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.
After my previous post about the endangered elephants being used for rides, then I was hesitant to ride one for many reasons. Although the opportunity arose for me to ride one with the researchers to go through the grasslands. We spend a couple of hours going through the 20ft tall grassland on the elephants. What a powerful animal to walk through grass carrying a few people. I felt very tiny.
I walk along a long stone corridor, somewhat lost through a seeming maze of directions. It's the late afternoon. Unsure of where I'm going then I simply walk around to explore the temple complex. There seems to be no right way or wrong way to travel. So I walk up the side and immediately come to a number of small bonfires alongside what I come to learn is the Bagmati River. It seems this is the burning ghat area of the complex. I see numerous piles of wood and straw with carnation garlands, many people standing around. Some people tending to the fires. I slowly make my way along the ghat corridor walk until the end. I had never been to a burning ghat before, and have never visited Varanasi, which is another one of the three major Shivaite complexes in the world. I had actually never visited a Shiva temple before in India either. In previous trips to India, then I would stay at the Vaisnava temples and do tours of those areas. So this was a big learning experience for me.
I come to find out that Pashupati is an aavatar of Shiva and "lord of the animals", and the national deity of Nepal. He is thought to have arrived in the form of a deer after being enchanted by the Kathmandu valley.
I was able to walk around and was approached by one man dressed in some sort of Sadhu garb, although somewhat unkept he seemed harmless enough. He starts rattling off various mystic transmission about the area in a perfect British accent, so I come to find out that he renounced his British upbringing apparently to get closer to his roots as a Sadhu where he smokes ganga all day. I eventually tell him I want to simply walk around the complex myself, which he then tells me is because I'm a white supremacist that I want to have this freedom. I think some people are simply wounded in life by inequality or racism, so even my simple act of wandering around this temple is somehow white supremacy to this guy. Needless to say, I found it quite irrational and also somewhat insulting. He did leave me alone and I was able to walk around the other side of the ghat. I eventually watch one of the deceased men being brought to the ghat. From across the river, I was able to photograph the entire burning ceremony and watch it. I could see several family members doing various rituals over the body. At times, some sort of grief would come into my heart remembering the experiences of loss and how painful that can be.
Afterwards, walk up the hill above the temple. There was a tea stand up there, where I was able to practice some of my Hindi with the chaiwallas. I had a few cups of tea and started chatting with a few of the local people. They had let me know that I should stay for the aarati at 630pm. I hang out and drink more and more tea. I enjoy the tea so much.
I go down to the river to watch the arrati ceremony, which is very similar to other Shivaite ceremonies that I've seen on the internet from places like Varanasi. Apparently, the temple complex here in Nepal is actually run by four the priests Brahmins from India, which are called Bhatta here in Nepal, and the organization that controls the temple is in India. They even send the priests and pujaris from institutions in Karnataka, and according to wikipedia these are "highly educated Vedic Dravida Brahmin scholars trained in the Shri Shankaracharya Dakshinamnaya Peeth Sringeri on Rig Vedic recitation, initiated in Pashupata Yoga, Shiva Āgama and learned recitation of Samaveda from Haridwar." They are the only ones allowed to touch the Shiva lingham inside. As a foreigner, I'm not even allowed to go into the temple at all since I'm not a Hindu by race or birth. There are also another group of 108 Bhandari's who are the temple assistants and helpers of the Bhattas, and apparently do not have to have Vedic knowledge and the requirements are mainly family lineage and caste or educational qualification.
I spent a few days watching the aarati ceremony and the cremations that were happening simultaneously. There is so much joy during the aarati with many people dancing. There seem to be many regulars who attend the ceremony to dance and light butter lamps. I came to the conclusion that the aarati would make me feel immensely comforted if my family member had passed away, and I could take them there to undergo cremation during the aarati. As I listened to the music and watched the scene around me then I'm reminded of when my brother passed away. The day I got the news that my brother had committed suicide then it was a large holiday, Radhastami, which is the appearance day of Srimati Radharani. I remember going to the temple in the evening for aarati and chanting the bhajans, although it felt so surreal. I remember one of my friends there told me that it looked like I had seen a ghost. Although, the aarati was uplifting and the spiritual practice I had at the time really did become more significant to me as I meditated and chanted during that time. That was 15 years ago now, so it is a distant memory.
Even so, while I was watching the aarati lamps circle around Pashupatinath temple, and the incence and water offerings being made, I thought that there really isn't a large complex with people chanting and dancing while any sort of funeral happens where I live and so for me it was sort of a revolutionary concept. It seems that some certain individuals are starting to develop more complexes for people to simply go in their last stages of life to die. Places that are not hospitals but more like public places for the elderly to pass away. In the US it seems this sort of death doula culture does exist with various individuals being somewhat like caretakers of the dying, to anoint them and say final prayers. Although this is not widespread or common practice, perhaps one day it will be.