“Sequtha, my great-great-grandmother, was Cherokee and a slave here in Kentucky. She became a slave because only native ‘Indians’ who were enslaved could remain in Kentucky when the soldiers came to take the natives on the Trail of Tears. Sequtha’s father Greenleaf did everything to keep his family together, even converting to Christianity and changing his name to Christmas. But nothing worked. They were being removed. So, my great-great-grandmother Sequtha was sold for cattle to save her life. The kind Irish family who saved her then raised her, and she fell in love with one of their sons. So, here I sit, generations later: blue eyes, reddish blonde hair, and a follower of Sanātana Dharma.”
Mahalaya Eden is a mystic. That is my word for her, not her own. She might even shy away from me calling her that, for she is a humble woman and wary of what others would think of the things that, since early childhood, she had somehow always just known, her gut instinct, her intuition, the things she experienced physically, emotionally and spiritually that were outside the norm. As a young girl growing up in rural Kentucky, she instinctively felt that there was a spiritual path out there that was hers to walk, but which the adults in her life knew nothing about and towards which some were definitively hostile. She would wander through the woods barefoot, offering her food to the forest, asking God to let her know his name and what her path would be. When she grew up, she became a nurse and specialised in tending to the severely ill and dying. While tending to them she would experience, quite outside her desire and efforts to control it, a flow of golden light emanating from the top of her head (from the area yogis call the sahasrara chakra) that would flow between her and her patients.
“I thought this was all New Agey, mystical mumbo jumbo,” Mahalaya says. “And I decided to never tell another soul about it... not even my own family. It was too crazy, and I knew no one would ever understand.”
Mahalaya’s family were not a mystical, new-agey people. They were a military family, with Mahalaya spending her younger years on various military bases. They were Mormons and Christians of a variety of denominations, going back generations to her Irish and Cherokee ancestors. Although Native American spirituality – diverse and various as it is, closely tied to a sense of one’s place within the natural and supernatural worlds – did not play a direct part in Mahalaya’s religious upbringing, it did form part of her family folklore about religion, religious conversion and a sense of spiritual authenticity. For it was Greenleaf, her great-great-great-grandfather, who felt compelled to convert to Christianity in order to save his family. In the end Greenleaf’s efforts were fruitless and he had to sell his own child into slavery to secure her future and save her from a brutal and deadly forced migration away from the lands they had long called home.
The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forcible relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the south eastern and central United States in the early 1830s. While the removal was, in theory, supposed to be voluntary, in practice it was a pitiless process and one of the saddest episodes in American history. Men, women and children were herded like cattle, forced to march a thousand miles provided with only minimal shelter, clothes, food and facilities. The removal included many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Among the Cherokee alone, about one third of those who began the march died before reaching their destination. In 1831, a Choctaw chief named Nitikechi was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette calling the removal a "trail of tears and death,” with other indigenous Americans calling it “The Trail Where They Cried.” Mahalaya’s great-great-grandmother, Sequtha, was spared the fate of many of her peers only by losing her birth family and adapting to a new way of life, thankfully within the fold of a kind and loving family who, at first, nominally enslaved her, only to eventually accept her as one of their own.
This story of Sequtha and Greenleaf, the man who changed his name, changed his faith and sold his child into slavery, had a great impact on Mahalaya spiritually.
“I realized that the Truth had become hidden by this act of desperation, and that I didn't even know God's Beloved Name. So I prayed... not for money, or rescue from the abuse I was enduring... but simply to know His Beautiful Name.”
The wind picked up and she closed her eyes. ‘What are you doing?’ Her Mother asked.
‘I am saving this moment in my pocket.’ She replied.
...and I was... everything... every tear, moment of joy went into that pocket.
I was sexually abused almost upon my arrival...thank goodness those things didn't make it into my pocket for long... the one responsible killed himself a year ago...
Church was no easier...the Mormons would pull me up to their lap, and I would sing with such a heart full of Love for God... and they placed me in the center of their class, as I sang again.... with my heart so full I would cry.
But while I was still so young the questions began... the questions this limited understanding could almost never answer. I was removed from the happier class and placed into the place with others much older than I...
In that advanced class, I began to ask deeper questions to these older men and women. The questions always met by arguments between them and finally to me being told ‘not to over think it’.
Over the years I walked barefoot into the forests around my home, offering my food to God.
“My whole life I have been living within Sanātana Dharma,” Mahalaya told me. “I just never had the name for what this is I was doing. I had a space beside my home underneath my bedroom window. It was a secret place made by the meeting of three very large shrubs. They turned red in Autumn. I would go there and offer my food to Beloved under those trees, though I didn’t know His Name.
“Food was very scarce in my home, we went hungry a great deal of the time. But, I would give this precious food to Him in hopes I could know His Name. If I had to place an age on when I simply would have said that I followed my heart, which was full of these Hindu things that were so outlandish to my own limited experiences, I would say at 13.”
So, at thirteen, Mahalaya “refused to attend another church and began this long journey to find Beloved Shiva.” She fought against a family milieu in which she was taught that non-Christians were all on the wrong path. She began to spend a lot of time away from her own troubled home and made friends with children on the military bases, who were from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. “I was very good friends with a young Korean girl and boy. When I went to their home and saw Buddha, I was astonished. My family had never let on that other paths existed. I went home so excited to tell my parents. They became very upset and told me those other religions were Satan worshippers and they would go to hell. Now, this did not sit well with me, as this Korean family was so honorable, and my own family very broken with abuse. Something just was off about the whole thing, and I kept that moment in my pocket to never forget.”
The years went on and Mahalaya saved all these precious moments and lessons in her pocket. At then at about the age of thirty-one, she discovered a path to Sanātana Dharma paved by the Himalayan Academy of Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927–2001) and the Saiva Siddhanta Church, a progressive institution upholding a spiritual heritage derived from the Saivite Hindu traditions of South India and northern Sri Lanka.
The Church – whose name is a conflation for ‘the sacred congregation of Supreme God Siva's revealed Truth’ – is currently under the spiritual direction of Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami. It ‘urges members and other devotees to Know thy Self through self-inquiry, meditation, traditional temple worship, scriptural study, guru bhakti and selfless service’. They have a course of study called The Master Course of the Himalayan Academy, that provides seekers with an established path to conversion, one which is deeply respectful of their religious upbringing and former paths, while simultaneously supporting them as they embark on this new direction. The course is comprised of a trilogy of study materials that covers all aspects of life from the perspective of Saivite Hinduism.
“I was given such strong evidence that I was on the correct path,” Mahalaya says. “I finally came out and began to speak of what my heart had long been saying. When my Mother died, she came to me several times. One of those times she appeared cutting strawberries. One was tiny, green and bitter. One was huge! It was as big as her hand... and she said... The ones from India are better.
“I really felt like she was affirming my choice to become Hindu and from her fuller view of the world, she could finally let go of that dogma which would have once condemned me to hell for not being Christian.”
Today, Mahalaya’s entire family are followers of Sanātana Dharma. “They have been raised this way their whole lives,” she says happily. Though it has been difficult going at times, due to living in a part of the world where there is not a lot of understanding about Hinduism and few Hindus, let alone many other families such as hers, which break the mould.
Mahalaya writes a blog called The Hilltop Anthology, where she describes herself as . . .
Mommy to eight beautiful children.
I live on a green hill in Kentucky
where I pray, sing, write and most importantly...
love and am loved.
Om Namah Shivaya