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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Activating the Energy of the Goddesses in Your Life
Ekabhumi Charles Ellik is an artist, poet, and teacher of classical Hatha yoga. With Sounds True, he has created The Shakti Coloring Book—which is not only a beautifully illustrated coloring book for adults, but also a comprehensive guide to dozens of goddesses and their associated yantras. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Ekabhumi speak on how he understands various goddesses and their energetic presence in the world. They also talk about the relationship between the goddesses and yoga—particularly those goddesses that inspired specific yogic postures. Finally, Tami and Ekabhumi discuss the concept of “deity practice” and how inviting specific goddesses into our lives can align us with the great virtues they embody. (68 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Ekabhumi Charles Ellik. Ekabhumi is a poet, an artist, a husband, a student, and a teacher of classical tantric Hatha yoga. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fine art from CalState Long Beach with an emphasis in figurative art—yet his creativity is expressed in many ways.
With the encouragement of his guru, Dharmanidhi Sarasvati, he retired from producing poetry events in 2010 in order to focus on producing sacred art and teaching. At that time, he also became a regular student of Nepalese master painter Dinesh Charan. In 2011, he took a trip to India to study yantra and the painting of devas in the lineage of Harish Johari.
With Sounds True, Ekabhumi has released a new book called The Shakti Coloring Book: Goddesses, Mandalas, and the Power of Sacred Geometry.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Ekabhumi and I spoke about the connection between the practice of yoga and the goddesses of ancient India. We also talked about how he understands goddesses—as archetypal energies, as embodiments of particular virtues, and as energetic beings—and, most importantly, how our own energy is re-patterned when we invite goddesses into our life. Finally, we talked about devotion and the practice of sacred art; and how even someone who is a beginner in what Ekabhumi calls “deity practice” can begin to relate to the energy of the Goddess. Here’s my conversation with Ekabhumi Charles Ellik:
Welcome, Ekabhumi. It’s such a pleasure to have this chance to talk with you.
Ekabhumi Charles Ellik: It is such a joy to be talking with you again. Thank you.
TS: I know that in your work as a sacred artist, that process is as important as the product. Even this conversation, if you will—the process is as important as the product—as the outcome of the conversation. I wonder if, in that spirit, you would be willing to begin our conversation with some type of invocation—if that would work for you.
ECE: Oh, I would be delighted. That would be so much fun.
So, I’m wary of saying actual mantras to the public. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just give an English general invocation to the Goddess and ask her to bless our conversation. Is that OK?
TS: Sounds perfect.
ECE: Cool. So, I’d like to call on Maha Ganeshini Vinayaki. She is the very first goddess in the book, and I made a deal with her before I began at the urging of one of my teachers to make sure that she would bring to each reader—and hopefully to each of the listeners—exactly what they needed. No more, no less. What was appropriate for them in this moment and in this body, at this time.
So, I call Maha Ganeshini, and ask her to look over us and guide us during this conversation, and make sure that everyone gets exactly what they need from it.
TS: Beautiful. Tell our listeners about The Shakti Coloring Book and the process that you went through to create a coloring book for adults—question mark?
ECE: [Laughs.] Well, part of the reason [was] I went to my teacher and asked for guidance on this. I was concerned. Some of these goddesses are very powerful. I’ve learned a lot in the last year. I thought that a wrathful goddess meant that it was inevitable that if you invoked this goddess, you’re about to get a whooping.
That really is not the case. Even if we only think of them as archetypal energy, it’s intelligent energy. It’s conscious and aware energy. They bring the lessons that are needed in that moment—each in their own unique way.
So, this book was a huge process of discovery for me as well. We started out—you and I, when we talked about this there at Sounds True headquarters, we talked about a coloring book. I was so startled and gratified and humbled and challenged and honored. Y’all said, “We just don’t want a 45-page book of pictures. We really want to go on a journey. We want to understand this. We want to know the practice; what is the spiritual practice of sacred art?”
That really started me on a journey not only to think about what I do that seems to be effective—but use social media and the Internet and my connections and the scholars I know. [I] bought thousands of dollars in books—don’t tell my wife—and really dug into the whole tradition in a much more profound way. I sat with each of the goddesses and chanted their mantras. I interviewed artists in India and Nepal and Tibet, as well as artists who have come here from the Old World.
I learned so much. I learned so, so much—and distilled it into a package that’s right here. It’s not just fun. [Laughs.]
So, in the sense that it’s an adult book, there’s a lot of depth here. One of the common things that people who read the book early on said [was], “Whoa, this is more than just a coloring book.” I’d say, “Well, it’s a fully realized coloring book.” Even kids can enjoy it, and certainly some kids already are enjoying it.
But, it’s also got the kind of depth that any kid of any age could enjoy it and really get a lot out of it.
TS: Now, Sally Kempton, who is well-known as a writer within the yoga tradition—in the foreword to the book, she writes, “Ekabhumi is an adept in the approach to enlightenment known as ‘deity practice.’” Here you are, talking about the goddesses, and that in The Shakti Coloring Book, people have a chance to draw in—color in—these goddesses. Tell our listeners what deity practice is and how it works.
ECE: OK. Well, two things: One is [that] if you asked a normal, everyday, walking-down-the-street orthodox Hindu person what deity practice is, it’s really about worshipping the deity. It’s religious.
I’m not at all distancing myself from that. That’s also true. But really, for this book, I decided to take what I’ve been calling in the book “a more yogic approach”—which is to recognize them as aspects of our most expansive self. Not in a psychological sense—like, this is strictly an archetype in my imagination that informs my behavior and my values.
Rather, this is an intrinsic part of the universe itself, and that these energies move through all beings—that we can awaken and invoke them in our own experience. In fact, when we are aware of them—when we build a relationship—and this is what I wanted to emphasize here. When we build a relationship with these patterns of consciousness, the virtue, blessing, [and] power that they exemplify will actually manifest in our own life in a way that makes our life more enjoyable for ourselves and everyone around us.
So, for me, deity practice is a relationship with a specific quality of the universe.
TS: Can you give me an example from your own life and practice of how a relationship with such a quality in the form of a goddess has changed you—has worked on you?
ECE: Oh, goodness. Well, I’ll give you the easy one, which is Kali. So, Sally of course has wonderful teachings on how to interact with these goddesses—how to understand them—and the tradition itself offers many, many stories about these goddesses. The mythology isn’t just a quaint story or even a historical account—which is debatable in some of the cases because sometimes people graduate to more auspicious standing. That really does seem to be the case with some of the goddesses—that they were once people.
But setting all of that aside—
TS: Now, hold on a second. Hold on a second, Ekabhumi. I can imagine that a listener at this point is going, “What? What are you talking about?” So, you’re saying that some of the goddesses—a goddess like Kali—was once a human being who then became a goddess? Is that what you’re saying?
ECE: Well, in the case of a goddess like Matangi, that does seem to be—near as we can tell, according to the scholars I’ve talked to, there’s good evidence that she was once a human being.
Now, this said, you’ve got to remember that in the Shakti tradition, you Tami—any woman—is actually a physical manifestation of the Goddess’s primordial energy. So, every single female on the planet is an incarnation of the Goddess.
For some people, there’s a special relationship and—as we progress in our practice—that relationship becomes more and more clear. We should understand that not all goddesses are enlightened.
So, just as human beings can become more aligned, more expansive, more clear—and that they grow as a spiritual being—goddesses can too. In fact, there seems to be an avenue in which human beings—like the historical Buddha, for example—can actually kind of graduate to the place where they’re fulfilling the role or acting out the duties—the Buddha embodying compassion, for example—they can actually begin fulfilling the role of being this primordial blessing power of an enlightened virtue. They can actually fulfill that role as a goddess.
There seems to be really good evidence for that. I haven’t seen it in my life. [Laughs.] It apparently takes a very long time. But, it does seem to happen.
As my teacher has said, it also seems to be true that minor deities graduate—that they do their own practice, that they learn, [and] that they become fully realized. They go from being from just, say, a little village goddess to being a great Maha Deva.
A good example of that is Durga, who was Vindhyachal—who was a local goddess of the Vindhyachal Mountains and has now become this great Maha Deva that many people think is the Shakti. They think that that’s just her—Durga. We know now, because of modern archeology and anthropology, that she originated as a local, regional mountain goddess.
These things do change over time. That’s not an untruth. It’s not a fabrication. It’s this very rich and vibrant and mysterious relationship with the primordial truth in all of us. In fact, the heart of this practice is really to realize yourself. When you’re doing deity practice, you eventually do realize yourself as a deity—not in an egoistic sense like, “I’m an all-powerful creator of the universe,” but rather as, “I’m the little finger of the Goddess projecting or manifesting herself in the three-dimensional reality and expressing her virtues in day-to-day life.”
That really, really is—when we talk about the yogic practice—you literally are practicing being an emanation of that deity’s blessing power.
TS: OK, now. Let’s circle back. You were talking about Kali, and you were talking how about how in your own life working with Kali as a deity transformed you in some ways. So, tell us about that.
ECE: Well, I’ll give the short version, which is that I moved to Berkeley, which has an awful lot of hippie history and also has a large Indian population—of people from India who have moved here. There are several stores that sell items from India. I moved here and I thought, “Ah! I have a new Berkeley apartment, and I need some art on the walls.” I didn’t just want to look at my own art.
I was like, “I want some more color in my life. I want some excitement.” I went and bought a Kali poster and put it up right over my computer desk, so I look at it every day for hours—and my life went to hell. [Laughs.]
I didn’t really understand what was going on. I had no clue. Kali—one of her qualities is chaos. Some of the more wrathful goddesses are—depending on your experience and whether you treat them respectfully or not—can really shake things up in your life.
The way that I understand Kali now—it is said that one of the fruits of her practice is fearlessness. This is why she is completely nude—she is “sky-clad.” There is nothing to hide there. She is completely fearless. All of her attributes are just hanging out. She’s just—boom—this primordial, raw quality of the fully realized being.
In the process of figuring out my life and understanding how I was messing up, and bringing everything back together again, I really turned to yoga and yogic practice—and eventually to the mythology of India and to the deities—to sort of understand myself better. In that process, I don’t want to say I’ve become fearless in the sense of not being afraid of the car that’s barreling down the street at me. But, my fear and the distance I felt with these deities—they’re no longer exotic mythological figures.
The fear that I had of, say—I know this embarrassing to say, but I don’t know how else to put it. I stopped being afraid of the dark. I can walk through the dark in a forest or at home, and there’s none of this strange, creepy feeling of being watched or that there’s something scary out there that’s going to get me. I just have this incredible, profound confidence in the validity of just being here that I didn’t have before.
So, I really say that after building this relationship with this very challenging goddess, the fruit of her practice—when I read, “Oh yes, Kali gives fearlessness. That’s the fruit of her practice,” I was like, “Pfft! Oh yes. Of course. That would have to be the fruit of working with her.” I’m going to have to say in my case that was really true. It was really a joy to do the research after I had the experience and to have that external confirmation.
I’m not going into all of the details. I just got to say that this has been true for me working with all of these goddesses. Each time—because sometimes these goddesses would take me weeks to research and sketch and draw. During that time—because I’m chanting thousands and thousands of rounds of their mantra; and I’m contemplating them deeply; and I’ve witnessed their virtue power; and witnessed the fruit of their sadhana; and how are people going to understand them in the West if I try and explain it? That I’ve started having experiences in my own life that reflected a deepening relationship with the virtues that they exemplify—whether it’s generosity that Lakshmi exemplifies, or selfless sacrifice that Chinnamasta represents. Each of the goddesses is a complete being, but tends to exemplify one particular or a handful of particular virtues.
And I really, really felt it. I’m telling you—it was really a rollercoaster ride of a year and a half that I was illustrating the images for this book. It was really something else.
TS: Now, you mentioned helping people in the West find access routes to these goddesses. I’m curious: for people who just even hear the word “goddess” and immediately roll their eyes in some sense—like, “OK, great. We’re now dealing with a mythic level of consciousness. This is mythology, superstition—thousands of years ago. This is kind of the best that people could do. Really? You really want me to start relating to goddesses? Don’t you have anything else for me?” How do you respond to that kind of—in a dialogue kind of way. “I’m not close-minded, but I just don’t know how to relate.”
ECE: Well, Sally’s introduction to the book—her preface—really, she goes for in what she describes—and I think it’s very useful for Westerners as a door into it—to talk about archetypes and archetypal energies. Each of us—I used to coach poets in performance and actors; we would talk about what archetype [you are] embodying while onstage. I think that when the doors close on an elevator and a fire alarm goes off, one person is going to be the Hero; one person’s going to be the Tinkerer trying to figure out how to open the doors again; another person’s going to lose their mind and be the Child. We fall into these roles in a very natural way that psychologists have talked about as archetypes.
So, that’s one way in. These goddesses shouldn’t be misunderstood as aspects of our psychology. That’s reductive.
But, another way into this as a yogic practitioner is to really think, “OK. I really want to cultivate abundance in my life.” Or, “I really want to cultivate fearlessness in my life.” Or, “I just straight up want to cultivate power.” That’s true too. I mean, it really is true. People go for that one. You can think about building a relationship with this virtue, and that’s also a goddess.
So, we can just set aside all these complicated names—Tripurasundari and Chinnamasta and Dhumavati—we can set aside all the jargon for a moment and just say, “What is the virtue that you want to bring into your life? What do you feel is the virtue that you don’t understand very well [and] that’s lacking? What is the part of you that you’ve been seeking in others relentlessly and maybe you’ve been having unfulfilling relationships because you’re looking for something in your partners that you really need to find in yourself?”
I don’t want to reduce it to that, but they say that all longing is ultimately a longing to be reunited with the Beloved—with the truth, with the universal quality of the fulfilled self, the complete self. So, each of these goddesses can be thought of as a virtue. We can even set aside the word “goddess” for a moment and just say—as a yogi and as a spiritual aspirant—what is the virtue that you already strongly exemplify and you already have a relationship with that goddess? You already do.
So, Tami, man, you’re already a great leader. You exemplify qualities of Tripurasundari—the great, regal goddess—the empress of the universe who brings prosperity [and] who’s an embodiment of beauty and desire. There’s a regal quality to your bearing in that sense, and you’re a blessing for everyone around you.
For me, I’ve learned to have a relationship with fearlessness. For somebody else, it might be scholarship. I talked with Sally, and she’s a writer. She feels such a profound connection with Saraswati.
So, we already have relationships with goddesses. It’s not something that we need to go find in an exotic land. It’s already there. Then, when you say, “How can I use this mindfully? How can I use this skillfully?” like a yogi—[a] process of skillful means—you can start saying, “Hey, I’ve been a little bit in denial of the power of annihilation. Maybe I really need to inquire into a goddess that exemplifies the qualities of death, because I’m afraid of dying.” You can go in and build a relationship with Chamunda (in the book)—with Dhumavati, the crone—and really, really bask and build a relationship.
Build an understanding. Get taught what it means to have a fruitful relationship with her true blessing power.
TS: Now, one of the things that you write in The Shakti Coloring Book is that when we work with a deity, our energy body can be re-patterned. I’d love to know how you think that works. How does that work? I get out my colored pencils and I start coloring in—let’s say—an image of Lakshmi to help me increase my generosity. Let’s just say I want to be more generous. How is that process “re-patterning” my energy body?
ECE: OK. I don’t want to get too far out for your listeners, talking about chakras and nadis and koshas, and all the structures—all the jargon—that the practitioners of yoga in the East have used to describe the energy body. Really, it’s beyond description. All these models—these words, these charts—these are really just—it’s like a simplification. It’s like a stick-figure drawing that we’re using to try to understand something that really is too big for our brains to grasp.
But, they’re models. They’re models of reality. They’re not reality. They’re models.
So, when we’re working with a particular goddess, each of the goddesses—I mentioned before [that] one way is to talk about virtue blessing power. But, each of the goddesses is also associated with a specific part of the body.
So, as we’re working with the goddess, it should be—because it’s intelligent energy—as long as we don’t project our values too much onto the goddesses. In theory, just hang out with them long enough. Just like if you hang out with somebody who is really good at cooking. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up in the kitchen cooking.
Lakshmi is really good at generosity, and therefore probably knows a little bit about money. You hang out with your rich friends, you’re going to get some tips on handling your finances. You hang out with your good cook friends, sooner or later you’ll end up in the kitchen and you’re going to learn a little bit about cooking. You hang out with your friend who’s a warrior—you know, they’re into sports and swordplay and all of that—you might end up hanging out with them when they go to a martial arts studio or when they go to a game, and you’ll learn a little bit about it. It rubs off on you.
That is reflected in the energy body. So, each of the goddesses—I’m sure that you’ve heard the term “chakras.”
ECE: Most people only know about seven or maybe ten chakras in the body. There are 70,000 of them. For example, the beautiful image of Saraswati where she’s playing the veena, you can see there are all those strings and all those frets. The veena—the lute—the musical instrument she plays, really represents the human body.
So, the five-chakra system, the seven-chakra system—these are really just chords that she’s playing out of the many, many notes that are available.
So, what ends up happening as we work with a particular goddess [is] that goddess plays a certain song and that song is in a certain key. It specifically tends to use a certain set of notes. Those notes are chakras and the energy channels in our bodies are the strings. The chakras—the joints in our body, like vertebrae in our spine—those are the frets. Eventually, when we’re a great, realized being, we can play all the energies of the body—which are the energies of the universe—for the benefit of all beings so playfully that it comes out like music.
So, that’s like Saraswati playing her veena. You start out learning one chord, and then you learn another chord. As people go through the book, they can build a relationship with one goddess and are learning one set of notes. That’s going to activate one part of the body—of the energy body structure.
As you move through all the wisdom goddesses or all the other goddesses that are here in the book, people will slowly—whether they consciously realize it or not—like, you can take lessons on reading sheet music or you can just hang out with somebody who’s got a guitar and they show you a couple of chords. In both cases, you’re going to be learning how to play music.
By the end, people are going to be learning—whether completely consciously or not—they’re going to be learning to play all the energies that are available throughout the entire energy body.
TS: Now, one thing I’m curious about is that the set of goddesses that you chose are from the yogic tradition, correct?
ECE: I would think it’s more correct to say that the yogic tradition and what Sally called this “deity practice” grew up in parallel. I’ve spoken about the goddesses from a yogic perspective. Deity practice is just one of the tools from the toolbox that yogis use to understand their true nature.
ECE: Does that make sense?
TS: Yes. So, help me understand, if I’m someone who has a yoga practice. I go to my local yoga studio and I do postures. I do asanas. I stretch. I do the Downward Dog. I lie in Shavasana. Et cetera, et cetera.
ECE: Yes, yes.
TS: But I don’t have a relationship with any goddesses. This is new to me. How do you make that link? What is the link between what I’m doing in yoga class and these goddesses?
ECE: Well, the easiest way—because I taught asana and still substitute classes regularly. I taught as a full-time job for seven years. The easiest way is the names of the postures. Many of the postures, like Virabhadrasana, is a very specific warrior posture that’s named after a very specific deity—the warrior, wrathful aspect of Shiva.
So, the easiest way is to just to say, “Hey, when you’re doing these postures, they’re related to deities.” That’s just a great way to bring it in. You’re cultivating the qualities of that deity.
Something that’s missing in modern postural yoga—people talk about alignment with the physical body or even alignment with the breath. Maybe they hint at alignment with gravity and the direction of space and time—like what time of day it is. You might do lunar yoga—Moon Salutations—at night and Sun Salutations—solar practice—in the morning.
But, rarely do people talk about [inaudible]. I’ve talked about [inaudible] and rasas in the book. These are attitudes. They’re aesthetic qualities that we can cultivate.
So, when you’re in a Virabh posture, you’re cultivating this heroic quality—this attitude. When you’re in a Shanti posture—a posture that’s named after a butterfly—or some graceful, sweet posture, you’re cultivating a different [inaudible]. You’re cultivating a different attitude in the posture, and that has an energetic component.
Energy in motion—e-motion—right? You’ve heard all this before, but it’s really true.
So, if you’re in the posture and you’re thinking about Twinkies; or you’re in the posture and you’re thinking about Game of Thrones; or you’re in the posture and your mind’s anywhere else that is not cultivating the proper [inaudible] for the posture, you’re really not doing the whole practice.
So, doing the posture—any posture—is going to be cultivating a relationship with a specific disposition, and each of these goddesses reflects a specific disposition as well. So, for somebody’s in an asana class, I’d say, “Well, hey. That Virabhadrasana you’re doing right now—you had a really great experience with it. It’s been really transformative. We can take that onto a whole another level when you start building a relationship with the deity it’s named after.”
The other thing that we mentioned earlier is that all of us already do have a relationship with a deity. We have relationship with all of them. It’s intrinsic in us. It’s not something that’s outside of us.
So, approaching deity practice is just a way of cultivating clarity around these qualities that we already have in ourselves. So, yoga—union, skillful means—it’s another way of really understanding ourselves. Deity practice is not so much learning about mythology, in my opinion. It’s really about learning about those qualities that are intrinsic in ourselves already. And realization is realizing the truth of our own nature.
And I’m telling you, this conscious, aware, playful quality of the universe that some people call goddesses [and] some people call deity practice—it is real. It’s real. We’re not the only conscious beings in the universe. That’s kind of vain, I think. And to think that they all look like us.
There are really other conscious, aware patterns of energy in the universe. We could call them whatever we want, but they’re already there.
So, for us doing yoga and building intimate awareness of the energies of our body—part of that is realizing the inherent conscious quality—self-aware quality—of those energies. In my opinion.
TS: Now, the actual images that appear in the book—these images—how old would you say they are? Meaning, the teachings that describe these particular energetic constellations. We’re drawing from thousands of years ago?
ECE: Well, this is the kind of thing that scholars love to argue about. So, I’m hopefully going to blow your mind and your listeners’ minds for a moment. My mind was blown when I sat down with a scholar who was researching not only the historical sources of some of these deities—because many of these deities, like aspects of Shiva, are named after the stars [and the stars] are named after the deity. It’s arguable whether what came first—the star, the deity.
Many of the deities are actually reflected in the sky in the ancient Vedic tradition. You can see this in the Vedas. It’s actually well-documented that in the Vedic tradition, constellations were associated with deities. It’s the same in the Greek tradition, of course.
But, the mythology of these goddesses as they have adventures and interact with different beings is reflected in the constellations that with them in the sky. Some of these icons are—for example, a very famous one is Shiva Nataraj, where he’s in a specific configuration. You can actually take that statue and place it up in the sky.
In my own book, it’s also true of Durga. You can take the traditional Bengali version of Durga—which is kind of looking one direction [and] there’s a demon underneath her. It’s actually—and I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the actual stars. But, it’s actually a constellation in the sky.
So, how old is that? How [long have] people been looking at the stars? We know from the Vedas that some of the deities like Saraswati—we know the Vedas are—what—3,000 years old? They’re some of the earliest texts that we have in human history—that we have still existing.
So, we have really good evidence now that not only are these deities at least 3,000 years old, but because of the link to the constellations in the sky that these icons are based on—the icons themselves that illustrate the constellations and the deity—some of them must be at least 3,000 years old. [This is] because it’s in the sky. It’s what they’re named after. It’s really fascinating to me.
TS: Now, what do you think about the idea that a contemporary person might say, “Great, 3,000 years old. But, the images drew on the cultural norms of the time—whether it was using certain metal formations or other images that were part of the culture of India at that time. What about having some twenty-first century versions of these archetypal energies that are radically modern in a different kind of way?” What do you think about that?
ECE: Well, first I got to say that that’s part of my secret agenda. These deities—these archetypal energies, these conscious patterns of awareness—they don’t just live in India. If we think for some reason that Kali belongs to India or that Saraswati only belongs to a river in northwest India that’s not even there anymore because of an earthquake 15,000 years ago—by the way, that’s another clue that Saraswati and her image may be as much as 15,000 years [old]. The river that she’s named after doesn’t exist anymore, but we can see the ancient bed with satellite photography. It’s there. So, maybe 15,000 years?
But, the imagery does reflect a set of norms that are rather alien to us in the West. For example, many of the goddesses are topless, which was not uncommon in the regions where these goddesses came from. But, it seems very awkward to us in the West if we’re not used to thinking of people that way.
It’s true that the deities are depicted in the royal fashions of the times where their worship first became encoded and popular—when their images became canon. So, you’re seeing in many cases deities are dressed in the royal fashion of ninth-century Chola—the Chola Empire. Not Chola as in as in Latinas, but Chola Empire, right?
For me at least, I have to admit I also think that this is problematic, because I think there’s a subtle implication that’s encoded into these that you need to be rich in order to be divine. You need to be wearing fine silks and gold. This is really meant to talk about the quality of effulgence—that when you’re a fully realized being, you feel wealthy [and] you feel regal. I understand that, but I think there’s also a subtle implication that, “Hey, maybe I’m not good enough if I don’t look like that.” I get that. I really get that.
The reason why I don’t experiment much with that yet and why I don’t encourage other people to do that yet is because I’m continuing to find the symbolic meaning of the different ornaments, the different jewels, the different clothing—[it all] has all kinds of subtle implications [and] is very difficult for people to understand if they haven’t studied it carefully.
I’ll give you a really concrete example. I’ve seen modern people thinking, “OK. Kali. Mayhem and death and chaos. So I’m just going to put a chainsaw in one hand. I’m going to put a machine gun in another hand—and then, ah! It’s going to be like a modern version of Kali, because she’s naked anyway. I don’t have to put any clothes on her. I’m just going to give her a whole bunch of weapons—like, modern weapons. Boom.”
What we don’t understand is that the attributes that she’s holding [aren’t] just about chaos and mayhem. They’re describing specific ways that her blessing power can be expressed. So yes, she’s holding a blood-spattered sword, but a sword is a sharp edge. It’s precise. It’s for separating real from unreal. It is very different than a machine gun.
A machine gun is not even like a bow and arrow. A bow and arrow is a way of projecting your energy—the piercing quality of sensory perception. It’s very precise. You aim it. It’s not scattered all over the place like you might if you put a machine gun on full auto and just sprayed around. It would be more accurate to a use a sniper rifle. You see what I’m saying?
So, a chainsaw just wouldn’t even be appropriate. It’s not the same kind of precision as a skinning knife, for example. The implication with a skinning knife is that it’s not just a sharp thing or dangerous or scary or pretty. It’s specifically used to strip off the skin, which is symbolizing our false self—our facade, the mask that we wear in society. So, just the naked truth—the raw, quivering quality of our innermost self is exposed at all times, which is why Chinnamasta holds a skinning knife. So, if we just put a cleaver into her hands, thinking that it’s just a sharp thing and we’re going to update it a little bit—we put a buck knife in her hand—it’s not going to carry the same symbolic quality.
So, if we want to experiment—I really want to someday, but I really think that we need to do this responsibly and in an informed way. So, that’s why I haven’t been doing it yet. With all my study, I really feel like I want to do this with integrity, and I’m not in a rush to make that happen.
TS: OK, Ekabhumi, I’m going to push just a little bit further and maybe go a little too far. But, have you seen any of the Avengers movies? Any of the Marvel comic strip [characters]? So, what’s your thought of contemporary characters like Thor or Captain America, and people saying, “Look, they’re just like gods and goddesses. They’re our contemporary version. People created them in contemporary society just like people thousands of years ago created Kali and Durga, et cetera.” What do you think of that?
ECE: I think it’s complete hogwash, and I’ll explain why. I had a debate, actually, with a couple scholars about this. Somebody—a modern noir artist—had made thangka. [They] used all of the format and put a big image of the Hulk in the middle of it. Like, green-skinned Marvel character the Hulk, right? He put it in the thangka and he’s selling it as modern art.
People were saying, “Ah, this is great! New archetypes that the kids can relate to this and the qualities—” But see, the Hulk is an embodied quality of the id. He might be a wrathful protector deity—we might look at him that way—but really his energetic quality is closer to that of an asura or a titan because he’s not fully realized. He’s not enlightened. He’s not happy. I mean, that character’s just not happy.
It’s just not a clean transition. I think maybe that some of the characters in 3,000 years—they might have clarified themselves and people might have clarified their relationships to them enough that we could start using them practically for realization practice. But right now, it’s foolhardy. It’s rubbish, in my opinion.
I just think that these characters are more exemplifying—there’s so much sophistication to the teachings that people don’t know. They think, “Ah, powerful. It must be a god.” They don’t understand that there’s lots of powerful beings in the universe. They haven’t looked at the Six Realms teaching. They don’t know that some of these beings are really much more like the demon realm—sort of like a demonic, wrathful vampire. It’s more of a demon-realm being.
Then the titan realm—like these jealous gods. They’re very, very powerful, but they’re not fully realized.
Whereas deities have great power, but they’re not going around stomping around most of the time showing it off. There’s a certain quality of contentment and playfulness to them that just doesn’t really seem to be true of these Marvel characters. When you look at the posters of them, they’re all frowning. They’re all running somewhere in a big hurry. That really doesn’t have the energetic quality of the deity—of the deity realm, of the Deva Loca.
So, it’s just not an easy translation. The costumes that they’re wearing are not related to the energy body. For example, the deities wear very specific jewelry on very specific parts of the body, and those parts of the body are related to specific chakras. So, when a deity is wearing an armband, it symbolizes a specific kind of integrity that they have chosen to keep in order to be in the body. I don’t see many superheroes wearing armbands or earrings or the necklaces that symbolize vows that we keep—that relate to heart chakra.
This stuff is so sophisticated, Tami. I could spend hours talking about it. It’s just not an easy translation into superheroes. It’s a completely different realm of experience. I think that encouraging—when I was talking with people about this Tibetan guy, he’s very knowledgeable about his own tradition and the iconography, but he’s not a practitioner. He’s not a guru. He doesn’t really understand how these images connect to the subtle body.
It can be both very simple and it can it is also very precise and sophisticated. These images should be thought of more as prescription medicine and less as candy. It’s really not here so much for our enjoyment—although it can be enjoyable—but they need to be understood as precise, sophisticated, and powerful. If we are not willing to do the homework on our own—to do the research and understand them—then we really should turn to an expert. That’s why we’ve got pharmacies. That’s why we’ve got doctors. Have the expert give you the prescription—not go out and think, “Well, I need more power, so I’m going to put the Hulk on my altar.” It’s going to confuse the energy body, because it’s not a compatible energy with the process of realization. The Hulk is not a realized being.
TS: I think you have made a very compelling case about the power and the nuanced sophistication of working with these traditional images. But, I want to ask you another direct question, if I can.
TS: Yes, we can think of these goddess figures as bringing certain gifts and powers and virtues that we need. I get that. It sounds to me, though—even though you’ve tiptoed around a little bit—that you believe that these goddess images are not just archetypal energies that we’re invoking, but they’re actual, living beings, if you will. They live as beings outside of us humans—outside of our ability to make up characters and describe them accurately. They’re living beings. That’s what you believe.
ECE: Yes, I do. All my nondualist friends will probably cringe when they hear that, but that’s just the straight-up truth. I have a relationship with these goddesses and [have an] experience of them when they show up in my field of awareness when I’m meditating, when they show up in my field of awareness when I’m dreaming, when they show up in my field of awareness as a poster on the wall as I walk into a restaurant at a significant time. I’m talking to somebody and—boom—I see an image of Lakshmi. That’s a cue to me that the goddess is present.
To me, that’s a very living and real relationship with an actual person that actually has—not a human person! But an actual person with whom I have a relationship.
Yes, I have to admit it: I do tiptoe around it. It seems kind of wacky, but for better or worse you can call me—
TS: No, that’s OK. I think it’s fine. I just kind of want to put it out there. I guess what I’d like to know is: what gives you—from your own experience—that conviction?
ECE: See, now we’re getting into the place where my own teachers—my spiritual teachers—say that it’s not helpful to people to talk about your own experiences because, one, it can aggrandize your personal ego [and] two, people who are going to build relationships with these deities start thinking, “Well, hey. If this guy was worshipping Lakshmi and he started floating through the air, and I’m not floating through the air, then maybe I’m not doing it right.” I don’t want to create an artificial standard for people.
But, I will say this: I can give a concrete example. I’d been avoiding Lakshmi. I’d been avoiding this goddess of beauty and pleasure and abundance and wealth—of physical embodiedness. I was way more afraid of Lakshmi than I was of Kali because I didn’t want to get attached. I was scared of having anything I couldn’t replace. I didn’t want to get hooked into the beauty and abundance of the material world. I thought I was a very spiritual being.
So, I’d been running from Lakshmi. There’s teachings about this, too. When you start on this practice— [laughs] —doing spiritual practice is said to make you “adorable” to the deities. If we think of these deities as virtues like generosity and we start doing spiritual practice, these virtues start showing up in our life. We start being generous with our knowledge, for example. That’s Lakshmi working through us. Sooner or later, in my opinion, those goddesses who are aware of what’s happening are going to start making their presence known in your life.
So, I’d been doing years and years of spiritual practice and I’d been working with some deities. I’d really been avoiding her. I was scared of her. Then, my mother, who worked for an Indian jeweler, handed me a gift package from her boss. Her boss was moving and her husband had died, so she wanted to get rid of some things that she had around that had memories attached to them.
I was like, “Oh, how sweet. She gave me a gift? I don’t really know this woman. Whatever.” I thought it might be some cheap jewelry or something. I rolled it out, and there were all these statues of Lakshmi. My heart just did the whole thing in my chest. I was like, “Wow. Lakshmi has arrived in my life.”
A deity that shows up unasked-for is considered to be the greatest upaya, or spiritual remedy. It means that your good karmas have come to such a ripe place that that virtue-blessing power has just shown up in your life unbidden-for, and now it’s your time to really eat—to bask in the fruit of that karma.
So, I was like, “Wow, OK. Lakshmi has shown up in my life.” To make a long story short, I went and did practice for her. I was like, “OK.” I put her up in my altar and my whole world turned upside down. I had a really intense spiritual experience at that time. As a result of that, I got a clear vision of doing something, which was basically to take a message to this woman—this Indian woman that my mother worked for—and I was told what she would give me in return. I’m still wearing those gold earrings to this day.
It’s an actual, really concrete thing that happened. I didn’t ask for the earrings. I didn’t ask for the statue. I just rolled with the experience of the goddess showing up, welcomed her, [and] recognized what was happening rather than denying it or saying, “Oh, what a coincidence.” [I] actually engaged in the practice, which clarified that relationship, and I got a much more clear understanding of what was happening. I even got very specific directions.
I actually acted on those rather than again doubting myself or thinking it’s a fantasy, or whatever. I acted on them with a clear understanding of what was likely to happen. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it in the sense that, “Oh, now I have a set and this thing or that thing will happen.” I was like, “What the hell is happening right now?! I’m kind of even embarrassed.”
I went to her with this specific message and she’s like, “Wow. Here—why don’t you take something?” [She] opened up the case and—yes. These earrings that I’d actually wanted for a long time were right there. She just handed them on over to me.
This is the funny part—especially considering that [I was afraid of and didn’t really want a relationship with] this particular goddess, Lakshmi. So, the jeweler put the earrings into my ears, and these are very old-fashioned, handmade Indian gold earrings. She goes, “Ah! I didn’t think those were going to look good on you. They’re kind of feminine. But, they look great.” She goes, “Do you mind?” and she busts out from under the counter a giant pair of pliers—like big-ass, giant, meaty metal pliers.
I was like, “What, what?” She goes, “I just want to put them on you permanently.”
TS: Oh my.
ECE: These don’t have a normal hook. They don’t have a normal backing on them. They’re made out of wire. So, she just crimped them right onto my ears.
So, now every time when I look in the mirror, I’m reminded that I have a permanent, ongoing relationship with this golden, effulgent, wealthy quality of the goddess. It’s there every time I look in the mirror. It’s not something I can escape from. Nor would I want to. It’s literally a part of my body now.
I hope that your listeners—I’ve never told this story in the public before. It’s very intimate. But, because you’ve asked me to go here—and with all respect to my guru—I just really felt like it’s useful to share the story now. I really, literally have zero doubt in my life that my inner practice resulted in outer experience.
When I acted on that outer experience in a skillful and conscious manner, the auspiciousness of it just exponentially expanded. I could actually make a real-world difference in somebody else’s life as a result of that, because it was very important and intimate message for her that I can’t repeat. That was so significant that something I’d been yearning for and wanting actually came into my life in such a way that I really can’t ever ignore that I have a relationship with the goddess. That’s a part of my daily life. That’s a part of my body.
TS: Thank you, Ekabhumi, for sharing the story. Thank you.
ECE: You’re welcome. Does that answer your question?
TS: Well, it gives me a sense. It gives me a sense. And you did answer my question directly in that you do believe that these goddess formations are living beings outside of you and outside of the archetypal energies that they activate in you. Yes.
ECE: They’re only outside of this body that people call “Eka” or that my mother named “Charles.” Really, they’re not truly outside. They’re more—we might say—outside my conditioned mind. Remember, they are very much an intrinsic part of all beings.
But, this personality that my mom named Charles would never have thought of himself as being Lakshmi for most of his life. So in that sense, yes. That person—that personality—had a sense and still does have a sense of deities who are distinct people outside of himself. But, in the larger sense—and as I’ve come to grow to understand—it’s really that this personality Charles and that goddess Lakshmi are really both playing within the same ocean of awareness and power. They’re really part of the same plenum—the same field of awareness. There’s no separation between the two, really. It’s just that my contracted self—my ego self—has a sense that she exists outside of me and that we talk.
TS: OK. So, here I am and I’m listening to this conversation. I think, “OK. I want to get this Shakti Coloring Book and see Ekabhumi’s beautiful images—not just of goddesses, but of their accompanying yantras.” You can explain to our listeners—why don’t we take a moment and you can explain what that is—these accompanying yantras with each goddess.
ECE: OK. So, we’ve talked about goddesses as people—as persons—but I made the point that they’re not human people—although sometimes they can take birth in a human body. But, really, they’re conscious patterns of energy. In the texts, they describe them as being “light beings.” They’re made of light.
So, really, these goddesses are not in human figurative bodies. They’re not sitting around on a cloud somewhere, probably not in a human body. So, the yantras are also a portrait of their energy bodies. They are not just a diagram—as in pointing to it—but they’re actually a physical expression of their energetic signature.
So, the yantra itself is actually a much more accurate and precise portrait of this conscious pattern of energy—because the yantra is also a pattern—than the human figure. The human figure is really just there to give us a familiar shape and an attractive image that we can relate to. It’s just easier for us to understand and relate to that image.
One of my teachers said it’s like the big transformer that’s out on the power pole outside—that the big wires out there are like this really intense energy. We’ve got a transformer that kind of takes a step down so that we can use it in our house and our little bitty appliances. If we tapped right into the big wire without the transformer, it might blow up our refrigerator.
So, the deity forms are like transformers that help to step that big energy down. So, the yantras and mandalas are actually just a little bit bigger energy—a little bit closer to source, a little bit purer connection. It’s actually a much more true portrait of the deity.
TS: OK. So, now I’m ready to get my colored pencils and The Shakti Coloring Book and start coloring. What do you recommend as a process for me around this, so I can actually get the most out of it?
ECE: For a beginner—I’m going to assume people are a beginner because the experts will have an idea already. For a beginner, I would just really say to set aside any expectations, first off—to relax. I think the instructions that Sally gave at the beginning [of the book] are really nice. Trust in something pleasant, something beautiful, something that makes you feel good about yourself, something that’s comfortable.
Put on some nice music—something that really creates a relaxed, inspired, wonder-filled state—something that really opens your heart, whether that’s classical music or kirtan or whatever. Something that elevates your mood.
I’d even add: put something out that smells good, because smell is so important. It’s the earth element, right? I like to burn some incense. But, maybe people like perfume on their body or a scented oil.
So, get all the senses involved even before you start drawing. Think about the room, the light, the smell, the sounds. Think about your physical comfort. Get everything all together so that you’re really in this joyful, curious, wonder-filled state.
Then, open up the book. Just open it up anywhere and just start. You could be methodical about it, and I think that’s really great for the person who’s ready to do a methodical practice. The book is arranged in a specific order for those people.
But for somebody who’s just exploring, just see where the book opens up. Or, if you thumb through it, see which one calls to you. Maybe you read the description—and I think that can help you to build a relationship with that deity.
But, I think that it’s also important that people give themselves permission to play. It is said that any offering that’s given to a deity—and if we can understand them as aspects of ourself or virtues that we’re cultivating—that anything that’s given with a pure heart and no expectation of any reward in return is accepted. So, if we’re doing serious sadhana for a specific result, then we need precision.
But, it’s just like a child. If a child draws a beautiful little drawing and hands it to you, is it important if it looks exactly like Tami Simon or if it looks like just a big orange lollipop with some hair on top? You’re still going to laugh and you’re going to love it, because it’s given with a pure heart.
So, I’d say to people: approach it with a pure heart. Approach it with a sense of wonder of a sense of joy, and without any expectations at first. Just do this with great love, devotion, sweetness, and curiosity, and enjoy yourself. That’s where I would start if I was a beginner. That’s certainly what I would recommend to somebody who’s doing it for the first time.
Cultivate a sense of childish curiosity and play, and then see where it goes from there.
TS: Now, Ekabhumi, you mentioned this word “devotion.” It’s clear to me that in all of these different illustrations that you’ve created that now readers have the chance to color in, that you created these images with a lot of devotion. I’m curious to know what devotion—not just what it means to you, but what it feels like to you. What [is] devotion to you?
ECE: That is so wise. What I was prepping myself to say—and I think it does really apply—but devotion as a virtue-blessing power isn’t dependent on the object of devotion. So, you don’t need to be—to invoke the spirit of devotion in yourself, you don’t need to have a specific thing to be devoted to in the sense that I’m recommending one thing.
You need an object of devotion, but really the object isn’t as important as the quality of devotion that it invokes. That quality of devotion is a lot like love. It’s a sort of nurturing, protective, sweet quality. Devotion, to me—it [literally] can be used to mean that you are paying attention to something over a long period of time—that you are devoted to it [and] that you spend time with it. You want a deeper connection.
Or, you have a deeper connection. You’re devoted to your children or you’re devoted to your beloved pet or you’re devoted to your lover. This sense of devotion—it’s not love in the sense of acquiring. In the West, we have this idea of—we can use the word “love” to mean many different things. But, devotion to me is really about a loving relationship.
So, when you think about this quality of devotion, it can even be devoted to your coloring practice and invoke the quality of devotion there. It doesn’t need to be for a specific goddess.
But, invoking that quality of devotion—to me, it’s gentle, it’s sweet, it’s loving, and it’s patient.
TS: Tell me about the devotion in you that created The Shakti Coloring Book.
ECE: [Laughs.] Well, I’m kind of a fiery guy. So, my devotion was a bit more intense. For me, to speak plainly, there was a deadline to get this book done. This was my opportunity to give a great gift back—I felt. Can you give a goddess anything? But, [it was] a way for me to express my devotion for the Goddess and to benefit other people in the process.
So, the way that my devotion really showed up in this book was making sure that I did not waste a moment—not a single moment—of that year-and-a-half from when I sent that contract to when I sent in the final copy of the manuscript. I did not waste a single moment.
My friends were concerned. I had to schedule resting times, because I’d wake up in the morning and go to do my morning meditation, then—bwoah! It was like [all this inspiration came into my system] immediately and all these ideas, and I immediately went to work.
It really had to do with making sure that this love letter to Maha that this book is—it’s my love letter to Maha. You know, I get all fuzzy. I want to make sure it was as beautiful and auspicious and as true and as accurate as I could possibly make it. I would have absolutely zero doubt at the end of this project that there is any stone unturned—that there was any bit better that I could have—well, not better, but more complete—that I could have made it than I did.
I had zero doubt in my heart. I threw every iota of my awareness, consciousness, love, devotion, everything—[it all] went into this book.
TS: Ekabhumi, thank you so much. Thank you so much for The Shakti Coloring Book, and thank you for this conversation. I wonder if—just as we began with an invocation in English—if you could help us close our conversation with some type of offering what’s been shared here.
ECE: I would love to offer this to Maha Chamunda, who I was contemplating this morning and who we spoke about earlier. So, if Ganeshini—and Ganeshini is the Shakti of Ganesha. Many people are familiar with Ganesha, who is lord of beginnings and thresholds. Chamunda is really the goddess of annihilation and endings. I think that people misunderstand her as just being wrathful and scary and taking things away.
But, she’s also that complete sense of relaxation. She’s the goddess that makes all beings one within herself.
So, I want to call out to Chamunda and say, “Maha, I recognize you as the beautiful and nurturing mother that you are—the fierce, protective mother that you are,” and ask that everyone who has listened to this conversation recognize their own true nature, and that they eventually find their way back to the state of unity which is also you—and that there is a sense of completion in what we have done.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Ekabhumi Charles Ellik. He’s created The Shakti Coloring Book—a book of over 40 images that you can color in. [These are] images of goddesses [and] mandalas, and that draw on the power of sacred geometry. It’s an incredibly beautiful book, even if you never color anything in. I have to say, when I got to the end of reading it and looking at the images, I was raring to go—quite inspired to engage with the book. You did a beautiful, beautiful job, Ekabhumi. Thank you so much.
ECE: Thank you. Thank you. Jai ma!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.