This Shakti Mystery

Nora Cullen, Bowdoin College

It was hot. Not ‘sit under the shade of a tree in the summertime and feel the cool relief of grass and dirt underneath you’ hot. This was ‘finish your Nalgene in under an hour and stop trying to dry your sweat-soaked shirt because you know the whole thing will be soaked again in ten minutes’ hot. It was hot, but it was beautiful.

Dr. Venkatraman (“Dr. V”) in Meenakshi Temple

On this particular day, Dr. V (our Myth, Religion & Art in South India professor) was giving us a tour of Meenakshi Temple. Dr. V is short in stature, and kind in nature. He is fond of tickling Ganesh statues and of sweets. He knows so much I swear everything he says could be in a PBS special. When he speaks, it’s easy to imagine him as a grandfather figure, painting exquisite pictures of Indian mythology with his words. Sometimes, though, through all of his stories it can be difficult to find an anchor. It often feels like I am traveling down a river, his narratives carrying me through histories and tales about gods and humans, but once at the end it is hard to remember the way back.

As we padded around the temple in our bare feet, my eyes wandered over the colorful ceiling paintings and intricately carved columns. Some days, more than others, I feel the weight of the ephemerality of our stay, and that day was one of those days. I felt like I needed to soak it all in at once, memorize the paintbrush strokes and the stones beneath my feet should I want to recall these precise moments later.

Meenakshi, a goddess who hails from Madurai, is a kind goddess who welcomes all to her temple. Dr. V described how Meenakshi was happy to allow all animals such as the camel, traditionally not allowed into other temples, into her temple. As though she was listening, a camel slowly trotted by as Dr. V told us this. Dr. V continued to tell us that Meenakshi was another reincarnation of Kali, a powerful and terrible goddess, and as such was a wife of Shiva. As we continued walking around, and Dr. V continued to describe Meenakshi’s story, I became increasingly confused. There was also Parvati, another reincarnation of Kali and wife of Shiva, and her timeline was in conjunction with Meenakshi’s. It did not seem to make sense. I asked Ajitha, a local Maduai resident who is SITA’s Community Advisor, and she said that all Indian goddesses are said to be reincarnations of Shakti, the Mother Goddess. “Oh!” I thought. “Awesome, but who is Shakti?”

Armed with this new information, I eagerly sought out Dr. V, determined to get to the bottom of this Shakti mystery. Dr. V was about 40 feet in front of me, calmly weaving his way between stone columns. I was unsure if running would be considered indecent in the temple, so I settled on a speed walking pace that would surely rival any Olympian’s. I weaved amongst temple goers and columns like a two-wheeler in Indian traffic. “Dr. V!” He turned and smiled, “ I have a question for you!” When I told him that I had heard about a goddess named Shakti, his smile widened and he nodded. “Who is she Dr. V? What’s her story?”

Dr. V took a deep breath, and immediately began telling me about Atman. Atman was a concept we had spoken about in a preceding class. It is the idea that we are all connected. We are not separate — that is an illusion. We are part of a collective consciousness called Brahman. He likened it to waves on an ocean: we (Atman) are all waves, but we are all a part of the larger ocean (Brahman). As I listened to him describe Atman, I tried not to get impatient. He had still not told me who Shakti was. I figured he had misunderstood the question, but I would humor him and let him do his Dr. V thing.

Once he finished, I tried not to sound impatient as I asked again, “But Dr. V, who is she?” He smiled and shook his head. He pointed to my chest. “You, you are Shakti.

Maybe it was the dehydration or the lack of sleep, maybe it was being in an ancient temple carved from stone, or maybe it was something I had eaten . . . but immediately I got goosebumps. Dr. V had answered my question initially, but I had been too focused on receiving a particular type of answer that I had not heard him. My own narrow focus on receiving a specific answer had blinded me to the fact that he had answered me, with a greater truth and understanding than I had anticipated. I am Shakti, we are all Shakti, Shakti is all of us, the illusion is that we are separate, and the reality is that we are all connected. Call it what you will, but in that moment I can say I truly felt touched by something that was divine.

. . .

Follow SITA on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Learn more and apply at sitaprogram.org.