On Saturday morning Bracken and I set off bright and early for the One Tree Gathering, which was an event co-hosted by OBOD and the ICCS (International Centre for Cultural Studies) during which we were going to explore the connections between the Dharmic tradition and Druidry. As I had a very sketchy idea as to what Hinduism was all about I was really looking forward to finding out more! I got a bit carried away writing up my experiences so I will post it all piecemeal over the next few days.
The event itself was held at the Balaji Temple in Dudley, which is the largest Hindu Temple complex in Europe. It is a large site which is tucked away in an Industrial area and is comprised of a large main shrine, four satellite temples, an accommodation block for the Temple Priests, and a Community Hall. The grounds are still being landscaped but include a fountain, walkways and seven mounds which encircle the temple. These symbolic hills are being dedicated to the major religions of the world as a way of extending friendship and encouraging peace and harmony throughout the Universe.
When we arrived were greeted and blessed by the Modron with water collected from the sacred well on Iona and also by a lovely lady who performed a small ritual greeting which involved being given a bindi (red dot on the forehead with vermillion powder) being sprinkled with rice, and then blessed with a flame.
We were then encouraged to tuck into a lovely breakfast which included the old Setantii favourite, curry! Yay! It was delicious!
To kick off the weekend we had an abridged version of the Samhuinn ritual which was conducted by members of the Cornovii Grove, with two Breton Druids and Philip. As the Ovate was going round offering a sprig of Yew to everyone, one of the Hindu participants fainted as she approached him, which was rather alarming ( he was fine after a bit)
We then had a talk by Philip on Druid and Dharmic connections. There is a whole gamut of similarities between the two traditions, such as that between Sanskrit and the early Celtic language, and various symbols and practices. The main difference however, as Philip explained, is that Hinduism has been practiced continuously for thousands of years whilst modern druids are having to trying to rediscover our heritage.
After Philip’s talk we were split into groups in order to have a meditation and group work. The way they did this was to make us count to eight around the room and then gather together all the people of the same number. I am ashamed to say that I had a complete brain storm and although I visited the ladies as a One by the time I came out I was utterly and totally convinced I was an Eight. I realised just before the meditation began but by then it was too late to swap. We had a huge sheet of paper and some pens and when the meditation was over we were encouraged to draw what we felt or saw around the topic of One Tree. Hurrah a ‘doing event’ just what we Setantii love.
My group’s tree was a bit of a ‘world tree’ with roots, trunk and branches and was coloured in with leaves, flowers and birds, the sun and moon, water, insects etc. Talhouarn – one of the Breton druids included an apple because the apple is used symbolically in a lot of the Breton Druidic rites. We also had a ball of mistletoe, and several totem animals made an appearance – snake, hare, wren, crow, bee. There was a slight resistance from some of the group to actually doing any drawing and even when I offered to draw what they suggested there was no take up, but after a bit we had the odd ‘do you think you could draw a …’ Unfortunately our group was a little bit Druid heavy and I was conscious that the tree became rather druidic. All the pictures were hung in the hall and later in the day there was an opportunity to hear an explanation about some of them but we didn’t have time to do more than three or four.
We were escorted over to the main temple to join a ritual at the main shrine. When you enter a Hindu temple you have to remove your shoes and we left these downstairs. We then went up into Temple itself which is one very large hall, in which there are three carved granite shrines which house the deities. The main deity of the Balaji Temple is Lord Venkateswara and it was at his shrine the rite was taking place. We all sat down before the shrine, it is difficult to get a good view if you are sat at the side as the gods are inside these little granite chambers but they have two large video screens either side so that you can follow the proceedings.
During the ritual there was music provided by a drummer, who was skilfully playing two beats on either side of his drum, one with his fingers – covered with wooden thimbles ( or hula hoops as Bracken called them) and the other with a beater. There was also another musician who was playing a shehnai – a kind of oboe with four reeds on the mouthpiece, which produced a very loud, shrill sound. At the end of the rite the worshippers file past the priest and receive a blessing from the flame – this reminded me of the actions we take during our ceremonies but of course in our case the flame is carried around the circle. We were also given a drop of holy water to drink. We walked around the temple past the other two shrines, one for Shri Padmavathis which is Lord Venkateswara’s consort and then past the one for Lord Hanuman. On the way out of the temple we were given rice and fruit which had been offered to the Gods to eat.
After this was a talk by a lovely man who explained a little about the Dharmic tradition and told a wonderful story to illustrate the beliefs associated with the veneration of the deities. He told us about his own grandaughter or ‘Grand Dot’ and reiterated that you must only tell children happy bedtime stories. The way he talked to us certainly illustrated the fact that you can learn more when you are having fun, as he had us in stitches.
After dinner there was a choice between watching the film Earth Pilgrim by Satish Kumar, or joining a discussion group. I opted for the discussion group, there were only eight or nine of us and all but two were druids, which was a bit of a disappointment but we had quite a wide ranging discussion.
We then were split into two groups, Druid and Dharmic. Our Modron led the Dharmic’s workshop which was about the Druid festivals and we Druids had a really interesting workshop with a Hindu lady from Manchester who explained about Dharmic rituals in the home, their ‘altars’ and other spiritual practices. We also learned about a rite which is performed by women at a banyan tree – although all our men got to take part! I think we all found that this talk gave us all food for thought. As Druids you do tend to build up a whole series of daily rituals over time but I know some of us were thinking how we could do more to express our spirituality.
After this we all came together to enjoy an Eisteddfod. We had a wonderful evocative rendition of the story of Taliesin told and accompanied on the harp by Claire Hamilton. Then more music from Kate and Corwen, and Damh who were all fantastic as always. There was singing and chanting from some of the Dharmic participants and the Temple musicians came over to play some of their music ( Bracken insisted!) We rounded off with some spectacular and moving Indian devotional dancing from a really beautiful young lady whose name I didn’t catch. After that it was time for supper – more delicious Indian food – and the day was over.