Shiva is known as the wild god of power, death and ecstasy. He is the ancient king of India’s first yogis, the primary teacher of the Naths. He is the lord of fire, seen at the beginning of creation as a never ending pillar of light out of which all matter sprung. Many believe that it was in Benares, the timeless city of Kashi, that this first column of light came to be.
The holiest city of Kashi lies on the banks of the river Ganga, and in the midst of this crumbling, magnificent city lies the holiest site of all, Kashi’s Maha Smashan or the cremation grounds, where India’s devout come to burn when they die. It is said that to die in Kashi, is to guarantee liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The Manikarnaki Ghat burns day and night, and legend has it that the fires of the funeral pyres have been rekindled from the very first discovery of fire on earth.
This sacred fire is known as Shiva’s Eternal Fire. It is kept lit in a small, almost hidden temple at the burning ghats. While visiting India a few years ago, I was sitting watching the bodies burning in the cremation grounds, enveloped inside an amazing commotion, as body after body was brought out to the ghats. The corpses were draped in the finest silks, encircled by flower garlands and carried on rough, handmade wooden biers. It is a realm mostly inhabited by India’s men; the women’s appearance typically comes only after their last breath. Each human form was placed upon a haphazardly arranged stack of already blazing wood. The wood was measured out and weighed according to ones social standing. Lots of wood for the wealthy, creating a hot, vigorous fire, which devoured their bodies quickly, releasing them from the relentless weight of the physical plane. Much less wood for the poor, whose delicate bodies poked out from beneath their plainer shrouds, spindly branches of wood burning beneath them.
The plain fact of death meets life on the banks of the Ganga. The funeral chants are sung, the flower petals strewn, but the rhythmic parade of the dead never ceased. Body after body burned to ash. Death was not glossed over or embalmed here. It lived in the midst of the city. Sitting with eyes and hearts wide open, watching as a leg or a skull rolled off the top of a blazing pyre. Cows and dogs wandered between the ongoing fires. The ash-covered ghat wallas kept the fires hot, each fire burning to the ground before the next corpse would arrive.
Meet me here, in the mystics moment where life and death are one. Life on the in breath, death on the out breath. The space between the breaths contains both, suspended, one and the same. Place your focus at the center of the chest, at anahata, the yantra of the inner heart. With Ujaaya Breath, listen to the subtle sounds of the breath awakening the heart fire. As you sit in the dark quiet of your daily meditation, access the heart dhuni with the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya”. Say this mantra over and over as the sun begins to rise. It is the mantra of life and of death. Picture yourself at the Manikarnaki Ghat, the river flowing past you, the fires crackling, the smoke and ash swirling, the commotion of life and death all around you, yourself as the eye of the storm. In the mystical geography of India, the city of Kashi is Shiva’s blazing third eye, whose powerful rays will one day incinerate the world back into oblivion. Here, in the wild fullness of Kashi, you must find the stillness within. You must know the silence of Shiva from the inside out. Sit and feel the ash of fearlessness upon your skin. Sit and taste the moment, breathing in life, breathing out death. Shivo Hum, Shivo Hum. I am Shiva, I am bliss.
Namaste and Love,
Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati