Chidambaram is a small city in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India, unremarkable except for the presence of a temple of incredible significance. Shiva is honored in the Chidambaram temple, and it is in the inner sanctum here that the famous bronze Nataraja – the “Dancing Shiva” – resides.
Two or three times a year, Douglas Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester and a philosophy teacher with whom I study, leads trips to this part of the world where he lived and studied for over a decade. I recently returned from one of those trips. Our group spent three days in Chidambaram exploring its reknowned spiritual monument. Douglas, his school (Rajanaka Yoga) and his students (us) have had a long relationship with the Dikshatars (priests) of this temple, and the mutual respect that flavors this relationship made it possible for us to not only enter the temple and participate in the daily pujas (ceremonies) but also to be able to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. We were able to look more closely at the murti (statue) of the Nataraja, breathe smoke from the fires burning around him, and receive the gift of ashes that symbolize the dissolution phase of Shiva’s cycle of creation.
A beautiful and intricate replica of the Nataraja, at Suri’s Murti Shop
The rituals conducted at this temple are simultaneously very orderly and primally chaotic. On the one hand, the Dikshatars follow step-by-step recipes for every one of their actions – first bathe this statue in coconut water, then in ghee, then in curd, then in ash. “Lather, rinse, repeat,” as Douglas would say. Walk around the sanctum in a counter clockwise direction, lay one garland around the murti, chant this specific mantra, etc. – you get the point. These prescriptives are not written down – they are passed on orally from generation to generation through the brahminic line of the Dikshatars. On the other hand, every few minutes the priests and everyone attending the ritual break into a wild cacophony of chanting, horn playing, cymbal crashing, and bell ringing. There’s usually fire wandering around the crowd somewhere, there’s a pungent smell of burning ghee (clarified butter) and jasmine flowers, and there’s guaranteed to be some pushing and shoving as everyone tries to get a view of the briefly unveiled statue. It’s hot, stinky, loud, crazy, and unquestionably alive. On display is the amazing interplay of the forces of order and chaos, culture and nature.
Vasu, a Chidambaram Dikshatar, applying kum kum to our foreheads. Photo by Melissa Raffay.
For us as students of this tradition, each step of the process is replete with cosmological significance. We have been taught that the opening and closing of the curtain in front of the Nataraja represents and replicates the dance of remembrance and forgetting, concealment and revelation. We know why the Nataraja dances on a dwarf and holds a damaru (drum) and agni (fire) in his hands. (Curious what all these symbols mean? Check out this asana practice video in which all of this is explained!) And we always always wonder if everyone else knows this too. Douglas’s answer is a vehement “no.” Most of the worshippers present are there because attending rituals at the temple is simply part of what they do. It is what their parents did and what their parents’ parents did. They show up and perform the steps of the ritual because it is how they show up for their version of the divine.
This is confusing to some of us western folks, including me. An example: I asked Douglas if he ever asked the Dikshatars what they were thinking about during the ceremonies – some of which are 3-5 hours long (they must be thinking something, right? I’m curious!) He replied that he wouldn’t ask that question, or if he did, it wouldn’t make much sense. In retrospect, his reply to me should have been, “it doesn’t matter.” Because, in this culture, it doesn’t matter. Faith is what you do and how you show up, NOT what you think or believe. In Douglas’ words, “faith is your expression of a commitment to your behavior.” No one – including the priests – cares what you think. What they care about is what you do.
This is generally not the case in the US. We’re actually quite consumed with belief, and with the intentions behind what we do. In fact, sometimes we place so much importance on belief that we don’t even DO anything at all. If we do nothing about what we believe, does what we believe even matter? It’s only a thought then, with no manifestation in the reality of solid objects. We tend to give it value, but does it really have any?
On the other hand, if we just perform actions without any devotion or heart quality behind them, do they matter? This is what I am struggling with here. I grew up Catholic and I spent a heck of a lot of my life saying words and making gestures that had no heartfelt meaning for me. This has essentially made me both allergic to ritual practice and intensely intrigued by it. I wore a sari to these temples, complete with braided hair and a bindi on my forehead – because Douglas requested that we do so, and because it was our way of showing respect for the culture and gaining access to what they hold and transmit. I did the hand motions, said words when requested, clapped, and knelt. Was my head in it? Absolutely. I got a lot of what was happening on an intellectual and I loved it – I loved seeing it come together, understanding the parts and pieces. But was my heart in it? I am not sure. I didn’t feel much. So if I didn’t feel anything, should I have been there? From the sounds of it, the answer might well be “yes! You were showing up the way you should. You were and are welcome.” But the cultural context I grew up in suggests not. That’s why I haven’t set foot in a Catholic Church for years. I feel empty there, and therefore it seems disrespectful of me to even be present.
Our group, walking to the Temple
During the trip, my roommate Melissa said, “you don’t think you have rituals? What about your asana and sitting practices?” I replied that I didn’t think they counted as rituals, because I didn’t really expect anything from them and didn’t always put my heart fully into them (full disclosure: I routinely do my personal practice listening to 80’s music, or podcasts, or even with my computer at the side of my mat. Sorry, purists.) Clearly, I answered that question from a distinctly western perspective on ritual – if my heart isn’t in it, it’s not a ritual. Perhaps the Chidambaram Dikshatars would say otherwise. They might say that since I have a set time constraint, I put on a distinctive outfit, and I do what is required of my practice come rain or shine, I am showing up – walking the walk, if you will. And they might say that those details are good enough. Are they?
Douglas defined ritual as “a narrative that creates an opportunity for incongruity.” There’s nothing about intention in there. There’s no mention of adhering to structured dress, words, and actions either. What I see in this definition is an invitation to examine an incongruity – a possibility of playing in a seam, a contradiction, a moment of transition, a moment of evaluation. That invitation intrigues me, although I think it can be as present for me in the car on a road trip as it is in a millennia-old temple. Granted, being in a temple in designated dress with specific scents and sights around can make it easier to shift to a contemplative mindset (heartset?) – but it certainly isn’t required.
So does that make my asana practice a ritual? On most days, yes. Even if I am listening to something distracting, I am in the liminal space between doing my worldly dharma and fusing with the universal. And in that liminal space I’m nearly always looking around, watching my breath, feeling whatever is there to be experienced. Some days I’m just showing up for the sake of showing up – but sometimes the practice works itself into me and then I’m moved into an exploratory awareness.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to think or feel in the Chidambaram Temple. In all honesty, I didn’t really have set expectations, I just wanted to be there and see and hear and smell and touch what was around me – all of which I did. And maybe that is enough? I’d love to say that I felt the energetic coil of kundalini rising up my spine and moving me to a different level of consciousness, or that I was awash in a warm and multi-colored bliss. But I’d be lying. I long ago came to terms with the fact that glamorous spiritual experiences may never lie on my path. And that’s okay. I’m showing up for rituals of all sorts, hanging out in the seam, looking around, and asking a lot of questions.
For now I suppose I’ll just revel in that.