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Reclaiming Hell

Most of us grow up knowing about heaven and hell. Whatever our faith or place of birth, and by whatever names we might choose, the split of light and dark into above and below seems to be a fact of our heritage as human beings. It is reflected in myriad cultures ancient and modern, from indigenous peoples’ oral narratives, to the tales of Sumer and myths of Greece, to the Christian traditions where the realms of God and Devil, salvation and eternal torment, may haunt imaginations.  

And while this split is not inherently dangerous, we have been deluded for one reason or another (the Abrahamic faiths and colonialism are noteworthy for their influence) into equating the below and darkness with malevolence and the inimical—as in the Devil example just mentioned. This poses real challenges and hinders, I believe, our ability to fully honor the psycho-spiritual journey as well as the world in which we live.

On one level, we witness globally the racism, speciesism, and sexism of a dualistic worldview engrained in mindsets and laws. On another, a wholly metaphysical level, we might scratch the surface to find that the unseen realms too have become a playground for projections of our fears about what evils lie below. Do underworld spirits seem to you somehow more mischievous, frightening, or ill-willed than others? To most, they do.  

Tantrics offer a different response. The realms of light and dark, above and below, would be better expressed and understood, we offer, if they were instead aligned with the processes of involution and evolution, respectively. Both are part of the journey toward liberation, and both serve to provide access to understandings about the world and spirit in unique, yet interrelated ways.  

True, many traditions acknowledge that understanding of one realm is not sufficient in and of itself for truth to be revealed, yet too many spiritual practices, teachers, and guides cling to the ongoing upper world work of transcendence without opening to the importance of our lived reality in the body, on Earth, and in relationship with time. This is the stuff that gets messy and difficult. It is what has led the practices of Tantra to be known as pathways toward insanity and death if one is not careful.

But back to hell.

As spiritual practitioners, we may be familiar with the rites and rituals that offer us protection from unseen forces seeking to enter our space and, if left unaddressed, potentially do harm. Commonplace are banishing spells, circle charms, talismans to ward off evil, and practices that set a sacred space into which no bad stuff can enter. We light candles to illuminate the darkness. We prepare ourselves in myriad ways to ensure that we can see—that we are safe as we engage in work with energies we can’t possibly fully know or understand.

But if the Tantrics are right, if energy is just energy and as the saying goes, we have nothing to fear but fear itself, then how do we know the difference in the unseen world between good and bad—what is there to help and what is there to harm?  The short answer is that we listen to our gut, we trust our inner senses, and we undertake spiritual discipline and training to both fortify ourselves and heighten our awareness so that we may act appropriately in any situation.

Moreover, however, we do our work so that we might discern agendas. Are the energies to which we’re relating working the subtleties of matter and time? If so, then these are underworld spirits, those connected to the spirals of evolution. Are the energies running agendas related to the nuances of consciousness and space? Then these are spirits of the upper world, engrained in the turnings of involution.   

Inimical energies then may come from anywhere, and it’s not necessarily underworld demons haunting our dreams, imaginations, or ceremonial experiences. Time now to uncurse the dark and let the underworld be what it is—a deep connection to the ultimate journey through the mysteries of the flesh, the portals of time, and the beauty of love in relationship to self and world.

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Chandra Alexandre is a Tantric Bhairavi, a priestess in the tradition of Kali who received her lineage through initiation in India. Founding director of SHARANYA, a Devi Mandir (Goddess Temple) dedicated to social justice through engaged spirituality, she resides in San Francisco with her daughter, husband, and kaula (spiritual family) offering puja, teachings and spiritual guidance.


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