6: Guhyeshwari Shakti Peeth: The Secret
Sep 29, 2023
Returning to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, for a week and being in one place is a much needed break from the road. Nepal’s history and beauty is a lot to absorb. There is a paradox hard to makes sense of. Just like Muktinath, there are several spiritual significant sites for both Buddhists and Sanatanis that I visit. The birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini was a big highlight for me. It was rediscovered in 1895. Since then, it is slowly being excavated to reveal the many layers of this land’s ancient history across centuries. It is history that became hidden to us by Mother Nature’s elements but remains preserved deep in the earth. Then there are the vast national parks aside from the Himalayan range that are home to all kinds of wildlife and nature. These parks are not like the protected parks we take for granted in the West. People have been living in their villages within these wild spaces for centuries harmoniously. They lived equitably with nature, so the land did not need to be protected from the day to day actions of people. This is changing now. Villages are transforming to towns with businesses, partly fueled by tourism, as much as modernization. The fragile balance maintained here is ending.
Questions about adapting, accommodating, and assimilating keep coming up as I explore the country in its own unique phase of development. They go deeper than addressing the human crises we mistakenly refer to as climate change. So far, since being initiated into the world of the Devi, I am aware of this dance between cooperative and competitive expressions of shakti. There is a balance between these forms of power expressed in relationship I rarely consider. It does not matter if the relationship is human or some other expression of life unfolding. Its just clear that life has a harmony and sense of peace when there is balance between competitive and collaborative actions. Through this balance, a healthier version of evolution seems to take shape. Balance of power between cooperative and competitive behavior seem to go against the conventional capitalistic drive to grow and create at any cost. Growth for the sake of growth is a competitive race between individuals. A law of the jungle we call a “Man’s World.” Cooperation with mutual compromise is more oriented towards the collective whole. A movement I more commonly notice in women’s circles. It first struck me while working with a group of tribal Kalenjin women in western Kenya who were united in building a chicken coup per month until everyone had their own. They found a way for everyone to benefit from day one so it didn’t matter if you were last on the list to get your coup. Yet, the process of balance between these competitive and collaborative drivers is hidden from my comprehension.
I do not think it is so simple to reduce competitive behavior to some masculine principle, male behavior, or patriarchy. Then simultaneously name cooperation as something female or exclusively part of the Sacred Feminine. It is more refined than this. The quality of desire and ambition that compels us to discover our potential, to supersede ourselves is something beautiful. It is also at the heart of competitiveness. It is not uniquely male even if many men seem to fit this stereotype more than women. Women are more than capable of this and have been breaking the glass ceiling through competitive ambition. We can be fierce too and we can be fierce to each other. It is also not bad at the right dose. Comparably, the inherit drive to want to be whole, to be inclusive, have a collective expression of what we share universally is amazing. This is at the heart of collaboration. Its beautiful as long as we know when to confront what hurts the whole. Healthy inclusivity is devoid of notions of self-sacrifice or conflict avoidance, which fuels dysfunctional relationships out of fear of loosing the relationship all together. There is such a thing as being too inclusive. This cooperative quality is also not uniquely specific to all women even if women seem more inclined towards this.
Fortunately, Kathmandu offers something fresh. First, it shows me that not all Shakti Peeths live in the sky, steadfast on top of hard to reach mountain tops in the nether spaces of the world. Some landed in the heart of vibrant life. Next to the soothing sounds of flowing rivers that nourish communities into cities. This is what happened with Guhyeshwari Shakti Peeth located along the Bagmati River flowing through this lively capital. The Bagmati River to Nepal is like the Ganges River to India. All of life’s milestones are honored here. Life’s beginnings, endings and everything in the middle undergoes a ritual by this river as it snakes through the eastern part of the city.
There are two notable temples, one to Shiva and one to Shakti, positioned on opposite sides of the river where it makes a wide bend. Some believe this whole area is the Shakti Peeth. The temples are invisible to each other by a tall hill, which also connects them. They seem separate but are not. The Shakti temple to Devi Guhyeshawari is to the east and is where the knees of Sati Devi fell. Today, most treat this temple as the Shakti Peeth. To the west is Pasupatinath, a temple to Lord Shiva in his form as a deer. As Pasupati, Shiva is a Lord to all animals. This temple is famous and attracts devotees from all over the world. Bridging the two is a path that runs up and over the hill through a sacred forest at the top. In the middle of this forest is a clearing called Mrigasthali. It is a vast complex of countless stupa like structures that form a maze of shrines to Lord Shiva. The stupas vary in size but are more or less the same shape. Some are made of red stone, others are white. Inside each stupa is Shiva’s Lingam. Outside the door of each stupa is Nandi his devoted bull facing him. There are too many stupas to count. I tried but was too easily distracted by the many families of monkeys and stray dogs chaotically negotiating the space here along with the meditating sadhus. In between the stupas are even more lingams that are uncovered and scattered through out with primitive stone statues of the Devi located in the center of them. Here, Shiva and Shakti appear to be in union together with clear view of everything below.
It is an easy cab ride to arrive at Guhyeshwari, which is set back from the river at an elevation. There is a small foot bridge over the narrow section of river which moves gently. People can be seen wading though the waters looking for gold and other jewelry that ends up down stream from the cremation ghats by Pashupatinath. Guhya in Sanskrit translates to secret, hidden, or beyond human perception. Ishwari means goddess. This temple is a bit of a secret, a bit hidden, less touristed despite being a kilometer from the heavy footprint at of the world renown Pasupatinath. The local custom is to pay your respects to the Devi here first before visiting Lord Shiva. Makes me wonder if ladies first began here at the start of it all.
The current temple was likely built around 1000 CE in the reign of King Shankar Dev and then renovated around the 17th century by King Pratap Malla. The temple remains hidden from view even at the entrance gate that leads to a steep stairwell. It is adorned with artwork that is a fusion of Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Interestingly, like Muktinath, the temple is also significant to Buddhist and Tantrics. Up until Nepal retired its monarchy, the country was known as a Hindu nation. The truth is, the country is just as much Buddhist. Everyone I spoke to during my travels through Nepal said something strikingly similar to me. After telling me which faith they were born into as either Hindu or Buddhist, they would without any prompting state they believe in both. These are not separate religions to them but live as one in them. Religious pluralism has made for such a divisive human history and heartache. The spiritual attitude of Nepali’s is a refreshing oasis to the polarization consuming most of the world’s attention these days. What is this secret ingredient? The impossible became possible here.
So the stairs leading to the temple above are striking. They are made of this black stone with primitive stars etched into them. The stairs are so smooth and well worn in the middle that each step curves into a smile. The stars in the bend are so faded that it feels like my imagination photoshops them in for my eyes to see. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is impermeable. This touches something in me. Perhaps what we believe to be impossible is just the motivation needed for what is inevitable. Here I am taken aback by the time and attraction it takes to transform stone. How many people have to arrive here being called by something hidden or secret to them? This feels a bit different from the quality of mystery that I experience so strongly at Muktinath. Here it is more about the secret, the hidden. What my awareness is too immature to host so I believe it is impossible. The “secret” is also taught about in the mysticism of so many wisdom traditions. I was first introduced to it through Sufism. It was too abstract of a concept for me to comprehend. Here it becomes accessible as a palpable experience.
At the top of the stairs is a large open courtyard with the main temple in the middle. The courtyard is enclosed on all four sides by red brick walls with covered verandas providing shade. In the center is a small pagoda structure. The walls of the temple are silver with ornate engravings. Stone lions reside at the front doors. The top of the temple is an open dome shaped out of four gold plated snakes. For locals, the temple is a popular place to get married. People believe they will remain soul mates with each other over their next 6 lifetimes when wed here. Women also come to pray for the health of their husbands. Another common belief is that worship to Guhyeshwari helps to attain victory over ones enemies.
Today the inner sanctum is unexpectedly closed as priests conduct certain rituals away from the public behind closed doors. Meanwhile, just outside, wedding preparations are being made for a ceremony to take place later in the day. Its an opportunity to sit in the veranda with other devotees who wait for the temple to open. Its all locals with different motivations for being there. There are two women who have come with a clear purpose. One young, upset with a heavy heart and the other older supporting her. By the time the priests’ rituals are completed there is a large group amassed under the scorching midday sun. I am so content in the verandah, I choose to wait for the crowd to subside.
Upon entering the square sanctum, there is no formal idol to the Devi. There is a stone on the ground next to a large gold 8 petaled lotus flower with a golden urn sitting in the middle representing the Devi. You view her a few feet from above. Off to the side is a stone figure of Lord Shiva as Kapali in his Bhairava form. There is a green large tortoise on the other side. Most people come, bow down, and make their offerings to temple attendants who receive them. A prasad of holy water is given and red vermillion tikka placed on the forehead as a blessing. Their interactions are brief, lasting seconds, which is a typical temple norm. God is busy, best not to be greedy for their attention. There is a small area inside the sanctum where I sit down, but manage to stay clear of the steady flow of visitors. The distraught young women enters with her older companion who guides her into a series of rituals and recitation of mantras. Her heart pours out into a grievance of tears. She unburdens herself from the emotional strain of her circumstances that lead her to the Devi. She is unabashed in sharing her pain, to be witnessed in this way by others. How many therapy sessions would it take most of us to open up with this type of nakedness. Her belief in the Devi and her powers are so absolute, without reservation. It’s different to witness this faith directly in person compared to a two dimensional version on a tv screen. Her experience penetrates me. I am unable to express myself to God like this, let alone believe with this absoluteness. My own heart unable to relate. Perhaps its overshadowed by a brain rich in oppositions and judgements to allow such a display.
My experience is different and profound. It’s a vibration of the secret rocking through me gently and rhythmically. A slow merging. Somehow, here I start to feel my own capacity to be receptive to the experience of devotion, though so much guardedness remains. Just by showing up, facing this tension with temple worship is enough of a gesture to initiate a thaw. No, I can’t comprehend how this is happening anymore than I can explain why in the social fabric of Nepali’s Hinduism and Buddhism coexists with so much harmony. Something unknown to all the other belief system butting heads with each other. Or what is hidden from me in the unconscious ways we adapt or assimilate to each other and our environment until what is believed to be impossible emerges. Or what it will take for us to find balance between the drive to supersede each other in the ambition of competition verses working together towards something even better cooperatively with mutual compromise. I do know a larger sense of possibility living in me as an experience now. It replaces the mental abstraction of empty words we so often refer to as belief. The difference between knowing the Devi and believing in her.
Next time… Radhe Radhe! Katyayani Shakti Peeth. Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India.