Birdsong and an Epiphany

The path to the cave shrine is cobbled, strewn with fallen leaves and an occasional thorn that sends spasms of shock up your spine when you accidentally step on it, barefoot. It’s hidden away from the main temple, dedicated to Subramanya, the Hindu God of Courage. A sage sat in this very cave, centuries ago, meditating on Subramanya; years of penance, seeking enlightenment. He found it eventually, awakening kundalini, the primeval energy latent in every being. Kundalini itself means coiled-up, like a serpent at the base of the spine, and this particular sage had attained the power to talk to snakes. He spent his 123 years on earth, writing verse after verse, seemingly addressing them to snakes that slithered in the jungle nearby, but it would be years before people realized he was not a mad man; the snakes were only a metaphor for prana, the life force coiled in the spine.

In this shrine, I sit quietly. It’s easy to slip into deep meditation here. There is an oil lamp that burns continuously, its flame representing wisdom, freedom from the ignorance of fear, jealousy, ego, and other petty human emotions that make things more complicated than they should be. There is no noise, except for birdsong and the rustle of leaves. As I sit there, I remember various scenes from different stages of my life — I remember a dip in the Ganga, freezing cold in the middle of December, and the clarion call of the conch shell at twilight in Hrishikesh, where sages with matted hair danced away in oblivion. I remember a night in Bahrain, during Muharram, where the devout, swathed in black, marched in a procession, holding vigil, mourning the death of Imam Husseyn. Years later, I can still hear the drum beats, and their cries, vowing not to forget the sacrifices at Karbala. I remember my first evening, all alone at university in Singapore — I was all of seventeen, away from home for the first time, and I was scared, lonely, trying to find friends in a new country.

As the birds continued to sing, I felt a burden lift itself off my mind. All those troubles from the past — I either overcame them, or found a way to work around them. No matter what, there’s always a way out.

The flame from the oil lamp flickers, and the priest rushes to protect it from the sudden gust of wind. It goes out, but he strikes a match, and the lamp continues to burn again. I get up and slowly make my way back to the world.

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