India is an impenetrable mystery. It is the land of the pampered prince, Siddhartha, who was born under a tree by the wayside, became the Buddha, and died under a sal tree. He owned nothing but a begging bowl, and yet the wheel of dharma he set in motion continues to bestow nirvana twenty-five centuries later.
King Rama of north India built a bridge between Sri Lanka and south India so that two ethnic groups could intermingle more easily. In contrast, Chinese rulers built the Great Wall to seal off their country from outsiders. While Roman emperors celebrated their victories by constructing huge monuments, emperors in India used their wealth to have sacred fire rituals performed.
Here in the West we have built our universities, museums, and libraries in cities, but in India they chose jungles and remote hilltops for their centers of learning. Westerners believe that places of worship should be in easily accessible locations, but in India the more sacred the site, the more remote the location.
Consider the shrines in the Himalayas: Kedarnath, Badrinath, and the shrines in and on the way to the remote Valley of Flowers. This is where Hindu and Buddhist monks built their monasteries, preserved their manuscripts, and dedicated their lives to self-discovery. Paradox has drawn people from all over the world (as well as Indians themselves) to explore the enigma that is India. One of the greatest riddles is a mysterious complex of temples at Khajuraho, in central India.
I first learned about Khajuraho as a university student, when newspapers and magazines were filled with stories about the discovery of a complex of magnificent temples belonging to all the major spiritual traditions of ancient India. Covered with intricate carvings, the temples had been mysteriously abandoned for seven centuries or longer. I wondered what had inspired people to spend five hundred years building a complex of elaborate temples, only to abandon the site and let the jungle reclaim them.
I knew that from time immemorial this land had been a stronghold of saints and sages who wanted to live in solitude. Sanskrit epic literature called the site Vatsa Desha (the land of Sage Vatsa), and not far away, on the bank of the Mandakini River, the ashram of one of the seven primordial sages, Atri, and his wife, Mother Anasuya, still exists. Nearby Kalanjar had been one of the greatest seats of learning in ancient India.
What is more, another great sage, Matanga (whose daughter was the Divine Mother), chose Khajuraho as the place to pursue his spiritual practices. Matangeshwara, a magnificent temple named after him, still stands there today. Further, history tells us that the Khajuraho complex was built by the kings of the Chandela dynasty, whose genealogy traces back to Sage Chandrama, the son of the illustrious sage Atri. In all probability Chandrama lived there, as did his two brothers, the sages Durvasa and Dattatreya. Clearly the area in and around Khajuraho is charged with spiritual energy.
I continued my academic pursuits, and just as I was preparing to write my doctoral thesis I met my spiritual preceptor, Swami Rama. I soon discovered that he had a special affinity with Khajuraho. This is where he had his first glimpse of the Divine Mother; for him the shrine known as Sixty-Four Yoginis was at the core of the entire temple complex. “Sixty-Four Yoginis is my Mother’s courtyard,” he used to say.
From time to time Swamiji explained to me the spiritual significance of this region, the general nature of tantric practices that the adepts undertook there, and the specific characteristics of the traditions represented by the various temples. But the conversations always brought him back to Sixty-Four Yoginis.
In the tantric tradition, the Sixty-Four Yoginis are the presiding deities that guide and govern the entire fabric of life. Together they constitute all the benevolent forces of nature. They are the presiding deities of the sixty-four arts and sciences, which cover the whole range of human creativity. Tantric texts, such as Rudra Yamala, explain that it is these yoginis who breathe life into matter. Manifesting in the form of prana (the life-force), they not only hold the body and mind together, they also animate them. Awakening these forces is the essence of spiritual accomplishment. In fact, only when these forces are awakened do we find meaning and purpose in our own worldly achievements. As long as they are dormant, we are weighed down by life’s burdens.
According to tantra, there are special places charged with spiritual energy which help aspirants reach their goal.
According to the tradition, there are special places charged with spiritual energy which help aspirants reach their goal. This energy gives a unique personality to each of these sites. The spiritual energy of Banaras, for example, is characterized by knowledge; at Allahabad it is characterized by inner balance; at Ayodhya, by self-sacrifice; at Brindavan, by love; at Bodhigaya, non-attachment; and at Kamakhya, siddhis (supernatural powers). At the site of Sixty-Four Yoginis, the spiritual energy of Khajuraho enables us to experience our body as a living shrine.
What I had learned from the scriptures and gathered while sitting at the feet of the learned ones had convinced me that I must seek and find my own freedom in the world, not from the world. And I was certain that Khajuraho is where the key to that freedom lay.
I made several attempts to go to Khajuraho in the next twenty-five years, but each time I failed. This only strengthened my belief in its importance to my inner journey. So with each failure I resolved to study more and broaden my understanding before I tried again. But when I finally managed to get there, I was taken by surprise.
I landed at the Khajuraho airport with my wife and two other companions, planning to simply drop our luggage at the hotel and go directly to the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis. But in spite of my instructions, the taxi driver took us to the gate of the western complex of temples, saying flatly, “This is where everyone goes.”
“Okay, then,” I thought, giving esoteric interpretation to the driver’s intransigence. “You are the driver. Steering is in your hands. Wherever you drop me is the right spot to start my journey.”
The logic of surrender worked its magic. I walked through a gate and found myself in front of the majestic Sun temple (the temple of the Sun god who banishes darkness from the face of the Earth), sometimes known as the Chitragupta temple. It was so imposing and beautiful that my mind instantly gave up its habit of linear thinking, and forces imperceptible to our senses, hidden beneath the surface of the numberless statues lining the temple walls, took charge of my journey. In this meeting ground of gods and humans, the benevolent forces within and without joined hands and, struck with wonder, I stood silently as they unraveled for me the mystery of life. My mind’s eye went back and forth, seeing both the beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of the human creation as they were manifest in this temple complex, and I recognized that human beings are the perfect reflection of the perfect One.
The architectural designs of the temples, along with the teeming statues of animals, humans, demigods, nymphs, gods, goddesses, and demons so systematically arranged on the walls, were the counterparts of the currents and crosscurrents of energies—both positive and negative, constructive and destructive—that make up our world. Humans too are a perfect blend of these twofold energies.
The builders of the Khajuraho temple complex have created a dynamic panorama of anger and love, hatred and kindness, greed and generosity, revenge and forgiveness—one impulse granting spiritual freedom, its opposite weaving a snare of sensual slavery and frustration.
Using sculpture and architecture, the builders of the Khajuraho temple complex have created a dynamic panorama of anger and love, hatred and kindness, greed and generosity, revenge and forgiveness—one impulse granting spiritual freedom, its opposite weaving a snare of sensual slavery and frustration. Seeing this, I understood how the spiritual journey begins: with the recognition that these same thoughts, feelings, emotions, urges, and habit patterns—both positive and negative—swirl within each of us. And I realized that spirituality is the art of making good use of everything we have, including our weaknesses and negative tendencies.
My eyes fell on a cluster of images depicting humans involved in the base level of our existence—fighting, fleeing from battle, fornicating, beset by confusion, fear, and doubt. But the voice of my heart said, “We are blessed with abundant gifts; it is fear and doubt that hold us back from enjoying them. We know that life is precious, yet we rarely make good use of it. What motivates us to make the inward journey? Philosophical knowledge and intellectual understanding are not enough.”
I knew that the understanding that had just dawned on me was only a stepping-stone on the journey. If this temple here in the corner of the complex is so potent, the experience awaiting us at the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis must be overwhelming! I hoped our visit to the Sun temple had generated enough good karma for my driver to find me worthy of the journey.