From Yoga International. September/October 1994
Most of the people in the cars ahead of us on the narrow, twisting California road are tourists, visiting the region’s many wineries. But my husband and I are looking for something few wine and cheese aficionados would expect to find in Napa County. High up in the hills we finally locate the nondescript red and white sign that reads, “Devi Mandir.” If you don’t know Sanskrit, you wouldn’t know the sign means “Goddess Temple.” We turn off onto a bumpy dirt road carrying us into a small, secluded valley and there we see it, the Temple of the Divine Mother.
In India, divinity is often portrayed as a mother, in contrast to the Western habit of depicting the divine as father. Many schools of yoga have developed around the image of God as Shakti or feminine power; these form yoga’s great Shakta lineages. For centuries, one of the most frequently recited scriptures in India has been the Chandi, the allegorical saga of the Divine Mother Durga’s manifestations on earth to rescue humanity from evil, as told by the sage Medhas Muni. In this northern California hideaway, the Chandi is celebrated daily in the traditional sacred manner. The temple itself contains numerous beautiful statues of the forms of the Goddess described in the Chandi.
Presiding over the temple is Shree Maa, a slim Bengali woman rarely seen without a smile. Shree Maa is a yogini. When she was 16 years old, she left her wealthy childhood home to wander the jungles of Assam, devoting herself to spiritual practice. She was especially inspired by the 19th-century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna, and like him, has spent much of her life meditating and performing puja (ritual worship) to the Divine Mother. In 1984, at the instruction of her guru, Shree Maa moved to the United States and established the Mandir. Devotees – both Indian and Western – come to the temple to bask in its serenity and offer homage to the divine in the form of the Universal Mother.
We sit outside discussing yoga and women’s spirituality. In the bright sun, Shree Maa covers her head with a brown and yellow chadur. She begins to answer my questions in English but soon finds it easier to answer at length in Bengali; Swami Saytananda graciously translates.
A common complaint I hear from people who have practiced yoga and meditation for years is that, in spite of their best efforts, they still feel unhappy and unfulfilled. What would you say to these discouraged students?
You must invite a bhava – a divine attitude – into your life. In Sanskrit there is a distinction between buddhi and medha. “Buddhi” means the intellect and medha means the intellect illuminated by love. When you have a loving intellect full of rasa, full of joy, full of inspiration, then you are medhas muni, the intellect of love. Do you remember the myth in which Tara, the Divine Mother, leaves the house of Brihaspati because he is so dry and dull? Brihaspati represents the buddhi. She tells him, “I need some bhava. I am going to the home of Chandra because he is filled with devotion.”
Here in the West, students are used to memorizing things for examinations. When they go into spiritual life they think “I’ll learn it all,” and do the practices from buddhi, not from medha. They haven’t realized the objective is to illuminate your wisdom with bhakti, divine love. The Divine Mother has two breasts from which she nourishes her children. From the left comes devotion and from the right comes wisdom. Every woman should know that. Buddhi alone is not enough nourishment to raise a healthy child. If we have a cold and dull spiritual practice, we have to light it up with flames of devotion.
Have you heard about the time Ramakrishna visited the headquarters of the Brahmo Samaj? They were discussing philosophy and cosmology. Ramakrishna stood in the middle of the hall and said, “Why are you talking about the moon and the sun and the planets? Why aren’t you calling out to the Divine Mother, the one who made the stars?” He started crying, “Mother! Mother! Mother!” and went into Samadhi, the state of union with the supreme.
The leader of the Brahmo Samaj looked very sad and said, “All my life I have studied the scriptures and sat for meditation, but still I have not achieved Self-realization. This saint doesn’t care to read. All he does is call out to the Mother with pure love and immediately She wraps him in her arms.”
Also, uniting in satsang, your inspiration will increase. The root of all spiritual evolution is satsang, which means cultivating spirituality from a good example, and then becoming a good example yourself. As much as you polish your brass pots and your copper vessels, so much will they shine.
Satsang is defined as keeping the company of truth or spending time with one’s guru. Self-realized gurus are not readily available in America.
If in every family, one individual begins to cultivate community with truth, then the rest of the family will join in. It’s not a question of having a teacher but becoming a teacher.
Ramakrishna’s instruction was that in this age in every house there should be a temple, in every house there should be satsang. Our goal here in Napa is not to make large temples but to make temples in everybody’s house, in everybody’s heart. Our objective is not to make anyone a renunciate, but to help everyone realize their divinity in the framework of their own lives. Satsang does not necessarily mean going outside. It’s cultivating inspiration within yourself and sharing it with your immediate circle of associates.
One way you cultivate a divine attitude here is through puja, ritual worship. Almost all spiritual teachers who’ve come to America from India teach Westerners hatha yoga and meditation; very few of them teach puja. Can you explain the advantage of incorporating ritual worship into one’s spiritual routine?
Pu means punya, merit, and ja means jata, to give birth. So pujas are those acts which give birth to the highest merit, and in spiritual life the highest merit is to sit in the presence of God. What you call meditation is concentrating awareness on one thing. But when your concentration breaks, what happens? Is your meditation over?
Puja is guided meditation. It helps us to concentrate for longer periods of time because we take all the practices and techniques we’ve been studying and tie these together. We take asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), mudra (yoga gestures), recitation of mantras, meditation, and make a synthesis. In Sanskrit, synthesis is known by the word tantra. This synthesis, offered with devotion in the form of guided meditation, is called puja. The function of puja is to guide our meditation to the highest divinity and to offer to that divinity the best we possibly can. We receive as Prasad (gifts from God) whatever remains from that offering, and it is our privilege to share those gifts, the fruit of our worship, with anyone who wants to participate.
I’d like to ask a few questions about women’s spiritual needs in particular. For some time now, Western women have been working to overturn social forces that prevent them from achieving their full potential in the world. In order to do this, we’ve had to cultivate a strong sense of ego, assertiveness, and skills to accomplish professional aims. Given that we Western women feel it is our responsibility to take a more dynamic role in external affairs, can we be strong and egoless, successful and humble, active in the world and inwardly full of renunciation, all at the same time?
It’s nice to hear that’s not an utterly unrealistic goal. Do you find there’s a difference in the way men and women approach spirituality?
I don’t think so. The soul has no gender. In our tradition both Gods and Goddesses are considered worthy of worship. It says in the Chandi, “Whoever takes refuge in the Divine Mother invariably becomes a refuge to others.” Male or female – it doesn’t matter.
What would you say men and women’s attitudes toward each other should be?
What about women’s attitude toward their children?
In our tradition, the first and foremost forms the divine assumes is the Mother. Always in a mother there will be renunciation of selfishness and an equal division of love among all the children. In the Chandi, it says although there are bad children, there can never be a bad mother. This is a very beautiful attitude.
What is a woman’s greatest asset in spiritual life?
These are the same for both women and men. Faith. Devotion. Desire for attaining the goal. Inspiration. There are nine forms of Durga, the Divine Mother, in the Chandi. First is the goddess of inspiration; second is the goddess of sacred study; third is the goddess of spiritual practice; fourth, the goddess of inner refinement; fifth, the goddess who nurtures divinity; sixth is she who makes us completely pure; seventh, the great surrender of the darkness of duality; eighth, she who makes us one with radiant light; and ninth, the granter of perfection. These are the names of the nine Durgas united in succession in the path of perfection, given from the beginning of time. These nine Durgas will be the greatest illumination in the path of every woman in her spiritual development. In the path of material life, these nine forces take us to the culmination of our goals.
And these Durgas are something we find inside ourselves?
Yes! At every point in time, a woman could ask herself, “Which Durga am I illuminating right now? Am I the goddess of inspiration or am I the teacher of sacred knowledge? Am I performing my practice? Am I surrendering the darkness of my egotism? Am I illuminating the great radiant light?” These are questions we’ll ask ourselves all through the day.
And if we’re none of the above?
Then cultivate satsang!
Sometimes it seems as if the world is in such a desperate state of affairs that the future can only bring more disasters. Is there hope for the future? How can we prepare ourselves to meet whatever is coming?
We don’t watch television here so we don’t know what the news is, but all of us have hope for the future. Everyone will outline their goals and in accordance with their goals, that is what they’ll become. We must all have an understanding of where we want to go. If any of us don’t, then it is important for us to find out because the first step of yoga is to take control, and that means to take control of your life by defining your goals, defining your path, organizing your life so that you can make a discipline, which is the second step. In this way, everyone can make the future whatever they want it to be.
Is there any other message you would specifically like to offer yoga students?
Give up your selfishness and find the Divine Mother’s message in your own heart. That is the answer you should listen to.
Just as we conclude the interview, a butterfly alights on Shree Maa’s head. Its brown and yellow hues exactly match her shawl, making its fluttering wings appear like a tiny living bonnet. “It is hugging me without selfish desire!” Shree Maa laughs with delight.
For several minutes the butterfly holds on steadfastly. “If only we could all cling to the Divine Mother like that,” Swami Satyananda sighs.
Before we leave, my husband and I visit the temple’s enormous stone linga and yoni. These two sacred Vedic forms represent the harmonious balance of feminine and masculine energies in the perfect unity of divine awareness. Sitting in this peaceful grove, under this powerful symbol, I can’t help reflecting that California’s wine country now offers other ways to become intoxicated than fermented grapes. I slip into meditation hoping to taste the wisdom and love that pour from the Mother of the World like milk. Here at the Temple of the Divine Mother, the Goddess’ joyous serenity suffuses my soul.