Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
It was my first time in a Hindu temple.
Five in the morning: quiet, dark. We're standing together facing the altar curtains, which are closed. Drums begin to play. Slowly the rhythm builds. Soon we're clapping and swaying. When the energy peaks, conch shells blow; the room echoes with them. We throw ourselves to the floor.
When we stand back up, the altar curtains have opened. The altar itself, three marble steps covered with lights, flowers, and food offerings, is sumptuous and brightly lit. But all our eyes are on the gods.
There They stand, Krishna and Radha, the size of young children, incredibly lifelike. Carved, I presume, in some white stone—marble or alabaster, perhaps—but they could be alive. Dressed in brightly-colored silks, crowned with delicate golden crowns (this is a wealthy congregation: it's probably real gold), bedecked with garlands of real roses. I'm in love.
The pujari begins the offering and the drums come back up. Soon we're chanting and dancing, me with the rest. It's bewitching, intoxicating. It's real, it's true, and it's intensely powerful.
They say that on nights of the full moon, Krishna stands in the forest and plays his flute. When you hear that call, that silver lure, it doesn't matter if you're married or single. It doesn't matter whether you're brahman or untouchable. It doesn't even matter whether you're a man or a woman: you've just got to go out there and f*** him.
Me, I followed that piping to the woods at 16, and haven't looked back since. A 17th-century Scots witch described the Devil as “a prettie boy, in grein clothes.” Yes, I know Who this is.
And Herself, standing beside Him? With that impossibly round, impossibly white moon face? Seems like I've known Her all my life. As a matter of fact, I have.
So I'm not just playing a role. My worship that morning was honest.
And I know what they're doing. Anyone who speaks the language of magic and engages the metaphor of energy-transfer can tell. Here we are, a worshiping community, imbuing these images with power, with main. (As in, “might and —.” Might is physical power, main, spiritual.) In the language of electronics (have you ever noticed how much we tend to use the vocabulary of electricity when we talk about magic? To every age its own metaphors), they are a battery, in which the community stores its power, and upon which, in times of need, it can subsequently draw.
The drums and chanting come to another peak, and once again the massed conchs sound. I throw myself to the floor with the rest, and when we rise again the altar curtains are closed. The offering is complete.
"No wonder the prophets hated it so much and had to stamp it out," I think, meaning the Hebrew prophets. "They had nothing even remotely this powerful to offer. Not even remotely."
"Flute-Playing Krishna," Raghuvir Shah
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