The eternal flame of Lord Shiva and the Pashupat cult
The area of Kathmandu that the Pashupatinath temple sits is called Gaushala. When you tell the taxi drivers you want to go to Gaushala, they all know the area. Normally, the Gaushala is a type of barn or area where cows are kept, so I was surprised that this entire area was referred to as a Gaushala. There are many cows there indeed, but the history is more so rooted in Lord Pashupati, who is a form of Lord Shiva who also is “Lord of the Animals, or Lord of the Cows”. This particular place also has many deer, and as the story goes in the mythology of this area, is that Lord Pashupati started in Nepal as a deer in the Mrigasthali forest. The Shiva Purana tells the story about Goddess Parvati recognized a golden deer grazing with the flock and recognized Lord Shiva there, and she also disguised herself as a deer. They lived there as deer for a long time, and then were discovered living together as deer by the other dieties. In particular, Brahma and Vishnu tried to catch the deer and they only got one horn, which broke into three pieces and the pieces were scattered, and the main piece was where the temple of Pashupatinath sits today. Many years later a cow herder noticed the cows having strange behavior in one place, always showering milk in one place, and he dug it up and found a three and a half ft. tall Shiva lingam with four faces there, and once he discovered it is believed it was too hot and he burnt to ashes. Other renditions of the story say that the cow herder found the fiery lingam and quickly buried it, and then they installed a large Shiva Lingam over the spot to cover it. In any case, that’s the beginning of the temple complex, which throughout the centuries has received various upgrades beginning from the Somadeva dynasty of the 3rd century, and built with a golden roof in 1200A.D by King Shiva Deva III, and over the years (14th and 17th centuries) various kings have renovated it.
As I approach the Pashupatinath temple, I walk down a long corridor lined with many trees with many monkeys chasing each other about. There are many vendors selling offerings and flowers for pilgrims to take into the temple. Large orange carnation garlands, many types of malas, rudraksha beads, incense, fruits and flowers, books, conch shells, colored powders. I wander into the complex where I think the temple is situated and arrive to a river area on the bank. There are many fires lit with groups of people sitting around. I’ve walked straight into the burning ghat, having bypassed the actual temple or other parts of the complex. It took some observation before I saw how they carried the body covered in white cloth on a bamboo stretcher to the ghat platforms where the cremations occur, stacked the wood to elevate and surround the dead body, performed the funeral rites, and then prepared the fires. The Arya Ghat is situated along the Bagmati river is one of the largest funerary centers of Nepal. The platforms of the burning ghats are separated by caste, with the platforms directly in front of the temple reserved for higher castes. The funeral priests are a special group of Brahmans or Mahabrahmans.
The priests are the gateways between the spiritual world and in extreme cases, as thought to take on the sins of the deceased, most dramatically seen in the royal funerary rites where the priests eat “katto” or the “uneatable” eating the sins of the royal and ensuring the salvation of the royal’s soul. For example, on June 1st 2001, over ten members of the royal family died in the Narayanhity Palace Massacre. King Dipendra was considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and one of the ways the king is thought to transend the material world into the heavenly realms of Vishnu is through the katto-ritual, where basically the priest dressed as the king in the royal clothes and crown and ate the katto of the body, in this case, the part of the brain behind the third eye. The priest then becomes an outcaste and is burdened by taking on this impurity, unable to even walk the streets considered lower than the lowest castes of the society.
After observing this burning ghat area for a while, and taking photos, then I went to the top of the hill and continued to watch the ceremony. I was at first humbled by seeing the open cremations to the public at this temple space. Then I drank some milk tea and simply pondered this phenomenon. It was nearing sunset so I asked a few girls what I should see at the temple. They mentioned that aarati would start in an hour and to stay until the ceremony. I wandered around the various stupas of the upper part of the bank, peering inside. Some people were camped and some of the dieties of the local saints were being put to rest for the night. The main sanctum where the Shiva Lingham of the temple is housed is off limits to white people basically, in what I consider racism basically, but they consider anyone non-Hindu to be not allowed in the temple. Once the ceremony was to begin there was simultaneously a body being prepared for burning. The aarati ceremony begins and there are many offerings of incense and ghee lamps offered to the temple from outside. Around a hundred people congregate and begin chanting together. I was comforted by the sounds and ecstacy of the aarati, remembering that there is no real public place where there is a choir assembled for every funeral that happens. There really is no place like this in the US. The aarati ceremony lasts for nearly half an hour or more, and by the end several people are dancing.
During the few days, I came to learn that the main priests of the temple area of the inner sanctum and do the aarati and bathing of the deity, really come from India. They are trained in Karnataka, and move to Nepal. The temple complex is actually part of the formal Hindu religious system based in Nepal and is managed by India. The priests are not of hereditary lineage and are selected from scholarship based on Rig Vedic tradition, Pashupata yoga, Shiva Agama, and recitations.
Aside from those formally appointed, I noticed around the temple that there is a particular practice of asceticism for practitioners of Shaivism, which I later find out are called Pashupatas. These people wander around performing “Pashupata vrata”, smearing dust on their bodies, carrying tridents, singing Siva bhajans, laughing, singing, and dancing….and even performing wild gestures and talking nonsense… often making people angry. I noticed that many of them dressed as outlandishly as possible to stand out. Traditionally, these people do come from Brahmin caste or are initiated into this Pashupata ascetic practice ... and are considered to be saintly. They are renunciates and perform yoga. There is one book called Pashupata Sutra where the saints are considered mad and covered in filth, not caring about their appearance, letting their hair mat and beard grow without any care. They are supposed to then mingle in society and perform crude acts, snoring loudly, and invite abuse by people. Then finally, they renounce further to a cave or abandoned house and finally to the cremation ground where he would die, become liberated from birth and death, and attain the spiritual world. Getting the blessing from one of these saints, I made some offerings of donations and flowers, afterwards I got some mantras and blessings from the monks there. I wandered for several hours, trying to find out more about the entirety of the complex.
I wandered into one area that was considered a yoga school, where I found many monks drinking tea and camping out. The monks there all wore a saffron colored cloth, and sat on small cushions. I found one area where there was a fire burning with several logs, and I come to find out the fire was burning for the past 13 years. I wanted to find the oldest fire in the complex, and was directed to the Annapurna temple across the street and near the entranceway where I originally entered the complex. I was told the fire there had been burning continuously for the previous 40 years. Annapurna means “food goddess” and once I arrived at the temple I see many monks sitting around the fire, tending to the embers of the burning logs. I gave my obesiences and sat with these monks and the embers for some time. The passion of a fire that continuously burned for forty years enchanted me. I was entranced by the meditation on the sacred flame and the symbolism, ruminating on the teachings of the ancient flame. Just recently, I was reminded of a couple I had known for a long time, they have been married for forty five years already, in what was an arranged marriage. The fire here reminded me of that sort of dedication. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet the swami who was the main teacher of the temple. He was out and about and I had missed him. I stayed for the evening aarati and chanting, then the final prasadam. I sat with the monks for a while and ate the prasadam, which was really very tasty. I felt fortunate to have come to this place and witnessed the culture from such a deep place. I was touched and the experience brought me closer to the meaning of Shiva, and his practices.