On November 4th we arrived in Agra. This was my second trip to the Taj Mahal. The first time was fifteen years earlier, when I was traveling with Sylvia. Its beauty was still enchanting, but it wasn't as much the beauty of the mausoleum itself, but the love story behind it. The mausoleum is a symbol of immortal love.
In the year of 1612, Emperor Shahjahan married his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. She was his second wife and was only twenty-one years old. She was known for her generosity and wisdom, but most of all for the love she shared with her husband. In 1630, at the age of thirty-nine, she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Shahjahan was so grief stricken that his hair turned gray within a few months. The Shah vowed to build a temple symbolizing the love of a husband for his wife that would surpass all beauty.
He brought in skilled craftsmen from Persia, Turkey, and Southern Europe, and hired twenty thousand laborers to build this temple of love. The temple is made of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. In the temple he had his laborers build two tombs next to each other, for him and his wife. The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal was entrancing; it was designed with jasper, agate, lapis, lazuli, carnelian, and bloodstone. It was as if the love the Shah had for this woman could not be expressed enough.
His son, thinking his father was insane because of such extravagance, kept him prisoner in the Agra fort across the river from the Taj Mahal. Until his death, Shahjahan was known to just sit against a 70-foot wall and look across the river. My heart aches as I recall this story. Although, I felt such pain for his suffering, I also envied him, because he was able to love someone that much. I wondered if I would ever be able to have a taste of such love. At his death he was buried to rest at the side of his beloved wife for eternity.
Our mood changed when we walked out of the mausoleum, and saw a Brahma bull powered lawnmower. We were hysterical. Like everything in India, it certainly was a contrast to the elaborate and luxurious temple. The lawnmower consisted of two large bony white bulls harnessed to a large rake that was attached to two wheels with a seat on the top. One man sat guiding the bulls, while another helped on the ground behind him. It seemed impossible that they were able to mow the large grounds so beautifully, although, it must have taken forever.
As I said, this was the second time that I experienced the Taj Mahal, and both times I have been awe struck by its beauty, and deeply moved by the love story behind it. So I was surprised when I enacted Mumtaz Mahal in an experiential exercise in graduate school ten years later. I was lying dead in the tomb on the cold marble floor. It gave me shivers. Although the temple is inlaid with semi-precious stones, my feeling in this enactment was a desperate yearning to be in the womb of Mother Earth. The image of the earth filled me with warmth and peace--the simplicity of the earth that is rich in mana and vibrancy.
On November 5th, we boarded a bus in Agra for a supposedly forty-five minute ride to the city of Brindaban. Brindaban is the center of worship for the deity Lord Krishna who is one of Vishnu's incarnations. Vishnu is part of the Hindu's holy trinity, representing the Preserver of Mankind. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and is thought to be his most perfect incarnation. Hindu’s believe that Krishna lived for 125 years. His mythology is depicted in three stages: childhood, youth, and middle age.
In his childhood Krishna was known to be loveable, sweet, and quite a little prankster. He would tease the gopis (dairymaids) by steeling their butter, sweets, and upsetting their milk pails. He represents the personal aspects of God.
In his youth he dazzled the gopis by playing his flute, which sent them into ecstasy. Each one danced with him as if he were her lover. Krishna's flute produced no earthly sounds but was the sound of the heavens calling souls back to the Divine. Legend has it that he had a consort, a gopi named Radha. They were passionate lovers whose love was eternal and existed in previous lifetimes. It is also said that Radha is really the feminine aspect of Krishna, and that he differentiated Radha from himself, solely for the purpose of joy and fun.
Krishna's third stage was on the battlefield, which represented the battlefield of life. Here he is portrayed as a charioteer instructing General Arjuna to fight. These instructions represent the three major yogas:
l. Jnana yoga--the path to God through wisdom. He tells Arjuna that even if he kills, he can never kill the soul.
2. Karma yoga--the pathway to God through activity. He tells Arjuna that it is proper to perform required action but not to be attached to the outcome.
3. Bhakti yoga--the pathway to God through the act of devotion. He tells Arjuna it is proper to perform a required action, if he acts with complete devotion to God.
As with most of the city roads in India, it was jammed with cars, buses, rickshaws, cows, motorbikes, and taxis. Finally, after two hours, we arrived. Although, I found it very painful to be in the crowds, I loved the unity I felt there. There were so many people, cows, chickens, dogs, men and their cobras--all living together in a harmony of chaos, an ordered chaos so to speak, a paradox, as was my feeling of pain and joy being in this environment.
We went to the Katyayani Peeth temple, which was a stately brick building with enormous black pillars. We sat on the steps leading up to the temple’s courtyard, where we knew Yogananda had been. In his book Autobiography of a Yogi, there is a photograph of him standing there. We then gathered in the courtyard for chanting and meditation and absorbed the sacred vibrations.
After we had our fill of Spirit, we ventured out to an open market for some shopping. We walked the dusty paths by all the vendors who were selling their wares. I couldn't help but first notice the butchers selling their fly-covered meat and fish. My stomach churned. There were others selling a variety of fruits, heads of cauliflower, and herbs and spices. Ron and I walked past a snake charmer on our way over to a booth selling shawls, blankets, and other Indian garb. Ron was an endearing man who I buddied up with most of the time. He had a face that was all smiles. He had the ability to light up a room or a heart just by his presence. He was around six feet tall, the little hair left on his head was light brown, and he was letting his beard grow out on the trip. His easygoing personality and sense of humor made him a delight to be around.
Ron and I were looking at some Indian blankets an American Hari Krishna disciple, named Hari Dass was selling. Some of the male Hari Krishna disciples have shaven heads except for a long narrow patch of hair from front to back. You can frequently see them in airports or in the city streets of the United States asking for donations and selling books by their deceased guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, whom they believe is an Avatar--an Incarnation of God.
We all exchanged stories on how we became involved with Eastern philosophy. He then invited Ron and me to the Hari Krishna temple that evening. Ron and I were adventurous sorts, so we accepted his invitation. We caught a rickshaw that evening and arrived at the Hari Krishna temple at 6:30 p.m. It was a sizable temple painted white with an occasional blue or pink inlay and had tall white pillars. There was a beautiful painting on the wall of Krishna playing his flute with Radha standing next to him with her arms around his neck in a loving embrace. All through the temple we could see statues of Krishna and his consort Radha. We were greeted by Hari Dass and taken to the restaurant for dinner. The menu was vegetarian. We had a delicious meal of brown rice and dahl. The place was packed with devotees repeating the name, Hari Krishna over and over again rapidly and steadfast.
From being in crowds all day my neck was in such spasm that I had to wear a neck brace, and this situation wasn't helping matters. I was so damn phobic, but I wanted to experience every aspect of India. After dinner we were escorted to the main temple for a Kirtan. A Kirtan is when a congregation gets together and sings devotional songs in a repetitive, enthusiastic way to a deity. This is accompanied with a harmonium, drums, cymbals, and in the case of Hari Krishnas, dancing was included. A Kirtan elicits the emotions and can lead one to ecstasy. I have never been to a Kirtan when it hasn't opened my heart to love and joy…except for this one.
There was something about the energy in this place that made me very uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with the phobia. At the time I thought it was because I was used to a more inward path. Ananda has such a quiet, sweetness to its practices. Even when we had our loud Kirtans, the energy was always contained in a field of serenity. It was different at the Hari Krishna temple.
The Kirtan started with loud chanting, drums beating, and cymbals clamoring. There must have been forty people dancing wildly, others were prostrating on the floor in front of the statues of Krishna and Radha whose necks were covered with orange garlands, while others praised A.C. Bhaktivedanta. There was an enormous replica of Bhaktivedanta sitting on a golden throne in a meditative posture. On either side of him were two imposing lions with brass chalices placed between their enormous paws. He also had an orange garland around his neck.
Ron and I joined in the dancing, but I just could not open to the Divine. I was too phobic and was not connecting with this group. Ron never complained. He took everything in stride and seemed to love all aspects of life, but it became ridiculous when it was time to leave. We were bombarded by Hari Dass and his compadres for donations, and they wanted more than just a few dollars. They didn't want to take no for an answer. They kept digging and digging. Ron would say, “No,” but he would still be smiling, and I guess they interpreted that as a possible, “yes.” At that point I wanted to ring Ron's neck for allowing this to continue. This act was not divine and I wanted out. Finally, we cut loose and got a rickshaw and returned to the Hotel Mughal Sheraton. My bones were dripping with exhaustion from this ordeal.