There is a legend about Shiva appearing as a gigantic pillar of fire in front of Vishnu and Brahma, and challenging them to find his head and his feet. Vishnu transformed himself into a boar and started to dig into the ground to find the feet of Shiva, while Brahma turned into a swan and flew high into the sky in search for Shiva’s head. Vishnu, not having found the feet, came back and admitted his defeat. Brahma, however, met a flower of a plant called thazhambu that told him it had fallen off Shiva’s head thirty thousand years ago. Returning to Shiva, Brahma said he saw Shiva’s head with the thazhambu flower. Shiva saw through Brahma’s trick and became furious. He declared that Brahma could not be worshipped in any temple in this world, and prohibited the use of the thazhambu flower for his cult.
To mark this demonstration of supremacy by Shiva over the other gods of the Trimurti, worshippers celebrate a festival called Deepam when the full moon enters the Pleiades between November and December. They burn ghee in a brazier on the top of the mountain continuously for more than two weeks, and conduct barefoot marches around Arunachala. People come to express their wishes to Shiva, so that he may make them come true. They can also ask Shiva to burn those very same desires, so that they disappear and ty can avoid the dangerous duality of passion and suffering.
I think about this strange contradiction as I get dressed in the ashram’s dorm room. I share the room with Fabrizio, Giorgio and Rudra, an Indian man who lives in Italy part of the year. We are getting ready for the pradakshina, which in Sanskrit means “circling to the right”, the long barefoot trek around the mountain. The real festival hasn’t started yet, but we will do a test run to thicken the soles of our feet in preparation for the actual march.
The men all wear white kurtas, and we have to be clean and immaculate – there’s no room for wild or hippie looks, here everyone is dressed neatly.
Two buses arrive to take us to the foot of Arunachala. I have never walked barefoot on a road for more than a few yards, and in my worry, I search for solace in the japamala and the mantra. I try concentrating my attention on the mountain while the bus bumps over the potholes of the monsoon-damaged road.
We get off the bus leaving our slippers on board. Ramana starts to walk with his usual determined stride, and is immediately surrounded by a flock of gopis. Fabrizio tells me that for my first pradakshina, it is wiser to stick close to the teacher, so I brave the gopis’ elbows in my ribs and keep up with him.
I remind myself of the lesson of non-attachment and resolve not to get weakened by an out-of-place kindness or fear of being rude and I keep up with the pace.
I’m afraid of getting sores on my feet, or stepping on a nail, a wood splinter or barbed wire. Then there is cow dung, or even worse stuff that I could step in.
As we pass sadhus on the side of the road, some of them remind me of the cheerful Swamiji in Mysore. A mild rain starts to make the experience less pleasant. I really don’t want to get sick during the first barefoot walk around the mountain, because we will have to face many. What I don’t realise is that the worst is yet to come.
Minuscule pebbles appear on the road, making even Ramana, a veteran of decades of these pilgrimages, grimace in pain. Then, we encounter the worst of it all – a freshly tarred road!
“Tar!” Giorgio screams in horror, and he comes up right behind me to make sure that I don’t cave in to pain right away. Walking on tar is entirely different to walking on pebbles. You can’t wipe it off the bottom of your foot by rubbing it on your other ankle as you walk. The sharp little black pieces of tar stick like chewing gum to the soles of your feet, and you’re forced to stop and pluck out each of one of them.
From the beginning of the pradakshina, Ramana has been intoning the om namah shivaya mantra to a fast rhythm, followed by a choir of meditators. The chant is repeated in such a rhythmic and constant manner, it becomes hypnotic. Soon the chant is repeated by all of us, and with our faces turned to the sky, we smile serenely despite our hurting feet.
Om namah shivaya, om namah shivaya (high pitch).
Om namah shivaya, om namah shivaya (lower pitch).
The chant is repeated in such a rhythmic and constant manner it becomes hypnotic and at times it’s actually yelled out of tune by Bear, with his hoarse voice and country accent, that makes the phrase sound more like a raucous and odd: “Ol’ man is on fire! Ol’ man is on fire!” with that final “fire!” yelled so loudly that it could make you think a little rock keeps hitting his heel as he walks, or that maybe he himself is that very same ol’ man catching fire.
Soon the song spreads to all the hundred or so barefoot Italians clad in white, faces turned up to the sky, sporting a serene grin on their mugs, disregarding the pebble hurting their feet.
The mantras reverberate on the asphalt, on the houses of the villages, and on the walls of the temples, as we walk faster and faster, filled with true spiritual bravado.
Om namah shivaya, om namah shivaya (high).
Om namah shivaya, om namah shivaya (low).
Four times in a row and then again.
And again, and again, and again.
After a while, the chant itself keeps the mind’s focus high, and what happens to the feet is of little consequence. It’s as if we had all been hooked to a cloud, and were almost levitating on the asphalt, the pure power of concentration taking us away from thought.
Here, in the heart of suffering, I discover another extremely useful lesson: when your attention is distracted away from thoughts, as it happens when you focus on the mantra, you can overcome fearful obstacles. Concentrating on the divine through the repetitive chant makes the suffering become less intense, and the sensations feel farther away from the body. This is the first lesson of the pradakshina.
After a while of this self-hypnosis, the mind begins to play tricks on me and I hear different phrases, such as ‘Owner mashing vial!’ and I think of the million of Hindus gathered on this Deepam, walking around the hundred Italians who are marching on, like the armies of Shiva, and I hear this thumping and senseless Owner mashing vial! Owner mashing vial! fill my ears.
At first, I start laughing and wonder what kind of vial the enigmatic owner is mashing, and why. Then, suddenly, I begin to feel a slight heat on the soles of my of feet. I’ve been distracted from the mantra, brought back to thoughts, and the painful sensation is back. I quickly refocus on the chant and am wrapped again in the “sense of the divine”. My attention is sharp, and I am floating, not thinking about the asphalt any longer. I could just as well be on a meadow or walking on water.
But I don’t actually think this, because I am not thinking about anything at all. I am just repeating the mantra and marching, enjoying what I see around me while being careful not to get shoved too far away from Ramana. This is because the further I am from him, the easier it is to fall back on thoughts, thereby reawakening the mind and the sensations under my feet. Keeping the mind focused on the mantra, I get over my fears, my pain and fatigue, and I ignore the five hours of marching into the night, without any training, walking on fresh tar, letting the skin of my feet get tarred up pretty well. And I can easily overcome the Indian traffic and the stray dogs and the stretches of darkness awaiting ahead.
On the bus at the end of the march, everyone seems overcome with an energy that is much stronger than what we felt at the beginning. Our eyes and skin are shining, and there are smiles on very satisfied faces. It is the exact opposite of what one might expect after five hours of marching barefoot on patches of tar.
We have a light meal of cake and chapati, and return to the ashram. We line up to wash our feet in the bathroom – there is one for every dorm room, shared by four to six people. Waiting for my turn, I look at my feet darkened by tar and dust and I think about the deliverance the pradakshina is supposed to bring about. For me, the liberation is in realising how futile all my fears have been. It was futile to fear India before coming here, and to worry about the difficulties of Ashtanga yoga. It was pointless to fear solitude, and the pain of the walk around the sacred mountain.
This is the second lesson of the pradakshina. First, it taught me that one must “break” the pain to get results, and now it is teaching me that there is no need to fear pain itself.
Excerpted with permission from Bending Over Backwards: A Journey to the End of the World to Cure a Chronic Backache, Carlo Pizzati, HarperCollins India.