Funerary Fires … from Chapter 8

Funerary Fires

We had come to the most ancient place of sacrifice on the Earth, and were now instructed to find this sacred geography within our own bodies. When we reached that inner place of sacrifice, within the third eye, it became clear that we were not our bodies and that our concerns were no longer the five elements from which our five senses arise and bind us to these bodies. We were about to formally abandon this attachment, as we had abandoned our homes to enter the wandering life that led us to the Sangam. Our inner pilgrimage would proceed from the third eye to the supreme void, as on our outer pilgrimage we would walk from the Sangam to the very source of the Ganga.

The work of barbers completed, our hairless heads marked us as infants taking our final births. We were each given a rough-hewn clay cup to hold the Nectar of Immortality, and a twig, as a walking stick, the sign of the Path North. When the sun went down, we returned to the akhara. In the center, in the Marhi, surrounding the makeshift temple of Dattatreya, a sacred enclosure had been roped off and a funeral pyre was blazing in each corner.

The funerary fires were burning for us, for the initiation into Sannyas is the final sacrament, marking the end of our participation in ordinary life.

I could see that it was going to be a long night and I managed to get a spot close to the fire. We were given mustard and sesame seeds and other fire offerings and tossing them into the flames, I saw that the all-consuming fire of knowledge burned away the dross of ignorance.

As time passed and the logs crackled loudly like firecrackers, the loud chanting subsided into silent prayer and the monotone of mantras. I closed my eyes and repeated my guru mantra, using it as a boat to cross to the Other Side. The akhara’s supreme spiritual authority, the acharya, started making his rounds from the far corner of the marhi, blowing mantras into the ears of each initiate, as Pandit Shesh Narayan performed the havan. Then, suddenly, two babas grabbed my arms and pulled me from my reverie.