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.