Four years ago, I went to my first Hindu ceremony honoring one of the major goddesses. I forgot which one, as those Hindu goddesses all look quite the same to me. (I seriously suspect they are all the same woman sporting different hair-dos and dress codes.)
The ceremony— they call it a “puja”— lasted for a long time. Or maybe it just felt long because it mainly involved this yellow-robed Indian guy chanting Sanskrit, the most foreign of all foreign languages to me, in a drowse-inducing monotone, while passing around wilted rose petals and whatnots. At the end of the ceremony, we all lined up to get blessings from the priest. I didn’t know what to expect. And as soon as I walked up to him, the priest smiled at me and said, “Give me your left hand.”
I instinctively obeyed. Then with great astonishment I watched him carefully tie a thin red thread around my wrist while speedily reciting some mysterious mantra. It looked a bit ridiculous on my wrist. I mean, the string was too tiny to pass for a proper bracelet on an adult, yet its color too vibrant to be ignored.
“Here you go!” he said, ready to move on to the next person.
“But… but… what am I supposed to do with this thing?” I asked, feeling helpless. I explained to him that it was my first time attending a puja and he’d have to be patient with me. The priest was delighted by the information, and told me that the string was called kalava. “It’s a blessing and protection from the goddess,” he said. “You don’t need to do anything. Just leave it there until it falls off by itself.”
I had a million other questions. But glimpsing at the long line behind me, I decided to avoid the risk of being the target of collective contempt, and quickly left. I carefully held my wrist up in a steady position all my way home, as if I’d just had an arm surgery or something. I glanced at that red string every 5 seconds, like it was a little puppy needing constant attention. Oh, how exciting, I thought. I’m being PROTECTED now! As for what exactly I was protected from, well, that was too trivial a question to consider amid such excitement. But hey, surely nothing could get to me now. I’m blessed by the divine! I’m invincible! Yippee!
That was a period of my life when I was exceedingly hungry for all things divine or having the appearance to be. I know, I must be the only one! All of you are perfectly happy with the mundane world as it is. I was what they call a “seeker”. (Seeker: someone who fancies things he/she doesn’t have and likely will never get that look good only from a distance. Wait, that pretty much covers everyone on the planet. That must not be a very good definition.) I dabbed in spiritual stuff from traditions near and far, the more exotic the better. I earnestly studied things like astrology, healing crystals, meditation, shamanism, sacred geometry, any science or pseudo-science that look more interesting than my graduate school class work, which was in Economics (The dismal one. No wonder!) I sought out masters and teachers, anybody that seemed closer to God than me, and traveled far for an opportunity to sit at their feet. I was willing to lend my ears to anybody who was willing to give me answers, answers about who I am, about how life works, about where this vast, mysterious universe comes forth.
So I was sincerely happy about my red string, a daily reminder of my connection to the intangible realm, evidence that I was being protected and cared for by God, despite the fact that life was tough and the weekend only came every five days. (I know I had it better than many, many other people. But the knowledge that others’ lives are tougher doesn’t materially make my life any easier. Don’t you agree?) I guess this kind of “being protected” feeling is why some people turn to religions after tottering around on their own in this world for a while. This warm, fuzzy feeling of divine connection is a comfort blanket for us confused earthlings, a confidence builder for people like me who, ever since the time they were born, have never felt quite sure that they actually belonged here.
I thought that fragile thread would surely not last for more than a few weeks. But it was still strutting its fiery crimson on my wrist after a few month, nonchalantly brushing off the passage of time. Then a year passed. Then two years. Three years. By then I was too used to it to be amazed. And in contrast to the everlasting consistency of the thread, I seemed to be constantly changing. A renewed sense of who I am quietly grew in me, out of a deepening bond with the primordial power underlining all existence. A grounded tenderness towards this being that I was privileged to call my self slowly emerged, hesitantly at first, and then with bolder and bolder assertion. Gradually my fervent seeking for all things spiritual stopped, like leafs falling to the ground when their time is due. And then one day I looked at the red string on my wrist, and for the first time wondered, “Why is this here?”
The question surprised me. Not because of the question itself, but because it made me think how come it had never crossed my mind before.
It suddenly became crystal clear to me that I didn’t need any protection from any goddesses, gurus or masters. I am the divine itself, and there’s no magical power outside of me that I don’t already have! Indeed, ever since I realized how powerful I actually am, the world has never felt safer.
And for all those years I was so convinced of the absolute necessity of such protection— oh, how adorably innocent I was!
Then at the beginning of this year, I noticed something never happened before: a couple places on the red string started thinning out, almost overnight. I asked it, “Are you leaving me?” (Yes, I still talk to inanimate things. Just because sometimes you don’t get an answer back is no sufficient reason not to talk to someone.) I was answered with a silent yes, which made me a little sad. After all, the companionship between us had been a peaceful and content one. “Why, you don’t need me anymore!” said the string. It’s true. We both knew it.
And one day in May, without notifying me, the string disappeared. I looked for it everywhere, but it seemed determined to leave for good. I hope it’s doing well, in whatever form of existence it has now. And I’m deeply grateful, for all the blessings the Universe has so generously given me, and for the divinely perfect timing of everything.
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