonation and precision – usually heard only by brahmin male priests. The temple’s open design makes it possible for every visitor to pay respects to the deities by touching and loving them, thanks to Aiya’s vision of a highly accessible Shakti, along with her Shiva (and the entire pantheon of Shaivite deities).*
We sat for a while, talking and laughing. As the crowd thinned, he stood up and asked my friend and me if we wanted a tour of the temple. Of course we did. He showed us around, lovingly describing the tantric logic of placing the deities in specific directions, the order of the deities, and the floor plan of the temple. Unassumingly, he said the goddess had directed it all through direct communication with him.
In the well-stocked puja preparation room, we were treated to the neatly labeled bins of rare herbs and substances, conches and artifacts collected from all over the world, all of which are used daily in rituals. Aiya then showed us the library with its collection of 20,000 books in various languages, and the superb teaching materials he uses in the workshops he conducts throughout the world. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover his extensive knowledge of science, astronomy and biology, as much as the tantras, the Vedas and their associated traditions.
As much a man of progressive thinking as he is a traditionalist, Aiya has the exceptional ability to teach the precepts of tantra and Vedanta in a way that resonates with even the most hard-nosed skeptics. Being a physician-scientist deeply interested in traditional tantric teachings, I fell in love with Aiya’s clear and concise explanations about sacred sounds and symbols.
We finally took leave as darkness fell. What a day it had been.
The Goddess Comes Home
When we returned the next morning, the homam was in full swing. As soon as Aiya spotted us, he asked me to come forward and receive the pavitram, a ring made of holy grass that one wears during homam and other rituals. We soon became immersed in the rituals. I sat directly across from Aiya as he led the chanting of the Navakshari mantra, and my body and mind again returned to total stillness. Halfway through, the goddess appeard in my inner vision, walking straight into my body and settling down. She began to chant the mantra through my vocal cords as the Sri Yantra appeared in my mind’s eye, dynamically appearing and collapsing into the central bindu.
When the chanting came to an end, Aiya called me forward. Amma (his wife) and he handed me an exquisite murthi (statue) of the goddess. I was speechless, and tears began to flow, unstoppable for the next few hours. Aiya said he had worshiped this murthi for many years. His generosity, along with the vision of the goddess, and this precious gift had ripped my heart open.
Such incredible grace.
We continued to participate in the rituals throughout the morning, and I continued to cry in gratitude. Then it was time for lunch. Once again, Aiya called us to sit with him, entertaining us with fresh stories and anecdotes.
When it was time for us to leave for the airport, I didn’t want to say goodbye. In the Indian culture, when a woman is married off, she develops a sacred and special bond with her parental home, the abode of her mother. This is the feeling the goddess and Aiya had evoked in me – the temple had felt like home. Aiya laughingly invited us to come back soon, again touching my head lovingly as I bowed to take his blessing.
As the car turned on to the road, I had the feeling that in Aiya, I had met the goddess in the flesh.
The first thing I did upon returning home was to install the murthi of the goddess at the altar. Aiya’s unmistakable essence is clearly felt in this sacred space and in her image.
A few days later, I received a special edition of “The Goddess and the Guru,” inscribed by Michael, who has now become a dear friend. I began reading the book again, starting with the foreword. I came across this line by Aiya saying of Guruji, “He (Guruji) has become the human face of the Devi so that everyone who meets him – sophisticated, worldly people and simple villagers alike; everyone who comes to see him – will have an experience of her.”
It made me laugh, because that is exactly what I’d say about Aiya himself.
It is astounding how a book can change your life. When I came across The Goddess and the Guru by accident (ha, turns out there are no accidents), I had no idea how it would help shape my sadhana. It is as if the goddess had planned it this way. As is characteristic of goddess lovers, both Michael and Ram agree. Whenever I thank them for the incredible part they’ve played in my meeting the goddess and the guru, they both say, “She gets everyone to where they need to be.”
When my book, Shakti Rising, was released, I had asked the goddess for a sign that it had been well-received. At the temple, I had shyly given Aiya a copy, not sure if he’d have the time to read it. He called me a few days after my visit and said, “Amma, I’ve been reading your book. It is really very well-written. I like it!”
The goddess had given me the sign I’d asked for. This time speaking directly as the magnificent guru.
*For more about Aiya and the temple, I’d recommend the book, “The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York” by Corinne Dempsey. I’m loving this book right now.