The Heart of a Pilgrim

-by Zain Saraswati Jamal

A ripe, mango-colored sun warms my skin as I acclimatize to the chaos of Puri streets. Dark almond eyes that resemble my own, gaze into my soul with deep recognition and linger upon my face as if trying to search for origin.  The sounds of ankle bells jingle through interludes of tuc tuc horns, repair work, distant chanting and the multitude of residents moving through their day.  I look down to my own unadorned feet, filthy from the red dust.  This is how I have come to love my feet most.  Covered in the dirt of Mother India.  I am home again, yet a foreigner in my own land.

India is a vibration that I know in my blood, bones and heartbeat and each time I come, I wonder why I ever leave.  It is a remembrance that shakes me awake instantly – amidst the indescribable poverty, perceived suffering, pollution, varying spiritual beliefs and challenges which there are no words for, the resilience of the human spirit shines forth.

It is what spiritual seekers from the west have come here for years to discover, or rather, re-discover within themselves – a deep yearning for truth beyond the illusions of the material world, for the bliss that is our birthright, for the sacredness that we have forgotten.

With my Spiritual Teacher Rukmini Mataji
Lord Caitanya Mahaprabu

It was in this very city of Puri where Lord Caitanya graced the earth with his divine presence.  His mission? To spread the holy name of Lord Krsna and to honor the love of Sri Radhe, the supreme devotee.  This grace continues to be alive and thriving in Puri. Here it feels, that the veil between worlds is thin, the frequency of unconditional love, which pervades all enters my spirit with ease and transmutes directly into my reality.  Dreams have become more vivid, intuition heighted and my practice has deepened in ways I did not expect but have prayed for, for a long time.
To be with my soul brother Gaura Vani and Spiritual Mother and Teacher Rukmini, or Mataji, as I love to call her, and this extraordinary configuration of humans assembled for this pilgrimage, magnifies all of these feelings and emotions to the point where I feel that they will spill out of me onto the earth.

Darshan of the chakra, which sits atop of the Jaganath Temple

And spill, they did.  It all happened one afternoon.  We had spent the week in the most sacred temples of Puri, chanting blissfully, conducting sacred pujas, hearing the pastimes of Krsna and Lord Caitanya and of course taking darshan of the chakra, which sits atop of the Jaganath Temple. This is the temple, which is home to Lord Jaganatha, the exquisitely blissful form of Krsna, which appeared when he was returning to Vrindavana after an extended time away and was instantaneously overwhelmed by the sight of his beloved, Sri Radhe.

To receive darshan at the Jaganath Temple is strictly reserved for Indian Nationals. Despite my heritage as a Gujarati woman, I am foreign born and have practiced varying faiths throughout my life which immediately discredits me from entering.  My family was forced into converting to another faith from Hinduism and subsequently fled India in order to save their lives some generations before. While they still continue to practice their faith, I discovered my own pathway to God, initially through yoga and later through the exploration of many other religious and spiritual practices before I discovered Krsna Consciousness.

Pilgrims assembled for harinam around the temple

Despite my convoluted history, the original transmission of faith that has guided me throughout my life, that which is has been alive in within my soul since I was a child was calling out to me. I felt a force beyond the physical realm tugging at my heartstrings, magnetizing me toward the temple.  I was entranced with this notion throughout our time in Puri and spoke to a few locals about the possibility of entering as a Gujarati woman; however, there were no clear answers with respect to this nor were the repercussions associated with the decision made clear, should I be discovered. Despite it all, the day was upon me.  It was a day when we had planned to do a harinam around the temple with close to forty people.  I had no time to plan, prepare or dress accordingly due to our timing for the day, yet I knew that this was my moment.  As we stood in front of the temple waiting to begin, I could feel the yearning within my heart and in that moment passed my belongings to my dear friend telling her not to worry and that I was going in!

Clothed in a simple western style skirt and shawl, breath bated, I entered the line up toward the main entrance keeping my eyes low and energetic demeanor confident. Finally, my turn came to pass through security.  Looking the guard straight in the eyes, in perfect Hindi, I responded to his questions asking about my origin ‘main Gujarati hoon’.

I must mention that my Hindi is pretty rusty.  As an Indian woman growing up in the west in the 1990’s, I did everything I could to hide from my culture in order to ‘fit in’.  I recall days as a child, wearing mehndi (henna) on my hands after a wedding celebration and being teased for having a disease on my hands. I recall how my lunch looked and smelled different, how my parents had no idea about popular music or art and how frustrated I felt to have darker skin, eyes, hair and a strange name.  It was only until later in life that I truly embraced my culture and now I could not be more proud or grateful for the divine culture, beauty, tradition, spirituality and richness that I have been exposed to since childhood.

Walking up the steps of the temple that day felt so right.  Hundreds of people came to take darshan and I followed the crowd in through the second set of gates and inside into the main temple, awestruck by the ornate murtis (deities) and the pillar where it was said that Lord Caitanya worshiped from.  The smell of ghee lamps filled the air as I took light from the aarti fire praying that it would reach the eyes all of those whom I love and purify them from whatever is no longer serving them.

Balaram, Subhadra and Jagannath

Suddenly, the crowd rushed toward the main altar and in that moment, the drapes opened and I saw Subhadra’s large golden face and glimmering white eyes.  I followed the rush and was swept into a sea of people, feet lifted off the earth, as I floated toward the altar taking in the jabs and pushes along the way.  As I approached the altar, there he was, Lord Jaganath.  I was mesmerized.  There are no words to fully explain what the darshan felt like but my whole body was tingling, my heart so filled with sensation and the crown of my head seemed to be elevating into the sky.  Despite the chaos around me, I felt internally silent, still.  In those moments, I prayed, telling Lord Jaganath that I was here under the guidance of Radhanath Swami Maharaj and Rukhmini Maharani and that I was carrying the prayers of all of my soul family to him. I prayed that he would enable me to be humble enough to carry his blessings back to them.  I thanked him for calling me to him and for clearing the way. Finally, I prayed that he would give me a cleansing as mild or intense as he saw fit, physically, mentally, and spiritually, that would enable me to clear the last of the trauma that I had been holding after a deep heartbreak, from my cells.  Just then, I was pushed out from my spot as the pujari handed me a fragrant yellow chrysanthemum and a few tulsi leaves and I ended up on the exit stairs of the temple.

Gathering myself after this extraordinary experience, I spent time wandering through the smaller temples, watching the changing of the flags and enjoying darshan and despite having nothing with me in the way of contribution, I was gifted a handful of sacred prasadam, which I wrapped carefully in a palm leaf to carry back to my beloved group.

Descending down the stairs, I caught the eyes of many of my friends – who had, in divine timing, just completed their harinam – but through my gaze back instructed them not to draw too much attention to me. Reuniting with my group was surreal and many of them could see that I was in a state of utter bliss.

That night, Gaura Vani and his son Kirtan, asked me to pay attention to my dreams. As I left dinner, I could already feel the intensity of my prayer coming forth.  I was incredibly ill that night and exhausted on a cellular level.  After a 14-hour sleep, I awoke, energized and completely well.  Lord Jaganath was gentle on me I thought.

That morning, I recollected my dreams.  Throughout the night, I had three beautiful dreams which included seeing Lord Caitayna coming out of the Bengal Sea, Lord Jaganath in countless expansions whilst walking through a dense, green, misty forest and a vision of myself in another time/life, distributing prasadam to thousands of people.

As I sit now, at the Govardhan Eco Villagein the Sayarki Mountains just outside of Mumbai recollecting this precious experience, I am so deeply humbled by how Srila Prahbupada Maharaj’s mission to spread the love of Krsna Consciousness in the West, transformed the lives of so many devotees and through those devotees, whom I have been fortunate enough in this lifetime to encounter, this Canadian born Indian woman has not only found her way home but has found her way back to her spiritual essence.

Infinite Pranams