John P. Martin
I have this thing about discovering sacred places and being called to honor them, usually by some meditative circumambulation or breathing. This is a practice that I assimilated from its own native environment and was not taught by anyone during my ten years of living in South Asia. I honor what is at my right side as Indians do, by using the right hand for feeding oneself and such honorable tasks, and leaving the left for self-cleansing and other less honorable tasks. (Don’t you ever pass anything to another person with your left hand! That would be a supreme insult.) So I will approach any place sacred for others, and by solidarity for me too, and will circumambulate it with my right side facing the sacred place, walking clockwise, to honor the place and the people associated with it, past and present.
I recently took a swing through West Virginia and on up to Ohio, and by golly, I did a triple, before heading home here to Maryknoll in New York’s Westchester County. I found three places dedicated to the sacredness of our indigenous and Indian peoples. In my mind, initially, I thought of them as three places associated with “Indians”, but one of them belongs rather to the ancestors of our Eastern “Native Americans” from the Adena and Hopewell cultures of West Virginia and Ohio, dating from pre-Christian and early Christian times. The second is a museum dedicated to the culture of the Seneca and Iroquois people of upstate New York. And believe it or not, one of them is really for Indians, as in Hindu India!
Let me start with this latter one. You may well have seen or heard of the “Hare Krishna” devotees, who in greater numbers a few decades back were found ubiquitously on the streets of many US cities as well as all over the world, chanting the sacred “mantra” of their spiritual movement “Hare Krishna”, dressed in ochre robes, heads shaven, clanging their cymbals and stroking their drums, distributing their books and literature, all with joyous abandon and a ready smile. They were members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness formed in 1966 in New York City by his Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (hereafter Swami Prabhupada) who was sent by his spiritual master to “preach the love of God to the people of the West”. His credentials traced back to Lord Caitanya, saint and avatar (or divine revelation) from the 16th Century in Mayapur, West Bengal. There are longer roots, but let us leave it here for now.
A personal aside here: when I was living in India from 1991 to 1994 in Calcutta, capital of the State of West Bengal, I visited this sacred town as part of my search for a fitting ashram spiritual community for me to live with, since I spoke the Bengali language. I opted not to live there since their style, so exuberantly devotional, in their ecstatic chanting and in the glaring artistic representations of their gods and goddesses did not seem to be a good fit for my spiritual journey and preferences. I am of the quieter type.
On this recent trip by car, in a tourist brochure I saw this article about the “New Vrindaban” with its Palace of Gold in Moundsville WV, south of Wheeling, and I knew that I had to pay a visit to this sacred site. It had been chosen by some of Swami Prabhupada’s American disciples as a secluded refuge for him from his tiring and constant travels and work for promoting his spiritual movement, but he never lived here, only paying visits. “Vrindaban” is the Sanskrit name for the place where the god Krishna “lived” in Central India in his human manifestation. So this temple area was meant to be a new place in the West for Krishna consciousness to be promoted and displayed as a traditional way for anyone, Hindu or otherwise, to achieve their identification with the Divine.
I had time only for a short visit to the temple but not to see the renowned “Palace of Gold”, which from its photos is truly spectacular as an exact recreation of several temples and worship places in India, with their unique artwork. “The opulence of the palace is intended to reflect a glimmer of the value of the timeless spiritual treasure [Swami] Prabhupada sincerely shared with everyone.”
I had the joy of spending some time in meditative circumambulation in the main temple, taking some photos of some of its gods and goddesses, furnishings and decorations and buying some pamphlets.
In the center of this same town of Moundsville WV is a site that first caught my attention from my map: the “Grave Creek Mound complex”. I knew that the presence of mounds in the area dated from early Christian times, but was surprised to learn that this mound, and probably others now destroyed, dated from pre-Christian times, as part of the so-called Woodland Period from 1000 BCE to about 1200 CE. These people were known to build mounds and other earthworks in a number of significant settlements in Ohio and West Virginia. Archeologists have discovered items from Canada, the Gulf of Mexico and Colorado at these sites, a powerful testimony to the extent of their trading relationships.
At this site I found it easy to do my meditative circumambulation up around the side of the mound to reach the top, glad to be thus united in spirit with the spirits of these ancient peoples who were the ancestors to the indigenous peoples who lived into historical times in the colonization of our country.
And my trusty map informed me of another site that I just had to visit: the Seneca and Iroquois museum in Salamanca New York. It is located on a small portion of what used to be almost boundary-less stretches of forest, dale and plain in New York and Pennsylvania. The several guides were helpful, informative and cheery in allowing me and two busloads of second and third graders to get a snapshot glimpse of their culture and ways and artefacts, and their recent struggles to maintain their cultural autonomy. I was happy to hear how these folks still live by the communal values and indigenous traditions of their people in the midst of our urbanized capitalistic society. I could not but think that they are such a small minority of survivors facing enormous pressure from their “American” neighbors. I am hopeful that the new larger, soon-to-be inaugurated museum will be the harbinger of better days ahead for the promotion of their life style and cultural values. Their enormous Seneca Allegany resort and casino just down the road speaks of some accommodation with the larger society, and makes me wonder to what end? I can only hope that its revenue is helping them to mainly maintain their culture and propagate their society’s goals.
During one of my many pilgrimages to sacred sites around India, one time I heard this inner voice speak to me: “It is all well and good that you do these sacred pilgrimages around our land, so why don’t you do the same thing around the sacred places in your homeland?” I had never thought of my native country as having sacred spaces for pilgrimaging until then. No one ever spoke to me in such terms, ever. Now I know better. For this reason I fulfill the call and have the great joy of marking these sacred places with my footprints and my life breath.
John Patrick Martin was born of Irish immigrant parents in New York City in 1939, partaking of their Irish culture, proudly. At age twelve his inspiration to become a foreign missionary carried him through 11 years of seminary to ordination in 1966 and a first assignment to Mexico. He dedicated himself to his priestly ministry Learn more...