Sunday, October 11, 2015

That churning feeling

Perhaps you know this story. In the beginning, gods and asuras were struggling for an elixir of immortality - churning the world into being in the process - only to find a terrible poison rising to the surface. Shiva, perched in meditation atop Mount Kailash, came to the rescue, his throat turning permanently blue as he held the deadly poison there.
This picture accompanies the story in a book written by one of the Nepali participants in our project (it's painted by his son), but adds further details. The serpent is the attendant of Vishnu, who, in the telling of one of the Indian participants, had brought the desired elixir in the guise of a beautiful woman, possibly precipitating the churning. And here the serpent is coiled around Kailash the way ropes were, I gather, tied around the blades of traditional butter churns. Other accounts have the asuras using an inverted Kailash as a churning blade, though usually the mountain so used is not named as Kailash.

What really happened? I'll make sure to ask Shiva when we visit his abode again next August. But in the meantime I'm happy to be part of the churning as the India China Institute's "Sacred Himalaya Initiative" team works out coordinated individual and group research projects on various aspects of the glistening mount. It's a quite remarkable group with a remarkable range of experience and expertise. (And me.)

My inquiry will be about how pilgrims' experiences of the mountain is affected by the presence of pilgrims with other understandings of its nature and significance. My shorthand image of that is the experience pilgrims doing the kora/parikrama/circumambulation have of other pilgrims going in the opposite direction. (Buddhists and Hindus go clockwise, Bön practitioners go counter-clockwise.) I've not seen one of those ancient butter churns but from what I understand of the mechanism, isn't the blade turned first in one, and then in the opposite direction? Interreligious churning may go way back here...

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