Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rachael at Pagan conference in India #2

The first day of the actual conference started with a few sunrise ceremonies, two of them indigenous pipes ceremonies. As I missed the pipe ceremony of the indigenous Canadian Dene (which was actually held at sunrise, go figure) I attended the Lacota Sioux pipe ceremony presented by Patricia and her daughter Lila.

They chose to hold this particular ceremony in a gazebo located in the center of a meditation garden. This garden was actually an acu-pressure walk in which every path was covered in some type of texture. The sides of the path were cemented in marbles while the middle of the path had tiny pyramids of points. Walking off the path was useless. It was covered in construction gravel. As it was required that you remove your shoes, by the time I got to the gazebo, I was in no small amount of pain. Henceforth Prudence and I began to refer to this “meditation” garden as the "acu-torture” garden. It even had pedestals covered in the same texturizing so that you could lean on them with your hands. I truly admired all of the people who did not make it into the small gazebo, and had to stand outside on the textured walks barefoot during the entire ceremony. I had a series of small round bruises on the bottom of both feet for almost the entire conference.

By the time that ceremony was complete, everyone was beginning to form up for the parade. Many traditions brought entire contingencies with costuming, banners and often musical instruments. The parade was led by the local university band, and followed by over 450 pagan and indigenous folks representing people from all over the world. We were supposed to walk three abreast, but as groups begin to sing, play their native instruments, and dance; things quickly broke down into a synergistic cacophony of sound, color, and motion. It was all great fun as many groups merged with others and everyone shared dancing and singing.

We moved along in this manner for almost a kilometer before we came to the auditorium at which point all the groups filtered in and sat down. While it's true that Patrick was there, he was walking with his own group that he had helped found, and Prudence was walking with her "homies", the Lithuanians, due to the fact that they needed a priestess and she had her cool outfit. This left me alone as one of only three Witches in the parade and the only Gardnerian. Note to self, next time bring a posse, or failing that at least a banner.

Once inside the auditorium, I headed directly for the "journalist" section in the front row hoping to be able to grab lots of photos. My hopes however, were soon dashed, as the president of the International Center For Cultural Studies, Dr. Radheshyam Dwivedi, one of the sponsoring foundations, came up to me, grabbed my bag, told meet remove my shoes, and lead me up to the stage where about 20 or so honored Elders had been seated. Before I realized what was happening, I had a prayer shawl thrown around my neck, and my forehead anointed with saffron and rice. I was then lead to a seat in the back row center where all I could see was the back of heads with bright lights shining in my eyes. So much for photos. Prudence tells me that there were 30 elders up on the stage with me but that at the time neither she nor Patrick, who was also on the stage, knew that I was there.

The opening plenary and the process by which it was conducted became the pattern for all plenary and workshop openings thereafter. This session was opened with everyone chanting a Hindu prayer of Ohm, while the sacred lamp was lit by a visiting dignitary. In this case prayers from each of the visiting traditions, ours represented by Patrick, and thanks for this opportunity to meet were offered up, and the session closed with another prayer in Hindi.

Once the plenary was over we all headed to a huge tent where lunch was served. Needless to say this was all vegetarian Indian food. The quality of food throughout the conference was excellent, if you liked vegetarian, Indian Food. There was plenty of help behind the tables to explain each dish, and let us know whether or not it was spicy (according to their tastes). Some of the foods that they assured us were not spicy… Well they tried. Rice was always present and there were an abundance of bananas and oranges that were fresh in a way that we don't often see here in the states. I would always grab one or two oranges and a banana, a little rice and something designated as "mild" to put over the top of the rice. This became my eating habit for lunch and dinner. I would have a banana and an orange for breakfast. Prudence and I ordered many plates of Spring rolls and French fries from room service at our hotel in the late evenings as well and often had left over Spring rolls for breakfast. Neither Prudence nor I ever seem to have had any dietary problems during the conference.

The afternoon sessions were generally set aside for workshops, and this first day was no different. However, as most of the workshops were on various discussions of Hindu practices, meditation, and yoga, I skipped them to try and secure a cell phone. This turned out to be a major undertaking. I could not simply walk into a shop and buy a cell phone. I had to present to them a copy of my passport, my original passport, a copy of my visa, my original visa, a second photo ID for which I used my driver’s license, and a second original passport photo. That took most of the afternoon after which I returned and my room for drugs and a bit of a rest prior to dinner. Have I mentioned that I was walking a lot?

After dinner we met in the auditorium once again this time for entertainment. During the following four days various ethnic groups presented dances, songs, ritual poetry, and recitation of traditional stories and epics. The sessions lasted until about nine thirty in the evening at which time everyone retired to bed. Exhausted, Prudence and I were soon fast asleep.

After the opening day, mornings were reserved for ritual ceremonies and explanations from varying groups, divided by regions of the world. One very delightful ritual consisted of a group of indigenous Kurdish people explaining the ritual of putting a baby into a crib for the first time. The most remarkable thing about this crib is that it is very large (though they used only a small model during explanations), and has a hole in the middle for urine to drain. Not only does the crib have a hole, but the padding for the crib has a hole, and the sheet that is wrapped around the child also has a hole. A hollow funnel made from a lamb’s bone is placed between the baby's legs, along with a small pillow to keep the legs apart and the child is bound in the blanket in this manner, and then bound into the cradle which is carried by the mother. Along with the mother, other female relatives are present to help, and all sing to the child as the father plays on an instrument.

After a couple of hours of ritual displays, tea was served, and then the sets of workshops began. As is too usual, in most cases it was difficult to choose which workshops to attend. Unfortunately this university was not handicapped accessible, and all workshops were being held up stairs, so it had to be a very interesting workshop indeed to entice me. Often I would forgo the workshop sessions in order to have private conversations among other attendees. It was during one of these conversations that I was informed that my long workshop would be the next day. I found this particularly interesting, as I had not planned a workshop.

All of these "workshops" were actually modeled on the academic panel with a respondent. The person acting as the respondent on my panel asked me what I would be addressing. The only thing I could think of that corresponded to the theme of the conference “Nourishing the Balance of the Universe” was why Wicca was growing so quickly in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and Australia among a demographic of 18 to 30 somethings, which of course was pure guesswork on my part. I briefly explained traditional Wiccan practice, it's values and its ethical system of personal responsibility and least harm. I then proceeded to explain that it was my belief that many young people were choosing Wicca because it allowed them to be spiritual without the detritus of thousands of years of " thou shalt or shalt not" and also to integrate science and religion without cognitive dissidence. I chose to represent Wicca as a new religion rather than trying to explain how we felt about reconstruction.

I was challenged on 3 points. The first was what I meant by secular, as Indians have never experienced the secular in the manner that we have here in United States. The second was why a new religion would be necessary, and the third was why I was distinguishing my religion from "your" religion and shouldn't we all be working toward one religion rather than developing new ones. My answers were simple. First I explained secularism as we practice it in the United States, and that until recently no prayers were allowed in schools or any gov't function local or national. The audience was somewhat surprised. Secondly I explained that apparently a new religion was necessary as it was answering some fundamental need or would not be growing at such an amazing rate. Third I explained that one religion could not possibly suit everyone's needs as we are each of us, unique individuals of unique understanding and experience, and that many religions did not necessarily mean a segregation of people, but rather a means by which each person could connect with deity in a way that was most comfortable to them and that that was what we should all be striving toward rather than insisting that all individuals fit one mold.

I was followed by a Swami who did a marvelous job of reiterating some of my more important points by saying that no one's religious practice should be restricted by traditions that might no longer apply and that spiritual growth was more important than following religious rules just because they were there, though she was much more eloquent than I.

I had not felt particularly good about my talk as it was rushed and I'd had no time to really consider what I wanted to say, but I must've made some kind of impression, because during and following lunch after the session many people came up to discuss points that I had brought up and I was amazed to see how many people had actually followed and thought about what I said. One young man asked if young people were not coming to Wicca just to learn magic. I said that I was sorry that he didn't bring up that question at the workshop as it was not only a valid but very important question. “Yes” I said, young people did come to Wicca thinking that they could just learn magic but when they realized that some years of training and self-discipline would be involved before they would even be introduced to the topic, they usually left. I was also happy to be able to clarify many of the points that I had not had time to do during my talk. The gentleman who had originally questioned me was absolutely certain that he was an atheist because he felt that god was an all things. I asked him if he felt that the god was still alive or had withdrawn he assured me that god was alive and manifest within all parts of the universe. I was then able to explain to him that in fact he was not an atheist but rather a Panentheist as was, in fact I.

After lunch Prudence and I headed back to the room to freshen up, it was inordinately hot and muggy that day, and decided to rest a bit before dinner. We rested right through dinner and the entertainment and probably would not have awakened for the rest of the night had the hotel not pounded on our door at 9:30 PM to ask for copies of our passports and visas. We were mortified. Worse, everyone was worried about us. You would think that two old women would not particularly be missed among 450 colorful pagans and indigenous persons, but apparently we were. And thus we spent the next morning explaining that we simply fell asleep and failed to wake up. Fortunately, everyone found this humorous and chalked it up to jet lag, which I suppose it may have been.

On the last morning, seven fire ceremonies from seven different traditions around the world were all held at the same time. It is utterly impossible to describe the energy that was raised. Everyone who was not directly involved in putting on one of these rituals, traveled from ritual to ritual observing, taking part in, and being energized by these wonderful rituals. The Lithuanians offered a traditional barley drink for us, and amber dust for the fire. The Lakota pipe ceremony smudged us from the smoke of the pipe, and my wrists were tied in many different twines and cords as blessings ( I still have one on each wrist which show no signs of fatigue). My forehead was painted bright red and people danced around me and Momma Nana, an eighty year old delegate from Ghana, because we could not dance for ourselves.

I was highly amused that, having raised all this energy, the organizers somehow thought that they could simply tell everyone to move on to the workshop sessions. It took almost an hour to finally get people to settle down and move toward the workshops. I do not know how to explain the difference in energy and attitude in this gathering and those interfaith gatherings of which I have been a part in the past. Of course in the past the primary religions present were Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. These gatherings are always circumspect and energy and even when they make an effort, is somewhat subdued. This could not have been further from the case at this conference. Dancing, singing, and sharing ritual were all open, spontaneous, and synergistic. No one was worried that they might hurt someone else's feelings, or shock them, or elicit unwanted proselytization. The only way I can describe it, and I mean no disrespect to any other religions, is that there was no fear—no fear to share, no fear to be heard, no fear to be seen as you really are, no fear of hurting anyone by saying something wrong—no fear; just joy in mutual celebration, love and respect.

Many of the speakers during these workshops were amazing in their ability to tie previous information together. One such example was the talk that Dr. Piotr Wensch gave. A professor of Anthropology in Poland, he too discovered that he was giving a talk only a few hours before he was scheduled. In a previous talk a First Nations Elder spoke of the Europeans having brought the killer bees to America. Not, he said, those South American Illegal immigrants that were replacing our own domestic bees but rather the three "B"s of European conquest, The Bible, the Bottle, and the Bullet.

Peter spoke of how in the 13th, through 16th centuries, people in Poland believed that they were part of a migration out of India. However when the Russians came in the 18th to 19th centuries, these old beliefs were denigrated and set aside. New DNA testing however, has proven that they were exactly correct, and in areas of Poland and Lithuania people share as much as 80% of northern Indian DNA. He then went on to say that here too the Europeans had brought their killer "Bs". However, he said, they brought a modern version; the bible, broadcasting, and still, the bullet.

I was constantly amazed at the amount of new information I was picking up in the workshops I was able to attend. Amazed also that, like myself, many of these presentations were put together at the last minute. Just goes to show, an authentic elder can talk about anything at the drop of the hat, war bonnet, cap...insert other headgear here.

On the last afternoon, during the closing plenary, the first speaker spoke of old rituals, and a time to learn new ones. He suggested that we now engage in an important new ritual. "First" he said, "everyone remove your cell phones from your pockets or purses. Now everyone hold them above your head. Move them to your left, move them to your right, and now bring them down so that they are even with your eyes and look at them carefully. Now turn them off and put them away. With this new ritual we have learned respect." You Gotta love it!

During this plenary several young people, who are already acting as leaders in their respective communities spoke to the importance of continued efforts on behalf of indigenous people and the preservation of culture. They were both eloquent and impressive. Everyone who had anything to do with anything was thanked, the university and all of its students who volunteered so diligently were also thanked and four Indigenous leaders were recognized for their years of hard work in preserving their indigenous traditions by being issued honorary Ph.Ds. Two of these leaders are acquaintances of mine; Jonas Trincunas, leader of the Romuva tradition in Lithuania, and Tata, a leader of the Mayan elders Council of Guatemala. A Maori Leader was also honored and immediately the rest of the Maori contingent stood and danced the traditional ceremony of thanks. Their spontaneity and inhibition were fresh and a delightful breath of fresh air.

After the plenary, things ended quickly. Everyone went out to the buses and with hugs, brief exchanges of contact information, and waves of goodbye most of the delegates left and the conference was ended for another three years.

In her service and yours
Rachael Watcher


  1. First I explained secularism as we practice it in the United States, and that until recently no prayers were allowed in schools or any gov't function local or national.

    Rachael-- this is absolutely wrong! The US has had a Congressional Chaplain since the country was founded, and many governmental functions at all levels, from local to national, begin with (Christian) prayer-- one of the issues we have
    in seeking to include Pagan and other traditions' spiritual expressions at these occasions.

    "..he assured me that god was alive and manifest within all parts of the universe. I was then able to explain to him that in fact he was not an atheist but rather a Panentheist as was, in fact I. God being manifest in the universe is the hallmark of Pantheism-- The universe (and more) being part of Deity is a hallmark of Panentheism.

  2. Panentheism (from Greek πᾶν (pân) "all"; ἐν (en) "in"; and θεός (theós) "God"; "all-in-God") is a belief system which posits that God exists, interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it. Panentheism is differentiated from pantheism, which holds that God is not a distinct being but is synonymous with the universe.[1]
    Simply put, in pantheism, God is the whole; however, in panentheism, the whole is in God. This means that the universe in the first formulation is practically the whole itself. In the second formulation, the universe and God are not ontologically equivalent. In panentheism, God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the manifest part of God. In some forms of panentheism, the cosmos exists within God, who in turn "pervades" or is "in" the cosmos. While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe. (from Wikipedia)

  3. Very nice picture of you at the beginning. I loved the film of the procession.

  4. Hello Friends.........

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  5. What a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    - Thorn

  6. Wow Rachael, you look GREAT! Do svidanya, Zhenechka