come back divine ancestors and be fulfilled

mother and childShe was not like Gorky’s Nilovna who was immortalized for supporting a revolutionary son even though she herself was not educated enough to understand what the revolution meant. She did it for the seer love for her son. But, she was a mother and every motherhood is as great as it can be. I do not think any rating is possible as far as motherhood is considered.

Of course, I am talking about my own mother. But why do I remember her today? The fact was that when she was alive, she was so much part of my life neither did I felt her presence, nor her absence. She lived that way or rather preferred to live that way, just a whispering presence like the gentle breeze, not asserting yet as life sustaining as the air. Today is her twenty first death anniversary, or what we call shradha divas according to our sanskara.

Our ancestors never foresaw we would have to see the unfortunate days when the children will remember or give special importance to their parents while they were alive once a year on a day designated as Mother’s day or Father’s day.

It was envisaged that generations would live under one roof in the presence of parents and other elders for years to come. You do not remember when someone is present with you, day in and day out. Of course there is a need to remember them when they are away or dead and gone.

The word Shraadha is derived from Shradhaa which means fondness mixed with respect. So, on Shradha days, in our Hindu tradition, we remember fondly not only the departed  parents, but also three lines of progenitors from father’s as well as mother’s side.

My father was an avid ritualist. It was worth watching and being around when he performed Shradha for his own parents and ancestors. He himself did all the Brahminical rituals while my mother cooked elaborate satwik dishes that were too good to resist.  The rituals would take four to five hours. He was very meticulous. He saw to it that no part of  the ritual was left out.

It was a great occasion to skip school. I would also urge my contemporary cousins to skip school so that we would be able to assist my father in preparations. Our adventurous duty started before sunrise by practically stealing flowers from the nearby temple premises. In case my father felt the quantity of flowers was not enough we raided the village zamindar’s well-guarded gardens. We also had to collect Jackfruit leaves for making plates and bowls by stitching these with coconut sticks.

Then, we would be ordered to go and take bath so that we earned the merit  to sit near the place of Shradha proceedings. We could  understand neither the elaborate mystical drawings that my father made on the floor, nor his Sanskrit chanting. But his chanting, which were sometimes in a whisper barely audible to others and at other times  in a high pitch voice that reverberated around the whole village, created a mesmerizing and mystical effect.

Now I remember a few lines – “Ranganahta deva sharma  atra gachha, iha tishtah, achamanam kuru……… Ranganatha deva sharma trupytam” which may roughly translate as – “Oh Godlike Ranganatha (his father), come here, take your sit, wash your feet and have these many delicious dishes……. Oh, departed ancestors come and be fulfilled ……”

But as children, our real interest lay in the dishes that were served. We would eagerly wait when all these mumbo jumbo would  be over so that we relished those dishes, fruits and sweets. Sometimes out of compassion, my mother would urge father to finish the rituals and not unnecessarily prolong the proceedings.  My father would act as if he had not listened and would go on unruffled, to make it doubly sure he did not miss any part of the ritual.

Sensing that my father was in no mood to take a short cut and finish early, she would call us to the kitchen on some pretext. In the kitchen she would have a kept aside a few sweet cakes  specially for this occasion. She would tell us to eat those cakes without making any noise, wash our mouth and hands and re-join the proceedings.

With my generation, the tradition of elaborate Shradha ritual has become almost extinct. Now a day, we go to a temple and donate something to the priest and the temple in cash and kind. In return, the temple priest gives his blessings, the intensity of his blessings being dependent upon his mood and his ability to chant those difficult Sanskrit stanzas.

Since I write this article on the occasion of my mother’s death anniversary I must pay my tribute to her. She was no special mother- that was her specialty. She was like any other mother, an Indian mother to be precise -not educated beyond the primary classes, yet unschooled enough to follow her motherly instincts and insights to know at what precise time which of her children needed what. I felt she had a special corner for me, being the youngest of the siblings. If I recall all events great or small to exalt her motherhood, it will fill a book. But, the following  incident haunts and will continue to haunt my memories for a long time to come.

My parents usually stayed with my elder brother. I studied staying in a hostel and then joined Indian Air Force where you cannot live outside the bachelor quarters till you are married. It was going to be her first visit to my place of posting. I was coming back to Bangalore with my wife, parents and my three months old daughter. We were waiting for the train at Berhampur, my home town. It was announced that the train was going to be late by a couple of hours.   Coincidentally, the child fell sick. We rushed to a doctor and got medicines. Being novice parents we panicked and decided to cancel the journey. But my mother would not listen. She insisted we carry on with the journey and that everything was going to be alright. So we carried on with the journey, though not sure whether it was the right decision.

We reached Bangalore without much problem. Still I could not forgive my mother for being so adamant and putting us to such risk. After a few days she explained during a casual conversation, “ See, first of all I knew there was nothing serious about the baby and at this age these are common ailments. Secondly, if I cancelled the journey you would have got a very bad name. Without understanding he situation the neighbours would have murmured that you were trying to avoid the responsibility of taking us with you. Thirdly, who knows whether I will be able to visit you again at your place of posting?”

Hardly convinced, I told my mother not to say so. But the depth of her concern and her foreboding could be realized only after her death three years later. Even though everything for her second visit to our place was arranged for, she died just three days before the proposed visit.

She preferred to be misunderstood so that her son was not condemned. That is what distinguishes mother’s love.

And she had a premonition that she would not be able to make it for a second time. If I had missed the chance first time, it would have been a regret of a lifetime.

On my mother’s twenty first death anniversary as I recall her, I am reminded again of the Shradha chantings done by my father in his mesmerizing and mystical voice inviting the ancestors to come, partake of our offerings and go back fulfilled.

 If only, we could really get those ancestors back, even if for a day!

mother

even for gods one life is not enough – the ritual of nabakalebara

 

nabakalebara 2015
sand art by Sudarshan Patnaik

There are hundreds of festivals and rituals associated with the Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri, the annual car festival, which falls on 25th June this year, being the most prominent one.

There is one ritual that is unique to this temple. The presiding deities of the temple – Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Sudarshan take new bodies after a gap of some years. It happens when there is a repetition of the month of Ashadha according to the Hindu calendar followed in Odisha. This ritual, known as Nabakalebara, happened last time in 2015.

The year round rituals associated with the Jagannath Temple are a mixture of vedic, tantric and folk traditions. What make the idols lovable are the rituals taken from folk traditions where the idols are treated as living human beings. So they are subjected to the daily routines beginning from brushing of teeth , bathing, eating and sleeping. Like it happens with a human beings,  the bodies are subject to death and decay. Following our philosophy of transmigration, the souls in the idols discard old bodies and get new ones.

The elaborate rituals associated with Nabakalebara starts with Banajaga Yatra – the journey to the forest to select the four neem  trees that would be used to make the idols. The trees must fulfill certain criteria like particular marks on its trunk among other things.  It is believed that the chief priest of the temple gets directions in his dreams about the location of the trees.  When a tree is identified, elaborate pujas are made in honour of the trees before cutting. While the usable parts are carried to Puri in a grand procession, the unusable parts are buried with respect.  Even a temple is built at the place where the tree stood. People consider each part of the tree and its surroundings to be divine  and people throng the place to celebrate with religious fervor.

After the idols are ready, the life force of each idol known as brahma  or pinda inside each idol is transferred by the chief priest to the new ones. This is a closely guarded secret. Nobody knows what that pinda  contains. People say the original flowers and other material put inside the idols during the earlier Nabakalebar are still found fresh.

The idols are made ready before the car festival or the Rath Yatra.  The old ones are buried  inside the temple at a place known as Koili Baikuntha with respect and rituals associated with the death of a near and dear one. The celebrations with the new idols are accompanied side by side by a kind of an unofficial state mourning  where the people of Odisha follow all the rituals associated with the death of a family member like not celebrating any auspicious ceremony at home for a period of one year.

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The Idea of India

 

Even to this day the accepted idea of India in the west has followed the concept propounded by Sir John Strachey (1823-1907), a British Civil Servant posted in India. He said, “ ….. India is a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it….. There are no countries in civilized Europe in which people differ so much as the Bengali differs from the Sikh …. That there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas any sort of unity, physical, political, social and religious: no Indian nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much. We have never destroyed in India a national government, no national sentiment has been wounded, no national pride has been humiliated and this not through any design or merit of our own, but because no Indian nationalities have existed.

You are wrong Sir Strachey, as wrong as you can be. You have not only missed the sacred geography of India but also its impression of inexplicable  ‘oneness’ that was deeply felt by a western educated Nehru, who was one of the greatest votaries of secularism post independence. He wrote in his Discovery  of India, “ It was not her wide space that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalizing glimpses of it. Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune that had befallen us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual concept for me: it was an emotional experience that overpowered me.”

The word India is a Greek word that referred to the land beyond the river Sindhu. The Greek historians wrote works they called Indika to consolidate knowledge received from this land. Of course the people did not call their own land India. The indigenous term was Bharata, derived from the famous son of King Dushyanta. It was also called Bharatavarsha, the land of Bharata. The Indian sub continent was known as Jambudwipa (Rose Apple Island) or Kumaridwipa (the island of the Virgin Goddess).

The names Bharatavarsha and Jambudwipa are not only ancient, but also very much in vogue.   Every Hindu Sankalpa, to make explicit one’s position in the cosmos, starts with,  “In Jambudwipa, in Bharatkhanda, in so and so city …….”.  This tradition has been followed since time immemorial.

What is so special about India’s landscape is that in addition to being diverse and dramatic, all its landmarks like rivers, mountains and seashores etc.  are alive with myths and stories, ranging from being local to pan Indian, being little known to being part of famous legends known throughout the length and the  breath of the country with links to the great epics like Ramayana or Mahabharata.

india-a-sacred-geographyWhatever I have written so far in this post have been excerpted, deduced or distilled from the book, India-a Sacred Geography. Diana L. Eck- the author of the  book is a professor of comparative religion and Indian Studies at Havard University. She has won numerous accolades and awards for her sensitive portrayal of religious history in Indian as well as American contexts. The book attempts to explore the myths and realities surrounding the idea of India giving us the historical perspective beginning from the vedic age.  At the core, it tries to establish that: (as excerpted from the book blurb)

“ ……….  ultimately Eck shows us that from these network of pilgrimage places, India’s very  sense of region and nation has emerged. This is the astonishing and fascinating picture of a land linked for centuries not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims.”

The book also explores the impact of muslim invaders and colonialism on this sacred landscape and how even the replicas of this interlinked sacred places have been created by Muslims and Christians in India. However, the book primarily focuses on the sacred geography of the land from the point of view of Hinduism and there are detailed explorations of the places of pilgrimages and how they are linked to each other across India and some times find there local replicas.

Contrary to the belief that all the desecrations of temples that took place during Muslim rule were due to religious bigotry of the rulers, the author is of the view that it was more to do with stripping the conquered from their association with the source of power. For many rulers the patronizing of a particular place of worship was closely linked to his extent of power. Of course, many of the places of pilgrimage that they destroyed or tried to destroy – like the Somnath Temple, the Jagannat Temple at Puri, – have bounced back to their former glory.

My own view is that you may try to destroy the idea of India by destroying its sacred landscape, but how do you destroy the myths which are harbored in the minds of its people? At  a deeper level, perhaps, the idea of India lives in the collective consciousness of its people through the myths that have been handed down since time immemorial, construction of temples and associating the geography with the myths being a part of that process.

Prodding  through volumes of ancient Indian texts, the author has brought out many interesting facts, narrations and insights of the ancient seers. Here is one that I found interesting: India’s imaginative world map, as envisaged by the ancient seers, did not make India the centre of the world as did Anaximander who made Greece the centre of his world map. In fact the Indian seers were not only aware of the existence of the other parts of the world beyond Indian sub-continent, but also  idealized other parts of the world some of which they named as Ketumala, Uttarakuru, Bhadrashva etc. According to them in many other countries people led far better lives and had more material resources to enjoy life.

Then of course they had this final warning: However, it was only in India that the ultimate freedom or moksha was possible as it was the karmabhumi (lands of spiritual action) while other countries were bhogabhumi (lands of worldly enjoyment).

Therefore this Bharata is the most excellent land in the Rose-Apple island, O Sage. For the others may be lands of enjoyment, but this is the land of action” (Mahabharata)

Is not the above statement true even today? In fact it is so true that sometimes I doubt it was written thousands of years ago.

Isn’t it India where the serious spiritual seeker lands up, ultimately? (In spite of all her shortcomings)


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Here and Now

Age bhi janena tu.. pichhe bhi janena tu.. jo bhi hai bas yehi ek pal hai. ( You do not know what lies ahead.. nor what happened earlier.. whatever there is, there is only this moment)

I am reminded of this song from the Hindi movie Waqt now that the topic of present moment has come up. Of course we understated that we do not know what will happen in future. But the song says  you do not know the past. In a way, even though we know some events of the past, we do not know how to put it in right perspective. If you tell your story to five people, each may interpret it differently. Some one will say that whatever happened,  happened for good. Someone may say how miserable it was. In a larger context, we are not sure how much myth and propaganda material go into the making of what we officially read as history.

In fact, the concept of present moment is not new. Our ancients were not only familiar with this concept,  but also devised many methods to bring the mind to here and now.

Hindu rituals of worship begin with the customary sankalpa. It starts with something like this: In sweta varah kalpa …. in Jambudwipa (Indian sub-continent) … in the country of Bharatabarsha …. in so and so state, in so and so place, on so and so day, at so and so time ……. It starts with the higher  denomination of place and slowly brings our awareness to the present place. Same way it starts with a bigger expansion of time and brings our awareness to the present. The time and place are put in proper context. If one follows this sankalpa, our awareness is brought from the vastness of time and space to here and now at the end.

sankalpa_mantra

If you have attended any evening arati at any of the temples, especially the Ganga Arati at Varanasi or Haridwar,  you must have experienced that the overall ambiance crated by sights, smells  and sounds act  as a kind of shock therapy to hammer out your wandering mind out of its dwellings in past or future.

You may also read: One life is not enough, yet for now this moment is enough unto itself

It is said that the symbol of Jesus on the Cross indicates the importance of present over past and future. The horizontal line of the cross representing past and future is much shorter than the vertical one representing the present. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness aims at bringing the awareness to here and now. So are many of the meditation techniques and yogic practices.

Since ancient times,  volumes have been written and spoken revolving around the importance of living in the present moment. In spite of all these talks and practices, scientifically speaking, the elusive present moment is just a concept,  like the geometric concept of line or point that have no real existence.  Time is a continuum. The moment I say moment, the moment is already gone.

However, it is a useful concept to rid the mind of the unpleasant feelings that comes from dwelling too much in past or future. To a certain extent, it is good to take the mind to past and learn the lessons it taught. It is equally good to have fixed goals and have a vision and know where one is going. It is only when the mind is too much anxious about the future or obsessed with the regrets of the past that one does a lot of harm to one self.

Here again I am reminded of another old Bollywood hit and let me conclude this post humming it:

Ae bhai ! jara dekh ke chalo.. age hi nahin pichhe bhi.. daen hi nahin baen bhi ….upar hi nahin  niche bhi

Ae bhai! jara dekh ke chalo


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