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Summer/Fall 2019

Tradition

by Jahnavi Newsom

 

When he was fifty-three years old, my uncle Charlie was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A few years later, he made the decision to end his life on his own terms, rather than live out the course of the disease. Charlie gave me the date for his assisted suicide, and I knew I wanted to be there with him when he made the greatest and final journey of his life.

A few days before I would leave for Montana to be with Charlie, I called Greg. Greg lived down the road from me, and I had attended some of the sweat lodges he held on his land. I knew that if anyone in our naturalist community were dying or had a loved one die, they usually called Greg to conduct a sacred fire in the Odawa tradition. I had participated in a number of four-day sacred fires, and I knew that I wanted Charlie to have this ceremony to support his leaving, and to offer a sacred space for those grieving him.

I am not Native American, but rather a caucasian mutt (my dad is a white American and my mother is a white French woman), but I felt an affinity to Native American practices and their deep connection to the natural world. 

“My uncle is planning on having an assisted suicide next week,” I told Greg. “I’m going to fly out to Montana to be with him. And I want to conduct a sacred fire for him after he dies.”

Greg spoke carefully. He told me that sacred fires are a lot of work, and that it wasn’t a good idea for family members to conduct them while they were grieving. Women also weren’t able to conduct sacred fires. Men had to be the ones to lead the ceremony and the fire tenders also had to be men. The women’s role was to provide water and food for the men during the ceremony. 

“If you conduct the fire incorrectly and break with tradition, you can anger the spirits,” he concluded.

The tradition I had been raised in from birth was the Hare Krishnas, also known as Krishna Consciousness or Gaudiya Vaishnavism. My family lived in rural North Carolina surrounded by other devotee families. I grew up bowing to white and brown men in saffron robes and prostrating before their “lotus feet.” Pictures of old Indian men lined the altars we worshipped. They stared back at me from beneath their mud-plastered brows, their expressions holy.

When I was nine years old, my entire family left North Carolina and moved to South India, where we were involved with founding an ashram on the banks of the Kaveri River.

At twelve years old, I took initiation from the head of our community, whom we called Narashringa Maharaja. “Narashringa” is the name of an incarnation of Krishna who is a half-man, half-lion. Narashringa-dev is a wrathful deity who will not hesitate to disembowel those who mess with his beloveds. “Maharaja” means “great king,” and is the title that fully ordained men receive in the tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Narashringa Maharaja was an American ex-military man who was fiery and quick to yell at his disciples or send the people who he perceived to have done wrong packing. 

My guru was around the same age as my mother and the mothers of my childhood friends. All of these women had been part of the religion as long as he had, but these women would never be allowed to fully ordain and have disciples worshipping at their feet. 

I didn’t grow up seeing or interacting with empowered women, so I had no idea what I was missing. By the time I was a teenager and we had moved to Vermont with the other followers of Narashringa, I began to notice the lack of female gurus or female leaders in Gaudiya Vaishnavism.  My spiritual practice felt very important to me, and I wanted to be able to dedicate myself to something without reservation. Yet, as I asked more questions, the more reservations I had.

“Why aren’t there any great women saints in the Krishna Conscious books we read or in real life?” I asked Narashringa Maharaja through an email when I was fifteen. Although many of us in the community had moved to Vermont, he still spent months at a time at the ashram in India or traveling the world.

“The mothers and wives of the great saints are great devotees themselves,” he replied. “And if you want there to be great women devotees, you can start by being one yourself and setting an example.”

“Can women conduct fire sacrifices?” I asked another guru, Tripurari, through another email. I had seen fire sacrifices conducted at our ashram in India by the monastics during religious observances. My mother and father had an arranged marriage which was sanctioned with a fire ceremony as well. I had always felt drawn to ceremonies, and I wanted to know more about them and their purpose.

“No,” Tripurari said. “Women do not conduct fire ceremonies as of yet. But there’s no good reason why.” Tripurari was my sister’s guru who had visited our ashram in India a few times.

“Why would you want to conduct fire sacrifices?” my dad asked, after reading Tripurari’s response. He looked angry. “They use ghee in fire sacrifices, and you’re a vegan.”

“I just don’t want to drink milk from cows who live in factory farms and are sick and tortured,” I said. “Doing a fire sacrifice with ghee from an ashram cow in India is different. And I just wanted to know.”

“Well, I don't know why you even bother being a vegan,” he said. “It won’t make any difference.”

I had become a vegan after reading Diet for a New America —a book my dad gave me. Hare Krishnas revere cows and consider them to be like second mothers. Our community was vegetarian and we ate dairy like it was going out of style.  But I was horrified when I realized we were supporting the slavery and torture of the sacred cow, and I didn’t want to keep consuming their milk.

In addition to becoming interested in animal rights, I began spending more time in nature and to read many of Tom Brown Jr.’s books. Brown is a naturalist who learned tracking, bird language, and survival skills from an Apache elder in the seventies. Both my sister and I wanted to live like the native Americans, and my sister even built a sweat lodge on our property.

I was seventeen when I received word through my brother that Narashringa was angry with me, and I shouldn’t try to see him or talk to him. I didn’t see my guru very often anyway, firstly because of his frequent travels, and secondly because I was a girl and felt unwelcome at the communal living space where the monastic men all lived. 

When I heard that Narashringa Maharaja was upset with me, I wanted to know what I had done to cause this. My brother suggested I send my guru an email rather than calling him. At the time, Narashringa was staying at the monastic house only a fifteen-minute drive from where I lived, but I had been told I wasn’t allowed to go there to see him. Besides, I was too scared to see him. 

So I wrote him an email, asking why he was angry at me, but received no response. 

I wrote a second email, and in more detail explained to my guru that I was confused as to why he was angry with me, and that I suspected one of the other community members was feeding him stories about me. I told him I was concerned that he had built a case against me without actually talking to me about any of it. I apologized to him for anything I may have done to offend him and hoped he would write to me and explain what was going on.

Finally, he wrote back. He laid out my case before me, line by line. My first offense was that I had failed to properly observe his birthday (“Vyasa Puja”). The guru is no different from God," he told me, and by not worshipping him properly, I was rejecting God. His informant, the father of my best friend, told him that they had invited me to a program at their house on Narashringa’s birthday and that I had refused to come and had instead done a sweat lodge with my sister (my guru did not approve of Native American practices). I had no memory of this event. Narashringa said he had waited a year to see if I had shown any remorse for not honoring him properly, but I had not.

“For your information,” he wrote, “there was once a demigod named Indra who, when seeing his guru, failed to offer proper respect. Indra had to be born and suffer the life of a pig for such an offense. So, what then might be the fate of a disciple who fails to attend the Vyasa-puja of the spiritual master but instead goes to a sweat lodge? It is better that I do not consider you my disciple, otherwise, you will have to suffer for your offenses.”

My next offense was, according to him, that I did not keep up with my daily spiritual practice, such as chanting and reading the sacred books. I enjoyed chanting and reading spiritual literature, so I had, in fact, continued to do so. But he had no way of knowing whether I was practicing or not since he’d never asked me. 

My final offense was that I was a vegan. “Practices like a vegan diet and other such things that you are interested in are actually demonic and atheistic by nature,” he informed me. “Krishna is a cowherd boy, and rejecting the milk of the cow is simply another form of cow slaughter. If you were actually my disciple, you would not even think about being a vegan. So, it’s obvious that you are not.”

Once again, we had never had a conversation about why I had chosen to stop eating dairy.

I felt shocked, upset, and betrayed by his email. I compiled a reply, finally able to respond to the offenses I’d been kept in the dark about. I explained everything to him and continued to apologize profusely for having displeased him. To this day, I have never received a response to my final email, which had been the only opportunity I’d been given to share my own story and perspectives.

I felt I was being excommunicated from the only community I’d belonged to since the age of nine, the only one I’d known. My parents didn’t confront Narashringa or do anything at all. He was the authority figure of our community and they accepted his verdict without protest.

My doubts about Krishna Consciousness had been soaked in gasoline and set ablaze by the man who once told me he would be like a father to me. I wanted to believe; I wanted a spiritual practice; I wanted a community. But even going to a different devotee community did not ultimately persuade me to stay within the religion. I felt that my human life was so precious, and I wanted to walk a sacred path and to prepare myself for the day I transitioned into the afterlife, even though I had no way of knowing what happened after death. Still, I felt an urgency to access the highest version of myself I could be.

I eventually enrolled in a nature and permaculture-based school near Santa Cruz, founded by Jon Young, a naturalist who specializes in bird language and tracking. He was mentored at a young age by Tom Brown Jr., the same author and naturalist who had originally sparked my love of nature and Native American spirituality. Jon was also connected with several native holy men and brought them into our program to share their teachings with us. We did sweat lodges with Lakota elder Gilbert Walking Bull, sacred fires with Odawa elder Paul Raphael, and recited the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address every morning when we circled together. I learned how to do Orderly Fashion Prayers by tying colorful squares of cloth over pinches of tobacco along a string. I did a four-day vision quest and prayed every day to the Great Mystery (Tunkashila) and to the spirits in the six directions. I felt drawn to know everything there was to know about these ceremonies, how to conduct them, and how to adopt these practices into my daily life. Yet, I was gently steered away from what I came to understand were the “men’s duties” such as conducting the ceremonies, fire tending for either the sweat lodges or the four-day sacred fires, and anything else that looked fun or important.

“Women have very important roles in these ceremonies,” I was told many times by a man. These roles seemed to consist almost entirely of cooking and delivering food and water to the men sitting around the sacred fires.

During the preparation of a four-day sacred fire after the death of a community member, I saw some men carrying firewood over to the circle, so I joined in, piling logs in my arms and dropping them near the fire pit. The Odawa elder conducting the ceremony noticed me and turned away, looking vexed. A moment later, Jon Young approached me, smiling sheepishly.

“I can do that,” he told me.

“I don’t mind!” I said. “I want to help.”

“Well…” he said, “we can’t actually use wood for the sacred fire that’s been touched by a woman. It’s the Odawa tradition. It’s my fault for not explaining that more clearly. The women are in charge of bringing water and food for the fire, while the men handle the wood and the fire tending.”

During that same sacred fire, I happened to be on my period. I told Jon, and he directed me to speak with his wife. “Women’s moon cycles are very powerful and can disrupt the ceremony,” he said. 

I found my way through the crowd of naturalists gathered for the fire and relayed the same information to her. She looked unhappy. She said I was to keep a distance of at least ten feet between myself and the sacred fire. It was a cold night, and all of the non-menstruating people huddled close to the fire in a tight circle. Behind them in the dark, the menstruating women sat on a bench, covered in blankets and shivering. I decided to leave the ceremony and go home. Even at this point, I could not openly admit to myself that here, in this newfound community, I was still being discriminated against due to my gender. Yet I also couldn’t go along with their guidelines wholeheartedly.

The next year, I moved to Brattleboro, Vermont to attend circus school. The school was run by twins—both women—and all of the instructors, except for one, were buff, badass women. In the midst of learning how to do a handstand and balance on someone else’s shoulders, I continued to seek a spiritual practice. I sustained some of the practices I’d learned—including sweat lodges with Greg. But when I expressed an interest in learning how to be a fire tender for the sweats, I was ignored. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was invited to learn and to work side-by-side with the ceremony conductors.

One day, as I sat through the second round of a sweat on Greg’s property, I was overcome with sudden rage. I didn’t have a sense of what this rage was saying, but I was concerned about what I might do or say in this state. On either side of me were women in long skirts or dresses, dripping with condensed steam and sweat, and across the lodge from us were the men, shirtless, leading songs in Lakota, to which we all chimed in when we could find the breath. I asked to be let out of the lodge.

I never returned to attend another sweat.

It was a few months after this incident that I found myself on the phone with Greg, listening as he told me my uncle couldn’t have a sacred fire for his journey into the afterlife because I was a woman. I excused myself from the conversation.

The following week I flew out to Montana with my sister, Devaki. My aunt Rose lived across the way from Charlie and my uncle Alex had flown in from San Diego to be with his brother. I told Alex and Rose about the four-day sacred fire I wanted to conduct for their brother, beginning the day of his death or soon after. They were ready to support me and Devaki to make it happen.

 

The day of Charlie’s planned death, we arrived at his house in the early afternoon and spent the day with him, doing everything he loved that his stiff, atrophied muscles would allow him to do. We went for a walk along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, marveling at the greens and grays and deep browns of the summer landscape, while Charlie puttered alongside us in his wheelchair. He would sometimes speed ahead, then whip around and charge back at us, smiling mischievously. 

Back at the house, Charlie sat on the couch weeping as he watched Stevie Wonder and Sting perform “Higher Ground.” Rose, Devaki, and I got up and danced through our tears. Charlie was one of the best harmonica players in North America and had a voice and sense of humor to match, but he’d been unable to sing or play all year, though he managed to make inappropriate jokes up until his dying breath.

As the sun fell, we set up the two enormous telescopes Charlie had built himself and looked at Jupiter, Venus, and the Milky Way. Charlie drank his last Corona, gazing up into the night. I sat with him, wondering if he would be able to go through with his decision. After he finished his beer, he signaled that he was ready.

Charlie lay on a cot under an impossibly vast, star-filled sky, surrounded by Devaki, Alex, Rose, Judy (Charlie’s partner of twenty years), and I. We each said our goodbyes. Charlie’s throat was so ravaged by the disease at this point that he could scarcely speak. But his eyes were shining, as though with anticipation of what was to come. He looked at me.

“Charlie,” I said. “We’re going to have a fire for you that will be burning for four days, starting tomorrow. You can come and visit us there.”

He smiled and nodded, as though this made perfect sense to him.

We sat nearby as the nurse, who was a family friend, gave Charlie a lethal injection. He closed his eyes and his breathing grew shallow. Devaki and I sang to him.

Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night…

I felt almost jealous of Charlie. He was experiencing a mystery we all ponder, and I wanted to know what he was seeing. Some time later, Judy gasped in surprise and we all looked up through our tears. 

“What is it?” we asked.

She glanced behind her and then back at Charlie. “Someone touched me on the shoulder,” she said.

We carried Charlie’s body into the living room where we kept vigil through the night. After staying awake all night, I dozed near his resting place in the morning, while my aunts sat contemplating their now deceased brother and life partner. 

Judy said to Rose, “Do you think I can get him stuffed?”

Rose laughed with her until they began to cry all over again.

In the early morning hours, someone called a crematory, and two men arrived with a gurney and a large, black bag. They lowered his body into the bag wordlessly, brought his body to their van, and drove away. But Charlie was still there with us.

That afternoon, Alex, Devaki, and I prepared the sacred fire area, which was to be in Rose’s backyard. We smudged the area, prayed to the spirits in the six directions, offered tobacco, and set up an altar for Charlie. We were surrounded by grassland and pastures as far as the eye could see, with aspens and willows lining the edges of the creek which flowed past. Impossibly grand, ancient mountains filled the horizon on all sides, like a circle of snowy-haired elders bearing witness to this ceremony of passage.

For four days, we never left the fire unattended. Visitors poured in, their faces shocked and sad. Though many of them had never participated in a Native American ceremony before, they allowed my sister and I to smudge them before they entered the circle. They would sit or stand, staring into the fire, sometimes quietly, sometimes sharing stories about Charlie. It never crossed my mind to ask the women if any of them were menstruating so that I could bar their entrance into the circle.

One day, while standing in the fire circle with Alex and some of Charlie’s friends, I was inspired to sing. I turned to Alex. “I was thinking of singing this song, but I don’t want to just sing over everyone’s conversations.” I didn’t realize at the time that I was asking him for permission and hoping he would be the one to let the others know.

He looked surprised. “Go for it! I don’t know why you’re asking me. You’re the one leading this whole thing.”

Devaki was not able to stay for the full four days of the fire ceremony, but on the last day she was there, we stood by Charlie’s fire, talking about my conversation with Greg. “I guess it just didn’t really dawn on me that women absolutely can’t conduct sacred fires until he said it in plain English to me,” I told Devaki.

She nodded knowingly. She had been to many of the same ceremonies I had witnessed, and she too had eventually parted ways with those same communities. “You should look into other spiritual practices around the world that people do for the dying,” she said. “It seems like you’re drawn to ceremonies like this, and if you found traditions that allowed women to conduct them, it would be better than trying to do it the Odawa way when they don’t want you to. I know that Buddhists have a practice for the dying, and they even have that book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I didn’t know anything about Buddhism except for the story of the Buddha I read in an Amar Citra Katha kids’ comic book in India. I filed her suggestion away into my subconscious.

I remember waking up at 3 am when it was time for me to trade shifts with Alex, who had been tending the fire faithfully, never leaving it unless I was there to take his place. I sat up and looked out the window, where he stood gazing into his brother’s fire. When he placed a log into the flames, sparks cascaded upwards into the inky sky.

On the fourth day, I told Alex and Rose that it was time to let the fire begin to die out and for us to do the closing ceremony. Sacred fires must never be extinguished; at a given time on the fourth day, wood is no longer added so that the fire can slowly die out in it’s own time.

“I’m not ready!” Alex cried. I felt his resistance and was surprised at the authority I had been given; I hadn’t meant to be in charge, but somehow it had happened.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Spend as much time as you want with Charlie and the fire. We’ll need to stop adding wood eventually so it burns out by evening, but we can wait.”

We watched the logs turn to coals and the smoking coals diminish in their own time, over many hours. When Alex was ready, we circled the dying embers and made final offerings, speaking to Charlie, and letting him know he was free to continue on his journey. I imagined him drifting away, visiting people and natural places where he had last-minute business.

Six years later, I found myself at a Buddhist ceremony for the recently deceased, called a Remembrance Ceremony. 

“This body is not me. I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, and I have never died,” we read together.

The woman leading the ceremony was in her seventies, with wild, bushy white hair and twinkling gray eyes. She was a Dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage and had arranged for this ceremony to take place in honor of my daughter, who was still-born earlier that year, and for anyone else who had lost a loved one recently. 

I had been reading my daughter The Tibetan Book of the Dead during the final months of her life, not realizing that she was never going to grow up to be a woman, and not knowing just how appropriate it was for her to be hearing this book read out loud.

In my Buddhist community, I have never been told I can’t do something because I am a woman, and I’ve never been instructed by a man as to what my role as a woman is. I am surrounded by wise women in leadership roles and by compassionate men who have learned how to listen deeply. I am encouraged to take responsibility for my own life and my journey along the Noble Eightfold Path. Although I take refuge in my community, teachers, and the teachings which have been passed down, I am not required to blindly trust someone because of their status or the clothes they wear. I am advised to try these Buddhist practices out for myself and to see if I benefit from them, rather than dogmatically following the doctrine without questioning it.

And despite the differences I’ve had with my family, I am still close with all of them. 

Whenever I go back to Montana to see my aunt, people who I don’t recognize greet me. “You’re the one who held that fire for Charlie. Everyone remembers that. That was a good thing you did there, for Charlie and for the community.”

 

 

[Check out Jahnavi Newsome's back porch advice]