Returning to my ancestral village in India, I encounter unexpected insights from an ancient form of the Mother Goddess
BY SHIVALI BHAMMER, NEW YORK
ABOUT AN HOUR FROM THE GUJARATI town of tankara is my ancestral Indian village. The Marlet Mataji Temple there is said by locals to be over 11,000 years old. My grandmother used to take the bus from Tankara to Marlet Mataji and worship one of the forms of the Mother Goddess, Khodiyar Ma. She had eleven children during her life, so I’m sure she would have identified more easily with the female personification of Divine consciousness than with the male! I recently traveled with my father for my first visit to this temple.
After what seems a very long time from when my father told me “It’s just close by,” we finally park our car and clamber our way up through a small alleyway to the temple. The road which leads one to the temple steps is broken and in picturesque ruin from the heavy monsoon rains. There are many cement companies in the area, making the air murky yellow and difficult to breathe. As we enter the temple, I nod to the cow out front, as she resembles a stalwart guard whom you would not want to challenge.
Before we arrive at the sanctum to meet one of Khodiyar Ma’s physical representations, we pass numerous photos of children who are the result of parents who had initially not been able bear them, but had then prayed to the Goddess and found success. The temple itself is constructed around a tree, grown where the original murti was formed thousands of years ago. A trisula standing against the tree is so tall that it bends sideways and has to be supported. This trisula is said to grow two or more inches every year. My father personally attests to this truth. He has been coming here since childhood, and dishonesty is not one of his traits. The trisula does look abnormally tall.
There is a certain energy in this space. I would describe it as a “rootedness.” You feel like you are deeply connected with the womb of the Earth and that there is something much bigger around you. I have never been a devotee of the Mother Goddess, but here I am certainly intrigued.
Hindus and non-Hindus alike flood the gates of India to visit Her temples and look with fascination upon the sacred and powerful murtis. Believers and non-believers will sit there for a few minutes and perhaps say a prayer just in case the Divinity exists. However, Hinduism is far more profound, and the message is so subtle and beautifully intricate that unless you strive to go a little deeper, you might miss it altogether.
Khodiyar Ma is the name many Gujaratis use in referring to the Goddess, and they have their own folk story of how Khodiyar Ma came to be. She is very much the Vedic Goddess more formally know as Akhilandeshwari Ma. This name means “She Who is never not broken.” Akhila means “whole” or “complete,” but akhilanda means the double negative “never not broken;” and eshwari comes from Ishwari, meaning the Supreme Ruler. Today people may chant and praise Akhilandeshwari Ma, but unless you breakdown the name and understand the Sanskrit, you are missing the very nectar of the fruit. In her name alone lies her purpose and truth.
In religion, philosophy and culture, we are usually focused on the completeness of something, both in ourselves and outside of ourselves. As a society, we are obsessed with perfection and are constantly striving to have everything in place, so we can feel whole and final. Many personifications, descriptions and depictions of the Supreme Consciousness across all religions focus on transcendence, completeness and wholeness. However, the existence of Akhilandeshwari Ma completely flips this concept on its head. She represents the very opposite: she represents the parts or pieces—not the whole. She represents every fragmented shard of us strewn across a floor of our most challenging moments. She represents our complete brokenness. I am drawn to her because, in the recognition of these shattered pieces of my self, I am embracing a truth that, ironically, brings me far closer to the concept of completeness than I would be otherwise.
Why is acknowledging our own seemingly broken, incompleteness so appealing? I think it is because the Goddess represents the power and creativity to pull ourselves back together as we wish to be, the power to constantly recreate ourselves again and again. If we were complete and whole, without an incomplete imperfection, we would be void of change, evolution and creative expression; we would be stagnant. Existence would be unsavory and stale.
This is not to be misinterpreted as conflicting with the Hindu teaching of stillness. Stillness and tranquility are fundamental when balancing these broken and changing facets of both the more illusory physical world and the deeper truths of our inner spiritual workings.
If we have a puzzle to solve, it is up to us to determine how we wish to put it together. If we did not have pieces within us, how then would we move, adapt and change our life to one day complete it? This challenge is only possible because we are disassembled. Only by accepting this fractured nature within us are we enabled to grow and to face the trials and tribulations of the world. Akhilandeshwari Ma is beautiful because she reminds you of who you are and who you have the potential to be. The Goddess takes consciousness and places all that energy, and the reins that direct it, back into your hands—which is truly empowering.
In life, many people continuously feel perplexed and disheartened when things go wrong. Some of these events are consequences of our own behaviors and desires, and sometimes we cannot trace the cause, although there must be one. Akhilandeshwari Ma teaches us to embrace that challenge as a good thing, rather than letting it overwhelm us. She shows us that it is only through this incomplete nature of ours that we can continue to perfect ourselves. We are part of a cosmic play that is in constant dance and movement. Feel that change within you; and instead of letting difficulty engulf you, reengineer it to allow you to express yourself on a higher level. To put it simply, don’t moan that you’re broken; rather be happy that you can break so you can continuously remake yourself!
We must remember that consciousness is all pervading. It is both in the pieces of ourselves and in the spaces between. We can never truly lose ourselves, though we may feel that we have when we are only identifying with one part of us. When you identify with all the seemingly broken parts of you, you can start to see the unity in everything and you can acknowledge life’s discomforts as a perfecting rearrangement of the whole.
The symbolism of Akhilandeshwari Ma doesn’t stop with Her name. Her chosen mode of transport is a crocodile. The uneducated eye sees only a Goddess standing on an animal, but further exploration reveals that this Vedic Goddess stands upon a crocodile because it embodies our human fears. In Vedanta, fear of death can be broken down into many basic fears—fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of rejection and fear of loss. Like a crocodile, fear is forever gnawing at us with its razor-sharp teeth, ready to swallow us up for breakfast. Fear itself drives us to feel this insurmountable grief and has the power to disable us from putting ourselves back together when things go wrong. What a Goddess! Akhilandeshwari Ma stands right on top of the crocodile and uses it as her vehicle on the lake. The Goddess refuses to succumb to fear, which would eat her up and plunge her into the dark depths of the water. Instead, she stands atop that fear, harnessing it boldly as a tool and gaining strength from it. We often hear phrases like “The only thing to fear is fear itself” or “Stand up against your fears.” This is precisely what Akhilandeshwari Ma, one of India’s oldest depictions of the Goddess, demonstrates. Don’t be swallowed by your fears. Trample them; stand tall upon them. Use that very fear as a transport into a greater vision of yourself and your life.
In my own temple, I had never had a murti of an Indian Goddess, but after this visit I picked up a small murti of Akhilandeshwari Ma, or Khodiyar Ma as we call her. She is dressed in a beautiful, brightly colored sari. She holds the trident proudly in one hand, while the other hand offers blessings. Her face is beaming as she stands upon Her crocodile. Here lies the reason for “idol worship” by Hindus: it is not because we believe a physical object is God, it is because every time I wake up and I look at Her, I am reminded of how I am like the Goddess: never not broken! I can be completely shattered, yet I am fearless, I am beautiful, and I am ready to stand tall.