Amritapuri, 1992. After my initial 2 months in the ashram living in the Kali dorm, I was given a palm frond hut to live in, situated where the several skyscraper flats now stand. The five newly built huts sat on a three-foot high cement slab. I loved my hut. It was peaceful there. And washing my clothes there outside the huts was like a meditation.
I'd waken every morning at 4:00 to take my bath, a bucket bath in a tiny bathroom a few feet from the huts. The bathroom was about 4 square feet and included a squatting toilet, a water faucet, and a bucket. I provided my own cup for dipping into the bucket. Haran would ring a bell once at 4:00 and if you heard it, you knew it was time to get up. Archana was at 4:30 AM in those days. Early mornings in India are chilly and the water cold. The cold bath was a bit of tapas, but I found it invigorating. Every morning after my bath I'd head over to the Kali temple for archana. It was still dark. In India, in Kerala anyway, since it's near the equator, the sun sets and rises always at about 6:30.
At one point in my hut life, I knew I would be asked to take a roommate. After 2 weeks or so, the person in charge of western rooming sent me Gitamba, the opera singer devotee from Holland. She was always cheerful and talkative. Very pretty, with Indonesian blood, dark hair and lovely olive skin. The Dutch had colonized Indonesia at some time in history, up until 1941, and Gitamba's father was of Indonesian heritage. Gitamba was a delightful roommate. Sometimes she would sing a Strauss piece in the Kali temple when no one was around. And Amma would ask her to sing from time to time.
The walls of our small hut were made from palm fronds. Our sleeping mats placed on the cement floor were about four inches from one another; we kept our small suitcases at the foots of our beds. I had a big army mosquito net. Gitamba did not have a net. There were tons of mosquitos because of the small backwater pond just outside, behind the huts. Some told of poisonous water snakes. I never saw one of those. Now and then I would find a large spider dead in my bed. I'd no idea how they passed through my net. I probably killed them by rolling over on them. Gitamba never found spiders in her bed. Amma had told us that they are poisonous, and she gave permission to kill them,
One evening I was meditating alone at our small altar. Soon I heard a rustling in the palm fronds. It was a loud rustling, and so I thought I'd better open my eyes and have a look at what it was. An enormous spider! I'm not a screamer, but I screamed. Loud. That spider was as big as my hand, fingers outstretched. I leapt up, grabbed my chappal to hit it. But it escaped. It terrified the bejesus out of me. Even though the spider had disappeared, I ran out of the hut and yelled "Help!" to Marcus, a German resident who was passing nearby. He was a resdourceful fellow and sure to be able to help me kill the spider. I'm not the kind of person who would ever yell, but I did. I yelled, "Help! Marcus!" He came sauntering over. "What's the problem?" "An enormous spider!" "Is it still there?" "No." "Then why worry about it?" With that he walked away. So much for German resourcefulness.
Don't ask me how I got to sleep that night, but I did. I woke up with a dream of a larger than human size spider, brilliantly lit, all golden and bedecked with all manner of jewels of all colors, up and down its legs and all across the top of it, and with light sparkling through the jeweled facets. I had a feeling I'd been visited by Devi in the form of a spider. From that moment on, I took a vow not to kill any spiders, large or medium size. Ever.
Later that day, I had a talk with Gitamba. Seated in our hut, I told her about the giant spider in our palm frond walls and about my dream vision. "I'm not allowed to kill the spiders," I said, "Is that alright with you?" In her resonant voice, Gitamba said, "Those spiders are your thing, Savitri, not mine." And that was the end of it. My thing, not hers.
Many years have passed since that day in 1993. In 2021, I attended an online Advaita Vedanta class by Swamiji Atmananda. This class inspired me to revisit the spider theme and reflect on it from a philosophical standpoint. The spider's web is a common metaphor for Maya, or the illusory world, or creation which is born out of the Goddess Herself. The Goddess as Creatrix can be equated to the spider who projects out of itself its web, and Devi out of herself creates the universe.
The spider weaves its web from its inner material, and so from inside itself it produces the threads for its web. Similarly, even in times between worlds (after the Great Dissolution and before the next Creation), the Goddess always contains the power of creation latent within her, and then is actively busy during creation. These lyrics from an Amma bhajan Kali Maheswariye, reveal more about the creation power of the Goddess: "O Goddess of the universe! My salutations to You. This whole world is merely a thought of Yours. O Mother! What an enchanting world! You weave the fate of the universe as You wove the gem-like stars into the sky, O Goddess of illusion!"
Interestingly, Mind and Maya are one and the same. Maya or Mind projects the forms of the every-changing manifest universe as the spider spins out its web. Mind or Maya is Mother of the World: Jagadamba. I learned that one of the reasons Maya is so terribly baffling to us and why we so easily get trapped or caught in her web, is because there are two qualities of Maya: the projecting power and the veiling power.
The second property of Maya, the veiling power in which She conceals the differences between the true Reality and the manifested world, is the common cause of the ease with which we get caught in her web. Again, the Amma bhajan Kali Maheshwariye, describes well the difficulty of the veiling aspect of Maya: "O Mother, what craziness! You turn both truth and untruth upside down! You drink absolute bliss! Can anyone see logic in Your divine universal play Your divine play itself is confusion!"
Another way to examine this second quality, is that she veils the differences between the Absolute (Paramatma, Brahman) and the ever-changing creation—between that which never changes (Paramatma or All-pervading Soul) and that which is constantly changing (Maya or Creation). Paramatma never changes and Maya is forever changing. And it's very hard for any normal person to keep track of what is real and what is not real, what is changing and what is not changing. Those who are wise and know, tell us that we cannot know the nature of Maya or Mind, until that day that we lift our own veil and see all as it is and know Self-Realization, Union with all that is.
And at the same time, as we progress along the path, with the Grace of the Guru we can get glimpses of the never-changing reality behind Maya. To give a sense of purpose to all this confusion and what we can do about it, here are more lyrics from Kali Maheswariye: "O Goddess of the Universe! Your abode is eternal light, abode of peace and ocean of bliss. It is full of sat-chit-ananda and dense with knowledge. I will reach Your divine world and dance with You. Chanting Your name…Until I reach Your world, I will chant your divine name. O my beloved Mother, please grant the boon to have only pure devotion."
My experience with the spider and the subsequent dream of the spider as a luminescent bejeweled and enchanting Devi, caused me to feel a divine love for the spider in my hut. Amma tells us that "spirituality begins and ends with compassion." I can't say I was in a frame of mind in which I saw the spider as myself, as one with me, or even as a friend, or to want to hold the spider in my hand and let it crawl around on me, but it was an illuminating experience nevertheless, with a tiny bit of the veil of Maya lifted for an infinitesimal moment in time.
Photo credit: Carol Gilroy, Ireland