Skyline, Spring - 2007

By Diane Pendola

Forest of Peace

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On a beach at the Sea of Bengal, where the devastating Tsunami uncoiled itself as a huge serpentine tide from the ocean's depths, our pilgrim group gathers. The Goddess Kali showed her ferocity on these shores. The cobra snake, seen in India as a manifestation of the sacred goddess energy, arose as a towering black-hooded wave and struck, consuming all in Her path. We look out through the eyes of our own precariousness towards the sea where so many lost their lives and we chant a lament, a release, a surrender. KAA-LI, KAA-LI, MA-HAA, MAA-YA, NA-MO KAA-LI-KE, NA-MO, NA-MA-HA. "We honor Kali. She creates the illusion of this world of forms. By her grace this veil is removed. We directly behold the glorious vision of Divine Presence." KAA-LI, KAA-LI, MA-HAA, MAA-YA, NA-MO KAA-LI-KE, NA-MO, NA-MA-HA. We shudder at this grace. We shiver in our mortal bodies at such a vision of Divine Presence. Kali, consort of Shiva, destroyer of worlds.

I have carried with me to India some cedar branches. I knew before I left that I would want to leave some gift of my self and my home on these distant shores. I knew I would be bringing gifts back with me, both the tangible gifts for friends and family and the intangibles that would be bequeathed me. Now, alone on the beach in the quiet of the evening, I enter the water. I bring a solitary cedar branch. The water laps at my feet. I bend, holding the cedar in my open palms. Gently the water lifts it. Gently the water pulls the delicate green web into itself. An offering I make, of myself and my home, on the shores of India to the Pacific Ocean between us, to the One Sea that birthed us, that binds us and returns us.


"My soul remember all you have striven for till now".


An overnight train trip brings us within an hour's bus-ride of our destination of Shantivanam. We disembark in the pre-dawn hours and drive into a country-side of banana trees and coconut groves. We are to spend our time here alternating between days of chanting and meditation at the Ashram and visiting Hindu temples and sacred sites.

Shantivanam is a Christian-Hindu Ashram in South India in the province of Tamil Nadu. We've traveled here in January, having read the biographies of two of its inspirational founders, Bede Griffiths and Abishiktananda. Raimon Panikkar, who some of you may know to be our friend and teacher, was very close to both men who were sustained by Panikkars' friendship and inspired by his truly ground-breaking work in Christian-Hindu dialogue. Our reason for coming to India was motivated by a desire to know Raimon better through these two men who had clearly loved him. Also we wanted to breathe for ourselves the mystical spirit of this country that inspired them all, to feel for ourselves the spiritual power of this land.

Shantivanam means "Forest of Peace." We enter this Forest of Peace with a group of pilgrims, on a chanting retreat led by Russill Paul who lived as a young monk at Shantivanam for a number of years. He and his wife Asha, are leading us into an encounter with this, their spiritual home.

In the evening we sit in a grove of trees just a few hundred feet from the sacred river Kaveri. In India the sacredness of the natural world is consciously engaged. Dip prayerfully into any water and it is mystically transformed into Ganga, the Goddess embodied in the sacred river of the Ganges. We chant
OM NAMAH SHIVAAYA. "We worship the dance of energy that is creation." OM NAMAH SHIVAYAA. The God Shiva, masculine aspect of Kali, is one of the most important Gods of the Hindu tradition. Known as the destroyer of the universe, His is the destruction that leads to new creation. This group of pilgrims, drawn from all corners of the U.S. and Canada, settle our bodies on the earth, facing east towards the river as the western sky blazes at our backs. Haven't we come precisely for this annihilation, this dissolution of the small self in which each of us feels captive? Don't each of us know, in some deep part of ourselves, the necessity of Shiva's work? OM NAMA SHIVAAYA. We align ourselves with the cosmic dance that is destructive as well as creative, dark as well as light, that rises reborn as a sun in the east and sets as a consuming fire in the west.

A few yards away from me the body of a tree fills my gaze. Her roots bulge at the surface of the ground, spreading like muscled arms whose hands and fingers disappear deep into the Earth. I imagine those fingers descended into the fire of earth's core, passageways for the lit ascent of the primal force into trunk and branch, leaf and limb. Our chanting shifts
. OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM. AADHI SHAKTI, MA-HAA SHAKTI, PARAA SHAKTI, OM. "We praise the Divine Energy in all its forms. She is primal, great and supreme". OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM. AADHI SHAKTI, MA-HAA SHAKTI, PARAA SHAKTI, OM. As we chant I don't know the English translation. I don't need to know. The primal energy coursing through the tree courses through me. The power of the OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM SHAKTI, OM, is a shock from the root and a shock at the heart, a shock between the eyes and a shock at the crown of both our bodies.

I am home now almost two months and that tree is still living in me. I go outside in the morning. I face east toward the rising sun. I hear the OM of the creek in her winter rushing. I hear the OM of the wind sighing through the Cedar boughs. I sit on the earth and close my eyes. My spine reaches under the falling water and under the stream-bed. My awareness descends through tree roots toward the OM pulsing at the invisible Center. The roots of the tree I traverse are in India. The roots of the tree I traverse are here. The tree is a Cedar, fire-scarred, granite-held on the steep bank of a creek in California. And the tree is of unknown name, mysterious, the manifest body of the Mother— my body and yours.


"May this world be established in well-being and happiness"


Have I come to know Raimon Panikkar better through my brief encounter with India and Hinduism on her own soil? Panikkar has been for me a phenomenon, an event. The eminent Fordham University Professor of Theology, Ewert Cousins calls him "the greatest global theologian of the 20th and into the 21st century". I do not pretend to understand the breadth of Panikkars' scholarship nor even the depth of his mystical vision, but I have come to "stand under" the radiant influence of his life and now the influence of the land and spirituality which has so affected him.

Our world is in upheaval. Everywhere the traditional structures that have provided a context for meaning and coherence are breaking down. The Destroyer of the Universe is dancing through our world, our worlds. Kali, often depicted wearing a necklace of decapitated skulls, reminds us that it will not only or primarily be our rational minds, our disembodied heads, that will navigate the tsunamis of our day. It will be our hearts. It will be our love. It will be our faith, "that is not in the future but in the invisible". It will be in the hope that the Cosmic Powers that destroy are not ultimately destructive. It is out of the ash that the Phoenix rises. It is out of death that new life comes.

There is no doubt that our times are demanding of us radical change, change that takes us below the surface of ourselves, our religions, our dogmas and orthodoxies into our roots. Dying to our beliefs and our ideas about God, we descend toward the invisible Center where we might yet find our common life, our silent communion with each other. Perhaps there, in the resounding OM, what appears irreconcilable is reconciled precisely because it no longer appears but disappears into a unitive Source.

Abisihiktananda and Bede Griffiths each took this most personal and universal of journeys. Shantivanam is their gift, an embodiment of their pioneering spirits, creating a bridge where a chasm had existed. Shantivanam is a place where Love has been incarnated, where Spirit has become flesh and where Hope has traveled from the invisible to the visible. I found Raimon Panikkar's spirit there, in place, in time and in myself. He has provided for me and I daresay for Bede, for Abishiktananda and for anyone willing to accompany him, passageways for a radical descent. Shiva will accompany us, and Kali.
Yet the self-same roots we traverse into the dark provide the lit ascent for the Primal Shakti to break through into a new creation. May we find there a flourishing Forest of Peace— spreading across cultures, continents and the inner terrain of our own personal lives.





"Salutations to that sacred sound present in the earth, the heavens, and that which is beyond. We meditate upon the glorious splendor of the Vivifier divine. May that illumine our minds!


Sources and Recommended Reading:

The Yoga of Sound, by Russill Paul, New World Library, 2004

The Vedic Experience, by Raimon Panikkar, University of California Press, 1977

Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics, by Raimon Panikkar, Paulist Press, 1979

The Cave of the Heart: The Life of Swami Abishiktananda, by Shirley Du Boulay, Orbis, 2005

Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths, by Shirley Du Boulay, Orbis, 2004

Uniting Human ,Cosmic and Divine, by Ewert Cousins, America Magazine, Vol. 196, January 2007

©Diane Pendola, Spring 2007. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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