This post is the second of a pair, and it’s the fourth post in a series of writings on Ayahuasca, Tantra and yoga.
“Facts are verified; myths are interpreted.”
–Douglas Brooks, Scholar of Indian Religions
When I started working with Ayahuasca, the Goddess traditions of Tantra came alive for me. This happened on several levels. The first point pertains to perhaps the most common, seemingly universal aspect of drinking Ayahuasca: that those who consume it experience the plant as a distinctly feminine presence. So much so, in fact, that Ayahuasca is often referred to as “Mother Ayahuasca.” Euphemistically, people use the pronoun “She” when referring to Ayahuasca.
Of all the things that I experienced on Ayahuasca this was the most clear, consistent and unmistakable: the presence of a distinctly feminine spirit. On a very visceral level I felt like I understood why so many traditional cultures around the world have historically worshipped the Earth as Goddess. Finally, I understood why we’ve come to colloquially refer to this planet as “Mother Nature.”
Fully acknowledging that we are stepping into the realm of myths (which are interpreted) and not facts (which are verified), I will say that the Goddess traditions of Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.
This is a gift that mythology bequeaths to us: rich, colorful, kaleidoscopic lenses through which we can refine, rediscover, and reimagine our world.
On the highest, most impersonal level I experienced Ayahuasca as the Maha Shakti: the ultimate, formless, Divine Energy that both permeates every corner of this universe and is the very fabric of the universe Herself. This is a view of the Divine as Mother in a radically nondual sense.
I’m not referring to a Creator deity that is separate from us. I’m invoking the term Divine in its original sense, from the verbal root in Sanskrit “dev,” which means to “shine” or to “illuminate.”
Yet this intelligence, this Great Light of Consciousness, is inert without the energy that animates it: this life force, this Maha (Great) Shakti, that is the Mother. This vital partnership of consciousness and energy is not only transcendent but immanent: it is the all pervasive code underwriting the software of this universe.
On the next level I experienced the Divine Mother in multiple forms, as individual Goddesses. While in one sense the Shakti is completely beyond form, at the same time she assumes many forms across time and space and beyond these dimensions. When the Shakti descends she assumes many incarnations, just as we know from modern physics that energy indeed assumes many forms–as light and sound, as particle and wave.
In moments of intense bliss I experienced Ayahuasca as Lalita Tripura Sundari, the Goddess of ecstasy and bliss. Overwhelmed with feelings of love and abundance, Mother Ayahuasca was Lakshmi. There was the vast voidness of Bhuvaneswari: the infinite spaciousness in which universes are born.
And she was also Kali: the Goddess with the power to dispel our illusion, to shatter our small sense of self and to liberate us from our bondage.
Image: Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.
This is one of the many, great paradoxes of the Shakti: the diversity that exists within the singularity. She takes countless forms and yet she’s totally beyond form. So it is also with Mother Ayahuasca. While in one sense Mother Ayahuasca was always the Maha Shakti (the ultimate, formless Divine Energy), she incarnates in countless ways.
She is the dancer, the dance, and the stage on which She dances. Transcendent yet immanent.
This is one function of deities in myths: they serve as entry points into archetypal truths that are fundamental to the human condition. They also represent our attempt to point towards a kind of knowledge that lies beyond concepts and the language in which these ideas are enclosed.
If I were to take the most conservative view of my experience, at the very least I would have to concede that the pantheon of Tantric Goddesses provided me with a far richer framework through which to interpret my Ayahuasca journeys than I would have otherwise had.
Thus, I’d like to underscore a takeaway, even for the most skeptical of readers: if you have no use for any form of theism or no particular affinity for this Hindu Tantric cast of characters, recognize the power of myths and metaphors to reimagine the world.
There is an implicit yet crucial point that I’ve ignored up until point. Earlier I argued for the value of myths by contending that the mythology of Nondual Shaiva Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.
But here’s a debate at the heart of any discussion around religious narratives: did the stories provide me with the language and concepts with which to construct my experience? Or was the truth revealed to me by the medicine?
Here’s what I’d like to see as the middle path between these two. On the one hand, I find the notion of revelation at the heart of many religions at best flawed and frankly dangerous. Historically when human beings decide to view any text, any set of ideas, or any human being as infallible–and therefore not subject to critical discussion–really, really bad things tend to follow, to put it mildly.
With that preface in place, multiple ceremonies left me with the unmistakable impression that Ayahuasca has a way of communicating to us. As I mentioned in my first post “The Power of Plant Medicine”, this is perhaps the most unique and defining aspect of Ayahuasca, relative to other psychedelics: this power to teach us lessons that feels different than the insights that I’ve experienced on other psychedelics.
In this sense, I can’t help but conclude that Ayahuasca, like one of the Five Acts of the Shakti, has the power to reveal. This is what makes Ayahuasca such sacred medicine: it is Divine in that original meaning of the word: it “shines,” it “illuminates.”
What does She Illuminate? That which lies in the shadows.
Yet like the mythological tale of Ganesha’s inception reminds us, we should be wary of taking things too literally. Ayahuasca does indeed communicate to us yet she often does so through metaphors.
Image: In one version of the creation story of Ganesha, his father, Shiva, cut off the young boy’s head in a fit of anger for attempting to prevent Shiva from visiting his wife and Ganesha’s mother, Parvati. The moral of this story warns against taking things too literally.
One essential limb of yoga that’s often overlooked in the modern yoga’s world’s emphasis on Patanjali’s eight limbs of ashtanga yoga is tarka: “discernment” or “discriminative awareness.” Tantrik critiques of the classical yoga of Patanjali argue that it is tarka, not samadhi, that is the highest limb of yoga: for the razor sharp sword of discernment is necessary to cut through our samskaras and to separate true wisdom from the impurities that obscure our perception of it.
So we should be receptive to what Ayahuasca has to teach us, while also being prudent in how we interpret her signs and messages. Remembering the story of Ganesha, we are wary of literal interpretations of her signs and understanding that she often speaks in metaphors.
Ayahuasca spoke to me through metaphors that resonated with me: the mythology of Tantric, Shakta (Goddess) traditions.
She is the Mother (Earth) that nurtures us. She is the Shakti that drives us and inspires us. She is Kali: the Liberator with the power to cut through the ropes of our bondage.
Maha Shakti. The Great Goddess. The Divine Mother.
She shines. She illuminates. She extends the hand of grace that pulls us onto a brighter path.