Maatru Devo Bhava
Pitru Devo Bhava
Acharya Devo Bhava
Hinduism teaches that we experience divinity through being loved and mentored by our mother, our father, and our Gurus.
On February 26th 2022, my dance Guru, Mrs Santha Bhaskar, passed away. She meant so much to huge swaths of people, and it’s hard to believe that our paltry words, written in grief, through the blur of tears, can contribute anything of value. But I mean to try.
I was never going to become a professional dancer, but I was good. That’s my assessment of myself. I’m not going to dwell on all the dance memories because it feels too raw right now. I’ll just say that I learned from the dancing life all the things people laud about sports–time management, collective striving, physical and mental discipline. And then the more ephemeral stuff–spirituality through movement, movement as worship.
And more. As a Guru, Auntie B was a model of how to live in the body you have. She gave us hope that our Indian elders could be progressive, and she offered us a safe space to work out our relationship to ourselves, to one another, to our communities, to our families. She modeled that struggle was necessary. To be an Indian woman is to struggle against the tunnels people want to push us through.
I never had to pretend to be more virtuous than I was with her. I could talk about anger that felt ugly, or grief over breaking up with a boy I wasn’t allowed to date, or a school life that could have, if I didn’t have spaces like the dance studio, buried me in the self hatred that racism so often breeds in minority kids. I could bring that tension into how I moved, I could work out my despair, and I could embrace a body that was too often morally policed, sexually objectified, and racially despised.
One Saturday, when I was high school age, I remember feeling completely disconnected from the dance class environment. I must have been struggling with dissociation. I went to an empty classroom, lay on the floor, and fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke, I was late to my scheduled class. I hurried in, where everyone else was already dancing. Auntie B raised an eyebrow at me and for a moment, I felt deeply ashamed for not being able to summon up the pep that might have moved me into the collective. But she didn’t shame me for looking fatigued, and for dancing in a way that clearly showed that my mind and body were not in sync. She just let me be messy. Being a person is messy. That doesn’t mean we will lapse into sloppiness all the time. On the contrary, if you can trust your teacher to hold you in those difficult moments, you will want to do your best the rest of the time.
This is exactly why Auntie B was so beloved. From her, I learned that a dancer can become excellent through discipline and repetition, but what brings the extra spark is when she is allowed to refuse to be a prisoner to rigid ideas. A mind open to possibilities shifts dance from mere movement to artistry; from cultural obligation to self owned spirituality.
From her, I learned that a seemingly traditional Guru can also be an anarchical force, stirring quiet revolutions in her students, easing us into an awareness that passivity about our bodies cannot be our fate as Indian women.
You know where she lives in me? In my muscle memory. If I move with any grace, it’s because of her. Everything reminds me of dancing. Simply everything.
In more recent years, Auntie B and I talked about parenting autistic kids, and a trans kid. As always, she was so progressive. She talked about having worked with a fair number of LGBTQ/neuro diverse dancers and musicians, and how important my role was–to provide a flexible and supportive foundational framework so that, when my kids were grown, they could look back at how I taught them that they could trust their own instincts. That their identities were a gift. And in that way she had of always leaving you with a sense that she saw your labor too, this is what she said: some mothers are blessed to have great souls take form in their wombs. You are one of those special Ammas. Your children are Divine Souls.
Some folks can handle the autism, but not the trans identity, or vice versa. Auntie B saw both as worthy of nurturing. To survive in an often cruel culture that tries to tell us that accepting our kids is somehow a permissive western evil, we need to remember and acknowledge that Gurus like Auntie B have always been there, telling us differently. Showing us how matriarchy has sustained us all even when we couldn’t see the framework because we mistook its suppleness for collapsibility.
And this, ultimately, is why I don’t back down from my belief that children like mine deserve more and better from our culture of origin. My Guru taught me that even identities that are treated as problematic are Divine. When I spit in the face of non-inclusive structures that refuse the mentoring, skill building, and community that my children need just as much as any other children, my basis for these core beliefs is my Guru. R is training to become a music teacher, and wants to specialize in working with disabled students. I believe he will do it beautifully. I believe that we cannot wait for mainstream society to catch up to us, and I believe that mentorship from someone like R will heal and prevent the damage and trauma that kids like him experience needlessly.
I will end with the Guru Mantra:
Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwarah
Guru Saakshaat Parabrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha.
The Divine is our Ultimate Guru. Creation, the sustenance and calm of life, and our trials and troubles, plus the awareness of death are all our teachers. But also: Our earthly Gurus are the representatives of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. They create and sustain knowledge, and destroy the weeds of ignorance. I bow in reverence to such a complete Guru, who has established for me a foundational knowledge base that allows me to experience and view my life as a totality of Divine love.
You have loved and been loved, Auntie B. What a life.
Sri Gurubhyo Namaha.