Getting Godly in Mysore
We’ve come to the hilltop where the Chamundeshwari Temple overlooks the city of Mysore, India, but we can’t pass up the free admission to the Godly Museum across the parking lot. It feels like the love child of a Hindu goddess and L. Ron Hubbard, midwifed by a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m a little frightened, but maybe what set my mood was the poster declaring “Habit of addiction … Leads to life’s elimination” with graphic photos of grotesque deformities of the mouth right before the entrance. Maybe it was the dim florescent lighting, in such contrast to the blazing sun outside, shining upon a thirty-foot tall statue of the demon that once ruled this small South Indian city before Chamundeshwari saved the people from his wrath.
We enter, my brother and I, and pause to contemplate this thought: “A WONDERFUL TRUTH! 5000 Years ago at this time, you had visited this Place in the same Way. you are Visitig now. because, World Drama repeats itself Identically every 5000 yrs.” Sic. Sic. Sic. I never cease to appreciate the creative use of punctuation and spelling that is India’s own version of English. Other signs tell us that it is up to us to make the choices that will lead our destiny. My brother asks: How does that work with the fact that we are locked in an endless orbit reliving a 5,000-year-old past? We move on. He and I, with my parents close behind, just like we did before, and before and before. And will, apparently, again and again.
“SPIRITUALLY AWAKENED WOMEN CAN BRING PARADISE ON EARTH” is bannered below a bas-relief image of the goddess Chamundeshwari, keeper of Mysore city, as she slays her own demon, the same moustachioed villain who is outside in the sunshine. She wears a beatific smile upon her face as her spear pierces the demon’s six-pack abs, his dagger useless.
An aunt tells me later that they’ve mistranslated the Sanskrit. It should be the Museum of Self-Realization. Even inspecting all the images and dioramas and informational signs, even after talking with the woman behind the desk laden with pamphlets in a dozen languages that have images of paradise or hell and nothing in between, I feel quite unrealized. My self remains a mystery.
Mysore’s inhabitants, someone tells me, are to visit the Chamundeshwari Temple once a week. Judging from the lines outside the stone entranceway, they follow the command. (There was, by the way, no line into the museum.) Locals and travelers arrive with offerings and shuffle slowly through the line as priests lie in wait with outstretched hands. Lame cows lounge in the street, with old women bowing down for a bovine blessing. Bare-footed boys press postcards into your face, and monkeys mate on the rooftops, the female’s expression unchanging as the bonnet macaque has his way with her. We descend a third of a thousand steps that lead down the hill, where we’re met by a great statue of Nandi, the original holy cow, shining black with a freshly applied layer of burnt coconut husk and ghee. With the heat, the path down is nearly empty. Only couples looking for privacy pass us as they walk the uneven steps up, heading somewhere closer to God, or Goddess. Or, at least, the Godly Museum.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.