Smashing the Ego at Simhachalam
Here's a story of how I suffered an ‘instant karma’ reaction for doing something dumb at a sacred place.
When I was a young lad, I once visited the ancient temple of Simhachalam near the city of Viśākhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, South India. I timed my visit so that I could witness the annual Chandanotsava when the many layers of sandalwood are broken to reveal the Varāha-Nṛsiṁha deity within. This only happens for about twelve hours once a year, at which point they begin to “cool Him down” by coating Him with sandalwood again. They do this to the point where the Deity is unrecognisable and appears more like a Śiva-liṅgam than a Viṣṇu-tattva mūrti.
I was young and India was a lot different back then. I travelled around by myself with a backpack and hardly any money. I arrived to the area by bus the day before, and I slept on the roof of the temple's dharmaśālā along with other guests who had travelled from far and wide. The atmosphere was otherworldly. There is something magic about residents of Bhārata-varṣa when they're on pilgrimage.
In the morning I rose to take bath. Generally my habit was to rise before the sun but, for some reason, I slept in until the morning sun was quite intense on my body lying there on the roof.
After asking a friendly family to look after my backpack, I grabbed my bag with my toothbrush, toothpaste, tongue-scraper and soap then headed downstairs to the bathing ghats in my gumcā. Somehow, overnight, the place became packed with what seemed like a million guests. Given the nature and location of these events, it would not be an exaggeration to say there were at least a million or more in attendance. Outside the temple complex, there were man-made pools and fountains for guests to bathe. It looked as if they were built centuries earlier and were replete with ornate architecture. Oddly, one of the ghats had only a small number of pilgrims and the crowd seemed to give them a wide berth.
So, thinking I’d have to wait less time, I approached that ghat and waited there with my bathroom bag. It was amazing! The bathing area was stepped and featured a carved personality where the water spouted out of its mouth to fill the pool. I wish I’d taken a picture, but this was before cell-phones and digital cameras were a thing. I could not find any sort of queue, rather the dozen or so people at this ghat seemed to casually be sitting around while a member of their entourage bathed one at a time. They seemed as if their consciousness was floating above the frantic energy of the crowd. They were palpably peaceful within, and that serenity seemed to radiate around the area. They did not look like the rest of the visitors. Some had big piles of dreadlocks wrapped on top of their heads. Some looked very unkempt externally, but intriguing by their demeanour. Smiling, some of them observed my bare chested white body with curiosity. I was an anomaly at this event and, despite being impressed by these bābās, I really just wanted to take a bath, brush my teeth and get in the huge line for darshan of the day’s event.
Naturally, I thought it wise to use all of my western manners and respectfully wait my turn even if that meant going last; but, surprisingly, one of the elder members motioned for me to step into the pool right after someone else had finished. Not being able to speak the language, I respectfully nodded and proceeded into the pool, step by step, until I was waist deep in the water. I sat my bag down near the fountain and prepared my toothbrush while all of these jāta-bābās looked on with kind eyes, slightly perplexed at the cultural juxtaposition being presented to them on this otherwise auspicious morning.
As I started brushing my teeth, I noticed that some were squinting their eyes in disbelief. I carried on as usual until, not knowing where else to do it, I spat the minty froth out of my mouth into the pool I was standing in. This was a pretty stupid thing to do, and these otherwise contented babas were visibly not happy about it. I think all of them moaned, some threw an arm into the air and at least one of them gave me a toothy ‘tick tick’ sound of disapproval.
So I stood there embarrassed and confused about what to do next. The same elderly baba then motioned for me to finish up my business, at which point I just waded out of the pool, foregoing the soap episode of my regular bathing routine. As soon as I exited, one of the bābās climbed to the head of the fountain and blocked its mouth with his hands so that no water would pour into the pool, allowing for it to drain. This happened surprisingly fast. Once empty, the elderly bābā stepped into the pool, chanted some mantras and made some somatic gestures with his hands. He then stepped out, and his assistant allowed the water to flow again. I looked around at the group, and it seemed as if their eyes now spoke less of curiosity and more of disgust and pity. What an awkward moment I created!
So I apologetically shuffled off to the dharmaśālā through what was now a dense crowd who looked in dismay at my white skin as if they’d seen a ghost. I got dressed and immediately felt a wave of nausea come over me. By the time I gathered my things, I started feeling dizzy. I came down the stairs wanting to find the end of the darśana queue when that dizziness turned into full-blown vertigo. My head was pounding, the world was spinning, and I could barely walk. I don’t remember much of what happened next, but I vaguely remember a smiley and kind-hearted young Indian Vaiṣṇava escorting me and accompanying me on a bus. I woke up on the floor of a house that was filled with Vaiṣṇava paraphernalia and some pictures of Śrīla Prabhupāda. Nobody was there but myself for a couple of days. I just laid there, suffering all sorts of misery and reflecting on what just occurred.
I didn’t mean to offend these sādhus, I was just ignorant of the bathing culture at holy places. I also never felt a spec of aggression from them. It was more like I let them down emotionally by breaching the etiquette in such a grotesque way. Retrospectively, I couldn’t be certain that any of them consciously “cursed” me. It sure felt like it, though, as I collapsed within minutes of leaving the bathing area. It may have just been an “instant karma” reaction to my gaffe. And the lesson was learned for sure. The entire experience had an educational vibe.
In a few days, the āśrama residents returned after the festival concluded. They were a really nice group of devotees who looked after me until I was healthy enough to continue on to my next destination.
It feels like I should wrap this story up with some sort of moral conclusion, but I think the most honest conclusion is just to leave it awkward. So there you go!
Some may question why I would take the time to share such a humiliating story.
Well ... in your own life, if the question ever arises, “Should I spit in these holy mens’ ancient bathing pool?” The answer is now clearly, “No.”
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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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