From Kolkata and the universe within Krishna’s mouth to Vermont and the pleasures of virtual prayer. A memoir and a video game.
1. Perimeter: Four Doors to Infinity
One day when the children were playing, they reported to Yashodha, “Krishna has eaten dirt.” Yashodha took Krishna by the hand and scolded him and said, “You naughty boy, why have you eaten dirt? These boys, your friends, and your elder brother say so.” “Mother, I have not eaten,” said Krishna. “They are all lying. If you believe them instead of me, look at my mouth yourself.” “Then, open up,” she said to the god, who had in play taken the form of a human child; and he opened his mouth.
Then she saw in his mouth the whole universe, with the far corners of the sky, and the wind, and lightning, and the orb of the Earth with its mountains and oceans, and the moon and stars, and space itself; and she saw her own village and herself. She became frightened and confused, thinking, “Is this a dream or an illusion fabricated by God? Or is it a delusion in my own mind? For God’s power of delusion inspires in me such false beliefs as ‘I exist,’ ‘This is my husband,’ ‘This is my son.’” When she had come to understand true reality in this way, God spread his magic illusion in the form of maternal love. Instantly Yashodha lost her memory of what had occurred. She took her son on her lap and was as she had been before, but her heart was flooded with even greater love for God, whom she regarded as her son.
—translated from the Bhagavad Purana, a tenth-century
by Wendy Doniger in The Implied Spider
At first, I knew Hinduism only as an extension of family life—full of order and chaos. Packed tight as atoms, transcendence, superstition, playful affection, and holy terror whirled about one another, clashing occasionally, like hanging temple bells purifying the wind. If Hinduism is the temple of civilization (as my great-grandfather loved to argue), then its daily pujas and seasonal Pujas are the candles, lamps, and fireworks that light up the altar.
At sunrise, like a martinet, before the city of Kolkata grew restive, my grandmother rang her hand bell; then she ground sandalwood into paste. With some of it she adorned our family pantheon, saving the rest for her cheeks. Fresh flowers were delivered along with the milk and reverently tossed at our idols. The day began. Commerce, gossip, traffic jams, cooking, and family feuds did, too.
Everyone knew that on Thursdays between 2:30 and 5 p.m., subtle planetary movements rendered our own stirrings inauspicious; as the sun glared the world into submission, we loosened our pajama strings and fell into a deep sleep. These stupors were different from the siestas we took on other weekdays; on Thursday afternoons, we dared not do anything important, even in our dreams. Was it mere astrology, divine doctrine, or family predilection that also led to bans on trimming our nails after sunset and on learning to swim?
Every evening, when he sat down to eat, my grandfather put a tiny bit of food and water aside. He was a man of the world. He idealized the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar, cried when President Nixon, Mother Teresa, and Princess Diana died, and railed against Gandhi. As a young Communist enthralled with Subhas Chandra Bose, the Bengali nationalist who brought troops to support the Japanese during World War II, he had flung away his sacred thread. He still hated the stringy caste mark, with its pernicious branding of division. He never failed to feed our Brahmin ancestors, but toward the end of his life, when illness prevented him from carrying out annual rites for his father, he smiled and said, “By now he’s been reborn. He’s playing somewhere—he doesn’t need my devotions.”
Evenings were the best. My grandmother lit incense, did her evening pujas, and supervised the cook, while my grandfather, still in his suit, drank Complan. The rest of us drank tea and ate fried plantains and banana flowers. Sometimes, many people came over, and we used banana leaves as plates. Afterward, we threw away the leaves, as if the banana plant weren’t Kalabou, the wife of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. We worshipped her during the festivals Durga Puja and Ganesh Puja (a puja is a private act of prayer, a Puja a public rite performed by priests), cladding the plant in a sari and smearing her leaves with vermilion paste. Then she became a polite, well-heeled stranger, and it was impossible to contemplate picking her fruit or spoiling her fronds. Who knew what she might do to us?
At night, my grandfather laid aside with his suit his worries about steel manufacturing, the stock market, and family crises. After a cold bath, he sat cross-legged on the bed, his lower body now swathed in white cotton, water droplets as shiny and surprising as untimely dew peeking out of his chest hair, specks of talc on his brown skin like aromatic dust. Beside him, quiet for once, I breathed in the peace he breathed out. I knew he was doing his puja, but what was he actually
doing? To make me laugh, when things weren’t going according to our wishes, he would scold his gods and goddesses, just as he scolded me. Is that all a puja was then? A chance to rebuke your favorite godlings?
After my grandparents had fallen asleep, I would lie awake, chattering with the goddess Kali, mother of death and destruction. Her vivid face, with its bloody stuck-out tongue, was emblazoned on a calendar across from my bed. She and I had a special bond—Bidisha is one of her 108 names, and one of my three. I’d beg her to tell me stories, and sometimes she would.
Kali was a fearsome aunt and easily provoked, but those skulls strung around her neck were endearing. It was sweet how she would suck on them absentmindedly, like lollipops, and she was always good for a bone-chilling story, long after everyone else was asleep. When I finally drowsed off in the dregs of one of these complex, gory tales (which always ended with Kali adding several freshly scalped, grinning skulls to her garland), I felt as peaceful as my grandfather after his bath.
2. First Circle: Closed Out
Beef, biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita.
—Swami Vivekananda, on what Indians needed to defeat the British
If my rapt conversations with Kali were my first pujas, they were also very nearly my last. When I was ten, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a mosque built by a Mughal ancestor of Akbar’s. Two thousand people died in the ensuing riots. I had trouble reconciling my family’s apparent obliviousness to the violence with my grandfather’s stories of a syncretic Hinduism. That same year, my parents separated; it was unclear whether a culture that had so much room for warrior goddesses had any tolerance for a single mom. On her parents’ urging, she chose to settle in the US rather than endure the raised eyebrows at home. Had I remained in India, or moved to Jackson Heights, perhaps I would have internalized more doctrine, perhaps attended a Hindu youth camp. But in Lawrence, Kansas, my pujas grew anemic. And what kind of Puja takes place in a basketball-sick high school gym or a yellowing Methodist church? A hundred-strong crew of displaced Bengalis assembled one lone day a year, each of us having come a long drive across the paved-over prairie, our tangail saris taken off mothballs, our rasgollas and rabindrasangeet defrosted.
An outlier herself, my mother devoted herself to teaching Kansans about standard deviation—painstakingly, she drew the box and whiskers, the stem and leaf; at night, Bhagavad Gita tapes helped her sleep. Before I drowsed off, my first year in the US, I would watch figure skating and practice my splits, then prostrate myself for puja. Bedtime prayers seemed somehow American. But afterward, as the year grew old and my mother slumbered fitfully, I would play country music or Super Mario 4 until dawn.
Transcendence, superstition, playful affection, and holy terror spun apart, their atomic bonds broken, the temple now locked. In high school, I ate beef for the first time (it tasted like stinky goat) and scandalized my grandfather by accepting a job at the Paradise Café, where I built my biceps by scrubbing dishes and toilets. I opened up to the Doors, Nine Inch Nails, and The Doors of Perception
; my Bhagavad Gita stayed shut, a jumble of diacritics and morality.
As a girl, I was denied the sacred thread granted to Brahmin males upon adulthood, and I was outraged. Yet, following my grandfather, I would never have worn the thread had it been given to me. I still remembered two all-purpose mantras he had taught me, and used them to fight off fatigue, financial worries, heartbreak, cockroaches, and poor road conditions. One, the ten-word sarvamangala
mantra, is an invocation of the goddess Durga. The other is an eight-word zinger: Maha Maya, Maha Medha, Maha Buddhi, Maha Lakshmi!
Great Illusion, Great Intelligence, Great Conscious-Awakeness, Great Wealth!
3. Outer Petals: Circling
Today, in 2008, it seems the e-puja has always been there
, on the Internet. Otherwise, some midwestern Indian programmer with a freezer full of Ma’s cooking would have had to invent it. It is not only Hindus who have constructed online facsimiles of reverence, but it’s the Indian diaspora, nostalgic for drumbeats and flower petals, that has taken interactivity most seriously.
I cannot approach the e-puja historically. I am not interested in who created the ur-template from which each subsequent garland, incense burner, lamp, drum, and flower was copied for pasting the Web over, or in how the sham of interactivity developed, or in who holds the e-puja world record. Click!
The lingam is wearing your garland! Drag!
The incense is lit! Click
, and click
. The blessing is yours!
Where does the goddess reside? Is she happy to be clicked on and dragged, anytime, by anyone, in any state of mind? What relationship do those bodiless clicks bear to five thousand years of tradition, which dictate, down to the minute, how a puja should be performed? Or is the goddess moved by informality? Maybe she who would chat with me at night also enjoys appearing on computer screens to brighten the days of workers glued to their desktops?
I am most tempted to perform an e-puja in early fall, during the sensory explosion that is Durga Puja. For sixteen years, I longed to be in Bengal for this four-day festival, which marks Durga’s triumph over the demon Mahishasura. It is simultaneously the most riotous and the most unifying moment in the Bengali Hindu’s year: Muslims, Christians, and unbelievers get swept up in the fanfare. Writers and editors fuss over Puja editions of literary magazines. Artists labor for months to create neighborhood shrines out of bamboo and clay. The walls of one pandal might be decorated with the colors and designs of an indigenous tribe; another could feature a blood-soaked Mahishasura or an enormous replica of Hogwarts.
Every morning and evening, women’s ululations goad the conch-shell wielders into higher frequencies while men with bulbous two-sided drums hanging like pendants from their necks square off against the gong players. Priests chant, then fall dramatically silent; the crowd lobs petals at the goddess; the mantras start anew. In front of Durga, wild, dancing men and women brandish clay pots of tinder, camphor, and incense, which trail shimmying garlands of smoke. On the last day, everyone goes forth and showers friends and family with sweets and good cheer. Afterward, the idols from the shrines are driven to the river by exultant crowds and submerged, then left to frustrate fish and seep bright paint into the water. (Indian environmentalists, in particular, welcome e-pujas.)
4. Inner Circle: Closing In
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot intoned. If divinity is the ultimate reality, why do we continue to seek it out? Yashodha couldn’t bear seeing the universe in Krishna’s mouth. But after her vision was forgotten, she returned to daily life with a redoubled love for God, whom she now held as her son.
October of a year ago, in rural Vermont, I missed even the diasporic Durga Pujas celebrated in Boston and New York. As I spent the week scrolling through the e-pujas out there
, I realized that I had become willing to use whatever it took—contortions or incense, keystrokes or mouse clicks. Performing an e-puja is like being stranded on a virtual desert island and eating a coconut made of pixels. Once I lived on the real island; there I encountered not just coconuts but their tree’s very own spire leaf, a tender and delicious heart of palm at its base. But so far from Bengal, placing stock in authenticity is a fundamentalism I can’t afford. Reality can’t wait.
5. The Four Upward-Pointing Triangles:
I have known Hindu priests to cop a feel in crowded lines and to rush along the spiritual VIPs who have paid the most to the goddess fund. At the most awe-inspiring temple I know, Fullara Ma’s in Labhpur, there’s no idol—only a squat stone jutting out of the earth and covered in red ooze. (Another story: When an incarnation of Durga had her body sliced into fifty-two pieces and scattered throughout India, the goddess’s lips fell here.) Fullara Ma resides in a tiny room, guarded night and day by mangy priests who bathe her in milk, throw hibiscus flowers, and chant mantras, all in exchange for money. Her temple was built by my great-great-grandfather. He is still remembered by the priests, who lose no opportunity to cackle about my family’s peccadilloes and scandals; apparently, gossip is a solemn part of the oral tradition. I used to go to Fullara Ma’s temple and sit by the adjoining pond, but I never made a formal puja because I didn’t want to bribe those scoundrels to encounter the goddess for me. E-pujas evade most personal conflict. But the space that opens up can be terrifying.
6. The Five Downward-Pointing Triangles:
The first e-puja I made was representational. I did not stray far from the templates out there
; I was interested in a handmade look. Once, a village girl in rural Bengal slipped her hand into mine as we picked our way through flooded rice fields. “City people think they have it all. Well, they don’t. I know that the real puja takes place here
,” she confided, as the warm mud squelched between our toes.
In the Bengali countryside, where I lived recently, Durga Puja remains the biggest event of the year. It is very much a harvest festival. All year, as farmers accumulate rice straw, they mold the leftover husks into faceless female figures, each of them Durga. The soon-to-be-goddess leans casually against bus stands and mud huts or slumps, as though she’s tired of awaiting immanence and just wants a cigarette. She can be sodden or bulbous, alluring or merely scratchy. Occasionally, she sprouts out of herself.
Designing my own e-puja wasn’t about giving old rituals an electronic face-lift. Perhaps those who use the e-pujas out there
regularly go to temples or sit at the feet of a guru, and these experiences rose-color the crude Flash animations. I had no temple and no guru and no real expectations of the gods. Instead, here I was, my own guru, eager to induce epiphany. I needed concrete tools to expand with rigor my sense of reality, to pay daily homage to the incomprehensible Krishna within myself and all else. How could I touch divinity’s spire leaf or, at the least, my grandfather’s peacefulness? My hands were tied—I had to turn to the Sri Yantra.
7. Central Dot:
Mantra gives formula and equation; yantra, diagram and pattern; and what correlates both systems of relations is Tantra.... A yantra then represents a particular force whose power or energy increases in proportion to the abstraction and precision of the diagram. Through such yantras or power diagrams, creation and control of ideas and physical forces are supposed to be possible.... It is not an arbitrary invention but a revealed image of an aspect of cosmic structure....
Psychogeography of the Vertiginous Bindu
Just as the musical string must be plucked in a particular fashion to sound a certain note, so must the yantra line be mastered and mentally plucked to bring forth its image or power. Thus the yantra diagram of apparently static lines will, with mental application, vibrate in perfect relation like a finely tuned instrument.
—Ajit Mookerjee, Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics
The Sri Yantra is, or appears to be, a diagram in which four doors open into two circles. The first has sixteen petals, the second eight. In the center, nine triangles blur into and out of focus. Four male triangles point upward while five female triangles point down. Unlike yin and yang, the Sri Yantra is imbalanced, and this asymmetry is hallucinatory. Although it has been read in many ways—it is an esoteric meditation aid to understanding non-duality; it is non-duality; it is an aspect of the Supreme Goddess; it is a union of male and female energies; it is the relationship between pentatonic scales and microtones; it is a coded map of the world; it is the cosmos itself—the Sri Yantra is not a symbol. Without the mantras to unleash it, without a guru to correct pronunciation of those mantras, the Sri Yantra is nothing. But what else is it?
In honor of my grandfather’s playful religion, I decided to make a game of the Sri Yantra. I enjoyed the difficult task of visualizing it, and with the help of my partner, I created a Flash animation that would allow anyone to trace the diagram. I used an eighteenth-century drawing of the Sri Yantra from Rajasthan. (Since Tantra is a form of Hinduism akin to Gnosticism, my family in Bengal was unfamiliar with the diagram.) I recommend breathing deeply and/or listening to music while tracing it. According to tradition, the yantra should not be traced at night.
Remaking the yantra as pure geometry was a study in signal and noise, an attempt to tease out the vagaries of handicraft from matters cosmological. The Sri Yantra is, after all, the world; a quarter-inch gap might be the Bay of Bengal. The drawing’s right gate was slightly narrower than the left. (The careless hand of an eighteenth-century apprentice or a deliberate and significant choice?) Far more obvious was the extra line, tiny and meticulous, on the upper gate’s left side. It couldn’t possibly have been an error, but, orbiting asymmetrically on-screen, it would have seemed like one. (What if it were the pin that attaches the world to the sky—the very seat of consciousness, the entry point of the goddess?) I didn’t include it.
The point of the first male triangle was slightly set off from the first female triangle’s baseline. This might have been an unimportant imprecision—or did it bespeak a different mathematics, more complex than that of the gross body of bland, overbalanced modern yantras? It did, I decided, and I rewove the inner lines from a different skein of petals. The Sri Yantras out there
showed four male triangles and five females—but no, in our ancient version the male shapes were dominant! Two hours of recalculation followed, accompanied by growing suspicions of concealment and conspiracy. Then I realized I’d scanned the book upside down.
As the days dragged on, the juddering and uneven rotation of the layers began to work bad mojo. During the day, my partner and I built little Taj Mahals of code. But by five or six in the evening, minor errors in construction would manifest in three-dimensional fields, wildly whirling outlines, and ghostly inversions. Fault-riddled code yielded nearly the right results; cleaning it up left things worse. The angular pull of the outer petals became more and more visceral—like being picked up and spun—and the triangles, half their points missing, resembled mismatched gears. Perhaps things were going so poorly because I was working at night. Sometimes, very late, it seemed the center would not hold.
That threatened a premise of the project—that the Sri Yantra could exist in an atomized way but still be pinned to the bindu in the center. But the bindu cannot be reached. It cannot be seen, and no path leads to or from it. Somehow I failed to see, until the piece was almost done, that I’d forgotten the bindu entirely.
After more than six months of working on the game, I visited an ashram in Rikhia, Jharkhand, with my yoga teacher. On the train, I savored my solitude in the ladies’ compartment. I breathed in the locomotive’s sooty, high-spirited rhythms and wished they could continue forever. But I arrived too late to receive diksha
from the guru, and as a hundred people lined up to receive their personal mantras, I roamed the ashram alone. Suddenly, the Sri Yantra was everywhere: on tote bags and daily planners and dorm-room walls (reinterpreted, with the word love
inscribed inside heart-shaped petals). No mystery surrounded the yantra’s associated mantra, Aīm Hrīm Klīm
. Everyone knew it and chanted it often. Bull’s-eye! I was in the bindu, and a bit disconsolate. Stressed out, I left early. But an hour later, sitting again inside the clattering train, the wind off the brilliant mustard fields tearing the shawl from my body, I felt once more at peace on the axis leading toward and away from the Sri Yantra’s ground zero.
On the next page, there are two versions of the e-puja. The first is meditative and, like most beginners’ meditations, extremely boring (if repeated use leads you to transcendence, we want to know!). The second is a more traditional video game. It’s hard to navigate, and the player is chased by devas of different colors. Don’t get blanked by them! You win once the flatness of your computer screen explodes into multidimensionality inside your mind. If you get there, please make sure to have a raucous block party, complete with drums, flowers, incense, and good food. And don’t forget to scold the gods on my behalf.
Images: 1. Kali Yantra painting by Rajasthan, late eighteenth century. 2. Skewed yantra image by George Collins. 3. Kali, artist unknown. 4. Hindu calendar. 5. Lithograph from The Sundhya or the Daily Prayers of the Brahmins by Mrs. S. C. Belnos, 1851. 6. Hiranyagarbha painting in gold and tempera, Kangra school, ca. 1775–1800. 7 & 8. Durga Puja photos by Mahasweta Banerjee. 9. The Rani Rashomoni household Durga being immersed, photo by Raghubir Singh, 1970. 10. Kali on the Battlefield Fighting Chanda and Munda's Armies, opaque watercolor on paper, 1781. 11. Planetary orbit or nakshatra mandala painting by Rajasthan, 1712. 12. Devi as Chandi, clay. 13. Sri Yantra.
Images 1, 2 & 11 from Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics by Ajit Mookerjee, 1966. Images 9 & 10 from Devi, the Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 1999.