In India, we have just celebrated the festival of Navarati. Navaratri, which means ‘nine nights’, is a spiritually auspicious time that celebrates the Divine Feminine in the form of nine Goddesses, the three main ones being Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Each of the Goddesses symbolizes a different energy which is worshipped with prayers, rituals and ceremonies.
As I was preparing for this year’s Navaratri, I came across a programme led by a nearby ashram that listed all of the different ceremonies it offered during the festival period. One sentence struck me in particular. In the description, it said that the Divine Mother would not accept any offerings from her devotees unless the Bhairavi puja (a particular ceremony dedicated to the Goddess’s fearsome aspect) is performed first. Really? I thought. What kind of Goddess would this be, if she didn’t accept simple offerings that come from the heart of her devotees who may not even know what a Bhairavi puja is?
This led me to reflect on the subject of simplicity. As a pujarin, I often come across different types of havans (Vedic fire ceremonies) performed for all kinds of purposes. In India, it is not unusual for a fire ceremony to take several daysand you will see all types of imaginable items, including large amounts of food and clothing, being offered to the Gods via the medium of fire, together with thousands of ancient Sanskrit mantras. Admittedly, it is impressive and often very powerful;especially if the ceremonies are performed and chanted by pandits from Varanasi who really know their stuff.
But, and that brings me to the point, what often seems to be lacking in these huge ceremonies is the heart. I’ve frequently seen pandits perform long havans while texting or speaking on their mobiles, talk to each other about unrelated subjects and even watch TV on their phones. And that’s not just the pandits – at a recent Indian wedding I attended everyone was drinking coffee and chatting while the pandit recited the betrothal mantras; even the groom’s father was on his mobile phone for the entire time his son was getting married. As a lover of Vedic rituals, I often feel sad when I see this. If we don’t understand and most importantly mean the rituals, then what is the point in performing them?
Over the years, I’ve moved more and more away from complexity in worship. Gone are the days when I tried to get every little detail of a ceremony right and thought that the more complicated the better. Now I simply tune into my heart and ask myself what my intention is. It is my belief that the Divine Mother, or any deity, will accept our offerings if they are heart-felt, no matter whether they are ‘correct’ according to the scriptures or not. Of course, it’s good to know the rules before you break them, but it’s just as important to believe in what you are doing and that it is making sense to you. I really feel that the heart is the most important ingredient in bhakti yoga, and a simple prayer offered with pure devotion can be worth more than a thousand costly puja items.
Keeping it simple makes our lives easier in other areas, too. For example, I’ve recently moved to a small village in the Himalayas. Life cannot get any simpler than this really – I am still getting my head around it actually. We’re about seven hours drive from the nearest airport or train station, and amenities are few. There are daily power cuts, and I’d say that we have electricity perhaps 50% of the time if we’re lucky; in bad weather it can happen that we don’t have electricity for days. So we learn to adjust and cook with gas by candlelight and do the things that require electricity once it comes back. And forget about washing machines; all laundry is done by hand in buckets.
Internet is not available in the village, and to use it I have to travel to the nearest town. This is actually really interesting as it has made me acutely aware of how much time I spend online in my other life. Now, I go to town once or twice a week and do my e-mailing in a focused way in an afternoon (if there is electricity!). And suddenly there is so much more time to meditate, to read, to sit or walk by the river, and to be with other people.
Food, like everything else, is really simple, too – mainly because choices are limited. We eat modest, fresh food that consists of rice, dal (lentil soup) and vegetables pretty much every day, with some variations in the type of vegetable used. It can be boring sometimes, but it also frees the mind – especially when, like me, you come from an affluent Western country where people have a hard time deciding on which nutritional supplement is the best. Here, the people don’t have this luxury – they are simply happy to have enough to eat.
The mountain people overall lead very simple lives. I often see old women fetch leaves for their cows with big baskets in the mornings; and in the process they climb up steep mountains in their colourful saris. When I look into their sun-burnt faces, I am amazed by their radiance and spirited eyes; when I look at their strong, wiry bodies, I almost feel embarrassed that I don’t have the same strength though I must be half their age. These people may not have many luxuries – many of them live in stone houses without running water, electricity or bathroom – but they live in tune with nature and their faces show it. Most elderly people in the West nowadays have difficulty climbing up stairs, let alone mountains. This is not to say that this basic lifestyle is better than ours or that the people here enjoy poverty or lack of amenities, but living simply can be a very good way of learning to decondition our minds, practice acceptance and assess what’s really important.
Another aspect I often notice is how dependent we are on mod cons. Winter is coming up and of course houses here don’t have central heating or even a fire place. You could use electric heaters but they are of little use due to the electricity shortage. People here are just used to this, and it’s made them strong and resilient. It reminds me of something I once heard about Swami SatyanandaSaraswati, who in his later years decided to live as a simple naga (naked) sadhu in a mud hut. No matter what the season, he remained naked and would pour freezing cold water over his body early in the morning every single day. He wanted to live in tune with the elements again – as, really, we are designed to.
It is in this way that we can gain control over our minds, become strong and face challenges and adversities with equanimity. It’s fairly easy to sit in our heated or air-conditioned apartments and practice meditation; it’s much harder to do so when the icy mountain winds blow around us. I’m often fascinated by the sadhus here who live on the high peaks near Gangotri, sometimes naked, sometimes with nothing but a thin dhoti, in all weathers.
Mastery over our mind is ultimately an aspect we have to face in our sadhana if we want to be truly free. We need to learn to accept everything with equanimity: heat and cold, sunshine and rain, silence and noise, gain and loss, and so on.Though I am often being pushed out of my comfort zone here, part of the reason that I have come to the Himalayasis to face myself and learn how to live joyfully in all conditions. Such challenges are all part of the practice of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, one of the eight limbs of yoga.
But really, when I walk out of my front door in the mornings and see the beautiful river Ganga rush through the wooded valley ahead of me, a big smile manifests on my face and I feel so deeply blessed to be here and have the opportunity to live simply.
My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India.