Birthed in India over 15 years ago, SHARANYA exists to empower seeds of change on individual, collective, and planetary levels towards healing, respect, responsibility, and the fullest awareness of an interconnected, interrelated cosmic reality. Our origins are rooted in a commitment to social justice and to the (r)evolution of consciousness across space-time realities that we might transform increasingly toward peace.
Constitution of Maa Batakali Sanskrutika Parisada
The Maa Batakali Cultural Mission
Balisahi, Puri Town, Puri 752 001 Orissa
Registration Number: 2802/211/91-92
Filed and Certified by the Audit Superintendent District Panchayat Office, Puri
- To create and nurture a community of life-affirming individuals devoted to Mother Worship and to developing an understanding of how such devotion can positively transform our global community.
- The Maa Batakali Cultural Mission is dedicated to promoting the vision of the world as a global community in Her divine name.
Aims and Objectives:
- To maintain this Mission as a nonprofit public-benefit organization, not organized for the private gain of any person.
- To foster awareness of Goddess worship as a life-affirming path among the global community; and to eradicate erroneous and superstitious beliefs in this regard.
- To organize, develop and execute recreational, cultural and spiritual activities for the community.
- To undertake programs for the establishment of community housing, social forestry and environmental sanitation; et alia.
- To organize, fund and promote Mission Centers for community gatherings, social welfare programs and adult education, including the establishment of a library with emphasis on educational activities for community youth; and to develop various pilot projects to meet the needs of community members.
- To organize outreach programs for those not in or around Mission Centers.
- To undertake projects expressly designed to promote the welfare of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and other economically “backward” classes of people, and to promote the development of cooperative ideas and enterprise among them and the community at large.
- To draw up schemes for the rehabilitation of antisocial persons; i.e., those with problems related to alcohol and drug abuse, and to assist their families as required.
- To educate about and mobilize peacefully against sati, dowry, beggary, caste crime and similar social ills.
- To publish a monthly newsletter, community bulletin and other educational materials for the promotion of the spiritual and cultural philosophy of the Mission.
- To help provide relief, through community efforts, for those effected by natural calamities and other emergencies.
- To promote cultural exchange of ideas and beliefs throughout India and the world.
- To assist in providing legal aid to the needy and the poor.
- To establish sister organizations, in the United States and elsewhere, in order to promote the vision of the Mission worldwide.
- To develop fundraising schemes for the future growth and maintenance of the Mission and its associations.
It’s summer in India, the time when the air is thick, sweat plentiful, and the monsoon’s rains swell the skies and the streets. I have come here, to this land of spice, spirit and the sacred, to further my work in ecofeminism by looking at women’s spiritual connections to social justice and activism on behalf of the environment. I am not here long, however, before Maa, the Divine Mother, shows me that there’s more to my quest than I originally thought.
Speaking to a guide at my hotel, I tell him, “I need to find a temple to the Goddess.”
“Which one,” he asks. “Which goddess?”
“Well, Kali,” I state hesitatingly, unsure of how my request will be received. The man looks me up and down, trying to determine where I fit within the spectrum of visitors from whom he makes his livelihood.
“Wouldn’t you rather visit Lord Jaganath?” he inquires. Lord of the Universe, Jaganath is honored at this time in Puri (the eastern dham, one of the sacred compass points in India) in a huge festival to which hundreds of thousands flock each year. Together with his brother and sister, this is the only time the Lord leaves the mandir (temple). He’s on a family outing to his summer home across the town, and everyone comes out to get a glimpse of the royal family.
“No,” I respond quickly. I’m restless and on a mission. It is Kali I need to see and no one else. That She is responsible for my getting through a political uprising in Digha at the southern end of West Bengal unscathed is apparent to me. I have come here therefore to give thanks and need to be at her feet in a temple soon. Sensing my urgency, the gentleman kindly calls to an auto-rickshaw driver with a shrug, not wanting to engage me further about goddesses. The driver arrives.
“Kali mandir,” I say to him as he pulls up alongside us. At this point, I have no idea how many homes Maa has here in Puri. After receiving no further instructions, the driver takes off towards the center of town. I later find out (after several unsuccessful attempts to again visit the place to which I am now heading) that there are at least four Kali temples accessible to visitors. Reaching our destination, I buy a hibiscus mala, a garland of her sacred flower, and add that to my puja (worship) basket. Into it too go coconut, juicy betel nut and other sweets to delight Her. My offering is noteworthy at this temple for its size; but I am generous as I feel a strong need to show my appreciation to Goddess for getting me out of Digha alive.
The pujari at Maa Batakali Mandir, Shyam Sundar Dash, is a Brahmin priest with two sons. In his devotion and gratitude for the goddess having given him these sons, Shyam has built this temple. A small roadside mandir, passersby usually drop rupees on the temple steps on their daily rounds. It is nothing too fancy, but Maa here is absolutely resplendent.
In his time, Shyam has doubled as a government worker, making regular trips back and forth from his office to tend to Maa and her devotees. Now retired, he tends to the temple and its congregation of worshipers every day for morning prayers and evening aarati (a beautiful celebration with lights and offerings). As Shyam sees me approach for the first time, he stares. He asks me directly why I am there, and although he is not angry, his disposition and directness can easily be mistaken for exactly that at first. Truly, he’s just curious, but I am startled by his question.
“Are you ISKON?” he demands.
Suspense broken, I let out a nervous laugh. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (a.k.a. Hare Krishnas) has never drawn me, but Puri is full of Western devotees. Lord Jaganath, I learn is, like Krishna whom those in ISKON worship, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the God of Preservation, and one of the main Hindu deities.
“No,” I reply, “I came to thank Maa.” After a few more words, Shyam accepts my offering basket, performing puja on my behalf. He asks my name in order to conduct the rites. When we’re through, he asks why I’m there. But my eyes are transfixed on Maa’s image as it transforms before me, and I can only point to my heart by way of explanation. “She’s here,” I manage to say. Then, everything that has been kept inside until now in this challenging land of contrasts streams out through my eyes in hot tears.
From June through the end of August 1998, I live in Puri. My friends up north forgive me for not coming back. My field work on is put on hold. It was my pause when Shyam asked after the ritual, “Will you come visit my house?” that changed not only the course of my research, but also my life. Aware of India’s potential for surprises, I held a moment of silence before responding and internally questioned his invitation and motivations.
Feeling inside, I sensed that this was an offering, and a door was opening to me that might never open again. In the pause, I could see Her face dimly, and I wondered in my rational mind about my work and Shyam’s intentions. It took me three days to surrender to the feeling and my vision of Her beckoning. After careful thought and some time meditating with the ocean’s wisdom, I said yes. I returned to meet my new teacher and his family.
The more time I spent in Puri, the more I realized that Goddess was working in quite mysterious ways and that Shyam was no typical Brahmin priest. As time passed, I learned the extent to which She was working through him, and I absorbed many levels of Her teachings. Some were straightforward and harsh; others were more obtuse and delightful.
After much work on my temple manners, Sanskrit, and a conversion to Hinduism, diksha, or initiation into Kali’s mysteries is the next profound unfolding of my spiritual journey. The day comes on the August new moon, and I am thrilled when I realize it will be August 2nd, the festival of the harvest often called Lughnasad (or Lammas) in the earth-based Western calendar. It is as though Maa has answered my burning question: Can I do this, honor you, Mother, as a priestess in both worlds? The synchronicity of timing does not escape me, and I feel She is telling me that I can have it both ways, walking as a Goddess worshiper wherever I may be in the world. To Her, I learn, there is no distinction.
The initiation is radical by most Hindu standards. Shyam is a Brahmin priest, and I am not only a Westerner but also a woman; and women in India are not initiated by Brahmins. Following the Vedas in his public work, Shyam also practices Tantra. This is the in-road to Maa that is clearly appropriate for my circumstances and his. Tantrics care not of my birth, only my longing. But perhaps there would be less to explain and fewer staring eyes as we sit working together at the temple were Shyam to be more public about the various faces of his devotion.
As Shyam manages to satisfy people’s natural curiosity with his answers to their queries and suspicious looks, I pretend not to notice the robust number of visitors to the temple in the evenings after the gates have closed and we have begun our private work and evening prayers together.
My practice deepens after initiation, and on Her sacred day of Kali Puja some months later in October, I sit at the feet of the goddess in the temple, a spot that locals cannot come near. It is nearing midnight and the heat of the day lifting off the earth combined with the hot lamps that light Her image makes the sweat drip down my arms, makes my sari blouse feel even tighter than it already is, and makes me wish I couldn’t see the large number of bugs and ants crawling on my feet and ankles in search of food. I honor Her by pouring ghee (clarified butter) for the homa (fire offering) ceremony, and I honor the fact that I am Shyam’s first chela (student), a position of honor in this lineage tradition.
I tend to my responsibilities dutifully as the Chandi Path verses resonate off the temple walls and expand into the night air. In moments of quiet, I think about the day Shyam said he’d been waiting for me, how he said his own guru had told him that one day, he would be bringing someone other than his sons to the path. I remember how Shyam said he had found the signs in my face the very first day we had met at the temple; signs telling him that I was the student to which his guru had referred. We finish our time together and he tells me the most important thing: “Go! Go back to your home land, America, and spread Mother Worship!”
Upon my return to the States, SHARANYA is born and my dedication to Kali Maa takes root with the formation of community on Western shores. The wisdom of the ocean is remembered and I am home.
Chandra Alexandre is the founding director of SHARANYA. She received namakarana samskara and her first diksha from Shyam Sundar Dash (founder of the Maa Batakali Mandir in Puri; Bharadvaja gotra) in 1998.
“Babaji wants to see you.”
I’m walking barefoot down the muddy side of Nilachal Hill at Kamakhya in northeastern India after witnessing one of the most beautiful Sanskrit recitations I have ever heard. The white kurtas of the Brahmin men gathered in a circle around a sacred fire stand in marked contrast though to the throngs of red-clad women waiting in long lines to see their Mother. Both, I imagine, receive Her blessings. I am in northeastern India, in Assam, participating in an annual Tantrick pilgrimage to the seat of the goddess’ power, the place where her yoni, or sexual organ, resides on Earth. It’s a powerful place, a place of contrasts where all come together, whether Vaishnava, Shaivite or Shakta, to honor Maa. It’s a place, one might say, where all unites in Her name.
Babji, I learn, is a 400-year old Aghori. A believer in the preeminence of the divine as Shiva, pure consciousness, he is a practitioner of the non-dualistic or “left-hand” Tantric rites. In short, this means that he adheres to a rather literal interpretation of what other Tantrics might do symbolically in ritual and devotion on the path to enlightenment. He meditates, for example, not only on yantras (sacred diagrams), but on yantras in cremation grounds on top of corpses; he drinks wine and liquor; he smokes hash and takes in other natural mind-altering substances. He believes that the pathway to the divine is through the body, through this world, through all of creation. His accepts it all, the pure and impure, the wicked and sane, as sacred. He is a radical non-dualist—one who believes in the One as well as in the reality of the phenomenal world. His path is fast and furious, sweet and sublime, potentially off-putting at the same time that it attracts wonder, excitement, and awe. He loves Maa.
The three black-clad initiates standing outside his cave-like shelter on the hillside welcome me in. I meet Babji. He’s old but looks young, his face the only give-away that he’s been around the block a few times. His body, otherwise, is baby-like. He looks pregnant, a little round belly on a very thin frame. I sit cross-legged in front of him. To his left, the fire pit. To his right, a kapala, or human skull cup from which wine and other mind-altering substances are drunk, sits upturned. He calls me “Beti,” or daughter. Two followers of his are there; his initiates have left us alone. The woman wipes the snot dripping from Babaji’s nose with a handkerchief and then moves to mop sweat from his forehead. No one, it appears, is immune to this sweltering summer heat. The Indian devotee next to her, perhaps her husband, has had far too much bhang (Cannabis) or something; his eyes have trouble steadying on me.
My Sanskrit is better than my Hindi at this point. Fortunately, I can make out meaning from of the ritual language Babaji is using. The man helps a little, but his English is as poor as my Hindi. We quiet. Suddenly, Babaji grabs me. He pulls me to him with unsuspected strength. Face against face, I feel the bristles of his long beard against my cheek, and I feel coolness where the snot has been touching. I am startled, but now I’m held. I am held firmly, with apparent intention. The touch is not violent or inappropriate. The strength is deep and calming. I stay quiet and listen inside to my belly and instincts. Presence prevails, and I allow myself to trust the moment. Just then, Babaji begins. His mouth now pressed to my ear, he sounds an ancient mantra. My heart trembles, my eyes close, and I go inward. I surrender to these sounds, soaking in the ancient reverberations, feeling in them the voices of the lineage, the guttural utterances of vibrations across time and space. All enter my ear. All penetrate my soul.
Moments pass and I eventually sit back upright in silence. One moment, then two. From deep inside, the sobbing begins. There’s no rational thought, no rhyme or reason, just the moment and my feeling of tremendous love and connection to all that is…I recognize a touch of sat chit ananada: being, consciousness, bliss. My forehead now on Babji’s knee, he pats my head and strokes my hair. I sit back upright. Silence. One moment, then two. Babaji reaches to his left where a rusty knife about four inches long sits waiting. I follow his motion with my eyes. Instantly, I am terrified. I have visions of blood. Stop! One moment, then two. Stop! This time, it’s an admonition to remember. Allow yourself to be taken, it says. You’ve been here before; you know what’s happening. It’s safe. Breathe.
Babaji lowers my head with his hand and takes a fist-full of hair from my crown. He pulls hard enough to undo strands from my braid. Close to the scalp he cuts with the knife. Old and well-used, it doesn’t cut very well. He pulls harder to get through the thickness of my mane and it hurts for an instant. I deepen my surrender. He cuts. He finishes, and I sit back up. Dazed, with my awareness in another place, I still must know.
“What,” I ask, “are you going to do with it?”
“A sacrifice,” he says, “will be offered in the fire tonight.” He holds up my hair.
“It’s an equal exchange,” he says. “The price you pay for being welcomed into the family.”
By: Chandra Alexandre
On her initial return from India, Chandra founded SHARANYA to serve those committed to embodied and engaged spirituality for social justice and transformation. This was the birth of Sha’can, an authentic lineage tradition of Shakta Tantra contextualized and made relevant for people and lands distant from the source. Chandra and community complement San Francisco Bay Area worship, events and services with an online mystery school, Kali Vidya, to serve an international community of spiritual seekers and lovers of Maa.
Chandra is known for her passionate engagement of theory and practice. She holds a PhD in Asian & Comparative Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies, a Doctor of Ministry degree from Wisdom University (formerly the University of Creation Spirituality), and an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School. In addition to SHARANYA, she engages her commitment through several community-based nonprofit organizations working for educational equity, poverty alleviation, and the empowerment of women and girls.
Originally from New York, Chandra has, since 1995, called San Francisco home. She is a devoted wife and mother and also conjurer of The Aghori Bakery: Everyday Spiritual Conversations (forthcoming).
Kali: Goddess of Social Justice
On reading the Kali Puja Festival programme, I became very enchanted…I am proud that you are helping to fulfill my desire to spread Mother Worship outside of India and also hope that in the near future it will spread throughout the world. Go ahead, my blessing and the blessing of Mother Kali is with you!