Antlered God

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Last week my parents stayed at a bed and breakfast in Amish country. We drove out there to meet them for lunch and it was such a nice change of pace. It was so quiet and calm there that when we came back to our small town it looked like we were entering a large city. While we were there we didn’t just see horses. We took a wagon ride through a ranch and saw this majestic deer up close. I’m not sure what kind he is; he’s not the white-tailed deer I’m used to seeing in Ohio.

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Zen and the Craft of the Kitchen Witch

I got this picture from Pinterest.

I got this picture from Pinterest.

I need a new broom. I’ve been on a massive decluttering streak lately and when I decluttered my patio and swept it clean, I didn’t want to bring the broom back inside and bring outdoor dirt into my kitchen. So I left it as an outside broom and now I need a new inside broom.

I thought of the fact that Deborah Blake has a recent book called The Witch’s Broom. I thought of the group in town that sets up at the Strawberry Festival each year; they sell beautiful handcrafted besoms. The Strawberry Festival, though, is at the end of May and I need a broom sooner. I was thinking of the broom I’d get in the meantime and the symbols I might add to the handle, when I realized:

This is mindfulness.

Usually mindfulness is associated with Buddhism. I realized that Witchcraft is also about mindfulness. I could just add “broom” to the grocery list and grab whatever the store has at the time and never give it another thought. Or I could contemplate the broom and intentionally buy a certain color or style of broom and infuse the broom with my desire to cleanse the room of negativity as I sweep. Then, each time I use the broom, instead of a haphazard act, I can make it a spiritual act. I don’t have to, but I can.

It was this kind of thing that made me call this blog “Mistress of the Hearth” in the first place. Making the mundane magical. Putting intention into the meal when I cook or blessing the checkbook when I pay bills. Instead of letting things be “just chores” that I rush through so I can get to the better parts of life, I can make each chore a meditation.

I don’t do this with everything every time. Sometimes I rush through cooking dinner because we’re hungry and sometimes I even resent that my celiac means I can’t just randomly pick a restaurant and show up without studying their menu online and finding out if they have anything safe. But when I slow down and chop each vegetable with love and attention, it is a form a mindfulness that I call Kitchen Witchery.

The aesthetics differ — Witchcraft doesn’t look like Zen. We all have to “chop wood, carry water.” Underneath appearances, Zen and Kitchen Witchery both practice mindfulness while chopping the wood and carrying the water. Or sweeping the kitchen.

An announcement

I’m officially bloggging at Patheos now. Mistress of the Hearth isn’t moving, and I’m not at the Pagan channel there. I actually have a new blog at the Hindu Channel called Gathering Nectar. I chose not to move any of the old posts over there (though I may rewrite some of them). I’ve always felt confused about what I was doing with Mistress of the Hearth. Now I have a clearer vision of how I’ll write about Hinduism  to my heart’s content at Patheos and keep a personal blog here. Please stop by Patheos and say hi; there are always crickets on a brand new blog!

Circle is cast

A picture of people taking picture of Krishna. You can't actually see Krishna in this picture.

Ritual in the 21st century: a picture of people taking pictures of the altar.

At Wiccan rituals, people are asked to remove watches, set aside cellphones, and step between the worlds. At Hindu rituals, not so much.

If you’re used to delineating sacred space before you start ritual, you may be surprised to see how pujas take place right in the midst of life, with children playing, people coming in and out, and an iPod blaring a Sanskrit chant.

I can see the wisdom in both methods. There is a profound peace when you cast a circle and know that you won’t be disturbed for the next hour. There is also practicality to inviting deity into your life as it actually is. Some people feel they don’t have time for ritual when their kids are little, but children are not a hindrance to doing puja, even if they climb on your lap one minute and run out of the room the next.

When I go to Krishna Janmashtami, I don’t usually spend much time listening to the talks. There are so many other things going on. This year I sat a long time — at least a few hours — listening to the speakers. I listened until I was distracted by my body telling me it couldn’t sit on a metal folding chair any longer and demanded I walk around a bit.

Last week I went on a news fast for a few days because I’d been struggling with some depression and the state of the world right now is not helping. Sometimes the news has actionable stories, and I end up signing petitions or whatever. But when it’s an onslaught of things you can’t do anything about, like whether the Yazidis survive, it just adds to the feelings of hopelessness.

As I listened to the talks, I was surprised by how much the news crept in. Maybe I found it jarring because I’d been news fasting beforehand.

One story was about how Krishna killed the evil king Kamsa and installed a good king, but neighboring kings who had been friends with Kamsa were angry and started causing problems. They were like ISIS, we were told (he didn’t pronounce the name of the terrorist group like the Greek name of the Egyptian goddess, he said, “eye ess eye ess”).

Later in that story, another king worshiped the Sun (Surya), who bestowed on him a gem that has the power that no one in the kingdom will suffer pestilence. The speaker talked a little about Ebola and how many people have died and what it would be like to have a stone that kept Ebola from your land.

In a later talk, someone asked, “What does it mean to surrender to Krishna?” That speaker, a large black man, thought for a minute and said that it’s not like what we think of as surrender. “It’s not like if I surrender to the police so they won’t shoot me. That’s a bad kind of surrender.”

My 16 yr old son said later that he’d appreciated how the talks incorporated current events that made it easier to understand and relate to the stories. I get that. But I also felt profoundly sad. Lately I’ve been feeling a sadness like a cloud around me. I can’t see it but it permeates the air I breathe. I grew up in a town with a steel mill and there were occasional pollution warnings. It might look fine outside, but we were told it was better to stay inside as much as possible for a day or two.  This depression that I’ve been struggling with feels like it’s in the air like that. It might look like a bright sunny day, but I’m inhaling invisible despair.

Most people at Janmashtami had cellphones and a few people were using laptops. We take a camera that is not a phone, but this year we took a cellphone and we did check messages at one point. Earlier in the day my mom had told me that my dad was having shortness of breath and she thought it was because the doctor changed the dosage of his blood pressure meds. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a call, like I did on Yule 2010, when I logged onto Facebook late in the day and there was a message from my aunt telling me that my mom had tried to call me earlier and that my dad had a heart attack. (This time, my dad not only felt better, but they took a trip to Amish country yesterday).

There has never been a time that I wished the celebrations at the Krishna House were conducted like a Wiccan ritual. My younger son isn’t interested in sitting through six hours of spiritual stuff, and I like knowing that he’s running around with other kids and checking in once in awhile. Contrary to casting a circle, the atmosphere not only allows children to be kids, but also allows adults to stop by without committing to a six-hour stay. It’s more like the Christmas Eve parties my aunt held when I was little, at which my parents arrived at six and stayed until after midnight, but dozens of friends and family members and neighbors would pop in for a few minutes on their way to church or to another party.

Still, I feel the need for deep ritual work that doesn’t involve iPod music or people coming and going, or swirling mists of this terrorist organization, that deadly outbreak, police militarization, and my dad’s dwindling health. I want to step out of this worrisome time and into timelessness. I want to create sacred space and leave the phone and clock and WiFi connection outside of it. I want to step out of the cloud of depression and into the realm of possibility.

I want to protect the part of me that still believes in magic.

“The circle is cast, and we are between the worlds.” Blessed be.

What to expect at Krishna Janmashtami

Jai Shree Radha Krishna

Suppose you want to attend the Krishna Janmashtami celebration in your city, but you’re nervous. You’ve never been, and you don’t know what to expect.  Never fear — I’ll walk you step-by-step through what you can expect. Details vary, but this a basic structure that I’ve observed. These are pictures my husband and I have taken over several years (when asking permission to take photos, we’ve always been enthusiastically encouraged to do so).

You arrive.

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Someone will show you where to put your shoes. I hope you’ve gotten a pedicure if you’re embarrassed by that sort of thing. You’ll be barefoot for the next several hours.

Krishna Janmashtami take off shoes

Perhaps someone at the door will ask if you want tilak. Tilak is a symbolic language of forehead decoration. You’re probably familiar with the “red dot” of kum kum a lot of women and goddess worshipers wear. This vertical line of sandalwood is for devotees of Vishnu.

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Where I attend, there is kirtan going on continuously in the temple room (for six or more hours!) and other activities outdoors.

Krishna Janmashtami kirtan

We’re going to be inside a lot later, so we start by heading to the backyard.

Krishna Janmashtami decorations

There will be decorations and possibly a stage for performances.

If there is an important speaker, they may have a special chair set up.

Krishna Janmashtami chair

This woman has spoken a few times at our local Krishna House, sometimes outdoors and other times indoors.

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There may be hours of performances: song, dance, scripture recitals, stories about Krishna. They will be performed by anyone from local kids to traveling professionals.

on this night, little boys are the embodiment of Krishna

on this night, little boys are the embodiment of Krishna

little girls are the embodiment of Radha

little girls are the embodiment of Radha

before a performance, dancers bow to Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Dance

before a performance, dancers bow to Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Dance

Krishna Janmashtami dance 01Krishna Janmashtami dance 02Krishna Janmashtami dance 03Krishna Janmashtami dance 04Krishna Janmashtami dance 05Krishna Janmashtami dance 06Krishna Janmashtami dance 07

This woman is professional singer in a style native to Southern India. She keeps time with specific hand gestures.

This woman is professional singer in a style native to Southern India. She keeps time with specific hand gestures.

One year, a man struck up a conversation with me in the hallway as I waited to use the restroom. He told me he’d just arrived from India and that his kids would be performing that evening. What he failed to mention was that he was the director of a school for the blind and that “his kids” were students at his school, who measure the stage before they start by walking its length and width and then put on an entire performance without being able to see one another.

Krishna Janmashtami blind dancers

When they perform Kolkali, a traditional dance that involves rhythmically striking the other dancers’ sticks, this feat becomes especially impressive.

Krishna Janmashtami KolKali dance

At some point in the evening, Abhishek will be announced.

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Abhishek is a ritual in which panchamrita (5 nectars) is offered by pouring a mixture of milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and rosewater over the murti. Someone will be ringing a bell the entire time, and there will be a conch shell blown like a horn and someone waving fan that keeps flies away from the deity.

Krishna Janmashtami abhishek

Krishna Janmashtami abhishek priests

You will be expected to use your right hand only. Don’t worry about messing up because there will be priests there to guide you. Here is my younger son doing Abhishek when he was 10.

Krishna Janmashtami abhishek participation

At some point the outdoor performances and stories will start to wind down and people will move into the temple room. A curtain will be drawn, hiding the deity murtis (because God is getting a costume change!), and everyone will sit on the floor chanting for hours.

Krishna Janmashtami chantingKrishna Janmashtami singingKrishna Janmashtami musicKrishna Janmashtami cymbalsKrishna Janmashtami musical instruments

Early on, people might start dancing, but as midnight approaches, it will be way too crowded.

Krishna Janmashtami man dancingKrishna Janmashtami men dancing

At midnight, the curtain is drawn back, and everyone starts screaming when Krishna is revealed. It’s a bit like a rock concert.

Krishna Janmashtami revealRadha Krishna

You will have a chance to participate in the ritual of aarti.

Krishna Janmashtami aarti flames

In aarti, a sacred flame is waved before the deities and then you can put your hands near the flame and wave the blessings toward your face (some people touch their hands to their eyes, while others wave their hands up their forehead to the top of the head).

Krishna Janmashtami aarti

The people in the front will have a chance to pray, and as they finish, they’ll be ushered out so the people behind them can move forward and pray.

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After you pray, you will go back outside and wait in line for food.

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Krishna Janmashtami buffet

Some people have been fasting all day and they will be ushered to the front of the food line, but don’t worry — there is always more than enough for everyone! There has been food available throughout the evening (as my teenagers can well attest) so only the people who’ve been fasting are in a hurry. This food is prasad, which means it has been offered to Krishna first and now you’re receiving his blessings by sharing his food.

Krishna Janmashtami eating

As you leave (around one or even two in the morning!), you will already be looking forward to coming back next year.

Krishna Janmashtami leaving

Jai Shree Krishna! Janmashtami Ki Jai! Happy Krishna Janmashtami!

 

Krishna Janmashtami

Durga confronts Kamsa while Krishna's parents pray. (Click to enlarge).

Durga confronts Kamsa while Krishna’s parents pray. (Click to enlarge).

Don’t believe those internet memes that float around claiming that Krishna and Jesus have oh-so-much in common. These bits of misinformation will claim that Krishna was born of a virgin named Mary on December 25 or some nonsense. Not true at all. The only part of the story that’s similar is the king who wants to kill the new baby.

Krishna was born to Devaki and Vasudeva, who were imprisoned by Devaki’s brother Kamsa, a power-hungry king who’d heard a prophecy that his sister’s son would overthrow him. Each time Devaki gave birth, Kamsa killed the child. Until her 8th son was born 8 days after the full moon (ashtami means the 8th day and Krishna Paksha means during the waning moon, or dark half of the month) in the month of Shravana. This falls in late August or early September.

Protected by Ananta Sesha Naga, Vasudeva carries Krishna across the Yamuna (click to enlarge)

Protected by Ananta Sesha Naga, Vasudeva carries Krishna across the Yamuna (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, in a small cowherding town, a woman named Yashoda gave birth to a baby girl, who was the Devi Durga in disguise. By the power of Durga (who is also called Vishnu Maya, or Vishnu’s own power of illusion), Vasudeva was able to sneak out of prison and carry baby Krishna across the Yamuna River, to be fostered with Yashoda. He then carried the baby girl back to the prison before the guards awoke. When Kamsa tried to kill the baby, he was shocked that it turned into Durga herself and warned him that the baby he wanted to kill was not only born but out of his reach and that the prophecy was in motion.

In 2014, Krishna Janmashtami will be celebrated tomorrow night: August 17, at midnight. Most temples start their celebrations hours beforehand, usually around 6 PM or even earlier. If you live anywhere near an ISKCON (“Hare Krishna”) temple, you can show up for chanting and free food. In 2009, I read on someone’s blog that you can just show up like that, and that’s how our own family tradition of attending each year began. To double check, I had my husband call the temple and, sure enough, everyone is welcome and there will be free food. We’ve attended each year since.

Jai Shri Krishna!